You Are Not a Blank Canvas

If you put a gun to my head, I would wager that the uniquely human tendency to oscillate between perceiving yourself as omnipotent, of limitless potential, able to do anything – given the requisite time and resources – and perceiving yourself as a fixed, unchangeable, lump of flesh, has been going on since… well, forever.

To put it differently, you’re either seeing yourself as a blank canvas – bestowing upon yourself the potential to be shaped and moulded into just about anything – or you’re seeing yourself as a finished product – you simply are what you are. The End.

Of course, as with any duality or dichotomy, the truth is more: “a little from category A, a little from category B.”

The reality is that, no, you can’t be, do, or have just anything. But that’s not a bad thing. Actually, that’s a very, very good thing. Now you don’t have to waste your time on a load of shit that was never gonna work out anyway. You can cut away the non-essential 99% – the stuff you were only doing because everybody else was – and chow down on what’s left, because the stuff that’s left – the stuff you can be, do, or have – that’s the best stuff anyway.

Move towards what is beautiful, and away from that which is not beautiful.

Move towards what is beautiful…

Figure out what you love. What you’re good at. What makes you lose track of time. What makes you feel transcendent. What makes you feel connected to something bigger than you.

And run at it full-speed. Get it under your fingernails. Let it kill you.

… and away from that which is not beautiful.

Figure out what leaves you cold. What was never in the cards for you anyway. What everybody else seems to think is essential in life.

And forget it. Put it behind you. Have nought but disdain and four-letter words for it.

The paradox of choice

It’s funny – when you think you’re going to live forever, and thus have all the time in the world, you don’t know what to prioritise, what to make important, what to spend your time on. And yet if you got given three months to live, I don’t think you’d spend them playing Candy Crush, reading tweets that make your blood boil with righteous indignation, or giving a shit what shade of lipstick is “in” this summer. I think you’d more likely feel an urge to fuck all that and do something that actually matters to you. Death – the ultimate limitation – would focus you on what mattered.

And the same is true when you assume you are a blank canvas, and that you can do anything you want to. If you’re not careful, this ignorance of reality will turn into an inability to pick from the infinite buffet of vocations, goals, and ambitions. You might think you can do anything, but in thinking that, you make doing absolutely nothing of any consequence much more likely.

What you must do instead is get up close and personal – make friends – with how shitty you are at most things, just how unsuited you to almost every path, and simply decide that you don’t care. Then sink your teeth into whatever’s left.

Life is never about quantity. Only quality.

My “Medici: Masters of Florence” experiment

I recently did a little experiment.

I’ve been getting into Medici: Masters of Florence on Netflix. I like to watch to it with a coffee as I start my day. One morning last week, I put it on.

After a couple of minutes, I had the urge to check my phone, and from that point on, throughout the whole episode, I sort of flitted between watching Medici , and scrolling on my phone – with no particular aim – through Reddit, Instagram, The Guardian, my emails…

After 45 minutes or so, the episode finished, and it hit me that although I’d spent plenty of that 45 minutes looking at the TV, I couldn’t remember hardly anything that had happened. How could that be?

So I decided that – since I had the time, and the curiosity – I would switch off my phone, put it in the kitchen, and start the episode over.

The difference was night and day.


There are a few reasons why the results of my little experiment surprised me so much.

The first is a matter of intention – if somebody had phoned me and said “what are you doing right now?” I would have answered “watching Medici: Masters of Florence. It’s great.” And yet… that’s not really what I was doing, is it? Part of me was. But not much of me, if I could hardly remember anything when it finished. I was basically fooling myself.

The second is how little enjoyment or fulfilment being on my phone gave me. It’s not like I sat down to watch Medici and instead had an amazing time on my phone. I can’t recall a single thing that I did, looked at, looked up, scrolled through… I just know that for 45 minutes, I was generally “on my phone.”

And the third thing is that I would have assumed watching TV – the thing I was trying to do – to be fairly low on a scale from “needs almost no attention” and “needs your full, undivided attention.” And yet when I diluted my attention by being on my phone, it made an incredible difference to the experience.

If it needs your attention, give it your attention

By trying to kind of do two things, I didn’t really do either of them – I never really got into the episode of Medici, and I certainly didn’t do anything of any real worth or value on my phone.

Compared to how I could have spent that 45 minutes, it was a total waste. It wasn’t relaxing. It wasn’t enjoyable. It wasn’t satisfying. It was pointless.

Yet when I allowed myself to only do one thing, then something as mundane as “watching TV” opened up and became a genuinely pleasurable and engaging experience.

Why am I telling you this?

Am I telling you this to preach the evils of being on your phone whilst you watch TV? No.

I’m telling you this to encourage you to explore what difference being intentional about what you’re doing can make.

If single-tasking could transform my experience of watching TV – something that you wouldn’t required much attention – just think what it could do for something that actually required a decent amount of attention?

If something needs any of your attention, try giving it all of your attention. See what happens.

Generosity and attitude

Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on from Pexels

Many seemingly nice people are afraid to give any more of themselves than they absolutely must. However much they have, they don’t really like to share it with others. They see generosity as a nice ideal, but more for other people to concern themselves with. They always find a way to rationalise not doing it.

They can always give you a great excuse as to why, though they might extol the virtues of generosity verbally, they personally can’t quite stretch to it right now. Maybe they’re swamped at work, perhaps they’re short on money… whatever the excuse, they convince you that it’s temporary, and that one day soon, they’ll be in a position to be really generous. Who knows?Perhaps they even believe it themselves.

Of course, once work quietens down, once they have some free time, once they have a bit more money in the bank… they’re armed with a new reason why it’s still not quite time.

And that’s because it was never about not having enough time or enough money. The obstacle was not “out there.” The obstacle was inside – it was their attitude.

A closed attitude

There’s a brilliant chapter in Robert Greene’s “The Laws of Human Nature” about attitude. Basically, your attitude is the lens through which you view your life. We don’t see anything objectively – it is filtered through our attitude. As such, our attitude has the power to greatly colour the way we interpret events, and to ultimately become a self-perpetuating cycle.

If you have a closed attitude, you are much less likely to be generous, because you don’t see how it could possibly be work out in your favour. You’ve been screwed over too many times, people are always out to scam you… You live in fear of losing anything, and so you avoid any situation with the slightest risk of that. You see giving as fundamentally losing something – having it taken from you.

You are ultimately crafting your own cycle of diminishing returns – the less you sow, the less you reap, and the more you feel you need to guard and protect the little you do have, making you much more fearful about sowing in the future. And on, and on, and on.

An open attitude

With an an open attitude, on the other hand, you will actively embrace generosity, because you know that you can’t help but reap what you sow. Sure, you might have occasionally – or frequently – been screwed over, or taken advantage of, but you know that in the long-run, being generous puts the numbers on your side. And when the positive effects of sowing liberally massively outweigh the negative ones, it’s a no-brainer.

You are creating a cycle of accelerated returns – the more you sow, the more you reap, and the more you have confidence to sow again, and since you sow more, you inevitably reap more.

Attitude is both the cause and the effect

Generosity has nothing to do with the amount of something you have to begin with, and everything to do with your attitude regarding it. How else do you explain a world where we have tight-fisted billionaires and dirt-poor philanthropists?

Open yourself up. Be generous of your time, money, energy – whatever small amount you might have. It will come back to you a thousandfold – not necessarily in the form it left you in, but certainly in the spirit in which you gave it.

“I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Matthew 19:23

Do you need to get a job?

There isn’t time in the day to question every little thing we do, or think, or say. But the difference between questioning nothing, and questioning just a little bit, is profound. Life-changing.


“Get a job, you fairy…”

I grew up with the sense that – whether I wanted to or not – in order to be a real person, one day I’d have to get a job. Sure, I could dream about being a famous musician, or maybe a writer, but unless I “got lucky,” and “made it,” I’d need a job.

I didn’t want a job. Getting a job seemed like something that would really eat into my playing guitar and reading books time. But as I looked around, I saw that almost everyone over a certain age had one. Most of them didn’t seem too taken with what they were doing, but they turned up every day anyway. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t…

Still, the more I thought about it, the more it all seemed like a dumb idea. Trade my time for money, at a rate not of my choosing? Do something I might not like – or be any good at – that might not pay well at first – if ever – and that might not provide any benefit to society, maybe even actively worsening it?

What confused me the most was that at school I was always being preached at that intelligence, creativity, contributing to society, these were the best things, the things to value above all else. And yet all I saw around me was people violating that – doing things they didn’t want to do, that didn’t make the world a better place, in exchange for just enough money not to starve. Oh, sure, there were people who liked their jobs, there were people who were making the world a better place, and there were people making a lot of money. But they were a distinct minority.

I wish I could say that I ran with this line of questioning, and never got a job, finding a way round the system, becoming an icon for free-thinkers everywhere… alas, the truth is much less heroic.

I’ve had good jobs, I’ve had shitty jobs, I’ve had no job for long stretches of time. I don’t have it all figured out.

But the one thing I am 100% certain about is that nobody needs a job.

Everything a job gives, you can get some other way

I don’t think most people ever question the logic of getting a job – it’s so baked into our culture that to question it feels like raping a sacred cow.

Jobs do serve several functions, and I explore three of the biggest ones below – making money, a sense of purpose, and contribution to society – but these things can be had other ways.

Both a deep-fried mars bar and a tuna steak with three-bean salad will fill your belly for a while, but only one of them will provide real nourishment and nutrition to your cells. Similarly, whilst a job might give you certain things, it’s generally a fairly weak and ineffectual way to go about getting them.

Making money

Everybody needs money. To buy food, drink, shelter, and everything that makes life groovier above and beyond the bare necessities. But are there not other ways to make money than with a job – ways that are completely legal and ethical?

Money is nothing more than a form of social exchange. Essentially, you make money when you provide a service to the world and get paid for it. The amount of money you make depends on how valuable society thinks your service is at the moment, and how much you of it you give.

A job is one way to do that, sure. But the only way? Not by a long shot. Nor is it even a remotely good way. In most jobs, you don’t have much, if any, control over how much money you make, you don’t get rewarded for doing a better job, you stop making money if you stop turning up to work every day, and if you put a foot wrong and piss off the wrong person, you might find your job (and your income) drying up pretty quickly.

There are literally millions of ways to make money – all you have to do is provide a service, find somebody who wants it, and charge them. A job is merely one way to do that, and if money is the only reason you’re staying in your job, sit with a pen and paper for a bit, and see if there isn’t some other way you might make some money.

A sense of purpose

Many people, sadly, die not long after they retire. I suppose it’s because they suddenly don’t feel needed any more. Either way, there is no denying that getting up in the morning and doing a day’s work gives you a sense of purpose. But who says that has to come from your job?

I’d say that unless you have a really wonderful job, you are playing with fire if you allow your sense of purpose to come solely from your job. You don’t control the world – what if you get let go, or fall ill for a while? You can’t afford to put all you purpose eggs in one job basket.

The more regular activities you can cultivate outside of work that give you a sense of purpose – raising your children, pouring yourself into your music or writing or painting, picking up the litter in your neighbourhood, belonging to a community or society of some kind – the less you will require from your job.

Contribution to society

This is a very interesting one, because you hear it a lot, usually as a soundbite on the news: “Get a job! Contribute to society!” It’s as though one equals the other.

On the surface, especially if you think back to when most people’s jobs involved growing food or working in factories making stuff, this checks out – your job is a way for you to actively give something to society.

Except it’s now 2019, and I would argue that unless you are working specifically for a company you know to be ethical in their practices, that your job is most likely taking from society, and contributing instead to your company’s bottom line, and to the bank accounts of the shareholders. Remember, publicly-traded companies operate out of an obligation to increase shareholder profits at any cost they can get away with. Whilst there might be some accidental, side-effect benefit to society, that is certainly not their priority, whatever their spin might suggest.

Now, you might instead work in the public sector, or for a genuinely ethical private company. Fantastic. In your job you are indeed contributing to society, making the world a better place. It’s just that… again, a job is just one way to do this.

Why not get involved in local politics, adopt a child, start your own company that is specifically trying to contribute to society?

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Ghandi

Jobs are not bad. They’re just misunderstood.

There are good jobs. And I am not saying you are stupid if you have a job. I have a job.

I’m just saying that we should think twice before we act as though “GETTING A JOB IS UNQUESTIONABLY THE RIGHT THING FOR EVERYONE TO DO.”

We should intead look at the many benefits that jobs do provide us, and instead of blindly assuming a job is the only route to those things, see if there aren’t other routes.

Don’t pretend things are worse than they are

There is this thing I think about a lot. I don’t know what it’s called. I know even less how to put it into words.

It’s when we note the existence of one single negative, and take that to mean that there is nothing positive or neutral any more.

We can be plodding along quite happily, but then one bad thing happens, and that’s it – it’s all shit now. Except, of course, it isn’t – not unless we decide to make it so.

A story, to illustrate…

Let’s say you and your six friends are desperate to go to a concert. Tickets cost £5 each. You offer to buy all seven tickets – you’re a generous guy, after all – and you tell everyone they can just pay you back at the end of the concert.

The night of the concert comes, and it is every bit the amazing night you thought it would be. Except one thing sours it slightly – before you all go home, five of your six friends give you the £5 ticket money back, as agreed. But one decides he’s not going to – he tells you that it was only a fiver, and he didn’t enjoy the show that much, and anyway, it’s not like you need the money – and leaves you £5 down.

You’re pissed off – not so much about the money, but the betrayal of trust. Other than deciding not to be his friend any more, you don’t have much recourse, though. You vow never to be taken advantage of like that again.

A couple of months later, there’s another concert you all want to go to. Your friends – now just five – all want to go, and they ask you if you can get the tickets again – they’ll pay you back just like last time.

You have a think, remember what happened last time, and say “no, sorry.” None of you end up going to the concert.


Now, you had every right to be annoyed at the one friend that didn’t pay you back – he broke your trust, after all. Had he wanted you to buy him a ticket the second time, it’d be reasonable to reject him – fool me once, etc…

But what did that have to do with the other five, all of whom paid you back on time, and presumably would have again?

Just because you’d had your fingers burnt, and your trust betrayed once, you decided it was safer not to trust anyone anymore, even the people who had showed themselves worthy of your trust in the past. Irrational, no?

We do this all the time.

Memories and emotions

One reason we blow negative events out of all proportion is to do with the way our memories work – they are designed to key in on the highlights of our lives, positive or negative, and to ignore the rest, because – let’s be honest – most of the time, everything is fine. Time ticks by, and the closer our experiences are to neutral – the less remarkable they are – the less likely we are to remember them.

But when something happens that deviates from the middle-ground – either in a positive direction or negative – we are many times more likely to remember them. Especially the negative ones.

And so we remember the friend betraying our trust much more vividly than the other five friends not betraying our trust, because, well… not having your trust betrayed is not really an event, is it?

Every day, billions of people don’t betray your trust. But if we never sit down and actually acknowledge that reality, focusing instead on the one person who did, then we’re liable to start telling ourselves stories like “you can’t trust anyone.” It’s not that you can or should trust everybody you come across immediately and indiscriminately, just that never trusting anyone because of one bad experience is somewhat of an over-reaction.

What to do?

First, you must accept that this is simply the way your brain works. Your brain, my brain… all brains. We remember negative events much more vividly than positive or neutral ones, and this leads us to distort the bigger picture, giving the negative event more space on the canvas than it deserves.

It’s not that bad things don’t happen. It’s just that compared to the positive and neutral things, they don’t happen nearly as often as your emotions (and your memory) might lead you to believe.

Once you accept that this is your natural tendency, the only thing you can do is to try to counter-act it with rationality.

For example, think about the fact that an estimated 6.5% of the population are afraid of flying. And yet fewer than one flight in 300,000 (0.000003%) is involved in an accident, and just one flight in 3,000,000 (0.0000003%) results in anybody’s death. You are more likely to die from food poisoning, by a falling ladder, falling off a bed or chair, drowning in a bath, being hit by a firework, or the old favourite – being hit by lightning.

You don’t have to become delusional – there are genuine dangers in life. You can acknowledge the negative things that happen, just don’t pretend there are more of them than there really are.

“Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Hit your pillow happy tonight

L’Uomo Vitruviano (1490)– Leonardo Da Vinci

“As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.”

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

Life might well be finite – your days a limited quantity – but barring an early, unforeseen death, it’s long enough to fit plenty into. Just ask Leonardo Da Vinci.

According to Wikipedia, Da Vinci used his 67 years on Earth to become proficient – sometimes downright masterful – at the following: invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography.

Intimidating, right? And yet… Leonardo had the same 24 hours in a day as the rest of us. What did he do differently than other people? Well, as the quote above suggests, he just tried to spend each day well. Days add up – they become weeks, which become months, which become years, which become decades, which become your life.

So if the path to a well-spent life is well-spent days – as it was for Leonardo – how do you spend your day well?

You don’t just “write a book”

Or “make an album.” Or “build a house.” These are multi-day, multi-task projects. Putting any of them on your to-do list is nothing more than a recipe for overload, overwhelm, and ultimately… giving up.

But what you can put on your to-do list are the smaller tasks that, when added together, make up the larger project.

You can write a draft of a chapter of your book. You can record a take of one of the songs on your album. And you can lay the bricks of one of the walls of the house you’re building.

These small and manageable tasks are what should form the foundation of your days. When you chain enough of them together, that’s when you start really cooking.

The one deed rule

If something intimidates you, it’s because you’re trying to more than one thing at a time. You haven’t made it small enough yet. Boil it down to one action.

Name one thing you could do today that would mean your head hitting your pillow happy tonight. If it feels too difficult, make it smaller. Keep making it smaller until it’s easy. Now go and do it.

Your deeds form your days, and your days form your life. You want a better life? Start with one deed.

You are as powerful as your ability to say “no.”

It’s easy to say “no” to the things that are an obvious a waste of your time, or are in clear violation of the things you hold dear – a 1 or 2 out of 10.

And it’s easy to say “yes” to the things are obviously perfect for you, that fit you like a glove, that you feel you were born to do – a 9 or 10 out of 10.

It’s just that most things in life don’t fall into these easy categories. Most things in life fall into a third category – the things that don’t seem that bad, or that actually seem fairly good – a 3 to 8 out of 10.

It’s infinitely harder to say “no” to these things. That’s what makes them so dangerous, but it’s also what makes saying “no” to them so powerful.

How are they dangerous?

Two reasons.

One, because they steal your time away from the things in life that truly matter to you.

And two, because whilst they are doing this, they present a harmless front with which to distract you from what’s really going on.

You must reject the “okay” things in life

The point of life is – surely – to spend as many moments as possible doing things that are a 9 or 10 for you, whatever they might be.

But in order to do this, you must have the spare time. Without your vigilance, your time will quickly become filled to the brim with these seemingly harmless activities, leaving no room for the things you value the most.

To get to the 9s and 10s, you must therefore actively disengage from – cut out of your life – things that are a 1 to 8 for you.

It feels incredibly counter-intuitive to reject something that might be really quite good, objectively, but isn’t quite right for you. And, as I alluded to earlier, this gets harder and harder to do the higher the number gets – it’s easy to reject a 2, but very strange to consider rejecting a 7 or 8.

The problem is in the way we are raised.

We expect scarcity, so that’s what we get

Our culture has not yet learnt to deal with choice, because we haven’t spent long with the need to.

For most of human history, things were truly scarce. Opportunities, connections, resources. Unless you were a King, you literally couldn’t afford to say “no” to anything, because there wasn’t generally an alternative. It was “this thing” or “no thing.” So you chose “this thing.” You had to.

Times have changed. In just the last few decades, the opportunities and possibilities open to the average person have exploded. Now, it’s “this thing” or “that thing” or “the other thing,” multiplied, squared, cubed…

We must say “no” to hundreds, thousands, millions of things that we could quite easily say “yes” to, if we want to live any kind of fulfilling life, if we want to get anything of any substance done.

And still we walk around with this hangover from the “get what you’re given and be happy with it” era. You can choose to tell yourself a different story, though.

Exercise your power to say “no”

At different moments in history, different traits have been rewarded, bringing the individuals possessing such traits the ability to thrive.

In the backstabbing 17th century environment of Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, for example, the trait that saw you rise to the top was mastering the art of indirection – if anybody knew what you were up to, you were toast. As Robert Greene writes in The 48 Laws of Power: “The successful courtier learned over time to make all of his moves indirect; if he stabbed an opponent in the back, it was with a velvet glove on his hand and the sweetest of smiles on his face.”

In 2019, there is no ability more worthy of your cultivation than exercising your power to say “no.” This is a world of abundance. If you own the technology to read this post, you have more options at your fingertips than anybody has ever had before, in the entire history of humanity.

Figure out what you ought to say “yes” to, sure, but much more importantly, actively say “no” to everything else.

The “Ham and Worming Tablet” School of Marketing

Mmmm, ham.

The biggest lie your teachers ever told you was “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

Don’t get me wrong – I agree with the metaphor, because what we’re really saying to kids, when we warn them against judging a book by its cover, is “you shouldn’t judge a human being merely by their outward appearance.” And what could be a more valuable lesson – for kids and adults alike?

The problem is that – unlike people – books have covers specifically for your judgement. The author wants you to read her book – why else did she write it? – the cover is a handy little way for her to hint at what might be inside, and seduce you into opening it.

Are you seducing people into checking out your work? If not, why not?

So much art, so little time

If you don’t learn to market your work – to make your target audience both aware of your work and willing to give it a taste – you’re done for.

All the people that could potentially love the things you do are being bombarded, every day, by new movies, new songs, new books… If you don’t give them a damn good reason to check out your work, why the hell would they bother?

Which brings me back to book covers. And to illustrate the power of a book cover, here’s an analogy involving a German Shepherd.

The ham and the worming tablet

A German Shepherd isn’t stupid – he won’t entertain the mere thought of eating a little white worming tablet if you just put it in his bowl. He’ll laugh in your face.

But he will scarf down the delicious piece of ham you wrap it up in sooner than you can say “Here, boy! Look – some innocent ham!”

Your audience is no different to that German Shepherd. If your marketing is off – if it doesn’t make your intended audience want to know more – then it really doesn’t matter how great your work is.

If you don’t wrap your work up in ham, then all they will see is a worming tablet. And they’ll go watch Love Island instead.

All steak, no sizzle…

Most artists – out of a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided sense of pride – take the position that our art is our art, our work is our work, and that it shouldn’t matter how it’s presented. To think about things like marketing is seen as crass commercialism, as selling out… at the very least, as dumbing down. And we don’t want to do that. Never. We’d rather starve.

And… more often than not, people like us end up on a fast train to nowhere. We might genuinely believe our work is the greatest thing since The Marriage of Figaro, but since we were too proud to wrap it up in ham – we believed we were above that – nobody bothers to check us out. And since nobody bothers to check us out, nobody tells their friends about us, there’s never a buzz created around us… we die on the vine.

What’s even more frustrating for us proud types is the proliferation of the other type – artists whose work is banal and facile, but who at least know how to market their particular brand of tripe. This is the singer-songwriter who wears the right hat, and has the right beard, and takes the right sensitive selfies, and uses the right hashtags, and knows how to make the kind of music that daytime Radio 2 listeners wouldn’t find offensive…

They’re all ham, no tablet. And they’re everywhere. Not wanting to go down their road of “all sizzle, no steak,” we proud types tend to go down the other one – “If nobody likes our work, fuck ’em.”

Except that… they might have liked it, if we’d given them a sporting chance.

Make great work. Learn how to market it.

The happy news is that this is a false dichotomy – you can do exactly the work you always wanted to do, and you can market it without feeling like a common street-walker.

You don’t have to dumb down your work. You don’t have to make it lowest-common-denominator. You don’t have to move it to the middle of the road. I beg you, I beg you, I beg you on bended knee, please, don’t…

But you do have to find a way to make it appetising to your target audience.

Your marketing should make the right people want to taste your work. Your work should make them glad they did.

Everyone is trying their best.

It might not be what you want them to do.

It might not be what you think you would do, were the shoe on the other foot.

And it might not be the best they could maybe, possibly do, one day, potentially.

But right now, in this very moment, no matter how much it seems otherwise, everyone is trying their best. Including you.

Instead of treating people as evil when they commit the crime of not living up to your expectations, seek to understand them instead. Life opens up when you cast aside your need for people to be anything other than exactly what they are.

Err on the side of action.

If it’s not going to start a war… do it.

If the only risk you run is of looking foolish… do it.

If you’ve wanted to do it forever, but you never took the leap… do it.

In a life defined by its limited quantity of time, we have far more to lose erring on the side of caution than we do erring on the side of action.

All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger… Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

Concentrate your forces

How you ever noticed that – with a great deal things in life – the harder you try, the more difficult what you’re doing seems to become? As though you were trying to lift a weight, but for every extra ounce of energy you put into lifting it, the weight got an ounce heavier.

We could explore just which kink of human nature makes this phenomenon true, but for now let’s just assume I’m right, and it is, and look at what we can do with this information.

Try harder at everything?

The most common strategy, upon trying to do something and having it resist you, is to assume that what’s needed is that you try even harder. And to try as hard as you can on as many different things as you can – totally indiscriminately. Throw enough shit at the wall and some of it will stick, as the saying goes.

You see this kind of vague, macho, armchair guru stuff everywhere on the internet. “Try, try, and try again.” “If you’re not a success, it’s because you don’t want it enough.” “If you’re not going to give 110%, don’t even bother showing up.” Piss off.

The problem I have with this approach – besides finding even thinking about it stressful – is that if you treat everything you come across as worth giving your absolute best shot at, then you are not brave, ,strong or courageous, but stupid. Most things in life are not worth giving your absolute best to, and most things wouldn’t be moved no matter how hard you tried.

Not only will you exhaust yourself living this way, you won’t even get the results that might render the exhaustion somewhat worth it. You did a shitty at job at prioritising – by not prioritising – and then you probably did a shitty job at everything you tried your hand at.

So… don’t try hard?

The common conclusion you’ll come to as result of trying really hard on everything you come across, because you think it’s somehow weak not to, is that trying hard simply doesn’t work. And you’ll have the evidence to prove it. How can it work? After all, you tried really hard, and you got nowhere.

The problem, however, was not in your trying hard, but in your promiscuous selection process.

Concentrate your forces

To do truly extraordinary things – the grand audacious things you were born to do – your only option is to pursue them with the most aggressive energy you can muster. If it can be accomplished without your most aggressive energy, you’re not aiming high enough.

There is an object you want to move. To move it, you must try your absolute hardest. So do it. BUT… only that object. Forget about all the other objects. Forget everything else in the world. Focus everything you have on moving that one object.

When you limit the things you deem worthy of giving 100% to, you suddenly gain the potential to actually give 100%, and only then will you realise what you’ve been missing – either by trying hard at all kinds of things, or not trying hard on anything.

We have no idea what our limits are generally, because we never allow ourselves to get anywhere them. We live shallow, diffuse lives, focusing a little bit here and a little bit there. Concentrate your forces instead. You’ll seem like a superhero by contrast.

Forge the path only you could forge

Whatever it is you want to accomplish with the time you have left on this planet, getting a clear picture of it in your head is an important first step, but it’s just one half of the puzzle.

The other half is forging your path – figuring out just how you’ll get from where you are now to where you want to be.

There is an ideal path

Whilst there are an infinite amount of paths available to you – an infinite amount of ways you could get where you want to go – only one of these possible paths is the right one for you.

We can call this path your ideal path. Your ideal path is the one that not only gets you where you want to go, but also takes into account your unique character, temperament, and inclinations.

Like Cinderella trying on the glass slipper, you will know when you are on your ideal path – it will fit.

Trying to get where you want to go by following just any path – even one that seems totally logical, and would make sense for the average person – is a waste of time. When you do this, you’re not Cinderella – you’re Cinderella’s step-sisters, who also tried on the glass slipper. And it didn’t matter how much both tried to cram their grotesque feet into it, the slipper did not fit.

Discovering your ideal path is a path in itself

Your ideal path is not something that magically presents itself to you one day – and if you sit around waiting for it to happen, it definitely won’t – but one that you forge yourself, piece by piece, by taking action. By exploring different avenues and being awake and alert to what you do and don’t respond to, you slowly but surely illuminate the perfect path for you to achieving your life’s work.

Some people work best under lots of pressure. Other people work best in a relaxed environment.

Some people need plenty of social support to keep on track. Other people prefer to keep themselves on track – other people would only get in their way and annoy them.

There is no right and wrong. There is just your character. You are a completely unique blend of likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses, and the path you forge must be yours and yours alone.

What is school for?

Your school years are meant to be the apprenticeship stage of your life – you are supposed to spend thirteen or so years at school, and emerge at the end of it prepared for whatever adult life throws at you.

If that’s what school is for, then why do we as a culture insist on teaching young people almost nothing that will be of any use to them once they’ve left school?

Shall we just leave that one to chance?

The funny thing is we recognise that certain things can’t be left to chance. We’ve made it the law that kids must go to school. We produce entire curricula, and then test kids rigorously on them, making sure that no apparently vital bit of information goes untaught.

We’ve just decided that instead of teaching young people anything of actual benefit to their adult lives, we’ll impress upon them the importance of arbitrary trivia.

Some examples

Photosynthesis? We can’t have kids not knowing about that. Don’t be ridiculous!

Knowing how to manage your personal finances? Probably not that significant to their futures. Leave it to chance.

Pythagoras? God, can you imagine a world where that name wasn’t on the tip of every tongue? Makes you shudder, doesn’t it?

How to raise healthy, happy children? I dunno. Let’s just let them figure it out by themselves. What’s the worst that could happen?

Henry VIII and the fate of his six wives? I can’t think of anything more crucial for our youngsters to get to grips with.

Understanding human nature, and how to deal with the people around you? You can’t teach social intelligence, mate – you’ve either got it or you haven’t. And if even you could teach it, shall we… yeah, we’ll leave that to chance. Best not to get involved.

I could go on all day. But I won’t.

School is too important to waste on trivia

It’s not that the stuff we learn at school is irrelevant. It’s just that, compared to a whole host of things that would actually help you navigate the world as an adult, the stuff we learn is way down the list.

Why not reverse it? Learn the important stuff first. Why not teach actual life skills, why not teach kids how to teach themselves, and why not teach them how to be healthy, happy humans? Then if there’s any time left, study the feminist subtext in Jane Eyre.

What are they going to mock us mercilessly for in 2100?

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Isaac Newton. Sort of… explanation at the end of the piece.

One of the ugliest things about the current generation of humans is how highly it thinks of itself relative to the generations that came before us.

Even though humans have been around for thousands and thousands of years, each generation building on the progress handed to it by the last, going two steps forward and one step back but advancing nonetheless… somewhere we got the idea that around two or three decades ago, we finally got it right. We’re the peak of human civilisation. Everything before us was “less-than.” We’re the end of the line – as good as it can ever possibly get.


Not only is this definitely not true, it’s a dangerous attitude. Pride comes before a fall.

“It’s okay. The people before us didn’t know any better”

We tend to look down our noses at the people who came before us – the people who actually built the world that we call “our own” – with a curious blend of superiority and condescension.

Firstly, we see anybody from before the 1900s (and at times anybody from before 2019) as primitives, as savages, as unrefined. But even we realise this judgement is a little bit unfair. And so to restore balance, and make us feel like good, fair people, we add in a dollop of what we’d like to think is empathy, or the benefit of the doubt, but is in fact downright condescension – “of course they were all those things, but they didn’t know any better back then, did they?!

We mock Elizabethans putting white shit all over their faces and dying of lead poisoning – we’d never put anything harmful in our bodies, would we?

We laugh about wacko religious zealots burning innocent young girls at the stake on the off-chance that they might be a witch – we’d never allow our religious beliefs to stop us treating each other with dignity, would we?

We can’t believe those doctors who, when Ignaz Semmelweis proved that washing hands rapidly reduced the death-rate in hospitals, mocked him and refused to accept his irrefutable proof – we’d never ignore the scientific proof of an expert and let people die unnecessarily would we?

We shake our heads in disbelief at all the people who fell for Adolf Hitler, and say “we’re far too wise now to be misled by somebody blaming all our country’s problems on one convenient ethnic target.” Hmmm. Trump? Duterte? BREXIT?

“But we know better…”

The thing is, we actually do know better. We literally know the best anyone has ever known. As a whole, the human race has a more complete grasp of every form of knowledge now than it is ever has. We might not use our knowledge wisely every second of the day, but we do have the knowledge.

Our mistake? We let our progress – which is astounding – go to our heads. We arrogantly assume that because we know the best yet, that we know the best anyone will ever know.

What are they going to mock us mercilessly for in 2100? I don’t even want to think about it.

So what to do?

Have a little bit of humility.

Recognise that we’re simply part of a timeline. We’re one scene in a giant Bayeux tapestry.

Our arrogance is in presuming our generation to be the most important and impressive part of the tapestry. I think we can’t help but think that because it’s our generation – it’s now. Have you ever noticed that the values people should apparently live by always eerily reflect whatever the dominant values were at the time the person espousing them came of age? It’s all just a little bit convenient.

By accepting our relative smallness – grasping our true position in the world, and in history – we are free. It is an incredibly heavy and unproductive burden we carry – thinking that we’re the logical end-point of civilisation, and that all generations before us were merely striving to get to where we are now. Let go.

It’s not that we’re shit. We’re just not as massive an improvement on the people before us as we like to believe.

Isaac Newton and his Giants

Isaac Newton was being very humble in the quote at the beginning, acknowledging that his work wasn’t his alone, but that hundreds of other thinkers before him had laid the groundwork and set him up to discover what discovered.

But what makes the quote even better is that it wasn’t originally his! A similar sentiment has been traced back to the 12th century – to Bernard of Chartres – after which it was was passed down, and passed down, until in letter one day in February 1676 Newton found himself using it.

So even Newton’s quote about standing on the shoulder of giants was only possible by… standing on the shoulder of giants.

What will I be glad that I did?

Right now, I could stand up, walk to the kitchen, and pour myself a big glass of water. Mmm.

What I couldn’t do, however, is do the same thing in ten minutes’ time. Why not?

Because I can’t control my future actions – only my actions right now.

From where I sit right now, I can intend to go get the water in ten minutes, I can try to remember to go get the water in ten minutes, I can even set an alarm to remind me to go get the water in ten minutes. What I cannot do from where I sit right now is control whether or not I go get the water in ten minutes.

We can only control our actions in the present moment.

The perils of time-travel

This creates a conundrum – we want to be able to control our actions in the future, because we want the future to be good. But how can we make sure it’s as good as possible if we can’t do anything about it?

Well, careful there. I didn’t say we couldn’t do anything about it. I just said we can’t control it.

Thinking about the future – time-travelling – is not just useful, it’s essential. It’s one of those incredible, uniquely human abilities – what separates us from the animals is our ability to rise above the battlefield of the present moment, and think of the bigger picture.

But where we get stuck is not in our thinking about the future – a good thing – but in projecting ourselves into the future and then trying to act on it from the present. As I said earlier, this is impossible.

We can envision the future. We can plot and plan and scheme and strategise. But we cannot act in the future – we can only act in the present.

Stop making promises to yourself

The place to start is to stop making promises to yourself about what you will or won’t do in the future. Every time you break a promise like this – which is almost inevitable – you lose a little bit of trust in yourself, and this has a nasty habit of compounding.

Instead, start making very small promises about what you will and won’t do right now at this very second. Every time you keep a promise like this – which is easy, because you make very small promises – you gain a bit of trust in yourself, and this too has a habit of compounding.

It all boils down to two choices, really: Make life easier for your future self, or harder. Try doing the thing you’ll be glad you did, right now, whatever it is.

The rain doesn’t care how loud you shout for it to stop.

Imagine going for a pleasant walk in the countryside, when suddenly it starts raining – just a drizzle at first, but then a heavy downpour. Perhaps you start walking faster to get back to the car. Perhaps you were clever enough to bring an umbrella, and you get it out. Perhaps you start shouting at the sky as loudly as possibly to stop raining and to stop it right now.

You can do anything you like. None of it will make the slightest bit of difference to what the rain decides it’s going to do.

What is power?

According to Robert Greene, power is the ability to shape circumstances to your will – to wield influence over yourself, over others, and over events. We feel powerful to the degree we feel able to do this, and powerless to the degree we feel unable to.

The feeling of being powerless, as Greene explains in the introduction to “The 48 Laws of Power”, is generally unbearable – we cannot stand it. Under the influence of such an unpleasant feeling, we inevitably look for something that will give us the pleasing feeling of having power. And we generally find something.

The problem is that we, as a species, have an almost comically terrible grasp over what is and what isn’t susceptible to our charms. We vastly overestimate the amount of things we can directly control – most things are utterly impervious to our influence. And each time we misjudge our ability to control something, we feel a little bit more powerless.

Whilst attempting to control things that we cannot might not make a difference to the thing itself – like in the case of the rain – it does makes a difference to us, sometimes massively so.

Wasting your time is not a neutral activity

You only have a limited amount of time left on this Earth, and this time can either be directed towards things that are open to your influence, or towards things that are not.

Directing them towards things that are not might seem innocent and entirely neutral – sure, you might not be changing the thing you’re trying to change, but you’re not doing anything harm either, right?

Wrong. Because every second used on what you can’t control is a second you now can’t spend on something you can. And you don’t have an unlimited supply of seconds.

Expand your power by exercising it

As I said earlier, the more time you spend attempting to influence things that were never open to your influence in the first place, the more powerless you feel. But fortunately, the reverse is also true.

The list of things you have the potential to control might be short, but it’s exactly as long as it needs to be – long enough that at any given moment you can shamelessly give yourself to something worthy of your attention without worrying about what you’re not giving your attention to. It wouldn’t have made a difference anyway!

And when you do this, something wonderful happens – the list grows. When you use your power to go to work on the things that are open to your influence, your power expands, and suddenly more and more things are open to your influence.

Don’t waste another second on things you can’t do anything about anyway – there are more than enough things you can do something about to keep you busy for the rest of your life. And it’ll be a much happier life, too.

Let’s stop pretending racism is anything more than insecurity

Racism might masquerade as a belief in the superiority of your race over another, but if you believe that, then you’ve fallen for the oldest trick in the book. This is nothing more than a clever sleight-of-hand, craftily employed by racists from time immemorial, to cover up what’s really going on in their heads.

The much more pathetic truth?

Racists are actually deathly afraid of the possible inferiority of their race. They are so afraid of their inferiority, in fact, that they are compelled to vociferously trumpet their apparent superiority, and to enact laws and policies that protect their race whilst keeping others down.

Racists are insecure

Racists are so insecure about their position in the world that they have no choice but to alter the playing field to their benefit. They have to alter it in order to feel superior – after all, if their race actually was superior, then wouldn’t they be able to win with a level playing field?

They know they can’t win with a level playing field, however, and this creates further insecurity – it’s not a pleasant feeling to know that you can only win by cheating.

Imagine being on a football team – you, and ten of your friends. You guys have an amazing track record – you win every single game you play. You brag to the other teams about your superiority over them.

Except… you make the other team’s goal twenty times bigger than yours, the referee awards you with five goals for every goal you actually score, and if the other team so much as touches the ball, it’s a penalty to your team. Are you really superior?

Racists know deep down that they aren’t superior to anyone or anything. But they also know that if they cover it up with flags, with “pride”, with enough shit-for-brains believers in “the cause”… then we’ll fall for it.

Racists don’t deserve your attention

The problem in 2019 is that we’ve stopped treating racism as a fear and an insecurity, and we’ve started treating it as an intellectual position. It’s not an intellectual position. It’s evidence that a person’s rational faculties are fundamentally broken. It should not be treated with respect. It should be treated with pity.

It’s fear. It’s insecurity. You can dress it up to look like courage, like strength, like power… but as I’ve said, if your race was so superior, you wouldn’t need to go to these lengths to convince yourself – and the rest of the world – of that superiority.

Work on yourself

Work on yourself. Don’t blame the accident of other people’s births on the things you don’t like about your life.

If you’ve got time to be racist, you must have more hours in the day than the rest of us do.

Add resistance, not just difficulty

There is a theory that goes around – primarily amongst older guitarists, though not exclusively – that if you want to learn guitar, you should not start on electric.

It’s not true at all – and it probably prevents a lot of would-be great electric guitarists from ever trying – although like all theories of this type, it’s not completely unfounded.

The theory goes…

The average electric guitar is undeniably “easier” to play than the average acoustic guitar.

It has a slimmer neck, lighter and looser strings, and if you plug it in you can play very gently and still hear every note. The electric guitar gives you less physical resistance than the acoustic guitar – that’s a fact.

And so these people take the leap that since it’s “easier,” you won’t get as good. And so you shouldn’t start on electric.

But my question is “what if you specifically want to play the electric guitar?”

All guitars are not created equal

If you specifically wanted to play electric guitar, but I made you play acoustic first for a year to “train you up,” you’d be in for a bit of a shock when I finally handed you an electric guitar.

Sure, there would be plenty of things you learned on acoustic that would transfer right across – where the notes are on each string, the shapes for different chords, how to use a plectrum – but physically, after spending a whole year acclimatising to the physical dimensions of an acoustic guitar, with its wider neck, thicker strings, higher action… the electric guitar would feel very strange.

Because it’s not the same instrument. And that’s the mistake the “don’t start on electric” crowd make.

They think that it’s all the same instrument, just an “easier” or “harder” version. Nope.

If you want to master electric guitar, then there’s a lot that playing acoustic can help you with. But only as a supplement. What’s really going to help you is playing electric guitar, and playing it a lot.

Resistance training

Have you ever seen people go for a run carrying small weights in their hands, or strapped to their arms?

These people are engaging in a form of resistance training – when you make an activity harder to perform, you force your body to adapt to the increased load, and to become stronger. And it works.

There are all kinds of ways to make a run more difficult – run with your eyes closed, try to breathe as little as possible, shout random Spanish words every few seconds… all these things will make the run more difficult. But will they improve your running? Probably not.

And it’s the same with the guitar. And most things, actually.

Manual vs automatic

I was discussing the whole “don’t start on electric” thing with a student last night, and he made a great analogy: there are people who think that everybody should learn to drive a manual car – since it’s more difficult, it must make you a better driver, right?

Except what if you never had any intention of driving a manual car for the rest of your life? What benefit could there be? You’re not adding resistance, just difficulty.

When something is true in one domain, it’s easy to get carried away and try to apply it to everything. Think harder about what you’re trying to do and whether you’re giving yourself genuine, helpful resistance, or whether you’re just making life unnecessarily difficult for yourself.

Work deeply, or not at all

When it comes to keeping yourself hydrated, nothing works better than drinking small amounts of water throughout the day.

If you need 3 litres per day, for example, it’s not more efficient to try drinking them all at once – your kidneys can only process around 1 litre per hour, and so anything above that will just be flushed out. You have to give your body the water it needs a bit at a time, throughout the course of whole day

This simple, slow and steady approach works better than anything else for hydration. But it’s an extremely sub-optimal approach to just about everything else in life, especially learning.

Learning requires deep focus

The human brain was designed to focus. The deeper your focus is on a subject, the faster you can learn, the more you can retain what you learn, and the more alive you feel.

The more your focus is diluted, for example by focusing on a higher quantity of items each in a shallower fashion, then you not only don’t learn as quickly, you don’t retain as well what you do learn, and the more bored and frustrated you will feel.

When it comes to learning anything, your best results will by saturating yourself with the thing you are trying to learn.

Work in cycles

The kinds of genius work we all have the potential to produce are only possible for you if you work deeply enough – shutting out the world for several hours at a time, allowing your monkey mind to recede into the background and let the best parts of you work on the task.

But you can’t keep this up forever. If you’ve worked at a sufficient depth, you’ll be knackered after a while – maybe a week, maybe two, possibly even just one day of deep work. You’ve earned yourself a rest. So take it. The rest will renew you, allow your brain to consildate all the stuff you were doing whilst you were working.

It’s a reinforcing cycle – deep work creates the need for deep rest, which strengthens you for the next round of deep work.

Without realising, most of us live in a grey zone. We work on several things in a shallow fashion constantly. Shallow work doesn’t require deep rest, and so after doing one thing we still have energy left to focus shallowly on something else. We use the method that works for hydration on learning stuff, where it doesn’t really work at all.

Make it easier for yourself

If there’s something you want to improve about your life – read more, eat less, learn to play piano – how do you go about getting yourself to do the things you need to do to make that happen?

Do you have to force, coerce, and bully yourself into action, hating every second until it’s done? And does that work for you?

Or does it just sort of… flow? Do you look back a few months later and think “Oh, wow, I did that thing almost without realising?”

The path of least resistance

We like to think that we are always acting rationally, always in control, always making our decisions consciously. The truth is that we are almost never doing any of these things.

The truth is that – as a human being – you are almost always following the path of least resistance, wherever it might take you. You are doing whatever feels like the easiest choice in the moment.

This force is neutral – its goodness or badness depends entirely on the situation. The only thing you can do is accept that it exists.

Be strategic

If forcing yourself to do things works for you, then don’t let me stop you. I just know that it doesn’t work for me.

If I try to do it that way, I have a very stressful two or three days of straining to make myself do things that feel completely unnatural, and then I give up. I achieve basically nothing – none of the results I wanted – and I get the added bonus of a dip in self-esteem.

What works for me is not trying harder. It’s making the things I know I need to do easier – making it so that I don’t have to exert so much willpower just to get moving.

If I can get people that I like involved in whatever I’m doing, it’s easier.

If I can make it so that everything I need is in one place, physically, it’s easier.

If I can add a good deadline – not too ambitious, but not boringly far away either – it’s easier.

If I know I have time to mentally relax and recouperate afterwards, it’s easier.

It’s a part of your nature

My point is that there’s a part of you that will always try and drag you down in the moment when you want to do the right thing. Stay one step ahead of it by making doing the right thing easier.

Living problem to problem

Frank Zappa’s paternal grandfather didn’t like taking baths.

It doesn’t take a genius to guess what problem this created. But he was no fool, old Zappa. He found a solution: he wore lots of clothes and doused himself with an excessive amount of cologne.

Here in 2019, we might scoff at this unhygienic, Sicilian, turn-of-the-century solution to a problem, but it’s really no different than the way most of us solve most our problems.

What particular pickle are you in at the moment?

I’m always in some kind of pickle, real or imagined. And there’s always a solution to it.

Not only that – there’s always a good solution. There’s a solution that doesn’t merely kick the problem down the road a little, but one that makes it go away for good.

Alas, I very rarely find these higher solutions, because I’m so desperate for any solution that I settle far too soon for one that doesn’t really solve anything.

You see, it’s very difficult to see good, long-term solutions, because when you’re in the moment, all emotional about the urgent situation you find yourself in, you think that all you need right now is a quick fix – something simple to allow you to breathe a little air – and if you can find it, then “everything” will be okay.

And since you’re so desperate to find a solution – any solution – you look extra hard, and you find one quite quickly. You tell yourself that’s it’s just this once, and that when you’re done with this immediate fix, you’ll make sure to sit down and figure out a real, long-term solution.

Except that you don’t. You’re so relieved that the problem appears to have gone away for a while that you relax and forget about the whole thing.

Until next week, when the problem is back, with a vengeance.

The short-term

The solutions you find in a panic, just to make the problem go away, are created by short-term thinking. Short in terms of time, and short in terms of space. Here are the characteristics of these solutions:

  • They are overly simplistic. They don’t take into account the whole picture, but are satisfied just to fix just one piece of the puzzle. Inevitably they cause some negative knock-on effect you didn’t foresee.
  • They are egotistical. They revolve around you and your immediate animal needs. They don’t consider that other people, or your future self, might end up paying a higher price as a result of this fix.
  • They only work temporarily. If they solve the problem at all – often they just mask it – they do it for a very short time.
  • They make you spiral downward. Each short-term solution is as if you were drowning, and you were given the ability to tread water. It’s an improvement, sure, but after enough cycles of this you’ll wear yourself out and sink

Long-term thinking

What about the other side? What do good, long-term solutions look like?

  • They are elegant. They take into account all the necessary elements, ignore the irrelevant ones, and then weigh up the possible interactions between all the branches of potential consequences.
  • They are universal. They solve your problem whilst making the world a better place in general.
  • They last. The problem is solved for a long time. It’s not coming back soon, and if it ever does, you will see it coming way in advance and have time to act before it causes any damage,
  • They make you spiral upward. Each long-term solution is an investment in future time and space. You feel continually more resourceful and free, ever less desperate and time-bound – you have more time and space with which to actually live.

Why are short-term solutions so popular?

Because we’re humans. And without going into the whole hunter-gatherer, running away from a tiger spiel, getting out of danger – real or imagined – is the natural thing for humans to do.

You have to actually learn how to make good long-term decisions. You’re born knowing how to make short-term ones.

I’m not going to argue that sometimes short-term solutions aren’t necessary. They are. Just nowhere near as often as you probably think.

One key take-away

Long-term thinking does away with the need for short-term thinking.

The reason you find yourself feeling desperate for a short-term fix is because you failed to invest in a long-term one. If you had, you’d never have created the situation where you needed a short-term fix in the first place.

Taking short-term solutions simply guarantees that before long you’ll be in the exact same position again.

A caveat regarding the extremes

It’s not “live fast, die young” or “become a monk.” That’s not at all what I’m talking about.

Thinking long-term has absolutely nothing to do with avoiding pleasure, or not allowing yourself to enjoy life in the moment. Conversely, it actually increases your ability to do both.

The “live fast, die young” crowd have to do that because they don’t know how to simply “live.” All they can think about is satisfying their immediate animal needs.

I think we can do better than that.

Make it personal

Except for death and taxes, everything else you do in your life is your choice.

It’s not that life is short. It’s that life is finite. You don’t have forever. I don’t have forever. And even if we pooled both our lives we still wouldn’t have enough time to do everything.

So a choice must be made. And when making this choice, you can go down one of two roads.

You can look at what the masses are doing, look at what’s popular, look at what’s cool, look at what’s trending… or you can look inside yourself.

One leads to a bleak, grey, desperate, hierarchical existence. The other leads to a life.

Personal connection

Songs that give you chills. Books you can’t put down. A job where the time flies and you can’t wait to go in on a Monday morning. A wife that you adore.

Spend as much of your time here on Earth as you possibly can doing things that you have a personal connection to.

You weren’t born a blank canvas. You were born with inclinations toward certain activities, certain fields, certain people, certain art… and you were born with a limited time-frame with which to explore. So explore.

What not to do

Don’t follow a career path you have no feeling for just because it pays “well.” No salary is high enough to make up for it.

Don’t champion an actor, a musician, a writer, a politician… just because they’re popular or famous or well-thought-of. Make your own mind up and own your decision.

Don’t pretend to value things you couldn’t give a shit about merely because they are “an institution.” Traditions are just peer pressure from dead people.

What to do

Measure everything you come across by how personally connected you feel to it.

Does it interest you? Does it make you curious? Does it make you want to come back for more? Does it make you feel alive when you think about it?

The better you get at listening to and trusting this voice inside you, the more you feel like you are living the life you were meant to live.

Zig when they expect you to zag

I watched Inglourious Basterds last night. My wife had never seen it before. It was probably viewing number fourteen or so for me, but even so, it had been a couple of years at least.

Most films I watch I don’t watch again. Some of them I do watch again, but they fare slightly worse with each viewing. And a very select few that I watch again just get better, and better, and better. Tarantino’s films are firmly in the latter group.

There are a lot of things that make Tarantino Tarantino, but if I had to pick one thing that sets him apart from 99% of filmmakers – and artists in general – it’s this:

He plays with his audience.

We want tension. Then we want resolution.

Storytelling is a uniquely human phenomenon, and it is based chiefly upon just two elements: tension and resolution.

We crave the thrill, intrigue, and stimulation of the rising tension, and then just at the moment when it’s about to become more than we can handle, we crave the comfort and familiarity of resolution.

If you raise the tension and then resolve it, then you have told a story. But you haven’t necessarily told a story worth telling. In order to do that, you need to zig when we expect you to zag.

Almost all art is pretty shit.

Most novels aren’t worth reading. Most films are bland and mediocre. And most music sounds like a badly disguised cover version of something that was already fairly unoriginal to begin with.

Why? Because the artist – being unaware, unable, or simply unwilling to do anything else – sets us up to expect a zig, and then… a zig is exactly what we get.

Mediocre artists don’t know how to play with their audience.

Their approach is completely passive. They make their work, and they hope that somebody will like it. They see their audience not as a collection of equals, as unique three-dimensional humans craving a real experience, but as inferior faceless automatons, nothing more than an inconvenience. In the end they just hope that they can make enough of these idiots fall for the hype and make their work financially viable.

Great artists, on the other hand? They respect their audience. How do I know? Because they put effort into creating an incredibly rich experience for them. By making them expect one thing, and then giving them something pleasantly different.

They expend an incredible amount of time and energy setting us up for a particular zig, and just when we expect it the least, they hit us with a zag.

Don’t confuse this with merely being wacky – there is nothing clever or innovative about zagging just for the sake of zagging. The key is in the set-up: go the extra mile to make us expect a particular zig, and when you give us a zag instead, we’ll keep coming back for more.

What Tarantino does

All good artists know about zigging and zagging, but even so they seem to see it as a necessarily evil to the piece of art – something that distracts from the higher and more important aspects of their work.

Tarantino, on the other hand, sees it differently – all the other stuff is there to serve the tension and resolution of the story, not the other way round.

So he’ll set up a scenario, and as though he were slowly but surely turning a pressure knob clockwise, he’ll gradually raise the tension between the characters on-screen.

If all he did were raise the pressure, however, we’d be bored to tears before long. And so every now and then he’ll dial it back. We get a false sense of security, a breather. Then a few moments later, something new is revealed – the pressure is back on, and this time it’s even higher!

After several of these cycles – raising the tension, easing it off a bit, raising it even more, easing it off again… we are now on the edge of our seat – when is he going to hit boiling point?!

And hit boiling point he does. Eventually – like that brief pause before the rollercoaster descends at full speed – he jams that knob all the way clockwise. There is an explosive climax – the details of which we could never have predicted, but that now we think about it works perfectly.

Where are people expecting you to zig?

Think about your art. What about it is predictable and safe? And what is shocking and subversive?

For any work to be truly masterful, it requires a blend of the mundane (the setting up of a zig) and the extraordinary (the unexpected delivery of a zag.)

It’s not necessarily to make everything you do surprising and capricious – that soon becomes just as boring as a boring piece of art – but a few well-placed zags, when everyone is expecting a zig, and suddenly your work will come to life.

You are finally making art.

Stop wasting time

Imagine a man walking up to a rubbish bin, taking his wallet out of his pocket, extracting a twenty-pound note, and putting it in the bin.

Now imagine that he does this at least once every day, sometimes several times.

I think you can agree with me that – unless he is engaged in some kind of performance art taking a dig at our capitalist culture – the man is wasting his money.

He is quite literally throwing his money away. How does that make you feel?

Are you angry with the man for being so wasteful?

It’s easy to see when somebody is wasting their money, but it’s not so easy to see that this is exactly what you are doing with a much more precious resource whenever you spend a single second of it not doing what is important to you.


If the thought of somebody throwing money away stirs up strong emotions in you, perhaps even making you angry at their audacity, then you need to have a really long think about why the wasting of time is not stirring up the same emotions in you?

After all, time is a far more precious resource than money – it is finite. If you waste money, you can earn it back. But time, once it’s gone, is gone for good.

If everything is equally important, nothing is important

When you live as though you have all the time in the world, you lose a sense of proportion – everything ends up just as important as everything else. And importance is relative – if everything is important, nothing is important.

You spend your life is a grey area where – though you may have some things you really value – you have a huge amount of things mislabeled in your head as important which really do not deserve a second of your attention.

You don’t have all the time in the world. You have a fixed amount of life left. If you learn to live it well, even one more year can be the best year you ever had.

Pick what matters to you, and guard yourself against everything else as though it were cancer. If we were all as frightened about wasting time as we were about wasting money, we’d get a lot more important shit done.

Your past = your future

No matter how content or disgusted we might be with the life we have now, one thing is clear: we all want a brighter future.

But if you want to know exactly how your future is most likely to turn out, there’s a very easy way to see it: take a look at your past.

Look past the things unexpected things which happened to you that you had no part in – you were in a car accident, you were born into an abusive family – and instead look squarely at the things which you did have a hand in shaping.

If you do this for long enough, you’ll start to notice certain patterns – good ones and bad ones. People never do anything just once.

For example…

When difficulties arise, do you tend to see these obstacles as a spur to creative action, or as a sign to give up?

When people transgress you in some way, do you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, or remember it bitterly for years and vow revenge?

When thinking about the work you do, do you value solutions that offer you personally a short-term relief, or solutions which could benefit the world for decades to come?

Whatever you tend to do, that is precisely what you will continue to tend to do, and in this way the past creates the future.

Change the past

So if you find that your past contains things that, as you project forward in time, don’t give you the future you want, what is there to do?

You have to change the past. And you do that by acting differently in the present.

The past is like a magnet, or like gravity – no matter how much willpower you try to use to create a brighter future, it will continue to compel you into acting in the way you’re used to acting.

But you can use the present moment to break the habit, to change the script. When you do something your past self wouldn’t have done, you are, in effect, creating a new past, a different past. The gravitational pull is just as strong, but you’ve changed the direction slightly.

If you keep this up, you will have created a completely different past, and that past will now be the one that creates your future.

The difference between writing and typing

Upon hearing that Jack Kerouac had written his wildly popular novel “On The Road” on one continuous scroll of typewriter paper during a three-week benzedrine binge, the novelist Truman Capote famously quipped:

“That’s not writing, that’s just typing.”

It’s not that Capote was wrong, it’s that he missed the point.

Three weeks in the typing, four years in the writing

Putting aside the envy responsible for Capote’s quip – no writer relishes seeing another writer being launched into the literary stratosphere right under their nose – the truth is that Jack Kerouac had in fact been working on his “road book” for four whole years before he sat down to do the infamous benzedrine draft.

He wrote draft after draft. He tried different styles, different ways of telling the story he knew was in him somewhere. He put in the time, and he had the patience, to get to know his material inside and out – so well, in fact, that he could then sit at his typewriter and bang out something as incredible as On The Road in three weeks.

And so, in this sense, Capote was completely right – sitting down at a typewriter and just typing for weeks is not writing. It’s just that that’s not what happened with On The Road

The final result is just one piece of the puzzle

If you’re writing a novel, or a song, or a speech, then the most satisfying moment is finishing it. It’s having the novel on your hard-disk, ready to send to your editor. It’s having the song recorded and ready to share with your fans. It’s being 100% ready to deliver that speech.

It’s very easy, though, to confuse that final result with the whole picture.

You see, that novel, that song, that speech… that’s not the whole picture at all. That is merely the tangible proof – the evidence of the journey you’ve been on – what was probably a very long, very deep, and very challenging journey.

From the first grain of a little idea, to jotting down connecting ideas on napkins, to taking rainy walks to muse upon it further, to writing draft after draft after draft – each one showing you something essential to the whole, but not quite hitting the mark – to finally, finally, finally, having it all converge and become something you can hang your hat on.

There’s no point denying the intoxicating nature of finishing – of holding that final tangible result in your hands – but you make it all the more sweet by focusing on everything that comes before it, on knowing your material like the back of your hand.

The danger of the Kerouac “writing On The Road in three weeks story” is that just because he typed it in three weeks, doesn’t mean he wrote it in three weeks. Art takes time. Let it.

Keith James, Leonard Cohen, and taking your time

Keith James

I went to The Greystones on Sunday night, to watch Keith James. He’s a very talented man who tours the world playing the songs of Leonard Cohen.

Keith is a tribute act in the truest meaning of the word – rather than pretending that he is Leonard Cohen – whilst we all sit there knowing he isn’t really – he is instead just a man with an incredible amount of love and respect for Leonard’s work, paying tribute to the man by performing the best of it.

Whilst I sat with my Dad watching Keith perform not only Leonard’s songs, but also some of his poetry set to original music, I couldn’t help but be struck by admiration for Leonard’s fierce dedication to the craft – something I’ve read about plenty of times but never quite appreciated on this level.

Leonard finished slowly, but he worked hard

When Leonard started working on a song, he didn’t treat the moment as most of us do – as the start of something we’d be done with fairly soon. The song wasn’t some product, some commodity, and so the process of creating it was not something that had to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. To Leonard, the beginning of the songwriting process was the beginning of a long, deep, tempestuous relationship between the man and the song.

He took the position that the song was out there somewhere, and that, as a songwriter, it was his duty to write it. So he wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote.

As he wrote, he discovered all kinds of things that he knew were not really the song, but were just false paths and red herrings. Unperturbed, he chipped and chipped away at the marble, like Michelangelo sculpting David, until he arrived at what he knew was the song.

Sometimes this process took years, and even once a song had been written and performed for decades, he could still be found tweaking it in new live versions, proving that his job – the discoverer of the song – was never truly over.

Your relationship with your work

Contrast this with how most people create most of the things they create. We are in a rush to get something made as quickly as possible, for momentum’s sake. If it gets difficult, or it appears to be taking longer than we anticipated, we tend to give up. We were never in it for the long haul.

Instead of treating the creative process as something you are dreaming up from inside yourself and throwing into the world, see it as the developing and nurturing of a relationship between you and the piece of work. As you write, you are not trying to construct something out of thin air – you are simply attempting to get to know the work.

Just as it takes more than a day to truly know another person – you could live with someone your whole life and discover something new about them every single day – it takes more than a day to get to know the piece of work.

You see, your work exists already. It’s out there in the ether somewhere. And by putting in the hours, days, weeks, and months, to try to give it form, you are slowly developing a clearer and clearer picture of what it is and what it isn’t.

This process might mean you take longer – much longer – to finish your work. But… so what? The process will be infinitely more joyful and engaging, and your work will be of a vastly higher quality than those rush-jobs you’ve been doing up until now.

Fill your present moment with meaning

It is possible to both be fully in the present moment and to sow a brighter future for yourself. Our culture, however, creates a false dichotomy between the two, and what we end up with is citizens who fit the bill.

The two extremes

On one side you have the Epicurean hedonist. Lacking the requisite strength of character to persist with anything that takes time or effort, they instead claim that it’s better to “live for the moment.” Thinking about the future seems so boring and passé – what if I die tomorrow?

Whilst it can seem like a really bold and brave way to live, what people who claim to “live for the moment” are usually doing is avoiding facing themselves by indulging in bodily pleasures. Another drink, another burger, another shag… It soon gets very boring to be around these people.

If the moment they claimed to be living in was so fantastic, why would they crave the change in brain-state they can only get through ingesting chemical compounds?

There are people who live for the moment, but they will tend to be genuinely satisfied with the moment – not constantly in need of their next hit.

On the other side, you have the deferred-life-plan type. They focus on nothing but the future. They think of themselves very highly – they are not stupid thrill-seekers like the hedonists. They believe that by putting all their focus on the future, they can shape and control it.

This type lacks strength of character too, they just show it in a very different way: Whilst hedonists cling to the present because they fear the future, deferred-life-planners cling to the future so that they never have to face the present.

The dichotomy is false – you don’t have to be like either of these types.

Meaningful present = bright future

Living for the moment isn’t getting wasted and shagging. And sowing a brighter future isn’t scrimping every penny until you’re 65 and you can allow yourself to “enjoy” a retirement.

There is a middle path.

If you can find out what makes you feel alive – what gives meaning to your existence – then the more you make that thing a part of your life, the more your future will tend to just take care of itself.

Do the right thing, especially when it feels impossible.

“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying…or busy with other assignments…”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I have a very bad habit. I wonder if you share it too.

I love – I relish – the idea of taking responsibility for my actions. To me, that is what makes a mere human being a truly great human – being an active participant with skin in the game of life.

And I do. I do take responsibility for my actions… but only when it’s easy to.

Once it becomes slightly difficult – once there is risk – it all goes out the window. I tell myself that it wasn’t my fault, that I really didn’t have a choice, that I had to do what I had to do.

Bullshit. I’m just scared.

You always have a choice

Your measure as a human is not in how often you do the right thing, but in how often you do the right thing when it feels impossible to. When there are people that will hound you for it, when you will upset the status quo, when you will destroy sacred cows – this is when it is most important to not give in to your lower self.

It is precisely when you have the most to lose that you also have the most to gain by doing the right thing. It just depends how you frame the difficulty. Do you use it as an excuse to hide, or do you use it a spur to courageous action?

You always have a choice. Nobody can make you do anything against your will. Nobody can stop you from doing what you believe to be the right thing and nobody can take away your choice. Except – ironically – you, by telling yourself that you don’t have a choice.

Personal freedom

When we use the term “freedom”, we almost always use it in a particular way – to describe how able we are to do certain things without interference from others.

We talk about the freedom to vote for our leaders, the freedom to practise a religion, the freedom to work a job, the freedom to own land, or the freedom to run a business.

These freedoms – which, throughout history, have been enjoyed chiefly by rich, white males – are increasingly open to more and more humans. We are still a long way from the day where every human being will enjoy the same basic freedoms from birth, but we are nevertheless on our way. The brave people who fought for our right to enjoy these freedoms deserve every scrap of praise they get.

But we do those brave people a disservice if, grateful as we are for what they’ve done, we neglect to focus on a much more powerful and important type of freedom.

The two sides of the freedom coin

Physical freedom, as detailed above, is a great start, but it has one fatal flaw: It can only be granted to you by an outside party. You can’t just “take” it.

If you weren’t lucky enough to be born with a particular silver spoon in your mouth, the only way to enjoy certain freedoms is to passively wait for permission to be given to you, or to actively fight for that permission. Either way, you must seek permission before you can ever enjoy that freedom.

Personal freedom, on the other hand, is what happens when you own your very self. You own your thoughts, your deeds, and their consequences. And the best part is that you don’t have to wait for anybody to give you permission to enjoy this freedom – personal freedom is 100% in your hands.

Personal freedom role models

Frederick Douglass. Victor Frankl. Ruben Hurricane Carter.

One a slave, one an inmate in several concentration camps during World War II, and one a heavyweight champion boxer wrongly convicted of triple homicide. All three of them had their physical freedoms taken away from them for the cruellest reasons, over which they had no control.

Douglass – born into slavery – never even knew basic freedoms to begin with.

Frankl – by sheer virtue of being born Jewish – was sent to a concentration camp.

And Carter – the victim of a trial where no concrete evidence linked him to the crime, and where two thieves were given reduced sentences for their bullshit testimony against him – was given three life sentences.

In the most abject of circumstances imaginable, all three of these men discovered something which remains just as rare and radical today: personal freedom is available to you at all times, and only you can give it, or take it away, from yourself.

What’s the point if you’re not free?

We live in the freest time in human history – from a physical freedom perspective – but if we don’t learn to grant ourselves personal freedom, are we actually free?

What’s the point in being able to buy all the stuff we want if it we end up paranoid and fearful about losing it?

What’s the point in being physically free if we spend all day working in a office to pay our bills, and all evening in front of the TV trying to forget about our day at the office?

What’s the point in being able to vote in elections every four years or so if we don’t bother to vote with our daily actions on the other 1,459 days?

Personal freedom comes from within

Personal freedom – true freedom – has absolutely nothing to do with possessions, or indeed anything of a physical nature.

It is a function of the relationship you have with yourself. When you grant yourself ownership of your thoughts and deeds, and their consequences, you are free. When you remain shackled by what others think, or by what you are and are not allowed to do, think, or feel, you are not free.

You could be a slave, like Douglass. You could be in a concentration camp, like Frankl. You could be in prison, like Carter. But if you own yourself, you are freer than all the “free” people in the world.