Excitement

December is here, and in the countries that celebrate Christmas, the Christmas spirit has already invaded everything: streets full of light, families decorating their houses, shops full of people buying presents, Christmas carols and other seasonal songs playing everywhere...

For many people, this time of the year is full of excitement and joy, although it also comes with a certain amount of stress: maybe we´re making preparations for travelling, or it´s our turn to entertain family or friends at our house. Maybe we´re dreading that "overdose" of family reunions and other events that usually take place around this time, or maybe this year we´re facing some situation that prevents us from celebrating the way we would like.

Maybe it´s the first Christmas without a loved one, who´s going to be very present in our hearts and our thoughts.

Or maybe we´re going through a rough patch of any kind, and our discomfort grows even bigger during this time, when it looks like it´s almost compulsory for all of us to be happy (our friend Raúl used to call it something like "the universal peace and love simulacrum", I think he took the idea from an episode of The Simpsons).

For many people, unfortunately, that discomfort is much much deeper... There may be feelings of sadness and loneliness that the rest of us are not able to understand from the outside.

In any case, it seems to me that we ourselves create most of the problems with our own expectations, at every level: from the expectations that society sells to us through advertisements and movies, to the ones we each have on how we must behave or what we must feel, and the ones created by the dynamics in our family or our closest social groups. Year after year, we "buy" those expectations, and then we feel disappointed and frustrated when we are not fulfilled.

That´s why this year I´d like to propose something different to you. I propose that you rekindle your excitement for something related to Christmas (if you celebrate Christmas that is, or at least the winter holidays, or the new year). It can be a particular tradition or anything else you can think of that you´re excited about, no matter how small. And once that moment arrives, I propose that you let go of expectations and LIVE IT, enjoy it as it is, the way it´s happening, without comparing it to how you would have liked it to happen. Because things change, life is constantly changing, and the only moment that you can really enjoy is the present.

So, what about you? What are you excited about this Christmas?

Collecting quotes

Thanksgiving celebrations took place this past week across the United States, and if you have been taking a look at social media, you will probably have seen (in between Black Friday sale ads), a whole heap of inspirational quotes about gratitude.

(If you feel like reading a post about gratitude, here´s one from about a year ago)

Wooden scrabble letters forming the phrase "Say thank you"

My usual readers will have noticed that every now and then I like writing quotes in this blog, but not all the time, because even though I looooooove quotes (we could say I´m a quote collector), I get the impression that sometimes we get bombarded with so many of them that we end up overwhelmed, and then they no longer get our attention. That´s why I prefer to use them in small doses.

Today I do want to show you two quotes that are basically telling us the same thing, and they´re not the only ones by any means. It´s a message that´s been said a thousand times in a thousand different ways, precisely because it´s as true and as relevant nowadays as it was back in the ancient times of Greek philosophers:

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.

Epictetus

Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough.

Oprah Winfrey

Banda sonora

If your life was a movie, what would its soundtrack be?

Vynil record playing in a record player

Today I remembered again a movie scene I watched a long time ago, which gave me a lot to think about back at the time. The story takes place at a university, and the camera alternatively takes the place of one of the two main characters, a boy and a girl, who are walking along the corridors, about to meet each other for the first time. They´re both wearing earphones, and listening to completely different things: the girl is listening to classical music, and the boy is listening to heavy metal or something similar. The moment arrives when they meet, they look at each other, and each of them perceives the other from their own point of view, with their own soundtrack in the background.

To me, this is a scene of incredible storytelling powers. Without needing to use words, it perfectly conveys how different the world is for each of the two main characters, and how differently they experience that exact same moment, with the same external surroundings...

I think we have all had moments when a certain song or music piece has made us look at life in a different way: maybe it made our day a bit happier, it gave us an extra energy boost, or it brought us good memories. Some other times, we may have taken the opportunity to listen to some sad or melancholic music, to let ourselves experience those emotions for a little while. The best part is that we can choose our own "soundtrack" at every moment, and I´m not only referring to the music we listen to (though we can definitely choose that, and we're incredibly lucky for the existence of Spotify).

Our "soundtrack" is also made up of those thoughts that we keep repeating in our heads without even noticing, those stories that we keep telling ourselves all the time, which may either help us or harm us, give us energy or take it away from us. It is true that we can't completely control every thought that crosses our mind, the same way that we can't control what song is playing on the radio at any given time. But what we can do is pay attention and change the dial as needed, skipping to a different station that we like better and find more useful. And it's also a good idea to edit our "playlists" every once in a while, taking the opportunity to remove old songs we no longer resonate with and add new songs that we feel like trying.

What do you think of this idea? What is your life's soundtrack at this very moment? And do you feel like keeping it, or is it maybe time for a change?

Untranslatable sentences: walking down memory lane

Today I´m bringing you another one of those "untranslatable" English expressions that I love, this one I think is a really cool metaphor: walking down memory lane, which we could loosely translate into Spanish as "darse un paseo por la calle de los recuerdos".

And that´s precisely what I´ve been doing this weekend: accompanying my friends in their own walk down memory lane, returning to places they hadn´t visited in many many years. It turned out to be a wonderful walk, both in the literal and figurative sense, and inevitably, we created new memories (thanks a million ladies!)

Stack of old black and white photos

In Spanish, the closest thing to memory lane that I can think of is something called the trunk of memories, from a famous song by Karina:

Searching through the trunk of memories
Any time in the past seems better than now.
Taking a look back is good sometimes,
Looking ahead is living without fear.

Another interesting metaphor, I think. And also during this weekend, I found myself searching inside that trunk, rescuing special moments with someone very close to my heart who passed away recently, and to whom I would have liked to be able to say goodbye.

I agree with the idea that it´s good to take a quick look back every now and then, and fondly remember the things that were, for at the end of the day, as my grandma used to say, "those times brought about these ones". But let´s be careful not to wallow in it for too long, or it may prevent us from making the most of the present moment...

Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.

Robert Brault

Metaphors

Today I'm writing this post from Dublin airport, I'm about to cross the pond to spend a couple of days with my American work colleagues.

Crossing the pond, interesting expression. It's one of the many metaphors we use every day.

Close up of a red flower floating on the surface of a pond

According to Wordreference, one of the definitions of metaphor is a "Rhetorical way of describing another object or thing by suggesting a comparison of it to something else, but without using the word 'like'' or 'as''". Explained like this, it may seem a bit complicated, but the truth is that we use metaphors all day long, very often without noticing that they are, for example...

  • Me encontraba entre la espada y la pared
  • He was kicked out of there
  • I'm starving

And so many others.

Metaphors help us to explain life situations in a way that's easy to understand, and they don't only work outwards, when we speak with others, they also work inwards, in our inner dialogue. Sometimes we find it easier to connect with an emotion when we "give it a shape" through a metaphor, and that way we can even draw it, if it helps 🙂

And when we're facing a problem or a difficult situation, playing with metaphors can help us a lot in terms of changing perspective and looking for alternatives. For example, if a person is feeling that every time they try a particular thing they bang their head against a wall, they may even visualize that wall in their mind when they think in whatever it is they want to try, and get blocked. Following along with the metaphor, we could ask, where is that wall? What is it made of? How high is it? And what's behind it? In which other way could you get there? And then maybe this way, exploring ways to jump over the wall, or go around it, or even break it, this person may come to a realization and find solutions that they wouldn't have thought of otherwise.

Metaphors are also very interesting to think of when reflecting on some aspect of our life, or our work. This is often done in Agile methodologies, as part of team retrospectives: "if our last two weeks had been a movie, which movie would it be, and why?" Once we add that touch of creativity and humour to the conversation, it's amazing how much can come out of there.

So this week I'm proposing two things for you to do this week, if you feel like it: one is to listen with extra attention to see how many metaphors you find around you, and the other one is to find your own metaphor: if today you were a colour, which colour would you be?

Traditions

Every time of the year has its own traditions, and nowadays in the Northern hemisphere, it´s time for the autumn ones.

In Cáceres (Spain), where I was born and raised, the first day of November is known as “chestnuts day”. It´s All Saints day, which is followed by All Souls day, when many families visit the cemeteries to remember the loved ones who are no longer here.

When I was a child we didn´t know anything about Halloween, or Diwali, or even the Mexican Dia de los Muertos traditions. And my family doesn´t usually visit the cemetery. But what we did do every year around this time was roasting chestnuts, so yummy!

Raw chestnuts

As years go by and we get older, we have the option to continue certain traditions, park them if they no longer make much sense to us, or transform them according to what we consider important. I keep many good memories (and a stack of photos, developed on paper!) from my secondary school and college times, when our group of friends used to go out on a trip to a nearby field to roast chestnuts. Then years later, when we arrived in Ireland, we were fascinated by the Halloween celebrations, especially in their most original celtic version, which includes bonfires, as well of other traditions that had arrived from Noth America, like trick or treating or carving pumpkins.

But even here in Ireland and surrounded by Halloween spirit, almost every year we still get together with a handful of irreducible Spaniards to celebrate a “castanyada”, as the Catalans call it, sometimes having a really hard time trying to find chestnuts to roast 😃 Though in reality it doesn´t matter, the chestnuts are just one more excuse to get together, the same way that we get together at the beginning of the summer to celebrate Saint John and “skip over the bonfire”.

Now in more recent years, thanks to living in a multicultural neighbourhood and having work colleagues from India, we have also learned about the tradition of Diwali, the triumph of light over darkness, which makes a lot of sense at this time of the year when the days get shorter and the nights seem to last forever. We have just changed the clocks here in Europe, next week it will be America´s turn, and the dark evenings seem to invite us all to enter hibernation mode.

That´s why I Iove Diwali lights, Halloween lights and even Christmas lights (despite it being a bit too early for those), I think they add a spark of joy at such a grey time of the year… At the end of the day, deep down, everything comes back to the same; lights and shadows, hope in seeing that darkness is temporary, and that better times are definitely coming.

We keep traditions because they give us a sense of familiarity, of comfort, of security. But as it happens with everything in life, if we take them too seriously, they can end up becoming a source of stress rather than a source of enjoyment, so let me leave you with a couple of quotes I like about this topic:

Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.

Lemony Snicket, The Black Book

Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.

W. Somerset Maugham

What about you? What traditions, new or old, do you have planned for this autumn?

Expectations

This week I´m late writing my usual post. I normally publish it on Sunday night, but this time I wasn´t able to make it, and I honestly feel bad for not having done it.

For failing to meet expectations.

Man dressing in a business outfit sitting in front of his laptop, checking his wristwatch and frowning

And if I stop to think about it, I realize this is a feeling that´s been with me for my entire life. Feeling that I´m not doing it well enough, that I´m not living up to expectations.

But, who´s expectations are those? Good question. Very often, the first answer that comes up for us is that they´re other people´s expectations, but do we really know for sure if that´s the case? Could it what we believe other people´s expectations to be? Or what we expect for ourselves?

In any case, I think it´s always useful to reflect a bit and talk to whoever we need to talk to in order to clarify those expectations, it can save us a lot of stress and plenty of headaches (sometimes literally!)

So let me take this opportunity and ask you: did you miss my weekly post this morning? Did you even notice it wasn´t there?

Nihil volitum…

…Nisi praecognitum. This is one of the few phrases I know in Latin, and it roughly means that you cannot desire what you do not know.

Monkey with a mirror in their hands, looking at their reflection

It came to my mind today, along with this other phrase I read in a book by Laura Chica: Accept yourself. Love yourself. Improve yourself. In this order.

Very often in the world of personal development, we want to start at the very end: we become obsessed with trying to improve, overcoming our defects, and “fixing” the parts of our life that we don´t think are going well. We try to change our “bad habits” just by using willpower, making huge efforts along the way only to get poor results that are not sustainable. It´s as if we were trying to swim against the tide.

Wanting to change, to evolve, to improve, is a very positive thing. But if we approach it from a place of judgment and self-criticism, then all we´re really doing is beating ourselves up. Loving and accepting ourselves as we are is the necessary previous step for any long-lasting and successful life change.

But of course, this is much easier said than done; how can we get to the point of accepting and loving ourselves? The answer also comes to us from old wisdom, this time in Greek, through the famous inscription that used to decorate the front of Apollo´s temple in Delfos: γνωθι σεαυτόν. Know thyself.

It makes sense, doesn´t it? How are we going to love ourselves if we don´t even know ourselves? The better we know ourselves, the more we will understand ourselves, it´s that simple. As we dive deeper into the adventure of self-discovery, we will start becoming aware of what motivates us and what scares us, what our deepest desire is, why we do what we do (and what for), and it will become easier for us to forgive, accept, and finally love ourselves. And once we love ourselves, change happens from the inside out, without the need to force anything.

So, instead of starting at the end as so many times before, I encourage you to start at the beginning, by looking at yourself in the mirror and setting out on your inward journey:

Know yourself, accept yourself, love yourself, improve yourself. In this order.

Fear

It´s already mid-October, and Halloween costumes and decorations are everywhere in the shops these days.

I can´t say Halloween is my favourite time of the year. As I said last year, I don´t like scary things, not even a little bit.

Child hiding in a fort made of sofa cushions

I always wondered about the people who actually enjoy watching horror movies and things like that; I guess part of the fun is because it´s “fake” fear, I mean, it´s clear that it´s a made-up story, not reality.

But what happens when our fear is not fake? What is fear, how does it appear, and what´s its purpose?

Fear is one of the emotions that are recognized as universal, that is, all human beings experiment it since birth. We also share this emotion with the animal kingdom, and as you can imagine, it´s very closely related to our survival instinct.

Every emotion is an indicator, an alert sent by our brain to let us know that something important is happening, and each emotion brings us a different message. In the case of fear in particular, the message talks to us about danger, about a situation that can threaten our safety; that´s why our body reacts by staying still and sharpening its senses, to get ready to face the danger.

But the most interesting thing of it all is that our brain can´t distinguish a real threat from an imaginary one, and on top of that, when faced with an unknown situation and lacking information, it also thinks that there may be a danger, and sets off the alarm just in case. It´s our brain´s way to say "I can´t protect you beyond this point, because I don´t know what´s out there". This is how our fear of the unknown appears, making it so difficult for us to get out of our comfort zone.

Of course, fear is a tremendously useful emotion when there´s a real danger: thanks to its warning we can get to safety. But, what about situations when it shows up for other reasons, for example when faced with an important decision and worrying about the consequences, or in an uncertain situation that reaches out into the unknown? Here are a few suggestions:

  • First of all, stop fearing fear itself 🙂 It´s nothing but a messenger, an emotion that may feel a bit uncomfortable, but is here to help us.
  • Dare to dig a little deeper into that fear and discover the reason that brought it here: what is it trying to protect us from? What´s the danger in this case? And to what extent is it really a danger?
  • Use that information to make a more conscious decision: what´s hiding behind that fear? What´s the worst that can happen if you go ahead? And the best?

Interesting topic, this of fear, right? Just to finish, I´d like to mention two books on this topic that I think are very cool:

  • “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, by Susan Jeffers - it´s based on the idea that our deepest fear is not being able to face whatever happens to us in life, but in reality, we humans are extraordinarily capable of adapting, and overcoming all kinds of situations. By practicing going ahead despite feeling fear, we gain confidence and get ready to face bigger and bigger challenges.
  • “Yes, yes, hell no! The little book for making big decisions”, by Brian Whetten - this one I have to confess I haven´t read yet, but I love its premise: when presented with an important decision to make, we can first ask reason, then intuition, and lastly, fear, and if the first two say yes and fear is the one saying no… Then the answer is a yes 🙂

Sustainable pace

Has it ever happened to you that, after a period of really intense work or study, once you finish that critical project or exam, or maybe at the start of a holiday, your body says “that´s it” and you fall exhausted or ill?

That´s how life lets us know when our current pace is not sustainable.

This has happened to me several times, thankfully in a much less dramatic way, as I´ve been learning to read the signs. Signs like, for example, a head cold or a sore throat that interestingly start showing on a Friday evening, when the work week is over and my body knows it´s allowed…

Gray newtons cradle (perpetual motion device) in close up photogaphy

In the software development world, and increasingly in other work environments, many companies follow Agile methodologies, which are based on moving forward and getting results quickly by leveraging an iterative work process, while continuously adapting to change. And a key success factor for those methodologies is that the “moving forward” happens at a pace that can be maintained in the long term, in other words, that is sustainable, in theory indefinitely. Because it has become clear that moving too fast for too long ends up negatively impacting the team.

This sustainable pace that companies seek for their employees also applies to each person individually, and it´s our own responsibility to achieve it for ourselves. At the end of the day, at work as well as in life, the to-do list is infinite, it never ends… In reality, it´s a long-distance race, more like a marathon than a 100-metre sprint, so the best strategy is to economize our energy, and if at one point we need to run faster for a little while, then later on we´ll have to slow down for another while, or even stop so that we can properly recover.

But even though this seems pretty easy to understand, we often forget about it. Why? Maybe because we don´t realize it´s a long-distance race, and we only see the 100 metres in front of us. Or maybe because we´re so engrossed in the race that we forget to stop for a moment and listen to ourselves, pay attention to how we feel, and what our body is trying to tell us.

I love this quote that says that life first whispers to you, if you don´t listen, it talks to you, and if you still don´t listen, it screams at you. Setting aside a little time for ourselves every day, without distractions, and really listening to ourselves, will help us to identify those whispers before they become screams.

What about you? How are you making sure you maintain a sustainable pace?