Why are we so scared of being average?

You know those banal motivational quotes that occasionally pop up on Instagram and make you want to stab yourself through the eyes? Last month, The Pool, which is usually above posting the kind of stuff that causes women to hate themselves, put THIS on its feed.

#TodayImChannelling Taylor Swift #totd #quotes #TaylorSwift

A photo posted by The Pool (@thepooluk) on

 

It’s January, and I’m still thinking about it. It seems timelier now, as thousands of us are embracing the concept of ‘new year, new you’. We’re setting #goals in our bullet journals, aiming to become ‘Lean in 2017’, fluent in French AND CEO of the company (by March). I’ve come to realise that our compulsion to better ourselves is probably driven by that fear of being average. Because average is code for ‘not really good enough’. Because being average means being one of the faceless people in the crowd, the people who aren’t special enough to deserve love or respect or admiration.

We have this weird double-standard going on: we’ll look around at other people and accept them for being who they are, whilst secretly believing that we ourselves need to live up to higher set of standards. We would never criticise a friend for not having visible abs or for failing to get on a ‘30 under 30’ list, but we’ll loathe ourselves for it. It’s half egotistical; half self-loathing. And it completely sucks.

I’ve already written about how trying to become a better person made me worse. I’m still trying to get away from the mindset that I’m not good enough unless I am phenomenally successful on all fronts. It’s a tough balance for me: I want to achieve things and move forwards in life, without letting the pursuit of goals possess me like that weird monster in Stranger Things.

Whilst I’m not sure that I’ve got that balance nailed yet; I’ve certainly had a lot of thoughts about what our fear of being average means. And the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it is. Here’s why:

‘Above average’ is a psychological trick we play on ourselves

Studies have shown that when asked to rate ourselves on our skills or personalities, we’ll give ourselves an above-average score – despite the fact that at least half of us are guaranteed to be average or below average. It’s called the illusory superiority bias, and it probably exists to protect our self-esteem. We delude ourselves that we are OK by comparing ourselves favourably to others. It’s a psychological boogeyman. It’s not real.

‘Average’ is just a statistical concept

You’ve heard the one about how the ‘average’ person has one breast and one testicle, right? Statistics, broadly speaking, is a mathematical way to try and describe properties of groups of people or things. The ‘average person’ doesn’t really exist in a living, breathing sense. So in actuality, fearing being average is a bit like having a phobia of unicorns. Completely pointless.

There are no actual league tables for people

Black-Mirror-Nosedive
That episode of Black Mirror where everyone has a public rating is, thankfully, just television. And it works because it brought that pressure to be above-average to life. In the real world, the ranking of people only ever occurs amongst immature teenagers or in crap magazines like FHM (which, may I remind you, was closed down due to being completely irrelevant).

So to sum up: you can’t defeat an enemy that isn’t real. By calling BS on ‘average’ and refusing to be scared of something that doesn’t exist, you free up your time to do things that you like, because they’re worth doing in themselves. To exercise because it makes you feel great; not because you want to be a Size 8. To take on challenges because they interest you, not because they look impressive on your CV. To live your life by experiencing it, not just Bullet Journaling about it.


 

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The girl who life-hacked herself to death

This blog was born after I came to realise that my life had become A Bit Shit. I was staring 30 in the face, and I had none of the things I thought I was supposed to have: a fun, carefree lifestyle, a good career, a home of my own, a body I felt happy in. Instead, my life had become a miserable treadmill of credit card repayments, diets and dead-end jobs.

 

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Things started to change after I received some unexpected advice from a mentor. He encouraged me to think about what I wanted from life and work towards those things; rather than continue on with my usual tactic of trying to make the best of what I had at the time. What I wanted was to change my life in nearly every way, and I wanted to write about it. So I did. My idea was to continue following the advice of other people, given I’d done a miserable job at finding happiness myself.

Thankfully, there is no shortage of books, products and articles that promise to change your life. I put my hands in the hands of the gurus: I life-hacked, I self-helped, I positive-psychologied. I blogged about some of them. I failed to blog many more. I worked every single day at becoming happier, thinner, better, smarter, richer, more productive, more successful, more confident. Every. Single. Day.

By the time the summer of 2016 had rolled around, I had spent a year working on ‘Living My Best Life’. When I began the project, I thought that the worst case scenario would be that I’d have wasted my time. I was wrong. The treadmill was still running. All I’d done was make it go faster and faster until I collapsed and fell flat on my face.

 

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Some time has passed now, so I can talk about this with a bit of distance. I had a little bit of a breakdown. While I did make progress on various fronts, I felt no better for it. Ironically, trying so hard to be better made me feel worse. After a year of life-hacking myself to death, I came to realise that there are a series of toxic myths running through the world of self-development, even the most well-intentioned of them. Here is what I fell for after a year of life-hacking myself to death.

Myth #1: Changing your ways is simple, as long as you have the right knowledge

These days, we’re less likely to fall for snake-oil solutions. We expect anything worth achieving to be hard-won, and the modern gurus of self-help know this. Instead of effortless change, it promises simple ways to change, often using ‘science’. Just do this ONE thing – it might be hard, but you will change for good and feel great. (Usually because ‘Science!’)

 

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The truth: Change is messy, complicated, and often unsatisfying

No-one has ever found a simple, foolproof, scientifically backed way to help people change their behaviour. Experts from UCL’s Centre for Behaviour Change have described a book identifying EIGHTY THREE different theories. I have improved various habits in different ways and it’s never been a linear process. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back (or three. When it comes to my diet, it’s often been three steps back). Sometimes, you know you’ve changed in some way, you can see the proof, but you don’t *feel* like you’ve changed.

Myth #2: The key to happiness is self-improvement

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve kept an eye out for anything described as ‘life-changing’. Nearly everything I’ve found has been about changing yourself as a person. Happiness, apparently, is the byproduct of fulfilling your potential as a healthy, successful and self-disciplined person.

I bought into this. I bought into this BIG TIME. I thought that if only I was better in every single way, I’d finally be happy. I just needed to reach my goal weight, find my passion, land my dream job, run a PB, write a book, get a distinction in my degree and pay off my credit card.

The truth: There probably is no key to happiness, but accepting yourself as you are is a good start

The undertone of all of this is that you’re not good enough unless you’re the ‘best’ version of yourself that you can be. Trying to become your ‘best self’ in every single way comes at a huge cost: you run the risk of becoming a boring, anxious fun-sponge. Let’s face it: nights in the pub with your friends don’t help you save money or get a flat stomach. You don’t get promotions or a first-class degree by prioritising fun. You cannot achieve ‘perfection’ without extreme sacrifice.

If your well-being relies solely on reaching goals and fulfilling your potential, as mine did, you’re also effectively locking your happiness away in the future. It’s not possible to *actually* reach your potential. Once you reach a goal, you then set a new one, and the process begins again. This is known as the hedonic treadmill: where you are constantly striving for happiness but never actually reaching it.

Myth #3: You have complete control over your own happiness

Both positive psychology and self-help gurus alike push the message that we have control over our own mindsets and happiness. This is positive… right? Isn’t good to have control over your life, right?

The truth: unless you have god-like powers…
 

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I think it’s true that you have a degree of control over your mindset and your happiness. But believing that you have total control is dangerous. It implies that if you ever feel anything other than fantastic that it’s somehow your fault. Which leads you into a spiral of feeling even worse.
 

I recently read a book called The Happiness Industry which gave me a different perspective on all of this. It describes the pervasive influence of neoliberalism, an economic philosophy where competition in the marketplace is king. As individuals, we are taught to compete in the marketplace of people. We have swallowed the idea that we if we are not competitive, we’re worthless. If we’re not performing in some way, we’re faulty goods. It ignores the influence of circumstance, of wider society, of the hand you have been dealt in life.

As a result, we get ‘self-help’ which places your failures squarely on your own doorstep. We get judgey articles such as ‘If this CEO can read 100 books a year, why can’t you?’. We get judgey emails entitled ‘The seven diet mistakes you’re probably making’. We get judgey gurus dishing out ‘real talk’: giving up sugar isn’t as tough as having cancer, so put down the cake, you greedy bitch!

BUT: I am seeing signs that the tide might just be turning against the cult of perfectionism which had recruited me as a member. We have body positivity movements, mums embracing imperfect parenting, and have given ‘staying in and achieving sod-all’ a sexy Danish makeover. However, I’m still followed around the internet by ads for bullet journals, work-out regimes and words of ~wisdom~ from 27-year-old YouTube ‘creators’. It’s not gone yet.

Now, rather than trying to change my life, I’m now trying to focus on enjoying it. I’m unfollowing and unsubscribing from social media feeds and emails that pedal judgemental crap in the name of self-improvement. I’m deliberately spending time doing things that do nothing to improve my body or my mind. There are still things I want to achieve in life, but I’m trying now to focus on the substance of what those things are, rather than fixating on the end goal. It’s a process – as I said, change isn’t simple or linear – but I am getting there, one unproductive, enjoyable Netflix binge at a time.

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The Whole30, Week 1

If this is your first time reading This will change your life, welcome! To bring you up to speed, I’m trying the Whole30 diet to see if it will live up to its promise to change my life. Read the first post about it here.

Day 1: I stepped on the scales to find out my ‘before’ weight. Weighing yourself is banned on Whole30, so this would be the last time in 30 days I’d know my number. I almost wished I hadn’t done it. It wasn’t good.

The thing is: I believe that we shouldn’t be slaves to the scale. I believe that we shouldn’t be subject to ridiculous pressure to be thin and beautiful. I rarely even notice if other people gain or lose weight. But when it comes to my own weight,  I do care, which makes me feel like I’m betraying the feminist cause. A double dose of feeling crappy: one for not having the same BMI as Kate Moss, and another one for betraying womankind. I’m not alone in feeling like this: there is an excellent article about it here.

Putting the scales away for a month felt like it could be a relief from this. Maybe.

Day 2: There is a Whole30 timeline that tells you what you might expect at different stages of the programme. It warns that things might get worse before they get better and that I will probably experience a hangover-like state on Day 2, despite the lack of alcohol. Perhaps it was just my body/brain being contrary but I felt fine. Perhaps a bit ’empty’, like I had forgotten to eat something (despite eating lots of food. Lots and lots of food).

Day 3: I went to the supermarket, again, because you need a LOT of fresh vegetables on the Whole30. I felt quietly smug looking at my insanely healthy shopping basket, especially when the people behind me at the checkout put three super sized packets of Doritos on the conveyor belt.

Day 4: I was walking through Covent Garden when a woman stepped on my toe outside The Lion King. The noise I made was halfway between a roar and a screech. Shortly after, it starts to pour with rain. The Whole30 Timeline describes this as the ‘Kill All The Things’ phase. I think they got that one right.

A photo posted by Kate Brennan (@katebrennan) on

Day 5: I could feel my willpower improving. I went to a conference about behavioural science, which I LOVED. They had a bookshop full of amazing books, many which I wanted to buy. But for some reason, I didn’t. I added some of the books I wanted to my Amazon Wishlist instead because I’m starting a Masters soon and changing career and I need to save money (I included the link just in case a generous stranger wants to add to my bookshelf or buy me a Roomba).

I was expecting to find doing a Whole30 difficult, but so far I had been unfazed. The side-effects weren’t too bad. I kind of missed Diet Coke and Hellman’s mayonnaise. But I was starting to feel better overall. It felt worth it.

Day 6: I was TIRED. Despite the fact it was Friday night and I should have been in a pub somewhere, I went home to sleep. I felt a vague impulse to go to the corner shop and buy ice cream, which I ignored. I was asleep by 8:30. Rock and roll.

Day 7: It was Saturday and I had a weird wobble. You see, I decided recently that I wanted to make a lot of changes to my life (hence the blog). It’s involved a lot of hard work, and a huge amount of putting myself out there. And there’s going to be a lot more hard work ahead. My to-do list was ENORMOUS and I had nothing to distract me from the fact my future is looking very unclear.

Normally I would make myself feel better by eating something sugary and delicious, or carby and delicious. But this was not an option. All I could do was talk it over and wait for the uncomfortable feelings to pass. I know that I will get to where I need to be, with or without chocolate.

Have you tried the Whole30? If so, how did it feel for you? If not, would you try it yourself?

Keep up with my potentially-life-changing experiments by subscribing to the right of this post! 

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Becoming rich: Day 1 (Part 2)

Previously, on This Will Change Your Life: I have been trying Rich Habits, a book which promises to change your life by helping you adopt the daily habits of rich people. Read Day 1, Part 1 here.

Step Three of Rich Habits is to engage in self-improvement every day, by reading books related to your field. Rich people do not watch TV or spend too much time on the internet. Because, and I quote, ‘Time is too valuable to be wasted on matters with no tangible value’.

My response to this is shown in this picture: a pile of Serious Books for my education, and also ‘Poo Bum’, because I refuse to believe that entertainment has ‘no tangible value’.

One of the books on my bedside table is not like the others…

A photo posted by Kate Brennan (@katebrennan) on

Rich Habit 4: devote part of every day to looking after your health. This one is easy for me as I already do this.

Rich Habit 5: Devote each and every day to forming lifelong relationships. This one is not so easy. I love my friends and family (and yes, I know you are probably one of them if you’re reading my blog at this early stage. I LOVE YOU. YES I DO) but I am bad at correspondence. (SORRY I LOVE YOU I’M JUST BAD)

Rich Habit 6: ‘I will live each and every day in a state of moderation’.

This is my reaction to this rule:

parks and rec

Moderation is not very ‘me’. I envy the people who can eat a square of dark chocolate and leave it at that. Actually, I don’t envy those people, because they don’t get to eat much chocolate. Doing things to excess can be fun. And surely excess and riches go hand-in-hand. Does Kim Kardashian live each day in a state of moderation? Does Sir Alan Lord Sugar? I think NOT. I do not like this rule.

Rich Habit Seven is ‘Adopt a “do it now” mindset’. I would have been fine with this rule if I didn’t suspect that ‘doing it now’ was always work and no play.

Rich Habit Eight is ‘I will engage in Rich Thinking every day’. What this means is affirmations. AFFIRMATIONS. My worst self-help fear. These affirmations are supposed to be the things you want, and the things you want to be, written in as if they are true the present and read aloud.

Despite the fact I thought that affirmations are probably rubbish, I played along with it anyway. I can’t share them all with you without dying of embarrassment, but they went along the lines of:

  • ‘I earn [double my current salary]’
  • ‘I am fulfilled by my job’
  • ‘I am successful’
  • ‘I do not have mice’

… because if saying affirmations could double my salary, I might as well see if they work as a form of pest control.

Rich Habit Nine is to save ten percent of your salary, which is too dull to even bother blogging about.

Rich Habit Ten is, and I kid you not, ‘I will control my thoughts and emotions each and every day’. Because rich people are so immensely all-powerful, they are their own Big Brother. Or perhaps they are all God, because they have ultimate control. I don’t think the author of this book has actually read Zayn Malik’s Twitter feed lately. I mean, Zayn has loads of cash and his uncontrolled thoughts make national news on a regular basis.

Anyway enough of wittering about former members of One Direction, I am too much of a Rich Thinker for that sort of stuff now. This is what August will be like for me. Goals. To-do lists. Moderation. Control. Affirmations. And lots of cash at the end.

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Becoming rich: Day 1 (part 1)

I’m British, therefore I don’t like talking about money in public. But I will say this: it would be nice to have a bit of extra cash.

The thing is, I grew up on an unhealthy diet of fashion magazines and Sex and the City, which taught me that as long as I had a decent job, I’d be able to afford to buy my own flat, to have a fabulous social life and to regularly buy pairs of expensive designer shoes. Well, THEY LIED. At the age of 29, after seven years of full-time employment and hard work, I am nowhere near home ownership, or even Hermes ownership. I can accept that Carrie Bradshaw is a fictional character. But I don’t want to accept that I’ll never be able to afford to buy a flat in London without a lottery win.

I was feeling particularly short on cash when I saw a blog post about a new book called Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals. This book promises that if you follow ten rules for thirty days, the cash will follow. You see, apparently rich people and poor people behave in very different ways, and by adopting the habits of the rich, you will become one of them. Hooray! I hoped this meant I had thirty days of Dom Perignon and helicopter rides ahead.

The book begins with some sad stories about people who aren’t rich because they drink too much, eat too much, sell too aggressively. In one case, a man inadvertently kills his wife because he can’t afford her medical bills. I can’t relate to these people at all. I mean, I’ve lost plenty of loved ones, but that had mostly to do with the fact they smoked rather than because I’m not rich. I think.

However, I can just tell that things are going to change for these people because they have names like Pheonix and Riser (I have a degree in English so I can smell an allegory a mile away. I have skills like that). I mean, my name is pretty meaningless but I think maybe, just maybe, things could change for me too! Anyway, blah blah blah, they meet a dude who can help them change their ways, and now the book moves onto THE GOOD STUFF. I could just SMELL the money.

Step One: I will form good daily habits and follow these good daily habits every day. 

The book instructs you to write all of your bad habits down, and then invert them to form good habits, which you will follow every day. Simple enough, right? Particularly if, like me, you are a fairly competent human being (unlike those sad sacks in the Sad Tales of Woe the book starts with).

My bad habit listing starts quite well. Excessive biscuit consumption and occasional procrastination aren’t too bad, right? But it turns out that once I started listing my bad habits, I found more and more. I don’t meditate and I should. I read trashy novels instead of intellectual literature. I’m terrible at keeping in touch with people. I snooze. I’m untidy. I’m basically a terrible person. This was the worst exercise ever.  Speaking of which, I should do more exercise.

This resulted in a long list of things I need to change. The book makes it sound like doing this will be easy: all I need to do is reverse them (so ‘stay away from the Hobnobs’, and ‘DO IT NOW’) and review every day so that they are fresh in my mind. But the thing is: I am only on Habit Number One and now I have seventeen sub-habits to do or not do every day. I sense I have bitten off more than I can chew.

Step Two: I will set goals for each day, for each month, for each year and for the long-term. I will focus on my goals each and every day.

Turns out, that’s a LOT of goals. Now, I am ambitious and regularly set myself goals, but this exercise was definitely out of my comfort zone. I can do daily. I can do monthly. But yearly and long term? Generally, ‘do well’ ‘make a positive impact on the world’ ‘have enough money’ have been pretty much it. Perhaps that’s why I am in a position where I am seeing whether self-help programmes are the answer: I just haven’t let myself get specific about what I want.

I set my monthly goals: I want to work out what I want to do with my life long-term, I want to get this blog up and running, and I want to run a faster 5k. I set daily goals as a to-do list, featuring all my reversed bad habits.

*in voiceover voice*: Next time on this blog: What are the remaining 8 Rich Habits? Will Kate drown in a sea of lists? WILL KATE GET RICH? Tune in tomorrow…

 

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