Lessons from photography

All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassment, all is given to us as raw material, as clay so that we may shape our art.

Jorge Luis Borges

It is with my camera that I see and capture the world. With my camera I beat time, freeze the present, preserve the past. I can halt the race, stop the moment, revel in the magic in front of me. Photography is like poetry, it goes to the heart of the matter.

I recently did a photo project taking multiple exposures on film. Film photography is unique, hard, and depends on a dose of magic. It is not the exact science of digital photography and you only get one chance to get your shot right. It is also expensive, and you won’t see the photo you just took for weeks afterwards. On the other hand, digital photography offers instant gratification. That and the chance to add another layer of creativity with the virtual darkroom that is lightroom. The editing is a good part of the process. With film I generally leave the photos untouched, save for a few light and contrast adjustments, if necessary. So why do I love film so much? And why am I now adding another layer with multiple exposures?

I think it is both the magic and the risk. It is a place to commit and carefully, mindfully compose the shot with intention. The risk is that it might fail. The magic is that it might not. It is playful, uncertain and when it works, the best feeling ever. And with multiple exposures more magic is invited in. I attempt to control the outcome by noting down the shots I have taken, before rewinding the film and starting again. I think of a theme, I know what I want to happen. But magic takes care of the rest. And when it works it is simply the best.

There is a philosophical layer to this.

Tennessee Williams said “Has it ever struck you that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going?”

The paradox is that while I am trying to cheat time and snatch that fleeting moment, it is disappearing before my eyes.  With multiple exposures I am trying to double the attempt, freeze two moments, find two perspectives and widen my gaze. The glory is in the futility and the failure.

Inquiry question:

What risks have you taken recently?

Can you recommend a book please?

Often people ask me for my ‘must read ‘list of books. This is by no means exhaustive and I might add or delete titles as I read throughout the year, but this is a good list for today. And a fine place to start.

The Goldfinch and A secret History by Donna Tartt

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Normal People by Sally Rooney

All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Tender is the Night & The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

 The Windup Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Atonement by Ian McEwan

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Happy Reading! Love Sam x

Currently reading: Luster by Raven Leilani

Words from the wise:

“She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.”

Annie Dillard

Motivation

I am goal orientated. I love to stand at the bottom of the mountain, look up and start to climb. It is hard to get going and I might procrastinate for weeks or even months until I take the first step, knowing that when I do so I won’t stop until I am done. And generally, it is going to be hard work and probably hurt.

Four years ago I did the Nike app: Couch to 5K. It is an amazing audio program that literally takes you from zero to a 5k runner in 8 weeks. The 3x a week runs are cleverly constructed to incrementally build endurance and at least 3 times during a run a friendly voice tells you that ‘you’re awesome.’ It works. I am not a runner, I hate exercise and I would rather lie on my sofa, read a book and eat cheesecake than pretty much anything else. But this app works. Four years ago I ran 5K and it was one of the proudest moments of my life, especially because it was so hard and so out of character for me.  But I loved it and I felt fantastic.

And then I stopped.

Now four years later I am doing it again. I am on week 7 and it is starting to get hard. Some days I doubt I will make it, yet I still pull on my trainers, plug in my airpods and go. I am being ‘awesome.’  My worry, this time, is what will happen when I am done? I should hit week 8 around July 1st and I am already thinking about how to keep motivated. Once I am at the top of this particular mountain, enjoy the view and the sense of achievement, how will I maintain? Maintenance is not sexy. Maintenance does not give me the ‘awesome’ thrills. And no, I have no interest in finding a new mountain, a 10K is off the table and running faster does not appeal to me. I will never run with people, join a race or want a ribbon. So how does motivation work?

Steven Kotler, author of The Art of the Impossible, states that we are all hard wired for peak performance and peak performance comes from the experience of flow: An optimal state of consciousness when we perform and feel our best. So how do we get into a state of flow? Motivation is key.

Motivation can be divided into two kinds:  Motivation that is driven by inbuilt human attributes in order to pursue virtuousness, and extrinsic motivation that means pursuing an activity for an alternative, often a people pleasing outcome. Basically, are you doing it for internal or external reasons?

Extrinsic motivation is to get things we want in the world, for example: money, sex, fame, a great body. On the other hand intrinsic motivation is driven by curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy and mastery. If you are driven by those things then you have flow. And you will keep going.

Are you doing it to avoid guilt? Because of pressure or anxiety? Fear? Vanity? Or are you doing it because the actions align with your life goals and core values? Finding your own autonomous reasons and your own intrinsic motivation will make it much easier to stick with things.

Start with making a list of reasons why you do something. How many of these reasons are extrinsic? Reflect on whether you can strive for an intrinsic reason. If you can find a reason why doing it will be just for you, you are more likely to keep it going.

I am running because it makes me feel strong, young and powerful. My hope is that I remember that after week 8 comes and goes.

Inquiry question: What do you want but haven’t found?

Reading: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

Words from the wise:

 “All highly competent people continually search for ways to keep learning, growing and improving. They do that by asking ‘why.’ After all, the person who knows ‘how’ will always have a job, but the person who knows ‘why’ will always be the boss.”

Benjamin Franklin

Celebrating

On May 26th I found out that I passed my certification exam and in that moment 18 months of training was complete. I am now a CPCC, a certified, qualified, fresh and excited new coach.

This journey has been profound. In November 2019 curiosity led me to the first CTI course and I was immediately intrigued. I had little idea about what coaching was, but I had always felt pulled in the direction of a helping profession. Many moons ago I had planned to become an Art Therapist, then a Drama Therapist and despite taking classes and reading voraciously around the subject, life had other plans. I had two children. I taught Drama and then English, we moved…a lot. I raised a family, taught in 10 schools and in the past 15 years have taught and mentored hundreds of young adults. When I look back, it seems it was all leading me here, right here, where I am meant to be.

It has been a lot of work, both in the coaching and being coached, the study and the intense courses but also the work of growing as a person. I grew me. I got to know me. In order to do the work for my clients I had to do the work first. I’ve met so many extraordinary people. I cried in front of strangers, got vulnerable in public, met my tribe. I coached people in person, over zoom, in four continents, of all ages.  I had to set aside the negative and self-limiting beliefs that said  ‘who was I to think I could do this?”. Now I feel like I have walked in these shoes for long enough that they are beginning to feel comfortable. I wear the coach badge with honour. I can do this. I am good at this. I have the skills, the power and the passion to be a great coach. And I am so honoured and ready to help people find the magic that lives inside of them.

Wise words:

Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.

Laurie Buchanan.

Catching curve balls

Life has a funny way of throwing curve balls at you when you are sitting in the outfield making daisy chains. Life was looking up here in Singapore. More and more people were vaccinated, proudly clutching their upper arms and smiling through the ‘slight headache’ knowing they are doing their part to get out of this stifling time warp. The COVID numbers were down, people were excitedly talking about travel bubbles and daydreaming about a quarantine that would ‘surely be only 3 days at home, no?’ And then it all turned pear shaped within a day or two. We went from smiling to shock in a matter of hours. Suddenly we were down to groups of only 2, schools were closing and people were back to working from home. Fantasies of travel fast dissolved. And then more doors began to close, things long longed for got cancelled, personal hopes of purchasing a property were crushed, a relationship was suddenly on tenterhooks. All at once I was feeling blue.

I started to think a lot about resilience. What is it? How do we get it and why is it the most important tool in our box when we are struggling to either catch or dodge that curve ball.

You can google it. There is a whole industry built around telling people to be resilient. There are the Ken Ginsburg’s 7Cs of resilience, the Driven’s 6 Domains of resilience, there is  even an app to trace and track how resilient you are.

But I think it boils down to one very simple truth: Faith. Faith that “This too shall pass.” Faith that while we might feel stuck, life and time continues to move forward and eventually, with patience and faith, things will turn.

It helps to have faith in your own sense of who you are. And to treat yourself as you would a friend. It certainly helps to have a community to turn to and things to do with others that can remind you that we are all connected.

You are not the only one, somewhere someone is also having a hard time.

I think a brilliant way of finding resilience and coping in a hard time is through self-compassion.

 Dr.Kristin Neff is the mind behind the self-compassion movement and she has spent over 20 years studying the importance of turning compassion inward. She clearly lays out three tools to adopt:

  1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment.

Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”

Dr Kristin Neff
  • Common humanity vs. Isolation.

“Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience –”

Dr Kristin Neff
  • Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.

“Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.”

Dr Kristin Neff

When times are hard and life throws you a series of balls, too fast to catch or juggle, when you feel you are holding your breath, holding tightly onto the littlest things you can control, when you feel if you let go you will collapse…. Take a minute to breathe. Know it will pass. Find the faith. Be kind and feel whatever you need to feel.

Inquiry question: What does resilience look like for you?

Reading: House of Glass by Hadley Freeman/Think Again by Adam Grant

Words from the Wise:

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.


Albert Camus

Slaying the shame

I took a risk. I have always wanted an exhibition of my photography and to see my photos line a wall would make public the secret dream. But I was scared to put myself ‘out there’ into the world and ask to be seen. Recently I took a huge scary risk and tossed my dream upwards and outwards. And today, I am installing my first exhibition.

We are raised to believe many complex and interesting things. We move through life doing everything, hard things, expected things but all the while there is a voice that says “should and should not.” That is the limiting belief that tells us, sometimes with just a gentle whisper, so quiet you think it is coming from your own voice, that you cannot do something. That you aren’t smart enough, talented enough, rich enough, brave enough, worthy enough. And that voice often tells us to look over there and see what so and so is doing. Compared to them, there is no way you can do it. There is the fear of being judged, of everyone saying, “who does she think she is?” This is the voice of the inner critic, judge, saboteur, whose job it is, is to make you fear change. Stay small. Just stay as you are, and you will be safe, and no one will laugh. Or judge. And everyone hears this voice, everyone has that special unique inner critic and everyone believes it. But this voice is not actually you. It is the culmination of thousands of messages we have absorbed, and we have a choice whether or not to listen to it. Not an easy choice, but a choice. The greatest hurdle in life is to get beyond those limiting beliefs.

We are conditioned to believe we are less.

Brené Brown calls that inner critic the shame gremlin. Some of my clients have identified it as a grumpy old man, a high school mean girl, a cartoon character, a judge, a nasty berating woman with a clip board. Whatever it is, meeting your powerful inner critic, visualizing it and really seeing and hearing it can magically reduce its power. When you know that you are not your thoughts, that your inner critic is separate from you, you have the choice to turn down the volume on that voice.

Believe me, it will never disappear completely but when you have control over it rather than the other way around… imagine what is possible!

As a coach it is my mission to open your eyes to the magic that lives underneath that critical voice. To make you see that what you think isn’t possible, is, in fact, absolutely possible, if you want it.

It is scary to take what you create and show people. While I had shared my photography in blogs or on Instagram and on my website, I had never printed them out and put them  on a wall , in a public space, for people to see! Today I have had to quieten that voice that says I can’t. I shouldn’t, I don’t deserve to. Today I am hanging my photos on a public wall.

Inquiry question:

If you had no fear, what would you do?

What makes you uncomfortable?

Dr Susan David says that “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

She speaks and writes about the dangers of ‘toxic positivity and says that this tendency to avoid hard feelings and difficult conversations can only lead to trouble in the long run. She is not telling us to be indulgent and mope, but she is offering an interesting perspective that we can both thrive and be challenged at the same time. It has got me thinking about how we have been raised to avoid hard feelings and how admitting we feel bad is tantamount to shame. As I teacher I see it in the classroom: students who are scared to raise their hand and ask questions in the fear they may be wrong. Students who feel such enormous shame at what they deem is failure, when it is, in fact, a first draft. I see it in people who brush off hard feelings by saying “oh it’s not that bad, come on, chin up.” I see it when friends try and console each other by saying “it could be worse.” I see it when, after a miscarriage, a woman is told, “well, it is probably for the best.” Since when was it considered a bad thing to just be with your feelings, have a good cry, process whatever you are feeling? Why are we meant to cheer up before we are ready? Why is coping considered so brave when actually saying you are falling apart is the bravest thing of all?

Brené Brown discusses how we use numbing to distract us from hard feelings. Tv, food, alcohol become mechanisms of avoidance and in the long run actually end up also numbing us from the potential high points of life and most importantly from developing resilience.

Listening to Dr David talk, I hear common sense and yet I also hear what we all need to hear. That growth only comes from discomfort, that avoidance is (in her words)  ‘dead people’s goals.’ The only people who are not stressed are dead people. Life is stressful, we all have to navigate full plates.

In coaching I have learnt that the greatest learning and awareness comes from those moments of discomfort. In the beginning I was scared of being uncomfortable and I tried to fill the silence with questions, even observations. But coaching is about creating space for people to be in the moment with discomfort and to know that it is safe to stay there. Coaching is a mirror where you can meet yourself, see and hear what you want, and don’t want, and get uncomfortable. I think it would be extraordinary if there were more places where that could happen. Where vulnerability could be the start of a conversation and that conversation could lead to places as yet undiscovered.

Inquiry question:

What are you scared of facing?

Do you love Podcasts?

Oprah Winfrey and one of the great spiritual thinkers of our time, Eckhart Tolle, present their 10-part series on Eckhart’s ground-breaking book, “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.”

Dr Chatterjee interviews people who inspire us to live better lives. A few of my favourite episodes: Jay Shetty, Julia Samuel, Peter Crone, James Clear and Laurie Santos. Listen here.

Brene Brown’s podcast is part interviews, part wisdom and a lot of heart. She also has a Dare to Lead podcast which is excellent. Some favourites: Barack Obama, Glennon Doyle, Guy Raz, Jon Meacham. Listen here & here

The fantastic Elizabeth Day interviews inspiring people about their failures and how they have grown and thrived from them. There are many favourites but here are a few: Gloria Steinem, Bernadine Evaristo, Julia Samuel, Mathew Syed, Alain De Botton, Phoebe Waller_Bridge and the wonderful Kazuo Ishiguru. Listen here.

I have been a huge fan of WTF for years. Marc Maron is a funny, empathetic and smart interviewer who is full of heart. No one really gets to the root of a person like he does. Listen here.

Julia Samuel has a podcast called A Living Loss and it is just what the world needs right now. Her empathy and powerful questioning will draw you in and keep you listening. Find it here. The episode with Elizabeth Day is excellent.

The new girl on the block! Coach, model and Positive Psychology practitioner, Saara Sihvonen brings her wisdom, warm energy and empathy to well-being. She is beautiful inside and out and she wants you to thrive and find your inner glow. Listen here.

Others on my occasional rotation are In Writing with Hattie Crisell, On Being, Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, This American Life, The Goop Podcast, Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin, Grounded with Louis Theroux, Modern Love, Revisionist History and The Happiness Lab.

Happy Listening!

Birthdays

Photo of me taken in front of the Gateway to India, Bombay 1992

A friend of mine at work said she was dreading her birthday. Why? I asked. Well, I just don’t want to get older, she sighed.

It is better than the alternative! I retorted.

Yesterday was my birthday and I wanted to share my thoughts on birthdays: why they are important, why I feel they deserve to be celebrated with a big pop of champagne.

I woke up yesterday to an outpouring of love from many different corners of the world. People took time to mark the day as a chance to celebrate me and to let me know that I am loved. In this year, more than ever, this was a tonic I really needed. To have that reminder that while I may be far away and remote, the people I love are never far.

Birthdays are important, not just to mark the passage of time but as a way of celebrating you.

Birthdays creep up on you and there it is, you have made another turn around the sun. We are told, from very young, to be very excited about getting older. Every child jumps with glee when they age a year, feeling like they have won a prize. And then somewhere around 39 this feeling of excitement turns to a chill, a dread, a sinking feeling that time is running away from you. We start to worry that we are running out of time, that we haven’t done this or that yet. That our face and body are sinking. That we are losing something instead of gaining wisdom, stories, memories.

The pressure to resist this narrative is hard. Women have an internal clock that ticks, they have a face that ages and a body that droops. We have to fight back against the loud story that tells us we are now past the best date, we are expired, we are invisible.

I recently spent a lot of time diving into old photos for a project. And then spent another few hours reading old diaries.  Some takeaways:

The past is a place of reference not residence.

Looking into the past I realize I wish I had appreciated my beautiful young face and body instead of wishing it smaller, better, firmer. It was just right.

We never know what we are doing but as we get older we get a clearer idea. I am so much better at listening to my intuition now.

The lesson from the past is to keep making memories. We want to live rich lives so we keep putting memories into a treasure chest.

Life is a necklace. We gather perfect memorable impactful moments like pearls. We want to collect as many pearls as we can. Touch them, be tender with them. These are the pearls of your years.

Keep looking forward. How much more do you want to do? To live? To be?

Find your values and live with them and not against them.

Be in the here and now. Taste and smell and touch it all. It stretches time and makes the days longer.

Age gracefully.

Somehow we are taught that it is bad form to celebrate ourselves. Better that we keep quiet and stay in the sidelines.

This year I say:

Happy birthday to me.

HABITS

There is a lot of talk about habits at the moment. Losing the bad ones, starting new ones, using habits to build will power, finding a habit that will solve the problems of your life. The problem with habit talk is that it can draw out the shame gremlins and much negative self-talk. If the habits are unrealistic it is a straight road to disappointment and self-criticism. When I was in my local bookstore recently, I saw a ton of books on habit changing so it must be something on people’s minds.

What habit do you want to change or start?

These authors have interesting ideas:

Tiny Habits (2020) by BJ Fogg offers a simple and easy to follow solution:

You need motivation (the desire to do it), the ability to do it (the time and space) and a prompt (a reminder that says to do it now.) When these three things happen, habit forms. But, most importantly, you also have to link the habit to a positive emotion so that you want to do it. Take a new habit you want to try, maybe it is a daily workout regime or mediation or even writing in a journal and scale it back so that it is as tiny as possible. In fact, it will be so tiny that there is no excuse not to do it and you will even feel a positive emotion afterwards. Want to meditate for 15 mins every day? Start with three deep cleansing breaths. Then link the habit to a positive emotion, so that the habit will stick. Maybe play a favourite song (your personal anthem) afterwards, or have a lovely cold glass of juice, or stretch your arms over your head and smile. BJ Fogg also attaches tiny habits to his daily routine. He does push ups after he goes to the bathroom, opens a book when he is on the subway and takes deep cleansing breaths when he turns off the tv. The smallest tiny habits can make a big difference when they all add up. 1 minute of meditation can become 5 in a matter of weeks, a 10-minute walk can become an hour in a month. String together the tiny habits and voila, you have real, concrete change. Baby steps are the way to go.

James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits (2018) suggests the following: “3 R’s of Habit Change” and it goes like this…

1. Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior)

2. Routine (the behavior itself; the action you take)

3. Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior)

He also asks us to think about the impact of a habit: The short-term response to eating that chocolate bar is pleasure, while the short-term response of a run might be pain. But the long-term response is the exact opposite. Think weight gain over fitness. He says almost every habit that you have is the result of many small decisions over time. Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits.

If you make your good habits more convenient, you’ll be more likely to follow through on them. 

James Clear

My biggest take away from James Clear is this one:

“Every action you take is a vote for the person you wish to become.”

So decide: I am a runner and then you will run. Don’t run to become a runner. Run because you already are a runner. The habit will align your vision of yourself with the reality of who you are. I am a writer so I write. I am a photographer so I take photos every day. I am a meditator, so I mediate. The goal is not to run, it is to be a runner. This shift in how to see a habit as an extension of your identity is very helpful in getting motivated.

Think about that. In the doing we transform into being who we want to be.

So imagine yourself. Create a vision. And then start something because it is who you already are.

Take away inquiry:

What is the one thing I can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?