Just Because…

Just because you can rationalise something to yourself…

Just because you get away with it…

Just because it’s not technically illegal…

And just because the enablers around you don’t call you out on it…

… that doesn’t mean it’s still not a shitty thing to do.

You know you’re doing good when your heart tells you so.

Life Is Positive-Sum

Like a lot of people, I keep a playlist of “Liked” songs on Spotify. There are about 1800 songs in mine. I love each and every one.

Spotify itself, on the other hand, has over 50,000,000 songs on it. So what should I do about all the songs that didn’t make it onto my playlist?

Nothing. Why the hell would I even think about them?

They’re not harming me. They’re not getting in my way. They have just as much right to exist as the songs I love. I would just rather not listen to them. Easy peasy.

What if everything in life was that simple? Oh, wait…

It’s What We Choose to Do

Maybe you just weren’t meant to be rich and famous. Or have great penmanship. Or see a well-chiseled jawline looking back at you from the mirror. Or keep a perennially tidy living room. Or go through just the one marriage. Or survive a global pandemic. Or have more than just a couple of close friends. Or any at all for that matter. Or…

I think you get my point. Some things we choose, some things life chooses for us.

But whatever we end up with, whether it’s even better or far, far worse than what was in our imaginations, we must remember that what that thing is makes up just 1% of the equation. It is what we choose to do with it is that makes up the other, more important 99%.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Victor E. Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning

Take Your Finger off the Button

Probably you’ll laugh at me. But maybe, just maybe, you secretly do the same thing I’m about to describe, and then as you read this we’ll have a certain kinship in our shared idiocy. Here goes…

When I want to cross a road, there’s no way I’m pressing the button that tells the traffic lights to change just once. Can’t do it. I’ll press it five, ten, maybe twenty times. Now, I know how the button works – it’s either on or it’s off, and any press over and above the first one makes literally no difference to how quickly the lights change – but that doesn’t stop the way I feel when I’m jabbing at it compulsively with my index finger.

It feels as though I’m stopping the traffic sooner if I press it more times. I’m okay with that kind of cognitive dissonance. I laugh at it.

And when you stop to think about it, there are a hell of a lot of these moments in life. Times when, no matter how irrational or nonsensical – or how little evidence there is that what you’re doing is having any effect whatsoever – doing something feels better than doing nothing.

Why is this? Well, Robert Greene sums it up pretty succinctly in the opening paragraph of The 48 Laws of Power:

The feeling of having no power over people and events is generally unbearable to us – when we feel helpless we feel miserable.

We all want more power and agency over our world. It’s human nature. The trick – and the hardest part of all this – is to separate the things we do into what actually makes the difference we’re aiming for, and what just gives us the illusion of that difference.

Because most of our actions don’t have the effect on reality we wish they would. Think about it – if they did, we’d all be living our dream lives 24/7. And most of us are not. But this isn’t a bad thing. It means we’ve got space to grow. It means we’ve got things left to learn.

Take your finger off the button. This isn’t about adding more things to your to-do list. This is about subtracting the things that do not, have not, and will not ever move the needle for you, until you are left with only that which does.

And then, just for a laugh, you can add back in a few silly little games like pressing the pedestrian crossing button dozens of times and pretending you’re the King of the traffic lights.

Yesterday Is Just a Suggestion

Each day when you wake up, you do so with yesterday’s baggage. There are two ways to view this stuff: as some kind of prison sentence, or as a gift. As something set in stone and pre-decided for you, or as a suggestion you are free to reject.

Because whoever you were yesterday, and no matter how smart or dumb the choices you made, you were doing your absolute best. But that was then. This is now. Today’s best is different than yesterday’s. Every moment you live changes you – whether you want it to or not – and if you’re so fixated on staying consistent to choices a previous version of you made, you are severely limiting yourself.

There will never come a day when you are not free to completely change direction, and nobody can stop you but you.

The Rain Doesn’t Care

I’m looking out of my living room window right now. It’s raining.

Now, if I say to myself the words “It’s raining,” will that make it rain more? Less? For longer? Not for as long? Will it in fact have any effect whatsoever on what the clouds decide to do?

Of course not.

Well, what if I look out at the puddles and the wet windscreens and the drops falling off the gutters and say to myself “It isn’t raining,” instead? Will that make a difference?

No.

The rain doesn’t care if I accept it or deny it. It cannot be moved by my judgment. What’s a girl to do? Shrug my shoulders and get on with something indoors.

“The Fates guide the person who accepts them and hinder the person who resists them.”

Cleanthes – (quoted in Ryan Holiday – “The Obstacle is the Way”)

“Who The Hell Am I?”

You can try to be all things to all people.

And though you’ll do so with the best of intentions, the thing you’re most likely to find after a while is that you’re not much of anything to anyone.

Be you. Whatever the risk.

Let your thoughts be the question, “Who the hell am I?” and your life the answer.

“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Self-Reliance”

Stretching the Benefit of the Doubt

Be honest with me… Whatever you’d consider to be your “best”, is that the level you’re operating at most of the day? Are you, in general, firing on all cylinders? I know I’m not.

I certainly have my moments – times when my actions line up gloriously with the best of my intentions – but a lot of the time what comes out of me is a pale shadow of what I’d like it to be. An imitation brand of the real me.

And the more I think about it, the more laughably unlikely it is to me that every other bleeder on the planet isn’t going through the exact same thing. All of the time.

We’re in this shit together – this human thing. And so whilst I’m not suggesting you turn into some kind of Ned Flanders style doormat, I am suggesting that not everybody you come across today will be functioning at their absolute best, for a million different reasons, none of which have anything to do with you.

Stretch your benefit of the doubt a little further every day, just as you would love them to do for you.

Walk

I’m not stupid. I know that going for one walk won’t solve all my problems.

But the way I see it, we live in a world of possibilities and probabilities. And when I feel restless or anxious or depressed or just stir-crazy for whatever reason, I like to look for anything that just might nudge me in a better direction.

Going for a walk is one of those things. It’s free, effortless, and can be done whilst listening to any one of Simon and Garfunkel’s five impeccable studio albums. How can I lose?

Walking isn’t magic. But I haven’t found anything closer yet.

It’s Okay, You Didn’t Get Worse

If you want to truly know a foreign culture, you have to go and live there. You have to learn via osmosis. It’s the only way. Everything in life is completely different when experienced from the inside looking out, as opposed to the outside looking in. It’s not even that your assumptions are a little bit off when you’re on the outside looking in. It’s more that you have absolutely no idea what to even have assumptions about.

This is true about everything. One example I’ve found is the difference between what I thought it’d be like to try to write a blog post every day for a year, and what – after over 200 posts – it actually has been like. I thought that I would grow in confidence as a writer, and that with each passing post le mot juste would fall from my fingers to the keys.

In fact, the exact opposite feeling happened! I constantly feel like I’ve gotten worse as a writer as I’ve gone on! Now, I’m not saying this to garner sympathetic emails, or to be wacky, or controversial – I know it isn’t true. Even if I’m not a great deal better, I know there’s no way on Earth I can actually be worse than when I started in October. But it is how I feel a lot of the time.

So what’s going on here? Well, it meshes very nicely with something I read about recently. I’ve put the entire quote at the end of this piece, but just for now, I’ll summarise by giving my theory on what’s happening.

When you’re doing something inconsistently or very rarely at all, but instead spending a lot of time thinking about the kinds of things you would or should be doing, the only limit is your imagination. You can imagine that – if you actually were to sit down and do the work – that the work would be as good as Hemingway, or Tesla, or Marilyn Manson, or whoever your heroes are…

And then when you actually do some work, you’re rudely confronted by the harsh truth that – AS OF YET – you’re not quite at their level yet. Because really… how could you be? But it’s this enormous chasm between what you imagine yourself ultimately capable of and what you are currently capable of that is so hard to stomach.

I didn’t get worse. I just wrote and published more frequently than at any other time in my life, and as such I have nowhere to hide. I have no fictional and purely imaginary works of genius to lift my spirits, only the real and very flawed pieces I have actually produced, which inevitably fall short of my incredibly grandiose and unrealistic standards. Instead of playing the game in my head, I’ve been playing it for real. Warts and all.

And as you’ll see below, that’s the only solution. If you want to be good, you have to put up with being bad for a bit. Except that’s unnecessarily harsh. It’s not “bad.” It’s “embryonic.” You don’t slag off a baby because it can’t walk yet. So don’t slag off yourself because you’re not producing works of genius every day.

Each time you sit down to try, you can’t help but get a little bit better. And that’s all it takes.

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?

Ira Glass on the Brainpickings website

Stop Putting Your Fire Out

Making fun of somebody for being passionate, or excited, or joyous about something is a really shitty thing to do.

Whilst it might give you a momentary hit of superiority over them, in the long-run they won’t think you’re cooler than them. They will just resent you and think of you as a dick and stop picking up the phone.

So that’s one thing not to do. But the other is to not go and do the same thing to yourself.

Joy is precious. Who cares what sparks it, so long as it gets sparked? Take it where it comes and it will grow. Fret over whether the source of your joy is appropriate, or cool, or trendy, and it will shrivel up and die.

Stop putting your fire out.

Persistent, Not Consistent

For the people attempting to do things in the world, few things are shoved down their throat more than the apparent importance of being consistent. I think it’s vastly over-rated.

I’d even go so far as to call the pursuit of perfect consistency dangerous. For all but the super-human amongst us, it’s an unrealistic ideal, and one that only hurts us when we inevitably fall short.

Because if you worship consistency above all else, it’s all too easy to think that one slip-up is game over. You might do push-ups for 30 days in a row and then on day 31 have a bit of a mare and not get any done. When day 32 rolls around you ask what’s the point in doing a set because you ruined your perfect streak so you might as well quit completely. Oh, and you’re a miserable worm for not being able to stick to anything.

Who needs that shit in their life? I say forget consistency. Go for persistence instead.

Persist until you succeed, no matter how many little “failures” you rack up. Don’t worry how many sessions you’ve missed – do today’s. Don’t beat yourself up for wasting time you could have been working – do some work now. Don’t feel like a turd for how you spent your past – spend your present right.

It’s far healthier for your mindset – and a lot more fun – to keep fucking things up and getting back on the horse than it is to try and be perfect all the time. Especially since that’s never going to happen anyway.

Life’ll Kill Ya

From the President of the United States
To the lowliest rock and roll star
The doctor is in and he’ll see you now
He don’t care who you are
Some get the awful, awful diseases
Some get the knife, some get the gun
Some get to die in their sleep
At the age of a hundred and one

Warren Zevon – “Life’ll Kill Ya”

It’s the only guarantee there is. It’s the only thing you can’t run from. So stop trying to. Accept it. Live with it. Love it.

And whilst you’re waiting to die, share your gifts with the world. Whatever they are, and in whatever way you can.

That’s what you were put here to do. Not to hoard wealth. Not to be a law-abiding citizen. Not to serve the bullshit country you happened to be born in.

You’re here to give of yourself, and then to die. One you have a say in, one you don’t.

Sometimes Drugs Work

And sometimes they don’t. Case in point:

A few weeks ago, I stopped taking Elvanse – a slow-release amphetamine licensed for ADHD and binge-eating disorder – after taking it every day for two and a half years.

I gave it a go. A good go. I wanted it to work. I really did. I tried different doses. I read about all the ways in which people’s ADHD medications help them. I wanted to be like the characters in those success stories. I even pretended to myself I was.

But after two and a half years, I had to admit that my life really wasn’t in any better shape than before. The meds hadn’t made it easier for me to manage my life. In fact in some ways they’d made my day-to-day existence more of a struggle. They certainly weren’t placebos – they had a dramatic effect on the way I felt. But this effect was a lateral move, not an improvement. I didn’t like the way I felt. So I told my psychiatrist I wanted to stop taking it.

My body and my brain didn’t like withdrawal. Amphetamine is a stimulant. Imagine getting used to a daily dose of what is essentially slow-release speed for a couple of years and then your nervous system suddenly having to find the energy to do everything from elsewhere. It’s been knackering. My motivation to do anything has been down the toilet. Some days it’s pretty much just been Seinfeld and a couple of meals.

I’m getting there, though. And in the meantime I have been prescribed Citalopram, an SSRI anti-depressant. One of the things I found with Elvanse – something I was perhaps over-eager to blame on caffeine a few months ago – was that once it wasn’t in my system, I realised how much depression it had been covering up. Like… so much. And so now I’m trying in earnest to attend to that.

It’s the third time in my life I’ve taken anti-depressants. The other two times (10 years ago and 3 years ago) they worked so well that – ha! – I convinced myself I didn’t need them any more after six months because I was feeling so much better. This time I think I’ll give them a lot longer. They work for me.

I’ve also been doing something I didn’t do the other times I took anti-depressants – taking advantage of an online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) course. It’s enlightening – frighteningly so, actually. I’m seeing just how irrational and illogical and unhelpful 99% of my thoughts are. I sit there nodding at my screen and wondering whether to laugh or cry. It’d be funny if it weren’t so… no, it’s mostly just funny.

Well, I know you didn’t ask, but I thought I’d share what’s been going on with me. The only lesson I hope you take away is that your body (which of course includes your brain) is an incredibly complex mechanism, one that is always trying to return to some kind of equilibrium, and that through no fault of your own all sorts of things can go awry with it.

Sometimes drugs work. Sometimes they don’t. But try – with your doctor – to judge whether or not they’re for you by results, not with a value judgment. You’re not weak if you take them, you’re not strong if you don’t. If you were ill in any other way, you wouldn’t refuse treatment. Why is your mind any different?

Remember: you don’t get extra points for recovering without help. You just make it harder on yourself and those around you, and you make it far less likely that you actually will recover.

Peace.

Drop Your Mask

STANLEY: [imitating Dr. Neuman] That’s correct, Wendy. We all wear masks, metaphorically speaking.

[Stanley laughs, puts on mask, it starts to suck on his face and he pulls it off]

STANLEY: [bewildered] Yeah, right.

Stanley Ipkiss in “The Mask”

You wear one. I wear one. The check-out girl at Tesco wears one. It is our innate human nature to don the appropriate disguise for whatever situation we find ourselves in, and – to a point – there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.

Sometimes we’re trying to act cooler than we feel on the inside. Sometimes we’re trying to pretend we’re not as excited as we are on the inside. Or as scared. Or as in love. Yada yada yada… masks.

We need masks. Society couldn’t function if everybody just went around wearing their hearts on their sleeves all day every day. It’d be exhausting. And yet…

Do you have any idea just how many people are waiting for you to drop your mask?

Do you know how many people’s days it would make if just for once you led with the real you, the proper you, the deep-down you, instead of the socially-acceptable version of you?

It’d make my day, for a start. If there’s one thing I’m never going to wish there were more of, it’s people living in fear of their own shadow. People who pretend to be what they think “the world” wants them to be. Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t want that – I’ve seen enough of it already! I want to see some originality! Some edge! Maybe I’ll love you for it, maybe I’ll hate you for it. Who knows?! Variety is the spice of life!

Of course, this path is not without its consequences. Fortunately, though, they are good consequences.

Probably the “worst” thing that will happen is that some people will tell you you’ve changed, or ask you why you’re being “weird” all of a sudden, or mock you for daring to express your individuality. THIS IS A GOOD SIGN. Fuck ’em. Seriously. They’re not worth changing for. You’ll find new and better people on the other side.

And if they should cry “disloyal”, or try to guilt you by reminding you of all the things they’ve done for you in the past, laugh in their stupid faces. They want you to live a lie because your truth reminds them too much of the lie they’re living. That’s on them, not you.

Oh, and I haven’t mentioned the “best” thing about this which is… just a really, really cool feeling. I was tempted to call it “inner peace”, but that sounds unnecessarily spiritual. You’ll feel “cool.” That about sums it up.

Make Peace With the Problem

Every problem has a solution. Not in the way you think, though.

There are times, of course, when the proper solution is indeed a struggle. A quasi-Sisyphean task. Some hurdle to be overcome, some summit to be reached, some hard-won victory to be struggled towards.

Surprisingly often, though, the better solution is to simply stop resisting the problem. Accept it for what it is. Make peace with it. Learn to live with it.

It’s a lot harder to do, and it’s a whole lot less glamorous. But if it works, who cares?

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

Sun Tzu – “The Art of War”

Your Best Days Are in Front of You

“Through Nietzsche, I discovered amor fati. I just fell in love with the concept because the power that you can have in life of accepting your fate is so immense that it’s almost hard to fathom. You feel that everything happens for a purpose, and that it is up to you to make this purpose something positive and active.”

Robert Greene – interview with Daily Stoic

The best songs haven’t been written yet, and the best stories are yet to be told.

And you might not believe this, but all your best days are in front of you. Or at least, they could be, if you would only believe it.

The future won’t be perfect. Far from it. Most things won’t go the way you think they will, or the way you want them to. There’s no guarantee that Life won’t dump steaming pile after steaming pile of shit all over you. It’s out of your hands.

But you know what’s in your hands? The story you tell yourself about it.

Whatever comes next, you can decide in advance to love it. To make use of it. To let it shape you into a better person. Amor Fati. Love fate.

Your best days are in front of you, if you let them be.

It’s What You Do

It’s not what you know. Or what you don’t know. It’s what you do with what you know.

It’s not how much you have. Or how much you don’t have. It’s what you do with what you have.

It’s not about who you are. Or who you aren’t. It’s what you do with who you are.

It’s what you do. All else is noise.

We Are Here for Each Other

Asking for help is a sign of strength. It is not, nor will it ever be, an admission of weakness.

It takes courage. It takes humility. It takes a certain amount of getting over yourself, and as such, it is to be admired.

What’s weak, on the other hand – not to mention tragic – is having such a fragile ego that you insist on carrying the world on your own shoulders, because you just can’t bear to share the credit. You would rather be miserable alone than happy together.

We are here for each other. No exceptions. If you need help, ask for help. You’ll be surprised how often and how willingly it is given if you will simply open your mouth.

“Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”

Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations” Book 6

You Are Richer for Giving

“No one has ever become poor by giving.”

Anne Frank

If you smile at somebody on the street, does it cost you anything? That is, when the transaction is over, are you left with less than you started?

Of course not.

Okay, but what about the other person? Do they gain anything from your smile? Are they better off than they were before?

Yes, they are.

You can choose to make life really complicated. You can obsess over what is yours and what is not and who deserves your generosity and who doesn’t…

Or you can base your life around these sorts of transactions – the kind where you give whatever you have, even if it is just a smile, and are better off for doing so.

You are richer for giving, not for receiving.

There Are Other Business Models, You Know

It was five, maybe six years ago now. I was in my loft on Ecclesall Road whinging to the girl I was going out with about how many fucking adverts there were on whatever website I was reading. It was shocking – you could barely see the content for all the “One Weird Tip To Shed Body Fat” and “Meet Singles In Your Area” pop-ups.

She let me happily whinge for a while, and then she walked over and quietly installed Ad-Blocker on my computer.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Ever since my early teens, I’d seen adverts as some kind of necessary evil. The way of the world. And now I was rid of them. Possibly forever.

Well, not so fast. This honeymoon period lasted for a while, but eventually businesses cottoned on, and they started a trend which continues to this day. Now, should you have the audacity to use ad-blocking software, the moment you click onto many websites, you are instantly confronted with a pop-up message – they know what you’re up to. And, buddy, you ain’t going to get away with it this time.

Except they don’t say it like that. No. They try to tug on your heart-strings. They give you this sob story about how they’re just regular Joes like you and me, and they depend on advertising income to keep their business afloat. So please disable your software. Do it for us. Weep weep.

By itself, that sort of light emotional manipulation might be easy to stomach. The bit that really sticks in my teeth, however, is the way they then try to guilt you into feeling as though you are the one doing something wrong and immoral for not wanting to be advertised to. The way they tell it, we had a deal with these businesses, and when we use ad-blocking software, we’re welching on the deal. We’re not keeping up our end of the agreement.

Here’s my response: You can cut that shit right now.

There was no agreement. It’s not our fault that you chose to operate with a rickety business model.

I’m reminded of this, from comedian Louis CK:

Of course, foreigners steal your job.

But maybe, if someone without contacts, money, or speaking the language steals your job, you’re shit.

Louis CK

If the future of your business depends on shoving adverts in your users’ faces, subtly detracting from their experience, walking that fine line between pissing them off just enough to make some ad money but not so much that they give up on you…

Maybe your business deserves to go tits up. I’m not saying I want it to. I hope it doesn’t, for your sake. But if you aren’t willing to meet us halfway, and try some non-invasive, non-distracting, non-annoying way of paying your bills, I won’t lose too much sleep when it does.

There are other business models. Don’t be lazy. Find them. Create them. Most of all, don’t you dare treat your customers like criminals for not wanting to be advertised to. It’s pathetic.

Your Ego Has It in for You

Some things never go out of style.

Here’s an example: To extol the virtues of “stop caring so much what other people think” has been fashionable for at least two thousand years, when Marcus Aurelius was scribbling such things in his diaries, and it remains so to the present day, when people like Oliver Manning make it the cornerstore of their writing.

I don’t do that consciously, I must say, but I’m glad I do it nonetheless – I think it’s vitally important advice and I don’t think any one of us can be reminded of it enough. Still, having said all that, I don’t think developing an ignorance towards what other people think is going far enough. I think there’s actually another even more crucial step in the process.

Whilst you’re at it, stop caring so much what you think.

Now, when I say “you”, I am not referring to you in your totality – of course you should care what you think. The right parts of you, that is.

What I’m recommending you ignore is one very specific part of you – your ego. The part of you that feels scarce, that feels insecure, that obsessively measures and frets over your position on the social hierarchy, that takes everything personally, that thinks there are winners and losers…

Fuck that guy, basically. He doesn’t deserve a second of your consideration. He’s only out to do you harm, and if anything, listening to him is actually more dangerous than listening to other people, because he gets in through the back-door – he talks in your voice, he uses your patois, he makes you think that he is you. He’s not. He’s an imposter. Fuck that guy.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say this: If you’re going to bother to erect a wall against what other people think of you, but you’re still going to cater everything you do towards not upsetting your ego… then don’t bother with the first one. Save yourself the effort. It’s the equivalent of trying to lose weight by ordering a Diet Coke… to drink alongside your super-size Big Mac meal.

Of course, there is a “you” to whom it is wise to aim your intentions, and that is your soul. Your highest self. The still, small voice inside you. Your conscience. Whatever you want it to call it. We’ve all got one.

Get her on your side. Let her steer the ship. And ignore everybody else, including your ego.

Depression and Inner Currency

You ever gone into a shop, seen something you want, but known full well you didn’t have the money to buy it?

That’s what being depressed is like.

You see the laundry in the hamper. You see your work on the desk. You see your running shoes. You see the fruit bowl. You see your messy bedroom.

And yet… you literally can’t do anything about these things. Whatever inner currency it is that would sort them out, you’re broke.

It’s a shitty place to be. But if you’re not careful, you can make it even worse. Because when you see all these things that you feel powerless to do anything about, that even thinking about becomes overwhelming, it’s tempting to bow out completely. And… that’s never going to help.

I know that when I’m in this sort of mode, my tendency is to see it very black-and-white, very all-or-nothing. To go back to the shopping analogy, it’s as if I look in my basket, and if I can’t afford everything, I decide I can’t afford anything.

This is a mistake. Fortunately, there’s another way. One that I’ve found much more useful. It goes like this: “Okay, I don’t have as much of this inner currency as I’d like, or as I sometimes I have, but I’m not down to zero yet. How much do I have? And what could I spend it on?”

Spend what you have, and you will have more to spend. It’s just like the Parable of the Talents. Will your depression run for hills just like that? No. Sorry. But you will feel relief.

Do the best you can in this moment, and realise that that’s all you can ever do.

Obsessive-Compulsive Media Usage

The cucumber is bitter? Throw it out.

There are brambles in the path? Then go around them.

That’s all you need to know. Nothing more.

Marcus Aurelius

Have you ever fancied someone and then gone right off them once you got to know them? Of course you have.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

In my quest for a life of meaning, I’ve found time and time again that what you expect something to be like is utterly irrelevant. So is whatever society tells you the thing is meant to be like. Only one thing matters: what the thing actually shows itself to be like.

For example, many people see themselves as performing some kind of important civic duty by slavishly consuming “the news” every day. They think it makes them “informed” and “clued-up.” Now, it’s not for me to say whether they’re right or wrong. But I would ask them this: “Does this habit improve or destroy your quality of life?”

Similarly, many people claim to hate Facebook or Twitter, or at least to see through them, but continue to compulsively use these services. They say they want to “stay in touch with people” and “keep up-to-date.” Again, fine. But I’ll ask them again: “Does this habit improve or destroy your quality of life?”

Forget about what you expect them to be like, or what society says they’re meant to be like. Pay attention to what they show themselves to be, and then act accordingly.

If the news brings you down, then take a fucking break from it. Go for a walk. Read a book. Do all the things you claim not to have the time for. After a week, ask yourself if your experience of life has become better or worse.

If your social media usage is bringing you down, uninstall the apps. If you actually care about keeping in touch with people, call them. They’ll be happier to hear from you than to see some shitty photo of you pretending how great your life is.

The news, and the social media platforms, are not evil in and of themselves. What is evil is slavish addictions that lessen your quality of life whilst keeping you in denial of what’s going on. Just because these things exist, and just because the general population are becoming unblinking slaves to them, there is no cosmic law that says you have to join them.

If being a passive pawn in the media game isn’t bringing you the life you thought it would, re-assess. Live your life on your own terms.

If It Ain’t Scary, It Ain’t Life

Fear is an invitation to greater meaning, not a warning against danger. And the more meaningful something is to you, the more fear you will feel when you contemplate pursuing it.

Doesn’t matter what it is. Could be as huge as asking someone to marry you. Could be as tiny as choosing which film to watch tonight. If it’s something your soul genuinely wants, it will scare you.

If, on the other hand, you feel no fear or trepidation whatsoever going into some new enterprise – big or small – then please realise you haven’t dodged the draft. You haven’t hacked life. You’re not superhuman. You’re simply playing it much too safe. You’re staying inside your comfort zone. You haven’t set your “meaning” target nearly high enough. You’re living an empty shadow of the life you could be living.

Remember: outside of genuine physical danger, fear is a signal to advance, not to retreat. If something doesn’t give you the willies, then whilst it might be a fun diversion and a nice way to waste some time, it won’t make you grow. Only ever doing within your comfort zone will keep you stuck and stagnant.

So, as horrendously uncomfortable as it sounds, you should set your sights only on those things that scare the living shit out of you, and then set about conquering them.

It won’t be easy. Ever. But then again, neither is life as a coward.

The way I see it, if I’m going to have to eat a shit sandwich either way, I’d prefer the version where I at least get some desert afterwards.

Get Your Hands Dirty

Resistance is always cropping up for me in new and unexpected ways.

Now, sometimes the ways it crops up actually are new. But that’s rare. More often, they are in fact age-old ways that I am only just now coming round to noticing. One such way is the enormous resistance I feel to just diving in and exploring anything I get curious about.

I don’t fully understand it, but I have a theory. Some part of me seems hell-bent on keeping things imaginary. Because when things are strictly imaginary, they can’t let you down. They can be as perfect as your imagination allows. But in the real world, there is always the risk that they will fall short of this perfection.

And so the vast majority of ideas I have are killed in the womb. My fear of “mucking it up” beyond repair is such that it’s safer never getting started. So afraid am I of starting the process off “wrong” – as if that were possible – and not knowing how I would correct course, that I often resort to dreaming instead of doing.

For example, I might get a vague idea in my head for a song. Now, it’s not a song yet – not until I spend some time turning it into one. To get from no song to song, something has to happen – I must explore my idea, try out some chords, try out some lyrics, and via trial and error, include and exclude the right elements until I have a song.

And of course, there is zero chance that a song will just shoot out of me fully formed and perfect, like some kind of auditory immaculate conception. There will be mistakes. There will be dead ends. I might work for weeks thinking it’s one thing and find out I’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

And that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.

It’s certainly more comfortable to keep something in your head as a beautiful potential, and never risk destroying your perfect illusion by diving in and getting your hands dirty. Unfortunately, that comfort, the very thing that you feel is keeping you safe, is keeping you stuck.

As Steven Pressfield says, “Resistance is always lying and it’s always of shit.” So what’s the big lie here?

The big lie is that it’s better to stay on the sidelines where you can’t get hurt, and it’s better to keep your beautiful illusions in their shrink-wrap rather than risk letting “reality” ruin them.

But the truth is that so long as you do this, they can never be more than illusions. At some point you have to dive in and risk fucking it all up. Life was meant to be lived, not imagined. But that’s okay, because it is impossible to “ruin” your work by trying to do your work. What a ludicrous idea that would be!

It is possible, however, when you try something that doesn’t work first time, that you feel you have taken a step backwards. But you haven’t. You’ve just become more aligned with reality – you can now see things more clearly than you could before.

Keep going. Every second spent working on something brings you closer to its attainment, even when it doesn’t look that way. It is impossible to move backwards.

So stop worrying and get your hands dirty. I will.

You’re Not Done For. You’re Not Even Close.

I don’t watch films for fun. I watch them to learn something.

Sure, I enjoy them – the good ones for their quality, the bad ones for their cringiness – but if all I wanted was fun, I wouldn’t watch a film. I’d watch YouTube clips of old ladies falling over at weddings and showing their bloomers, or out-takes from The Office, or even read my Donald Trump poetry book.

Those things would be fun for a while, but they wouldn’t teach me much, and they wouldn’t stay with me like a good film does. Because what films manage to do (and good TV, I should add) is nothing short of magic: They teach me without me even realising I’m being taught. The audio-visual equivalent of wrapping your dog’s worming tablet in a slice of wafer-thin ham to trick it.

I’ve learnt a lot of things from watching films, but perhaps the most meaningful one is the universal lesson that usually comes around two-thirds of the way in:

Just when you think you’ve failed more than you ever imagined possible, you’re about to succeed.

Just when you think you’ve hit your breaking point, you’re on the verge of becoming someone permanently better than you were yesterday.

Just when you think you can’t possibly go any further, you’re about to prove to yourself how wrong you are.

And just when you think the smart and rational thing to do is give up on your quest, you can be sure that that’s just your brain fucking with you. Don’t take it personally – your brain can’t help it. But don’t listen to it, either. It doesn’t know what it wants.

In short: when you think you’re done for, you’re not done for. You’re not even close.

Give Your Brain a Chance

I’ve noticed how rappers love to talk about “the streets”. They like to remind us, from their mansions, that even if they have been through some kind of wannabe-Tony-Montana rise to power, even if they do make more in an hour than you do in a year, even if they are gleefully sucking that corporate shlong they once renounced, that deep down, they’re just like you and me – they haven’t forgotten where they came from.

I’m not falling for it. As far as I’m concerned, they’re the man now. Pretending to be anything but just embarrasses the both of us. However, I’m totally on-board with one thing – it’s good, in moments of personal crisis, to look back at where you came from.

I’m a human being.

That means that, even if things have changed a lot over the last few centuries, the vast majority of my ancestors – thousands of years of them, in fact – lived in fairly small tribes. Their brains had to keep track of around 150 people, and what made that even easier was the fact that those 150 people were in close physical proximity almost all the time.

Contrast that with today. How many people are you asking your brain to keep track of? You’ve got the people you live with, you’ve got the people you know socially, you’ve got the people you’d consider an acquaintance, not to mention all the public figures you’ve been conditioned to give a second thought to…

What’s the number? Hundreds? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands?

Who cares? My point is that it’s a lot. It’s a whole lot more than your brain evolved to be able to handle. And to top it all off, youre brain is trying to keep track of the vast majority of them via a screen, rather than via flesh and blood.

Is it any wonder we’re confused from time to time?

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I might moan about the modern world sometimes, but I love it, even with all its problems. I’m not suggesting for one solitary second that we close ourselves off or shut our borders or burn bridges with one another.

However, just in the same way that you can’t have a party every single night without eventually getting sick of it, your brain needs a rest sometimes. So take a break every now and then. Switch off your phone. Switch off the TV. Go interact with some humans – at a safe distance, of course.

Give your brain a chance.

Distracting Your Inner Critic

I don’t know what goes on in anybody else’s head but mine.

Having said that, I don’t think I’m alone in having a pretty fierce inner critic that resides over pretty much everything I think, say, or do. A malevolent force, it judges me tirelessly, all day building to a fever pitch, where it saturates me with all the reasons I am shit.

An inner critic like this can be annoying at the best of times, like trying to run a race with achey legs. At the worst, it’s completely debiliating. Like trying to run a race with a sumo wrestler sat on you.

But if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself constantly looking for ways to deal with this. “How do I shut this bastard up?” More dangerously, imagining some future utopia where it can’t get to you. “If I could just get rid of him once and for all, I could finally do all those things I’ve been wanting to do…”

You know, it’s not that I enjoy disabusing you of beautiful notions. I do it for your benefit. So please believe me, that shit is never going to happen. The first thing to realise about your inner critic is that – short of getting a lobotomy – you are never going to wake up oe day and be completely free of it. It’s a critter that keeps coming on. Plus, if you’ve seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ll know that getting a lobotomy comes with its own troubles. I’d take the inner critic, personally.

Okay, so it’s never going to completely disappear. Then, I guess, that means it’s time to get the gloves on? If you’re going to have to fight it your whole life, might as well start now, right? Not so much, no.

Because the second thing to realise about your inner critic is that it’s like a wasp – the more you try to fight it, the angrier it gets, and the more havoc it wreaks. So stop fighting it. Stop struggling against it. Every ounce of effort you spend directly opposing your inner critic only serves to make you weaker, and it stronger.

But what then? Well, in my experience, there’s only one way to keep your inner critic at bay: Distract it. And I’ll give you an example of how I do it.

Every morning before I have my breakfast, I practice my Danish on my phone with the Duolingo app. And something I’ve come to realise is that if I don’t have the TV on, or a podcast, or some music, it takes roughly two minutes for me to want to give up and do something else.

By that time, my inner critic has piped up and is telling me there’s no point in studying Danish and I’m a fool to bother. It’s reminding me of all the things I forgot to get done yesterday – and making me feel guilty about them – and it’s reminding me of all the things I need to do today – and making me feel stressed about them. It is completely drowning out the part of me that is just trying to focus on that strange Nordic language.

And yet if I put something on in the background – it’s been Seinfeld, recently – I’ll happily work on my Danish for quarter of an hour, twenty minutes, sometimes more than half an hour will go by without me even realising. My inner critic has left the building. Or at least, it might as well have, because it’s not bothering me.

Now, I don’t care if this flies in the face of traditional productivity advice, or if it doesn’t square with your favourite theories about how the mind and the brain are supposed to work. All I care about is the results. And I’ve come to find that a lot of results come not as a function of trying really hard, or fighting my inner critic, but just distracting it for a while.

Think about it this way – shouting “Look over there!” at your enemy is a lot easier than trying to ignore them, or having a fight with them.

Sorry, Conor.

Just as lockdown started, my friend Conor and I recorded five episodes for a new podcast called “Music Is The Best.” Each one was over an hour long, about some different aspect of being a musician, and when I listened back to them I was really pleased with what had come out of our innocent mouths.

And then, for no particular reason, I let them sit on my hard-drive gathering dust for a few months.

Well, the wait – for the thing you didn’t even know you were waiting for – is over. If you want to hear two incredibly unsigned musicians air their particular grievances and put the world of music to rights, you’ll love this.

Our first episode is called “When Conor Met Oliver”, and that’s exactly how it starts, although as you’ll hear, it doesn’t take long veer off on tangent after tangent.

Enjoy.

Drop It

I know people that cannot bear to be single. A few of them, actually.

They wouldn’t dream, for instance, of breaking up with someone – no matter how miserable they were – if they didn’t already have somebody else lined up to take their place.

I always thought this was insanity and laughed about these idiots behind their backs, until I had a humble moment, and noticed that I’m exactly the same way when it comes to setting goals.

You see, it comforts me to have some kind of arbitrary goal that I’m aiming for, and no matter how stressed and obligated the thought of the goal makes me, I have always assumed for some reason that this was better than having no goal at all.

Well, as I’m always discovering, I am completely full of shit.

Since then, I’ve slowly tried to reframe how I view goals. I don’t oppose them now. But just as I would definitely rather be single than be with somebody who didn’t make me feel good, I would definitely rather have no goal than a goal that made me feel uninspired and negative every time I thought about it.

The thing is, we’ve been lied to by the people who tried to sell us on setting goals. They told us that goals were about the future. But goals are not about the future. Goals are about the present. If a goal makes you feel good when you think about it in the present, it’s a good goal – however dumb it looks on paper. And if it makes you feel overwhelmed and stressed when you think about it in the present, it’s a bad goal – however great it looks on paper.

So, I don’t care if it’s a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a big, audacious goal – if it doesn’t improve your present moment, drop that shit.

The Problem Is the Problem

When you can’t do something, no matter how long you’ve been at it, it can be quite tempting to frame yourself as the problem.

You can decide to take it personally. To believe that the universe is out to get you. You can pour all this poison in both your ears about how you’ll never be able to do it and how you were an idiot for ever believing you had a chance.

Or instead, you can simply see the problem as the problem. And you’re just you.

You can decide that the universe is indifferent. That you simply haven’t found the way that works for you yet. You can tell yourself that you’re a human and as such you have certain strengths and certain weaknesses, and that if you keep at it – changing your approach where necessary – you’ll eventually get it.

Neither mindset guarantees success, but the first one guarantees failure.