Be You

Why is it so important to feel like we’re doing what’s truly in line with ourselves?

Because doing so makes us feel incredible and leads us to perform at our best.

To live life well, Aristotle said we must “strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us”. In other words, we live our lives at their best when we live in line with our strengths.

Why does using our strengths matter so much? According to strengths researcher and psychologist Dr Alex Linley, the answer’s really quite simple.

When we use our innate capacities, we feel authentic – like we are being our truest selves – and that influences our sense of fulfillment. It also energises us. Like a car alternator, using our strengths actually tops up our batteries.

Linley’s research found that when people use their strengths they have higher levels of vitality and a greater zest for life. They also don’t burnout, unlike when we’re working hard without tapping our key capabilities.

Such fulfillment and energy leads us to perform at our best. We’re at the top of our psychological functioning, feeling more alive, engaged and in flow. We learn better, because it’s easier to put down neural pathways where they already exist than to forge new ones. Naturally then, we also perform better.

The beauty of fully using our strengths is that doing so is actually the path of least resistance to reach our greatest potential.

Realising Strengths

It’s exciting to recognise the win-win nature of using our strengths. Of course, we must first know what they are, and there’s a good scientific reason for that. In his illuminating book, Average to A+, Linley asks us to run an experiment. Look at these words and notice how you feel:


Now notice how you feel when you read these words:


You probably feel somehow reduced by the first line of words, but elevated by the second. Words have a powerful impact on the way we feel, which in turn affects our thoughts and actions.

The power of such labelling is well known in psychology. When we label something, we pay it attention and treat it as real (good or bad). That’s why we need to identify our strengths so that we keep them in the forefront of our minds. Then we can really harness them. As Linley says,

“Without the capacity to describe them, it is easy for our strengths to fall between the cracks of our existence, becoming lost and forgotten rather than identified, nurtured, celebrated, and fully realised”.

When we realise our strengths – as in, identify them and fully understand them – we can then also ‘realise’ them in the sense of bringing them fully into being.

There is another good reason to identify our strengths:

“When someone has a strength, and we reflect it back to them, they have a eureka moment of realisation and recognition. They feel understood, validated, and valued. They feel appreciated for who they really are”.

So then, what are your core strengths? To find out, try the renowned Clifton Strengths Finder test or the free Via Survey. My personal favourite though is Linley’s Strengths Profile.


Linley, A. (2008) Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. CAPP Press: Coventry.

The Good Life Alternative to Achievement

Forget Goals and Sacrifice!

I rather hate the concept of ‘achieving goals’.

To me it smacks of grit, of grinning and bearing it, of suffering through. That sounds a lot like what Buddhists call craving (tanhā), said to be an origin of suffering (samudāya).

How many times have you set some lofty goal or expectation, imagining that it will bring you fulfilment, only to discover you’ve over-stretched and/or the end result is not all it’s cracked up to be?

Yes, intense focus on accomplishing a remarkable feat can take remarkable effort and determination. But, really, what are the trade-offs?

The gain=sacrifice mentality is a punishing race through life that doesn’t stop to appreciate the intrinsic magic and beauty of life itself. We’re not here that long; it’s a shame to waste it.

As Lennon said, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”.

Flexible Future Focus

So, does that mean we’d be better off abandoning all future aims?

While there might be some persuasive philosophical arguments for that, all things considered, psychologists argue we do need things to look forward to and to give us a sense of direction.

The key is not to pin all hope of happiness and fulfilment on ‘if’ (i.e. if I achieve this, that or the other, life will be better).

Instead, we need to learn how to find joy, meaning and satisfaction in the process by cultivating a flexible future focus.

With that in mind then, here’s our advice (after 25 years of sometimes getting it so wrong and just enough times getting it so right…):

12 Tips to Achieve Goals… the Good Life Way

  1. Ditch the dogma and instead cultivate a ‘flexible future focus’ on where you want to go in life.
  2. Set a focus that matters to you or excites you.
  3. Choose a focus that is something positive you want to reach for, not something negative you want to avoid.
  4. Begin any journey with a single, tiny, first step. Then take another. And another. And another.
  5. When you find gaps, plug them – upskill, seek advice, outsource, trade, collaborate.
  6. Don’t expect it to go without a hitch; be agile in changing tactics when you hit road-bumps and obstacles, and accept that you may well adjust the goals themselves. All goals are provisional, and the process is iterative not linear (remember John Lennon!).
  7. Celebrate successes, even small ones. Even if it’s just a fist-pump to yourself.
  8. When you feel like a failure, remind yourself of all that you can do and everything you have done well.
  9. Take it slow – when you’re sprinting, you’ve no time, space or energy for the magic of serendipity or your own creative and unconscious alchemy to ferment.
  10. Don’t go it alone, no matter what it is.
  11. Be forgiving of yourself – none of us lives long enough to be anything but a beginner.
  12. Forget what they tell you about the necessity of ‘grit’ and ‘suffering’ and ‘achievement’. That’s ego talking. What does your soul need to come alive? Those are the only ‘goals’ we’ll ever feel are worth pursuing.


Seligman, P. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. Free Press: New York.

Tolle, E. (2004) The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library: Novato.

Wright, R. (2018) Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Simon & Schuster Publishing: New York.

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash

Forget Positive Thinking – Try Realistic Optimism

Positive Thinking?

Our beliefs and outlook affect how likely we are to achieve our goals and how we deal with setbacks.

There are benefits to pessimism, such as when we assess risk. Research finds that people who feel sad pay closer attention to detail and make fewer judgement errors, whereas when feeling happy we tend to take greater risks and make more mistakes.

However, research also shows we perform better and have better health and wellbeing when we take an optimistic view. Even when dealing with difficult situations, like health issues or changing careers, taking an optimistic stance leads us to fare better.

What’s the answer, then?!

Realistic Optimism

What we need to practise is ‘realistic optimism’.

It’s not about positive thinking, it’s about critical thinking. As Dr. Gabor Mate says:

“What I really believe in is the power of thinking. As soon as we qualify the word thinking with the adjective positive, we exclude those parts of reality that strike us as ’negative’.”

Having unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment and a feeling of failure, and then we may feel pessimistic towards future goals. Neither is it helpful, though, to bask in negativity.

Instead, we need to interrogate our thoughts for truth, learning how to distinguish between irrational beliefs that paralyse us and the more probable outcomes.

Being ‘Realistic’

There are two kinds of reality – nonreflexive and reflexive.

‘Nonreflexive reality’ can’t be influenced by beliefs, thoughts, wishes or expectations. This independent reality is the reality that is at play when a snowstorm grounds your plane, or you don’t get the job you wanted – no amount of thinking or wishing will change that reality.

Reflexive reality, however, is influenced (sometimes determined?) by our perceptions and expectations. Scientists find that taking a hopeful view leads to better outcomes because when we’re optimistic our brains perform better and we’re open to opportunities.

As author and depression researcher Johann Hari writes, “a sense of a positive future protects you”. When we are low today but hopeful about the future, we can ride out the storm knowing it will pass.

Most of our thoughts about the future are just guesses anyway, so we might as well take a hopeful view.


Dweck, C. S. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House: New York.

Hanson, R. (2013) TEDx talk, Hardwiring Happiness

Hari, J. (2019) Lost Connections. Bloomsbury: London.

Mate, G. (2019) When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress. Vermilion: London.

Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2003) The Resilience Factor. Broadway Books: New York.

Seligman, P. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. Free Press: New York.

Photo by Manouchehr Hejazi on Unsplash

Why focusing on solutions beats fixing problems

It seems pretty instinctive that when something’s wrong, we try to fix it. Including with ourselves. Yet recent advances in neuroscience suggest this isn’t always the best way to get unstuck.

The Problem…

To understand why, we need to understand what it means to ‘think’. When we have a new thought, it happens in our conscious mind, known as the working memory. As space is at a premium (there’s only enough attention for a few thoughts at any one time), the thought is moved to the subcortex, our memory centre.

If the thought isn’t repeated, it fades, but when you think the thought again and again, more and more neuronal connections are made so that the thought becomes hardwired into the brain.

Now when you want to bring the thought (aka idea or memory) to mind, it’s little effort. More than that, to save the drain of conscious thought, the thought becomes an unconscious habit, deepened with every neuronal connection made.

Consider how much effort and ‘conscious’ driving was when you were a novice compared to how automatic and ‘unconscious’ it became with experience.

With that in mind, you might now see why trying to fix problems – i.e. thinking about what’s wrong – only makes things worse.

When you put a problem under the microscope, you are by default thinking about the problem, and therefore laying down more neuronal connections. Instead of excising the problematic thinking, we pour so much energy into it that we ram it in deeper.

Digging into our memories means we even create connections between experiences and across time (I’ve always been bad at organising. Maybe it’s the way I was raised, or because my teacher gave me a hard time for it, or perhaps my dog’s effortless achievements just made me feel inadequate…).

It’s a downward spiral, and the problem’s still going nowhere fast!

The Solution…

The answer lies not in trying to fix or resist the problem thoughts, but in creating new ‘solution’ thoughts.

Old thinking is so embedded, it’s like a well-worn forest track. If you want the old path to grow over, you simply have to stop walking that way and forge a new one. The more often you walk the new route, the easier it will be to pass that way next time.

Focus your attention on solutions. Cultivate the habit of thinking better thoughts.

Think Better…

Create visions – how would you like things to be? Not, what don’t I like about my life?, but what does my ideal life look like?

Examine what’s working well – what are your successes and talents? Not, what are my weaknesses? what did I do badly?, but what are my strengths? what did I do a great job at?

Focus on solutions – what’s a better way of doing things? Not, what went wrong? why isn’t this working?, but what will make it succeed next time?

Notice what makes you feel good – what puts you in a better state of mind and body? Not, why don’t I have enough energy, enough focus? why am I always stressed?, but what energises me, helps me relax, allows me to focus?

Next time you feel the tug to fix a problem or analyse what’s wrong, stop and ask yourself, what’s right?


Read more about the neuroscience of productive thinking with David Rock’s 2007 book, Quiet Leadership

Photo by Luis Tosta on Unsplash