Leaving the Back-Door Open

The other day, I wrote about the importance of coming up for air.

I claimed that it was crucial to step away from what you’re doing once in a while, and that this was how you gain perspective, and how you grant yourself access to the kinds of insights and ideas that are impossible to come by when all you do is grind and grind without a break.

Well, I meant what I said, but today I want to clear up what I meant by a particular part of it, because it’s something I have misunderstood and paid the price for thousands of times and I don’t want you to do the same.

You see, in the past, whenever I heard this kind of advice from thinkers and writers – about the importance of the “big picture” – what I took that to mean was this: There’s the nitty-gritty stuff, and there’s the big picture stuff. Both are important in their own way, and so both must be attended to. To boot, knowing the big picture helps inform the nitty-gritty, and so the sooner you can nail the former, the greater ease with which you can nail the latter.

That’s all fine. Except I made a big mistake. I assumed this to be an instruction to spend time and energy chasing and hunting down the big picture. That this “coming up for air” didn’t mean looking away from what I was doing, but simply changing the glasses I was wearing. Going from writing to editing, going from acting to reflecting, going from being on the battlefield to looking down on it from 10,000 feet.

And that’s where I got really stuck.

Because as easy as I found it to get into the zone working at the nitty-gritty level, every single time I tried to shift my focus outward to the big picture, I just about capsized. Everything got real confusing real fast. Trying to better understand what it was I was doing, I instead felt like I lost any shred of understanding I’d ever had in the first place. I came to realise that – for me at least – this big picture stuff is like the sun: apparently vital, yet dangerous to look at directly.

Because it’s true: the big picture is crucial. Who cares how beautiful your sentences are if your story doesn’t work? Who cares what your company’s logo looks like if your products break after five minutes? And who cares how shiny your hair is if you’re a hateful bitch? The big picture is what ties together the nitty-gritty.

And to cut a long story short, in my experience, the big picture only ever comes of its own accord. Like a snooty cat, it does not respond kindly to being chased directly, but comes when it’s good and ready to – when it damn well feels like it. That’s not to say, however, that it comes randomly, or that it cannot be indirectly coaxed and encouraged. On the contrary, it’s like clockwork – it always seems to come thickest, fastest, and clearest when I divide my time between grinding on the nitty-gritty, and then leaving it completely alone.

That’s the distinction I’m trying to make. Your mileage might vary, but when I alternate between grinding on the nitty-gritty and grinding on the big picture, nothing works. It all falls apart. Instead, it’s about grinding on the nitty-gritty, and then when you let go, completely letting go, and instead of forcing it, allowing the big picture stuff to show up.

You know better than I do what works for you. But if you’re anything like me, set up a hard barrier between church and state. Have two modes – grinding on it, and leaving it alone. The big picture will come in through the back door.

Fear of the Sneer

Have you ever been sneered at for something?

Perhaps you wore something a little off-kilter to school one day and the disapproving looks on the other kid’s faces made you feel like a twat.

You might have made an innocent little mistake on a test and had your teacher ask you if you’re stupid or something.

Or maybe you showed an interest in some hobby your parents didn’t understand and so they made you feel like you were a bad kid to talk you off the ledge.

I don’t know what the defining sneer was for you. But I’m willing to bet that there is one, and that consciously or not, you have spent a great deal of energy your whole life since being on guard against more sneers.

“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.”


And at first, especially when you’re young, it makes perfect sense that you would do anything you could to avoid being sneered at – it’s not exactly pleasant is it? Makes sense, that is, until you really think about what you’re doing.

Beccause when you stop yourself from doing something that you truly want to do, something that feels genuine and authentic, purely because you don’t want to be sneered at, you might buy yourself a moment of relief. But you’re living on borrowed time. All you are doing is surrendering. Letting them win. The sneerers.

And answer me this, if you would: What the fuck have they done to deserve that kind of power over your life?!

And what could be more satisfying than wiping the sneer of their stupid, “normal” faces?

At the end of the day, you have an important question to answer: What is more important to you – how you feel about what you do, or how people who would sneer feel about what you do?

I’m not saying it’s ever an easy choice, or that there won’t be times when choosing yourself appears temporarily to have backfired. But what do you care? There’s a special kind of satisfaction that comes to you when you honour yourself.

Stop seeing getting sneered at as a failure, and start seeing it as the victory that it is.

“The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be normal… they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness.”

Aldous Huxley “Brave New World”

Coming up for Air

There is nothing more important in life than doing your work. I came to this conclusion around the thousandth time I noticed just how miserable I felt whenever I went too long without writing, or even just playing my guitar. And by contrast how alive I always felt the second I came back to it.

To be clear, when I use the word “work”, what I mean has absolutely nothing to do with your job, or whatever you currently happen to be doing for a living. The two things tend to have very little to do with one another. No, I’m talking about “work” in the Nietschzean sense: Your “Life Task”. The thing – if you believe in the same kind of woo-woo I do – that you were put on this Earth to do.

Getting into a rhythm of spending time on your true calling every day is a beautiful thing, but it’s not without its dangers. Like anywhere else in life, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. If you never come up for air, if you never let yourself rest, not only will you halt your progress, you will burn out. You will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

So if you’ve been grinding and grinding for a while now, feeling that you don’t need some time off, or perhaps that you’ve not yet earnt the right to take some time off, or that you’re scared that that taking some time off will kill all the wonderful momentum you’ve created… then stop what you are doing.

Take today off. Please. At the very least. Preferably, take off the next week.

And then go right back to what you were doing.

What you will most likely find is that rather than doing you any damage whatsoever, the time away from your work will grant you an instantly fresher perspective – a feel for the gestalt that is impossible to come by when you never come up for air. You will suddenly have a clearer sense of what is and isn’t working, as well as ideas for how to emphasise the former and how to delete the latter.

So whilst nothing is more important than doing your work, building in periods of rest and reflection is part of doing your work. Think of it like sleep. Just as the time you spend asleep each night makes your days fuller, the time you spend away from your work makes your work fuller.

Work hard, but come up for air just as often.

Joy Is in the Journey

When you really think about it, there are only two reasons why you do any of the things you do: Either you want the destination, or you love the journey.

And to live any kind of a life, you need both. Firstly, you need a bare minimum of certain “destinations” – like physical health, for instance – to avoid literally dropping dead. You need some money, some shelter, some food, some water. Without these destinations, it can be very difficult to enjoy the journey, no matter how hard you try.

But then to avoid misery and depression, you also need to take a certain amount of joy in the journey. Without this, all the destinations in the world mean nothing. Your life becomes hollow and meaningless.

Sometimes, the Gods smile upon you, and you find yourself in a situation that automatically combines the two. Perhaps you love your job whilst you’re doing it, and you get well-paid for it, or you receive adulation for it, or you feel as though you’re doing something really positive in the world.

This is rare, though. More often, there’s a trade-off required, and you have to make a choice. Life asks you to demonstrate which is most important to you – reaching a particular destination at all costs even if it saps the joy out of the journey, or taking joy in the journey at all costs even if it means you don’t eventually reach that particular destination.

I think most of us, when push comes to shove, tend to favour the destination over the journey. On the surface it seems more sensible, more responsible, more logical. But my God we are such idiots whenever we do this.

If you reach a specific destination but forfeit taking any joy in the journey, how do you expect you’ll feel when you get there? Happy? Fulfilled? Like it was worth all that misery? I doubt it.

On the other hand, if you do take joy in the journey, then isn’t it quite likely that you’ll feel pretty good about wherever you end up, whether it was your original intended destination, or somewhere else entirely? I know I do.

If you want joy, find it in the journey. Let the destination be the cherry on top.

PS: In case you were wondering, they let me have one more of my fingers back at the hospital today. Eight out of ten ain’t bad.

Play the Curveball

It’s nice to have hopes. An idea of how – if you were master of the universe – you’d like your future, or even just your day, to go.

I’m hoping, for instance, that when I go back to the hospital tomorrow they will free my three wrapped-up fingers from the bondage of their dressings and allow me to play guitar again and type freely again and shower without a sandwich bag over my hand again. That’s what I’m hoping – it’s what I’d like to happen the most.

But guess what? I am not the master of universe. As nice as my hopes might feel to me – as much as they might comfort me – the truth is that outside my head they don’t make the slightest bit of difference to what God or whoever is in charge of this place doles out to me. My future might be a few more days of wrapped-up fingers. And if it is, oh, well.

Two roads present themselves when you realise just how impossible it is to control your future. Go down one and you can become cynical, you can become disillusioned, you can become fearful.

Go down the other and you can celebrate it.

Me? I might struggle with it sometimes, but ultimately I’m a very big fan of just how uncertain and unknowable the future is. For one, it makes it pretty hard to ever get bored.

Make all the plans you like, but as soon as life throws you a curveball, play that damn curveball, not the ball you were hoping it would throw.

Don’t Play With Matches

I can’t say very much today. I’d like to, but the new dressings I have on three of my fingers make typing a real ball-ache. Like these always do, it all happened innocently enough.

Around eight last night I was refilling the long-stemmed royal-blue lighter I use to light our barbecue. Thinking I had finished the job, I decided to check my work. I pulled the trigger, not realising that in my refilling efforts I had inadvertedly gotten Ronsonol all over the outside of the lighter, as well as my left hand. Both went up in flames.

I instinctively threw the lighter onto the bathmat and shook my hand like crazy and fortunately neither were on fire for longer than a second or two, leaving me standing in front of the bathroom mirror wondering what had just happened, with just the smell of burnt knuckle hair to keep me company.

Really, I got off lightly – after keeping my hand in a bowl of cold water for an hour or so, then wrapping it in cling film for the rest of the night, I woke up this morning with blisters on only three fingers. But 111 told me to seek medical help, so I drove myself to A&E and they took the skin off and put some cream on and then a dressing on each finger.

Which brings me to the present moment, where I am in my loft using the old forefinger-and-thumb technique to peck at the keys on my laptop like a mad chicken. Every now and then I forget and I try to use one of the bandaged fingers and I mash something indecipherable and have to go back and correct it.

It’s starting to annoy me, so I’ll leave it there. Have a nice day. Stay safe.

Don’t play with matches.

The Myth of Trying Harder

If you’ve never personally been through it, then you’ll have to take my word for it – finding out as an adult that you’ve had an undiagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder messing with you your entire life is a lot to swallow.

My first reaction was disbelief – I didn’t believe something like this could go undetected for so long, and so naturally, I didn’t believe it had. That didn’t last long though, because ADHD has a real habit of leaving clues, and in the three years since my diagnosis, I am still unearthing new and ever more telling ones from the recesses of my memory.

As I look back, I see that the “negatives” were there all along – I was always leaving jackets behind, I was constantly late to stuff even though I’d left enough time, I would be so afraid of rejection that I’d avoid asking the simplest questions of people, I developed an extreme fondness for alcohol, I was forever falling “in love” with someone new and exciting and then moving on without a thought to their feelings once the chase was over…

But what muddied the waters, I suppose, were all the positives – I could read and spell ridiculously early, I could make people laugh easily, I could become a natural on a musical instrument with hardly any time or practice, I could remember the slightest detail about anything so long as it interested me…

So until I was 26, I diagnosed myself – I was weird. I figured that, like everyone else, I had some strengths and some weaknesses, and maybe I was just more at the extremes than average. But I didn’t believe there was anything medical wrong with – I’d even been mocked out of a doctor’s appointment once for floating the question and that had put me off getting a second opinion.

During those years, I sustained myself on adrenaline, and a firm belief – practically a religious code – that all I needed to do to be okay was “try my hardest all the time.” If I could just make sure I never let my guard down, I could stay one step ahead of my weaknesses, and lead a “normal” life. Nobody would need to know the truth about how messed up I felt all the time.

Then, when I was 26, a chance conversation with Emma’s mum, a whole lot of reading online, and a few sessions to a psychiatrist, led to a formal diagnosis of ADHD. I felt all kinds of things. Confusion. Relief. A sudden “Oh, that explains a few hundred things…” On the whole, I felt better. But one thing refused to die.

The myth of trying harder

I accepted my diagnosis. I felt special. I felt validated. I felt like for the first time in my life I understood myself. When you’ve misunderstood yourself your whole life, that counts for a lot. And yet there was this one thing inside me that I could not shake, and though it’s almost gone, I’m still battling with it every day – the myth that “trying harder” is ever the right answer. To anything.

I liken the belief in this popular myth to sitting in your car, and placing your foot a few inches to the right of the accelerator pedal, and then pushing down with all your might to try and make your car go.

Obviously, it wouldn’t matter how hard you pushed down on the imaginary pedal – you could press so hard that your foot went through the floor – the car would not budge an inch. Worse, you’d end up injuring yourself. Even worse, you’ll feel depressed for not being able to make the car go. But even worse, you’ll walk away from that car still believing that the problem was you not pushing down hard enough.

And yet if were you to move your foot just a few inches back to the left, to a point directly above the accelerator pedal, you would find that not only would the pedal respond to your touch instantly and make the car move, you wouldn’t even need to apply that much pressure – certainly far less than you were applying when your foot was over to the right.

That’s the difference between trying harder and trying wiser. Between more effort and the right effort.

Assume you are already trying your hardest

That’s what I’ve been doing lately, and it has offered me a lot of relief.

Because think about it: If you’re already trying your hardest, then trying harder is not an option. How could it be? With that option removed, you are forced to be creative, to think around the problem somehow, to find a way that uses cunning rather than brute force.

So ask yourself: “If trying harder wasn’t an option, what could I do instead?”

Perhaps you need to bow out of a commitment or obligation, no matter how much you technically do have the time to keep up with it. Perhaps you need to take some time off work – whether you think you “deserve” a break or not. Perhaps you need to cut out some of the “quite good” parts of your life – people, hobbies, possessions – to make space for exceptionally meaningful.

I don’t know. It’s up to you.

All I can do is speak from my own, incredibly biased, subjective experience. And that is that in my almost 30 years on this planet trying harder has literally never worked for me once. It has, however, caused me pain, misery, anger, depression, self-loathing… to name but a few.

With that in mind, I don’t want to do it any more.

The Past Is a Gift

We were making fun of my Dad yesterday.

I don’t think he minded particularly, and I’m sure he won’t mind being mentioned here, in jest. His only crime – one to which he gleefully admitted culpability – was being one of those stereotypically grumpy old men who maintain that everything, including football, and the music choices of aqua-aerobic instructors, was better in the past.

Fortunately, thinking the past was better than the present isn’t an actual crime, because if it were, half this country – half of a lot of countries, in fact – would be behind bars. And it is a tempting viewpoint. Some things genuinely were better in the past. Vegetables grew in healthier soil. The planet’s climate was not so dangerously high. And until not so long ago, the music in the UK charts had some soul and relevance. Alas, it’s too blunt of a worldview for me. I can’t claim to believe it without cringing inside. Because whilst some things, for some people, were better in the past, a whole lot more things, for a whole lot more people, were anything but.

Now some people, once they realise the ways in which the present has improved upon the past, go way too far with it. They see the imperfection of the past as the perfect excuse to write off anything that happened five minutes ago. They think that just because a lot of things are better now, that the past can teach us nothing, and has zero value in the present. What is old is irrelevant. Everybody who came before us was a moron and a simpleton.

In my eyes, both groups of people are just as stupid and deluded as each other. In fact, if they didn’t hate each other, they’d probably get along famously. Because, deep down, they’re exactly the same. They might appear different on the surface – one sees “the past = good”, the other sees “the past = bad” – but what they share is their unwillingness to grasp the complex truth about the past…

… that it’s not so black and white as that.

I was thinking about all this earlier for no reason in particular, when I hit the second-to-last page of The Great Gatsby. I stopped reading, grabbed myself an index card, and scribbled out the following passage.

“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Who does that sound like to you? Here’s a clue: replace the names Tom and Daisy with “The British Government in 2020.” Isn’t it just… FUCKING PERFECT?

It was to me. I sat there not believing how perfectly F Scott Fitzgerald had – almost one hundred years earlier, completely accidently, and in just two sentences – summed up my exact views on the people I hate the most in the world. I also couldn’t believe how I’d managed to skim over that sentence every other time I’ve read the book.

And that tiny little example this morning is, to me, why you don’t write off the past. Because you do so at your own peril. You never know when a hundred-year-old book (which isn’t even that old) is going to give you a clue, or some relief, or help you make sense of the present.

Nobody is forcing you to love or hate the past – you’re inventing that obligation all by yourself. And remember too, that when you take one side or the other, YOU NEVER WIN. All you do is allow people who couldn’t give a shit about you to manipulate you for their own gain. This is how people like Trump and Boris win elections. And whilst we refuse to see the past as anything other than heaven or hell, they will continue to.

It’s entirely possible to see the past as having value without believing it to be some gilded age that it never really was. And it’s also possible to value the improvements we’re constantly making in the present without wishing to delete the past.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

It’s Still Today

It’s still today. Though the midnight hour is close at hand, it’s still today. There’s very little point thinking about tomorrow. Even less about yesterday.

Now, there is nothing wrong with thinking about who you have been. Reflection is a beautiful and precious thing. And there is nothing wrong with thinking about who you might yet become. The capacity for a human being to keep bettering herself currently knows no limits.

But as you look back, and look forward, realise that at a certain point there’s only one point in time that matters. Maybe you could have been a better person yesterday. Maybe you can intend to be a better person tomorrow. But there’s only one day you actually have any possibility of being one. Today.

And last I checked, it’s still today.

Everything you’re trying to reach— by taking the long way round— you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.

Marcus Aurelius “Meditations” (Book 12)

You Ever Forget To Just… Play?

I do. All the bloody time. Head like a sieve.

But worse than just forgetting is when I get the dangerous idea in my head that play is not that important, that it’s a kind of luxury add-on, something I must earn the right to enjoy.

And I have a stupid little theory about it that doesn’t really go anywhere but it might amuse you on a Saturday afternoon.

They say our wonderfully unique human brains evolved over millions of years, and that whilst our environment has changed since we were cavemen, our actual hardware is pretty much the same. You’ll often hear it said that such-and-such characteristic is “a hangover from our cave-man days.”

Well, I don’t doubt all that. I don’t doubt that a lot of what we’re about is a hangover from thousands of years ago. We’re literally brilliant apes. But here’s something I haven’t found a decent explanation for. I have something living in my head that’s a hangover from times gone by. But it’s a far more recent hangover. This one’s not from thousands of years ago, but from more like a hundred.

It’s a Victorian school-master.

There’s a Victorian school-master living in my head. If I’m not careful, he takes over. If I don’t do something to stop him, this sub-Dickensian prick can ruin a day, a week, even a month.

He’s got all kinds of weapons – his strict, upper-class demeanour, for one – but he likes to take aim chiefly at the one he despises above all: “play.”

“Play is frivolous,” he says, cane in hand.
“Play is for the lower classes, the unwashed,” he says, his top-hat quivering as he approaches my desk.
“Play is lesiure, and leisure is not earnt until one has done their daily duty to God and to the Queen,” he says, rapping on my knuckles with his cane.
“And you boy, you certainly haven’t earnt it yet!”

Oh, fuck off, clean-shirt.

Nobody liked you back then, and nobody likes you now. You don’t have to take it out on me. I don’t want you. Get the fuck out of my head. I’m sick of you.

All you do is tell me that everything I like is bad for me. That if I question you, that if I don’t repent, that if I don’t submit, I’m going straight to hell. You go out of your way to make my life miserable. And for what? For my own good? So I’ll end up in your 19th century version of heaven?

Fuck your heaven. If it’s full of people like you, I’d rather be in hell.

Play is the very opposite of all the things my Victorian school-master claims it to be.

It is beneficial to the mind and the body. It is freely available to every demographic on the planet. It makes you nicer to be around. It makes you sleep better at night. It takes the weight of the world off your shoulders, even just for a moment.

Make time to play every day – you need it just like you need food and water. And if you don’t think you can spare the time – if you’ve let your Victorian school-master take over – then believe me, you really need it.

Move the Piano First

For much of my life, I resisted with extreme prejudice the notion of planning or structuring any creative endeavour before just diving into it. To me, that shit was for everyone else. Everyone born my natural talent. My creative genius.

I laboured for years under the belief that to pick something apart before I’d even begun was tantamount to shooting babies in the womb. I saw it as a sign of weakness and of fear and of a general unwillingness to trust the wisdom of the universe. I didn’t want to disturb my Muse. I didn’t want to reduce the awesome, life-changing work I was trying to do to formulaic, hack work – the sort of shit anybody could come up with.

So I resolved that, unlike all the others, I just didn’t need structure. That’s not the way I rolled. I was “creative” – giving myself constraints would only hurt me, and by extension my masterful work. I would fly by the seat of my pants, maintain constant forward momentum, and refuse to get bogged down with so called “structure.”

In case you haven’t guessed by now, that didn’t exactly work out for me.

No thread

It wasn’t that my work was bad. Some of it was even quite good. But it was all, without exception, sloppy and ill-conceived.

Everything I put my hand to was littered with promising moments – a poignant turn of phrase here, a wicked guitar break there – but there was no thread, nothing tying any of it together. I was the musical and literary equivalent of a chef who desperately throws random ingredients into a pan and hopes for the best. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

I thought that my outlook made me radical and unique. Fortunately, time is a healer, and I see now that it was simpler than that – I was less a radical and more just an idiot. An idiot with a lot of potential, but an idiot nonetheless.

I had noble intentions – I wanted to be somebody who really lays it on the line for their art, who digs down into his soul and creates really deep, thoughtful, cathartic work – but deep down I knew they couldn’t save me. It doesn’t matter how badly you want to be radical and unique, if it makes you lose sight of actually being any good.

Fortunately, something came along that stopped me from scrabbling around on my knees in the dark. I took the brave decision to confront the one thing I was most afraid of – structure.

Move the piano first

If you were helping somebody move house, and in their living room they had a 200kg piano, when would it make sense to lift that into the truck? First thing in the morning, whilst you’re fresh, or last thing in the afternoon, once you’re exhausted from moving all their other crap?

The right answer is first thing, obviously, when your muscles are at their freshest. But there’s another reason besides – it’s easier to put the piano into the truck when it’s empty. If you wait until you’ve filled the truck with all the boxes and other stuff, and then try to put the piano in, then you’re going to struggle. But put the piano in, and suddenly you’ve got something you can fit everything else around.

And this analogy, in a round-about way, explains how I started to see structure as something that could actually help me, rather than something scary and evil.

The paradox of choice

You think you want freedom. You think you want choices. And you do, but only to a point.

When you get that first hit of inspiration-juice, that first little glimpse into what cool thing you might want to create, be it a romance novel or a horror film or a rose garden, it’s hard not to get caught up in that delicious feeling that anything and everything is possible.

You stroll around the idea-space, exploring this nook and that cranny, reveling in all the things that could be. “That might be nice.” “I’ll try that.” “Ooh, if I do that, I can also do this…”

Unfortunately, that honeymoon period doesn’t last.

Soon, what seemed like an artist’s wet-dream becomes a living nightmare. And there’s a simple reason. It’s called “The Paradox of Choice.” Barry Schwartz wrote a whole book on it in 2004. For our purposes, however, all you need to understand is this: that to a point, autonomy and freedom of choice increase our well-being. But once you go past that point, you don’t just get a diminishing rate of returns. Your well-being actually decreases.

You feel lost. You feel blocked. You feel stupid. I know I did.

Structure to the rescue

So what do you do when you don’t know what to do? Or rather, what do you when you can perceive so many possibile options it feels impossible to pick one? Well, let’s pretend you wanted to write a love story.

You’ve had the idea for years, you just never put pen to paper. You know your characters – your lead couple – and you’ve got a few ideas about how it all fits together. You think about planning and structuring it, but you want to be as free as possible in case the Muse gives you a dynamite idea – you don’t want to feel hemmed in – and so you decide to just get started.

Day one. You’ve got your coffee. You sit down at your desk. You start typing. A couple of hours later and you’ve got a couple of chapters written. It feels good. Day two. Three more chapters. You think of something you’ll have to go back and fix later, but that doesn’t bother you – you’re making great progress! Day three is a hair trickier – it’s the first time you sit there unsure of what should happen next. But you barrel through anyway, making something up you can always change later, thinking that hopefully tomorrow you’ll have your mojo back. Day four is actually even more difficult. You hit another wall. Still, you persist. But when day five finds you coming up completely blank, you decide to take a break. You put your pages in a drawer and promise yourself you’ll revisit them in a week or two.

And you never look at it again. But what happened? What was the problem?

The problem was that, in not wanting to limit your creativity, you gave yourself more freedom than you could handle. Since anything could happen, you had no way of judging what should happen.

Let’s try it a different way.

The essential few vs. the trivial many

Back to basics. What were you trying to do before it went off the rails? Write a story. Okay, fine. But can we narrow it down any more than that? Oh, look, yes, we can – you wanted to write a love story. Okay. So… let’s find out what makes a love story a love story.

According to my hero Shawn Coyne, of Story Grid fame, a love story has 6 obligatory scenes – 6 moments that must occur somewhere in your story, or else it will not “work” as a love story. Here they are:

  • The lovers meet
  • First kiss/intimate connection
  • Confession of love
  • The lovers break up
  • Proof of love
  • The lovers reunite

Those 6 moments are the “essential few” of a love story. Nail them, and whilst the rest of it won’t write itself, it will be a damn sight easier to make choices with the most important parts of the story in place.

If instead you focus on the trivial many – what day of the week it is in chapter 7, the name of your leading lady’s hairdresser, whether her father came the French part of Switzerland or the German part – you will go round in circles until you tear your hair out, tear up your manuscript, or both.

Far from making you feel hemmed in and “uncreative”, my guess is that focusing on those 6 moments until they were really cooking would find you writing the best damn stuff of your life.

Structure is freedom

That’s the uncomfortable truth. That’s the thing I resisted for so many years. That’s the thing for which I am now frantically playing catch-up.

Structure – the appropriate amount, of course – is most definitely freedom. It makes you more creative, not less. It makes life easier, not harder. It makes what you’re doing more fun, not less.

And at its very simplest, structure is nothing more than what I described a moment ago – doing the more important things before the less important things. Ignoring the trivial many to focus on the essential few. Moving the piano first.

You’re free to do it the other way round. I won’t stop you. But I will warn you against it. Because if you’re anything like me, you’ll run yourself in circles for years, wondering why everything has to be so difficult, and why no matter how many hours you put in, your work just never seems to get any better. Why not save yourself the bother, and skip straight to the part where the effort you put in does make a difference, because you’re putting it into the right places?

Nail the essential few, and the trivial many will fall into place.

There Are No “Creative” People

I could talk all day and all night about the strange and wildly irrational and laughably self-defeating habits of our modern culture, and by tomorrow afternoon, you would still hear me excitedly rabbiting on to anybody who would lend their ears.

Alas, life is short, and so I will restrict myself to just one of these today. Here goes…

Our culture arbitrarily lumps its citizens into two convenient groups. One group we call “creatives.” The other, “everyone else.” I find this habit perplexing and infuriating, but saddest of all, I find its effects to be incredibly damaging.

The first damage this division causes is broad, and society-encompassing: “Everyone else” assumes themseves to have no natural creativity, and this makes them avoid things they have been told are for “creative” people.

When we segregate culturally like this, we end up with millions of people believing – just because they’re not currently a painter, or a novelist, or bass player in a band, or graphic designer for a startup – that they are simply not creative. That that’s something reserved for those people over there, not us over here. That one of the most precious and greatest and uniquely human abilities unfortunately does not apply to them.

Consequently, vast swaths of people talk themselves out of ever trying to do “creative” things. Brilliant. What a way to clip an angel’s wings. There goes the self-esteem of millions. Just… thwacked away, like a rounders bat to a dandelion.

The second damage caused is harder to see, but no less serious: The “creative” group have this tremendous pressure to do astounding things, to live up to the expectations society has of them. But, because their “creativity” is based entirely on what field they happen to work in, and not based on anything real, they by and large do not live up to these expectations.

Take it from me. I’ve known a great number of people who do “creative” work. They sing, they paint, they write, they do “art.” In fact, I have been one of these people, for a very long time. And I’m not exagerrating when I say that 99% of us are no more naturally creative than a tablespoon. Some of us might have potential, sure, but by itself that’s nothing.

Then again, you might think that it would be encouraging for someone doing “creative” work to assume that they possess naturally high levels of creativity, for them to assume that it’s just part and parcel of who they are, that they were born with it, and that its just waiting to ooze out of them like some kind of magic puss. You might think that assuming this would become some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most of the time, you’d be dead wrong.

Creativity is a skill. No different to any other. It requires honing. And once honed, it requires maintaining. Some people learn this, grab the bull by the horns, and become true creative geniuses. Most don’t. The evidence is not hard to find – have you noticed how terrible and derivative almost everything is? Songs, clothes, paintings, adverts…

What’s the bottom line? What’s the controlling idea of this piece of writing? Everybody loses when we make assumptions based on arbitrary factors.

We tell one group of people – by virtue of their line of work – that they are automatically creative, and so they feel they don’t need to bother working on their creativity. The result is that they end up never actually being very creative. Meanwhile, we tell “everyone else” that they’re automatically uncreative. They don’t feel the need to bother working on their creativity. The result is that they end up never being very creative, either.

Creativity has fuck-all to do with what field you’re in. If, during the course of your day, you use your mind to try to achieve a particular outcome, or to solve a particular problem, or to connect a particular series of dots, you are being creative… whatever category society would lump you into.

If, on the other hand, you just happen to have a paintbrush in your hand, or be playing in a band, or be writing a novel… there is nothing necessarily creative about what you’re doing.

Creativity is the closest thing we have to magic. But misunderstanding it leads to misusing it, which leads to a poorer world for all of us.

Space, I Can Recover. Time, Never.

I did a bad thing when I was in Aldi today.

Okay, “bad” is a stretch – I’m turning into my father. Scratch “bad.” I did a foolish thing when I was in Aldi today. That’s better.

I spent three full minutes bickering with myself about which tomatoes I should buy.

My conundrum was simple: Although the Specially Selected vine-ripened tomatoes are leagues ahead of the pale, mid-range ones flavour-wise, they’re about 60 pence more expensive. And whilst I like a good tomato as much as the next old-timey Spanish house-wife, I’m not made of money. I could not choose. My life flashed before my eyes. It felt so very important that I make this decision wisely.

Well, you’ll be glad to hear that I snapped out of it before long. I cursed myself for how long this relatively simple and cosmically meaningless decision had already taken, took the nicer ones off the shelf, and put them in my trolley. But as I walked round doing the rest of my little mid-week shop, I dwelled on my idiocy of a few minutes prior.

“Space, I can recover. Time, never.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

There was no sense in beating myself up – I do that enough without good reason – but it did feel like a teachable moment.

Because what I had done is I had forgotten the one thing I try to always remember about time: You don’t get time back. It’s non-renewable. And so it matters how you spend it.

And whilst I could certainly have wasted time more spectacularly today than than spending a few minutes giving serious thought to whether sixty pence is really worth it for nicer tomatoes, at a certain point it doesn’t matter.

A waste of time is a waste of time. Whether it’s huge or whether it’s miniscule, it’s to be avoided at all costs.

I had this in my mind when, as I put a box of Groovy Biscuits in my trolley for Emma, I gently reminded myself that the privilege of being born a human being is that I get to be master of my time. I get to decide what I do with it. And if I don’t want it to go to waste, then it’s entirely up to me to put it somewhere worthwhile.

And that place will never be having a serious debate over sixty pence and two kinds of tomato.

There Are No “Wrong” Feelings

When I sat down to write this piece earlier, I quickly entered a state of great inner turmoil. Part of me wanted so badly to type a piece revolving around a particular three words, whilst another part of seemed hell-bent on getting me to abandon that plan at any cost.

What were those three particular words?

“I feel stressed.”

Because I could feel your eye-roll coming off the screen. I could hear “You? What have you got to be stressed about?” as you read this. And I could sense your future unwillingness to engage with someone so out of touch with reality that he thinks whatever he’s going through can be accurately labelled “stress.”

And believe me, I can see your point, even if the above reactions were occuring entirely within my mind. Because let’s get real – what do I have to be stressed about? I don’t have kids. I don’t have a dangerous job, or a difficult job, or a job I detest. I like my wife. I like my family. I like my friends. Other than ADHD, I don’t have any health concerns. And if we’re talking about an easy ride through life, I was born white. Enough said.

So that was my conundrum earlier. I wanted to be frank and open about how you can feel a certain way sometimes, and you can experience great shame in even admitting it, because some part of you thinks you don’t deserve that feeling. And ironically, my shame about feeling stressed was so great that I could barely get myself to type the words because… I didn’t think I had the right to. All I could think about was how compared to the vast majority of the people on the planet, I’m doing fine. On paper, at least, I’ve got it made.

After a while, as these things so often do, the answer bonked me over the head like an anvil: Who gives a shit what you’re allowed to feel? When it comes to feelings, there is only one objective truth – the feeling itself.

Some people process their feelings beautifully – they feel things, they see each feeling with curious eyes as a kind of a colourful tourist on their territory, and they let them freely come and freely go, without too much of a fuss.

I am not one of those people. I am a represser.

I don’t know where and I don’t know when, but I know I picked up at some point in my life – the incredibly destructive idea that in every situation there is a right and wrong way to feel. Consequently, if I happen to feel the “right” way about something, I sigh a breath of relief – I’ve been let off the hook. But if I feel the “wrong” way – a way my mind says is inappropriate, or undeserved, or inexplicable – I experience this enormous inner turmoil.

And then I have two options: pretend to feel the “right” way, or risk the fallout from admitting to feeling the “wrong” way.

In the end, I decided that instead of writing about my temporary feelings of stress, I would use them to illustrate a bigger point – how your mind might be making your life a hell of a lot more difficult (and stressful, ironically!) by labelling certain feelings as “right” and “wrong.” There is no right and wrong when it comes to feelings.

I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know exactly what we hope to gain from repressing our feelings – we must hope to gain something, else we wouldn’t do it – but my best guess is that we are simply trying to protect ourselves from harm. Leaping into the unknown is always a risk, and admitting to a feeling our minds are not comfortable with yet feels like a huge risk.

But what I keep telling myself is that no matter how uncomfortable it might be to admit to feeling something “wrong”, it is nothing compared to chronic pain of repression.

So no matter what you think you should or shouldn’t feel, admit what you do feel, if only to yourself. I’m trying very hard to do this, and whilst every step hurts whilst I’m taking it, I’m a tiny bit lighter afterwards.

The Advantages You’ve Had…

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticising anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald – “The Great Gatsby” (Chapter 1)

Wealth – and the plethora of options wealth opens affords you – is the one advantage which draws the most attention to itself. It’s fitting then, that when we think of those who have had advantages in life, we not only think of the wealthy first, we think of them last as well.

And it’s a shame, really.

Because unless we have lived truly wretched lives, then we have experienced far more advantages than those who have only known wealth.

To be envious or disdainful of the wealthy, and not see the pot of gold we’re sitting on if we have known a genuine friend just once, or had a parent who loved us unconditionally, or had the blind luck to be born into a (however fractured) democracy, or have found personal meaning and fulfilment in something we’re pretty good at or that we just like doing anyway…

Well, all I’m saying is take inventory. Monetary wealth is just one of the myriad of ways you can be advantaged in life. And once you start to give just a little bit of thought to all the other, far superior, far more meaningful ways, you’ll actually start to pity those whose only advantage is money.

Far from wishing you had had their start in life, you’ll see them for what they truly are – the saddest and lowest amongst us.

Study the Greats

“You’re blocked because you have nothing to say. Your talent didn’t abandon you. If you had something to say, you couldn’t stop yourself from writing. You can’t kill your talent, but can starve it into a coma through ignorance. For no matter how talented, the ignorant cannot write. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear, and its cousin, depression.”

Robert McKee – “Story”

For most people, the problem is simple – they just don’t show up.

They’re a writer who doesn’t write. A composer who doesn’t composer. A feminist whose sole contribution to the cause is tweeting the words “I’m a feminist” sometimes.

Every single day these people – ordinary people who are like you and me – wake up with a burning desire to do something brilliant. To make something. Or change something. Or be something. And every single day these people find a new excuse to avoid actually having to do it.

Sadly, most of them never go any further, and whatever it was they burned with desire for dies with them. They are not bad people, but they are tragic people, because they live a whole life without any real idea of what they’re truly made of.

But for some people, it’s different. Some people do evolve past this point. Some people do reach a point where they can get themselves to consistently show up, day after day, to do their work, whatever the hell it might be. They thrash and they flail and no matter how much they don’t feel like it some days, they keep getting back in the ring.

If you’ve ever reached this point, then I take my hat off to you. That’s huge. You’ve reached a level that most people don’t in an entire lifetime. You’ve slayed one of the scariest dragons imaginable – the one that will do anything to stop you doing your work.

Before you reach this point, then – looking from the outside-in – you might imagine that once you get there, it’s all gravy from then on. That once you can get your bum in your seat for a few hours every day, genius will pour forth from you every single time. That – depending on which version of the famous quote you’ve read – “between 50% and 99% of success is just showing up.”

Well, as somebody who does show up every day, and has been doing for some time, let me tell you what a rude awakening it is when you realise that there’s a little more to it than that. Because you can show up every day. You can write. You can play. You can try to create change in the world. But if that’s all you do, you’re screwed.

For if you don’t actively feed your mind with the right ingredients, you make it impossible for anything beautiful to grow there. It’s impossible for me to tell you what those right ingredients are – they’re a combination as unique as you are – but the closest thing I’ve found to a short-cut is this:


Once you figure out what your thing is – what you should be showing up every day to work on – then make a point of keeping yourself fed and watered, so to speak. When you don’t feel 100% inspired, go look for the people who have already done an incredible job at what you’re trying to do, and learn from them. Pick their work apart like a vulture on a fresh carcass. Spend a few hours bathing in their mastery.

But don’t be passive. Make this as active as possible. If you want to write a book, for example, don’t just read a book you think is great – grab a pen and annotate the shit out of every single page. If you want to write songs, don’t just listen to your favourite song. Write out the lyrics by hand. Write out the structure and the exact number of seconds each verse lasts for.

In my experience, when I’m feeling particularly blocked and nothingy, just one session like this – forgetting about my own shitty work and diving deep into something I think is brilliant – is more than enough to make me feel creative again.

The best part? It’s really fun.

What Mental Health Really Is

The idea of “mental health” gets a lot more airtime these days then it ever seemed to do when I was younger. And as somebody whose mental health struggles have far outweighed any other kind of struggle I’ve had, you’d think I’d be happy about this.

Actually, I’m not. And I’ll tell you why. (And before you ask, it’s not because I’m just in a bad mood today!)

The way I see it, mental health – just like Movember, and Black Lives Matter, and climate change – has been mugged by the trendy and the “want to be seen as woke” crowd.

The “in” thing these days is to compartmentalise your life – to look at it the way a baker looks at a recipe. You take a bunch of ingredients, you add them together, and they produce something more than the sum of their parts.

The recipe for a good life might include a nice place to live. A partner to love. Kids to care for. Rewarding work. A holiday every year. And then, if you’re lucky enough, and you get all the other parts just right, then tacked on the end of all this, like the proverbial icing on the cake might be… mental health.

Well, the problem here is that mental health isn’t the icing. It’s the fucking oven. Without an oven, you don’t have a cake. Without a baseline level of mental health, you don’t have a life.

Mental health isn’t some kind of luxury – something those who can afford to add to their lives when things are good, or to prevent them getting worse. Mental health is your life. It’s the very foundation on which everything else in your life rests.

Sadly, there is still a stigma around mental health “issues.” That is changing – albeit very slowly – and I’m grateful for that. But the far bigger change that needs to come is the society-wide realisation of what mental health truly is.

It’s not just “issues” or “problems” or “difficulties” or things you can get diagnosed… Mental health is life itself.

Admitting You’re Afraid

I write a lot about fear. It must fascinate me.

The evolution is fear is interesting. It developed in human beings as a protective response against genuine threats to our survival. If if hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here – your ancestors would have been eaten by lions millions of years ago. You could say that fear – when it comes to physical danger – is not just useful, but life-saving.

And yet whenever there is no acute physical danger present – and in the modern world there almost never is – the feeling of fear is incredibly unhelpful. Does it make sense, for instance, to experience the same physical response when public speaking, or asking someone out, or contemplating writing a book, as you would if you were being chased by a lion on the Savannah?

Fear narrows your perspective, limits your options, and makes you act in ways that are far from rational. If your life is in jeopardy, and it increases your chances of survival, good. If it’s not, bad.

When I put it like that, I make it sound like you are stupid for having this involuntary response. If the thing you fear poses no actual threat to you, why should you fear it? If you do, then in a sense, you are stupid. You’re at least irrational. But this is where it gets sticky.

Because nobody likes to think of themselves as stupid or irrational. The moment you do, your mind does somersaults trying to reframe the situation to cast you in a smarter light. So whilst on the one hand it’s a useful and freeing moment when you realise that there’s no need to fear anything but fear itself, it can also be the start of some pretty devious self-deception. Like…

You’re putting off eating healthier because you’re scared of feeling like a loser if you can’t stick with it. But you tell yourself you’re just waiting until Monday. Or that you you would eat better but you can’t because your family would make it too difficult. Or that you would eat better but “diets don’t work” and “I might not be perfect but at least I’m healthier than <one of your friends>”

You’re putting off writing a screenplay because you’re scared that you can’t write a good one. But you tell yourself you’re just in research mode right now. Or that you’re one of those artists that needs to wait until they’re inspired. Or that you are definitely, definitely going to start… but next week, when things are little less manic.

You’re putting off quitting the job you hate because you aren’t 100% sure what you’ll do next. But you tell yourself it’s because you’re being strategic and biding your time. Or that you’d love to quit but you can’t just yet because this is the firm’s busiest time of year. Or that you’d love to quit but you kind of owe it to your boss to stay a bit longer.

If any of these sounds remotely like you, please realise that you’re not alone – the Good Lord kitted out every single of us with a near-infinite capacity to bullshit ourselves. And whilst sometimes I make giving into your fears sound like the worst sin you can commit against yourself, I think this is much, much worse – giving into your fears whilst telling yourself that you’re facing them.

The good news is, though, that when you see yourself doing this, and you find it in yourself to say, “Okay, I might as well admit it – I’m not doing x, y, or z, because I’m afraid to. Sure, there’s no rational basis for that fear, but so what? I feel afraid.” … you instantly feel better about it. I think this is because no matter how great you are at lying to yourself, some part of you always knows what’s up, and it won’t quite let you feel right so long as you cling to your self-deception.

In a perfect world, we’d all face our fears head-on and prove to ourselves that they weren’t real in the first place. But that’s a tall order. So if you’re aren’t ready to overcome something you’re afraid of, realise that admitting you’re afraid is still a step in the right direction. It’s still progress.

It’s a difficult pill to swallow, but once it goes down, it tastes a lot better than lying to yourself.

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov

Get to Know Your Shadow

Do you have a safe space?

I’m not talking about a physical safe space. I’m talking about somewhere you can go where you feel 100% free to be completely and utterly honest about who you and where you’re at in the moment… all alone.

I ask this because I started to notice something worrying about myself over the last week. I was writing in my diary, and as I was wrote, I thought something a little bit rude about someone in my life – nothing terrible, but something I wouldn’t say to their face. My immediate response was to censor myself – since it’s not the kind of think I’d like to think and feel, I didn’t write it down.

Fortunately, I u-turned and wrote it down. As it looked back up at me from the page, I felt a little relief. Writing it down for just me to see didn’t make anything any worse, in fact it made me feel better. I even felt a little bit more compassion about that person.

Hmmm, I thought. Curious, I tore out the page I’d been writing on, and started again. I wrote 3 pages of A4 with as many of the worst things I could think of. Who annoys me? What do I hate about the world? What do I hate about myself? What am I ashamed of? What do I regret about my past?

It felt really good. And as I read back over those 3 pages, I saw things I didn’t even know I’d been keeping a secret from myself. How messed up is that? When I was done, I ripped up the pages, threw them in the bin, and got on with my day, feeling just a little bit less mental than normal.

That’s what I mean by a safe space. Somewhere you feel comfortable expressing your whole self. Not just the socially acceptable part. The more you hide from your shadow, the more power it has to ruin your life. Get it out somehow, and you take back the reins.

You Handled It Before, You’ll Handle It Again

Supposedly – though nobody knows for sure – Mark Twain once remarked that whilst history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. And to be honest, I couldn’t give a shit who said it – whoever it was was one-hundred percent correct.

But whilst the quote is generally taken to be about world history, and the way human nature shapes the broad strokes of what we all into an eerily similar pattern from century to century, nobody ever seems to apply it on a personal level.

When things happen that mess up our plans, that throw us off balance, we tend to first resist them, second reluctantly accept them, and third be glad when they’re over. We want to put them out of our minds. We see them as freak occurences, as deviations from the norm – whatever that is. I think this is a big mistake.

Everything good or bad that has ever happened to you is going to happen again in some way or another. The specific details will be different in all kinds of ways, but the essence will be the same. Your personal history might not repeat itself, but it will rhyme.

You will get angry. You will get embarrassed. You will get impatient. You will have bad luck with money. You will feel envious of everybody who is better looking than you, or has bigger boobs than you, or whose kids are better behaved than yours.

The key, I think, is not to panic, but to be ready. Ready doesn’t mean paranoid, or living in terror of these unwanted happenings lurking around the corner. It simply means not being in denial about them.

If something happened once, it’s pretty stupid to bank on something similar never happening again. But guess what? You handled it before – you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise – and you’ll handle it again. I believe in you.

There Will Always Be Something to Hide Behind

And the people who gain the world and lose their soul,
They don’t know… They can’t see…
Are you one of them?

George Harrison – Within You Without You (Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)

This much, I promise you: Should you ever need a reasonable excuse to avoid doing “the right thing” – whatever that might be – you won’t have to look far.

“As you can see, I had no choice..”
“We’re just doing what the market wants…”
“Ha! Only a sucker would turn down that kind of cash/that kind of opportunity/that kind of deal…”

These, and countless others, will never go out of style. As long as the sun is buring, and there are people who need to cheat their conscience, there will always be a way to do so. There will never come a day where there is nothing for you to hide behind – where you are forced to abide by your own sense of right and wrong.

What’s more, this isn’t Pinocchio – you’ll get away with it. Unless you’re literally murdering babies, most people won’t bat an eyelid. And why would they? They’ve got their own inner turmoils to deal with. Not to mention the fact that even if they do say something, so what? You can spin anything into anything else. You can pull the wool over anybody’s eyes you choose. Including your own.

But I ask you this: Supposing I’m right, is that how you actually want to live? Can you even call that a life? To be always on the run from the still, small voice inside yourself sounds less like winning and more like utter damnation to me. To die would be a mercy.

Because whilst the world at large may give you a free pass for ignoring your conscience – more often than not it will venerate you as a genius, a conqueror, or a visionary – a part of you remains acutely aware of the painful truth, that behind your bullshit corporate mission and your off-shore bank account and your City connections and your tight clothes and your high-rise properties and every last one of the hearts and minds you had to con into trusting you…

You are empty. You couldn’t bare to face your own humanity, so you tried to cover up the void with all of the above. In the end, there’s nothing impressive about you. You’re a little, fucking coward. And you know it.

But there is a third act to this tale. Redemption is possible.

And whilst the quarterly return on doing what you know in your heart to be right might not have quite so many zeroes as your competitors, might not get your pecker hard like those pills you take, and might never get you on the cover of Forbes magazine… it will return to you the only thing you were ever actually looking for all along:

Your humanity.

You Don’t Have To, You Get To

A pint of vodka sits on the kitchen counter next to a pint of water. For some reason – hey, it’s late – you’re only allowed to drink one.

Now, whilst vodka and water don’t look all that different standing side by side like that, I should imagine that if you choose the pint of vodka, you’ll feel a hell of a lot different an hour later than if you chose the pint of water.

And what’s my point? I suppose it would be something like: if all you do is look at the surface, then two very different things can appear practically identical. The difference, for instance, between saying “I have to” and “I get to.”

The difference between the two seems laughably insignificant at first. But then you try it for a day.

For all those things you resent feeling obligated to do – hoovering the stupid floor, brushing your stupid teeth, living your stupid life – you spend 24 hours reminding yourself that you could just as easily choose to feel differently about them.

Feeling obligated is nothing more than a choice. As is gratitude. But chances are that you, like me, are far more practised at feeling obligated. And if that’s what you’ve spent your life getting good, is it any wonder doing the opposite might be a little tricky at first?

So start small. Dip your toes into the “I get to” water. The more you do it, the warmer the water will feel, and the more you’ll want to stay there.

Problems Are Like Muscles

Have you ever been so frustrated by not being able to solve a particular problem that you just thought “fuck it”, and gave up, only for the perfect solution to just plop itself into your head later on that day?

It’s maddening, isn’t it? You spent all that time doing it the “right” way – grinding on it, working hard, putting your blood, sweat, and tears into it – all for nought. And then as you lather up in the shower, or you hit the halfway point on a long run, suddenly it hits you.

Not only does it hit you, the solution you now have feels incredibly obvious and inevitable. You feel like a fool for not having seen it before, and as though all that time at your desk was clearly a waste of time, because it wasn’t until you gave up on it that you actually solved it.

All of this can make you wonder whether there’s any point in “trying” to solve problems – if the answer is just going to fall out the sky, why not save yourself a few painful hours and skip straight to giving up?

There’s a simple reason for that: if you do, the answer will not fall out of the sky. I promise you. Why not?

Well, first, let’s look at the human body. (Obviously, I’m no doctor, but I think what I’m about to claim is basically correct.) When you exercise, the shocking truth is that you don’t get fitter and you don’t get stronger. You actually get weaker… at first.Whilst you’re exercising, you’re heaping a ton of unexpected stress on your body, which only serves to temporarily weaken it.

But then, because your body is incredible at adapting to whatever shit you throw at it, it spends the next hours and days rallying around with blood and nutrients and what have you, and in time you emerge fitter and stronger than before.

You see, it’s the recovery period where all the magic happens. Your muscles don’t grow whilst you’re exercising, only afterwards. But if there’s no stress, then there is no recovery period either – they have nothing to recover from! They need both – stress and recovery.

Your creative mind is no different when it comes to solving problems. First, you deliberately stress it out by consciously trying as many ways as you can think of to solve a problem. You probably don’t solve it there and then, and you maybe even feel a whole lot stupider than you did before you started.

But then, in the hours and days following – as you consciously focus on other stuff – your mind whirrs away in the background, and slowly adapts itself to the stress you gave it, trying its damnedest to solve your problem. And when it does, you get your Eureka! moment – the perfect answer plops into your head.

And for that Eureka! moment to happen, you need both the stress, and the recovery period. You need both the grinding-it-out-at-your-desk-and-feeling-like-you’re-getting-nowhere, and the showers, the long walks, the doing-anything-you-can-to-take-your-mind-off-the-problem.

As with just about everything, this is about which parts you can and can’t control. You can’t control the second part – when or where the penny finally drops. For that, I’m afraid all you can do is be patient. But you can control the first part – doing “the work.”

It’s Good to Veer

All airplanes are off-course 99% of the time. The purpose and role of the pilot and the avionics is to continually bring the plane back on course so that it arrives on schedule at its destination.

In life, you are the pilot of your own craft.

Brian Tracy

The universe tends towards disorder.

Perhaps that’s why – when we have something we want to accomplish – left to your own devices it’s almost a cardinal rule that before too long, you will have gone wildly off-track. You can have the best intentions first thing Monday morning and by lunchtime have lost the plot completely.

If you’re like me, that’s not the end of the story, either. First you blame yourself, then you beat yourself up, then you sulk for a while, then you wonder why you can never get your shit together… and then you try again tomorrow.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Not the going off-track – as I said, that’s the nature of the universe. No, I’m talking about the self-flagellation. That’s a completely unnecessary step. That can be solved by asking a simple question every time you veer away from your target:

“What was I trying to do before I went off-track?”

Gently remind yourself as often as possible what you’re trying to do, and then get back to it. You don’t need to be going in the right direction 100% of the time. Not only would be that be impossible, it’s also completely unnecessary.

Life is richer – as will your work be – when you allow yourself the freedom to veer, and to gently bring yourself back into alignment with whatever your original intentions were.

Assume You Are Not a Savant

Always assume that:

  • you are not a savant.
  • you have absolutely zero natural talent.
  • you are not the exception to the rule.
  • you are completely and utterly average.

Why would I do that? It all sounds very negative. Shouldn’t I be encouraging myself? What if I become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I don’t know about that, but I’ll tell you what is negative – living a life of disappointment because you expect everything to go your way all the time.

If you expect yourself to be naturally good at everything you try, you’ll be disappointed every time you’re not. If you thinking everybody should love and adore you, you’ll be offended every time somebody doesn’t. And if you believe that for some reason only good things should come your way, you’ll feel personally attacked every time they don’t.

That’s the problem with trying to be “positive” all the time – it can become delusion. The further your expectations drift from reality, the more deluded you are. And if the way you behave causes you to be disappointed, then how helpful is this blind positivity, really?

Of course, tons of people go too far the other way. They become cynical and bitter about the world. They think that since having overly positive expectations leads to disappointment that it’s better to expect the worst all the time. They close themselves off. They refuse to try new things. They think that if they’re not naturally talented enough to be perfect straight away there’s no point trying at all.

Well, there’s no need to be like that, either. That’s just as delusional. Being overly positive and being overly negative are merely different sides of the same reality-avoidance coin, and whichever side you pick, you lose.

So what if there’s a way to look at the world where you always win? There is: assume you are no better than average.

If you assume that, and you’re right, then isn’t it a good thing you were prepared for that? It’s better to know where you stand – even if you’re actually way below average – than to just guess and rely on “positive thinking.” Now you can make a decision, grounded in reality, as to whether you care enough to put in the work to raise yourself up, or whether you’ll hedge your bets somewhere else instead. Either choice is fine, but at least you’re making an informed decision.

And then if it turns out you were wrong – if it turns out that you were actually above average, and incredibly naturally talented – then that’s awesome! It’s a bonus! But most important is that you lost nothing by assuming yourself to no better than average. All you did was protect yourself from unnecessary disappointment, and got a pleasant surprise to boot.

I’m always on the lookout for places in life with very high upside and very low downside. This little attitude adjustment is one of them.

When Loyalty Is a Dirty Word

It’ll be difficult. It’ll be painful. Every fibre of your being will scream at you not to do it.

And afterwards, you’ll be free.

Loyalty is an interesting concept. It’s one of those popular values – like honour, courage, justice – that we universally talk of as a good thing, but never really sit down and define. Most of the time, because it’s not necessary to.

You’re probably loyal to tons of things in your head – to yourself, to your partner, to your family, to your friends, to the company you work for, to your football team etc… And so as long as none of them are in conflict with each other, it’s smooth sailing. The difficulty comes only when they butt up against each other, and suddenly you have to make a choice.

This emotional tension provides ample ammunition for manipulation. If somebody wants you to behave a certain way, all they have to do is imply that if you don’t, then you’re being disloyal to them. And that can be more than enough to shame you into picking their side, no matter how you truly feel.

Nowhere else is this more prevalent than in families. So my question today is: When they are in conflict, how do you choose between loyalty to your family and loyalty to yourself?

Well, in one sense, I’m not the person to ask, because I honestly haven’t been there, at least not in any kind of dramatic way.

Whilst we don’t agree on everything – and something would be wrong if we did – my immediate family and I do seem to share a pretty big belief-space common ground. The specifics might differ from one of us to the next, but our views on the way the world ought to be, and how the people in it ought to act, don’t tend to stray very far from one other.

Broadly speaking – and I hope they don’t mind me putting words in their mouth – we all tend to agree that when it comes down to it, a human is a human. Race, gender, sexual orientation, class… who cares? If those things are more important to you than humanity, we don’t want you at our table.

Growing up this way, however, has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand it makes me feel very privileged. I am grateful that my family have never threatened me with the label of disloyal for having the audacity to do what I do and believe what I believe. The day is hard enough to get through without having to choose between your family and your integrity.

On the other hand, it makes it incredibly difficult to understand the hell, the sheer emotional terrorism, that so many people go through, at the hands of the people who raise them and supposedly love them and are supposedly looking out for them. My heart breaks when I realise that what I’ve experienced my whole life wasn’t normal. It was a luxury. A heaven of sorts.

I think of you who follow whatever fucked-up religion you were born into because it’s easier to stay and suffer through it – despite how ugly it is to you – than to leave and risk the fallout.

I think of you who don’t apply to university because your Jeremy Kyle family sneer at you for considering it. I think of you who don’t want to go to university, but apply anyway because your snobby family sneer at you for considering anything else.

I think of you who don’t bring your boyfriend home, because he’s black, and your Dad has made it abundantly clear what he thinks of “those people.”

I think of you who don’t bring your girlfriend home, because you’re a girl too, and your Mum said over and over again that she wants “proper” grandchildren.

I think of you and my heart breaks because I can’t pretend to understand what you are going through. But even so, that doesn’t change my stance. I believe there is only ever one correct answer to my question from earlier.

So: Loyalty to your family or loyalty to yourself? You already know what I’m going to say.

Yourself. In a heartbeat. Every time. For no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do. Always.

Remember, it’s possible – and ideal – to be loyal to both yourself and to your family. And in a perfect world, this is the reality we would all enjoy. But it’s not a perfect world, and sometimes there is conflict between the two, and when there is, only one can win. And it should always be you.

This doesn’t mean you should abandon your family, or run away at the first sniff of a disagreement. No. Conflict is good. Disagreement is good. It’s healthy… when it comes from a good place. But you know what’s not a good place? “My way or the highway.” Threatening the people you’re supposed to love and protect and care for. Branding them as disloyal because they aren’t behaving exactly as you want them to.

Relationships are a two-way street, and healthy ones are built on mutual respect. Meeting each other halfway. Finding a way to see that your differences make the relationship richer, not poorer.

Do you know what you call a relationship not built on mutual respect? Abusive. Families who inflict this kind of terrorism on each other – in the name of loyalty, or love, or blood – are ABUSERS. They might not hit you and they might not swear at you. So what? They are expecting you to be something you’re not, and they’re more than willing to emotionally manipulate you to do it.

A family can be the most beautiful thing in the world. But if yours won’t accept you on your own terms, if they require that you betray your values and your principles, if they try and force you to put loyalty to them over loyalty to yourself… screw ’em. I mean it. Seriously. Screw ’em. Life’s too short. As I said at the top:

It’ll be difficult. It’ll be painful. Every fibre of your being will scream at you not to do it.

And afterwards, you’ll be free.

Wanting the World to Stop

At least once a day – though often many more times than that – I notice that the radio station in my head is playing Belle and Sebastian. “I Want the World to Stop.”

Because I do. Constantly. I want it to stop. Just for a little bit. Just ’til I get my bearings again. But it doesn’t. Ever.

And so here I am, trying to figure out how I’m supposed to eke out of a living without doing anything immoral whilst being a good husband whilst brushing my teeth twice a day whilst seeking my true calling whilst avoiding palm oil whilst remembering not to use “gay” as a degoratory term whilst trying to be honest and forthright but not to people who might use it against me…

I can’t be the only one who finds all this a somewhat tall order.

Well, one thing’s for sure – the world isn’t going to stop itself any time soon. So it’s up to me – I have to find a way to adapt myself to it. And the crazy thing is that I found the solution to this problem years and years ago. It worked then, and it continues to work every time I apply it.

I’m just too terrified to actually apply it.

It’s been known about for thousands of years, this solution. It goes by many names. Solitude. Renewal. Meditation. Self-care.

All these things point to the same thing – what Steven Covey calls “sharpening the saw”. Stepping back from the heat of the moment and reflecting. Taking time to prioritise, to get perspective, to listen to your inner wisdom. Giving your mind a break.

But here’s my kneejerk reaction to it – and the reason I don’t do it all that much: If I feel up against it, if I feel every time I successfully put out a fire two new ones go ablaze, then how the hell can I afford to hit the pause button and take some “quiet time”? How spoilt! How indulgent! There’s too much to do to stop!

The real question should be: “How the hell can I afford not to?”

I feel qualified to talk about this because I’m guilty of getting it wrong 99% of the time. I constantly feel like there’s way too much to do and that I have to do it all today and that if I don’t there’ll be more to do tomorrow and so in any given moment there are seventeen dozen competing priorities and I don’t want to choose because whichever one I choose will be wrong and AAAAAAAAGH…

As you can see, the way I’ve been doing it isn’t working out so great.

A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.” 

a quote of unknown origin, commonly misattributed to Abraham Lincoln

The thing is, when you’re in that spiral, when adrenaline is your fuel, you’re never actually all that effective. You think you are because you’re moving quickly. But you’re not getting anywhere. You’re distracted by the fires you think you need desperately to put out. You run around like a headless chicken, moving from fire to fire, but putting none of them out. You can’t – every time you’re about to, you notice a new one.

But when you “stop the world” – even just for a little while – you regain a little clarity. And when you have just a tiny bit more clarity, well now your actions actually can make a difference. This means two things. One, you start to figure out how to put the fires out, and find yourself more able to do so than ever. And two, you realise there were never really that many fires to begin with. Your brain was lying to you.

Yes, it takes a leap of faith to just walk away when all you can see is fire. It can even feel irresponsible. But you have to trust that if you take that little bit of time for yourself, the world is not going to explode. You aren’t going to end up with even more fires to put out afterwards. This is scary, I know. It terrifies me.

Fortunately, it’s a leap of faith that always pays off. You get your life back again. More than that, you start to spend time in what is actually the “real world”, rather than what is falsely called the “real world.”

You might not realise it, but if your days are fuelled by stress and anxiety, you are actually living an incredibly delusional existence, totally disconnected from the truth of what’s going on. Oh, I know it feels real… there’s danger around every corner… tragedy will befall you if you let your guard down… suspicion is only natural…

But these are just lies you’re letting yourself believe.

Life isn’t the olympics. There are no medals for being the most stressed, the most obligated, the most overwhelemed person you know. There is no glory, or honour, or valour, in deluding yourself. All you get is a miserable life and an early grave.

Let the world stop from time to time and regain your centre. Turn off your phone. Go sit somewhere for half an hour and just… be.

No, doing this once won’t change your life. And it won’t put out any of the fires that truly are burning. But it’s something. It’s a start. It’s a sigh of relief. And when you feel like the walls are closing in, that’s worth more than all the money in the world.


Do they matter more than white ones? Of course not. But… nobody said they did.

I was born white. As such, I have no idea what it’s like to have “the system” stacked against me – specifically designed to keep me down. I can’t imagine being treated as inferior JUST for the colour of my skin – it has literally never happened to me. And I honestly don’t ever worry about whether or not my life matters – the evidence that it does is both overwhelming and abundant.

Just because I’m white.

Well, that’s called privilege. And if you’re white too, you probably never even realised that that’s what it was. But it’s there for us, 24/7, just waiting to make our ride through life that little bit easier.

We didn’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We just got lucky.

So maybe one day, it won’t be necessary to remind each other that not everybody has the things we take for granted. The past will be the past. Bygones will be bygones. The colour of your skin won’t count for shit.

But until that day, “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

Give Yourself a Break

Unless there is a gun to your head – and in my experience there rarely is – then there isn’t this great rush you imagine there to be.

You might feel like you need to have it all figured out today – “or else” – but you don’t. It’s more than enough for you to simply take a tiny step forward each day. To be a fraction better than you were yesterday. To dig an inch deeper, to shed a little more light, to make the picture slightly clearer.

Only it goes deeper than that. It isn’t just “more than enough” to take things one day at a time. It’s the only way that works. “Slow and steady wins the race” isn’t just some nice-sounding idea espouses by the weak and the timid and the people who aren’t courageous enough to move quickly. Slow and steady is the only way you’ll ever actually finish the race. Trying to go faster doesn’t make you a brave, or a hero, or a visionary. It makes you a headless chicken.

Knowing all this, do you think that pretending you have a gun to your head – and the fear, and the stress, and the anxiety that this churns up – will make whatever you’re trying to do easier, or harder?

Give yourself a break.