Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien

If you were to make a point to smile at ten strangers today, it might be the case that at the end of the day none of them had yet decided to leave you their life savings.

And if you were to make a point to perform seven sit-ups as the sun rose, it might be the case that as it set a chiseled six-pack continued to elude you.

And if you were to make a point to dust one of the cobwebs from one of the corners of one of the ceilings in your home, it might be the case as your head hit your pillow that you felt you hadn’t quite achieved a state of domestic nirvana.

Perhaps not. But you would have been that little bit closer than you were previous. And that alone would have made the effort a worthy one.

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

(In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of the good)

Voltaire – La Bégueule

If You Don’t Clean Your Frying Pan…

A dirty frying pan makes for a dirty omelette.

It doesn’t matter how free-range the eggs are. It doesn’t matter how grass-fed the butter is. It doesn’t matter how many five-star reviews the recipe book got on Amazon…

… your first step is to make sure your frying pan is clean. Everything else comes second.

Do Tiny Things Well

The smaller the acts you set out to perform, the higher the chances you will be victorious. The more your confidence will grow as an able human being, and the more you will be ready to tackle ever-larger problems.

This is how you change the world. Not by trying – and inevitably failing – to do large things, but by consistently succeeding at tiny things.

It doesn’t matter how noble your aims are, or how brave and tireless your efforts are. If your energy is being poured at things that are not open to your influence, you are pissing your energy away. You are running head-first into a heavy door, not realising there is a key in your pocket.

Far better to try to shift reality a quarter of an inch in your direction, and actually shift it, than to try to move it a foot, a yard, or a mile, and find that it won’t budge, or worse, that it shifts even further away from you.

Make Yourself Immune to Bad Days

Deep down, we all know it’s true: If you took a snap-shot of even the happiest person in the world’s life at any given moment, there would be all kinds of shit they didn’t want in it. Awkward and embarrassing moments. Things they mean to say “no” to but can’t stop blurting out “yes” to (or vice versa.) Addictions of all shapes and sizes. Irrational fears.

And I suppose that short of isolating yourself in a bunker, Hitler-style, there’s very little you can do about this stuff. It’s just a fact – no matter how great your life becomes, it will always contain some quantity of undesirable matter.

Some realise this and become apathetic. They see trying as futile – what’s the point, if my life is never going to be perfect anyway? Well, that’s just it. It’s never going to be perfect, no. But wouldn’t it be a fascinating experiment – and completely worth it – to see how close you could get?

Imagine the shitty things in your life as magnets, pulling you away from your joyful centre. Now, instead of paying too much attention to them, and trying to resist their magnetic pull, you could instead provide a counter-balance by deliberately inserting as many of the things you do want as possible. The things that light you up. The things that get you off. The things that make life a beautiful adventure.

These additions will help return you to your centre, and not get so swamped and overwhelmed by the negative elements in your life. You are not seeking perfection, but helping to create an ever-more favourable ratio of desirable to undesirable elements.

I’ve been doing an experiment with this over the last week. I made a list in my red notebook of ten very small and easy things I want to do every day, and I’m trying my hardest to tick them all off every day. There are things like picking up a novel, picking up my guitar, doing at least one pull-up, spending at least half an hour outside…

I’ve managed two days with all ten little habits ticked off, and I’ve hit at least seven every other day. And on the outside, my life is of course just the same as it was last week. But on the inside, I do feel a little bit different. I feel a tiny bit more in control of myself. I feel a little bit more indifferent to the negativity. I feel a smidge lighter.

Mostly, I feel ever so slightly more immune to having a bad day.

You Already Won

Whoever it is that the twists and turns of fate have helped you to become, your story actually started exactly the same way everybody’s did.

All those years ago, you were nothing more than a tiny sperm cell swimming around inside your Dad. You measured just one-twentieth of a milimetre in length.

But you weren’t just any old sperm cell. You were actually… the best one. You must have been, or else don’t you think one of the others would have beaten you to your mother’s egg? That’s right – you beat every last one of them. You were number one.

And by the way, there weren’t just a few others competing with you – the average human male releases between 40 million and 1.2 billion sperm cells each time he… well, you know. If that’s not fierce competition, I don’t know what it is.

I only bring this to your attention to give you something to contemplate on your darker days. When you feel like a pretty rotten example of a human being, or you feel as though you just can’t measure up to what’s expected of you, or you feel inadequate in every conceivable way, or you feel like you’re nothing because you can’t afford this or you don’t deserve that…

…if you’re even breathing, if you even made it to the womb, you are a fucking champion!

So think about that next time you’re being uptight, next time the stakes feel too high, next time it seems reality is putting you in a corner…

You already won. Years ago. Being a sperm was the struggle. Life is the prize. What are you going to do with it?

It’s just a ride.

But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok … But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride.

And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love.

The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off.

The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.

Bill Hicks

Staying True to Yourself

The left path or the right path?

Every now and then, you reach a fork in the road, and a decision is required of you.

To go right would be to honour your true self – to do what you really want to do – but would involve risk. To go left would be to betray yourself, but maybe avoid a temporarily uncomfortable situation.

You are free to make either choice, but you must realise that whichever path you choose, you are making a habit. Next time you’re in a similar situation, you will be slightly more likely to take that same path again.

Of course, that’s not what you’ll tell yourself when you take the left path. You’ll tell yourself that this time it’s different, it’s a temporary excursion – you genuinely don’t have a choice. And after all, it’s just this once – next time you’ll definitely take the right path, you promise…

No, you won’t. If you don’t practice taking the right path, it will get harder and harder to ever do so.

“No.”

I turned down a couple of gigs recently. They were both for the same band – a band I quit last summer. One was in Great Yarmouth, the other was in Camden. I knew straight away that I didn’t want to do the gigs. I knew that the right thing to do was to say “no.” But man alive, it was torture trying to get myself to do it.

There were plenty of reasons for the conflict. I’m a musician – why wouldn’t I want a gig? There would have been a little bit of money – that never hurts. I’ve stepped in on previous gigs since I quit the band – what’s different this time?

I knew that “no” was my honest answer – to myself and to them.

And it might seem child-like to admit it, but saying “no” – and then sticking to it when the other party tried to negotiate my “no” – was a big step for me. Because I am – shamefully – a veteran of the left path. I’m practically a black belt at ignoring my inner voice when it’s the slightest bit inconvenient to hear it.

But I’m trying to be better.

Redefining honesty

When you think of whether someone is being honest with you or not, do you ever go further than just their words? I know I tend not to. But I’ve been thinking differently about honesty. Words are cheap. But actions mean something. They have weight.

So if I say “yes” to doing something I don’t want to do because it’s easier to in the moment, I might think I’m being polite, or kind, or going along to get along. Really, I’m really just lying. There’s nothing more to it.

Real honesty is shown through how you act – whether you go left or right at the fork in the road – not with your words.

You get what you practice

The more you do anything, the easier it becomes to do the next time. This is no less true with doing what you believe to be right than it is with baking a cake or painting a bowl of fruit.

I know, I know. Sometimes you will find yourself in a genuinely tight squeeze, where it will feel impossible to stay true to yourself. But I contend that most of the time when you feel like you have no choice, it’s a lie. You do have a choice. You’re just out of shape.

The only way to make it easier to live your truth is… to live your truth. Start with the things that feel easiest. Let your momentum build. This isn’t a pipe dream. This isn’t false optimism.

This is a tool available to you right now at this very second.

“Courage is grace under pressure.”

Ernest Hemingway

“Keep Going, Ol…”

Last night I got an email from my friend Ben telling me to keep writing my pieces.

I don’t need to tell you that it meant a lot. Obviously it meant a lot. But it meant more for arriving at a particularly ripe moment – I felt like shit last night and I had no idea why. I don’t know about you, but I can handle the feeling shit. It’s the not knowing why that really winds me up.

Anyway, to try and get out of this funk, I got into bed and put my headphones on and listened to the 50th anniversary remix edition of Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones at full blast. A bit later I checked my email and saw what Ben had sent me. Well, I don’t know if it was You Got The Silver, or Ben’s email, but I welled up, and all was right again, for a while. But Ben’s email made me think of a similar message my friend Miles sent me about five years ago.

That morning in 2015 I awoke possessed by a Dæmon that visits every now and then. It fills me with nervous energy and drives me to spill my guts onto a page and share it with the world. It had been building for a few weeks – it doesn’t start off as a Dæmon, but as a niggling feeling of ennui – and I was paying the price for ignoring it.

I cancelled my band’s rehearsal – I don’t remember what my excuse was – and walked to Starbucks on Ecclesall Road with my laptop in my brown hunting bag and typed furiously. When it was done, I shared it to Facebook. It was about 1000 words long, but the general theme was “Death is coming. Follow your bliss.” I don’t change. Five minutes later, I got a text from Miles saying something along the lines of “Ol, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” And I welled up just like I welled up last night, just like I well up any time somebody tells me to keep going.

Because the most encouraging thing you can hear as a creator is not how great you are, or how you’re going to be huge one day… it’s to be told to keep going. To keep doing what you do.

When somebody tells me I’m a good writer, I don’t know what to do with it. I appreciate it, but I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean when I say that it makes me feel the same way I feel when I’m standing in front of a birthday cake and everybody is singing Happy Birthday to me – I’m flattered, but I don’t know where to look.

But when somebody tells me to keep going, that’s all they need to say. In those two words – KEEP GOING – they have communicated far more than any other praise or feedback would have. They might not even think very much of what I’ve done so far – I don’t either, most of the time – but they are praising the mere fact that I keep showing up. Praising the effort, rather than the results. Praising the part that I had something to do with.

The main thing I’ve gained after the past few months of posting something every day is an ever-increasing detachment to the quality and the ultimate reception of each individual day’s work. The longer I go, the less each piece I publish matters to me. Of course, I want each one to say something, and I want each one to feel as right as possible the moment I click “publish”, but the truth is that I really have only one ambition – to stay in the game.

You see, I’m figuring this shit out in front of a live audience. So to me, not being booed off the stage is a good day. But to be explicitly instructed to keep going? That, my friend, is the ultimate compliment.

Thank you for lending me your eyes.

Permission to Be Yourself

“The first and most important thing an individual can do is to become an individual again, decontrol himself, train himself as to what is going on and win back as much independent ground for himself as possible.”

William S Burroughs (1914-1997)

From day one, they’re grooming you to be something you’re not.

They want you to fit in. They want you to be predictable. They want you to consume.

And like any good wife-beater, they know how to spin it – in the most benevolent terms they can. They are on your side. They are thinking of you. They are trying to keep you safe. They are doing it all for your benefit.

Most people suffer from Stockholm syndrome. And given the chance, they’ll prove it – they’ll tell you you’re crazy, that there’s no conspiracy, that nobody’s trying to keep you down, that you shouldn’t be so dramatic…

They’ve fallen for the villain’s lies. That doesn’t mean you have to.

Because the truth is that they do want to keep you down. In fact, they need to keep you down. Because if you knew how much power was available to you simply by learning to trust yourself and do things the way you believed to be right, you would be impossible to control. And they know that.

And they can’t have that.

You might not realise it, but you are so much more than they would ever grant you the permission to be. So fuck ’em – give yourself permission. Permission to be yourself.

That is your gift to the world. Not your slavish obedience to whoever’s in charge – teachers and parents and queens and corporations. Any moron could do that. I suppose that’s why almost every moron does.

Only that which has contrast is interesting, and worth paying attention to. I don’t want to know the ways in which you are the same as everybody else. I want to find out what’s inside you that belongs to you and you alone. That’s what makes life living – for both parties.

Do not live one more day believing the lie that it is selfish to be as fully yourself as possible, and to unapologetically live your own unique truth – however uncomfortable it might make authority figures.

It is the most generous way you could possibly spend your life.

Love What You Do

It is not doing what you love that will make you happy, but loving what you do.

Doing what you love is a dream, and for that dream to come true, a whole lot of things you have no control over have to go your way. No matter how badly you might want it, no matter how happy it will make you if it comes to be, you are leaving an awful lot to chance.

Loving what you do, on the other hand, is a decision – one that you can actively choose in every moment. When you find something to love about everything you do, and you practice this as often as you can, and in the most dire circumstances you can imagine, you hold your happiness in your own hands.

Nothing can touch you.

You’ll Wish You’d Started Today

Tomorrow, you’ll wish you’d started today.

Next week, you’ll wish you’d started today.

In a year’s time, you’ll wish you’d started today.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Lao Tzu

The only thing standing between you and taking that single beginning step is… you.

If it feels too difficult, make it easier. If it feels too big, make it smaller.

Determine which way you ought to face, and then do whatever you must to ensure that a step is taken in that direction, no matter how small or insignificant.

Eventually, Whether It Wants to or Not…

I’m sitting between a lady in a turquoise cardigan and bald Steve Jobs at Billund airport. We’re coming back to England today, after three weeks in Viborg, Denmark.

I don’t have much time – we’ll be boarding soon and on the plane I’ve decided that I’m going to either read East of Eden or listen to the Chili Peppers but definitely not both. So here is a passage that has meant a lot to me since I first came across it in a Robert Greene book eight years ago:

It’s like chopping down a huge tree of immense girth. You won’t accomplish it with one swing of your axe. If you keep chopping away at it, though, and do not let up, eventually, whether it wants to or not, it will suddenly topple down.

When that time comes, you could round up everyone you could find and pay them to hold the tree up, but they wouldn’t be able to do it. It would still come crashing to the ground…

But if the woodcutter stopped after one or two strokes of his axe to ask the third son of Mr. Chang, ‘Why doesn’t this tree fall?’ And after three or four more strokes stopped again to ask the fourth son of Mr. Li, ‘Why doesn’t this tree fall?’ he would never succeed in felling the tree.

It is no different for someone practicing the Way.

Zen Master Hakuin (1686 – 1769)

Be Kind to Yourself

“I can resist anything except temptation.”

Oscar Wilde

You and me both, mate. But there’s something else I would add to Wilde’s quote.

I can resist anything except temptation… but I wildly over-estimate my ability to do so.”

Just as difficult as resisting temptation is admitting that you maybe you aren’t as mentally bullet-proof as you wish you were. This doesn’t make you weak, or crap. It makes you human.

So what’s to be done? Well, as Robert Plant sang, there are two paths you can go down. And as always, one is a path of denial, the other a path of acceptance.

On the first path, you resolve to stay strong at all costs – in the moment. You believe that you can resist any temptation if you just try hard enough – in the moment. You strain to remain virtuous – in the moment – and you believe that if you can stay ahead of your temptations today, it will be easier tomorrow.

Don’t. It never works. And even when it does, it’s miserable.

The thing about “the moment” is that it’s too late. If you’re having to make yourself miserable just to stop yourself doing something “in the moment”, the damage is already done.

You need the second path. This one has a different flavour, but it has the dual advantage of being more enjoyable, and… actually working. Here it is:

Make it easier to do the right thing.

Trying to resist temptation is excruciating. And even if you somehow succeeded 100% of the time – which nobody does – it’s a magnificent waste of your energy. Every unit of energy you spend on resisting temptation is a unit that now cannot be used towards something better.

So instead of trying in vain to be stronger, why not make the weights lighter instead? Stack the deck in your favour. Tweak your environment to rid it of as much temptation as you can?

If you want to stop checking your phone so much, turn it off and put it in another room.

If you want to spend less money when you go out, get some cash out in the afternoon and leave your cards at home when you meet your friends.

If you want to go for a run after work tonight, arrange to go with a friend so that it’ll harder to get out of when you can’t be arsed later on.

Don’t wait until “the moment” to try and stay strong. Be kind to yourself – do the work in advance. Remove the temptation from your environment – in any way you can – and see how much freer you feel.

Most Things Should Be Left to Chance

I did something shameful yesterday morning that led to the creation of a new personal rule.

It was 11:31. I had already laced up my running shoes and threaded my earphones up through my t-shirt ready to go in my ears, and I was sitting on the floor by the front door, scrolling through my Spotify library for an album to listen to on my run.

Now, I have a handful of go-to albums for running. By The Way. Revolver. Warren Zevon. Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg. Rage Against the Machine. For whatever reason, none of these seemed appetising yesterday morning. And yet neither did any of the other albums I have saved.

This is tricky. I kept getting ever so close to picking one, but then I would remember that actually I’m not that into the guitar solo on track 6 of that one, or that that one’s a hair too Californian for a day like today, or that maybe today would be a good day for something instrumental…

My legs started to ache, and I looked at the time. 11:49. I’d been there eighteen minutes and was still no closer to a decision. Something inside me snapped. For fuck’s sake, Ol, you’re a joke. That’s it. It’s going on shuffle. Go. Run. You knob.

And you know what? It was great! Love Hurts by Nazareth. Apache by The Shadows. The End by The Beatles. I Can’t Wait by Stevie Nicks. As each track ended I couldn’t wait to hear what was coming next. Best of all, it was completely out of my hands.

My new rule? Unless you already have a better idea, leave it to chance.


I know this is a stupid little story. And I doubt you’re as pathetic and incapable of making a simple decision as I am.

But the point I want to make is that there are good ways to spend time and there are bad ways to spend time, and agonising over inconsequential decisions like what album to listen to on a run is… well, I don’t even need to finish my sentence, do I?

It’s a waste of life.

There are, of course, decisions that matter, ones that ought to be agonised over. But these are rare. Most things really do not matter. So don’t waste your energy on them. Leave most things to chance.

Don’t Be a Bully

Not because it’s a shitty way to live – though it certainly is. Don’t be a bully because it doesn’t actually work.

It never has. And it never will. But I can’t deny that there are times when it genuinely feels like not only the best way to get what I want, but maybe even even the only option.

This is always a lie. And if being a bully ever does appear to be working, know that the day will come – sooner than you think – when it will abruptly stop working. We each reap what we sow, and when you’re a bully, you are reaping resentment and bitterness. Even if they take a while, they will catch up with you.

What works better than being a bully – and helps you sleep at night – is figuring out how to not need to be a bully. There is not one thing you could possibly want in this world where bullying is the best way to get it.

Think about it this way – if bullying was was going to solve your problems, don’t you think it would have solved some of them by now?

Try something else. Anything else.

It’s Your Life, so Live It Your Way

“Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

In one of the all-time best episodes of Seinfeld, Elaine gets fired from her job at the J. Peterman Company because she cannot hide any longer just how much she hates the interminable movie “The English Patient”, which everybody in her life will not shut up about.

Do you ever catch yourself doing the same thing? Hating something, but keeping it to yourself, feeling you’d be violating some kind of unwritten code if you admitted the truth?

Or perhaps it’s the other way round – you actually like something, but you fear what people might think if they found out and so you pretend not to like it?

I doubt there’s anybody who could truthfully answer “No, never…” to both of those questions all of the time – if there is, I’d sure like to meet them. And call them a liar. I digress… this kind of white-lying is just part of living in a society. A certain amount of it is both inevitable and healthy. We’re all doing it.

But are you doing it from strength, or from weakness? Are you keeping your true feelings to yourself because, well… they’re your business and nobody else’s? Or is it simply because you’re afraid of being found out?

There’s a very big difference. I have no problem with people consciously being private or modest. But what I do have a problem with is when we unconsciously invalidate our own thoughts and feelings, when we see them as unimportant, as somehow mattering less than those of “other people.”

It’s such a great way to waste the one life we’ve each been given.

When you prioritise what “other people” might think about you, over how you yourself perceive things, you are making a grave error.

Firstly, because to quote Olin Miller, “You wouldn’t worry about what people may think of you if you could know how seldom they do.”

But secondly and more importantly, even if they were thinking about you, you could never actually know what they were thinking. You can guess and you can presume, and that’s about it.

And so you put a fantasy – what you imagine might be in their head – ahead of reality – what actually is inside your head. As a human being living a subjective experience, your feelings are a primary source of information to help you navigate the world. What you imagine other people might think, on the other hand? That’s not information. To give it more consideration than what’s going on inside you… well, that’s just dumb.

If you are lucky enough to find something you enjoy, I’m happy for you. Own it. Don’t be embarrassed. What right does anybody else have to decide what you are allowed to enjoy? And if you don’t like something, own that too. Who cares? You don’t have to shout it from the roof-tops, but don’t awkwardly hide your disgust. Just go focus on something you do like instead.

You have to realise that your thoughts and feelings are just as valid as anybody else’s. In fact, a good way of weeding toxic people out of your life is to see how they respond to you simply being honest about what you do and don’t enjoy. If they try to belittle you or invalidate you, fuck ’em. You can let them down gently, but definitely do let them down. You’ll both be happier without each other.

What I really want to get at here is that it you were not mass produced. There was only one of you ever made. You are incredibly rare. And the most valuable thing about you is your unique perspective. How dare you waste it by acting like it’s less valid than everybody else’s.

I leave you with a piece of Marcus Aurelius:

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us — or a wise human being, even — and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions — instead of our own.

Marcus Aurelius – Meditations: Book 12

The Benefit of the Doubt

I started wearing glasses every day three years ago.

When I was living in Rome, it started to dawn on me that other people could see things I could not. I don’t mean metaphorically, or in some abstract sense – I mean literally seeing things in front of me with my eyes.

I remember telling my parents when they came to visit me to look out for a particular number of bus, but not to feel bad if they missed it because the displays on the front of the buses were almost impossible to read, even up close. With perfect timing, a bus drove slowly past us and my parents laughed and asked me what I was talking about because they could both read it absolutely fine. I looked. It was all fuzzy to me.

So when I moved back to Sheffield, I had my first eye test in seven years and was told I needed glasses, especially if I was going to be driving. I didn’t tell them that until about a year before I’d been driving all kinds of places and that really it was a wonder I was still alive. I tried contact lenses, but they were fiddly. I also considered being one of those people that only wears their glasses some of the time, but that sounded like a lot of work and I saw myself losing pair after pair, and so I just resigned myself to wearing them all the time.

I don’t mind it at all. But the reason I bring this up is because the year after finding out I was short-sighted, I was diagnosed with ADHD. Now, in some ways, they are similar. They are both a hard fact of your biology. You can’t outrun them. You can’t “try harder” to see – you can just wear glasses that compensate. And you can’t “try harder” to regulate your attention, or your emotions, or your sensory overload, or however your particular form ADHD manifests in you – you can just find ways to work around the difficulties it causes.

But the two conditions are very different in one key way: everyone else can see your glasses. They can’t see your mind.

Psychological issues are difficult socially, mainly because they are invisible. Because whilst you’re going round with a brain that functions differently than it’s meant to – through absolutely no fault of your own – you still look “normal.” And so through no fault of their own, people expect you to act “normal.” And if and when you don’t – because you can’t – they don’t understand why. How could they?

And so you have not only to live with the condition, but also to sort of be aware that unless you really spell it out for other people what’s going on in your head, they’re going to look at what you say and what you do and just assume that you’re rude, or anti-social, or you don’t give a shit, or you’re lazy, or you’re unreliable… and when they believe all these things, you have to think “Yeah, I’d probably think that if I were them…”

The whole journey has obviously taught me a lot about myself, but more importantly it has taught me how to deal better with other people. I’m a hell of a lot slower now to form judgments about people. I rarely just assume that I have any idea what somebody is going through. And when they do or say something, I might have my theories as to why they did, but I try not to let them settle into an opinion. Because I know I’m probably wrong.

Perhaps this is also why I bang on so much about what you can and can’t control – that does seem to be the message of at least half my pieces of writing – because I know what it’s like to feel you have no control over yourself, let alone over the rest of the world.

I want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt because I’ve had to struggle my whole life to give it to myself.

Every Action Is a Vote

I’m still in Denmark, by the way.

And I didn’t write anything yesterday because we went to Emma’s grandfather’s birthday meal and not many other people were helping themselves to the carafe of red wine that kept being refilled and so by the time we got home I was drunk as hell and as soon as the Real Madrid game was over I pretty much went to sleep.

But rules is rules, and so today I must write two pieces. This is the first. I’m starting writing in the afternoon and so if you caught my piece last week about finding the right time to work you’ll know that by this time of day I’m pretty much toast.

I have nothing to say to you and yet here I am typing away. But perhaps that’s the lesson, after all.

You don’t get stronger by lifting the easy weights. And whilst I am fairly certain that the piece I am writing right now will not be one I remember or think of as a great piece… I am at least writing it.

I could be watching the second season of ‘You.’ I could be playing backgammon – a game I had never played until about two hours ago. Or I could be scrolling through some feed on Instagram, chuckling every now and then at something that tickled me… but I’m writing this.

I went for a run earlier and whilst I was running I listened to The Beatles but once I had had enough of running and wanted to walk I listened to a podcast with James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits. He said that every action you take is like a vote for the person you are becoming. Who you are is the sum of all those votes. I liked that. Because it is entirely focused on the part that I can control – the action. The results take care of themselves if they feel like it. It’s not my business.

So I am voting right now to be a writer, but I suppose it’s one step more than that. I’m voting not to just write, but to publish work I know full well is far from perfect. Good for me.

Well, I just read through that and it wasn’t as interminable as I had expected it to be. Let’s see if my second piece of the day is any better…

“he talked a big game” : a poem by oliver manning

he talked a big game

he told me don’t sweat it

he told me chill out

he told me go with the flow

he bought each of his hawai’ian shirts

from the right vintage shop

and his girlfriend never wore

a bra

his words sounded good to your ears

if you were looking

for something other than yourself

to blame for the sorry state

of your life.

and so when he said them

the people believed them

and the people believed him

and the people never suspected

that on the inside

he was ninety-eight percent sawdust.


The flow exists. And you do have to go with it. To the degree that you do, you will have peace. To the degree that you do not, misery.

But go not blindly, friend. For if you “go with the flow” without first understanding what it is and what it isn’t, you are a matador without his sword, and the flow will gore you with its horns.

What is “The Flow?”

Firstly, what it is not.

It is not avoiding confrontation. It is not living apathetically or apologetically. It is not refusing to ever try at anything. It is not bending over and allowing yourself to be sodomising with whatever “the world” wants to sodomise you with. It is not painting yourself as a victim. It is not affecting a cool pose. It is not claiming to be a child of God. It is not being meek in a vain attempt to inherit the Earth.

Are you ready to hear what the flow is?

The flow is everything outside your control.

Going with the flow starts by acknowledging the utter indifference with which almost every single molecule in the universe views you. And then seeing what’s left. Which of the molecules remain open to your influence. What is left we will call “your corner.”

Work your corner. That’s it. And leave the rest of it for “the flow.” Push it from your mind, as far as you can. There is nothing you can do anything about any of it. Why bother entertaining it for one second?

Accept that you don’t have any control over most of reality. You could be King, Queen, Empress… most of the molecules in the universe would still resist you. So free your shoulders of the weight of the world. And then put every ounce of energy you can muster into that tiny bit you can do something about.

And if you do that, something magical happens – your corner gets a little bit bigger. You find a few more molecules to influence. And so on. And so on.

That is what it means to go with the flow. It is not just some bullshit California wisdom espoused by beautiful people to whom the flow has already been more than benevolent.

It is open to everyone.

Most of all, it is open for you.

The Longest Way Round Is the Shortest Way Home

In a previous life, I wrote exclusively in block capital letters.

I don’t remember the exact date I started this habit – nor the reason why – but it lasted for about eight years. If you wanted me to write anything by hand, YOU GOT SOMETHING THAT LOOKED LIKE THIS. One time I wrote a very tender and heartfelt letter to a girl whose heart had captured mine and her response to it was “Why are you so angry with me?

And then one day on a sofa in Rome in 2016, I went back to writing the way I was taught to at school. Lower-case. Joined-up. Scruffy. Again, I don’t recall what prompted the change.

On a lark, I decided this morning to do my morning pages – three stream-of-consciousness A4 pages – in block capital letters. For old times’ sake. Just to see what it’d be like. It was quite a trip.

As early as the first paragraph, I could sense something different happening in my brain, and soon my reflections on the process ended up on the page, in a kind of movie-within-a-movie way. It was something like this:

I can type much faster than I can scribble long-hand, and I can scribble long-hand much faster than I can print in block capital letters. But other than the speed at which I got words onto the page, I didn’t expect there to be any difference between approaches. I, Oliver Manning, am the unchanging variable in all three situations – I’m the writer.

Well it turns out I was wrong. Dead wrong!

When I type, my fingers fly across the keyboard. I’m incredibly fast. I also don’t hit a lot of wrong keys like some people who type fast. And yet when typing I rarely feel as though “I” have anything much to do with the words that end up on the screen. I might get a lot of them on there very quickly, but they don’t mean anything to me, and they always need a hell of a lot of editing to make sense or to be remotely publishable.

Most of all, it’s very hard for me to figure out what I’m trying to say if I try to figure it on the keyboard.

There’s a big step-up when I write long-hand. Now I feel much more as though “I” am writing. The words end up on the page more slowly – a lot more slowly – than when I type, but the experience is so much more pleasurable, and when I read my work back it means something to me.

What I am trying to say presents itself to me much earlier than when I type, and so I don’t waste as many words. And whilst continual editing and rewriting would keep making what I came up with stronger and stronger, it doesn’t need it so desperately.

But boy, this morning made me wonder why I ever stopped writing in block capitals. I felt like I was one with the page. Now, that’s always what I’m chasing when I write, like an addict who can’t get enough, but I never actually get there. Today there was this sense as I printed and printed that what I was saying was true. And my mind was quiet, save for the writerly part of it telling me what to put next. It was a real joy.

What all this made me reflect upon was how the longest way round probably is in fact the shortest way home. The slower I go, the quicker I seem to get what I actually want. The faster I go, the longer it seems to take, if it gets done at all. And the more I’ve thought about it since this morning, the more I keep finding that it applies to just about everything I try my hand at.

Everybody is different – what works for me might not work for you – but have a think. Are you trying to blast through everything you do because it seems wasteful or extravagant not to, or to value something other than speed, like joy? How is it working out for you?

Remember: if it doesn’t actually get you home, then the shortest way round is no way at all. Find the way that works… for you.

Who Are You?

You are not the name you were given.

You are not the country whose borders you happened to be born within.

You are not the colour of your hair.

You are not the job you work.

You are not the words you speak.

You are not the thoughts you think.

You are one thing and one thing only: the choices you make.


“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl – “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Believing a lie doesn’t make it true. And refusing to exercise your power to choose doesn’t let you off the hook. It doesn’t strip you of this power. It just wastes it.

No matter how cornered you feel by circumstances, or by the other people in your life, or even by the voices in your own head… at any moment you are free to remember the truth: that you always have the power to choose, to go with what is right and what is true for you.

Nobody can bestow you this power upon you – it lies within you, itching to be used – nor can anybody ever take it away from you.

I decided a long time ago that whatever years I had remaining here would be spent living this lesson as fully as I could. Exercising my power to choose, and in doing so discovering who I am more deeply every day.

I’m not telling you this because I find it easy to put into practice. There is nothing about this that is easy. No, I’m telling you this because whilst it might be excruciatingly difficult to act upon, it’s worth every penny and more. There is not a more worthy way to live than to consciously commit to doing what you believe is right.

I invite you to join me.

The Cats and the Trees and the Clouds…

I saw a cat crossing the road this morning. It was white and black.

That cat, I thought to myself, has no idea that at midnight she will be crossing not from one side of the road to the other, but from one side of the decade to another.

Nor do the trees know, as they line the streets.

Nor do the clouds know, as they creep across the sky.

The cats and the trees and the clouds just do what it is in their nature to do. They don’t care what decade it is. They have a job to do.

If something was the right thing for you to do in this decade, then it’s worth continuing with tomorrow.

And if something you did was wrong for you, if it was unworthy of your nature, then it will still be wrong tomorrow.

What is right and what is wrong has nothing to do with the calendar.

The best of you is eternal. Have a wild decade.

Oliver x

You Left the Womb for a Reason

“Space, I can recover. Time, never.”

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)

I was seventeen, and I was a film student.

My teacher set the class a lot of essays. So I developed a system. Whenever there was an essay due, I would open up Microsoft Word at about 9pm the night before, and go at it furiously until I had a completed essay coming out of the printer, however long it took.

My system worked – I got good grades. But one day my teacher suddenly slammed my writing – in front of the whole class – as weak. He said that it was a shame because I could put words together well, and I had good points to make, but there was one cardinal sin I made over and over and over:

I couldn’t just… make a point.

Peppered throughout my essays were all manner of qualifiers, like “in my opinion…” “I believe that…” “what you could say is that…” I seemed desperate to distance myself from whatever I was trying to assert, desperate to let the reader know that this wasn’t all necessarily objectively true.

Back then, I really didn’t understand why this was a problem. After all, my essays were my personal exploration of the topic at hand – they weren’t objective facts. They were opinions, conjecture, subjective guesses… was I not being kinder to the reader – and treating them like an adult – by being crystal clear with them about this?

No. It was actually condescending. Because people aren’t stupid. They already know they’re reading opinions and beliefs – they don’t need reminding every couple of sentences. So whilst I didn’t enjoy being chewed out in front of the class, my teacher was absolutely right. My writing was weak, and it all stemmed from this one bad habit.

I bring this up today for two reasons.

Firstly, because it helped inform the way I write today.

I preach the things I preach as fact. I state things, I make assertions, I try not to constantly remind you that you are reading my opinions and beliefs. I assume that you’re smart and that you already know this. I respect you enough to tell you what I believe to be true without coating it in sugar, and leave you free to agree or disagree with me.

I know that the more I try to soften the hard edges of what I write, the less power it has, and the less anything meaningful is communicated. So I really try not to do this.

And the second reason is that whilst I might have learnt that specific lesson as it relates to the way I write, I still have a very long way to go in the rest of my life. It’s just one of the many ways I have been deathly afraid throughout my life to take a stand. To pick a side. To risk being wrong.

The fear, I suppose, comes from believing deep down that if I am wrong about a decision, that it would somehow be impossible to ever recover from, and so it’s just not worth the risk. I don’t know why part of me believes this with such fervour – especially when it is so obviously bollocks – but it does. It seems to weigh up the potential gains of making a clear decision against what I have to lose if I’m wrong, and ultimately decide that the risk is too large.

Well, I want a lot of things for the 2020s, but more than anything, I want to seek out like a bloodthirsty hyena all the places in which I am sitting on the fence, terrified of going one way or the other, and for fuck’s sake make a move.

I want to prove to myself what I on some level already know – that there are no mistakes from which I cannot recover from. No, in fact, it’s even bigger than that. There are in fact no mistakes that I cannot ultimately find a way to profit from.

Sitting on the fence is not a neutral action. It is a clear decision to do nothing. With no action there is no motion. With no motion there is death. Most people die spiritually a long, long time before their body gives out.

Realise: you left the womb for a reason, and it wasn’t so that you could spend your life trying to recreate the warm and cozy conditions you enjoyed those nine months.

Don’t be so afraid of making a wrong move that you stand still forever.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

John Augustus Shedd – “Salt from My Attic” (1928)

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Carl Von Clausewitz

Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus.”

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891)

Or, translated and paraphrased into plain English: no plan survives contact with the enemy.


If the change you seek to make in the world lights up your bones when you think about it, then it is unlikely you have sold yourself short – small goals just don’t have that kind of bone-lighting-up power. You have likely chosen something grand, something daring, something that puts you at risk of being mocked by non-believers. I hope so. For anything else is a waste of time.

It’s important not to let yourself be embarrassed about having grand aims. Ambition is not a dirty word. You have my applause for even daring to dream that something better is possible. Just know that the path to get from where you are now to where you wish to be will not be easy. Nor will it be straight. It will zig, it will zag, and it will go off on tangents and subplots.

Of course, it would be wonderful if there were some way to straighten your path in advance. Some way you could craft a perfect, omniscient plan that made not just failure but any kind of temporary setback impossible. But there isn’t.

There is no value whatsoever in trying to plot a rigid path to your giant goal, because the moment you take any action, the playing field changes. Think about it this way: if you knew enough right now to plot out an invincible, fool-proof path to your goal, wouldn’t you have done it already?

It’s better instead to – as Jeff Bezos would say – “focus on the things that don’t change.” Life is, if anything, unpredictable. It always has been and it always will be. So instead of wishing for predictability, embrace unpredictability. Make it a feature, not a bug.

Carl von Clausewitz, everyone’s favourite 19th century Prussian, called the difference between our plans and what actually happens “friction.” If you attempt anything in this world, you are going to experience friction before long. The only difference between reaching your goal and not reaching your goal is how you respond.

If you work with the friction, finding ways to incorporate it, surfing it like a wave, then you will forge a rich, elegant, soulful path to your goal. And as you look back on where you’ve been, you will be amazed at how you somehow made the dots connect, and you will be grateful for everything that arrived unexpected and unannounced, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you rally against the friction, on the other hand, trying to control every little thing, allowing yourself to become disheartened and disillusioned every time something unforeseen occurs… you will quit. And you will wrongly assume that your mistake was either to have not spent enough time planning, or to have picked too large a goal to begin with. But more planning wouldn’t have saved you from friction, nor would a smaller goal.

If I could boil what I’m trying to say down to one sentence, it would be this: Allow friction to change your plans, never your aims.

Aim for the sky. Please. And when things go “wrong” – which I guarantee they will – turn shit into sugar.

I Live For The Bad Days

ME: Type. Delete. Type. Delete. Ugh…

RESISTANCE: It’s been over an hour now, mate. It’s not happening today. Why don’t you just give up? Nobody’s going to care. Write two pieces tomorrow. You’ll be in a better place tomorrow. You’ve got nothing to say today. I’m only thinking of you, mate…

ME: Fuck off.

The constant conversation in my head

I write and publish something every day and have done so for almost three months now. And on days like today, I curse the Oliver from three months ago who decided to commit to this habit, and who – in his infinite wisdom – signed us up to a habit-tracking service, where we have to pay money if we don’t keep our commitment!

What a dick!

No, he’s not a dick. It turns out he was a wise man. Truthfully, I’m very grateful he did those things.

It’s just that sometimes it comes easy and I can barely keep my fingers off the keys and I have so much inside me I want to impart to you and seemingly the only thing stopping me is the other obligations in my life…

… but more often than that come days like today.

I look inside myself, and I find that I am empty. There is nothing on which to feed myself, let alone to impart to others. Well, that’s not exactly true. I can sense that there are volumes inside me, pieces that in more capable hands could be translated into works of art. It’s just that they are written in a language that on days like this I have forgotten how to speak.

And yet… I live for these days. The bad days. Where it’s all an ugly struggle and there’s no point in anything and I don’t remember why I committed myself in the first place. Why?

Because there’s no glory in only doing things when they’re easy. If nothing inside you is resisting what you seek to do, you are conquering nothing. But if you can summon the will to try when every molecule conspires to make you give up, you’ve done it. You’ve found the secret.

Don’t you see? It’s not about whether I write anything good. I don’t care if I never write anything worthy of being read again. Ever. I don’t care if nobody is helped by what I write. Or amused. Or if I’m later embarrassed by something I published. Or if I offend the wrong persons’s sensibilities. Or if I annoy you like a barnacle in your inbox. Or if I somehow become a laughing stock…

None of that matters. There is only one thing that matters, and that is keeping up the effort, and the harder it is to keep up the effort, the greater the reward there is for doing so.

Whatever it is inside you that seeks to stop you becoming who you were meant to be, I don’t believe it can be destroyed. And even if it could, I don’t believe that it would help. It exists to help you grow.

So stand up to it. Tell it in no uncertain terms that no matter what it says and no matter how persistently it says it, you are not going to be stopped. Use its opposition as fuel. Make it make you better.

Be More Binary

The human brain does not thrive in a grey zone. It prefers to work in binary terms. On/off. Awake/asleep. Eating/fasting. Working/resting.

The modern world conspires to push us away from these extremes and ever closer to the middle. Instead of spending some time at 100 then some time at 0, we are encouraged to stay as close to 50 as we can all day long. If we do not resist this unnatural progression, we risk becoming mere shadows of our ancestors.

When you’re doing something, really do it. Go all out as though it’s the last thing you’re ever going to do. Then when you switch, really switch.

This is how nature intended it, and the last hundred years of scientific progress isn’t going to change that.

Before You Ask for More…

… what are you doing with what you’ve already got?

Are you wishing you made more money, whilst spending every penny you currently make on shit you don’t need?

Are you wishing you had a flashier car, whilst leaving the one you currently drive in a state of disrepair?

Are you wishing you had cooler friends, whilst treating the ones you already have poorly?

Something inside you always knows. You’d waste the extra money, you’d neglect the new car, and you’d treat your cooler friends just as poorly.

If you can’t show appreciation for what you have right now, you will unsconciously hold yourself back from better things.

You don’t have to pretend anything’s perfect that clearly isn’t. You just have to appreciate it for what it is.

When Are You at Your Best?

All hours are not created equal. Trying to blog every day has taught me this lesson the hard way.

Until a few months ago, I never gave too much credence to the idea that I might perform better or worse at different times of the day. I figured that no matter what time of day, I am Oliver Manning, with Oliver Manning’s brain and Oliver Manning’s fingers, and Oliver Manning’s laptop.

I was wrong. So wrong. Here’s what I’ve found:

If I can write during the good hours (roughly 10am to 2pm) I will not only write better material, I will write it faster, I will find it much easier, and I will enjoy the process a whole lot more.

If I try to write outside these hours, however, the quality will suffer, it will come out slower, I will find it really difficult, and I will resent the whole affair.

In every single area – quality, speed, ease, and enjoyment – working during my peak hours is orders of magnitude more effective. The upshot? I need to make sure I use this time for what is important.

What about you? When are you at your best?

You might be a lucky freak who is capable of roughly the same all day long. In which case, congratulations. But it’d be worth checking if that’s true – I thought that was me, until I realised it wasn’t.

If life weren’t short, this wouldn’t matter. But since it is, it does. Scheduling your important work for when you’re at your best can have a disproportionately positive effect not only on your results but your experience of life itself.

Do better work faster and easier, and enjoy it more – simply by changing when you work.

Morning Pages

Habits are like sperm – for every habit that successfully becomes a part of my daily routine, there are hundreds of others that never make it. A smarter man than myself might be able to explain just why that is. I shan’t waste my time.

All I know is that there is one habit I am eternally grateful to for having stuck with me this year. It’s called Morning Pages and I don’t mean to be dramatic when I say that I don’t know where I would be without it.

From “The Artist’s Way”:

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning.

There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only.

Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way

Here’s how it plays out for me:

To get started, I’ll usually write a sentence about how I feel that morning. Next, I’ll find myself analysing why I feel that way. Now that I’m getting warmed up, I’ll often notice myself thinking about something unrelated, so I’ll write that down. And basically, I follow – with my pen – whichever train of thought grabs me the most until I have completed three pages, which generally takes me about 40 minutes.

And at the end of it, I feel a kind of runner’s high. As though my mind has been dipped in a cold stream and had the dirt and grime washed away. I have never not felt better after doing my Morning Pages.

If you’ve never done anything like this, try it. Here is a link to Tim Ferriss’s article on the topic, which is where I discovered this practice.

Go out of Your Way to Be Wrong

Admit it… you love being right, don’t you? I’m not juding – I do too. Isn’t it a delicious feeling? It’s the best.

Unfortunately, needing to be right is death to anybody who is trying to do great things in the world.

Sure, it might be comforting when things go exactly the way you expected they would, but you must realise that you will not improve this way. You will not get smarter. You will stagnate and you will stall. You will die inside.

You get better – in every way – only when things go differently than you expected. In other words, only when you are wrong.

There’s a very simple reason for this.

You navigate life using a kind of mental map of reality. This map – which is influenced by every experience you have ever personally had, as well as the biology you inherited from millions of years of ancestors – tells your mind what it can expect in any given situation.

Generally, it is so accurate that you don’t even notice it is there.

You notice, however, every time you confront something that contradicts your map. You expect one thing, but what happens is something quite different. And when this happens, your mind springs to attention. It rushes and rallies to process this new information, and it is at this moment that we can go in one of two directions.

If we accept the new information, integrate it and make it part of a new and improved map, we get smarter. Our map more closely resembles reality and we enjoy an ever-more interesting and engaging life.

If instead we deny the new information out of hand, and insist that our map is fine the way it was, we get stupider. Our map gradually becomes more out-of-touch with reality every day. It takes more and more energy to cling to an out-dated map in the face of so much contradictory information, and life becomes a miserable, frustrating experience.

Go out of your way to be wrong. The more times a day you can violate your prior expectations, the more often your map will be rewritten, the more nuanced and detailed it will be, and the more closely it will resemble reality. This will quickly bring you far more joy than the pale and transient pleasure of “being right.”

You gain nothing by being right, and everything by being wrong.

Forget All That Bullshit and Just Play

“Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that bullshit and just play.”

Charlie Parker

The thing I like about Christmas is the down-time.

Use it.

Sip yourself silly on an egg-nog, or a snowball, or some other such seasonal beverage, and cast your mind back over previous year.

What worked? What didn’t?

What are you glad you did? Where did you fall short of your true standards?

Take a cold, dispassionate inventory of yourself. Be as brutal as you know how.

And then forget all that bullshit and just play.

Live Right, or Play It Safe: You Can’t Do Both.

I was awake for a couple of hours in the night. It happens.

An hour or two before bed I had finished reading “A Farewell to Arms.” I’ve read it before, and so I knew all along just exactly who was going to die, and how unjust it would feel, and how it would stay with me, but none of that served to soften the blow. It hit me hard and it was still on my mind when I woke up in the night.

I wasn’t at all disturbed as I lay there thinking about death. I watched my mind go this place and that as though it were being projected on a screen in a cinema – I, the lone attendee of the premiere.

I watched my own death several times over, scouring my imagination for all of the most unpleasant ways I’d heard it could happen. I saw myself crucified, like Christ. I saw myself marched to Semynov Place in St Petersburg with a black hood over my head, like Dostoyevsky, only unlike him I wasn’t pardonned at the eleventh hour – I got the firing squad. I saw myself ordered by the Romans to slit my wrists in a warm bath, like Seneca.

There was nothing morbid about this spectacle. I almost enjoyed it – historically it tends to be the good people that are subjected to these kinds of violent endings. Perhaps if I played my cards I would be one of them. JFK and Martin Luther King? Assassinated in their prime. Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover? A stroke at 81, and a heart attack at 77. I know which side I would rather be on.

And so after the thrill and high of the narcissism wore off, I went on a new train of thought – is it possible that fearing conflict and the possibility of an unpleasant death is affecting the way I live my life? And sadly, I had to admit that it was. More than I had ever realised.

I started to see just how much of my days are filled with avoiding conflict at all costs, choosing to play it safe for fear that if I didn’t I wouldn’t be capable of handling the consequences. I saw how when I detect the mere hint of the possilibility of conflict on the horizon, my mind races to me suddenly being on trial for crimes I didn’t even mean to commit, sentenced to torture and then to death by a faceless regime who just don’t understand me.

I asked myself which I would prefer: to exist for as long as my biology held out but feel on a daily basis that I was selling myself short; or to live for just one more day, but live it ‘right’, whatever that might mean?

It’s easy to say I’d prefer the latter. But now I have to prove it to myself through the way I live. Philsophy is not about grand thoughts. It is about our choices in every moment of every day.

Here’s the truth: You can’t have your cake and eat it too – you can’t live right and play it safe. Sometimes they are one and the same, but in the moments when they are not, the side you tend towards sums you up.

So when push comes to shove, will you prioritise doing the right thing whatever it costs, or avoiding all risk and conflict? From one comes life, from the other, mere existence.

When you live rightly, you do indeed put yourself at a higher risk of upsetting people, of offending people, of displeasing the regime, and yes, of potentially of having your years on this planet cut short. But even added together, these are miniscule prices to pay, when you realise the alternative:

And that is to have never really lived at all.

The Quality of Your Life Is in Your Choices

Every time you choose to do this, you also by default choose not to do that.

And whatever choices you make, the sum total of these choices ends up being your life.

There are all kinds of possibilities and potentialities and things that could happen and things that might happen, but there is only ever one set of things that actually do happen.

You only live once – that is a fixed quantity. You came into this world with nothing but a birth and a death, just like the rest of us.

The quality of your life, on the other hand, is entirely within your hands. Will you live deep, or will you live shallow? Will you be grateful, or will you be bitter? Will you have an open spirit, or that of the miser?

There is not one perfect choice to make in each situation that you must make or else you’ve somehow fucked life up… It’s far more subtle and forgiving than that. What matters is the intention with which you make your choices. Because in the end your choices add up to equal your life.

If you want a good life, then make your choices with intention.

Everything Can’t Be Fun All the Time

You probably beat me to it, but I only realised the following fact of life relatively recently: Everything can’t be fun all the time.

As I say, that might sound blindingly obvious to you, but it honestly wasn’t to me. Instead it was an upsetting truth I resisted and reluctantly accepted at a snail’s pace on my way to the ripe old age of 28 and 10 months.

Thinking back, I have no idea what gave me the impression that life was meant to be fun all the time. There was never a time when it was for me, and looking around I saw no evidence it was for others. But in my younger days I supposed I saw myself as the exception – the one who would finally buck the trend and have a good time all the time.

My chief aim in life for a long time was to feel as though every day were a paid-for trip to Alton Towers every day. Anything less and life was clearly cheating me.

Well, I’ve wised up now, in fits and starts. The big change seemed to be that – over a very long period of time – instead of demanding life give me good day after good day after good day whether I deserved it or not, I just stopped giving a shit about what kind of day it was. And I started to look at my role was in what kind of day I had. Was I dwelling on what was out of my control? Was I remembering to be grateful for the fact that the chances of me even being born were incredibly remote, and yet here I am?

I didn’t adjust my expectations – I stopped having them altogether.

And what I found on the other side is that whilst I might appear on the surface to be more dour and pessimistic than when I was younger, the truth is the opposite. Taking the days as they come and trying to do my best within them has made me far happier than expecting life to do all the work for me.

Stop Blaming “Them”

“Another person will not hurt you without your cooperation. You are hurt the moment you believe yourself to be.”

Epictetus

It wasn’t my fault – “they” made me do it.

I would go for it… if only “they” would stop standing in my way.

When “they” start treating me with respect, I will do the same back.

Painting somebody else as the puppet-master of your fate – whether an individual or a group – is a brilliant way to hide. In one fell swoop, you have avoided taking any responsibility for your lot in life, as well as receiving the delicious ego-gratification that comes from self-imposed victimhood.

The problem is that like crack, it’s awfully more-ish. What starts off innocuously gets out of control very quickly.

You know the Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility…” I couldn’t agree more, but have you ever considered its reverse? That without taking great responsibility in the first place, you will never have great power? I believe it.

Most of all, it takes two to tango. You are a victim to the exact extent that you see yourself as a victim. This has nothing to do with external appearances, and everything to do with the story in your head.

Give Yourself a Moment

My fingers are struggling to type these words because I just went climbing with Will Green.

I last went climbing when I was 16. Whatever level of skill I attained during that one session back then had predictably worn off over the 12 years since.

Still, I really enjoyed it. But as with most things in life there was one thing about it I liked more than anything else. And it was this:

You get up on the wall, hands somewhere, feet somewhere. You look for where either your hands or feet need to move to next. An easy option doesn’t obviously present itself. A voice in your head says “Well, that’s it, it’s impossible.” A moment later, you realise it is possible, and you do it.

This happened over and over again today and I wanted to tell you about it. There is an evil voice inside your head and mine that has a kneejerk defeatist reaction to everything. It comes first, and it makes its point loudly, but that doesn’t stop it from being a lie.

Whenever you find yourself thinking something – big or small – is impossible and that’s there’s nothing to be done about it, give yourself a moment. Ask yourself if you really believe this to be true. If the impossibility holds up under closer scrutiny, then fine. But if not, then you just unlocked a piece of life that was previously hidden to you.

You just glimpsed reality, which is a much better place to play than kneejerk defeatism.

Leave the Right Things to Chance

No child left behind…

Pythagoras. The various uses of crude oil. How and in which order Henry VIII’s wives died…

When it comes to ensuring that no child gets left behind, these are the things that school deems just too damned important to leave to chance.

On the other hand…

Managing your money. Coping with stress. Understanding the people in your life and why they do what they do. Finding a career that enriches both you and the world. How to know when you’re being lied to by politicians and advertisers.

This stuff goes on the “I guess we’ll just let ’em figure that stuff out by themselves, yeah?” pile.

Start with the things that don’t change

The point of school is to prepare young people for their future. And what a noble thing to aim for. But how to decide what to teach? There are three things that make that decision tricky.

One is that the future is unknown – it’s hard to know exactly what will be useful moving forward. Two is that everyone is different – we are born with unique temperaments and natural abilities and learning styles. And three is that even if we knew exactly what would be useful, we do not have the resources to give each student individualised attention based on exactly what they need.

So educators came up with a solution. They said “Let’s just guess what will help the average student, and then let’s hold all students to these arbitrary standards we’ve just made up with no basis in reality. Let’s not include anything explicitly useful to their adult life, but instead let’s fill them to the brim with fear and anxiety over how well they can memorise trivia.”

I have a different proposition.

It is impossible to know what will be useful in the future. And everyone is different. And even if we knew what would be useful, we don’t have the resources to give every student individual attention.

Fine. That’s the lay of the land.

So in the face of all the things we don’t know, and all the things we can’t do, then why not let’s start with… oh, I don’t know… the things that every single human being in recorded history has had to deal with?

Flip it on its head. Instead of worrying about how it’s impossible to know what will be useful in the future, think about what has always been useful. And instead of worrying about how every student is different, think about the ways in which they are the same.

It’s really not a mystery – some things don’t change. We are born. We die. We interact with people. We work. We deal with money. That’s called ‘life’ – it hasn’t changed for thousands of years and it isn’t about to.

I’m not suggesting for a second that everything taught at school is trivial and irrelevant, or that we should do away with it all. No. Only that we should rethink what goes into the curiculum first, and what gets brought in next if there’s still time left over.

Some things have to be left to chance – life is short. I just think we’re picking from the wrong pile.

Do Not Fear Your Audience

There are two ways to think about your audience.

One is to hold them in contempt. To see them as a necessary evil in the creative process, as an obstacle to be overcome. What this approach really betrays is your fear of the audience.

Some hide this fear behind the guise of “giving the people what they want.” But you don’t know – or particularly care – what they want, only what you want. And so you don’t ever bother to find out. You see them as faceless mob instead, and cynically second-guess what they want. And then you wonder why your creations miss the mark you aimed for time and time again.

Really, you are not in this game for the creation of something great. You are after ego-gratification, and personal glory, and you believe that if you can just deceive a large enough group of people for a long enough amount of time, you’ll get your reward.

You audience is a means to an end. And nothing you create will last.


The other approach is to see your audience as a kind of willing co-creator. To see them not only as necessary, but as an incredibly useful tool when it comes to shaping your work.

Instead of giving people what you think they want, you put everything you have into figuring out what they need. Of course, you don’t answer this question on Day 1 and then start creating… it is an attitude that you carry with you at every stage of the creative process.

You do all you can to get outside of yourself and into the minds of the people that are going to experience your work. How will they see this? What will this make them expect? Will I do what they expect, or will I surprise them? You try to see your work from as many different angles as possible.

You never worry that this process will make your work somehow less “yours”. You are still the one doing all the work. You are the artist. There has been no compromise whatsoever. It’s just that instead of working solely from your ego – which is what happens when you try to second-guess them – you have invited the audience to be a part of your creation. Without them even knowing.

But they’ll know it then they experience your work. Because it smacks of something real. Your audience will sense something in it that they are famished for in this crass, commercial age.

People know when they are being talked down to, and when instead they are being taken on a journey. It’s up to you to decide which of the two paths you’re going to take.

There Is Only One Direction

“Get out of here and move forward,” Don says. “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”

Mad Men – Season 2, Episode 5: “The New Girl”

If you allow it to, your past will stick to you like a stag-beetle.

It will make all your endeavours twice as heavy.

It will make you fear your own shadow.

But at any moment, you could escape this fate, simply by deciding to.

Who you are and what you consider to be just and true right now at this very second is all there is. Everything is else is imagined.

Discard who you were yesterday. Throw it away. The parts that were worth keeping – the people, the ideas, the good times – they’ll stay with you. Whatever you lose wasn’t worth keeping in the first place. Let it vanish. It was a lie anyway.

There is only one direction.

Life: The Election Fought Anew Every Day

Now is not the time to be despondent.

Now is not the time to be self-righteous.

Now is not the throw your hands in the air and say “Oh well, we tried our best, but the evil fuckers still won.”

For if you genuinely care about creating the change you seek in the world – which is after all the whole point of voting – you’ll realise that what you did yesterday in that polling station was a drop in the ocean, democratically speaking. And seeing it as any more than that is incredibly foolish.

You are here to bring about change – that is what you were born to do. To bring about a unique change – one that only you could bring. There are an infinite number of ways to do this, the only limit being your creativity and your willingness.

And so to view voting every few years as the best way – or indeed the only way – to do that, is to pretty much guarantee the change never happens.

Have you ever tried to cut through a shoe with a butter knife? Well, that’s what you’re doing when you expect meaningful change to come from engaging with our current blunt system of democracy – voting for parliamentary seats in a first-past-the-post election. It’s better than doing nothing, sure, but only slightly.

Your problem is that you do not view your every waking breath as an opportunity to create change.

Yes, vote when asked to. But for the love of God don’t cast your ballot paper and then think “Right, I’ve done my bit. I’ll be happy for a few years if ‘we’ win, angry for a few years if ‘we’ lose.”

Yes, you have done your bit. But don’t kid yourself – that was all it was: a bit. The bare minimum. Now do something else.

Life is an election that is fought anew every day. And there are only two options: good or evil.

Don’t wait until we’ve had another five years of this shit to start trying to choose good.

Don’t Ever Say It’s Impossible

“If something is difficult for you to accomplish, do not then think it impossible for any human being; rather, if it is humanly possible and corresponds to human nature, know that it is attainable by you as well.”

Marcus Aurelius

We share one Earth.

We breathe one air.

We drink one water.

We eat one bread.

What is possible for one of us is possible for each of us.


Yes, accidents of birth make things easier for some on the surface. But don’t forget that no matter what position or privilege someone possesses, we are all flesh and blood. There is nothing inside the billionaire that is not inside you. It might sound ridiculous, but what is possible for him is equally possible for you.

It might not be probable for you to create the change in the world that a billionaire can – he has more resources – but that has absolutely nothing to do with how possible it is. Unless something is impossible, it is possible. And where there is possilibity, there is hope.

We are living through a time when those who have much have deliberately rigged the system to allow them to have ever more, and for those who have less to have less still. This can indeed seem like an unmovable object. But was this current system handed down from the heavens? No. It was made by humans, and so it can be changed by humans.

So don’t say it’s impossible. It might be difficult. It might be improbable. It might be more than you can achieve in your lifetime. But don’t ever say say it’s impossible.

Know Your Enemy

“As the opposite poles of a magnet create motion, your enemies – your opposites – can fill you with purpose and direction. As people who stand in your way, who represent what you loathe, people to react against, they are a source of energy. Do not be naive: with some enemies there can be no compromise, no middle ground.”

Robert Greene – The 33 Strategies of War

There is evil in this world. I am sure of it.

But evil can only triumph when good people shirk their duties. Evil withers and dies when those same people get into motion.

You are one of these good people – you seek to create positive change in this world.

But since the change you seek to create is a positive one, you try to disassociate yourself with anything negative or agressive, and you think that you can get where you’re going simply by being nice, and smiling a lot, and doing a good job. You do not want to make enemies – you see yourself as above all that.

Don’t be so naive. Those who do evil will do so as long as they can get away with it – as long as you refuse to oppose them out of some misguided modern sense of morality or fairness. There is nothing moral or fair about not calling evil by its name.

Your opposition needn’t be violent – in fact, the height of strategic genius is not to slaughter the enemy, but to win the war without minimal bloodshed. But it has to be there, even if it’s just in your mind.

Who do you hate? Who sickens you to your stomach? Why? What is it that they appear to stand for?

Stand against them. Declare an inner war upon them. Let the thought of their evil be what inspires you to seek change.

You will gain far more clarity and energy by directing your anger and your hatred at a specific and deserving target than you will by thinking it’s somehow wise and smart and progressive to sit on the fence.

Keep Trying

It isn’t over.

No matter how many oppose you, how vehemently they may do so…

No matter how often you have lost your way. Felt crushed. Felt defeated. Felt forsaken by a God you aren’t sure you believe in. ..

No matter that nobody – not a single person before you – has ever achieved the thing you know were born to do…

No matter how much you feel you are Sisyphus, pushing that boulder up a steep, steep hill, only to see it roll back down again each and every time it approaches the top…

… it isn’t over.

Until the moment you breathe your final breath, it isn’t over.

Keep trying.

You Know Best

A boat-load of bravery

The decision to put your trust in yourself above all others is without a doubt the bravest one you will ever make. It requires a Julius-Caesar-crossing-the-Rubicon level of bravery.

Not bravery in the sense that you are braving physical danger, or indeed risking anything of importance, but bravery in the sense that there are so many forces within and without you conspiring and compelling you to do just the opposite. These forces feed themselves on your lack of self-trust and self-reliance, and so they will do anything they can to convince you it’s a risky and foolhardy endeavour. You need cajones of steel.

But the fact remains: your whole life, you have been lied to. Not by any particular individual, nor with clear, plain-spoken words. But you were lied to all the same, for embedded in the attitudes and dispositions of almost every living human is an untruth responsible for more evil and destruction than the most blood-thirsty dictator ever dreamt of.

That lie is this: “Other people know better than I do.”

You may keep reading, but if this is all the time you have, allow me to clear this up before you leave:

“No, they do not.”

You were born knowing what’s best

In one sense, relying on yourself is a skill like any other skill – when you practice it, you get better; it feels easier. When you don’t, you get worse; it feels harder. But there’s another gaping difference between this skill and others like, say, playing the piano.

If you take a young man who has never played the piano once, dress him up in a nice tuxedo, plant him in front of a grand piano on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, and say “Go on, PLAY”… it’s unlikely that what comes out will be music to anyone’s ears.

That’s because he was born the capacity to play the piano – factoring in time, natural talent, and/or instruction – but not the ability to play the piano.

The next dy, suppose you take that some young man – who, incidentally, has never made love to a woman before – strip him of his clothes, and lay him in a bed next to the perky love of his life… I’d put good money on him figuring out what to do next.

Why is this different? Because there are certain things – like the physical act of love – that we are born knowing how to do. Self-reliance is one of these.

It’s not difficult, just unfamiliar. You don’t need more information, just more practice. You must realise that you were born containing all the wisdom you would ever need. And the only thing holding you back from accessing this wisdom is that instead of ever calloing upon it, you have a naughty habit of deferring to others. You presume that they know better than you what is better for you.

Think of it like a muscle. When you neglect a muscle, it shrinks. When you exercise it, it grows. But even when it shrinks, it is still there, though it may be temporarily weak. At any moment you could pick up a dumbell and strengthen it again.

There is no special formula to using this superpower. You need only to use it.

If you don’t claim it, someone else will

I have told you how brave it is to trust in yourself. And I have told you that you do not need to learn how to, but to remember how to. And I was going to leave it there, but then I thought of a final important piece to the puzzle.

I didn’t tell you why it matters – why you should care.

The human mind always seeks something to worship – a deity, a person, an idea… And your trust is always seeking to take up residence somewhere. If you do not actively house it in yourself, you will find that it has housed itself somewhere else. And every location that is not You is the wrong location.

You have heard it said a million times that nature abhors a vacuum, and nowhere else is this truer. Perhaps in the absence of self-trust and self-reliance, you will look to friends and family, or to your critics, or even to some kind of faceless mob. Wherever it goes, for good or ill, rest assured your trust will not stay on the market for long. Unless you claim it for yourself, it will go to a buyer who at best puts their own interests above yours, and at worst doesn’t give a solitary shit about you.

The good news though is that right now, at this very second, you can take back ownership of your Self. You can decide that there is no higher authority on all matters ‘You’ than… You. And in doing so, you will not only become a valuable asset to this world – as all who are truly unique can boast of being – you will find that life is really quite a trip when you allow it be.

Use Your Death

It’s all well good me writing to you impressing upon you the importance of doing ‘the right thing’, but how are you supposed to know what that right thing is?

It’s tempting to try to use your mind. To analyse it, to weigh this against that, to be rational and logical and objective. Don’t bother. It’s not necessary.

Use your death instead.

Remind yourself intead that one day – maybe even today – you are going to die. Don’t get sad about it. Just accept it. Drink it in. Swim in it. Because it’s true.

Why am I telling you to do this?

Because when you keep your death close at hand, your true priorities magically make themselves known. You stop giving a shit about trivia. You no longer have a need to taking things personally. It becomes impossible to bear grudges.

Only when you remember your death, will you know how to live.

There Is Safety in Boldness

Bobby wants to get started, but he’s waiting for things to settle down a bit first. When they do, he’ll proceed. Seems reasonable.

Billie promises she is about get started, but she’s no fool – it’s only sensible to wait until she’s got a few more quid saved up… just in case. Once that happens, she’ll be ready to roll.

Barry really thought he’d be started by now, but he’s decided that first he wants a guarantee. He wants some kind of signal that he’s made the right decision, and that everything will work out just fine for him. Then he’ll get going.

Bobby, Billie, and Barry think they’re being wise. I think they’re chicken-shit.

Life does not have a ‘pause’ button

When there is something you want to do, but present circumstances are not perfect, you have two choices: You can take some kind of action anyway, or you can do nothing whilst you wait for the circumstances to become perfect.

And intuitively, waiting feels like the safer option. The neutral choice. As though nothing is at stake. Like you’ve hit ‘pause’ on life, and though by waiting you might be not gaining anything, at least you’re not losing anything, so it evens out, really.

Taking action, on the other hand, feels decidedly risky in comparison. As though everything is at stake. Like now you’ve hit ‘play’ on life, and whilst, yes, you could stand to gain something from taking action, it’s also possible that you could lose something.

The truth is in fact the complete opposite of this.

Because life does not have a pause button. The stakes are the same in all moments. Waiting is not the neutral choice. There is no neutral choice. Either you are acting, or you are refusing to act.

And if you you are clothing your refusal to act with ‘waiting for the right moment’ then the truth is that you are not wise, but in fact a coward.

Waiting is much riskier

It is in fact riskier to wait for circumstances to change than it is to act under the present circumstances, whatever they might be. Riskier, and far more damaging too. And that’s chiefly because of the message you are sending yourself when you wait.

You are in effect telling yourself that you are only capable of moving forward under an extremely narrow set of perfect circumstances. Anything less than perfect, and you can’t do it. You are selling yourself incredibly short.

This is disempowering enough to begin with, but let’s suppose for a minute that whatever you’re waiting for actually does come to be – if it’s money you need, let’s say you find it somewhere. And now you can get started. What a happy ending.

It’s just that… what if it doesn’t? What if circumstances are never ‘just right’ for you? Think of all that time you’ll have wasted. What a sad, pathetic life you will lead, compared to the one you could have led if you weren’t so fearful.

The other thing is that even if – and it’s unlikely – circumstances become perfect, old habits die hard. What makes you think you won’t change the rules of the game and invent some new perfect circumstances that have to met before you’ll do something?

Wherever you go, there you are.

To take action – no matter how imperfect the circumstances – is to take a small, calculated risk.

To wait for circumstances to be perfect is to take the biggest risk of them all – your life.

“I certainly believe this: that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down. It is clear that she more often allows herself to be won over by impetuous men than by those who proceed coldly.”

Nicolo Machiavelli – The Prince

You Always Have the Power

Institutions erode. Demagogic strongmen stoke primal fears. Tribalism rises exponentially. Mistrust abounds.

This is what happens every now and then. When things change more rapidly and more violently than we are accustomed to, there is a void into which can step good or evil.

When I say “This is what happens every now and then…” I don’t mean to excuse evil behaviour. I don’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it. But I do mean that if we are in any way surprised that this is happening, then we are stupid, and we need to read a history book or two…

Because human nature does not change.

Give people the ability to amass power, and some of them will. And give them the opportunity to take advantage of those with less leverage and mobility, and some of them will. And once they’re in the middle of it, they will do everything to convince themselves – and the rest of the world – that what they’re doing is somehow right and moral.

And they will try to manipulate public opinion. And they will try to silence those who seek a more level playing field. And they will appear to be succeeding…

… and then because they are mortal human beings, they will die. And their corpses will rot, and with the passing of enough years nobody will even remember them, let alone the evil they did.

All this is to say that whether you’re living through good times or bad, through justice or injustice… none of that affects your ability to do what you believe is right. To decide that you won’t be evil. That you won’t degrade the culture for personal gain. That you won’t willingly partake in the suffering of others.

You always have the power to do right. Exercise it.

Curiosity Doesn’t Kill Cats

There was the Asian girl with the perfect eyebrows who looked incredibly glum as she glanced every few seconds at her boyfriend. He was involved in a particularly animated phone-call and every time he chopped the air with his arms to emphasise a point she rolled her eyes.

There was the balding man in the loose, scruffy suit and trainers. He grinned maniacally at nobody in particular in a far corner of Cafe Nero. He had his fists on the table, and he hadn’t bought a drink.

There was the very tall bearded man walking solemnly past the Apple store, carrying a sleeping twin under each arm. His wife pushed the empty pram with her left hand, and with the false-nails of her right, tapped loudly at her phone screen.

I wondered about them all. Who they were. What they were about. How they got here. And why.

I didn’t get any answers, of course. But I wasn’t looking for answers. I was looking for respite.

Curiosity doesn’t kill cats, but it’s the best weapon I have found in my lifelong duel against a relentlessly unhelpful inner monologue.

Does It Keep You From Doing the Right Thing?

It was just after ten when I woke up. I was on a sofa-bed in Rome. And I looked at my phone and discovered that the British public had voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union.

Fuck.

I got up and made a coffee, and whilst it brewed I browsed the news websites. Each one spoke of what a massive, life-changing thing had happened, and speculated on what was likely to happen next. Of course, they had no idea, but they weren’t about to let that stop them. And over a thousand days later, they are still none the wiser.

I scrolled down my Facebook feed, and what I saw depressed me. Everybody was so bummed out. It surprised me how bummed out they were – I had been living in Rome for a while at this point, and so I hadn’t discussed Brexit with most of my friends.

I discovered that – like myself – most of the people I knew had voted to remain. Some because they loved the idea of EU membership. Some because they saw no compelling reason to leave. And many, because they were suspicious of committing to any course of action whose most vociferous champions were a trio of cunts like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage.

I went out onto the balcony with my coffee and sat in the hot sun listening to the streets of Rome below. If I just focused on the sound, I didn’t think about Brexit. But then I couldn’t help it. Through no fault of my own, I kept returning to it again and again.

Mainly I was thinking of Emma – my new Danish fiancee. We had only just begun. How was this thing going to affect us? Oh, God, life sure felt a lot simpler yesterday…

I was at my limit – which isn’t saying much – and so, sitting in the hot sun, beseiged by my worries, coffee long finished, I reached for the only thing I knew could comfort me – Marcus Aurelius. And as I always do, I found something to settle me:

“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?”

Marcus Aurelius – Meditations, Book 4

“No.”

Next week’s election

As we hurtle towards the climax of what has been undoubtably the nastiest British election campaign in my lifetime, I know without a shadow of a doubt which horse I’m betting on to win, just as I did in the EU referendum. And I’m sure you know yours too.

But my plea for you is this: whether your horse wins, or a different horse wins, don’t let it ruin you.

I have no desire to be apolitical in my writing – I think that to describe our current government as scum would be incredibly generous. They lie, they cheat, they have nothing but contempt for the citizens of this country… and they get away with it because they have the billionaires who run the media in their pocket.

I want them out. I want them gone. Not because they’re Tories, but because they’re both ineffective and immoral – crap and evil. And that’s not exactly a killer combo for leading a country.

HOWEVER, if they do win – no matter how ill-gotten I might believe their victory to have been – that is the reality I must then come to face. I can argue with the sky until I’m blue in the face, but if they win, there is only thing I can ask myself:

“Does the fact that this happened stop me from doing what I believe to be the right thing?”

And so far, the answer to that question has never been “yes.”

Taking the Bull by the Horns

You go through your day thinking of yourself as the author of your own story, forger of your own destiny. And yet when you look in the mirror, late at night, who stares back?

Are they an active, wilful hero, one who knows deep inside the very thing they must do, and decides, come what may, to do it?

Or are they instead somebody who spends most of their time on the sidelines of life, waiting to be picked, waiting for cirumstances to be just so, and in the meantime fills their days playing bit-parts in other people’s stories?

If your honest-to-God answer was the second one, you’re not alone.

You’re a human being.

The minimum, conservative action

No organism ever expends more energy than necessary, risks anything it doesn’t have to, or takes any action unless it must.

Robert McKee – “Story”

Does this quote not sum up perfectly why we can be so sure of what we want, know exactly how to go about getting it, yet so rarely do anything about it?

Don’t feel bad – it’s literally not your fault. The modus operandi of the human being is very simple: take the minimum, conservative action.

In light of this, almost everything we do can be traced back to just two motivations: habit and necessity.

Habit or necessity?

Depending on which behavioural scientist you ask, between 40 and 95 percent of our actions are done habitually. I think the ’40’ people are being very generous – habit is clearly responsible for the lion’s share of our day.

And whilst we tend to only think of a habit in terms of time – a habit being something we do frequently and repeatedly – there is a more important aspect: will power.

Because a habit isn’t just brushing your teeth twice a day or going to the gym three times a week – it is every single thing you do without having to consciously decide to. It is your default response in every situation.

Habits are brilliant – they are the reason you don’t have to make a fresh decision every few seconds of your day. Every now and then, though, something happens which disrupts our equilibrium and breaks us out of our habitual behaviours. We are forced us to act. Let’s call this necessity.

Now, whilst it might look like we are doing more than the minimum, conservative action when necessity compels us to, we are not. We are still doing the bare minimum. It’s just that the thing that broke us out of our patterns raised the minimum. More is at stake if we do nothing.

So we do what we must – and no more than that – and once we feel that our equilibrium has been restored, once our life is back in balance, we happily default once again to our habits.

Seize the initiative

Living this way – doing either what we always do, or what necessity dictates – our lives become incredibly passive. We are either on autopilot, or we are reacting. There is no active element – we are not creating anything. And we are certainly not bringing forth into the world the changes we seek to make.

The solution then, if you wish to bring that change even an inch closer, is to seize the initiative. To take the bull by the horns. To take action long before necessity dictates you must.

If your autopilot is not serving you, switch it off and take the wheel.

If reacting to other people’s drama is not fulfilling you, then deliberately take your own actions.

When you start to live this way, something changes: rather than being tossed this way and that by the tides of fate and feeling as though everything happens to you, you become a willing and active participant in the game of life.

You start to get a sense of just how powerful you are.

ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin…

You might water the plant.

You might feed the plant.

You might put the plant on the window-sill, so that it can get as much as light as possible.

But you cannot grow the plant.

The laws of nature dictate that the plant will quite happily grow all by itself, so long as the conditions are favourable.

Your job is simply to do the bare minimum that will allow those favourable conditions, and to let nature do the rest.

This doesn’t just apply to plants.

PS: The title of this piece is an old Greek saying.

It means: “What is up to us, what is not up to us.”

It Is What It Is

Imagine a football team.

It wins almost every match. It lives at the top of the table.

Its fans proclaim it to be the best team in the world, and although you might wish that weren’t true, your arguments fall flat – they have the numbers to prove it.

Now imagine that this streak lasts for a while – several centuries – before things very slowly begin to decline. It starts with the team drawing a little more often than it did. Then it loses a game – which is practically unheard of – before losing another. And then another. Before long, you are looking a pretty average football team.

Except that this doesn’t seem to have registered with the fans. Or the players. Or the manager. Or the board of directors. As far as they’re concerned, the team is still number one in the league. It’s still winning every game. And it’s going to last forever. And anybody with the audacity to question this is branded a liar, a traitor, and a heretic.

As everybody involved with the team continues to see things through rose-tinted spectacles, its fortunes continue their descent. The team slips further and further down the table, gets relegated again and again, until one day, there is no further left to fall, and nowhere left to hide.

You’ve just imagined Britain in 2019.

Reality is my drug

“Reality is my drug…

… Reality has its own power—you can turn your back on it, but it will find you in the end, and your inability to cope with it will be your ruin.”

50 Cent – “The 50th Law”

What causes misery? Fearing reality – what ‘is’ – and turning away from it.

What causes peace? Seeking, loving, embracing reality.

Whatever you confront today, you need only one sentence with which to confront it: “It is what it is.”

Reality cannot hurt you – only that which is false.

If what you confront is not what you expected, alter your expectations.

If what you confront is not what you desired, alter your desires.

There is absolutely nothing to be gained from blinding yourself to what it is, and everything in the known universe to gain from willingly opening up your eyes and accepting what you see.

It is what it is. It is what it is. It is what it is.

You Are Limitless

A pilot has three choices

This probably won’t surprise you, but I don’t really know how aeroplanes work. Still, was I going to let that stop me from using them to make a point? Of course not. So here goes.

When it comes to deciding how high to fly a plane, there are really only three choices a pilot has: she can make it go higher than it currently is, she can make it go lower than it currently is, or she can keep it the same as it currently is.

You think that you work the same way. I’m afraid not.

Your default is to get worse

There is a happy ending coming, but first we have to go darker.

The unfortaunte truth is that unlike the plane, you only have two options: you can up or you can go down. And if you’re not actively going up, you are going down. Your default is to get worse over time.

You are more like a muscle than a plane.

If you give your leg muscles hell at the gym, they will grow – it’s their job to respond to whatever stress they’re given. Give them more to do than they comfortably can, and they adapt by becoming stronger, ready for the next challenge.

But what happens the moment you stop giving them something to do? Do they stay big and strong? No. They start immediately to shrink. It’s not their fault – you stopped stressing them, and so they simply did their job and adapted.

Your brain works in a very similar way. When you give yourself slightly more to do than your comfort zone permits, you adapt. You become better, smarter, stronger as a result. But the moment you stop challenging your your brain, it stops adapting. You get weaker.

This is the why complacency is so dangerous – we feel as though sure, we could actively try to improve ourselves, but we don’t need to, and if we just stay relaxed about it all, we might not get any better but at least we won’t get any worse

No. There are only two options. Actively improve, or automatically deteriorate.

You are limitless

Now for the good news.

Just as there was a difference between you and the plane, there is a key difference between you and your leg muscles.

If you gave your leg muscles hell at the gym long enough, you would eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. You would have to keep giving them more hell to make them grow any further, and at some point more growth would become physically impossible. This is because your muscles have a genetic limit – a ceiling, if you will – determining how much they can grow. It would take you years to hit this limit, but hit it you would.

You, on the other hand, have no such limit to how much you can grow as a human being. Any and every second of effort you expend doing something slightly above your current level of ability makes you grow. And this never stops.

In fact, you could start right now in this moment doing something simple to try to improve yourself, and even if you lived to a-hundred-and-ten, you would still be growing. You can never reach a point where there is nowhere left to grow. It’s literally impossible.

Isn’t that something?

So how do we improve? What do you have to do?

To be honest, the what is arbitrary. It really doesn’t matter what you do, so long as it takes you in the direction of growth. So long as what you do challenges you – even in the most minute way – you will grow. And you will then be ready for the next thing. And the next thing. And the next thing.

Why Not You?

I went to a climate protest in Sheffield today.

I watched mere teenagers stand on the steps of the City Hall and give rousing speeches to a huge crowd. They were passionate, and they were articulate. They were heroes.

And they gave me chills. I’ll tell you why.

It wasn’t because the speeches were impressive – though they were – and it wasn’t because they stood up for something they believe in.

No, it was because they didn’t wait until somebody gave them permission. They were ready and willing to lead – willing to go first in the hope of co-creating a brighter future. An alternative.

An alternative to what, you might ask…?

The architects of doom

Well, contrast their vision and courage, if you please, with the complacent resignation of the people who – on paper at least – rule this country.

Nine years on, and the nasty, cynical Tory government we get to call our own have no compelling vision for the future.

The party who believe they were born to rule – yet can somehow neither attain nor keep their power without resorting to dirty tactics, bare-faced lies, or to having most of the British press in their pocket – have spent the past nine years subtly lowering the expectations of its citizens.

Have you noticed how we’re no longer surprised by the contempt with which our government holds us in? That this feels like… business as usual?

In one sense, you have to hand it to them – they might be unfit to rule a country, but they sure are black-belts at selling the mess they’ve made as inevitable, as reasonable, as the status quo.

Well, the young people I saw today aren’t falling for that shit. Not only do they have a vision, they are following it with conviction, courage, and integrity.

Don’t be discouraged

The message, I suppose, is don’t be discouraged. Because they love that.

They love when you feel like there’s no point doing anything because it’d just be a drop in the ocean.

They love when you get intimidated by their billionaire friends, and their blue suits, and their positively evil track records…

You know what? Fuck ’em.

You can make a difference. Not alone. But nobody said you had to do it all yourself. Nobody said you couldn’t co-ordinate. Nobody said you couldn’t organise.

What would you change about the world, if it were possible?

Whatever it is, I guarantee you there are other people – possibly millions of them – who share your vision. Now, if you all keep quiet about it, nothing will happen. Somebody has to make the first move.

Why not you?

Larry David and the Fake Fruit of Silicon Valley

“I grew up in Brooklyn. Of all the wonders and pleasures that can be found in nature, none of them can be found in Brooklyn…

“There were no flowers, just artificial ones. Every apartment had artificial flowers. People took great pride in their artificial flowers. And fruit – let’s not leave out the fruit. Anything fake – we love good fake things. The greatest compliment you could give somebody was to mistakenly pick up a piece of their artificial fruit, and take a bit out of it.”

Larry David – “Earth to America”

The virtual world

How long have you spent looking at your phone already today?

That’s not an accident, you know? That’s not just one of those things that naturally evolved, the way giraffes grew longer necks. It was deliberate. It was imposed upon you. And it was orchestrated by a very small group of people, none of whom give a flying fuck about you.

During the last couple of decades – and especially the last one – the internet changed dramatically. In short, it went from being an ‘information highway’ – and a cultural asset helping humanity soar ever higher – to a capitalist’s wet dream.

Basically, a small handful of US corporations started to figure out something with huge ramifications. They realised that this internet had incredible potential when it came to gaining control over the masses. And that nobody had quite managed it yet.

Deliberately designing devices and applications to prey on and trigger our basest instincts, they got us all hooked on a virtual world. More than that, they got us to believe in our very core that this virtual world was just as real – perhaps even more so – than the world perceived by our senses.

This is not a conspiracy theory – it’s fact. What happened is not up for debate.

What is up for debate, however, is where we go from here. How we get back to the real world.

Evil is a choice

I don’t think we let the rich and powerful off lightly enough. Not considering what they’ve done – wilfully and persistenty destroy the culture to line their pockets until they die in a few decades time…

I’ve noticed, listening to a mixture of other people and my own thoughts, that when we hear about a Zuckerberg, a Bezos, a Trump – somebody in a position of vast power and resources – doing things that benefit themselves at the expense of humanity…

The most common response is akin to: “Well, yeah, but how can you expect anything else from them?”

Sorry, what… how can we… not expect them to act in the interests of humanity? Nope. Doesn’t wash with me. When we talk like that, we’re enabling their bullshit. We’re actually treating them as victims. And they are anything but.

We don’t let a rapist off the hook by saying “Well, what did you expect? He likes raping!” So how is this any different? Why do we let the people who wish to destroy the best parts of humanity for their own selfish purposes get away with it? Because they’re rich? Because they’re CEO of a company? Because they have a lot of lawyers?

When Zuckerberg takes daily action against the interests of the human race, he has a choice not to at every step. Let’s not pretend he doesn’t. Because that just lets him off the hook.

It’s not evil to be a billionaire. But it is evil to do evil. And evil is always a choice.

Be the change

I can’t just leave it there, with me slagging off the rich and powerful. For one, I don’t believe that most of the rich and powerful are doing evil – it is a small minority.

But also because other than refusing to use their products and services, or vote for them, it can feel as though there is little we can do in the face of such evil. But there is. There is so much.

Start by being the change you want to see in the world.

Because really, how dare you rally against what you see as the immorality of the people on top if you yourself don’t live with integrity? If – when faced with the choice of whether to good or evil – you don’t choose good, what right do you have to challenge anybody else?

Just as at any point along the way, Zuckerberg et al could have said “Let’s do something awesome for humanity instead of just pretending to…” you get to decide how you’re going to live. Which direction your compass is going to face.

Don’t pretend you’re backed into a corner, or forced to do things you disagree with. The road will be uncomfortable, and likely full of conflict – you will scare people and they will try to pull you back into the bucket like the good crabs they are.

But you will have your feet planted firmly in the real world. And that, my friend, is priceless.

You don’t have to accept the fake fruit Silicon Valley wants to feed you. You always have a choice. Start exercising it.

PS: Larry David – Earth to America

Premeditatio Malorum (The Pre-Meditation of Evils)

At war with yourself

When you find yourself stuck and unable to move forward – but desperately wanting to – realise that this is war.

It is a war between your higher, rational self, and your lower, irrational self. Between the rider and the horse.

In war, the victor is not normally she who acts rashly, or who denies reality. She is usually the one who takes a step back, takes a deep breath, and accepts the situation as holistically as she can.

That is to say – tempting as it is – it’s probably not going to help you to simply deny that you’re afraid and try to barrel through with action.

I have a better solution, and one that has stood the test of time.

Premeditatio Malorum

There is only one reason why you are stopping yourself from moving forward, and that is because you’re afraid of what might happen if you do.

Not what will happen – what might happen. And every second that you stall, you give into your fear of what might happen.

You need to look what you’re afraid of squarely in the face. And doing it all in your head is not always that helpful – our minds have a tendency to circle and ruminate rather than “think.”

So get out a piece of paper, and on it, write down in bullet points every single thing that could happen, if you did what you intend to do.

Don’t judge the list – it doesn’t matter how likely something is or isn’t. All that matters is spilling out onto the page – getting it out of the subjective medium of your mind and onto the objective medium of words on a page.

When you start running out of ideas, stop. Look at your list.

Go through it, bullet-point by bullet-point, asking yourself “If this did happen, what would I do?”

I don’t do this exercise often enough. But every time I do, I realise that swimming around my head were dozens – sometimes hundreds – of nagging little fears, and for every single one, the only answer I can honestly give is “I’d handle it.”

Because it’s true. I would. And so would you. You can handle anything. Hopefully you won’t have to handle the worst things you can imagine. But if you had to, you would.

Best of luck.

CAVEAT: Don’t just skip the exercise and say “I’d handle anything, me, I’m tough as nails…” You need to identify the things you’re afraid of happening first, and then realise one-by-one that you’d handle even the worst of them. Only that which is brought into the consciousness can be dealt with, not that which is allowed to remain unconscious.

For F***’s Sake, Read a Book

“What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9

When your car breaks down on the way home from losing your job, a couple of days after you forked out money you didn’t really have for a service…

When the person you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with suddenly tells you they fucked your best friend…

And when you see corrupt politicians rewarded for telling lies, for cheating, for decimating lives and communities…

It’s tempting to see these as entirely unique problems. Things that have never happened before and never happened to anybody else.

Except that they have. Hundreds, thousands, millions of times. To people of every colour, on every continent, and in every era of human history.

And this is why I read. To help me realise that whatever I’m going through, I’m not alone – people before me have not only solved the exact problems I’m facing, but they had the generosity of spirit to write it all down!

There is nothing new under the sun, and this includes problems. So read for fun. Read to relax. But most of all, read to connect yourself to the human race.

PS: If this post has inspired you to read something, I recommend you start with something which has stood the test of time.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius has been championed by the wisest amongst us for hundreds of years now. Here is an Amazon link to the best translation of it.

Disclaimer: Just so you know, I don’t receive any money if you happen to buy the book through that link – I have no idea how you set that up and I don’t really care.

I just want you to read the book!

It Was Bigger Than a Head…

It’s dinner-time.

You’re shoving a delicious piece of chicken into your mouth when your younger brother starts talking about the enormous dog shit him and his friends saw on the way home.

“It was bigger than a head…” he reports.

Before he can go any further, your mum snaps at him: “Jake! Not while we’re eating.” She shakes her head. Where did I go wrong with that kid?

Jake shuts up.


Now, I’ll be honest – I’m on your mum’s side.

I don’t want to hear about a dog shit bigger than a head whilst I’m trying to enjoy the dinner she slaved over. Call me old-fashioned.

But there is something else we do this about. All the time. Where we try to stamp out all mention of it and deny its existence in the hope that we can make it go away…

Death.


We don’t like talking about death. We don’t like thinking about death. We treat death like the proverbial dog shit bigger than a head at the dinnertable.

And paradoxically, all we are doing is we robbing ourselves of life.

One day – and there’s no knowing when – will be your last. It could be today. I hope it’s not. I hope you have many, many more days. But one thing I do know – you don’t have an infinite amount left.

So use them. Use them on stuff that matters.

Just like night gives meaning to day, and darkness gives meaning to light, let your death give meaning to your life. Let it focus you like a laser. Let it cut away the noise, the waste, the inertia…

When you were born, Mother Nature gave you a time-limit. And it was the most generous thing she ever did. She could have given you forever, but she knew better than that. Make her proud.


Be Willing to Be Hated

If someone out there hates what you are doing…

If someone out there wishes you’d stop doing it…

If someone out there wishes you were dead…

Don’t stop. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.


The evil people-pleaser

If I’m about anything, it’s trying to live with intention. I want to live a good life, and I want to share what I find along the way in the hope that it might help you live a good life too.

Well, one of the greatest obstacles I have found to living a good life is trying to please everybody all of the time.

For one, it’s impossible. You can’t, you won’t, so don’t try. But you already knew that, didn’t you? I’m preaching to the choir. What you might not have thought about, however, is this angle:

People-pleasers are actually evil. And they do not get the stick they deserve.

They often get a lot of sympathy instead. Unlike the way we treat other addicts, we justify the bad things people-pleasers do by saying they were operating with ‘good intentions.’

So what? The junkie was just trying to make himself feel better. Why don’t we give him a medal…?

The dirty truth people-pleasers don’t want you to know is the real motive behind their trying to please everyone.

They are not saints who wish to please everyone because they’re made of more saintly stuff than the rest. They are simply cowards who try to please everyone so that they don’t have to face their fear of being disliked.

And the icing on the cake is that they don’t even really end up pleasing anyone.

I should know. I’m one of them.

I’m a recovering people-pleaser

Just like how a racist will claim they can’t be a racist because they have a black friend, I feel I am allowed to be pretty nasty about people-pleasers because I am one.

And I can confirm what I said a second ago to be true – I am not a saint who wants to please everyone. I’m just terrified of displeasing them. But why?

Because – and this is my lizard brain talking – if I don’t try to please them, they might reject me. And – again, lizard brain – if they reject me, that would be awful… for some reason. So I’d better live carefully. I’d better avoid doing anything that might upset or offend. Anyone. Just in case.

Fortunately for us all, there is more to Oliver Manning than just his lizard brain. I have two more newer brains on top. And using the third one – the uniquely human neo-cortex – I can attempt to see this in a more rational light.

You know the whole fight-or-flight thing, right? Well, that’s what it boils down to, more or less, neuro-chemically.

When confronted with the thought that someone might dislike me, my survival feels threatened. This causes a surge of adrenaline. I then misread the adrenaline – the emotions it creates cause me to conclude that I must have done something wrong, or else why would this person be anything less than enamoured by everything about me?

Compulsive people-pleasing is nothing more than the fear of being rejected. Repeat this pattern enough times, and you’ll find yourself avoiding taking any actions that could possibly upset or offend anyone – real or imagined.

You’ll find yourself miserable.

There is a better way

At various times throughout my life I’ve noticed this sickness and tried to deal with it using the apathetic posture of the teenager: “I’m just going to be me and if everyone doesn’t like it, forget them!” Reject everyone before they get a chance to reject me.

But it’s a dead-end, believe me.

We live in a world where, whilst we might not need every single person on our side to survive – let alone thrive – we do need the co-operation of at least some people. And so rejecting everyone is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So what’s the alternative?

Well, we can’t please everyone. And when we try, we end up pleasing nobody. And we can’t reject everyone – we need some people.

But we can please some people.

So who?

The smallest number possible.

The smallest number possible

When I was single, I cared a horrible amount about what women I didn’t know and would never know and wasn’t even particularly attracted to thought about me. Worse, I didn’t want to make any rash decisions that might put any of them off – if I had a haircut that was too slick, I’d put off the girls who preferred guys with messier hair, for example.

This was not a fun way to live. Nor was it a particular fruitful approach to meeting women. Bad all round.

But then I fell head over heels for Emma, and as we got to know each other more and more, I noticed that I’d stopped giving a shit at all about what any other woman in the world thought of me. I’d gone from trying to avoid – in anticipation – the rejection of millions of women I’d likely never meet, to trying to make one real woman happy.

It felt a lot better.

The point of this is not that you should find a Danish girl to marry. It’s that there’s a magic that happens when you narrow your focus, when you focus on as few people as possible.

When you try to please everybody – when you avoid rejection from anybody – you really have your work cut out for you. You’ve got to try and stay on ‘the right side’ of 7 billion people. What do you think your chances are?

Willing to be hated

The final piece to this is that whilst choosing the smallest possible number of people to focus your energies on is a great step, it’s just one half of the equation. It’s like putting your foot on the accellerator pedal whilst the handbrake is still on.

If you want the car to move, you need to release the handbrake. To do that, answer me this:

Who are you willing to be hated by?

There is no dark without light. No day without night. And no love without hate.

If you want to do anything good, anything real, anything that means anything, you are going to be opposed, perhaps violentally. The better, more real, and more meaningful that thing is, the more hate you will get. And you will drastically slow yourself down if you are always trying to avoid that hate.

Invite it instead. If you’re living right, that should upset some people. It should offend some people. Some people should be pissed off by your very existence. This is not something to be feared.

Earlier I mentioned that my big people-pleasing mistake was that I misread the signal – if someone seemed to disapprove of me, I would take it as a sign that I’d done something wrong. The confusion was that I had never defined who I was for, and who I was – by definition – against.

If I had done that, I would have known when somebody opposed me whether they were opposing me from my side or not. I could have thought “Ah, you hate what I just said. But I didn’t say it for your benefit, so that’s fine.”

Once you have defined who you are for, then you can happily ignore the judgment of every other human being in the world. Because it means nothing.

Who are you for?

Dance With Uncertainty

Of one thing I’m certain: until the day I die, I don’t ever want to be sure what’s going to happen next.

I’m a shitty writer

I spend at least a couple of hours every day writing.

And it may not surprise you to learn that I never know what I’m about to write about until I’m actually writing. Sometimes I think I know. And sometimes I’m dead certain. But once my fingers start moving, I am always proved wrong. Every single time.

For a long time, this actually bothered me. Really bothered me

Not because I didn’t like the results of my dive-in-and-figure-it-out-as-you-go approach, but more because I felt like I should be able to do it the other way. To think of a topic, to brainstorm on it, to structure a piece of writing, and then to execute. That’s what they told to do at school.

They told me this kind of left-brained approach was what smart people did. They sold it as more streamlined, effective, organised, efficient… but even back then I remember thinking it was a crock of shit. I got the distinct impression that all that anal preparation everybody treated as sacred was not actually out any desire to do great work, but instead out of a fear of writing. A fear of coming out with anything real, anything they hadn’t approved of in advance. A fear of… art.

Still, slag it of as I might… I tried it. Many, many, many times. And every time I failed at it – producing either incredibly shitty, forced writing, or giving up and just watching telly – I felt worse about myself as both a writer and a human being.

Until at some point I realised that those couple of hours I spent diving and writing every day – with zero clue what was about to come out – were the best parts of my day. And there had to be a reason for it.

There was. I was dancing with uncertainty.

In the face of uncertainty

These days, not only do I not try to plan what I’m going to write about, I don’t even listen to the voice in my head when it makes suggestions. I make myself wait until my laptop is in front of me, and I type. And I watch. And I shape. And that’s that.

But there’s a bigger reason behind this approach:

When I sit down not having the foggiest idea what I’m about to write – but mashing my fingers on the keyboard in the face of that uncertainty – I know I’m about to discover something. I know I’m about to be surprised. I know that in a couple of hours I’ll be a slightly different person because of what came out of me.

And isn’t surprise – which is only possible through uncertainty – what makes life interesting? When something happens just the way you expected it would, it’s nice, sure, but it’s kind of boring, no?

I don’t want to know what I’m about to do next. And not just on the page, but in life.

Life = story

I’m as guilty as anyone of this social crime.

I’ll be talking to my mum or my friend or whoever, and I’ll start telling a “story.” Halfway through telling I’ll realise a lot of the details I’ve given were not really relevant, and now that I think of it, it’s not really a story… more just some things that happened that interested me because they were about me. And sometimes I’ll finish it and sometimes I won’t.

But what is it that makes something a story, rather than just a thing that happened, a series of events?

It’s actually quite simple. One word: tension.

Or more specifically, the tension between what you thought was going to happen and what then actually did happen.

So, imagine that you’re somebody who wears glasses. You wake up in the morning in plenty of time for work, reach for your glasses, put them on, go to the toilet, flush it, go downstairs, drink a glass of water…

This is not a story. Why? No expectations have been violated yet.

On the other hand, imagine that you wake up an hour later than you meant to, reach for your glasses, accidentally knock them off the bed-side table, and then tread on them as you look for them. Now what are you going to do? You’re already going to be late for work as it is, but you can’t do a day’s work without your glasses. Then you remember that last summer you bought some prescription sunglasses and even though it’s the middle of winter you decide that’s the best choice you have. You scour the house for them, the clock ticking. Finally, you find them in the most random place imaginable, and you set off. You make it to work in the nick of the time. Your boss calls you into her office. She sounds angry. You think she’s going to ask you why the hell you’re wearing sunglasses. You get ready to apologise and explain yourself, but instead she pulls out a pair from her drawer and says that from now on Fridays will be shades-day. She applauds you for having the cajones to express yourself so freely. She asks you if you’re doing anything for dinner tonight. You say “no” and that you’d love to see her – you’ve liked her for a long time. You smile as you leave her office, until you remember that you promised on your life that tonight you’d help your nephew with his school project that has to be handed in tomorrow…WILL YOU CHOOSE?

Well, now you’ve got yourself a story. Because rather than everything going the way the you expected it to, your expectations kept being violated, causing you to keep adapting to the new situation. You kept being forced to grow.

Whilst the first version – where everything went as planned – might have ended up as an easier, more carefree morning, you’ve got to admit that the second version where nothing went as expected was a lot more interesting. It was a better story.

And real life is no different.

In real life, if everything happened just the way we expected it, just the way it was ‘supposed to’, 100% of the time, we’d all be incredibly bored. We wouldn’t learn. We wouldn’t grow. It’d be horrible.

We need uncertainty.

Dance with uncertainty

Why then do we crave certainty? Because we have our signals crossed.

We seek certainty in all we do. We put certainty on a pedestal. We direct all our energies into making the world conform to our expectations. We want to completely rule out unpleasant surprises.

But it never works. It just makes us miserable.

The truth is that – to use one half of a well-worn cliche – the only certainty in life is death. Everything else is up for debate. Everything else. There is nothing else certain. But guess what? That’s fine!

If everything is uncertain – and it is – then doesn’t it make for more sense to learn to dance with uncertainty than to hope and wish for a certainty that will never come?

Because when you resist uncertainty, the result is not more certainty. It’s more pain. But when you choose to allow uncertainty – to dance with it – you paradoxically feel more certain than ever. Not perhaps of specific things going a specific way, but a more holistic certainty that whatever happens – good or bad – you’ll be absolutely fine.

Don’t obsess over certatiny. Dance with uncertainty.

You Are Enough

You are enough.

Right now, at this very second, you are enough. I’ll go one further – you are actually far more enough than you’ll ever need to be.

Enough what, though? And enough for what?

Capable enough of handling whatever life happens to give you.

The worst week of my life

Since you asked, it was the circumcision that hurt the most.

But that was just one of the three painful things that happened to me one week in September 2009, a fortnight into my first semester of university.

So first, as I said, a surgeon cut off my foreskin. It had been in the calendar for a couple of months, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant, or the physical recovery any more pain-free.

Then a few days later, as I lay in bed dopey from the codeine and feeling altogether sorry for myself, my Grandma died. I couldn’t travel with my family down to Ipswich – I’d have only been able to mope about in pain there rather than in Sheffield – so they left me on my own. But what choice did they have?

And whilst all this was going on, my girlfriend told me – bravely, I should add – that she wasn’t feeling good about our relationship since I had moved away, and that it might be best for us to not be together. Perhaps any other week, I’d have handled that conversation with a calm, cool detachment. Instead it just about destroyed me.

Not a great week.

I went to counseling

Life went on, as it tends to, but the events of that week left me feeling like I was losing my mind.

The closest metaphor I can give is this: I felt as though just a few weeks earlier I had been happily hanging out on dry land, but now I lost at sea, treading water just to stay alive.

I found out that Leeds College of Music offered a counselling service. I didn’t expect miracles – I didn’t expect anything, to be honest – but I was desperate enough to give it a try.

And it’s funny what, with the passing of years, you do and don’t remember. I can remember the specific melody almost every line of dialogue in Friends is spoken with, yet I remember just one of the conversations I had with my counseler. But it was a biggie.

My mortal fear of the word “no”

How I got onto it, I’ll never remember, but I started telling the counseler one week about how when I was a child I was really scared to ask my parents if I could have my tape on in the car.

I would be sitting in the back, often sandwiched between my older brother and sister, wanting desperately to ask if I could have my tape on, but deathly afraid of hearing “no.”

Basically, I was afraid of was that if I took the plunge, and asked – which I had built up into this big thing in my head – and for whatever reason somebody said “no,” that that ‘no’ would destroy me it would be more than I could handle.

My solution, generally – my “best bad choice” – was to not ask. I opted instead to live in a kind of “Schroedinger’s Tape” situation, where I was both allowed and not allowed to have my tape on, where I both heard “yes” and “no”, and never had to risk actually asking.

Now, for context, this was not because my parents were mean and would never let me have my tape on. In fact, I was very often allowed to have my tape on. So I brushed it off as just one of those silly kid things. But the counseler got me to keep on talking about it, and as I elaborated more and more, I started to see that this might not have been something I only did with the tape in the car, nor something I had grown out of.

It might in fact have been the very way I had related to everything and everyone in my life for as long as I’d been living.

BAM.

You’ve always been enough

Though it felt like a fierce shove, what the counseler had gently guided me towards realising was that I’d been telling myself quite a destructive story for perhaps my whole life.

If they say ‘no’, I won’t be able to handle it. I will crumble before them and be destroyed. I am not ‘enough’ to handle it.”

It sure would have been nice not to have go through a circumcision, the death of my Grandma, or a painfully disintegrating relationship to end up counseling in order to realise the story I’d been telling myself wasn’t necessarily true.

But c’est la vie.

The more I’ve thought about this in the years since, the more untrue I have found it to be – the more certain I have become that there has not been a single moment in my life yet that I genuinely couldn’t handle. Where I wasn’t ‘enough’.

There have been plenty where I didn’t feel able. Where I didn’t feel I had enough inner resources for whatever the moment seemed to require of me. But after ten years of searching, I still haven’t found one where it was actually true.

I urge you to look for yourself

Yes, I urge you.

Because whilst I don’t think many people had such a specific fear – of not being allowed their tape on in the car as a child – I can’t believe for a second that I’m the only person here who often feels like they can’t handle life.

And if you do look into your own life history, I think you’ll find the same thing I found.

You’ll find moments where you felt like you didn’t have enough strength or fortitude or willpower, you’ll find moments where you were convinced you were about to crumble under the pressure, you’ll find moments where you lashed out at someone, moments where you lashed out at yourself, and most of all, you’ll find moments that you feared not being to handle well in advance, only to end up handling it after all…

But try as you might, I don’t think you’ll find a single, solitary moment where you truthfully were didn’t handle it, one way or another. You might have fallen short of your high and exacting standards, but there has never been, a moment which required of you more than you already had inside, and there never will be.

“What does this moment require of me?”

Questions beat statements.

No matter how vociferously certain well-meaning authors champion them, I hate affirmations. The fact is that for me, repeating “positive” phrases to myself gives me the willies. I can say “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better ” til the cows come home, but every time I do, my mind is going to reply “No you’re fucking not.”

When I feel a certain way, saying something that contradicts that feeling just causes cognitive dissonance. I feel a fool. What I like to do instead is ask myself questions.

If you feel overwhelmed, and as though life doesn’t have your back, and as though everything is just too bloody much…

Ask yourself: “What does this moment actually require of me? And do I have it?”

I cannot oversell the pain I have felt from feeling like I wasn’t enough. But the saddest thing is not the pain – pain goes away. The saddest thing is that 100% of the time, it was a complete lie. It was totally unnecessary.

Perhaps today is the day that you realise you’re enough. That you’re more than enough.

How To Be Generous When You Have Nothing

Do you ever wake up hours before your alarm is due to go off? I do.

Once I’m awake, I can pretty much assume I won’t be going back to sleep. Just like how a child will run into its parents’ bedroom at 5am and make noise until they give it the attention they crave – my mind being the child.

But it’s not a cute child. It’s a mean, egoic voice, telling me all kinds of mean things about myself. The harder I try to sleep, the nastier it gets.

So I get up. Water. Pills. Coffee. And then I pick up my purple A4 journal. Since I should be asleep, I’ve technically gained a few hours – I might as well use them productively, to try and figure out why I feel so rotten inside.

I aim for 3 pages of A4 – an idea I stole from Julia Cameron – and by the time I’ve done that, I always feel ‘better’, even if I never really got to the bottom of what was bothering me.

This morning it took about half a page for me to work out exactly what was bothering me. And I didn’t like what I found.

I realised just how much of a stingy bastard I’d become.

How generous are you?

That’s not an easy question. But believe it or not, there is a correct answer.

We’re different people at different times, sure. But whilst there are certainly moments in life where you find yourself being more or less generous – you might be lavish with your cash yet stingy with your time, for example – you have an overall average level of comfort when it comes to being generous, and this tends to remains pretty constant over time.

Think of this as a line extending from ‘Not Generous At All’ on the left, to ‘Extremely Generous’ on the right. Somewhere along that line is you.

If you’re all the way over to the left, you do not feel you have very much to give anyone. You fear that if you were to give away the little you do have, you’d end up with even less than you started with. Not being an idiot, your natural tendency is therefore to be stingy – to hoard what little you do have, in the name of protecting it.

Right at the other end of the line, you feel totally secure, completely comfortable, and incredibly abundant. Since you know that you have more than enough of whatever you need, you are naturally quite happy to spread it around and let other people have a slice.

Where would you place yourself on this line?

Why are some people more generous than others?

Is it simply because some of inequality? That some people have more to be generous with, and therefore they are? It’s tempting to believe this.

You want to believe that it’s easier to be generous with your money if you’re rich, easier to be generous with your friendship when you have more friends, and easier to be generous with your time when you have a lot on your hands.

You want to believe that if you suddenly became £1,000,000 richer than you are right now, that you would also become more generous, because now you could better ‘afford’ to be.

But you’d be completely and utterly wrong.

Your position on that line has nothing to do with what you actually have – or don’t have – and instead everything to do with conscious choice.

What do you choose to do with what you have? Do you hold on to it for dear life, or do you happily give it away?

What you have or do not have makes absolutely no difference to your ability to be generous. But it sure as fuck doesn’t feel that way, does it?

Expand your definition

If you’d like to be more generous, then let’s face facts – feeling you don’t have enough is going to hold you back, no matter how much or how little you have.

You cannot be generous with what you do not have. But the good thing is that you don’t need to.

The problem is that you are looking at generosity through a keyhole, instead of opening the door and seeing the whole room.

All oranges are fruits, but not all fruits are oranges. Generosity goes way beyond the material. More than anything, it is a posture. An attitude. A way of being the world. To be generous is to have a generous spirit.

So what do you do if you feel you don’t have enough to be generous with?

Find the things you do have

I’ll give you an example.

Right now, I don’t have as much money as this time last year. I quit my job in the summer because I wanted to move on. We’re getting by. But currently, money is not something I can be lavish with.

Does that mean I can’t be generous? Fuck no.

I have a lot of time spare time.

I have the ability to string sentences together, so I can write pieces like this that might help people.

I have my musical abilities, so I can play gigs and busk and entertain people. And I can show other people how to play instruments.

But even if you took away all those things, I’ve still plenty to work with.

I have my ears – I could find somebody who simply needed someone listen to them.

I have my mouth – I could go for a walk and try to smile and say hello to everyone I passed.

I have my gratitude – I could send somebody a text to tell them I appreciate something about them.

For everything you feel you don’t have – and therefore cannot afford to be generous with – believe me, you have more than enough of something else that you could be putting to work.

When you feel as though something is missing in your life, you’re damn right it is. You are not giving enough of yourself.

In every moment lies the opportunity to be generous.

But… why bother?

I’m a fairly selfish person. I don’t particularly relish doing things that won’t benefit me in some way.

But I don’t preach generosity – and try to live it in my own life – because I heard someone else say it. Or because I’d like for it to be true. Or because I’m some saint who wants to teach the world to sing.

I do it because the more generous I am, the better MY LIFE gets. How?

Life doesn’t feel like a struggle. I go to bed feeling beautifully empty. Things that I would normally feel responsible for and stress out over work themselves out. People text or email me with opportunities. PEOPLE BECOME MORE GENEROUS WITH ME!

Please don’t take my word for any of this. Test it out.

Right now, your ego is trying to convince you that you don’t have enough to give yet. You do. You have plenty. You just need to look for it. And then give it away. You’re not going to run out.

It’s impossible to run out of anything that matters.

What are you going to be more generous with?

On gig day

Gig day is unlike any other day.

You could be doing thoracic surgery at lunchtime and rocket science in the afternoon, but if there’s a gig that night, that’s basically all you’ll be thinking of.

When I was a teenager, rocking out in teen funk-rock combo Viper Jungle, it was all about which questionable shirt I was going to wear, or if I was going to wear one at all.

When I did function work, playing jazz guitar in restaurants, it was all about “what price did we agree on?” and “do you get one free beer or is it two at this place?”

And these days, when I’m playing at The Washington with Joe and Arthur, it’s all about “what can I do that will make someone’s evening?”

I wonder what it will be all about ten years from now…

Try anyway

What’s stopping you is not that you don’t know what to do.

Oh, sure, you might not have ironed out every single little detail yet, but you don’t need to. You know more than enough to do something. And to do something is all you need.

No, what’s stopping you is that you aren’t completely sure that, should you try, you’ll succeed.

And so you stall. You wait for a better moment. You make a new plan. You call it patience, you call it strategy. It’s neither. It’s cowardice.

Weeks, months, years go by. You’re no closer to where you want to be. And it’s all because you were too scared to take a risk.

Do you know what the worst part of all this? You act as though one day you will magically have certainty that this or that is the right course of action. But you’ll never be completely sure.

If what you’re waiting for is complete certainty, and you refuse to do a single thing until you get it, you’re going to be waiting for the rest of your life.

So what do you do, if there’s no guarantee that something will work out?

Try anyway. You have literally nothing to lose.

The truth is that living with the fact that you let fear win is many times more painful than the ‘failure’ you are afraid of.

Once you’ve tried acting in the face of uncertainty you’ll realise that, whether or not it works out every time, you do not need certainty to take action.

And then you can really live.

Follow the butterflies

Is there a shortcut to living a good life? If there is, it’s this:

Follow the butterflies.

Huh?

It’s really very simple:

The more fear you feel when contemplating a positive course of action, the more important that course of action is to your soul, and the greater the reward for completing it.

Of course, most of us, most of the time, do exactly the opposite. We have a thought. We feel fear. We interpret that fear as a sign to retreat to safety. Except… we were never in any danger. Over time this becomes habitual, and we become more and more fearful.

If you want to be happy, do the opposite.

Realise that your fears are guiding you in the direction which will fulfil you the most. Every time you act despite being afraid, you prove to yourself that you weren’t in danger after all. You grow. It becomes easier and easier to do. You become less and less fearful.

So when the thought of doing something gives you butterflies in your stomach, err on the side of doing it, not wimping out.

Bad dudes

There are a lot of bad dudes in the world. And right now, some of them getting awful popular.

Now, the existence of bad dudes is no cause for concern – so long as there have been humans, there have been a certain percentage of rotten ones. No, the problem is that the good dudes fell asleep at the wheel.

Sometime during the last few decades we got complacent, we thought that “progress” was inevitable, we thought that we no longer needed to fight for good. We thought that our morals and our ethics and our innate goodness would carry us through. Forever.

It didn’t. And so the bad dudes took over.

But just like a school bully, evil can only survive when good people do nothing. So now is not the time to feel helpless, to be conservative (pardon the pun), to start playing it safe. That’s just playing into their hands.

No. Decide today that you are going to live your life the way you believe in your heart to be right.

You are not going to cower. You are not going to believe their divisive bullshit. You are not going to turn against migrants, or foreigners, or gays…

You are going to stand strong. You are going to fight. Whatever that might mean.

Empathy: the secret superpower

If you want to change something about someone, try accepting them first.

See them exactly as they are, stripped of all the stories your ego is dying to tell you about them.

Make them feel seen, and make them feel understood. Do you know how rarely anybody is granted these two privileges?

And when you have done this, don’t be surprised if you find yourself having forgotten what it was you wanted to change about them in the first place.

Empathy is a super-power a hundred times more useful than anything you’ll find in a comic-book.

A love of fate

The more dependent you are on external events going a particular way for your well-being, the more miserable you will become until the day death finally relieves you.

But at least you won’t feel alone – the majority of human beings who have ever lived followed this exact path. There is safety – if not happiness – in numbers.

Fortunately, the reverse is also true.

If you adopt the mindset that everything that happens was meant to happen, and meant to happen in exactly the way it did happen, you’ll find soon that your well-being cannot be touched by anything outside of you.

Nietzsche called this “Amor Fati.” I have a coin in my wallet that I bought from The Daily Stoic with this on one side, and on the other, the phrase “Not merely to bear what is necessary… but love it.”

The miserable majority might not understand you when you live this way, but your life will be so meaningful that you won’t care.

You and your phone

Your phone has got you by the balls.

Let’s call it what it is: an addiction.

It is an addiction because it has become the default thing you do when there is nothing stimulating happening around you (and even sometimes when there is.) Its absence makes you feel itchy and as though something is lacking.

It is an addiction because it has hijacked your rationality. You pull out your phone not for any good reason, but to “check” what’s going on, to be stimulated, amused, outraged, and… to feed the habit.

It is an addiction because it doesn’t actually quench the thirst you think it will. It provides empty calories. It gives you sex without love. Which keeps you hooked.

But you’re not addicted, right? Not you. You could stop any time. You have it under control. Okay, I believe you.

But humour me: go without it for one day. Switch it off and put it in a drawer.

If you couldn’t imagine possibly doing this, or you just thought of five perfect reasons why it sounds like a nice idea but you genuinely need your phone on you 24/7 for x, y, and z…

…I think you’ve proved my point.

This is not a personal attack. I am struggling through this as much as you are. I’ve been forcing myself not to pick up my phone unless there is a clear, concrete thing I’m aiming to do with it. It’s been eye-opening. And really, really nice.

You are nothing more than a great ape

You cannot control the world. Forces beyond your comprehension are at play.

This is not a matter of opinion, but of fact. How you respond to it will greatly shape your life.

Will you accept your relative tininess in the universe and throw yourself whole-heartedly into the small number of things you can influence and control?

Or will you deny this reality, and imagine that the technological advances of the last 100 years mean you now have God-like omnipotence?

It’s a paradox, I know. The more you accept your tininess, the bigger your power. The more you imagine yourself to be God-like, the more foolish and naive you really are.

You are nothing more than a great ape. Enjoy it – it’s all you need to be.

It’s not you, it’s them

When somebody gets angry with you, every cell in your body is designed to take it personally.

But what if you didn’t?

What if you realised that the real cause of their anger predates their bumping into you by years, perhaps even decades? You’re just a convenient target – it’s almost arbitrary that it happens to be you.

It wouldn’t make it fine all of a sudden, but it might make it less likely for you to get sucked in, and to feel the need to defend yourself, or to lash back.

Best of all, it will give you choices – you never have less choices than when emotionally triggered. Do you laugh at them? Do you pity them? Do you ignore them? Do you carefully exact revenge upon them?

It’s entirely up to you – but not taking it personally is the first step.

Born again every day

The person you were is dead. The person you are is alive.

Shed your yesterday’s skin. Because that’s all it was – a skin. The real stuff is far deeper. And that’s going nowhere.

So get to know who you are today. Let your new skin surprise you.

Don’t get attached to whoever you are today – before long, this version of you must die too, to make way for who you’ll be tomorrow.

Let the skin you wake up in each day mark you indelibly, let it spill something beautiful and unique onto you, the sum of which you carry forth throughout your life.

In this way you are both timely and timeless. The days and weeks and months and years do not shape you, but reveal you.

You are you, always.

Use today to make tomorrow easier

About 1% of the time, I properly clean the kitchen after I’ve made dinner. Every time, it feels good. It doesn’t take very long, and I like waking up and making my coffee in the morning in a clean kitchen.

I could talk about what an idiot I am for not doing it the other 99% of the time, but… c’est la vie.

The point is that this applies to everything. It’s almost as though leaving things in a state – literally or metaphorically – creates this ugly residue that makes it harder to be at peace. Open loops, you could call them.

Is there something you could do quickly and easily today that would make your tomorrow easier? Why not do it?

There are two sides to peer pressure

If you want to improve yourself and live a better life than you do now, you could try to do it all yourself. Eat right, exercise, follow your passions… whatever the doctors are recommending these days.

And you might succeed. But it’ll be a daily uphill struggle.

If you want an easier (but no less-effective) way to grow, take advantage of peer pressure.

“What? Peer pressure? Isn’t that the gravity-like force I heard about in school responsible for my thinking that every other teenager was out to try and force me into smoking, drinking, doing drugs, and having illicit sex?”

Oh good, you’ve heard of it. Well, yes, that’s peer pressure. But it turns out your teachers were only giving you half the story.

Peer pressure is the mechanism by which we tend to do what the people around us are doing. Without realising it. If they’re doing bad things, so will we. If they’re doing good things, so will we.

So if you want to get fitter, make friends with some people in good shape.

If you want to a better banjo player, make friends with some good banjo players.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

How to get out of a rut

Do you ever feel like you’re in a rut? I know I do. When you’re in it, getting out it feels impossibly difficult, but this is just a symptom of the rut. It’s actually very simple, and very easy.

The cause of your rut is simply that you have become overly familiar with your routine. It’s not the routine’s fault. And it’s not your fault. But as the saying goes “familiarity breeds contempt.”

To get out of a rut, all you need is something unfamiliar.

Do something you don’t normally do.

You might turn all the lights off in your living room and put on some Arab folk music.

You might try to come up with a story featuring yourself as the villain, instead of the hero.

You might go visit a shop near your house that you’ve seen but never been in before.

It doesn’t matter what you do. All that matters is that it’s something you wouldn’t NORMALLY do.

Routine is good, but every now and then it needs to be broken.

Hunt for details

I’m always looking for ways to get out of my head and into the world. One good way I’ve found is to actively hunt for details.

You can do this with any number of things, but I like to do it with music.

I put on a track, and as I listen through, I try to see how many things I can notice. I sometimes write them down. Not always, though. It’s not important.

I start the track. I might notice that there’s a little tape hiss before the song starts. Perhaps there’s a count-in. When it gets going, maybe there’s a guitar on the left side and an organ on the right. Maybe when the vocals come in, they have a delay effect on them. Maybe another voice joins for the chorus. Maybe a fragment of the melody reminds me of a song by somebody totally different, reminding me that all music is made from the same 12 notes. Maybe the a middle section feels like it was shoved in at the eleventh hour and I feel I could have done a better job…

Something cool happens when you do this. It’s as though one time of actively hunting for details causes you to permanently notice more details without even trying.

Try it.

Are you a tortoise or a hare?

Remember the fable about the tortoise and the hare?

From that fable came the mantra of the mediocre everywhere: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Except… does it?

Only if you take the fable literally. And people do. They think it means that the best way to do anything is to do it slowly over a long period of time, taking no breaks or rests, working with the same intensity every hour, day, week, month…

And… that’s a load of shit. Human beings have rhythms and cycles.

Personally, I am a hare. I like to work quickly and intensely and then stop and do something else. If something can be done in 7 hours, I will do a WAY better job doing it all in one go than in 1 hour per day over a week. I feel angry and frustrated when I am forced to slow down. I want to be on or off.

Looking back throughout my life, this is the fashion in which I have done everything good. But because I’m an idiot, I’ve often ignored that this was true. I’ve tried to be sensible, and remember my fables. Following a slow and steady course has always spelt stress, boredom, giving up, and little to no results.

Now, you might not be like me. You might be a tortoise. You have an aim, and you’re going to slowly and steadily work towards it. If that gets you results, then hats off.

The point is simply to know how you work best. Slow and steady can win the race, but so can fast and intermittently.

“NO” ISN’T FOREVER

When you say “yes” to something, you’re also saying “no” to everything else.

The word “decision” comes from the Latin root, “deciso”, which means “to cut away from.”

Making decisions is scary, because you are always taking a risk – no matter how small. Instead of um-ing and ah-ing and staying in the realm of infinite possibility, you are boldly creating the future.

What I often misunderstand here is that saying “yes” to something doesn’t mean I’m saying “no” to everything else FOREVER. I can decide how long my “no” lasts for.

For example, I often want to read a book, but I also want to listen to music, and I also know the house needs hoovering, and about seven other things…

Whatever I choose to do, I’m choosing not to do the other things. But they’ll still be there later. And that’s okay.

You can’t do everything all at once. Nor do you need to. Pick one thing to say “yes” to for a while and enjoy saying “no” to everything else. This is much better than vaguely trying to do everything and not really doing anything.

Let them be who they are

I believe it was Satre who said “Hell is other people.”

Taken literally, I disagree.

Other people are only as difficult as our refusal to try to understand them.

We hear the things they say, see the things they do, and immediately judge them as good, bad, evil, saintly, greedy, over-the-top… Once that impression is formed, it can be near-impossible to change it. Mostly, we don’t bother changing it.

But if our mistake is closing ourselves off, and clinging tightly to our first impression of people, then the remedy must surely be to do the opposite: open ourselves up and suspend judgement as long as possible.

Every single person you come across is like an undiscovered country. Your lower self wants to pigeon-hole them straight away. Resist this impulse, and simply wonder about them. What makes them tick? What makes them ticked off? How do they change when they’re around different people? What might that mean?

The longer you can delay giving into your temptation to form a fixed, permanent view of the people in your life, the easier you will find it to get along with them.

Or, put simply, let them be who they are.

Why you should turn your phone off for a day

You are a part of the most affluent global moment in the entire history of the world. Think about that for a second.

Consider how all the discoveries and inventions stacked on top of one another throughout the centuries led to this moment – to the aeroplane, the phone in your pocket, the fact that none of your kids will probably die in childbirth…

And yet, are we any happier than the people before us, who didn’t enjoy these things we mostly take for granted?

Nope. Not a jot. But it’s nothing to feel guilty about.

We are human beings, and it is in our nature to adapt. We adapt to adverse circumstances, but we also adapt to bountiful ones. This doesn’t make us bad, or spoilt. It’s simply how we are. It is a fact of life.

Just as more and better “stuff” has not made the human race happier, more and better “stuff” will not make you happier, personally. What will is appreciating just how good things are.

But you can’t just tell yourself “things are great now,” and expect to feel any different. We learn through experience. And especially through contrast.

The solution I like is fasting.

Fasting gets a bad rep, because it brings to mind scrawny Asians in the lotus position starving themselves in the hope of achieving enlightenment. I’m not proposing this.

But what I’m talkinga about is a much broader view of fasting, and seeing it simply as a conscious, temporary deprivation of something you have become accustomed to. Anything.

Go a day without switching on your phone. Nothing bad will happen. Your followers will still be there the next day.

Skip dinner now and then. You won’t starve. Trust me.

Wrap up in layers tonight instead of putting the heating on. Just for one night.

Basically, what you’re looking for is anything in your daily life that you take for granted – something you see as a fact of life – and then you’re trying to go without it just for a little bit.

You see, when these things become facts of life, you quickly become numb to them. Worse than that, you feel like you couldn’t live without them. Since this is never actually true, you are literally living a lie. You are, in a way enslaved, by these things.

Of course, one solution to this would be to rid yourself of all these things – cut them out of your life completely. But I don’t want you to do that. And it wouldn’t work anyway.

Fast instead – cut them out just temporarily. It’s almost like a little “reset” button, enabling you to actually enjoy things again, instead of just going through the motions with them. Imagine how different an apple would taste after 24 hours with no food, as opposed to after stuffing yourself with a giant Sunday roast.

The thing I like most about doing these little mini-fasts – which I wish I did more often – is the way it shows to me how little I really NEED in life. And the less needs you have, the easier it is to satisfy them.

Forget happiness

Do you know how to guarantee that you’ll never be happy?

Chase happiness.

The more you pursue happiness for its own sake, as opposed to allowing it to arrive of its own accord, the faster it will run away from you. The more unhappy you will become.

When you are unhappy, it is not because you haven’t chased happiness hard enough, and it is not a sign that you need to double down on your pursuit.

It is because some part of you feels that your life is without meaning.

Decide right now what “a good life” means to you. Not to society, not to your accountant, not even to your friends and family. You. What’s a good life?

If you do things that mean something to you personally – which could be ANYTHING – you will find happiness everywhere you look. But if you look for it directly, it will make itself invisible.

Phone a friend

It’s S.A.D season. But I have a remedy.

Yes, I believe in the power of the mind, and yes, I believe that our attitude has a huge effect on how we feel.

But so do a lot of other things.

And if the reason you feel bummed out this time of year is because your brain is in trouble chemically, and your neurotransmitters don’t want to play ball, then thinking “Oh, cheer up, it’s just a bit dark out…” probably isn’t going to help

So what will? (Other than overdosing on Vitamin D supplements…)

Call someone. Someone you really like.

Have a chin-wag. Bullshit for half an hour. Put the world to rights.

They’ll be glad you called, and so will you.

What’s the least you can do?

I’m not ashamed to admit it, since it’s the honest-to-God truth: I give up really easily. On most everything. Usually without realising I’m doing it.

I’ll be all into an idea, how cool it will be when it’s finished, how fun it’ll be to sink my teeth into, and then at the very first thought of resistance – the slightest hint that everything might not turn out perfectly from the get-go – I abandon ship.

Of course, I rationalise it by saying I’m being strategic, or that I need more time to explore the idea-space, or whatever creative, nurtuting, bullshit phrase I’m into that week… but really, I got scared. And I bailed. I couldn’t handle the heat so I got out of the kitchen.

Most hilariously – keeping this culinary analogy going – I often haven’t even set foot in the kitchen yet when I give up. Just the thought of the kitchen can be enough to derail me.

Over weeks and months, the cycle goes on and on. Occasionally I do finish something that stretches over more than a few days because I, despite myself, managed to somehow break on through to the other side, past the resistance. But more often than not, the flame is extinguished a brief moment after it was lit.

A weird thing I’ve noticed about life – a dirty secret, if you will – is that when you break things down small enough, nothing is really that difficult. It’s the chunking together that makes it seem so. When people talk about “hard work,” what they’re actually talking is relatively easy work, sustained over time.

When you look back on things you’ve achieved, you’ll find that – with the odd exception – the individual actions that got you there weren’t generally very difficult at all. What was hard was commiting to a direction, and then seeing that commitment through in the face of resistance – not the actual actions themselves.

The things worth having in life require consistent action over the long-term – they require perseverance. You could almost say that the only thing they require is… not giving up.

So if not giving up is all that it takes, and you’re someone – like me – who gives up incredibly easily, what to do? One question I find really helpful to combat this baked-in tendency of mine to is:

“What’s the least I can do?”

The problem, you see, is that most of the things we want to do cannot be done in one fell swoop. And yet we tend to think of them as one big thing that we must accomplish. No wonder we feel stress, pressure, and a sense of futility. No wonder we buckle at the first hint of resistance. No wonder we give up.

But the truth is that no matter how large the goal, it will only ever be accomplished by performing a series of small and doable actions, consistently, over time. As Lao Tzu said “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

If you know which direction you would like to go in, then all you need to do is think of some incredibly small and mundane action, and then do it.

That’s what I’m working on, anyway.

Do it yourself

Last night, I switched off all the lights in the living room, and spent about fifteen minutes scouring Netflix for a film to watch.

There were some contenders for sure, but nothing that really grabbed me – not enough to commit a couple of hours of hardcore attention to, anyway.

After about fifteen minutes of this scrolling, I snapped out of it. I realised that I was searching for something that doesn’t exist: the perfect film for me. And do you know why it doesn’t exist? Because it’s up to me to make it.

Not specifically a film. That’s not the point.

The point is that – and maybe you feel this too – I’ve come to a place where I am getting very little joy from being a consumer. It’s unnatural to consume in the quantities that we do in 2019 – our brains are still very much designed for life on the Savannah.

The consequence of over-consumption for me is that, like tolerance to a narcotic, nothing is quite hitting the spot, consumption-wise. But I know the solution.

To go into creator mode.

We all need to be entertained. But when you can entertain yourself, when you don’t have to rely on passive, mindless, external forms of entertainment, you’ve got something you can always rely on.

Do it yourself.

Above all, trust in yourself

Do you trust your own judgement, or do you look to “the world” to tell you what’s what?

If you’re anything like me, you feel best when doing the former, but find yourself doing the latter all too often.

If it’s permission you’re waiting for, have it. I, Oliver Stewart Manning, hereby give you total and utter permission to trust in your own judgement. On any matter. Whatsoever.

You might think that it’s more responsible to look to “the world” for guidance. You might expect to develop a deeper and more holistic perspective on things. You might even think it’s a bit selfish and solipsistic to trust your own judgements on things above the wise consensus of the crowd.

You’d be dead wrong on both counts.

You see, although we’re collectively inhabiting this planet and hurtling through time and space “together,” we each have a unique perspective. And the uniqueness of your perspective is valuable.

The beauty of life – what causes the universe to expand – is when unique perspectives come together. Sometimes they do so harmoniously, sometimes with a crash like a piano falling down a stairwell. Either way, we are not meant to do the same things, want the same things, be the same things, value the same things…

This is why you must stop looking to “the world” for answers to questions like “What should I do?” “What is right?” What is wrong?” “Who am I?”

The world cannot answer these questions. Only you can.

Fortunately, you were made with the necessary equipment fitted as standard – you posess within yourself a perfectly tuned spiritual GPS. You might call it a soul. Ask it what’s right for you, and it will tell you. The more you use it, the more reliable it will become.

The answer it gives you might be different to the answer mine gives me, or Auntie Sheila’s gives Auntie Sheila, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. There is enough room on this planet for seven billion truths, and yours is no less valuable than anyone else’s.

At the end of the day, the only thing you need here is courage. You don’t need practice. You don’t need any more intelligence. You need only courage, because the world is and has always been a more hazardous place for those unwilling to swallow whatever they’re fed.

It’s a scarier place at first – when you decide that you and you alone are going to decide what’s what – but after that first step, you might as well as have taken the red pill in The Matrix. Your world will never be the same again.

Music is enough

When was the last time you laid on the sofa and just listened to a great album?

Music doesn’t need a video accompaniment, or for you to be on your way somewhere, or to be paired with scrolling an infinite feed on your phone.

Music is enough all by itself, and when you digest it all by itself, guess what? It gets way better.

Turn it on. Turn it up. And let it thump you in the soul.

An anvil to the head

I shouldn’t tell you this – lest it come back to haunt me – but if you really want to piss me off one day, talk to me all about how Leonard Cohen is “music to slit your wrists by.”

It’s exactly the same kind of pissed off I got about five years ago when I’d been hired to play my songs at an indoor market in town.

A gaggle of middle-aged women wearing far too much make-up kept asking me to play something more cheerful. One even came right up to me and said to my face that I was bringing the mood down.

I was far too nice to her. I should have thrown my guitar in her whorish face and stormed off shouting “BUY A FUCKING RADIO THEN” but like a sap I smiled and said “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.”

I was even more disgusted with myself than I was with her.

Anyway, it’s not just that Leonard Cohen had more substance hiding in the shit under his fingernails than anybody Radio 1 has played in the last decade – but he definitely did – it’s everything that “music to slit your wrists by” line stands for. Namely, that music should have to justify its existence. Piss off.

Music doesn’t have to justify its existence to anybody – least of all somebody too simple to enjoy Leonard Cohen. If you’re so unfortunate that you need your music to be cheerful, lively, and upbeat… fine, but you don’t get to spoil the fun for the rest of us.

People who don’t appreciate Leonard Cohen don’t deserve to go through life bitching about him and getting away with it. They deserve to have an anvil dropped on them from a height.

The lasagne phone-call conundrum

Conor phoned me today whilst I was in Aldi, in the middle of making a big decision.

Emma wanted to have lasagna for dinner. Aldi sell it in two different varieties – a slightly smaller one with a creamier sauce, and a bigger one with a red wine ragu. The decision was whether to get two smaller ones or one bigger one.

Yes, that’s the kind of decision I sometimes find myself labouring over. And yes, I know that’s ridiculous. Let’s move on.

Conor phoned me right in the thick of it. I told him I’d have to ring him when I got home.

And I did. I threw the lasagna in the oven (I bought the bigger one) and went upstairs and phoned him.

We chatted until the lasagna was ready and bid one another farewell.

What is the point of all this? Well, nothing really, except that I’m glad I waited until I was home to talk to Conor.

The people who are important to us deserve our attention. Our full attention. The problem is that I don’t think we realise when we’re not all there. We think we’re there because our bodies are there, or our voices are there. But we’re not there. We’re cut in two. Or three. Or four.

If I’d have had the conversation in Aldi, I would have half been focusing on my Conor, half picking random things off the shelf and forgetting what I went to Aldi for, and not accomplishing much in either direction.

So whatever you’re doing, no matter how tiny – and no matter how great you think you are at multitasking – try giving that one thing all your attention. That’s what humans were designed to do.

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Wayne Dyer said that.

If one person…

Almost every time I sit down to write one of my posts, there’s a voice in my head telling me there’s no point. It doesn’t make a difference.

And maybe that’s true.

But recently, another voice replied.

“If one person…”

The rest of the sentence is irrelevant.

The point is that actions – no matter how small – have effects. If one person reads something I wrote and has a better day because of it, then oh my god I’m glad I did it.

Stop measuring the worthiness of your actions with the bullshit metrics of publicly traded Silicon Valley corporations.

Measure it in terms of whether or not you tried to make one person’s day better, and see the whole endeavour as a success if you even bother to try.

Say “Yes” to life

Saying “Yes” to life does not mean bending over and letting it do you up the arse.

Nor does it mean pretending to be okay with the things you are truly not okay with.

It means that whenever something crosses your path, whether you’d have chosen it or not, you don’t waste a second of your time resisting it, or wishing it hadn’t crossed your path. It did cross your path.

In denial, you are powerless. But when you accept it, you regain your power. Now you get to decide what to do with it.

It’s not a “Yes, fine, I give up, nothing ever goes my away anyway.”

It’s a “Yes, thit thing happened. Maybe I wouldn’t have planned it like that, but now that it’s happened, I get to write the script on what I do about it.”

AMOR FATI.

Thoughts that feel good

The idea that we can choose our own thoughts is an interesting one. The idea that those thoughts help shape our realities, even more interesting.

I believe the second part, definitely. In fact, I believe the first part, I just find it incredibly difficult – if the average person’s mind is a mere monkey, mine’s one that just ate a suitcase of blue smarties and then chased it with a plant-pot of espresso.

But I have an approach.

I don’t try not to think bad thoughts. That’s like trying not to picture an elephant – you just picture one even more. Instead, I just try to pay attention to what I’m thinking about when I feel good, and then when I don’t feel good, I try to remember what those things were. It works. Not immediately. But gently, subtly, I feel better.

I imagine a fretboard in my mind and play imaginary guitar solos (this is how I often get to sleep.)

I imagine Emma smiling about something.

I see myself running really, really fast.

What thoughts make you feel good? Think them more often.

We all make the flowers grow

“Cowards and heroes listen my friends,
If you have money or nothing to spend,
It’ll make no difference in a hundred years or so,
Sooner or later we’ll all make the little flowers grow.”

The odds of you being born were around 1 in 400 trillion. You might as well enjoy it.

Have a great week.

Love from Oliver. And Lee Hazlewood (the lyrics at the top.)

You are more important than capitalism

Every day, assuming you do more than sit in a windowless room until bed-time rolls around, you get a veritable shit-ton of propaganda thrown at you.

It might not look like stereotypical propaganda – there are very few hammers or sickles – but that’s because the disguises get more and more cunning every year. Everywhere you go, somebody is paying good money to control the way you see the world.

And you can boil basically all of this propaganda down to two sentences:

“YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. BUY THIS.”

Just as a fish does not notice the water it swims in, I don’t think you realise quite how many times per day you are being told you are not good enough. And quite how much you’re letting yourself believe it.

Well, I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret “they” don’t want you to know: YES, YOU FUCKING ARE.

There is nothing about you that needs to change in order to make you “good enough.” Nothing you need to buy. Nothing you need to tweeze. Nothing you need to shave. Nothing you need to spray. Nothing you need to cover up. You are whole right now, just as you are. I wouldn’t change a thing.

I’m not saying don’t grow, or don’t change, or don’t try to better yourself. But do it on your own terms. Do it because it’ll make your life richer. Do it because you’re a real human being with flesh and bones and guts and dreams and life flowing through your veins.

Not because capitalism told you to. That’s a shitty reason to do anything.

It’s how you do it

I used to think that it mattered what I did. I don’t now.

I thought that there were right and wrong activities, and that so long as my body was busy doing the right ones, I was getting life right. I don’t think this way more.

I know that it doesn’t matter one jot what I do. All that matters is how I do it – whatever it is.

With what spirit are you giving the task at hand? Are you doing it reluctantly? Joyfully? Apathetically?

How you do anything is how you do everything.

What’s your problem?

Right now, in this very moment, wherever your happen to find yourself… do you have any problems?

Think about that question carefully.

I’m not talking about when your rent is due in a couple of weeks. I’m not talking about when you finally pluck up the courage to have that awkward conversation you know is coming. And I’m not talking about tomorrow morning when your alarm wakes you up earlier than you’d like it to.

I’m talking about now.

This precise moment.

Do you have any problems RIGHT NOW?

I walk around thinking I’ve got tons of problems. An embarrassing amount. And yet whenever I ask myself if anything’s wrong RIGHT NOW, I can honestly never answer with a straight-faced “yes.” Because it’d be a lie.

I don’t have problems. Sure, I have unresolved situations that worry me. Desperately, some of them. And I have loads of things in my life that have the potential to go “wrong” and cause me pain. And I’m certain that many of them will throughout my life.

But RIGHT NOW, none of that stuff is actually happening. Right now, I’m fine, thanks for asking.

We all have an incredible capacity to paint the the future – not to mention the past and the present – in the most negative light we can. It can feel more responsible than being positive – you might think you are being more “realistic” …

… you’re not.

How was your day?

How was your day?

I always panic a bit when people ask me questions like this. Like… “What have you been up to?” … “How’s the wife?” … “How was your weekend?”

I go blank, to be honest. Because I know they’re not necessarily looking for the ultimate truth from me. They’re just making conversation. They’re being good, decent, sociable human beings.

But I think the real reason these questions fry me so is because they make me start thinking “Well, how was my day, come to think of it?” Unless prompted, I don’t tend to think about how my day was – I’m too busy being stuck in the moment.

Think about your day. How was it? What was good about it? Make a list.

I ask you to do this because what you focus on gathers momentum. Have you noticed that good things rarely seem to happen to people who are miserable and sour-faced all the time? It’s not delusional to acknowledge the fact that your thoughts help shape your reality – for better or for worse.

No, thinking about a new car isn’t going to magic it onto your drive. Denying the bad shape you’re in isn’t going to make you thin. And thinking positively is not going to act as some kind of charm against unpleasant things ever happening to you.

But as I said, what you focus on gathers momentum. Focus on what makes you feel good, and you will find more things that make you feel good. Focus on what makes you feel bad (which, by default, we tend to) and you will find more things to make you feel bad.

Writing when you have ADHD

Somebody asked me how I decide what to write about each day.

The truth is that… I don’t. I don’t decide what to write about. Because I can’t.

I’m not being falsely modest here – I am genuinely incapable of deciding to write about something and then following through, sticking with that initial thing until completion. Believe me – I’ve tried. Hundreds of times. The experience is hellish, and even if somehow manage to finish something this way, it’s shit.

It’s definitely an ADHD thing. My brain struggles to stay on task with anything it isn’t grabbed by. In every area of life. And what I’ve noticed is that when I try to come up with ideas to write about, none of them grab me. They mean nothing to me. And if I somehow force myself to work on those ideas, it’s like trying to chop down a tree with a butter knife. It’s just a waste of my short, short life.

I was stuck here for years.

But I’ve found – and then forgotten, many times – that if I just let myself start writing, and pay attention to what shows up on the page, before long something always emerges – something that grabs me. It’s almost as though a part of my brain was closed off until I actually started writing. Now I can stay on task quite easily, because of all of a sudden I care. I’m grabbed. All I have to do is try to ride that wave until I have a finished piece of writing.

And that’s… how I decide what to write. I just write, and I see what comes out of me. Sometimes I think it’d be nice to be able to control it a bit more, but that’s just not in the cards for me. All I can do is get over it and write something!

If I could offer one piece of advice today it’s that whatever you want to do, try not to give a shit about how other people are doing it. You have to find a way to do it that works for you, one that you enjoy whilst you’re doing it. It might look conventional, it might look bat-shit crazy… who cares? Because if you love doing it, you’ll keep doing it, and then you get both the journey and the destination.

Try to avoid Google. The only exception is once you’ve done your work for the day, and you fancy a laugh – Google how to do something. Anything. WHATEVER the activity, I GUARANTEE you will find tons of opinionated Americans, each one shouting louder than the last how their way is the only way that works and everybody else is wrong and ‘MURICA. SPORTS. ONE NATION UNDER GOD, WHICH IS FUNNY BECAUSE WE HAVE A CONSTITUTION SEPARATING CHURCH AND STATE.

I only joke about America because it hurts to even think about Britain these days.

You don’t know the whole story

Did you ever see that movie ‘Crash’?

Not the 1996 erotic psychological thriller directed by David Cronenburg, but the 2004 one, directed by Paul Haggis, about racial issues in Los Angeles?

It’s a clever film. It even won the Oscar that year. Personally, I hated its guts.

The film features lots and lots of intertwining plots, like Love Actually. And its one, solitary trick – which it milks over and over and over and over – is this: It makes you feel a certain way about a character in one scene, before showing you something in the next scene that makes you completely reassess your judgment of them.

It got old fast. It actually felt like one of those films they show you at school to hammer into your head not to smoke or bully or murder. I just don’t enjoy films (or songs, or books) that I feel are trying to teach me something specific, or trying to show off how clever and brilliant the writer is – and being lumbering obvious about it.

I much prefered the other Crash, which is set in a dystopian future where people get really turned on by car crashes. I have no idea what that was trying to teach me, and yet I feel it taught me far more.

But as much as the Oscar-winning Crash grated on me, it had one thing going for it – a great message. A very important message. A message even more crucial to humanity now than in 2004.

You don’t know the whole story, especially when it comes to why people do things.

I’ll repeat that. You don’t know the whole story, especially when it comes to why people do things.

How many times recently have you got annoyed at someone and decided – based on that one thing they did – that you know what’s in their heart, and it’s a lump of coal?

I did it earlier today, when I nearly hit somebody on the motorway because they didn’t indicate.

But guess what? I have no real evidence that they were a bad person. I don’t know what’s going on with them. Perhaps they’re going through a hard time. Perhaps they’re absoultely fine and they just forgot to indicate. Or maybe they are a bad person.

The point is that I have no idea, and to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. The only thing under my control is whether I let it ruin my day or not.

I’m not saying you should suspend judgment indefinitely and let people get away with doing shitty things. I’m just saying that the first story you tell yourself about stuff might not tell the whole story.

Remember: you are responsible for the story inside your head, and really, that’s all these things are – stories. There are no actual problems in life. There are just events, and the stories we tell ourselves about them. And though it’s difficult when people do really annoying shit, we always have the power to change the story.

Paying attention

I’m trying very hard these days to just do whatever I’m doing.

If I’m watching a film, then my eyes ought to be on the screen.

If I’m cooking some eggs, my thoughts ought to be on the eggs.

If I’m speaking to you, the only thing in my consciousness at that moment time should be you.

It’s near impossible. But not quite.

And when I do it, it’s more than a thousand times better than diluted attention.

Fitting in is a waste of time

I don’t have children yet. But it’s something I look forward to very much.

When I think about what advice I might give to my children, it’s the same advice I try to myself every day.

You have so much more to lose by trying to fit in. And everything to gain by refusing to.

Good night x

Do you allow yourself to enjoy life?

Do you allow yourself to enjoy life?

That might sound like a weird question. But hear me out.

We tend to presume that, left to our own devices, we will do the things that we enjoy doing. That without any outside pressure to pay the bills, or go to work, or clean the house… that we would be free to simply do what we enjoy. And that with that freedom, that is exactly what we would find ourselves doing.

But I think that’s a lie. It is for me anyway.

My experiment

I did an experiment this morning. After I had woken up, and took my pills, and had my scrambled eggs, I felt terrible.

I felt the weight of all the things I “need” to do on my shoulders. Some were obvious, everyday things: the bills, the laundry, the hoovering… but mixed in were bigger, more abstract things: What am I doing with my life? Should I do “x” today? No, I’ll do “y”. Oooh, no, actually “z” makes the most sense…

Ugh.

I saw that my bass and amp were still set up in the living room from when I taught Sam the other day, and I had an idea for an experiment. I turned my phone onto “Do Not Disturb.” I set a timer for 1 hour, and put my phone’s metronome app on 30 beats per minute. And I just… played bass. Until the timer went off.

The purpose of my experiment was simple: “What will happen if I deliberately enjoy myself for an hour? If I allow myself to put my worries and anxieties and obligations on hold, just for an hour?” I picked playing bass because it was low-hanging fruit – I love playing bass. I wasn’t practicing, or playing anything specific. I just let my fingers do what they wanted. For an hour.

What happened was that about five minutes in, I felt fantastic. I had a great hour. And afterwards, I felt differently about the things I had been worrying about. Did they go away? Well, some of them did actually – the more abstract, existential things, at least. But even the ones that didn’t… well, they just didn’t seem so terrifying any more.

What is your priority?

Now, obviously I’m not telling you to go play bass for an hour. But what I do want you to do is to examine the role of enjoyment in your life.

Do you see it as a priority, or as a luxury? Because, personally, I am a real sucker for seeing it as a luxury. As something that would be nice to do “once the more important things are taken care of.” And I’ve come to see this as a very dangerous habit.

Why is it dangerous? Because whatever you decide is most important tends to stay most important. What you make a priority tends to remain a priority. What you put first, stays first.

If you think you need to get your finances in order before you can enjoy yourself, they’ll never be quite in order enough.

If you think you need to meet that special someone before you can enjoy yourself, nobody will ever be special enough.

If you think you need to learn more before you enjoy yourself… you get it – the goal-post just keeps shifting and shifting and shifting.

If you put enjoyment second, it will stay second. Forever.

What about the bills?

Now, you might be thinking that this all sounds very nice, Oliver, but we can’t all be spending every second of every day doing fun, pleasurable things. And you’d be 100% right. But you’d also be missing my point.

There is a huge difference between denying the unpleasant parts of life and making them far more important than they need to be.

We have to make a living. We have to pay taxes. We sometimes have to deal with very unpleasant situations that we couldn’t possibly have predicted. Obviously. That’s just life. But just because those things are true, we don’t have to put them first.

If the consequences of putting your worries and anxieties first meant that they actually got dealt with, I’d say fair enough. Equally, if the consequences of putting enjoyment first meant that your life fell apart and you became a reckless, irresponsible monster, I’d say fair enough.

In truth, I have found the EXACT opposite to be true.

When I make my problems and my worries a priority, they tend to stick around. They get bigger and bigger, harder and harder to deal with, and take up more and more of my energy. And they never, ever get sorted. Forget about enjoying life in this state – there are just far too many more important things to think about first!

But when I make doing what I enjoy a priority, well, suddenly all those unpleasant facts of life lose their power over me. There don’t seem to be as many problems to begin with, and the ones that there are don’t seem too difficult to solve. Life itself seems lighter and more beautiful. I’m not in denial of the darker parts, they just don’t cripple me like they once did.

To put it another way, problems beget more problems; enjoyment begets more enjoyment.

Try it out

Please don’t take my word for this, or on anything I tell you. Try it out for yourself. Rack your brains – what’s something you enjoy doing, not for the results it gives you, but in and of itself? Set aside an hour today and just do that thing.

Put things in their proper place. Stop pretending that the bills, the obligations, the things that need sorting out, are more important than they really are. Stop using them as an excuse not to enjoy life.

It’s not irresponsible. It’s not reckless. It’s the right way to live.

When in doubt, create something

If you feel anxious, nervous, or tense a lot of the time, this is for you. It’s for me, too.

I feel tense. Incredibly so. A great deal of the time. I’m restless. Pulled in a multitude of directions all at once. I want to paint the town red, but I also want to pull the covers over my head and stay there all week.

I’m functional, though. Just about. And I’m sociable. So I put on a brave face. And yet in any given moment, the chances are that I don’t feel I’m doing the right thing.

There’s just one exception: when I’m creating.

When I’m creating, all that bullshit goes way.

I don’t mean “creating” as in “the creative arts.” No. I’m talking FAR more broadly than that. I mean “creating” as in “doing something to move the world in a slightly more positive direction.” And when you define it that way, almost anything can be creative.

Call me crazy, but I believe that the feeling of tension – a chronic existential anxiety – is a good thing. When we feel tense, it’s because – in the moment of tension – we are not doing what we are meant to be doing. We are not creating. And whoever’s in charge is letting us know. Thank you.

Every single moment of every single day, we are given the opportunity to make the world slightly more beautiful, or slightly more ugly. There is no neutral – you can’t get out of this by standing still.

When you feel tense and you face it head-on – by creating – you are rewarded. You feel a wonderful sense of expansion and oneness. You want to go do more stuff like that.

But when you run from the tension – by pulling out your phone, by watching a series you’ve seen before, by drinking a bottle of rum – you get no real reward, just neuorogically empty calories. The tension pretends to have gone away, only to come back worse tomorrow.

I don’t know what you should be doing. All I know is that creating is the only thing I have ever found that actually cures me of my chronic tension. And again… ANYTHING CAN BE CREATIVE.

When in doubt, create.

Be careful what you wish for

Wow.

I watched Climax tonight – directed by Gaspar Noé, of “Love” and “Irreversible” fame.

I was assaulted even more than when I watched “mother!”

The whole point of a work of art is to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience.

Well played, Monsieur. Well played.

mother!

Does what you do with your days have any effect on the world?

How much? And in what way?

I watched “mother!” again tonight.

And I don’t know what you want from your work.

But I want mine to assault people the way “mother!” assaults me.

I feel pleasantly violated. And I think to aim for anything less is to be cowardly.

But I’ll probably have changed my mind by morning.

Do things for their own sake

I re-read The War of Art a few times a year.

Each time, it’s a completely different book. And that’s because I’m a completely different Oliver.

Lines I never noticed much before suddenly leap out of the page at me. Lines I thought I understood previously are now imbued with new meaning.

But some of the lines leapt out the very first time I read it, and they continue to leap out. One of them is from the Baghavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text.

It says: “We have a right to our labour, but not to the fruits of our labour.”

Looking back on the highs and lows of my 28 years on the planet, I can discern an undeniable pattern.

When I feel good about life, it is because I am doing things for their own sake – I am labouring for labour’s sake.

When I feel shitty about life, it is because I am doing things only for what I imagine they might bring me in the future – I am labouring merely to get to the fruits.

Sometimes I’ll go for months before I realise I’m getting it all wrong. But when I find a way to get back on track, oh boy, suddenly life is worth living again.

Another thing I’ve noticed time and time again is that when I labour just for the fruits, the fruits actually dry up. They are repelled by my desperate stench. So I get neither the joy of the labour nor the joy of the fruits! Or, sometimes, I do get the fruits, just like I wanted, only they taste bitter and I don’t want them any more.

When I find myself labouring for labour’s sake, on the other hand, there never seems to be any shortage of fruit. Furthermore, I don’t have to go and pick it – the fruit seems to just come to me, sometimes through unusual and unexpected channels.

What’s needed? A calm, cursory glance towards the future every now and then, just to check we’re not heading towards disaster, and then back to the present. Back to trying to do a good job for its own sake. That’s all.

Almost nothing matters

Things feel different on a Sunday, don’t they?

Everything that mattered so fucking much all week… well, on a Sunday, the slate is wiped clean.

Suddenly I can see the truth: almost nothing matters.

And that’s not apathy. That’s not pessimism. That’s practical wisdom.

But note the word “almost.”

The beauty of being human is that you alone get to choose what matters to you.

If you choose nothing, your life will have no meaning. And if you choose many things indiscriminately, your life will have no meaning.

Choose carefully, and go in all in on whatever you choose.

Happy Sunday.

A puddle

A puddle doesn’t become a puddle all at once. It happens drip by drip. Drop by drop.

A friendship doesn’t become beautiful all at once. It happens laugh by laugh. Tear by tear.

A life doesn’t become well-lived all at once. It happens day by day. Hour by hour.

Don’t give so much thought to tomorrow that you forget to live today.

Bishop’s House

Two nights ago I saw Robbie Thompson play at Bishop’s House.

The house was built almost 500 years ago.

Rachel played first. For one song she was concerned that the lack of vocal reverb would spoil the intended effect of the song.

I spoke to Robbie in the queue for toilet before he played. He was nervous and excited to play new songs for people.

Towards the end, a tall man almost fell on a group of girls who were sitting on the floor. Bones would have been broken. Tears would have been cried.

Throughout it all, my mind raced with its typical generation game of thoughts – some pleasant, many less so.

Everything seemed to matter massively to everyone. We thought that what we wanted was good, what we didn’t was bad.

But to the house, it was just another day.

Where it counts, we’re all the same

Today I am in England. Tomorrow I will be in Tunisia.

Superficially, some things will be different there: fashion, weather, currency…

But mostly it will be the same: people trying to get through the day and do right by whoever they feel they ought to do right by.

Our differences make the world an interesting place, but where it counts, we’re all the same.


Today’s song: Your Fine Petting Duck by Devendra Banhart

Either a prison or a playground

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Anaïs Nin

The world can be a prison. But it can just as easily be a playground. Given the choice, I’d pick the playground.

Start by asking questions…

Everything that feels rubbish, unfair, unjust, stacked against you, shit in any way… pick it apart. Dissect it. Float the possibility that you could be wrong – that there is more possible one way to look at things.

Do this for a while, and you’ll find that the only person making the world a prison was you all along.


Today’s song: Lady, Tell Me Straight by Mike Uva

To live is to explore

That feeling of being in a hurry to get where you’re going, or even to figure out just exactly where you’re going so you can hurry up and get there?

A choice.

Another choice is the one to – so long as you can manage to keep your head above water – explore. See where life takes you.

Not sit about. Not mooch. Not do nothing.

Explore. Take in as much of the world as you can. Let your mind go crazy connecting the dots behind the scenes.

I would wager that the life you’ll be living after just a few months of being a little bit more open and exploratory will shit all over the alternative – desperately, fearfully picking some arbitrary direction because “that’s what you’re meant to do.”

If you know in your heart just what you were meant to do and how to do it, don’t let me stop you. But if you don’t, let yourself do some wandering.


Today’s song: Flying Theme (from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) by John Williams

What if you were broke forever?

Some say it’s a good idea to imagine what your life would be like if you never had to worry about money again – if that part of your existence was “sorted” forever, how would you spend your time?

It’s an okay idea. But there’s a much more powerful one:

What would you do if you were always going to be broke?

You won’t come up with the same answers as when you imagined having infinite money. Your mind will strip away any of those ideas that revolved around second-hand ambition or desires you inherited from others around you, and lead you to some deeper, more personal, genuinely fulfilling answers.


Today’s song: I Was in the House When the House Burned Down by Warren Zevon

You already have everything you need

Everything you need, with which to do the right thing, you have inside you. Right now. At this very moment.

The reason you disagree – that you cannot believe this to be true – is that you misunderstand what is meant by the word need.

You think that before you can truly do the right thing – whatever it might be – that you need more money, more resources, more time, more contacts, more opportunities. And so you allow yourself to continue avoiding your duty to do the right thing.

The only two things you need are the willingness to ask the question “what is the right thing to do here?” and the courage to do whatever answer you get.

Everything else? Cherries on top.


Today’s song: The Ballad of Big Nothing by Elliott Smith.

You can only take one step at a time

I watched about 80 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey earlier, before my wife woke up and wanted to watch something different.

The half of it I did get to watch blew my mind… yet again. And it made me think about the conundrum that faces everybody with ambition.

We are somewhat grandiose – we want to create something in the world that is as grand and epic in scope as 2001 is. It feels like anything less than that is futile. And yet if we even make an attempt, we seem to inevitably fall short of our great ideals.

One possible solution is to reduce the size of our ambitions – to take on something we are more likely to succeed at. I think this is a terrible idea.

We should make our aims as grand and epic in scope as that film. But we should also realise that both the most enormously magnificent projects and the most mundanely shit ones proceed in exactly the same way – one step at a time.

Assuming that aliens didn’t build the pyramids, human beings did. Brick by brick. Until they were done. Yes, they took planning and strategy, but that was also undertaken one step at a time. It can be done no other way. Nothing can.

Today marks the first day I am including a song recommendation in my daily meditation. I have created a playlist on Spotify, and I’m going to be adding to it every day.

Today’s song is “The Crystal Ship” by The Doors.

Your life is more important than “the news”

Given the choice between being what news-addicts would call “ignorant” – but genuinely enjoying my life – and being “informed” – with the resultant depression and despondency – I know which I’d choose.

And yet it’s very tempting to think that if you want to be a good person, you should take the things you see and hear on “the news” seriously.

That you should put your personal, subjective experience second, because you think that some stories told to you by a corporation are more objectively important than the thoughts in your own head.

Don’t. You get to decide what’s important to you – nobody else has that right.

Watch the news if you like – maybe you enjoy it. Just don’t let it become more important to you than your actual life. That’s tragic.

People are going to hate you

It’s a bit dickish to go around purposefully making other people’s lives difficult…

But that doesn’t mean you are here merely to make other people happy – to make not upsetting anyone the sole purpose of your day.

You are here to be you. And if you do it right, some people won’t like you. If you do it really right, vast swaths of people will hate you.

Embrace it. It means you’re living.

You cannot “tempt” fate

I cringe whenever I hear somebody admonished by another for merely speaking about something morbid.

Don’t tempt fate,” the other party will say, as though Fate were intently listening with a cup to the adjoining wall, and now that you’ve reminded it of something unpleasant, it will decide to gift you with some of that very unpleasantness. As though, had you only kept your mouth shut, you would have been somehow “safer.”

What a load of shit.

Fate cannot be tempted. Fate marches to beat of its own drum – it acts purely on its own whims, whatever they happen to be. It is the height of arrogance to presume that by merely mentioning something unpleasant, you have the power to tempt Fate one way or another. Fate couldn’t care less about you.

So if it is impossible to tempt Fate – either to your benefit or to your detriment – what is left to do?

Simply to adapt yourself – in advance – to whatever it does dish out. Be ready for shipwreck, be ready for calamity, be ready for things to go completely wrong. Because that stuff is either going to happen or not going to happen, completely independent of what you do or say.

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Today creates tomorrow

The moment you find yourself in right now is a gift – a gift from the you of the past to the you of the present.

Are you happy with what you’ve given yourself?

If you are, then well done. You need do nothing more than keep on enjoying yourself.

But if you’re not, think about what you might want to change. And start changing it.

What you do today creates your tomorrow.

If it’s possible for someone…

… then why isn’t it possible for you?

I’m not saying that is possible – I couldn’t possibly know. Nor am I advocating any kind of delusional “positive” thinking where you try to trick yourself into believing you are omnipotent.

But when you watch a concert pianist and you think “I know I couldn’t possibly do that…” you must realise that you shoot yourself in the foot massively. To arrogantly presume that you know for sure everything that is and isn’t possible, and yet… if you were really so smart, why would all these things be so apparently impossible for you?

On the other hand, when you instead think “Crikey, that looks bloody difficult… but I suppose it’s technically possible…” you might not realise it, but the ramifications are very, very different. You have loosened your stranglehold on reality, and opened yourself up to a wider, much more expansive range of possibilities.

You can’t make the impossible possible, but you can stop yourself making the actually-possible impossible.

Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; but if a thing is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Book VI, 19)

Some prick with a drill

“Some prick with a drill is interrupting my morning coffee.”

Perhaps. Or just maybe, “It was foolish and entitled of me to expect the world to be deadly still, that I might enjoy my morning coffee in silence. That prick with the drill has every right to be there.”

Same prick, same drill.

Different story, different rest of my day.

Life improves all by itself via negativa

Everything you have, everything you see, everything you do… either it’s making your life better, or making your life worse.

In search for a deeper human experience, you would be forgiven for presuming what we all presume – that what we ought to do is hunt down that which makes our lives better. We should vigorously pursue it like we would a safari lion, take aim, blast its head off, and take it home as a trophy. And if we have enough of this, then maybe it will drown out the bad stuff.

Go the other way. Focus first on taking an axe to all that conspires to ruin your life – starting with the tiniest things. See them as energy vampires – with each one you slay, you feel a little more relief, and most importantly, you have some space in which to invite something new into your experience.

Get rid of something that doesn’t serve you today. An object, a person, a habit. Start somewhere.

By the Hammer of Thor! 101 Posts in 101 Days

If you know me at all, then you will know me as a man who has demonstrated — time and time again — his proclivity for chasing shiny objects at the expense of getting on with the task at hand. I find it excruciatingly difficult to set my mind to anything it doesn’t want to be set to.

And yet, somehow, over the past 101 days, I have managed to write and publish a blog post every single day.

You can read them here.


It started off at The Unique Guitarist — a website I’ve all but abandoned — where I wrote 43 pieces in 43 days. Each one was geared toward some part of the mental aspect of being a musician — specifically a guitarist striving for uniqueness in their work. The longer I kept this up, though, the more I realised that what was coming out of me and onto the page had increasingly little to do with music, and more to do with life itself. At the end, I was just inserting the words “unique guitarist” into posts about life in general in order to force some kind of relevancy to my audience.

I was loving the “I have to post something fresh every single day” aspect; less so the “it has to be about being a unique guitarist” aspect. And so I decided, after 43 days, to pivot away from that and towards just writing under my own name and on my own website — giving myself the permission to write about whatever I wanted. It’s been a blast. Thank you for reading. But 58 days on, and I’m ready for another pivot.

My daily posts are going to get much shorter.


You see, I find myself in a tricky situation. Whilst I am hooked on the daily writing habit — the thing I was hoping I would get hooked on — the problem is that once I get writing, once I get into the flow, I can’t stop myself. This is a problem.

If I give myself the freedom to write for just fifteen minutes, let’s say, then in that time I can craft a little post that I’m quite happy with. It won’t go particularly deep into anything, but it will be satisfying to write and to read.

If, on the other hand, I let myself write for half an hour or longer, however, then something very different happens. My mind senses that it’s been given the opportunity to go deeper and wider than normal, and it responds by thinking up heaps more stuff that might somehow fit into the piece.

I very much want to go deep into the things that I write about. But I can’t do that on a daily post. I end up in this weird halfway house – not writing a short and sweet post that I’m happy with, but also not having the time to make the longer, deeper post actually any good.

I see it in movie terms. A short, sweet daily post is like writing a single scene. And the longer posts are like writing a whole film. Now, let’s say a film contains 60 scenes, and to write one scene takes a day. If you think that writing the whole film is then just matter of writing a scene a day for 60 days, you are going to have a really horrible film. It will take far more than 60 days to write the whole film — and be happy with it — because all the scenes have to not only work in isolation, but as a part of the whole film.

Instead of writing 58 solid scenes, I’ve ended up attempting 58 bad movies, and rushing to a clumsy conclusion when I look at the clock and realise I’ve got to get ready for work.


But, as I said, I’m not quitting. I’m pivoting.

I’ll be continuing to write a — short and sweet — daily post for anyone who wants one. And with the energy left over, I will try and craft the longer pieces I have in my mind. They’ll come in their own sweet time, or not at all.

If you would like to receive the — short and sweet — daily email, you can sign up here. (Don’t worry, Mum, I’ve already signed you up.)

The longer pieces, which will not be often — if they are, I’m rushing, and you should tell me off for that — will be sent to my ordinary email list.

Thanks again for reading. It’s nice to have an audience.

An Oliver in Motion Tends to Remain in Motion

My trouble is getting myself into motion.

Not toward doing the things I need to do but don’t really want to do — I am horrendous at starting on them, but this doesn’t bother me — no, what I get bummed out about is my inability to start the things that I actually want to do. Write my own songs. Learn a few more Dexter Gordon licks. Read The Brothers Karamazov. Blind-bake some pastry.

Whatever the blasted thing might be, the voice inside my head — telling me that once I get started I’ll be fine — seems to have very little sway. There’s a much louder voice reminding me of all the other things I could be doing right now, or how I’m doing the right thing but in the wrong way…

This has been pissing me off for years. But recently I started doing something to counter-act this. It’s worked nicely for me so far. My method is dumb-ass level simple: I set a timer on my phone for five minutes.

For five minutes — and five minutes only — I get on with the thing. And when the five minutes are up, I am free as a bird to do whatever the hell I like.

I told you it was simple. And I don’t know why it works. Part of me wonders why. A much bigger part doesn’t give a shit.

It works.

Don’t Put Tomatoes in the Toaster

The “you can do anything you set your mind to” phenomenon must be a fairly recent one.

I say that only because I’m trying — and struggling — to imagine too many people even a couple of hundred years ago thinking in this way, let alone in the centuries before that. Oh, sure, there were rulers who definitely operated with this kind of grandiose mindset — and it didn’t hurt that were treated more like deities than like human beings — but the common person?

The common person has — traditionally — been acutely aware of their limitations. They have felt from deep within their core that without extraordinary luck, their lot in life had pretty much been decided before they were born. Thankfully, this is becoming untrue for an increasing number of people, as we move — ever haltingly — towards greater social mobility around the world. We have a long way to go, but at least we’re going.

Personally, I both love and hate “you can do anything you set your mind to.”


I love it because for the people born into the most testing of circumstances — that they didn’t ask to be born into — this kind of positive self-belief can be the fuel that helps them to overcome their harsh beginnings. Believing in their unlimited potential can start them on a path that leads them to, if not become leader of the world, then at least make more of themselves than anybody could have realistically expected.

But there’s a big difference between being born into trying circumstances and being born into relative comfort and luxury, and it’s these people for whom “you can do anything you set your mind to” is a dangerous trap.

I suppose my real beef with it is the assumption that we are born as blank canvases. I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t believe you or I could have recorded Axis: Bold As Love. And I don’t believe Jimi Hendrix could have isolated molybdenum. I don’t believe that whoever could have done whatever… if it wasn’t in their nature to do so.


You are not a blank canvas. You have within you a multitude of strengths and weaknesses. You are drawn toward certain things in life, and away from others. Whilst the “you can do anything you set your mind to” cheerleaders might champion discovering your strengths and your passions and what makes you tick, they are missing the other essential half of the equation.

Your weaknesses, your limitations, the things you hate… these “negatives” have just as much — I believe more — of an effect than the “positives” which — granted — are nicer to think about.


Imagine coming home from Tesco with a bag for life filled with tomatoes. Now, there are lot of things you could make with that big old bag of tomatoes, but this list is not infinite, and I think you’ll agree that — hypothetically — knowing what tomatoes are and are not capable of could potentially save you a lot of wasted time.

But if instead you decided to adopt the “you can do anything you set your mind to” mantra when it came to your bag of tomatoes, then there are any number of dumb things you might end up doing. You might put them in the toaster, labouring under the impression that if you just set your mind to it, they’ll turn into toast. But you’d just end up making a mess. Ruining your toaster. Maybe even starting an electrical fire.

Tomatoes — delicious and versatile as they are — have limitations, just like everything in the known universe. Things only work in the space they work in. Learning what a tomato — or a block of wood, or you, yourself, as a unique human being — is actually capable of is not some kind of scary exercise in negativity that should be avoided at all costs. It’s not depressing, it’s not giving in… it’s liberating. It’s an extremely intelligent way to approach life.


Prior to being diagnosed with ADHD, I just thought I was shit at a load of things mentally — remembering where I’d put things, being organised, staying on task with things that were boring — that other people seemed to get along just fine with. I assumed that my only option, other than “give up,” was to try harder at everything — to “set my mind” to it. This only served to make me feel worse about myself when I couldn’t do what I tried to, no matter how hard I tried.

After my diagnosis, however, I realised that there was another option open to me. My brain has a physical limitation, which has certain knock-on effects on what I am and am not capable of. And so I started learning how to compensate. I started accepting that most of the things I am naturally crap at are not worth worrying about, and I started devising ways to step around them instead, saving my energy for the areas of life where my trying could actually make a difference.

Before diagnosis, I was putting tomatoes in the toaster, and when they didn’t turn into toast, I was heaping more and more of them in, turning up the heat on the toaster, and then crying about the inevitable fires I was causing.

After diagnosis, I decided to use them to make soup instead.

The World Doesn’t Give a Shit About What You Might Do

Only what it sees you actually do.

Your problem is that you want to have all your ducks lined up before you even think about taking the first step.

The path to what you want exists, and it will gladly show itself to you. But the path has standards – it wants to know that you’re serious. You have to show willing. You have to be the one to make the first move. Do that, and it will bend over backwards for you.


Do you know why aggressive drivers – though they might piss us all off – don’t crash their cars more often than they do? It’s simple. Though they take risks and chances, other drivers see them coming, and get out their way.

In the same way, as you move through the world, the world is not ignorant to what you do. The world notices you, and adapts itself to you. To your actions, though. To the things it sees you do, not the things you say you’re going to do, or plan on doing at some point in the future.


What you need is not more clarity in order to take the first step – that’s just your ego fucking with you. What you need is to simply to take that first step, and the result will be the clarity you dreamed of all along.

Take the first step. The second will show itself.

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

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Promises You Make, the Promises You Break

It feels horrible – to all but the most stone-cold of villains among us – to make a promise to another person and to break that promise. And I’m not just talking about situations where the “p-word” is explicitly used – I’m talking about any instance where you say you’re going to do something, and then you don’t do it.

That feeling of letting somebody you care about down has a visceral effect on us – it can make you physically sick. A lot of us, in order to avoid such a horrid feeling, take preventative measures – we try to only make promises to other people that we think we can keep. A good idea.

We treat the act of promise-keeping between each others as sacred – and this is a good thing – but for some reason, this doesn’t seem to extend to the promises we make to ourselves. Why not?


I don’t think we realise quite how often we make – let alone break – promises to ourselves.

“I’ll get up at 8 tomorrow,” “I’ll finish those leftovers instead of getting a pizza on my way home,” “I’ll start my essay after one more episode…” All day long, we are telling ourselves – our pants on fire much of the time – that we are going to do certain things.

The problem is not that the things you say you’re going to do don’t get done – most of it is utterly trivial, from a cosmic perspective.

No, the problem is that every time you break the promise you made, you kill your ability to trust yourself in the future.


When you break a promise to a friend, the intangible – but very real – bond of trust between you is broken. It takes time – and effort – to build that back up. But if it’s someone you care about, you put in that time and effort.

It’s no different when you break promises to yourself. But if you don’t see when you’re making promises to yourself, you certainly won’t see when you’re breaking them. Entering a vicious cycle, where your self-trust diminishes with each passing day, is all too easy.

My advice is two-fold.

First, make better promises – make promises you know you can keep. The trap is that most of us carry this attitude that when it comes to ourselves, it’s better to expect a ridiculous amount from ourselves, and then be happy with whatever percentage of that we actually accomplish. Except that we’re not happy with it. Ever.

In this game, you are rewarded for the promises you keep, and punished for the promises you break – no matter the size or scope of the promise. So make it easy for yourself.

Second, keep the promises you make. You’ve made it easier on yourself by making your promises realistic and achievable. Now you just have to commit to keeping them.

And what you will see when you do this is that instead of a vicious cycle, you’ll enter a virtuous cycle – with each passing day, you will trust yourself more and more. The result? You will feel able to make, and keep, bigger promises. Life will expand.

Simple is Beautiful

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Albert Einstein

Aim for simplicity in all that you do.

Go as deep as you can. Get dirty. And then strip away everything unnecessary. What you will be left with will be only the essential parts – the essence of the thing. What you will be left with will be simple. And beautiful.

Resist the human temptation to write off that which appears simple. The best things in life are simple. Not too simple – that would render them crude – but just the right amount.

If something in your life feels complicated right now, remind yourself that it isn’t actually complicated. It only appears that way because you haven’t yet stripped away the superfluous and the non-essential – you are carrying unnecessary baggage that is muddying the water.

Complication is never necessary. It is sometimes the result of ineptitude – nobody has yet reduced the problem to its essential elements – and sometimes the result of malice – somebody is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, and deceive you.

Life can, and should be, simple. Not easy. Not effortless. Not without trial or tribulation. But simple.


There is a reason why “The Old Man and the Sea,” Ernest Hemingway’s last major work of fiction, and the one which won him the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature reads at a Year 5 level – suitable for 9 and 10 years olds.

He made it as simple as possible, but not simpler. That’s art.

“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.” 

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

The Gravitational Pull of the Status Quo

Imagine drinking a lovely mug of coffee in your favourite armchair.

Now, if after your last delicious slurp, you stand up, walk into your kitchen, and are greeted by a single dirty plate in the sink, then I have some sad news for you. The chances of you washing up your innocent little coffee mug – your intention as you entered the kitchen – have just plummeted dramatically.

But there’s more. If you do leave your mug in the sink, then by the end of the day, the collection will in all likelihood have grown – a veritable menagerie of dirty plates, spoons, glasses – maybe even a pan or two – will now be inhabiting your sink.

And there’s even more – with each subsequent item that gets added to the sink, the chances of you washing up any of them continue to plummet.


That is the gravitational pull of the status quo, starkly illustrated. And it all started with one decision – not washing up the first plate. But how can something so seemingly minute and immaterial – the washing up of a single plate – have such a disproportionate effect?

It’s our good old friend human nature at work again. You see, one of our strongest tendencies – and there’s a reason I used the word “gravitational” in the title – is to maintain the status quo, even if we don’t like the status quo.

As silly as it sounds, once there was a single unwashed item in the sink, the status quo was a dirty sink – washing anything up would have violated the status quo. So you left the mug, and you let everything after that continue to pile up. But had there been nothing in the sink, then cleanliness would been the status quo – not washing up the mug would have been violating the status quo.

Status quos attract us like gravity, and what’s more, they are incredibly self-reinforcing – a good status quo will tend to get even better, whilst a bad one will tend to get even worse.

It pays to develop a keen understanding of the various status quos in your life, because they are affecting your moment-to-moment more than you could ever know. Your human nature is to protect them – whatever they are, whether you like them or not. You almost always do this without any conscious awareness. Make them conscious, and you give yourself a little bit of leverage over them – you give yourself the chance to sack off the negative ones, and double down on the positive ones.

You choose the colours with which you paint the world

Something shitty happens. Something you weren’t expecting.

Do you freak out, and act as though it’s the end of the world – something you couldn’t possibly recover from?

Or do you take a deep breath, and act as though it’s no big deal – nothing more than a temporary inconvenience?

Neither choice is right or wrong, but the two choices have incredibly different effects on how you feel able to proceed afterwards.

Where the first limits your options, the second multiplies them. Where the first shrinks your manoeuvrability, the second expands it.

Unlike the things that happen to you – which are by and large out of your control – the story you tell yourself about them is completely under your control.

If you don’t like the things that seem to be happening to you, it doesn’t mean these things are objectively “bad”, merely that you are painting them with colours you detest. Choose some colours you actually like. See how the world changes before your very eyes.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Wayne Dyer

Let’s Go to the Movies: Lucinda, Jorge, and Rajnigandha

The world’s most expensive slippers are worth very little to a double amputee.


Three people – let’s call them Lucinda, Jorge, and Rajnigandha – walk into a cinema. They are all there – separately, I might add – to see the new Wes Anderson movie.

Each pays £10 for a ticket and, walking to the screen, are stopped by a middle-aged man in a blue suit. He introduces himself as Barry, and asks politely for a moment of their time.

Barry asks them – in exchange for a voucher giving them 10% off their next cinema ticket – to briefly explain why they chose the particular film they chose, and if, when it’s finished, they’ll let him know what they thought of it.

Lucinda: “Well, it’s something to do with my Saturday, innit?”

Jorge: “I’ve seen all his films, and I’ve loved all his films. I’ve been looking forward to this one for three years. I can’t wait!”

Rajnigandha: “To be honest, I’m not expecting to enjoy it, but everyone’s talking about it, so I’m going to give it a shot. And if it is good – which I don’t think it will be – I don’t want to be the only person who hasn’t seen it – that’d be embarrassing.”

Barry thanks each of them for their time, and gives them the voucher he promised.


Lucinda spends almost the entire film with her phone in her hand, occasionally glancing over the top of the display to glimpse the action on-screen. Towards the end of the second act, her battery dies, and since she’s not remotely invested in what’s going on, she leaves.

She walks past Barry in the foyer. “It’s not finished already?”

“No, but… it were a bit boring, to be honest. I couldn’t really follow it. You haven’t got a charger, have you? I need a taxi home.”


Jorge has his eyes glued to the screen the whole time. When halfway through, he starts desperately needing the toilet, he sprints there and back so as not to miss any more action than he physically has to. This guy is in his element.

As the credits roll, he stands up, grinning. He nods his head at the screen. “Bravo, Maestro.”

Barry is waiting outside with his clipboard. “I loved it, Barry. The best film I’ve seen in years. You know what? I might even come see it again with my girlfriend in a few days’ time.”


Rajnigandha, like Jorge, also has his eyes glued to the screen the whole time, right until the final credit, but unlike Jorge, he is far from filled with enthusiasm for the picture.

He is the last one to dawdle out of the screen, and he sees Barry enjoying a pack of complimentary Revels.

“I knew I wouldn’t like it. And I was right. I hated it, right from the start. I wish I’d have walked out – I could have gone and seen that new one with The Rock in it instead. I’d definitely have enjoyed that.”

“Why didn’t you?” Barry asks him.

I’d paid for this film, hadn’t I? It’d have been a waste of ten pounds not to stay and watch it.”

All three moviegoers paid the same £10. To watch exactly the same film. In exactly the same cinema. But all three had wildly different experiences.

Lucinda wasn’t really there – whilst her body was physically in the cinema, her mind was not. She was dicking about on her phone until it died. And when it did die, there was little point in her sticking around to see how it ended – she wasn’t invested in the story. She may as well stayed at home and saved a tenner.

Jorge had a great time – he’d been looking forward to seeing the film for ages, and he made sure to savour every moment of it. Bringing his full attention to the movie wasn’t a guarantee that he would enjoy it, but it did put the chips on his side.

Rajnigandha appeared to try and enjoy the movie, but in reality he’d made his mind up before it ever started – he only stayed to try and justify his investment. He had put £10 into that movie, and he wasn’t about to see it go to waste. Except… it did go to waste, didn’t it? He had a rotten time, and he could have easily just cut his losses and gone to see The Rock in whatever franchise sequel he was in this week. Sunk costs spoiled another Saturday.

We almost always think about money in objective terms – we say that something is “worth” a certain amount, and act as though that is that. Nothing more to it. And there’s an extent to which this is true. “That” is the amount the thing costs – in pounds and pence, at least – but there is a much more important piece of the puzzle being ignored.

Value.

Value has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with the story you are telling yourself about the thing you’re spending you’re money on – or choosing not to spend it on. It’s what you bring to the thing you’re spending money on that makes it worth it or not.

There are two parts to getting this right:

  1. Pick an activity you care about enough to give yourself to.
  2. Give yourself to it.

Jorge did both and had a great time. Lucinda did neither and wasted both her afternoon, and her tenner. Rajnigandha tried to do the second one, but because he’d already failed so spectacularly on the first – he knew he wouldn’t enjoy it, and continued watching even after proving himself right – his efforts were in vain. He had a rubbish time.

Things don’t simply “cost what they cost.” The energy and attention you bring to the things you buy matter far more than their price-tag.

Money isn’t a number. It’s a story.

Be an Auteur

My brother bought me a really nice Quentin Tarantino coffee-table book for my birthday this year.

It’s a beautiful retrospective of the man’s career, with loads of cool photos in, and stories about each movie that I’d never heard before.

Last night, I was leafing through it for about the third time. Somewhere around Reservoir Dogs, I stopped reading and just sat and thought for a while about Tarantino, and what made him special as an artist. Being a ridiculous fan, I could think of plenty of things that make him special, but there’s just one that I want to focus on today.

The auteur

You see, in Quentin Tarantino, you have a fine example of the auteur. This is a title bestowed on those special directors – your Woody Allens, your Wes Andersons, your David Lynches – who wield so much influence on their film that they are considered the “author” of the film.

In all kinds of ways, the auteur goes above and beyond the call of duty expected of your average director-for-hire. They might have also written the script (Tarantino), they might employ an unmistakably distinct visual style (Wes Anderson), and they might have a big say over matters of casting (The Coen Brothers.) Auteurs – though they work with a crew often numbering in the hundreds – make the film their own.

Though there are exceptions to everything, my favourite work – whether that’s movies, TV shows, or music – is auteur-driven. I find it very difficult to get excited about stuff that’s generically popular, but lacks the personal touch of any one person in particular. When a song sounds like a bunch of people trying to create a “hit” rather than something cool and inspired, for example… count me out.

I prefer work that reflects one person’s original vision. Most of all, I like those artists who have made themselves into a category of one – a genre in and of themselves. You go and see “a Tarantino movie”, you listen to “a Bowie album”, you read “a Stephen King.”

Don’t dumb it down for anyone

The camel is a horse designed by committee. Similarly, most art is a perhaps once glorious vision watered down and made anodyne by committee – through some unfortunate blend of greed, conservatism, and a general fearful attitude. We don’t need any more of that. I repeat, we do not need any more of that.

You can choose to toe the line, to be a conformist, to make average stuff for average people. Or you can choose to be an auteur, creating original, brilliant work. It’s up to you.

At every step along the way, there will be people trying to get you to cheapen your vision, to compromise, to make what you’re doing more palatable to the masses. They might be doing it for shady motives – they see dollar signs in you – or for altruistic ones – they want to protect you from disappointment. Whatever the reason, your job is to politely – or not so politely, it’s entirely up to you – tell them to fuck off. If, when push comes to shove, you don’t respect your vision, how can you expect anybody else to?

You only get one life. Don’t waste it doing stuff any old bugger could do. If you’re going to make something, you’re much better off trying to make something original and brilliant – and falling down on your stupid face – than trying to play it safe and make something inoffensive, loosely reminiscent of that powerful vision you once had.

Be better than that. Be braver than that. Be an auteur.