The Cats and the Trees and the Clouds…

I saw a cat crossing the road this morning. It was white and black.

That cat, I thought to myself, has no idea that at midnight she will be crossing not from one side of the road to the other, but from one side of the decade to another.

Nor do the trees know, as they line the streets.

Nor do the clouds know, as they creep across the sky.

The cats and the trees and the clouds just do what it is in their nature to do. They don’t care what decade it is. They have a job to do.

If something was the right thing for you to do in this decade, then it’s worth continuing with tomorrow.

And if something you did was wrong for you, if it was unworthy of your nature, then it will still be wrong tomorrow.

What is right and what is wrong has nothing to do with the calendar.

The best of you is eternal. Have a wild decade.

Oliver x

You Left the Womb for a Reason

“Space, I can recover. Time, never.”

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)

I was seventeen, and I was a film student.

My teacher set the class a lot of essays. So I developed a system. Whenever there was an essay due, I would open up Microsoft Word at about 9pm the night before, and go at it furiously until I had a completed essay coming out of the printer, however long it took.

My system worked – I got good grades. But one day my teacher suddenly slammed my writing – in front of the whole class – as weak. He said that it was a shame because I could put words together well, and I had good points to make, but there was one cardinal sin I made over and over and over:

I couldn’t just… make a point.

Peppered throughout my essays were all manner of qualifiers, like “in my opinion…” “I believe that…” “what you could say is that…” I seemed desperate to distance myself from whatever I was trying to assert, desperate to let the reader know that this wasn’t all necessarily objectively true.

Back then, I really didn’t understand why this was a problem. After all, my essays were my personal exploration of the topic at hand – they weren’t objective facts. They were opinions, conjecture, subjective guesses… was I not being kinder to the reader – and treating them like an adult – by being crystal clear with them about this?

No. It was actually condescending. Because people aren’t stupid. They already know they’re reading opinions and beliefs – they don’t need reminding every couple of sentences. So whilst I didn’t enjoy being chewed out in front of the class, my teacher was absolutely right. My writing was weak, and it all stemmed from this one bad habit.

I bring this up today for two reasons.

Firstly, because it helped inform the way I write today.

I preach the things I preach as fact. I state things, I make assertions, I try not to constantly remind you that you are reading my opinions and beliefs. I assume that you’re smart and that you already know this. I respect you enough to tell you what I believe to be true without coating it in sugar, and leave you free to agree or disagree with me.

I know that the more I try to soften the hard edges of what I write, the less power it has, and the less anything meaningful is communicated. So I really try not to do this.

And the second reason is that whilst I might have learnt that specific lesson as it relates to the way I write, I still have a very long way to go in the rest of my life. It’s just one of the many ways I have been deathly afraid throughout my life to take a stand. To pick a side. To risk being wrong.

The fear, I suppose, comes from believing deep down that if I am wrong about a decision, that it would somehow be impossible to ever recover from, and so it’s just not worth the risk. I don’t know why part of me believes this with such fervour – especially when it is so obviously bollocks – but it does. It seems to weigh up the potential gains of making a clear decision against what I have to lose if I’m wrong, and ultimately decide that the risk is too large.

Well, I want a lot of things for the 2020s, but more than anything, I want to seek out like a bloodthirsty hyena all the places in which I am sitting on the fence, terrified of going one way or the other, and for fuck’s sake make a move.

I want to prove to myself what I on some level already know – that there are no mistakes from which I cannot recover from. No, in fact, it’s even bigger than that. There are in fact no mistakes that I cannot ultimately find a way to profit from.

Sitting on the fence is not a neutral action. It is a clear decision to do nothing. With no action there is no motion. With no motion there is death. Most people die spiritually a long, long time before their body gives out.

Realise: you left the womb for a reason, and it wasn’t so that you could spend your life trying to recreate the warm and cozy conditions you enjoyed those nine months.

Don’t be so afraid of making a wrong move that you stand still forever.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

John Augustus Shedd – “Salt from My Attic” (1928)

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Carl Von Clausewitz

Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus.”

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891)

Or, translated and paraphrased into plain English: no plan survives contact with the enemy.

If the change you seek to make in the world lights up your bones when you think about it, then it is unlikely you have sold yourself short – small goals just don’t have that kind of bone-lighting-up power. You have likely chosen something grand, something daring, something that puts you at risk of being mocked by non-believers. I hope so. For anything else is a waste of time.

It’s important not to let yourself be embarrassed about having grand aims. Ambition is not a dirty word. You have my applause for even daring to dream that something better is possible. Just know that the path to get from where you are now to where you wish to be will not be easy. Nor will it be straight. It will zig, it will zag, and it will go off on tangents and subplots.

Of course, it would be wonderful if there were some way to straighten your path in advance. Some way you could craft a perfect, omniscient plan that made not just failure but any kind of temporary setback impossible. But there isn’t.

There is no value whatsoever in trying to plot a rigid path to your giant goal, because the moment you take any action, the playing field changes. Think about it this way: if you knew enough right now to plot out an invincible, fool-proof path to your goal, wouldn’t you have done it already?

It’s better instead to – as Jeff Bezos would say – “focus on the things that don’t change.” Life is, if anything, unpredictable. It always has been and it always will be. So instead of wishing for predictability, embrace unpredictability. Make it a feature, not a bug.

Carl von Clausewitz, everyone’s favourite 19th century Prussian, called the difference between our plans and what actually happens “friction.” If you attempt anything in this world, you are going to experience friction before long. The only difference between reaching your goal and not reaching your goal is how you respond.

If you work with the friction, finding ways to incorporate it, surfing it like a wave, then you will forge a rich, elegant, soulful path to your goal. And as you look back on where you’ve been, you will be amazed at how you somehow made the dots connect, and you will be grateful for everything that arrived unexpected and unannounced, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you rally against the friction, on the other hand, trying to control every little thing, allowing yourself to become disheartened and disillusioned every time something unforeseen occurs… you will quit. And you will wrongly assume that your mistake was either to have not spent enough time planning, or to have picked too large a goal to begin with. But more planning wouldn’t have saved you from friction, nor would a smaller goal.

If I could boil what I’m trying to say down to one sentence, it would be this: Allow friction to change your plans, never your aims.

Aim for the sky. Please. And when things go “wrong” – which I guarantee they will – turn shit into sugar.

I Live For The Bad Days

ME: Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Ugh…

RESISTANCE: It’s been over an hour now, mate. It’s not happening today. Why don’t you just give up? Nobody’s going to care. Write two pieces tomorrow. You’ll be in a better place tomorrow. You’ve got nothing to say today. I’m only thinking of you, mate…

ME: Fuck off.

The constant conversation in my head

I write and publish something every day and have done so for almost three months now. And on days like today, I curse the Oliver from three months ago who decided to commit to this habit, and who – in his infinite wisdom – signed us up to a habit-tracking service, where we have to pay money if we don’t keep our commitment!

What a dick!

No, he’s not a dick. It turns out he was a wise man. Truthfully, I’m very grateful he did those things.

It’s just that sometimes it comes easy and I can barely keep my fingers off the keys and I have so much inside me I want to impart to you and seemingly the only thing stopping me is the other obligations in my life…

… but more often than that come days like today.

I look inside myself, and I find that I am empty. There is nothing on which to feed myself, let alone to impart to others. Well, that’s not exactly true. I can sense that there are volumes inside me, pieces that in more capable hands could be translated into works of art. It’s just that they are written in a language that on days like this I have forgotten how to speak.

And yet… I live for these days. The bad days. Where it’s all an ugly struggle and there’s no point in anything and I don’t remember why I committed myself in the first place. Why?

Because there’s no glory in only doing things when they’re easy. If nothing inside you is resisting what you seek to do, you are conquering nothing. But if you can summon the will to try when every molecule conspires to make you give up, you’ve done it. You’ve found the secret.

Don’t you see? It’s not about whether I write anything good. I don’t care if I never write anything worthy of being read again. Ever. I don’t care if nobody is helped by what I write. Or amused. Or if I’m later embarrassed by something I published. Or if I offend the wrong persons’s sensibilities. Or if I annoy you like a barnacle in your inbox. Or if I somehow become a laughing stock…

None of that matters. There is only one thing that matters, and that is keeping up the effort, and the harder it is to keep up the effort, the greater the reward there is for doing so.

Whatever it is inside you that seeks to stop you becoming who you were meant to be, I don’t believe it can be destroyed. And even if it could, I don’t believe that it would help. It exists to help you grow.

So stand up to it. Tell it in no uncertain terms that no matter what it says and no matter how persistently it says it, you are not going to be stopped. Use its opposition as fuel. Make it make you better.

Be More Binary

The human brain does not thrive in a grey zone. It prefers to work in binary terms. On/off. Awake/asleep. Eating/fasting. Working/resting.

The modern world conspires to push us away from these extremes and ever closer to the middle. Instead of spending some time at 100 then some time at 0, we are encouraged to stay as close to 50 as we can all day long. If we do not resist this unnatural progression, we risk becoming mere shadows of our ancestors.

When you’re doing something, really do it. Go all out as though it’s the last thing you’re ever going to do. Then when you switch, really switch.

This is how nature intended it, and the last hundred years of scientific progress isn’t going to change that.

Before You Ask for More…

… what are you doing with what you’ve already got?

Are you wishing you made more money, whilst spending every penny you currently make on shit you don’t need?

Are you wishing you had a flashier car, whilst leaving the one you currently drive in a state of disrepair?

Are you wishing you had cooler friends, whilst treating the ones you already have poorly?

Something inside you always knows. You’d waste the extra money, you’d neglect the new car, and you’d treat your cooler friends just as poorly.

If you can’t show appreciation for what you have right now, you will unsconciously hold yourself back from better things.

You don’t have to pretend anything’s perfect that clearly isn’t. You just have to appreciate it for what it is.

When Are You at Your Best?

All hours are not created equal. Trying to blog every day has taught me this lesson the hard way.

Until a few months ago, I never gave too much credence to the idea that I might perform better or worse at different times of the day. I figured that no matter what time of day, I am Oliver Manning, with Oliver Manning’s brain and Oliver Manning’s fingers, and Oliver Manning’s laptop.

I was wrong. So wrong. Here’s what I’ve found:

If I can write during the good hours (roughly 10am to 2pm) I will not only write better material, I will write it faster, I will find it much easier, and I will enjoy the process a whole lot more.

If I try to write outside these hours, however, the quality will suffer, it will come out slower, I will find it really difficult, and I will resent the whole affair.

In every single area – quality, speed, ease, and enjoyment – working during my peak hours is orders of magnitude more effective. The upshot? I need to make sure I use this time for what is important.

What about you? When are you at your best?

You might be a lucky freak who is capable of roughly the same all day long. In which case, congratulations. But it’d be worth checking if that’s true – I thought that was me, until I realised it wasn’t.

If life weren’t short, this wouldn’t matter. But since it is, it does. Scheduling your important work for when you’re at your best can have a disproportionately positive effect not only on your results but your experience of life itself.

Do better work faster and easier, and enjoy it more – simply by changing when you work.

Morning Pages

Habits are like sperm – for every habit that successfully becomes a part of my daily routine, there are hundreds of others that never make it. A smarter man than myself might be able to explain just why that is. I shan’t waste my time.

All I know is that there is one habit I am eternally grateful to for having stuck with me this year. It’s called Morning Pages and I don’t mean to be dramatic when I say that I don’t know where I would be without it.

From “The Artist’s Way”:

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning.

There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only.

Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way

Here’s how it plays out for me:

To get started, I’ll usually write a sentence about how I feel that morning. Next, I’ll find myself analysing why I feel that way. Now that I’m getting warmed up, I’ll often notice myself thinking about something unrelated, so I’ll write that down. And basically, I follow – with my pen – whichever train of thought grabs me the most until I have completed three pages, which generally takes me about 40 minutes.

And at the end of it, I feel a kind of runner’s high. As though my mind has been dipped in a cold stream and had the dirt and grime washed away. I have never not felt better after doing my Morning Pages.

If you’ve never done anything like this, try it. Here is a link to Tim Ferriss’s article on the topic, which is where I discovered this practice.

Go out of Your Way to Be Wrong

Admit it… you love being right, don’t you? I’m not juding – I do too. Isn’t it a delicious feeling? It’s the best.

Unfortunately, needing to be right is death to anybody who is trying to do great things in the world.

Sure, it might be comforting when things go exactly the way you expected they would, but you must realise that you will not improve this way. You will not get smarter. You will stagnate and you will stall. You will die inside.

You get better – in every way – only when things go differently than you expected. In other words, only when you are wrong.

There’s a very simple reason for this.

You navigate life using a kind of mental map of reality. This map – which is influenced by every experience you have ever personally had, as well as the biology you inherited from millions of years of ancestors – tells your mind what it can expect in any given situation.

Generally, it is so accurate that you don’t even notice it is there.

You notice, however, every time you confront something that contradicts your map. You expect one thing, but what happens is something quite different. And when this happens, your mind springs to attention. It rushes and rallies to process this new information, and it is at this moment that we can go in one of two directions.

If we accept the new information, integrate it and make it part of a new and improved map, we get smarter. Our map more closely resembles reality and we enjoy an ever-more interesting and engaging life.

If instead we deny the new information out of hand, and insist that our map is fine the way it was, we get stupider. Our map gradually becomes more out-of-touch with reality every day. It takes more and more energy to cling to an out-dated map in the face of so much contradictory information, and life becomes a miserable, frustrating experience.

Go out of your way to be wrong. The more times a day you can violate your prior expectations, the more often your map will be rewritten, the more nuanced and detailed it will be, and the more closely it will resemble reality. This will quickly bring you far more joy than the pale and transient pleasure of “being right.”

You gain nothing by being right, and everything by being wrong.

Forget All That Bullshit and Just Play

“Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that bullshit and just play.”

Charlie Parker

The thing I like about Christmas is the down-time.

Use it.

Sip yourself silly on an egg-nog, or a snowball, or some other such seasonal beverage, and cast your mind back over previous year.

What worked? What didn’t?

What are you glad you did? Where did you fall short of your true standards?

Take a cold, dispassionate inventory of yourself. Be as brutal as you know how.

And then forget all that bullshit and just play.

Live Right, or Play It Safe: You Can’t Do Both.

I was awake for a couple of hours in the night. It happens.

An hour or two before bed I had finished reading “A Farewell to Arms.” I’ve read it before, and so I knew all along just exactly who was going to die, and how unjust it would feel, and how it would stay with me, but none of that served to soften the blow. It hit me hard and it was still on my mind when I woke up in the night.

I wasn’t at all disturbed as I lay there thinking about death. I watched my mind go this place and that as though it were being projected on a screen in a cinema – I, the lone attendee of the premiere.

I watched my own death several times over, scouring my imagination for all of the most unpleasant ways I’d heard it could happen. I saw myself crucified, like Christ. I saw myself marched to Semynov Place in St Petersburg with a black hood over my head, like Dostoyevsky, only unlike him I wasn’t pardonned at the eleventh hour – I got the firing squad. I saw myself ordered by the Romans to slit my wrists in a warm bath, like Seneca.

There was nothing morbid about this spectacle. I almost enjoyed it – historically it tends to be the good people that are subjected to these kinds of violent endings. Perhaps if I played my cards I would be one of them. JFK and Martin Luther King? Assassinated in their prime. Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover? A stroke at 81, and a heart attack at 77. I know which side I would rather be on.

And so after the thrill and high of the narcissism wore off, I went on a new train of thought – is it possible that fearing conflict and the possibility of an unpleasant death is affecting the way I live my life? And sadly, I had to admit that it was. More than I had ever realised.

I started to see just how much of my days are filled with avoiding conflict at all costs, choosing to play it safe for fear that if I didn’t I wouldn’t be capable of handling the consequences. I saw how when I detect the mere hint of the possilibility of conflict on the horizon, my mind races to me suddenly being on trial for crimes I didn’t even mean to commit, sentenced to torture and then to death by a faceless regime who just don’t understand me.

I asked myself which I would prefer: to exist for as long as my biology held out but feel on a daily basis that I was selling myself short; or to live for just one more day, but live it ‘right’, whatever that might mean?

It’s easy to say I’d prefer the latter. But now I have to prove it to myself through the way I live. Philsophy is not about grand thoughts. It is about our choices in every moment of every day.

Here’s the truth: You can’t have your cake and eat it too – you can’t live right and play it safe. Sometimes they are one and the same, but in the moments when they are not, the side you tend towards sums you up.

So when push comes to shove, will you prioritise doing the right thing whatever it costs, or avoiding all risk and conflict? From one comes life, from the other, mere existence.

When you live rightly, you do indeed put yourself at a higher risk of upsetting people, of offending people, of displeasing the regime, and yes, of potentially of having your years on this planet cut short. But even added together, these are miniscule prices to pay, when you realise the alternative:

And that is to have never really lived at all.

The Quality of Your Life Is in Your Choices

Every time you choose to do this, you also by default choose not to do that.

And whatever choices you make, the sum total of these choices ends up being your life.

There are all kinds of possibilities and potentialities and things that could happen and things that might happen, but there is only ever one set of things that actually do happen.

You only live once – that is a fixed quantity. You came into this world with nothing but a birth and a death, just like the rest of us.

The quality of your life, on the other hand, is entirely within your hands. Will you live deep, or will you live shallow? Will you be grateful, or will you be bitter? Will you have an open spirit, or that of the miser?

There is not one perfect choice to make in each situation that you must make or else you’ve somehow fucked life up… It’s far more subtle and forgiving than that. What matters is the intention with which you make your choices. Because in the end your choices add up to equal your life.

If you want a good life, then make your choices with intention.

Everything Can’t Be Fun All the Time

You probably beat me to it, but I only realised the following fact of life relatively recently: Everything can’t be fun all the time.

As I say, that might sound blindingly obvious to you, but it honestly wasn’t to me. Instead it was an upsetting truth I resisted and reluctantly accepted at a snail’s pace on my way to the ripe old age of 28 and 10 months.

Thinking back, I have no idea what gave me the impression that life was meant to be fun all the time. There was never a time when it was for me, and looking around I saw no evidence it was for others. But in my younger days I supposed I saw myself as the exception – the one who would finally buck the trend and have a good time all the time.

My chief aim in life for a long time was to feel as though every day were a paid-for trip to Alton Towers every day. Anything less and life was clearly cheating me.

Well, I’ve wised up now, in fits and starts. The big change seemed to be that – over a very long period of time – instead of demanding life give me good day after good day after good day whether I deserved it or not, I just stopped giving a shit about what kind of day it was. And I started to look at my role was in what kind of day I had. Was I dwelling on what was out of my control? Was I remembering to be grateful for the fact that the chances of me even being born were incredibly remote, and yet here I am?

I didn’t adjust my expectations – I stopped having them altogether.

And what I found on the other side is that whilst I might appear on the surface to be more dour and pessimistic than when I was younger, the truth is the opposite. Taking the days as they come and trying to do my best within them has made me far happier than expecting life to do all the work for me.

Stop Blaming “Them”

“Another person will not hurt you without your cooperation. You are hurt the moment you believe yourself to be.”


It wasn’t my fault – “they” made me do it.

I would go for it… if only “they” would stop standing in my way.

When “they” start treating me with respect, I will do the same back.

Painting somebody else as the puppet-master of your fate – whether an individual or a group – is a brilliant way to hide. In one fell swoop, you have avoided taking any responsibility for your lot in life, as well as receiving the delicious ego-gratification that comes from self-imposed victimhood.

The problem is that like crack, it’s awfully more-ish. What starts off innocuously gets out of control very quickly.

You know the Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility…” I couldn’t agree more, but have you ever considered its reverse? That without taking great responsibility in the first place, you will never have great power? I believe it.

Most of all, it takes two to tango. You are a victim to the exact extent that you see yourself as a victim. This has nothing to do with external appearances, and everything to do with the story in your head.

Give Yourself a Moment

My fingers are struggling to type these words because I just went climbing with Will Green.

I last went climbing when I was 16. Whatever level of skill I attained during that one session back then had predictably worn off over the 12 years since.

Still, I really enjoyed it. But as with most things in life there was one thing about it I liked more than anything else. And it was this:

You get up on the wall, hands somewhere, feet somewhere. You look for where either your hands or feet need to move to next. An easy option doesn’t obviously present itself. A voice in your head says “Well, that’s it, it’s impossible.” A moment later, you realise it is possible, and you do it.

This happened over and over again today and I wanted to tell you about it. There is an evil voice inside your head and mine that has a kneejerk defeatist reaction to everything. It comes first, and it makes its point loudly, but that doesn’t stop it from being a lie.

Whenever you find yourself thinking something – big or small – is impossible and that’s there’s nothing to be done about it, give yourself a moment. Ask yourself if you really believe this to be true. If the impossibility holds up under closer scrutiny, then fine. But if not, then you just unlocked a piece of life that was previously hidden to you.

You just glimpsed reality, which is a much better place to play than kneejerk defeatism.

Leave the Right Things to Chance

No child left behind…

Pythagoras. The various uses of crude oil. How and in which order Henry VIII’s wives died…

When it comes to ensuring that no child gets left behind, these are the things that school deems just too damned important to leave to chance.

On the other hand…

Managing your money. Coping with stress. Understanding the people in your life and why they do what they do. Finding a career that enriches both you and the world. How to know when you’re being lied to by politicians and advertisers.

This stuff goes on the “I guess we’ll just let ’em figure that stuff out by themselves, yeah?” pile.

Start with the things that don’t change

The point of school is to prepare young people for their future. And what a noble thing to aim for. But how to decide what to teach? There are three things that make that decision tricky.

One is that the future is unknown – it’s hard to know exactly what will be useful moving forward. Two is that everyone is different – we are born with unique temperaments and natural abilities and learning styles. And three is that even if we knew exactly what would be useful, we do not have the resources to give each student individualised attention based on exactly what they need.

So educators came up with a solution. They said “Let’s just guess what will help the average student, and then let’s hold all students to these arbitrary standards we’ve just made up with no basis in reality. Let’s not include anything explicitly useful to their adult life, but instead let’s fill them to the brim with fear and anxiety over how well they can memorise trivia.”

I have a different proposition.

It is impossible to know what will be useful in the future. And everyone is different. And even if we knew what would be useful, we don’t have the resources to give every student individual attention.

Fine. That’s the lay of the land.

So in the face of all the things we don’t know, and all the things we can’t do, then why not let’s start with… oh, I don’t know… the things that every single human being in recorded history has had to deal with?

Flip it on its head. Instead of worrying about how it’s impossible to know what will be useful in the future, think about what has always been useful. And instead of worrying about how every student is different, think about the ways in which they are the same.

It’s really not a mystery – some things don’t change. We are born. We die. We interact with people. We work. We deal with money. That’s called ‘life’ – it hasn’t changed for thousands of years and it isn’t about to.

I’m not suggesting for a second that everything taught at school is trivial and irrelevant, or that we should do away with it all. No. Only that we should rethink what goes into the curiculum first, and what gets brought in next if there’s still time left over.

Some things have to be left to chance – life is short. I just think we’re picking from the wrong pile.

Do Not Fear Your Audience

There are two ways to think about your audience.

One is to hold them in contempt. To see them as a necessary evil in the creative process, as an obstacle to be overcome. What this approach really betrays is your fear of the audience.

Some hide this fear behind the guise of “giving the people what they want.” But you don’t know – or particularly care – what they want, only what you want. And so you don’t ever bother to find out. You see them as faceless mob instead, and cynically second-guess what they want. And then you wonder why your creations miss the mark you aimed for time and time again.

Really, you are not in this game for the creation of something great. You are after ego-gratification, and personal glory, and you believe that if you can just deceive a large enough group of people for a long enough amount of time, you’ll get your reward.

You audience is a means to an end. And nothing you create will last.

The other approach is to see your audience as a kind of willing co-creator. To see them not only as necessary, but as an incredibly useful tool when it comes to shaping your work.

Instead of giving people what you think they want, you put everything you have into figuring out what they need. Of course, you don’t answer this question on Day 1 and then start creating… it is an attitude that you carry with you at every stage of the creative process.

You do all you can to get outside of yourself and into the minds of the people that are going to experience your work. How will they see this? What will this make them expect? Will I do what they expect, or will I surprise them? You try to see your work from as many different angles as possible.

You never worry that this process will make your work somehow less “yours”. You are still the one doing all the work. You are the artist. There has been no compromise whatsoever. It’s just that instead of working solely from your ego – which is what happens when you try to second-guess them – you have invited the audience to be a part of your creation. Without them even knowing.

But they’ll know it then they experience your work. Because it smacks of something real. Your audience will sense something in it that they are famished for in this crass, commercial age.

People know when they are being talked down to, and when instead they are being taken on a journey. It’s up to you to decide which of the two paths you’re going to take.

There Is Only One Direction

“Get out of here and move forward,” Don says. “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”

Mad Men – Season 2, Episode 5: “The New Girl”

If you allow it to, your past will stick to you like a stag-beetle.

It will make all your endeavours twice as heavy.

It will make you fear your own shadow.

But at any moment, you could escape this fate, simply by deciding to.

Who you are and what you consider to be just and true right now at this very second is all there is. Everything is else is imagined.

Discard who you were yesterday. Throw it away. The parts that were worth keeping – the people, the ideas, the good times – they’ll stay with you. Whatever you lose wasn’t worth keeping in the first place. Let it vanish. It was a lie anyway.

There is only one direction.

Life: The Election Fought Anew Every Day

Now is not the time to be despondent.

Now is not the time to be self-righteous.

Now is not the throw your hands in the air and say “Oh well, we tried our best, but the evil fuckers still won.”

For if you genuinely care about creating the change you seek in the world – which is after all the whole point of voting – you’ll realise that what you did yesterday in that polling station was a drop in the ocean, democratically speaking. And seeing it as any more than that is incredibly foolish.

You are here to bring about change – that is what you were born to do. To bring about a unique change – one that only you could bring. There are an infinite number of ways to do this, the only limit being your creativity and your willingness.

And so to view voting every few years as the best way – or indeed the only way – to do that, is to pretty much guarantee the change never happens.

Have you ever tried to cut through a shoe with a butter knife? Well, that’s what you’re doing when you expect meaningful change to come from engaging with our current blunt system of democracy – voting for parliamentary seats in a first-past-the-post election. It’s better than doing nothing, sure, but only slightly.

Your problem is that you do not view your every waking breath as an opportunity to create change.

Yes, vote when asked to. But for the love of God don’t cast your ballot paper and then think “Right, I’ve done my bit. I’ll be happy for a few years if ‘we’ win, angry for a few years if ‘we’ lose.”

Yes, you have done your bit. But don’t kid yourself – that was all it was: a bit. The bare minimum. Now do something else.

Life is an election that is fought anew every day. And there are only two options: good or evil.

Don’t wait until we’ve had another five years of this shit to start trying to choose good.

Don’t Ever Say It’s Impossible

“If something is difficult for you to accomplish, do not then think it impossible for any human being; rather, if it is humanly possible and corresponds to human nature, know that it is attainable by you as well.”

Marcus Aurelius

We share one Earth.

We breathe one air.

We drink one water.

We eat one bread.

What is possible for one of us is possible for each of us.

Yes, accidents of birth make things easier for some on the surface. But don’t forget that no matter what position or privilege someone possesses, we are all flesh and blood. There is nothing inside the billionaire that is not inside you. It might sound ridiculous, but what is possible for him is equally possible for you.

It might not be probable for you to create the change in the world that a billionaire can – he has more resources – but that has absolutely nothing to do with how possible it is. Unless something is impossible, it is possible. And where there is possilibity, there is hope.

We are living through a time when those who have much have deliberately rigged the system to allow them to have ever more, and for those who have less to have less still. This can indeed seem like an unmovable object. But was this current system handed down from the heavens? No. It was made by humans, and so it can be changed by humans.

So don’t say it’s impossible. It might be difficult. It might be improbable. It might be more than you can achieve in your lifetime. But don’t ever say say it’s impossible.

Know Your Enemy

“As the opposite poles of a magnet create motion, your enemies – your opposites – can fill you with purpose and direction. As people who stand in your way, who represent what you loathe, people to react against, they are a source of energy. Do not be naive: with some enemies there can be no compromise, no middle ground.”

Robert Greene – The 33 Strategies of War

There is evil in this world. I am sure of it.

But evil can only triumph when good people shirk their duties. Evil withers and dies when those same people get into motion.

You are one of these good people – you seek to create positive change in this world.

But since the change you seek to create is a positive one, you try to disassociate yourself with anything negative or agressive, and you think that you can get where you’re going simply by being nice, and smiling a lot, and doing a good job. You do not want to make enemies – you see yourself as above all that.

Don’t be so naive. Those who do evil will do so as long as they can get away with it – as long as you refuse to oppose them out of some misguided modern sense of morality or fairness. There is nothing moral or fair about not calling evil by its name.

Your opposition needn’t be violent – in fact, the height of strategic genius is not to slaughter the enemy, but to win the war without minimal bloodshed. But it has to be there, even if it’s just in your mind.

Who do you hate? Who sickens you to your stomach? Why? What is it that they appear to stand for?

Stand against them. Declare an inner war upon them. Let the thought of their evil be what inspires you to seek change.

You will gain far more clarity and energy by directing your anger and your hatred at a specific and deserving target than you will by thinking it’s somehow wise and smart and progressive to sit on the fence.

Keep Trying

It isn’t over.

No matter how many oppose you, how vehemently they may do so…

No matter how often you have lost your way. Felt crushed. Felt defeated. Felt forsaken by a God you aren’t sure you believe in. ..

No matter that nobody – not a single person before you – has ever achieved the thing you know were born to do…

No matter how much you feel you are Sisyphus, pushing that boulder up a steep, steep hill, only to see it roll back down again each and every time it approaches the top…

… it isn’t over.

Until the moment you breathe your final breath, it isn’t over.

Keep trying.

You Know Best

A boat-load of bravery

The decision to put your trust in yourself above all others is without a doubt the bravest one you will ever make. It requires a Julius-Caesar-crossing-the-Rubicon level of bravery.

Not bravery in the sense that you are braving physical danger, or indeed risking anything of importance, but bravery in the sense that there are so many forces within and without you conspiring and compelling you to do just the opposite. These forces feed themselves on your lack of self-trust and self-reliance, and so they will do anything they can to convince you it’s a risky and foolhardy endeavour. You need cajones of steel.

But the fact remains: your whole life, you have been lied to. Not by any particular individual, nor with clear, plain-spoken words. But you were lied to all the same, for embedded in the attitudes and dispositions of almost every living human is an untruth responsible for more evil and destruction than the most blood-thirsty dictator ever dreamt of.

That lie is this: “Other people know better than I do.”

You may keep reading, but if this is all the time you have, allow me to clear this up before you leave:

“No, they do not.”

You were born knowing what’s best

In one sense, relying on yourself is a skill like any other skill – when you practice it, you get better; it feels easier. When you don’t, you get worse; it feels harder. But there’s another gaping difference between this skill and others like, say, playing the piano.

If you take a young man who has never played the piano once, dress him up in a nice tuxedo, plant him in front of a grand piano on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, and say “Go on, PLAY”… it’s unlikely that what comes out will be music to anyone’s ears.

That’s because he was born the capacity to play the piano – factoring in time, natural talent, and/or instruction – but not the ability to play the piano.

The next dy, suppose you take that some young man – who, incidentally, has never made love to a woman before – strip him of his clothes, and lay him in a bed next to the perky love of his life… I’d put good money on him figuring out what to do next.

Why is this different? Because there are certain things – like the physical act of love – that we are born knowing how to do. Self-reliance is one of these.

It’s not difficult, just unfamiliar. You don’t need more information, just more practice. You must realise that you were born containing all the wisdom you would ever need. And the only thing holding you back from accessing this wisdom is that instead of ever calloing upon it, you have a naughty habit of deferring to others. You presume that they know better than you what is better for you.

Think of it like a muscle. When you neglect a muscle, it shrinks. When you exercise it, it grows. But even when it shrinks, it is still there, though it may be temporarily weak. At any moment you could pick up a dumbell and strengthen it again.

There is no special formula to using this superpower. You need only to use it.

If you don’t claim it, someone else will

I have told you how brave it is to trust in yourself. And I have told you that you do not need to learn how to, but to remember how to. And I was going to leave it there, but then I thought of a final important piece to the puzzle.

I didn’t tell you why it matters – why you should care.

The human mind always seeks something to worship – a deity, a person, an idea… And your trust is always seeking to take up residence somewhere. If you do not actively house it in yourself, you will find that it has housed itself somewhere else. And every location that is not You is the wrong location.

You have heard it said a million times that nature abhors a vacuum, and nowhere else is this truer. Perhaps in the absence of self-trust and self-reliance, you will look to friends and family, or to your critics, or even to some kind of faceless mob. Wherever it goes, for good or ill, rest assured your trust will not stay on the market for long. Unless you claim it for yourself, it will go to a buyer who at best puts their own interests above yours, and at worst doesn’t give a solitary shit about you.

The good news though is that right now, at this very second, you can take back ownership of your Self. You can decide that there is no higher authority on all matters ‘You’ than… You. And in doing so, you will not only become a valuable asset to this world – as all who are truly unique can boast of being – you will find that life is really quite a trip when you allow it be.

Use Your Death

It’s all well good me writing to you impressing upon you the importance of doing ‘the right thing’, but how are you supposed to know what that right thing is?

It’s tempting to try to use your mind. To analyse it, to weigh this against that, to be rational and logical and objective. Don’t bother. It’s not necessary.

Use your death instead.

Remind yourself intead that one day – maybe even today – you are going to die. Don’t get sad about it. Just accept it. Drink it in. Swim in it. Because it’s true.

Why am I telling you to do this?

Because when you keep your death close at hand, your true priorities magically make themselves known. You stop giving a shit about trivia. You no longer have a need to taking things personally. It becomes impossible to bear grudges.

Only when you remember your death, will you know how to live.

There Is Safety in Boldness

Bobby wants to get started, but he’s waiting for things to settle down a bit first. When they do, he’ll proceed. Seems reasonable.

Billie promises she is about get started, but she’s no fool – it’s only sensible to wait until she’s got a few more quid saved up… just in case. Once that happens, she’ll be ready to roll.

Barry really thought he’d be started by now, but he’s decided that first he wants a guarantee. He wants some kind of signal that he’s made the right decision, and that everything will work out just fine for him. Then he’ll get going.

Bobby, Billie, and Barry think they’re being wise. I think they’re chicken-shit.

Life does not have a ‘pause’ button

When there is something you want to do, but present circumstances are not perfect, you have two choices: You can take some kind of action anyway, or you can do nothing whilst you wait for the circumstances to become perfect.

And intuitively, waiting feels like the safer option. The neutral choice. As though nothing is at stake. Like you’ve hit ‘pause’ on life, and though by waiting you might be not gaining anything, at least you’re not losing anything, so it evens out, really.

Taking action, on the other hand, feels decidedly risky in comparison. As though everything is at stake. Like now you’ve hit ‘play’ on life, and whilst, yes, you could stand to gain something from taking action, it’s also possible that you could lose something.

The truth is in fact the complete opposite of this.

Because life does not have a pause button. The stakes are the same in all moments. Waiting is not the neutral choice. There is no neutral choice. Either you are acting, or you are refusing to act.

And if you you are clothing your refusal to act with ‘waiting for the right moment’ then the truth is that you are not wise, but in fact a coward.

Waiting is much riskier

It is in fact riskier to wait for circumstances to change than it is to act under the present circumstances, whatever they might be. Riskier, and far more damaging too. And that’s chiefly because of the message you are sending yourself when you wait.

You are in effect telling yourself that you are only capable of moving forward under an extremely narrow set of perfect circumstances. Anything less than perfect, and you can’t do it. You are selling yourself incredibly short.

This is disempowering enough to begin with, but let’s suppose for a minute that whatever you’re waiting for actually does come to be – if it’s money you need, let’s say you find it somewhere. And now you can get started. What a happy ending.

It’s just that… what if it doesn’t? What if circumstances are never ‘just right’ for you? Think of all that time you’ll have wasted. What a sad, pathetic life you will lead, compared to the one you could have led if you weren’t so fearful.

The other thing is that even if – and it’s unlikely – circumstances become perfect, old habits die hard. What makes you think you won’t change the rules of the game and invent some new perfect circumstances that have to met before you’ll do something?

Wherever you go, there you are.

To take action – no matter how imperfect the circumstances – is to take a small, calculated risk.

To wait for circumstances to be perfect is to take the biggest risk of them all – your life.

“I certainly believe this: that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down. It is clear that she more often allows herself to be won over by impetuous men than by those who proceed coldly.”

Nicolo Machiavelli – The Prince

You Always Have the Power

Institutions erode. Demagogic strongmen stoke primal fears. Tribalism rises exponentially. Mistrust abounds.

This is what happens every now and then. When things change more rapidly and more violently than we are accustomed to, there is a void into which can step good or evil.

When I say “This is what happens every now and then…” I don’t mean to excuse evil behaviour. I don’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it. But I do mean that if we are in any way surprised that this is happening, then we are stupid, and we need to read a history book or two…

Because human nature does not change.

Give people the ability to amass power, and some of them will. And give them the opportunity to take advantage of those with less leverage and mobility, and some of them will. And once they’re in the middle of it, they will do everything to convince themselves – and the rest of the world – that what they’re doing is somehow right and moral.

And they will try to manipulate public opinion. And they will try to silence those who seek a more level playing field. And they will appear to be succeeding…

… and then because they are mortal human beings, they will die. And their corpses will rot, and with the passing of enough years nobody will even remember them, let alone the evil they did.

All this is to say that whether you’re living through good times or bad, through justice or injustice… none of that affects your ability to do what you believe is right. To decide that you won’t be evil. That you won’t degrade the culture for personal gain. That you won’t willingly partake in the suffering of others.

You always have the power to do right. Exercise it.

Curiosity Doesn’t Kill Cats

There was the Asian girl with the perfect eyebrows who looked incredibly glum as she glanced every few seconds at her boyfriend. He was involved in a particularly animated phone-call and every time he chopped the air with his arms to emphasise a point she rolled her eyes.

There was the balding man in the loose, scruffy suit and trainers. He grinned maniacally at nobody in particular in a far corner of Cafe Nero. He had his fists on the table, and he hadn’t bought a drink.

There was the very tall bearded man walking solemnly past the Apple store, carrying a sleeping twin under each arm. His wife pushed the empty pram with her left hand, and with the false-nails of her right, tapped loudly at her phone screen.

I wondered about them all. Who they were. What they were about. How they got here. And why.

I didn’t get any answers, of course. But I wasn’t looking for answers. I was looking for respite.

Curiosity doesn’t kill cats, but it’s the best weapon I have found in my lifelong duel against a relentlessly unhelpful inner monologue.

Does It Keep You From Doing the Right Thing?

It was just after ten when I woke up. I was on a sofa-bed in Rome. And I looked at my phone and discovered that the British public had voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union.


I got up and made a coffee, and whilst it brewed I browsed the news websites. Each one spoke of what a massive, life-changing thing had happened, and speculated on what was likely to happen next. Of course, they had no idea, but they weren’t about to let that stop them. And over a thousand days later, they are still none the wiser.

I scrolled down my Facebook feed, and what I saw depressed me. Everybody was so bummed out. It surprised me how bummed out they were – I had been living in Rome for a while at this point, and so I hadn’t discussed Brexit with most of my friends.

I discovered that – like myself – most of the people I knew had voted to remain. Some because they loved the idea of EU membership. Some because they saw no compelling reason to leave. And many, because they were suspicious of committing to any course of action whose most vociferous champions were a trio of cunts like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage.

I went out onto the balcony with my coffee and sat in the hot sun listening to the streets of Rome below. If I just focused on the sound, I didn’t think about Brexit. But then I couldn’t help it. Through no fault of my own, I kept returning to it again and again.

Mainly I was thinking of Emma – my new Danish fiancee. We had only just begun. How was this thing going to affect us? Oh, God, life sure felt a lot simpler yesterday…

I was at my limit – which isn’t saying much – and so, sitting in the hot sun, beseiged by my worries, coffee long finished, I reached for the only thing I knew could comfort me – Marcus Aurelius. And as I always do, I found something to settle me:

“Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself?”

Marcus Aurelius – Meditations, Book 4


Next week’s election

As we hurtle towards the climax of what has been undoubtably the nastiest British election campaign in my lifetime, I know without a shadow of a doubt which horse I’m betting on to win, just as I did in the EU referendum. And I’m sure you know yours too.

But my plea for you is this: whether your horse wins, or a different horse wins, don’t let it ruin you.

I have no desire to be apolitical in my writing – I think that to describe our current government as scum would be incredibly generous. They lie, they cheat, they have nothing but contempt for the citizens of this country… and they get away with it because they have the billionaires who run the media in their pocket.

I want them out. I want them gone. Not because they’re Tories, but because they’re both ineffective and immoral – crap and evil. And that’s not exactly a killer combo for leading a country.

HOWEVER, if they do win – no matter how ill-gotten I might believe their victory to have been – that is the reality I must then come to face. I can argue with the sky until I’m blue in the face, but if they win, there is only thing I can ask myself:

“Does the fact that this happened stop me from doing what I believe to be the right thing?”

And so far, the answer to that question has never been “yes.”

Taking the Bull by the Horns

You go through your day thinking of yourself as the author of your own story, forger of your own destiny. And yet when you look in the mirror, late at night, who stares back?

Are they an active, wilful hero, one who knows deep inside the very thing they must do, and decides, come what may, to do it?

Or are they instead somebody who spends most of their time on the sidelines of life, waiting to be picked, waiting for cirumstances to be just so, and in the meantime fills their days playing bit-parts in other people’s stories?

If your honest-to-God answer was the second one, you’re not alone.

You’re a human being.

The minimum, conservative action

No organism ever expends more energy than necessary, risks anything it doesn’t have to, or takes any action unless it must.

Robert McKee – “Story”

Does this quote not sum up perfectly why we can be so sure of what we want, know exactly how to go about getting it, yet so rarely do anything about it?

Don’t feel bad – it’s literally not your fault. The modus operandi of the human being is very simple: take the minimum, conservative action.

In light of this, almost everything we do can be traced back to just two motivations: habit and necessity.

Habit or necessity?

Depending on which behavioural scientist you ask, between 40 and 95 percent of our actions are done habitually. I think the ’40’ people are being very generous – habit is clearly responsible for the lion’s share of our day.

And whilst we tend to only think of a habit in terms of time – a habit being something we do frequently and repeatedly – there is a more important aspect: will power.

Because a habit isn’t just brushing your teeth twice a day or going to the gym three times a week – it is every single thing you do without having to consciously decide to. It is your default response in every situation.

Habits are brilliant – they are the reason you don’t have to make a fresh decision every few seconds of your day. Every now and then, though, something happens which disrupts our equilibrium and breaks us out of our habitual behaviours. We are forced us to act. Let’s call this necessity.

Now, whilst it might look like we are doing more than the minimum, conservative action when necessity compels us to, we are not. We are still doing the bare minimum. It’s just that the thing that broke us out of our patterns raised the minimum. More is at stake if we do nothing.

So we do what we must – and no more than that – and once we feel that our equilibrium has been restored, once our life is back in balance, we happily default once again to our habits.

Seize the initiative

Living this way – doing either what we always do, or what necessity dictates – our lives become incredibly passive. We are either on autopilot, or we are reacting. There is no active element – we are not creating anything. And we are certainly not bringing forth into the world the changes we seek to make.

The solution then, if you wish to bring that change even an inch closer, is to seize the initiative. To take the bull by the horns. To take action long before necessity dictates you must.

If your autopilot is not serving you, switch it off and take the wheel.

If reacting to other people’s drama is not fulfilling you, then deliberately take your own actions.

When you start to live this way, something changes: rather than being tossed this way and that by the tides of fate and feeling as though everything happens to you, you become a willing and active participant in the game of life.

You start to get a sense of just how powerful you are.

ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin…

You might water the plant.

You might feed the plant.

You might put the plant on the window-sill, so that it can get as much as light as possible.

But you cannot grow the plant.

The laws of nature dictate that the plant will quite happily grow all by itself, so long as the conditions are favourable.

Your job is simply to do the bare minimum that will allow those favourable conditions, and to let nature do the rest.

This doesn’t just apply to plants.

PS: The title of this piece is an old Greek saying.

It means: “What is up to us, what is not up to us.”

It Is What It Is

Imagine a football team.

It wins almost every match. It lives at the top of the table.

Its fans proclaim it to be the best team in the world, and although you might wish that weren’t true, your arguments fall flat – they have the numbers to prove it.

Now imagine that this streak lasts for a while – several centuries – before things very slowly begin to decline. It starts with the team drawing a little more often than it did. Then it loses a game – which is practically unheard of – before losing another. And then another. Before long, you are looking a pretty average football team.

Except that this doesn’t seem to have registered with the fans. Or the players. Or the manager. Or the board of directors. As far as they’re concerned, the team is still number one in the league. It’s still winning every game. And it’s going to last forever. And anybody with the audacity to question this is branded a liar, a traitor, and a heretic.

As everybody involved with the team continues to see things through rose-tinted spectacles, its fortunes continue their descent. The team slips further and further down the table, gets relegated again and again, until one day, there is no further left to fall, and nowhere left to hide.

You’ve just imagined Britain in 2019.

Reality is my drug

“Reality is my drug…

… Reality has its own power—you can turn your back on it, but it will find you in the end, and your inability to cope with it will be your ruin.”

50 Cent – “The 50th Law”

What causes misery? Fearing reality – what ‘is’ – and turning away from it.

What causes peace? Seeking, loving, embracing reality.

Whatever you confront today, you need only one sentence with which to confront it: “It is what it is.”

Reality cannot hurt you – only that which is false.

If what you confront is not what you expected, alter your expectations.

If what you confront is not what you desired, alter your desires.

There is absolutely nothing to be gained from blinding yourself to what it is, and everything in the known universe to gain from willingly opening up your eyes and accepting what you see.

It is what it is. It is what it is. It is what it is.