Frank and Jesse James

It always pissed me off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verse 1 – The Beginning Hook

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

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

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

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

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

Chorus 1 – Future Tense

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

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

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

Verse 2 – The Middle Build

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

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

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

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

Chorus 2 – Present Tense

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

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

Verse 3 – The Ending Payoff

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

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

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

Chorus 3 – Past Tense

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

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

Live the Questions

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

Or maybe…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainer Marie Rilke

Say It Today

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

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

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

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

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

Acting Like a Beggar

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

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

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

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

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

Private Victories

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

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

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

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

Steven Pressfield – “The War of Art”

I had a moment like that for myself this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Imperfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMPERFECTION.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criss Jami

La bêtise humaine

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

Chuck Palahniuk – “Rant”

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

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

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

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

Everybody’s Got to Take a Side. Right?

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

PATRICK: That was the right thing?

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

Gone Baby Gone (Affleck, 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Is Just School With Less Acne

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

Or maybe just turn their noses up at you.

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

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

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

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

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

But letting it slow you down is on you.

Some Fly East, Some Fly West…

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

And then the voices came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Via Negativa

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

Vizi Andrei

I tried something new today.

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

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

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

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

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

Make space for yourself.

Don’t Tell When You Can Show

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

Anton Chekhov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sixty Seconds Is All It Takes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is the solution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Inciting Incident

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Know It When You See It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll know it when you see it.

A Day Well-Spent

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

Leonardo Da Vinci

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

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

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

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

There are no losers in the game of life.

Let Your Anger Be Your Guide

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

Malcolm X (1925-1965)

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

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


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

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

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

No. Don’t do that any longer.

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

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

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

Life Is Lived Scene by Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is lived scene by scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When You Can’t Be Arsed…

“I hate writing, I love having written.”

Dorothy Parker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretend You Have ADHD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ManBoy LP turned 5 today

It’s always the same when you have kids…

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

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

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

Choose Your Pain, Not Your Pleasure

Some days it just flows, man.

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

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

But not most days. Ha!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good People and Bad People

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

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

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

Lee Hazlewood – “Long Black Train”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impossible? No, Just Difficult

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

Steven Pressfield – “The War of Art”

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

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

In Praise of Being a Weirdo

I wish I’d been weirder. No, really…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ralph Waldo Emerson

If You Want It, Go Get It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do something. And do it yourself.

Don’t Break. Bend.

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

Robert Greene – “The 48 Laws of Power”

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

Nod along if that ever happens to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seth Godin – “Talker’s Block”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Proverbial Needle in the Haystack

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

Well, sometimes that’s exactly the right method.

Ryan Holiday – “The Obstacle is the Way”

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

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

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

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

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

I doubt it.

“Eureka!” Moments

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

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

John Lennon, Playboy, September 1980

How often does this happen?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curiosity and Obligation

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

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

Otto Von Bismarck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit

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

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

And that was enough.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Pressfield – “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit”

The Things That Don’t Change

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

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

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

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

And then it’s over.

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

I find that incredibly comforting.

People doing the exact same things:

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

Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations” Book 4

All Through the Night

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

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

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

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

Sleep tight.

The Blank Page

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

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

The hardest part? The blank page.

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

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

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

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

So how do you defeat the blank page?

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

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

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

What Don’t You Miss?

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

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

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

Don’t.

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

He Was a Lithuanian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Is a Joke

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

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

Shortly afterwards, this girl became my girlfriend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kurt Vonnegut – “Bluebeard”

An Eternal Decision

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

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

Austin Kleon

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

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

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

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

Do Less and Get More Done.

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

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

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

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

Robert Greene – “The 48 Laws of Power”

The Land of the Free?

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

Rage Against the Machine – “Know Your Enemy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is the Theme of Your Life?

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

“Do you believe in natural talent?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But passages like this inspire me not to:

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

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

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

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

What is yours?

Robert McKee – “Story”

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

What is your theme?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Not the End

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Easter.

You Were Doing Your Best

I meant, I meant…

If only, if only…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Use It

You don’t know the half of it.

But so what?

You know everything you need to know.

So use it.

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

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

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

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

Let Yourself Be Bored

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

Blaise Pascal

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

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

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

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

Don’t Change. Blossom Instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t be anything we want to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Gave Denzel Washington the Benefit of the Doubt

Denzel Washington used to really piss me off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Master your Craft

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

Bruce Lee

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

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

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

I still don’t really know how to proceed.

Moving beyond the clichés

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on the skills

It goes like this:

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

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

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

What about trial and error?

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

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

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

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

We Don’t Need Another Dirty Boulevard

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

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

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

Going out…

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

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

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

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

WE.

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

A home.

Courting the Forces of Antagonism

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

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

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

Robert Mckee – “Story”

But isn’t this true of life, too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s Room for You, Too

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

Frank Zappa

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Gut Is Pure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Meaning Trumps Money

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

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

Would you do it?

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

Would you do it?

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

Would you do it?

Meaning trumps money.


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

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

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

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

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

What’s at Stake?

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 12:41-44

Antifragility

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve thought about it a lot recently.

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

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

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

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

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – “Antifragile”

It’s Okay to Enjoy Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Your Time

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

Lao Tzu

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

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

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

This Is Making You Stronger

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

Seneca

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

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

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

Are You Okay?

Are you okay?

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

But I also want you to know this:

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

07841972079.

I’ll be here.

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

Use Your Phone Smart

Your smartphone has two jobs.

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

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

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

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

Seth Godin – “When your phone uses you”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Looking Until You Find It

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

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

Anne Frank, “The Diary of Anne Frank”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are You Going to Learn?

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

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

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

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

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

What is that? How to tell a story.

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

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

When Things Change, We Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It happened. And we are going through it.

And we’re going to survive.

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

Seneca, “On Providence”, 4.3

Start Something. Today.

You are about to gain one thing and lose another.

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

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

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

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

Periods of isolation can paradoxically be liberating.

They enable what abundance has disabled.

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

I Believe in You

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

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

Ryan Holiday – “The Obstacle is the Way”

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

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

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

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

You Already Know It

I don’t know what you need to hear.

It might be “Stay the fuck home.”

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

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

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

Be brave and do it.

“What Would I Do If…?”

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how I see it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make This Time Count

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAKE THIS TIME COUNT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations” Book 4: 49a

Embarrass Yourself

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

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

Alain de Botton

He’s right, isn’t he?

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

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

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

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

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

I’m Going Through Something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Philosophy of a Coronavirus

It didn’t take long, did it? Coronavirus is now officially a very big deal.

Well, I’m not going to come at you with my normal stoic quotes about how if we just get on with our normal lives it can’t affect us… because that’s not true. It would be trite. This thing can affect you, and it well might. It’s just something to be accepted at this point. The disruption that has already begun is going to get worse before it gets better.

But I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try and offer a positive perspective. And as I walked home from getting my hair cut earlier I found one. No, it doesn’t make the virus or the disruption go away, and no, it doesn’t replace the need for pro-active steps to prevent the spread and minimise fallout. But it might help.

What the immensity and seriousness of the coronavirus situation goes to show is how piddly and of zero consequence everything we ordinarily worry about is. Because how often do things of this size happen – things that cause this much global disruption? Almost never. And yet how often do we fear that they are about to? Constantly.

We are conditioned – by the media, by the state, by one another – to live in fear of what could be around the corner. To panic when the wind changes. To sweat when the phone rings. This chronic, fueled-by-cortisol state is the regular mode of existence for most of the world’s population. And yet we’re almost always completely wrong in our predictions of doom.

Panic and worry can accomplish nothing that rational thought cannot accomplish both more safely and more effectively.

But sometimes, it takes a global pandemic to make you wake up to that reality and appreciate just how fine almost everything is almost all the time.

“The pragmatist can’t worry about every possible outcome in advance. Think about it. Best case scenario — if the news turns out to be better than expected, all this time was wasted with needless fear. Worst case scenario — we were miserable for extra time, by choice. And what better use could you make of that time? A day that could be your last — you want to spend it in worry? In what other area could you make some progress while others might be sitting on the edges of their seat, passively awaiting some fate? Let the news come when it does. Be too busy to care.” 

Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman – “The Daily Stoic”

We Want You

We don’t want you flawless. We don’t want you focus-grouped.

We don’t want you homogenised. We don’t want you optimised.

We want you messy. We want you real.

We want you fucked up. We want you missing a tooth and grinning ear-to-ear about it.

Whoever you are, that’s who we want.

“If God had wanted me otherwise, he would have created me otherwise.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Business as Usual

“We are liable to miss the best of life if we do not know how to tingle, if we do not learn to hoist ourselves just a little higher than we generally are in order to sample the rarest and ripest fruit of art which human thought has to offer.”

Vladimir Nabovok – “Look at the Harlequins!”

If there is one aspect of human nature that towers above all others in our current culture, it is our conservatism. We are hell-bent on preserving “business as usual.”

There’s just one problem with that. There is no such thing.

That’s right. There is no “business as usual”. For how could there be?

No. There are only ideas, floating around each of our heads, about the way things should be. At some point in our early life, these ideas harden into a narrative – our personal “business as usual” – and the sum total of all these narratives is our shared culture.

To try to preserve “business as usual” is to pervert the course of nature.

Reality is a dynamic, flowing, wilful thing – it is going to do what it is going to do, and the one thing you can rely on it to is to change. You can resist its changes, or you can go with them, but it remains utterly indifferent to you. To try to halt its changes because they do not mesh with how you think the world ought to be is like trying to grab hold of water.

But I think there’s something even more important here.

For even if it were at all possible to preserve “business as usual”, I wouldn’t bother. Everything that is worth doing lies beyond what we think of as usual.

If you want to live, really live, escape the routine and the mundanity and the way everybody says things are supposed to be. Demand more from the sunset.

“Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.”

Joe (Nymphomaniac Vol. 1)

You Are the Captain of This Ship

“Energy goes where attention flows.”

Tony Robbins

If you don’t like what you see, don’t look.

If you don’t like what you hear, don’t listen.

Your attention is exactly that – yours. And your greatest asset is your ability to say “yes” to that which you want more of – by paying more attention to it – and to say “no” to that which you want less of – by paying less.

Don’t squander this ability. It is the literal difference between having a good life and a bad life – one where you were focused on what gave your days richness and meaning, and one where you were focused on what gave your days disconnection and ennui.

But what will “they” say?

Who cares?

Anybody who gets upset with your choices is telling you far more about themselves than they are about you. They will try to make you feel reckless and irresponsible for not toeing the line that they invented. See this for what it is: an attempt to control and manipulate you.

They are afraid of you because they do not understand you. That is not your problem, nor is it your responsiblity to bring them round.

You are the captain of this ship. And in this clumsy metaphor, the sea is the world, and your attention is the ship’s wheel. Take your ship where you want to, not where people filled with fear try to manipulate you into taking it.

The Next Chapter of Your Story

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

Epictetus

Sunday evening. And what did you have for dinner? (Honestly, email me. I’d love to know.) Emma and I had fried chicken, bacon, avocado and a whole lot of mayo, all of it shoved majestically into the last two pieces of stale panini bread the Tesco Express on Abbeydale Road had to offer me. And a few salty chunks of halloumi. It worked.

For most of my adult life I haven’t had to anticipate Monday mornings with the grim reluctance most people seem to, because I’ve either been unemployed, or self-employed, or started work in the afternoon. For all intents and purposes, Sunday evening should feel no different to me than any other evening. But coulda woulda shoulda… it does feel different.

You might see it differently, but Sunday evenings feel to me like the end of one little chapter of my life, and the beginning of another. A sort of mini death and rebirth. And so what I like to do, in a completely informal way, is to ask myself – when I remember to – “How will you shape this next chapter of your story?”

I use the word “shape” very deliberately here. I don’t believe that I can control the future – not even one week at a time – any more than I believe that I can throw a pork chop through a fifteenth-story window and have it land directly into a frying pan. To be honest, no matter whether I leave things be, or try obsessively to control them, things tend to just happen the way they want to happen.

But make no mistake, I am in no way a defeatist. I haven’t given up. There are some things I can do. I can look inside myself and ask who I want to be. And then I can try, just for this week, to act like I am that person. And if I can at least try to do that, then it doesn’t matter how spectactularly I fail… my week will have been, on balance, a damned sight better than if I given this no thought whatsoever.

Fail your way forward, as I have never said, but may start doing from now on.

Well, what about you? How will you shape this next chapter of your story? What would bring you that inch closer to being the person you truly want to be… the person you actually are on the inside?

Be More Wrong

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

James Joyce

Sure. But let’s be honest for a second, James… isn’t being right a whole lot more delicious than being wrong?

Oh, how I love being right! You know, I really get off on it. It puts me that much closer to God’s right hand. If you could cut me open when I’m in the middle of being right, you will find my veins running rich with the warmth of smugness and self-righteousness.

It’s a feeling so delicious, in fact, that it feels in no way like the addiction it really is – no, it feels wonderful, like running a bath of dopamine.

And that’s what’s so dangerous about it. The neurochemical buzz you get from being right blinds you to reality, to what is. All you care about now is that you’re right, and that you want to stay right.

If all you care about is being right, you are going to severely limit your potential as a human being. Instead of exploring the world, you care more about protecting your current position. You stagnate. You shrink. You become a husk, divorced from reality, and attached to preserving something utterly meaningless.

You don’t grow from being right… ever. You only grow from being wrong – from making an incorrect assumption about reality, being shown the error of your ways, and then correcting course. The more often you can prove yourself wrong – and survive – the truer your perception of reality becomes.

Yes, it’s a paradox. The way to be as right as possible in the long-run is to be wrong as often as possible in the short-run.

Stop trying to prove yourself right. Prove yourself wrong instead. What could be more fun?

“If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You are doing things you have never done before, and more importantly, you are doing something.”

Neil Gaiman

Be Your Own Oracle

The BBC newscaster, in her twin-set and pearls, comes on-screen to inform you of a groundbreaking new study – one which demonstrates beyond belief that people who eat an average of two squares of dark chocolate every full moon have a 15% percent smaller chance of developing an ingrown toenail.

Great. But what I am I supposed to do with that?

Your hairdresser asks you if you work out and when you say “No, not really,” she spends seven minutes detailing her cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s calisthenics routine – he used to do four press-ups every five days and in no time he had arms like cobras.

Brilliant. I didn’t ask.

And your best friend doesn’t understand how you can have trouble sleeping – so long as she has her phone playing a true crime podcast, and her computer playing Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii, she’s out like a light.

Fine. But when I tried it I tossed and turned all night, in and out of nightmares involving Dave Gilmour and the unsolved mysteries of unsolved mysteries…

If you sometimes feel like the world is little more than a constant reminder of everything you’re supposed to be doing, or not doing, or already are doing but apparently not in the way you’re meant to do it… you’re not alone. Me too.

My advice? Double down on how you’re living now. Plant your feet more firmly where they currently stand. Learn to be comfortable with just exactly who you are and how you do. Build your house on the rock.

And should you then feel a genuine desire to try something new, to shake things up, to grow, to stretch yourself as a human being, then go for it. You’ll probably fare better too, because of your strong foundation.

But if what you’re motivated by is ‘something someone said’, which gave you a fear of missing out, and a fear of not keeping up with the Jones’s, and a fear that you’re getting life wrong…

Ignore it. Stick with your own path.

“Quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum.”

(What is food for one man may be bitter poison for others.)

Titus Lucretius Carus (1st century BC)

This Is Your Time

Of all the sensitive muso-type clichés there are – and they bring new ones out every year – one I’ve been particularly guilty of is seeing myself as having been born into the wrong era.

Music just isn’t the same these days, I’ll sit and think. I’d have been so much better off in late 60s Laurel Canyon. There’s nothing I can do here…

And then I wake up and I slap myself on the wrist. Because the notion that you or I were born into any other time than the perfect time is a ridiculous one, and I see it as part of my civic duty to rid the world of as many ridiculous notions as possible.

“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.”

Bill Bryson – “A Short History of Nearly Everything”

Don’t you see? This is your time. It has to be.

I’ll forgive you the occasional flirtation with the idea that you might have fared better in the 20s, or the 60s, or even a few centuries ago, or even in Ancient China… but make sure flirting is as far as it goes. Keep those hands above the waist. Leave room for Jesus.

Because you don’t have time to waste – you have work to be done in the present. And I’ll tell you what that work is… helping shape this era, the one you actually find yourself in.

You can’t do anything in those other eras, because you weren’t there. Or then. But you are here. And now. So you can either waste your life lamenting that fact, or you can get on with something in the here and now, where you actually have some sway.

Whenever you are, that’s when you were meant to be.

One final thing: if you genuinely feel with all your heart that you were born into the wrong era, and nothing I say can convince you otherwise, then my advice is to go 100% as deep as you can into that impulse. Turn what I’m telling you is a limiting belief into art. As Ryan Holiday says in The Obstacle is the Way, “Every negative has a positive. Push a negative hard enough and deep enough that it will break through into its counterside.”

The best people in the world have a timeless essence. Whatever it is that makes them unique has very little to do with the times they live in. But they are still nevertheless born into one era or another.

You might as well make the most of yours, since it’s the only one you’ll ever have.

I Knew I Would Never Be Happy Again

I sat on my bed and I looked out of the loft window at the red setting sun and I knew I would never be happy again.


There isn’t much more to it than that. Towards the end of 2002, when I was eleven years old, I fell like a falling safe into my first depression. It was to last for about four or five months.

I had had a great year, all told, right up until that moment on my bed. And it wasn’t just because good things had happened to me that year, though they had. I had spent months genuinely in love with life for no good reason.

My Year 6 teacher, Mr Pownall, was brilliant. I looked forward to going to school every day, because he had found a way to both stoke and satsify my growing curiosity about the world. I don’t know how he did it but he did. And I was getting good on the guitar, spending my spare time learning Beatles songs, mainly by ear. And in the summer holidays, I spent four weeks in Japan on a CISV camp, where I met and got to know thirty-nine other kids from ten different countries. Blew my mind.

And then I came back to England, and pretty much straight away started at secondary school. It might not have been as balls-to-the-wall fun as primary school had been the past couple of years, but it certainly seemed like something I could manage. It was all very new to me, and that made it exciting in and of itself.

There were all kinds of types of people I had never come across before. Of course you had nice kids and mean kids and bitchy kids but then you also had kids that wanted you to think they were hard, kids that actually were hard, kids whose parents were addicts and sex workers and Jeremy Kyle contestants… It was fascinating.

Then six or seven weeks in, we had a week’s holiday. I remember nothing about what I did during that week, only that on the Sunday night, I sat on my bed and I looked out of the loft windows at the red sun setting and I knew I would never be happy again. Every ounce of good-feeling I had ever known – and I had known very much in my eleven years – was gone.

Poof. Just like that.


In a film, when something whacks you out of the blue like that, it’s usually the precursor to some kind of adventure – man falls into a hole, and then the rest of the story is him trying to get himself out of it. But since this is not a film, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find out that I did what I imagine most people do when most anything happens to them – I just carried on in the hope that it would magically sort itself out.

I was back at school the next morning, getting on with my life, trying to act as as though nothing had changed, as though I hadn’t seen what I had seen that Sunday night. And I kept up the act of being whoever it was I had been before. But it got harder and harder to do that, because deep down I knew I wasn’t that boy any more. I was a different boy. I was a very sad boy.

I have always felt a bit separate from other people. Not disliked, not rejected, just not naturally one of the pack. I find it goes against my nature to spend too much being part of a team – I have to smooth my rough edges to fit in and I resent having to do so.

And up until that point I’d also never given a solitary shit about this side of me before. I might have even taken pride in it. But over those few months, I grew to hate it. To hate everything that made me stand out. I would have given anything to be just like “everyone else”. I would lie in my bed at night and stare at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling and feel ashamed at all the thoughts that were racing through my head. And then I would feel guilty that there were people in the world with “real” problems, and here was me with a cushty life with nothing going wrong lying in bed upset about my own brain… how dare I?

At first, my guitar was a great solace. I had been playing for nearly two years at this point, and whilst I don’t want to blow my own trumpet when there isn’t cause to, for an eleven year with less than two years experience who had never had a single lesson, I was a fucking God on that thing. I would play, and whilst I had it in my hands, there was some kind of temporary relief. But it didn’t last. There came the day when it did nothing for me. The notes that had once been so beautiful were now just sounds, no different to me than a car horn or my mum boiling some water on the hob.

I even put it under my bed for a week during the Christmas holidays so that I wouldn’t have to look at it, because looking at it just reminded me of how far I’d fallen.

It was the longest winter of my life.


There was no one day when I suddenly felt better – it happened very slowly and gradually. Whilst the depression had hit me like a ton of bricks, it had lifted like a particularly weak person picking up each brick individually and carrying it away before returning to pick up the next one.

And there was no specific thing I did or didn’t do to get better – since I had no idea what was happening to me I had no idea how to help myself. In the end I think I’d call it the blind luck of several things compounding to lift me out of it.

My family, who have never been anything but loving towards me. Making friends with Miles and now having a buddy to play guitar with. Getting a lot of exericise playing for a football team. The sun coming out a bit more. Going to youth club at St Chads on a Friday night.

But my specific “recovery” memory is of laying down on the very same bed I’d watched the sun set and felt so god-awful on, strumming my guitar and texting some girl I fancied in my class and suddenly noticing that there was no longer the black cloud above me that there had been.

I don’t know where it went. I didn’t think to ask. I was just glad to see the sky again.

It’s Okay If You’re Depressed

I don’t know who needs to read this. Today, it was me. Tomorrow, it might be you.

There’s only one thing that hurts more than being depressed: being depressed whilst telling yourself you have no right to be depressed.

So let me make it clear to you, in case nobody ever did before: You have every right to be depressed. You don’t need a reason. You don’t need a justification. You don’t need anybody permission. You’re allowed to just… be depressed.

And speaking from personal experience (I am going to write tomorrow about my first depressive episode at the age of 11) I can tell you that the most insidious and depressing aspect of depression is how it robs you of the ability to do the things that would help you feel better. As in… your mind comes up with the solutions, but then won’t allow you to follow through on them. Isn’t that just evil?

So whilst I of course would recommend you do the usual common-sense things, like go to the doctor, talk to someone you trust about how you feel, make sure you’re eating enough plants, getting enough light, going for a walk every day… you might answer “Yep, all great ideas… but I’m depressed. So I won’t be doing them. Because I literally can’t. Bye.”

And I would completely understand. So that leaves you with just one option.

Let it in.

Because no matter how god-awful you feel, no matter how ashamed you are at this depression you “shouldn’t” have, no matter how much you wish you could have someone else’s brain for a day, not allowing it to be is making it a hundred times worse.

Of course you don’t want to admit it. Of course you don’t want to accept it. You don’t want to feel like shit. Why wouldn’t you resist it? It’s just that what you think you’re going to get from resisting it is not what you’re going to get. Ignoring will it always make it worse in the long run. I’ll repeat that: ignoring it will always make it worse in the long run.

Please, for me, if you can’t do any of the other stuff, at least do this. Tell yourself it’s okay to be depressed. At least stop fighting yourself. At least stop using half of your brain to attack the other half.

To whatever extent you are able to, accept that right now, at this moment in time, this is how you feel.

And no, you’re not going to magically become un-depressed. Your life is not going to sort itself out overnight. But you will get the only thing you need – a tiny bit of relief. Relief is all you need. Because if you can get a little relief today, even just a snifter, you can get a little more tomorrow. And then maybe you can try some of the other stuff you know would probably help.

Depression is hard enough by itself. Don’t make it even harder by denying that you’re experiencing it. You might think you’re being optimistic – you’re not. Denial isn’t optimism. It’s incredibly fucking dangerous.

Lastly, I love you, and I promise you I’m not the only one.

Don’t Let Them Intimidate You

“Shostakovich maintained his presence of mind in several ways. First, instead of letting Stalin intimidate him, he forced himself to see the man as he was: short, fat, ugly, and unimaginative.”

Robert Greene – “The 33 Strategies of War”

As you go through your day, you will inevitably encounter people who act in a way that makes you assume that they know more about the world than you do. And regarding certain domains, this may indeed turn out to be true.

The bus driver, for instance, likely knows far more than you do about driving buses. The office worker knows how to survive working in an office. And the professional footballer… when it comes to kicking a football around for 90 minutes a week and being a professional model the rest of the time, I’m afraid he’s got you beat.

But what does any of that have to do with you?

When it comes to you living your life, it is literally impossible for anyone to what is better for you than you yourself. Yes, they might on occasion be able to offer domain-specific advice, but other than that, take anything they say – their advice, their judgments, their criticisms – with an enormous pinch of salt.

And that, of course, includes everything I say.

Parasite

I saw it tonight.

I would hate to spoil it for you, even by telling you whether I enjoyed it or not. So all I will say is go and see it. And you will take away from it whatever is yours to take.

The one thing I kept coming back to as I watched was just how commonplace it is – downright normal, in fact – for us to place more value on some human lives more than on others. To see some people as more deserving of dignity, respect, and opportunity, often through nothing more than an accident of birth.

And how we will assume that when somebody is rich and successful it is because of their work ethic and great character, but that when somebody is in poverty it is because of their laziness or stupidity.

Who cares why somebody got themselves in the position they are in now – good or bad? If the roles were reversed, wouldn’t you want them to give you the benefit of the doubt?

It’s called the golden rule for a reason.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:37-40

The Value of Experimenting on Yourself

I don’t know why I didn’t do this a long time ago.

I’m only in the middle of my second day of not having any caffeine, and already I can tell that this was a good idea. Other than a mild headache – which started a couple of hours ago and is getting worse – I feel better than I have in years. My mind might not have shut the fuck up, but it’s speaking at a reasonable volume, and about things I have an interest in. That’s not been my experience for a very long time.

You can get used to anything. And just like how a fish doesn’t know it’s in water, I don’t think I quite appreciated how normal stress and anxiety have become for me, how much I have been relying on cortisol and adrenaline to get anything done. But that was normal, so I just kept going. And now I’m not caffeinated, I sort of feel like I’ve been away for a long time and come home. Like I’m waking up from a very deep sleep.

Of course, this could all be a fluke, and that’s what time will tell, but it is slowly dawning on me just how much of what I’ve thought, said, and done for over a decade might have been different had I not had so much coffee in me the whole time.

But I want to make something crystal clear – I am not telling you this as some kind of preach against caffeine. I don’t think that you or everybody you know should suddenly stop consuming it just because for a day and a half I have felt more relaxed without it. Jesus. I have more respect for you than that.

No, it’s not about caffeine at all. It’s about having the courage to experiment. Because you can Google all day long about whether this is good for you or that is bad for you, or if you should always do such-and-such in a particular way… and never actually find out. Or you can do a little (reversible) experiment and find out first-hand. And if life was better before you changed whatever you changed, then it’s a no-brainer – go back to how things were.

The inside-out is superior to the outside-in. It is impossible to know what something will be like until you try it

For example, I gave up alcohol for Lent last year. I wanted to see what it would be like. And honestly, the change was minimal. I slept unusually well for the first two or three nights, and after that I really didn’t notice much of a change in my life. And so when that experiment was over, I went back to drinking. Why not? I like drinking.

The point is that I wondered if there was something better on the other side, and I found my answer.

What’s something you’ve been wondering about? I say go for it. Remember, you can always reverse course if things go really tits up.

What you must ask yourself is this: Is my experience of life right now SO INCREDIBLE that it’s not worth a little experimentation to see if it could be better?

You have far more to gain than you have to lose.

Toss It

“It is a hard thing to leave any deeply routined life, even if you hate it.”

John Steinbeck – “East of Eden”

All day long, for years and years and years, you have been making choices. This way, or that.

Your “past” is really nothing more than the total sum of the choices you have made. And you can choose to see your past in one of two ways.

As a prison sentence – you see yourself as obligated to stay forever consistent to your past choices, even if you feel you now know better.

Or as a gift – you see the past as something offered to you by your former self, something you are free to accept if it still feels right, or to turn down, if you feel you now know better than you once did.

Your past certainly informs your present – and the longer you do something, the easier it gets to continue – but it does not dictate your present. You are always free to change direction. If something your past self has gifted to you doesn’t feel right any more, toss it. Say thank you for the offer, and go in the direction that feels right today.

I’m Giving Up Coffee For Lent

Last year I gave up alcohol for Lent. Why? Because I wasn’t sure if I could. That was reason enough. And it actually turned out to be easier than I thought, and to make less of a difference to my life than I thought it would.

What I didn’t tell anyone at the time, though, was that what I really wanted to do was see if I could give up coffee, but I chickened out at the last second because I was too scared and chose alcohol instead. I was scared both of the first few inevitable days of headaches and irritability, and also of the possibility that I would quit halfway through and down an espresso.

Well, I don’t know what’s different this year, but I’m giving it a go. And just because quitting alcohol for a few weeks wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be, I am under no illusions about this one. I know it’s going to be horrible at first.

If I were someone who just had a weak cup in the morning this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but with two exceptions – four weeks in 2010 and one week in 2016, I’ve drank several cups a day for the last 13 years. And I like it strong. I get a headache if I so much as get to the middle of the afternoon and I haven’t had one.

And that’s just one of the reasons why for about the last 12 years I have suspected my permanently high caffeine consumption was doing me more harm than good, but that’s the frustrating thing about coffee – it’s essentially impossible to look to the outside world for confirmation on whether or not you should be drinking it. For every study that finds definitive proof you should never have another sip, another one finds ten reasons you’re not having enough of the stuff. You can’t go down the objective route. You can’t ask the world if you personally “should” drink coffee, or your search will have you running round in circles for years, like me.

Ultimately, the only way to know if it is good, bad, or neutral – for you – is to have direct experience of both modes of living. I have experienced the full-of-coffee mode for over a decade. I know INTIMATELY what that shit is all about.

I think I owe it to myself to do this measly six weeks. Wish me luck. And if in my next few days worth of writings I sound like I’m down in the dumps, it’s because – chemically, at least – I am.

La Petite Mort Musicale

“Beauty needs a witness.”

Zan Perrion

I’ll let you in on a secret: certain parts of certain songs make me cry every time I hear them. It doesn’t matter if I’m in my bedroom, or if I’m driving, or if I’m walking down the street.

Case in point: I went for a rainy walk this evening, and – amongst a couple of other songs – the third verse of Castles Made of Sand by Jimi Hendrix did it to me. (There was a young girl, whose heart was a frown, ’cause she was crippled for life, and she couldn’t speak a sound…”)

I am powerless to Jimi every time he sings those lines.

But I’m not crying tears of sadness. Far from it. It’s much more like some kind of musical orgasm. I feel this rising tension inside me, and I know what’s about to happen, and then the dam bursts, and my eyes well up and I feel elation and euphoria for a few seconds, and then I come back down to Earth.

For those brief few seconds, I am free. There is no time. There is just beauty. I know exactly who I am and what I came here to do. And then it’s gone and I just have a happy memory of how it felt.

If I could bottle this experience and sell it like a drug, I would. Except that I don’t think that would work out because they do say it’s very bad business for a dealer to get high on his own supply, and I know for a fact I wouldn’t be able to help myself.

Is this something you experience too? I’d love to know.

Don’t Waste Your Life in Worry

From time to time, I like to do nothing but sit and think.

I can’t do it very often. And that’s not because I don’t have the time to – I most certainly do – but because my mind generally spends every moment from morning to night sprinting from one place to the next to the next to the next and “doing something” helps slow it down.

Well, I have no idea how much wine I drank last night – it was my birthday party – but it was enough to ensure that I felt pretty slow this morning, even after my ADHD medication and a couple of espressos. I managed to write my morning pages in the loft, humming along to Station to Station, and when I was done with that, I wanted to do nothing but sit and think. It was very pleasant.

And I don’t know why, but what I kept returning to was what a chronic worrier I have been, basically forever – as well as I might hide it. I thought about all the different things I have spent days and weeks and months and sometimes years dreading, anticipating their coming true in a state of absolute terror. I thought about all the cool things – both big and tiny – that I have stopped myself from doing because “what if…?”

And then a realisation came that made me both smile and frown at the same time: None of the things that I can vividly remember spending a lot of time worrying about have ever actually come true.

That made me sit up. “Nah,” I thought. “That can’t be. Surely… oh… actually, maybe… Jesus, it’s true.”

Every second I have ever spent worrying about anything has been a complete fucking waste of my time. Every. Single. Second.

I felt ashamed. I was given this gift of life. I don’t know how many Gods my soul had to sleep with to get me here, and then what do I go and spend a load of it doing? Smelling the flowers? Savouring my time? No. I was busy obsessing over how woe-is-me it would be if something “bad” were to happen in a future moment, over which I have no control.

Well, I don’t know how to break this nasty habit, and I suspect it is something I will be working on until the day I die, but I’m committed to the effort.

Because – and maybe I’m wrong – I very much doubt that when I am about to kick it, and I’m laying there on my death-bed, wearing old-timey pyjamas replete with one of those floppy hats, that I’ll be thinking “Oh, man, I wish I’d spent more of my life worrying about all that stuff that didn’t end up happening anyway…”

“It’s ruinous for the soul to be anxious about the future and miserable in advance of misery, engulfed by anxiety that the things it desires might remain its own until the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest – by longing for things to come it will lose the ability to enjoy present things.”

Seneca – Moral Letters

A Quick One, by Way of Henry Miller

It’s my birthday. I have a party to get ready for. So whilst I have no intention of shirking today’s writing all together, I’m afraid I do not have the luxury of being able to sit here indefinitely, listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and hoping for the Muse to whisper into my ear.

And so with time being of the essence, I decided to rifle through my Ralph Lauren shoebox of notecards for something pertinent and meaningful to share on my birthday. On each notecard is a quote or passage that meant enough to me at the time I came across it to go to the effort of copying it out by hand.

I rifled through, thinking that what would be most meaningful would be something I had copied down so long ago as to have forgotten it completely. But that’s not what happened.

The very first card on the pile – something I copied out at the start of this week after reading it in an article on the amazing brainpickings website – summed up perfectly what I wanted to say to you.

“If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power…

“If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on the way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss – under your breath, of course – “Fuck you, Jack! You don’t own me!”…

“If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter, and cynical, man you’ve it half licked.”

Henry Miller – “On Turning Eighty”

Goodbye, Twenty-Eight

It’s my birthday tomorrow. I will be twenty-nine years old.

When I hear myself say that, my mind offers one of two responses. If my spirits are high, I’ll think “Gee, is that all? How’d you fit all that in? Are you remembering it right? Did you really do that…?” And if they are low, I’ll wonder “Where the hell did that go? You were just tying your laces…”

All this to say who cares? Age is just a number.

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

Life is long if you know how to use it.

Seneca – “On the Shortness of Life”

The best things, the most interesting things, the things that I remember the clearest and the most often, were never the things the things that went right, never the things I set out to do, never the things that seemed like the next logical step…

Instead, they were the things I would, as it were, wake up and find myself in the middle of doing, with no idea how any of it had come to pass.

They were the distractions, the diversions, the sub-plots, the tangents. These were life itself and the only tragedy was that you couldn’t deliberately make any more of them than you were given. To do so would be like trying to grab hold of water.

The best you could do was to notice when a big wave was approaching and then ride it ’til the sun went down.

So if I have learnt anything – and the jury’s still out on that one – it is that it’s wise to have a plan, to follow a routine, to structure your days… and then to throw that shit out of the window like a hot potato the second something shiny comes along.

Because that’s life.

Be Kind… to Yourself

The kindest thing I did today was give up.

I drank the water. I swallowed the pills. I even did a breathing exercise I found online designed to stimulate my vagus nerve…

And none of it could even remotely shake whatever voodoo funk I’d woken up with. You know the kind I mean – you feel like you can remember the words for “sunshine”, and “smile”, and “lolly-pop”, but you don’t remember what they mean…

I rallied round for a few hours, desperately doing things to try to make myself feel better. And then I got sick of it. And I gave up. And the moment I got sick of it and gave up and just accepted how I awful I felt, I felt better. Not “better” in the sense that the black fog had suddenly left me, but “better” in the sense that I didn’t feel as bad as before. Hey, I’ll take that.

I’m not going anywhere in particular with this, other than to say that sometimes you’re going to wake up feeling like you’ll never be happy again. You need to remember two things.

One, that it’s not true – you will be happy again.

But two, if all you do is tell yourself thing number one, and try to push the feeling down, you’ll wake up the same way tomorrow.

I know it doesn’t seem right that accepting horrible feelings that you don’t want to feel is the path to ultimately feeling better, but it is. Feelings – even the horrible ones – want to be felt. The more you run from them, the more damage they will do in the long run.

So next time you wake up feeling like death, be kind to yourself. Drink the water. Swallow the pills. And as soon as you possibly can, give up.

The Time I Woke up in a Police-Car

You know,” I say. “Women resist at first, but they always succumb in the end…” Lucy looks at me like I am on crack. Robyn? She just cracks up.

Allow me to explain…

I’m 21 years old and it’s a Monday evening in March. Sitting on my bed at my parent’s house after dinner, watching Two and a Half Men, I drink a whole bottle of Australian white wine – a 21st birthday present a couple of weeks ago.

Then I’m on the bus to town, Cat Stevens is in my ears, and I’m blissing out to the feeling of warm alcohol running making its way through my veins. I’m at that sweet-spot where your anxiety has disappeared but it hasn’t yet been replaced by stupidity. If I only I could feel this way all the time, I’m thinking.

At the Green Room, I buy myself some more white wine and sign up to the open mic. It’s my turn to play. I’m still conscious enough to put in a decent set, if somewhat growly and aggressive. It’s busy tonight and so the applause feels like twice as much as usual and it makes me feel like superman.

I’m having the time of my life. I drink a few more glasses of wine.

The trouble begins when I hear a voice ask “Does anybody play drums?” Before I know what’s going on, I’m sitting behind the drum kit. Later, I would learn that no sooner had the question been asked, than I had exclaimed “Me!” and run faster than a speeding bullet toward the stage, as though paranoid somebody else might get there first.

It’s Steve who needs a drummer. Steve plays soft, , sensitive acoustic material. There’s a bass player too. They talk amongst themselves, presumably about what songs we’re about to rock out to.

I pick up the drum sticks. This is fine, I think. I know what I’m doing. I can drum. I’ll just test them. I whack the snare drum. “BAM!” I find it hilarious. I do it again. The second one makes me laugh even more than the first. I look up. Steve and the bass player – and most of the people in Green Room – are looking at me.

I’ll give you something to look at, I think to myself. I do an ill-executed drum-roll, and end it with a crash cymbal. Though I hear no cheers, I am delighted with myself, and start hitting the drums almost at random. What’s everybody’s problem? Get off the stage? I’m drumming! I’m a drummer! BAM! BA-BAM! Alright, alright, I’ll wait.

Steve starts a song. I sit quietly. I nod my head. Yep. I got this. I arch my back, steeling myself for my big moment. Here it is… BA-BAM-BA-BA-BAM… oh, fuck.

I have dropped both drum-sticks on the floor, which is a shame, because the fill I was playing was dynamite, but having heard only half of it people are going to make the dangerous assumption that I’m just some drunk who can’t play the drums. I’ll show them.

I find the sticks, and I attempt to rejoin the song. But they’re playing it all wrong. Sure, Steve might have written the song, but I know how it should go – I’m a musician, remember. This is dragging, the way he’s doing it. It needs someone to light a fire under it. And if that someone has to be me, then so be it. I start drumming a little bit faster and a little bit louder. And whilst my intentions were to make the song sound better, if anything, I have made things much worse.

They stop playing, in the middle of the song, and ask me politely to stop playing the drums. I can’t argue with them. Not only because they’re right, but because I’m slowly losing the ability to string sentences together. I go back to the audience. Someone offers me a glass of water. I down it.

It was around this time that Robyn’s friend Lucy arrived. She is very beautiful. I stroll up to her, go to whisper into her ear, and realise far too late that I have forgotten how to whisper. “You know,” I said. “Women resist at first, but they always succumb in the end…” Lucy looks at me like I am on crack. Robyn? She just cracks up.

I feel like my work at the Green Room is done. I bid Robyn and Lucy farewell – “I’m going home, girls!” – and I tear off my orange cardigan and I throw it at a stranger. I leg it towards the door and I continue legging it down Fitzwilliam Street.

The next thing I know, I’m laying down on the pavement.

“Are you alright, mate?” I pick my head up to see who’s talking to me. It’s a police lady in a police car. “Where do you live, mate?”

So now I’m in the back of a police car, with two female police officers, driving down Abbeydale Road. I start humming a little bit. Dum-dum-dum-duuuuhm-duuuuhm. Then mumbling. Morning has broooo-ken. I get louder.

“Come on, girls, let’s have a sing along!” They don’t take me up on it, and their lack of enthusiasm infects me – I give up myself after a line or two more. Now I’m bored. And I start to feel uneasy.

“Excuse me,” I said.

“Yes?”

“How do you open the window?”

“Why do you want to open the window?”

“I want to be sick.”

SCREECH. “No! No! NO!” The car stops. I wonder if I’ll have whiplash in the morning. We’re outside ALDI, on Archer Road.

“This isn’t where I live,” I said. The police lady who is in the passenger seat gets out and opens my door for me.

“You can get home from here, can’t you, mate?”

I walk up the hill, throwing up in the woods along the way, and then I’m home. It’s not even midnight yet but everybody is in bed. I wonder aloud if there are any crisps.


If you can’t share your humiliation publicly, you haven’t gotten over it yet. And if you’re not over it yet, you’ve still got this gaping wound in your heart, and it will always keep you from being 100% authentic.

Being authentic — or transparent — isn’t just about being honest. It’s about having nothing to hide.

Concealing the truth from others creates a wall between you and them. Tear down that wall by sharing what you thought you could never share, and you’ll experience a much deeper level of connection with everyone you meet.

Steve Pavlina – “Share Your Shame”

PS

For you mega-fans out there, this story is where the lines from my song, Don Draper, “I woke up in a police-car, they didn’t want to sing along…” came from.

Tattoo You

I don’t have any tattoos.

You know, I wish I had a better reason for this, like perhaps being in possession of some sort of rare ink allergy – I’d feel forty flavours of special. The truth is far less glamorous: as of yet, I’ve simply never got round to getting one.

When I was a teenager, people had this theory about tattoos. And when I say people, I mean teachers, the gobby kids at school, characters off Eastenders… To tattoos, these people ascribed a magical power, and one I never quite understood – that of making you 100% completely and utterly unemployable.

The way they told it ’round the campfire, if you were ever to be foolish enough to let a tattoist have his or her wicked way with just one square inch of your skin, well… you might as well sign up for the homeless shelter now, because buddy, ain’t nobody giving you a job. Not in this lifetime.

I smelt bullshit, if I can be frank.

The evidence for their theory was incredibly scant. And evidence for its contrary was everywhere, especially in places like KFC and McDonalds, but even once in HSBC I saw an employee burst through a door marked “STAFF ONLY” wearing a white tank-top which showed off some kind of fire-breathing dragon wrapped around his tricep.

What’s more, whenever you asked these spouters if they actually knew somebody who had been turned down for a job for being tattooed, it was always “my Dad’s mate”, or “someone my sister knows” – ah yes, the brave hero of every apocryphal tale.

But who knows… maybe their theory wasn’t completely unfounded. I was willing to accept that there were certain situations where, depending on the tattoo, and depending on the job, your prospects of landing the job might be lower than with no tattoos.

But what I wasn’t willing to accept was the unchallenged notion beneath it all that in life there might be things you want to do but for no good reason you shouldn’t do them because… what might happen??? Their model of the world seemed flawed to me, that you could either express yourself or support yourself. But not both.

Nah. Didn’t buy it then. Don’t buy it now.

Henry Ford was right: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Because of course you can have a tattoo and a job – loads of people do. Or you can have a tattoo and no job. Or no tattoo and a job. Or no tattoo and no job. All of these combinations are 100% objectively possible. But your mind will only show you what it believes to be possible.

If you walk around thinking that it’s impossible to have a tattoo and a job, and you live your life as though this were gospel, then… it will be gospel. Reality will show you what you want to see, just like how when you’re thinking about buying a red car, you suddenly see red cars everywhere. The red cars were there, you just weren’t looking for them.

It should go without saying that this piece is about more than just tattoos and jobs. It’s about everything you think to be true about the world.

What you believe matters. When you believe something, you are choosing for it to be true. You are choosing for the world to look like that. You don’t like it? Choose something different.

Beauty Is Just a Choice Away

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations” Book 5

If you want to, you can choose to see everything that happens to you as a coincidence, as some kind of cosmic accident. You can choose to see the Universe as completely indifferent to you, like a government or a corporation. You can choose to see yourself as completely separate to the almost 8 billion other people wandering around on this blue rock circling the sun.

Equally, if you want to, you can choose to see everything that happens to you as somehow fated to happen, as part of some grand plan with you at the centre. You can choose to see the Universe as unconditionally on your side. You can choose to see yourself as intimately connected to everybody else in the world, as one part of a whole, where you cannot harm another without harming yourself, and where your joy is the joy of the whole planet.

Neither is “right”. Neither is “wrong”. They’re all just choices. No more, no less.

And yet do you not think – as I do – that if you were to walk around with the first set of beliefs in your head, your experience of life would be drastically different to if it were the second set?

You might not get to choose everything that goes on in your world, but you do get to choose how you look at it, how you frame it. Why not do so it in a way that gives you joy, that makes you feel empowered, that makes you feel rich with life?

The time is going to pass anyway, why not choose to make it beautiful?

PS:

Given how often I liberate quotes from it to reinforce my ideas here, I can understand why you might think that, like Jeremy from Peep Show, I have only ever managed to get through one book in my entire life.

Of course, this is not true. I have read several books – one of them, incidentally, being “Mr Nice”, Jez’s favourite. But until something sucker punches me like Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”, I hope you can live with my incessant referencing of his work.

A Crisp, Green Apple

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.

Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations” Book 1

I have a crisp, green apple here with your name on it.

Tell me, if you would, what would make my crisp, green apple taste its sweetest?

Should I hand it to you immediately after forcing you to finish a hearty five-course meal, whilst you lay on my sofa in a food coma with not only your belt unclasped but also your trouser button undone, to ease the pressure from your expanded belly?

Or should I hand it to you after you’ve spent three days walking in the hot sun with nothing to eat, not even a lonesome blueberry?

Call me crazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion you’d appreciate the crisp, green apple more after the three days of hunger than the five-course meal.

Let me come clean: I don’t really have a crisp, green apple, and if I did, I’d eat it myself. I’m just trying to make the point that when you have an abundance of something, it’s difficult to appreciate it. The path of least resistance is to take it for granted, whatever it is.

But go without it, become intimate with its lack, and the moment you get some, you’ll effortlessly appreciate the hell out of it. Because you’ve experienced the contrast.

It works with crisp, green apples. And it works with life and death, too.

If you want more from life, don’t waste your time trying to appreciate it more. You might manage it for an afternoon, here and there. But the path of least resistance is to take it for granted. Do you think a fish appreciates the water it swims in? Of course not. It doesn’t even notice it.

No. If you want more from life, then remind yourself as often as possible that one day it will end. That’s a good start. But if you want to get even more for your money, then remind yourself that not only will it end one day, that day could well be today.

Get as intimate as you can with your death. And watch your appreciation for life go through the roof.

What If This Were All Just a Dream?

If this were all just a dream, would you choose to spend it feeling afraid of the other human beings in the dream, and what they might do to you?

If this were all just a dream, would you choose to do something day after day in which you took no joy, no pleasure, no meaning, no nothing?

If this were all just a dream, would you choose to get upset every time you made a mistake, or somebody didn’t do exactly what you wanted them to do, or an obstacle of some sort got put in your way?

I’m not saying this is all just a dream. But is there any harm in pretending?

For me, no, because I know that when I live the answers I gave to those questions, my life is much sweeter, dream or no dream.

Show Your Love Every Day

“I hate Valentines Day. You should show your love every day.”

My Uber driver, last night, at the bottom of Carterknowle Road

It may have been four in the morning, and he may have been taxiing people around since eight in the evening, but that driver was not wrong.

If something’s good enough to do one day a year, it’s good enough to do every day of the year.

Nobody Has a Gun to Your Head

“Baby, that’s grammar school. Any damn fool can beg up some kind of job; it takes a wise man to make it without working. Out here we call it ‘hustling’. I’d like to be a good hustler.”

Charles Bukowski “Post Office”

I didn’t come up with it myself. I stole it from award-winning writers Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene. It’s called “The Notecard Strategy.”

As I read a book, I underline the sentences that leap out from the page at me. Sometimes I scribble my own commentry in the margins too. And then a week or two after I finish reading it, I go back through the book, and I see what still feels relevant – the passing of time helps separate the wheat from the chaff. I then copy out those bits long-hand onto notecards, putting some kind of theme or category in the corner of the notecard, and then I keep all the cards in the shoebox that my burnt-umber Adidas trainers came in.

The Bukowski quote above was something I scribbled down a couple of weeks ago, and as usual, I wasn’t quite sure in the moment why it spoke to me. But speak to me it did, and so I wrote it down.

Well, now that a little more time has passed, I think I know why.

Because Hank (Hank Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego in the book) is so, so, so right. And not just about jobs. About everything.

The way that most people go about doing something is not necessarily the best way. It’s not even necessarily a good way. It’s just the way the majority unquestioningly happen to do it.

But who has it has to be your way? You don’t like the normal way? Fuck it. Do it your way.

I’m admittedly the world’s worst at this, but in my rare moments of clarity even I realise that doing something begrudgingly because “that’s what people do” – and having literally no reason beyond that – is a great way to waste a life.

So stop pretending there’s a gun to your head. If there is, it’s only because you’re holding it there. You get one life. Live it your way.

Trust Is Truth

I’m running on two hours sleep, so I doubt that what follows will be any kind of novel. But as I was doing my morning pages at about five o’clock today, I noticed myself writing something that I wanted to share. It went something like this:

You want to know the truth – at least you say you do. You say you want to know the truth because once you know the truth, you will be able to “live” risk-free. You fear that if you were to truly “live” now, with an incomplete picture of the truth, that you will come to harm. That you are in danger of causing irreparable damage, either to yourself or to the ones you love. So you want to wait.

Seek the truth. Please. Go after it with every scrap of curiosity you can muster. But listen carefully: there will never be a moment where you have finished finding the truth. In fact, the more earnestly you seek it, the more you will find you still have to learn. There will be always be further to go, deeper to delve, more layers to discover.

And since you will never finish finding the truth, you cannot afford to put off “living” until you are done, because that moment will never come. No, the truth will come precisely from living. Now. If what you want to do feels important, then be honest with yourself. Do it now, and throw yourself into it body and soul, or don’t do it now. But don’t claim you are going to do it, only later. There is no later.

Look out into the world at what attracts you – whether you understand why or not. What is it that you are moved to inspect more closely? Do it. Inspect it. Engage with it. Go down the rabbit-hole. Be brave enough to follow the breadcrumbs.

Trust reality to keep you safe on your voyage into the curiosity of you soul. Trust is truth.


It was longer than I thought it would be. Sorry about that. Anyway…

Thank you for the emails you’ve been sending me. They have kept me writing – this is my 131st piece pusblished since the 5th of October, and I have no plans to stop.

I write an awful lot about what is and what isn’t under our control. And as with anything I write about, that’s because it has been the single most epic struggle of my life. Perhaps this is what I enjoy so much about having a daily writing practice – instead of allowing all the things I can’t control in my life (99.99999%) to get me down, I have devoted time each day to something well and truly under my control.

I am earning my keep on the planet, one day at a time. Thank you for being a part of that.

You Have More Than Enough

Enough of what?

Whatever it is you actually need, rather than what you have merely convinced yourself you need.

In order to do what?

Whatever it is your soul demands of you.

Yes, there are all kinds of things you cannot do with what you currently have at your disposal. But those things needn’t concern you.

Do what you can with what you have right now, because you have more enough with which to get started, and getting started is all you need to bother with.

“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

Matthew 13:12 (King James Bible)

Why What You Do Matters

You know, it’s heartbreakingly easy to fall into the trap of thinking that whatever you do, none of it really matters. That nothing in the world changes much either way whether you do one thing or another thing or no thing at all. That, cosmically speaking, your choices are not worth shit.

And maybe you’re right – who am I to tell you any different? Maybe nothing you do does matter. You can believe what you like. Nobody’s going to stop you.

But I’ll tell you this: whilst there might be no objective right or wrong thing for you to believe, there are choices are more empowering than others. As Wayne Dyer says, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

“No man is an island.”

John Donne

Have you ever heard the phrase “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with?” It’s true. We humans are largely a herd animal. Most of the things we do every day aren’t done consciously. We don’t spend time deliberating them with our rationality. We just do them. Based on what? On copying what the other people around us seem to be doing.

There is no sense in cursing this lemming-like aspect of human nature – it simply is. It’s happening whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we want it to or not. It is reality. So what you must do is find a way to adapt yourself to it, like – in the words of Robert Greene – a spider to its web. Make this law of human nature work for you rather than against you.

And one uncommon way to look at this is to flip it on its head.

Instead of only seeing the passive side of it – feeling powerless when you realise how much what everybody else does is influencing what you do – you can choose instead to look at the active side – feeling powerful when you realise how the things you do are influencing what everybody else does.

Because you are influencing others, whether you’re aware of it or not. You must be. There’s no way round it. If everybody else can rub off on you, you must be equally able to rub off on everybody else.

That’s why what you do matters.

You won’t be able to remould the universe in your image overnight. But choices add up. A smile here, a kind word there, going the extra mile when there’s no urgent need to…

The things you do matter. They matter because we’re watching you. We’re looking for cues. We want to know how to live.

Teach us, by your example.

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Mohandas Gandhi, in a 1913 piece about snakebites (not the drink, of course.)

Who Wins?

Who wins when you insist on pretending like you’re smaller than you really are?

Who wins when you refuse to share your gifts with the world, all because you cannot control how they will be treated once they are out of your hands?

Who wins when you repeat, day after day, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow…”?

Nobody wins. That’s who.

Consequences Be Damned

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”

Charles Bukowski – “Factotum”

I’m not saying there won’t be consequences for resisting, for refusing to be who and what “the system” finds most convenient at this time in history. There most certainly will be.

But they will be worth it, in comparison to the inevitable consequence of giving in – having, rather than a life, a miserable, empty husk of an existence.

You weren’t born to be a drone, or a cog, or a puppet. You were meant for something higher, something which is yours and yours alone.

You only get one life. Call me crazy, but I think it’s more than worth the risk to make it your own.

Be “You”

Nobody’s asking you to cure cancer, or to find a way to get children off turkey twizzlers and onto a nice three-bean salad.

Nobody’s asking you to fix the economy, or to write the great American novel.

And nobody’s asking you to do this all without ever breaking a sweat and withot ever needing a day off and without ever accidentally pissing yourself when something gives you cause to belly-laugh.

We’re asking one thing of you, and one thing only. For you to be as “you” as you possibly can. That’s all. It’s the only thing we want and it’s the only thing you can really do anyway.

And if by some coincidence you do any of that other stuff too… let’s just call it a bonus.

If it’s imposed by nature, accept it gladly and stop fighting it. And if not, work out what your own nature requires, and aim at that, even if it brings you no glory. None of us is forbidden to pursue our own good.

Marcus Aurelius – “Meditations – Book 11”

Fear Means “Go Further”

How can you tell when you’re not actually being courageous, but just plain dumb? How can you know when the time is right to proceed with boldness and audacity, and when it’d be better for you to tone it down and be a little more “realistic.”

There are of course as many answers to this as there are people in the world, but here’s one way to gauge it: If, as you contemplate something important to you, there is no part of you trying to talk you out of it, or make you feel like an idiot, or convince you you’re playing with fire this time…

… then don’t worry – you haven’t gone far enough yet. The answer is to proceed with boldness and audacity.

How can I know this? Because fear will only ever rear its ugly head in response to your recognising something important to your soul. It’s the recognising something important to your soul that comes first. The fear is a primitive response. So long as you stay in the lower leagues, it will leave you alone.

You see, something inside you knows exactly what you’re capable of, and in every moment, it is trying to whisper this in your ear. The only hiccup is that at the exact same time, a different part of you hears what the first part is telling you, freaks out at the thought of you going along with it, and whispers an equal and opposite instruction in your other ear. What’s more, it scales perfectly – the more important to your soul the thing the first part of you whispers, the more the other part will try to stop you.

All the misery in the world comes from crossing these two wires – from seeing that voice that knows just what you’re truly mad of, how capable you really are, as some rogue imposter, whilst seeing the voice that fears everything and everyone as the real us.

The truth is the exact opposite.

Fear doesn’t mean “hold back.” Fear means “go further.”

You Don’t Want It? Then Forget About It

I want you to imagine that you are single (if you are not) and that you were looking for someone to get together with. Somebody to – in the biblical sense – know.

Now, you might not always go for it hell for leather, but deep down you’re a person who knows what they want. You’re looking for somebody you are attracted to. Somebody you are willing to open up to. Somebody who makes you feel better when you are around them than when you are not.

Then would it anger you if – as you walked down the street, as you shopped for fruit at the market, as you took a swim in the local baths – all you encountered were people in whom you had zero interest? Would you wave your fists at the sky, cursing the lack of benevolence the Gods chose to show you?

Why? Would that bring Mr or Mrs Right any closer?

Or would you simply brush it off and keep looking for somebody you did want?

The world is filled with things – some of them you want, some of them you don’t.

Go for the things you want, forget about the things you don’t.

The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out.

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

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

Marcus Aurelius

When You Find a Way to Love Fate, Fate Finds a Way to Love You

You could be forgiven for believing – what with billions spent every year conditioning you to believe it – that the point of life is to be happy all the time, and that if you’re not, then something “out there” is wrong.

You might also believe that the only way to attain this elusive happiness is by making sure that as many “good” things happen to you as possible, and as few “bad” things happen to you as possible.

I would forgive you, but I would still point out that you have got it all wrong.

For so long as you need things to go a certain way in order for you to be happy, you won’t be.

To truly give happiness a chance of creeping up on you, you need to develop the ability to be fine whatever happens. This might sound like I am advocating indifference, or apathy – a sort of passive, powerless posture. I’m not. This is something much more beautiful.

It’s called AMOR FATI. A love of fate.

When you practice amor fati, you make the active decision to look for the good in everything… because if you look hard enough, you will find it. You love fate – you decide to love something not because it was what you wanted to happen, but because it is what actually did happen.

Now, when something “bad” happens to you, it won’t have the same power it once did to rob you of your inner peace. You will be untouchable. Because whilst everybody else is freaking out, you are too busy looking for what is good about it.

Life becomes a joy, and happiness can finally come find you, because you have stopped putting so many conditions on it.

Wayne Dyer said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Well, here’s my take: when you find a way to love fate, fate finds a way to love you.

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

You Must Leap

All day, every day, whether you’re listening to it or not, your heart is trying to talk to you. And you are not listening.

What’s more – to paraphrase something George Washingston probably didn’t actually say – your heart cannot tell a lie. Everything it says is 100% true. If you were going to rely on a single source of information, this is the only one you’d ever need.

If you listen to your heart, and you actively do what it tells you to, you will find that it will never steer you wrong – it can’t. But to actually do it? Well, that’s much easier said than done. It takes a huge leap of faith, because between your heart and reality sits your mind. And your mind really doesn’t like your heart.

When you were young, was there someone who your parents tried to get you to stay away from, because they thought they were a bad influence on you? That’s sort of your head’s role in this whole scenario – to poison you against your heart. It is utterly convinced that without its vigilance and intervention, your heart will lead you astray, and put you in danger.

So when your head hears what your heart is trying to tell you, it will go to the ends of the Earth to make you believe that what your heart is saying is ridiculous, impractical, unrealistic, impossible, even immoral… anything to get you to ignore your heart.

And it isn’t playing some kind of game – like your parents were, it is genuinely just trying to protect you from the harm it fears you coming to. Like your parents, it fully believes it is doing the right thing.

But just as you if you want to grow up you have to learn to see through what your parents think about things, if you want to live any kind of life, you have to learn to see through what your head says.

Your heart always knows what is best for you. Your head is just shit-scared. You have to let your heart win. You will never regret it.

This is not something to think about. This is something to do. The only way is through. You must recognise the leap of faith, and then you must take it. Right now. You cannot put this on your to-do list. You cannot make a plan out of it.

You must leap.

The Ballad of the Stolen Big Muff Pi

My old band – Viper Jungle – had a gig at The Boardwalk. I would estimate the year to be 2006.

Back then, I was a big effects-pedal nut. You might not know what an effects pedal is. Well, you’ve seen somebody play electric guitar, constantly looking at their feet, stamping aggressively on something every now and then…? They’re stamping on effects pedals – little metal boxes that do weird and wonderful things to the sound of your guitar.

Me, I had my heart set on an Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi, which was a fuzz pedal – I wanted that creamy, squishy, Santana-on-steroids sound for my guitar solos. A few weeks before our gig, I won one on eBay, and oh, how I looked forward to the moment when I would plug it in and turn it up to eleven (and then quickly back down again before my dad could remind me that we lived in a semi-detached house.)

Day after day I came in from school and asked my mum if I’d had any parcels. The gig was getting nearer. I was getting more and more antsy with each passing day.

Then finally, it came – on the day of the gig, no less! And I used it in our set and I it was everything I dreamed of and more. I had died and gone to guitar-tone heaven. Then somebody nicked it from out of my rucksack whilst I wasn’t looking and that was that.

Oh, well.

Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Most Things Are a Waste of Your Time

“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”

Greg McKeown – “Essentialism”

All things are not created equal, and most things are a waste of your time.

But what do the things that are worth engaging with have in common? I have boiled this question down to two simple sentences for you. A good thing satisfies one of these. A great thing, both.

  1. It is enjoyable whilst you are doing it.
  2. It is enjoyable to look back on having done it.

If whatever you’re doing, or contemplating doing, doesn’t serve either of these purposes – and there isn’t a gun to your head – just say “no.”

A Hot Girl Asked Me Out

Valentines Day. Year 8. Eight days before my 13th birthday. After lunch. A maths lesson. The second floor of the South building of Meadowhead School. I was sitting with Daisy, which is of course not her real name.

Let me tell you about Daisy. Daisy was beautiful. She had tresses of Scandi-blonde hair, a figure far beyond her years, and most impressively to me, she actually looked good in the forest-green Meadowhead uniform we all wore, which was a rare skill.

Now, it wasn’t that I wasn’t attracted to Daisy. It was that I found her so attractive I had mentally placed myself out of her league. As far as I was concerned, there was no point in even entertaining the possibility that she’d be into me. And so I found myself just… being myself. No pressure to be anything I wasn’t. And I had a great time getting to know her every time we had Maths.

You see, back then, if I wasn’t thinking about the Chili Peppers, I was thinking about some girl or another. At this point in time it just happened to be Rachel (again, not her real name.) But whoever it was – it shifted a lot – the more I thought about her, the more mixed up I got inside, and the more awkward and uncomfortable I would act whenever she was near. My desperation for the girl to like me was trumped only by my lack of any idea how to make it happen.

It was different with Daisy. Believing I’d never had a chance to begin with, I was incredibly relaxed around her. In fact I was so relaxed that when she turned to me that Valentine’s Day and said

“Hey, Ol, you know since you’re single and I’m single, I was wondering if you wanted to do something for Valentine’s Day?”

… I didn’t skip a beat. I answered “Oh, thanks, but actually I really like Rachel so I’m going to ask her to do something.”

“Oh, okay.” She didn’t seem heartbroken, but she did get quiet.

And then about five minutes later I realised what had just happened.

You idiot.


Daisy, as it turned out, did like me – my friend told me later that day, confirming at length that, yes, I was a complete idiot to say “no.” And shortly after this she started going out with someone else. C’est la vie.

Now, this happened sixteen years ago – almost to the day – but it still stings like it was yesterday. Not in the way you might think, though. It doesn’t sting because I wish I had said yes and gone out with Daisy and ended up married to her and having babies with her. No, I don’t care about that.

What stings is how wrong I was. I wasn’t out of her league at all – I was just so convinced of it that I couldn’t even take her asking me out seriously.

Ever since that day, sixteen years ago, I have tried to remind myself that no matter how convinced I am that something is too good for me, too big for me, or too difficult for me, I was very wrong once and I’m just as likely to be wrong this time too.

Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t pre-reject yourself. Don’t let your doubts and fears and insecurities win by stopping you from even taking part.

You have no idea what’s actually possible for you. So go for what you really want. Not because you’ll definitely get it if you want it enough or if you try hard enough. No. I don’t believe that. There are no guarantees.

Except that if you talk yourself out of even trying, then you lose by default. Go for what you want because it might happen.

Give reality the chance to say “no.” Because you never know when it’s going to say “yes.”

Adults? They’re Just Old Kids

“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”

Seneca – On the Shortness of Life

I was five…

Do you remember being five years old? I do. And I remember being altogether quite happy with everything being five entailed. There was just one blemish, one thing I couldn’t stand, and that was being treated like a baby.

This didn’t happen too often – my family didn’t baby me, nor did most family friends. I was used to being treated, if not as an equal, then at least as a valid contributor to whatever social situation I was in. And maybe that’s why it felt so patronising – it was rare and acute.

I don’t know if all kids go around feeling this way – I’ve never really asked any – but I can distinctly remember being at birthday parties and thinking “Why are you talking to me like I’m an idiot? I’m a person, just like you. Speak properly.” Like I say, I didn’t need to be treated like an equal, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand the adults’ compulsion to go so far the other way – to put on this strange high-pitched baby voice, and maintain sub-psycopathic levels of eye contact with me. It made me feel as though they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes in some way. It made me feel lied to.

My inner reponse as a child was just to roll my eyes and fight fire with fire – to take the adult before me just as seriously as I felt they were taking me. I didn’t let it bother me too much.

But it did set something into motion that has continued until this day – a keen sense of “What are you trying to hide from me?”

I was sixteen…

The suspicion that I was being cheated of the whole truth by the adults in my life continued all the way through my time at school. At every step, I felt as though there was this animosity between myself and whoever was in charge of me. Every authority figure seemed hell-bent on selling me some different but equally narrow and uninspiring worldview, and for my part I was hell-bent on not believing a single word of it.

But it reached fever pitch towards the end of secondary school, when the teachers began to collectively do the hard-sell on “The Real World.”

The Real World was this weirdly schizophrenic and dystopian vision of what awaited us after leaving school, and they were desperate for us to believe in it. In The Real World, they said, you could technically be, do, and have anything you wanted. Only you probably wouldn’t, because The Real World is a scary, vicious, competitive place, where there are only a certain amount of resources and a certain amount of good jobs and it’s every man for himself and everybody is out to get you all the time…

“… but you’ll be okay if you just do what we say. We’re on your side.”

I looked around in disbelief. People seemed to be nodding their heads, buying it hook, line, and sinker. Jesus, I thought. Oh, hell, let them. Me? I don’t like the sound of this. I’ve struggled to believe a word of what they’ve said for the last eleven years, why the hell would I start believing it now?

What I had known intuitively at five was clearer than ever at sixteen: The adults are up to something. They’re not giving you the whole truth. It’s up to you to figure that out for yourself.

I am almost twenty-nine…

And I was right.

I don’t mean to say that I left school full of confidence in myself and proceeded to go out there and kick the world’s ass and prove my teachers wrong. That would be an incredibly generous reimagining of the last thirteen years of my life. It’s not how it happened at all. But if I’m proud of anything I’ve done, it’s that I did at least make a point to try and figure things out for myself.

And what I figured out was that I was right all along. At least partly.

Because there is no “real world.” There’s just a bunch of adults running around, each one as scared and clueless as the kids, all trying to make the best of whatever shit sandwich the adults in their lives gave them. For most of them, it’s enough just to get through the day.

What I was right about was the fact that the adults hadn’t been giving me the whole the truth, and never had been. But my youthful narcissism led me to believe this was borne of some kind of Machiavellian conspiracy on the adults’ part.

I doubt that very much now, and I suppose the moment my mind changed was the moment I realised that I was an adult.

It happened about six years ago. I met up with my friend one Tuesday night. She was training to be a teacher; I was still training to be a person. We went to the Lescar for a few drinks, and then we went back to hers for a few more drinks. We were laughing and being loud and being idiots, and eventually she said she really needed to go to bed because she had to be up for school at half six. It was about one-thirty. I bid her farewell.

As I walked home, it dawned on me that without any warning, adulthood had crept up on me. I thought about my friend teaching a class full of kids in the morning, and then about the teachers I had had when I was young. I smiled when I realised that it was just as I had suspected all along…

Behind all the bluster and the authority and the suits and the detentions, they didn’t know much more about the way the world worked than I did. They, like me, were making it up as they went along.

I smiled and forgave them for babying me. And for trying to warn me about the evils of the world. They weren’t out to get me. They weren’t trying to deceive me. They weren’t up to something.

They were just trying to get through the day.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Although it can certainly feel like it when you’re in the thick of it, you were not put here to suffer indefinitely. Whatever you’re facing, Abe Lincoln was right – “This too shall pass.”

You were put here to live a life. But whether you’re happy about it or not, life – a real life – contains a certain amount of sorrow.

Like me, your first response to this news might be to spend the next few years thinking “Okay, so I’ll just figure out how to avoid sorrow at all costs, then. To be “out” whenever he knocks on the door. To forever be one step ahead. How do I do that?”

Well, I won’t stop you from trying, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to. But what I can do is nudge you gently towards an alternative way of seeing things.

I remember the first time I ever read the following passage. It was over eleven years ago in a piece by Steve Pavlina titled Follow Your Heartbreak, and it has haunted me since. I took the hint there and then that maybe there was more to lose by trying to avoid my sorrow at all costs than there was to gain.

Eleven years on, and several experiences on both sides of the coin later, I can confirm this to be true: joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin and you cannot have one without the other.

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Kahlil Gibran – “The Prophet”

There Are Three Kinds of People

Some create…

They hear that still, small voice inside, and decide to honour and immortalise it, putting it into some kind of tangible form. A song. A restaurant. A seduction.

Some consume…

They sit with their mouths and their minds wide open, passively waiting for somebody to shovel something – anything – into it. A cheeseburger. A reality show. A terrorist attack.

And some exploit…

They have nothing of any substance inside whatsoever. They know how to do but one thing – leach.

Firstly, they leach off the ideas of those in the first group, step one being to strip those ideas of anything beautiful, original, or soulful. They commodify. They corporatise it. They homogenise it.

And then they leach off the attention and mental real estate of the second group. They exploit the fact that these peoples’ lives are completely empty of meaning – an emptiness they helped create – and they convince them that for a low, low price they can be, do, and have everything they ever dreamed of.

Somehow it never happens, and somehow they always get away with it. So they line their pockets with the consumers’ disposable income and they laugh all the way to the bank and they pat each other on the back as they erode which is good and true about humanity.


We are living through a time where more than ever the world explicitly venerates the exploiters, whilst it implicitly encourages us to be mindless consumers.

Don’t fall for it.

You know, perhaps the most dangerously cunning thing the exploiters ever did was to convince us that without them, this whole thing would fall apart. Believe me, it wouldn’t. We don’t need them. They offer nothing.

And we don’t need the consumers either. The passive, faceless, interchangeable masses, so beloved by the exploiters for the fact that they can see no further than their own noses. All they do is use up oxygen.

There is only one group actually necessary to the continuation of humanity – the creators. Only the creators are actually doing anything, are actually taking energy from one place and putting it somewhere better for humanity. If the consumers and exploiters suddenly died out, the creators would just have a party and keep creating. If the creators died, however, it wouldn’t be long before the others did too.

What does it take to be a creator? It doesn’t take skill. It doesn’t take privilege. It doesn’t take belonging to any particular race, creed, or ethnicity.

It takes a decision. That’s all. A decision to be of use to humanity, in the way that only you can. You could paint a picture. You could run a business. You could raise a child. You could be a true friend. There is no limit to what you can do with the creative spirit fueling your every move.

Just don’t expect the world to encourage you down this path. Expect it to put obstacles in your path. Expect it to be always encouraging you to be a consumer or an exploiter. Unless you make a concerted effort to be one, you won’t find yourself accidently a part of the creator group.

So make that decision now. Create. Direct the least of your actions towards being of use to humanity. Even if the only reward is being able to sleep at night, it’s worth it.

Forgive.

To err is human, to forgive, divine.

Alexander Pope

Forgiveness comes easily to nobody.

Reluctantly, begrudgingly uttering the words “I forgive you…”? Anyone can do that. But a genuine acceptance and letting go of the resentment someone else has caused you to bear? God, no.

Perhaps it’s down to a simple fact of biology – we are if nothing else wired to value immediate gratification. We want to feel good now, and we want to think about what it costs later – if ever. Freud’s “pleasure principle.”

That’s the thing – resentment feels good now. Why don’t we just admit it? Thinking about all the ways you have been wronged, all the different people you would love to see suffer for it, that delicious feeling of self-righteousness you anticipate when those responsible are are inevitably brought to justice… I know it’s not just me that takes a kind of sick pleasure in this.

But like any nasty habit, the damage shows itself over time. Because there is no such thing as a free lunch. Resentment gets you high and it gets you hooked, and then after the first time you can never quite get there again. Now, every slight you hold on to, every injustice you refuse to let go of, every resentment you cling to, costs you. You carry them like a boulder around your neck. And with every day that goes by, the load gets heavier and heavier.

The price you ultimately pay for holding onto resentment is your life.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is no fun at first. In fact it’s downright painful. Because unlike resentment, which lures you in with a hit of pleasure before condemning you to chronic misery, forgiveness asks for payment up-front, without so much as hinting at what you are going to get for your money.

The initial price forgiveness demands, which nobody in their right mind wants to pay, is that you swallow your pride. The big surprise? Once you do it, you are free.

Forgive. Not for their sake. For yours.

Forgive. Not because they deserve it. But because you deserve it.

Forgive.

If It Moves You, It Is You

When he hears that fire-bell chime,
Fireman Sam is there on time.
Putting on his coat and hat,
In less than seven seconds flat.

He’s always on the scene.
Fireman Sam!
And his engine’s bright and clean.
Fireman Sam!
You can not ignore,
Sam is the hero next door.

Maldwyn Pope

I’m not afraid to admit it. I get goosebumps when I so much as think about the theme tune to the original Fireman Sam series.

I have no idea why it moves me like it does – it wasn’t even my favourite TV program when I was little. But there is something in that combination of notes and chords and 1980s timbres that touches me.

If something moves you, that’s not a coincidence. There is a part of you that is resonating with the object of your attention, and the resonance is what is making you feel so wonderful, like you’ve come home after a long journey. It is moving you because in a sense, it is you.

Life’s too short to waste time on what doesn’t move you. If it leaves you cold – whatever “it” is – move on. Make room for what resonates, what hits, what touches.

And be proud of it. Even if it is the Fireman Sam theme tune.

The Guts to Ask

If I have led you to believe, by the words I have written, and the times we have shared together, that I am someone who has anything – let alone everything – figured out, then it is high time I apologised for this deception.

The truth is that I am just a ravenous child, hungry to know what it all means. Desperate to try and make sense of the world around me, because I can’t stop finding things that fascinate me, but frustrated because every new thing seems to throw what I learnt yesterday out of the window. I am cross-legged on the floor of the universe trying to assemble the jigsaw pieces of life at the same time as new ones keep showing up in the box.

It is this paradox that keeps me going. As Albert Einstein said “The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.”

Never think less of yourself because you don’t know the answers. Think highly of yourself for having the guts to ask the questions.

“The Way Things Are…”

Reality is negotiable. Outside of science and law, all rules can be bent or broken.

Tim Ferriss

People just love to say “I’m sorry, but that’s just the way things are…”

I don’t think they are sorry. I think they’re grateful. Grateful that so long as things are the way they are, they’re off the hook. Now they don’t have to feel guilty about selling themselves short. They can just hide behind “the way things are.” It’s the perfect excuse for the person too afraid to live.

It’s a lot braver, however – and a lot more fun – to try and prove them wrong.

Because reality is far more flexible than we realise. It just sometimes it feels very rigid. It feels as though there is a set of rules, that things are indeed “the way they are”, that what the people in charge say is correct whether you agree with them or not, and that there is depressingly little room to manuever inside all this.

This is not the truth. It’s just one very limiting perspective.

The truth is that whether you’re aware of it or not, you are an active participant in the creation of the world, not a passive spectator. Every action you take is a fresh brushstroke on the canvas of the future, and splash by splash, together we create the world we share.

The world asks “What kind of world do you want to live in?” and then it listens for your response. And your response is communicated through your actions.

Do something you feel lousy about for the money, or the fame, or the prestige, or the attention, or because you’re afraid to leave your comfort zone, and you have done nothing objectively wrong. But you have helped to create a world where those things are the most important things.

You could just as easily do something for joy, or for beauty, or for compassion, or for honour… and if you did, you’d be helping create a world where those things are the most important things.

It is entirely up to you.

Risk: It’s Safer Than Comfort

If you want to get it right, you must first be willing to get it wrong. There is no life without risk, only existence.

But what you find on the other side of risk is that it is actually much far more enjoyable to make a mistake in the pursuit of something – and then work out how to fix it – than it is to give into inertia, and to be so afraid of getting anything wrong that you refuse to act unless you can foresee and prevent in advance every little thing that might go awry. Not only is this approach futile – only Gods are blessed with such omniscience – it is exhausting.

When you calmly accept that a good life involves risk, and that you can never be 100% certain on anything, and that literally the only thing you can do is just make your best guess in every moment, then day by day, scene by scene, you may well appear to be taking two steps forward and one step back.

Perfect. You’re still moving foward. And you’re doing it a lot quicker than if the only time you ever take forward steps is when you are completely certain that you can rule out backward steps.

If this is you – and I can say this because I admit that more often than not, it’s me – then I hate to be the one to tell you, but there are snails making more out of their lives than you are.

Err on the side of taking risks. Firstly, because you never know – it might work out. Secondly, because if it doesn’t work out, you will handle it. And then you’ll be stronger and wiser than if you’d never took the risk in first place. You cannot lose.

Taking risks is, ironically, the least risky way to live.

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with.

But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.

Ernest Hemingway – Preface to “The First Forty-Nine”

The Forgettable Unforgettable

Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.

Robert McKee – Story

Emma and I watched a film last night. It was called – with more than a hint of irony – Unforgettable. It starred Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl. And it really did not need to be made.

It wasn’t a bad film – great acting, some nice panoramic views of southern California, costume and set designers who knew what they were doing – but it was without a doubt a pointless film. It followed an excruciatingly clear formula to its logical conclusion. It was a product, no different than a Big Mac or a Sharpie pen.

I do feel bad singling out Unforgettable though, because it’s really just one example of a mucher bigger issue that plagues every art-form, and in fact, every facet of society and culture:

Most people are shit-scared of taking a risk.

Most art, as Oscar Wilde reminded us in the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray, is quite useless. And this is why – the people making it are too timid. They search for a formula and when they find it they use it as a shield they can hide behind. Conservatism has become the most dangerous vice of the 21st century.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. The missing ingredient is courage. The courage to learn the timeless principles of what you are doing, and then the courage to bend and twist those principles into something you find uniquely beautiful. And remember, courage is not something bestowed by a deity. Courage is a muscle, and it gets stronger every time you exercise it.

Better to fail trying to make something courageously unique than succeed making something soulless.

Your Path With a Heart

It’s possible that what I am about to say contradicts what you were taught growing up, but I don’t care. I am not here to toe any party lines. Consider me nothing more than an independent whisper on the wind. Here goes:

Not only is there nothing wrong with putting yourself first, it is of vital importance that you do.

There is no honour in blind self-sacrifice. No dishonour in blind self-interest. There is nothing inherently good about acting selflessly. Nothing inherently bad about acting selfishly.

The thing about your life is that… it’s yours. Every step you take is a step on a path unique to you. Nobody but you can walk this path, and nothing but your own heart can tell you whether or not you are on it. It is yours and yours alone to discover and walk anew every day.

On your path, of course, you can certainly try to enrich the lives of others as they walk their own paths. You can become incredibly charitable and altruistic. The irony though is that unless you know yourself, listen to your own heart, and put yourself first, you will have very little to give anybody else.

The state does not care about your path with a heart. The masses do not care about your path with a heart. And sadly, there are probably plenty of people in your life who do not care about your path with a heart.

All the more reason for you to care about it.

Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.

Carlos Castaneda – The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge

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