Positivity has been hijacked by white-teethed motivators and self-proclaimed, spandex-clad fitness instructors and given it a bad name. Whenever you hear the word positivity you have images of people standing in the mirror chanting empty phrases at themselves in the promise of a better them, better tomorrow or a better butt. It’s a terrible façade of what positivity really is, it denies its extraordinary power to transform a life.
As I speak to you through these words, I wonder what will help and support you from this story, what will give you courage, what will give you hope.
What will see you through the tough times and cherish the good times and help you accept both are equally valid, equally important, equally transformational; without cliché or hollow platitudes.
So I will start like this.
Once upon a time….
…. there was a boy who grew up in a large Irish immigrant family. From the first moment he can remember, he wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere far away. It was in him, like music was in Mozart or basketball was in Michael Jordan.
As soon as he was old enough, he went… and went, and went.
From one end of the UK to another, from Wales, to England, to Scotland, to America, to the UK again, to Hong Kong, to Australia… searching, searching.
He went from one profession, to another, one city to another, one relationship to another, one high to another, one philosophy to another, one belief system to another, one exercise plan to another, one promise of happiness on the horizon to another. Every time excited, every time full of hope and every time coming up empty.
And so it went.
One day this boy, now in a man’s body, decided the true path to happiness, peace and fulfilment was to forge his own destiny, build his own business and his own life. How right he was, how wrong he was.
Nothing in his schooling, in his MBA or in his career prepared him for walking the tight rope of entrepreneurship. And nothing prepared him emotionally, mentally or spiritually for the great heaving challenges, disappointments and successes that came his way. He experienced ecstasy, joy, shame, terror, humility and a thousand other emotions.
He put himself out front, the boy stood in his truth and realized that truth was only a beginning and that it emerged over time, like a flower blooming. Truth did not appear in a blinding flash, it manifests through trial and error. And as it manifests, as doubt rolls in, something more powerful was required to keep him on his path.
Building his first business was a disaster, it brought no happiness. Instead it brought failure and grief. Little did he know that it brought the next step towards a sense of peace and fulfilment, but to the boy that step was clouded by his emotional present.
The boys steps continued, each growing in strength and clarity but still each taking its toll.
Then, one day, early in the morning, his heart began to waver, to signal its disapproval that he had lost track. The boy remembers looking at the bottom of his hospital bed… two electric blue curious, frightened eyes were staring intently at him. Not a sound, not a movement. His daughter too afraid to come close, too afraid to leave her Dad alone.
He reached her with his eyes and smile “I’m ok honey, I promise I’m okay” — she knew he never broke promises. And so she continued to watch.
Many Native American cultures believe we are all born with an acorn in us, a calling, to grow to an oak tree. The boy never truly listened to that calling in his pursuit of success. When his heart stumbled he didn’t so much ‘burn out’ but ‘burned down’, like a building in a house fire, he burned to the ground, the shell of him remained.
And so he started again, he began to understand what positivity really was, to understand that it was an incredible force not an empty set of incantations to a mirror or a fly by night emotion. Then he began to ask better questions.
What if my life was oriented around a clearer purpose more than being a financial success?
What if I looked after my family on more than just a financial front?
What if I asked for more from my life and myself?
What if I was kinder to myself?
What if I really, really understood what love was?
What if my life had been wrong, what would I do about it, where would I be, what would I change?
How can I be useful to others?
Closing the Circle
The boy returned to the UK after 15 years of wandering in the desert. He’d built two successful businesses and yet the career world couldn’t see his value. Like many who live on their own terms he didn’t fit into any pigeon hole easily.
So to pay the bills, he worked in the dockyards on a zero hour contract. One week he would get 4 days work, the next week 3 days, the week after maybe 5: All on minimum wage, feeding his family and relying on the support of family.
Imagine this. Imagine standing in front of hundreds of people, they’re hanging on your every word, laughing at your jokes, nodding in agreement at your message and then….
Months later, you are standing in -4 degrees, in the dark and in the rain, working in the docks under the kind of conditions that your grandfathers worked in, in the depression. Although today we no longer crowd the dock yard gates hoping for a days work, we now wait by the telephone wondering ‘how many days this week, 5, 3, none?”
The boy lived that reality. Suddenly that person he knew, the person of experience, the teacher, was being treated like a dumb animal. Working with good, hard working people full of resentment because of how they are made to work in an environment of explicit disrespect.
Suddenly he was, in every respect, another fluorescent vest, clocking in, clocking out. How would you feel if you were the boy? Shame, humiliation, guilt……?
The Road Less Travelled:
I believe for most of us it would feel like you’ve gone from hero to zero.
But then this story doesn’t follow that familiar path, this is the story of the road less travelled by.
The boy learned in those months that the hero is not the person who stands on stage, at the millionaire’s table or with the gold medal around their neck. That is mistaking the result for the growth.
The hero is the person who is waiting your table and has already risen inside. You can’t see the hero, only they can and that is the essence of the boys story.
I read ‘Return To Love’ and Marianne Williamson is not my hero because she’s on Oprah, or sold a million books. She is my hero because of the moment she began to speak her truth and she did it despite the fact that no-one had faith in her because of her wild, reckless past.
And so back to the story.
Every day, the boy followed his calling, listening and answering those questions that rang in his ears in that darkest of times. During the day he developed his answers into a business. Then from 3.00pm till 11.30pm every evening he continued working in the docks to pay his bills. Every day through his business he took a small step towards his calling, every night in the docks he brought that calling to his colleagues in small ways.
Every day he applied everything he’d learned from his immersion in the study of what makes human beings flourish, what gives us our spark and he used that to see him through these times. Positivity was the foundation and the daily, small building blocks of his transformation.
He had seen what a business looks like when it lacks compassion. He had seen what people do when they are treated like oafs and when the repressed rage sets in. He had seen what unfair employment contracts do to peoples pride and respect and he had also seen how hugely underestimated these people are.
He would practice his positivity here, the boy decided, at the so called ‘bottom of the rung’.
The boy realised he was becoming heroic, not because he was on stage but because at the bottom of the ladder he did not succumb to negativity and anger, he was still compassionate, he retained his spirit and his faith in people and it was always rewarded. He hadn’t laughed so much, he hadn’t witnessed so many small kindnesses in a long time. Nor had he judged people by their covers so little.
All those fluorescent vests had stories: The young man, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur hiding from his families’ expectations of him. The businessman in his 50’s who lost everything (including his home), getting back on his feet to get back out there again. The veteran whose life savings disappeared when he got cancer and was re-building again. Remarkable people every one of them.
Our lessons in life come in different packages, we are so quick to judge them or dismiss them before they have the change to say, “sister, this is what I have to share”, “brother, I have this gift for you.”
The boy stuck around on that rung and thrived because he listened for the lessons and retained his practices that maintained his positivity.
The boy understood that everything in life was how you looked at it. Changing how you look at things, changes everything you look at. Positivity changed the boys lens through which he saw life. He harnessed the emotions of positivity and that, on the road less travelled, made all the difference. They are (according to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson):
Where is the boy now? Well, as you’ve guessed he’s typing these words.
The new business is growing and we’re on the way back again, Sherpa People Systems transforms individuals, teams and leaders in what I’d describe as the “Thrive” way of working.
My calling is to teach people the skills of human flourishing; they are skills, of positivity, resilience and of compassion. The science is unequivocal, the results for business remarkable.
And so I ask myself again, what are the lessons from my journey? What can I share to support you, my friend. Maybe this will be useful?
1. Most positive psychologists, neuroscientists and social psychologists have not had to practice what they preach. I am blessed that I’ve been given that opportunity; positivity saved my life, I now know it will save yours, turn it around, or make it more fulfilling.
2. Positivity is a daily practice, it is easy to do when life is good and it takes pure faith to do it when life is challenging. A simple practice that sustained me was that of gratitude. It may sound trite but when the sh*t hits the fan for you, it’ll be the one lifeline that will stop your from succumbing entirely. When I was at my lowest ebb there were still so many things I could be grateful for, not least my astonishing two daughters and my amazing wife.
3. Barbara Fredrickson’s mathematical tipping point to positivity and happiness is baloney, but an emotional, flourishing tipping point is real (Gottman’s work on relationships has proven this). It takes small, daily, incremental steps to get to that tipping point. Be persistent, keep practising.
4. The underlying message of positivity is to give yourself permission to be human. In the midst of your roller-coaster ride, set aside time for serenity and for pride. It is easy to beat yourself up and harder to be kind to yourself. The serenity prayer really helps (whether you’re religious or not) “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
5. Positivity is the key to moving forward. You can choose a practice of gratitude, a message of hope you tell yourself each day, serenity through meditation, gathering with friends to laugh and share. These daily practices are the engine room of your ship; your sense of calling is the compass. Your emotional state changes how you perceive the world entirely (this is a scientific fact). I chose to see the docks as my opportunity to test the theories, I chose to see the people as essentially good, I chose hope, I chose happiness, I chose gratitude.
I don’t know where you are in your journey, what I do know is your acorn is there and acting on it will be the greatest adventure of your life. I know and feel your fear, I know and feel you doubt, your shame, your lack of confidence, your failures and your successes. I know all these things and love and admire you because of it.
Positivity is a poor word, maybe we should call it ‘grandiosity’, the emotions that recognize our essential greatness, our amazing ability to keep breathing in, breathing out and getting up each day, even when we are flattened.
There is courage in positivity, there is dignity, there is strength and if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll be blessed with a journey that will allow you to practice positivity in action.
And I will shout for you my amazing friend.
Originally published at medium.com