Your Worst and Their Best

Would you be happier if you stopped comparing yourself to other people?

Well, yeah, probably. But it’s a dumb question. You can’t help it. You’re always going to. You’re a human being – it is in your nature. And done in a healthy way, I don’t see anything too dangerous about it.

But then social media steps in to muddy the waters. Because what I do see something wrong with – and what these platforms make all too easy – is comparing the worst of your life with the best of somebody else’s.

The problem, I suppose, is that whilst you’re present for every single moment of your life – for better or for worse – you only get invited to see the highlight reel of everybody else’s. So all your embarrassments, all your failed intentions, all your dark thoughts… well, everybody has those. It’s just you don’t normally get to hear about everybody else’s.

And if you’re not careful, you start to compare the very real version of yourself – that you are all too intimate with – to the artificially perfect version of the people you know, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who comes out on top.

But fortunately, deep down, you know the truth. You know that your life isn’t so awful, and that their life isn’t so perfect. You just have to remember to always take what you see online with a pinch of salt. I don’t want you feeling bad about yourself for no good reason.

Look Around You

You’re not lost. You just don’t quite have your bearings yet.

Whenever your world changes, a certain amount of catching up is necessary. Too much change too quickly, and you can start to feel really lost at sea. The meaning of life can seem further and further from you.

If it helps, we’re all going through that. Perhaps more equally than we ever have.

Look around you. Breathe in whatever it is you see. Slowly, piece by piece, your mind will start to make sense of it.

You’re not lost. You just don’t quite have your bearings yet.

There Is No Competition

If, in order for you to win, someone else has to lose, you’re getting life all wrong.

You’re inventing competition where there is none. You’re pretending that there’s one ladder for everybody to climb and only so many rungs. Saddest of all, you’re setting yourself up to ultimately lose, even if you happen to win in the short-term.

The fact is that there is something that only you can offer to the world. And at that thing, whatever it might be, you have no competition. There is nobody better than you. There is nobody more perfectly suited to being you than you. Let that sink in.

Where it matters, there is no competition whatsoever. Never has been. Unless you invent it, that is.

When Things Don’t Go Your Way

You don’t get hurt when things don’t go your way. You get hurt when you walk around believing that everything should go your way, and that when it doesn’t, some great cosmic injustice must have occured.

The thing you don’t realise is that you can handle whatever Fate throws at you. Honestly. You have no idea what you’re capable of. And when your happiness depends on everything turning out a really specific way, you rob yourself of the chance to find out.

Be like the child who finds a way to appreciate whatever he gets for Christmas, not the one who throws a tantrum because he didn’t get exactly what he demanded from Santa.

Everybody hates that kid.

The Problem With Kindness

The problem with kindess is that we’ve collectively decided to treat it like a fossil fuel.

We see kindness as a scarce resource. We tell ourselves there is only so much kindess to go around, and that one day, unless we’re careful, it will run out. We think that to be conservative with our kindness makes us intelligent.

We could not be further from the truth.

Kindness begets kindess. It’s not a fossil fuel. There is an infinite amount of it in the universe and it is available to one and all. The only way to run out is to hoard it, to be miserly with it. On the other hand, if you want to create more kindness, you can do so right this very second. Be kind to someone. Start the wheel turning. That’s all it takes.

You’ll soon discover just how backwards we’ve got it.

“Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Process Is Its Own Reward

Some people can effortlessly lift their leg up and put it behind their head. If those people are a “10”, then I am very much a “1”.

My body is incredibly tight and stiff and it always has been. I’ve wanted to do something about it since I was about 17, but I never found a regimen or a routine that I could keep up with long enough to make a difference, and to be honest, I suppose I didn’t really care about it either. Then when I was in Denmark last week, one of Emma’s aunts winced as she saw me trying to touch my toes (I just measured it – if I strain, the closest I can get is 20cm from index finger to big toe.) She sent me a link for a yoga video class that might help me loosen up.

Back in England, I tried the yoga class, and immediately fell in love, and so for the last few days I’ve been doing a class every morning, and I honestly can’t see any good reason – barring unforeseen broken limbs – why I wouldn’t start every day like this from now on.

The most interesting thing for me, though – and the most ironic – is that after just a few days of yoga classes, I’ve sort of stopped caring if I ever do touch my toes. I honestly don’t care if I stay just as inflexible as I am now forever. The process is its own reward. And really, that’s the point I want to make today.

Yes, in life there are going to be certain moments when focusing on the process is not in fact the most helpful thing, and all that truly matters is getting a particular outcome. In times like these, I suppose you just have to suck it up and get on with it, however mixed up you might feel inside, however much you might feel like you’re fighting your nature.

But you know what? That’s incredibly rare. The longer I live, and the more I rack my brains, the harder it is for me to find an example where it’s more helpful to obsess over a particular outcome than to focus on the process.

Know where you want to go, sure, but then give yourself over to the process. Let the process be its own reward, and you’ll be happier whether or not you get where you originally wanted to go.

Bad Days Teach

I had a good day today. A “can’t complain” kind of a day. I caught myself wishing all my days were like this. The longer I thought about it, though, the smaller my wish became.

I sat and wondered if I would have even noticed today’s goodness were it not for all the bad days I’ve had. And I doubted it very much.

Bad days suck, of course. Nobody wants one. But bad days teach, too.

They teach you how to have a good day.

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potters oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirits the very wood that was hollowed with knives?”

Kahlil Gibran – “The Prophet”

Life Is Long If You Know How to Use It

“We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it…

Life is long if you know how to use it.”

Seneca – “On The Shortness of Life”

Time is not like money. You can’t earn time. You can’t spend time. You can’t hoard time.

Imagine, for example, feeling a bit strapped for time, and deciding to apply for a second job to try and earn a few more hours a week, or going on eBay to sell some of your old jewelry in exchange for an extra day. Doesn’t happen.

Or imagine, on the other hand, having way more time on your hands than you knew what to do with, and going to a stock-broker and asking him to invest it for you, to turn your original time into even more time. That’s not a thing either, nor will it ever be.

No, time is a unique kind of a resource, in that we have absolutely zero control over it. Nothing we do has any effect on time whatsoever. It’s just there, in the background, ticking along, completely independent of us. What we do have some control over, though, is what we’re doing as it ticks along.

And, at the risk of being bluntly binary about the whole thing, we’re doing one of two things: either we’re making wise use of the time that’s passing, or we’re wasting it.

If we’re doing something worthwhile with our time, our life expands, or at least it seems to. Days feels fuller, somehow. We might focus on fewer things, but give ourselves more deeply to them. Interestingly, when we use time properly, desperately amassing all the other resources loses its appeal.

If we’re wasting time though, the complete opposite happens. Our life shrinks. There is a hollow emptiness at the core of everything that we do, and the more we try to plug this void with indiscriminate busyness, with buying things we don’t need, and with stuffing our faces, the emptier we feel.

Now, I don’t know what constitutes a wise use of time versus a waste of time for you. That’s a very personal and idiosyncratic thing. But I would say that if you’ve never really thought about it, then do. A little subtraction here and a little addition there can make a world of difference.

It’s No Choice at All

You know, there’s every chance that what they’re saying about you is true.

Maybe you are being ridiculous. Maybe you are being selfish. Maybe you are being inconsiderate. Maybe you should rein it in a little. Maybe you do need to take a reality check.

But I ask you this…

Given the choice, would you not rather live your own life, a real life, a bold adventure, guided by your own conscience, with all its attendant ups and downs and twists and turns…

… than eke out some sort of quasi-ovine existence, forever chasing the moving target that is other people’s approval, doing everything in your power never to upset or offend their delicate natures, your soul slowly shriveling inside you as you achingly and obsequiously cater to their fickle whims?

You don’t have to imagine that choice. That’s a real choice. That’s the real choice that every human being has the duty to make, in every moment of every day. “Am I going to honour my conscience – and in doing so honour the greater good – or am I going to honour the egos of those around me?” It’s no choice at all.

Maybe I am being dramatic. I can live with that. Because I’m telling the truth.

All You Need Is Now

I try not to let them. But try as I might, certain habits just have a way of keeping themselves alive.

For example, when I haven’t a lot going on, I find myself day-dreaming, drifting back in time to a particular kind of memory – moments from my past where I was unusually happy, or in the throes of some passion, or operating for the briefest of candles with the lightness of a feather.

I sit and I think. And I long. And I wish that I could – whilst keeping hold of everything I’ve been through since then – go back to those moments and relive the way I felt back then, which I remember as being so delicious as to be untrue.

But I’m not a complete fool, and I really try my hardest to stop this habit in its tracks.

I gently remind myself, with reference to those glorious, sun-baked memories, that that was then, and that this is now. And that even if I am remembering my past with total acuity – something on which I wouldn’t put money – pining for those moments will do nothing to bring them back.

I remind myself that nobody, not even me, can be alive to the genuine wonders of the present moment if they are constantly comparing it to rose-tinted memories, and getting all sullen when they fail to live up to those impossible expectations.

Better, I tell myself, to say thank you yesterday’s good times, and to be open to whatever today has to bring. Better to be so in love with the present you have no use for the past.

“Die to the past every moment. You don’t need it. Only refer to it when it is absolutely relevant to the present. Feel the power of this moment and the fullness of Being.”

Eckhart Tolle – “The Power of Now”

I Am Not My Country

I’m still in Denmark, for one more day. Since I met Emma in 2016, we’ve been coming over to visit her family about twice every year. And ever since the first time, which was days after the Brexit referendum, the Danes have been asking me, “Hey, Oliver, what the hell is going on with you guys?”

I tell them I don’t know. I tell them I voted to remain. I tell them it gets more and more embarrassing to call myself British every day, because of what people – who I’d hesitate to rescue from a burning building – have done to that word.

Most of all, I make damn sure they know the circumstances under which that referendum was held. And I make sure that they know the British people were not stupid, nor ignorant, but misled. Lied to. Made to hate the EU for things it hadn’t done. Promised untold future prosperity. Used as pawns in a game to keep the Conservative party together. I tell them that the British people became, on June 23rd 2016, turkeys voting for Christmas.

It hasn’t felt good to be British for a long time. But that’s okay, because, fortunately, I am not my country.

I am not my country. I am a consciousness inhabiting the body of a great ape, that just happened, by sheer chance, to be born on a particular bit of land. And that particular bit of land was – at that particular moment in world history – Britain. So if I’m brain-dead enough to let that accident define me, if I let the country of my birth dictate who I am and what I do with my life, well then I deserve to be shat upon by Etonians and Murdochs, quite frankly.

But as it happens, I am not my country, and that means that nothing the Brexiters do can touch me where it counts. They can screw up the country. They can turn people against each other. They can embarrass themselves on the world stage. But they cannot stop me trying to be a good person. They cannot stop me from seeking the truth. They cannot stop me trying to make the world a more beautiful place. Oh, they can try. But they will not succeed. Because I am not one of their suckers, and there are a million things I would more readily defend than their idea of “Britain.”

The truth is that you don’t get to choose where you’re born. But nobody is born a blind nationalist. That is always a choice, and of all the choices you could make, it’s a remarkably stupid choice. And if it’s the choice you make, then good luck to you – you deserve every single shitty consequence of that choice.

I am not my country. And thank God for that.

The Utter Futility of Tough Love

I used to believe in tough love. Not toward other people particularly, but certainly toward myself.

For years, for almost my entire life, I carried around with me the attitude that if I could only shame myself enough, push myself enough, cajole myself enough, bully myself enough, beat myself black and blue enough… that someday I would emerge from my cocoon of self-loathing, and flutter away on wings of self-love.

I thought I could defeat hate with more hate. I don’t believe that shit any more.

What I believe instead is that the behaviour that I labelled as “tough love” was, at the end of the day, just abuse. I might have given it a prettier name, but it amounted to the same thing in the end. And this behaviour certainly didn’t come from a place of love, but of fear.

The other thing I realised as I dug further into this, is that the kind of mad and useless thing I was practicing on myself is rampant in the way we deal with each other.

We are petrified of being too nice, too caring, too compassionate, too generous, for fear that we will raise a generation of sissies who can’t stand up for themselves. Fuck off. Do you think a Boris Johnson or a Donald Trump are created because people in their early lives were too nice, caring, compassionate, or generous? I don’t.

I don’t envision a world where we helicopter parent, or where put a foam cushion over all the sharp edges, or where we have to ask for consent before we smile at somebody. But I do envision a world where we recognise the difference between genuine tough love – giving constructive, realistic and sometimes harsh advice – and just being an asshole.

And that better world starts with the way you treat yourself.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

You’ve got the eggs, the butter, the salt, the pepper, the pan, the heat…

But there’s one more thing standing in the way of you and a delicious plate of scrambled eggs. And that secret ingredient is time.

Sometimes, you need to do something. To act. To inflict your will on the molecules around you.

More often, however, you don’t. You need to stop. You need to wait. You need to let time work its magic on your creations.

Don’t just do something, stand there.

Reacting and Responding

Things come at you from the outside. From the inside, too. All day long.

You don’t control your reactions to them. No matter how vigilant you stay, there are buttons inside you just waiting to be pushed. You can’t stand in the way of them like you would a speeding bullet.

But you do control your responses. Or rather, you can, if you choose to.

You can’t help getting mad at someone who lets you down, for example. But you can help staying mad at them. You can help holding a grudge. You can help using that person’s little digression as an excuse for you to be an asshole.

Own your responses. Practice them. Perfect them. And let go of your reactions, which you never had any chance of controlling in the first place.

The Dream or The Person

If you dare to have dreams, or worse, if you dare to start acting on your dreams, then at some point somebody will tell you to get your head out of the clouds. To come back down to Earth. That you need to be more “realistic.”

They might even do it from a good place, like not wanting to see you get hurt or be disappointed. Or they might do it from a bad place, like feeling threatened at the thought of your dream actually coming true for you. But from wherever they do it, the intention is always the same: to knock you down a peg, to put you in your place, to stop you getting above your station.

Now, I could simply say “don’t listen to them.” But (a) that’s blindingly obvious, and (b) it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Because the root of the problem isn’t that these people try to tamp down your ambitions and make you conform. That’s bad enough. No, the root of the problem is that they attempt to paint you and your worldview as naive and cock-eyed, and themselves and their worldview as rational and realistic. And sometimes they do it so convincingly that you are tempted to fall for it.

DON’T. Don’t fall for it.

Negative people are not more realistic than positive people. Pessemistic people are not more rational than optimistic people. If you have a dream and somebody tries to talk you out of having that dream, I’d say you now have a choice to make: the dream or the person. Because you can’t have both in your life.

I suggest you choose the dream. There are 7 billion people on this planet – you will never run out of people who want to encourage you and help you give the best you have to offer.

Don’t waste your time on people who just want to bring you down to their level.

All You’ll Ever Be Is You

Whenever people start talking about “nature vs nurture”, I tune out. Honestly, I switch off. I can’t help it. Why? Because I know I’m about to taken down one of two avenues, intellectually. And I don’t want to go down either.

Either I’m going to hear about how everything is genetic, everything is pre-determined, we’re just machines, we’re made to eat and fuck, nothing more, nothing less… Or… I’m going to hear about how everything is actually nurture, how we’re all blank canvases at birth, and how if our fathers sneeze too loudly in the second week after our birth we are 34% more likely to support West Ham…

Put another way, I know I’m going to hear some bullshit.

The truth is that whilst some people like to debate it, there is no answer, and there never will be. Why? Because it’s a false dichotomy. It’s both. It’s nature and nurture. You can’t have one without the other.

The reason I bring this up is that I often find myself comparing who I am and where I am with who and where other people appear to be. This is natural, I know. We all do it. But it’s not healthy, especially done to the extreme. Well, anyway, I was writing in my journal this morning, and I found myself riding a train of thought about how ridiculous this all is. And as I kept scribbling, “nature vs nurture” found its way in and I feel like I understood it better than before. Allow me to explain.

Everybody has a unique, once-in-a-lifetime genetic make-up. So, does that mean our fates are decided at birth? No. I heard it said once that our genes are like suggestions from nature, and that’s a great way to look at it. They don’t pre-determine, but they do pre-dispose. That’s the nature part.

And then life happens, and that’s the nurture part. Our environments go to work on us, shaping us, molding us. Or, rather, our environment meets with nature’s suggestions (our genes), and it is that combination of forces that shapes us. Nature and nurture, working together to make no two lives the same.

So all this got me thinking about comparing myself to other people. More specifically, how can I do so, and still keep a straight face? It’s insane! I have a different set of genes from the person I compare myself to, and I was born into a different environment. I then lived a bunch of years where my genes and my environment met and day-by-day helped turn me into the man I am sitting here typing this… (as did theirs…)

What I realised, as I hope you do too, is that all you can ever be is you.

Compare yourself to others if it inspires you, if it spurs you on, if it gives you a healthy, positive feeling. But if it makes you feel shitty about yourself, then you have my permission to stop it today.

Only You Know How Courageous You Are

Beauty, they always say, is in the eye of the beholder. Well, what they never say, but what I am saying right now, is that courage is the complete opposite way. You are the only person who can ever have any idea how courageous you are being.

So if you can muster the courage to face something you fear, no matter how much you are shitting yourself at the thought of it, you are a hero. Nobody can tell you otherwise.

Doesn’t matter how tiny the thing is. Doesn’t matter how many people you know for whom the same thing would be no big deal. Doesn’t matter how much you think you should be able to just get on with it.

If you act in spite of your fear, you are being courageous. And if you are being courageous, you are being your best self. Take pride in that.

Who Are You Not to Try?

Do you ever have an idea so cool that it frightens you?

Like… you think of some thing you could do that would be awesome – maybe just for you, but maybe for millions of people. You entertain it for a few seconds, before some internal mechanism kicks in and now you’re thinking: “Oh, yeah, right, who am I to try … <insert idea here>…???”

Well, sure. But then again, who are you not to try? Who are you actually doing a favour by refusing the call? What are you actually protecting yourself from by ducking out?

The thing is, we really want you to try. We all do. We might not encourage you often enough. We might not understand what you’re up to. We might even, idiots that we are, attempt to talk you down from the ledge if it looks like you’re going too far. Don’t listen to us – we’re just jealous – you’re reminding us our own inadequacies.

I’m not saying all your ideas will work out. Most of them won’t. But so what? That’s not the point. The point is that a life spent listening to your heart is a more fulfilling experience than a life spent listening to your head.

The Problem Is the Problem

You are not the problem. The problem is the problem.

This is an important thing to remember. If you have a problem, and then you let yourself weave a yarn about how you are the problem, well, now you have two problems – the actual problem, and you.

And the worst part of this is that when you see yourself as the problem, you’re like a dog chasing its tail – you aren’t the kind of problem that can ever be solved. So you’ll go round and round and round, and all the while the real problem – which is perfectly solvable – sits waiting for you to wise up.

Try instead to detach yourself. The problem is the problem. You are just… you.

You Don’t Have to Like Where You Are

Do you like everything about yourself? No way…

Can you do anything you set your mind to? I doubt it…

Is your life going in exactly the direction you want it to? Not exactly…

You know, some people out there who would call that sort of talk blasphemy.

For the last hundred years or so there’s been a certain culture of (overwhelmingly) North-American gurus that treat positive thinking like an Olympic sport, that would take the word “can’t” out of the dictionary if the Oxford people let them, and who – though they speak of “unlimited potential” – all seem magically preach the same message, conveniently geared to climbing the corporate ladder. (Hmmm… could it be less that what they say is gospel, and more that they found a willing, monied audience? I don’t know. But I digress…)

You won’t hear this from them, but it is better to acknowledge and accept where you are than to pretend you’re somewhere you’re not. There is nothing whatsoever defeatist about acknowledging the reality of your situation, whether it pleases you or not. In fact, it’s one of smartest, sanest, and healthiest things you can possibly do for yourself.

I mean, can you imagine if the sat-nav in your car lied to you about your current location because it wasn’t sure if you’d be happy with what it told you…? You laugh, but what’s the difference?

You don’t have to like where you are, but if you ever want to get anywhere better, you do have to accept it.

Pain, Good and Bad

There is good pain and bad pain. You want the kind of pain you get from going running, not the kind you get from stepping on a nail.

Paul Graham – Taste for Makers

Pain is good, or so certain types of people like to tell us. No pain, no gain. Right?

Well, in my experience, this is every now and then true. But the longer I live, the more I come to the conclusion that whilst useful pain certainly does exist, most pain is just that – pain. And it’s honestly a failure of the English language that we still use the same word to describe such wildly varying phenomena.

Some pain, when accepted and embraced as a challenge, makes you come alive, makes you stronger, makes you wiser, makes you more you than you ever were before. Seek out this kind of pain and throw yourself into it.

The other kind of pain? Slows you down? Gets in your way? Fucks you up? Run from it. Don’t waste your precious time on it. Avoid anybody who tries to convince you its good for you.