Golf is a series of mental breakdowns.

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20 years ago I phoned Tim Gallwey, author of the Inner Game books, to see if he could work with me on a client. “Sorry Brian, I’m finishing my next book (The Inner Game of Work) but you could try Pete Shoemaker”. Pete and his brother Fred ran a programme called Extraordinary Golf in Carmel, California. I called and explained that I wanted to use the mental side of the game to get the management team at one of my clients to look at their business differently. “Sure Brian” said Fred “golf is a series of mental breakdowns”. What?

Fred explained: you have expectations for every shot you play, and very often the results don’t match. When that happens you have a choice: get annoyed/blame your clubs/your luck/your partner … and hang on to your hopes for the next shot – or allow your mental ‘set’ to break down, accept reality and allow for some learning.

In the Cold War of the 1950s when the USSR’s nukes were to be delivered by bombers, the defence of the USA was in the hands of fighter pilots guided by radar operators on the ground. The intensive training they were given hit a snag – in simulated exercises they weren’t downing more than 50% of the bombers. Not a bad result in a WW2 setting but not great in a nuclear world.

The USAF called in the famous RAND think tank. They pulled the trainers and any other form of authority out of the war-room and left the operators to be confronted by the results of their actions.

To begin with they indulged in behaviour later labelled Blame-shedding (‘It’s not our fault, we did our bit’). When it became clear that this was getting them nowhere, Blame-grabbing emerged (‘If it will move things forward, we’ll take the blame’). When 50% remained the best that they could do, they began to hunt for a Magic Solution (‘We’re missing something, there must be a trick to this).

Even after rejecting the first two behaviours, the pressures for the ‘quick fix’ of the third are hard to resist, particularly as they often come from the top. One has only to look at the number of ‘initiatives’ launched by politicians to realise this. Only with effort do those trying to solve the problem arrive at a fourth way: Dealing with reality (‘Those are the facts, now let’s all just do the best we can.’)

More than anything else, getting to the fourth pattern of behaviour requires dropping defensive barriers and collaborating in an open and flexible response to reality, Fred Shoemaker’s ‘mental breakdown’ if you like. That done, the 50% barrier melted and fighter pilots and radar operators found their way to levels of performance that had been thought impossible.

Fast forward 20 years and we’re watching four doctors who are running a podiatry (foot) clinic. They have taken themselves off for a couple of days to tackle the problem of their ever-lengthening waiting lists. The walls of their hotel room are covered in flip charts: SWOT and PEST and BCG and, and … nothing looks remotely like solving their problem. Head in hands, one of them begins to cry. This is serious stuff, it’s his life, it’s his patients’ lives. They’ve been at this for two days. One way or another they all break down.

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Out of their despair they come together ‘Why don’t we …’; ‘If we changed … ‘; ‘I’m sure they’d …’. And they begin to see the reality behind the endless waiting lists: they were part of a community that needed their help to take better care of its feet. So began outreach clinics; school visits; secondments from the staff of local gyms. And the waiting lists came down.

Anyone reading this who doesn’t need a mental breakdown from time to time?

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“We don’t do emotion in my family” Were the words of a science graduate I interviewed recently. He reminded me of me.

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Growing up, I watched my mother and father having rows and shouting at each other and vowed to avoid emotion. It helped that Dad was an industrial chemist (we did our own drycleaning with a carboy of carbon tetrachloride we kept in the garage) so I did science at school and university. It helped even more that Mum didn’t believe in physical displays of love. She sent me Valentine’s cards well into my 20s – but hugs were out.

We now know that our growing brains need both the physical and the intellectual experience of love – or the necessary circuits don’t form. So I grew up with a bit missing – and apparently I am not alone.

And it doesn’t have to be dramatic – or obvious, or gender biased. A mum and dad of my acquaintance, reacting to their six year old crying at the departure of his playmate for a week’s holiday:

Her: Cheer up! You’ll see him again soon.
Him: Of course you’re sad. It’s OK to cry. Here, have a hug.

Check out your own reaction to people’s upset-ness. We’re a bit uncomfortable with emotion and try to suppress it. But in its absence our interpretation of the world can be seriously flawed. I asked the science graduate what he did when a situation frustrated and angered him. “I turn the anger into icy logic” he said. “Good luck with that” I said. I didn’t hire him. He reminded me of me.

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“I want to know what love is” is a great song by rock band Foreigner. In my 20s I went through a succession of girl friends, desperate to fall in love but unable to prove to my one-sided scientific mind that this was ‘it’. I got married, still uncertain if this was love. The only proof I had was that Jen could make me madder faster than anyone else in the world.

In the months before and after Jen’s death in 2008, I was working constantly with a therapist. I needed to be in top shape to support Jen beforehand and then to support me after. The earthquakes of emotion broke through my defences, allowed the therapy to reach the parts it needed to, and I started to build the missing circuits.

CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) is the NHS’s favourite answer to mental health problems. It works by changing the stories you are telling yourself about life. It works at the beginning when you are probably in a bit of a state. As emotion dies down it works less well and can become just a talking shop. You can ‘get’ why you tell yourself the unhelpful stories that you do but the only thing that will shift them is engaging with the emotion that implanted them.

Trust me. I know what love is.

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‘High status versus low status’ or ‘A long time ago I recognised that my ability to get served in a crowded bar was a lot to do with whether I felt on top of the world or had had a bad day.’

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You pop in to see the boss. “Busy?” you ask, poking your head round the door. You’ve just used ‘low status’ behaviour in the presence of someone you feel to be ‘high status’. You walk into a shop and stand squarely, waiting to be served – you’ve just played high status. After all, you’re the customer.

We live in a democracy. We believe in equality. Logic and reason says that ‘all men are created equal’. Yet our behaviour is based on our heritage as creatures of the herd where a pecking order is the natural state of things. It’s wise to accept that, and other aspects of our heritage as Homo sapiens. Continue reading

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Games People Play: ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’; ‘Boy Wizard’. What’s your game?

Games People Play was a book written by Eric Berne in the 60s. A bestseller, it introduced us to the way that people adopt roles in the ‘play’ of their lives. ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ and ‘Boy Wizard’ are reflective of our society’s encouraging girls to be endearing and boys to be clever. [If you want more on that find your way to Soraya Chemaly’s brilliant 10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn.] But our role-playing goes beyond gender stereotyping.

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Ever lost something that you needed urgently – only to have it turn up in plain sight, after the panic was over?

Then you’ve stumbled on one of the best kept secrets of how your brain behaves, or doesn’t. There’s a little piece of it that sits at the top of your spine and the bottom of your brain stem. It’s called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and that mouthful might explain why you’ve never heard of it.

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If I knew I could get a better job – I’d leave this one.

I was talking last month to Ray Dance. Ray qualified as an engineer but helping other people find a job has become his ‘better job’. He’s so good at it that he won’t charge for his help if you don’t get offers.

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I Wish I’d Written That

Mary Schmich

I try to write a blog every week. Normally, something comes up that sets me off. This week, an email appeared in my inbox which was a retirement message from an old friend to the colleagues he was leaving behind. I wish I’d written it – so below is a sample.

He introduced his message with reference to Mary Schmich’s ‘Wear Sunscreen’. I wish I’d written that too. He writes:

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