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Today’s blog is designed to highlight two things: How easily risks and threats trigger the survival response, which then leads us to crocodiling and how most issues contain opportunities, something I refer to as an ‘ISOP’ (more about these later).

The spotlight this year has been on three main aspects:

  • Covid-19 including impact on physical and mental health of the response to the threat of Covid-19
  • Equality in terms of Black Lives Matter and importantly health equality. The fact that more people of colour are affected is important information.
  • Climate change and the striking effect of lockdown in terms of carbon emissions and other environmental impact.

The legacy of 2020 is just how interconnected we are and that 2020 has felt like a catalogue of issues in pretty much all areas of our lives. Most of us have experienced feeling threatened or at risk in some way shape or form this year and in small ways and big experienced loss like never before.

I’ve decided to lay this blog out in the same way that case studies are often written. So we’ll look at the background to the situation, the issue being faced and the ultimate solution.


Every year, I get The Helpful Clinic team members and our allies a Christmas gift as a way of saying “thank you” for all their support, consistent commitment to the Helpful mission and their good work. This year, I thought a really appropriate gift would be a good old-fashioned mug (for tea, coffee and other drinks).

Why a mug? Well, first, because they are genuinely useful. And second, because the very act of making a cup of tea (or coffee) can actually provide genuine psychological and self-care benefits.

It’s something we looked at in detail in a blog earlier this year – Britain’s greatest contribution to psychology: putting the kettle on. No matter how stressed you are or struggling, the simple, stoic act of ‘putting the kettle on’ will help you tap the brakes on your thinking and actions, giving you the space you need to pause and reflect before then working out what’s the most helpful response.

To make the mugs even more personal and give the recipient a visual cue to check in with themselves each time they use them, I wanted to have them customised with the prompt: what are you thinking, feeling, doing? on one side of the mug and then the question: ‘is it helpful?’ on the other.

So I reached out to Vistaprint to see if they could help.

They could! And after a few emails back and forth The Helpful Clinic Christmas mugs were in the bag… or so I thought.

The mug issue

The first issue that occurred was that the mugs were delivered two days later than Vistaprint promised. Okay, not a massive hurdle, but unhelpful nonetheless — especially as it added pressure to the situation in terms of getting the mugs ready for packaging and posting, and meant there was less time in case there were problems (which there were).

When the mugs arrived,  it was apparent the sections weren’t balanced, the text wasn’t centred and the orange colour wasn’t the Helpful orange colour.

Naturally, I got in touch with Vistaprint to find a way to address this.

The mug solution

Initially Vistaprint were helpful. They proposed a solution that we could make work, a kind of ‘Plan B’. This involved notepads and pens, which would have meant changing our Helpful Christmas and End of Year message from putting the kettle on, to making notes from 2020 and how to bank the learning to take with you forward into 2021.

Then after a few days of troubleshooting and negotiating, Vistaprint backtracked and told me that Plan B was suddenly a no go. Grrr!

So there I was with just a few days to go before Christmas, no Helpful gifts and 200 less than perfect mugs in my hallway. Vistaprint had told me to take the mugs to the tip, but there was absolutely no way that was going to happen. How wasteful!

I felt myself crocodiling – this is when the stress response kicks in. We become adrenalised and lose access to the more resourceful part of the brain so we’re react from the crocodile scoop part. 

You can learn more about the 3-scoop ice cream brain concept in our ABC First Aid for Feelings blog.

Using the ABC First Aid for Feelings

Feeling how adrenalised I was becoming I applied the ABC First Aid for Feelings and became aware that I was crocodiling. My heart rate increased and I could hear my own thinking spiral into criticism and anxiety like snowballing. So that was the A part of the ABC, Awareness. I then focused on my Breath and Body. This helped me change the biochemistry in my body. With the shift in my body’s chemistry I was able to access the more resourceful part of my brain again. Having more of my brain available to me, I was then able to check out my available Choices given the situation.

Is this a tiger?

The brain is wired to assume everything is a tiger and life threatening until proven otherwise. From an evolutionary perspective, this is very handy. If I assume everything is a cat and then bump into a tiger, that mistake could cost me my life. So we always started with the biggest risk and downgrade from there. However, very few situations are actually life threatening. I realised that this really wasn’t a tiger situation; it was a small cat at worst.

Now if you’re wondering what I’m talking about, read our Managing risk and overwhelm with animals and triangles blog. It covers the ABC for Feelings, unhelpful thought patterns (including snowballing and mental tennis) and the Animal Risk Model — a way of assessing the likelihood and impact of a particular risk, as well as the cost and benefit of taking it.

What’s within my sphere of influence?

I also had to remind myself that delivering a solution with Vistaprint was no longer within my sphere of influence. It took me a wee while to calm down and stop thinking of Vistaprint as my ‘arch enemy’. After all, who knows they may have been doing their own crocodiling. Shifting my focus to what’s within my sphere of influence, I felt back in the driving seat of my own experience. From that more empowered place, more helpful choices become possible.

Turning an issue into an opportunity

A while back I came up with the word ‘isop’. It’s what I use to describe an opportunity that’s only possible because there’s an issue. In other words, an issue-opportunity. As that wording is quite clunky I created this shortened version ‘isop’.

This is something I work with companies to do and sometimes people who want to develop high performance abilities.  We deliberately hunt for issues, ‘trip-hazards’ and areas of frustrations. We get curious about how it can be addressed and solved.  This then becomes the opportunity to be curious and creative. This becomes innovation and improvement.

So I asked myself what’s the isop here? How can this issue become an opportunity? Then it hit me! These ‘not perfect and not to plan‘ mugs actually perfectly represent 2020. It’s been a year of relentless issues, continuous adaptations, a pile up of disappointments and things not going to plan.

So instead of taking them to the tip (which I would never have done anyway) I decided to use the ‘imperfection’ as an opportunity to symbolise 2020 and give them out as gifts as originally planned, but now with this extra meaning.

Even though the mugs aren’t perfect (and yes, I can be a tiny bit of a perfectionist, shocking I know), they are still fit to serve the purpose for which they were intended: to act as a vessel for a helpful hot beverage and a prompt to check-in with how we’re thinking, feeling and doing from time-to-time and asking ourselves: “is it helpful?”. By changing the meaning, the mugs went from mug-mare to mug-magic.

This type of thinking is inspired by Black Box Thinking.  In aviation, when there is a plane crash or near miss, an investigation team takes a look at the black box to work out what went wrong and how that can be addressed to prevent it from happening again (or at least reduce the likelihood or impact of it happening again).  This aligns perfectly with the Helpful belief that it’s more helpful to be curious than critical….

Black box thinking

Every aircraft has two flight data recording boxes capturing all the information which is then used to improve safety. By the way, it tickles me that the box is no longer black but orange, of course!

By analysing these ‘black’ boxes after every incident involving an aircraft with a no-blame mindset, the aviation industry — which was once upon a time the most dangerous mode of travel — has made flying one of the safest methods of travel going. 

The whole concept is about seeing the opportunities within issues and using them as valuable learnings to improve things going forward. Learning from mistakes and past experiences is indicative of having a growth mindset, which can lead to extraordinary results. 

This is not about Vistaprint being a bad company or the manager that backtracked on Plan B being the Scrooge that ruined the Helpful Christmas, but rather the power of realising opportunities within issues.

The moral of the story is that it is more helpful to get real about what’s going on, doing your ABC, get curious rather than critical, decipher the information, extract the learning and from there make a more helpful choice.

You can learn more about black box thinking in this fantastic TEDx Talk by Matthew Syed, he’s the guy who coined the phrase and wrote a book on this powerful subject.

A mug with magic meaning

The Helpful Christmas gift now came not just with the mug but also with a letter to explain this extra magic meaning. You can read the letter here:

My invitation to you…

Like Yoda says: ‘pass on what you’ve learnt’ and so I extend this invitation to you:

Take a deliberate look at some of the frustrations, issues and problems that have affected you this year. If needed, look after the metaphorical bruises (see last blog about visiting Self Pity City and other helpful ways to keep it real and Helpful) then GET CURIOUS – can you spot an isop? It could be to change that you’re making it mean. Maybe it’s a behaviour that you can change. It might a skill that you want to develop. Or it could be an action you need to take.

Whatever it is, do something about it. Bank that learning and take it forward with you into the new year.

Want some mug-magic?

Would you like to have your own not-quite-perfect but helpful nonetheless mugs? We’ve got some mugs left and want to share this mug magic with you. We’ll need £5.50 for packaging and posting. If you can afford to, it would be great if you could make a donation as well to help cover the other costs. Email me if you’re interested:

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor