It’s a baffling and contrary world at times. A world where extraordinary amounts of money are spent on gambling in the poorest parts of the country. One single High Street in these areas can sport as many as five separate betting shops, particularly where unemployment is high. Child poverty and malnutrition is often rife in these areas as well.
Watching a research documentary on poverty stricken areas with a study group, I got a bit frustrated and commented that, if the chap we were watching hadn’t smoked a few of the cigarettes that he was tearing through during the discussion, then perhaps he could buy that can of soup that he said he couldn’t afford. I was roundly criticised for my insensitivity by two members of the group. They said that those cigarettes were all the comfort that the man had. I replied that I wasn’t asking him to give them up completely, just pull back a little to be able to buy soup. I thought it was a reasonable enough comment. We didn’t part as friends.
What stayed with me was that many of the people that I saw at that time, and also met while working for Social Services later were experiencing the same struggle. They were incredibly focused on the combination of the big win and the ‘need’ for little comforts. Let’s not forget that little comforts mean big business, there are many, many corporates who target and promote vulnerability (or low impulse control if you prefer) especially with the young, not only online with gambling, loans and gaming but also physically, on the High Street again with mountains of candy bars near tellers and in-and-out fast-food outlets. I really (really) struggle with this exploitative approach, as does Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and would love to see more programs like those supporting struggling families with the basics, like budgeting and time-management. In fact, it is my hope that, once launched, The Glass Ceiling Project will help with this. More on that later..
Let’s focus on the message here and contrast this with the most successful people I know (mainly athletes and businessmen) who have locked down the basics and generally pride themselves on 1) what they deprived themselves of and 2) their small steps towards a 3) achievable and realistic goal.
In terms of denial, successful people routinely moderate their ‘intake’ of things that don’t serve their goal. They forego social gatherings to work late, time with loved ones, comfort to get up early, to keep pushing and keep sharp when they are mentally and physically exhausted. While I cringe a little to think of myself as ‘successful’, I have definitely achieved more than I ever thought I would when I left school. In the early days, when I was living on twenty pounds a week after rent and transport; I knew that I couldn’t afford alcohol and partying (probably a good thing actually) but I could afford Chocolate Digestives. So I bought one packet every fortnight and allowed myself one a day (or two on a good day). Okay, many hyper-successful people struggle with self-compassion, but personally as a long-term lover of chocolate, for good mental health, there has to be kindness to oneself as well as perspective!
In terms of small steps, the person that I still think of as the UK’s greatest Olympian, Sir Stephen Redgrave CBE (sorry Wiggo). When asked about whether he was thinking about his next gold in the run-up to his next Olympics (and next gold) he responded ‘No, I am just thinking about tomorrow.’
And his goal was achievable and realistic for him. He had put the work in day after day since being a teenager, had built up the wins, knew his strengths and weaknesses. I have heard people say ‘Oh, but look at the size of him, it’s easy for him’. Let’s not forget, he has struggled hard with a number of things, including diabetes and more recently has a very real fear of losing his sight. There are also people who are bigger, stronger and fitter but they haven’t pulled all the strings together day after day, with a simple and well-quoted goal.. ‘Will it make the boat go faster’. (if you are struggling with goals then Cath Bishop’s great article ‘Why oh Why oh Why?’ isn’t a bad place) The point is, that it isn’t easy but it also isn’t insurmountable as many people who are struggling. It is simply so often that they want the big instant answer not the small, long-drawn out answer but many don’t see how the small daily steps lead to momentum.
So, how do we help ourselves and others, to be more successful in life? 1) moderate our intake of what doesn’t serve our goal (not forgetting a little self-kindness!) 2)take small steps towards a 3) achievable and realistic goal.. So very simple but so often overlooked in the search for the silver bullets, especially by those who are struggling the most.