“Some prick with a drill is interrupting my morning coffee.”
Perhaps. Or just maybe, “It was foolish and entitled of me to expect the world to be deadly still, that I might enjoy my morning coffee in silence. That prick with the drill has every right to be there.”
Everything you have, everything you see, everything you do… either it’s making your life better, or making your life worse.
In search for a deeper human experience, you would be forgiven for presuming what we all presume – that what we ought to do is hunt down that which makes our lives better. We should vigorously pursue it like we would a safari lion, take aim, blast its head off, and take it home as a trophy. And if we have enough of this, then maybe it will drown out the bad stuff.
Go the other way. Focus first on taking an axe to all that conspires to ruin your life – starting with the tiniest things. See them as energy vampires – with each one you slay, you feel a little more relief, and most importantly, you have some space in which to invite something new into your experience.
Get rid of something that doesn’t serve you today. An object, a person, a habit. Start somewhere.
If you know me at all, then you will know me as a man who has demonstrated — time and time again — his proclivity for chasing shiny objects at the expense of getting on with the task at hand. I find it excruciatingly difficult to set my mind to anything it doesn’t want to be set to.
And yet, somehow, over the past 101 days, I have managed to write and publish a blog post every single day.
It started off at The Unique Guitarist — a website I’ve all but abandoned — where I wrote 43 pieces in 43 days. Each one was geared toward some part of the mental aspect of being a musician — specifically a guitarist striving for uniqueness in their work. The longer I kept this up, though, the more I realised that what was coming out of me and onto the page had increasingly little to do with music, and more to do with life itself. At the end, I was just inserting the words “unique guitarist” into posts about life in general in order to force some kind of relevancy to my audience.
I was loving the “I have to post something fresh every single day” aspect; less so the “it has to be about being a unique guitarist” aspect. And so I decided, after 43 days, to pivot away from that and towards just writing under my own name and on my own website — giving myself the permission to write about whatever I wanted. It’s been a blast. Thank you for reading. But 58 days on, and I’m ready for another pivot.
My daily posts are going to get much shorter.
You see, I find myself in a tricky situation. Whilst I am hooked on the daily writing habit — the thing I was hoping I would get hooked on — the problem is that once I get writing, once I get into the flow, I can’t stop myself. This is a problem.
If I give myself the freedom to write for just fifteen minutes, let’s say, then in that time I can craft a little post that I’m quite happy with. It won’t go particularly deep into anything, but it will be satisfying to write and to read.
If, on the other hand, I let myself write for half an hour or longer, however, then something very different happens. My mind senses that it’s been given the opportunity to go deeper and wider than normal, and it responds by thinking up heaps more stuff that might somehow fit into the piece.
I very much want to go deep into the things that I write about. But I can’t do that on a daily post. I end up in this weird halfway house – not writing a short and sweet post that I’m happy with, but also not having the time to make the longer, deeper post actually any good.
I see it in movie terms. A short, sweet daily post is like writing a single scene. And the longer posts are like writing a whole film. Now, let’s say a film contains 60 scenes, and to write one scene takes a day. If you think that writing the whole film is then just matter of writing a scene a day for 60 days, you are going to have a really horrible film. It will take far more than 60 days to write the whole film — and be happy with it — because all the scenes have to not only work in isolation, but as a part of the whole film.
Instead of writing 58 solid scenes, I’ve ended up attempting 58 bad movies, and rushing to a clumsy conclusion when I look at the clock and realise I’ve got to get ready for work.
But, as I said, I’m not quitting. I’m pivoting.
I’ll be continuing to write a — short and sweet — daily post for anyone who wants one. And with the energy left over, I will try and craft the longer pieces I have in my mind. They’ll come in their own sweet time, or not at all.
If you would like to receive the — short and sweet — daily email, you can sign up here. (Don’t worry, Mum, I’ve already signed you up.)
The longer pieces, which will not be often — if they are, I’m rushing, and you should tell me off for that — will be sent to my ordinary email list.
Thanks again for reading. It’s nice to have an audience.
Not toward doing the things I need to do but don’t really want to do — I am horrendous at starting on them, but this doesn’t bother me — no, what I get bummed out about is my inability to start the things that I actually want to do. Write my own songs. Learn a few more Dexter Gordon licks. Read The Brothers Karamazov. Blind-bake some pastry.
Whatever the blasted thing might be, the voice inside my head — telling me that once I get started I’ll be fine — seems to have very little sway. There’s a much louder voice reminding me of all the other things I could be doing right now, or how I’m doing the right thing but in the wrong way…
This has been pissing me off for years. But recently I started doing something to counter-act this. It’s worked nicely for me so far. My method is dumb-ass level simple: I set a timer on my phone for five minutes.
For five minutes — and five minutes only — I get on with the thing. And when the five minutes are up, I am free as a bird to do whatever the hell I like.
I told you it was simple. And I don’t know why it works. Part of me wonders why. A much bigger part doesn’t give a shit.
The “you can do anything you set your mind to” phenomenon must be a fairly recent one.
I say that only because I’m trying — and struggling — to imagine too many people even a couple of hundred years ago thinking in this way, let alone in the centuries before that. Oh, sure, there were rulers who definitely operated with this kind of grandiose mindset — and it didn’t hurt that were treated more like deities than like human beings — but the common person?
The common person has — traditionally — been acutely aware of their limitations. They have felt from deep within their core that without extraordinary luck, their lot in life had pretty much been decided before they were born. Thankfully, this is becoming untrue for an increasing number of people, as we move — ever haltingly — towards greater social mobility around the world. We have a long way to go, but at least we’re going.
Personally, I both love and hate “you can do anything you set your mind to.”
I love it because for the people born into the most testing of circumstances — that they didn’t ask to be born into — this kind of positive self-belief can be the fuel that helps them to overcome their harsh beginnings. Believing in their unlimited potential can start them on a path that leads them to, if not become leader of the world, then at least make more of themselves than anybody could have realistically expected.
But there’s a big difference between being born into trying circumstances and being born into relative comfort and luxury, and it’s these people for whom “you can do anything you set your mind to” is a dangerous trap.
I suppose my real beef with it is the assumption that we are born as blank canvases. I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t believe you or I could have recorded Axis: Bold As Love. And I don’t believe Jimi Hendrix could have isolated molybdenum. I don’t believe that whoever could have done whatever… if it wasn’t in their nature to do so.
You are not a blank canvas. You have within you a multitude of strengths and weaknesses. You are drawn toward certain things in life, and away from others. Whilst the “you can do anything you set your mind to” cheerleaders might champion discovering your strengths and your passions and what makes you tick, they are missing the other essential half of the equation.
Your weaknesses, your limitations, the things you hate… these “negatives” have just as much — I believe more — of an effect than the “positives” which — granted — are nicer to think about.
Imagine coming home from Tesco with a bag for life filled with tomatoes. Now, there are lot of things you could make with that big old bag of tomatoes, but this list is not infinite, and I think you’ll agree that — hypothetically — knowing what tomatoes are and are not capable of could potentially save you a lot of wasted time.
But if instead you decided to adopt the “you can do anything you set your mind to” mantra when it came to your bag of tomatoes, then there are any number of dumb things you might end up doing. You might put them in the toaster, labouring under the impression that if you just set your mind to it, they’ll turn into toast. But you’d just end up making a mess. Ruining your toaster. Maybe even starting an electrical fire.
Tomatoes — delicious and versatile as they are — have limitations, just like everything in the known universe. Things only work in the space they work in. Learning what a tomato — or a block of wood, or you, yourself, as a unique human being — is actually capable of is not some kind of scary exercise in negativity that should be avoided at all costs. It’s not depressing, it’s not giving in… it’s liberating. It’s an extremely intelligent way to approach life.
Prior to being diagnosed with ADHD, I just thought I was shit at a load of things mentally — remembering where I’d put things, being organised, staying on task with things that were boring — that other people seemed to get along just fine with. I assumed that my only option, other than “give up,” was to try harder at everything — to “set my mind” to it. This only served to make me feel worse about myself when I couldn’t do what I tried to, no matter how hard I tried.
After my diagnosis, however, I realised that there was another option open to me. My brain has a physical limitation, which has certain knock-on effects on what I am and am not capable of. And so I started learning how to compensate. I started accepting that most of the things I am naturally crap at are not worth worrying about, and I started devising ways to step around them instead, saving my energy for the areas of life where my trying could actually make a difference.
Before diagnosis, I was putting tomatoes in the toaster, and when they didn’t turn into toast, I was heaping more and more of them in, turning up the heat on the toaster, and then crying about the inevitable fires I was causing.
After diagnosis, I decided to use them to make soup instead.
Your problem is that you want to have all your ducks lined up before you even think about taking the first step.
The path to what you want exists, and it will gladly show itself to you. But the path has standards – it wants to know that you’re serious. You have to show willing. You have to be the one to make the first move. Do that, and it will bend over backwards for you.
Do you know why aggressive drivers – though they might piss us all off – don’t crash their cars more often than they do? It’s simple. Though they take risks and chances, other drivers see them coming, and get out their way.
In the same way, as you move through the world, the world is not ignorant to what you do. The world notices you, and adapts itself to you. To your actions, though. To the things it sees you do, not the things you say you’re going to do, or plan on doing at some point in the future.
What you need is not more clarity in order to take the first step – that’s just your ego fucking with you. What you need is to simply to take that first step, and the result will be the clarity you dreamed of all along.
Take the first step. The second will show itself.
“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
It feels horrible – to all but the most stone-cold of villains among us – to make a promise to another person and to break that promise. And I’m not just talking about situations where the “p-word” is explicitly used – I’m talking about any instance where you say you’re going to do something, and then you don’t do it.
That feeling of letting somebody you care about down has a visceral effect on us – it can make you physically sick. A lot of us, in order to avoid such a horrid feeling, take preventative measures – we try to only make promises to other people that we think we can keep. A good idea.
We treat the act of promise-keeping between each others as sacred – and this is a good thing – but for some reason, this doesn’t seem to extend to the promises we make to ourselves. Why not?
I don’t think we realise quite how often we make – let alone break – promises to ourselves.
“I’ll get up at 8 tomorrow,” “I’ll finish those leftovers instead of getting a pizza on my way home,” “I’ll start my essay after one more episode…” All day long, we are telling ourselves – our pants on fire much of the time – that we are going to do certain things.
The problem is not that the things you say you’re going to do don’t get done – most of it is utterly trivial, from a cosmic perspective.
No, the problem is that every time you break the promise you made, you kill your ability to trust yourself in the future.
When you break a promise to a friend, the intangible – but very real – bond of trust between you is broken. It takes time – and effort – to build that back up. But if it’s someone you care about, you put in that time and effort.
It’s no different when you break promises to yourself. But if you don’t see when you’re making promises to yourself, you certainly won’t see when you’re breaking them. Entering a vicious cycle, where your self-trust diminishes with each passing day, is all too easy.
My advice is two-fold.
First, make better promises – make promises you know you can keep. The trap is that most of us carry this attitude that when it comes to ourselves, it’s better to expect a ridiculous amount from ourselves, and then be happy with whatever percentage of that we actually accomplish. Except that we’re not happy with it. Ever.
In this game, you are rewarded for the promises you keep, and punished for the promises you break – no matter the size or scope of the promise. So make it easy for yourself.
Second, keep the promises you make. You’ve made it easier on yourself by making your promises realistic and achievable. Now you just have to commit to keeping them.
And what you will see when you do this is that instead of a vicious cycle, you’ll enter a virtuous cycle – with each passing day, you will trust yourself more and more. The result? You will feel able to make, and keep, bigger promises. Life will expand.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Aim for simplicity in all that you do.
Go as deep as you can. Get dirty. And then strip away everything unnecessary. What you will be left with will be only the essential parts – the essence of the thing. What you will be left with will be simple. And beautiful.
Resist the human temptation to write off that which appears simple. The best things in life are simple. Not too simple – that would render them crude – but just the right amount.
If something in your life feels complicated right now, remind yourself that it isn’t actually complicated. It only appears that way because you haven’t yet stripped away the superfluous and the non-essential – you are carrying unnecessary baggage that is muddying the water.
Complication is never necessary. It is sometimes the result of ineptitude – nobody has yet reduced the problem to its essential elements – and sometimes the result of malice – somebody is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, and deceive you.
Life can, and should be, simple. Not easy. Not effortless. Not without trial or tribulation. But simple.
There is a reason why “The Old Man and the Sea,” Ernest Hemingway’s last major work of fiction, and the one which won him the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature reads at a Year 5 level – suitable for 9 and 10 years olds.
He made it as simple as possible, but not simpler. That’s art.
“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”
Imagine drinking a lovely mug of coffee in your favourite armchair.
Now, if after your last delicious slurp, you stand up, walk into your kitchen, and are greeted by a single dirty plate in the sink, then I have some sad news for you. The chances of you washing up your innocent little coffee mug – your intention as you entered the kitchen – have just plummeted dramatically.
But there’s more. If you do leave your mug in the sink, then by the end of the day, the collection will in all likelihood have grown – a veritable menagerie of dirty plates, spoons, glasses – maybe even a pan or two – will now be inhabiting your sink.
And there’s even more – with each subsequent item that gets added to the sink, the chances of you washing up any of them continue to plummet.
That is the gravitational pull of the status quo, starkly illustrated. And it all started with one decision – not washing up the first plate. But how can something so seemingly minute and immaterial – the washing up of a single plate – have such a disproportionate effect?
It’s our good old friend human nature at work again. You see, one of our strongest tendencies – and there’s a reason I used the word “gravitational” in the title – is to maintain the status quo, even if we don’t like the status quo.
As silly as it sounds, once there was a single unwashed item in the sink, the status quo was a dirty sink – washing anything up would have violated the status quo. So you left the mug, and you let everything after that continue to pile up. But had there been nothing in the sink, then cleanliness would been the status quo – not washing up the mug would have been violating the status quo.
Status quos attract us like gravity, and what’s more, they are incredibly self-reinforcing – a good status quo will tend to get even better, whilst a bad one will tend to get even worse.
It pays to develop a keen understanding of the various status quos in your life, because they are affecting your moment-to-moment more than you could ever know. Your human nature is to protect them – whatever they are, whether you like them or not. You almost always do this without any conscious awareness. Make them conscious, and you give yourself a little bit of leverage over them – you give yourself the chance to sack off the negative ones, and double down on the positive ones.
Something shitty happens. Something you weren’t expecting.
Do you freak out, and act as though it’s the end of the world – something you couldn’t possibly recover from?
Or do you take a deep breath, and act as though it’s no big deal – nothing more than a temporary inconvenience?
Neither choice is right or wrong, but the two choices have incredibly different effects on how you feel able to proceed afterwards.
Where the first limits your options, the second multiplies them. Where the first shrinks your manoeuvrability, the second expands it.
Unlike the things that happen to you – which are by and large out of your control – the story you tell yourself about them is completely under your control.
If you don’t like the things that seem to be happening to you, it doesn’t mean these things are objectively “bad”, merely that you are painting them with colours you detest. Choose some colours you actually like. See how the world changes before your very eyes.
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
The world’s most expensive slippers are worth very little to a double amputee.
Three people – let’s call them Lucinda, Jorge, and Rajnigandha – walk into a cinema. They are all there – separately, I might add – to see the new Wes Anderson movie.
Each pays £10 for a ticket and, walking to the screen, are stopped by a middle-aged man in a blue suit. He introduces himself as Barry, and asks politely for a moment of their time.
Barry asks them – in exchange for a voucher giving them 10% off their next cinema ticket – to briefly explain why they chose the particular film they chose, and if, when it’s finished, they’ll let him know what they thought of it.
Lucinda: “Well, it’s something to do with my Saturday, innit?”
Jorge: “I’ve seen all his films, and I’ve loved all his films. I’ve been looking forward to this one for three years. I can’t wait!”
Rajnigandha: “To be honest, I’m not expecting to enjoy it, but everyone’s talking about it, so I’m going to give it a shot. And if it is good – which I don’t think it will be – I don’t want to be the only person who hasn’t seen it – that’d be embarrassing.”
Barry thanks each of them for their time, and gives them the voucher he promised.
Lucinda spends almost the entire film with her phone in her hand, occasionally glancing over the top of the display to glimpse the action on-screen. Towards the end of the second act, her battery dies, and since she’s not remotely invested in what’s going on, she leaves.
She walks past Barry in the foyer. “It’s not finished already?”
“No, but… it were a bit boring, to be honest. I couldn’t really follow it. You haven’t got a charger, have you? I need a taxi home.”
Jorge has his eyes glued to the screen the whole time. When halfway through, he starts desperately needing the toilet, he sprints there and back so as not to miss any more action than he physically has to. This guy is in his element.
As the credits roll, he stands up, grinning. He nods his head at the screen. “Bravo, Maestro.”
Barry is waiting outside with his clipboard. “I loved it, Barry. The best film I’ve seen in years. You know what? I might even come see it again with my girlfriend in a few days’ time.”
Rajnigandha, like Jorge, also has his eyes glued to the screen the whole time, right until the final credit, but unlike Jorge, he is far from filled with enthusiasm for the picture.
He is the last one to dawdle out of the screen, and he sees Barry enjoying a pack of complimentary Revels.
“I knew I wouldn’t like it. And I was right. I hated it, right from the start. I wish I’d have walked out – I could have gone and seen that new one with The Rock in it instead. I’d definitely have enjoyed that.”
“Why didn’t you?” Barry asks him.
“I’d paid for this film, hadn’t I? It’d have been a waste of ten pounds not to stay and watch it.”
All three moviegoers paid the same £10. To watch exactly the same film. In exactly the same cinema. But all three had wildly different experiences.
Lucinda wasn’t really there – whilst her body was physically in the cinema, her mind was not. She was dicking about on her phone until it died. And when it did die, there was little point in her sticking around to see how it ended – she wasn’t invested in the story. She may as well stayed at home and saved a tenner.
Jorge had a great time – he’d been looking forward to seeing the film for ages, and he made sure to savour every moment of it. Bringing his full attention to the movie wasn’t a guarantee that he would enjoy it, but it did put the chips on his side.
Rajnigandha appeared to try and enjoy the movie, but in reality he’d made his mind up before it ever started – he only stayed to try and justify his investment. He had put £10 into that movie, and he wasn’t about to see it go to waste. Except… it did go to waste, didn’t it? He had a rotten time, and he could have easily just cut his losses and gone to see The Rock in whatever franchise sequel he was in this week. Sunk costs spoiled another Saturday.
We almost always think about money in objective terms – we say that something is “worth” a certain amount, and act as though that is that. Nothing more to it. And there’s an extent to which this is true. “That” is the amount the thing costs – in pounds and pence, at least – but there is a much more important piece of the puzzle being ignored.
Value has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with the story you are telling yourself about the thing you’re spending you’re money on – or choosing not to spend it on. It’s what you bring to the thing you’re spending money on that makes it worth it or not.
There are two parts to getting this right:
Pick an activity you care about enough to give yourself to.
Give yourself to it.
Jorge did both and had a great time. Lucinda did neither and wasted both her afternoon, and her tenner. Rajnigandha tried to do the second one, but because he’d already failed so spectacularly on the first – he knew he wouldn’t enjoy it, and continued watching even after proving himself right – his efforts were in vain. He had a rubbish time.
Things don’t simply “cost what they cost.” The energy and attention you bring to the things you buy matter far more than their price-tag.
My brother bought me a really nice Quentin Tarantino coffee-table book for my birthday this year.
It’s a beautiful retrospective of the man’s career, with loads of cool photos in, and stories about each movie that I’d never heard before.
Last night, I was leafing through it for about the third time. Somewhere around Reservoir Dogs, I stopped reading and just sat and thought for a while about Tarantino, and what made him special as an artist. Being a ridiculous fan, I could think of plenty of things that make him special, but there’s just one that I want to focus on today.
You see, in Quentin Tarantino, you have a fine example of the auteur. This is a title bestowed on those special directors – your Woody Allens, your Wes Andersons, your David Lynches – who wield so much influence on their film that they are considered the “author” of the film.
In all kinds of ways, the auteur goes above and beyond the call of duty expected of your average director-for-hire. They might have also written the script (Tarantino), they might employ an unmistakably distinct visual style (Wes Anderson), and they might have a big say over matters of casting (The Coen Brothers.) Auteurs – though they work with a crew often numbering in the hundreds – make the film their own.
Though there are exceptions to everything, my favourite work – whether that’s movies, TV shows, or music – is auteur-driven. I find it very difficult to get excited about stuff that’s generically popular, but lacks the personal touch of any one person in particular. When a song sounds like a bunch of people trying to create a “hit” rather than something cool and inspired, for example… count me out.
I prefer work that reflects one person’s original vision. Most of all, I like those artists who have made themselves into a category of one – a genre in and of themselves. You go and see “a Tarantino movie”, you listen to “a Bowie album”, you read “a Stephen King.”
Don’t dumb it down for anyone
The camel is a horse designed by committee. Similarly, most art is a perhaps once glorious vision watered down and made anodyne by committee – through some unfortunate blend of greed, conservatism, and a general fearful attitude. We don’t need any more of that. I repeat, we do not need any more of that.
You can choose to toe the line, to be a conformist, to make average stuff for average people. Or you can choose to be an auteur, creating original, brilliant work. It’s up to you.
At every step along the way, there will be people trying to get you to cheapen your vision, to compromise, to make what you’re doing more palatable to the masses. They might be doing it for shady motives – they see dollar signs in you – or for altruistic ones – they want to protect you from disappointment. Whatever the reason, your job is to politely – or not so politely, it’s entirely up to you – tell them to fuck off. If, when push comes to shove, you don’t respect your vision, how can you expect anybody else to?
You only get one life. Don’t waste it doing stuff any old bugger could do. If you’re going to make something, you’re much better off trying to make something original and brilliant – and falling down on your stupid face – than trying to play it safe and make something inoffensive, loosely reminiscent of that powerful vision you once had.
Be better than that. Be braver than that. Be an auteur.
That thing that kept you awake last night… was it worth it? Did all that time you spent “thinking” put even the slightest of dents in the problem?
I’ll save you your breath – it didn’t. And I’ll go further: Never in the entire history of the human race has worrying helped anyone. Ever.
Noticing genuine danger and acting on it? Most definitely. Sabre-toothed tigers would have wiped us out a long, long ago without that.
But sitting and worrying about something? Always a bad thing.
What we habitually call “thinking” is anything but…
Real “thinking” is using your unique human intelligence to actively connect the dots, to compare and contrast, to entertain different ideas… creativity, basically.
But that’s not what we’re usually doing when we think we’re thinking.
What we’re actually doing is passively watching a handful of worries go round and round like carriages on a model railway set. One worry leads to the next, which leads to the next, until the first one comes back around.
It’s a cycle, and we can either wallow in it, or break it.
Take the power back
If something is bothering you – and if you’re anything like me, something is always bothering you – you don’t have to let it bother you for another second. You can do something about it.
You think that worrying is something you have no power over. Even worse, you think that the worries are true – that they are real pieces of information. They’re not. They’re just your mind fucking with you.
Worrying is not one of life’s necessities. It’s a choice. And it’s a cycle.
Grab a notepad
When you next find yourself worrying about something – you’ll know that you’re worrying because a thought will keep recurring, and it won’t feel good every time it pops up – grab a notepad and write down anything
Anything that comes to you is useful, even – especially – things that don’t make literal sense at this moment in time. Don’t worry about grammar, don’t worry about sentences, don’t worry about insulting people you love… put it on the page.
Read it back, slowly. And then burn it. Or throw it away.
What does this do?
Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them, as David Allen would say, and the more worries you are carrying around with you, the less space your mind has.
But when you get this shit out of your head and onto paper, you are freeing your mind to do what it is its nature to do… to think.
This exercise will not solve all your problems – you have to do that – but it will do two things. Firstly, it will put you in a much better position to be able to think of solutions to your problems. And secondly, it will help you realise how many of your “problems” weren’t problems at all.
PS: There are a few articles and interviews that I come back to every few months. This interview with John Frusciante about music and mental health is one of them.
Putting a pinch of salt on your chips makes them taste better than before. And putting a second pinch of salt on makes them taste even better.
Putting a tablespoon of salt on your chips, however, doesn’t make them taste even better again. It renders them inedible.
Why? Because quantities matter. Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.
Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
“Scaling” something up merely means to make it larger than it was before.
This could mean blowing a photograph up to twice its original size so that it can be seen from further away, cooking an extra large chilli so that you can feed more people, or hiring more staff – with more people on the job you can process orders quicker and grow your business.
The thing with scaling though, is that there is almost always a knock-on effect.
Ships, printing presses, and atomic bombs
Scattered throughout human history are some key moments where it all of a sudden things that had previously scaled up slowly scaled up incredibly rapidly, and what always happened next was that the world was changed dramatically.
From the 14th century onwards, the increasing size and reliability of naval technology made it more possible than ever to travel to, trade with, and conquer, the far reaches of the globe. Cue modern colonisation.
In 1439, Gutenberg’s printing press made it possible to reproduce the written world at scale, enabling – amongst other things – peasants to read the bible for the first time. Cue the Reformation.
On August 6th 1945, the US proved to the world that something no larger than a traditional bomb could now wipe out an entire city. Cue the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War.
Just because something can be scaled doesn’t mean it should.
What are you trying to accomplish?
Answer that first, and then look at the different parts of your operation that it’s possible to scale up.
Scaling up the right things gives you more time and energy each day with which to focus on the critical parts of what you do – the parts that you and only you can do. It helps to eliminate annoying distractions, and reduces genuine waste.
But scaling up the wrong things – whilst possibly making you incredibly successful in a worldly sense – could kill the very goose that lays the golden egg. In a search for more, more, more, you might inadvertently destroy the very essence of what it is you’re doing. And if that’s gone, what’s the point?
If you’re trying to do something different than that, something better, something with a little more to it, something richer, something deeper…
Embrace and enable your humanity
We are entering a technological age where it is becoming more and more possible – and more and more critical – to treat each other properly. To acknowledge that we’re all in this shit together – this weird and wonderful gift called life. We are able to do this because machines can and will do more and more of the menial tasks traditionally performed by humans. The point of scaling up technology is to enable our humanity, not to destroy it.
Some things benefit from being streamlined, made more efficient, scaled up… but not our humanity. We need to be free to express, to learn, to grow. And we can’t do that if we’re constantly trying to measure ourselves against arbitrary standards, or do this thing faster, or do this other thing more efficiently.
Human beings weren’t designed for the efficiency computers were designed for. Let the computers do what they do. And let yourself be a human, warts and all.
Your inherent humanity is the goose that is laying the golden eggs. Don’t kill it. Enable it.
I’m not good at expressing myself using the English language – at feeling something, and then trying to put that feeling into words.
That might be a facetious thing for somebody who claims to be a writer to blurt out – after all, isn’t my job to express myself using words?! And yet it’s the honest truth. Sure, I’ll own up to being adept at choosing words and ordering sentences in a pleasing way, but that is not the same thing. I’m hopeless at adequately summing up what it is I feel.
“What are you trying to do?”
For instance, I couldn’t possibly tell you in mere words what I’m trying to do with my life. I could tell you that I’m trying to write stories, or write songs, or teach people. All these things would be technically true, and yet I’d feel like no combination of them – no matter how long I deliberated over my choice of words – would adequately sum up what I’m trying to do.
And yet… I know perfectly well what I’m trying to do with my life. I know when I’m getting it right. I know when I’m getting it wrong. I just can’t express it using language. Oh well.
Things are bigger than words
The problem is not that I’m bad at expressing myself – though I believe I am. The real problem is that words are a tool with severely limited applications. Hard as it is to believe, in a culture that places so much importance on words, there are many things in life that – even in the most skilled poet’s hands – words cannot begin to express.
In their defence, words are incredible. Speech – and then writing – allowed us to progress as a civilisation, to communicate with each other in ways utterly impossible otherwise. They make our lives easier and more efficient.
But in the same way that you wouldn’t use a machete to trim your mustache, or mustache scissors to chop down branches in the jungle, words have their time and their place.
If your friend wanted to know how to boil an egg, or get to your house, or what the weather was like, for example, then words would suffice.
But if your friend wanted to know what Beethoven’s 5th sounded like, or a sunset looked like, or what being in love felt like… words would be woefully inadequate.
Words are a just fascimile – they are a reproduction of the original source. In the domain in which they work, they work better than anything else. They just don’t work outside of that domain.
Had I been born into another time or place, I’d have more than likely been expected – as a male not of the ruling class – to go and “fight for my country” in some bullshit war. And not that it’s a competition, but I’m one of the least patriotic people I know.
Now, I don’t oppose war in general – it is sometimes, heartbreakingly, the only choice left. But very rarely. Far more often, a war is the brainchild of some insecure despot who has managed to amass enough power to make it happen.
Carl von Clausewitz remarked that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” My take on this is that if you have to have a war – though you might well have to – it means somebody messed up politically beforehand.
But since I have no experience of fighting in a “real” war, let me tell you about the only war I do have experience fighting.
My little war
The battle-ground is my mind, and the opposing sides are two conflicting parts of my consciousness.
One part believes that it’s a special, unique human being. The other part thinks it’s just an insignificant member of a 7-billion strong species.
One sees the world subjectively, the other objectively.
One thinks that Revolver is the best Beatles album. The other argues that, in an NME poll, Abbey Road was voted number one – therefore that’s the correct answer.
One thinks that the creepy feeling I get from someone I meet is a sign to be wary of them. The other thinks that’s ridiculous – they are brilliant, accomplished, and attractive.
Together, these two ways of looking at the world form a complete picture – a three-dimensional view of life. Their extremes come together to create balance. But torn apart, they lead to living half a life.
What is the goal of war?
We tend to think of wars as necessary bloody affairs – two rival nations take up arms against one other in a field somewhere, the one who gives up first loses, the other wins. Except that’s not really how most wars have been fought.
According to Sun-Tzu, in The Art of War, the ultimate goal of war is to win with minimal bloodshed. In his eyes, the supreme general uses every resource available to evade and avoid battle. Not because he is a coward, but because in the long-run, fighting is incredibly wasteful and inefficient, when compared to politics. It should the last resort, after all else has failed.
My minimal bloodshed
Now, I am not trying to win this war in my head – I am not one of the opposing sides. I am merely the mediator who has to listen to and live with the two opposing sides battle it out in my head.
Unconsciously, my approach has generally been to let one side win. For a few days I’ll either see the world more subjectively or more objectively. Inevitably, the other, ignored side will then pipe up, get belligerent, and try to drag me to their side.
Over time, I’ll go back and forth, back and forth. It’s okay. But it gets dizzying. Is there not another way?
Just like people, the two sides of my mind want little more than to be heard, to be seen, their existence to be acknowledged. When they do feel heard and seen, they tend to be a lot more receptive to the idea of working together for the common good. And it makes me feel calm, capable, and productive. When they feel repressed and ignored, well that’s when they double-down on their right to rule my mind, on there being only room for one opinion round here. Life becomes unnecessarily difficult.
The only way to manage this war – which neither side can ever actually win – is to simply give each side the chance to express itself. Neutralise them.
We can’t help it. When we face a problem, our natural instinct as human beings is to look for the fastest, easiest, most accessible solution. Let’s call this our “quick-fix” tendency.
There is nothing inherently negative about this tendency. Most of our problems are simple enough that a quick-fix is sufficient. There are only so many hours in a day – the choice between a faster and slower solution seems like no choice at all.
Where the tendency becomes negative, however, is when we butt up against a problem that can’t be solved quickly, easily, or with our most accessible resources. In our hunger for a quick-fix, we sometimes don’t actually solve the thing we set out to solve – we often make it even worse than it already was.
Now, a lot of well-meaning people will try to tell you that there is no such thing as a quick-fix, and even if there is, that you should stay away from them. Well-meaning as these people might be, they are dead wrong on both counts.
Quick-fixes not only exist, but are far preferable to their alternative. But – as you probably saw coming a mile away – there’s a little more to it than that.
First, let’s look at something that tries to pass itself off as a quick-fix, but is in fact, not one.
The False Quick-Fix
Some solutions get you out of a jam – for the time being, at least.
At school, I would often only remember I had homework to do the night before it was due in – if I remembered at all, that is. Over time, I developed a kind of sixth-sense for which teachers you could and couldn’t bullshit into letting you hand it in the next day, or after the weekend.
My approach depended entirely on the teacher – if they were the type that took no shit from the likes of me, I wouldn’t bother, and I’d just do the homework and hand it in. But if I thought I could get away with it, I’d make up some excuse the next morning, and agree to bring in the homework the next day, or after the weekend.
I’m sure I thought I was very clever, but looking back, I have to ask myself what was I actually achieving? I didn’t need the extra time I bought myself, nor did I actually end up with any extra time in the long-run – I still had to do the work, and it was just as annoying and unpleasant two or three days after the original hand-in date than it would have been before it.
If you reach for a quick-fix solution, but your problem comes back a few days, weeks, or months later – perhaps with a vengeance – then you didn’t really fix it, did you? All you really did was give your future self something to deal with, and that is the difference between the false and the genuine quick-fix.
Are you making things harder or easier for your future self?
The Genuine Quick-Fix
To qualify as the genuine article, a quick-fix has to tick just two boxes.
Firstly, it has to solve the problem for the foreseeable future. Whatever the solution is, it must free your future self from having to play catch-up.
Secondly, it has to solve the problem with minimal waste of time. Note that I didn’t say “minimum expenditure of time”. To do a thing right takes whatever time it takes – possibly a very long time – but it needn’t take a second longer than that.
The foreseeable future
You are a human being – your foresight is limited. You cannot – with confidence – ever know what is going to happen as a result of the things you do or do not do. But neither can anyone else. So the playing field is level, in that respect.
Simply making an attempt to predict whether or not this or that solution will be better for your future self is all you need to do, and the more you make these kinds of predictions, the more accurate they will start to become.
You will never reach 100% accuracy – and to be honest, life would be pretty boring if you knew exactly what was going to happen – but there is no reason you can’t keep getting better and better at it until the day you die.
With minimal waste of time
There is a kind of “golden mean” when it comes to the speed at which you attempt to fix your problems – an ideal pace where you are calm, yet intense; relaxed, yet productive.
If you try to go faster than your ideal pace, your solution will not be as stable. You are in a hurry, and it shows. You will be tempted to cut corners and skip steps to get, and you will probably feel stressed and harangued as you go…
If you try to go slower than your ideal pace, then the solution might be fine, but it will most likely be lacking. A spark, a bit of vitality… This is because the journey did not stimulate you – you were bored. What’s more – the extra time you spent solving this problem was time you ultimately spent not solving your next problem, or on some much-needed rest and recuperation.
It is just as limiting to go too slowly as it is to go too quickly. Discovering your ideal pace is important – it enables you to get closer and closer to your potential.
The truth about solving problems
The truth is that for every problem you have that is actually solvable – and if it isn’t, you may as well stop worrying about it – there is a solution.
There is a solution that can solve the problem for your future self, and that will benefit from being done as quickly as possible, but no quicker.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)
You were not born to be some convenient, rigid, fixed identity. You were born to discover your true self. And to discover your true self, you must embrace change. You must accept that what was true for you yesterday might not be true for you today.
This is easier to see when you’re a kid.
For the first eighteen years of your life, you were in a state of constant flux – both inside and out. You got taller. Your face changed shape. Your voice got deeper. One day you liked one thing, the second you liked another, and on the third, you couldn’t believe you ever gave either of them time of day.
Everything about you seemed to change like the weather, and – for the most part – everybody was fine with this.
Until you hit your early twenties. For some reason, at this point in your life, you were suddenly expected to stop changing.
“Stop subverting our expectations!”
We silently encourage people – around the age of twenty-three – to grind to a halt that constant change that defines our first couple of decades, no matter how they might feel on the inside. By this point in your life – we seem to suggest, if only indirectly – one really ought to have had the time to figure out who they’re going to be… for the rest of their life. It’s the end of the line, as far as self-discovery goes.
You are permitted to continue changing after this – there’s no law against it, after all – but even if people appear okay with it, there will be an unmistakable glint of suspicion in their eye. Who do you think you are? We thought you were this one thing, we thought we knew what to expect of you, we thought we could put you in a little box in our mind…
It’s really fucked up. But it all boils down to control, really. People want you to be predictable. When you’re not, it puts them about.
I’d say that – assuming you’re not doing anything genuinely deviant – that’s far more their problem than yours.
To live is to change, to change is to live
The truth is that you are changing – both inside and out – from the moment you are born to the moment you die. Just because your twenties are over, nature doesn’t put the handbrake on.
As every second goes by, you are a slightly different person. Cells die, and are reborn. Perhaps you liked Megadeth in your twenties, but you prefer Mozart in your forties -this is exactly what is supposed to happen. But if you stifle this change because you don’t want to inconvenience people… well, you might be alive in body, but you will be dead in spirit.
When a river is allowed to flow, all is well – we have a healthy river. When it is not allowed to flow, it stagnates. It becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and parasites. Day by day it becomes more and more toxic.
We are no different than a river – when we allow ourselves the freedom to adapt to change – both inside and outside – we are living a rich life. We are growing. We are embracing who we really are.
When we resist change, we stagnate. We die inside.
From the wheel to the Wii, “technology” is what it’s call it when humans – sick of doing every step of every job themselves – leverage tools and resources to get the job done quicker, cheaper, more efficiently, or all three.
It’s not just modern inventions like iPads and Terminators that count as technology. It’s the abacus, which helped ancient civilisations count higher than their fingers. It’s the printing press – which enabled ordinary people to read the bible, rather than having to hear it second hand from their priest.
In fact, it’s not just even just “devices”… it’s also systems, like the assembly line Henry Ford masterminded, allowing cars to be made at a fraction of the cost and at a speed previously undreamed of. To get crude, even the humble to-do list is technology – instead of having to keep in mind the 7 things you have to do lest you forget any, you write them on a piece of paper, ridding yourself of the need to remember any of them.
Any time humans leverage anything to get something done quicker, cheaper, or more efficiently – we can call it technology.
Humans have untold potential – the things we can do now will almost certainly seem quaint and naive in a hundred years’ time – and it is only technological progress that frees us to explore that potential. When we don’t have to spend our time on the trivial, on the bullshit – on the things that don’t matter – we are free to spend our time on higher pursuits.
Technology is – in its broadest sense – the greatest human achievement. And yet in recent years, it’s been under attack.
The robots are coming for your jobs
Many people – though they may spend the lion’s share of their day staring and prodding at their smartphone – are increasingly wary of technology, and the detrimental effect they see it having on their future.
Most of these people are not Luddites – opposed to technological progress for intellectual or philosophical reasons. On the contrary, they’re just real people, people who fear – encouraged in no small part by an ever-predatory media – for their place in the world, as technology moves ever faster towards automation, robotics, A.I…
The message they are hearing loud and clear is: “Sooner or later, when your job is “taken” by a robot, you will become irrelevant.”
I can’t imagine how horrible it must be to feel that way – to feel as though you have such little inherent purpose in the world that a “robot” can “replace” you.
Fortunately, it’s completely unfounded.
Your job can be replaced. You can’t be, though.
When people live in fear – and actively seek to hold back technological progress – thinking that “the robots” are going to render them irrelevant, they right about one thing, wrong about another.
The thing they are right about is that their particular job is probably replaceable. They are not, in the long run, the best person for the job. The best person for the job is probably not a person at all, but some kind of machine.
The thing they get wrong? That the first point is a bad thing.
You are not your job
You are not your job. You are you. You are an autonomous human being. You cannot be replaced.
You can lose your job, sure. But unless you let your job define you, it’s just the thing that you happen do day-by-day which enables you to pay for stuff. Food, shelter, some new trainers every now and then…
And if a robot can do your job quicker, better, easier than you can, then you can’t really get upset with the robot for that. It’s not the robot’s fault. It’s also not your fault either. The fault is with the system, the culture, with society at large.
You were lied to. You were taught that what matters is subservience – “getting a job.” And unfortunately, whilst humans have showed themselves to be fairly adept at subservience over the years, they’ve got nothing on robots.
The personal and the political
The truth is that the vast amount of jobs people currently have are going to become irrelevant as technology marches forward. That is what is going to happen, whether we resist it to or not. It’s just a matter of when. And so have a duty and an obligation to adapt to these changes. If we don’t, they will crush us.
On a personal level, we must realise that what matters most is not our job, and keeping it at all costs. If a robot can do your job as well or better than you, let it. There is definitely something better you could be doing with your limited time here on the planet. Let the robots do what they’re better at. And you do something robots could never do.
But what about the fact that people need to pay for stuff? How will they do that without their trivial jobs? Well, that’s where the political comes in.
There is enough money and resources on this planet for nobody to have go without food and shelter. It is not “the way it unfortunately must be” for people to spend their time worrying about these things, it’s a political decision.
The sole reason half the world lives in poverty, and has to struggle to survive until tomorrow, is because we haven’t yet decided to – and figured out a way – to make it happen. It’s not because it’s impossible. It’s just that we haven’t got there yet.
There are giant problems facing humanity, and governments around the world need to wake up to the fact we are not going to solve them if we insist on maintaining the status quo – keeping humans on treadmills of subserviency, performing jobs that could be done better by robots, just so that they have something to do. Why not inspire them – and sponsor them – to do something bigger and better?
Humans are suited to particular tasks. Why not let the robots do everything else. And then let’s see what we’re capable of.
Romeo and Juliet is the tragic story of star-crossed lovers – two young and beautiful human beings who find solace in one another amidst the backdrop of an old, bitter feud between their respective families, only to be torn apart by a simple miscommunication.
Romeo and Juliet is the upsetting story of a 13 year old girl from Verona being groomed by a 19 year old male from a rival family – who also murders her cousin – culminating with a climactic double suicide.
It’s all in how you frame it.
The way you frame something has a powerful effect on the way it’s perceived – whatever the real facts happen to be. Facts are essential, but they are only the starting point. It’s how you frame the facts that matters.
In Shakespeare’s own words – through the mouth of Hamlet – “Nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
You don’t get to decide what happens to you, but you do get to decide what kind of frame you’ll put around everything that does. I suggest you choose your frame with as much care as a bride chooses her wedding dress.
I walked to work this morning, listening to Spotify. I have about 1500 of my favourite songs saved, and what I like doing at the moment is just hitting shuffle at the beginning of a walk and listening to whatever it throws up.
Well, just as I passed the Tesco petrol station on Abbeydale Road, I heard a familiar piano intro, and I realised that I was listening to one of my own songs – “There Was a Boy” from The ManBoy LP.
I’ll admit it – sometimes I listen to my own songs. I like them. Why wouldn’t I? I made them, after all. This time, however, it was a genuine accident – I didn’t realise I had any of my songs saved on my phone.
So I listened to the song – John Wilson on piano, Joe Wood on drums and various classroom percussion – and I recalled in my mind’s eye recording it with Alan Smyth, and that got me thinking about the writing process, which was a peculiar one.
I had walked that day to Starbucks on Ecclesall Road – armed with an A4 notepad and Uniball UB157 – ordered one of those plant-pot sized filter coffees, and then proceeded to pretty much just write the song. In about the time it took to physically write down the words, I was done. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why it was so easy and effortless. But it just was.
That’s not the way it normally is for me
Looking back – having started the writing of hundreds of songs since I was ten years old – I have written just two types of song: Songs that have stuck around, and songs that have not.
That in itself isn’t particularly strange, is it? If I were a painter, I wouldn’t expect to deliver on my initial vision perfectly every time; if I were a screenwriter, I wouldn’t expect to knock every scene I wrote out of the park. It’s not unusual or unexpected that I wouldn’t be in love with, and want to keep forever, every song I wrote.
But what’s interesting – to me at least – is that there is an undeniable difference between the songs that I keep around, and the ones that I don’t.
And this difference is at its starkest during the writing of the song.
When I’m writing a song that ends up sticking around, it feels bigger than me. It feels as though it already exists somehow. It feels… inevitable, as though I can hear what the finished product will be like. Just as Michelangelo chipped away everything that wasn’t David – revealing David – I feel like I have something in my head that I can compare my work-in-progress to. Something to aim for.
It’s as though I’m not so much trying to write a song, as I’m just… writing it. Rather than scouring my mind for ideas, it’s akin more to hearing something on the radio, and then writing that down.
When I’m writing the songs that end up on the scrap-heap, however, it’s a slog and it’s a strain. There is no sense of inevitability – no aural picture in my head to compare what I’ve got so far to.
It feels like it’s up to me and me alone to turn this scrap of an idea into something. And sooner or later, I give up. I have no skin in the game.
For example, another song from my ManBoy LP – “Lady Love” – was written on a piano in the place I used to work, whilst waiting for a student who never showed up. I was noodling around with some chords I liked and humming a melody. I grabbed a notepad, and wrote three verses. I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know what it was about… I just know that as I sat playing it to myself on that piano, I really liked it. And two years later I recorded it exactly as I wrote it.
On the other hand, I have a folder in my loft containing literally one-hundred complete songs that I wrote in a one-month-long frenzy as a resident at Bank Street Arts. I made little demo recordings of every single one as I went, and when the month was over, I listened back to them all. There were nice moments in every song, but none of them were songs. Why?
There was no inevitability.
What can I do with this information?
Think about surfing. It doesn’t matter how much you strain mentally, how much you wave your fists at the sea – waves show up, or don’t, on their own schedule.
The only thing you have control over is what you do if and when the next one shows up. You have two choices – either you adapt yourself to the wave, and ride it, or you stand rigid, and let the wave batter you about.
Similarly, you can’t control when these moments of inspiration come, or what they look like when they do. But you can be ready to drop everything and follow them.
Although it can feel risky to stake everything on hunches and inspiration, it’s not when you actually think about it. For starters, I have enough personal experience now of both following my hunches, and of ignoring them, to know that I am always rewarded for following them and always punished for ignoring them. You could set your watch to it.
But besides that, what are you actually gaining by ignoring them? Security? Protection? Peace of mind? I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel particularly secure, protected, or at peace when I go against what I feel in my bones to be the right thing to do.
There’s a reason for inspiration, for gut feelings, for hunches. It’s at your own peril that you pretend you don’t hear them. If you listen, though, and act on them, you’ll discover untapped inner resources – life will literally open up. But it will close again the second you stop listening to them.
Yesterday evening, I looked through the titles of all the pieces I’ve written on this blog so far. My god, I thought. I ought to be calling this thing: “On All That Is Wrong with Humanity.”
My apparent fixation on the negative aspects of our kind isn’t by design – I don’t plan in advance what I will write each day. Writing this blog is something I do to stretch a muscle. I start with “nothing” – the blank page – and as I type, and delete, and type, and delete, I end up with “something.” That’s as much as there is to it.
Even when I think I know what I’m going to write about, I – more often than not – prove myself entirely wrong. I can be certain of my topic, but as soon as my fingers hit the keys, something else comes out – something completely different and unintended. This unintended thing that comes, however, always feels far more real, far more pertinent – as though made of flesh and blood – than the original intention. I learnt a long time ago that when I ignore whatever speck of inner wisdom I have, I suffer. So I listen to that voice, and I pivot toward writing what’s coming out, not what I thought I was going to write.
Thus, what comes out has a certain organic quality. Whatever I find myself writing about – that must be what I care about, what I’m curious about, what is bugging me, what I’m straining to understand. And overwhelmingly, it seems that I am straining to understand human nature – both the parts we deem positive, and the parts we deem negative. I want to understand the whole picture.
Afraid of your own shadow
When confronted with the elements of human nature that seem at first glance to be “bad” or “negative” our initial response is to run away from them, to hide them, to deny them. And why not? They are scary, after all. They represent the unknown.
The problem is that denying something only serves to make it stronger. When you deny and repress any element of human nature, you don’t stop it existing, and you don’t stop it from causing you harm. You simply divorce yourself from reality, and far from living happily in denial, you are more likely to live in fear of your own shadow.
If, on the other hand, you can develop the courage to look your best and worst qualities square in the eye, especially these darker, harder-to-accept parts of yourself, then you put yourself in a position to transmute them into their positive equivalent. You cannot destroy energy, but you can change its state.
Own the negative, discover the positive
That’s why this blog tends to focus on the negative aspects of human nature – becoming aware of them is the necessary first step to transcending them. If all we do is think of the positive aspects, and deny everything else, we become half-humans, living half-lives. I don’t want that.
The writers I love the most are the ones who have held up a mirror, allowing me to see myself and my fellow human as we truly are – as beautiful or ugly as that might be. Hemingway. Bukowski. Denis Johnson. Robert Greene. If I have an aim with my writing, it’s to pay that forward.
I haven’t had a drink since the 5th of March – just shy of five weeks. I am completely transformed. The absence of alcohol in my bloodstream has solved all of my problems – both personal, and professional – and has left me with a slimmer waist, a glowing complexion, and an unwavering feeling of benevolence toward my fellow man.
So long as I live, I never want to so much as look at another glass of wine, let alone allow it to pass my lips.
Or, at least, that’s what I’d like to tell you. But I’m afraid it would be the biggest pack of lies I’ve ever told.
The truth is that when next Thursday rolls around, and Lent is officially over, I am going to congratulate myself with a delicious bottle of Pinot Noir. And I’m going to take it from there.
Why did I give up drinking for Lent?
Let’s start with why I decided to abstain. There were two reasons – neither one of them concerning religion, and only one of them concerning the effects of alcohol on the body.
A quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald states the first reason better than I could.
“First you take a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes you.”
That was reason one. Drinking had become far too non-negotiable for me. It’s not that I couldn’t possibly refuse a drink, or that I spent the day not quite feeling like myself until I could indulge. But I had grown increasingly wary of the way – unless there was a very good reason not to – pouring myself a drink had become a firm fixture in my day, like showering, brushing my teeth, or taking my medication.
Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t drinking against my will, and wishing I possessed the strength to quit. But the wires were getting crossed. Did I actually want a drink, or was I just accustomed to having one? Wednesday night with no real plans? A glass or two of wine whilst I cook dinner, then. Hmmm, it’d be rude not to finish the bottle. Don’t need to be up early tomorrow? Be rude not to have a whiskey. They serve beer at this cafe? Be rude not to order one.
I had lost the ability to consciously decide whether to drink or not, and I wanted to claw it back.
Reason two was nothing more than garden-variety curiosity.
Like I said, whilst never graduating to alcoholism, I have enjoyed a lot of drinks over the last ten years. A few months ago, I tried – and struggled – to remember a single sober period of longer than a week in the last decade. There was one time in 2014 when – just to prove to myself that I could – I went a week without drinking. But other than that? Maybe. But I don’t think so.
That got me thinking – what if there was a better life that I was missing out on? What if I was sapping my potential, perhaps severely? What if I drinking was worsening my ADHD symptoms?
I don’t really get hangovers. I don’t spend all our money on boozing. Drinking hasn’t been silently ruining my life. But without taking it out of my life for a bit, how could I ever know what – if anything – awaited me on the other side?
So… what’s it been like?
I hate an anti-climax as much as the next guy, but I’m afraid that’s all I am able to give you. It’s been fine.
It’s actually been a hell of a lot easier than I thought it would be. The few times where I’ve actually wanted a drink, or where I’ve been in a situation – like having friends over, or being out at a bar for a gig – it really hasn’t bothered me that much that I couldn’t have one.
My sleeping has changed. In general – my body clock forever ruined by years of getting up for school – I can’t sleep past 8 or 9 o’clock, no matter what time I go to bed, no matter what time I actually need to get up. In general, I’ll get about 7 hours of sleep. A few days after my last drink – a very generous birthday present Scotch – I slept for about 11 hours, and this happened a couple of more times. After about a week, I starting waking up with what felt like a hangover. This went on for about two weeks, and then stopped.
My moods are different. I feel slightly calmer, slightly cleverer, slightly sharper. I feel as though there’s a little more time and space for my thoughts. I feel – in the most subtle way – as though more things are possible.
My famously weak bladder certainly prefers sobriety. I’m drinking plenty of water and not going to the toilet anywhere as often – even throughout the day.
The hidden benefit
Perhaps I just wasn’t getting pissed enough – though I doubt it – but I expected for this experiment to be a lot more difficult than it was, and for it to result in more dramatic changes to my mind and body. I should be glad it wasn’t and didn’t, I suppose.
But am I glad I did it? You bet. Why? Well, whilst not getting what I expected out of it, I got something even better.
I got the pride and satisfaction that comes from deciding to do something and following through on it. And to me, that’s priceless. That’s worth so much more than than improved liver function, or fewer trips to toilet, or an extended life-span.
I am shocked and surprised that I could hold it together to not have a drink this long. Not because I was hopelessly addicted, but just because I am not somebody who can normally stick to things. Easy things, hard things, after two or three days, I’m onto something else.
I’m not used to feeling proud of myself. It’s nice. But I still have nine days or so left. Then I can crack open that bottle of wine. Mmm.
Have you ever felt completely at peace? Imagine for a moment what it would be like.
Imagine being able to just sit, and watch the world go by – no nagging thoughts, no need to fill the silence, no need for anything, except this moment, right here, right now.
Do you feel like this very often? I know I don’t. But I’m trying to figure out how to get there more often. I think I might know how.
I’m on a mission to live with intention.
A balancing act
Every single thing that crosses your path throughout your day – everything you have your attention on, whether consciously or not – has an effect on you. Each thing is bringing you closer – or taking you further away – from that peaceful state that you imagined a moment ago.
The people in your life, the objects that surround you, the responsibilities and obligations you feel, even the town you live in… none of these things are ever neutral in their effects on you.
However – and this is key – whilst all that is true, the solution is not as black-and-white as “if you want to be happier, bring in more positive things, and get rid of more negative things.” You see, each individual thing is not merely “a positive or a negative” – each individual thing is itself a combination of positives and negatives, a balance of blessings and curses.
What’s more, each individual thing affects each individual person differently. Whilst some things are more universally good or bad, it’s way more nuanced than that. What bothers you might delight me, and vice versa.
Living with intention means looking at the things you have let be in your life, and measuring the net effect they have on you personally – when you weigh its benefits against its drawbacks, does each thing overall make you more happy, or less happy? From this vantage point you can then decide what to keep and what to get rid of, or never to allow in in the first place.
Maximalism vs Minimalism
By default, we are, unfortunately, maximalists. This means that we tend to – unconsciously, of course – err on the side of letting into our life anything that might bestow upon us some kind of benefit. We act on the premise that if it has some positive aspect, it must therefore be positive, and therefore if we don’t have it in our lives, we are somehow… losing something.
The problem is that if you look hard enough, almost everything has some kind of positive aspect to it. Hitler was a vegetarian. Enough said.
Minimalism, on the other hand, is simply a little being more discerning and discriminatory, and looking at the bigger picture. Playing 3D chess instead of noughts and crosses.
It means weighing up the balance of positives and negatives of a thing – calculating the net effect of bringing something into our lives. A thing can have as many positives as it wants, but if they don’t outweigh the negatives, it’s gone. Simple.
You can be more intentional
Sure, you can’t choose everything, you can’t control everything, you can’t make everything bend to your will. But you can certainly put the numbers on your side by being a little more discerning.
You can decide what the overall effects of having something in your life are – whether the positives outweigh the negatives, or vice versa – and start to lead a more intentional, deliberate life.
Procrastination. That dirty word, most often used to describe putting off some unpleasant but necessary but cosmically unimportant activity, like homework or doing the dishes.
Procrastinating in this domain is doing some other activity – watching one more episode of this, playing one more level of that – in the place of the thing that needs doing, until you eventually do the thing you needs doing.
The good kind of procrastination
We can sum this up as follows:
“Putting off busy-work until later.”
We all do it. All the time. And it’s really not a big deal. It can even be a good thing.
Because I felt I had better things to do with my time – like play guitar and read – I used to generally leave all my homework until the night before. Not only did my grades not suffer from this approach, but I got my work done much quicker than whenever I took a more leisurely approach.
Procrastination became almost a productivity hack for me – every minute of avoiding the work was like coiling a spring, so that when I finally sat down to do it, the spring uncoiled with great force. I attacked the work with energy and attention that I couldn’t normally find, because I didn’t give a shit about the work.
So long as you eventually get round to whatever you need to get round to, there’s no need to see this kind of procrastination as the kind of productivity cancer it’s often made out to be.
It’s not worth fearing, especially because there’s another form of procrastination – one with a much more serious threat.
The bad kind of procrastination
We can sum this type up as:
“Putting off doing the right thing until tomorrow.”
Unlike the first kind of procrastination, this one can wreak an incredible amount of damage and destruction. What makes it so dangerous?
It’s simple – it presents a harmless front.
Tomorrow feels very close – it seems very reasonable to put something off until tomorrow, whatever it is. It doesn’t feel like you’re saying “I’m not going to do this.” It feels like “I am going to do this. Just not yet.”
And that’s where it gets you.
Because tomorrow never comes. There is only the present moment. Tomorrow never becomes today – it’s eternally “tomorrow.” It’s a moving target. A mirage. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
If you feel like you don’t quite have it in you to do the right thing today, what makes you think tomorrow is going to be any different?
It’s a muscle
Doing the right thing is a muscle. Which means that with use it will grow, and with neglect it will shrink – either a virtuous cycle, or a vicious cycle.
In every moment, you are presented with a wonderfully binary choice – do the right thing, or don’t do the right thing. Putting it off until tomorrow might feel like it’s somewhere neutral, somewhere in-between. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s really just a tarted up way of choosing “don’t do the right thing.”
Every time you choose to do the right thing, the muscle grows. Every time you choose “don’t” – whether you realise that’s what you’re doing or not – it shrinks. It’s as simple as that.
Don’t confuse putting off busywork with putting off doing the right thing. One is of little to no consequence. One is as important as life or death.
I like to get things right the first time. It’s a real problem.
It’s a problem because, well, it’s generally impossible to do.
To learn, you must “fail” a bit
The majority of life’s tasks – from walking, to talking, to making an omelette, to writing a symphony – involve an unavoidable learning curve. You are born with the potential to do these things, but not the ability.
In order to do them, you must shift from ignorance to knowledge – you must learn. And in order to learn, you must try. And if you try, there’s a pretty big chance that you’ll fail – at least the first few times.
But if failure doesn’t kill you – and it almost never does – and you keep trying, then before long, you will be a person who can now do the thing you set out to do.
For most things in life, the specific outcome of each try doesn’t matter.
It’s the big picture that matters.
My mistake is forgetting that. I make getting it right this time far too important – so important, in fact, that it scares me away before even make my first attempt.
And yet… no matter how hard I rack my brains, I can’t recall a single time in my life where this time genuinely mattered – where straining to get this moment right, or else… got me a better result than just trying my best and if it didn’t work out trying again later.
Maybe it’s me, but putting pressure on myself to get it right this time actually takes me in the wrong direction – it seems to ensure that I not only get it wrong this time, but I continue to get it wrong, and worst of all, I have an incredibly stressful experience.
But doing my best over time? Trial and error based on the best information I currently have? Well that seems to get me where I want to go much quicker.
What to do
If you are living a life – as I have far too often – where every throw of the dice feels like life and death, relax. It’s not. It’s not even close.
Your life might contain a billion throws of the dice – the outcome of this one throw doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is the overall pattern.
Are you consistently trying to do what you think is right for you? If you are, then you’re sorted – you’re learning. Over time – even accounting for all your mistakes, failures, and fuck-ups – you’re going to be in a vastly superior position than if you avoid trying because you’re trying to avoid failing.
A perfectionist is not someone with high standards. A perfectionist is somebody so afraid to make one little mistake that they won’t even try, wearing the mask of someone with high standards.
I’m a music teacher. That means I spend a lot of my time sitting side-by-side with a student, both of us staring – with equal parts disgust and contempt – at a sheet of paper with a load of black dots on it.
I – for the most part – understand the dots, and so it’s only fair that I show the student how to decipher these dots, and to free the music within.
Now, when confronted with this page of what can sometimes look like nothing more than hieroglyphs, you don’t always know where to start. So you ask questions? “What’s the first note?” “Are they any sharps or flats?” “What does dolce e cantabile mean?”
These are all questions we’ll have to answer at some point, but there’s one question that – if we can answer – will unlock more doors than any other.
“What is the beat?”
The beat of a piece of music – as opposed to the rhythm – is the constant, unchanging, invisible temporal thread that runs through the music.
If you’re playing “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees, then it’s an obvious, disco-inflected, foot-stomping 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.
If you’re playing the Blue Danube Waltz, it’s an elegant 1-2-3, 1-2-3.
If you’re playing Zappa, or Stravinsky, then it might be something madder, like 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, 1-2-3…
“So what is the rhythm?”
The rhythm is everything you play – or don’t play – on top of that beat.
It’s “aah, aah, aah, aah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…” It’s “da-da-da-da-da… da-da… da-da…” It’s “Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow…”
The most crucial thing to understand about rhythm is that without a beat, it is nothing. It’s just a series of notes. Rhythm needs a beat underneath it to give it context and meaning.
Perhaps it would be easier to explain by example.
The beat is a wooden table. The rhythm is the table cloth, the napkins, the cutlery, and the fine china you put on top. No wooden table? Just a load of crap on the floor.
The beat is the motorway. The rhythm is all the different vehicles driving on it. No motorway? Just a load of cars crashing into each other at 70mph.
The beat is the sun. The rhythm is the planets orbiting it. No sun? Nothing to orbit. Planets veering off into the far reaches of the galaxy.
Simply put, the beat comes first, and the rhythm is what you decide to put over it.
And this, my friend, is exactly how I think about time.
The beat of life
Time has a beat far more constant than any piece of music ever composed.
Time – like the tide – waits for no man. It marches on, never changing its speed, never stopping to rest or refuel.
And time is fair. Every day, for every man, woman, child, and beast, there exists the same 24 hours. Nobody gets more hours in the day just because Daddy was rich, or Mommy paid off the admissions board. If there is any equality in this life, then it is surely through time.
So if time is the beat of life, then what is the rhythm?
The rhythm of life is your actions
Rhythm is what you do or don’t do, against the backdrop of time.
There’s a reason – when you exclude privilege and silver-spoon-ism – why some people live richer lives than others, getting more things done that matter to them, feeling a sense of purpose. It’s simple – they master time.
They don’t control time, because you can’t, any more than you control the wind, or the sea. Time just is – it’s non-negotiable. But what you do against the backdrop of time, with your thoughts, words, and deeds, is extremely negotiable.
You have more than enough time in the day to do what you need to do. It is impossible not to have enough time, because time is the thing that you must orient yourself around – it doesn’t work the other way round. What you must do to master time is simply become more intentional about how and why you’re spending time the way you’re spending it.
Have you ever been to Pizza Express? Well, many moons ago, it was my job to roll the big balls of dough into pizza bases. I would stack them in their black pans as quickly as my little hands could manage, ready for the next guy to sauce them, top them, and throw them in the oven.
I had a manager. I liked my manager. One time my manager was away for a few days, and so a different manager – someone from one of the Pizza Express branches in Leeds – took over. I remember almost nothing about this man. Just one thing.
The curse of expectations
You see, part of the manager’s job was to keep tabs on how well the restaurant was doing – how much money it was bringing in – and we had a target each day. It wasn’t a purely arbitrary target – someone from head office had worked out how much, based on past performance, all being well, the restaurant “should” be making on a given night.
Most managers would keep that number in the back of their mind, and just get on with their job – there was a lot to do – and if, by the end of the night, we hadn’t hit the number… oh, well. It could usually be explained away by one thing or another, and unless the target was consistently not reached – which probably showed that the target was a little bit high – then it really wasn’t anything to worry about.
If we made £1800 one night, then we made £1800 – that’s what happened – it didn’t matter whether head office expected £10 or £10,000. We made £1800.
The replacement manager’s attitude, however, was different. In his eyes, that number was gospel.
If £2000 was our target, and we hit it, then we were now at zero – reaching the target wasn’t winning, it was the bare minimum, it was everyone simply “doing their jobs.” And if instead we made £1800, then to this manager we had actually “lost” money. We were “down.” Never mind that throughout the day customers had put £1800 into the tills – £1800 that wasn’t there this morning – what we’d actually done was “lost” £200.
He was obsessed with the target. He spent the whole shift anxious about reaching the target, but didn’t seem particularly happy if we did reach it, and became truly despondent if we didn’t.
I was glad to see the back of him.
There is no “supposed to”
Now, that manager wasn’t stupid. He was just playing a very dangerous – but unfortunately very popular – game.
He had made up his mind – as well all do – that things were supposed to go a particular way. And if they didn’t? Well then he had lost, he was down, something had been taken away.
The problem with this is that there is no “supposed to” in life. There is just whatever happens. If you get less than you were expecting, it’s not because life wronged you. Life didn’t make a mistake. You made a mistake – you expected wrong.
You are allowed to have hopes and dreams. And you are allowed to be disappointed when things don’t go your way. But you must realise that as far as life is concerned, there is no “your way.” There is just “the way.” Things happen the way things happen.
There is no such thing as loss
You can either go on expecting everything to work out just the way you want it to, and continue being disappointed when inevitably some part of it doesn’t, or you can start throwing your expectations out of the window and accepting what actually does happen as what was meant to happen.
“That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”
I’m trying to live a life where I don’t need things to be a certain way. I want them to, sure – I’m only human – but the more I try to actively embrace how they actually are, I’m getting happier and happier.
As far as I’m concerned, life itself is a bonus. It was extremely improbable, statistically, that you or I would have ever been born. And we’re going to throw our toys out of the pram when one thing we thought “should” be a certain way isn’t?
Sometimes – and I speak from experience – you can drink yourself into a stupor, smack your head on the toilet seat throwing up on yourself, crawl off to bed, sleep for five hours, and wake up feeling pretty much daisy-fresh.
Other times, you can be stone-cold sober, enjoy a light and healthy dinner, avoid caffeine and blue light, go to bed at a reasonable hour, get more than the recommended eight hours of sleep, and still you wake up feeling like the Devil had his wicked way with you in your sleep.
It’s maddening, I know. But the lesson here is that no matter what lengths we go to in our quest for control over our lives, we are – more than we’d ever dare admit – in the hands of fate.
We can get seemingly everything wrong, and then by sheer, dumb luck, have everything turn out great. Or we can get everything as right as humanly possible, and for no particular reason, it can all go to shit.
So if there’s no guarantee that doing the right thing will even get us what we want, what’s the point? What’s there left to do?
Live well for its own sake.
If you’re only in it for the spoils, you’ve got it all wrong. Because the spoils might never come – it’s entirely up to the spoils themselves how often they visit. But if you can learn to play the game for the joy of playing, and make the spoils nothing more than a cherry on top, well now you’re cooking with gas.
You can put the numbers on your side – and I implore you to do so – but you can’t make the world do what you want it to. So just do your best for no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do.
So, you say, what good do I get [from virtue]? But what more good do you want than this? Instead of being a shameless man you will become a dignified man, instead of chaotic you will become organized, from being untrustworthy you will become trustworthy, instead of being out of control you will become sane. If you want anything more than this, keep on doing what you are already doing: not even a God can now help you.
Quite often, I find myself thinking – normally in my head, though more often than I’d care to admit, out loud – about all the things I think people I know should do differently.
If only so-and-so would do this thing more carefully, for example, or stop wasting their time worrying about that thing, or if they just sat down for an hour and got their goddamn priorities straight… I can concoct entire mental laundry lists about how everybody else could and should live their lives better. (Better, in this case, being code for “the way I would prefer it.”)
Of course, it’s rare – if ever – that I tell these people my grand ideas for their betterment, and I’d like to think that that’s because I’m tactful, and compassionate – I’m a good guy. But it’s not that.
The truth could be that I avoid telling them because I’m a coward, or because I’m afraid of confrontation, or – as is most probable – because I fear that they will, in retaliation, open up a veritable Pandora’s box of all the things they think I ought to change about my life.
I wouldn’t enjoy that. So I try to keep schtum, and confine my efforts to improve the people around me to doing it behind their backs, instead of to their faces.
What about my foibles?
You might think that where this piece is going next is me denouncing us foolish humans for yet another one our terrible habits.
But actually, just this once, I’m going to let us slide. So long as you temper presuming to know what’s best for everyone else with the innate knowledge that, in fact, you don’t – and you learn that even when somebody asks “what do you think I should do?” they are hoping more for you to say something kind than fishing for the painful truth – I don’t think you’ve got too much to worry about.
But what splashed me in the face like a cup of cold coffee this morning on my way to the pharmacy was when I started to wonder that if I am going around arrogantly presuming to know best what everybody else should do – no matter how wrong I am most of the time – then so too is everybody else. Worse, they’re doing it about me.
“What are they saying about me?” I thought, waiting for a red light to change. What are the things I do that everybody thinks I shouldn’t do? Who am I inadvertedly pissing off with my charming idiosyncrasies? Are they really charming idiosyncrasies, or just annoying habits?
I pondered this for a little while. Before the light could turn green, plenty of possible options presented themselves, but then, I thought, how could I even be sure? There’s no way to get reliable feedback. If I ask people what they really think of me, surely they’ll just do what I would do in their shoes, and tell me whatever I’d want to hear…
When I was almost home, I’d turned a corner – figuratively, and metaphorically. I asked myself whether my harmless vices and little quirks were just that – harmless. And whether the fact that some people might be pissed off by things I do was just as much their problem as it was mine? Maybe more, sometimes.
After I got home, I made myself some breakfast and, to be honest, forgot about the entire train of thought until a moment ago.
The conclusion I came to?
Everybody thinks they know what everybody else should or shouldn’t do, and yet what’s funny is that the same people somehow make all manner of bad decisions in their own life – some more, some less. That in itself is enough to make me suspicious. If we really possessed such wisdom that we could foresee and foretell the things we claim to be able to – when it comes to other people – wouldn’t you think we’d make much smarter decisions in our own lives?
In the same way that 90% of drivers think their driving skills are above average, even though that would be mathematically impossible, we imagine ourselves to be omniscient when it comes to other people and what they should or shouldn’t do, whilst sporting a mammoth-sized blind-spot when it comes to ourselves, and the things we should or shouldn’t do.
I suppose the solution, as with all these things, is nothing more fancy than to accept. Accept yourself just as you are – foibles and all – including your tendency to see yourself as some kind of modern-day Oracle at Delphi, pre-eminent solver of the world’s problems… except the ones that have got anything to do with you.
When you get busy accepting yourself, you’ll find fewer things that other people need to do. You’ll find them to suddenly be just exactly what you need them to be – themselves.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”