How to think differently, get unstuck and why mimes are better at directing traffic

Updated to Habits, Life on December 27, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

When Bogotá’s newly minted mayor, Antanas Mockus, took office he had a lot of problems.

One of which was traffic.

In a city of 8 million, where a large majority of the population walk to work and to shops, pedestrian accidents were at an all-time high.

True to his somewhat eccentric nature (as a professor, Mockus would sometimes show up in a spandex superhero costume) he replaced the traffic police with mimes – 420 of them.

The theory was instead of punishing pedestrians with threats and penalties, the mimes would follow and shame jaywalkers, mock poor drivers, dramatize the frustration of citizens moving through traffic and wildly celebrate good behaviour.

Pedestrians and drivers loved it.

Within 2 months, pedestrian traffic compliance increased from 26% to 75%, gridlock was dramatically reduced and, over a longer period, traffic fatalities fell by 50%.

By using humour, instead of penalties, Mockus had done something the previous system with traffic cops had failed to do – create a lasting solution.

Mockus didn’t stop there. He celebrated women by orchestrating a “Night for Women” that attracted 700,000 women to enjoy a safe night out while the men were instructed to stay home and take care of the children.

He went on public TV during a water shortage to demonstrate (live from the shower) how to turn the water off while you soaped. With the addition of economic incentives, water use dropped by 40%.

And, for one campaign, he asked citizens to exercise their power by handing out 350,000 “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” cards that could be used to peacefully approve or disapprove of other citizen’s behaviour.

You aren’t the mayor of Bogotá but you do have one thing in common with Mockus – you have problems to solve.

Maybe it’s time to think differently.

You think you’re right

The problem with problem-solving is we only see one version. Our version. But it’s worse than that:

In psychology they call it confirmation bias – basically we think we’re right.

I was on the phone an hour ago with a client who was complaining that he’s always so distracted he can’t manage to publish his blog on a regular basis. He’s right – he is always distracted. And there’s a good chance that he always will be.

A friend struggles to make enough money as a speaker. He tells me there “just isn’t enough work out there.” Right again, there isn’t enough there (for him) and there’s a good chance there won’t be in the future.

“I wouldn’t see it” the philosopher and media critic Marshall McLuhan once wrote, “if I didn’t believe it to be true.”

For you, it might be time for your kids, time for exercise, feeling happy, or just getting a good night’s sleep. Whatever it is that seems to be evading you, your first job is to admit whatever you’re doing AIN’T WORKING.

The next step is to get out of your own way and invite in thinking differently.

Think differently

I wrote about thinking differently in this post:

5 simple steps to getting an abundance mindset

and this one:

Why I am quitting stupid, petty, small thinking

and this one:

You already have what you need (money, time, health and sex)

If those posts don’t put a big enough dent in your neuro-plating, here are steps I use when I’m stuck in a downward cerebral-loop.

Stand on your head.

Everything looks different when you take a different approach. A restaurant that looks wonderfully inviting from the street can look disgusting and downright scary from the rear. And your problem can look completely different if you ask a “What if?” question. It can sound like this: “What if I was already successful at this, looking back what made that happen?”

Walk outside.

Nothing breaks the mental fog like a brisk walk outside. Even better, pose a question you need to answer before you finish your walk. A powerful question Gary Keller asks in The One Thing is: “What is one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (there’s enough packed into that for a full marathon).

Drop it (for now).

Your brain has an amazing capacity for backroom processing. If you let it. Hammering away on the same problem (“Why do I always overcommit myself!?!”) is not going to help. Instead, walk away…but before you do, turn your “Why do I always…?” question into one that at least has a chance of pointing to some positive solution, like “What’s one thing I can do every day that I know is not a big commitment, but would give me progress?”

It would be a beautiful thing if we all had the insight to replace traffic cops with mimes, or let people give thanks with a thumbs up card.

That’s okay.

You and I can use that inspiration as a reminder we all have the capacity to think differently and to act on what really matters.

After all, it’s our life.