But it's all right now, I've learned my lesson well
You see, you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself.

I've been meandering through old photographs, newspaper cuttings and various other memorabilia found in my cupboards during this forced Covid-19 lockdown period, with the inevitable consequence that many intentionally 'forgotten' memories have come flooding back ...

One of these past early chapters is my application for a Rhodes Scholarship ...

There is a window of opportunity of three years for applying for the Rhodes Scholarship, and I had left it to the last year of eligibility to apply. In the previous two years, I had been reluctant to apply and had had the weird experience of receiving phone calls from other prospective applicants wanting to know if I would be in the field that year. They had decided that I would be a certain winner, so if that were the case, they would submit their applications in a different year ...

You see, I had the credentials in the things that they deemed to be the most important criteria. I was the top mathematician in my last year at school, coming first in the country in the Matric Advanced Mathematics paper. I was also an international track athlete, who would almost certainly have competed for South Africa in the Olympic Games in Mexico in the 400-metre hurdles if South Africa had not been expelled for its apartheid laws. In addition, I had recently shown my leadership credentials as Captain of the UCT Athletics Club, where membership and camaraderie had grown significantly, to the extent that the organisation had achieved the impossible by beating Stellenbosch University in the top local team competition. I was studying the enormously difficult degree of Chemical Engineering and keeping myself in the top two in the class.

So in this last year, I decided to go for it and I applied, was short-listed, interviewed and then waited ... and waited...

Having been told the decision would be made within a week, I became concerned when there was nothing but silence from the school until the formal letter arrived telling me I had been unsuccessful.

I had failed!

The repercussions were enormous: most significant was that I had failed both my parents.

My mother had always been a reluctant parent and I quickly learned that I could only get her attention through success. However, there was a twist in this attention as it always demanded further success. 'You got 95% for maths, where did you lose the 5%?' 'You broke the school record, so what's the provincial record?' (all the way up to the world record!).

So success had become a crucial ingredient for survival and scraps of love. I suspect I chose the 400-metre hurdles (the most exhausting and demanding athletics track event) as a symbolic overcoming of my limitations as an asthmatic when young. I certainly chose to study Chemical Engineering at university because people told me it was the most difficult degree that used both mathematics and science (great method for choosing one's future career!).

My father, who had come from Cockney working-class roots, had devoted himself to making a successful life that would allow him to send his children to the best schools in his new country so that they could have a better start than he had had. He had started the process through elocution lessons and then worked his way up from junior to senior levels in the company. He consequently took enormous pride in my achievements; for him, the crowning glory would have been for his son to win a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, something he could never have aspired to himself.

It turned out that I had given an appalling interview. My total exclusive focus on success in the lecture theatre as well as on the athletics track had left me with little or no time to educate myself properly in current affairs and issues of philosophy. My answers to the panel's questions were deemed to be very shallow: definitely not befitting a future Oxford student!

It was a bitter pill to swallow at the time, but I shrugged it off (in the same way I had let go of my Olympic ambitions the previous year) and continued my quest for perfection and success in the years that followed in my roles as a teacher, a husband and then a father.

Fast forward twenty years. I thought I had cracked the key to successful intimate relationships by observing my father's 'mistakes' in handling my mother, so I married with confidence. I followed my plan and my (apocryphal) story is that over the years, I handed over more and more of my power to my wife, with increasingly diminishing returns. Somewhere in my mid-forties, I became totally tired of myself!

One evening I decided to take the plunge and begin the process of taking back my power. So without any warning or preparation, I suddenly said (as firmly as I could), 'Tonight, I want to choose what we are going to do.'

In this version of the story, my wife took the wind out of my sails by saying, 'Sure, darling, what do you want to do?'

I was shocked into silence by the frightening realisation that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. It had taken so much energy and focus getting the courage to stand up and say this sentence that at no stage had I given any thought as to what might come next! Even more horrifying in that moment was my realisation that I actually did know what every single person who had had some influence or power over me at some stage in my life would want me to do (whether it was through love [wife, children, parents] or through position [teacher, lecturer, coach or boss])!

The ground opened up in front of me and I realised that my whole life until then had consisted of pleasing other people.

The next day was even worse as I observed myself in action and saw that everything I did during that day had an ulterior motive of getting recognition from someone else for how clever/funny/intelligent/… I was.

This was a huge moment for me and fortunately the start of a whole new personal journey where I started with the task of pleasing myself through my own actions and choices instead of prioritising others. (Thank you,Rick Nelson)

This journey led me to explore two main paths ...

The first path asked me to let go of my attempts at seeking validity and affirmation from others through the impossible and unrealisable pursuit of attempted perfectionism and continuous success.  I needed to work on knowing that I was good enough. Brene Brown, in her TED talk on Vulnerability, encourages us to know that ‘I am enough’, but this was paradoxically 'not enough' for me. I needed to address the overwhelming demands of my past, which had turned me into a continuous self-generating KPI monster who is always setting the bar just out of reach! I had to add the word 'good'!

My teaching experiences over the past 12 years in the field of Personal Leadership led me to make my learnings from this path accessible through a blog on being Good Enough. A year or so after writing this supposedly definitive blog, I realised that this work  is actually a lifelong commitment and that there had been (at least) two more major shifts that needed to be told in follow-up blogs, Good Enough 2 and Good Enough 3.

The second path became clearer when I came across David Whyte's concept of The Three Marriages. He speaks of the importance of the ongoing conversation and contracting that needs to happen between the Marriages to Self, Other and Work.

For him, Marriage to Self asks us to be still and seek silence so that we can go inwards and see if we can listen to our soul's inner knowing. Marriage to Self is extremely difficult in these complex times because it places such different demands on us from the other two marriages, which call for us to be busy, doing and communicating. The problem, he believes, is that we cannot hope to have a good marriage to Other or to Work if we do not give our best attention to nourishing our marriage to Self.

These ideas find resonance for me in James Hollis's  description of the challenges of the second half of life, where we are asked to radically consider who we are apart from our history, roles and commitments. He says that to enter this second half of life, we have to be willing to listen to 'the voice that arises from the depths of our souls'.

I try to introduce the concept of Marriage to Self in my Personal Leadership classes. I start by asking everyone to estimate the percentage of time they devote to each of the three marriages, with all three allocated percentages adding up to 100%. Prior to Covid-19,  there was a definite dominant pattern in the responses: the overwhelming majority gave answers along the lines of 80% Marriage to Work, 15% Marriage to Other and 5% Marriage to Self.

If Whyte is correct in saying that we cannot have good marriages to Work and Other without having a good marriage to Self, this is frightening data. Even more worrying is that the 5% for Self often includes time spent by the participants beating up their bodies in the noise of a gym rather than peaceful contemplative time.

I ask participants to begin a journey of reclaiming the Marriage to Self through two powerful class exercises that form the basis for intermodular homework.

I took the first exercise from something offered by the Brazilian Biocentric educator, Liliana Viotti, at a workshop in France. She asked us to divide a sheet of paper into four quadrants, as in the sketch below. We were asked to scan our lives for the various activities that we like (DIG) or don't like doing and whether or not we do them. The instruction is to write down ideas in a free-flow way without judgement as quickly as you can. Just keep writing ...

In my classes, I decide when it seems the lists are long enough, and we stop. Obviously, each item does not carry equal weight, but it is surprising how often we find that it is the two same two columns that are the longest (the 'I Dig and I Don’t Do' column and the 'I Don't Dig and I Do' column). What is it about our lives that leads us not to do the things we like and to do many things we don't actually like?

This exercise gives participants some insight into the choices they make along with the priority they give to their own lives and desires. They discuss their lists and insights with another person, and then select two specific items to work on before the next round of sessions starts in around two months’ time. They have to choose an item that they like and start doing it, and stop doing another item that they don’t like doing. In essence, they are being invited to prioritise themselves in making choices: a start in paying attention to the Marriage to Self.

It is interesting to hear the energy that this discussion generates and the enormity of the challenge that this homework places on some participants. I try to ease their path by referring them to the work of Charles Handy, who identified three crucial lubricants for change. One of these is a Proper Selfishness.

The second exercise comes after we have watched Shonda Rhime’s powerful TED talk.

Again, each participant discusses the impact the talk has had on them with a fellow participant, and then selects a daily activity that they plan to incorporate into their post-module life for around 15 minutes that will bring them JOY. They do not have to follow Shonda in playing with their children, although this activity is, in many ways, the most fulfilling and easiest to incorporate into the day - always assuming our children haven't given up on us and are still prepared to play with us! Another step of proper selfishness that focuses on Marriage to Self …

These are small beginnings, but both activities seem to open up a whole new world of presence and positivity for those who are prepared to pay attention to their lives and do the necessary work.

For the past few years, I have run a six-day senior leadership programme for two different companies. The six days are split over three modules, with a one-day follow-up session six months after the third module. As part of the sixth day (the last day of the actual teaching programme), each participant makes a short videoed commitment to their colleagues on the programme in which they outline their intentions for changing their behaviour based on the insights they have garnered from the programme.

A month ago, the participants of each of the most recent of these programmes joined me in separate lockdown-enforced online Zoom follow-up days. The aim of the follow-up day is to hold each participant accountable to themselves and to their colleagues on the programme. With this in mind, the day is framed around individual presentations during which each person reports back to the team on where they have succeeded in introducing positive change into their lives in line with their previously stated intentions as well as outlining what challenges they have faced in doing so.

This year's reports were very striking. The fact that everyone had spent at least three of the six months in coronavirus lockdown, meant that the reality of their lives and the many challenges they faced had been brought into sharp relief.

Listening to the reports, it soon become clear that the vast majority of those programme participants in the two groups (20 participants in all) who had set an intention to pay more serious attention to their Marriage to Self had made some significant progress in this regard. They reported a change in lifestyle that now saw them spending time gardening, switching off their cellphones at home, painting, playing with their children, reading, walking in nature and so on. What struck me particularly strongly was the improved strength and groundedness with which each of these people spoke. It seemed that this increased focus on Marriage to Self had made a significant difference in how they were present in the world and how they were handling the difficult challenges they were facing.

Several of them told us how this enhancement of their Marriage to Self had emboldened them in their workplace: they had been able to negotiate changes in their jobs or their relationships with their colleagues with a far stronger emphasis on boundaries. They spoke with pride and satisfaction, going on to say how this boundaried strength was now spreading to their interactions with extended family members. Several participants also reported how the work they had done to improve their Marriage to Self had helped them start drawing lines in the sand to protect themselves from being over-available to assist others, and to take on extra work and responsibilities!

It really felt as if they confirmed David Whyte’s assertion about the central importance of the Marriage to Self.

In contrast, those who had not foregrounded changes in lifestyle that would support an improved Marriage to Self or who had given up on this aspect of their previously stated intentions for change by succumbing to the many pressures that working from home had placed on them were really struggling. They had coped with this pressure by devoting more time to their Marriage to Work, and as a result giving less attention to their Marriage to Self. This had left them feeling exhausted and frustrated (seemingly bordering on hopeless at times) in many spheres.

Today I have been reading the assignments of a group of EMBA students with whom I spent two days on their first module. I am struck by the increasing demands and struggle they have faced as the effects of the various lockdown stages have made themselves felt. Their initial optimism has come under huge pressure as they try to meet all the conflicting demands on their time from home and work and their studies. The first casualty inevitably seems to have been the progress they had been making on their Marriage to Self.

I am due to see these students again in the coming week, unfortunately via Zoom and not in person. There is an intensive timetable of content lectures and new knowledge scheduled for them this week.

I have been sitting thinking about the stories I have shared in this blog from my own life (as well as the many others that I have not shared).

I know that my life only really started when I began to pay attention to the Marriage to Self. I know that it is only now that I am in my 70s that I can feel satisfaction at some of the progress I have made that has allowed me to live far more authentically with deep listening to my soul. The feedback given by participants during the follow-up days for the two senior leadership programmes confirms many of my beliefs.

I am thinking about my session in two days' time. How can I broach this topic in a new way that allows the EMBA students to have a second bite at the topic? How can I re-enthuse those who have given up? Is this even my responsibility as an academic on the course when there is a huge amount of new 'proper' theoretical material to be covered? I am reminded of a few students in previous years who got impatient with the continued presence of this 'soft' stuff that became repetitive to them because they had 'got' the message and didn't need it repeated. I weigh this against those students who have said this 'stuff' was the most important learning on the programme ...

As I write the above, the central question becomes clearer to me.

What really matters at the context of the current chaotic and challenging time where the future has to written as it emerges?

It's time to pay attention to my own Marriage to Self and go for a ride on my kayak and listen to my outer environment as well as my own inner voice.

I know I will be much clearer about my decisions for Tuesday once I have done this.

Francisco Varela (1946 - 2001) was Chilean theoretical biologist who, together with his mentor, Humberto Maturana, is best known for introducing the concept of autopoiesis to biology, and for co-founding the Mind and Life Institute to promote dialogue between science and Buddhism.

Both Maturana and Varela became very important to me when, way back in the late 1980's, I was researching my own practice as a mathematics education searching for an appropriate teaching methodology for transformation. I was working from a grounded theory perspective so it was really important that I found a theoretical framework of cognition which could embrace both what I was trying to do and what I was observing in my classrooms. I finally found my pot of gold in Maturana and Varela's Santiago Theory of Cognition and the concept of enactivism.

The Santiago Theory of Cognition identifies the process of knowing as the activity that allowed the self-generation of living systems – cognition is the process of life. In the case of humans, this includes language and conceptual thought. The physicist Fritjof Capra believes that the Santiago theory of cognition is the first scientific theory that really overcomes the Cartesian division of mind and matter and unifies mind, matter, and life.

In 1992 Varela gave a set of three lectures to an audience at the University of Bologna on the topic of ethical thought. These lectures were later published by Stanford University Press with the title: Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition. The lectures cover a wonderful range of theory from contemporary scientific thought to philosophical reflection that includes non-Western traditions.

In the first lecture, Varela introduces the topic of micro-worlds and micro-identities.

His starting point is that we each inhabit a whole range of micro-worlds in our lives (as parent, child, employee, direct report, spouse, friend, lover, …), and for each of these we have a specific distinct and well-developed micro-identity that we bring to each of these micro-worlds. These micro-identities are not so much masks that we put on to hide our true selves but rather behaviours, skills or characteristics that we successfully foreground in spaces as we navigate this micro-world's specificities.

Before introducing this topic of micro-worlds and micro-identities in my Personal Leadership programmes, I use David Whyte's concept of Three Marriages and ask each participant to allocate the percentage that they on average give to each of the three marriages - to Self, to Other(s) and to Work.

The most common response by far finds participants acknowledging that they spend at least 80% of their time on their marriage to Work. (The most neglected marriage is the marriage to Self which scores between 0% and 10%. This is particularly alarming when Whyte claims that it is impossible it is impossible to have a good marriage to either Work or Other if one does not have a good marriage to Self!! I may follow this thread some time in another blog)

Discussing the implications of this over-commitment to the marriage to Work, I include a question about the ways in which this marriage to Work impacts on the lives of and interactions with their family when the come home at the end of the day. The most common responses include greeting the family while on the cell as they arrive home; immediate disappearance or collapsing in front of the TV on the grounds that they have had a hard day; continual cell phone use even at the dinner table and in the bedroom; an abruptness with the children with a heavily transactional mode of engagement (have you done your homework, tidied your room, time for bed, etc.); and a downloading of the worst experiences of the day with their spouse when at last they have some 'quiet time' together.

These responses are often given both with a degree of guilt but also a shrug of the shoulders that suggests that such behaviour is what is expected of them - so what can they do? However, they do look sheepish when I comment that their partners and children must SO look forward to them coming home each evening with their daily dose of misery and the intrusion into the home of their work. They also nod in agreement when I jokingly say that it must be such a pity for them that the people at home do not respond to instructions as quickly and as easily as their subordinates do at work!

It's important to pause and say that these are just ordinary men and women at all levels in the corporate world who are doing their best to survive (in many cases) or get ahead. The reader will no doubt have recognised some of their own behaviour in the above description and can easily add a few more similar examples!

I find Varela's concepts extremely helpful in both naming the behaviour and in finding ways to change these practices.

In essence the source of the disjuncture lies in the fact that the returning worker has entered the new micro-world of the home without letting go of their work micro-identity.

This is clearly a problem and inappropriate so I invite participants in my course to start working consciously working with the shift between micro-worlds.

The first challenge I give them is to start practicing with a challenge that should be simple. When we next go on tea- or lunch-break they will be shifting micro-worlds from classroom learning to social interaction. The task I set them is to be aware of their return to the classroom and the need to change to an appropriate micro-identity.

The specifics of the exercise are that I ask them to treat the doorway that separates the classroom from the outside tea space as the portal them that takes one from one micro-world to another.

I challenge them to see if they can stop at the doorway and become aware that they are about to cross the threshold. Once they stop they should take a deep breath and ground themselves and then say aloud 'I'm in!' as an indication of their readiness to change micro-worlds, leave the concerns of work and break conversation behind, and commit themselves to the learning that lies ahead.

This is far more difficult than it sounds and I, for one, really struggle to catch the moment of crossing the threshold.

There are some rules that are aimed at supporting this change of microworlds such as the chairs being in a circle, silence and no technology allowed in the circle,  gentle music playing, and an expectation that everyone is seated two minutes before the designated starting time of the session so that they have this time to close their eyes and do a mindfulness practice that brings their mind, body and heart into the learning space.

The process within the room is much easier to manage as all it needs is some self-regulation in the context of a shared objective. It is an amazing experience when we get this right and everyone is grounded and present as the timer goes for the start of the lesson. The increased quality of attention and contribution is amazing.

Participants are then asked to extend this practice in an appropriate form to the transition between work and home micro-worlds as a homework assignment between teaching modules. Each participant is encouraged to find their own appropriate ritual but I offer the following as a suggested exemplar for those who travel to work by car.

"Keep a stone in your car’s cubby hole. When you get into your car to go to work, take the stone out of the cubbyhole and put it in your pocket. Use the drive to work to think about the day that lies ahead of you and prioritise activities. Try not to be put off track by the unexpected crises of the day. When it reaches time for you to go home, try to make all necessary calls before you leave for home. On the journey home, your thoughts will almost inevitably stay at work and you will remember other calls you should have made. When you get near to home, consciously choose to park a block away (preferably where there is some greenery) and make those last calls. When you are finished with them, turn your phone off. Then take the stone out of your pocket and put it back in your car’s cubby hole. Ground yourself and think of all the reasons you have to be grateful for your home and the people there. When you are ready, drive home and enter the house with gratefulness ready to engage with an open heart with your loved ones as you navigate all the complexity that this entails'.

Sometimes I offer this activity as homework at the end of the first day of a two day module. The report back responses next day are very touching and also, at times, quite funny.

The majority report how much they enjoyed being home for a change and how they were able to see and enjoy their spouse in a new way. They found time to play with their children and this was a new and pleasurable experience. The lighter notes included spouses looking suspiciously at them and asking them what they had done, why they were acting as if they were guilty of something, or just 'what do you want?' Once this obstacle had been overcome all went well. One of the funniest comments came from a man who was started at how quiet it was in the house this evening and how smoothly everything went. 'Even the dogs were much quieter than usual ', he said. 'I can't believe that I have been such a disturbing influence in the past!'.

This attention to changing micro-worlds can dramatically change all aspects of our lives and drastically reduce tension.

For example. My phone rings while I am talking to partner. This is an invitation from another micro-world. I have a choice whether to accept this invitation or not. If I choose to accept the invitation, I take responsibility for taking a moment  to let go of my conversation with my partner and change micro-identities appropriately so I am ready to answer the call. I do not have to answer it as it starts to ring. The chances that I will regret my responses during the call decrease proportionally to the length of time I take to answer the call.

My partner and I have added some variations to this scenario through co-operative engagement and creativity. We do not live together so enjoy a regular early morning Skype call. The trouble is that I am a (very) early riser while Louise prefers to take her time (but would still be regarded as an early riser by normal standards!). I wake ready to run while Louise believes she is only fit for conversation after her first cup of tea of the day. You can see the problem that might occur when Louise wakes and goes through her tea routine and then lovingly starts the Skype video call. It's my beloved calling so I answer, and because I have already been up and thinking and maybe working for two hours there is a total mismatch in our micro-worlds and micro-identities which does not lend itself at all to loving, safe conversation.

So we talked about the situation and together came up with a new ritual that works well for us. It involves Louise taking her time as part of her tea ritual to check in with herself and find what she needs to let go of before making the call. She then types 'Talk?'

I may be busy or (hopefully, when it is legal again) even out on my kayak. When I see 'Talk?', I take a moment or two to check in with myself, let go of my current micro-world and it's focus, and prepare myself to enter the new micro-world of loving relationship. It's a very different, slow and grounded  and open-hearted micro-identity and can sometimes take a few moments. When I am ready I start the call and every time we have the most amazing conversation.

It may sound like excessive control is being exercised but the rewards of the huge amount of freedom (and absence of tension and friction) that arises from this boundaried beginning are well worth it.

My final offering came from a Follow Up session I ran last week with a group of senior corporate leaders who had completed a 6 day 3 module Personal leadership programme with me the previous year. This Follow Up Day takes place six months after the completion of the programme. It is held with the explicit purpose of giving participants the opportunity to report back to their peers their successes in fulfilling the intentions that they had shared with us (and had televised on day 6 of the programme).

This Follow Up Day had to be held virtually on Zoom as we were well into the tended total lockdown in South Africa.

One participant had a lovely anecdote as t how he had made use of the micro-world learnings on lockdown.

Each morning I get up and have breakfast with the family. Then I get ready to go to work and before leaving I say goodbye to the children and then I kiss my wife goodbye. I then leave and go into the spare room, which has become my office, and I close the door. I reverse the process when I leave my 'office' for the day. I close the office door when I leave the spare room and go 'home' and greet my children and my wife. All work artefacts (cell phone, computer, diary, notes, etc.) remain housed in my office behind the shut door and are generally only available when I go off to work the next day. 

His comment on this process was that he has never spent so much fun and loving time with his wife and his children before. He also spends far more time than before on his marriage to Self!

Thank you, Francisco Varela.