As I drove down the very thin, hill sliced, country lane, my breath held in anticipated fear of meeting another car, I couldn't help but be taken with the beauty of the mist that filtered through the densely gathered trees on both sides of the lane. With the early morning sunlight highlighting the silkiness of the mist, the trees seemed more alive, more vibrant, yet softer in their presence. I didn't want to leave the peacefulness, but I drove on, determined for what was at the end of the lane ... what was at the end of the lane?
RYLA was at the end of the lane (okay, I hear you, I hear you, what is RYLA??)
Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (I was attending the camp for the recipients), is a wonderful opportunity for young people between the ages of 15 - 17 to learn leadership skills in an intense (but very fun) environment. I'm not going to give you a full run down of RYLA here, but if you want to know more, here is the website - RYLA.
SO what was I doing at the RYLA camp at 7.30am? I was their guest speaker for the morning! I spoke to last years group and had been invited back - which I was very excited about; these camps remind me of my own camping experiences with Brownies and Guides, and the camaraderie of the young people reminds me of the camaraderie of the national swim team. So I was there to speak and hopefully inspire a few of them to overcome obstacles and set out on their journey in life with a positive frame of mind and a belief that they could achieve their goals.
I did my thing, and then settled in to spend the whole morning with them and even, maybe, help them a little in the tasks they had to do. The group I was with were doing the Murder Hunt activity, a brilliant activity - but perhaps slightly too complicated to explain here, where they have to do a lot of activities and impossible seeming puzzles to gain resources to solve the problem.
I had a blast - I wanted to be their age again, and come on the camp!!
During a quick lunch break, we were visited by a very tame squirrel, who even came within a metre of my left leg, and looked at me with such pleading eyes, his little paw over his heart. I could hear him saying "please sir/madam can I have some more?" (literary reference, comment below if you see it!). Then it was time for me to wish the participants good luck, and head back down the thin, hill sliced, country lane.
But I'm not here to tell you just about my fun, awesome, morning with RYLA! What I want to do is touch on my previous blog topic about whether to go to uni or not and what it means if you don't.
Whilst at the RYLA camp it was bought to my attention that one of the young participants was in a bind, let's call her Kate (not her real name), was feeling very confused at the moment, because whilst she wanted to go to university and knew what she wanted to study etc, she actually didn't want to go to uni right out of school, she wanted to take a gap year and do some volunteering work overseas ... the volunteer work is where her heart is. The problem is she is feeling some pressure from her school to go straight to uni, she was being told that to take a gap year would disrupt her education and potentially set her back in life.
This is a common view, not just in schools, but with parents, and even peers - that you have to follow a particular path in life to have any chance to be successful. There are many pro's and con's with taking a gap year or going straight to university ... but there's pro's and con's with every choice that you make, and the pro's and con's will be different for every single person. Here is an article that looks at the choice students have to make, with an argument for and against a gap year - "The Big Decision: should I take a gap year?"
My advice to Kate was to firstly look at where her heart really was, if deep, deep, down she really wanted to go and volunteer overseas, then that is what she should do - take a deferred year on her course and go for it! I also told her to be open to all opportunities, to recognise that next week she might suddenly decide that, no, she really wanted to do her university course first ... she just has to ensure that the decision is her's and not her school's, or her parents, or her peers.
Uni will always be there, but that particular volunteering programme may not, way up the pro's and con's, and most importantly, look deep into yourself, your gut; your trusted instincts will know.
When I was 17 years old my life was defined by two things - school and (surprise surprise) swimming. In fact swimming came before my schooling and this showed in my final year results. I didn't come last, but I was far from coming first, and this meant that even though I had put my name down for University (as all my friends did), my marks meant that I didn't get any places at uni - I failed. To be honest, at this point of my life, I was so consumed with swimming and my Paralympic dreams, that I only had a hint of disappointment. Swimming ruled and school could wait - I had no thoughts about what would come after my swimming.
So I swam and swam and swam. I swam at the 2000 Paralympic Games, walked away with more than I had ever dreamed possible, and then upon retiring at the age of 20, I was plonked into no-mans land. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Have you ever felt that way? Like your life has been geared towards one thing in particular, and then at it's completion your left with feeling a little lost and confused? All of my friends were at uni and moving on with their lives and I was like a delayed 20-something, stuck in a place I didn't want to be stuck and absolutely directionless.
So you didn't get the marks you wanted to get into uni? Either you worked hard and it didn't happen, or you tried to skate through on sheer talent ... and it didn't happen. You are sat at home wondering what the hell your meant to do with your life now ... but did you really know what you wanted to do with your life, even when you thought you would be going to uni? You have to think of this "failure" as an opportunity that a lot of other young people won't get - you have an opportunity to live a little, to get out there and experience life in all it's glory, and to really get to know yourself and who you want to be.
In this day and age there seems to be an ever growing push for teenagers to ace their A levels and get that uni spot - whether they need a degree for what they want to do or not. Is this a warranted pressure? Or is it about league tables and satisfying statistics? Or family and school pride? And how does this type of pressure impact on the mental health of young people? What has happened to work experience, apprenticeships, and the like? Why are they so looked down upon - when in essence these particular avenues to work cultivate great work ethic and a desire to knuckle down and get on with what has to be done.
Now don't get me wrong here, I have nothing against people going to University at all, in fact three years after I retired from swimming I went to University ... for 8 years!!! I completed my Bachelors degree and a Masters degree and did start on my Phd (but I have stopped that for reasons I won't get into here). I knuckled down at uni, took what I learnt about hard work and focus whilst swimming and applied it studiously. I went from not getting the marks I needed for uni in high school, to gaining first class honours and top of my class at 27. Here is the catch though ... I went to uni in my mid 20's because I wanted to .... not because I was pushed or manipulated by my family or teachers, but because I genuinely wanted to study another passion of mine (Art) and I wanted to be in an environment where I could learn to think critically.
To be honest, the ability to think critically was the best thing that I got out of my uni experience!
So, you didn't get into uni ... don't panic, don't worry, don't feel ashamed or humiliated or embarrassed, you have done nothing wrong. Change your thinking, look at the sudden space you have around you, space in thinking, space in experience, space in direction. You are freer beyond imagining and the possibilities are endless. Pick yourself up out of the disappointment dust, shake yourself off and start to explore all of your options - options which are endless.
Travel, stay at home, take a meditation class, become a meditation teacher, work at your local supermarket, work at a supermarket in Glasgow, investigate apprenticeships, investigate the armed services, bake a cake, start a cupcake stand at your local markets, draw a picture, have a sculpture exhibition at your local gallery, look at the stars, start a business ....
(and in the end, if you really want to go to University, leave it a few years and apply as a "mature age" student, getting into uni immediately after school isn't the be all and end all, uni is open to anyone at any age, never forget this).
As I sat in my little kitchen this morning, Andy's low, melodious voice lulling me into a meditative state (Andy from Headspace ... from the app - Andy was not in my kitchen with me!!), I took up the mornings meditative exercise of noting, noting thoughts and feelings, and then tagging them with "pleasant," "unpleasant," or "neutral." I'm at a point where I can go a few breaths without being taken away by those unadulterated and inevitable thoughts and feelings; as per usual when I meditate, I start to make connections between things, ideas, concepts . . . and then I have to let them go. Let them go in the sense that at that present moment in time I am focusing on my breath and on being, well, present, and I therefore have to trust that if it is a brilliant idea/concept, then my newly focused mind will remember and bring me back to it at the right time.
Well peeps - I Remembered My Idea.
(YAY!!! Party! Balloons, and poppers, and streamers, and bunting!)
Thinking about Andy's meditation exercise of noting, it got me thinking about how, as a species, we tend to grab onto ideas, thoughts, and feelings, and label them as being on thing or another. Now the noting in the meditation is about recognising thoughts and feelings as they truly are and accepting them as they are, but then letting them go. When we label though (as opposed to noting) it can start to get tricky for us - when we label something as being one thing or another, we tend to get stuck in these labels, we fail to recognise the capacity for change. (Just think of all the stereotypes out there, the boxes that we put people into, the boxes that we get put into by others - this is labelling)
What does labelling have to do with your goal journey?
When we set a goal and create the steps to achieving that goal we tend to get bogged down in the way that we think the reality of this goal journey should be. If we set up D as our goal and we plan to get there by doing A, B, and C, we can stick so doggedly to this plan that we fail to take into account external (and internal) factors that can come along and derail us. When approaching your goal and goal journey you have to forget about a perfect plan (which is full of labels such as "failure," "problems," "stress," "obstacles," "blame," etc) and instead consider an imperfect plan that will have no labels at all, because the things that we label we now actually recognise as learning opportunities to grow and expand. A failed business plan, not getting into University, or losing the guy of our dreams are not a bad thing, they are what they are, and when you accept this there is a huge opportunity to grow as a person.
That is one of the biggest problems with achieving success in this day and age, the fact that we have to label certain outcomes in a negative light, when in actual fact they are just outcomes. So how can you start to work through the murky labels you have littered your goal journey with?
1. Inspired by the Headspace meditation, firstly I ask that you simply "note" things/events/people/thoughts/feelings. Now I don't proclaim to be an expert in "noting" (to learn how to note better you should consider meditation exercises that deal specifically with noting), but by recognising that a bank error, a snarky competitor, a horrible mark in Science, and that zit on your nose are just what they are, nothing more, nothing less. Not labelling them as "bad," "mean," "annoying," takes their power away from them; but simply acknowledging - "okay, the bank has made an error, it is unpleasant, but what can I do to solve the problem" - means that you take a calmer and more solution based approach to the issue, rather than freaking out and getting caught up in unproductive feelings.
2. Look back over past events that have seemed catastrophic at the time, think about how you reacted in the moment and what impact it had on your health and wealth? What feelings does it dredge up now? Does it make you anxious about the future? Jot down what words you associate with the event - are they negative words? Are they words common in your vocabulary? Can you start to see patterns arising in how you think about past events? Patterns in how you react to things now? Tear these words up and burn them, or dump them in the bin, they are patterns in labelling you are now going to break.
3. When you are faced with an event that would trigger a set of labels and an old pattern of behaviour, STOP! This event could be as little as picking at that pesky zit to writing an angry email to the customer service of a particular shop. Literally STOP in your tracks. Where are your thoughts and feelings at? Have you grabbed onto the the negative labels you normally do and are you responding in your usual way because of these preconditioned labels? Note (back to that noting) how you feel, note your thoughts, and then bring your focus back to the now. Maybe your letter doesn't have to be angry? Maybe if you didn't pick that zit, but instead put some tea tree oil on it and left it alone, you won't end up with a huge red spot on your nose?
Labels are usually caught up in feelings and emotions that we associate with a specific event or person, labels fix particular activities and people in stasis, but you cannot fail to forget that the universe is in constant flux, and therefore change is inevitable. Learn to flow with change instead and let those preconceived labels go, your mind, your body and your goal journey will thank you.
If you would like a different point of view or insight into Labelling, check out this great article on Tiny Buddha.
Inside the assembly hall it was hot and sticky. Sunlight filtered through the windows casting shards of bright yellow across the sweaty brows of the school children. The gentle hum of the ceiling fans did nothing to stop little ears tingle as the piano music flowed across the room. One particular little girl sat in the front row, her eye's closed in adoration of the music, in her mind she could see the fingertips of the teacher fly across the keyboard. That afternoon the little girl went home, dumped her school bag in her bedroom, patted her pet dog on the head, and made her way to the family's piano. Tapping middle c, she squeezed her eyes shut again to really hear the tune she had heard earlier that day. After awhile her left hand started to tap more keys, slowly picking out the tune the teacher had played, until eventually she was playing it effortlessly. A few more minutes passed and her mum came down to listen - "Did the teacher show you how to play that?" "Nope," replied the little girl. "I figured it out myself mum."
That little girl was me, and even with my disability, meaning I only have one hand, I never once thought "I can't play the piano, cause you have to have two hands to do it!" I never once thought this because I was told repeatedly, from the very beginning of my life, that I could do anything I wanted, there were no limitations because of my disability. I grew up surrounded by people who believed in me and therefore I have always believed in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to. Of course I could play the piano, and draw fairies, and write like my fellow students at school, and run, and skip, and throw a ball, and swim, and dress up as an alien, and be in the school play, and school choir, and get good grades, etc, etc, etc.
Do you believe in yourself?
This past week I have had quite a few conversations with people about this very question - self belief - and the seeming lack of it in young people and old alike. BUT, I have another question for you ...
Who do you believe in?
This past week I have also had quite a few conversations that have revolved around the lack of belief in others. Whether you are the one lacking belief in others or are the recipient of this lack, it creates an environment of non-support, disbelief, low trust, friction, and general low levels of success.
Think of the flip side: if you had someone believe in you, imagine the support you would feel to move forward and work towards your dreams; or you believing in someone else and the satisfaction helping someone else brings you, the collaborative and joyful effort it takes to help and see someone you admire achieve their dreams.
I know which side of belief I would rather be a part of ... and the fact is I have been a part of the process when I have had people believe in me and my successes have been greater than even I could imagine, and I have absolutely believed in other's, letting them know that I believe in them and encouraging them to work towards their dreams and goals and wishes.
When you believe in someone else's dream you are in a position to inspire, motivate, push, help, give confidence, and eventually celebrate their successes. When you think about the potential of those around you, how can you not want to inspire and help them achieve their potential - even if the dream or goal may seem impossible to you?
Sometimes it can seem easier and safer to bring that person back down to earth, to say "you can't ever do that, but have you thought about this instead ..." For that person, however, you have chipped away at their confidence and given them doubt about their goal journey - how can you say that that person will or won't achieve their goal? The difference is, even if they don't achieve their goal, if they have believed in themselves, and you have believed in them, the goal is not a loss, it becomes a challenge, and though the end result may not be what the person first envisioned, they are still left with a confidence that they can make stuff happen, and that is the magic of believing.
This has been happening to me a lot lately, I've been so busy that I keep on forgetting what I have to do next, let alone tomorrow or next week!! As the days fly by and each second blurs into the next I have found that moments of panic shoot through my veins, and I haven't felt this way for a long time ... so I decided I had to do something about it. The best way to deal with overwhelm is to organise, organise your life, organise your space, and organise thoughts, it doesn't have to be complicated, just a few simple steps can help you keep your head and achieve your goals.
My mum had a saying "more hurry, less speed" and this is something I have been reminding myself - when you are under a lot of pressure to deliver the tendency is to speed things up, but this method leads to confusion, anxiety, and stress ... and this leads me to tip #1.
#1: Slow Down. Stop and take a breath on a regular basis, when you feel those feels of blind panic overtaking you that is the time to actually stop, sit down, or stand up and go outside, have a cuppa or a glass of water, and breathe. Even if this means you are stopping every ten minutes, stop every ten minutes, what has to get done will get done, but your breath is your life force and you need to take care with it.
#2 Update That Diary. I actually have three diary's on the go, my diary on my iPhone, on my laptop, and my paper diary ... to be honest my paper diary is my more up-to-date one, but I have let my diary management slide. Solution = spend every Sunday (or one day a week of your choosing) and make sure that all of your diary's are consistent with each other. I also do a cross check with my emails, just to ensure I haven't missed putting in an important date. How do you cross check your diary with your emails? Go to your search box for your emails and either search for a keyword or a date. My usual keyword include: speaking, awards, assembly, 6th, 22nd, 31st, but you use whatever works for you. Your emails with these words and dates will pop up and you can quickly scan to see if you have missed putting any important event and/or date in your diary's.
#3 Double And Triple Check. Whenever you notice an event/meeting/gathering coming up in your diary, contact the organiser/friend/family member and ensure that you have the right date, time, address, and phone number. Doing this reminds you of the event, gets it straight in your head what is happening on the day, and enables you to connect with the organiser to ... well ... organise!
#4 Colour Code. Colour coding your diary's can really help you know what's happening everyday at a glance. This enables you to remain calm and in control as your expectations for your days and weeks become clearer. On my laptop diary, for work my diary entry's are blue, for home they are green, and for misc/awaiting confirmation they are red, so when I glance at my diary I can see I have a work event tomorrow, a home event Wednesday night, and I have to confirm date for the following weekend.
#5 Be Prepared (inadvertent Scout reference there, but they have a point). This is a habit I have kept up and that is preparing for the next day the night before - it takes the stress out of the morning and enables you to double check that you have everything. If I'm staying overnight somewhere I will pack the night before, if I have a speaking gig the next day I will pack my medals, usb stick with media, water bottle, allergy tablets and throat lozenges the night before, if I have a get together with friends and I have to bring food I will go to the supermarket the day before and get what I need then.
I'm not the only one with tips and hints for organising, here are a few other peeps with some great ideas ...
kikki.k - How to organise your new diary
An Organised Life - The essentials to pack when your travel
Gala Darling - Ten questions about life, answered rapid-fire style (love her answer about keeping a small apartment organised)
Just A Girl and Her Blog - How I organised my whole life
Huffington Post - 10 Lifehacks that'll trick you into cleaning up and organising your place
Do you have any tips for staying organised? Share below.
"Your Determination is Limitless"
- Elizabeth Wright