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Tag: Stellar

 Everybody makes mistakes

What do a cage fighter, a quantum physics professor and an award-winning crime novelist have in common? They’ve all messed up – and learned a lot in doing so

“It was like I was in a nightmare. I just froze in front of millions of people. I was in the cage, fighting, and I could see my opponent throwing punches at me, but I couldn’t move; they were just slamming into my face. In between rounds my coach was talking to me and I could see his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I went from being the biggest thing to come out of Australia to fight in Las Vegas for the Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC], to being the worst fighter ever.” 

In 2007, Soa “The Hulk” Palelei, a mixed martial artist who competed in the heavyweight division for the UFC, lost his first major fight against Eddie Sanchez in the third round by a technical knockout. His fighting contracts with the promoters were cancelled immediately afterwards. 

“Before the fight my hotel room had been filled with people. Hollywood celebrities like Adam Sandler and Kevin James had been high-fiving me, telling me I was the man. Afterwards, I sat in my hotel room all alone; I thought, “Well, now where is everyone?” No one would even answer my calls, so I had to make my own way to the airport and fly home by myself. The whole flight back to Perth, there were so many things in my head. I was abused as a child, beaten up. I was homeless for months as a kid. And now? I felt even more ashamed and useless.” 

Down but not out- Fighter Soa Palelei made a comeback six years after his humiliating defeat
Down but not out- Fighter Soa Palelei made a comeback six years after his humiliating defeat

Why is it that the feeling of shame that so often accompanies a mistake can be the most destructive of all human emotions? “It can damage a person in ways that no other emotion can,” explains Dr Natalie Ferres, who has a PhD in psychology and researches emotional intelligence, resilience and self-management. “Guilt or regret can be fine if you acknowledge lessons, take accountability and move on, but if someone experiences enough shame? They can become self-loathing to the point that they become self-destructive. It can even cause neurobiological damage. We know some of the neurochemical correlates of shame and how it literally gets stuck in our brain circuitry.”

For Palelei, his initial response to failure was to compulsively both read the online hate directed towards him. Oh, and to eat. “At one stage, I was up to 160kg.” 

Crime writer Candice Fox says the years of rejection she experienced when first trying to find a publisher for her four books led her to being “in the biggest hole ever. I had been writing since I was 12 and had written many books, but there were four that I properly pursued publication for and I was rejected by everyone in Australia and worldwide. The rejections felt very personal. My mistake was in how I responded to this. I was so angry, and jealous of other published authors. I saw myself as nothing. Because I only felt powerful when I was writing. 

“I had a strange childhood in which I had no real power, which is why I escaped into these imaginary worlds I created through my writing. My mum had six kids of her own and would also foster kids. So there’d be 12 or 13 kids in the house and you’d sometimes want to go and hug your mum and you just couldn’t, as there’d be some traumatised kid upset as their parents may have just been arrested and they needed her more. It made high school rough. These kids would bring in not only their own life traumas, but as some had been neglected they might have lice, or ringworm or hand, foot and mouth disease. I’d get all this, too. So I was this weird kid with nits who came to school in a minibus filled with children, who just liked to sit by herself and write stories. And I thought, ‘But if I can’t get published and become a writer, then who am I?’ I definitely felt shame.”

The waiting game - Author Candice Fox didn't cope well with rejection
The waiting game – Author Candice Fox didn’t cope well with rejection

During his time at a top-tier management consultant firm in the US, Michael Biercuk, a quantum physicist who is now an associate professor at The University of Sydney, says he looks back “with self-disgust” at how he interacted with his colleagues. “My mistake was profound. I did what [someone with] a PhD in science would do; I spoke honestly about our organisation’s shortcomings and provided potential solutions that I thought would improve the business without any kind of radical restructure. But I completely failed to understand either the local workplace culture or how my comments might be perceived by others, especially peers and supervisors. It became me parachuting in with the solution in hand and effectively saying, ‘All of you have been wrong all along.’ And that was exactly what my failure was. Despite education at some of the best universities, I was never taught the basics, the fundamentals of business interaction or social psychology. My peers and some managers saw me as a troublemaker and some even considered me a traitor to the firm.” 

Like so many who look back at their mistakes with newfound clarity, Biercuk says that he eventually gained some clarity from choosing to see what had happened from his colleagues’ perspective, and from reframing it as a learning opportunity. “Over the course of many years developing as a professional, I’m continuing to refine my ability to mitigate my natural tendency to just give an answer and think more about how I can build consensus.”

For Palelei, shame was eventually replaced with grit; with hard work, optimism and a goal: to return to fighting for the UFC. 

“One day I woke up so heavy I could hardly breathe. And I thought, ‘You will die like this, dwelling on that mistake.’ So I snapped out of it. I knew I had to get back to the UFC. I knew if I could just get back there I would know exactly what to do this time and how I was going to do it. I never crawled my way back. You know how some people say you have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run? I was sprinting. I would walk into the gym and just demolish everything. I was pushing, hustling, grinding. And every night I would visualise what would happen when I stepped back into that cage. 

“I was single-minded; although I was winning title belts in other competitions, they were just something to pull my pants up with. It was all focused on being back to the UFC. After I won three fights, they still said, ‘No way!’ After five, six, seven more wins, they said, ‘No.’ And I thought, well at least they didn’t say ‘no way!’ this time. Just a no is better. After my tenth win, they said, ‘OK.’” 

Palelei stepped back in to the Octagon in 2013, six years after his initial defeat. This time, he won. In total, Palelei has won four out of his seven UFC fights (including one where he fought with a fractured rib he’d suffered during training beforehand).

Paradoxically, it’s the more exacting world of science that may provide a model for how we can best foster cultures where it’s not only OK to make mistakes, but valuable to discuss them openly. In discussing his work in academia, Biercuk explains, “There is a huge value placed on very transparent, brutally honest discussion. Everybody is trying to work to the solution of some technical problem; somebody puts up an idea, somebody else says no that’s wrong for the following reason, and everybody is kind of OK with that. If I say something at the whiteboard in a discussion with colleagues that’s not correct, somebody will show I’m not correct and I’ll just have to accept it, move on and know this happens to everybody.”

In other words: we all make mistakes. One of the ways in which we can move past these is through the sharing of our less-than-positive stories. These not only act as instructive, by helping others from making the same errors, but as protective, by minimising the dark shame that can make a person feel like they’re bad or worthless when, really, like us all, they’re only human.

Like Palelei, Fox also used movement to push through the feelings of failure. “I got into the gym and started running. That was so good for my mental health.” Like Biercuk, she was adaptable and willing to learn: “I went to TAFE to study creative writing, and then later to uni; I did an honours and a masters.” She also shifted her perspective: “I went from picturing this great big club of writers that I was excluded from and watching them from a window outside, to thinking, ‘How can I get better at learning this craft?’” 

Fox secured an agent and within days had two major publishing houses fighting over her books. She is now published by Penguin Random House and in 2014 won a Ned Kelly Award (honouring Australian crime writing) for her debut novel Hades. Her second title, Eden, won another in 2015, and she was shortlisted for this year’s Ned Kelly for her third book Fall

Ferres argues, however, that it’s not so much the ultimate moments of triumph that make stories like these appealing, as it is the sharing of vulnerability. “Our big mistakes, aired to others, can make us appear more human, particularly if we show that we’ve learned from them. We can also be inaccurate when guessing other people’s reactions – many people respond positively to those who admit mistakes. Presenting an idealised version of ourselves separates us from others and we miss out on true connection.”

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This was originally published in Stellar magazine, which appears inside The Sunday Telegraph (NSW), Sunday Herald Sun (Vic) and The Sunday Mail (Qld). Although it is not directly related to the topics I usually post about here, I think there is much to be gained from sharing stories around resilience and perseverance – especially with young people. 

Do real men cry? How redefining masculinity can save lives

I’ve been busy writing features for News Corp’s new Sunday magazine, Stellar. This piece was first published 16/10/16.

Frequent readers may know I recently founded a company that works with teen boys in schools to bust the myths that we think most harm young men; Goodfellas. Ben Barber, interviewed here, is one of  our presenters. I am really proud of the work we are doing in this space, and I was pleased to be able to elicit more dialogue around gender stereotyping through the platform this new publication provides. 

BOYS don’t cry. That’s what TV presenter Andrew O’Keefe learnt while growing up. As a little boy, he only cried when he injured himself, and he never saw his father weep.

Yet he’s among the new generation of men who are trying to buck those harmful stereotypes – as a father himself, he tries to be open about his tears with his own kids.

“We should show our kids that it’s possible to be vulnerable or blue, and still be a sane and capable person,” he tells Stellar.

“And I think we bestow a great gift of trust and respect on the people we love when we share our grief and heartache, when we let them be the ones to console us sometimes.”

The statistics on men’s mental health show O’Keefe has got it right. An alarming 18 per cent of Australian males over the age of 16 experience mood and anxiety disorders, and struggle with substance abuse.

Men commit suicide at more than three times the rate of women.

Dr Michael Flood, an associate professor in sociology who has a special interest in gender and men’s studies, says blokes pay an obvious price for repressing the full range of human emotions.

Apart from health issues, they have “more shallow relationships or superficial friendships”.

I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

He adds: “Many men only feel able to share their more vulnerable emotions with a female partner [if they are heterosexual], and if they are left by that partner? Then they are really stuck.”

Actor Ben Barber experienced that emotional repression twice over.

“Growing up in a country town in Victoria, no one spoke about tears,” he says.

“I judged others who expressed emotion in a vulnerable way, and I judged myself for that, too. I thought that, as a man, that’s just not something you do. It was weak if you did.”

Barber later joined the army, where he feels he was trained to “breathe in toughness and squash down anything that could make you vulnerable.”

Gus Worland says crying can be a show of strength for men.

At the time, he says, this may have served him, but later when he left the army and was accepted into NIDA to study acting, Barber saw that his inability to cry was going to hold him back not just personally, but professionally.

“I realised I would be limited in the roles I could play if I didn’t learn how to cry,” he says.

“I thought there’s no way I can do it at a particular point in a script in front of an audience if I don’t have access to that in my everyday life. From then on, I made a decision that if I needed to cry, I just would.”

Barber was shocked at the impact this decision had on his life.

“I was watching a documentary on the playwright Eugene O’Neill and it really moved me. I felt my emotions build up and I stomped on them.

“This was very normal for me. Then I remembered my decision and when I felt emotion again as I continued watching, I let it go. This big sob came up from the depths of my being and the tears just overflowed.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to.”

“And that was it. I could not stop crying for about 45 minutes. I hadn’t expected how good that would feel – that’s what surprised me. It was the most amazing, cathartic experience; a release of 15 years of bottled-up emotion.

“It completely changed my life. When I finally finished crying, I felt like I just wasn’t the same person anymore.”

That’s the message Gus Worland, captain of Triple M radio’s The Grill Team (“the manliest show on radio”), is also keen to promote. He’s on a mission to question stereotypes around what it means to be an Aussie bloke, and filmed an ABC documentary series, Man Up, currently airing, on that very topic.

Asked when he last cried, his answer is unexpectedly moving.

Ben Barber was shocked at the impact of a 45-minute cry.

“It was last night, actually. I was having a cuppa when my dad’s partner called. My father went into the doctor’s for a routine check-up and they found five litres of fluid on his lungs. When they went in to repair the lung wall, they discovered asbestos.

“He was told he has between 30 and 50 days to live. Normally when I shout to get my kids to the dinner table, it takes about 10 yells for them to hear me. But when I heard this news, I made such a horrible noise that they came running to see what was going on.”

Like O’Keefe, Worland believes it’s important for his children to see him cry.

“That is what every man in Australia has got to be able to do when they need to,” he says. “The stoic, keep-stuff-to-yourself approach? It’s just not working for us.”

Worland also finds his tears are a useful tool for showing others he may need support: “Last night I felt better after I cried. I later cried with my brother, who rarely shows emotions, so that felt helpful.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief.”

“Then it was like, ‘OK, well, that’s done – now how can we move forward?’ There’s a real release of pressure. It gives you some breathing space.

“I had another cry at the radio station [the next morning] with the boys I work with. We all had a hug, and they gave me sympathy and support. The problem gets shared a little bit.”

While sharing is invaluable, so too is the act of expression. Flood is eager to explain that crying is not about biological differences: “When you look at women’s and men’s responses to distressing situations, what is happening in their bodies is the same. This tells us that what is going on when we repress tears in men is social.”

Andrew O’Keefe: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us.” Picture: Darren England

If feelings are not expressed, then where else do they go? O’Keefe, who is a White Ribbon ambassador and campaigns against domestic violence, believes emotions come out in other ways: “As irritation, as despondency… all of which are far less attractive and useful than tears.”

Barber, who now works with teen boys in schools in busting myths around masculinity, says the next generation seems more open to letting go of the notion that men must only ever show emotional restraint.

“The most common thing I witness when I talk to teen boys about crying is relief,” he says.

“There’s scepticism, too – sure. I say to them, ‘If we really consider ourselves to live in a free country, then we have to have the freedom to feel and experience the full spectrum of human emotions. This doesn’t take away from our sense of selves as men, it adds more to it.’”

While gender roles may be slowly changing, the fact that many of us would still be more confronted by the sight of a man crying than by seeing him kick a wall in anger or frustration shows there is still an urgent need for more open conversations around what defines both strength and vulnerability, and what defines masculinity as well.

Tears don’t mean men are weak; it shows they have a heart.

O’Keefe agrees: “Ultimately, crying can only be good for us. We broaden our knowledge of life and our understanding of what it means to be human when we let ourselves experience the wounds of our own heart without shame.”

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