Dr Jim’s Blog: How to use Writing Therapy for business success
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, September 2018
Every day, I discover some new problem that I have to solve, for important, self-defined reasons.
No matter how many problems I solve, I still find new challenges to grapple with.
This is our human nature. We are problem-finding and problem-solving creatures. We move forward in life by wrestling with difficulties.
If we do not wrestle with difficulties, we get stuck at some unsatisfactory point along our path through life.
Navigating the turbulent seas of stressful life
My Writing Journal is my *anchor* and *compass* in the turbulent seas of life. At least when it comes to processing my negative experiences.
For example, yesterday I was feeling quite unhappy because one of my major goals was not being achieved to any significant degree. Nothing I did seemed to shift my unhappiness about that sense of stuckness. To be clear, it was a goal about business success…
I had worked hard to define that goal, and to work out a detailed action plan. But progress was so far below par that I felt greatly discouraged.
So I sat at my desk with my journal, and reminded myself of the writing therapy processes that I have written about in my book, which are designed to help in this kind of situation. I used the section on self-management skills, and pretty soon I had identified something that I can do to maximize my chances of achieving the goal in question.
Pursuing business goals
On this particular occasion, I was concerned about a business goal, and so I made a commitment to write it in my journal every morning, and then to review progress against that goal, also in my journal, at the end of every day.
I was also remained of the very important principle that “success cannot be pursued”. Success, like happiness, is something that happens as a by-product of following your conscience in doing your life’s work. So I began to write about my life’s work, and how to pursue some elements of that today, and not how to translate that into material success!
As I wrote, the *writing therapy process* itself began to resolve things, and throw up new ideas. I now have a daily strategy to follow which should take care of the problem for me; and if it does not; then I can go back to the ‘drawing board’ (or writing therapy journal) and do some more work on this problem.
My book on Writing Therapy teaches these points (among the more than 20 strategies I include); and also the principle that you have to “think on paper” – (or *perceive-feel-think* on paper) – otherwise you will get washed out into the turbulent sea by the stressful waves of life, and lose your connection to your anchor in life (which should be your life’s work, dictated by your conscience!).
Dr Jim’s Blog: Freud, sex, literature, Descartes, and the body-brain-mind-environment-complexity!
Part Two: More on ‘What are the linkages between psychology and psychotherapy, on the one hand, and literature, on the other’?
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, July 2018
Recently, I’ve been blogging about some of the important linkages, or overlaps, between psychology, on the one hand, and literature, on the other.
For examples: I have written about:
(1) Some of the books that helped to grow my emotional intelligence; or to help me to ‘complete’ (or process) some early, traumatic experience;
(2) My own semi-autobiographical novel/story about the life of Daniel O’Beeve – and how this is legitimate psychotherapy for the reader, as well as the writer;
(3) How to “write a new life for yourself” – in the form of a new paperback book about a system of psychotherapy, which I have developed over a number of years.
(4) How psychological insights seep into literature; and how literature in turn influences, or humanizes, psychology and psychotherapy.
Today, I want to describe some experiences with literature that I’ve had over the past couple of days.
Visiting bookshops in Bradford
Two days ago – on Saturday 21st July – Renata and I took some time out and went to Bradford for lunch, and to take a look around the shops, including two bookshops and the main DVD/movie outlet (HMV, in the new arcade).
In Waterstones’ bookshop, towards the end of our visit, I was looking for something which would help me to reflect some more upon the linkages between psychology and literature.
There was nothing of any relevance in the Psychology section.
Then I went looking for a Literature section. The best I could find were two adjacent book cases, one on Poetry, and one on Drama. (Bradford is not a particularly big city).
In the drama section, there were a few books on literature, including one by Julian Barnes: Through the Window – Seventeen essays (and one short story); London; Vintage Books; 2012.
The blurb on the back of this book suggested it was exactly what I was seeking. It began like this: “Novels tell us the most truth about life…”
I bought it, and brought it home, and dived into the Preface, which describes ‘a Sempé cartoon’, which shows three sections of a bookshop. On the left, the Philosophy section; on the right, the History section; and in the middle, a window that looks out at a man and a woman who are approaching each other from roughly the locations of those two sections, and who are inevitably (and accidentally) going to meet in front of the middle section, which is the Fiction section.
For Julian Barnes, this cartoon describes his own beliefs about the central role of fiction in our lives.
“Fiction, more than any other written form, explains and expands life”, he writes, with great assurance. “Biology, of course, also explains life; so do biography and biochemistry and biophysics and biomechanics and biopsychology. But all the biosciences yield no biofiction. Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it. Novels speak to and from the mind, the heart, the eye, the genitals, the skin; the conscious and the subconscious. What it is to be an individual, what it means to be part of a society. What it means to be alone. …” Etcetera.
However, it could be objected that, while the various sciences instruct, and suggest what must be done and not done, the literary arts merely create visceral and emotive sensations, which must link up with our socialization in general – that is to say, our previous learning – to help us to decide what to do with this new literary information; these insights; or newly forming feelings and thoughts.
Indeed, it seems to me that if all we had was literature, then we would be “weaving without weft” – or trying to make a fabric without those long strings, from one end of the loom to the other, through which the shuttle passes. We would be trying to make sense of fictions in the absence of the insights we gain from the various sciences, and the ruminations of the various philosophers.
However, the reverse is also true. Without literature and art, the sciences would provide us with long strings of facts, set up on our mental looms, but with no means of weaving a living fabric of warmth and depth and emotional meaning.
An example from fiction
What I omitted from my story above is this: Before going to Waterstones’, we had visited the Oxfam shop, which has a vast floor dedicated to second-hand books, included the abandoned books of waves of undergraduates and postgraduates from the local universities: yards of books on Psychology, philosophy, health studies, and so on. And then there’s History, and lots of novels – many of the pulp variety – and some classics.
During this visit, I did look at psychology, and health studies, and personal development; but I began by looking for a novel which might help me to elucidate some of the points I’ve been exploring in these blog posts. And I did find one.
I found Mantissa, by John Fowles. This author’s name jumped out at me because I have read five of his nine books – but I had never come across Mantissa.
So I opened it, and what should leap off the page at me, but a quotation by René Descartes. This had an electrifying effect upon me, because I have been arguing – in earlier blog posts in this series – that philosophies, like Descartes’ misleading ‘cogito’ (“I think therefore I am”), got into psychology; and that, whatever arises within, or gets into, psychology, inevitably finds its way into literature. And here was a living proof of my assertions. The particular quote from Descartes, promulgated by John Fowles, on page 5 of Mantissa, included the following conclusion:
“…this I, that is to say the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, is even easier to know than the body, and furthermore would not stop being what it is, even if the body did not exist”.
We know from previous considerations of this ‘cogito’-philosophy of Descartes by generations of philosophers, that it is impossible to sustain his beliefs about the body-mind split.
But the more important consideration is this: Why is John Fowles beginning his novel with this quotation?
Is it his intention to argue that we are souls, separate and apart from our bodies?
Or is he going to try to undermine Descartes’ belief?
Part I (of IV) begins with the suggestion of ‘a consciousness’ surrounded by “a luminous and infinite haze”. And out of this connectivity comes an individual consciousness – a male person, in a bed, looking up at two women; one of whom claims to be his wife, and the other a doctor (of neurology); and the suggestion emerges of ‘loss of personal memory’. The ‘wife’ departs, and a nurse arrives to join the doctor, and it unfolds that the treatment for this poor man (Mr Green’s) mental problem is a physical therapy. (The theory, explicitly stated by the doctor, is that there is a link between the genitals and the personal sense of remembered self!)
At this point, we can say that Fowles seems to be setting out to refute Descartes view of a separation between mind and body, by treating memory loss via the genitals. (Crazy theory, I know! But it proves to owe a lot to Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages of human development!)
Fowles’ intention to undermine Descartes seems likely, especially given that the doctor in this story is a neurologist: a specialist in understanding brain-mind functioning. Or the physical brain as the substrate of mind.
Mr Green proves to be resistant to the sexual activities to which he is subjected by the doctor and the nurse, until, at the start of Part II, it emerges that no such reality exists. There are no physical bodies present! It is all going on in the mind of Mr Green – (who is obviously, ultimately, Mr Fowles!) – who is essentially writing (in his mind) some scenes of pornography.
This is an echo of one of Descartes’ meditations, in which he wonders if he might be just a brain suspended in a vat by an evil demon, and that his brain imagines that it is attached to a body in an external environment. (I know! Descartes was a nut!)
(But think about today’s counsellors and psychiatrists. Most counsellors think of the client as a floating mind! And most psychiatrists think of the mind-brain as a chemical unit separate and apart from the stresses and strains of its social environment, its philosophy of life, and its personal history of experience!)
Towards the end of Part IV, it becomes obvious that all of the action being described within this narrative, is not actual action, but narrative within narrative; with a magical edge, provide by the presence of the Greek goddess, Erato: (originally introduced as the doctor of neurology!); and the pornographic ravings of a juvenile author (Fowles!)
There is a nod backwards towards Freud in this book; not alone by reducing all human activity to a sexual nightmare; but also these nuggets:
“Now listen closely, Mr Green”. (This is said by the doctor of neurology; who we later learn is the goddess Erato!) “I will try to explain one last time. Memory is strongly attached to ego”. (NB: Ego is the English-psychoanalyst rendering of Freud’s concept of ‘the I’.) “Your ego has lost in a conflict with your super-ego”, – (Super-ego is the English-psychoanalyst rendering of Freud’s concept of ‘the Over-I’ [the first instantiation of which is every baby’s mother]). – “which has decided to repress it – to censor it”. (The concept of repression comes from Freud!) “All nurse and I wish to do is to enlist the aid of the third component of your psyche, the id”. (‘The id’ is the English-psychoanalyst rendering of Freud’s concept of ‘the It’; the ‘thing’ that we are at birth! The ‘whole thing’, body-brain-and-embryonic-mind). “Your id” writes Fowles, through the ethereal person of the doctor/goddess, “is that flaccid member pressed against my posterior. It is potentially your best friend. And mine as your doctor. Do you understand what I am saying?” (Page 31 of Mantissa).
So, I think some of my points are being ‘firmed up’ here (if you will pardon my inability to refrain from making a pun at the expense of Fowles and Freud!) In particular, I think it is safe to say that ideas pass freely between philosophy, psychology and literature. Each feeds off the other. There are no impermeable boundaries between those domains of thought!
And we have to be awake to this reality for various reasons which I will look at later. The most obvious one being that fictions find their way into philosophy; and philosophical fictions find their way into psychology; and fictitious aspects of psychology inform counselling and psychotherapy! And round and round!
Back to Julian Barnes
Earlier I quoted a very strong argument by Julian Barnes, from the Preface of his book, Through the Window; in which he said: “Novels tell us the most truth about life…”.
However, if you read your texts closely, you will often be rewarded with insights like this: Barnes was inconsistent.
Really? In what way?
Well, just 45 words after the end of his strong claims about novels telling the most truth, we read this statement; the final statement of the Preface:
“The best fiction rarely provides answers; but it does formulate the questions exceptionally well”. (Emphasis added, JWB).
So, if we put his two main ideas together, we get this:
Novels tell us the most truth, but not in the form of answers; only in the form of questions!
Does that make any sense? No.
Because the novel actually presents imaginary scenarios as history. Reading those scenarios – and taking them at face value – the reader finds that certain questions automatically form within their body-brain-mind, based on their socialization; their past experiences; and their current circumstances.
The author cannot control which questions will form in the mind of the reader.
But what is the value of the questions that are thus formed by fictional writing?
The value is huge! Why? Because questions are the first and most essential part of what some people call ‘thinking’, but which I call ‘overt, conscious perfinking’ – where ‘perfinking’ means perceiving- feeling- thinking, all in one grasp of the mind.
So, novels impact us, by bringing up new thoughts, and especially questions, which, if we pursue them, may produce dramatic answers that shunt us out of a current reality into a range of new possibilities! In this sense, novels are potentially hugely therapeutic!
For this reason, I recommend novels – the very best novels – my counselling clients; and to my supervisees – counsellors who need to keep growing their hearts and minds; and improving thereby their body-brain-mind-environment-complexity!
How did the body get into the previous statement?
It might have been difficult to answer the question – ‘What does the body have to do with reading and/or writing novels?’
Except, while I was scanning the pages of John Fowles’ Mantissa, Renata came over to me and showed me a book she had found: ‘The Anatomy of Change: A way to move through life’s transitions’. This book was written by Richard Strozzi Heckler (1993), a teacher of Aikido (which is a system of Japanese unarmed combat – which I studied briefly at the Dublin Judo Club, in 1991-’62). Heckler’s philosophy of life can be summed up like this:
Renata pointed me at a section on Living in the Body; in which Heckler describes how he was once hired by a juvenile detention centre, where he was to work with difficult juveniles who were violent offenders. He worked with one, physically huge, and very angry young man who expressed the desire to kill somebody, because he was so angry. Heckler, intuitively, and pragmatically, told this youth that he could show him precisely how to kill somebody. The youth was hooked, and they began to work on the Aikido pressure points. But this youth’s physical energies prevented him easily learning what needed to be learned; and so Heckler began to work on his body, to get him to the state where he could master the Aikido pressure points that he wanted to learn. However, through the process of focusing his attention on his own body, and learning to release tensions, this youth lost his interest in killing anybody. He was beginning to live in his body; and he realized it was more interesting to find out about himself than to kill anybody.
Moving a muscle can change a thought, and/or an emotion. Physical training is profoundly stress reducing. It teaches physical self-confidence. And, the softening of ‘body armouring’ can release the person’s feelings, intuitions, and compassion, and, according to Heckler, it can heal our physical and emotional wounds. (That certainly lines up with my own experience at the Dublin Judo Club [which was actually called the Irish Judo Association at the point when I joined]). Our experiences shape our body-brain-mind; and we can begin to loosen and reframe our most troubling experiences by working from the body-side of our body-brain-mind, or from the mind-side of our body-brain-mind.
Reading a novel on the way to and from your equivalent of the Judo Club will double your progress in healing your body-brain-mind; and seeing a good, wise, broadminded counsellor, at some point each week, will also help!
This book has struck a chord with many counsellors, psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and social workers. It has received a lot of *Likes* and *Comments* on LinkedIn, in particular; and it is selling very well indeed.
It may also be selling well to self-help enthusiasts, or individuals who want to improve their own sleep, diet/nutrition, and physical activity; as well as improving their general self-management; stress management; and emotional intelligence.
Today, we are announcing the publication of a new book:
This book contains more than 20 exercises to help you to process your troublesome experiences; to set goals; to manage emotions; to improve your self-management and creative thinking; and much more besides. It also contains a chapter for counsellors on how to incorporate elements of writing therapy into face-to-face counselling and therapy sessions.
Author’s introduction: In this book, I provide you with a road-map which will support you in building a bridge into a better future for yourself.
I have used a more gradual approach than Julia Cameron. I want to help you to begin with small steps; in an easy, simple way; and to slowly build up your ‘writing muscles’.
In the process, you will develop a great capacity to manage your thinking-feeling-perceiving more reasonably; in a more self-regulated fashion. You will become more intuitive; more creative; and a more efficient and effective problem-solver. You will be less troubled by stress and strain, and more likely to succeed in achieving whatever goals you want to pursue!
The state of the body profoundly affects the story…
Copyright (c) Dr Jim Byrne, 29th March 2018
Far too often, professional helpers relate to their clients as ‘free floating heads’ – or ‘belief machines’ – or ‘interpretation machines’. However, human beings are ’emotive bodies’ first, and ‘socialized-cultural-beings’ second!
What do I mean? Here’s an illustration from our (2018) book on Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching:
1.9 Narratives and stories
“(Counselling) Clients … come in and, one way or another, tell their story and discover or construct new stories to tell. Therapists do not usually disclose stories of their own personal troubles, but instead offer their clients more general, almost mythic stories of how people change or what life can be like. Implicit in the therapist’s story is an image of the ‘good life’.” (McLeod, 1997/2006).
E-CENT counselling is interested in the stories of our clients, and we have helpful stories to share with them; and also ways of helping them to explore and re-write their stories. Some of this is described in Chapter 8, where I introduce the Jigsaw story model, which is a guide to focusing on the client’s stories, and to remember to relate the various bits of their stories to each other, and to look for patterns and inconsistencies.
But first, let us review the ‘narrative’ approach of E-CENT, by comparing and contrasting it to some of the more traditional approaches.
(i) Similarities: E-CENT accepts that human beings are immersed in social narratives, and that they apprehend their environments in terms of narrative elements of characters, plots, dramas, stories, cause and effect imputations, etc. (See: Perry, 2012, pages 71-88. And McLeod, 1997/2006). I believe humans function largely non-consciously, and view the world – non-consciously – through frames of reference derived (interpretively and automatically) from their past (social) experiences. And these narratives are emotive or feeling stories, which provide meaning and structure to the life of the social-individual.
(ii) Differences: E-CENT does not subscribe to the White and Epston (1990) strategy for dealing with narrative disturbances[i]. Instead I have created my own processes of narrative therapy. I also avoid using McLeod’s commitment to postmodern perspectives. The E-CENT perspective on narrative is grounded in our conception of the human being as a socialized body-mind-environment-whole. So there is a real, physical ‘me’, and a real physical environment in which I am embedded. We do not advocate the view which says “all there is is story!” And the stories I tell myself are dependent upon not only my physical existence in a physical/social world, but also upon how well I slept last night; how well I have eaten today; how much physical exercise I have done recently; how hydrated my body-brain-mind is today; how well connected I am to people in significant relationships; how much pressure I am under (actually and experientially) – and what my coping resources are (or seem to me to be); and so on.
So E-CENT theory only deals with grounded narratives: or embodied-narratives.
News and updates about ABC Coaching and Counselling Services
in January to March 2018
And about Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT)
23rd March 2018
In this brief newsletter, we aim to update you about the books and blogs we have been researching and writing – on diet, exercise, sleep, and emotional self-management – at ABC Coaching and Counselling Services, and publishing via the Institute for Emotive-Cognitive embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT).
Following on from our very busy and successful year in 2017, we have continued to research and write according to our declared plans.
In the first few weeks of this year, Renata has been busy researching the science of sleep, especially in so far as it affects our emotional functioning and general health and well-being.
Today we want to share with you a blog post which is ‘hot off the press’. It concerns the impact of blue light LED devices, like computer screens, iPads, iPhones, and the negative effects these devices have upon sleep, if we use them close to bedtime! This is it: iPads and iPhones disrupt your sleep…***
Dr Jim’s Blog: Health and happiness are the most important goals in (a moral) life
It’s been quite a while since I posted a blog, because I’ve been extremely busy. I am still very busy, finishing off the writing of a new book, but I thought it was about time I shared some ideas with the world. The main theme of this blog is health and self-healing, using food and physical exercise.
Several days ago I constructed the index section on diet and nutrition, and type of diets. And, by finishing time last Friday, 20th, I had just completed a section on Essential fatty acids (EFAs). And today, Monday 23rd, I will begin to work on the index entries for the section on physical exercise.
Last Thursday, I turned my body, suddenly, while leaving my feet relatively stationary, and pulled a muscle in my back. Did I run to the doctor? No! Did I get some ‘painkillers’ from the chemist? No!
Why did I not go to the doctor? Because the doctor would have simply recommended “painkillers”!
Why did I not buy my own painkillers from the chemist? Because most of the painkillers used today are what are called NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). And the problem with NSAIDs is that they cause ‘leaky gut syndrome’, which not only allows whole molecules of food to enter the bloodstream, and trigger various forms of inflammation in the body (paradox of paradoxes!), but they also compromise the blood/brain barrier, which can precipitate mood disturbances!
So, what did I do with my terrible back pain? I got out my copy of ‘Body in Action’, by Sarah Key, and did five of her exercises for improving the functioning of the muscles and joints in the lower back. (I’ve done this several times in the past, and I know it always works).
I did the exercises on Thursday and Friday, and by Saturday the back pain had gone – completely!
Sharpening the saw
Rest and recuperation are very important parts of my self-management of health program. So, on Saturday afternoon, and Sunday afternoon, I had a siesta (of three hours each time). I had been feeling tired because of overworking on the index of our new book on how to control anger, anxiety and depression, using diet and exercise systems.
I also had a restful evening with Renata, and I was in bed by 9.45pm.
By 5.45am today (Monday 23rd Oct) I was fully rested, and so I got up and made my breakfast. A solid bowl of chunky salad.
Food for health and mood control
I chopped up the following ingredients into small chunks, of perhaps 3 or 4 mm at the widest point:
3 oz of red cabbage; 6 oz of cucumber; 1 spring onion; 1 organic carrot; half an organic apple; and put them into a soup bowl.
Then, I added a teaspoon of Maca powder; a dessertspoon of ground flaxseed; two dessertspoon’s of mixed seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, ???), ten almonds, three walnuts, four hazelnuts; ten blueberries; 2 ozs of cooked beetroot (diced); two small tomatoes (halved); and half a kiwi fruit (diced).
I then added some brown rice miso, and some sauerkraut.
After consuming that breakfast, I meditated for 30 minutes.
Physical exercise for health and strength and mood control
Let me now describe the exercises that I went on to do, after meditating:
Then I did my own press-ups and sit backs, for about 5 or 6 minutes.
I then moved on to do fifteen minutes of my old Judo Club calisthenics (or whole body warm up exercise), which combine strength training, stretching of muscles, and aerobic exercise, all in one.
Then ten minutes of Zhan Zhuang (pronounced Jam Jong, and meaning ‘Standing like a tree’). These are body poses which work on our postural muscles, affecting strength and speed and balance. They create a calm and happy mental state. And they also relax the body and establish whole-body connection.
Finally I did some strength training using the Powerspin rotator, to build arm, shoulder and upper body strength.
This is clearly a time-consuming start to the day, compared with a bowl of cornflakes, a cup of coffee, and a brisk scratching of the head!
So why do I do it?
Because, I value my health above all things. Without my physical health, I am unlikely to be happy. And I am unlikely to be emotionally stable.
The people who do the least exercise, and who eat the worst diets, have the worst physical and mental health outcomes. (I have not seen a general medical practitioner for more than thirty years! And I am not about to start now!)
Most people leave their health (physical and mental) to chance, and to the vague belief that there are people who can “fix them up” when they fall apart. Sadly this myth is totally misleading. Once you’ve ruined your health – from sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep, and inadequate diet (such as one based on junk food, or an unbalanced diet, or too much alcohol [over the government limit], caffeine, sugary foods, gluten, and other toxic substances) – and/or from long-term conflicted relationships – it is then ruined! And a ruined body-brain is a burden to haul through life!
It takes self-discipline to get on a good diet, and to begin to do regular physical exercise, and to go to bed and have eight hours sleep, without mobile phones or laptops or tablets, and so on. But the alternative to developing that self-discipline is a life ruined through serious illness, emotional distress, and early death.
Some people will argue with me, and insist that there are some things called “medicines” (and “surgeries”) which can be used to resuscitate their body-brain-mind once they have allowed it to fall into ill-health. The editors of What Doctors Don’t Tell You, strongly disagree with that fantasy! See the article titled ‘Don’t trust me (I’m Big Pharma).***
POSTSCRIPT ONE: Of course, it takes time to build up expertise in ‘extreme self-care’; and it’s a good idea to do that one step at a time. Gradually, over a period of time, this will build up into significant changes, and huge improvements in health and happiness. And you don’t ever have to adopt the kind of ‘monkish’ approach that suits me. Some simple changes in what you eat, and how you exercise your body (brisk walking for 30 minutes per day is enough!), will make a huge difference over time. You can find out more about how to begin these small, easy steps in our book: How to control your anger, anxiety and depression, using nutrition and physical activity.
If you want me to help you to figure out how to live a happier, healthier, more emotionally buoyant life, then please contact me:
POSTSCRIPT TWO: If you are a coach, psychologist, counsellor or psychotherapist, and you want to begin to teach your clients about the importance of lifestyle factors in the maintenance of good mental health (or emotional wellbeing) then you might be interested in our book entitled Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching for the Whole Person, which is an expansion of the Holistic Counselling book, including the inclusion of a Lifestyle Factors Questionnaire. (This book can also be used by self-help enthusiasts!)
And Jim has written a new book on the flaws and weaknesses in Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (RE & CBT). The book is available as a paperback from Amazon, and you can find a description of the content here: Unfit for Therapeutic Purposes.***
Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: A ‘Rave Review’ of Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance by Dr Angela Duckworth
In this blog I want to explain to you why I think this book – Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance – by Angela Duckworth is a great book, and show you how her research can help us in our daily lives, as we try to achieve our goals.
Dr Angela Duckworth is an Associate Professor of psychology, at the University of Pennsylvania. When she was in her second year of graduate school, she started researching the achievements of highly effective people in different areas of life: business, the arts, journalism, medicine, athletics, the law, etc.
She wanted to know if there were any common features that successful people, at the top of these various fields, shared. And so she interviewed the leaders in these different occupations and discovered something which she found of great interest. There was a distinctive way of behaving that they all shared. When they faced failure, in one form or another, they just kept going!
She found that highly successful people were remarkably persevering. They were really hard-working and could bounce back after set-backs. And they knew where they were headed. They were passionate about what they were doing and this drove them on.
In her book she states:
“No matter what the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in 2 ways. Firstly, these exemplars were unusually hard-working and resilient. Secondly, they knew in a very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination – they had direction.”
Gradually, as the interviews with these highly successful people progressed, she was able to create a series of questions. These questions tried to gauge the extent of someone’s ability to keep going in the face of obstacles, and how passionate they were about their chosen activities.
With these questions, she created a questionnaire called the ‘Grit scale’, and she decided grit – meaning passion and perseverance – was the outstanding feature of the successful people she interviewed. In the scale, she has several questions about perseverance and also questions about passion.
She describes passion as: “…a compass – the thing that takes you some time to build and tinker with and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be”.
Angela Duckworth starts her book with a description of the training of new recruits to the United States Military Academy at West point. She describes highly capable and dedicated cadets, who, in order to be selected, have had to produce excellent high school grades and demonstrate top marks in physical fitness tests.
They have to undergo seven weeks of initial training, which is very rigorous and demanding, and hence is called “Beast Barracks”.
These cadet trainees had applied in their junior year in high school to join the West Point cadets, and although 14,000 apply, this number is cut down to 4,000 who then have to get nominated (by a member of Congress, or a senator, or the Vice-President of the United States). These 4,000 are then reduced because fewer than half will meet the strict academic and physical standards of West Point.
From this group of approximately 2,500, there is a final group selected of 1,200 who are enrolled and admitted into the academy.
What fascinated Angela Duckworth was the number of trainees who didn’tmake it to the end of the training course and she wanted to find out why. During this 7 week training, (which is very strenuous, with no weekends off and no contact with friends and family), there is a drop-out rate of 1 in 5 cadets.
Why was this drop-out rate so high with young recruits who had worked for years to achieve their dream of becoming a West Point cadet for the United States Military?
To find an explanation, she used her own ‘Grit scale’, which I mentioned at the start of this blog, to see if the results achieved by cadets (prior to their training) gave a clue as to who would drop out of the 7 week training, and who would complete the training course successfully.
She administered the test in July 2004 to 1,218 West Point cadets and discovered something remarkable. What she did was to compare the scores on the ‘Grit scale’, which the cadets had achieved, and their ‘Whole candidate scores’.
These ‘Whole Candidate scores’ were the test and exam results that had been collated during the cadets’ lengthy admission process, starting from junior high school onwards. These scores showed the levels of academic ability, physical fitness, plus military fitness predictions.
When she compared the scores for the ‘Grit scale’ and ‘Whole candidate scores’, it became apparent to her that no matter howgifted a cadet was, this was no indication of their Grit level.
Here is a sample of her Grit scale (all of which can be found on page 55 of her book):
She saw this same pattern (of lack of correlation between talent and grit) repeated in the later scores when she gave the test again the following year. This was her conclusion, based on the results:
The only thing that could successfully predict that a cadet would get through the “Beast barracks” initial training programme was their scores on the ‘Grit scale’, and not their high school rank, or their academic ability, leadership experience, athletic ability or their ‘Whole candidate score’.
She continued her research into the power of grit in the sales profession, which can be a very strenuous training ground. As they try to sell their goods, salespeople constantly get rejection from other people, and have to manage their reactions to this, and keep motivated.
The ‘Grit scale’ predicted the people who stayed the course, in the sales industry. She states:
“No other commonly-measured personality trait – including extraversion, emotional stability and conscientiousness – was as effective as grit in predicting job retention”.
She also used the test at the request of the Chicago Public Schools Services, and she discovered, through administering the Grit Scale to the students, that the level of grit of the students was a more revealing measure of whether they would graduate or not.
Their level of completion of academic work, or how much they liked school or felt secure in the school environment, was not as good an indicator as the Grit score.
She also completed 2 extensive samples of American adult students, and found that adults who were ‘gritty’ (meaning having high scores on the grit test) were more successful in their academic studies.
Angela Duckworth then initiated a collaboration with the US Army Special Operations Forces, known as the Green Berets. After a very difficult training period, (which included a boot camp, 4 weeks of infantry training, 3 weeks of airborne school, and 4 weeks of day and night land navigation) the recruits then do a Selection Course which she describes as, “Making Beast Barracks look like a summer vacation”.
On the selection course there are daytime and night time challenges, runs and marches, obstacle courses etc. And simply to be chosen for the selection course was an achievement in itself.
However 42% of the candidates that she observed, pulled out of the training of their own free will before the selection course had finished.
She found that a high score on the ‘Grit scale’ predicted who would make it through the Selection Course. So grit in candidates was the best predictor of future success – not talent.
She states: “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another”.
After a number of years teaching, Angela Duckworth could see very clearly that “talent was not destiny”, and she decided to leave teaching for psychology, as she wanted to get really clear about the role that effort made in achievement.
In her book she mentions that Darwin considered that the factors which make up achievement are hard work and enthusiasm, and that they were fundamentally of greater value than intellectual ability.
But she discovered from surveys conducted in America over many years, that, although many people state, and seem to believe, that hard work was more significant a characteristic than intelligence, in fact they actually believed the opposite.
People who were ‘naturally gifted’ were rated more highly than people who were very hard workers. She therefore considered that: “We have an ambivalence towards talent and effort”.
When people rate talent so highly, this means that other factors are considered much less valuable. And this further means that other abilities, including grit, are not valued (or are downgraded).
Angela Duckworth gives examples of the value of grit in two case studies, and I will summarise the example she gives of the progress of Scott Kaufman. Kaufman is a psychologist who now has three degrees and plays the cello for fun.
When he was young he was considered to be a slow learner. He suffered a lot from ear infections and this affected his ability to process information. He was put into special education classes (because of assumed low ability to learn) at school, and had to repeat third grade.
After a nerve-wracking interview with a school psychologist, who gave him lots of tests, he performed badly and was sent to a special education school for children with learning disabilities.
When he was fourteen one of the specialist teachers decided to ask Scott why he wasn’t in a more demanding class.
Scott told Angela Duckworth that up until that time, he’d always assumed that because he wasn’t talented, there wouldn’t be much that he could do with his life.
The fact that he met a teacher who believed in his potential was a huge revelation for Scott. At that time he found himself wondering, ”Who am I? Am I a learning disabled kid with no real future? Or maybe something else?”
So what he did then was to try to find the answer to those questions! He enrolled on as many demanding school activities as he could. He joined the choir, and the school musical, and the Latin class. He wasn’t the top in everything, but he learned in the classes.
“What Scott learned”, said Angela Duckworth, “was that he wasn’thopeless.”
As Scott’s grandfather had been a cellist in the Philadelphia orchestra for 50 years, he asked his grandfather if he would give him cello lessons. Scott started practising for 8 or 9 hours a day, not just because he really liked playing, but because:
“I was so driven to just show someone, anyone, that I was intellectually capable of anything. At this point I didn’t care what it was”. (Page 32)
He was so good on the cello that he managed to get a place in the High School orchestra. He then increased his practice even more, and by the end of his second year, he was the second-best cellist in the orchestra; and awards from the Music Department were given to him regularly.
Scott’s classwork marks improved and his enthusiasm and curiosity about new subjects expanded. But he was dogged by his low IQ scores from childhood.
This restriction continued until the day came when he decided to apply to the Carnegie Mellon University. He was fascinated by the concept of IQ and he wanted to study intelligence, so he applied for a cognitive science course.
In spite of the fact that he had very high grades for his work, and lots of achievements from his extracurricular activities, he was rejected. It was apparent to Scott that it had been the results from his SAT scores that had kept him from being offered a place.
However, he was very determined. “I had grit”, he said. “….I’m going to find a way to study what I want to study”. He applied for the Carnegie Mellon Opera programme of study. This was because they didn’t look very hard at SAT scores and focussed on musical aptitude and expression.
So in Scott’s first year he took a psychology course as an elective, and then added psychology as a minor. Then he transferred his major from Opera to Psychology. And then he graduated at the end of the degree course with a high scholastic distinction, in psychology!
Scott Kaufman then went on to earn several more degrees, and to work in an American university as a psychologist. Angela Duckworth shows empathy towards Scott for the following reason:
“Like Scott, I took an IQ test early in my schooling and was deemed insufficiently bright to benefit from gifted and talented classes. For whatever reason – maybe a teacher asked that I be retested – I was evaluated again the following year, and I made the cut. I guess you could say I was borderline gifted.”
She considers that focussing on the amount of talent an individual has, is a distraction from something of equal value and she considers that “As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”
She quotes Nietzsche’s views on why societies place talent over the hard work ethic.
“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”
He wanted people to think of very high achievers as crafts(people). He wrote this:
“Do not talk about giftedness, (or) inborn talents! One can name great (people) of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became geniuses…they all acquired the seriousness of the efficient crafts(person) who first learns to construct the parts properly before they venture to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole”.
So what can we take away from Angela Duckworth’s investigation into the concept of ‘grit’? She concludes the book by explaining that you can grow your own grit – and she considers that there are two ways of doing it:
She suggests that you yourself can decide which interest you are going to put your precious time and energy into, link up your work with a wider purpose that benefits others, and learn the value of hope, when situations look bleak.
You can also give yourself daily challenges to develop your skill levels. She describes this as “Growing your grit from the inside out”.
But you can also grow your grit level “From the outside in”. This is done by having support from parents, coaches, teachers, bosses, mentors and friends. They can make a great difference. Where would Mozart have been without his musical father? And where would Bill Gates be without a wealthy lawyer father, and – from 1968 onwards, as an 8th grader – unlimited access to a computer terminal at his private school? (So grit is very important, but so also is external support, and ‘door openers’ [or people who ‘allow you in’]).
How does knowing about the Grit Scale help us? It means that there is solid research that shows that talent can only take us so far. And there are things that are more important than talent as determinants of success.
With a great start in life, having supportive and encouraging parents, for example, we can develop our natural talents to a high level. But at some point, unless we develop gritty behaviours, we will not develop our talents fully.
The really good news is that if we practice these ‘Gritty behaviours’ shown on Angela’s scale, then we’ll reap the rewards in terms of completing the courses of study we undertake; and achieving the necessary qualifications; so that we can create solid careers for ourselves.
Or, we can create a richer and more satisfying life for ourselves if we follow our interests with passion and perseverance, whether we earn a wage for it, or not.
Finally, in Angela Duckworth’s book, she describes the findings from journalist Hester Lacey’s interviews with very creative people. Each of them was asked, “What was your greatest disappointment?”
The responses she received to this question were almost always identical:
“Well – I don’t really think in terms of disappointment. I tend to think that everything that happens is something I can learn from. I tend to think, ‘Well, okay. That didn’t go so well, but I guess I will just carry on’.”
A pretty gritty response!
I strongly recommend Angela Duckworth’s TED talk,
and her book, which has lots more interesting things in it (including a generously-shared account by Angela of her own use of grit when a tutor for her degree course advised her to drop the cognitive psychology course she was studying because they didn’t think she was capable of passing it)!
But this is the longest blog I’ve written, and I didn’t want to include any more, as it would be straining your grit muscles too far.
In fact, if you’ve got this far – well done for sticking with my review! And if you do the grit test, it will give you valuable self-knowledge. If you share what you’ve learned about grit and the grit test with someone in your family or a good friend of yours, who may be struggling with a challenge they are facing at the moment, it can really be very helpful for them. The scale shows clearly how you can develop your grit muscles.