Work will not set you free, your attitude might

“It was sad, like those businessmen who came to work in serious clothes but wore colourful ties in a mad, desperate attempt to show there was a free spirit in there somewhere.” ― Terry Pratchett, Making Money

A recent article prompted me to reflect on the way we work today and our attitude to work.

The article talked about one of the leading entrepreneurs today, a chap called Elon Musk. You might not have heard of him, but you might have heard of the Tesla car, which is one of his companies. Anyway, Elon was asked about the ups and downs of his life and Elon Musk was asked about the ups and downs of his life – in particular of setting up and growing an enterprise. He replied “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two,”

Although Elon was talking about setting up and running companies, I think that the phrase also applies to many people in the world of work today.

I completely concur with Musk about the ‘great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress’ as I reflect on the world of work that I have lived through over the past 30 years.

I have experienced fantastic highs. Standing in front of 1,000 plus people sharing my experiences of designing and implementing a global Performance Measurement and Management System that supported 2,000 users and was used across a global business. Oh and then being presented with an award, which came as a complete surprise. By the way, to many people standing in front of that many people presenting would be a nightmare. But I enjoyed it.

I have experienced terrible lows. Having to go through a European wide organisation restructure, which meant that colleagues were let go. Having to design the selection criteria and then choose who was to stay and who was to go. Going through the selection process and then watching people being asked to leave a company they cared about and were doing a meaningful job.  To some, a number exercise, but not to me.

Finally, unrelenting stress. As the result of a major change programme that did not go well; having to work 7 days a week with long hours; with exceptional pressure to keep the “boat afloat” and continue to deliver to the customers. Unrelenting. Unforgiven. Harsh and pressured to turn around a terrible situation. 

Reflecting on all of these experiences, I have come to realise that you have to care – and care deeply – about the work that you do and more importantly, the people you work with. Else, why would you put yourself through the pressure, stress and heartache? When you can walk away.

This then poses the next question; work time. If you consider the amount of time you spend in the world of work, both travelling to and from work, as well as actually working itself, it makes up the majority of your adult life. Almost four million employees are working at least 48 hours a week. The average working week in the UK is now 43.6 hours compared with a European average of 40.3 and limits of just 35 in France. If you add on the average 3-hour commute per day, then you are talking about over 58 hours per week working.

Our adult lives are work focused.

Please feel free to say they are not but the truth is, they are. We will never break away from the work world until we get to the nivara of a non-work society where everyone is free to enjoy what they want to do and “work” is carried out by robots. Till then, we will have to work and be tied into work customs and outcomes.

Back to the question I posed at the start. Work will not set you free. You will set yourself free through your attitude.

Whatever work you do, and I have experienced some of the most “interesting” – suitcase porter; soiled bed linen clearer; snooker attendant; multi-vendor service engineer; technical escalation manager,  and even prisoner mentor (yes inside a category B prison with “lifers”); every role, in the end, is carried out by someone.  You will all come to realise that there are very few if any, opportunities to be content in the world of work. Work will not set you free from the grind and effort of delivering a service/product / solution, or whatever.

What sets you “free”, to use a phrase, is how you approach the “work” you do. Your mind set. How you want to serve the customer or the people in the value chain. Your own passion and ethos on serving people.  Even in the most recent challenges I have had, my approach has always been how to serve. In some cases, ignoring the politics of the organisation and focus on the customer and the people involved.

Am I right? Wrong? Will work set you free? Not sure. How you approach work might.

If you want to read more about the tweet and the dialogue that prompted this article, go to:

I leave you with the following quote.

“God might work in mysterious ways, but hell worked on efficient ones.” Richelle Mead, Succubus Shadows

P.S Do not put into google “work will set you free”, else you will get the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (German). A phrase meaning “work sets you free”. The slogan is known for appearing on the entrance of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.

Simple steps to help develop a “Now Mindset”

“Forever is composed of nows.” ― Emily Dickinson

One of the biggest questions people ask about Mindfulness, is all around being the in “now”. What on earth is it about? What does it mean and why even think about it?

Practicing Mindfulness helps you to focus on being present in the now. Present moment awareness brings calm, peace and sanity to your life. It exposes your ego and puts you in touch with your true self. It helps you be more connected to both yourself and also to everyone around you.

The present moment is all there ever is. Still, most people ignore it, imagining the future or the past, stuck in their thinking minds.

The present moment is so simple. Its simplicity is masked by the egoic mind – wanting to get to some imaginary point in the future (as if the future will bring more happiness than anything could now), or reliving the past (as if this is more important than now). So many of our problems, traumas, anxieties, fears etc. are all based in our minds. Dwelling in the past, or conditioned by the past and then negatively anticipating “the future”.

Time exists only in the mind. It keeps you from the conscious presence that is who you already are, only available within the present moment.

So how can you become more aware? It does take some time, so be prepared to take a few minutes out of your day to try one of the following:

  • Be aware of what you can see, hear, smell, feel. Take a moment to really concentrate on looking at an object or listen to the sounds going on around you. Perhaps sit outside and feel the breeze on your skin or the smells in the air around you.
  • Be aware of your breath flowing gently in and out of your body. The breathing exercise is one of the fundamentals of Mindfulness practice. For a blog post I wrote on the breath practice, go to:
  • Experience and feel your body from within – for example can you be aware of your legs – as if you are feeling the inside of them? This might sound strange, but try it, and you might be surprised by the results.
  • Can you hear the silence behind any noise that may be there? Listen to the background, as well as the foreground noises.
  • Be aware of space around all things you can see rather than just the things themselves? Look beyond the foreground and look to the background.
  • Finally, can you feel yourself as the awareness behind the thoughts that arise? This is probably the most difficult one to try.


Practicing any of these approaches on a regular basis will help put you within the present moment and somewhat out of your mind. Of course the mind may well pull you back in again with some thought, or emotional resistance may arise, but that is the challenge with the mind.

You may notice that as you stay in the present moment, you might become more aware of deeper feelings, thoughts and emotions that you were not aware of before. This is fine, and they are as they are. Allow them to be as well, do not name any emotion or thought – let them be, be the space for them, and see what happens. You may notice as you do this, a sense of peace, aliveness, awareness, however subtle or strong is arising in the background

This practice of present moment awareness and acceptance puts you in touch with what you really are, and sets you free from all the negativity you may be carrying in your mind. There is only this moment, and it is as it is.

I leave you with the following quote.

“Live in the present, remember the past, and fear not the future, for it doesn’t exist and never shall. There is only now.” ― Christopher Paolini, Eldest

Your toes are good reminders of now!

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Question for you.

It is funny, but how often do you think about your feet?

Go on, take a moment and try to remember the last time you really thought about those things at the end of your legs. Unless you have recently bought a pair of shoes and are wearing them in; like I did; or you have a bunion or a pain in your feet; or have gone for a long walk; it is unlikely you have spent some time thinking about them at all.


Now I have got your attention on your feet, I’d like to say that you can use your feet in a Mindfulness practice that helps focus you on the now. Yes, both a Mindfulness practice as well as practising being in the now. Plus it is something that is fun that you can try at home, in the office, on the train, almost anywhere….

The invitation begins by gently bringing your attention down the legs into the feet. Sensing your feet directly without looking at them. Allowing your awareness to sink into your feet and fill them from the inside to the outside. From the bones, right out to the surface of the skin. Perhaps sensing the many small bones within the feet. Maybe feeling the sensations of touch on the skin; the sensations in the soles of the feet; the sense of touch and pressure where the feet make contact with the floor. Perhaps exploring with your awareness the boundary between the feet on the floor. Next……

Can you Wiggle Your Toes
Seriously. Our toes are anomalies from the rest of our bodies, for they’re one of the movable parts of our bodies that we don’t reflexively move or incorporate into the rest of our normal movements. Our toes are just there, not moving. Rather than over-thinking this one, trust me and try the following:

  • Scrunch your toes up to make a toe fist
  • Wiggle them
  • Stretch them out
  • Focus on moving your big toes without moving the rest of them
  • Now do whatever feels right for your toes
  • Now allow your awareness to sink into your feet and fill them from the inside to the outside, perhaps sensing the sensations of touch on the skin
  • The sensations in the soles of the feet, the sense of touch and pressure where the feet make contact with the floor.
  • Perhaps exploring with your awareness the boundary between the feet on the floor.
  • Perhaps the weight of the feet on the floor
  • Finally, allow your attention move away from your feet.
  • You have been experiencing “the now”

Did you notice that you couldn’t really think about anything else while you were actively moving your toes? You might also suddenly notice other parts of your body. It can be really weird when this happens.

The act of being present is, in a sense, a meditation without meditating. With it comes a sense of stillness. For a few moments in your busy, 24*7 lives, you feel at peace. At one with yourself and the world around you.

Finally, the photo I used is of my wacky striped socks. I came across a set of weird and wonderful coloured socks, bought them and have enjoyed wearing them both at work and at home. The look on some of my colleague’s faces when they see them brings a smile to them and me. The photo is a collage of four days of sock wearing at work last week!

If you look closely, you may notice that my left ankle is larger than my right. This is the long term outcome of being run over a few years ago. I have three screws in my left ankle and have five degrees less movement; hence the swelling. Oh and sometimes it does hurt, but that is life.

I love whacky socks and please feel free to share photos of your wacky socks!

Finally, if you would like to do a more formal practice to shift out of doing mode, then try the following link:

I leave you with the following quote.

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” ― Mahatma Gandhi


How to accept the now, by being present

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” ― Thomas Merton

Contrary to popular belief, humans cannot multitask. We get ourselves so wrapped up in trying to do a number of tasks at the same time, it stresses ourselves out. What we are capable of doing is handling a number of serial tasks in rapid succession, or mixing automatic tasks with those that are not so automatic.  

It’s like how we think. We can only think of one thing at a time. However, with upwards of 70,000 thoughts going through our heads, we believe we are able to multitask our thoughts. Our brains are incredibly clever at rapid thought change, but in reality, our conscious thinking is a sequence of thoughts; one after another.

We can only think of one thing at a time. However, with upwards of 70,000 thoughts going through our heads, we believe we are able to multitask our thoughts. Our brains are incredibly clever at rapid thought change, but in reality, our conscious thinking is a sequence of thoughts; one after another.

Most of our thoughts are spent in the past or in the future, rather than the present moment. What we end up doing is passing through that moment on the way to somewhere else and, in doing so, we miss the moment. That’s how life ends up passing us by – we do it to ourselves.

So, how do we stay present?

The first thing to recognize is that try as we might, we really can only do one thing at a time. Ruminating over the past, and that’s all we’re doing is ruminating over the past; is problematic because the past is something that can’t be changed. Certainly, we can change our relationship to past memories, but staying “back there” is simply ruminative and, for some of us, baldly destructive. There are a number of techniques that are used that can help you if there are past memories that badly affect you – Reframing; Integral Eye Movement Therapy; Talking therapies; NLP; Hypnosis; literally hundreds of different techniques. What they all do is change your relationship to the past memory.

Anticipating the future is also problematic, even futile, because, no matter how much we’d like to convince ourselves otherwise, we can’t really control the direction in which things will go. We can have an intention or goal in mind, but, in the end, the fates, God, the universe or something has a way of deciding.

Staying present, then, means staying here, right here, and there are a few simple techniques that can help us all experience the moment that we’re in.

Observe what you are doing right now

What you’re doing right at this moment? For most, right now, you are reading this blog post. Are you just reading? Where are your thoughts? Your emotions? Your hands? Your sense of time? You are reading – that’s it…so, just read. Not being present is easy. It is so easy to let our minds wander. Back and forth across our lives. The next time you are doing something, try to just focus on that task. I tried this, this morning when I cleaned my teeth. I focused my attention of the brushing motion; the froth created in my mouth and the tingle of the cleansing toothpaste. For a few moments, I was completely present.

Take a breath:

Our breath, along with change, are the only constants in our lives. Being present starts with the breath. All Mindfulness teaching starts with the breath. After all it , s always with us. Simply draw a deep breath through your nose rather than your mouth. When we breathe through our mouth it triggers a subtle anxiety response, which increases heart rate and redirects blood flow. A slow release of breath through the nose has the opposite effect of mouth-breathing, and draws a relaxation response. One of the quick mindfulness techniques is to breath in for half the amount of time you breath out. You can say breath in for a count of six and out for a count of 12, whatever works for you. I try to notice the difference in the air temperature between the in breath and out breath when I practice. It is always cooler on the in, than the out.

Take a moment:

Our 24*7 lives seem to be always on. When was the last time, you stopped and took a moment, even a few minutes to stop what you are doing? During the day, we rush to get to work; we try to cram in as many emails, meetings and tasks as possible and then rush home again. When we get home, we fill our task list with chores and activities. Even when we go on holiday, we seem to try to fill up every waking moment. Instead, take a mindful moment.

That is what mindfulness meditation teaches you. Whether it is 3 minutes, 10 minutes or even longer, try to take a moment every day. There is going to  be a follow up blog post with a fun way to bring attention to te now. In the mena time, if you have a ay of being present in the now, do share.

I leave you with the following quote.

“The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live, and that is the present moment”

Gautama Buddha

Stress and the pressures of life

“The reason many people in our society are miserable, sick, and highly stressed is because of an unhealthy attachment to things they have no control over.” ― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

I have been silent for a while.

Not in the speaking sense, but from a blog posting perspective. Life and mostly work have been the focus for the past month. A major transformation programme got to launch position and from that day on, it has been full on. Not just for me, but for a whole group of people.

The teams involved have been working long hours, resolving issues as they came up. As someone said “Fixing the wings, at the same time as the plane was flying”.

This put a huge amount of pressure onto everyone involved, me included.

Some people reacted to the stress and pressure by going silent. Some by shouting and swearing. Others still, looked like they were carrying the world on their shoulders. Everyone was impacted in some way. I, too, felt the stress, but, I feel I dealt with it in a slightly different way.

I became more focused; but at the same time, more focused only on the moment at hand; rather than the whole situation. This is part of the mindfulness training and background that I have developed over the past few years. Experiencing “present moment awareness” and only the “present moment”. It is one of the cornerstones of Mindfulness practice and it is something that you can use, not only in a formal manner, but also day to day, even moment to moment.

So what is Present Moment Awareness?

So often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. Present-moment awareness involves monitoring and attending to your current experience rather than predicting future events or dwelling on the past. In effect focusing all your attention on the “now”. The present moment is all there ever is. If you don’t believe me, let me give you another premise.

I will do a follow-up article on some of the steps you can take to develop present moment awareness, over and above formal Mindfulness practice.

How long is “now”?

Ugghh? What on earth is Martin banging on about now?

Well, according to a number of studies, it is approximately 3 seconds. Yep, 3 seconds. Whether it is giving someone a hug (I would not necessarily recommend that at work), through reading an e: mail marketeers latest e: mail to you extolling the virtues of xyz; different studies suggest that “now” or the present moment is about 3 seconds in length. In fact, we go through life perceiving the present in a series of 3-second windows. Outside of that timeframe, we then start to either use memory as an aid, or we start to store what is going on around us in short term memory.

Part of my mindfulness awareness, is that I can not change the past, nor can I impact the future. I can only exist in the present moment. Neither can I influence the actions of others, or correct the mistakes that other have made. In addition, I am not responsible for the outcomes of others.

Does this make me more detached? Nope. In fact it helps me increase focus on the present activity and helps me deliver the task at hand. It also helps, as I am more calm and for those around me, that can help them as well.

Nope. In fact, it helps me increase focus on the present activity and helps me deliver the task at hand. It also helps, as I am calmer and for those around me, that can help them as well.

So being present is literally, as short as 3 seconds. I would not advocate using that as a reference when being at work, but I would say, that recognising life is lived in the present moment, is key to dealing with the stress of life.

If you would like to read the article on e: mail marketing or the article on hugs, which both reference the 3 second effect, check out the following links.
In the mean time, I leave you with the following quote.

“I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth diminishing your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear.” ― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

What exactly is a Work Relationship?

“…there are people who try to look as if they are doing a good and thorough job, and then there are the people who actually damn well do it, for its own sake.” John D. MacDonald, Free Fall in Crimson

Further to the first article, I wrote “Work is a relationship” on the nature of work and the relationship we have with it, I got some interesting and thought provoking feedback:

“It is strange that work is so often NOT seen as a relationship.  Even though we hear the words ‘The Psychological Contract is strong (or broken)’.  The Psychological contract (whatever its state) is a relationship.  There is something in our culture that seems to want to keep the word ‘relationship’ off (or even under) the table.

Maybe it is time to wake up to the fact, there is more going on in the workplace than we have been acknowledging  in many instances!”

I completely agree that the idea the working relationship is often ignored.  If you consider that on average you spend over 50 years working and the majority of your waking week is spent at work (on average over 40 hours plus);  its importance is so often missed. People often refer to “employee engagement”, but it is more than this; much more. If you disagree, please feel to comment.

Where does the level of personal engagement come into it?  Like all relationships, is it the level of commitment to deliver; often in challenging and difficult situations; versus just turning up?  Is it commitment, or is it engagement built on trust? This got me thinking about what is the “work relationship”? What are its key characteristics? Is it, in fact, any different from a personal or social relationship?

I want to see if the work relationship is a fallacy or is in fact real. Also, what is your understanding? I believe the following are elements that go to make a “work relationship”:

  1. Having common Values – nor necessarily the corporate ones, but a sense of belonging to a common set within the workgroup
  2. How you get along with each other – how you work, talk, engage, and interact with each other
  3. Respect each and every person – consistent and truthful respect, is the glue
  4. Emotional Intelligence and Responsibility – this is a separate topic in its own right 
  5. Empathy, Compromise, Patience, Flexibility, Acceptance and Openness – speaks for itself

  6. Simple kindness – to one another and to oneself
  7. Mental flexibility – to deal with the stress of the work environment
  8. A sense of humour – laughter, fun, affection and connection
  9. Conflict – how you manage and handle conflict. In addition, how you learn through conflict
  10. Trust – that you support each other for the highest good
  11. Finally, something unsaid; a feeling; an untold emotion. Or to use a phrase, “Je ne sais quoi” – an indefinable, elusive quality,

I think the list is pretty comprehensive, but if you feel that there are other aspects that need to be added, please feel free to comment.

In addition, it would be interesting to see if there are differences across the generations. For instance, is there a stronger work commitment for those who are Generation  X (born between the 1960’s and the 1980’s)  than Generation Y (those born between the 1980’s to 2000)?  For those that are Generation Z (2000’s onwards) who are just starting to enter the work world, what is their perception?

I aim to follow up on the work relationship elements in subsequent posts, as well as the difference across the generations and would appreciate your insights and feedback.

Finally, I believe the general world of work is changing. And it’s changing fast. It’s rare that a week goes by without new evidence proving this. The World Economic Forum believes a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is imminent, and that the role of humans in the workplace will change in favour of smart machines and automation. Something, I’d like to follow up on as well.

In the meantime, I leave you with the following quote which really struck a chord with me.

“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” Thomas Merton


Work is a relationship

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Studs Terkel

Like it or not, but work does define your life. I know some people will argue it does not, but for many of us, it does, We spend more time working than ever before. We have moved way beyond the 9 to 5 Monday to Friday work life of our grand parents. According to one survey, we are working over 42 hours per week. Our culture has become an “always on” one. We are travelling further and working longer than ever before.

However, it is not just the amount of work that we are doing, it is how we are now engaged in the world of work that I think is important. What often gets ignored is that just like the personal relationships we develop, we also develop a working relationship. I don’t mean with the people at work, I mean with the work itself. For many of us, the type of work that we do, also impacts how we engage in a broader sphere.

For some people, putting on the uniform or suit in the morning is like putting on a suit of armour, ready to go to battle. For some, work is about being authentic and consistent. For others, the focus is trying to help and support others around them. I feel that work defines us in so many ways. Ways we sometimes forget.

I worked for a long time for a US technology company, called Hewlett Packard. When I applied to the company it felt as if I was joining a special group of people. The work was hard, the hours were long and the level of commitment expected was high. However, in those early days, I did not feel at all that I was just part of a work machine. Perhaps that is a rose-tinted view in hindsight, but I don’t think so. I felt that I could grow, develop and enjoy myself. I felt that I was recognised both as an individual, as well as for the contribution that I made.

Leap forward in time and I don’t think the world of work is the same. Many people I know that work in many different companies and work environments are mentioning to me a similar set of questions, along the lines of: “How am I recognised as an individual”; “Work does not hold the same meaning anymore”; “I feel I am not achieving what I set out to do”; “How can I help make a difference?”  “What does work mean to me now?”

Perhaps it is an age thing? I don’t think so. Perhaps it is a perception thing? I am not sure. What I do know is that for the vast majority of us, what work we do defines us and the relationship we have with work also impacts how we interact with the world.

I came across a really interesting infographic on the changing dynamics of work. You might want to check it out here.

I leave you with the following quote.

“People are more difficult to work with than machines. And when you break a person, he can’t be fixed.”  Rick Riordan, The Battle of the Labyrinth