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.

Acting Like a Beggar

If you were homeless and somebody offered you a bed for the night – no strings attached – you probably wouldn’t turn it down just because the duvet wasn’t your favourite colour. You’d dive under the covers without even noticing it.

And if you were starving and they made you a sandwich, you probably wouldn’t turn it down just because they’d cut it into triangles and you normally cut it into squares. You’d wolf the bugger down, post-haste.

Beggars can’t be choosers. Sure. But how often is that in any way relevant to your situation? How often do you really find yourself in beggar-like times, where you have so few chips to play with that you cannot “afford” to make the choice you want to make? How often is that impossible for you?

Most often – 99.99% of the time – it’s not impossible. It’s uncomfortable, yes, but not remotely close to impossible. The awkard truth is that you have just as much choice as you tell yourself you have.

If you want to be a chooser, stop acting like a beggar.

Private Victories

First, the answer to your question is yes. Yes, I am aware that speaking publicly about a private victory renders it somewhat less… private. But I don’t care because I’m not trying to brag. I’m trying to offer hope.

In Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, he tells a story about how… well, why I don’t let him tell it?

“I washed up in New York a couple of decades ago, making twenty bucks a night driving a cab and running away full- time from doing my work. One night, alone in my $110-a- month sublet, I hit bottom in terms of having diverted myself into so many phony channels so many times that I couldn’t rationalize it for one more evening. I dragged out my ancient Smith-Corona, dreading the experience as pointless, fruitless, meaningless, not to say the most painful exercise I could think of. For two hours I made myself sit there, torturing out some trash that I chucked immediately into the shitcan. That was enough. I put the machine away. I went back to the kitchen. In the sink sat ten days of dishes. For some reason I had enough excess energy that I decided to wash them. The warm water felt pretty good. The soap and sponge were doing their thing. A pile of clean plates began rising in the drying rack. To my amazement I realized I was whistling.

It hit me that I had turned a corner. I was okay. I would be okay from here on.

Steven Pressfield – “The War of Art”

I had a moment like that for myself this morning.

I’ve been trying to write fiction, on and off, since I was seventeen. I sort of fell into it when my girlfriend at the time told me about Na-No-Wri-Mo. National Novel Writing Month. You write a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days. I’m a fast typist, I thought, how hard could it be?

So the first piece of fiction I really attempted was a novel, and I say “attempted”, because at the end of 30 days, “Junkies, Queers, and People Who Live Near Cuba” was not so much a novel as a 50,000 word stream-of-consciousness… thing… with a story spine so weak no chiropractor on the planet could have saved it. It was shit. I’m not just saying that. But I didn’t care, because I’d got the bug.

In the twelve years since then, I’ve never gone more than a year without trying to write something. I tried my hand at a couple of shameful screenplays. Started dozens of very similar and very dubious novels and short stories, abandoning them all long before they were either finished or any good. I tried to write by the seat of my pants. I tried to outline until I was blue in the face.

The only thing I neve did was manage to write anything I actually liked when I was done with it.

Until today, that is. This morning, I wrote a scene that – whilst it’s still so far from good it’s not funny – I actually liked. But that’s not all. Not only did I like it, I actually had this very strange, very unfamiliar – and very pleasant – feeling whilst I was writing it that that… I know what I’m supposed to do now.

Because it’s one thing to know the theory. I’ve known for a long time now how – in theory – stories work. I know the rules, the principles, the commandments. I know them like the back of my hand. But so what? There’s a very big difference between “knowing” the theory of something and being able to actually do it.

Again, let me stress this: I didn’t write anything good yet. But for the first time in my fiction writing journey, I had the feeling that rather than flailing around desperately, I had at least one of my hands on the steering wheel. And it very felt good.

That was my private victory. And I share it with you today as a tale of hope. If you have something you don’t feel you’re getting anywhere with, then unless you’re crazy you feel like giving up sometimes. Maybe most of the time. Well, I ‘m here to ask you – on behalf of the rest of the human race – please don’t. Don’t give up. Keep studying, keep practicing, keep inching forward, no matter how far away from any kind of glory or recognition – or in my case, actually being able to do the thing you want to do – you think you are.

At some point it will come together for you. It will click. And the only mistake you can make is to give up before it does.

On Imperfection

It feels like there’s always a trade-off.

For anybody who makes stuff and puts it out into the world for all to see, the gold at the end of the rainbow is that warm, fuzzy feeling like you did good. We want to take pride in our work. But that’s not all – we want other people to like it, too. To give our efforts a purpose. And we know we’ll never win everyone over, but at least some praise would be nice.

Nothing could be more natural. The problem is when those two desires – to do our work for ourselves and to do our work for others – present themselves as mutually exclusive. This generally leads to a tug-of-war, where we flit reluctantly choose one side or the other, but sort of keep looking over our shoulder, or we try to clumsily straddle the two, and end up doing neither.

Take my writing, for example. Every day for the past 228 days, I have felt incredibly torn. Half of me wants to write something true, something I can stand by, something I feel really proud of. This half of me is quite prepared to offend people who I know are reading, in the name of art. But the other half of me just wants to put something “nice” out there. It doesn’t want to take the risk of upsetting somebody, even if that means pulling my punches.

Some days I go further to one side. Some days the other. In general, though, I regret to admit I play it far too safe.

Until recently, I just assumed that this was part and parcel of the challenge – it was either what I wanted, or what I thought “people” wanted. But over time, evidence to the contrary slowly accrued. I realised I was dead wrong. There were indeed two different types of piece, but they were different in a different way than I thought.

Basically, there were pieces where, as I hit the “publish” button, I felt a real rush, a release, a sense of catharsis. And these were almost always the very same pieces that I would receive texts and emails about. People telling me that what I’d written meant a lot to them. Or that it made them think. Or that it made me laugh.

And then there were the other pieces. The ones I didn’t feel too great about, and neither did anybody else, apparently.

So what was the common ingredient? What was it about the ones that both I and other people seemed to like? Were they edgy? Sometimes. Vulgar? Often. Funny? That’s hardly for me to say… But, no. None of those. The common thread I found can be summed up in one simple word:

IMPERFECTION.

Quite simply, it was when I was more honest and open about the ways in which I’m flawed, fucked up, otherwise imperfect somehow. Human, you might say. The more vulnerable I seemed to make myself to criticism, the more praise I seemed to get, from readers and from my own mind.

And now that I think about it, I’m hardly surprised.

Each of us walks around utterly terrified of what other people would think of us if they knew “the truth.” And yet… when we finally think “fuck it” and just let go of them, we not only let out a huge sigh of relief from casting off the heavy burden we’ve been carrying around, but other people’s eyes seem to widen to us as well.

Which makes perfect sense. I don’t know about you, but perfection is a real turn-off to me. I like imperfect people. Beauty spots. A poor memory for celebrity’s names. A snort when you laugh.

You won’t get this message from “the world” but the truth is that those things don’t make you a loser. They make you awesome. They make you… “you.” The real losers are the people walking around trying to convince you their shit doesn’t stink.

I’m not suggesting for a second that you start living your life like an open wound. There’s being vulnerable and honest and open, and then there’s fishing for attention. They’re not the same thing. All I’m just suggesting is that you check yourself. How much time and energy are you devoting every day to trying to control how people see you, living in fear of the moment they find out “the truth” about you?

“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.”

Criss Jami

La bêtise humaine

“Also consider that someday, when you’re dead and rotted, kids with their baby teeth will sit in their time-geography class and laugh about how stupid you were.”

Chuck Palahniuk – “Rant”

The Tudors were pretty dumb, weren’t they? Toxic lead and mercury on your face? Oh yeah, great idea, Elizabeth the first, you stupid ginger virgin. Well, I don’t know about you, I’m just glad nobody these days is doing anything at all harmful in the name of vanity…

And don’t even get me started on 17th century Salem… now, they really were a bunch of dunces! Over two hundred accused, thirty found guilty, and nineteen hanged in the end. For… that’s right, witchcraft. You couldn’t make it up! Just thank your lucky stars that all these years later, people always think twice before they commit atrocious acts in the name of their “religion”…

But – and I’ve always said this – if you want cretins, look no further than the Third Reich. Those sauerkraut-chomping dunderheads, all fawning over a dumpy little Austrian with one testicle, believing seemingly every word that came out of his mouth so long as he was slagging off Jews. Again, I just thank the almighty that I’m alive in 2020, a time when nobody in their right mind would dream of a) trying to pull the wool over an entire nation’s eyes by blaming all of their problems on some conveniently placed group in society, or b) believing anybody with the audacity to try…

I somehow don’t think we need an “in conclusion” paragraph today, do we?

Everybody’s Got to Take a Side. Right?

REMY: I mean, the father’s got him in this crack den, subsisting on twinkies and ass-whippings, and this little boy just wants someone to tell him that he’s doing a good job. You’re worried what’s Catholic? I mean, kids forgive. Kids don’t judge. Kids turn the other cheek. What do they get for it? So I went back out there, I put an ounce of heroin on the living room floor, and I sent the father on a ride, seven to life.

PATRICK: That was the right thing?

REMY: [yelling]  Fucking A! You gotta take a side. You molest a child, you beat a child, you’re not on my side. If you see me coming, you better run, because I am gonna lay you the fuck down! Easy.

Gone Baby Gone (Affleck, 2007)

Sooner or later, with pleasure or with pain, for a big thing or a small, “you gotta take a side.” Right?

If you ask most people which part of that sentence is the most important, and they will likely tell you it’s the “side.” It’s simple: to most people, what matters is not the subtleties of why you’re on a particular side, or what exactly that side really stands for.

People like feeling that they’re part of the herd. And so all that matters to most is whether or not you’re on their side. If you are, they’ll treat you well. If you’re not, they’ll hold you at arm’s length.

I don’t see it like that, though. For me, the question of which particular side you choose is not nearly as important as that you pick one deliberately. And in that spirit, I find the most important word to be “take.”

Anybody can claim to be on this side or that, choosing whichever one fits the spirit of the times like a hairstyle. Anybody can say with their words that they’re for or against whatever gives them a fuzzy feeling about themselves. Or allows them to feel they’re part of a group.

But all that talk is not the same thing as taking a side. Not if there’s no skin in the game, no risk. Until you actually take a risk in one direction or another – as Detective Remy Bressant did, planting an ounce of smack on some degenerate’s living room floor, for what he saw as the “greater good” – you haven’t “taken” a side at all. You’ve merely moved your lips and teeth.

To take a side is an active choice, and should not be frittered away on things that do not matter. The glory of life is that you get to decide what you’re going to take a stand on, and what you’re going to leave alone. Just make sure that if you find something you care enough about to take a side on, that you’re actually taking a side – which always involves a risk – as opposed to just chattering about it.

Life Is Just School With Less Acne

They might laugh in your face and call you a slag.

Or maybe just turn their noses up at you.

They might trip you up and film you falling face-first into a muddy puddle and send it round the rest of the school.

Or maybe you just won’t get invited to the next three litre bottle of diamond white session in the park.

They might tell you you’re a weirdo right to your face.

Or maybe only when they think you’re out of ear-shot.

Life is just school with less acne. Whatever you decide to do, whoever you decide to be, meeting with resistance is inevitable.

But letting it slow you down is on you.

Some Fly East, Some Fly West…

At first I thought that walking and running and cooking and showering without making damn sure I had something tickling my ears would be hellish. Well, yesterday’s little experiment proved me pleasantly wrong, and so I extended it to today.

And then the voices came.

I was walking. A few steps down the road and it all kicked off – mentally, that is. Maybe you’ve been there: you get complacent and you let your guard down for one second and then a whole cast of characters dashes on-stage, each one more beligerent and attention-seeking than the last.

It takes all sorts. There’s the professor, furrowing his brow as he tries to solve problems that may or may not exist. There’s the old Irish in the corner trying to instigate a drunken sing-along up and turning ever so vicious when nobody joins in. There’s the wannabe Eddie Van Halen, turning his amp up to 11 and playing… whatever the hell he feels like playing.

It’s a UN meeting crossed with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest located entirely within the borders my own mind.

Normally, I’m too afraid to risk letting them in. So I put on a Story Grid podcast, or a Lou Reed album, or The Ricky Gervais Show. But I got cocky. And once they caught wind that my headspace was open for business, they didn’t shy away from making themselves at home, or inviting their extended families to visit, either.

Well, I carried on walking, and although I wanted desperately to put my hand in my pocket and reach for my phone and distract myself with something, I resolved to at least try and make it home without giving up. I reasoned that if I these characters weren’t going anywhere, I may as well try to listen to them. I could even pretend that I was listening to something – a strange new radio station broadcasting from my head, to my head.

You know, I’m glad I made that decision, because it didn’t take long at all before something very cool happened – one by one, all the characters shut the fuck up. A sort of uncommon quiet descended over me. I looked around, somewhat confused, and realised that though the voices had departed – or at least gotten really quiet – I was still very much here.

I saw how the leaves are back on the trees with a vengeance. When did that happen? I saw clean people driving dirty cars and dirty people driving clean cars. I saw sillhouettes through curtains and I wondered what secrets these people were keeping from me.

The world wasn’t suddenly without its problems, but even if just for a while, they felt light as a feather.

Via Negativa

In an abundant world, productivity is about eliminating bad habits; then adding good ones.
In an abundant world, knowledge is about filtering, rather than gathering, information.
In an abundant world, discipline is the new freedom.
In an abundant world―less is more; and more is less.

Vizi Andrei

I tried something new today.

The thing is, I am a sucker for just having something playing all the time. If I’m cooking, I like the Story Grid podcast. If I’m in the shower, I like the Ricky Gervais show. If I’m running, Elliott Smith.

I’ve never questioned it before, but lately I’ve been wondering if maybe it’s not good for my mind to have pretty much zero time during the day where it’s free to roam. Either I’m working – writing, teaching – or I’m being stimulated with something. I’m never off. And I wonder what off feels like.

So today I tried very hard to “go without.” I ran with no music. I cooked and showered in silence. I went out of my way to not fill the gaps in my day with noise. And I extended this to “checking” my phone. I basically just used it to respond to texts and that was it.

To say that my experiment was life-changing would be a ridiculous overstatement – it was only one day. But day-changing? You bet. It was a lovely day. I felt freer. I felt like I had space to breathe. I felt like time expanded a little bit.

Maybe you aren’t such a slave to the stimulation your phone gives you as I am, and so your mileage might vary. But just as stuffing your face all day long makes you fat and desensitised to what hunger feels like, I suspect there’s a very similar mechanism at play when it comes to compulsively being on your phone all the time.

Make space for yourself.

Don’t Tell When You Can Show

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Anton Chekhov

Normally, I don’t re-read a damn thing I’ve written here. I’m too scared to. Whilst I am a believer in obsessive, anal rewriting, that’s not how I do this blog – I’m all forward momentum. I write with desperation, I publish with desperation, and I move on with desperation.

On rare occasions, however, I have plucked up the courage to look over my shoulder to see what wreckage I left in my wake. I’ve dared myself to read something I wrote months after I wrote it. And each and every time it’s incredibly revealing.

I go throug a real wedding-buffet of emotions. A plate of pride, a dish of disappointment, a skewer of surprise, a cupful of cringe… I try not to beat myself up about anything I don’t like, and sometimes, I succeed.

On the whole, I don’t care about what I’ve done. I’m just glad to have put in the time. But if I could allow myself one single piece of constructive criticism – the admission of one single crime I’ve been guilty of over and over and over during the past 200 or so bits of writing – it’s this: I tell when I ought to show. Overwhelmingly so.

And I think I know why: it’s a bumload easier.

Look at Chekhov’s advice above. I can’t argue with the man. But whilst it might have a lot less artistic impact to tell someone the moon is shining, it requires a hell of a lot less brain than does figuring out an elegant way to show that the moon is shining.

But if that’s the only reason I’m committing this crime, I need to grow up.

If what I wrote came out a certain way and I really liked it and I felt like that was my true voice, and it just so happened that I was a teller and not a shower, then I’d say “Chekhov be damned…” and I’d carry on as normal. But it’d be a lie. Really, I’m just being lazy.

I’ve shown myself that I can turn up and write each day, when I can’t think of a single thing to say, when I’d rather be doing anything else. What I have to do now is step up my game.

I’ve told just about as much as I can by now. I’ve said just about as much as I have to say. But there are a million and one ways under the sun to show. And by hook or crook I promise I will find them.

Sixty Seconds Is All It Takes

It’s take-away night. What do you want? Greek? Sushi? Indian? Okay, we’re getting Chinese. So what shall we order?

The more restaurants to choose from, the longer the menu, and the more delicious every option sounds, the harder it is to decide what to order.

Food’s here. What are we going to watch? Film? Series? Okay, series. Funny? Dramatic? Okay, funny. Modern Family? Friends? Friday Night Dinner? The more options each streaming service offers, the harder it is to decide what to watch.

Next morning. No teaching today. What shall I do with my day? Could write a song. Could do some writing. Could try to get some more students. Okay, I’ll do some writing. Fiction? Something to help my students? My blog?

I know this isn’t just me. I talk to people. This is life.

But the most disturbing thing to me is that basically none of these decisions, in and of themselves, are of any consequence whatsoever. They don’t matter. So long as I order something I don’t hate, I’ll be happy, and survive until tomorrow. So long as I watch something I don’t hate, I’ll be entertained. And so long as I do something vaguely productive, I’ll feel good about my day.

Yes, there are better options and there are worse options. But the big lie is that the way to make the best choice is to give yourself the most options possible, and to spend as long as possible deliberating between them. It doesn’t work. In fact, it accomplishes the exact opposite.

The longer I take to eventually decide on a kebab, the more likely I am to wonder if I should have ordered of their pizzas instead. Or gone for Chinese. Or cooked and saved a bit of money.

The longer I take to eventually watch an episode of Friends, the more likely I am to wonder if I should have picked Modern Family. Or a film. Or nothing at all, just some music.

And the next morning, the longer it takes me to eventually settle on trying to write a song, the more likely I am to wonder if I should have tried to find myself some new students instead. Or pulled some weeds in the garden. Or finally sorted out all the things I’ve shoved in the spare bedroom wardrobe since we’ve lived here.

I don’t have scientific proof of this. But tell me I’m wrong. The longer you deliberate, the less happy you end up with whatever you decide on.

So what is the solution?

The closest thing I’ve found is this: Set a timer.

If the stakes are not life and death – and they seldom are – set a timer for sixty seconds. And by the time it beeps, have a decision. And then march forward in that direction.

There’s a reason why this works – when I follow it, that is. But there’s also a reason why we are so resistant to thinking something so simple could work. You see, we all operate under this assumption that we should get clarity, and then we should act – in that order. We assume that clarity comes from thinking, from deliberating, from consciously weighing this against that, and predicting to the best of our abilities how each one will make us feel.

And it sounds nice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s complete bullshit. It’s the total wrong way round. If you wait until you have clarity before you act, you will wait forever. Clarity comes from motion, and only from motion. Thinking and deliberation, seductive though they are, lock you in this endless circle of fuzziness. You can never know, from inside that circle, whether one thing or the other was the “right” choice. All you can do is continue to wonder. And if you do eventually make a decision, you will have little confidence in it.

Get moving, though, and you experience the best of both worlds. If, after moving forward with it, your 60 second decision feels like it was the right one, well, that’s awesome – aren’t you glad you made it in a minute instead of waiting for more clarity?

On the other hand, if your 60 second decision feels like it was the wrong one, well, that’s awesome too – now you can confidently discard it and try something else. No more wondering.

Your Inciting Incident

A taxi driver sits waiting for a fare. A 12 year old girl gets in and begs him to drive away. Before he can, the girl’s pimp pulls her out of the taxi and throws a crumpled up bill at the driver…

A romance novelist crashes his car in the snow and is rescued by his biggest fan…

A lovesick young Montague crashes a masked ball thrown by the Capulets, and falls in love at first sight with one of them…


Every story starts with an inciting incident – something that throws the lead character’s life out of whack. It can be causal or coincidental. It can be positive or negative. But whatever it is, its defining quality is that the character cannot just ignore what has happened and get on with their lives. They must respond.

And since story is nothing if not a metaphor for life, it shouldn’t take you long to find a few of these in your own personal history. You might not discover anything worthy of an Oscar-winner, but unless you’ve lived under a rock all these years, things have happened to you that forced a response from you.

You met somebody and found yourself unable to stop thinking about them. You were hired. Fired. Required to drop everything at a moment’s notice to put out some fire that was nothing to do with you in the first place.

Nobody – in a story or in real life expects an inciting incident. They are, by definition, unwanted and unplanned. And yet when they come – no matter how much they threaten to destroy everything you hold dear, how sick they make you feel, how much you wish you could go back in time and prevent them happening – they always turn out to be the greatest gift you could ever recieve.

Why? Because they force us to move. And we don’t like to move.

Human beings are incredibly conservative. We rarely do anything unless we absolutely have to. And so during “ordinary times” – so long as nothing too big happens to us – we can tell ourselves things like “Well, things are okay, really. I might not be living life exactly the way I know I should, but… it’s fine. Honestly, it is. Don’t look at me like that – I’m happy!”

You’re not. Not really. But until things get bad enough – or weird enough – to force you out of your rut, you’ll stay in it. This is not a failing. This is human nature. We can either act or avoid, and it always always feels safer to avoid. So we bumble along.

And then BAM! Something gets right up in our face and throws us off course. We can’t ignore it. We can’t pretend it’s not happening. We have to act. And so, like magic, we do, no matter how reluctantly.

And guess what? It’s always better on the other side. I don’t mean that we always “win” or “succeed” – we’ve both seen enough films to know that that’s not true. What I mean is that in having to respond to an inciting incident, we unearth the existence of this whole incredible person we’ve been keeping a secret. We glimpse the true potential, and realise what we’ve been burying. We win, even if we lose.

I suppose my point today is that we don’t choose the inciting incidents of our lives. We don’t choose what they are, how big they are, when they hit us, or why. They choose us, in every sense. But we do choose how we will respond to them.

Will you ignore them until you absolutely can’t, and then do the bare minimum through gritted teeth, resenting all the whilst what life has handed you, and whining about “This isn’t how things were meant to be…”?

Or will you realise how you thought things were “meant to be” was a lie? Will you say “I didn’t choose this and now that it’s here I wish it wasn’t, but it is, and I’ll be damned if I’m going down without a fight…”?

Most importantly, will you allow your inciting incident to sculpt you into the person you were always meant to be?

You’ll Know It When You See It

Some choose money. They covet it. They worship it. They step on toes to get as much of it as they can. Vast fortunes built, they become its paranoid bodyguard. And then they die.

Some choose fame. They want to be seen, acknowledged, by the world. They do all they possibly can – legal and illegal, sane and insane – to boost their profile. Household names, they continue to move their target higher, never quite feeling noticed enough, or by enough people, or for the right reasons. And then they die.

Some choose power. Their self-worth goes up and down depending on one thing – how many people are above or below right now. With enough ruthlessness, they can lead nations, command armies, become puppet-master for an entire planet. And then they die.

Almost nothing matters. Almost everything is – in the grand scheme things – utterly meaningless and inconsequential.

And yet, nature abhors a vacuum. It is impossible – and generally unbearable – for us humans to live without making something the most important thing in our lives. The question begged then, is, “What should it be?”

The answer is closer than you think. Something matters to you. Something holds great meaning for you. Something is of vital consequence to you. Something is worth dedicating your every waking breath to. But what?

I don’t know. I can’t tell you. It is yours and yours alone to find out.

But what I can tell you is that you think you’ve found it, and you’ve found that it’s money, fame, or power… you haven’t found it yet.

That’s okay. Pick yourself up. Start looking again.

You’ll know it when you see it.

A Day Well-Spent

As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Every day is a life in miniature. A fresh chance to get it right.

But what if you don’t get it right? What if you waste your day? Well, all being well, you get another chance tomorrow.

Don’t beat yourself up when you get to the evening and reflect on your day, and you feel you have spent it poorly. First, take inventory. What did you really do all day? You may surprise yourself and after some digging realise that you didn’t spend it poorly at all – you just weren’t paying attention.

And second, realise that even if you have completely wasted the day, this moment of clarity, of seeing just how poorly you have spent it, is enough to turn it into a good day, for it will teach you how not to make the same mistake tomorrow.

There are no losers in the game of life.

Let Your Anger Be Your Guide

“Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”

Malcolm X (1925-1965)

What do you get when you drop an egg onto an open flame? A mess.

But what if, before you drop the egg, you put a pan over the flame? You get a crispy fried egg.


Anger is not the enemy. Anger is a perfectly justifiable response to, as a rational person, looking out at what’s going on in the world. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if you’re not angry, then there is something wrong with you.

The thing is, you’ve been taught your whole life that it’s wrong to be angry. That your anger is unacceptable. Inappropriate. You’ve been encouraged to see yourself, rather than the object of your anger, as the real problem. You were lied to. You are not the problem. And neither is your anger. Anger is a gift.

But on its own – like the flame in the example above – anger isn’t all that useful. It just makes a mess. And the common way people deal with this is that they pretend not to be angry, and they pretend that there’s nothing to be angry about, not really.

No. Don’t do that any longer.

You want to be angry. You want to be seething, if that’s what you feel when you contemplate the state of the world. But you can’t stop there. You want to find a way to channel this anger, a way to make it useful. To transform it from something destructive to something creative.

There is nothing quite like anger for motivating positive change in the world. So let yourself be angry. Accept it. Welcome it in. Honour it, maybe for the first time in your life.

Just don’t stop there – decide how you’re going to use it.

Life Is Lived Scene by Scene

I was nine years old when I first fell in love. His name was Bond, James Bond.

Since lockdown began, I’ve steamed through over a dozen Bond films. Most I’ve seen at least ten times before, but never from the perspective of somebody immersed in studying how stories work. And if you’re looking for incredibly clear examples of the principles of story design, look no further than the James Bond series.

Cubby Broccoli et al. have spent over 50 years now making these things blindingly obvious, and subsequently a joy to study. Well, what I’ve been nerding out over this week is the twin ideas of the super-intention and the scene-intention. Very similar, but not the same. I’ll explain.

The super-intention is the “spine” of a story – it’s the thread that runs from beginning to end, and follows the hero trying to accomplish one very specific thing. In some stories, they succeed; in others, they fail. In a Bond film, the super-intention is very simple: “Stop the bad guy.”

They’re easy to spot. In The Great Gatsby, it’s “Get back with my old girlfriend, Daisy.” It’s Jaws, it’s “Kill the shark.” In Kill Bill, it’s… “Kill Bill.”

But the crucial thing – what makes a super-intention a super-intention – is that it cannot be accomplished in one fell swoop. If it could, it’d make for a remarkably dull story. Instead, stories are built by the characters taking actions that slowly build towards their ultimate goal. These are called scenes.

The scene-intention is what the character is trying to accomplish in this specific one scene – one small piece of their super-intention. And again, in some scenes, they succeed. In some scenes, they fail. To go back to Bond, his invididual scene-intentions might be “Go visit Q and collect some gadgets,” “Make love to this beautiful woman and then try to extract information about the villain from her,” or “Escape from the compromising position the villain has put me in.”

Each one is a step on the path towards his ultimate goal.

And anyway, because I can’t bloody help it, when I went for a run the other day, I had a mini-epiphany when I realised that this is just like real life.

Life is lived scene by scene.

We all have things we want to accomplish today, this week, this year, or at some point in our life. And when these things are small enough, we don’t even clock them. Brush your teeth. Get to work on time. Write a blog post for today. These are scene-intentions – we can accomplish them in one go.

But – hopefully – at least some of the things you want to do are bigger and grander than those things, and cannot be done in one fell swoop. That’s the spanner in the works – how do we make progress, when it’s rarely very clear what exactly needs doing, let alone in which order? Well, that’s where super-intention and scene-intention comes in.

These big dreams are the super-intentions of your story. And how does the hero of a story achieve his super-intention – or at least try to? Scene by scene.

They want something. Scene by scene, they try to do things that will move them closer to it. Sometimes their actions move them closer, but more often they move them further away. But they keep trucking on, and by the climax, they either get the thing they wanted, or they don’t. But they can at least say that they gave it their all.

So when you’re facing something that you can’t get “done” today, and you’re frustrated because you don’t know even know what to do to get closer, step back, take a breathe, and realise that this is just a scene – your job today is not to get your super-intention done. Give yourself an intention for this scene, and for this scene only. Perhaps give yourself something clear that you can accomplish in the next hour. By all means keep your eye on the prize – know what your super-intention is – but let your measure of success for today be how you tackle this scene.

Now, don’t expect everything to go smoothly. Does everything James Bond tries work out the first time? Of course not. Frequently his efforts put him in far more danger than he started in. But because he is aware of his long-term goal, and he keeps adapting scene by scene to where he currently finds himself, he eventually finds a way to accomplish his mission.

In fact, think about Bond again. Just when is Bond at his lowest ebb? At what point in the story, if you were him, would you think “Well, fuck, this really isn’t going well, is it?” Isn’t it always at the same spot in the story, just before he manages to emerge victorious? Like Bond, it’s when you feel furthest away from your goal that you’re probably a hell of a lot closer than you think. Relax, and give yourself a scene intention.

This isn’t something I’ve been working with for very, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve found it really useful. Rather than obsessing over what the perfect course of action ought to be, I’ve been trying more to decide at the beginning of the day what I can actually do about it today. What one step can I take that I think will bring me closer?

The curious thing is that the days where I make a “bad” choice – where the thing I do appears to push me further away from my dream – I still feel a big sense of accomplishment.

It feels good to be on the right path, even when all you seem to do is trip and fall.

When You Can’t Be Arsed…

“I hate writing, I love having written.”

Dorothy Parker

I’m going to ask you a question now. It’s one that I have battled with – and been fascinated by – for many years now.

“Should you do the things you want to do, or the things you know you should do?”

In any given moment, I’m a bit of shit. I’m arrogant. Rude. I feel like I don’t know who I am, but I also know for sure that I hate myself. And most annoying of all, I can’t be bothered. To do anything. Whatsoever.

Once I get into motion, however, it’s a completely different story. I perk up. I start feeling real again. Is this what they call being happy? This has always presented a problem. How do I decide what I should do, moment-to-moment? The honest-to-God answer when I ask myself what I actually feel like doing is almost always “drink a bottle of wine.” And I don’t like to think of what would happen to my lovely white teeth if I gave into that impulse every time.

I’ve tried bullying myself into being productive. Fortunately, the results were so paltry that I never managed to keep it up for long. But yeah, I’ve reasoned now and again that if I never feel like doing anything useful, then maybe I should just ignore what I feel like completely and disconnect and just… go through the motions with something.

But every time I do, that way of living makes me even more miserable. I get nothing done that means anything to me, and I don’t even get the dopamine hit of insant gratification either.

Well, it took a long time, but what I came to realise is that there are really two of me, co-existing. One of me is calm, soft, and patient, and wants pretty much the same things year-in, year-out with variations over time. The other me wants what it wants right now and it isn’t afraid to let me know about it. Loudly.

If I try to make the first one happy, the second one invariably shuts up and comes along for the ride. But – crucially – it does not work the other way round.

So these days, when I’m being clever, I generally try my best to ignore what I want in this exact moment and focus instead on what I want in general.

Life isn’t about only doing things you want to do in the moment. But it’s also a tragedy to just indiscriminately do things you don’t want to do.

No, life is about doing the things you know you truly want to do, even – or perhaps especially – in the moments you really don’t feel like it.

Pretend You Have ADHD

You know, you don’t have to have ADHD to be horrible at prioritising, but it sure doesn’t hurt…

Give me one thing to do, and whilst I doubt I’ll get it done, it won’t cause me too much stress. Give me two things to do, and the heat will rise a little, but I’ll be all right. I doubt I’ll get round to them, but I doubt they’ll keep me up at night. Give me three things to do, however, and you will see me crumble before you like a digestive biscuit in a milkman’s fist.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well that sounds a bit like me – I struggle with knowing what to do sometimes. I certainly don’t have ADHD.” And you’d be absolutely right. Like almost all of the symptoms of ADHD, finding it difficult to prioritise is merely a more dramatic and extreme version of something everybody with a pulse experiences. The only difference is in degree.

I used trouble with prioritising an example, but it could have been anything. Mood swings, feeling restless, having trouble staying focused on something, having trouble getting yourself not to focus on something… the list of symptoms is long, and none of them are altogether that unusualy or peculiar. If you’re neurotypical, these things affect you from time to time, and to a manageable degree. If you have ADHD, they affect you a lot (or all) of the time, and to a degree that makes it more difficult to get on with your life. That’s the only difference.

Which brings me to the point of this piece: when it comes to trying to get things done, pretend you have ADHD, whether you actually do or not. (I obviously don’t mean diagnose yourself with what is a genuine and complex learning difficulty. I mean make-believe – pretend temporarily that you do, as an experiment.)

The thing is, us ADHDers can’t afford to mess about. Most of the “normal” way to do things don’t just not work for us, they make us want to gouge out our own eyes. And so what normally happens is that we make ourselves miserable trying to do the “normal” way, and to get along as a square peg in a round hole in this world.

And yet… the “normal” solutions to life’s problems aren’t generally anything to write home about, whether you have ADHD or not. Most often, they’re just the status quo. The way we do things round here. Doesn’t matter if they get great results or not… they work just about well enough that nobody thinks to question them.

That’s where having ADHD comes in handy – whilst a neurotypical person might not like doing things the standard way, our breaking point comes a lot sooner. We crash, we hit a wall, we can’t go any further. And then we try to think our way round it. And sometimes, just sometimes, we think of a brand new way of solving a problem.

Now, if these solutions happened upon by ADHDers only worked for people who had ADHD, then I’d stop typing right now. But that’s the point – they don’t. A solution is a solution. And it’s not that only ADHD people could come up with these elegant solutions, it’s just that we get frustrated with the standard operating procedure a hell of a lot quicker.

We find another way because we need to. But everybody is welcome to the spoils.

A great example is Ryder Carrol and his Bullet Journal method. An arty kid from Brooklyn with ADHD, he struggled for years trying to be focused and productive before eventually stumbling upon this incredibly unique way of journaling. If you don’t know about it, clink the link above. But the point is that this novel way of journaling really helped him solve his personal problems, he started showing other people, they found it helpful too, and now hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are using his system, as well as taking it in all kinds of interesting directions. Importantly, people without ADHD are using it.

I’d like to find and give you lots more examples, and maybe I will tomorrow, but for now, I’ll just sum up what I’m trying to say:

If you have ADHD, then solutions arrived at by ADHDers are more likely to work for you than the standard advice is.

But if you don’t have it, the solutions arrived at by ADHDers are still more likely to work for you than the standard advice.

So if in doubt, pretend you have it. Next time you’re struggling with something that seems quite trivial and “everyday”, and the normal Googleable solutions don’t seem to be cutting it for you, then Google your problem followed by the word “ADHD”. It won’t take you long to find some space cowboy out there on the interwebs, offering some mad but perfect solution to your difficulties.

The ManBoy LP turned 5 today

It’s always the same when you have kids…

First it came out a week ago. A little later, it was a few months back. And then you blink and on the toilet one morning you realise it’s been five years.

I am not a prideful person and I don’t think most of what I do is any better or worse than the rest. The ManBoy LP is the sole exception to that. A rare outlier in my life. Leaving aside the day I married Emma, nothing I’ve done before or since has meant anywhere near as much as that 53 minutes of music.

So much so that five years on I still haven’t made another one. Until I do, here’s The ManBoy LP in all its glory.

Choose Your Pain, Not Your Pleasure

Some days it just flows, man.

I sit down to write one of these pieces, and I barely have to stroke the keys before I come up for air and see what is a pretty solid first draft of something in front of me. There’s a beginning, a middle, an end, a meaning, and now all I have to do now is tighten it up.

And at the risk of sounding corny and woo-woo, on those days it’s like it’s not really me who’s doing the work. I’m there, and my fingers are hitting the keys and making the words pop up on the screen, but it’s more like something is writing through me. I’m just tuned into it, taking dictation.

But not most days. Ha!

Most days, I still feel I’m like I am tuned in… to static, that is.

I type – just like on the good days – but the words don’t fit together, and they don’t make any sense, or even if they do, they mean nothing to me, and I’m embarrassed to have even considered them as options. The backspace key earns its keep on these days.

At some point, it coalesces. I put out something that is workable. But it’s agony to get there, and I spend far more time wondering why I was so stupid to ever commit to writing something every day than actually writing. I curse God. I curse the Devil. I curse my mother and father for making me.

And yet, you know what? I wouldn’t trade these painful days for the world. Because I’m doing the thing I always wanted to do. I’m not making a living at it yet. I don’t think I’ve produced anything of any great worth yet. But I’m doing it.

It’s painful far more often than it’s pleasurable. And yet it keeps providing me with more and more meaning and fulfillment every day that I show up to write something.

A couple of sunny Saturday afternoons ago, I was in the queue to get into Tesco. Because of the two metre gap between everybody, the queue extended all the way to other side of the car park – fine, I thought. Plenty of time to just stand here and do nothing and soak up the sun. Well, after about thirty seconds I was bored, so I got my phone out. I don’t quite remember how, but I ended up on Mark Manson’s blog, and this quote from the article I read that day pretty much sums up what I’m trying to impart today:

“Sometimes I ask people, “How do you choose to suffer?”

These people tilt their heads and look at me like I have twelve noses. But I ask because that tells me far more about you than your desires and fantasies. Because you have to choose something. You can’t have a pain-free life. It can’t all be roses and unicorns. And ultimately that’s the hard question that matters. Pleasure is an easy question. And pretty much all of us have similar answers. The more interesting question is the pain. What is the pain that you want to sustain?”

Mark Manson – “The Most Important Question of Your Life”

Good People and Bad People

Trouble, like most all little towns, has some people who are bad all the time.

And it has some people who are good all the time.

But most of the people are good and bad… most of the time.

Lee Hazlewood – “Long Black Train”

There are no good people and there are no bad people. Nobody is born angelic and nobody is born evil. There are only people, and the choices they make.

When people make choices you agree with, you call them good. When you disagree with people’s choices, you call them bad. But that doesn’t make it so.

You have no idea why a person chooses the way they choose. To each and every person, relative to their worldview, the things they do make perfect sense, no matter how irrational, illogical, or even evil they might seem to you.

If this sounds like I’m advocating letting people off the hook, or letting them do what they want with no consequence, or just giving them the benefit of the doubt, then please keep reading, because I’m not. Not at all.

But what I am saying is that since the reasons for why people choose what they choose are so unknowable, then spending your time thinking about them is largely a fruitless exercise. It would make far more sense to focus instead on something you can actually do something about – your choices.

There are seven billion minds on this planet – and that number is increasing every day – with each one constantly making new choices in its every waking moment. You have the privilege of being able to control exactly one of these minds. One of these choice-making apparati. Use it or lose it.

Rather than just bumbling along, make a concerted effort to choose the things you consider to be the right things. What if I’m wrong? You will be. Constantly. But so what? You’ll be less wrong than if you just left it to chance.

I lied earlier, by the way. There are good people and there are bad people. You can’t see them from the outside. The good people are the people who consciously choose what they believe to be right. The bad people are the people too cowardly to ever choose one way or the other.

Impossible? No, Just Difficult

“If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge. Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.”

Steven Pressfield – “The War of Art”

Everything worth doing is difficult. And the more worth doing it is, the more difficult you will find it.

But there’s a very big difference between difficult and impossible. Make sure you’re not getting the two confused.

In Praise of Being a Weirdo

I wish I’d been weirder. No, really…

Reading that, you might be thinking – particularly if we’ve known each other for some time now – “Don’t worry, Ol, you’ve been nothing but a weirdo ever since we met.” And to that I would say “thank you.” But I can’t help feeling like I could have done more.

To be clear, I’m not talking about weirdness for weirdness’ sake. That’s a real thing, and I’ve most certainly been guilty of that from time to time. The world doesn’t need any more of that, for that’s just as phoney as normal for normal’s sake. No, what I’m talking about is those times when I feel something very true inside me, and I go full steam ahead with it no matter how much it might set me apart from the crowd. Those are the greatest moments of my life.

You see, the more you dare to express that which is unique about you – and the more unique that thing is – the more you risk showing yourself to be unlike the “average” person. And to almost everybody on the planet, the fear of not belonging to that crowd of the “average” is so great that it’s enough to keep them shtum their entire lives.

There’s just one problem with that: if you want to do anything of any worth in this world, you are at some point going to have to break away from the crowd. If you have a dream and you set out to make it a reality, you will encounter obstacles. And since most people give up on their dreams at the first minor inconvenience – if they even set out in the first place – then merely by facing these obstacles, you are by definition a weirdo.

It’s too much for most people to stomach to be thought of as “different.” This is why the vast majority don’t even try. It boils down to the way you see the world.

People don’t like it when the view of the world they’ve become comfortable with is challenged. And when you express what is unique about yourself, you threaten that view. Remember: THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU. I cannot stress that enough. If something you do happens to trigger somebody else and remind them that they are not living the way they should be as they should, they won’t thank you. They’ll see you as a threat and an enemy and they’ll call you a weirdo.

What they hope is that you will hear “you’re a weirdo” as a sign to crawl back down into the bucket with them and all the other crabs. That you’re doing something you shouldn’t be. That you’ve gone too far and you need to rein it in. That the point of life is to conform and go along with the herd and to stop thinking you’re so damn special.

And guess what? You are as free as Friday to do just that. Or the exact opposite – here’s what they don’t want you to hear “you’re weird” as:

As a sign that you’re right – that there is something better outside the bucket. That you’re onto something. That you’re living with courage. That you’re making your dreams more important than their egos. That the point of life is to share your gifts with the world.

I hope you can see that the problem is not that you’re a weirdo, or even that people are pointing it out. The problem is how you’re hearing it. Take it as insult and it will destroy you. Take it as what it is – the highest form of compliment – and it will be the fuel that takes you to the highest point of heaven.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

If You Want It, Go Get It

I like to listen to music when I write. More than anything I like to put the same album on repeat, so that whether I’m at my desk for half an hour or for four hours, there is an endless loop filling the room with the same continuous vibe. Today it was Strange Days, the second album by The Doors.

But what I’m finding more and more is that as I’m about to write, and I’m scrolling through the albums I have saved, nothing is quite hitting the spot. It’s not that I don’t like the albums I’m confronted with – I love them – but there seems to be this growing chasm between what I find my ears craving and what I know already exists.

I don’t know how to describe it. A tone. A vibe. A sensibility. A combination of elements unique to my own tastes. What I do know, though, is this: If I ever want to hear it, I’m going to have to get busy trying to make it myself.

And that’s my point today. If you feel something is missing from your world, what should you do? I see three possible paths.

One) Deny the feeling. Ignore it. Pretend the world’s fine just the way it is.

Two) Complain. Whinge to anybody who will listen about the sorry state of the world. Crucially, stop short of ever actually doing anything about it.

Three) Do what you can with what you have. Try to make what you want a reality, even if you’re taking the tiniest steps imaginable.

You’re free to take any of those paths at any moment in time. You already know which one I think is the best.

If you want to hear the music you crave, start making it yourself. If you want the people around you to be more generous with you, start being more generous with them. If you look in the mirror and wish there was less of you, start taking a photo of every meal you have for a week.

Do something. And do it yourself.

Don’t Break. Bend.

“The oak that resists the wind loses its branches one by one, and with nothing left to protect it, the trunk finally snaps. The oak that bends lives longer, its trunk growing wider, its roots deeper and more tenacious.”

Robert Greene – “The 48 Laws of Power”

You feel pretty good one day. Sticking out your tongue, you notice that life tastes just that little bit sweeter than you recall. The next day, sweeter still. Maybe you coast at this fresh altitude for two or three more days before BAM! You’re back down again, even lower this time than you remember being in the first place.

Nod along if that ever happens to you.

I go through it all the time. And it never stops sucking. In fact, it happened to me yesterday. Almost a week of noticing myself in a slightly elevated mood with each passing day, and then as if on cue, it all just vanished. Where to? For how long?

The annoying thing is that I don’t know. The more important thing is that I don’t give a shit. I’ve taught myself not to care about it. Moods come. Moods go. The more I try to stay out of their way, the less they seem to mess with me.

It’s not that I enjoy feeling crap, or worthless, or demotivated. No, no – it feels just as horrible as it sounds. But – and this could just be the perks of being a seasoned traveller between these ups and downs – I’ve slowly pieced together a way to be okay either way. It’d be a huge stretch to say that I feel good about feeling bad, but I at least know how to feel less bad about it.

You see, I’m not that unusual – I feel good when I get things done. But for most of my life, I knew about only one source of fuel – my feelings. And if I was having a good day, then that worked just fine. I breezed through things. I felt like I was on fire. But I suppose you’ve already guessed what happened the moment I felt anything less than supremely motivated, haven’t you? I got bugger all done and felt even worse.

When that happened enough times, I began to wonder which was worse: was it my original low mood, or was it the way that my reaction to it would make me spiral? Because I couldn’t see any difference, as far as I was concerned, between the way I felt and the kind of day I had and the things I managed to get done.

But the truth I came to – one that took years to glimpse, I should add – is that one thing doesn’t have to equal the other, and in fact, believing that it does is the real problem. Feeling like a worthless turd is one thing. And it’s horrible. And I wish nobody ever had to go through feeling like that. But deciding to let that feeling define your day, or your week, or your month? Well, that’s a completely separate issue. And what’s more… it’s a choice. Your choice.

The big thing with feeling depressed – whether for a day or a year – is that you don’t feel much like doing anything. Either you can’t see the point, or even when you can, you feel as though your insides are physically stopping you from taking any action. This presents quite a problem, because, in life, you have to do certain things, however you feel.

Well, the question that finally worked on me was this: “What would I do with my day if I knew for sure I was going to feel terrible?”

And that question led to drastically revise what I expected of myself. Because it all comes down to expectations. I didn’t realise it, but I’d been designing my life around being at my best 24/7 – always firing on all of the cylinders all of the time. And the moment I wasn’t able to do that I was incredibly frustrated. Cue spiral.

But the problem wasn’t my moods. The ups and downs didn’t help, sure, but the real problem was my expectations. If you expect yourself to be at your best all the time, well then it’s just basic maths that you’re going to be disappointed most of the time. On the vast majority of your days, you are capable of performing at your average level. Some of the time you’re capable only of your worst. And an equal amount of time you’re capable of your best.

If I set the bar low enough that I can hit it on my worst days, do you know what happens? I hit it and no matter how depressed I am in general, I can at least feel good about that. Do you know what happens if I set the bar so high I can only hit it on my best days? I hate my life.

Even on your worst days, you’re capable of something. Measure yourself against this “something” and you’ll find that even your foulest moods lose their power to completely derail you.

Remember: There’s a very big difference between letting something slow you and down and letting something stop you.

Beating Writer’s Block (or indeed, any block whatsoever)

“No one ever gets talker’s block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right, until all the craziness in his life has died down.”

Seth Godin – “Talker’s Block”

I don’t think I’ve ever once disagreed with Seth Godin. Some of his ideas, however, border on the revolutionary, and this is one of them.

He’s right – nobody gets talker’s block. So why do we get writer’s block? (And you can of course replace the word “writer” with anything else.) Unless you have some obstacle where you physically cannot write or type, there is nothing blocking you from writing but yourself.

The easiest place to point the finger is perfectionism, which is just another way of saying that you’re afraid. Writer’s block is basically just being so afraid of what you write not coming out perfect that you choose – perhaps unconsciously – not to write.

If you’ve never thought of it that way – that the only thing stopping you from doing good work is your fear of doing imperfect work – then your mind might be blown right. But if like me you’ve that before and it hasn’t stopped you getting blocked from time to time, you might be thinking “Great, I know what it is… now what can I actually do about it?”

Well, speaking as a writer’s block veteran of sorts, I have learnt three ways to dig myself out of this particular hole. Enjoy.

The first is to lower the stakes: Use frequency and repetition to your advantage.

Whatever some part of you is afraid to do, devise some way of doing it regularly where the results are not important – where it is getting in the ring, rather than knocking out yor opponent, that counts.

This is why I blog every day. Do you think I want to blog most days? Of course I don’t. And do you think I like what I’ve written on my blog most days? Not really. But I’ve tried. I’ve gotten in the ring. And I’ve lived to tell the tale. And that’s enough.

The second way is to actively distract yourself: Do something – anything – else.

For a lot of people, that thing is exercise. Ryan Holiday wrote a brilliant article a few years ago about the timeless link between writing and running. I can’t do it justice here, but what I can do is agree with him wholeheartedly. I don’t run because it keeps the pounds off or because it’s good for my heart. I run because it’s only when I do that the world makes any sense.

But when it comes to writer’s block, just switching channel from what I’m struggling with to something unrelated helps. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat here swearing under my breath at my laptop because I just cannot express in words what I’m thinking and what I want to communicate. To calm myself down I pick up my guitar and noodle away on it, forget that I was in the middle of a blog post, and sometimes after just a minute or two the perfect solution to it just pops into my head.

The third way is to research: pick apart the way somebody else did it.

If you were trying to write a song, for example, and it wasn’t going anywhere, you could pick one of your favourite songs and pick it apart like a surgeon.

Write down all the lyrics. Write out the chords. Work out the structure. List all the instruments you can hear and when they enter and when they exit. Note down where they’re each panned in the stereo field.

And as you do this, I guarantee that at some point something will grab your interest. You’ll get some kind of idea or inspiration for something you could try to do – so go do it! Don’t worry if you didn’t finish picking the song apart – the point was to break your writer’s block, and that’s what you’ve done.


To say that writer’s block doesn’t exist because it’s “all in your head” is as stupid as saying that happiness and sadness don’t exist. When you’re in the throes of it, it sure feels real, and for all intents and purposes, that’s enough. Denying it is just a way to avoid dealing with it.

No matter how blocked you feel – and again, this doesn’t just apply to writing – there is always something you can do to try to alleviate it. Getting into motion is the first and most important step.

So next time you’re feeling blocked, humour me – try one of these tips – and let me know how it turns out. Of course, if you’re one of those people who is never blocked whatsoever from what they want to do, then I will give you the keys to my website and email list because you clearly have a better handle on this than I do!

The Proverbial Needle in the Haystack

Nikola Tesla, who spent a frustrated year in Edison’s lab during the invention of the lightbulb, once sneered that if Edison needed to find a needle in a haystack, he would “proceed at once” to simply “examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.”

Well, sometimes that’s exactly the right method.

Ryan Holiday – “The Obstacle is the Way”

Every now and then, you’ll find yourself in a jam. Something needs solving. Fast. And by you.

When that’s your situation, when a failure to act immediately will likely have ruinous consequences, when it feels like that moment in Skyfall (and about five other Bond films) where you’re in a tunnel or a basement or a ventilation system and flames are chasing at your back…

Then do what you need to do to get out of dodge.

But I want you to be honest with yourself. How often is that true? How often does your very life depend on you making the right decision at this very second? Unless you are James Bond, the only answer I will accept is “very rarely.”

When there is no emergency, and no advantage to stressing yourself out and imposing artificial deadlines, don’t. Will you find a needle in a haystack any slower by slowly and methodically inspecting each one than by throwing hay everywhere in a mad and frantic search for it?

I doubt it.

“Eureka!” Moments

“I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down.

Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”

John Lennon, Playboy, September 1980

How often does this happen?

You get some idea in your head – something you really want to do. You don’t quite know how, but you’re willing to learn along the way, and so you dive in. You try this, and you try that, and you don’t seem to be making any headway whatsoever.

You decide you weren’t trying hard enough before – the solution is to redouble your efforts. But in doing so you seem to provoke the opposite response – the harder you try, the further away the goal seems to get!

Eventually, you hit a wall. At the end of your tether, you ask “What’s the point? It’s never going to work.” You give up. Maybe you go have a shower, to wash the failure off you. Maybe you pour yourself a whiskey, in the hope of forgetting a day or a week or a month of wasted effort. Maybe you decide a career change is the only way you can save face…

And then suddenly, EUREKA! A solution pops into your head. Not only that, but it works! Hurrah! I’m the king of the world.

Now if I could only get that EUREKA! moment without the agony that went before it, I could really make something of myself…


If you’re alive today, you’ve been lied to. And if you’re under 30, then I’m afraid you’ve really had a number pulled on you. More than one number, actually, but life is short and so I just want to talk about a specific one today.

The big lie you’ve been told is that you can – and should – expect to “have it both ways”. All the gain without the struggle. All the good without the bad. All the rainbows, none of the rain.

First they told you could write ‘Nowhere Man’ and avoid the five hours of depression and struggle and feeling like you’re getting absolutely nowhere (if you’ll pardon the pun). Then they told you that if you couldn’t, it was because there was something wrong with you. AND THEN – after diagnosing you with a disease you never had in the first place – they tried to sell you the cure. A new car. A new wife. A new nose.

You don’t need any of that stuff. (And I should know – I was recently told that my nose looked like one of those fake noses you can buy that’s attached to a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and a moustache.) You just need to realise three things.

Firstly, you are not broken. If you cycle between feeling good and feeling bad and feeling like God and feeling a worm… you’re functioning correctly. You’re meant to feel shit when things go wrong for you – if you don’t, you’re a psychopath. As Napoleon Hill once said, “Most great people have achieved their greatest success just one step beyond their greatest failure.”

Secondly, if you want something out life then sooner or later you will have to pay a price for it. That price almost never has anything to do with money, and almost always has to do with perseverance in the face of discomfort.

And thirdly, if none of us makes the brave choice to pay that price and journey through discomfort and failure and out onto other side, then nobody designs beautiful buildings, nobody figures out that E=mc2, and nobody writes a tune like Nowhere Man. That song came out almost 55 years ago and it still shits all over every weak excuse for a pop track in today’s charts.

In closing, here’s something I learnt from David Brent and carry with me forever: “If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain. Do you know which ‘philosopher’ said that? Dolly Parton. And people say she’s just a pair of tits…”

Curiosity and Obligation

If you don’t mind being the priest then I’d like continue to treat this daily blogging thing like it’s some kind of public confession. I want to tell you about another stupid thing I do all the time because you’re probably doing it too and what I have to say might help you stop.

“Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others experience.”

Otto Von Bismarck

Here’s my confession: I keep turning things I love into things I hate.

I always starts off innocently and with the best of intentions. Perhaps I’m in the kitchen, the open window allowing a gentle summer breeze to tickle the hair on the back of my neck. I whistle a little melody as I chop the onions; I stitch together a couple of lyrics as they hit the pan; by the time they start to brown I’ve started orchestrating the damn thing.

Now, some part of me knows full well what will happen if I simply allow myself to follow this curiosity. If I let it, the idea will take me on an adventure, and the natural conclusion will be a song. A song will exist where no song existed before. It might be the best thing I’ve ever written. It might be the worst thing I’ve ever written. Who cares? The point is that I will have been somewhere and come back to tell about it.

Now, if we imagine this as a James Bond film, the scene would cut here to Blofeld, in his lair, white cat on knee, watching me go about my day on some kind of primitive iPad. Except even Blofeld isn’t dark enough – let’s make it the Devil. The Devil that lives inside every one of us.

As Charles Baudelaire pointed out, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing us he didn’t exist. So, eager to find a way to stop that song coming out of me – but clever enough to cover his tracks – the Devil takes form as a voice in my head that says: “Right, this is clearly something important. You don’t want to waste this idea, this opportunity, this gift. What you want to do before you do anything else is get organised. Make lists. Define action steps. Be as ruthlessly efficient as you can.” And just in case I didn’t buy all that, he appeals to my vanity: “Of course, you could just see where the idea takes you but… oh, Oliver, you’re much smarter than that…”

And what I’ve found time and time again is if I realise – in time – where that voice is actually coming from, I can happily say “Fuck you, Devil, nice try,” and get back to work.

But – and it pains me to say it – I’m more often too weak and too gullible and too easily deceived. I find the advice – that I think is coming from myself – reasonable. I go along with it because it seems like the sensible thing to do. And when I realise what a terrible mistake I’ve made… it’s too late. The song’s gone now.


I don’t get this right very often. But I get it right more often than I used to. And the difference when I get it right is this: I see clearly when I’m being guided by curiosity, and when I’m being guided by obligation.

If something an obligation – which means some part of me doesn’t really want to do it, but perhaps I feel I don’t have a choice – then everything the Devil suggests is right. I should get organised. I should be ruthlessly efficient. I should try and get it started as soon as possible, and off my plate as soon as possible. My natural going-with-the-flow will not produce the results I feel I need to produce.

But if it’s a curiosity, then all that shit flies out of the window.

Because when I’m driven by curiosity, I’m not trying to be “done” as soon as possible. I want to swim in it. I want to explore every nook and cranny of it. I’m not in it for “the results.” I’m in it for the journey, the adventure. And curiosity is such a powerful source of energy that it will take care of a lot of the things that need doing without your conscious help.

Without curiosity, you need all the help and discipline and order that you can get. But with it, all that stuff serves to do is strip the experience of the joy and wonder that inspired you in the first place.

My life works when I follow my curiosity, not when I try to control it.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit

I finished reading the book. I laid back and I stared the ceiling and I smiled.

It’s all going to come together, I thought. I do not know how. I do not know when. But somehow, sometime, I’m going to make something I can be proud of.

And that was enough.


Over the last decade or so, a handful of books have appeared in my life at the perfect moment and given me a swift kick up the arse. Tyler Cowen, by way of Ryan Holiday, calls these books “quake” books, for they shake you to your core. One of my quake books was consumed in a single sitting early one morning in a friend’s bedroom in Rome. The writer was Steven Pressfield and the book was “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.”

I wasn’t an au-pair any more. And other than being newly in love with Emma, my life had no direction. Oh, I knew where I wanted it to go: I wanted to write. I wanted to write songs. I wanted to write stories. I even wanted to write non-fiction to help and inspire people. But the shameful truth was that even with all the time I had on my hands, I wasn’t. Most of the time I wasn’t even trying. And on the increasingly rare occasion I mustered the courage to try, the disappointing fruits of my labour made me regret bothering.

So when I heard that Steve had a new book coming out, I was really excited. Not only was I was desperate for advice, I was and still am a huge fan – I’ve lapped up his War of Art, Do the Work, Turning Pro, The Warrior Ethos and The Authentic Swing, and as of this moment in time have read each one at least a dozen times.

But then I heard the title of his new book and immediately got depressed. “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.” Well, duh, I thought. Tell me something I don’t know. The last thing I wanted was yet another voice competing with the ones already in my head telling me night and day that everything I try and create is a bag of wank and it always be and that’s just the way life is so suck it up and get a job you hate like a normal person…

I almost didn’t bother reading the book. Of course, the second I started it I realised just how incorrectly I had interpreted the title of the book. Because the book has a subtitle. It’s really:

“Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit: Why That Is And What You Can Do About It.

You see, the mistake I’d made – not my first, won’t be my last – was taking the title of the book personally. I presumed that the “shit” in the title referred to everything I had ever or would ever create – my past, my present, my future. Nobody wants to read my shit. Of course they don’t – I don’t want to, and I’m the one writing it!

But Thank Christ that’s not what it meant at all.

The “shit” in the title refers in fact to the stuff you as a creator make on your way to making the brilliant and unique work you are more than capable of making. The work in its unfinished, embryonic form. Nobody wants to read, or listen to, or watch, or experience that. And can you blame them? There’s a reason screenplays get drafted and redrafted before they’re made into movies. There’s a reason The Beatles took over 700 hours to record Sgt Pepper before they thought it was ready. And there’s a reason it took Steven Pressfield himself over 30 years of trying to get his first novel published.

What comes out of you when you first start out is just raw inspiration. It’s not yet art. To become art, it requires molding. It requires time. It requires taste. It requires patience. Leave out those things, and all that you will have to show people will be your “shit” and as we’ve made abundantly clear, nobody wants to read that.

So if they don’t want to read your “shit”, what do they want? They want your “work.” Your finished work. That you have sweated over. That you have cared enough about to write and rewrite and rewrite again. That you have held up to the light, asking “Is this as good as it can be?” before going back to the drawing board until you can honestly answer “yes.”

To be clear, this is not to advocate perfectionism. Your work will never be perfect. But it needn’t be. What this is about is the enormous difference between just tossing something off and beating yourself up because nobody seems to like it, and really putting in the hours to make something special, no matter how imperfect the final result.

As you can tell, I found the book incredibly inspiring, and every time I reread it something new jumps out at me. Give it a look. You won’t be disappointed. I’ll leave you with an extract from Chapter 4.

“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You realize that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates her time and attention, which are extremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give her something worthy of her gift to you.

“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs—the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every phrase and every sentence: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is he bored? Is he following where I want to lead him?”

Steven Pressfield – “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit”

The Things That Don’t Change

Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, coined a great phrase a couple of decades ago when he told his employees to “focus on the things that don’t change.”

He meant it in a business sense. For example, people are always going to want free shipping. People are always going to want fast shipping. People are always going to choose convenience. Etc… and I guess you could say twenty years on, this line of thinking worked out pretty well for his back pocket.

But I think that to interpret his words as only being useful for doing business is to miss their greater meaning: From the beginning of human history to the present day, most of the things we do, have, and want, are exactly the same.

To quote Marcus Aurelius: we marry, we raise children, we get sick, die, we wage war, we throw parties, we do business, we farm, we flatter, we boast, we distrust, we plot, we hope others will die, we complain about our lives, we fall in love, we put away money, we seek high office and power…

And then it’s over.

Sure, the specifics might change from era to era and culture to culture. And that variety is a God-send, making all our lives richer. But the broad strokes? The outline? That hasn’t changed for thousands of years, and it isn’t about to any time soon.

I find that incredibly comforting.

People doing the exact same things:

Marrying, raising children, getting sick, dying, waging war, throwing parties, doing business, farming, flattering, boasting, distrusting, plotting, hoping others will die, complaining about their own lives, falling in love, putting away money, seeking high office and power. And that life they led is nowhere to be found.

Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations” Book 4

All Through the Night

Sleep, my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels, God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft, the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale, in slumber sleeping,
I, my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.

While the moon, her watch is keeping
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping
All through the night
O’er thy spirit gently stealing
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling
All through the night.

Love to thee, my thoughts are turning
All through the night
All for thee, my heart is yearning,
All through the night.
Though sad fate our lives may sever
Parting will not last forever,
There’s a hope that leaves me never,
All through the night.

An old Welsh tune called “Ar Hyd y Nos”, English lyrics by Sir Harold Boulton (1859-1935)

Sleep tight.

The Blank Page

Writing is hell. Anybody who says it isn’t is either a lying sack of shit or not doing it properly.

But do you know what the easiest part of writing is? Stringing the words together. The actual “writing” part.

The hardest part? The blank page.

Unless you’re an idiot or masochist, you don’t come to the blank page because you want to have a good time. If a good time is what you’re looking for, there are pills and casinos and whorehouses and Kardashians available, for a whole lot less hassle.

No, you come to the blank page because you’ve run out of options. You’ve nowhere left to turn, and even pleasure isn’t pleasurable any more. You thought you could get what you want without sacrificing, without going to the end of the line, without pushing up against your demons… You negotiated with life for weeks, months, maybe years, desperate to avoid doing what you knew you should have been doing all along.

Hitting rock bottom is a good thing – the only way is up.

And so you sit down to face it – the blank page, that is. As you stare it down, you could swear – though nobody would believe you – that it is staring right back at you, daring you to stand up, to walk away, to quit. You’re not imagining it. The blank page brings to life the fire-breathing monsters inside you that will do anything – and I mean anything – to make you quit.

So how do you defeat the blank page?

First, you see those monsters inside you for what they are: Con-artists of the highest order – the kind that make even Donald Trump look tame. And one word at a time – or one phone-call, or one push-up, or one kind word to a stranger – you tell those evil fuckers to go to hell.

There is no way out but through. If you want to live any kind of life, you are going to have to come up against one blank page or another before long. And whilst grappling with the unknown and facing off against the forces within you that wish you evil might be painful and uncomfortable, it’s the price of admission.

Like I said, you don’t come to blank page to have a good time. But baby, when you beat it – for today, at least – there’s no better time on Earth.

What Don’t You Miss?

Five weeks ago a bunch of things were suddenly removed from your daily routine. Poof. Gone. Just like that.

I’m sure you miss a lot of those things. But what don’t you miss?

I ask you this because, in an as-yet-undetermined amount of time, you’re going to be allowed to do more than you are right now – lockdown is not going to go on forever – and left to your own devices, you will be tempted to simply add back in everything that was once there.

Don’t.

This is the perfect opportunity to stop doing things that hold no meaning for you. Add back what you miss. Leave a blank space where what you don’t used to be.

He Was a Lithuanian

He was a Lithuanian and he claimed to have never read the same book twice.

His was a fierce position, and at first glance his argument seemed reasonable. He maintained that since life is short, and there are so many books out there, to reread one of them would mean sacrificing the reading of another. For whatever reason, this was something he could not abide. He went as far as to say that people who do anything more than once are time-wasters.

I listened to him and nodded along – I am if nothing else a polite young man – but I soon found that like so many people’s arguments, his shared two things: it was well-rehearsed, and it was complete horseshit.

Of course, I didn’t tell him I thought that. Whilst I don’t claim full responsibility for Anglo-Lithuanian relations, whatever I can do to help our cause…

But back to his argument, which I bring up today because he was not the first or the last person to express something like this to me. Where it falls apart is quite simple: the hidden assumption that life is about a desperate cycle of novel consumption from cradle to grave. And if that isn’t horseshit, then I don’t know what is. I just don’t believe that.

Yes, life is short. Or rather, life is finite. You’re never going to read all the books. You’re never going to have all the jobs. You’re never going to live in all the houses… But this is not a bad thing. This is not cause to spend your life desperately trying to cram in as much as possible and never stopping to smell the flowers.

You see, the point of life is not to read as many books as possible before you expire. Nor to visit as many sunny places as you can. Or to kiss as many boys as will kiss you.

No, it is to really do whatever it is you do. To engage as fully and deeply as possible with those books that you do read. To soak up every last ounce of those sunny places you do visit. To savor every last drop of saliva you share with those boys that you do kiss.

So sorry Mr Lithuania – I wish I could remember his name – but I respectfully disagree with you. In all things, go for depth first. Go for quality over quantity. And if, as you do so, you accidently end up prolific, inadvertedly being someone who has read lots of books, been to lots of sunny places, kissed lots of boys… then you can treat that as the side-effect of a life well-lived, rather than as your raison d’etre.

Everything Is a Joke

“I see everything as a joke,” I said, trying to impress the leggy blonde before me with the oh-so-impressive size of my… intellectual detachment. Even at seventeen, I knew how to get a girl going.

“You’re an idiot,” she replied, without blinking.

Shortly afterwards, this girl became my girlfriend.

I try not to have regrets. Accordingly, I have plenty.

The one that stings the most, though, is how somewhere around the age of seventeen, I found myself falling for a pack of lies I’d somehow managed to keep my guard up against until then. Things like:

“It doesn’t matter whether or not you can live with yourself; what matters is what others think of you.”

“If you don’t treat every little thing as life and death, tragedy WILL befall you.”

“Enjoyment is not a right, it’s a luxury, and you’re only allowed it if you first give your time and energy to the capitalist machine that sustains us all.”

I could give you more, but those three sum up the attitudes I somehow absorbed during that time – don’t believe in yourself, take everything seriously, and subsume your subjective experience of life to the holy “economy” – and that I have been trying to shed ever since. They took me from being a fair chill teenager to an incredibly confused and anxious adult. I’ve been thinking about that time recently alongside my exploration into the craft of storytelling.

You see, a story starts with an Inciting Incident. This is a moment where something outside of the protagonist upsets the balance of their life, launching a desire to get back to their previous equilibrium.

JAWS: The shark eats Chrissie Watkins, launching Martin Brody’s quest to find it and protect his sea-side town.

MONSTERS INC: A little girl called Boo enters the Monster world, launching Sully’s quest to try and get her back to the human world safely.

GOLDFINGER: Bond returns to his hotel room and finds Jill Masterson dead and painted with gold, launching his desire to defeat Auric Goldfinger.

The Inciting Incident of my little tale was simple – boy meets girl. Specifically, the fact that I fancied her enough to let her way of viewing the world replace one that had been working just fine for me up until that point. And whether I knew it or not, I have spent over a decade trying to find my way back to where I was before then.

And feel free to laugh at me for taking over a decade to realise that – I’m sure as hell laughing at myself – but there is no “getting back.” I can’t be who I was when I was seventeen. Nor do I truly even want to. That’s just not how the world works. You are who you are right now. That is who you have to accept.

But even if I don’t want to be exactly like I was back then – because I was in many ways a moron – I can at least steal my favourite aspect of my personality from back then: the firm belief that everything is a joke.

“Everything about life is a joke. Don’t you know that?”

Kurt Vonnegut – “Bluebeard”

An Eternal Decision

Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).

Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting than just wanting the noun.

Austin Kleon

Something wonderful happens when you stop giving a fuck about the result of every little thing you do – when you stop needing the world to validate your efforts and start validating yourself.

When you make an etnernal decision simply try to improve a little bit each day – like an army gaining centimetres of ground at a time – you find that not only does the score takes care of itself, you shed the stink of urgency that kept joy at arm’s length previously.

If the result is everything to you, then I honestly hope you never win, because the day that you do will be the most depressing day of your life.

Find something you can never complete, and give your life to it.

Do Less and Get More Done.

The more I try to do, the less I get done.

And so I am forever trying to find ways to do less.

When I succeed at this, I know I am doing so because, paradoxically, I actually get a lot done.

Conserve your forces and energies by keeping them concentrated at their strongest point. You gain more by finding a rich mine and mining it deeper, than by flitting from one shallow mine to another—intensity defeats extensity every time.

Robert Greene – “The 48 Laws of Power”

The Land of the Free?

The land of the free? Whoever told you that is your enemy.

Rage Against the Machine – “Know Your Enemy”

Did you know – because I didn’t – that the American flag should under no circumstances be allowed to touch the floor?

I suppose after Geri Halliwell squeezed herself into that Union Jack dress sometime in the nineties, most of the British flags I’ve seen have been decorating the living room windows of tubby, bald, red-faced men. And given that I’ve made a conscious decision to make my life choices in stark opposition to theirs – excepting our shared enjoyment of Stella Artois – the most honest way I could describe my feelings towards the flag would be aggressively indifferent.

So you can imagine my confusion when, on a summer camp in Germany many years ago, this American – who I found annoying to begin with – got really agitated with me when I moved a bunch of things off a table and onto the floor, one of which just happened to be a folded up American flag.

He barked at me to pick it up. I had no idea what he was getting so red in the face about, but just the way that he was ordering me to do something made me instantly not want to. I asked him what was wrong. There was no getting through to him. He just kept telling me to pick it up, getting more and more worked up by the second. I didn’t.

When the penny finally dropped that if that flag was ever going to go back on that table it would be because he and he alone put it there, he did it himself. And then he walked off in a huff, shaking his head and muttering about disrepectful people. He was remarkably unpleasant to me for days afterwards.

I considered apologising to him, I really did. But I snapped out of that delusion pretty sharpish. After all, he had been far more unpleasant to me than I had been to him. If I were the petty type, I would have demanded that he apologise to me. I had been acting out of an innocent ignorance. He was the one who treated me as less important than a piece of fabric.

But the main reason I didn’t apologise – and I stuck to it – was because I felt like I would have been enabling his bullshit. It spooked me just how strongly he felt about that flag, and I wanted no part in encouraging him further. Had he asked me politely to do it, I think I would have gladly obliged. But no, it was the strength of his emotions that made me feel like he had a lesson to learn: the rest of the world doesn’t give as much of a shit about your country as you do.

I don’t know what lies that flag represented to him. The home of the brave, the land of the free? Didn’t seem so brave. Didn’t seem so free.

Me? I slept like a baby that night. I didn’t have a flag to worry about.

What Is the Theme of Your Life?

And then it was Conor’s turn to ask me a question.

“Do you believe in natural talent?”

We were about an hour into a conversation we were recording about music – music itself, the music industry, being a musician – and I was stumped. I knew what I wanted to express, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t remember exactly how I responded – you’ll hear it when we publish the conversation – but after we were done I thought about it some more and so this piece is a further exploration.

You see, I am of the opinion – inspired in no small part by Steven Pressfield’s work – that whether you’re a musician or a crack dealer or a horticulturist, you were not born a blank canvas. You cannot be simply moulded or shaped into just anything, or programmed like a computer. Of course, your environment and your experiences influence who you become, from the day you’re born to the day you die, but the exact way that they influence you is determined by your true self.

(If you want a simple piece of evidence for this way of thinking, just think of any sets of twins that you know. Should they not by rights be way more simliar to one another than they are, having had more or the less the same environment and circumstances to grow up in? The ones I know might compliment one another nicely, but they are completely different people.)

Take me, for example. I’m finding – as I rack up more and more days in a row working on story craft and fiction – that there’s really only a very small number of things I’m interested in writing stories about.

It turns out that you can only write so many scenes and chapters – that you at best print out, read through, scrawl with red marker pen and throw in the bin, and at worst give no more than a cursory glance before holding down the backspace key until the screen is white again – before the pieces of crap your imagination keeps serving up start to look awfully alike.

The same characters popping up, with different haircuts. Getting themselves in the same sorts of scrapes, and out of them the same sorts of ways. Caring about the same sorts of things, appreciating the same sorts of members of the opposite sex, feeling righteous indignation over the same sorts of injustices…

And many of the things that bubble up out of me and onto the page seem to have been straining to come out for years – completely against my will. At the end of 2015 I wrote the first draft of a novel long-hand whilst Brando the baby slept in the afternoons. It was fun. But it was also crap. I never did anything more with it. The reason I bring it up is that five years on, no matter how hard I try to write anything else, I keep basically rewriting the same story.

When I first noticed this happening, I didn’t like it. It spooked me into thinking that I must just be a one-trick pony, that there was no point in me trying to write anything because I seem only to be capable of telling this one story and I can’t even figure out yet how to tell that one well. And I wondered whether I should just give up before I disappoint myself again.

But passages like this inspire me not to:

Generally, great writers are not eclectic. Each tightly focuses his oeuvre on one idea, a single subject that ignites his passion, a subject he pursues with beautiful variation through a lifetime of work.

Hemingway, for example, fascinated with the question of how to face death. After he witnessed the suicide of his father, it became the central theme, not only of his writing, but of his life. He chased death in war, in sport, on safari, until finally, putting a shotgun in his mouth, he found it.

Charles Dickens, whose father was imprisoned for debt, wrote of the lonely child searching for the lost father over and over in David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations.

Moliére turned a critical eye on the idiocy and depravity of seventeeth-century France and made a career writing plays whose titles read like a checklist of the human vices: The Miser, The Misanthrope, The Hypochondriac. Each of these authors found his subject and it sustained him over the long journey of the writer.

What is yours?

Robert McKee – “Story”

You don’t need to be infinite. You merely need to find your theme – the one subject you can “pursue with beautiful variation.”

What is your theme?

You might not be a writer, nor have any intention of ever becoming one. But you’re something better than that – a human.

And the things you do every day are not random, no matter how much they might seem so. Your actions which make up your days, which make up your life, are not a mess of unrelated impulses. There is a thread. Just because it’s not obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Find that thread, start pulling on it, and never look back. Forget about all the things you thought you should have been or could have been. And start expressing who you actually are instead.

To me, this is the definition of natural talent. A common thread that runs through your veins. A proclivity. A potential. Something that means one thing lights you up and another leaves you cold.

But of course, discovering it is just the first step. Because will knowing what your theme is make you happy forever after? Of course it won’t. No matter how clear it is, you’ve still got to live it, haven’t you? I might know the theme of my story, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to write itself. I’ve still got to put my blood, sweat, and tears into it.

Knowing the theme of your life might not make life any easier. In fact, the opposite will probably happen. Life will be harder, because you can no longer plead ignorance – whereas before you could say you didn’t know any better, once you discover your theme, you have nothing to hide behind any more. You know what you’re supposed to be doing, and not doing it hurts.

But I will say this: even as somebody still very much on the bottom rung of the ladder of living his theme, the bottom rung of the right ladder is infinitely preferable to the wrong ladder, or to no ladder at all.

I hope you enjoyed this. And I hope if nothing else it inspires you to be more compassionate to yourself. Who you are is more than enough… but only if you accept yourself with open arms.

It’s Not the End

You know that feeling you get at the end of Return of the Jedi, where there’s music and dancing, and there’s hope for the future once again, because after an incredibly long and thankless struggle against the Empire, good has finally triumphed over evil?

I feel that way every time I think of Jesus’ last few days.

I mean, I bet the devil really thought he’d finally got Jesus beat, didn’t he? Threw everything but the kitchen sink at the poor guy. Almost had him. And what does J.C do in return? Comes back to life. Pisses all over the Devil’s metaphorical bonfire.

Proving John Lennon – the man who said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus in the mid-60s, only to in the late-60s do everything possible to physically resemble the son of God himself – correct:

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Happy Easter.

You Were Doing Your Best

I meant, I meant…

If only, if only…

If only me auntie had bollocks, she’d be me uncle.

David Brent – The Office, Season 2 Episode 3 – “Party”

I was round for tea at my girlfriend’s house one day when her mum relayed to me a quote she had come across earlier that day. Since this was thirteen years ago, I hope you’ll forgive me for not remembering the quote verbatim – or indeed the reason why she felt she should pass it on to me – but here is the gist of it anyway:

“Whatever happens, remember that you did the best you could, at that moment, with the tools you had at your disposal.”

At the time it struck me as remarkably stupid. Really dumb. Inane, even. Annoyed me. I nodded my head politely and wolfed down some more lasagna, but I couldn’t see how that kind of shit was of any relevance. To anyone. I was sixteen, after all – I knew everything there was to know. I gave it no more thought.

Except that I must have done, because it has stuck with me for thirteen years now, and I slowly came to see that my girlfriend’s mum was completely right. I mean, I can’t give her all the credit – she didn’t invent the quote. But if her only role in this tale was that of the messenger, she did a bloody good job.

Which brings me onto my real point: How many things have you fucked up in your life?

I can’t count mine, there are so many. Some bigger than others. Some more embarrassing than others. And yet – perhaps because I’m having such a nice day today and I can look out at the blue sky and I can smell the barbecues everybody has decided to have wafting in through the loft window – I honestly don’t think I’d change a single one. Because what would be the point? I’m here, now, aren’t I, for better or for worse? And I’m here, not in spite of those fuck-ups, but because of them. Seen in that light, it… sort of makes it hard to continue seeing them as fuck-ups, no?

Yeah, it’s easy to look back and think “If only I’d have…” But life’s too short for that. You didn’t. Whichever words you choose to end that sentence with, face facts – you didn’t. So move on. A hell of a lot easier said than done, of course. But no less crucial if you want to avoid living in a hell of your own creation.

If only you’d held your tongue. If only you’d held your fist. If only you hadn’t pussied out. If only you’d had just a little bit more time to weigh up your options, you’d have come to a much wiser conclusion and acted thusly…

But you know, and I know, that that’s complete bullshit. You did your best.

It might be painful to admit, much like looking at your own soul without sunglasses on, but everything you have ever done has been the best you could have wished for in that moment.

Now, you might not be able to go back and fix the past. In fact, there’s no “might” about it. You can’t. End of. But that doesn’t mean you have to despair, or try to awkwardly forget your past. Use it instead. Learn from it. And try to make your best a little bit better every day.

Most of all, forgive yourself for the fuck-ups. You really were doing your best.

So Use It

You don’t know the half of it.

But so what?

You know everything you need to know.

So use it.

And if there’s something you don’t know now that you end up needing to know somewhere else along the way, rest assured it will come to you when the time is right.

And if it doesn’t, that’s because you didn’t need it.

Have a beautiful weekend. And if you’re going to go for a walk in the glorious sunshine, promise me you will coat your inner thighs with vaseline. Let me be the example, the martyr, a cautionary tale of those fools who think the rules of nature don’t apply to them.

Because I can barely walk and it’s all my own fault.

Let Yourself Be Bored

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal

I try to prove him wrong sometimes. I sit quietly in a room, alone. Not me, I think, dripping with hubris. I’m the exception to the rule.

Only I’m not. It takes a minute or so, but before long I’m swimming in a sea of discomfort. I’m looking into the abyss and the abyss is sticking its middle finger up at me.

I see two possible solutions. One is to avoid this at all costs and distract myself every moment of every day. The other is to learn to sit quietly in a room, alone, trying to go longer each time, if only by a second or two.

It might be difficult, but the payoff is more than worth the effort. For if you can enjoy your own company, you’re set. And, as Jean-Paul Satre said, “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”

Don’t Change. Blossom Instead.

CHARACTER IS DESTINY. So said Heraclitus. But what did he mean?

It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what he meant, but I’m going to anyway. Besides, what is Heraclitus going to do about it? He died about 2500 years ago. I’m not too worried about pushback.

What he meant about character being destiny is that people don’t change. A person’s nature – just like that of a tree, or a fish, or a single strand of solder – is what it is. Whoever you happen to emerge from your mother’s womb as, all wet and red and crying, that’s who you are on your deathbed, and at every moment in-between.

So people don’t change. Well, good. We shouldn’t want them to. That’s not what they’re here for. They’re not here to change. They’re especially not here to change into what you or I wish they were.

No, they’re here to blossom. If you don’t believe me, read this, from Steven Pressfield in The War of Art:

In other words, none of us are born as passive generic blobs waiting for the world to stamp its imprint on us. Instead we show up possessing already a highly refined and individuated soul.

Another way of thinking of it is this: We’re not born with unlimited choices.

We can’t be anything we want to be.

We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.

Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter.

If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother.

If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realize it and get down to business.

Do you agree? I certainly do. We are not here to change. We are here to blossom.

Why I Gave Denzel Washington the Benefit of the Doubt

Denzel Washington used to really piss me off.

It wasn’t anything he did. It wasn’t anything he said. And it wasn’t the quality of his acting. I know this because I hadn’t actually seen him in a film until my mid 20s.

No, the reason Denzel Washington used to really piss me off has to do with a weird little quirk I’ve found in myself.

Basically, whenever I hear about something over and over again – an actor, say – and I for one reason or another stay ignorant about it, I find that I hate it more and more and more as time goes by.

And I wouldn’t mind too much, if not for the fact that I’ve been caught out by this hundreds of times now. I’ve gone years avoiding a band because they were popular, only to realise they’re pretty good when I actually give them a listen. I’ll assume a film isn’t my kind of thing because I heard about it too much when it first came out, only to love it when I finally get round to watching it.

So now I have a rule for myself. I don’t let myself have an opinion on anything or anyone without direct experience. I’m allowed to assume and predict what I will and won’t enjoy. But I’m not allowed to claim as fact that I dislike something if I don’t have first-hand experience of it.

You might not be so irrational as me. But if you are, and you find yourself getting annoyed when you think about something you’ve never actually spent any time with, carve out half an hour and spend some time with it.

You can’t lose. Either you do hate it, and you’ve proved yourself right (which is always delicious) or you like it, and now you’ve found something new to enjoy in the future.

How To Master your Craft

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

Bruce Lee

Is there something you want to be really, really good at some day? A craft, of which you wish to become a master?

For me, it’s storytelling. I find the more I give, the more I get – the longer my feet spend dipped in the water of this ancient and formidable artform, the more I want to chuck my whole body in. What am I aiming for? Novels? Screenplays? Rock operas? I don’t know, and at least for the moment, I’m enjoying learning far too much to give a shit.

But it’s not all smiles and roses. I might have a burning desire to master this thing. I might not care if it takes me a decade to come up with something I can truly hang my hat on.

I still don’t really know how to proceed.

Moving beyond the clichés

If you’ve been reading my writing for a while, then you’ll know already that I’m well-versed at all the clichés. I’ve probably passed them on to you several times apiece. Show up every day. Do your work. Practice makes perfect. Sit at a typewriter and bleed.

Now, that’s nice advice. But it’s about as helpful as Anne Frank’s drum kit.

Back to you. What should you do if – like me – you’ve been fortunate enough to find something you’re willing to devote years of your life to in search of mastery, but you fear that, without some kind of strategy, you are liable to just spin your wheels and run in circles for the next decade?

Well, first, breathe. Because, clichés aside, you will get there. Whilst it might not be enough to have nothing but a burning desire for mastery, you’ll get nowhere without it. So let’s not put down passion, let’s not discount motivation, let’s not pretend it’s all about practice and being a nerd.

But then let’s look at how to practice and be a nerd.

A skill is not a craft. A craft is not a skill.

A skill, according to Wikipedia, is the ability to carry out a task with determined results often within a given amount of time, energy, or both.

A craft, on the other hand, is a beautiful mess of dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller skills, that combine to produce results exponentially more powerful than the sum of their parts.

Cooking is a craft. Sharpening a knife, chopping an onion, sweating a leek, and seasoning a sauce, are all skills.

Songwriting is a craft. Rhyming a lyric, structuring a song, recording a demo, and seducing somebody into listening to it, are all skills.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here is the most important difference for us between a skill and a craft:

It is impossible to work directly on a craft. But it is possible to work directly on a skill. So…

Focus on the skills

It goes like this:

  1. Pick a skill that forms a part of your craft.
  2. Find the practicing sweet-spot – not so easy that you’re bored, and not so difficult that you’re frustrated.
  3. Practice the skill over and over and over until it’s easy.
  4. Move onto another skill.

There is magic in this process. As you’re busy focusing on your skills, something wonderful is going on behind the scenes. You are mastering your craft.

It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but the way to get master your craft is largely to ignore it. Instead, pour your undivided attention into some small aspect of it.

What about trial and error?

Well, yes, of course. If you simply “just do” the thing you want to master for long enough, you will eventually master it. Unlike most approaches, trial and error, over an infinitely long period of time, actually guarantees you success. You can’t lose.

There’s just one problem with that: you don’t have an infinitely long period of time. You have your life. And life is nothing if not finite.

So maybe you have the time to waste on trial and error. I don’t. I want to master the art of story… in this lifetime. And if there’s a way that can help me to do that, well then I’m going to prioritise it over trial and error.

And though, because I am a fool, I have only limited experience of this approach, I can tell you that every time I’ve applied it, the results – in my best Brian Butterfield voice – have been… incredible.

We Don’t Need Another Dirty Boulevard

This room cost 2,000 dollars a month.
You can believe it man it’s true.
Somewhere a landlord’s laughing till he wets his pants.
No-one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything.
They dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard.

Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor – I’ll piss on ’em.
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says.
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death,
and get it over with, and just dump ’em on the boulevard.

Get to end up, on the dirty boulevard.
Going out, to the dirty boulevard.
He’s going down, on the dirty boulevard

Going out…

Lou Reed – “Dirty Boulevard” (second verse and chorus)

When this shit stops spreading, and it’s time to go outside again, and it’s time to rebuild our world, we will have in our hands an opportunity most generations never get: to choose what we want our new world to be like.

We have a choice. You don’t just have to accept what gets served up. I’ll make my point clear by way of repetition: WE have a choice.

Not somebody on your TV screen, not a slogan-happy Etonian, not Tango-Man in the White House, not big data, not the Murdochs…

WE.

We don’t need another dirty boulevard. We don’t have to build another dirty boulevard. We can do better. Something more humane. More beautiful. More artful.

A home.

Courting the Forces of Antagonism

Here’s the book I’m studying from each morning:

And here’s the important thing that I learnt today from it, and that I designed myself an exercise about:

THE PRINCIPLE OF ANTAGONISM: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.

Robert Mckee – “Story”

But isn’t this true of life, too?

Are the interesting people you meet the ones who seem to have bumbled through life, never really being forced to go up against anything, never really facing any kind of difficulty or antagonistic forces?

Or are the interesting people in fact the ones who have, in one way or another, been challenged by life, been forced to make difficult choices, or had precious things taken from them?

Having to deal with antagonism is no fun. And I know that just from the incredibly minute amount that I have had to deal with in my life. I can’t even imagine what millions of people face on a daily basis. So I’m not going to pretend that it’s fun, or that it’s something to be desired and invited into your life. But then again, isn’t it?

Well, sitting on my bed and typing this to you right now, I say both yes and no.

If you are happy to live as a shadow of who you really are on the inside, then no, antagonism is not desirable. Run from it. Hide from it. Keep looking over your shoulder.

On the other hand, if you want to live the most meaningful life you possibly can, then yes, antagonism is extremely desirable, and you must court it at all costs.

Court antagonism, and you will have no choice but to rise to meet the challenge, becoming stronger in the process. You’ll hate it, and then you’ll be glad you did it.

There’s Room for You, Too

“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.”

Frank Zappa

Life is a vast playground, with plenty of room for each and every one of us to stretch out our arms as wide as we can, no danger of hitting another in the chest.

Alas, most of us are congretated next to one tiny little ant-hill by the sandbox in the corner. We’re fighting over it too, because we’ve crowded it and we’re all stepping on each other’s toes. We’ve become so precious about our few square milimetres that we can no longer see the rest of the playground.

It doesn’t need to be like this. All it takes is one person to take one step in a different direction. That person could be you.

Perhaps at first, nobody will copy you and go off to their own bit of the playground. That’s to be expected – human beings generally do whatever they see other human beings doing, and most are still at the ant-hill by the sandbox.

But maybe after a while somebody gets tired enough of being so close to the crowd and, inspired by the unique direction they see you taking, go off on their own somewhere. And then it could be that somebody sees their defiant stepping out, and follows suit themselves. And so on, and so on.

The world will be at its most beautiful when every single person is living their truth. We might never get there, sure. But that doesn’t matter. We can inch closer. And that inching starts when just one person demonstrates the courage to be true to themselves.

Your Gut Is Pure

You may be tempted from time to time to ignore your gut. You may suspect it of feeding you lies. You may accuse it of being on some kind of secret mission to confuse you and to make your days difficult.

I assure you, you could not be more wrong. For if there is one thing your gut cannot do, it is lie.

Your gut doesn’t care whether it tells the truth at a convenient moment, whether its truth puts you in an awkward position, and especially whether or not the people in your life will understand this truth, and the actions that burst forth from it. Your gut is pure – those things never even crossed its mind.

Trust in your gut, and you risk losing a bunch of stuff that never meant anything real anyway. Trust in everything but, and you risk losing the only thing that ever was real.

One’s own free, untrammeled desires, one’s own whim… all of this is precisely that which fits no classification, and which is constantly knocking all systems and theories to hell.

And where did our sages get the idea that man must have normal, virtuous desires? What man needs is only his own independent wishing, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Meaning Trumps Money

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

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

Would you do it?

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

Would you do it?

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

Would you do it?

Meaning trumps money.


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

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

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

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

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

What’s at Stake?

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 12:41-44

Antifragility

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve thought about it a lot recently.

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

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

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

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

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – “Antifragile”

It’s Okay to Enjoy Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Your Time

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

Lao Tzu

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

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

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

This Is Making You Stronger

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

Seneca

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

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

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

Are You Okay?

Are you okay?

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

But I also want you to know this:

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

07841972079.

I’ll be here.

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

Use Your Phone Smart

Your smartphone has two jobs.

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

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

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

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

Seth Godin – “When your phone uses you”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Looking Until You Find It

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

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

Anne Frank, “The Diary of Anne Frank”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are You Going to Learn?

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

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

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

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

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

What is that? How to tell a story.

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

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

When Things Change, We Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It happened. And we are going through it.

And we’re going to survive.

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

Seneca, “On Providence”, 4.3

Start Something. Today.

You are about to gain one thing and lose another.

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

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

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

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

Periods of isolation can paradoxically be liberating.

They enable what abundance has disabled.

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

I Believe in You

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

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

Ryan Holiday – “The Obstacle is the Way”

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

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

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

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

You Already Know It

I don’t know what you need to hear.

It might be “Stay the fuck home.”

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

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

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

Be brave and do it.

“What Would I Do If…?”

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how I see it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make This Time Count

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAKE THIS TIME COUNT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations” Book 4: 49a

Embarrass Yourself

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

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

Alain de Botton

He’s right, isn’t he?

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Going Through Something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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