Why we never start from scratch

A tiny green plant growing up between paving stones

We often have to scrap what we’re doing and start again.

Maybe we messed up a step, or misunderstood; maybe we just got pulled away and the opportunity spoiled.

Whatever the cause, when we have to start again, it’s can feel discouraging, because we can feel like we’re starting from scratch, zero, nothing.

But we’re never starting from scratch.

We’re always bringing our full experience, history and skill to what we do, and these are always growing.

Even if we have to got back to the first step, we’re not starting with nothing.

There’s a richness of experience we have now which will guide the process and shape our next attempt.

It’s a new experience the second, third or one hundredth time, because we are not the same.

We might go back to the start, but we’re never starting from nothing.

Always have a back-up plan

Just in Case by Sheila Sund -

Things fail, it’s just one of the realities of life.

Software, brakes, people, plans, fire alarms, auto-pilot systems, batteries and parachutes can all be working one minute, but useless the next.

It’s an important lesson to learn, we just need to make sure the lesson doesn’t turn us into cynical, paranoid, lunatics. Life is full of risk, and risk of failure is one that we just have to accept.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t prepare for failure; there aren’t too many scenarios when it doesn’t help to have a back-up plan.

This is especially true if we reflect inwards and consider our own motivation, drive and commitment. There are lots of forces which can motivate us to act, both intrinsically (from within us) and extrinsically (from outside ourselves). And while many of them will seem, in any given moment, like constant forces which will always be there, it’s important for us to remember that they’re not.

It’s important for us to remember that our motivating forces are as capricious and fickle as a summer breeze, and so it’s useful to have a couple operating simultaneously. It pays to have a back-up plan.

One way we can do this by mixing up the sources of motivation so that a failure in one area doesn’t mean a failure of the entire system. An example might be that we make sure that all of our long term goals are fuelled by a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. You might be driven to create something artistic by intrinsic creative forces, but you might also tell someone about this project or commit publicly to a deadline which imposes an extrinsic motivation as well.

Both of these motivators have the capacity to fail, but they’re not inextricably linked. What causes one to fail doesn’t necessarily bring down the other. So on a day in which you’re not feeling inspired or creative, you might be motivated by the deadline. Other days, when the internal fire is burning bright, you might happily chip away without giving the deadline a second thought.

This diversity of motivation can be a great, multilayered defence against failure. By ensuring that there are few, decoupled systems in place, we can decrease the odds that we’re ever jumping without a chute.

Resilience > defence

Emergency response by Jon Tandy

There is a great conversation between Sam Harris and Julia Kayyem about what makes us safer.

Julia is a homeland security and counter-terrorism expert who suggests that one of the most important things for us to develop as societies is resilience. She says that defending against specific terrorist threats is a fool’s errand and we, as a society need to accept that living in an open, democratic and free way will carry a certain level of risk.

Shit happens, you can’t stop it from happening, but you can improve how you respond when it does happen. She says that if you spend money defending airports, and the attack happens somewhere else, or the attack is a hurricane and not a bomb, then you’ve wasted your money. This is where resilience comes in.

Kayyem argues that in addition to accepting that risk is part of life, we should stop trying to defend against specific, unlikely threats, but we should improve our response to more general ones. We can do this by funding things like emergency response; things which work well when shit happens. Things which help us respond quickly and bounce back no matter what flavour the shit is. This is something the excellent Bruce Schneider has also been saying for a long time.

This works on at a societal level, but it’s also super-useful at a personal level as well. Shit happens, but how’s your emergency response? Can you stay calm, together, focussed and flexible when the shit hits the fan? What’s your strategy for dealing with different flavours of shit?

We can spend a lot of time defending against specific threats in our own lives (and sometimes that’s fully warranted), but it’s important to maintain a broad emergency response as well – anything which serves us well in the face of adversity no matter how it manifests.

We need to develop our own, personal resilience.

Calm is a superpower

A jetty over calm water in the Lakes District

Calm is often underrated, or overlooked entirely, but the ability to remain steady and focussed under fire is one of the most valuable qualities anyone of us can develop. Period.

The stoics called it equanimity and valued it so highly that it was a cornerstone of their entire philosophy.

In fact, you’ll find it difficult to name a major religion or belief system which doesn’t put equanimity and calm close to its centre (it’s just a shame they don’t seem to make better use of it).

Calm a superpower because it’s the best antidote to anxiety, and anxiety is a contagious, corrosive, cancer which can runs through groups like a wildfire.

But calm stops anxiety dead in its tracks.

Calm helps create herd immunity from anxiety and panic, it helps group and individuals remain resilient.

Calm is a powerful and generous gift in almost any situation, and best of all – it’s perpetually available to all of us, free of charge.

“Calm is a superpower” is a phrase I have shamelessly borrowed from Brené Brown.