Over and Out

My sister asked me today what I was going to write my last post about. My last post, that is, of my self-imposed challenge to publish something every day for a year.

I told her I had no idea. And then I put off writing it all day, which was just as easy as it sounds. In fact, opportunities to procrastinate seemed even more prevalent today than normal.

To start with, I didn’t get up until about half 10 on account of drinking too much last night and going to bed too late. So I started the day lazily with coffee and The Office and playing bass on the sofa. At 1 we went to my Mum and Dad’s for Sunday lunch, and we hung around there until about 6. That was a nice chunk of the day gone.

I briefly considered cracking on with my post when we came back home but instead I curled up in bed watching Vinyl on my laptop. A bit later Emma texted me asking for soup, so I warmed some up and we ate it in front of Couples Come Dine With Me. Finally, I tried to stall even longer by asking Emma if she wanted to watch an episode of Ratched with me but she said she was going to bed and so I accepted my fate.

It was time to write.

Of course, as soon as I sat down – as I’ve experienced literally hundreds of times by now – I had no idea what I would write about. Not a one. Worse than normal though, actually, because with this being a kind of milestone post, it seemed more vital that it be a good one. Oh, dear…

Then I came to my senses. I reminded myself that this was the whole point of the last year of writing these damn things – I wanted to learn how to face this exact obstacle. I wanted to get it into my thick skull that there is really nothing more to writing than putting one word in front of another. And so that’s what I did.

And I hated everything I came out with. C’est la vie.

In the end, I decided that if I did have anything really important to say, then I’ve probably already said it at some point during the past 365 days. I mean… it’s not impossible, but it is unlikely that I’ve left anything too pressing unsaid. So I give myself permission not to worry about it. Not to even think about it.

What I am going to do instead is to say thank you.

Thank you. Yes, you. You, there. You, and you alone.

You didn’t ask me to start writing to you every day. On the contrary, I imposed this upon you. But then when I did, you took the time to read. You listened to what I had to say, whether it made sense or not. Then you emailed me thoughtful replies. You recommended books for me to read. You shared what was going on with you and that very often made its way into my next piece.

We harnessed the magic of modern technology to share a moment together each day for a whole year. Whatever I do with my life after tonight, I will never forget this strange year where I decided to open my veins, so to speak.

I regret nothing. I can’t think of anyone I would rather have opened them up for than you.

Thank you, God bless, Over and out,

Oliver x


PS: If you start to miss me filling up your inbox, here are two email lists I subscribe to: 1) Seth Godin. 2) The Daily Stoic.

PPS: Here is a list of books that mean a lot to me. Books that, try as I might, I just keep coming back to. Books that, to be completely honest, make more sense to me than the world does. If you like me, you might like them.

Non-fiction

Fiction

Get Out of Your Way

“Oh, I could never do that.That’s impossible!”

“Why is it?”

“Tons of reasons. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…”

“Right. But do any of those things actually stop you, or do they just add a little bit of friction?”

“…”


Most of what you think of as impossible is anything but.

But when you can’t see how something might be possible for you, instead of challenging that faulty assumption, it’s easier to walk around in a fictional reality where you just decide that it definitely is impossible.

Well, I urge you to question just how impossible anything actually is. At best, you’ll find that some things are complex, challenging, and tricky. But all of that is a million miles from impossible.

And I’m not saying that every now and then you won’t come across a genuinely insurmountable obstacle to something you want. But I have to say: they’re rare. I’ve never found one. The more I look to my past the more I see that the size and insurmountabilty of the obstacles I’ve faced has been wildly distorted by my mind. Laughably so.

In the end, the only thing that can ever really stand in your way is you. So get out of your way.

Donald Trump

I don’t wish ill upon Donald Trump.

That doesn’t mean I like him. Or that I approve of him, or anything he does. On the contrary. I hate the cunt. I hate everything he stands for. I don’t believe that a person with a moral bone in their body could dare to condone the way he has lived his entire life, let alone his presidency.

But wanting him dead? Nah. Because it does nothing for me. It doesn’t help my life to want him dead. Nor does wanting him dead make it any more likely to happen. Energetically speaking, it’s a waste.

What I do want, however, is justice. And there’s all kinds of ways justice can play out.

If it’s the justice of COVID carrying him off, great. He will be the virus’s single most deserving victim. If it’s the justice of the American people voting him out of a presidency he was unfit for in the first place, great. It’ll serve the arrogant bastard right. And if it’s the justice of he and his family finally being brought to account for the all the many crimes they have definitely committed, great. I hope they look good in orange.

But even if it’s none of those, there’s something I keep coming back to that – though I’m slightly ashamed to admit – brings me great solace, and fulfils my desire for justice:

Donald Trump has to live inside Donald Trump’s head. He is in hell every minute of every day. Whatever happens to him next, he’s already in hell.

It’s my duty to be honest with you. Knowing he’s already in hell makes me smile.

Sit With What Is

You are not the problem. Your expectations are.

If you expect everything to work out a certain way, and then, when it inevitably doesn’t, you act as though something has gone wrong, as though some line of code in the matrix of life has been tampered with, as though some great injustice has fallen on your shoulders… Then you are basically asking life to make you miserable.

Unless you lower your expectations, you are always going to feel worse than you could.

But I don’t want to lower my expectations. I want to “think positive”. I want to expect the best of people, and of the world at large. If I lower my expectations, surely I am “tempting fate”.

Nah. You can’t tempt fate. But you can make yourself insane by maintaining unrealistic expectations.

Yeah, but… I want to a happy life. I don’t want to go around being all doom and gloom and thinking the worst and being grumpy and being in a bad mood…

Did I mention doom and gloom, or thinking the worst, or being grumpy, or being in a bad mood? Nope. Being pessemistic is just as destructive to your happiness as being optimstic is. Both are delusions that pull you away from reality.

I like to think of reality as the central point on a spectrum. When your expectations align with reality, you find yourself in the centre. The world makes more sense. It still has its beauty and its mystery, but you are not so constantly shocked and surprised and niggled and slighted and blind-sided.

As your expectations become too optimistic, they stray from reality in one direction. You think that everything and everyone is great, and then you’re incredibly disappointed when nothing can quite match what you had hoped for.

As your expectations become too pessemistic, on the other hand, they stray from reality in the other direction. You think that everybody is out to get you, that the world is a dangerous place, and that there’s no point in anything because something always goes wrong.

The aim is to live in the centre. Live in reality. Reality is neither optimistic nor pessemistic. It simply is. Align with what is. Sit with what is.

More Than Just Your Lips and Teeth

It’s one thing to smugly say the words “If I had to, I could definitely give up drinking,” and another thing completely to actually abstain for six weeks.

It’s one thing to parrot the words “Life is short,” and another thing completely to sit down and work out how just many Christmases you probably have left on this planet.

It’s one thing to say the words “My family is the most important thing in my life,” and another to admit just how much of your time with them is spent staring at your phone.

Words are great for describing the world you wish you could live in. But if you actually want to move closer to that world, it will take more than just your lips and teeth to get you there.

It will take your whole body.

The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.

Let the others slap each other on the back while you’re back in the lab or the gym or pounding the pavement. Plug that hole – that one, right in the middle of your face – that can drain you of your vital life force. Watch what happens. Watch how much better you get.

Ryan Holiday – “Ego is the Enemy”

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Actually, it has taken 2773 years’ worth of days to build the city we know as Rome. And to this day, that beat goes on…

Taken in isolation, though, most of the days between now and April 21st 753 BCE (the commonly agreed-upon date of Rome’s founding) were largely uneventful. Some days, bricks were laid. Some days, games were played. Every now and then, some big, important event would happen. But most days were like most other days – seemingly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

And yet they weren’t inconsequential at all, were they? Because when you add them all together, you get Rome.

It’s the same way that – though we might not realise it – you and I, and the rest of the planet, are building the future with our actions. It’s simple, Newtonian cause and effect – what we do today informs what we see tomorrow. And I’m not talking big, grand, sweeping gestures. I’m talking about the little things that you don’t even consider to be actions. Every single thing you do becomes an ingredient in the recipe of your future.

And if you want to see a particular kind of future, you need to plant the seeds for it with a particular kind of action.

I’m easily overwhelmed, so that kind of thinking hits me like a ton of bricks. Who am I to try to shape the future? I’m just one person out of seven billion. What chance do I have? Why bother trying, if my efforts to do so might be wasted?

Well, if you have the same reaction as I do, I have an answer to that:

Isn’t it better to try, on the off-chance that it actually works, than to not try and always wonder?

Make the Fires Wait

I don’t remember where I heard it. I don’t know if it actually happened or not. But it’s a tale I think about a lot. It’s something like this:

One day, Gandhi’s advisors came to him and told him that he had such a busy day ahead, there was no time for his usual hour-long meditation.

Gandhi replied that if this was the case, that if this was how busy he had let his schedule become, then he had better meditate for two hours instead of his usual one.

I love this. But… why?

Because it’s an illustration, as clear as day, that in life there is that which matters, and then there is everything else. There is signal, and then there is noise. And unless you consciously and deliberately decide to put what matters first, then what doesn’t matter will sprout up like weeds and take over your life.

And when this happens, when things have gotten a little bit out of hand, then you’re at a crucial juncture, because it’s ever so tempting – as Gandhi’s advisors suggested – to attend to the bullshit first, to fight the fires first, to try and clear the path of any obstacles first. And then if there’s time, do the important stuff.

Don’t do it. It’s a trick. If you focus on fighting fires, intending to get to what matters when you’re done, you never will. You’ll just start seeing more fires breaking out everywhere.

Do the important thing first. Make the fires wait. Ironically, this lack of attention is often enough to make them put themselves out. And for the ones that remain, you’ll find dealing with them a whole lot easier when you know you’ve attended first to the shit that matters to you.

Let Yourself Wallow

Yes, it’s shit. Nobody’s saying you have to pretend it isn’t. Wallow away. I know I will.

But know this: at a certain point, wallowing stops working. And it actually just makes everything worse. Because now you’re not just dealing with a shitty situation, you’re letting it define you. You’re letting it rob you of your power. You’re letting it drag you down.

My solution is this: let yourself wallow. I mean… really wallow. Get it all out of your system. Own it. But – and this is the important part – put a timer on it. And when wallowing time is over, get busy.

Tell yourself: “Yes, it’s shit. No point pretending it isn’t. But I’ve wallowed, and now I have work to do. I am going to find a way to turn this shit into sugar. Or at least into slightly less shit.”

When Push Comes to Shove

“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Dwight D Eisenhower

One of the hardest things in life is saying “yes” to what you know is truly important, and “no” to what just looks and smells important in the moment.

It can feel selfish to go and work on your novel when your family’s finances have been slowly getting more and more precarious. It can feel irresponsible to go see a friend and share a belly-laugh when you know you have an assignment due this week. And it can feel downright rude to ask your boss not to contact you with work problems at the weekend because that’s family time.

And yet… if you don’t draw these lines in the sand deliberately and consciously, what do you think the chances are that they’ll get drawn at all?

First, you must decide what matters to you. Second, you must exercise the courage to put it first when push comes to shove. And I promise you, push will come to shove.

Not Long Left

I met up with my old friend Snooze yesterday. His real name is Mike. He and his girlfriend live in London but were passing through Sheffield on their way to Hebden Bridge, so they met me at Bragazzis on Abbeydale Road. I had an espresso. They both had tea. Mike paid.

We talked about all sorts of things, but after a while the conversation shifted to my being right on the verge of having published a piece of writing every day for a year. (Including today, I have 10 days left of this challenge.) I said that I was glad I had done it, but that I wouldn’t do it again.

As I walked home from Bragazzis listening to Pet Sounds, the things we’d been talking about swirled around my head, and I started to weigh up the things I have and haven’t liked about this past year.

I like, for example, the way that I’ve proved to myself over and over that I don’t need to wait for inspiration before I can create. If I did, I’d never get anything done. I’ve learnt that I can decide to start writing, and that nine times out of ten, I will find inspiration along the way, although I might end up going in a complete different direction than I imagined.

On the other hand, I don’t like how the daily deadline cuts off my freedom to explore. I notice myself avoiding going down particular avenues and stopping myself from writing about certain topics because I don’t trust that I can do them justice in the time I have. I have played it far too safe, and as such, whilst I don’t hate anything I’ve written in the last year, there’s very little that I adore.

I walked and I walked and then I was almost home. Turning the corner onto our road, I felt a sudden wave of gratitude for the Oliver of a year ago who decided to embark on this path. And even if the biggest lesson has been that I don’t ever want to do it again, well, at least I know that now.

That’s something.

Sheer Luck

When things are going well, you forget all about luck.

You forget the role it has inevitably played in your good fortune. You ascribe your success to your efforts and your efforts alone. The fact that you prospered is sheer, Newtonian, cause and effect. It is evidence, clear as day, that you have worked bloody hard. Whatever you have reaped, you have sown it yourself. Well done, you. You deserve it. Clearly.

But then… I have a question. If what you say is true, and if luck played no role whatsoever in your climb to the top, then… what about all the people around the world who aren’t as successful as you?

They must not have worked as hard, right? They must be a bit lazy, right? They must not have wanted it as much, right? They must not have deserved it, right?

Luck matters. Don’t pretend it doesn’t. And most of all, don’t take personal credit for what sheer luck has bestowed you with.

Find a Better Fuel

You don’t owe the world anything, and the world doesn’t owe you anything, either.

To believe otherwise on either count is a deeply unhealthy way to live your life. The biggest trouble, though, with operating from this sort of quid-pro-pro, back-and-forth sense of obligation, is that… at least for a while, it works.

It reminds me of a video I watched years ago. The author Neil Strauss was talking about an interview he did for a book with Dave Navarro – former guitarist of Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Every 10 or 15 minutes, Navarro would take out his druggie paraphenalia and shoot cocaine into his arm. Strauss asked him about it, and Navarro put in novel terms: (I’m paraphrasing from memory.)

“When I do this, it’s fuel. It’s like when you put gas in your car. The only difference is that putting gas in your car won’t eventually destroy your car.”

To me, that is the perfect analogy. In the short run, making yourself feel guilty for what others have done for you, or making them feel guilty for what you have done for them, is a fantastically effective way to get shit done.

It works. Until it doesn’t.

There is a whole rainbow of different ways to relate to the world – you don’t have to stick with operating on the basis of what the world owes or you owe the world. You have to look for them, but they’re there. The sooner you start looking, the sooner they will appear.

Find a better fuel.

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.

Holidays

I’m on holiday at the moment. Mostly. Well, I’m abroad for a couple of weeks, anyway. But what even is a holiday?

When most people use the word “holiday”, they are using it to describe something with a very specific and narrow definition: they mean (a) a limited period of time where you (b) travel to somewhere different than where you live, and (c) cease to do the thing you do for a living.

That’s fine. I just find this definition incredibly limiting. It implies that, if you want to get the benefits of a holiday, and you can’t travel, and you can’t stop doing what you do to make a living, that you’re out of luck. Sorry, fella, no holiday for you.

Well, I’m not buying that. A holiday is really just a temporary change – a deviation from the norm. Whatever you consider the normal state of things, a holiday is when some or all of it is different for a bit.

And when you look at it like that, all of a sudden there’s a whole bunch of things you could do literally today that give you whatever you think a fortnight in Tenerife will give you – without forking out a bunch of cash, without having to visit an airport, and without having to spend any time with tourists.

Spending a few hours buried in the world of a great novel can be a holiday. Ditto a few episodes of some of the amazing TV series of the last decade or two.

Uninstalling Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, and avoiding the news for a few days can be a holiday.

Going for a walk in a part of your town you’ve never visited before can be a holiday.

Our brains love contrast. Not just that, it’s the only way we learn. And when life gets too rote and too routine and too autopilot – when it’s the same old shit week in, week out – there is far too little contrast, and a part of us switches off. A holiday – of any kind – switches it back on, wakes us back up, gets us into the game again.

But there is no need whatsoever to stick to the mainstream definition of what a holiday is. Define it for yourself.

Your Best, in This Moment

All that matters – all that ever matters – is that you do your best in this moment.

Not in the moment that could have been, had things only gone a different way.

Not in the moment you think you’ve earned, by giving to charity every now and then.

Not in the moment you were promised by a demagogue, in exchange for a vote.

This moment, however unpalatable, is the only moment you can ever do anything from. It’s the only moment that exists. Familiarise yourself with it like a spider to her web. Strip away all that is false about it. And then when you do your best, your best will take you further than you could ever have dreamed.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Theodore Roosevelt

The Last 37

I just worked out that, if I include what I am writing right now, I have 37 posts left to write before my challenge is complete – before I’ve published something every day for a year. If I’m totally honest with you, that last post can’t come soon enough.

You always think you know what something is going to be like before you do it, and you are always proved wrong if you actually follow through and do the thing. I suppose this is what makes life so damn interesting – sometimes you’re a little off the mark; sometimes your guess was on another planet. Either way, it’s only through direct experience that you can ever put your theories to the test. Only by getting out of your imagination and into reality can you ever know.

Well, after more than 300 posts in as many days, I don’t have to wonder any more. If anybody knows, it’s me. I know what it’s like to have this one thing on my to-do list month after month. And after October 4th, it won’t be on there any more.

Oh, I’m not giving up writing. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve decided that, free from the daily obligation to publish something, I’m going to instead get round to exploring the vast backlog of ideas I’ve amassed over the past year – things I never felt I had the time to give the attention they deserved, because I always had to get on with that day’s post!

And you know, that’s been the main discovery of this challenge, which was an exercise in being prolific – in shipping something every day… that in the end, I don’t want to be prolific for its own sake. I want to see what happens if I actually spend time with my pieces and let them germinate and evolve instead of getting them away from me as soon as possible like they were mosquito on my leg. I’d like to share what I’m doing only when I think I can do no better.

Lastly, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing this journey with me, and for giving me your precious time all these months. If something I’ve written has made you be sweeter to yourself, then I have done my job. And I’ll be back, 37 more times, before I let myself have a little bit of time off.

Usually, You’re Just Scared

Sometimes you really ought to wait.

Sometimes there is a very good reason to hold off on acting.

Sometimes it is the height of strategic wisdom to be patient and wait for a better moment to pounce.

But not usually. Usually, you’re just scared, and there’s really nothing more to it than that.

Take the first step. It’s harder, and accordingly more rewarding, than the next hundred put together.

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We Flew to Denmark Today

We flew to Denmark today. The airport was eerily quiet. We had lunch at Costa and the government paid for half of it.

On the plane I had a row all to myself and so I put my feet up and read the first few chapters of Crime and Punishment and had my favourite songs on shuffle at full volume to drown out the engine noise.

We had turkey for dinner and then we drove around for a bit because Emma’s brother can drive now. At Spar she got a pick n mix and I got some crisps.

Soon it will be time to go to bed and I suppose my only point is that you don’t have to do anything noteworthy in order to have a special day. To have a special day, you simply need to decide to open your eyes to the special things that are happening every day.

When you can appreciate the mundane, you’re golden.

It’s Not Writer’s Block

One of the most interesting things about doing a ritual like Morning Pages is that the existence of “writer’s block” starts to seem more and more unlikely.

If you don’t know what it is, Morning Pages is a daily practice popularised by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, where immediately after waking, you just write, for 3 pages of A4.

Anything and everything that comes to your mind is acceptable. There are no rules, other than to keep going until you’ve got your 3 pages, after which you are free to throw away or burn to a crisp everything you just wrote. The point is not, as it might be in a regular journal, to keep a record of your life, but simply to free your intrinsic creative energies.

Now, I’ll admit that I do break Julia’s rules somewhat. I don’t do it immediately after waking up. And I don’t do it every day (although if I had to guess, I’d say on average I do it five days a week.) But I do do it, and that’s because I’m hooked on the way I can sit down with no idea what my first sentence is even going to be, feel like there’s no way I could possibly write 3 whole pages, and then 45 minutes later, inevitably, have proved myself completely wrong.

All this is to say that I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I’ve disproved it to myself dozens if not hundreds of times by now. Though it might sometimes be uttlerly pointless and nonsensical, there is always something inside me, if I’ll turn the tap on and let it out. But there is something that I do believe in with all my heart, and that’s call “PROJECT block.”

“Project block” is that special kind of hell we’ve all experienced where you have a creative task – bonus points if there’s a deadline, or consequences to not getting it done – and you just cannot make a solitary inch of progress on it. Even worse, the longer you spend trying to, the shittier you feel.

It’s not writer’s block. You’re not blocked in general. I know this because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in front of my laptop feeling completely blocked, no idea what my day’s blog post is going to be about, hating myself for committing myself to this year of daily blogging, but I’ve been able to pick up my guitar and come up with all manner of wild and wicked licks and riffs. Or story ideas. Or just about anything, so long as it has nothing to do with blogging.

No, there’s something about that specific project has you blocked. And there are a few different ways to deal with it. The first is simply to power through. Now, technically, this one does work. It’s woefully inefficient. It can be downright painful. But eventually, if you refuse to give up and just stick with it, the odds are that you’ll get there.

The second – and unfortunately, my most frequent option – is to not work on it, but to sort of keep it in the back of your mind, dwelling obsessively on it, feeling guilty for not working on it… So you leave the project for a bit, you go watch telly, you piss about on your phone, and all the while there’s a little voice holding you hostage reminding you of what you’re not attending to. It’s a filthy habit. It’s pain with a chaser of pain.

The third and best solution – in my mind, at least – is again to not work on it, but to actively work on something else. This could be literally anything. It could be some other creative project. It could be making the dinner. It could be some form of strenuous exercise. Whatever – the only important thing is that you give your mind enough stimulation that it can’t do both – it can’t focus on what you’re doing and dwell on the thing you’re avoiding.

And lo and behold, it’s like a shower for your mind. After a while, ideas come. Things that seemed like mountains show themselves to be molehills. You gain a perspective not possible when you’re stuck in the weeds. It’s counter-intuitive. I don’t know why it works. But it works. You go back to the old project and a weight has been lifted.

Next time you feel blocked, check that you’re not just burnt out on this specific thing you’re trying to do. Give yourself a proper break, go do something else, and let your mind work its magic behind the scenes.

Only the Dead Stay the Same

Sometimes I sit and I think back on my life. I remember vividly things I thought and things I said and things I did. I bring to mind scenes of the person I was at different moments throughout the years.

And so often these memories of mine make me recoil. I cringe and I want to look away. I was such an idiot. So, so often.

But before long, I’m smiling. I like how stupid I’ve been. It means I’m starting to get somewhere. It means I’m changing.

Only the dead stay the same. If, compared to now, you used to be an idiot, you’re on the right track.

Be Your Own Friend

You might not need to hear this message today. But just in case you do, I’ll say it anyway:

It doesn’t matter how badly things are going. It doesn’t matter how massively you’ve fucked everything up. It doesn’t matter who is upset with you.

You never have to be horrible to yourself.

You always have a choice, and you can always choose to be your own friend.

Not a Robot

If you look at it one way, sugar and salt are remarkably similar.

They both live in your kitchen, and they look similar enough that, even quite close up, you might mistake one for the other. Does that mean, then, that in a pinch (if you’ll pardon the pun) you can use salt instead of sugar, or sugar instead of salt?

Well, if you’ve ever actually done that, then you will already know the answer to be a definitive NO! It turns out you can’t just pretend that one thing is another thing and have it all work out fine.

Well, it’s not just sugar and salt this rule applies to – it’s everything in the known universe. Things work best when you accept them for what they are, and you use them for that which they are best suited to. And you, yourself, are no exception.

No matter what anybody expects of you, or you expect of yourself, you are not in fact a robot. You are not an automaton. You cannot be programmed. You cannot be reduced to a number.

You are a living, breathing human being, with all the beautiful chaos that goes along with it. You belong to a species so fascinating and complex that, millions of years into our existence, we are still pretty much just scratching the surface of who we are and what we’re all about.

Accept yourself for exactly who and what you are. It might not be glamorous, but it’s a hell of a lot more soulful than whatever can be dreamed up by a Silicon Valley startup.

It Was Always up to You

It’s Friday today. Whatever the hell that means.

You know, it’s been over a decade since I last had to stick to a “typical” daily routine. The kind where you’re expected to be “on” between about 9 and 5, Monday to Friday, and then “off”, free as a bird, Saturday and Sunday. Instead, I’ve had stretches where none of that applied whatsoever, and then stretches where bits of it did and bits of it didn’t.

But old habits die hard. Over a decade after I left, and with all kinds of turns and twists and bashes and blows to my routine, my inner workings still essentially operate on school time. Nothing seems to change my expectations of each day. Monday still feels like something to get through. Friday still represents the end of something old and musty and the beginning of something fresh and new, sort of like the releasing of some kind of internal pressure valve. And on a Saturday evening, I still can’t help but feel as though… somehow… the universe has more in store for me than at other moments of the week.

The pandemic has, admittedly, blurred all this a little. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people that amount to them saying “I don’t know what day it is any more, they’re all the same…” I nod along, and yet in the back of my mind I’m thinking “I know what day it is: I feel creative and ever so slightly manic… it must be a Wednesday…” … for example.

Now, I don’t know if your schedule has been turned upside down over the past few months, or if you’re one of the people whose routine hasn’t changed as much. Either way, I have the same good news to tell you: IT’S ALL A STORY. And the story you tell yourself can either help you or harm you.

If the way you feel about the days of the week empowers you and makes you feel more engaged and alive in the world, then keep preaching it to yourself. But if it doesn’t – and mine certainly doesn’t – you have to know that it’s up to you simply to craft a different story. In fact, it was always up to you.

Pandemic or not, you don’t get to choose exactly what you’ll do each day, and whether you’ll like it or not. But you do get to choose how you’ll greet the day – your attitude. So Monday has a “feeling.” So Friday has a “feeling.” Sure, but at a certain point, all that shit is in your head. You might not have put it there deliberately, but it’s up to you to clean it out. There is no cosmic, laws-of-the-universe difference between any of the days of the week, and there never has been.

It was always up to you. Always up to you how you greeted each day. Always up to you if you ear-marked Friday and Saturday night as the only times you were allowed to enjoy your life. Always up to you if you were bummed out on Sunday night. Always up to you if Monday morning represented heaven or hell.

The content of the days? Not always up to you. Your atituude toward each day? Always up to you.

And So Become Yourself

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.

Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Teach Your Children Well

Yes, we have to work together. If we hadn’t done that, we’d have never made it out of the caves, and the first part of 2001: A Space Odyssey would have been the last part, too.

But whilst we’re doing that – whilst we’re trying to conform our actions to the greatest possible good – we have to also remember something ironic: Our greatest possible contribution to the whole is our truest and most authentic selves.

The individual is meaningless without the collective, and the collective is meaningless without the individuals that make it up.

The most selfless thing you can do with your life is to properly be yourself.

The Other Golden Rule

… is a very good start.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

But I suggest you take it one step further:

“Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you.”

You wouldn’t want others to be critical of your every move. You wouldn’t want others to hold your past mistakes against you. You wouldn’t want others to always assume the worst of you. So why do you inflict this on yourself?

You’d probably prefer them to treat you fairly. To give you the benefit of the doubt. To forgive your shortcomings and encourage your efforts to be a better person.

Make the first move. Whilst you’re waiting for others to treat you right, get the ball rolling by treating yourself right. Give yourself the gift of always having someone in your corner.

You’re Still Here

Think back. All those things you were so damn sure would be too much for you to handle… they weren’t, were they? In the end? How can they have been? You’re still here, aren’t you?

Yeah, you took some knocks. No, it didn’t all go to plan. And yeah, some of it was incredibly unpleasant. But if your heart is still pumping blood around you, I must congratulate you. You made it. You won. Everything else is a bonus.

I have nothing against aiming high. But some days, being alive is high enough. Every now and then, it’s worth giving yourself a pat on the back just for getting to this moment.

You’re still here, and I couldn’t be prouder of you for that.

There Are Things You Cannot Lose

Some things in life are zero-sum. If you give them away, you end up with less.

Some things are a bit better. You can give them away, and end up pretty not far from where you started. Not better off, but certainly not much worse off.

Some things, however, are not only impossible to lose, but continue to keep coming back to you thicker and faster the more you give them away.

Kindness. Laughter. Music. Passion. Joy. Beauty. Truth. (I’m sure you can think of many more to add to the list.)

If you want these things in abundance, you must first learn to give them away liberally. If you are stingy with them, you only discourage them from visiting you. But if you are generous with them, you welcome them in.

When Was the Best Time to Be Alive?

Now.

What? Am I trying to claim that everything is perfect? That the present moment leaves nothing to be desired? That this age represents a universal improvement on all prior ages?

Don’t be daft.

There’s plenty wrong with this moment in time, least of all the fact that nobody knows what the fuck is going on and nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Still, I will maintain until my dying breath that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a better time to be alive.

How can I make this claim so flippantly, so arrogantly? It’s actually very easy. NOW is the best time to be alive for the simple reason that, unlike the past and the future, it actually exists as something other than a figment of our imagination.

NOW is the only time. It wins first place by default.

You see, we can hark for the past all we want. But we can’t go back to it. Equally, we can pray for a rosier future all we want. We can even work hard towards creating it. But we can’t skip straight to it. Only from the here and the now can we think, and act – only in the present moment do we have any power.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Everybody Shits and Everybody Sneezes

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty easy to intimidate.

The impossibly good-looking. The rich. The aggressive. The over-friendly. It doesn’t take much to knock me off balance.

Fortunately, I have a little trick that I use to bring myself back to equilibrium. To knock these people down to size in my head. To help me see them as human, no more, no less.

And all it takes is remembering one, simple sentence:

Everybody shits and everybody sneezes.

You’re welcome.

Gateways

I got into KISS because I had lied to a girl I fancied about how they were my favourite band. After she believed me, I got curious, and gave them a listen. Loved it.

I got into Cat Stevens because on the way home from a party in Bakewell about 10 years ago my Dad put on a “Best of” CD in the car. As I drunkenly listened from the back-seat, I couldn’t believe just how good every single song was. I was almost angry that he’d been kept from me. Fortunately, I was still a fan when I sobered up.

I got into The Meters, and Parliament, and Frank Zappa, and Gang of Four because I went down the rabbit-hole of artists the Red Hot Chili Peppers mentioned in interviews.

I got into Warren Zevon because I watched Californication and I fell in love with Hank Moody and Warren was Hank’s favourite artist.

Gateways, gateways, gateways… It really doesn’t matter how you get into stuff. Just make sure when find something new to dig, you say “thank you.”

Goldilocks

First, you have to be able to look past what an awful person she was.

Forget, for a moment, the trespassing. Forget the porridge-thieving. Forget the chair-breaking, and forget the falling asleep in Baby Bear’s bed… at the root of the Goldilocks story is a very important lesson: In all things, there is exists a sweet-spot. It’s not too much, it’s not too little. It’s just enough.

I’ve been thinking about Goldilocks a lot recently, as her tale of breaking and entering relates to stress.

When you feel like life is demanding far more of you than you have the capacity to deal with, the result is distress. It’s a horrible feeling. It makes your hair fall out. It makes your heart weak. It makes you snap at your loved ones. It makes life unbearable. It’s like playing tennis against Rafael Nadal.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, when it feels as though life is demanding basically nothing of you, the result is boredom. When things are too easy, or we are too comfortable for too long, we grow soft. We get weaker. It’s like playing tennis against a five year old.

The sweet-spot we are looking for lies somewhere in-between these two extremes.

It’s called eustress. This is where life is presenting us with challenges, but challenges we can handle, and that we grow stronger as we rise to. We might win sometimes, we might lose sometimes, but whatever the result, we feel engaged and present. Like playing tennis against someone who is ever-so-slightly better than you. Keeping you on your toes.

If life feels stressful, go easy on yourself. If it feels boring, set yourself a new challenge. If it feels brilliant all the time, let me know your secrets.

P.C Budgie Manning

When I was three years old, I wanted nothing more than to be a policeman.

My official title? P.C Budgie Manning. My Dad even printed out a sign for me that I hung on my bedroom door.

People say you should never give up on your dreams, and as nice as that sounds, I don’t buy it for a second. You should definitely give up on your dreams. Most of them, anyway. Remember: you’re here to grow, and to change, and to learn about yourself – something has gone very wrong if your dreams don’t ever change.

I’ve dreamt of being a policeman. A spy. The Mask. A rock-star. A novelist. A footballer. A bra fitter at La Senza.

But to be honest, even though some of those dreams haven’t yet expired (the last one was the quickest to expire – they turned me down due to my “gender” and the “nature” of the work…) none of them really matter to me. I have one dream and one dream only: The full-time pursuit of being whoever the hell Oliver Manning turns out to be.

It’s only natural to cling to old dreams – perhaps you’re doing it out of some sense of loyalty to your past self. Let them go. You’re keeping yourself stuck. You’re choking yourself. Your past self is just a memory. Even worse, when your dream is out-of-date, you feel no joy if it comes true.

The snake sheds his skin for a reason, as does the caterpillar turn into a butterfly. You too must forget the dreams you used to have, and set your sights on the dreams you have today.

All Times Are Unprecedented

It’s just that we got very attached to the way we thought things ought to be.

Us with privilege, we spent so many years like pigs in shit, rolling around in previously unheard prosperity and predictability, that we came to think of this experience as “normal”, and as any deviation from it an “unprecendented” attack on the way things ought to be.

There is no ought; only life. No unprecedented; only what does or does not happen. And besides, there was nothing normal about those times. Nor were they universally prosperous and predictable. It just stings because we took it for granted.

No, the truth is that all times are equally unprecedented, and you’re either ready for anything or you’re not.

The old world is crumbling. Thank God. It had been broken for centuries. Let’s rebuild it. And this time let’s use our hearts.

Wabi-Sabi

DR. HANNIBAL LECTER:
My dear Will, you must be healed by now… on the outside, at least. I hope you’re not too ugly. What a collection of scars you have. Never forget who gave you the best of them, and be grateful; our scars have the power to remind us that the past was real.

“Red Dragon” (2001)

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese word. It means to embrace the aesthetic of imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness.

The world wants you to conform. It wants you to meet spec. It wants to be able to put you in a little box and keep an eye on you. It wants you to be convenient. It wants you to be categorisable.

Fuck that noise. Fight back.

You are wabi-sabi. You are imperfect and impermanent and incomplete. You are human. The more you try to comply with somebody else’s idea of the perfect human, the emptier you will feel, no matter what rewards they dangle in front of you.

Life is irony. You are much closer to perfection when you embrace your imperfection.

Be Good This Week

Be good this week. You already know how.

To your body – move it more and feed it less.

To your mind – give it a beautiful problem to solve.

To your soul – forgive every last one of your past discretions. They’re irrelevant now.

To your humans – praise the good you see in them and get ready for them to show you more.

The “Right” Side of History

Stop it. It’s a complete waste of time.

You can flush years of your life down the toilet spending it seeking to always be on the right side of history. It’s too much pressure. Too much of it is outside your control. Too much of it is nothing but pure guesswork.

There is only one thing you ever need to worry about being on the right side of. In fact, there’s really only one thing you ever can be on the right side of:

Your own conscience. Right here. Right now. Whatever anybody else is doing, or has done, or will do. That’s all there is.

Be on the right side of yourself, and you can never be steered wrong. Whatever future generations think of you.

You Are Not Alone

Wazzup.

We both know that there’s a fine line between expressing yourself honestly and authentically, and living your life like an open wound. As with all fine lines, the exact location of this line can only truly be found via good old fashioned trial and error, and as your literary compadré and philosophical whatever, one of my jobs is to constantly try to figure out where just where that line is.

Sometimes the only way to stay on the right side of the line is to risk being on the wrong side of the line. So forgive me if I go too far, but know that my intentions are noble.


It’s customary in polite society, when asked “How are you?” to err on the side of the positive – whether you mean it or not. That’s why perhaps it feels so strange – and yet pleasantly cathartic – to admit to you that this has been one of the worst weeks of my life. Why? A great, big, black cloud.

I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know how long it’s going to stay for. All I can tell you is that it hurts. It is the mental equivalent of having someone prod you in the side with a knitting needle every five seconds or so.

I think about the person I was even two weeks ago and don’t quite recognise him. I know he’ll be back – that’s the comforting thing – but I don’t know when. I can’t be bothered to do anything. And not in one of those lazy Sunday kind of ways. The thought of doing things is actually painful. It took me four days to gather the willpower to shave.

But even with all that, it’s not 100% bad. When something forces you to slow down, be it your body or your mind, you have time to suddenly put yourself in the shoes of others. And in the same way that I look perfectly fine from the outside and feel broken on the inside, I wonder who else feels this way and is keeping it a secret from everybody.

Really, that’s why I’m writing this today. Not to draw attention to me and my troubles – I’ll be all right – but for you who might be going through something equally as painful and not have anyone you feel comfortable turning to. I don’t want you to feel alone. You’re not alone. Alone is only ever a feeling.

My email inbox is always open to you. Don’t suffer in silence.

olmanning@gmail.com

And This, Too, Shall Pass Away

“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”

Abraham Lincoln – from his speech at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, 30th September 1859

A global pandemic. A crippling bout of melancholia. A goddamn fish-finger sandwich.

For better or worse, nothing in this life lasts forever.

And this, too – whatever you’re facing – shall pass away. That is not me being flippant, or simply trying to make you feel better. The laws of the universe dictate that it must pass.

My contribution is to promise you that there is nothing shameful in simply waiting it out – in weathering the storm.

Difficult Gratitude

The more excruciatingly difficult something is to be grateful for, the more powerfully that gratitude will affect you. Your life will change for the better.

You see, it’s easy – practically effortless – to give thanks for things like your house or your car or your friends or your family, or just those things in your life that seem to always work out just right. It’s easy to give thanks for them because it’s easy to see what’s good about them.

But it’s a lot harder to see what’s good about the difficult things in your life. The situations that don’t go your way. The illnesses, both physical and mental. The people who cause you nothing but pain and problems. The tacky shit that was the best you could afford.

The good is buried way, way down, and so it’s harder and less intuitive to give thanks for these things.

But oh, when you do…

First Impressions

I used to assume that the really fit girls at school acted so stuck up because they knew full well just how fit they were, and they wanted to lord it over me and my friends just how little of a chance we had with them.

I also used to assume that the guys who acted the toughest were doing so because they actually were the toughest, and that they were doing us a favour by letting us know just how little sense there was in challenging their authority.

My Wizard of Oz moment took years, sure, but eventually I realised how full of shit they all were. The fit girls were just girls, petrified of being seen as mingers. The tough guys were just guys, petrified of being seen as bummers.

Look beyond your first impressions of people. Especially the ones who intimidate you. They are often the weakest of all.

I Wasn’t Looking for a Wife

You know, I wasn’t looking for a wife. I wasn’t sure, in fact, that I’d ever be in the market for one.

It’s really difficult for me to over-estimate just how much of my mental energy went towards chasing women – with varying degrees of success – before I met Emma. A marriage would spell the end of all that.

But then I met her and it was the start of something better. I realised I had nothing real to miss. Two and a bit years later we were married, and tomorrow is our second wedding anniversary.

My entire life, nothing I’ve planned has ever worked out the way I envisioned it, and so it bodes well for me that I was never even planning on getting married. I’m making it up as I go along, taking it day by day, and it’s more than good enough for me.

Always Choose Meaning

If you have a million pounds sitting in the bank, but spend half your day worrying about losing it, and the other half comparing yourself to people who have two or three, are you even rich?

On the other hand, if you are in crippling debt that you’re likely never to finish paying off, but you spend your days with people you care about doing things that mean something to you, are you even poor?

It’s nice to have both, but when a choice must be made between money and meaning, always choose meaning.

If Life Is a Car

If Life is a car, we like to picture ourselves in the driver’s seat. Hands firmly on the steering wheel. Foot down to the floor. Seventy miles an hour, but no more.

The truth is, however, that for almost all of what makes up this thing we call Life, we are very much in the back-seat, if not the boot. Life is driving us around, not the other way round. Life knows where Life is going, and Life doesn’t want or need our intervention. It laughs when we suppose otherwise.

That sounds a little depressing at first. But notice that I said “almost all” just now. For there is that rare class of situations in Life where you do have leverage. Where your intervention is not only wanted but needed. Where you have the power to change, if not the world, then at least your world. Where, for a brief star, you are driving Life around for a change.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

There is no shortcut to that wisdom, and there is no formula for knowing the difference, but I know two things to be true:

One: You must find the answer for yourself. Almost everybody on the planet has it ass-backwards.

Two: Worrying about getting it wrong is a waste of time. You will get it wrong. Constantly. And if you keep getting it wrong long enough, you’ll start to be right just a little more often.

That teeny, tiny margin is the difference between an existence and a Life.

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.

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.”

Confucius

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:

STUDY THE GREATS.

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.

BLACK LIVES MATTER

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.

The Joy of Neglecting Stuff

Do you ever feel like there isn’t enough time in the day?

I know you do. Because I do, too. All the frigging time. It’s very frustrating, isn’t it?

It’d be one thing if you were just lazy and sat about and didn’t get round to things. Then it’d be obvious why there wasn’t enough time – you’d pissed it all away. But I don’t think that’s you. It’s certainly not me – most days, at least. That’s why I’ve always been more interested in exploring what you’re supposed to do when you’re genuinely busting your hump to try and get as much done with your day as possible and it still feels like there’s no time. What the hell do you do then?

Well, first, as I always recommend, you remind yourself what is and what isn’t under your control. Fact: You can’t change the number of hours in a day. It’s a fixed quantity – it was 24 long before you came along, and it’ll be 24 a long time after you’re gone.

Once you accept that the day is the length that it is, and that all you can change is what you do during those hours, you’re ready to hear about the two basic ways that I’ve tried to approach this problem in my own life.

I like the second one a lot more. But we’ll start with the first: BEING MORE EFFICIENT.

This is where, seeing the solution as cramming as much as you possibly can into each day, you strategise. You get smart. You try to waste as little time as possible.

You batch your tasks. You speed-read. You plan your day right down to 15-minute increments and you contort yourself in an attempt to religiously stick to your schedule. And I’ll bet that – providing you don’t give up – you get a lot done each day with this approach, possibly far more than you ever have before.

Sounds great, right? Wrong. Because although you might think you’ve solved your problem – you’re certainly using your time more efficiently – you haven’t. You might be busier. More productive. More prolific. But I’ll bet you still feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day. Why? YOU’RE NOT LIVING.

For what it’s worth, I’m only slagging this off because I’ve done it. On and off, for years. And whilst I didn’t learn nothing in experiments with efficiency, my main takeaway was that it was wrong for me. I was motivated by a desire to take back control of my life, and I accomplished the opposite – I still felt like there was not enough time, and to top it off, I was exhausted at keeping up with that pace.

What I’ve learnt is that there is a time and a place for efficiency, but that something far more important must come first – the second approach. So what is this thing that, without solving all my problems, at least mad me feel as though were suddenly more hours in the day?

NEGLECT.

It all started with a realisation. People are very quick to bring you back down to Earth when you try and better yourself, or when you try to do anything but meekly accept what you’ve been handed. They’ll talk you off the ledge by reminding you that you can’t just do what you want to all the time, or that sometimes life is hard, or that now and then you just have to put up with things not being the way you’d prefer them to be. They do this because they love you, and they don’t want to see you get hurt.

The most annoying thing is that… they’re right! You can’t just do what you want all the time. Sometimes, life is hard. Now and then, you do just have to put up with things not being the way you’d prefer them to be. Well, after resisting those sorts of beliefs for a long time, I accepted them. I made peace with them. But the more I thought about them, the more I started to wonder… “Maybe there’s some wiggle room here…”

Let’s say, hypothetically, that it’s absolutely impossible to rid your days completely of the things that drag you down. It’s never going to be 0%. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, there’s just always going to be that little shit sandwich you’re stuck with. Okay. But let me ask you this: In what way does that prevent you from seeing how small you can make that shit sandwich? Even if you could never get to 0%, and could only get to, say… 20%, wouldn’t it be worth it to try, rather than to just accept your lot at 60%?

Though I’ve gone up and down and taken two steps forward and five steps back a bunch of times – I’ve tried very hard over the past few years to say “no” to things I don’t truly want in my day. Has it made my life a heaven on Earth? No. Has it improved it? Drastically.

What drags you down? What could you start neglecting? Remember: you don’t have to commit – just do it as an experiment. Cut one unwanted thing out of your day for a week. If you really miss it, add it back in. If you don’t, you’ve just freed up some space in your day… for the rest of your life!

If you decide to take my advice, remember Voltaire’s words: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Getting rid of anything unwanted in your life – even if you can’t get rid of everything – is a move in the right direction, and will make you feel like there are more hours in the day.

Chip Away

What happens if you don’t eat for a few hours?

That wasn’t a trick question. The answer is obvious: you will get hungry. That clever body of yours will sense the lack of incoming food, and start giving you all these signals designed to get you to eat something. And how do you get the signals to stop? By obeying your body – scarfing down some food. Ét voila – you aren’t hungry any more.

To sum up: your body senses a lack, tells you to fill that lack, and then rewards you for doing so.

That little mechanism certainly checks out when it comes to physical hunger – beautifully so. But what about when you don’t so much feel physically hungry, as you feel – for want of a better word – spiritually hungry. Empty inside. Disconnected. Adrift. Stressed out. Joyless.

Well, I’ve been there a lot. I’m sure you have too. And if you’re anything like me, you probably instinctively assume that – just as a lack of food makes you physically hungry and a bag of crisps will solve the problem – a lack of… something… is what is making you sprititually hungry. And so the solution must be to fill that void. To add something. To go and get more.

And just like me, you’d be dead wrong. Every single time.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Albert Einstein

More is very rarely more. The solution is almost never to try and add stuff. That’s because the problem is not what you think it is. You are not empty. You are full to the brim… with the wrong stuff.

Imagine two big tables, and a wicker basket. On the first table are all the things you love. All the things that mean the world to you. All the things that make your days worth living. On the second table are enormous mounds of sawdust.

Well, it really doesn’t matter how many of the things from the first table you try to cram into your basket – if it’s filled it with sawdust, they just won’t go in. You have to make room first – empty the sawdust into the bin, then go back to the first table and take what you want. Now it will fit.

Your basket, as I’m sure you’ve realised, is your life. The reason you feel empty is because you aren’t filling it with things from the first table. But it’s not enough just to try to cram them in. First you have to make space. You have to get rid of as much of the sawdust as you can first. And in this little analogy, the sawdust represents EVERYTHING that didn’t make it onto the first table. Yes, the god-awful, the stuff you hate, but – and this is the difficult part – also the stuff that really isn’t that bad. The harsh truth is that if it didn’t make the cut to get on the first table, it’s sawdust. And not only is it taking up room in your life without giving you anything in return, it’s stopping you from letting in the the really magical stuff.

It’s painful, and it feels counter-intuitive, but when you let go of something you never really wanted in the first place, though you might appear from the outside to have “lost” something, you actually experience a net gain. It feels wrong, so wrong as to be untrue… until you do it. And then you wonder why you waited so long.

You know the famous quote by Michelangelo, right? In fact, I’m sure I’ve quoted it a couple of times in the last few months. Anyway, he said something like: “David was ready and waiting within the giant block of marble – my job was simply to chip away at everything that wasn’t David.”

Chip away at everything that isn’t you.

Taking a Leap of Faith

Everything I look back on as a “good” thing in my life started with a leap of faith.

Even though, in every single case, I had absolutely no idea how – or even if – something was going to work out, I was stubborn (or perhaps stupid) enough to move forward anyway. Had I waited until I knew how all the pieces would fit together in advance, I wouldn’t have done a damn thing.

I wouldn’t have made an album 5 years ago. I wouldn’t have quit every job I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t have gotten engaged to a foreigner I’d just met and be married to her today. I wouldn’t have written this blog day-in-day-out for almost 8 months solid.

You’d think that knowing all that would help. But I still find myself constantly on the verge of wimping out. I’m deathly afraid to take a leap of faith, even though I have all the evidence I could ever need that it’s better on the other side. And that’s not because I always get what I want when I leap – in fact, I rarely do – but it’s because, as the Rolling Stones pointed out, “If you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” And getting what you need feels even better than getting what you want.

I was thinking about it this morning. You see, I’m over a month into the first draft of a story right now. I have a little routine. Every day, I sit down at my laptop and I try to write one scene. When I’m done, I print it out, open my desk drawer, and add my new pages face-down onto the ever-growing pile.

And every single day without fail, I want to quit. I want to start again. So far, I haven’t given in yet. I have ploughed forward. I have added two or three pages to my pile every day without fail. But today was the closest I came.

My problem? I just can’t see how any of it fits together. Everything I come up with – that feels “right” in the moment – contradicts everything that came before it. Characters waltz on-stage as though they’re going to be integral parts of the story, never to be seen again. My hero’s love interest has changed her age, her hair colour, her taste in music, and even her cup size several times. And I’ve also noticed a funny habit of mine – whenever a scene starts to flag, my go-to instinct is to have either a phone ring unexpectedbly, or a doorbell ring unexpectedly. It’s hardly Hemingway, is it?

Everything inside me is crying out to quit and start this thing again. But I’m not. I’m staying the course – no matter how dumb that might seem – for one reason and one reason only: I’ve done that. I’ve quit and started again dozens and possibly hundreds of times. And I know how that goes: before long I hit another wall and want to quit and start again.

Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well, I have a black-belt in quitting and starting again before I get to the end of a draft. So not this time. The leap of faith here – which is actually getting more difficult to take each day – is ploughing on in the face of uncertainty, and getting to “THE END.”

What I will say, however, is that even though I’m still incredibly murky as to what my story is, not a day goes by where I don’t know it slightly better when I stand up from my desk than I did when I first sit down. Each session might be the equivalent of taking one step on a journey of a thousand miles, but to me, that’s progress. And I’ll take it.

When you talk of taking a leap of faith, I suppose it begs the question “faith in what, exactly?” Well, the thing is, and not to get too “woo-woo”, I know that deep down, I do know exactly how it all fits together. Something inside me knows, at least, even if I couldn’t tell you myself. And that’s what I’m putting my faith in. A part of me that’s way deeper and far more intelligent than the tiny bit of my mind available for day-to-day living.

And I’m no special case. You have that too. That part of you is the reason why your leaps of faith work out too, just like mine always do. Again, not always “working out” in the sense that you get what you want. But always in the sense that you get what you need.

I share all this today in case you find yourself in a similar “belly of the beast” moment, facing a leap of faith. And all I can tell you is what works for me. Whenever I’ve leapt, whenever I’ve put my faith in that deeper and better part of me, it has NEVER let me down. In fact, the only thing that has ever let me down is the other part of me – the thinking part, the part that needs certainty, the part that wants to control everything and everyone… the part I funnily enough tend to think of as “me.”

That part that you think of as “you” isn’t “you”, any more than your left hand is your entire body. It is the tip of the iceberg. You are vast. There is far more to you than you can ever hope to understand. But if you want to get a glimpse of the rest of the iceberg, put your faith in it. And take a leap.

Notice Them

Don’t take them for granted this time around.

I know you weren’t trying to before, but you did a bit, didn’t you? If you want to make up for lost time, I recommend just trying to notice things about them, things you let pass you by all those years.

We’ll start simply – the face.

The wrinkles that form next to their eyes when they smile genuinely.

How they tend to blink quickly two or three times, then not at all for several seconds, and then another two or three in rapid succession.

How they when they’re trying to remember something they look up and to the left.

Moles and freckles and baby hairs and the ever-so-slightly asymmetry of their eyebrows.

I could go on, but you get the point. Notice things about them. It’s very hard to do this and find yourself appreciating them more than ever before.

You Don’t Owe Them Shit

About a year ago, I had a verbal alteraction with the bloke who was very soon to become the ex-keyboard player of the band I was in.

We were filming a promo video at The Greystones, and it had been a long, very frustrating day. The bloke in question had been getting more and more annoyed by one thing or another since his arrival at 9am sharp, and in his defence, I could see why. He’d acted like a professional, and certain other people hadn’t. They’d not shown up, then they’d been impossible to get hold of, then when they had shown up they hadn’t brought the right equipment… even I was a bit annoyed, and you know how chilled out I am all the time.

But it wasn’t til about 2pm that it all came to a head. He found that somebody had moved his keyboard case off the bench and onto the carpeted floor, and – perhaps for no reason other than convenience – I became the unfortunate target of this rather large man’s rage. He started screaming at me, accusing me of having no respect for other people, for not caring about his property, for not having a clue about the real world, and yada yada yada… (Incidentally, I still have no idea who moved his case, but it wasn’t me. Honestly. I wish it had been, but…)

Well, normally being confronted like that would knock me off-balance. I’d freeze. I wouldn’t quite know what to say. I’d try and wait it out, or hope that somebody came to my rescue. Not this time, though.

I got right in his face and I told him to fuck off and to never talk to me like that again. And then I walked slowly away, hearing him carry on at nobody in particular, whilst everybody else watched agasp from a distance.


I was proud of myself that day. For one, because this keyboard player was a very unpleasant person. He was rude. He was racist. And he had a chip on his shoulder the size of Pluto. It felt good to put him in his place, even in the very tiny way that I did.

But my feeling proud had absolutely nothing to do with him as an individual. No, it had to do with the fact that I had stared down a bitter enemy – I had confronted a type of person I have hated with a passion, and wanted to confront, ever since I was very small.

The type of person I’m talking about takes all kinds of forms. Growing up in Sheffield, I came across plenty of them, but I suspect they’re everywhere. The easiest way to sum them is with the attitude they appear to greet the world with:

“More bad things have happened to me than to you. So I win. I’m a “real” person and you’re not. You don’t have a clue about the world. So I’m going to do all that I can to make you feel small.”

To be cruder: “Bad things have happened to me so I’m allowed to be a cunt for the rest of my life.”

They’ve been there since I was very small. Teachers. Football coaches. Kids at school. Friends’ grandparents. The ex-keyboard player. No two ever looked the same, but I hated each and every one. I hated the way they made me feel, but that’s somewhat forgivable if you just stay out of their way. No, what was unforgivable was the way I had allowed them to dictate the terms of my behaviour.

I didn’t know I was doing it at first, but over the years I learnt to catch myself. People with that sort of attitude have always made me feel that being myself was somehow a mistake, and that it was better to pussyfoot around them and stay safe, even if it made me unhappy, rather than risk upsetting them.

Well, as you get older, you learn to let go of things. The day I told the keyboard player to fuck off was an important one for me, because it was the day I finally started to let the go of the idea that I owe anyone anything just because they think they’ve had a hard life. Lots of people have hard lives. Not all of them use it as a form of emotional terrorism.

I guess my message here today is to be careful who you let inside your head. If you find yourself constantly having to pretend to be something you’re not just to avoid getting on somebody’s “bad side”, ask yourself if that person is really worth sacrificing so much for. And more importantly, would they do the same for you?

If someone isn’t willing to meet you halfway, you dont owe them shit.

Learn the Rules. Play the Game.

The problem isn’t the people in power, nor the way they lie, cheat, fuck over the rest of us, and get away with it.

The problem is you, and your naive expectations.

You cling to this foolish notion that, even though literally nothing in human nature has changed for thousands and thousands of years, you should be able to expect the people who gain power – always unscrupulously – to now act towards us with decency, and dignity, and humanity. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s downright dangerous.

Power is a game. Always has been. Always will be. To those on top, you will never be anything but a pawn in their game. And for this to stay true, they need just one thing – your continued ignorance.

So long as you’re spending your time either naively expecting the best of those in power, or resignedly expecting the worst, you’re playing right into their hand, and helping them stay at the top.

But there is, of course, another way. A better way.

LEARN THE RULES.

Every game has rules. Why should power be any different. If you don’t like who’s in charge right now, you must realise that the only thing keeping them at the top is widespread ignorance of the way the world really works. So be the change you want to see in the world – educate yourself.

Learn the rules of the game. Go beyond the kneejerk poles of naivete and cynicism, and centre yourself in reality. Only then will you have any chance of changing things for the better.

PS: A book that blew the top of my head off when I first read it almost a decade ago, and helps me see just how incredibly naive I am every time I re-read it, is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.

Check it out. Just be careful – once you read it, you can’t unread it.

Conflict Is Beautiful

I failed at writing fiction for over a decade. Here’s how it would go:

I would get a vague idea. A jumping-off point. It could be a character. A situation. A setting. Armed with this – and only this – I would start typing and just see what happened. Characters would come on-stage. Characters would talk. Occasionally, someone would “do” something, but this was rare. And after thrashing through a couple of thousand words, I’d feel as though the scene had reached a natural close.

If I happened to read back the next day – though I tended not to – I would be predictably unimpressed with myself. Yes, there would be the occasional witty bit of dialogue. And I’d find that I turned a phrase nicely every now and then. And always the hint that in the next scene, something big was going to happen. But it didn’t fill me with joy.

I’d read through and be able to put red marks next to things that didn’t work, and I’d come up with all kinds of ideas for ways to improve the scene, and where the story could go next. But I wouldn’t do them. I’d put it aside, chalk it up to experience, and vow to try harder the next time.

Over time, my system – if you could call it that – evolved. Now, rather than trying to go from beginning to end as though I were training for the Olympic Gold in typing, I would pause every line or two. Looking at what I had written, I would ask myself “Is this good…?” without anything much to base my answer upon.

Two steps forward and one step back I would go, writing something that was in many ways an improvement over my type-a-thon approach. (And easier on the wrists.) It would read better. There would be less repetition, and fewer unnecessary words. It would sound more… “writerly.” And yet the truth I was forced to confront was that it was still shite.

Why? Because, not knowing what the problem was, I hadn’t fixed the problem. I’d gilded the lily, so to speak. Polished a turd. I believed that if I just grinded long enough on the words, chopping and changing and swapping and reiterating, that at some point it would all just… come together. Instead what I ended up with was a more impressive-sounding yet equally meaningless couple of thousand words.

So what was the problem? I HADN’T SAID ANYTHING. Which, when I say it now, seems blindingly obvious, as these things always do in retrospect.

I’d sit there worrying about exactly how the girl in the scene wore her hair. I’d make it a rainy day, then change my mind, then change back again. I’d fret over what shade of brown the sofa was, and the bar of chocolate, and the birth-mark on the back of her knee. Or whether she had a birth-mark at all.

Meanwhile, nothing happened. Lots of talk. Lots of description. Lots of hints of things that had happened in the past and may happen in the future. But no action. No conflict. No pressure. Just… words.

I was painfully slow to grasp this, but I eventually did. In the end, I suppose all it took was reading Robert McKee’s Story about fifteen times, Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid just as many (as well as his wonderful podcast with Tim Grahl), and taking obsessive notes on my favourite books and films and TV shows, for the penny to finally drop.

Here’s the painful lesson: Until there is conflict on the page, you don’t have a story. Until a character is in a situation where they are forced to make a decision under pressure – and you show both their decision and what happens as a result of it – you haven’t said anything yet.

It’s not about how many words you write each day. You can write an 80,000 manuscript and say nothing. Or you can do, as Ernest Hemingway allegedly did, and tell a whole, incredibly tragic story in 6 words.

“Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.”

To wrap up this little tale, the answer is no. I still haven’t managed to say very much in my fiction writing – you’ll be the first to know when I do. And yet I’m still very happy about all this. It turns out that when you get a handle on what’s wrong with your work, the path to fixing it becomes a hell of a lot clearer.

I guess what I’m saying is that when you feel you’re on the right track, you stop worrying about exactly where you are on the track. And as painful as it can be to feel like a dumbass, figuring out where you’re going wrong can be just the thing to help you figure out where to go right.

Frank and Jesse James

It always pissed me off.

I’d hear people who knew next to nothing about music saying that “every song should tell a story” and then sit back with a smug expression on their face as though they had said something they understood. Really? (I would think.) So you’re saying that if a song doesn’t start with some variation of “Once upon a time” and end with some variation of “And that’s the end of that chapter…” then it’s not a real song? Bullshit. Get out. Idiot.

Of course years later I realised that the only idiot was me. They didn’t mean a song had to literally tell a story – they were being much more abstract. They meant that a song should go somewhere, should start on one emotional plane and take you to another, should breathe. In other words, it should be interesting.

Once I cottoned onto what these people actually meant, I had no choice but to agree. A song should do all those things. And so over the years I relaxed into just writing songs without feeling like I had to explicitly string some sort of narrative together. My songs were about stuff, but I can’t say they particularly went anywhere.

Over time, though, listening to people like Lou Reed, and Warren Zevon, I became ever more interested in songs that actually do tell a story – they’re narratives set to music. Bored with the drivel I was coming up with, needing a new direction to make things interesting for me again, I thought this would fit me like a glove. And every time I tried to make a move in that direction, I fell flat on my face.

What’s a girl to do? Well, I waited far too long, but I eventually started stabbing my favourite songs and ripping them apart at the seams and trying to figure out just what tricks my heroes had employed to write these brilliant song/stories.

I’m sharing with you my analysis of the first song off Warren Zevon’s first album, Frank and Jesse James. If you want to listen along, here is the track:

Verse 1 – The Beginning Hook

On a small Missouri farm, back when the West was young,
Two boys learned to rope and ride and be handy with a gun.
War broke out between the states and they joined up with Quantrill,
And it was over in Clay County that Frank and Jesse finally learned to kill.

The first verse of Frank and Jesse James is the “beginning hook.” Its job is to give us a reason to keep listening. How does Zevon do that?

First, like any good Dickensian, omniscient, God-like narrator, he sets the scene. The first two lines give us a place, a time-period, an image of our leading characters growing up to be cowboys, and of course, the threat of impending violence. I’m reminded of Anton Chekhov’s famous writing advice: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

The scene is set, but nothing much has happened yet. Until the third line, when the US Civil War breaks out. BAM! An inciting incident.

And to wrap up this first verse, and get us hooked, Zevon lets the gun go off, establishing Frank and Jesse as killers. We’re off to a great start, and most importantly, we’re wondering “how is this going to turn out?”

Chorus 1 – Future Tense

Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ’til you clear your names,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ‘cross the rivers and the rains,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James.

The choruses of this song are interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the point of view. Zevon switches from his previous role as an omniscient narrator – just telling us the story – to being a kind of cheerleader for our heroes. This is important, because Frank and Jesse are at no point in this song particularly sympathetic characters – they’re cold, cruel killers – and yet this makes us root for them nonetheless as the moral centre of the story.

The second interesting thing is that each chorus is from a different time perspective. This first one is in the future tense – they haven’t actually become outlaws yet, but now we’re anticipating it.

Verse 2 – The Middle Build

After Appomatox, they was on the losin’ side,
So no amnesty was granted, and as outlaws they did ride.
They rode against the railroad and they rode against the banks
And they rode against the governor, never did they ask for a word of thanks.

The second verse is the middle build. In the first two lines, Zevon gives us a sense of the dire straits they find themselves in – Appomattox was where General Robert E Lee surrendered, and one of the last battles of the Civil War. Things aren’t looking good for Frank and Jesse. They face a crisis choice: go to jail or be outlaws? That ain’t no choice…

In the third and fourth line, Zevon builds the tension even more by telling us just who they’re running from – three of the most powerful institutions of the day.

Now we’re really wondering how it’s going to turn out.

Chorus 2 – Present Tense

Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin, Frank and Jesse James,
Keep on ridin’, ridin, ridin’, ’til you clear your names,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin, ‘cross the prairies and the plains,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin, Frank and Jesse James.

This chorus is in the present tense – they’re on the run now.

Verse 3 – The Ending Payoff

Robert Ford, a gunman, in exchange for his parole
Took the life of James the outlaw, which he snuck upon and stole
No-one knows just where they came to be misunderstood,
But the poor Missouri farmers knew that Frank and Jesse’d do the best they could.

We knew this tale was probably not going to end happily. Zevon doesn’t waste any time letting us know how right we were. He sets up the villain in the first line, and has him “steal” one of the brother’s lives in the second line. Note the disdainful way in which Zevon describes Robert Ford – without using the word “coward”, he paints a picture that couldn’t mean anything else.

And then in the last two lines – the resolution, if you will – Zevon ties up this tragedy by playing to our sympathetic nature. Sure, Frank and Jesse were outlaws and killers, but they were also human beings – poor, humble folk, misunderstood by everybody except the salt of the Earth fellas they grew up with. Their own kind.

Chorus 3 – Past Tense

Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ’til you clear your names,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, ‘cross the rivers and the rains,
Keep on ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, Frank and Jesse James.

The third chorus is in the past tense. They’re not riding any more – one of them is dead – but Zevon still cheers them on, keeping their memory alive, showing that even death couldn’t stop Frank and Jesse James.

Live the Questions

Maybe nothing means anything and it’s all a big joke. Maybe the fact that you love one person and hate another, or cry to one song and throw up to another, is nothing more than a coincidence. Maybe seeing it as anything more than this is a sign that you’re narcissistic and self-absorbed. Maybe.

Or maybe…

Maybe it is all connected. Maybe there are reasons, far too complex for your tiny mind to comprehend, why you’re drawn toward certain things and away from others. Maybe there is an invisible thread running through the things you love and the things that leave you cold.

Scientifically, I can’t see anyone proving either perspective right or wrong any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that a better life can’t be had if consciously choose to fall on one side of the argument or the other.

Personally? The second one. I make the bold and foolish assumption that if something affects me, it affects me for a damn good reason. Why do I do this, when I have no way of knowing if I’m actually right? Because it makes my life a lot more meaningful.

You see, even if I’m kidding myself, me believing there to be something behind what I like and don’t like launches a question in my mind… “Why?” When I get that “Why?” feeling, I can either refuse the call, or heed the call. When I have my head screwed on properly, I heed.

Off I go looking for an answer. I don’t hope to find a definitive, true-for-all-of-time answer to my questions – I think that would be very limiting. I’m just looking for a microscopically deeper understanding of why I might respond a particular way to one thing and another way to another.

Where this has found me recently is getting all forensic on the songs I love, the films that make me cry, the particular episodes of TV shows that for God knows what reason I can’t stop thinking about… I’ve been putting on the surgeon gloves, so to speak, and shoving my hand inside the body, in the hope that by feeling around its innards I might learn something more about how these things work.

Tomorrow, I’ll share one of these surgeries with you.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rainer Marie Rilke

Say It Today

It it needs to be said, say it. Today.

I don’t care if you have to down a bottle of wine first. Or punch a cobra. However the spirit moves you. Whatever you need to do to make saying it easier, be my guest.

There are words inside you aching to come out, and there are ears outside you aching to hear those words. They’ve been waiting for a long time.

It might feel like nothing to put it off another day – God knows you’ve had enough practice. But why take the chance?

If it needs to be said, say it. Today.