This is a draft version of the first chapter of my new book ‘Living a conscious lifestyle’.
Reviewing your lifestyle involves raising your current existence to the conscious level and asking yourself the question “How did I get to where I am today?” We all have a unique history and we all make lifestyle choices, both consciously and unconsciously. This article poses the question “Does your history determine who you are, or can you choose to be who we want to be?”
“Behaviour is a function of our experience.” (1) This need not be a determinist mantra, rather it could simply be an observation of the human condition. Undoubtedly our history shapes the way we see the world. We look at life through the spectacles of our accumulated experience. We may choose to have an eye test and change the prescription on our glasses, but our history exerts a powerful influence on the way we frame current experience. This may be a largely unconscious process and we may be unaware of the magnitude of the gravitational pull of our past.
In this piece, I plan to share with you some reflections on my own personal history. Please read this material with a generous frame of mind and use the themes as a way of reconnecting with your own history. It says in 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see through a glass darkly.” (2) Our memories may be distorted and fragmentary, but the experiences have almost certainly shaped us. Libraries full of psychological tomes have been written on child and adult development and this introduction to ‘your history’ is not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive. It is designed as a thought starter to stimulate your own reflections.
What is your earliest memory? John Bowlby, in his classic text ‘Childcare and the growth of love’ (3), asserted that our first three years have a critical influence on the rest of our lives. This is a period of rapid growth when we find out about the world and our place in it. It is a phase characterised by the acquisition of language and the ability to frame questions. Young children exhaust the people around them with an endless string of ‘why’ questions. This is a helpful approach to carry into later life. Indeed, Simon Sinek has written a best-seller with that title (4). As a coach, I believe that questions should always have a starring role in the human drama. More recently, the developmental biologist Bruce Lipton indicates that our underlying beliefs are firmly established in the first six years of life. (5) He postulates further that many of them may be limiting beliefs!
Most children grow up in a family. John Cleese wrote a book ‘Families and how to survive them’ (6) and this rather sardonic title captures an essential truth about the nature of early socialisation. Attitudes and values are formed in the crucible of family life. No two families are the same and some young children grow up outside a family setting. Families come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Two parents, one parent, only child or one or more siblings – the permutations are endless. Your birth position in the family may also be an influence on how you are treated and how you see yourself. Your ethnicity, culture and faith position will also exert strong influences.
At some point you are required to join the wider world of early education. This may be nursery, play school or statutory infant education. This is a highly significant day when you first enter an educational setting – different expectations and challenges abound. I can vividly remember my first day at infant school. The memories are about the people – my classmates and the teacher. During those early years, I learned to read, to write and do arithmetic. I also remember the playground and the need to look after myself. I did labour under the challenge of having my father as the head teacher!
The school was set up on very traditional lines and the 11+ was the end point of my formal primary education. The environment was competitive, with regular tests and annual examinations. The class seating plan was based on your test performance and so you could see where you featured in the peer group pecking order. Was I born competitive or did these early educational experiences sharpen my desire to win? Sport played an increasingly large part in my primary school life with the ultimate challenge of getting into the school football team.
My family life was characterised by unconditional love. I was an unexpected and much wanted post-war baby. Victor Hugo put it succinctly – “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.” (7) It never occurred to me that it could be otherwise. With the benefit of hindsight, I can trace the attributes and influence of both my parents. My mother had insatiable energy and an extremely positive mindset. She also had high expectations and aspirations for me. My father was highly educated and a great reader. He had a wide range of practical and intellectual skills and was much more easy-going. I believe my father was an excellent coach, although he would never have used that descriptor.
Secondary school saw another increase in my understanding of the size of the world. Different subjects, different teachers, and different challenges to be addressed. It was a single-sex school with high levels of academic and sporting competition. As an August birthday, I was one of the youngest in my year group. Malcolm Gladwell (8) believes birth date is a significant influence on success. Maturity provides obvious mental and physical advantages. How do you look back on your secondary education? What memories are etched into your psyche? Some of my mature clients have related vivid and life-changing negative memories of this life phase!
I remember two incidents in my first month at secondary school. I was in a music lesson in the great hall and my class was clustered around the grand piano at the front of the room. We were each required to sing a short solo. My effort was greeted with a less than favourable response from the music teacher. “You are a groaner, stand at the back and do not sing!” Even with my limited musical education to date I knew this was not a positive appraisal.
The same week I attended the trials for the Under 13 football team and this was the pinnacle of my aspirations. Miraculously I was selected – cue wild celebrations and dancing in the street. The serious consequence of these two episodes is that I have limited enjoyment of music in its various forms and the delusional thought that I can play any sport with a large degree of success. I later discovered this is called the classic self-fulfilling prophecy! (9)
My ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels were an opportunity to demonstrate mediocre examination performance. Looking back, I wonder whether this was a lack of ability, poor quality teaching or a lack of self-confidence. (Teachers usually get the blame for underachievement.) Interestingly in the light of the above self-fulfilling prophecies, my sporting career went from strength to strength. I was Captain of the First X1 Soccer Team and featuring in multiple other sports teams, both inside and outside school. This emboldened me to become a Physical Education teacher.
My training and early years of teaching were a great joy. However, I quickly concluded that 4D outside games on a snowy Monday morning was not my ideal future. Serendipitously my former college tutor suggested that I apply for a job at his children’s primary school and my career moved on from there. I was promoted from Class Teacher to Deputy Head to Head Teacher to Local Authority Inspector in thirteen years. This was a period of rapid personal growth.
I met my wife at college, and we married soon after leaving. We were blessed with three children (they would say ‘wonderful children’) and moved to a new house five times during this period. Most importantly, we became Christians in 1978. We would both identify this as the most significant event in our lives. We have been heavily involved in Christian ministry ever since.
A significant aspect of my career development was a sustained programme of part-time study – an Open University Degree, an MA, and a PhD. These awards provided me with some sense of academic credibility and facilitated the changes in my career. In retrospect, they had a galvanizing impact on my self-confidence. My interest in research was born and is still shining brightly today.
My professional life diversified – I led a management Development Unit for five years and then by chance was invited to be a Head Teacher again. Three headships, part-time lecturer at two universities and a National Leader of Education. In 2002 I became a born-again coach and have spent the last eighteen years promoting coaching in schools. Through this work my passion for lifestyle development was born! And here we are.
This is the practical bit. I would like to invite you to use the ‘personal timeline’ described below as a way of reflecting on your own history. You might also then like to identify the transitions on your timeline, using the work of William Bridges.
Your subjective timeline
Chart your life so far using this personal timeline model below. It is built around a simple structure.
· Draw a line across a sheet of A4 in (or A3 if you are older)
· Settle on a scale that represents your age
· The events/phases above the line are good times
· The events/phases below the line are times of distress
· The distance above or below the line will represent the significance you attach
· Draw the line for birth to now
Model one: personal timeline
This is a subjective exercise, nevertheless it does have the power to illuminate your past in a visual form. List what you consider to be the most significant events in your life to date – you might do this on a separate piece of paper first. Significant events or phases impact our feelings, attitudes, self-image and who we are today.
Invest some time reviewing the power and impact of the things you have identified. You can reframe some of these experiences if you so choose!
The subjectivity of your timeline will have a more objective, factual iteration in the events and experiences elaborated in your Curriculum Vitae. I strongly believe that ‘feelings are facts’ and your perception of your history does exert a gravitational pull on your current reality. Do your first draft timeline at pace and see what you have got. If you have an over-orientation to perfectionism (like me) you can go back and tidy it up later after a period of reflection.
· What do you notice?
· Where are your mountain top and valley bottom experiences?
· Where are the significant transitions? (ending – neutral zone – new beginning)
· What can you learn and apply from your unique timeline?
Managing personal transitions
Your reflections on your timeline will probably have identified times of change and transition. The model below, based on the work of William Bridges (10), proposes a way of understanding this process.
Model two: personal transitions
1. Ending, losing, letting go
We must accept that something is ending before we can move on to a new place. This phase is often characterised by fear, denial, sadness, uncertainty, or a sense of loss. In the summer of 2010, I resigned my last headship and embarked upon life as a freelance consultant. This was my own choice and I did experience both excitement and anticipation, notwithstanding an element of uncertainty. In retrospect, the fact that this was my conscious choice and had not been foisted upon me was significant. ‘Choose to’ is radically different to ‘have to’!
2. The neutral zone
The bridge between the old and the new – attachment to the old while trying to adapt to the new – can be a time of creativity and innovation. Alternatively, it can be a time of anxiety, resistance, and confusion. The challenge is to manage your journey through the neutral zone – you may be able to do this yourself or you may need someone else’s help. For instance, a coach or a trusted friend. I am very committed to the coaching process, both from the perspective as coach and a client. I have employed a range of skilful coaches over the last 18 years and they have supported and challenged me as I have worked through this ‘neutral zone’.
3. The new beginning
Beginnings involve new understandings, new values, and new attitudes. New beginnings are characterized by a release of energy in a new direction, they are an expression of a fresh identity. Transition is the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalize their new situation. I would like to define myself by who I am now, rather than being a ‘wasa’ – I was a head teacher. New beginnings are exciting as you turn the page and start a new chapter in your life.
My experience as a pre-retirement coach provides a range of examples as to how successfully people move through these three stages. A recurring theme is the significance of life purpose and commitment in embedding the new beginning. My father retired at 65 and it took him 5 years to figure out his purpose – this was a long transition and represented one third of his retirement.
Review your personal timeline and reflect on the transitions you have made so far. (The first way to attain wisdom according to Confucius.) You have a wealth of experience, some positive, some less so. The challenge is to apply that learning to your future life!
When you have reflected on these exercises, please revisit my initial question “Does your history determine who you are, or can you choose to be who we want to be?” This article is taken from the first chapter of my next book ‘Living a conscious lifestyle’, due to be published in 2021. If you have any observations or thoughts please share in the comments section below.
1. Laing, R D (1967) The politics of experience and the bird of paradise
2. St Paul 1 Corinthians 13:12 (King James Version)
3. Bowlby, J M (1953) Childcare and the growth of love
4. Sinek, S (2009) Start with why
5. Lipton, B H (2015) The biology of belief
6. Cleese, J & Skinner, R (1983) Families and how to survive them
7. Hugo, V (1862) Les Miserables
8. Gladwell, M (2008) Outliers: the story of success
9. Merton, R K (1948) The self-fulfilling prophecy
10.Bridges, W (2004) Transitions: making sense of life’s changes