The enigma of the human condition

We know a lot about the human condition. It’s one of those areas of study, of philosophy and of life that we are constantly drawn to understand ourselves better. Psychology, economics, medicine, law, are complete fields of study that help us understand how people interact, why they interact, what makes us better, and the consequences for actions which are harmful to others.

We know so much that we’re able to understand the cognitive development of babies. We understand the process of language development. We understand the purpose of emotions and are able to categorise them. We understand about ethics and┬ámorality. We understand about love, affection and companionship.

And yet, there are some things we will never truly understand. Why does one person murder another? Why are some people born without the ability to be empathetic and therefore wilfully harm others? Why do some people develop addictions that are clearly harmful and yet they cannot help themselves? Why are some people just not in control of their eating habits and make themselves sick because of either under or over eating? Why do some people have less capacity for kindness to others? Why do some people wilfully hurt children?

Psychology (and other fields) tries to explain some of these things. But what about when your average police officer shoots a seemingly innocent person? Or what about when a stranger will seemingly give a deadly electric shock to another person for no other reason than they were instructed to? Or what about when a regular office worker commits fraudulent behaviour because they are under heavy personal financial pressures?

Sometimes, we can’t explain things. Sometimes we have to just accept that something awful has happened, and there won’t be an explanation.

The human condition is one of life’s biggest conundrums. We will continue to strive for answers in religion, in science, in philosophy or in medicine. We’ll come up short, because no matter how intelligent we may be, there will always be something that happens which we just can’t account for.

I am saddened by the shooting of Walter Scott in America. It’s a complete tragedy and there will be insightful commentary and analysis of why it happened. And not just of this incident, but also of the many others hat have occurred. Many will shout race, many will shout police right, many will not know how to react, many will be angry.

We have the right (imperfect) systems in place to deal with things like this. We can only have faith in those systems and in people that we can and must be better. But all the while, no matter how good we might be, we’ll never be able to account for that errant factor that is the human condition.

Things I learned about myself while on a mountain

We all love a break. A well earned rest is good for the soul and refreshes the mind. I’ve just had one of my best breaks by spending the last week skiing in the resort of Morzine in France. I highly recommend it as a resort.

While out there on the slopes, practising my turns and Just gliding on the snow, watching the family with their instructor and taking in the area, there was lots of natural thinking time. If I make it sound all romantic, it’s mostly because I am in love with skiing as a holiday.

I found that being mindful was kind of easy and I felt like it was cheating. You’re in an environment which is completely conducive to being relaxed and being in tune with your body. Your self awareness is already raised becauase you’re in these skis which aren’t natural at all. You’re listening to your body well because it’s reacting to the way you ski. In the evenings with a sauna, jacuzzi and massages at your disposal, you’re primed for being in tune with your body. It’s that much more of an effort to be connected to the digital world either because of data costs or wifi connections. 

It bought me to consider just how difficult it is to be mindful at work and in our cities. Efforts like Street Wisdom are fine, but they’re unique and discreet events. Regular time to just accept your surroundings, listen to your body and act accordingly aren’t easy to come by. It’s no wonder we need an app to help us cultivate mindfulness in a world where busy-ness is a very accepted way of life.

I love beach holidays, water parks, theme parks and all that jazz. I found that being on a mountain is where I’m deeply at peace. This was unexpected and enjoyable. I didn’t just enjoy skiing, I felt like it was where I belong in my soul. With that in mind, it’s not something I do regularly, so when I do, I really enjoy it.

I’ve written and spoken before about finding your third place. When your home and your work are your first and second places, where’s your third place where you can be your best, free of judgement, free of pressure, and at your pace? I’m no expert at skiing. I stuck to mostly blue runs which are the easier ones on the slopes. Years ago I had the confidence and skill to do reds (hard) and the occasional blacks (difficult). But I don’t care if I do those runs, that’s not why I’m out there doing the skiing. I’m out there because I can just be.

When that’s not available, I’ve had to work really hard to find an alternative. Blogging is often my third place these days. I don’t care how good or bad the writing is, I do care about sharing good stuff, I care about sharing my practise, and I focus on writings things of interest. It gets met in lots of different ways and I receive a range of feedback which is all useful. But blogging is my space. It’s my place to just be.

What I loved most about the holiday was watching my family progress with their skiing over the week. It’s not often we do an activity which can involve us all and we’re all at similar starting points and development paths. That just brought a very different dimension to connecting with each other, and having fun and laughs with each other. Later in the week I was out in the slopes with one of my twins, K, and told him to lead me on the slope. I told him to make sure I stayed safe while I followed, and he did amazingly. He went nice and easy, took turns with ease and was always looking back to check on me.

Mindfulness, happiness and existentialism

This is my last post on talks from the EQ Summit last week. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Alan Wallace on this topic. What was meant to be a talk on mindfulness became talking about stress, challenging what we accept for ourselves, a challenge to the overload of information, and talking about our happiness. It was philosophical, existentialist and pretty expansive.

He started by talking about conative intelligence which he defined as this…


His ask is that we get wise to our desires, listen to them and really understand what are they for. That he explicitly calls out the need to consider one’s own and others wellbeing is really interesting to me. I understand this as accepting we all have desires and intentions. When we consider the impact of fulfilling those desires, does it actually help us be better?

In the realm of human attraction and relationships this makes sense to me. In the realm of addictive behaviour this also makes sense to me. And in the realm of destructive and harmful behaviour this also makes sense to me.

In relation to addiction he identified three broad areas where behaviour can become addictive…


This was pretty excellent. I completely get it. Alan made an excellent insight here. He talked about the card game Solitaire and called it one of the most pointless games that has been created. Yet people would rather play a pointless game than sit with their own thoughts. This is hardly a modern phenomenon and you can replace Solitaire with previous pastimes. But it’s interesting isn’t it? Are we so addicted to action and being busy in various ways, that we would rather do an activity which is non-productive than just sit alone with our thoughts?

He then went on to talk about the enigma of human existence as he sees it…


Which was another highly pertinent thinking point. It’s a great question and challenge to us as a people. If we’re smarter than we have ever been, with modern medicine and technology at our disposal, with ease of communication and travel like never before, and with creative and innovative endeavours that push what it means to be human, why aren’t we all feeling happier as a global community? Why are rates of depression, divorce, suicide, obesity and terrorism so high? What’s happening with people that they aren’t availing themselves of the multitude options for being better and are instead being subjected to or succumbing to behaviours and actions which are clearly harmful?

One of his final points was that we should all be seeking to find happiness in our lives. Both Albert Einstein and the Dalai Lama have expressed this in different ways…


He built on this by encouraging us to be mindful that happiness comes from both hedonic means and genuine means. He defined hedonic as by seeking stimuli for happiness. He defined genuine as that which we give others. Life isn’t about one more than the other. As described earlier, it’s about understanding your own desires better so that you’re more mindful and aware of how acting on these can affect your own and others wellbeing.

Myths and interesting facts about neuroscience and EQ

Myth no 1. If you’re right brained you’re more creative and if you’re left brained you’re more data led

There are well researched pieces into how the brain works. Essentially what it finds is that in patients where the brain was cut in the middle, they still had full capability for creative abilities and for tasks needing focus on data and information.

Myth no 2. We only use 10% of our brain

No. Just, no. The very make up of our brains means that it is made up of the sum of its parts. No one part works independently of another. Depending on the task or situation at hand, we use different parts of the brain.

Myth no 3. The female brain is different to the male brain

Although physically the size of brains will be different, the way they operate is no different.

I loved this session by Dr Geoff Bird at the EQ Summit. There was lots of good information and as above debunking of myths about neuroscience and the brain.

The human brain consumes about 60% of the body’s glucose and 30% of our calorie intake. When we are working hard on something, we need more glucose to help the brain function well. This doesn’t mean gorging on chocolate during the task, it just means ensure you’re well fed before embarking on a task of importance.

He went on to talk about empathy and how it starts in the brain. If you turn off pain receptors, you lose the ability to empathise with others because you lose the ability to know what you might be experiencing. I found this fascinating as I wonder how it relates to pain thresholds. If you have a lower pain threshold are you more likely to be empathetic than someone who doesn’t?
There is a condition called alexithymia which is the inability to know your own emotional state. This is common amongst 10% of people which raises interesting points to consider. Psychiatrists tend to see this when presented with patients who have experienced trauma in some way, but do not have the words to express how it’s affecting them. Is there a higher preponderance of people suffering alexithymia in those who have perceived levels of power? In those that don’t have these positions of power, how does this play out in the team? What’s the effect of their behaviour on those they interact with? Please be cautious in what I’ve written here on this condition, there’s clearly more to read on it and understand better.

When we talk about sleep deprivation, we often think that must mean a pattern of disrupted sleep. Actually, as little as 5 hours sleep for one night can be enough to leave you deprived. Geoff made an excellent point here and said if we wouldn’t drive long distances when tired, why would you make important decisions when tired? Of course there are all sorts of reasons why you would, and a plethora of justifications for the need for decisions to be made. The point is that when we’re tired we make poorer decisions.

This last point is probably the most interesting. When we are stressed, the hippocampus doesn’t work as effectively. The importance of this is that the hippocampus supports production of long term memories and in helping us to function well. When we are in a state of stress, and cortisol is produced, this prepares the body for the flight or fight response. The hippocampus cannot work effectively with cortisol present and has a direct impact on neurogenesis – the creation of new neurons. It is neurogenesis which supports the brain’s ability to learn new things. This insight presents a direct challenge to the old adage that a bit of stress can be the right condition for optimal performance.

My pre-frontal cortex has worked a fair amount in writing this post and I’m now in need of breakfast and feel like I’ve done my day’s work already.

Motivation, Dan Pink and EQ

Money is a motivator. It matters and it makes a difference. People want to be paid a fair wage for the work they do and they want to do a good job.

Last week at the EQ Summit, Dan Pink spoke about this topic he has delivered time and again. And time and again he repeats the same message. When a task is simple, doesn’t involve a lot of thinking power and is quite rudimentary, then pay can motivate. If you need envelopes stuffed, then pay by the envelope not by the hour. If you need strawberries picked, pay per strawberry or punnet, not by the hour. If you need data entry being completed, pay for each complete data set, not by the hour.

When the task becomes more complex, and this is purposefully vague, is when pay stops being a motivator. Why? Because we’re too drawn to the money and forget about the task. Humans are simple beings. When you mix simplicity with complexity you get confusion, incongruency and strange behaviour. His message was simple. Pay people a fair wage so that money isn’t as much of an issue as it could be and that people can focus on the work.

This really isn’t a message which has penetrated big business at all. Bonus schemes, pay brackets and pay ceilings are very accepted. There are few companies and organisations who don’t follow this model. The performance factors that determine bonus payments are normally about service delivery and less often about the relationships people genuinely build or about the positive impact on others.

Ok, let’s move on from there.

Dan gave some great examples of controlled studies where they wanted to see the impact of purpose on the output a person achieves. At a university, past students are often asked to donate back to the university to support the future education of present students. The people who ring and ask for these donations were split into three groups. Group 1 were given a standard letter to read about the job role. Group 2 were given a letter to read from previous students who carried out their role explaining why it was important for them. Group 3 were given a letter from students who benefited directly from these donations and helped them achieve career ambitions as a direct results. Group 2 clearly did better than Group 1, but the surprising result was Group 3 achieved 25% more donations than Group 1.

Go on, chew that over for a moment.

When we talk about purpose at work, and you have big corporate machines in place whose sole purpose is to make profit and pay out to shareholders, how are you going to help the workforce find their ultimate purpose? It’s most likely easier in health, care, education, public service, and charity/not for profit sectors. People are already there because they want to be, or see how they are affecting people’s daily lives positively. But in an oil shore rig or a media organisation or a bank? I’m not sure how people find their purpose in those environments.

When talking about autonomy, Dan started by talking about the design of management as a technology. Its purpose was to command and control the workforce and produce tangible results like building railways, manufacturing cars, running management accounts and the such likes. The challenge over time was that this technology didn’t keep up with the changing times. It has persisted and hung around like a bad odour that you can’t get rid of.

Now, I’m actually an advocate of management, but think the role of managers and the role of management has significantly changed and today doesn’t resemble half as much as what it used to look like.

What we haven’t done well in this space is to rethink how people are engaged and how managers are a vital role in this. When you ask someone what made a great manager, very few will explain it was the way they managed every part of your job role, that they never gave you feedback or that they made all the decisions so you didn’t have to. Linked to that are processes like performance reviews, recruitment and staff benefits. Very few companies are innovating in these spaces, and most are just iterating on variations that have hung around for the last 20-30 years if not more. Not helped by vendors in the market who aren’t pushing the boat on these agendas too.

In the panel session, I asked the question of how to sell the idea of EQ, motivation and empathy to senior managers who think this is happy clappy nonsense. Dan’s response was probably the best. He said first we need to be talking in terms of results and outputs, not the methodologies. That is, “we can increase donations/sales/other by X% by helping people see the impact of the work they do” is a more tangible argument than “there’s a lot of great research on motivation which we really need to pay attention to in engaging the workforce”. His second point was to go for small gains. If we can show the impact of small interventions it’s easier to prove how these things work rather than go for large scale wins.

The long road of EI

This week I’ll be sharing thoughts from the #eqsummit which was held by Roche Martin and Sheffield Business School. It’s rare I attend an event and enjoy every session of the day. It speaks to the high quality of the content in the programme.

The day’s focus on emotional intelligence probably lent itself well to covering topics that naturally go with it. Martyn Newman talked about the development of EI as a field, Dr Geoff Bird talked about neuroscience, Dan Pink spoke about motivation, Alan Wallace spoke about mindfulness, Eve Ekman gave insights into the purpose and development of emotions, and we had some excellent laughs with Magnus Lindkvist sharing insights into trends with a lot of wit.

We’re in an age where the workforce is rapidly and dramatically changing. Even those organisations where technology hasn’t caught up with modern requirements, they’re still advancing forwards. Everything around is changing from the tools for communication, to the way managers engage their staff, to the way services are designed, to the way engagement is a strong area of concern.

Ideas and evolved thinking take time to feed their way through to the majority. When you look at the diffusion of innovation model, it tells us there are certain hurdles before an idea becomes truly mainstream. EI has only really existed as a concept for about 30 years. Is it a wonder that more people haven’t heard about it? I would also posit that EI is still with the early majority. Not enough people know about it as a topic for it to be mainstream.

When technology is challenged with breaking into the billions of people who use it, and arguably more people have access to technology than they do education, you start to see that the challenge of spreading ideas is that much harder.

Add to that cultural complexities of displaying and expressing emotions. Add to that gender expectations of emotions and how boys and girls are meant to feel them and express them. Add to that different generations who grew up with different ways of dealing with your emotions.

EI is one of these concepts which taps into a lot about the human condition. It provides insights into how we understand emotions as things at all. It helps us understand how to regulate those emotions. It helps us understand what happens to our bodies when we experience an emotion.

I’m cautious to speak about EI as if it’s a cure to societal and workplace ills. No single theory or model can offer that.

What I see in EI is the potential to improve relationships. I see the way you can think of support for people and having empathy with them. I see that people interested in the human condition have a theory which can help them have a different set of discussions. I see the personal relevance it has for people to understand themselves better.

EI is on a long road of development and becoming part of the regular discussion for workplaces. It’s now a regular part of management and leadership programmes. The challenge of all programmes is that managers and leaders are time poor and are being exposed to lots of theories instead of focusing on certain areas. This naturally means our understanding of different topics is diluted.