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How Hamlet the anti-hero, got one thing right

May 15, 2023

Crossing the line

A line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet resonates with the concept of Neutral on The Winning Edge Programme: ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’

What do I mean by neutral? So, a football goes over the line. Is that good or bad? Well, it depends which team you play for or support. Which team you support will then determine whether that result in your eyes is a good or a bad one. In itself, the ball going over the line is a neutral event– it is neither good nor bad; if you don’t have any interest in football, that ball going over the line has no meaning for you. However, if you support one of the teams, you attach a meaning to what happens to that ball and value the result; depending on where your loyalties lie, you are either pleased, or maybe you’re ranting about the quality of playing and/or coaching!

What you need before anything is anything other than neutral to you is awareness. Until you become aware of an event it’s neutral; as soon as you become aware of it, without any conscious thought, it gets ascribed a position on your value chain. High on your value chain, high value to you, low on your value chain, low value to you. And all shades of grey in between. Before you ascribe value to an event it is still neutral. Once an event has a position on your value chain that’s when it has meaning... for you. As soon as it has meaning it is no longer neutral to you.

A train is late. Is that good or bad? It’s neither, it is a neutral event. If you’re wanting to get to a meeting on time, it doesn’t feel like a positive addition to your day. If you’re a mother seeing her daughter off to university, those extra minutes are precious. It all depends how we think about it and what our individually held beliefs and values are- it’s our own unique experience.

So, all events are neutral until you consider them and then you decide whether they are right or wrong for you.

Wrong for whom?

Events and other people’s words and actions are right or wrong depending on different people's values and beliefs. Think – the ball crossing the line. All events are neutral until you consider them and then you decide whether they are right or wrong for you. And so we come back to the fact that ‘Nothing is either good nor bad but thinking makes it so.’

Can you prove anything is wrong, using anything other than your values? Donald Trump is a figure who many will have passionate opposing views about. He has his vehement supporters but so too does he have those who completely disagree with everything that he stands for.

For those that oppose what Trump stands for, it doesn't mean that he is wrong, it means they all agree with each other. For Trump is neutral, until you bring your own values into play.

Thinking about work, is there perhaps a challenging situation with a colleague or team member and you’re thinking about it one way, and you have no comprehension as to why they cannot see your point of view? You perhaps feel frustrated, disappointed, angry maybe, but they don’t.  It’s neutral but it depends how each of you view it. The thing is, it’s not neutral to you…

So, how does knowing everything is neutral, help you in your personal and work lives?

It means you’ve never had a bad day, just a whole lot of neutral days you didn’t like. You have every right to think of them as bad days, but it is your thoughts and expectations that make them bad.

Here’s a suggestion… It’s not your life that makes you happy or unhappy, it’s your opinion of your life that makes you happy or unhappy. Isn’t it great to know that it's not your job / partner / car / house / kids that make you happy / unhappy - because all those things and people are what? Neutral! It’s our perception of a neutral world that decides our happiness. As Abraham Lincoln once said: “Happiness is a state of mind. Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Choose your thoughts

We can all be thrown curve balls in life. COVID. Who saw that curve ball coming? Was it a neutral event? Yes, in and of itself. Not everybody felt the same about it. It did test our mettle, to say the very least and for many, it meant a loss of their job, their business, strained relationships, ill health – physically, emotionally and/or mentally, and worse. It can be hugely challenging to view events such as the pandemic as merely neutral, and I am not for one minute being blithe about something that had such an effect, and globally. However, we still got to choose and decide how we wanted to think and respond to those circumstances, and everyone will have responded differently according to their own unique perspective. Introverts might have enjoyed the opportunity to be able to keep away from social situations without having to make excuses. Working from home will have been beneficial for many. Some businesses were able to pivot and be agile to find a new way to ensure they could continue. Not possible for all, I appreciate that. What I am wanting to do is to provide an example where everyone will have thought differently about a situation. For there is no absolute across all times, in all situations, to all people.

The way we choose to think about people and events in life, will have a direct impact on our quality of life. I am again reading Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist, and a prisoner of war in several concentration camps in Germany during World War II. In his book, he talks about the one thing that is within us and beyond the reach of any circumstance – and that is our ability to choose the way we think. Powerful words from someone who faced extreme circumstances.

I think an important question to ask ourselves then is ‘How do I want to think about this?’

Now I don’t mean murder, racism or domestic abuse and so forth, I personally don’t need to stop and think about how I feel about those things; I mean things like getting cut up at a roundabout, a supplier doesn’t deliver, or the IT fails at work, I can ask myself: ‘How do I want to think and feel about this? Is this worth me getting upset about? Will getting upset help? Is it really that bad? How long do I want to get upset for? Five minutes? 15 minutes? Half an hour? The rest of the day? Too often we react habitually and without thinking. As we say on The Winning Edge - MUMMS it! Make Up My Mind Slowly.

Very often, we wind ourselves up about something which, if we thought about it, is it really worth all that emotional energy?

In early March 2020, we were having a new kitchen fitted. It was the last day of the work and the guy fitting the kitchen showed Graham and I that one of the last panels he was about to put in place- the screws were showing- the designers had got the panel the wrong way around. I couldn’t believe it, all that designing, planning and money. I was so disappointed, frustrated and wondering how this could be rectified with rumours of the impact of COVID and something called Lockdown.

And then, we get a phone call to say that a good friend of ours had taken his life. Boom. Perspective. Right there. I couldn’t give a hoot about a cupboard panel because I had far more important things to think about. Something with a much higher value, for me.

And to this day, whenever I wind myself up about anything, I think of that panel and give myself a check up from the neck up, asking myself the question: ‘How do I want to think about this?’

You see, you don’t have to like the ‘bad’ days – it’s about getting perspective.

So, here’s a thought: maybe some of the things we invest emotion in, like traffic, surly shop assistants and IT failing us, aren’t worth it and we’d be better off investing our emotion in other things like our family, our work, developing ourselves and thinking about how we want our future to look.

Taking control

Understanding the concept of neutral is a way of managing our mindset because things are as good or bad as our thoughts make them.

We have the ability to choose our thoughts around any given situation, and whilst it might not feel neutral to us, this will be down to our own meaning and perspective and the value we place upon it.

There are many instances in life when we might be feeling irate, disappointed, infuriated by circumstances or by somebody’s words or actions, but we do have the ability– not necessarily always the desire – to choose how we want to think about it. It’s perfectly natural and understandable to feel these emotions at certain times in our lives and understanding the concept of neutral is not about invalidating emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration or disappointment, it’s about recognising that those emotions derive from the type of thoughts we are having which stem from our values. Feel the feels but rather than build a monument to them or the situation, be conscious of them, process them and choose your path forward– one that is mentally moving you forward rather than keeping you stuck in a moment you feel you can’t get out of.

If we consciously know that everything is neutral until we decide the value we place on it, we know that we have the choice as to how we decide to think about it. Some things we will choose to slide down our value chain, some things will be fixed. But understanding the concept of neutral means we comprehend the importance of knowing what our values are, where our line in the sand is and therefore how much time, energy and emotion we want to invest in what we choose to think about.

What is important to remember is that whenever we adopt a value, we become a hostage to the emotions it creates. Every value we have, as well as benefits, has a possible downside of us being upset when people don’t live up to it. You can replace hostage with beneficiary; hostage is there to underline that when we have a value, there will be times when it is not pleasant. A Winning Edge course participant once said: “After today I’m going to be careful which values I choose because I’ll have to pay the price for them” - how eloquently put.

So, every value we hold can produce positive and negative emotions. Once we realise that, we can decide whether to keep them or not; every value you hold makes you vulnerable.

How happy will you decide to be?

It's about not allowing yourself to get stuck being angry about the ball going over the line, because that you cannot change, but you can change the way you choose to think about it. Or support another team… (only someone who doesn’t have much of an interest in football could make such a preposterous suggestion!).

Understanding the concept of neutral also helps us when someone doesn’t see things the way we see things- we’re not right and they are wrong, it’s because they have different values to you. What they think is not wrong, it’s different, which people can so easily get confused.

Think about the way you think about what you think about in this neutral world. When you adopt this mindset, it can be hugely freeing, to know it’s down to you and no one else.

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Do you sweat the small stuff? Do you find it challenging to slow your thoughts down so that you can gain some clarity around a situation, to respond rather than to react?

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