Avoiding Pain Leads to Disease

In our 21st century western societies, we have been conditioned to ‘think positively at all times’. Tons of self-help books have been written about the magical powers of positive thinking, ‘mind-over-matter’ and the dangers of not getting what we want, because of our ‘negative’ thoughts or vibrations.

Our total devotion to positive thinking leads us to often forget about the conditions and limitations of the physical and biological reality in which we live in. When a problem occurs which needs our attention, it doesn’t help to wish it away with positive thinking. The problem will still be there, requiring positive action in order to address it.

Even worse: an obsession with avoiding pain and failure, is the actual cause of disease, and therefore even bigger pain. As the physician and therapist Gabor Maté states in his book When the Body Says No’: “the overwhelming need of the child to avoid pain and conflict is responsible for the personality trait or coping style that later predisposes the adult to disease”.

What do we need instead? Gabor Maté talks about counterbalancing this tendency to avoid pain with negative thinking. I prefer to talk about evidence-based thinking. Being fully aware of the internal and external factors that are holding you back from reaching your goals and achieving happiness in your life, is the most important step towards healing, towards being whole again.

To quote Maté once again: “We have seen in study after study that compulsive positive thinkers are more likely to develop disease and less likely to survive. Genuine positive thinking -or, more deeply, positive being- empowers us to know that we have nothing to fear from truth”.

And when we have nothing to fear from truth, we have nothing to fear from failure or pain, right?

Whom Do You Serve?

Almost invariably, when talking to beginning solopreneurs about their ideal client base, I will always hear something along the lines:

  • I can help anyone who needs a beauty treatment
  • Everyone needs therapy, so I shouldn’t limit myself to a particular group
  • I want to reach as many fans as possible, therefore I’m not limiting myself to a genre

This all sounds reasonable, right?

Wrong. When defining your niche and area of expertise, you are making a public statement. But when you say that you are able to reach/help/please everyone, you are making a non credible statement. Inevitably, your claims will be lost in a sea of similar voices claiming to do exactly the same. The more generic your claim, the more competition you will have. And in that instance, the battle will be won by those with the louder voice (read: biggest marketing budgets).

Some people seek products and services that are cheap. Others want them to be easily accessible, or to have an immediate impact. Some are more interested in long term impact. A small but ever present subgroup demands expensive products and services and will assume that everything that is cheaper or discounted, is automatically inferior.

All these people have different needs, and therefore they are seeking different solutions. Being very clear about the people you help, the impact you will make and the benefits they are going to experience from your skill or expertise, will attract the very people you want to serve.

Knowing what gives them pleasure or causes them pain, mastering the language they use to describe their challenges and being able to express with clarity the solution you can offer, will greatly magnify this attraction. And if it simultaneously repels those that are not aligned to your message, this is an added bonus.

After all you don’t want to waste your time selling products and services to those who don’t understand or need what you have on offer, right?

On the Importance of a Supportive Network

Last weekend I went to a gig in London where I met many of my old friends. In between the (admittedly loud) tones of the performing bands, we caught up with stories about the past, discussed the present and made plans for the future. Some of these discussions are likely to give birth to future musical projects and collaborations.

In our western individualist society, we tend to underestimate the importance of friendships and support networks. The myth of the ‘self-made entrepreneur’ dictates that the successful business owner reaches her goals purely by her own efforts, intelligence and hard hustle. A network of colleagues and friends which will help you get where you need to be, is only mentioned with reluctance. After all, doesn’t a reliance on external factors betray an inability to succeed by your own efforts, and therefore some kind of failure?

Even more toxic is the idea that in order to get where you want to be, you need to ‘fake it until you make it’. I have been visiting business networking events for years, and not a single time have I heard someone saying something along the lines of ‘business is not going well’ or ‘I am struggling at the moment’. The cult of the successful entrepreneur wants you to exude an aura of self-confidence at all times, and as a consequence you can’t be possibly caught off guard in a moment of weakness and vulnerability , as that would erode the façade of success.

However, throughout the centuries, no one has ever reached the summit of success without a supportive network of friends, colleagues and benefactors around them. Composers like J.S. Bach and Ludwig Van Beethoven thrived thanks to the commissions of wealthy nobility and royalty. More recently, Jeff Bezos started Amazon with a seed capital of $250000 by his parents, followed by many years of financial investment by stakeholders when the company was still making a loss.

Of equal importance to a supportive business network, is the role of friendships in your life. A 2021 study by Lu, Oh, Leahy and Chopik concluded that valuing friendships is generally associated with better health, well-being, and happiness. In many cases, placing a high value on friendship was particularly important for health and well-being in countries high in income inequality and individualism, which includes our British and North American societies.

Having a supportive network of friends and colleagues is not optional. It’s a must for both your professional success and your mental wellbeing. Take some time this week to re-connect with 2-3 friends of professionals you haven’t spoken to in a while. Even if you don’t immediately find yourself planning together exciting things for the future (which is certainly a possibility) at the very least you will take an action which increases your happiness and wellbeing.

How I Turned Disaster Into a Win

Last Saturday I performed a solo gig at a local annual festival. That festival is a quite big affair in my town, with a number of performances of various artists spread over several venues. The events celebrated the versatility and talent of local artists who have made of this town a cultural powerhouse over the decades.

I turned up early at the event and prepared myself mentally as I usually do. There was no clear schedule and time was passing while I watched musicians, poets, authors and storytellers come on stage and do their thing. My tiredness was growing, yet I felt calm inside.

Due to some last minute changes, my performance ended being the last one of the day. Most previous performers and their entourage had already left by the time I came on stage. The venue was half empty and the organizers had started to get nervous as the event had overrun its scheduled time.

After a brief line check I introduced the story behind the first track and started to play the piano. Then, something disastrous happened. As soon as I started playing, I felt a tremor taking over my hands. After one minute or so, the light tremor at the start had turned into a veritable seismic shift. Then, finally just past that minute mark, my playing grinded to a halt.

I apologized to the perplexed audience and started again. However it was impossible to resume the first track as tremors overcame my hands as soon as I started playing. I stopped and apologized again, and said that I was too stressed to play this track, and therefore would try another one.

The second track was performed impeccably. I ended the set with a new track which I had never performed before. It was an experimental and noisy piece which wasn’t really fitting in the vibe of the evening, where performances were all-in-all quite middle of the road. I did however stick to my guns and ended my set with this piece.

As I got off the stage, a sense of shame and fear of impending ridicule overcame me. I expected the audience to turn their backs at me, afraid of meeting the eyes of the performer who had fallen from grace in front of them. Instead, the first comment I heard was “I loved your second and especially the last track, so powerful!” This was followed by more positive praise about my compositions.

My wife had made videos of all the tracks I performed. Watching them with a clear head the next day, they looked and sounded great (with the obvious exception of the part where I aborted the performance). However, the introduction I gave to that track was lovely and the story behind it compelling.

Yesterday I spent a part of the day sharing the live videos as well as my introductory story on social media. The response has been excellent, and it has given me the opportunity to promote my new track as well as remind my audience of the old ones. It’s pretty safe to say that what could have turned into a total disaster, ended up being a personal win.

What did I learn from this experience, and what can you learn from it too for your business? I think there are a number of lessons to heed here:

  • When you are reaching a dead end in your business, stop and start again. There is no point continuing on something that feels wrong from the start, especially when you are in the process of messing up
  • However aborting an unsuccessful project is not the same as giving up. Choose another project which has more chance of succeeding and continue. The second track I played is one of my most recognizable tunes and I have performed it so many times that I assumed that it could hardly go wrong. And I was right.
  • Where possible, document your performance. You can learn a lot from reading your reflective notes of a counselling session, watching a video of your beauty treatment, or listening to an audio recording of a sales transaction. Most importantly, recognize that there will be parts in your performance, no matter how disastrous you deem it is, which are good or at the very least useful, and can be repurposed on your social media for future learning or promotion
  • Learn from what went wrong, and use previous experience to connect the dots. I only had once a similar experience in the past, when I had uncontrollable tremors during a public piano exam in front of a jury (I still managed to successfully complete my performance despite these circumstances). Before my second public exam, I went to my GP who prescribed some benzodiazepines. The medication helped me to perform without any external signs of stress at the exam. I would rather avoid the use of heavy medication nowadays, but I know that CBD oil has a similarly relaxing effect on me and I am planning to use this to my benefit before any future public solo performances
  • Which external factors can you control? Find out what you can control and change it to your benefit. In my case, the long waiting until my performance clearly didn’t help with my stress. I discussed this with the event organizer and we agreed that I will get an earlier slot at future events.
  • Don’t be afraid of being bold and different. My last track, which I deemed too experimental and different to the vibe of the evening, saved the day as it was the track that got me the most kudos! Performing it also gave me a great opportunity to start promoting the track before my new album is even announced, let alone released.

Some people say that ‘failure is not an option’. I do not subscribe to this point of view. I believe that what they really mean, is ‘giving up what you love doing is not an option’. Failure is not only an option, it is desirable. It is a great learning opportunity and it forces us to confront and push our comfort zones. Accept and adjust what went wrong, decide on your learnings and feedback and continue doing what gives you freedom and joy in your life and helps you grow on a personal and professional level.

Stick to the Plan

I have to confess that I am a bit of a football fan (soccer for my American readers). I find the complexity of a fast-paced game where 11 players compete against another 11, following well-defined, but often ‘loosely’ interpreted rules, an interesting miniature experiment of life itself.

What casual observers who are not remotely interested in the finer detail of the game often miss, are the complex interactions of the forces that shape a 90 minute event where 22 individuals kick a ball around and try to put it into the back of the net of the opponent. You’ve got the tactics and strategy of the coaches and their teams; the latest innovations in health care and technology to take care of the needs of the football stars; a catering team that ensures the players are fed an optimum nutrition for maximum performance.

You have the interactions between players with big egos, who are being paid millions to perform, but are expected to work together for the greater good; you have plenty of mind games, pressure from millions of supporters worldwide and loyalties being questioned when managers get involved trying to get their clients the best possible deal for a transfer or a new contract.

As you can imagine from all of the above, a mindset of resilience and unphased focus is absolutely key to success in football. The margins between that success and failure are very small at the highest level, when the best compete against the best. And this was proven once again yesterday in the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid.

Liverpool were the favourites for the final. They had almost completed an impressive season where they played critically acclaimed football, scoring a record number of goals in the process. Winning the final, would have made this year a highlight in the highly decorated history of the club. Furthermore, they were out for revenge after losing the Champions League final against the same Real Madrid some years ago.

Real Madrid on the other hand, were going through a transitional period. The team didn’t have the superstars of the past and the players were a mixture of experienced but aging footballers over the peak of their careers and young, upcoming talent. They reached the final playing unorthodox, some would say unattractive football, often devoid of footballing logic.

But Real Madrid won the game. They won in exactly the same way they reached the final: with the same defensive, unattractive football and quick counter attacks against faster playing and more ‘attractive’ teams. They took advantage of one of the few opportunities they created to score and win the game.

Would anyone have advised coach Ancelotti to play like that at the start of the season? Highly unlikely. While the fans were happy about their team winning, Real Madrid got criticized for their playing style which, according to experts, is not ‘befitting of a great team’. And yet, here they are celebrating the biggest trophy in international club football.

The coach and his team drew a plan at the start of the season and stuck to it, regardless of the criticism of pundits and other coaches. The plan was based on the team’s ability and talent, rather than the style people thought a ‘top team’ should adopt. It was designed for maximum performance efficiency, rather than for pleasing the eyes of the pundits and fans.

“What is the link of all of this football stuff with me, a humble solopreneur, and my business”? You may ask. Well, I would argue that sticking to the plan is crucial when you launch a new programme, a new product or define your niche. All of the above is (or should be) the result of research, training and building of your skills over a long period of time. There is a good reason why your coaching or therapy programme, new album, skincare product or niche are what they currently are. Because you built them consciously and deliberately to be that way, right?

Yet what I see over and over again, is people changing and sometimes binning all this hard work at the first setback, unsuccessful launch or external criticism. It is remarkable how easily people who have worked for years to create a training programme, a piece of art or a luxury product are willing to give up all that effort when things don’t go as they had imagined.

But there is a reason why you have been planning things that way, and it is likely that you have a written record of that reason, whether recently or a long time ago. Go and find now your business plan, your mission statement, your ikigai. Brush off the dust and remind yourself of the reasons why you are doing the things you do. Only make the smallest necessary adjustments based on the feedback you decide to act on.

Sticking to your plan is much more likely to get you the results you want, rather than changing tactics at the whims of the public or fortune. No one has invested more in your success than you have, and no one knows better what you need to do it in order to achieve it.

There Is No ‘Real’ You

In the good old pre-modern times, our ideas about human behaviour were quite straightforward. It was believed that what you can observe of one’s behaviour, is the ‘real’ you. If someone behaved in a pro-social, good natured or altruistic way, they were considered a good person. If someone was egotistical, greedy and inconsiderate, this was seen as evidence of their innately corrupt nature.

Our perception of human nature has changed in modern times (and rightfully so). It is now recognized that human behaviour can be complex and unpredictable, and observing a few samples of it, doesn’t necessary reveal the whole of someone’s nature.

Thinkers like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Michel Foucault have deconstructed human nature, pointing out to biological, social and unconscious forces that, while generally beyond our conscious awareness, shape our behaviour. According to them, the ‘real’ you is hidden behind the evolution, our subconscious desires, the class struggle and the power of social institutions respectively.

While their sharp minds have dramatically improved our insights about human nature, there is still a quiet assumption in our interpretation of their theories, that there is a ‘true’ you hidden behind the complex systems that shape our behaviour. That, perhaps, when you are alone with your thoughts at night under your bed covers; when you wait in your car in front of a red light and there are no traffic cameras or other vehicles around; or when you are letting slip your opinion about someone not present in the room, that you are revealing your true nature.

This assumption stems from the idea that our real identity is revealed when no one is around and that interactions with others somehow make us hide and distort this identity. Hence, we can never be ourselves around others.

However, in truth, our social identity is part of our overall identity. Human beings are social creatures and if anything, our behaviour around others is a good indication of who we are as a person.

Questions about whether we are inherently ‘selfish’ or ‘selfless’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, savvy or naïve etc are philosophical abstractions. At the end of the day, the only judge about who we really are, is the work we leave behind, our legacy and our reputation. And all of the above, are largely determined by habits we adopt, actions we implement and decisions we make on a daily basis.

It is much more helpful to accept your identity as a continuous and flexible construct. You are adjusting your behaviour, habits and actions depending on the context in your life as a business owner, a wife, a friend, a parent or an artist. Despite the variety of behaviours in your arsenal, you are holding the various pieces together through your values, your vision and your attitude.

When these values and attitudes are aligned to your daily actions, then you will feel in the presence of what people sometimes describe as their authentic self. You are not the fragmented pieces of a mosaic of scattered identities; neither are you hiding your ‘true’ self behind the various masks your wear. You are the whole mosaic, all of these masks, and more.

About Switching Yourself Off

One of the most remarkable things I often hear people say in the midst of their stress and overwhelm, is ‘I wish I could switch myself off’. When you prompt someone in that position to explain this further, they will say something along the lines of ‘I wish I could take a holiday from myself for a while.’

Clearly this is not meant literally, as we all know we can’t take time off from being ourselves. It however exposes a common issue in a society where it is often expected that we are constantly at the top of our game. Rather than accepting that we are not able to resolve all our problems at this very moment, we would rather flee to a perfect, worry-free world in which everything is going to plan.

As we are not resembling machines with an on-off button, this will never happen. Away from our ‘holiday from ourselves’ the problems and challenges we are facing are still there and unless we change our mindset or plan to tackle them, we will still find them in our way.

I would suggest that rather than taking a holiday from ourselves, we should take a holiday from worrying about our problems. Take a nice long walk in nature. Spend time with family. Play with the children. Engage with your hobby, with anything that gives you satisfaction and a sense of purpose.

The problem will not disappear when you do so; however, by resting your conscious mind and letting it dwell away from from the ‘problem’, you will allow your unconscious mind to work on a creative solution in the background. It is remarkable how solutions to problems sometimes appear when we least expect them. But in order to do so, we need to give space to our unconscious mind to assess the whole picture, and see ‘the wood for the trees’.

There is no need to ‘switch yourself off’. It is ok to accept that sometimes you will face stress and overwhelm, and some days will look bleak and joyless. There will be days where you wish you could be someone else, rather than being a solopreneur. These days will come and then they will go again. They will pass because you are doing what you love doing, because you are connected to your passion and purpose, and because deep down you know that being a business owner is a marathon, and not a sprint.

PS Ethical business owner Jaya is an example of someone who is truly connected to her big passion and purpose. She speaks about it in the fourth episode of my ‘How Did They Do It’ podcast.

Only You Can Decide Your Worth

In the money-driven society we live in, we attach high importance on the ‘cost’ of things. However, very often our understanding of the true meaning of value is inadequate, and based on habit rather than a deeper insight about how that value is linked to our self-worth.

We have a good idea of the value of commodity items, as we budget for them on a weekly or even daily basis. We know how much bread, wine, vegetables and a full-sized chicken cost and adapt our expectations (and budgets) to those prices.

So far, so good. But what happens when we apply the same principle to the services we offer as solopreneurs? Should we look at what others in our area of expertise are charging, and then apply similar prices in our offering? The answer is a resounding no.

Your work as a solopreneur is inextricably linked to your personality and presence as an individual human being. While there are certain benchmarks and quality standards in your area of expertise, the value of the services you offer is subjective, as it is determined by your client’s perception of transformative promise.

As a consequence of this, different clients will pay different amounts for your services based on their perception. How can one truly measure the benefits of a transformational coaching package, a life-changing therapy programme, an aesthetic intervention which elevates the patient’s self-esteem, an artwork which brings beauty and hope into someone’s life on a daily basis?

Simply put, there is no guide which can tell you how much money your services should be worth, because this value is determined by your relationship with your clients. A client will pay £30 or less an hour to work with a beginning life coach, if that coach fails to convince them of the transformational benefit of their service. On the other side, another client will happily pay the one million dollars Tony Robbins charges to work with him, because they believe that their lives and businesses will be transformed as a result of this.

That’s where the issue of your perception of your self-worth comes in. How much is your service worth? Are you able to help people understand the transformational benefits of working with you? Can your clients quickly like and trust you, after they have got to know you?

No one but you is able to tell you how much your work is worth. But if you believe in and understand the transformation you can bring to their lives of your clients, that worth will almost certainly be more than what you currently think it is.

A Dream Is Not A Goal

Most people you ask, will tell you that they have goals in life. As sentient beings who are able to plan and anticipate the future, we usually have certain aspirations, expectations and desires about things to come. Upon closer inspection however, the goals most people formulate are not great goals. To be more precise, they are not even goals. They are just dreams.

Who doesn’t want to be wealthy, healthy and in a good, nurturing relationship? Those are often the three main areas people seek out to improve in their lives. Whether they succeed or not, depends on their definition of how wealth, good health and good relationships look like.

Often blinded by advice about how to acquire wealth (usually limited to copying the behaviour of billionaire role models, such as getting up at 5am, reading a lot of books or ‘hustling’) you will hear people setting themselves goals such as ‘I will be a millionaire by next year’. There is a whole industry out there encouraging people to make positive affirmations, believe in the ‘law of attraction’ and ‘frequency vibrations’ and wealth will be automatically delivered by the universe.

However, what most people who have actually acquired wealth will tell you (regardless of their belief in the law of attraction or vibrations), is that a belief without a plan or a realistic pathway, is not likely to bring you the wealth you desire. You can of course rely on fortune, as many people indeed do, but luck is a capricious factor outside of your control. No law of attraction or vibrations will lead you to wealth unless that belief if coupled with consistent action and a clear plan broken down in individual steps.

Likewise, you can’t improve your health if you solely rely on your unconscious somehow taking care of it, unless this is coupled with a positive lifestyle that takes physical exercise, self-care and optimal nutrition into consideration. Furthermore, you will not create your ideal relationship if you focus on ‘connecting to your authentic self’ while ignoring the feelings, personalities and behaviour of the people you want to attract.

What are the main differences between a dream and a goal then? To start with, as discussed earlier, a goal consists of a step-by-step plan which will take you from A to B. We often talk about SMART goals in that respect. Goals have to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound. If you want to be wealthy, you will need to know specifically how much money you want to earn and when by. You also better define how you are going to earn this money, how you will measure progress towards your goal and whether this is achievable within your means (no matter how well you plan and hustle, starting a small business and expecting a turnover of a million within a year is always going to be an uphill struggle).

Another important element that should be incorporated into a goal, is alignment to your values and identity. Becoming wealthy by setting up a business which pollutes the environment or bankrupts poor people will not bring a sense of accomplishment, if your values are ethical or your mission is to improve the world. Likewise, you might set yourself the goal of writing and publishing a book in a year’s time, but if you don’t self-identify as a ‘writer’, none of this will happen.

Dreams are free, and they help us to explore what is possible, without worrying about whether what we want is also achievable or realistic. They give us license to believe that something which is not there yet, can be made possible in the future. However, without a clear plan which is specific, measurable and which takes our current reality into consideration; without alignment to our values and identity, all will be left down to luck and the dream will just remain a dream.

It’s Personal, Not Business

Recently, I sat on a training course delivered by a business coach. He expressed the interesting (and quite divisive) view that you can only be a proper coach when you work on people’s businesses. He mocked the concept of a ‘life coach’ as someone who isn’t measuring any real goals. They instead waffle on about vague concepts such as ’emotions’ and ‘spirituality’.

Despite of the inelegant way in which this view was delivered, I believe there is something to be said about coaching being most effective when it’s concerned with performance and results. There has to be measurable progress. Yet, I have never really wanted to be a pure ‘business coach’, and this is why.

As a small business owner, freelancer or solopreneur you are investing emotionally in your business. It is the vehicle to your personal freedom and your happiness and it is usually directly linked to your self-esteem and self-confidence. In many ways, it is an inseparable part of your life.

Before even looking at your cashflow forecasts, your accounts, your business plan and even your 1-year or 3-year business goals, you must consider putting your mindset in order. If your emotional ‘head’ stuff is not sorted, it will invariably get in the way of the practical ‘business’ stuff. As soon as stress, fear and insecurity knock on your door (and the nature of running a business is such that they will at some point), your coping mechanisms will be tested. The most likely outcome will be that your conditioned emotional response will kick in action.

If this response is not aligned to the behaviour that is likely to help you achieve your business goals, then you will find it as an obstacle on your way. Self-destructive behaviour and self-sabotage will increase the likelihood that you fail to achieve your goals, even knowing what it is you need to do in order to be successful. Protective mechanisms directed by your unconscious mind will endeavour to maintain the status quo by reintroducing old behavioural patterns which might have served you in the past, but are detrimental in the present.

Unfortunately, starting or growing a business demands the exact opposite; in order to get different results than in the past, you will need to adopt new behavioural and thinking patterns, new habits, possibly a new identity and certainly a new mindset. A good coach understands that doing this, will help you gain much more for the long term than purely focusing on the current business results.