Meaning Trumps Money

Meaning trumps money. If you don’t believe me, watch:

I can make you a billionaire right now. The only catch is that you are forbidden from ever speaking to your friends or family ever again.

Would you do it?

I can make you a billionaire right now. The only catch is that every book, film, and song in the world would immediately cease to exist.

Would you do it?

I can make you a billionaire right now. The only catch is that you’re not allowed to laugh ever again.

Would you do it?

Meaning trumps money.

It’s not that money is irrelevant. As Earl Nightingale once said “Nothing can take the place of money in the arena that it works.” He was right. Where it is the best thing for the job, it truly is the best thing for the job. It just sucks at literally everything else.

You know how people get into relationships because they have some idea in their head of who they might one day be able to change the other person into? And you know how that is every single time a doomed venture? This is the same thing.

Just as people must be accepted for what they truly are – rather than what you think they could one day be – so too must money be accepted for what it is, and what it can do.

And what’s something it cannot do? Give your life meaning. Oh, it can help you to more fully express meaning that’s already there. But it cannot give meaning in and of itself. Ask Jay Gatsby. The failure to grasp this simple truth is responsible for the misery of both the rich and the poor.

Most of the time, you don’t have to choose between money and meaning. But on the rare occasions when you do, choose meaning.

What’s at Stake?

If you are not putting something at risk – your pride, your comfort, your money – then you are not taking an action. You are merely moving.

The value of an action is directly related to how much you are risking by taking this leap into the unknown.

If you want what is in your life to mean more, you must be willing to sacrifice more for it.

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:41-44


Personally, I don’t agree with life-support machines… unless you’re keeping a human being alive, that is. Then I’m all for them. For economies, not so much.

I have zero patience for the myth that we should all join in and put our resources and our energy into protecting a failing man-made system. Why? Good question. Maybe because if something is so fragile, if it needs so much propping up, so much protection, so much intervention… it’s not worth saving.

If something like that fails, it’s not because we didn’t do enough to save it. It’s because we bet on the wrong horse.

And when something man-made, like the economy – which, don’t forget, benefits a handful of people a lot more than it benefits most of us – is viewed as infinitely more sacred than are the humans it depends on for its continuation… well, I have a really hard time holding my tongue. “Pull the plug.”

I read a fascinating book about five years ago called Antifragile. The basic idea was that – everywhere in the universe – systems that are vulnerable to disorder are called “fragile.” Systems that are resilient to disorder are called “robust.” And systems that actually gain from disorder are called “antifragile.”

I’ve thought about it a lot recently.

Yes, there is widespread disruption and disorder in the world at the moment. But this is NOT a sign that something is wrong. Nature doesn’t get things wrong. Everything that’s breaking down at the moment is telling us where we were fragile all along. The NHS, the economy, the food supply…

COVID-19 has not made things fragile. It has revealed what was fragile all along. When we have to rebuild our world, why not try and do it in a more anti-fragile manner?

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness.

The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – “Antifragile”

It’s Okay to Enjoy Yourself

On the piece of paper in front of me, I had written “What is the best thing that could possibly happen to your protagonist? How could that then turn out to be the worst possible thing?”

This was a few mornings ago now. I was sitting at the desk in my loft, wearing a pair of pants and a t-shirt, and I was trying to come up with as many different answers as I could to the question above – part of my little daily routine where I read a chapter of Robert McKee’s book Story and extrapolate some kind of creative exercise from it.

Anyway, at some point I looked at my phone to check the time. Wow, I thought. I’ve been doing this for nearly two hours. Jesus, that’s flown by.

I smiled, and then a pleasant thought hit me. I am really loving this lockdown. I’m actually getting on with things for once. And I’m stressing about bullshit a lot less. And it’s true. By and large, I am enjoying this period of my life. It could be that with all the chaos I’ve stopped paying attention to what is out of my hands. I don’t know, but I feel lighter somehow.

I savoured these thoughts for a few seconds, before they started to take a different, much uglier direction. What the fuck are you talking about? You shouldn’t be enjoying this. How dare you? People are dying. God, you’re self-centred.

Before I knew it, my mind had tailspun. I felt very, very guilty for enjoying myself at the same time as there was tragedy in the world. In the days that passed, I kept returning to this moment, tossing and turning over it, trying to work out how I really felt. And eventually I came to a sort of peace about it. I’ll summarise:

It’s okay to enjoy yourself, whatever is going on around you. If you are enjoying yourself, it is a sign that you are engaged in something that means something to you. This is different to pleasure, which relates simply to your senses. Enjoyment is deeper than that.

You are free to feel guilty or ashamed, and as though you enjoying this lockdown period is somehow a selfish act of disrespect. Just don’t think for a second that your guilt or shame is going to do anything to help COVID-19 to stop spreading, infecting, and killing.

It is the guilt and shame that is truly self-centred. Not the enjoyment.

Now, you might be feeling awful. You might not have enjoyed one solitary second of the last few weeks. And if this is the case, my heart goes out to you. I hope you find some peace.

But if you have, and part of you feels funny about it, I want you to know that it’s okay. It’s okay to enjoy yourself. You didn’t choose this. Why should you feel guilty for making the best of it in a way that is hurting absolutely nobody?

Take Your Time

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

Lao Tzu

You don’t need to get it done today. You only need to sit with it, and give it your undivided attention, for a bit. That’s all.

And then tomorrow – after a good night’s sleep has restored and rearranged and revitalised your synapses – sit with it again. Something will leap out at you, something so seemingly obvious that you’ll feel foolish for not having seen it before. But you were no fool, you were simply on a less experienced step of your journey.

If your tendency in normal times is to rush things, because you’re desperate to “get something going”, or to get it “out there”, why not use this hiberation period to do exactly the opposite? Take your time. Take ten times longer than you normally would. Watch what happens.

This Is Making You Stronger

I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent – no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.


Nobody enjoys misfortune. Nobody welcomes misfortune. And nobody in their right mind would prefer misfortune to a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking.

All the same, it’s only when shit hits the fan – unexpectedly, to boot – that we get a glimpse of the greatness lying dormant within us the rest of the time. It’s only when given something to push against that a muscle can grow.

You don’t have to believe me, but what’s going on right now is making you a stronger human being. And that is strength that will stay with you. Forever.

Are You Okay?

Are you okay?

That’s all I want to know. That you’re hanging in there. That you know you’re not alone. That – for once – the politicians are telling the truth when they tell you that we are quite literally all in this together.

But I also want you to know this:

If at any point, you feel even for a second like you can’t handle this shit, and you don’t know what’s coming next and it’s all too much and you just want somebody to get it all out to…


I’ll be here.

PS: (replace the 0 with +44 if you’re outside the UK.)

Use Your Phone Smart

Your smartphone has two jobs.

On one hand, it was hired by you to accomplish certain tasks. In the scheme of things, it’s a screaming bargain and a miracle.

But most of the time, your phone works for corporations, assorted acquaintances and large social networks. They’ve hired it to put you to work for them. You’re not the customer, you’re the product. Your attention and your anxiety is getting sold, cheap.

When your phone grabs your attention, when it makes you feel inadequate, when it pushes you to catch up, to consume and to fret, it’s not working for you, is it?

On demand doesn’t mean you do things when the device demands.

Seth Godin – “When your phone uses you”

Opiates are not evil. They are chemical compounds derived from poppy seeds. Nothing more, nothing less.

Used under the proper medical supervision, they provide incredibly effective pain relief. Used as a way to make money – capitalising on their potent potential for addiction – they wreck lives, they wreck families, they wreck societies…

Your smartphone isn’t evil, either. It’s a pocket-sized piece of space-age technology.

Used mindfully, it can take photos, connect you with your loved ones, grant you access to every song ever recorded, order you your dinner, wake you up in the morning… Used on autopilot, however, and you might just find it taking over your day.

If you feel like your phone is using you, set yourself some limits. One thing that helps me is to spend just one day following this rule: I can only open my phone up if I can first say out loud why I’m about to open it up. Doesn’t matter if the answer is “to piss about for half an hour”… the point is just to be a little more mindful of it.

You only get so much attention each day. Unless you decide to bury it in the garden, some portion of that attention is going to go on your phone. Let’s face it: they’re too damn useful to live without. Well, that’s fine.

Just make sure you’re the one pulling the strings. Use your phone smart.

Keep Looking Until You Find It

“How noble and good everyone could be if, every evening before falling asleep, they were to recall to mind the events of the whole day and consider exactly what has been good and bad.

Then, without realizing it, you try to improve yourself at the start of each new day; of course, you achieve quite a lot in the course of time.”

Anne Frank, “The Diary of Anne Frank”

I’m just going to put it out there: whatever we might be going through, Anne had it worse.

She spent two years hiding from the Nazis, along with seven other people, in a secret annexe in a house in Amsterdam. Notice that I didn’t say government-encouraged social distancing. I said hiding. And not, incidentally, hiding from a virus that cannot think or feel, but from a well-organised, fully conscious group of Germans.

A group of Germans who, upon discovering her and her family in the annexe, sent her to the punishment block of Westerbork Transit Camp, then to Auschwitz, and finally to Bergen-Belsen – an overcrowded camp where she died of typhoid three months after arriving.

And all this for the simple crime of being born Jewish…

And yet, there she is… offering us, from beyond the limitations of time and space, a gentle philosophical hint to help us through our own struggles of having to stay indoors when that might not be what we would ideally like to be doing.

As Anne says, “Consider exactly what has been good and bad.” And let me add this: don’t let your mind trick you into accepting its first answer. Really do this. It might be tricky the first time. It might make you feel worse the first time – detox pangs. But persist.

Because if you do, you will find as I have that there is good in everything if you are only willing to look for it. It is always there. Always. It’s just that sometimes you have to adjust your eyes, especially if you’ve got really good at seeing bad things.

You might even say that what you pay to find good is nothing more than the willingness to look for it and to keep looking until you find it.

What Are You Going to Learn?

A week ago, it was looking pretty likely that what the future held for all of was a lengthy period of staying the fuck home. With each passing day, that likelihood increased exponentially. We’ll be on lockdown before long, won’t we?

As I said a few days ago, this is going to mean having to all of a sudden make new decisions about how you spend your days. Nobody spends their time perfectly, but an improvement is always possible. And nothing comes remotely close to spending it in the daily pursuit of learning how to do something that matters to you.

Now, one of my big problems is getting excited about things and wanting to spend hours every day doing them and thinking that it’s not worth doing it at all if I don’t end up a world-class specimen…

These excitements often peter out before they really get started, and a lot of that is to do with having to go places and see people – often perfectly willingly. “Life” distracts me from keeping up with any kind of personal commitment, makes the whole thing more of an uphill battle.

Well, that’s all over – for a while, at least. And so I have come to admit to myself that there is now absolutely nothing standing in my way any more. Only my bad self. There is no reason whatsoever why I can’t put an hour or two every morning of this crisis into learning the thing I want most to master.

What is that? How to tell a story.

I am going to spend some time each day learning how to craft a story. A good one. A meaningful one. One that hits you in the solar plexus. I read books about story, I listen to podcasts about story, I obsess in my head over why they did this or that when I’m watching TV. I can smell good and bad storytelling when other people have done it… I just don’t know how to do it myself yet.

But what about you? What could you put an hour into every day? What have you always wanted to get serious about and never made the time for?

When Things Change, We Change

The best thing about human beings? Our amazing ability to adapt to change.

We can get used to just about anything changing, us humans, whether we’re doing so happily, or with the reluctance of a moody teenager. Hotter weather, colder weather. From rich to poor, from poor to rich. Traversing the desert by camel, covering that same distance in an aeroplane.

When things change, we change. It’s just what we do.

And whilst this is the feature that enabled us to evolve over millions of years into the mind-blowingly incredible creature we are today, it can also be the cause of great misery if left unchecked.

The problem kicks in when things appear not to change very much for a long time. The longer things stay relatively stable, the more attached we start to become to the way things are. We tell ourselves that how things are right now is the way they are supposed to be, and the way that they are destined to stay forever.

Surely you can see the error in this line of thinking. Because the truth is that your current circumstances are just that – your current circumstances. Anything can happen at any time to change them, sometimes violently so. But there is nothing broken about reality when that happens. You might even say that you were getting extra lucky all that time when things were really stable.

The point is that seeing anything that happens as “not meant” to happen, or thinking that reality has made some kind of a mistake, or singled you out unfairly… it doesn’t help anything.

There is no “this wasn’t meant to happen.” There is only “this happened” or “this did not happen.”

There is no “the way things are supposed to be.” There is only “the way things are” or “not the way things are.”

Right now, the whole world is trying to get its head round something huge. In a matter of weeks, all sorts of things that have appeared stable for a very, very long time have suddenly been up-ended. And like the brilliant humans that we are, we are trying to adapt ourselves to these sudden, massive changes. Because that’s what we do.

We will get through this. And we will be stronger as a planet than we were before. But promise me this: you won’t spend another second speaking of this as something that wasn’t meant to happen, or that we shouldn’t have had to go through.

It happened. And we are going through it.

And we’re going to survive.

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent – no-one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”

Seneca, “On Providence”, 4.3

Start Something. Today.

You are about to gain one thing and lose another.

What you are about to gain is the sudden influx of a lot more free time than you are used to.

What you are about to lose, therefore, are all the excuses you normally employ to let yourself off the hook… for not picking up your pen, or your paintbrush, or your guitar… more crucially, for not treating your creative spirit with the respect it deserves.

None of us know how long this is going to go on for. Why not get started on something that actually means something to you, something you would usually claim you don’t have the time or energy for?

Because if you want to do it someday, I honestly can’t think of a day to get started than today.

Periods of isolation can paradoxically be liberating.

They enable what abundance has disabled.

Vizi Andrei – “Monday Meditations (16/03/20)”

I Believe in You

It’s one thing to not be overwhelmed by obstacles, or discouraged or upset by them. This is something that few are able to do. But after you have controlled your emotions, and you can see objectively and stand steadily, the next step becomes possible: a mental flip, so you’re looking not at the obstacle but at the opportunity within it.

As Laura Ingalls Wilder put it: “There is good in everything, if only we look for it.”

Ryan Holiday – “The Obstacle is the Way”

It’s going to suck at times. It’s going to test you, over and over, and to degrees you didn’t even know were possible.

And yet… not only will you get through it, you will be forged by adversity into one who is stronger than had all of this never happened.

I believe in you. I know you can make this good. Not pretend this is good, not deny the many, many fucked up things about it, but make this good.

And the only thing needed from you is the will to do so.

You Already Know It

I don’t know what you need to hear.

It might be “Stay the fuck home.”

It might be “You’re gonna get through this.”

It might be “Use this opportunity to help those who cannot help themselves.”

But I do know this: whatever you need to hear, you don’t need to hear it from me. You already know it. It’s inside you.

Be brave and do it.

“What Would I Do If…?”

Hello. My name is Oliver and I’m addicted to thinking.

I can’t help it – whoever made me put a motor in my brain. And I know that it causes just as many problems – if not more – than it helps solve, but… like the scorpion said to the frog, this is my nature. This is who I am. As such, I must turn to face it, no matter how reluctantly, rather than keep devising ways to run from it.

Of course, most of my thoughts are used up on bullshit and the inconsequential, but every now and then, I surprise myself by going down a more useful mental avenue. One of the best uses I have found for my chronically hyperactive mind is to pose a question to myself, and to repeatedly ask that same question until I feel myself give an honest answer.

What I mean by an honest answer is an answer that feels true.

I don’t know about you, but most of my thoughts don’t feel true. They sound true, and if I’m not careful, I fall for it. But there’s a huge difference between a thought that sounds true and one that feels true. I can’t describe that difference other than by saying that you will know it when you find it.

Here’s how I see it:

I’m the teacher, standing in front of the class. I pose my question. The swotty kids on the front desks thrust their hands desperately into air, champing at the bit to offer me their brilliant answer, salivating in anticipation of their genius being recognised as such by a superior.

My eyes go past the swatty kids, and I notice one of the cool kids at the back fold her arms and roll her eyes. I ask her what she thinks. She won’t tell me. I want to press her for an answer, but I pause. I decide to negotiate. If I ask every other student before her, then will she consider giving me her answer? She shrugs and reluctantly agrees.

I get the swatty kids on the front desks out of the way first. Each gives a different answer that sounds equally impressive and means equally little.

Then I make my way through the kids in the middle of the room. Now, these kids offer answers with simpler language, and that make a lot of earthy sense, but none of them bowl me over.

There are just a few left to ask now, on the back row. These kids give me the simplest answers of all, and yet I am moved by each and every one. There is depth. There is life. There is reality. There is a deafening lack of bullshit. These kids know something.

Finally, I get to Little Miss Shrugs-Her-Shoulders-And-Rolls-Her-Eyes. Her answer breaks my heart.

That is why you have to keep asking yourself the same question, over and over. Don’t be satisfied with your first few answers. Get through the swatty kids who disguise their lack of substance with peacock-like verbiage. Get through the middle kids who are less impressive but a little more down-to-earth. Get through the kids at the back of the room, who will tell you what you might not want to hear but what you need to hear.

But don’t stop until you to get to that last girl. She’s where it’s at.

PS: Why not ask yourself this one: “What would I do if a pandemic meant I had to stay at home for the next few months?”

Make This Time Count

In early 1665, Isaac Newton was a twenty-three-year-old student at Cambridge University, on the verge of taking his exams to be a scholar in mathematics, when suddenly the plague broke out in London. The deaths were horrific and multiplied by the day; many Londoners fled to the countryside where they spread the plague far and wide. By that summer, Cambridge was forced to close, and its students dispersed in all directions for their safety.

For these students, nothing could have been worse. They were forced to live in scattered villages and experienced intense fear and isolation for the next twenty months, as the plague raged throughout England. Their active minds had nothing to seize upon and many went mad with boredom. For Newton, however, the plague months represented something entirely different. He returned to his mother’s home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. At Cambridge he had been bothered by a series of mathematical problems that tortured not only him but his professors as well. He decided he would spend the time in Woolsthorpe working over such problems. He had carried with him a large number of books on mathematics that he had accumulated, and he proceeded to study them in intense detail. He went over the same problems, day after day, filling notebooks with endless calculations.

When the sky was clear he would wander outside and continue these musings, seated in the apple orchards surrounding the house. He would look up at an apple dangling on a branch, the same size to his eye as the moon above, and he would ponder the relationship between the two—what held the one on the tree and the other within the earth’s orbit—leading him to ideas about gravity. Staring at the sun and its optical effect on everything around him, he began to conduct his own experiments on the movement and properties of light itself. His mind flowed naturally from problems of geometry to how it all related to motion and mechanics.

The deeper he went into these studies, the more he would see connections and have sudden insights. He solved problem after problem, his enthusiasm and momentum quickening as he realized the powers he was unleashing in himself. While the others were paralyzed with fear and boredom, he passed the entire twenty months without a thought of the plague or any worries for the future. And in that time, he essentially created modern mathematics, mechanics, and optics. It is generally considered the most prolific, concentrated period of scientific thinking in the history of mankind. Of course, Isaac Newton possessed a rare mind, but at Cambridge nobody had suspected him of such mental powers. It took this period of forced isolation and repetitive labor to transform him into a genius.

Robert Greene and 50 Cent – “The 50th Law”

Nobody would have chosen for this to happen. What makes our plight even more precarious, though, is that we don’t yet really know what “this” is.

We don’t yet know how many people will become infected. We don’t yet know how many lives will be lost. We don’t yet know how much disruption there will be, nor how this will affect the smooth running of the economy, nor how long the damage will take to recover from, nor how all of this uncertainty will prey upon the mental health of the global population.

But whilst nobody would have chosen for this to happen, we must face facts: it has happened, it is happening, and it will continue to happen. So the question that remains is “What are you going to do?” Not about coronavirus – that is outside your control. I mean what are you going to do about you? How are you going to proceed?

Will you glue to yourself to BBC News and tell yourself you’re ‘being a responsible citizen’ by ‘staying informed’? Will you scroll through your Facebook feed hours at a time, waiting for all this to blow over? Will you give yourself permission to wallow in anxiety over the state of the world?

Or will you give your house an early spring clean? Will you learn how to break-dance in your living room by watching Youtube videos? Will you finally write that James Bond/Planet of the Apes crossover screenplay?


I supposed what I’m asking is are you going to waste this time, or are you going to use this time?

There’s a good chance that by now you are self-isolating. You may be doing this out of choice, or you may be doing this because you have been told that you must. Either way, I want you to accept with every fibre of your being that for an unknowable period of time, this is your life. That there is no advantage to be gained by resisting it.

But most importantly, that it is entirely within your control whether or not your life during this period of time is good or bad. Entirely within your control.

Why? Because it is in fact just as easy to look for and find what is good about this situation as it is to look for and find what is bad about it. Both are just a simple decision away, and you are free to choose whichever one you like.

Now, before you start to, please don’t try to justify choosing only to see what is terrible about this with the excuse that… that’s what everybody else is doing. You were given a free will for a reason. Worse, please don’t try and claim that it would be disrespectful to all of the people suffering for you to try and make something good of it. No! Don’t give me that shit.The people who are suffering have not asked you to suffer along with them.

You can be compassionate without being unnecessarily negative. I am not asking you to pretend that something that is bad is good. I am not asking you to deny anything that is true. I am simply asking you to look for the parts that are good.

People dying? Bad. Obviously. But does that then therefore mean that everything about the entire situation is also bad, by default? Not by a long shot.

If you are self-isolating, what is the one thing you suddenly have? An unknowably long stretch of relatively free time. Sudden, unexpected free time. I’ll say it again: you might not have chosen for it, but now that you’ve got it, make the most of it.

And what about the people who are not going to be able to work, and who are therefore going to struggle to make ends meet, even more than they normally do? What good can they find in this situation?

Well, I don’t have to wonder too hard about those people – I am one of them.

I make my living by teaching people guitar and piano – some come to me, some let me come to them. I stop working, I stop earning. Now, I could shit myself about this and decide already that this is a personal tragedy for me, full stop, and there’s nothing I can do. But why? Who can that possibly help? I have to find another way to look at it, something more empowering.

When I quit my teaching job last summer to go it alone, one of the ideas I was excited about was teaching people remotely, via Skype. There were a lot of reasons – I could work from home, cutting down on travel time; I would not be limited to the tiny portion of the world’s population that live near me; and if there was some reason why I couldn’t leave the house for a while, I’d be able to continue making a living.

But I didn’t really ever get moving on it – a mix of not knowing where to get started, as well as trying first to get some local in-person students. And eventually I all but forgot that it was ever my plan to be a remote music teacher.

Well, now that has gone from “nice idea I never really got round to” to “If I don’t do it, how the hell am I going to pay the rent?!”

And so I have decided that I am going to see this as a kick up the arse from reality. Am I really so arrogant and self-absorbed that I think reality sent the coronavirus just to get me to move forward in my business? Of course not! That would be really mad. But I recognise that I have the power to choose what this situation means to me. So am I going to look for what is bad about it or what is good about it?

And that’s my point here, really. You get to decide what this pandemic means – not for the world, but for you. Will you give it a meaning that inspires you to spend this time well, or will you give it a meaning that disempowers you and finds you wallowing in anxiety?

One more thing. I don’t ask for much, but promise me one thing: That your life doesn’t become a Groundhog Day existence where you sit on the sofa in front of the news all day long.

Aside from the essential updates and important advice from the government, nothing else you see on there will be something you can do anything about. I’m not saying don’t watch the news, but be reasonable. Limit yourself. All you need are the relevant facts. It takes a matter of minutes to get them on your phone. Once or twice a day is more than enough.

All that writer’s block I somehow filled a whole post with the other day seems to have evaporated, no? Anyway, I hope you have a lovely Sunday. I have a feeling my writing in the near-future is going to be in this vein – sharing my insights on how to deal with the uncertainty the coronavirus situation has suddenly thrust upon us all.

If you would prefer instead that I be morose about it, and focus only on what is tragic about it, and how powerless we all are, and you are think I’m being irresponsible for even floating the idea that you can try to turn shit into sugar and make something good come from it…

Then stop reading. Unsubscribe. I love you, but I don’t want you.

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? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations” Book 4: 49a

Embarrass Yourself

Earlier today, I looked back at a couple of pieces I wrote months ago. I cringed. And then I remembered this little quote:

“Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.”

Alain de Botton

He’s right, isn’t he?

It’s impossible to live a good life if your chief strategy is to avoid being embarrassed, or doing things you have a higher-than-zero chance of regretting, or that you might cringe when you look back on one day.

I suggest the opposite: consciously do something every day that has the potential to be embarrassing to your future self.

Most people watching won’t even notice the embarrassing nature of the thing you do. Of the ones that do notice, most of them won’t remember it for long – don’t forget, they have their own lives to live. And of the ones that do remember, most of them won’t think poorly of you. They will more likely admire you for having some guts. They might even be envious.

And if they do happen to think poorly of you, or try to tease or mock you with it, forget them. You don’t need them. They are unhappy people. They must be – if they were happy with themselves, why would they be trying to bring you down?

Similarly, you must treat your past self with compassion. When you think of something that makes you cringe at the thought of who you used to be, laugh about it, and then realise that it’s just a sign of how far you’ve come.

I’m Going Through Something

Oh, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m not worried about me. Don’t worry about me.

It’s just that… I really don’t want to write any more. Bit of an existential problem for someone who identifies as a writer, no? Bit of a pisser for someone who made a contractual agreement with his sister to publish something every day for a year, no?

But, as I said, I’m not worried. I’m not going to stop writing. And hopefully, like a butterfly from his cocoon, I will emerge stronger from this literary dark night of the soul.

The truth is actually not so much that I don’t want to write any more. It’s more that since quitting caffeine, I no longer have the desperate and urgent compulsion I’ve battled with for years to get EVERYTHING out of my head and off my chest and into some kind of literary or musical form – and failing to do so 99.9% of the time, I should add.

As such, I’m not quite sure what to do with myself.

It has been 18 days since I stopped drinking anything with caffeine in it – after around 13 years of a pretty solid habit – and that is what is responsible for this change. Going cold turkey has been incredibly eye-opening. On the whole, I feel better than I have for years – I feel more like myself, whatever that means. But great as that is, it’s as though my operating system has changed, or like I’ve upgraded to a new model of brain, and I don’t know how to use it yet because I got so used to how the old brain worked. A whole chunk of my personality seems to have vanished. I feel a little bit like I have to learn how to live all over again.

What I didn’t realise was just how fuelled by stress hormones my thoughts and actions were for so long, rather than by any kind of rational thinking. The only way I found I could get myself to do things was to become so stressed about what would happen if I didn’t that I would do them to break the tension. I’m talking about anything from the laundry and the dishes to writing pieces like this.

Overall, this was a really horrible way to live, and it got worse when I started taking Elvanse a couple of years ago – a slow-release amphetamine. Things might have got done – some of the time – but if the cost was me feeling shitty about them before, during, and after, then was it worth it? I don’t think so.

But before I completely shit-talk the last decade and more of my life, the one single advantage was that this way of living allowed me to be prolific as a writer. It might not surprise you, but I’ve built up a lot of inner turmoil and tension over the years, and that meant that if I could get myself in my writing chair, I never ran out of things to say.

So now without chronic internal stress fuelling my work, I’m running on empty until I find something else to put in my tank. And I haven’t managed that just yet.

But do you know what? I don’t really care. Because I’m a lot happier than I’ve been for a long time and everything else can go to hell.

The Philosophy of a Coronavirus

It didn’t take long, did it? Coronavirus is now officially a very big deal.

Well, I’m not going to come at you with my normal stoic quotes about how if we just get on with our normal lives it can’t affect us… because that’s not true. It would be trite. This thing can affect you, and it well might. It’s just something to be accepted at this point. The disruption that has already begun is going to get worse before it gets better.

But I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try and offer a positive perspective. And as I walked home from getting my hair cut earlier I found one. No, it doesn’t make the virus or the disruption go away, and no, it doesn’t replace the need for pro-active steps to prevent the spread and minimise fallout. But it might help.

What the immensity and seriousness of the coronavirus situation goes to show is how piddly and of zero consequence everything we ordinarily worry about is. Because how often do things of this size happen – things that cause this much global disruption? Almost never. And yet how often do we fear that they are about to? Constantly.

We are conditioned – by the media, by the state, by one another – to live in fear of what could be around the corner. To panic when the wind changes. To sweat when the phone rings. This chronic, fueled-by-cortisol state is the regular mode of existence for most of the world’s population. And yet we’re almost always completely wrong in our predictions of doom.

Panic and worry can accomplish nothing that rational thought cannot accomplish both more safely and more effectively.

But sometimes, it takes a global pandemic to make you wake up to that reality and appreciate just how fine almost everything is almost all the time.

“The pragmatist can’t worry about every possible outcome in advance. Think about it. Best case scenario — if the news turns out to be better than expected, all this time was wasted with needless fear. Worst case scenario — we were miserable for extra time, by choice. And what better use could you make of that time? A day that could be your last — you want to spend it in worry? In what other area could you make some progress while others might be sitting on the edges of their seat, passively awaiting some fate? Let the news come when it does. Be too busy to care.” 

Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman – “The Daily Stoic”

We Want You

We don’t want you flawless. We don’t want you focus-grouped.

We don’t want you homogenised. We don’t want you optimised.

We want you messy. We want you real.

We want you fucked up. We want you missing a tooth and grinning ear-to-ear about it.

Whoever you are, that’s who we want.

“If God had wanted me otherwise, he would have created me otherwise.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Business as Usual

“We are liable to miss the best of life if we do not know how to tingle, if we do not learn to hoist ourselves just a little higher than we generally are in order to sample the rarest and ripest fruit of art which human thought has to offer.”

Vladimir Nabovok – “Look at the Harlequins!”

If there is one aspect of human nature that towers above all others in our current culture, it is our conservatism. We are hell-bent on preserving “business as usual.”

There’s just one problem with that. There is no such thing.

That’s right. There is no “business as usual”. For how could there be?

No. There are only ideas, floating around each of our heads, about the way things should be. At some point in our early life, these ideas harden into a narrative – our personal “business as usual” – and the sum total of all these narratives is our shared culture.

To try to preserve “business as usual” is to pervert the course of nature.

Reality is a dynamic, flowing, wilful thing – it is going to do what it is going to do, and the one thing you can rely on it to is to change. You can resist its changes, or you can go with them, but it remains utterly indifferent to you. To try to halt its changes because they do not mesh with how you think the world ought to be is like trying to grab hold of water.

But I think there’s something even more important here.

For even if it were at all possible to preserve “business as usual”, I wouldn’t bother. Everything that is worth doing lies beyond what we think of as usual.

If you want to live, really live, escape the routine and the mundanity and the way everybody says things are supposed to be. Demand more from the sunset.

“Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.”

Joe (Nymphomaniac Vol. 1)

You Are the Captain of This Ship

“Energy goes where attention flows.”

Tony Robbins

If you don’t like what you see, don’t look.

If you don’t like what you hear, don’t listen.

Your attention is exactly that – yours. And your greatest asset is your ability to say “yes” to that which you want more of – by paying more attention to it – and to say “no” to that which you want less of – by paying less.

Don’t squander this ability. It is the literal difference between having a good life and a bad life – one where you were focused on what gave your days richness and meaning, and one where you were focused on what gave your days disconnection and ennui.

But what will “they” say?

Who cares?

Anybody who gets upset with your choices is telling you far more about themselves than they are about you. They will try to make you feel reckless and irresponsible for not toeing the line that they invented. See this for what it is: an attempt to control and manipulate you.

They are afraid of you because they do not understand you. That is not your problem, nor is it your responsiblity to bring them round.

You are the captain of this ship. And in this clumsy metaphor, the sea is the world, and your attention is the ship’s wheel. Take your ship where you want to, not where people filled with fear try to manipulate you into taking it.

The Next Chapter of Your Story

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”


Sunday evening. And what did you have for dinner? (Honestly, email me. I’d love to know.) Emma and I had fried chicken, bacon, avocado and a whole lot of mayo, all of it shoved majestically into the last two pieces of stale panini bread the Tesco Express on Abbeydale Road had to offer me. And a few salty chunks of halloumi. It worked.

For most of my adult life I haven’t had to anticipate Monday mornings with the grim reluctance most people seem to, because I’ve either been unemployed, or self-employed, or started work in the afternoon. For all intents and purposes, Sunday evening should feel no different to me than any other evening. But coulda woulda shoulda… it does feel different.

You might see it differently, but Sunday evenings feel to me like the end of one little chapter of my life, and the beginning of another. A sort of mini death and rebirth. And so what I like to do, in a completely informal way, is to ask myself – when I remember to – “How will you shape this next chapter of your story?”

I use the word “shape” very deliberately here. I don’t believe that I can control the future – not even one week at a time – any more than I believe that I can throw a pork chop through a fifteenth-story window and have it land directly into a frying pan. To be honest, no matter whether I leave things be, or try obsessively to control them, things tend to just happen the way they want to happen.

But make no mistake, I am in no way a defeatist. I haven’t given up. There are some things I can do. I can look inside myself and ask who I want to be. And then I can try, just for this week, to act like I am that person. And if I can at least try to do that, then it doesn’t matter how spectactularly I fail… my week will have been, on balance, a damned sight better than if I given this no thought whatsoever.

Fail your way forward, as I have never said, but may start doing from now on.

Well, what about you? How will you shape this next chapter of your story? What would bring you that inch closer to being the person you truly want to be… the person you actually are on the inside?

Be More Wrong

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

James Joyce

Sure. But let’s be honest for a second, James… isn’t being right a whole lot more delicious than being wrong?

Oh, how I love being right! You know, I really get off on it. It puts me that much closer to God’s right hand. If you could cut me open when I’m in the middle of being right, you will find my veins running rich with the warmth of smugness and self-righteousness.

It’s a feeling so delicious, in fact, that it feels in no way like the addiction it really is – no, it feels wonderful, like running a bath of dopamine.

And that’s what’s so dangerous about it. The neurochemical buzz you get from being right blinds you to reality, to what is. All you care about now is that you’re right, and that you want to stay right.

If all you care about is being right, you are going to severely limit your potential as a human being. Instead of exploring the world, you care more about protecting your current position. You stagnate. You shrink. You become a husk, divorced from reality, and attached to preserving something utterly meaningless.

You don’t grow from being right… ever. You only grow from being wrong – from making an incorrect assumption about reality, being shown the error of your ways, and then correcting course. The more often you can prove yourself wrong – and survive – the truer your perception of reality becomes.

Yes, it’s a paradox. The way to be as right as possible in the long-run is to be wrong as often as possible in the short-run.

Stop trying to prove yourself right. Prove yourself wrong instead. What could be more fun?

“If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You are doing things you have never done before, and more importantly, you are doing something.”

Neil Gaiman

Be Your Own Oracle

The BBC newscaster, in her twin-set and pearls, comes on-screen to inform you of a groundbreaking new study – one which demonstrates beyond belief that people who eat an average of two squares of dark chocolate every full moon have a 15% percent smaller chance of developing an ingrown toenail.

Great. But what I am I supposed to do with that?

Your hairdresser asks you if you work out and when you say “No, not really,” she spends seven minutes detailing her cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s calisthenics routine – he used to do four press-ups every five days and in no time he had arms like cobras.

Brilliant. I didn’t ask.

And your best friend doesn’t understand how you can have trouble sleeping – so long as she has her phone playing a true crime podcast, and her computer playing Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii, she’s out like a light.

Fine. But when I tried it I tossed and turned all night, in and out of nightmares involving Dave Gilmour and the unsolved mysteries of unsolved mysteries…

If you sometimes feel like the world is little more than a constant reminder of everything you’re supposed to be doing, or not doing, or already are doing but apparently not in the way you’re meant to do it… you’re not alone. Me too.

My advice? Double down on how you’re living now. Plant your feet more firmly where they currently stand. Learn to be comfortable with just exactly who you are and how you do. Build your house on the rock.

And should you then feel a genuine desire to try something new, to shake things up, to grow, to stretch yourself as a human being, then go for it. You’ll probably fare better too, because of your strong foundation.

But if what you’re motivated by is ‘something someone said’, which gave you a fear of missing out, and a fear of not keeping up with the Jones’s, and a fear that you’re getting life wrong…

Ignore it. Stick with your own path.

“Quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum.”

(What is food for one man may be bitter poison for others.)

Titus Lucretius Carus (1st century BC)

This Is Your Time

Of all the sensitive muso-type clichés there are – and they bring new ones out every year – one I’ve been particularly guilty of is seeing myself as having been born into the wrong era.

Music just isn’t the same these days, I’ll sit and think. I’d have been so much better off in late 60s Laurel Canyon. There’s nothing I can do here…

And then I wake up and I slap myself on the wrist. Because the notion that you or I were born into any other time than the perfect time is a ridiculous one, and I see it as part of my civic duty to rid the world of as many ridiculous notions as possible.

“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.”

Bill Bryson – “A Short History of Nearly Everything”

Don’t you see? This is your time. It has to be.

I’ll forgive you the occasional flirtation with the idea that you might have fared better in the 20s, or the 60s, or even a few centuries ago, or even in Ancient China… but make sure flirting is as far as it goes. Keep those hands above the waist. Leave room for Jesus.

Because you don’t have time to waste – you have work to be done in the present. And I’ll tell you what that work is… helping shape this era, the one you actually find yourself in.

You can’t do anything in those other eras, because you weren’t there. Or then. But you are here. And now. So you can either waste your life lamenting that fact, or you can get on with something in the here and now, where you actually have some sway.

Whenever you are, that’s when you were meant to be.

One final thing: if you genuinely feel with all your heart that you were born into the wrong era, and nothing I say can convince you otherwise, then my advice is to go 100% as deep as you can into that impulse. Turn what I’m telling you is a limiting belief into art. As Ryan Holiday says in The Obstacle is the Way, “Every negative has a positive. Push a negative hard enough and deep enough that it will break through into its counterside.”

The best people in the world have a timeless essence. Whatever it is that makes them unique has very little to do with the times they live in. But they are still nevertheless born into one era or another.

You might as well make the most of yours, since it’s the only one you’ll ever have.

I Knew I Would Never Be Happy Again

I sat on my bed and I looked out of the loft window at the red setting sun and I knew I would never be happy again.

There isn’t much more to it than that. Towards the end of 2002, when I was eleven years old, I fell like a falling safe into my first depression. It was to last for about four or five months.

I had had a great year, all told, right up until that moment on my bed. And it wasn’t just because good things had happened to me that year, though they had. I had spent months genuinely in love with life for no good reason.

My Year 6 teacher, Mr Pownall, was brilliant. I looked forward to going to school every day, because he had found a way to both stoke and satsify my growing curiosity about the world. I don’t know how he did it but he did. And I was getting good on the guitar, spending my spare time learning Beatles songs, mainly by ear. And in the summer holidays, I spent four weeks in Japan on a CISV camp, where I met and got to know thirty-nine other kids from ten different countries. Blew my mind.

And then I came back to England, and pretty much straight away started at secondary school. It might not have been as balls-to-the-wall fun as primary school had been the past couple of years, but it certainly seemed like something I could manage. It was all very new to me, and that made it exciting in and of itself.

There were all kinds of types of people I had never come across before. Of course you had nice kids and mean kids and bitchy kids but then you also had kids that wanted you to think they were hard, kids that actually were hard, kids whose parents were addicts and sex workers and Jeremy Kyle contestants… It was fascinating.

Then six or seven weeks in, we had a week’s holiday. I remember nothing about what I did during that week, only that on the Sunday night, I sat on my bed and I looked out of the loft windows at the red sun setting and I knew I would never be happy again. Every ounce of good-feeling I had ever known – and I had known very much in my eleven years – was gone.

Poof. Just like that.

In a film, when something whacks you out of the blue like that, it’s usually the precursor to some kind of adventure – man falls into a hole, and then the rest of the story is him trying to get himself out of it. But since this is not a film, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find out that I did what I imagine most people do when most anything happens to them – I just carried on in the hope that it would magically sort itself out.

I was back at school the next morning, getting on with my life, trying to act as as though nothing had changed, as though I hadn’t seen what I had seen that Sunday night. And I kept up the act of being whoever it was I had been before. But it got harder and harder to do that, because deep down I knew I wasn’t that boy any more. I was a different boy. I was a very sad boy.

I have always felt a bit separate from other people. Not disliked, not rejected, just not naturally one of the pack. I find it goes against my nature to spend too much being part of a team – I have to smooth my rough edges to fit in and I resent having to do so.

And up until that point I’d also never given a solitary shit about this side of me before. I might have even taken pride in it. But over those few months, I grew to hate it. To hate everything that made me stand out. I would have given anything to be just like “everyone else”. I would lie in my bed at night and stare at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling and feel ashamed at all the thoughts that were racing through my head. And then I would feel guilty that there were people in the world with “real” problems, and here was me with a cushty life with nothing going wrong lying in bed upset about my own brain… how dare I?

At first, my guitar was a great solace. I had been playing for nearly two years at this point, and whilst I don’t want to blow my own trumpet when there isn’t cause to, for an eleven year with less than two years experience who had never had a single lesson, I was a fucking God on that thing. I would play, and whilst I had it in my hands, there was some kind of temporary relief. But it didn’t last. There came the day when it did nothing for me. The notes that had once been so beautiful were now just sounds, no different to me than a car horn or my mum boiling some water on the hob.

I even put it under my bed for a week during the Christmas holidays so that I wouldn’t have to look at it, because looking at it just reminded me of how far I’d fallen.

It was the longest winter of my life.

There was no one day when I suddenly felt better – it happened very slowly and gradually. Whilst the depression had hit me like a ton of bricks, it had lifted like a particularly weak person picking up each brick individually and carrying it away before returning to pick up the next one.

And there was no specific thing I did or didn’t do to get better – since I had no idea what was happening to me I had no idea how to help myself. In the end I think I’d call it the blind luck of several things compounding to lift me out of it.

My family, who have never been anything but loving towards me. Making friends with Miles and now having a buddy to play guitar with. Getting a lot of exericise playing for a football team. The sun coming out a bit more. Going to youth club at St Chads on a Friday night.

But my specific “recovery” memory is of laying down on the very same bed I’d watched the sun set and felt so god-awful on, strumming my guitar and texting some girl I fancied in my class and suddenly noticing that there was no longer the black cloud above me that there had been.

I don’t know where it went. I didn’t think to ask. I was just glad to see the sky again.

It’s Okay If You’re Depressed

I don’t know who needs to read this. Today, it was me. Tomorrow, it might be you.

There’s only one thing that hurts more than being depressed: being depressed whilst telling yourself you have no right to be depressed.

So let me make it clear to you, in case nobody ever did before: You have every right to be depressed. You don’t need a reason. You don’t need a justification. You don’t need anybody permission. You’re allowed to just… be depressed.

And speaking from personal experience (I am going to write tomorrow about my first depressive episode at the age of 11) I can tell you that the most insidious and depressing aspect of depression is how it robs you of the ability to do the things that would help you feel better. As in… your mind comes up with the solutions, but then won’t allow you to follow through on them. Isn’t that just evil?

So whilst I of course would recommend you do the usual common-sense things, like go to the doctor, talk to someone you trust about how you feel, make sure you’re eating enough plants, getting enough light, going for a walk every day… you might answer “Yep, all great ideas… but I’m depressed. So I won’t be doing them. Because I literally can’t. Bye.”

And I would completely understand. So that leaves you with just one option.

Let it in.

Because no matter how god-awful you feel, no matter how ashamed you are at this depression you “shouldn’t” have, no matter how much you wish you could have someone else’s brain for a day, not allowing it to be is making it a hundred times worse.

Of course you don’t want to admit it. Of course you don’t want to accept it. You don’t want to feel like shit. Why wouldn’t you resist it? It’s just that what you think you’re going to get from resisting it is not what you’re going to get. Ignoring will it always make it worse in the long run. I’ll repeat that: ignoring it will always make it worse in the long run.

Please, for me, if you can’t do any of the other stuff, at least do this. Tell yourself it’s okay to be depressed. At least stop fighting yourself. At least stop using half of your brain to attack the other half.

To whatever extent you are able to, accept that right now, at this moment in time, this is how you feel.

And no, you’re not going to magically become un-depressed. Your life is not going to sort itself out overnight. But you will get the only thing you need – a tiny bit of relief. Relief is all you need. Because if you can get a little relief today, even just a snifter, you can get a little more tomorrow. And then maybe you can try some of the other stuff you know would probably help.

Depression is hard enough by itself. Don’t make it even harder by denying that you’re experiencing it. You might think you’re being optimistic – you’re not. Denial isn’t optimism. It’s incredibly fucking dangerous.

Lastly, I love you, and I promise you I’m not the only one.

Don’t Let Them Intimidate You

“Shostakovich maintained his presence of mind in several ways. First, instead of letting Stalin intimidate him, he forced himself to see the man as he was: short, fat, ugly, and unimaginative.”

Robert Greene – “The 33 Strategies of War”

As you go through your day, you will inevitably encounter people who act in a way that makes you assume that they know more about the world than you do. And regarding certain domains, this may indeed turn out to be true.

The bus driver, for instance, likely knows far more than you do about driving buses. The office worker knows how to survive working in an office. And the professional footballer… when it comes to kicking a football around for 90 minutes a week and being a professional model the rest of the time, I’m afraid he’s got you beat.

But what does any of that have to do with you?

When it comes to you living your life, it is literally impossible for anyone to what is better for you than you yourself. Yes, they might on occasion be able to offer domain-specific advice, but other than that, take anything they say – their advice, their judgments, their criticisms – with an enormous pinch of salt.

And that, of course, includes everything I say.


I saw it tonight.

I would hate to spoil it for you, even by telling you whether I enjoyed it or not. So all I will say is go and see it. And you will take away from it whatever is yours to take.

The one thing I kept coming back to as I watched was just how commonplace it is – downright normal, in fact – for us to place more value on some human lives more than on others. To see some people as more deserving of dignity, respect, and opportunity, often through nothing more than an accident of birth.

And how we will assume that when somebody is rich and successful it is because of their work ethic and great character, but that when somebody is in poverty it is because of their laziness or stupidity.

Who cares why somebody got themselves in the position they are in now – good or bad? If the roles were reversed, wouldn’t you want them to give you the benefit of the doubt?

It’s called the golden rule for a reason.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:37-40