Yearly Archive 2016-10-16


Dead Cactus

Metaphors help us to make sense of the world. Metaphors are also useful thinking and communication tools which we can use in business as well as our personal lives. However, metaphors can also form very potent and sticky “perspective traps”.

Consider the scenario described to me by Gary during a coaching session after attending a Zoom-Out workshop.

One Saturday morning on an unseasonably cold mid-March morning in London, Gary was staring out of his kitchen window when his attention turned to an earthenware pot containing a cactus on his window sill.  It struck Gary at that moment that the cactus had died due to neglect, “Just like my marriage”, he thought. This was poignant and relevant at that moment as Gary was in the midst of a challenging divorce. This perspective caused deep and painful emotions to arise for Gary in that instant. Emotions that stayed with him.

The cactus suddenly was a devastating summary of Gary’s marriage. His mind had Zoomed-In on the dead cactus and extrapolated meaning from it. A way of seeing his marriage in a neat and simple way, reduced to almost a single detail. His entire marriage. His entire marriage and his entire relationship with a person he once loved so dearly. A person that brought him the greatest highs of his life and the most profound and beautiful times in his life such as the birth of his three children. All reduced to this. A dead cactus.

From an outside and removed perspective, perhaps you can see how ridiculous this is? I call this an Extreme Zoom-In. One that is extreme in its extent but also extreme in that it is outrageously absurd and plainly laughable – to an outsider perspective at least.

But you can see how easily it was for Gary to grasp onto that image. To dwell on it and let it fill his perspective on his marriage. To become his only perspective on his marriage even. To view that dead cactus as some kind of perverse “trophy” there to remind him of the folly of his ways. He had even started to describe his marriage in that way to his friends “I neglected my marriage and it died”. And indeed, this was the way he described it to me in our coaching session. It had started to become his reality with respect to his marriage.

As a Zoomologist, I spotted this “perspective trap”. The dead cactus had become a metaphor for his marriage. Any marriage could never be reduced to such a one-dimensional construct. It’s just a trick of the mind. A random anomaly conjured up by his mind.  Connections firing in synapses between neurons. The visual cortex picking up the image of the cactus. Making connections with recent experience and self-image. Feeding the part of his mind that is always in search of meaning. Trying to make sense of the world through meaning.

Our coaching conversation went roughly as follows. (I refer to myself as Zoomologist or ZO for short.)

ZO (Zoomologist): “So in a sense, you saw the dead cactus as a metaphor for your marriage?”

Gary: “Yes, exactly!”

ZO: “How long were you married?”

Gary: “Twelve years.”

ZO: “What aspects of your marriage are NOT represented by the dead cactus?”

Gary: “Hmmm. Well, we had some incredible times. We used to get on great. Our wedding was amazing”.

ZO: “And what else?”

Gary: “Of course, I’m blessed to have three wonderful children and our relationships are really good.”

ZO: “And what else?”

Gary: “My wife did help me through some tough times and I’ve grown as a person with her help.”

ZO: “How accurate is the perspective of the dead cactus as a representation and metaphor for your marriage?”

Gary: “Well not very accurate really.”

As a result, Gary saw that this was an unhelpful perspective and not at all very accurate.  This made it easy see the metaphor for what it was and let go of it.

We went on to explore some Zoom-Out principles. “Default perspectives can be overridden” – Zoom-Out Principle

Default perspectives are ones that arise in our mind as a default response to some situation or stimulus. In this case, it was a metaphorical perspective in response to the image of a dead cactus. With any perspective, you have a choice whether to accept it and buy into it. Just because it is your mind that created that perspective, does not make it correct. Just because it is your mind that created that perspective, does not make it mandatory or fixed – the one and only true perspective. There is a related principle at work here too:”Happiness is a choice of perspective” – Zoom-Out Principle

Seeing that you have a choice and not simply accepting and going along with your default perspective, or any perspective is a key influencer for happiness. In particular, recognising when we are Zoomed-In on something unhelpful.

All perspectives are wrong but some are helpful” – Zoom-Out Principle

Whatever perspective Gary could take on his marriage, it will be wrong. It will be distorted and incomplete. It will be based only on the memories and aspects of his marriage that he can hold in his head at one time (and this is extremely limited <REF> ). Any perspective will be distorted to the extreme by cognitive biases, imagination and emotions. A marriage is also, by definition, a union of two people. Therefore even if it were possible for someone to hold a complete and accurate perspective of a marriage, it could only be at most a 50% perspective on the marriage. For Gary, Zooming-Out and seeing the situation this way, taking a perspective on his perspective, made it easier to dismiss it and not buy into it. It was clearly an Extreme Zoom-In.

As the Zoom-Out Principle: “All perspectives are wrong but some are helpful” reminds us, focus on what is helpful. Is the perspective of “My marriage is a dead cactus” helpful to Gary, his ex-wife, his kids, to anyone? And since it is a ridiculous Extreme Zoom-In and ultimately flawed, only an insane person would hold onto such a perspective, right?

You may be wondering if we needed to replace such a Zoomed-In perspective with another one? In this case a more helpful metaphor perhaps? Well, sure, if it’s helpful. But another option is to just let go of that unhelpful perspective. Move on and direct your attention to something else. And in the longer-term, simply be comfortable with “not knowing”. Gary may never completely understand why his marriage broke down. Life is so incredibly complicated and messy. The chains of cause and effect are myriad and run deep. So Zooming-In on a single behaviour or event will not provide an answer. Being comfortable with not knowing and letting go is a powerful skill.  This is another reflection of the Zoom-Out Principle: “Doubt is power”. In this case the power comes from freedom. Freedom to move on and not get weighed down by trying to attach meaning to the past and provide all the answers.”Doubt is power” – Zoom-Out Principle

Watch out for your own “Dead Cacti”.

Are you Zoomed-In on one of your own at present?


Cosmic Soup [poem]

Cosmic Soup

Cosmic soup did come from a tin,
A tiny, teeny, tiny tin.
And before that tin, there was no tin,
No tin, no tin, nothin’.

So before that tin, there was nothin’ to put IT in.
In fact, there was nothing to put nothing in either.
For nothing was not even an ether.
And the ether was not nothing either.

So there was a time for the tin,
But no time before tin.
For the time that we’re in,
Did come from the tin that we’re in.

Well does all this matter?
Well it’s why we’re matter!
And if you don’t like soup,
There’s toast to look forward to!

– Rob Aston, Zoomologist, 04 Nov 2007
Sheffield, England
(at 03:50 am I woke up with this in my head – unedited – the universe as the source)



This was the sight that greeted me each morning as I emerged from Waterloo Station, London, during 2016 when I was working with one client. I fancifully took this as an omen of Zoom-Out due to the green eye resemblance to the Zoom-Out Logo: 

Whether is was an accurate perspective – truly an omen – or not, was not the point. Was it helpful? It certainly boosted my mood and motivation to entertain the perspective. It was also a beautiful piece of art (since distorted by graffiti).

Eye at Waterloo. London Rob Aston, March 2017

An omen (also called portent or presage) is a phenomenon that is believed to foretell the future, often signifying the advent of change. – Wikipedia


Death the ultimate Zoom-Out?

Terry Pratchet meets his Death

Terry Pratchet meets his Death

Is death the ultimate Zoom-Out? The one that puts EVERYTHING into perspective?

I don’t mean in a physical or literal sense although if there turns out to be an afterlife then maybe in that way too. No I mean of course in contemplation of death or experiencing the death of another person, especially a loved one.

The writing of this is very timely for me personally as it is the 3rd anniversary of the death of my brother David, 14 Aug 2013. Quite often we avoid the D word, myself included. We may refer to the ‘passing’ or that the person ‘passed away’. Not today and in this writing.

A concept that has been important to happiness thinkers down the ages and in positive psychology more recently, is that of finding positive meaning in negative events. Surely death is an exception to this? How can one find positive meaning in death?

Zhuang Zhou, often known as Zhuangzi (“Master Zhuang”), was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC.

“Zhuangzi’s wife died and Huizi went to console him. He found Zhuangzi squatting on the floor with his legs open, drumming on a pot and singing. Huizi said, “You lived with her, raised children with her, grew old together. To not cry at her death is bad enough, but drumming on a pot and singing – what could you be thinking?” Zhuangzi said: “Oh, it’s not like that. When she first died, how could I not grieve? But then I looked back to her beginning, before her birth. Not just before her birth but before she had a body. Not just before she had a body, but before she had qi. In the midst of that amorphous chaos there was a change, and she had qi; the qi changed and she had a body; her body changed and she was born. Now there is yet another change, and she has died. This is like the change of the four seasons: spring, autumn, winter, summer. Now she is residing in the greatest of chambers. If I were to follow here sobbing and wailing, it would show I understood nothing about our destiny. So I stopped.” – The Path, 2016 (Puett & Gross-Loh)

Every time I read this or quote it I am brought to tears. Now I am not a religious or an extremely spiritual person, although the latter is expanding as I grow in years. But even viewed in its most starkest of terms, it Zooms-Out to show that in the scheme of the universe, people are born, by freak chance, live for some arbitrary length of time and then die. This is the way of things. The Zhuongzi (and contemporaries such as Confucius) this is literally “The Way”.  (The Tao (‘dao’) as interpretation of the way of things or the way of the cosmos is referred to as “The Way”). The amazing thing is that we were born and lived in the first place. When we lose a loved one, and this may be a cliche, we should focus on the privilege of having known them at all. We need to Zoom-Out from the negative aspects as much as possible and our own ‘personal loss’ and focus on the positive meaning in having known the person and shared a part of their life.

“The story of life is quicker
Than the wink of an eye
The story of love is hello and goodbye
Until we meet again.” – Jimi Hendrix, 1970

My brother David was an outstanding person. He profoundly affected many people’s lives. Not always in a positive way I must add but he was remarkable and he had an innate ability to bring joy to people with his antics and creative expression and take them out of their mundane view of existence. A close friend of his after his death described him as their Willy Wonka when they were growing up.  That made me laugh so much as it rings so true. At his funeral, there were so many people, some of whom had only known him for a few months, people who had served him in a shop for example.

David became ill suddenly and was unconscious in intensive care for several days before I was asked for permission to turn off the life support. The pain was almost unbearable and the grieving was profound. I should say at this point that prior to losing my brother, I had lost my sister, my dad, my mum, two best friends, and various close relatives. So death was no stranger. Losing Dave was particularly poignant as he was the last of my immediate family. I grew up in a family of five and now there was just me. Walking down the aisle behind the coffin alone I heard someone whisper – “My god, he’s all alone”.

At this time, I had already been developing and applying the Zoom-Out concept and learning from so many people both alive and dead, about how we can reappraise events and our emotions, find positive meaning and get the most from this short life. I know for certain that without these ‘life skills’, my grieving would have gone on for longer and the ongoing suffering and emotional pain would have been far greater to this day and beyond. Note something really important here. By Zooming-Out, not only have I reduced my own personal suffering, I have made mental and emotional space for appreciating David’s life and focusing on turning all that potential for negativity into strength and positive contribution to the world. Instead of being a dark cloud and weight around my neck,  David’s life is a shining light and a source of inspiration. I also take personal solace in knowing that this would be what David wants and not least my mum and dad who brought us both into the world and invested so much love and support into us.

I hope you do excuse me for revealing so much of my own personal story here but I hope you can see that despite the darkest of times, we can help ourselves and others to shine as much light as possible into our lives – we have more power in our hands, or rather our minds, than we often realise. This is why I am so passionate about the Zoom-Out concept and cause. Every time I get feedback from someone that it has helped them reduce the stress or anxiety in their lives then that is worth so much.

Back to Zhuangzi, he is not saying death is something to look forward to or hurry along, quite the opposite, life is to be lived to the fullest.

“Indeed, if we think of death purely from a human perspective, it is profoundly terrifying: it is annihilation of that part of us, or a loved one, that is human. But when we view death from the broadest possible perspective, we feel grief but also see, as Zhuangzi did, that our human form is a wonderful but temporary moment along the transformations that make up the Way. We understand that this person has always been part of the Way and is still part of the Way.That person will become part of the grass, part of the trees, a bird soaring in the sky. If we understand that the stuff that is us has always been a part of the flux and transformation of the cosmos and always will be, then we no longer need to fear death; we become free to fully embrace life. ”  – The Path, 2016 (Puett & Gross-Loh)

If not the ultimate Zoom-Out, then it must be close. If we can Zoom-Out on death, both of our own ultimate death, and the death of the ones we love, then just imagine what else we can Zoom-Out on? As I have mentioned before, the more we practice Zooming-Out, the better we get at it and the more fulfilled and happy life we can lead – and also bringing more happiness and fulfillment to those around us and the World at large.

“It is not that the Way broadens humans, it is that humans broaden the Way” – Confucius, the Anelects

See also


Puett, M. Gross-Loh, C (2016). *The Path – A New Way to Think About Everything. UK: Penguin Books

* I cannot recommend this book enough. It lives up to the title!


The Wasp Sting Zoom-Out

Here in the UK summer is in the air and the buzz of wasps is often heard. In life, metaphorical “wasps” are more perennial however.

This is one of my favourite and funnier Zoom-Outs. A little humour goes a long way in relieving life’s stresses.

Try this 6-legged Zoom-Out.

The next time someone behaves in a way that you find extremely irritating, insulting or hurtful, recall a time when you were stung by a wasp, bee or other insect.

Zoom-Out and see that stinging experience alongside this one.

Compare the initial bolts of pain.

Which one is worse? Really.

If you had to choose, would you have this encounter or rather be stung by a wasp?

See how the initial pain will fade.

See how, like the wasp sting, it will heal if you let it and leave no residual suffering.

Like a wasp sting, if you keep focusing on the encounter and “scratching it” the pain will last longer and may even leave a scar.

Like a wasp you have no control over the offending person’s behaviour.

Like a sting from a wasp, do not take it personally. You never think, “Damn, that wasp has really got it in for me?” do you? This is more difficult with a stinging human remark or interaction but it’s almost certainly not personal. The other person is likely exhibiting a default pattern of behaviour in response to some trigger. And, like a wasp they may be “stinging” someone else very soon.

Like a wasp they are more likely to leave you alone if you do not aggravate them in retaliation. Ignoring their behaviour might just be the best strategy. No, this is not losing – you are the winner! I’ve had many heated and ugly interactions with “wasps” and the next time I saw them, I beamed my best smile and gave a warm and happy “Hello, how are you?” This often gets a shocked and almost disappointed look in response. So, who has won?

Of course, it’s not about winning. It’s about leading a happy and resilient life.

Don’t let the “wasps” in your life threaten your happiness!

In your mind, Zoom-Out, tell them to buzz off and view the encounter as less than a sting!


For added impact, imagine the offending person in one of those kiddie wasp outfits complete with sting, compound eyes and antennae.

For added power, take a compassionate view of the “wasp”. It does not know any better in that moment. It may be a fight or flight response to something you said or did. Sometimes an innocent action on your part can unintentionally be perceived as a threat.


Putting things into perspective by comparing to other events / situations.

Zooming-Out to take a less personal perspective; view it more objectively.

View it as a fleeting moment.

Ridicule the situation in your mind to take the emotional stress out of it.

Wasp Image by skeeze from Pixabay


Happiness at Work worldwide 2012

These are the shocking statistics on employee engagement according to a 2012 GALLUP State of the Global Workplace report covering 142 countries:

That’s a whopping 87% of people not happy in their work (24% actively disengaged + 63% not engaged).  Considering many of us spend most of our waking lives at work this is very sobering.

The graphic below is as presented in Gallup’s free to download report:

These are the poll questions:


TED Talk “Perspective is everything” by Rory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is a British advertising executive. He is the current Executive Creative Director of OgilvyOne

He’s also appointed an Honorary Member of the Zoomological Society for his Zoom-Out work (my words) in the fields of marketing and economics. He highlights how human perspectives are often overlooked but play such a huge role in the delivery and consumption of ‘value’.

Rory Sutherland

In this TED Talk video: “The circumstances of our lives may matter less than how we see them, says Rory Sutherland. At TEDxAthens, he makes a compelling case for how reframing is the key to happiness.”

YouTube link:

Here are some Zoom-Out highlights from Rory’s talk:

“Reality is overrated”

“The power of reframing things, cannot be overstated!”

“The power to rebrand things… cannot be overstated!

Interesting to note that Rory refers to “Rebranding” as advertising reframing? 😃

“The value of perceived value should be treated absolutely equivalent to any other type of value.”

The value of marketing. There is value in changing the way people look at things.

“We’ve given far too much priority to engineering solutions… and not nearly enough to psychological solutions.”

“One of the problems with classical economics, is it’s absolutely preoccupied with reality, and reality isn’t a particularly good guide to human happiness.”

Happiness is often more to do with our sense of control over our predicament than the predicament itself.

“Perception is leaky.” i.e. perception of one thing changes your perception of another, e.g. having your car valeted and cleaned makes you feel that your car drives better.

This is a key slide from Rory’s talk:

Rory Sutherland TED Talk - too often we forget

Rory goes on to make the case for considering psychological aspects and solutions in the mix amongst technological and economic solutions. He cites Google as being as much of a psychological success as a technological one.

Rory’s TED Talk is highly recommended viewing.

If you were to look at the World through Rory’s eyes, how would you aim to change perspectives in order to improve the human experience? Within our cities? On our transport? Within our workplaces?


TED Talk “Your perception is not always reality” by Nikos Konstantinou

This is a powerful Zoom-Out related TED Talk video.

“Our brain constructs and shapes our reality. The importance of previous experiences and context related to how perceptions may be represented. Nikos received a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.He currently spends countless hours in the lab designing and running behavioral experiments combined with neuroimaging techniques (e.g. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). He is seeking to understand how different types of working memory (for example visual vs. verbal) interact with attention (e.g. our ability to ignore irrelevant distracting information) to give rise to our subjective experience of the world, using healthy populations and patients (e.g. social anxiety/phobia, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s).He also teaches courses related to his research interests and supervises students at the graduate and undergraduate level. He is passionate about science communication and thinks that science is incomplete unless properly communicated.”


“All perspectives are wrong but some are helpful” – Zoom-Out Signpost

Let’s go on a journey to the heart of what it means to be human. Let’s consider the way many people live out their lives.

Many people spend their entire life… interpreting opinions as facts.

Many people spend their entire life… interpreting what they witness, as being the reality.

Many people spend their entire life… assuming that there is only a single reality.

Many people spend their entire life… believing that everyone witnesses the same reality.

Many people spend their entire life… being powerless victims to their reality.

They may never realise that they live in a ‘Matrix’ partly of their own making. That they can be ‘Neo’ and alter their own reality for the benefit of themselves and those around them (indirectly).

What if… they had a “crowbar to prise open the cracks of reality”?

What if… they had in their hands a “hacksaw blade to cut through the bars of their mental prison?”

What if… they understood and practised one of the most fundamental of all the Zoom-Out PRINCIPLES:


“All perspectives are wrong but some are helpful.” – Rob Aston, Zoomologist

The structure of this phrase may look familiar. You might spot that this is an adaptation of:

“All models are wrong but some are useful” – George Box, Statistician

After all, a perspective is simply a mental model. One constructed by our senses and brain. In other words, your reality is a model constructed inside your consciousness.

Let’s take a closer look at the George Box quote courtesy of Wikipedia:

“Burnham & Anderson, in their much-cited book on model selection,[7] state the following (§1.2.5).
A model is a simplification or approximation of reality and hence will not reflect all of reality. … Box noted that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” While a model can never be “truth,” a model might be ranked from very useful, to useful, to somewhat useful to, finally, essentially useless.”

If you replace the word “useful” with “helpful” and recognise that all the perspectives we hold are essentially mental models then you can see how this inspired my own adaptation, or perspective, on this famous quote.

It’s dangerous territory when we rigidly stick to a perspective because we think:
(a) it is correct
(b) it is the only correct perspective.

Instead, if we see that any perspective we hold is an approximation and one of many, many approximations then we have more mental flexibility and choice. We free ourselves from the mental shackles of our default and only perspective. As many people say, happiness is a choice, and this choice about our point of view is a key contributing factor. In this regard we can certainly chose to abandon ‘unhelpful’ perspectives and seek out and adopt more ‘helpful’ ones that boost our own well-being and the well-being of those around us.

Let’s consider perhaps the most profound erroneous perspective of all and one that we all share at least to some degree.

The perspective is this:

“I am the centre of the universe.”

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Our subjective experience plants us firmly at the centre of the universe. It physically envelops us. We view the universe from our point in space and time and it appears to physically and metaphysically ‘revolve around us’.

Of course, we cannot all be right. Indeed, we are all wrong. Every single one of us.

What’s more, the more we lead our lives in the mode of “I am the centre of the universe.”, the more suffering we are likely to encounter. Why? Because we set up an expectation that we are special. That people and physical matter will comply with our wishes just because we are “me”. We expect life to be fair to us, perhaps more than fair. The odds are tipped in our favour. We get upset when other people appear to put their needs ahead of ours! How dare they! How dare someone inconvenience me!

If instead, we live our lives without this self-centred, universally-centred perspective, we open our eyes and hearts to the plight of our fellow humans that are all living out their lives just like you. They want to be happy. They experience suffering. We can all help each other if we stop thinking we are the ‘special one’. In a counter-intuitive way, the world is now a more humble and satisfying place. We are all in the same boat. We are all special. Everything is special. Life is not fair but we can choose to redress the balance in whatever way we can. Instead of despising the person that stands on our foot; is ahead of us in a queue; is holding you up at the till with their slow behaviour; gets ahead of us on the motorway in their car; or gets that job promotion we wanted; we can see that they are living their lives the best way they can, just like us. By opening our eyes to our non-uniqueness we also open our eyes to the diversity of life and are more tolerant to behaviours we perhaps at first do not recognise in ourselves.

If we can get this perspective so wrong, what other perspectives do we hold that are just plain wrong?

The answer of course is…

All of them.

But as I said, some perspectives are more helpful to us and our fellow humans than others.

Need some more convincing?

Let’s try a couple of thought experiments:

A) If 100 people witness the same event, each of those people will have a different perspective and indeed a different experience. Whether subtly or dramatically so. All of the perspectives cannot be the real truth. If one of them is the truth, which one?

B) Depending on the day of the week, time of day, your mood, what you ate for lunch, etc, you will construct a different perspective faced with the same event. Therefore “perspective NOT EQUAL TO event”.

Still need convincing? Well perhaps we can have a lively discussion at a Zoom-Out Workshop!

Since all perspectives are wrong then my perspective about this is surely wrong. Which of course it is.

But it is however, incredibly helpful if you want to lead a more effective, resilient and fulfilling life!