Episode 4: What Would Conor Do If His Son Wanted to Be a Pornstar?

Chapter 2 of my Saturday afternoon conversation with Sheffield-born, but London-based musical boy Conor Houston.

In this episode we delve into the importance of seeing everything as some kind of cosmic joke, and Conor makes the case for encouraging young people to take up trades like plumbing or pizza delivery instead of resorting to filming themselves having it away with strangers.

Episode 3: Who is Conor Houston jealous of?

After two incredibly self-indulgent solo episodes, I finally have a guest.

It’s none other than Conor Houston, a man who has gone from being a complete stranger to a best friend over the past three years or so.

Last Saturday, we set up microphones in my loft and we chatted for almost two hours. “We can edit it down,” I thought, but then when I listened back I realised it was all pretty good. So I’ve chopped it into 5 pieces, and that’s the next 5 episodes of the podcast.

Highlights from this episode:

  • How to pronounce Conor’s name
  • Mrs Poo
  • Conor’s only memory of his History GCSE is watching Simon Pegg in “Run Fatboy Run”
  • Conor was put into bottom set GCSE Maths in attempt by the teachers to help the other kids catch up – without his knowledge
  • Oliver leaves for a few minutes to go to the toilet
  • Oliver asks Conor: “Who are you jealous of?”
  • Oliver asks Conor: “What’s your favourite thing about me?”

PS: It took a while, but the podcast is now available on a lot more platforms – here is a complete list of links:

Anchor

Apple Podcasts

Google Podcasts

Spotify

Stitcher

Pocket Casts

RadioPublic

Where it counts, we’re all the same

Today I am in England. Tomorrow I will be in Tunisia.

Superficially, some things will be different there: fashion, weather, currency…

But mostly it will be the same: people trying to get through the day and do right by whoever they feel they ought to do right by.

Our differences make the world an interesting place, but where it counts, we’re all the same.


Today’s song: Your Fine Petting Duck by Devendra Banhart

Either a prison or a playground

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Anaïs Nin

The world can be a prison. But it can just as easily be a playground. Given the choice, I’d pick the playground.

Start by asking questions…

Everything that feels rubbish, unfair, unjust, stacked against you, shit in any way… pick it apart. Dissect it. Float the possibility that you could be wrong – that there is more possible one way to look at things.

Do this for a while, and you’ll find that the only person making the world a prison was you all along.


Today’s song: Lady, Tell Me Straight by Mike Uva

To live is to explore

That feeling of being in a hurry to get where you’re going, or even to figure out just exactly where you’re going so you can hurry up and get there?

A choice.

Another choice is the one to – so long as you can manage to keep your head above water – explore. See where life takes you.

Not sit about. Not mooch. Not do nothing.

Explore. Take in as much of the world as you can. Let your mind go crazy connecting the dots behind the scenes.

I would wager that the life you’ll be living after just a few months of being a little bit more open and exploratory will shit all over the alternative – desperately, fearfully picking some arbitrary direction because “that’s what you’re meant to do.”

If you know in your heart just what you were meant to do and how to do it, don’t let me stop you. But if you don’t, let yourself do some wandering.


Today’s song: Flying Theme (from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) by John Williams

What if you were broke forever?

Some say it’s a good idea to imagine what your life would be like if you never had to worry about money again – if that part of your existence was “sorted” forever, how would you spend your time?

It’s an okay idea. But there’s a much more powerful one:

What would you do if you were always going to be broke?

You won’t come up with the same answers as when you imagined having infinite money. Your mind will strip away any of those ideas that revolved around second-hand ambition or desires you inherited from others around you, and lead you to some deeper, more personal, genuinely fulfilling answers.


Today’s song: I Was in the House When the House Burned Down by Warren Zevon

You already have everything you need

Everything you need, with which to do the right thing, you have inside you. Right now. At this very moment.

The reason you disagree – that you cannot believe this to be true – is that you misunderstand what is meant by the word need.

You think that before you can truly do the right thing – whatever it might be – that you need more money, more resources, more time, more contacts, more opportunities. And so you allow yourself to continue avoiding your duty to do the right thing.

The only two things you need are the willingness to ask the question “what is the right thing to do here?” and the courage to do whatever answer you get.

Everything else? Cherries on top.


Today’s song: The Ballad of Big Nothing by Elliott Smith.

You can only take one step at a time

I watched about 80 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey earlier, before my wife woke up and wanted to watch something different.

The half of it I did get to watch blew my mind… yet again. And it made me think about the conundrum that faces everybody with ambition.

We are somewhat grandiose – we want to create something in the world that is as grand and epic in scope as 2001 is. It feels like anything less than that is futile. And yet if we even make an attempt, we seem to inevitably fall short of our great ideals.

One possible solution is to reduce the size of our ambitions – to take on something we are more likely to succeed at. I think this is a terrible idea.

We should make our aims as grand and epic in scope as that film. But we should also realise that both the most enormously magnificent projects and the most mundanely shit ones proceed in exactly the same way – one step at a time.

Assuming that aliens didn’t build the pyramids, human beings did. Brick by brick. Until they were done. Yes, they took planning and strategy, but that was also undertaken one step at a time. It can be done no other way. Nothing can.

Today marks the first day I am including a song recommendation in my daily meditation. I have created a playlist on Spotify, and I’m going to be adding to it every day.

Today’s song is “The Crystal Ship” by The Doors.

Your life is more important than “the news”

Given the choice between being what news-addicts would call “ignorant” – but genuinely enjoying my life – and being “informed” – with the resultant depression and despondency – I know which I’d choose.

And yet it’s very tempting to think that if you want to be a good person, you should take the things you see and hear on “the news” seriously.

That you should put your personal, subjective experience second, because you think that some stories told to you by a corporation are more objectively important than the thoughts in your own head.

Don’t. You get to decide what’s important to you – nobody else has that right.

Watch the news if you like – maybe you enjoy it. Just don’t let it become more important to you than your actual life. That’s tragic.

People are going to hate you

It’s a bit dickish to go around purposefully making other people’s lives difficult…

But that doesn’t mean you are here merely to make other people happy – to make not upsetting anyone the sole purpose of your day.

You are here to be you. And if you do it right, some people won’t like you. If you do it really right, vast swaths of people will hate you.

Embrace it. It means you’re living.

You cannot “tempt” fate

I cringe whenever I hear somebody admonished by another for merely speaking about something morbid.

Don’t tempt fate,” the other party will say, as though Fate were intently listening with a cup to the adjoining wall, and now that you’ve reminded it of something unpleasant, it will decide to gift you with some of that very unpleasantness. As though, had you only kept your mouth shut, you would have been somehow “safer.”

What a load of shit.

Fate cannot be tempted. Fate marches to beat of its own drum – it acts purely on its own whims, whatever they happen to be. It is the height of arrogance to presume that by merely mentioning something unpleasant, you have the power to tempt Fate one way or another. Fate couldn’t care less about you.

So if it is impossible to tempt Fate – either to your benefit or to your detriment – what is left to do?

Simply to adapt yourself – in advance – to whatever it does dish out. Be ready for shipwreck, be ready for calamity, be ready for things to go completely wrong. Because that stuff is either going to happen or not going to happen, completely independent of what you do or say.

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Today creates tomorrow

The moment you find yourself in right now is a gift – a gift from the you of the past to the you of the present.

Are you happy with what you’ve given yourself?

If you are, then well done. You need do nothing more than keep on enjoying yourself.

But if you’re not, think about what you might want to change. And start changing it.

What you do today creates your tomorrow.

If it’s possible for someone…

… then why isn’t it possible for you?

I’m not saying that is possible – I couldn’t possibly know. Nor am I advocating any kind of delusional “positive” thinking where you try to trick yourself into believing you are omnipotent.

But when you watch a concert pianist and you think “I know I couldn’t possibly do that…” you must realise that you shoot yourself in the foot massively. To arrogantly presume that you know for sure everything that is and isn’t possible, and yet… if you were really so smart, why would all these things be so apparently impossible for you?

On the other hand, when you instead think “Crikey, that looks bloody difficult… but I suppose it’s technically possible…” you might not realise it, but the ramifications are very, very different. You have loosened your stranglehold on reality, and opened yourself up to a wider, much more expansive range of possibilities.

You can’t make the impossible possible, but you can stop yourself making the actually-possible impossible.

Do not think that what is hard for you to master is humanly impossible; but if a thing is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Book VI, 19)

Some prick with a drill

“Some prick with a drill is interrupting my morning coffee.”

Perhaps. Or just maybe, “It was foolish and entitled of me to expect the world to be deadly still, that I might enjoy my morning coffee in silence. That prick with the drill has every right to be there.”

Same prick, same drill.

Different story, different rest of my day.

Life improves all by itself via negativa

Everything you have, everything you see, everything you do… either it’s making your life better, or making your life worse.

In search for a deeper human experience, you would be forgiven for presuming what we all presume – that what we ought to do is hunt down that which makes our lives better. We should vigorously pursue it like we would a safari lion, take aim, blast its head off, and take it home as a trophy. And if we have enough of this, then maybe it will drown out the bad stuff.

Go the other way. Focus first on taking an axe to all that conspires to ruin your life – starting with the tiniest things. See them as energy vampires – with each one you slay, you feel a little more relief, and most importantly, you have some space in which to invite something new into your experience.

Get rid of something that doesn’t serve you today. An object, a person, a habit. Start somewhere.

By the Hammer of Thor! 101 Posts in 101 Days

If you know me at all, then you will know me as a man who has demonstrated — time and time again — his proclivity for chasing shiny objects at the expense of getting on with the task at hand. I find it excruciatingly difficult to set my mind to anything it doesn’t want to be set to.

And yet, somehow, over the past 101 days, I have managed to write and publish a blog post every single day.

You can read them here.


It started off at The Unique Guitarist — a website I’ve all but abandoned — where I wrote 43 pieces in 43 days. Each one was geared toward some part of the mental aspect of being a musician — specifically a guitarist striving for uniqueness in their work. The longer I kept this up, though, the more I realised that what was coming out of me and onto the page had increasingly little to do with music, and more to do with life itself. At the end, I was just inserting the words “unique guitarist” into posts about life in general in order to force some kind of relevancy to my audience.

I was loving the “I have to post something fresh every single day” aspect; less so the “it has to be about being a unique guitarist” aspect. And so I decided, after 43 days, to pivot away from that and towards just writing under my own name and on my own website — giving myself the permission to write about whatever I wanted. It’s been a blast. Thank you for reading. But 58 days on, and I’m ready for another pivot.

My daily posts are going to get much shorter.


You see, I find myself in a tricky situation. Whilst I am hooked on the daily writing habit — the thing I was hoping I would get hooked on — the problem is that once I get writing, once I get into the flow, I can’t stop myself. This is a problem.

If I give myself the freedom to write for just fifteen minutes, let’s say, then in that time I can craft a little post that I’m quite happy with. It won’t go particularly deep into anything, but it will be satisfying to write and to read.

If, on the other hand, I let myself write for half an hour or longer, however, then something very different happens. My mind senses that it’s been given the opportunity to go deeper and wider than normal, and it responds by thinking up heaps more stuff that might somehow fit into the piece.

I very much want to go deep into the things that I write about. But I can’t do that on a daily post. I end up in this weird halfway house – not writing a short and sweet post that I’m happy with, but also not having the time to make the longer, deeper post actually any good.

I see it in movie terms. A short, sweet daily post is like writing a single scene. And the longer posts are like writing a whole film. Now, let’s say a film contains 60 scenes, and to write one scene takes a day. If you think that writing the whole film is then just matter of writing a scene a day for 60 days, you are going to have a really horrible film. It will take far more than 60 days to write the whole film — and be happy with it — because all the scenes have to not only work in isolation, but as a part of the whole film.

Instead of writing 58 solid scenes, I’ve ended up attempting 58 bad movies, and rushing to a clumsy conclusion when I look at the clock and realise I’ve got to get ready for work.


But, as I said, I’m not quitting. I’m pivoting.

I’ll be continuing to write a — short and sweet — daily post for anyone who wants one. And with the energy left over, I will try and craft the longer pieces I have in my mind. They’ll come in their own sweet time, or not at all.

If you would like to receive the — short and sweet — daily email, you can sign up here. (Don’t worry, Mum, I’ve already signed you up.)

The longer pieces, which will not be often — if they are, I’m rushing, and you should tell me off for that — will be sent to my ordinary email list.

Thanks again for reading. It’s nice to have an audience.

An Oliver in Motion Tends to Remain in Motion

My trouble is getting myself into motion.

Not toward doing the things I need to do but don’t really want to do — I am horrendous at starting on them, but this doesn’t bother me — no, what I get bummed out about is my inability to start the things that I actually want to do. Write my own songs. Learn a few more Dexter Gordon licks. Read The Brothers Karamazov. Blind-bake some pastry.

Whatever the blasted thing might be, the voice inside my head — telling me that once I get started I’ll be fine — seems to have very little sway. There’s a much louder voice reminding me of all the other things I could be doing right now, or how I’m doing the right thing but in the wrong way…

This has been pissing me off for years. But recently I started doing something to counter-act this. It’s worked nicely for me so far. My method is dumb-ass level simple: I set a timer on my phone for five minutes.

For five minutes — and five minutes only — I get on with the thing. And when the five minutes are up, I am free as a bird to do whatever the hell I like.

I told you it was simple. And I don’t know why it works. Part of me wonders why. A much bigger part doesn’t give a shit.

It works.

Don’t Put Tomatoes in the Toaster

The “you can do anything you set your mind to” phenomenon must be a fairly recent one.

I say that only because I’m trying — and struggling — to imagine too many people even a couple of hundred years ago thinking in this way, let alone in the centuries before that. Oh, sure, there were rulers who definitely operated with this kind of grandiose mindset — and it didn’t hurt that were treated more like deities than like human beings — but the common person?

The common person has — traditionally — been acutely aware of their limitations. They have felt from deep within their core that without extraordinary luck, their lot in life had pretty much been decided before they were born. Thankfully, this is becoming untrue for an increasing number of people, as we move — ever haltingly — towards greater social mobility around the world. We have a long way to go, but at least we’re going.

Personally, I both love and hate “you can do anything you set your mind to.”


I love it because for the people born into the most testing of circumstances — that they didn’t ask to be born into — this kind of positive self-belief can be the fuel that helps them to overcome their harsh beginnings. Believing in their unlimited potential can start them on a path that leads them to, if not become leader of the world, then at least make more of themselves than anybody could have realistically expected.

But there’s a big difference between being born into trying circumstances and being born into relative comfort and luxury, and it’s these people for whom “you can do anything you set your mind to” is a dangerous trap.

I suppose my real beef with it is the assumption that we are born as blank canvases. I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t believe you or I could have recorded Axis: Bold As Love. And I don’t believe Jimi Hendrix could have isolated molybdenum. I don’t believe that whoever could have done whatever… if it wasn’t in their nature to do so.


You are not a blank canvas. You have within you a multitude of strengths and weaknesses. You are drawn toward certain things in life, and away from others. Whilst the “you can do anything you set your mind to” cheerleaders might champion discovering your strengths and your passions and what makes you tick, they are missing the other essential half of the equation.

Your weaknesses, your limitations, the things you hate… these “negatives” have just as much — I believe more — of an effect than the “positives” which — granted — are nicer to think about.


Imagine coming home from Tesco with a bag for life filled with tomatoes. Now, there are lot of things you could make with that big old bag of tomatoes, but this list is not infinite, and I think you’ll agree that — hypothetically — knowing what tomatoes are and are not capable of could potentially save you a lot of wasted time.

But if instead you decided to adopt the “you can do anything you set your mind to” mantra when it came to your bag of tomatoes, then there are any number of dumb things you might end up doing. You might put them in the toaster, labouring under the impression that if you just set your mind to it, they’ll turn into toast. But you’d just end up making a mess. Ruining your toaster. Maybe even starting an electrical fire.

Tomatoes — delicious and versatile as they are — have limitations, just like everything in the known universe. Things only work in the space they work in. Learning what a tomato — or a block of wood, or you, yourself, as a unique human being — is actually capable of is not some kind of scary exercise in negativity that should be avoided at all costs. It’s not depressing, it’s not giving in… it’s liberating. It’s an extremely intelligent way to approach life.


Prior to being diagnosed with ADHD, I just thought I was shit at a load of things mentally — remembering where I’d put things, being organised, staying on task with things that were boring — that other people seemed to get along just fine with. I assumed that my only option, other than “give up,” was to try harder at everything — to “set my mind” to it. This only served to make me feel worse about myself when I couldn’t do what I tried to, no matter how hard I tried.

After my diagnosis, however, I realised that there was another option open to me. My brain has a physical limitation, which has certain knock-on effects on what I am and am not capable of. And so I started learning how to compensate. I started accepting that most of the things I am naturally crap at are not worth worrying about, and I started devising ways to step around them instead, saving my energy for the areas of life where my trying could actually make a difference.

Before diagnosis, I was putting tomatoes in the toaster, and when they didn’t turn into toast, I was heaping more and more of them in, turning up the heat on the toaster, and then crying about the inevitable fires I was causing.

After diagnosis, I decided to use them to make soup instead.

The World Doesn’t Give a Shit About What You Might Do

Only what it sees you actually do.

Your problem is that you want to have all your ducks lined up before you even think about taking the first step.

The path to what you want exists, and it will gladly show itself to you. But the path has standards – it wants to know that you’re serious. You have to show willing. You have to be the one to make the first move. Do that, and it will bend over backwards for you.


Do you know why aggressive drivers – though they might piss us all off – don’t crash their cars more often than they do? It’s simple. Though they take risks and chances, other drivers see them coming, and get out their way.

In the same way, as you move through the world, the world is not ignorant to what you do. The world notices you, and adapts itself to you. To your actions, though. To the things it sees you do, not the things you say you’re going to do, or plan on doing at some point in the future.


What you need is not more clarity in order to take the first step – that’s just your ego fucking with you. What you need is to simply to take that first step, and the result will be the clarity you dreamed of all along.

Take the first step. The second will show itself.

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

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Promises You Make, the Promises You Break

It feels horrible – to all but the most stone-cold of villains among us – to make a promise to another person and to break that promise. And I’m not just talking about situations where the “p-word” is explicitly used – I’m talking about any instance where you say you’re going to do something, and then you don’t do it.

That feeling of letting somebody you care about down has a visceral effect on us – it can make you physically sick. A lot of us, in order to avoid such a horrid feeling, take preventative measures – we try to only make promises to other people that we think we can keep. A good idea.

We treat the act of promise-keeping between each others as sacred – and this is a good thing – but for some reason, this doesn’t seem to extend to the promises we make to ourselves. Why not?


I don’t think we realise quite how often we make – let alone break – promises to ourselves.

“I’ll get up at 8 tomorrow,” “I’ll finish those leftovers instead of getting a pizza on my way home,” “I’ll start my essay after one more episode…” All day long, we are telling ourselves – our pants on fire much of the time – that we are going to do certain things.

The problem is not that the things you say you’re going to do don’t get done – most of it is utterly trivial, from a cosmic perspective.

No, the problem is that every time you break the promise you made, you kill your ability to trust yourself in the future.


When you break a promise to a friend, the intangible – but very real – bond of trust between you is broken. It takes time – and effort – to build that back up. But if it’s someone you care about, you put in that time and effort.

It’s no different when you break promises to yourself. But if you don’t see when you’re making promises to yourself, you certainly won’t see when you’re breaking them. Entering a vicious cycle, where your self-trust diminishes with each passing day, is all too easy.

My advice is two-fold.

First, make better promises – make promises you know you can keep. The trap is that most of us carry this attitude that when it comes to ourselves, it’s better to expect a ridiculous amount from ourselves, and then be happy with whatever percentage of that we actually accomplish. Except that we’re not happy with it. Ever.

In this game, you are rewarded for the promises you keep, and punished for the promises you break – no matter the size or scope of the promise. So make it easy for yourself.

Second, keep the promises you make. You’ve made it easier on yourself by making your promises realistic and achievable. Now you just have to commit to keeping them.

And what you will see when you do this is that instead of a vicious cycle, you’ll enter a virtuous cycle – with each passing day, you will trust yourself more and more. The result? You will feel able to make, and keep, bigger promises. Life will expand.

Simple is Beautiful

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Albert Einstein

Aim for simplicity in all that you do.

Go as deep as you can. Get dirty. And then strip away everything unnecessary. What you will be left with will be only the essential parts – the essence of the thing. What you will be left with will be simple. And beautiful.

Resist the human temptation to write off that which appears simple. The best things in life are simple. Not too simple – that would render them crude – but just the right amount.

If something in your life feels complicated right now, remind yourself that it isn’t actually complicated. It only appears that way because you haven’t yet stripped away the superfluous and the non-essential – you are carrying unnecessary baggage that is muddying the water.

Complication is never necessary. It is sometimes the result of ineptitude – nobody has yet reduced the problem to its essential elements – and sometimes the result of malice – somebody is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, and deceive you.

Life can, and should be, simple. Not easy. Not effortless. Not without trial or tribulation. But simple.


There is a reason why “The Old Man and the Sea,” Ernest Hemingway’s last major work of fiction, and the one which won him the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature reads at a Year 5 level – suitable for 9 and 10 years olds.

He made it as simple as possible, but not simpler. That’s art.

“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.” 

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

The Gravitational Pull of the Status Quo

Imagine drinking a lovely mug of coffee in your favourite armchair.

Now, if after your last delicious slurp, you stand up, walk into your kitchen, and are greeted by a single dirty plate in the sink, then I have some sad news for you. The chances of you washing up your innocent little coffee mug – your intention as you entered the kitchen – have just plummeted dramatically.

But there’s more. If you do leave your mug in the sink, then by the end of the day, the collection will in all likelihood have grown – a veritable menagerie of dirty plates, spoons, glasses – maybe even a pan or two – will now be inhabiting your sink.

And there’s even more – with each subsequent item that gets added to the sink, the chances of you washing up any of them continue to plummet.


That is the gravitational pull of the status quo, starkly illustrated. And it all started with one decision – not washing up the first plate. But how can something so seemingly minute and immaterial – the washing up of a single plate – have such a disproportionate effect?

It’s our good old friend human nature at work again. You see, one of our strongest tendencies – and there’s a reason I used the word “gravitational” in the title – is to maintain the status quo, even if we don’t like the status quo.

As silly as it sounds, once there was a single unwashed item in the sink, the status quo was a dirty sink – washing anything up would have violated the status quo. So you left the mug, and you let everything after that continue to pile up. But had there been nothing in the sink, then cleanliness would been the status quo – not washing up the mug would have been violating the status quo.

Status quos attract us like gravity, and what’s more, they are incredibly self-reinforcing – a good status quo will tend to get even better, whilst a bad one will tend to get even worse.

It pays to develop a keen understanding of the various status quos in your life, because they are affecting your moment-to-moment more than you could ever know. Your human nature is to protect them – whatever they are, whether you like them or not. You almost always do this without any conscious awareness. Make them conscious, and you give yourself a little bit of leverage over them – you give yourself the chance to sack off the negative ones, and double down on the positive ones.

You choose the colours with which you paint the world

Something shitty happens. Something you weren’t expecting.

Do you freak out, and act as though it’s the end of the world – something you couldn’t possibly recover from?

Or do you take a deep breath, and act as though it’s no big deal – nothing more than a temporary inconvenience?

Neither choice is right or wrong, but the two choices have incredibly different effects on how you feel able to proceed afterwards.

Where the first limits your options, the second multiplies them. Where the first shrinks your manoeuvrability, the second expands it.

Unlike the things that happen to you – which are by and large out of your control – the story you tell yourself about them is completely under your control.

If you don’t like the things that seem to be happening to you, it doesn’t mean these things are objectively “bad”, merely that you are painting them with colours you detest. Choose some colours you actually like. See how the world changes before your very eyes.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Wayne Dyer

Let’s Go to the Movies: Lucinda, Jorge, and Rajnigandha

The world’s most expensive slippers are worth very little to a double amputee.


Three people – let’s call them Lucinda, Jorge, and Rajnigandha – walk into a cinema. They are all there – separately, I might add – to see the new Wes Anderson movie.

Each pays £10 for a ticket and, walking to the screen, are stopped by a middle-aged man in a blue suit. He introduces himself as Barry, and asks politely for a moment of their time.

Barry asks them – in exchange for a voucher giving them 10% off their next cinema ticket – to briefly explain why they chose the particular film they chose, and if, when it’s finished, they’ll let him know what they thought of it.

Lucinda: “Well, it’s something to do with my Saturday, innit?”

Jorge: “I’ve seen all his films, and I’ve loved all his films. I’ve been looking forward to this one for three years. I can’t wait!”

Rajnigandha: “To be honest, I’m not expecting to enjoy it, but everyone’s talking about it, so I’m going to give it a shot. And if it is good – which I don’t think it will be – I don’t want to be the only person who hasn’t seen it – that’d be embarrassing.”

Barry thanks each of them for their time, and gives them the voucher he promised.


Lucinda spends almost the entire film with her phone in her hand, occasionally glancing over the top of the display to glimpse the action on-screen. Towards the end of the second act, her battery dies, and since she’s not remotely invested in what’s going on, she leaves.

She walks past Barry in the foyer. “It’s not finished already?”

“No, but… it were a bit boring, to be honest. I couldn’t really follow it. You haven’t got a charger, have you? I need a taxi home.”


Jorge has his eyes glued to the screen the whole time. When halfway through, he starts desperately needing the toilet, he sprints there and back so as not to miss any more action than he physically has to. This guy is in his element.

As the credits roll, he stands up, grinning. He nods his head at the screen. “Bravo, Maestro.”

Barry is waiting outside with his clipboard. “I loved it, Barry. The best film I’ve seen in years. You know what? I might even come see it again with my girlfriend in a few days’ time.”


Rajnigandha, like Jorge, also has his eyes glued to the screen the whole time, right until the final credit, but unlike Jorge, he is far from filled with enthusiasm for the picture.

He is the last one to dawdle out of the screen, and he sees Barry enjoying a pack of complimentary Revels.

“I knew I wouldn’t like it. And I was right. I hated it, right from the start. I wish I’d have walked out – I could have gone and seen that new one with The Rock in it instead. I’d definitely have enjoyed that.”

“Why didn’t you?” Barry asks him.

I’d paid for this film, hadn’t I? It’d have been a waste of ten pounds not to stay and watch it.”

All three moviegoers paid the same £10. To watch exactly the same film. In exactly the same cinema. But all three had wildly different experiences.

Lucinda wasn’t really there – whilst her body was physically in the cinema, her mind was not. She was dicking about on her phone until it died. And when it did die, there was little point in her sticking around to see how it ended – she wasn’t invested in the story. She may as well stayed at home and saved a tenner.

Jorge had a great time – he’d been looking forward to seeing the film for ages, and he made sure to savour every moment of it. Bringing his full attention to the movie wasn’t a guarantee that he would enjoy it, but it did put the chips on his side.

Rajnigandha appeared to try and enjoy the movie, but in reality he’d made his mind up before it ever started – he only stayed to try and justify his investment. He had put £10 into that movie, and he wasn’t about to see it go to waste. Except… it did go to waste, didn’t it? He had a rotten time, and he could have easily just cut his losses and gone to see The Rock in whatever franchise sequel he was in this week. Sunk costs spoiled another Saturday.

We almost always think about money in objective terms – we say that something is “worth” a certain amount, and act as though that is that. Nothing more to it. And there’s an extent to which this is true. “That” is the amount the thing costs – in pounds and pence, at least – but there is a much more important piece of the puzzle being ignored.

Value.

Value has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with the story you are telling yourself about the thing you’re spending you’re money on – or choosing not to spend it on. It’s what you bring to the thing you’re spending money on that makes it worth it or not.

There are two parts to getting this right:

  1. Pick an activity you care about enough to give yourself to.
  2. Give yourself to it.

Jorge did both and had a great time. Lucinda did neither and wasted both her afternoon, and her tenner. Rajnigandha tried to do the second one, but because he’d already failed so spectacularly on the first – he knew he wouldn’t enjoy it, and continued watching even after proving himself right – his efforts were in vain. He had a rubbish time.

Things don’t simply “cost what they cost.” The energy and attention you bring to the things you buy matter far more than their price-tag.

Money isn’t a number. It’s a story.

Be an Auteur

My brother bought me a really nice Quentin Tarantino coffee-table book for my birthday this year.

It’s a beautiful retrospective of the man’s career, with loads of cool photos in, and stories about each movie that I’d never heard before.

Last night, I was leafing through it for about the third time. Somewhere around Reservoir Dogs, I stopped reading and just sat and thought for a while about Tarantino, and what made him special as an artist. Being a ridiculous fan, I could think of plenty of things that make him special, but there’s just one that I want to focus on today.

The auteur

You see, in Quentin Tarantino, you have a fine example of the auteur. This is a title bestowed on those special directors – your Woody Allens, your Wes Andersons, your David Lynches – who wield so much influence on their film that they are considered the “author” of the film.

In all kinds of ways, the auteur goes above and beyond the call of duty expected of your average director-for-hire. They might have also written the script (Tarantino), they might employ an unmistakably distinct visual style (Wes Anderson), and they might have a big say over matters of casting (The Coen Brothers.) Auteurs – though they work with a crew often numbering in the hundreds – make the film their own.

Though there are exceptions to everything, my favourite work – whether that’s movies, TV shows, or music – is auteur-driven. I find it very difficult to get excited about stuff that’s generically popular, but lacks the personal touch of any one person in particular. When a song sounds like a bunch of people trying to create a “hit” rather than something cool and inspired, for example… count me out.

I prefer work that reflects one person’s original vision. Most of all, I like those artists who have made themselves into a category of one – a genre in and of themselves. You go and see “a Tarantino movie”, you listen to “a Bowie album”, you read “a Stephen King.”

Don’t dumb it down for anyone

The camel is a horse designed by committee. Similarly, most art is a perhaps once glorious vision watered down and made anodyne by committee – through some unfortunate blend of greed, conservatism, and a general fearful attitude. We don’t need any more of that. I repeat, we do not need any more of that.

You can choose to toe the line, to be a conformist, to make average stuff for average people. Or you can choose to be an auteur, creating original, brilliant work. It’s up to you.

At every step along the way, there will be people trying to get you to cheapen your vision, to compromise, to make what you’re doing more palatable to the masses. They might be doing it for shady motives – they see dollar signs in you – or for altruistic ones – they want to protect you from disappointment. Whatever the reason, your job is to politely – or not so politely, it’s entirely up to you – tell them to fuck off. If, when push comes to shove, you don’t respect your vision, how can you expect anybody else to?

You only get one life. Don’t waste it doing stuff any old bugger could do. If you’re going to make something, you’re much better off trying to make something original and brilliant – and falling down on your stupid face – than trying to play it safe and make something inoffensive, loosely reminiscent of that powerful vision you once had.

Be better than that. Be braver than that. Be an auteur.

Worrying… Both Seductive, and Completely Pointless

That thing that kept you awake last night… was it worth it? Did all that time you spent “thinking” put even the slightest of dents in the problem?

I’ll save you your breath – it didn’t. And I’ll go further: Never in the entire history of the human race has worrying helped anyone. Ever.

Noticing genuine danger and acting on it? Most definitely. Sabre-toothed tigers would have wiped us out a long, long ago without that.

But sitting and worrying about something? Always a bad thing.

What we habitually call “thinking” is anything but…

Real “thinking” is using your unique human intelligence to actively connect the dots, to compare and contrast, to entertain different ideas… creativity, basically.

But that’s not what we’re usually doing when we think we’re thinking.

What we’re actually doing is passively watching a handful of worries go round and round like carriages on a model railway set. One worry leads to the next, which leads to the next, until the first one comes back around.

It’s a cycle, and we can either wallow in it, or break it.

Take the power back

If something is bothering you – and if you’re anything like me, something is always bothering you – you don’t have to let it bother you for another second. You can do something about it.

You think that worrying is something you have no power over. Even worse, you think that the worries are true – that they are real pieces of information. They’re not. They’re just your mind fucking with you.

Worrying is not one of life’s necessities. It’s a choice. And it’s a cycle.

Grab a notepad

When you next find yourself worrying about something – you’ll know that you’re worrying because a thought will keep recurring, and it won’t feel good every time it pops up – grab a notepad and write down anything

Anything that comes to you is useful, even – especially – things that don’t make literal sense at this moment in time. Don’t worry about grammar, don’t worry about sentences, don’t worry about insulting people you love… put it on the page.

Read it back, slowly. And then burn it. Or throw it away.

What does this do?

Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them, as David Allen would say, and the more worries you are carrying around with you, the less space your mind has.

But when you get this shit out of your head and onto paper, you are freeing your mind to do what it is its nature to do… to think.

This exercise will not solve all your problems – you have to do that – but it will do two things. Firstly, it will put you in a much better position to be able to think of solutions to your problems. And secondly, it will help you realise how many of your “problems” weren’t problems at all.

PS: There are a few articles and interviews that I come back to every few months. This interview with John Frusciante about music and mental health is one of them.

The Goose That Lays the Golden Egg

Putting a pinch of salt on your chips makes them taste better than before. And putting a second pinch of salt on makes them taste even better.

Putting a tablespoon of salt on your chips, however, doesn’t make them taste even better again. It renders them inedible.

Why? Because quantities matter. Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.

Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

“Scaling up”

“Scaling” something up merely means to make it larger than it was before.

This could mean blowing a photograph up to twice its original size so that it can be seen from further away, cooking an extra large chilli so that you can feed more people, or hiring more staff – with more people on the job you can process orders quicker and grow your business.

The thing with scaling though, is that there is almost always a knock-on effect.

Ships, printing presses, and atomic bombs

Scattered throughout human history are some key moments where it all of a sudden things that had previously scaled up slowly scaled up incredibly rapidly, and what always happened next was that the world was changed dramatically.

From the 14th century onwards, the increasing size and reliability of naval technology made it more possible than ever to travel to, trade with, and conquer, the far reaches of the globe. Cue modern colonisation.

In 1439, Gutenberg’s printing press made it possible to reproduce the written world at scale, enabling – amongst other things – peasants to read the bible for the first time. Cue the Reformation.

On August 6th 1945, the US proved to the world that something no larger than a traditional bomb could now wipe out an entire city. Cue the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War.

Just because something can be scaled doesn’t mean it should.

What are you trying to accomplish?

Answer that first, and then look at the different parts of your operation that it’s possible to scale up.

Scaling up the right things gives you more time and energy each day with which to focus on the critical parts of what you do – the parts that you and only you can do. It helps to eliminate annoying distractions, and reduces genuine waste.

But scaling up the wrong things – whilst possibly making you incredibly successful in a worldly sense – could kill the very goose that lays the golden egg. In a search for more, more, more, you might inadvertently destroy the very essence of what it is you’re doing. And if that’s gone, what’s the point?

If all that matters to you is making a profit, for example, then the modern world offers you untold avenues for scaling up. You can buy influence, you can lobby governments, you can cut your production costs by exploiting sweatshop workers who have no choice…

That doesn’t mean you should, though.

If you’re trying to do something different than that, something better, something with a little more to it, something richer, something deeper…

Embrace and enable your humanity

We are entering a technological age where it is becoming more and more possible – and more and more critical – to treat each other properly. To acknowledge that we’re all in this shit together – this weird and wonderful gift called life. We are able to do this because machines can and will do more and more of the menial tasks traditionally performed by humans. The point of scaling up technology is to enable our humanity, not to destroy it.

Some things benefit from being streamlined, made more efficient, scaled up… but not our humanity. We need to be free to express, to learn, to grow. And we can’t do that if we’re constantly trying to measure ourselves against arbitrary standards, or do this thing faster, or do this other thing more efficiently.

Human beings weren’t designed for the efficiency computers were designed for. Let the computers do what they do. And let yourself be a human, warts and all.

Your inherent humanity is the goose that is laying the golden eggs. Don’t kill it. Enable it.

Words Can’t Describe the Best Things in Life

I’m not good at expressing myself using the English language – at feeling something, and then trying to put that feeling into words.

That might be a facetious thing for somebody who claims to be a writer to blurt out – after all, isn’t my job to express myself using words?! And yet it’s the honest truth. Sure, I’ll own up to being adept at choosing words and ordering sentences in a pleasing way, but that is not the same thing. I’m hopeless at adequately summing up what it is I feel.

“What are you trying to do?”

For instance, I couldn’t possibly tell you in mere words what I’m trying to do with my life. I could tell you that I’m trying to write stories, or write songs, or teach people. All these things would be technically true, and yet I’d feel like no combination of them – no matter how long I deliberated over my choice of words – would adequately sum up what I’m trying to do.

And yet… I know perfectly well what I’m trying to do with my life. I know when I’m getting it right. I know when I’m getting it wrong. I just can’t express it using language. Oh well.

Things are bigger than words

The problem is not that I’m bad at expressing myself – though I believe I am. The real problem is that words are a tool with severely limited applications. Hard as it is to believe, in a culture that places so much importance on words, there are many things in life that – even in the most skilled poet’s hands – words cannot begin to express.

In their defence, words are incredible. Speech – and then writing – allowed us to progress as a civilisation, to communicate with each other in ways utterly impossible otherwise. They make our lives easier and more efficient.

But in the same way that you wouldn’t use a machete to trim your mustache, or mustache scissors to chop down branches in the jungle, words have their time and their place.

If your friend wanted to know how to boil an egg, or get to your house, or what the weather was like, for example, then words would suffice.

But if your friend wanted to know what Beethoven’s 5th sounded like, or a sunset looked like, or what being in love felt like… words would be woefully inadequate.

Words are a just fascimile – they are a reproduction of the original source. In the domain in which they work, they work better than anything else. They just don’t work outside of that domain.

Your Mind at War

I’m glad I was born when and where I was.

Had I been born into another time or place, I’d have more than likely been expected – as a male not of the ruling class – to go and “fight for my country” in some bullshit war. And not that it’s a competition, but I’m one of the least patriotic people I know.

Now, I don’t oppose war in general – it is sometimes, heartbreakingly, the only choice left. But very rarely. Far more often, a war is the brainchild of some insecure despot who has managed to amass enough power to make it happen.

Carl von Clausewitz remarked that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” My take on this is that if you have to have a war – though you might well have to – it means somebody messed up politically beforehand.

But since I have no experience of fighting in a “real” war, let me tell you about the only war I do have experience fighting.

My little war

The battle-ground is my mind, and the opposing sides are two conflicting parts of my consciousness.

One part believes that it’s a special, unique human being. The other part thinks it’s just an insignificant member of a 7-billion strong species.

One sees the world subjectively, the other objectively.

One thinks that Revolver is the best Beatles album. The other argues that, in an NME poll, Abbey Road was voted number one – therefore that’s the correct answer.

One thinks that the creepy feeling I get from someone I meet is a sign to be wary of them. The other thinks that’s ridiculous – they are brilliant, accomplished, and attractive.

Together, these two ways of looking at the world form a complete picture – a three-dimensional view of life. Their extremes come together to create balance. But torn apart, they lead to living half a life.

What is the goal of war?

We tend to think of wars as necessary bloody affairs – two rival nations take up arms against one other in a field somewhere, the one who gives up first loses, the other wins. Except that’s not really how most wars have been fought.

According to Sun-Tzu, in The Art of War, the ultimate goal of war is to win with minimal bloodshed. In his eyes, the supreme general uses every resource available to evade and avoid battle. Not because he is a coward, but because in the long-run, fighting is incredibly wasteful and inefficient, when compared to politics. It should the last resort, after all else has failed.

My minimal bloodshed

Now, I am not trying to win this war in my head – I am not one of the opposing sides. I am merely the mediator who has to listen to and live with the two opposing sides battle it out in my head.

Unconsciously, my approach has generally been to let one side win. For a few days I’ll either see the world more subjectively or more objectively. Inevitably, the other, ignored side will then pipe up, get belligerent, and try to drag me to their side.

Over time, I’ll go back and forth, back and forth. It’s okay. But it gets dizzying. Is there not another way?

Just like people, the two sides of my mind want little more than to be heard, to be seen, their existence to be acknowledged. When they do feel heard and seen, they tend to be a lot more receptive to the idea of working together for the common good. And it makes me feel calm, capable, and productive. When they feel repressed and ignored, well that’s when they double-down on their right to rule my mind, on there being only room for one opinion round here. Life becomes unnecessarily difficult.

The only way to manage this war – which neither side can ever actually win – is to simply give each side the chance to express itself. Neutralise them.

The Glory of the Quick-Fix

We can’t help it. When we face a problem, our natural instinct as human beings is to look for the fastest, easiest, most accessible solution. Let’s call this our “quick-fix” tendency.

There is nothing inherently negative about this tendency. Most of our problems are simple enough that a quick-fix is sufficient. There are only so many hours in a day – the choice between a faster and slower solution seems like no choice at all.

Where the tendency becomes negative, however, is when we butt up against a problem that can’t be solved quickly, easily, or with our most accessible resources. In our hunger for a quick-fix, we sometimes don’t actually solve the thing we set out to solve – we often make it even worse than it already was.

Now, a lot of well-meaning people will try to tell you that there is no such thing as a quick-fix, and even if there is, that you should stay away from them. Well-meaning as these people might be, they are dead wrong on both counts.

Quick-fixes not only exist, but are far preferable to their alternative. But – as you probably saw coming a mile away – there’s a little more to it than that.

First, let’s look at something that tries to pass itself off as a quick-fix, but is in fact, not one.

The False Quick-Fix

Some solutions get you out of a jam – for the time being, at least.

At school, I would often only remember I had homework to do the night before it was due in – if I remembered at all, that is. Over time, I developed a kind of sixth-sense for which teachers you could and couldn’t bullshit into letting you hand it in the next day, or after the weekend.

My approach depended entirely on the teacher – if they were the type that took no shit from the likes of me, I wouldn’t bother, and I’d just do the homework and hand it in. But if I thought I could get away with it, I’d make up some excuse the next morning, and agree to bring in the homework the next day, or after the weekend.

I’m sure I thought I was very clever, but looking back, I have to ask myself what was I actually achieving? I didn’t need the extra time I bought myself, nor did I actually end up with any extra time in the long-run – I still had to do the work, and it was just as annoying and unpleasant two or three days after the original hand-in date than it would have been before it.

If you reach for a quick-fix solution, but your problem comes back a few days, weeks, or months later – perhaps with a vengeance – then you didn’t really fix it, did you? All you really did was give your future self something to deal with, and that is the difference between the false and the genuine quick-fix.

Are you making things harder or easier for your future self?

The Genuine Quick-Fix

To qualify as the genuine article, a quick-fix has to tick just two boxes.

Firstly, it has to solve the problem for the foreseeable future. Whatever the solution is, it must free your future self from having to play catch-up.

Secondly, it has to solve the problem with minimal waste of time. Note that I didn’t say “minimum expenditure of time”. To do a thing right takes whatever time it takes – possibly a very long time – but it needn’t take a second longer than that.

The foreseeable future

You are a human being – your foresight is limited. You cannot – with confidence – ever know what is going to happen as a result of the things you do or do not do. But neither can anyone else. So the playing field is level, in that respect.

Simply making an attempt to predict whether or not this or that solution will be better for your future self is all you need to do, and the more you make these kinds of predictions, the more accurate they will start to become.

You will never reach 100% accuracy – and to be honest, life would be pretty boring if you knew exactly what was going to happen – but there is no reason you can’t keep getting better and better at it until the day you die.

With minimal waste of time

There is a kind of “golden mean” when it comes to the speed at which you attempt to fix your problems – an ideal pace where you are calm, yet intense; relaxed, yet productive.

If you try to go faster than your ideal pace, your solution will not be as stable. You are in a hurry, and it shows. You will be tempted to cut corners and skip steps to get, and you will probably feel stressed and harangued as you go…

If you try to go slower than your ideal pace, then the solution might be fine, but it will most likely be lacking. A spark, a bit of vitality… This is because the journey did not stimulate you – you were bored. What’s more – the extra time you spent solving this problem was time you ultimately spent not solving your next problem, or on some much-needed rest and recuperation.

It is just as limiting to go too slowly as it is to go too quickly. Discovering your ideal pace is important – it enables you to get closer and closer to your potential.

The truth about solving problems

The truth is that for every problem you have that is actually solvable – and if it isn’t, you may as well stop worrying about it – there is a solution.

There is a solution that can solve the problem for your future self, and that will benefit from being done as quickly as possible, but no quicker.

There’s your quick-fix.

To Live Is to Change, to Change Is to Live

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

You were not born to be some convenient, rigid, fixed identity. You were born to discover your true self. And to discover your true self, you must embrace change. You must accept that what was true for you yesterday might not be true for you today.

This is easier to see when you’re a kid.

For the first eighteen years of your life, you were in a state of constant flux – both inside and out. You got taller. Your face changed shape. Your voice got deeper. One day you liked one thing, the second you liked another, and on the third, you couldn’t believe you ever gave either of them time of day.

Everything about you seemed to change like the weather, and – for the most part – everybody was fine with this.

Until you hit your early twenties. For some reason, at this point in your life, you were suddenly expected to stop changing.

“Stop subverting our expectations!”

We silently encourage people – around the age of twenty-three – to grind to a halt that constant change that defines our first couple of decades, no matter how they might feel on the inside. By this point in your life – we seem to suggest, if only indirectly – one really ought to have had the time to figure out who they’re going to be… for the rest of their life. It’s the end of the line, as far as self-discovery goes.

You are permitted to continue changing after this – there’s no law against it, after all – but even if people appear okay with it, there will be an unmistakable glint of suspicion in their eye. Who do you think you are? We thought you were this one thing, we thought we knew what to expect of you, we thought we could put you in a little box in our mind…

It’s really fucked up. But it all boils down to control, really. People want you to be predictable. When you’re not, it puts them about.

I’d say that – assuming you’re not doing anything genuinely deviant – that’s far more their problem than yours.

To live is to change, to change is to live

The truth is that you are changing – both inside and out – from the moment you are born to the moment you die. Just because your twenties are over, nature doesn’t put the handbrake on.

As every second goes by, you are a slightly different person. Cells die, and are reborn. Perhaps you liked Megadeth in your twenties, but you prefer Mozart in your forties -this is exactly what is supposed to happen. But if you stifle this change because you don’t want to inconvenience people… well, you might be alive in body, but you will be dead in spirit.

When a river is allowed to flow, all is well – we have a healthy river. When it is not allowed to flow, it stagnates. It becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and parasites. Day by day it becomes more and more toxic.

We are no different than a river – when we allow ourselves the freedom to adapt to change – both inside and outside – we are living a rich life. We are growing. We are embracing who we really are.

When we resist change, we stagnate. We die inside.

If a Robot Steals Your Job, Thank It.

From the wheel to the Wii, “technology” is what it’s call it when humans – sick of doing every step of every job themselves – leverage tools and resources to get the job done quicker, cheaper, more efficiently, or all three.

It’s not just modern inventions like iPads and Terminators that count as technology. It’s the abacus, which helped ancient civilisations count higher than their fingers. It’s the printing press – which enabled ordinary people to read the bible, rather than having to hear it second hand from their priest.

In fact, it’s not just even just “devices”… it’s also systems, like the assembly line Henry Ford masterminded, allowing cars to be made at a fraction of the cost and at a speed previously undreamed of. To get crude, even the humble to-do list is technology – instead of having to keep in mind the 7 things you have to do lest you forget any, you write them on a piece of paper, ridding yourself of the need to remember any of them.

Any time humans leverage anything to get something done quicker, cheaper, or more efficiently – we can call it technology.

Humans have untold potential – the things we can do now will almost certainly seem quaint and naive in a hundred years’ time – and it is only technological progress that frees us to explore that potential. When we don’t have to spend our time on the trivial, on the bullshit – on the things that don’t matter – we are free to spend our time on higher pursuits.

Technology is – in its broadest sense – the greatest human achievement. And yet in recent years, it’s been under attack.

The robots are coming for your jobs

Many people – though they may spend the lion’s share of their day staring and prodding at their smartphone – are increasingly wary of technology, and the detrimental effect they see it having on their future.

Most of these people are not Luddites – opposed to technological progress for intellectual or philosophical reasons. On the contrary, they’re just real people, people who fear – encouraged in no small part by an ever-predatory media – for their place in the world, as technology moves ever faster towards automation, robotics, A.I…

The message they are hearing loud and clear is: “Sooner or later, when your job is “taken” by a robot, you will become irrelevant.”

I can’t imagine how horrible it must be to feel that way – to feel as though you have such little inherent purpose in the world that a “robot” can “replace” you.

Fortunately, it’s completely unfounded.

Your job can be replaced. You can’t be, though.

When people live in fear – and actively seek to hold back technological progress – thinking that “the robots” are going to render them irrelevant, they right about one thing, wrong about another.

The thing they are right about is that their particular job is probably replaceable. They are not, in the long run, the best person for the job. The best person for the job is probably not a person at all, but some kind of machine.

The thing they get wrong? That the first point is a bad thing.

You are not your job

You are not your job. You are you. You are an autonomous human being. You cannot be replaced.

You can lose your job, sure. But unless you let your job define you, it’s just the thing that you happen do day-by-day which enables you to pay for stuff. Food, shelter, some new trainers every now and then…

And if a robot can do your job quicker, better, easier than you can, then you can’t really get upset with the robot for that. It’s not the robot’s fault. It’s also not your fault either. The fault is with the system, the culture, with society at large.

You were lied to. You were taught that what matters is subservience – “getting a job.” And unfortunately, whilst humans have showed themselves to be fairly adept at subservience over the years, they’ve got nothing on robots.

The personal and the political

The truth is that the vast amount of jobs people currently have are going to become irrelevant as technology marches forward. That is what is going to happen, whether we resist it to or not. It’s just a matter of when. And so have a duty and an obligation to adapt to these changes. If we don’t, they will crush us.

On a personal level, we must realise that what matters most is not our job, and keeping it at all costs. If a robot can do your job as well or better than you, let it. There is definitely something better you could be doing with your limited time here on the planet. Let the robots do what they’re better at. And you do something robots could never do.

But what about the fact that people need to pay for stuff? How will they do that without their trivial jobs? Well, that’s where the political comes in.

There is enough money and resources on this planet for nobody to have go without food and shelter. It is not “the way it unfortunately must be” for people to spend their time worrying about these things, it’s a political decision.

The sole reason half the world lives in poverty, and has to struggle to survive until tomorrow, is because we haven’t yet decided to – and figured out a way – to make it happen. It’s not because it’s impossible. It’s just that we haven’t got there yet.

There are giant problems facing humanity, and governments around the world need to wake up to the fact we are not going to solve them if we insist on maintaining the status quo – keeping humans on treadmills of subserviency, performing jobs that could be done better by robots, just so that they have something to do. Why not inspire them – and sponsor them – to do something bigger and better?

Humans are suited to particular tasks. Why not let the robots do everything else. And then let’s see what we’re capable of.

It’s All in How You Frame It

  1. Romeo and Juliet is the tragic story of star-crossed lovers – two young and beautiful human beings who find solace in one another amidst the backdrop of an old, bitter feud between their respective families, only to be torn apart by a simple miscommunication.
  2. Romeo and Juliet is the upsetting story of a 13 year old girl from Verona being groomed by a 19 year old male from a rival family – who also murders her cousin – culminating with a climactic double suicide.

It’s all in how you frame it.

The way you frame something has a powerful effect on the way it’s perceived – whatever the real facts happen to be. Facts are essential, but they are only the starting point. It’s how you frame the facts that matters.

In Shakespeare’s own words – through the mouth of Hamlet – “Nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

You don’t get to decide what happens to you, but you do get to decide what kind of frame you’ll put around everything that does. I suggest you choose your frame with as much care as a bride chooses her wedding dress.

The Infuriating Inevitability of Creation

I walked to work this morning, listening to Spotify. I have about 1500 of my favourite songs saved, and what I like doing at the moment is just hitting shuffle at the beginning of a walk and listening to whatever it throws up.

Well, just as I passed the Tesco petrol station on Abbeydale Road, I heard a familiar piano intro, and I realised that I was listening to one of my own songs – “There Was a Boy” from The ManBoy LP.

I’ll admit it – sometimes I listen to my own songs. I like them. Why wouldn’t I? I made them, after all. This time, however, it was a genuine accident – I didn’t realise I had any of my songs saved on my phone.

So I listened to the song – John Wilson on piano, Joe Wood on drums and various classroom percussion – and I recalled in my mind’s eye recording it with Alan Smyth, and that got me thinking about the writing process, which was a peculiar one.

I had walked that day to Starbucks on Ecclesall Road – armed with an A4 notepad and Uniball UB157 – ordered one of those plant-pot sized filter coffees, and then proceeded to pretty much just write the song. In about the time it took to physically write down the words, I was done. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why it was so easy and effortless. But it just was.

That’s not the way it normally is for me

Looking back – having started the writing of hundreds of songs since I was ten years old – I have written just two types of song: Songs that have stuck around, and songs that have not.

That in itself isn’t particularly strange, is it? If I were a painter, I wouldn’t expect to deliver on my initial vision perfectly every time; if I were a screenwriter, I wouldn’t expect to knock every scene I wrote out of the park. It’s not unusual or unexpected that I wouldn’t be in love with, and want to keep forever, every song I wrote.

But what’s interesting – to me at least – is that there is an undeniable difference between the songs that I keep around, and the ones that I don’t.

And this difference is at its starkest during the writing of the song.

Inevitability

When I’m writing a song that ends up sticking around, it feels bigger than me. It feels as though it already exists somehow. It feels… inevitable, as though I can hear what the finished product will be like. Just as Michelangelo chipped away everything that wasn’t David – revealing David – I feel like I have something in my head that I can compare my work-in-progress to. Something to aim for.

It’s as though I’m not so much trying to write a song, as I’m just… writing it. Rather than scouring my mind for ideas, it’s akin more to hearing something on the radio, and then writing that down.

When I’m writing the songs that end up on the scrap-heap, however, it’s a slog and it’s a strain. There is no sense of inevitability – no aural picture in my head to compare what I’ve got so far to.

It feels like it’s up to me and me alone to turn this scrap of an idea into something. And sooner or later, I give up. I have no skin in the game.

For example, another song from my ManBoy LP – “Lady Love” – was written on a piano in the place I used to work, whilst waiting for a student who never showed up. I was noodling around with some chords I liked and humming a melody. I grabbed a notepad, and wrote three verses. I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know what it was about… I just know that as I sat playing it to myself on that piano, I really liked it. And two years later I recorded it exactly as I wrote it.

On the other hand, I have a folder in my loft containing literally one-hundred complete songs that I wrote in a one-month-long frenzy as a resident at Bank Street Arts. I made little demo recordings of every single one as I went, and when the month was over, I listened back to them all. There were nice moments in every song, but none of them were songs. Why?

There was no inevitability.

What can I do with this information?

Think about surfing. It doesn’t matter how much you strain mentally, how much you wave your fists at the sea – waves show up, or don’t, on their own schedule.

The only thing you have control over is what you do if and when the next one shows up. You have two choices – either you adapt yourself to the wave, and ride it, or you stand rigid, and let the wave batter you about.

Similarly, you can’t control when these moments of inspiration come, or what they look like when they do. But you can be ready to drop everything and follow them.

Although it can feel risky to stake everything on hunches and inspiration, it’s not when you actually think about it. For starters, I have enough personal experience now of both following my hunches, and of ignoring them, to know that I am always rewarded for following them and always punished for ignoring them. You could set your watch to it.

But besides that, what are you actually gaining by ignoring them? Security? Protection? Peace of mind? I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel particularly secure, protected, or at peace when I go against what I feel in my bones to be the right thing to do.

There’s a reason for inspiration, for gut feelings, for hunches. It’s at your own peril that you pretend you don’t hear them. If you listen, though, and act on them, you’ll discover untapped inner resources – life will literally open up. But it will close again the second you stop listening to them.

Own the Negative, Discover the Positive

Yesterday evening, I looked through the titles of all the pieces I’ve written on this blog so far. My god, I thought. I ought to be calling this thing: “On All That Is Wrong with Humanity.”

My apparent fixation on the negative aspects of our kind isn’t by design – I don’t plan in advance what I will write each day. Writing this blog is something I do to stretch a muscle. I start with “nothing” – the blank page – and as I type, and delete, and type, and delete, I end up with “something.” That’s as much as there is to it.

Even when I think I know what I’m going to write about, I – more often than not – prove myself entirely wrong. I can be certain of my topic, but as soon as my fingers hit the keys, something else comes out – something completely different and unintended. This unintended thing that comes, however, always feels far more real, far more pertinent – as though made of flesh and blood – than the original intention. I learnt a long time ago that when I ignore whatever speck of inner wisdom I have, I suffer. So I listen to that voice, and I pivot toward writing what’s coming out, not what I thought I was going to write.

Thus, what comes out has a certain organic quality. Whatever I find myself writing about – that must be what I care about, what I’m curious about, what is bugging me, what I’m straining to understand. And overwhelmingly, it seems that I am straining to understand human nature – both the parts we deem positive, and the parts we deem negative. I want to understand the whole picture.

Afraid of your own shadow

When confronted with the elements of human nature that seem at first glance to be “bad” or “negative” our initial response is to run away from them, to hide them, to deny them. And why not? They are scary, after all. They represent the unknown.

The problem is that denying something only serves to make it stronger. When you deny and repress any element of human nature, you don’t stop it existing, and you don’t stop it from causing you harm. You simply divorce yourself from reality, and far from living happily in denial, you are more likely to live in fear of your own shadow.

If, on the other hand, you can develop the courage to look your best and worst qualities square in the eye, especially these darker, harder-to-accept parts of yourself, then you put yourself in a position to transmute them into their positive equivalent. You cannot destroy energy, but you can change its state.

Own the negative, discover the positive

That’s why this blog tends to focus on the negative aspects of human nature – becoming aware of them is the necessary first step to transcending them. If all we do is think of the positive aspects, and deny everything else, we become half-humans, living half-lives. I don’t want that.

The writers I love the most are the ones who have held up a mirror, allowing me to see myself and my fellow human as we truly are – as beautiful or ugly as that might be. Hemingway. Bukowski. Denis Johnson. Robert Greene. If I have an aim with my writing, it’s to pay that forward.

I Gave up Drinking for Lent

I haven’t had a drink since the 5th of March – just shy of five weeks. I am completely transformed. The absence of alcohol in my bloodstream has solved all of my problems – both personal, and professional – and has left me with a slimmer waist, a glowing complexion, and an unwavering feeling of benevolence toward my fellow man.

So long as I live, I never want to so much as look at another glass of wine, let alone allow it to pass my lips.

Or, at least, that’s what I’d like to tell you. But I’m afraid it would be the biggest pack of lies I’ve ever told.

The truth is that when next Thursday rolls around, and Lent is officially over, I am going to congratulate myself with a delicious bottle of Pinot Noir. And I’m going to take it from there.

Why did I give up drinking for Lent?

Let’s start with why I decided to abstain. There were two reasons – neither one of them concerning religion, and only one of them concerning the effects of alcohol on the body.

A quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald states the first reason better than I could.

“First you take a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes you.”

That was reason one. Drinking had become far too non-negotiable for me. It’s not that I couldn’t possibly refuse a drink, or that I spent the day not quite feeling like myself until I could indulge. But I had grown increasingly wary of the way – unless there was a very good reason not to – pouring myself a drink had become a firm fixture in my day, like showering, brushing my teeth, or taking my medication.

Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t drinking against my will, and wishing I possessed the strength to quit. But the wires were getting crossed. Did I actually want a drink, or was I just accustomed to having one? Wednesday night with no real plans? A glass or two of wine whilst I cook dinner, then. Hmmm, it’d be rude not to finish the bottle. Don’t need to be up early tomorrow? Be rude not to have a whiskey. They serve beer at this cafe? Be rude not to order one.

I had lost the ability to consciously decide whether to drink or not, and I wanted to claw it back.

Reason two was nothing more than garden-variety curiosity.

Like I said, whilst never graduating to alcoholism, I have enjoyed a lot of drinks over the last ten years. A few months ago, I tried – and struggled – to remember a single sober period of longer than a week in the last decade. There was one time in 2014 when – just to prove to myself that I could – I went a week without drinking. But other than that? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

That got me thinking – what if there was a better life that I was missing out on? What if I was sapping my potential, perhaps severely? What if I drinking was worsening my ADHD symptoms?

I don’t really get hangovers. I don’t spend all our money on boozing. Drinking hasn’t been silently ruining my life. But without taking it out of my life for a bit, how could I ever know what – if anything – awaited me on the other side?

So… what’s it been like?

I hate an anti-climax as much as the next guy, but I’m afraid that’s all I am able to give you. It’s been fine.

It’s actually been a hell of a lot easier than I thought it would be. The few times where I’ve actually wanted a drink, or where I’ve been in a situation – like having friends over, or being out at a bar for a gig – it really hasn’t bothered me that much that I couldn’t have one.

My sleeping has changed. In general – my body clock forever ruined by years of getting up for school – I can’t sleep past 8 or 9 o’clock, no matter what time I go to bed, no matter what time I actually need to get up. In general, I’ll get about 7 hours of sleep. A few days after my last drink – a very generous birthday present Scotch – I slept for about 11 hours, and this happened a couple of more times. After about a week, I starting waking up with what felt like a hangover. This went on for about two weeks, and then stopped.

My moods are different. I feel slightly calmer, slightly cleverer, slightly sharper. I feel as though there’s a little more time and space for my thoughts. I feel – in the most subtle way – as though more things are possible.

My famously weak bladder certainly prefers sobriety. I’m drinking plenty of water and not going to the toilet anywhere as often – even throughout the day.

The hidden benefit

Perhaps I just wasn’t getting pissed enough – though I doubt it – but I expected for this experiment to be a lot more difficult than it was, and for it to result in more dramatic changes to my mind and body. I should be glad it wasn’t and didn’t, I suppose.

But am I glad I did it? You bet. Why? Well, whilst not getting what I expected out of it, I got something even better.

I got the pride and satisfaction that comes from deciding to do something and following through on it. And to me, that’s priceless. That’s worth so much more than than improved liver function, or fewer trips to toilet, or an extended life-span.

I am shocked and surprised that I could hold it together to not have a drink this long. Not because I was hopelessly addicted, but just because I am not somebody who can normally stick to things. Easy things, hard things, after two or three days, I’m onto something else.

I’m not used to feeling proud of myself. It’s nice. But I still have nine days or so left. Then I can crack open that bottle of wine. Mmm.

Living With Intention

Have you ever felt completely at peace? Imagine for a moment what it would be like.

Imagine being able to just sit, and watch the world go by – no nagging thoughts, no need to fill the silence, no need for anything, except this moment, right here, right now.

Do you feel like this very often? I know I don’t. But I’m trying to figure out how to get there more often. I think I might know how.

I’m on a mission to live with intention.

A balancing act

Every single thing that crosses your path throughout your day – everything you have your attention on, whether consciously or not – has an effect on you. Each thing is bringing you closer – or taking you further away – from that peaceful state that you imagined a moment ago.

The people in your life, the objects that surround you, the responsibilities and obligations you feel, even the town you live in… none of these things are ever neutral in their effects on you.

However – and this is key – whilst all that is true, the solution is not as black-and-white as “if you want to be happier, bring in more positive things, and get rid of more negative things.” You see, each individual thing is not merely “a positive or a negative” – each individual thing is itself a combination of positives and negatives, a balance of blessings and curses.

What’s more, each individual thing affects each individual person differently. Whilst some things are more universally good or bad, it’s way more nuanced than that. What bothers you might delight me, and vice versa.

Living with intention means looking at the things you have let be in your life, and measuring the net effect they have on you personally – when you weigh its benefits against its drawbacks, does each thing overall make you more happy, or less happy? From this vantage point you can then decide what to keep and what to get rid of, or never to allow in in the first place.

Maximalism vs Minimalism

By default, we are, unfortunately, maximalists. This means that we tend to – unconsciously, of course – err on the side of letting into our life anything that might bestow upon us some kind of benefit. We act on the premise that if it has some positive aspect, it must therefore be positive, and therefore if we don’t have it in our lives, we are somehow… losing something.

The problem is that if you look hard enough, almost everything has some kind of positive aspect to it. Hitler was a vegetarian. Enough said.

Minimalism, on the other hand, is simply a little being more discerning and discriminatory, and looking at the bigger picture. Playing 3D chess instead of noughts and crosses.

It means weighing up the balance of positives and negatives of a thing – calculating the net effect of bringing something into our lives. A thing can have as many positives as it wants, but if they don’t outweigh the negatives, it’s gone. Simple.

You can be more intentional

Sure, you can’t choose everything, you can’t control everything, you can’t make everything bend to your will. But you can certainly put the numbers on your side by being a little more discerning.

You can decide what the overall effects of having something in your life are – whether the positives outweigh the negatives, or vice versa – and start to lead a more intentional, deliberate life.

Do the Right Thing. Today.

Procrastination. That dirty word, most often used to describe putting off some unpleasant but necessary but cosmically unimportant activity, like homework or doing the dishes.

Procrastinating in this domain is doing some other activity – watching one more episode of this, playing one more level of that – in the place of the thing that needs doing, until you eventually do the thing you needs doing.

The good kind of procrastination

We can sum this up as follows:

“Putting off busy-work until later.”

We all do it. All the time. And it’s really not a big deal. It can even be a good thing.

Because I felt I had better things to do with my time – like play guitar and read – I used to generally leave all my homework until the night before. Not only did my grades not suffer from this approach, but I got my work done much quicker than whenever I took a more leisurely approach.

Procrastination became almost a productivity hack for me – every minute of avoiding the work was like coiling a spring, so that when I finally sat down to do it, the spring uncoiled with great force. I attacked the work with energy and attention that I couldn’t normally find, because I didn’t give a shit about the work.

So long as you eventually get round to whatever you need to get round to, there’s no need to see this kind of procrastination as the kind of productivity cancer it’s often made out to be.

It’s not worth fearing, especially because there’s another form of procrastination – one with a much more serious threat.

The bad kind of procrastination

We can sum this type up as:

“Putting off doing the right thing until tomorrow.”

Unlike the first kind of procrastination, this one can wreak an incredible amount of damage and destruction. What makes it so dangerous?

It’s simple – it presents a harmless front.

Tomorrow feels very close – it seems very reasonable to put something off until tomorrow, whatever it is. It doesn’t feel like you’re saying “I’m not going to do this.” It feels like “I am going to do this. Just not yet.”

And that’s where it gets you.

Because tomorrow never comes. There is only the present moment. Tomorrow never becomes today – it’s eternally “tomorrow.” It’s a moving target. A mirage. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

If you feel like you don’t quite have it in you to do the right thing today, what makes you think tomorrow is going to be any different?

It’s a muscle

Doing the right thing is a muscle. Which means that with use it will grow, and with neglect it will shrink – either a virtuous cycle, or a vicious cycle.

In every moment, you are presented with a wonderfully binary choice – do the right thing, or don’t do the right thing. Putting it off until tomorrow might feel like it’s somewhere neutral, somewhere in-between. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s really just a tarted up way of choosing “don’t do the right thing.”

Every time you choose to do the right thing, the muscle grows. Every time you choose “don’t” – whether you realise that’s what you’re doing or not – it shrinks. It’s as simple as that.

Don’t confuse putting off busywork with putting off doing the right thing. One is of little to no consequence. One is as important as life or death.

This try probably doesn’t matter

I like to get things right the first time. It’s a real problem.

It’s a problem because, well, it’s generally impossible to do.

To learn, you must “fail” a bit

The majority of life’s tasks – from walking, to talking, to making an omelette, to writing a symphony – involve an unavoidable learning curve. You are born with the potential to do these things, but not the ability.

In order to do them, you must shift from ignorance to knowledge – you must learn. And in order to learn, you must try. And if you try, there’s a pretty big chance that you’ll fail – at least the first few times.

But if failure doesn’t kill you – and it almost never does – and you keep trying, then before long, you will be a person who can now do the thing you set out to do.

For most things in life, the specific outcome of each try doesn’t matter.

It’s the big picture that matters.

My mistake is forgetting that. I make getting it right this time far too important – so important, in fact, that it scares me away before even make my first attempt.

And yet… no matter how hard I rack my brains, I can’t recall a single time in my life where this time genuinely mattered – where straining to get this moment right, or else… got me a better result than just trying my best and if it didn’t work out trying again later.

Maybe it’s me, but putting pressure on myself to get it right this time actually takes me in the wrong direction – it seems to ensure that I not only get it wrong this time, but I continue to get it wrong, and worst of all, I have an incredibly stressful experience.

But doing my best over time? Trial and error based on the best information I currently have? Well that seems to get me where I want to go much quicker.

What to do

If you are living a life – as I have far too often – where every throw of the dice feels like life and death, relax. It’s not. It’s not even close.

Your life might contain a billion throws of the dice – the outcome of this one throw doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is the overall pattern.

Are you consistently trying to do what you think is right for you? If you are, then you’re sorted – you’re learning. Over time – even accounting for all your mistakes, failures, and fuck-ups – you’re going to be in a vastly superior position than if you avoid trying because you’re trying to avoid failing.

A perfectionist is not someone with high standards. A perfectionist is somebody so afraid to make one little mistake that they won’t even try, wearing the mask of someone with high standards.

Time is the beat. You are the rhythm.

I’m a music teacher. That means I spend a lot of my time sitting side-by-side with a student, both of us staring – with equal parts disgust and contempt – at a sheet of paper with a load of black dots on it.

I – for the most part – understand the dots, and so it’s only fair that I show the student how to decipher these dots, and to free the music within.

Now, when confronted with this page of what can sometimes look like nothing more than hieroglyphs, you don’t always know where to start. So you ask questions? “What’s the first note?” “Are they any sharps or flats?” “What does dolce e cantabile mean?”

These are all questions we’ll have to answer at some point, but there’s one question that – if we can answer – will unlock more doors than any other.

“What is the beat?”

The beat of a piece of music – as opposed to the rhythm – is the constant, unchanging, invisible temporal thread that runs through the music.

If you’re playing “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees, then it’s an obvious, disco-inflected, foot-stomping 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.

If you’re playing the Blue Danube Waltz, it’s an elegant 1-2-3, 1-2-3.

If you’re playing Zappa, or Stravinsky, then it might be something madder, like 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, 1-2-3…

“So what is the rhythm?”

The rhythm is everything you play – or don’t play – on top of that beat.

It’s “aah, aah, aah, aah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…” It’s “da-da-da-da-da… da-da… da-da…” It’s “Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow…”

The most crucial thing to understand about rhythm is that without a beat, it is nothing. It’s just a series of notes. Rhythm needs a beat underneath it to give it context and meaning.

Perhaps it would be easier to explain by example.

The beat is a wooden table. The rhythm is the table cloth, the napkins, the cutlery, and the fine china you put on top. No wooden table? Just a load of crap on the floor.

The beat is the motorway. The rhythm is all the different vehicles driving on it. No motorway? Just a load of cars crashing into each other at 70mph.

The beat is the sun. The rhythm is the planets orbiting it. No sun? Nothing to orbit. Planets veering off into the far reaches of the galaxy.

Simply put, the beat comes first, and the rhythm is what you decide to put over it.

And this, my friend, is exactly how I think about time.

The beat of life

Time has a beat far more constant than any piece of music ever composed.

Time – like the tide – waits for no man. It marches on, never changing its speed, never stopping to rest or refuel.

And time is fair. Every day, for every man, woman, child, and beast, there exists the same 24 hours. Nobody gets more hours in the day just because Daddy was rich, or Mommy paid off the admissions board. If there is any equality in this life, then it is surely through time.

So if time is the beat of life, then what is the rhythm?

The rhythm of life is your actions

Rhythm is what you do or don’t do, against the backdrop of time.

There’s a reason – when you exclude privilege and silver-spoon-ism – why some people live richer lives than others, getting more things done that matter to them, feeling a sense of purpose. It’s simple – they master time.

They don’t control time, because you can’t, any more than you control the wind, or the sea. Time just is – it’s non-negotiable. But what you do against the backdrop of time, with your thoughts, words, and deeds, is extremely negotiable.

You have more than enough time in the day to do what you need to do. It is impossible not to have enough time, because time is the thing that you must orient yourself around – it doesn’t work the other way round. What you must do to master time is simply become more intentional about how and why you’re spending time the way you’re spending it.

Amor Fati & Everything Is a Bonus

Have you ever been to Pizza Express? Well, many moons ago, it was my job to roll the big balls of dough into pizza bases. I would stack them in their black pans as quickly as my little hands could manage, ready for the next guy to sauce them, top them, and throw them in the oven.

I had a manager. I liked my manager. One time my manager was away for a few days, and so a different manager – someone from one of the Pizza Express branches in Leeds – took over. I remember almost nothing about this man. Just one thing.

The curse of expectations

You see, part of the manager’s job was to keep tabs on how well the restaurant was doing – how much money it was bringing in – and we had a target each day. It wasn’t a purely arbitrary target – someone from head office had worked out how much, based on past performance, all being well, the restaurant “should” be making on a given night.

Most managers would keep that number in the back of their mind, and just get on with their job – there was a lot to do – and if, by the end of the night, we hadn’t hit the number… oh, well. It could usually be explained away by one thing or another, and unless the target was consistently not reached – which probably showed that the target was a little bit high – then it really wasn’t anything to worry about.

If we made £1800 one night, then we made £1800 – that’s what happened – it didn’t matter whether head office expected £10 or £10,000. We made £1800.

The replacement manager’s attitude, however, was different. In his eyes, that number was gospel.

If £2000 was our target, and we hit it, then we were now at zero – reaching the target wasn’t winning, it was the bare minimum, it was everyone simply “doing their jobs.” And if instead we made £1800, then to this manager we had actually “lost” money. We were “down.” Never mind that throughout the day customers had put £1800 into the tills – £1800 that wasn’t there this morning – what we’d actually done was “lost” £200.

He was obsessed with the target. He spent the whole shift anxious about reaching the target, but didn’t seem particularly happy if we did reach it, and became truly despondent if we didn’t.

I was glad to see the back of him.

There is no “supposed to”

Now, that manager wasn’t stupid. He was just playing a very dangerous – but unfortunately very popular – game.

He had made up his mind – as well all do – that things were supposed to go a particular way. And if they didn’t? Well then he had lost, he was down, something had been taken away.

The problem with this is that there is no “supposed to” in life. There is just whatever happens. If you get less than you were expecting, it’s not because life wronged you. Life didn’t make a mistake. You made a mistake – you expected wrong.

You are allowed to have hopes and dreams. And you are allowed to be disappointed when things don’t go your way. But you must realise that as far as life is concerned, there is no “your way.” There is just “the way.” Things happen the way things happen.

There is no such thing as loss

You can either go on expecting everything to work out just the way you want it to, and continue being disappointed when inevitably some part of it doesn’t, or you can start throwing your expectations out of the window and accepting what actually does happen as what was meant to happen.

Friedrich Nietschze called this Amor Fati.

“That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m trying to live a life where I don’t need things to be a certain way. I want them to, sure – I’m only human – but the more I try to actively embrace how they actually are, I’m getting happier and happier.

As far as I’m concerned, life itself is a bonus. It was extremely improbable, statistically, that you or I would have ever been born. And we’re going to throw our toys out of the pram when one thing we thought “should” be a certain way isn’t?

Come on…

Live Well Because You Can

Sometimes – and I speak from experience – you can drink yourself into a stupor, smack your head on the toilet seat throwing up on yourself, crawl off to bed, sleep for five hours, and wake up feeling pretty much daisy-fresh.

Other times, you can be stone-cold sober, enjoy a light and healthy dinner, avoid caffeine and blue light, go to bed at a reasonable hour, get more than the recommended eight hours of sleep, and still you wake up feeling like the Devil had his wicked way with you in your sleep.

It’s maddening, I know. But the lesson here is that no matter what lengths we go to in our quest for control over our lives, we are – more than we’d ever dare admit – in the hands of fate.

We can get seemingly everything wrong, and then by sheer, dumb luck, have everything turn out great. Or we can get everything as right as humanly possible, and for no particular reason, it can all go to shit.

So if there’s no guarantee that doing the right thing will even get us what we want, what’s the point? What’s there left to do?

Live well for its own sake.

If you’re only in it for the spoils, you’ve got it all wrong. Because the spoils might never come – it’s entirely up to the spoils themselves how often they visit. But if you can learn to play the game for the joy of playing, and make the spoils nothing more than a cherry on top, well now you’re cooking with gas.

You can put the numbers on your side – and I implore you to do so – but you can’t make the world do what you want it to. So just do your best for no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do.

So, you say, what good do I get [from virtue]? But what more good do you want than this? Instead of being a shameless man you will become a dignified man, instead of chaotic you will become organized, from being untrustworthy you will become trustworthy, instead of being out of control you will become sane. If you want anything more than this, keep on doing what you are already doing: not even a God can now help you.

Epictetus (Discourses, 4.9)

Maybe You Don’t Know What Everyone Else Should Do

Quite often, I find myself thinking – normally in my head, though more often than I’d care to admit, out loud – about all the things I think people I know should do differently.

If only so-and-so would do this thing more carefully, for example, or stop wasting their time worrying about that thing, or if they just sat down for an hour and got their goddamn priorities straight… I can concoct entire mental laundry lists about how everybody else could and should live their lives better. (Better, in this case, being code for “the way I would prefer it.”)

Of course, it’s rare – if ever – that I tell these people my grand ideas for their betterment, and I’d like to think that that’s because I’m tactful, and compassionate – I’m a good guy. But it’s not that.

The truth could be that I avoid telling them because I’m a coward, or because I’m afraid of confrontation, or – as is most probable – because I fear that they will, in retaliation, open up a veritable Pandora’s box of all the things they think I ought to change about my life.

I wouldn’t enjoy that. So I try to keep schtum, and confine my efforts to improve the people around me to doing it behind their backs, instead of to their faces.

What about my foibles?

You might think that where this piece is going next is me denouncing us foolish humans for yet another one our terrible habits.

But actually, just this once, I’m going to let us slide. So long as you temper presuming to know what’s best for everyone else with the innate knowledge that, in fact, you don’t – and you learn that even when somebody asks “what do you think I should do?” they are hoping more for you to say something kind than fishing for the painful truth – I don’t think you’ve got too much to worry about.

But what splashed me in the face like a cup of cold coffee this morning on my way to the pharmacy was when I started to wonder that if I am going around arrogantly presuming to know best what everybody else should do – no matter how wrong I am most of the time – then so too is everybody else. Worse, they’re doing it about me.

“What are they saying about me?” I thought, waiting for a red light to change. What are the things I do that everybody thinks I shouldn’t do? Who am I inadvertedly pissing off with my charming idiosyncrasies? Are they really charming idiosyncrasies, or just annoying habits?

I pondered this for a little while. Before the light could turn green, plenty of possible options presented themselves, but then, I thought, how could I even be sure? There’s no way to get reliable feedback. If I ask people what they really think of me, surely they’ll just do what I would do in their shoes, and tell me whatever I’d want to hear…

When I was almost home, I’d turned a corner – figuratively, and metaphorically. I asked myself whether my harmless vices and little quirks were just that – harmless. And whether the fact that some people might be pissed off by things I do was just as much their problem as it was mine? Maybe more, sometimes.

After I got home, I made myself some breakfast and, to be honest, forgot about the entire train of thought until a moment ago.

The conclusion I came to?

Everybody thinks they know what everybody else should or shouldn’t do, and yet what’s funny is that the same people somehow make all manner of bad decisions in their own life – some more, some less. That in itself is enough to make me suspicious. If we really possessed such wisdom that we could foresee and foretell the things we claim to be able to – when it comes to other people – wouldn’t you think we’d make much smarter decisions in our own lives?

In the same way that 90% of drivers think their driving skills are above average, even though that would be mathematically impossible, we imagine ourselves to be omniscient when it comes to other people and what they should or shouldn’t do, whilst sporting a mammoth-sized blind-spot when it comes to ourselves, and the things we should or shouldn’t do.

I suppose the solution, as with all these things, is nothing more fancy than to accept. Accept yourself just as you are – foibles and all – including your tendency to see yourself as some kind of modern-day Oracle at Delphi, pre-eminent solver of the world’s problems… except the ones that have got anything to do with you.

When you get busy accepting yourself, you’ll find fewer things that other people need to do. You’ll find them to suddenly be just exactly what you need them to be – themselves.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Carl Jung

You Are Not a Blank Canvas

If you put a gun to my head, I would wager that the uniquely human tendency to oscillate between perceiving yourself as omnipotent, of limitless potential, able to do anything – given the requisite time and resources – and perceiving yourself as a fixed, unchangeable, lump of flesh, has been going on since… well, forever.

To put it differently, you’re either seeing yourself as a blank canvas – bestowing upon yourself the potential to be shaped and moulded into just about anything – or you’re seeing yourself as a finished product – you simply are what you are. The End.

Of course, as with any duality or dichotomy, the truth is more: “a little from category A, a little from category B.”

The reality is that, no, you can’t be, do, or have just anything. But that’s not a bad thing. Actually, that’s a very, very good thing. Now you don’t have to waste your time on a load of shit that was never gonna work out anyway. You can cut away the non-essential 99% – the stuff you were only doing because everybody else was – and chow down on what’s left, because the stuff that’s left – the stuff you can be, do, or have – that’s the best stuff anyway.

Move towards what is beautiful, and away from that which is not beautiful.

Move towards what is beautiful…

Figure out what you love. What you’re good at. What makes you lose track of time. What makes you feel transcendent. What makes you feel connected to something bigger than you.

And run at it full-speed. Get it under your fingernails. Let it kill you.

… and away from that which is not beautiful.

Figure out what leaves you cold. What was never in the cards for you anyway. What everybody else seems to think is essential in life.

And forget it. Put it behind you. Have nought but disdain and four-letter words for it.

The paradox of choice

It’s funny – when you think you’re going to live forever, and thus have all the time in the world, you don’t know what to prioritise, what to make important, what to spend your time on. And yet if you got given three months to live, I don’t think you’d spend them playing Candy Crush, reading tweets that make your blood boil with righteous indignation, or giving a shit what shade of lipstick is “in” this summer. I think you’d more likely feel an urge to fuck all that and do something that actually matters to you. Death – the ultimate limitation – would focus you on what mattered.

And the same is true when you assume you are a blank canvas, and that you can do anything you want to. If you’re not careful, this ignorance of reality will turn into an inability to pick from the infinite buffet of vocations, goals, and ambitions. You might think you can do anything, but in thinking that, you make doing absolutely nothing of any consequence much more likely.

What you must do instead is get up close and personal – make friends – with how shitty you are at most things, just how unsuited you to almost every path, and simply decide that you don’t care. Then sink your teeth into whatever’s left.

Life is never about quantity. Only quality.

My “Medici: Masters of Florence” experiment

I recently did a little experiment.

I’ve been getting into Medici: Masters of Florence on Netflix. I like to watch to it with a coffee as I start my day. One morning last week, I put it on.

After a couple of minutes, I had the urge to check my phone, and from that point on, throughout the whole episode, I sort of flitted between watching Medici , and scrolling on my phone – with no particular aim – through Reddit, Instagram, The Guardian, my emails…

After 45 minutes or so, the episode finished, and it hit me that although I’d spent plenty of that 45 minutes looking at the TV, I couldn’t remember hardly anything that had happened. How could that be?

So I decided that – since I had the time, and the curiosity – I would switch off my phone, put it in the kitchen, and start the episode over.

The difference was night and day.

Interpretation

There are a few reasons why the results of my little experiment surprised me so much.

The first is a matter of intention – if somebody had phoned me and said “what are you doing right now?” I would have answered “watching Medici: Masters of Florence. It’s great.” And yet… that’s not really what I was doing, is it? Part of me was. But not much of me, if I could hardly remember anything when it finished. I was basically fooling myself.

The second is how little enjoyment or fulfilment being on my phone gave me. It’s not like I sat down to watch Medici and instead had an amazing time on my phone. I can’t recall a single thing that I did, looked at, looked up, scrolled through… I just know that for 45 minutes, I was generally “on my phone.”

And the third thing is that I would have assumed watching TV – the thing I was trying to do – to be fairly low on a scale from “needs almost no attention” and “needs your full, undivided attention.” And yet when I diluted my attention by being on my phone, it made an incredible difference to the experience.

If it needs your attention, give it your attention

By trying to kind of do two things, I didn’t really do either of them – I never really got into the episode of Medici, and I certainly didn’t do anything of any real worth or value on my phone.

Compared to how I could have spent that 45 minutes, it was a total waste. It wasn’t relaxing. It wasn’t enjoyable. It wasn’t satisfying. It was pointless.

Yet when I allowed myself to only do one thing, then something as mundane as “watching TV” opened up and became a genuinely pleasurable and engaging experience.

Why am I telling you this?

Am I telling you this to preach the evils of being on your phone whilst you watch TV? No.

I’m telling you this to encourage you to explore what difference being intentional about what you’re doing can make.

If single-tasking could transform my experience of watching TV – something that you wouldn’t required much attention – just think what it could do for something that actually required a decent amount of attention?

If something needs any of your attention, try giving it all of your attention. See what happens.

Generosity and attitude

Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on from Pexels

Many seemingly nice people are afraid to give any more of themselves than they absolutely must. However much they have, they don’t really like to share it with others. They see generosity as a nice ideal, but more for other people to concern themselves with. They always find a way to rationalise not doing it.

They can always give you a great excuse as to why, though they might extol the virtues of generosity verbally, they personally can’t quite stretch to it right now. Maybe they’re swamped at work, perhaps they’re short on money… whatever the excuse, they convince you that it’s temporary, and that one day soon, they’ll be in a position to be really generous. Who knows?Perhaps they even believe it themselves.

Of course, once work quietens down, once they have some free time, once they have a bit more money in the bank… they’re armed with a new reason why it’s still not quite time.

And that’s because it was never about not having enough time or enough money. The obstacle was not “out there.” The obstacle was inside – it was their attitude.

A closed attitude

There’s a brilliant chapter in Robert Greene’s “The Laws of Human Nature” about attitude. Basically, your attitude is the lens through which you view your life. We don’t see anything objectively – it is filtered through our attitude. As such, our attitude has the power to greatly colour the way we interpret events, and to ultimately become a self-perpetuating cycle.

If you have a closed attitude, you are much less likely to be generous, because you don’t see how it could possibly be work out in your favour. You’ve been screwed over too many times, people are always out to scam you… You live in fear of losing anything, and so you avoid any situation with the slightest risk of that. You see giving as fundamentally losing something – having it taken from you.

You are ultimately crafting your own cycle of diminishing returns – the less you sow, the less you reap, and the more you feel you need to guard and protect the little you do have, making you much more fearful about sowing in the future. And on, and on, and on.

An open attitude

With an an open attitude, on the other hand, you will actively embrace generosity, because you know that you can’t help but reap what you sow. Sure, you might have occasionally – or frequently – been screwed over, or taken advantage of, but you know that in the long-run, being generous puts the numbers on your side. And when the positive effects of sowing liberally massively outweigh the negative ones, it’s a no-brainer.

You are creating a cycle of accelerated returns – the more you sow, the more you reap, and the more you have confidence to sow again, and since you sow more, you inevitably reap more.

Attitude is both the cause and the effect

Generosity has nothing to do with the amount of something you have to begin with, and everything to do with your attitude regarding it. How else do you explain a world where we have tight-fisted billionaires and dirt-poor philanthropists?

Open yourself up. Be generous of your time, money, energy – whatever small amount you might have. It will come back to you a thousandfold – not necessarily in the form it left you in, but certainly in the spirit in which you gave it.

“I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Matthew 19:23

Do you need to get a job?

There isn’t time in the day to question every little thing we do, or think, or say. But the difference between questioning nothing, and questioning just a little bit, is profound. Life-changing.

Today, I’m questioning the logic behind “GETTING A JOB IS UNQUESTIONABLY THE RIGHT THING FOR EVERYONE TO DO.”

“Get a job, you fairy…”

I grew up with the sense that – whether I wanted to or not – in order to be a real person, one day I’d have to get a job. Sure, I could dream about being a famous musician, or maybe a writer, but unless I “got lucky,” and “made it,” I’d need a job.

I didn’t want a job. Getting a job seemed like something that would really eat into my playing guitar and reading books time. But as I looked around, I saw that almost everyone over a certain age had one. Most of them didn’t seem too taken with what they were doing, but they turned up every day anyway. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t…

Still, the more I thought about it, the more it all seemed like a dumb idea. Trade my time for money, at a rate not of my choosing? Do something I might not like – or be any good at – that might not pay well at first – if ever – and that might not provide any benefit to society, maybe even actively worsening it?

What confused me the most was that at school I was always being preached at that intelligence, creativity, contributing to society, these were the best things, the things to value above all else. And yet all I saw around me was people violating that – doing things they didn’t want to do, that didn’t make the world a better place, in exchange for just enough money not to starve. Oh, sure, there were people who liked their jobs, there were people who were making the world a better place, and there were people making a lot of money. But they were a distinct minority.

I wish I could say that I ran with this line of questioning, and never got a job, finding a way round the system, becoming an icon for free-thinkers everywhere… alas, the truth is much less heroic.

I’ve had good jobs, I’ve had shitty jobs, I’ve had no job for long stretches of time. I don’t have it all figured out.

But the one thing I am 100% certain about is that nobody needs a job.

Everything a job gives, you can get some other way

I don’t think most people ever question the logic of getting a job – it’s so baked into our culture that to question it feels like raping a sacred cow.

Jobs do serve several functions, and I explore three of the biggest ones below – making money, a sense of purpose, and contribution to society – but these things can be had other ways.

Both a deep-fried mars bar and a tuna steak with three-bean salad will fill your belly for a while, but only one of them will provide real nourishment and nutrition to your cells. Similarly, whilst a job might give you certain things, it’s generally a fairly weak and ineffectual way to go about getting them.

Making money

Everybody needs money. To buy food, drink, shelter, and everything that makes life groovier above and beyond the bare necessities. But are there not other ways to make money than with a job – ways that are completely legal and ethical?

Money is nothing more than a form of social exchange. Essentially, you make money when you provide a service to the world and get paid for it. The amount of money you make depends on how valuable society thinks your service is at the moment, and how much you of it you give.

A job is one way to do that, sure. But the only way? Not by a long shot. Nor is it even a remotely good way. In most jobs, you don’t have much, if any, control over how much money you make, you don’t get rewarded for doing a better job, you stop making money if you stop turning up to work every day, and if you put a foot wrong and piss off the wrong person, you might find your job (and your income) drying up pretty quickly.

There are literally millions of ways to make money – all you have to do is provide a service, find somebody who wants it, and charge them. A job is merely one way to do that, and if money is the only reason you’re staying in your job, sit with a pen and paper for a bit, and see if there isn’t some other way you might make some money.

A sense of purpose

Many people, sadly, die not long after they retire. I suppose it’s because they suddenly don’t feel needed any more. Either way, there is no denying that getting up in the morning and doing a day’s work gives you a sense of purpose. But who says that has to come from your job?

I’d say that unless you have a really wonderful job, you are playing with fire if you allow your sense of purpose to come solely from your job. You don’t control the world – what if you get let go, or fall ill for a while? You can’t afford to put all you purpose eggs in one job basket.

The more regular activities you can cultivate outside of work that give you a sense of purpose – raising your children, pouring yourself into your music or writing or painting, picking up the litter in your neighbourhood, belonging to a community or society of some kind – the less you will require from your job.

Contribution to society

This is a very interesting one, because you hear it a lot, usually as a soundbite on the news: “Get a job! Contribute to society!” It’s as though one equals the other.

On the surface, especially if you think back to when most people’s jobs involved growing food or working in factories making stuff, this checks out – your job is a way for you to actively give something to society.

Except it’s now 2019, and I would argue that unless you are working specifically for a company you know to be ethical in their practices, that your job is most likely taking from society, and contributing instead to your company’s bottom line, and to the bank accounts of the shareholders. Remember, publicly-traded companies operate out of an obligation to increase shareholder profits at any cost they can get away with. Whilst there might be some accidental, side-effect benefit to society, that is certainly not their priority, whatever their spin might suggest.

Now, you might instead work in the public sector, or for a genuinely ethical private company. Fantastic. In your job you are indeed contributing to society, making the world a better place. It’s just that… again, a job is just one way to do this.

Why not get involved in local politics, adopt a child, start your own company that is specifically trying to contribute to society?

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Mahatma Ghandi

Jobs are not bad. They’re just misunderstood.

There are good jobs. And I am not saying you are stupid if you have a job. I have a job.

I’m just saying that we should think twice before we act as though “GETTING A JOB IS UNQUESTIONABLY THE RIGHT THING FOR EVERYONE TO DO.”

We should intead look at the many benefits that jobs do provide us, and instead of blindly assuming a job is the only route to those things, see if there aren’t other routes.

Don’t pretend things are worse than they are

There is this thing I think about a lot. I don’t know what it’s called. I know even less how to put it into words.

It’s when we note the existence of one single negative, and take that to mean that there is nothing positive or neutral any more.

We can be plodding along quite happily, but then one bad thing happens, and that’s it – it’s all shit now. Except, of course, it isn’t – not unless we decide to make it so.

A story, to illustrate…

Let’s say you and your six friends are desperate to go to a concert. Tickets cost £5 each. You offer to buy all seven tickets – you’re a generous guy, after all – and you tell everyone they can just pay you back at the end of the concert.

The night of the concert comes, and it is every bit the amazing night you thought it would be. Except one thing sours it slightly – before you all go home, five of your six friends give you the £5 ticket money back, as agreed. But one decides he’s not going to – he tells you that it was only a fiver, and he didn’t enjoy the show that much, and anyway, it’s not like you need the money – and leaves you £5 down.

You’re pissed off – not so much about the money, but the betrayal of trust. Other than deciding not to be his friend any more, you don’t have much recourse, though. You vow never to be taken advantage of like that again.

A couple of months later, there’s another concert you all want to go to. Your friends – now just five – all want to go, and they ask you if you can get the tickets again – they’ll pay you back just like last time.

You have a think, remember what happened last time, and say “no, sorry.” None of you end up going to the concert.

Interpretation

Now, you had every right to be annoyed at the one friend that didn’t pay you back – he broke your trust, after all. Had he wanted you to buy him a ticket the second time, it’d be reasonable to reject him – fool me once, etc…

But what did that have to do with the other five, all of whom paid you back on time, and presumably would have again?

Just because you’d had your fingers burnt, and your trust betrayed once, you decided it was safer not to trust anyone anymore, even the people who had showed themselves worthy of your trust in the past. Irrational, no?

We do this all the time.

Memories and emotions

One reason we blow negative events out of all proportion is to do with the way our memories work – they are designed to key in on the highlights of our lives, positive or negative, and to ignore the rest, because – let’s be honest – most of the time, everything is fine. Time ticks by, and the closer our experiences are to neutral – the less remarkable they are – the less likely we are to remember them.

But when something happens that deviates from the middle-ground – either in a positive direction or negative – we are many times more likely to remember them. Especially the negative ones.

And so we remember the friend betraying our trust much more vividly than the other five friends not betraying our trust, because, well… not having your trust betrayed is not really an event, is it?

Every day, billions of people don’t betray your trust. But if we never sit down and actually acknowledge that reality, focusing instead on the one person who did, then we’re liable to start telling ourselves stories like “you can’t trust anyone.” It’s not that you can or should trust everybody you come across immediately and indiscriminately, just that never trusting anyone because of one bad experience is somewhat of an over-reaction.

What to do?

First, you must accept that this is simply the way your brain works. Your brain, my brain… all brains. We remember negative events much more vividly than positive or neutral ones, and this leads us to distort the bigger picture, giving the negative event more space on the canvas than it deserves.

It’s not that bad things don’t happen. It’s just that compared to the positive and neutral things, they don’t happen nearly as often as your emotions (and your memory) might lead you to believe.

Once you accept that this is your natural tendency, the only thing you can do is to try to counter-act it with rationality.

For example, think about the fact that an estimated 6.5% of the population are afraid of flying. And yet fewer than one flight in 300,000 (0.000003%) is involved in an accident, and just one flight in 3,000,000 (0.0000003%) results in anybody’s death. You are more likely to die from food poisoning, by a falling ladder, falling off a bed or chair, drowning in a bath, being hit by a firework, or the old favourite – being hit by lightning.

You don’t have to become delusional – there are genuine dangers in life. You can acknowledge the negative things that happen, just don’t pretend there are more of them than there really are.

“Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Hit your pillow happy tonight


L’Uomo Vitruviano (1490)– Leonardo Da Vinci

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

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

Life might well be finite – your days a limited quantity – but barring an early, unforeseen death, it’s long enough to fit plenty into. Just ask Leonardo Da Vinci.

According to Wikipedia, Da Vinci used his 67 years on Earth to become proficient – sometimes downright masterful – at the following: invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography.

Intimidating, right? And yet… Leonardo had the same 24 hours in a day as the rest of us. What did he do differently than other people? Well, as the quote above suggests, he just tried to spend each day well. Days add up – they become weeks, which become months, which become years, which become decades, which become your life.

So if the path to a well-spent life is well-spent days – as it was for Leonardo – how do you spend your day well?

You don’t just “write a book”

Or “make an album.” Or “build a house.” These are multi-day, multi-task projects. Putting any of them on your to-do list is nothing more than a recipe for overload, overwhelm, and ultimately… giving up.

But what you can put on your to-do list are the smaller tasks that, when added together, make up the larger project.

You can write a draft of a chapter of your book. You can record a take of one of the songs on your album. And you can lay the bricks of one of the walls of the house you’re building.

These small and manageable tasks are what should form the foundation of your days. When you chain enough of them together, that’s when you start really cooking.

The one deed rule

If something intimidates you, it’s because you’re trying to more than one thing at a time. You haven’t made it small enough yet. Boil it down to one action.

Name one thing you could do today that would mean your head hitting your pillow happy tonight. If it feels too difficult, make it smaller. Keep making it smaller until it’s easy. Now go and do it.

Your deeds form your days, and your days form your life. You want a better life? Start with one deed.

You are as powerful as your ability to say “no.”

It’s easy to say “no” to the things that are an obvious a waste of your time, or are in clear violation of the things you hold dear – a 1 or 2 out of 10.

And it’s easy to say “yes” to the things are obviously perfect for you, that fit you like a glove, that you feel you were born to do – a 9 or 10 out of 10.

It’s just that most things in life don’t fall into these easy categories. Most things in life fall into a third category – the things that don’t seem that bad, or that actually seem fairly good – a 3 to 8 out of 10.

It’s infinitely harder to say “no” to these things. That’s what makes them so dangerous, but it’s also what makes saying “no” to them so powerful.

How are they dangerous?

Two reasons.

One, because they steal your time away from the things in life that truly matter to you.

And two, because whilst they are doing this, they present a harmless front with which to distract you from what’s really going on.

You must reject the “okay” things in life

The point of life is – surely – to spend as many moments as possible doing things that are a 9 or 10 for you, whatever they might be.

But in order to do this, you must have the spare time. Without your vigilance, your time will quickly become filled to the brim with these seemingly harmless activities, leaving no room for the things you value the most.

To get to the 9s and 10s, you must therefore actively disengage from – cut out of your life – things that are a 1 to 8 for you.

It feels incredibly counter-intuitive to reject something that might be really quite good, objectively, but isn’t quite right for you. And, as I alluded to earlier, this gets harder and harder to do the higher the number gets – it’s easy to reject a 2, but very strange to consider rejecting a 7 or 8.

The problem is in the way we are raised.

We expect scarcity, so that’s what we get

Our culture has not yet learnt to deal with choice, because we haven’t spent long with the need to.

For most of human history, things were truly scarce. Opportunities, connections, resources. Unless you were a King, you literally couldn’t afford to say “no” to anything, because there wasn’t generally an alternative. It was “this thing” or “no thing.” So you chose “this thing.” You had to.

Times have changed. In just the last few decades, the opportunities and possibilities open to the average person have exploded. Now, it’s “this thing” or “that thing” or “the other thing,” multiplied, squared, cubed…

We must say “no” to hundreds, thousands, millions of things that we could quite easily say “yes” to, if we want to live any kind of fulfilling life, if we want to get anything of any substance done.

And still we walk around with this hangover from the “get what you’re given and be happy with it” era. You can choose to tell yourself a different story, though.

Exercise your power to say “no”

At different moments in history, different traits have been rewarded, bringing the individuals possessing such traits the ability to thrive.

In the backstabbing 17th century environment of Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, for example, the trait that saw you rise to the top was mastering the art of indirection – if anybody knew what you were up to, you were toast. As Robert Greene writes in The 48 Laws of Power: “The successful courtier learned over time to make all of his moves indirect; if he stabbed an opponent in the back, it was with a velvet glove on his hand and the sweetest of smiles on his face.”

In 2019, there is no ability more worthy of your cultivation than exercising your power to say “no.” This is a world of abundance. If you own the technology to read this post, you have more options at your fingertips than anybody has ever had before, in the entire history of humanity.

Figure out what you ought to say “yes” to, sure, but much more importantly, actively say “no” to everything else.

The “Ham and Worming Tablet” School of Marketing

Mmmm, ham.

The biggest lie your teachers ever told you was “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

Don’t get me wrong – I agree with the metaphor, because what we’re really saying to kids, when we warn them against judging a book by its cover, is “you shouldn’t judge a human being merely by their outward appearance.” And what could be a more valuable lesson – for kids and adults alike?

The problem is that – unlike people – books have covers specifically for your judgement. The author wants you to read her book – why else did she write it? – the cover is a handy little way for her to hint at what might be inside, and seduce you into opening it.

Are you seducing people into checking out your work? If not, why not?

So much art, so little time

If you don’t learn to market your work – to make your target audience both aware of your work and willing to give it a taste – you’re done for.

All the people that could potentially love the things you do are being bombarded, every day, by new movies, new songs, new books… If you don’t give them a damn good reason to check out your work, why the hell would they bother?

Which brings me back to book covers. And to illustrate the power of a book cover, here’s an analogy involving a German Shepherd.

The ham and the worming tablet

A German Shepherd isn’t stupid – he won’t entertain the mere thought of eating a little white worming tablet if you just put it in his bowl. He’ll laugh in your face.

But he will scarf down the delicious piece of ham you wrap it up in sooner than you can say “Here, boy! Look – some innocent ham!”

Your audience is no different to that German Shepherd. If your marketing is off – if it doesn’t make your intended audience want to know more – then it really doesn’t matter how great your work is.

If you don’t wrap your work up in ham, then all they will see is a worming tablet. And they’ll go watch Love Island instead.

All steak, no sizzle…

Most artists – out of a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided sense of pride – take the position that our art is our art, our work is our work, and that it shouldn’t matter how it’s presented. To think about things like marketing is seen as crass commercialism, as selling out… at the very least, as dumbing down. And we don’t want to do that. Never. We’d rather starve.

And… more often than not, people like us end up on a fast train to nowhere. We might genuinely believe our work is the greatest thing since The Marriage of Figaro, but since we were too proud to wrap it up in ham – we believed we were above that – nobody bothers to check us out. And since nobody bothers to check us out, nobody tells their friends about us, there’s never a buzz created around us… we die on the vine.

What’s even more frustrating for us proud types is the proliferation of the other type – artists whose work is banal and facile, but who at least know how to market their particular brand of tripe. This is the singer-songwriter who wears the right hat, and has the right beard, and takes the right sensitive selfies, and uses the right hashtags, and knows how to make the kind of music that daytime Radio 2 listeners wouldn’t find offensive…

They’re all ham, no tablet. And they’re everywhere. Not wanting to go down their road of “all sizzle, no steak,” we proud types tend to go down the other one – “If nobody likes our work, fuck ’em.”

Except that… they might have liked it, if we’d given them a sporting chance.

Make great work. Learn how to market it.

The happy news is that this is a false dichotomy – you can do exactly the work you always wanted to do, and you can market it without feeling like a common street-walker.

You don’t have to dumb down your work. You don’t have to make it lowest-common-denominator. You don’t have to move it to the middle of the road. I beg you, I beg you, I beg you on bended knee, please, don’t…

But you do have to find a way to make it appetising to your target audience.

Your marketing should make the right people want to taste your work. Your work should make them glad they did.

Everyone is trying their best.

It might not be what you want them to do.

It might not be what you think you would do, were the shoe on the other foot.

And it might not be the best they could maybe, possibly do, one day, potentially.

But right now, in this very moment, no matter how much it seems otherwise, everyone is trying their best. Including you.

Instead of treating people as evil when they commit the crime of not living up to your expectations, seek to understand them instead. Life opens up when you cast aside your need for people to be anything other than exactly what they are.

Err on the side of action.

If it’s not going to start a war… do it.

If the only risk you run is of looking foolish… do it.

If you’ve wanted to do it forever, but you never took the leap… do it.

In a life defined by its limited quantity of time, we have far more to lose erring on the side of caution than we do erring on the side of action.

All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger… Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)

Concentrate your forces

How you ever noticed that – with a great deal things in life – the harder you try, the more difficult what you’re doing seems to become? As though you were trying to lift a weight, but for every extra ounce of energy you put into lifting it, the weight got an ounce heavier.

We could explore just which kink of human nature makes this phenomenon true, but for now let’s just assume I’m right, and it is, and look at what we can do with this information.

Try harder at everything?

The most common strategy, upon trying to do something and having it resist you, is to assume that what’s needed is that you try even harder. And to try as hard as you can on as many different things as you can – totally indiscriminately. Throw enough shit at the wall and some of it will stick, as the saying goes.

You see this kind of vague, macho, armchair guru stuff everywhere on the internet. “Try, try, and try again.” “If you’re not a success, it’s because you don’t want it enough.” “If you’re not going to give 110%, don’t even bother showing up.” Piss off.

The problem I have with this approach – besides finding even thinking about it stressful – is that if you treat everything you come across as worth giving your absolute best shot at, then you are not brave, ,strong or courageous, but stupid. Most things in life are not worth giving your absolute best to, and most things wouldn’t be moved no matter how hard you tried.

Not only will you exhaust yourself living this way, you won’t even get the results that might render the exhaustion somewhat worth it. You did a shitty at job at prioritising – by not prioritising – and then you probably did a shitty job at everything you tried your hand at.

So… don’t try hard?

The common conclusion you’ll come to as result of trying really hard on everything you come across, because you think it’s somehow weak not to, is that trying hard simply doesn’t work. And you’ll have the evidence to prove it. How can it work? After all, you tried really hard, and you got nowhere.

The problem, however, was not in your trying hard, but in your promiscuous selection process.

Concentrate your forces

To do truly extraordinary things – the grand audacious things you were born to do – your only option is to pursue them with the most aggressive energy you can muster. If it can be accomplished without your most aggressive energy, you’re not aiming high enough.

There is an object you want to move. To move it, you must try your absolute hardest. So do it. BUT… only that object. Forget about all the other objects. Forget everything else in the world. Focus everything you have on moving that one object.

When you limit the things you deem worthy of giving 100% to, you suddenly gain the potential to actually give 100%, and only then will you realise what you’ve been missing – either by trying hard at all kinds of things, or not trying hard on anything.

We have no idea what our limits are generally, because we never allow ourselves to get anywhere them. We live shallow, diffuse lives, focusing a little bit here and a little bit there. Concentrate your forces instead. You’ll seem like a superhero by contrast.

Forge the path only you could forge

Whatever it is you want to accomplish with the time you have left on this planet, getting a clear picture of it in your head is an important first step, but it’s just one half of the puzzle.

The other half is forging your path – figuring out just how you’ll get from where you are now to where you want to be.

There is an ideal path

Whilst there are an infinite amount of paths available to you – an infinite amount of ways you could get where you want to go – only one of these possible paths is the right one for you.

We can call this path your ideal path. Your ideal path is the one that not only gets you where you want to go, but also takes into account your unique character, temperament, and inclinations.

Like Cinderella trying on the glass slipper, you will know when you are on your ideal path – it will fit.

Trying to get where you want to go by following just any path – even one that seems totally logical, and would make sense for the average person – is a waste of time. When you do this, you’re not Cinderella – you’re Cinderella’s step-sisters, who also tried on the glass slipper. And it didn’t matter how much both tried to cram their grotesque feet into it, the slipper did not fit.

Discovering your ideal path is a path in itself

Your ideal path is not something that magically presents itself to you one day – and if you sit around waiting for it to happen, it definitely won’t – but one that you forge yourself, piece by piece, by taking action. By exploring different avenues and being awake and alert to what you do and don’t respond to, you slowly but surely illuminate the perfect path for you to achieving your life’s work.

Some people work best under lots of pressure. Other people work best in a relaxed environment.

Some people need plenty of social support to keep on track. Other people prefer to keep themselves on track – other people would only get in their way and annoy them.

There is no right and wrong. There is just your character. You are a completely unique blend of likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses, and the path you forge must be yours and yours alone.

What is school for?

Your school years are meant to be the apprenticeship stage of your life – you are supposed to spend thirteen or so years at school, and emerge at the end of it prepared for whatever adult life throws at you.

If that’s what school is for, then why do we as a culture insist on teaching young people almost nothing that will be of any use to them once they’ve left school?

Shall we just leave that one to chance?

The funny thing is we recognise that certain things can’t be left to chance. We’ve made it the law that kids must go to school. We produce entire curricula, and then test kids rigorously on them, making sure that no apparently vital bit of information goes untaught.

We’ve just decided that instead of teaching young people anything of actual benefit to their adult lives, we’ll impress upon them the importance of arbitrary trivia.

Some examples

Photosynthesis? We can’t have kids not knowing about that. Don’t be ridiculous!

Knowing how to manage your personal finances? Probably not that significant to their futures. Leave it to chance.

Pythagoras? God, can you imagine a world where that name wasn’t on the tip of every tongue? Makes you shudder, doesn’t it?

How to raise healthy, happy children? I dunno. Let’s just let them figure it out by themselves. What’s the worst that could happen?

Henry VIII and the fate of his six wives? I can’t think of anything more crucial for our youngsters to get to grips with.

Understanding human nature, and how to deal with the people around you? You can’t teach social intelligence, mate – you’ve either got it or you haven’t. And if even you could teach it, shall we… yeah, we’ll leave that to chance. Best not to get involved.

I could go on all day. But I won’t.

School is too important to waste on trivia

It’s not that the stuff we learn at school is irrelevant. It’s just that, compared to a whole host of things that would actually help you navigate the world as an adult, the stuff we learn is way down the list.

Why not reverse it? Learn the important stuff first. Why not teach actual life skills, why not teach kids how to teach themselves, and why not teach them how to be healthy, happy humans? Then if there’s any time left, study the feminist subtext in Jane Eyre.

What are they going to mock us mercilessly for in 2100?

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Isaac Newton. Sort of… explanation at the end of the piece.

One of the ugliest things about the current generation of humans is how highly it thinks of itself relative to the generations that came before us.

Even though humans have been around for thousands and thousands of years, each generation building on the progress handed to it by the last, going two steps forward and one step back but advancing nonetheless… somewhere we got the idea that around two or three decades ago, we finally got it right. We’re the peak of human civilisation. Everything before us was “less-than.” We’re the end of the line – as good as it can ever possibly get.

Bollocks.

Not only is this definitely not true, it’s a dangerous attitude. Pride comes before a fall.

“It’s okay. The people before us didn’t know any better”

We tend to look down our noses at the people who came before us – the people who actually built the world that we call “our own” – with a curious blend of superiority and condescension.

Firstly, we see anybody from before the 1900s (and at times anybody from before 2019) as primitives, as savages, as unrefined. But even we realise this judgement is a little bit unfair. And so to restore balance, and make us feel like good, fair people, we add in a dollop of what we’d like to think is empathy, or the benefit of the doubt, but is in fact downright condescension – “of course they were all those things, but they didn’t know any better back then, did they?!

We mock Elizabethans putting white shit all over their faces and dying of lead poisoning – we’d never put anything harmful in our bodies, would we?

We laugh about wacko religious zealots burning innocent young girls at the stake on the off-chance that they might be a witch – we’d never allow our religious beliefs to stop us treating each other with dignity, would we?

We can’t believe those doctors who, when Ignaz Semmelweis proved that washing hands rapidly reduced the death-rate in hospitals, mocked him and refused to accept his irrefutable proof – we’d never ignore the scientific proof of an expert and let people die unnecessarily would we?

We shake our heads in disbelief at all the people who fell for Adolf Hitler, and say “we’re far too wise now to be misled by somebody blaming all our country’s problems on one convenient ethnic target.” Hmmm. Trump? Duterte? BREXIT?

“But we know better…”

The thing is, we actually do know better. We literally know the best anyone has ever known. As a whole, the human race has a more complete grasp of every form of knowledge now than it is ever has. We might not use our knowledge wisely every second of the day, but we do have the knowledge.

Our mistake? We let our progress – which is astounding – go to our heads. We arrogantly assume that because we know the best yet, that we know the best anyone will ever know.

What are they going to mock us mercilessly for in 2100? I don’t even want to think about it.

So what to do?

Have a little bit of humility.

Recognise that we’re simply part of a timeline. We’re one scene in a giant Bayeux tapestry.

Our arrogance is in presuming our generation to be the most important and impressive part of the tapestry. I think we can’t help but think that because it’s our generation – it’s now. Have you ever noticed that the values people should apparently live by always eerily reflect whatever the dominant values were at the time the person espousing them came of age? It’s all just a little bit convenient.

By accepting our relative smallness – grasping our true position in the world, and in history – we are free. It is an incredibly heavy and unproductive burden we carry – thinking that we’re the logical end-point of civilisation, and that all generations before us were merely striving to get to where we are now. Let go.

It’s not that we’re shit. We’re just not as massive an improvement on the people before us as we like to believe.

Isaac Newton and his Giants

Isaac Newton was being very humble in the quote at the beginning, acknowledging that his work wasn’t his alone, but that hundreds of other thinkers before him had laid the groundwork and set him up to discover what discovered.

But what makes the quote even better is that it wasn’t originally his! A similar sentiment has been traced back to the 12th century – to Bernard of Chartres – after which it was was passed down, and passed down, until in letter one day in February 1676 Newton found himself using it.

So even Newton’s quote about standing on the shoulder of giants was only possible by… standing on the shoulder of giants.

What will I be glad that I did?

Right now, I could stand up, walk to the kitchen, and pour myself a big glass of water. Mmm.

What I couldn’t do, however, is do the same thing in ten minutes’ time. Why not?

Because I can’t control my future actions – only my actions right now.

From where I sit right now, I can intend to go get the water in ten minutes, I can try to remember to go get the water in ten minutes, I can even set an alarm to remind me to go get the water in ten minutes. What I cannot do from where I sit right now is control whether or not I go get the water in ten minutes.

We can only control our actions in the present moment.

The perils of time-travel

This creates a conundrum – we want to be able to control our actions in the future, because we want the future to be good. But how can we make sure it’s as good as possible if we can’t do anything about it?

Well, careful there. I didn’t say we couldn’t do anything about it. I just said we can’t control it.

Thinking about the future – time-travelling – is not just useful, it’s essential. It’s one of those incredible, uniquely human abilities – what separates us from the animals is our ability to rise above the battlefield of the present moment, and think of the bigger picture.

But where we get stuck is not in our thinking about the future – a good thing – but in projecting ourselves into the future and then trying to act on it from the present. As I said earlier, this is impossible.

We can envision the future. We can plot and plan and scheme and strategise. But we cannot act in the future – we can only act in the present.

Stop making promises to yourself

The place to start is to stop making promises to yourself about what you will or won’t do in the future. Every time you break a promise like this – which is almost inevitable – you lose a little bit of trust in yourself, and this has a nasty habit of compounding.

Instead, start making very small promises about what you will and won’t do right now at this very second. Every time you keep a promise like this – which is easy, because you make very small promises – you gain a bit of trust in yourself, and this too has a habit of compounding.

It all boils down to two choices, really: Make life easier for your future self, or harder. Try doing the thing you’ll be glad you did, right now, whatever it is.

The rain doesn’t care how loud you shout for it to stop.

Imagine going for a pleasant walk in the countryside, when suddenly it starts raining – just a drizzle at first, but then a heavy downpour. Perhaps you start walking faster to get back to the car. Perhaps you were clever enough to bring an umbrella, and you get it out. Perhaps you start shouting at the sky as loudly as possibly to stop raining and to stop it right now.

You can do anything you like. None of it will make the slightest bit of difference to what the rain decides it’s going to do.

What is power?

According to Robert Greene, power is the ability to shape circumstances to your will – to wield influence over yourself, over others, and over events. We feel powerful to the degree we feel able to do this, and powerless to the degree we feel unable to.

The feeling of being powerless, as Greene explains in the introduction to “The 48 Laws of Power”, is generally unbearable – we cannot stand it. Under the influence of such an unpleasant feeling, we inevitably look for something that will give us the pleasing feeling of having power. And we generally find something.

The problem is that we, as a species, have an almost comically terrible grasp over what is and what isn’t susceptible to our charms. We vastly overestimate the amount of things we can directly control – most things are utterly impervious to our influence. And each time we misjudge our ability to control something, we feel a little bit more powerless.

Whilst attempting to control things that we cannot might not make a difference to the thing itself – like in the case of the rain – it does makes a difference to us, sometimes massively so.

Wasting your time is not a neutral activity

You only have a limited amount of time left on this Earth, and this time can either be directed towards things that are open to your influence, or towards things that are not.

Directing them towards things that are not might seem innocent and entirely neutral – sure, you might not be changing the thing you’re trying to change, but you’re not doing anything harm either, right?

Wrong. Because every second used on what you can’t control is a second you now can’t spend on something you can. And you don’t have an unlimited supply of seconds.

Expand your power by exercising it

As I said earlier, the more time you spend attempting to influence things that were never open to your influence in the first place, the more powerless you feel. But fortunately, the reverse is also true.

The list of things you have the potential to control might be short, but it’s exactly as long as it needs to be – long enough that at any given moment you can shamelessly give yourself to something worthy of your attention without worrying about what you’re not giving your attention to. It wouldn’t have made a difference anyway!

And when you do this, something wonderful happens – the list grows. When you use your power to go to work on the things that are open to your influence, your power expands, and suddenly more and more things are open to your influence.

Don’t waste another second on things you can’t do anything about anyway – there are more than enough things you can do something about to keep you busy for the rest of your life. And it’ll be a much happier life, too.

Let’s stop pretending racism is anything more than insecurity

Racism might masquerade as a belief in the superiority of your race over another, but if you believe that, then you’ve fallen for the oldest trick in the book. This is nothing more than a clever sleight-of-hand, craftily employed by racists from time immemorial, to cover up what’s really going on in their heads.

The much more pathetic truth?

Racists are actually deathly afraid of the possible inferiority of their race. They are so afraid of their inferiority, in fact, that they are compelled to vociferously trumpet their apparent superiority, and to enact laws and policies that protect their race whilst keeping others down.

Racists are insecure

Racists are so insecure about their position in the world that they have no choice but to alter the playing field to their benefit. They have to alter it in order to feel superior – after all, if their race actually was superior, then wouldn’t they be able to win with a level playing field?

They know they can’t win with a level playing field, however, and this creates further insecurity – it’s not a pleasant feeling to know that you can only win by cheating.

Imagine being on a football team – you, and ten of your friends. You guys have an amazing track record – you win every single game you play. You brag to the other teams about your superiority over them.

Except… you make the other team’s goal twenty times bigger than yours, the referee awards you with five goals for every goal you actually score, and if the other team so much as touches the ball, it’s a penalty to your team. Are you really superior?

Racists know deep down that they aren’t superior to anyone or anything. But they also know that if they cover it up with flags, with “pride”, with enough shit-for-brains believers in “the cause”… then we’ll fall for it.

Racists don’t deserve your attention

The problem in 2019 is that we’ve stopped treating racism as a fear and an insecurity, and we’ve started treating it as an intellectual position. It’s not an intellectual position. It’s evidence that a person’s rational faculties are fundamentally broken. It should not be treated with respect. It should be treated with pity.

It’s fear. It’s insecurity. You can dress it up to look like courage, like strength, like power… but as I’ve said, if your race was so superior, you wouldn’t need to go to these lengths to convince yourself – and the rest of the world – of that superiority.

Work on yourself

Work on yourself. Don’t blame the accident of other people’s births on the things you don’t like about your life.

If you’ve got time to be racist, you must have more hours in the day than the rest of us do.

Add resistance, not just difficulty

There is a theory that goes around – primarily amongst older guitarists, though not exclusively – that if you want to learn guitar, you should not start on electric.

It’s not true at all – and it probably prevents a lot of would-be great electric guitarists from ever trying – although like all theories of this type, it’s not completely unfounded.

The theory goes…

The average electric guitar is undeniably “easier” to play than the average acoustic guitar.

It has a slimmer neck, lighter and looser strings, and if you plug it in you can play very gently and still hear every note. The electric guitar gives you less physical resistance than the acoustic guitar – that’s a fact.

And so these people take the leap that since it’s “easier,” you won’t get as good. And so you shouldn’t start on electric.

But my question is “what if you specifically want to play the electric guitar?”

All guitars are not created equal

If you specifically wanted to play electric guitar, but I made you play acoustic first for a year to “train you up,” you’d be in for a bit of a shock when I finally handed you an electric guitar.

Sure, there would be plenty of things you learned on acoustic that would transfer right across – where the notes are on each string, the shapes for different chords, how to use a plectrum – but physically, after spending a whole year acclimatising to the physical dimensions of an acoustic guitar, with its wider neck, thicker strings, higher action… the electric guitar would feel very strange.

Because it’s not the same instrument. And that’s the mistake the “don’t start on electric” crowd make.

They think that it’s all the same instrument, just an “easier” or “harder” version. Nope.

If you want to master electric guitar, then there’s a lot that playing acoustic can help you with. But only as a supplement. What’s really going to help you is playing electric guitar, and playing it a lot.

Resistance training

Have you ever seen people go for a run carrying small weights in their hands, or strapped to their arms?

These people are engaging in a form of resistance training – when you make an activity harder to perform, you force your body to adapt to the increased load, and to become stronger. And it works.

There are all kinds of ways to make a run more difficult – run with your eyes closed, try to breathe as little as possible, shout random Spanish words every few seconds… all these things will make the run more difficult. But will they improve your running? Probably not.

And it’s the same with the guitar. And most things, actually.

Manual vs automatic

I was discussing the whole “don’t start on electric” thing with a student last night, and he made a great analogy: there are people who think that everybody should learn to drive a manual car – since it’s more difficult, it must make you a better driver, right?

Except what if you never had any intention of driving a manual car for the rest of your life? What benefit could there be? You’re not adding resistance, just difficulty.

When something is true in one domain, it’s easy to get carried away and try to apply it to everything. Think harder about what you’re trying to do and whether you’re giving yourself genuine, helpful resistance, or whether you’re just making life unnecessarily difficult for yourself.

Work deeply, or not at all

When it comes to keeping yourself hydrated, nothing works better than drinking small amounts of water throughout the day.

If you need 3 litres per day, for example, it’s not more efficient to try drinking them all at once – your kidneys can only process around 1 litre per hour, and so anything above that will just be flushed out. You have to give your body the water it needs a bit at a time, throughout the course of whole day

This simple, slow and steady approach works better than anything else for hydration. But it’s an extremely sub-optimal approach to just about everything else in life, especially learning.

Learning requires deep focus

The human brain was designed to focus. The deeper your focus is on a subject, the faster you can learn, the more you can retain what you learn, and the more alive you feel.

The more your focus is diluted, for example by focusing on a higher quantity of items each in a shallower fashion, then you not only don’t learn as quickly, you don’t retain as well what you do learn, and the more bored and frustrated you will feel.

When it comes to learning anything, your best results will by saturating yourself with the thing you are trying to learn.

Work in cycles

The kinds of genius work we all have the potential to produce are only possible for you if you work deeply enough – shutting out the world for several hours at a time, allowing your monkey mind to recede into the background and let the best parts of you work on the task.

But you can’t keep this up forever. If you’ve worked at a sufficient depth, you’ll be knackered after a while – maybe a week, maybe two, possibly even just one day of deep work. You’ve earned yourself a rest. So take it. The rest will renew you, allow your brain to consildate all the stuff you were doing whilst you were working.

It’s a reinforcing cycle – deep work creates the need for deep rest, which strengthens you for the next round of deep work.

Without realising, most of us live in a grey zone. We work on several things in a shallow fashion constantly. Shallow work doesn’t require deep rest, and so after doing one thing we still have energy left to focus shallowly on something else. We use the method that works for hydration on learning stuff, where it doesn’t really work at all.

Make it easier for yourself

If there’s something you want to improve about your life – read more, eat less, learn to play piano – how do you go about getting yourself to do the things you need to do to make that happen?

Do you have to force, coerce, and bully yourself into action, hating every second until it’s done? And does that work for you?

Or does it just sort of… flow? Do you look back a few months later and think “Oh, wow, I did that thing almost without realising?”

The path of least resistance

We like to think that we are always acting rationally, always in control, always making our decisions consciously. The truth is that we are almost never doing any of these things.

The truth is that – as a human being – you are almost always following the path of least resistance, wherever it might take you. You are doing whatever feels like the easiest choice in the moment.

This force is neutral – its goodness or badness depends entirely on the situation. The only thing you can do is accept that it exists.

Be strategic

If forcing yourself to do things works for you, then don’t let me stop you. I just know that it doesn’t work for me.

If I try to do it that way, I have a very stressful two or three days of straining to make myself do things that feel completely unnatural, and then I give up. I achieve basically nothing – none of the results I wanted – and I get the added bonus of a dip in self-esteem.

What works for me is not trying harder. It’s making the things I know I need to do easier – making it so that I don’t have to exert so much willpower just to get moving.

If I can get people that I like involved in whatever I’m doing, it’s easier.

If I can make it so that everything I need is in one place, physically, it’s easier.

If I can add a good deadline – not too ambitious, but not boringly far away either – it’s easier.

If I know I have time to mentally relax and recouperate afterwards, it’s easier.

It’s a part of your nature

My point is that there’s a part of you that will always try and drag you down in the moment when you want to do the right thing. Stay one step ahead of it by making doing the right thing easier.

Living problem to problem

Frank Zappa’s paternal grandfather didn’t like taking baths.

It doesn’t take a genius to guess what problem this created. But he was no fool, old Zappa. He found a solution: he wore lots of clothes and doused himself with an excessive amount of cologne.

Here in 2019, we might scoff at this unhygienic, Sicilian, turn-of-the-century solution to a problem, but it’s really no different than the way most of us solve most our problems.

What particular pickle are you in at the moment?

I’m always in some kind of pickle, real or imagined. And there’s always a solution to it.

Not only that – there’s always a good solution. There’s a solution that doesn’t merely kick the problem down the road a little, but one that makes it go away for good.

Alas, I very rarely find these higher solutions, because I’m so desperate for any solution that I settle far too soon for one that doesn’t really solve anything.

You see, it’s very difficult to see good, long-term solutions, because when you’re in the moment, all emotional about the urgent situation you find yourself in, you think that all you need right now is a quick fix – something simple to allow you to breathe a little air – and if you can find it, then “everything” will be okay.

And since you’re so desperate to find a solution – any solution – you look extra hard, and you find one quite quickly. You tell yourself that’s it’s just this once, and that when you’re done with this immediate fix, you’ll make sure to sit down and figure out a real, long-term solution.

Except that you don’t. You’re so relieved that the problem appears to have gone away for a while that you relax and forget about the whole thing.

Until next week, when the problem is back, with a vengeance.

The short-term

The solutions you find in a panic, just to make the problem go away, are created by short-term thinking. Short in terms of time, and short in terms of space. Here are the characteristics of these solutions:

  • They are overly simplistic. They don’t take into account the whole picture, but are satisfied just to fix just one piece of the puzzle. Inevitably they cause some negative knock-on effect you didn’t foresee.
  • They are egotistical. They revolve around you and your immediate animal needs. They don’t consider that other people, or your future self, might end up paying a higher price as a result of this fix.
  • They only work temporarily. If they solve the problem at all – often they just mask it – they do it for a very short time.
  • They make you spiral downward. Each short-term solution is as if you were drowning, and you were given the ability to tread water. It’s an improvement, sure, but after enough cycles of this you’ll wear yourself out and sink

Long-term thinking

What about the other side? What do good, long-term solutions look like?

  • They are elegant. They take into account all the necessary elements, ignore the irrelevant ones, and then weigh up the possible interactions between all the branches of potential consequences.
  • They are universal. They solve your problem whilst making the world a better place in general.
  • They last. The problem is solved for a long time. It’s not coming back soon, and if it ever does, you will see it coming way in advance and have time to act before it causes any damage,
  • They make you spiral upward. Each long-term solution is an investment in future time and space. You feel continually more resourceful and free, ever less desperate and time-bound – you have more time and space with which to actually live.

Why are short-term solutions so popular?

Because we’re humans. And without going into the whole hunter-gatherer, running away from a tiger spiel, getting out of danger – real or imagined – is the natural thing for humans to do.

You have to actually learn how to make good long-term decisions. You’re born knowing how to make short-term ones.

I’m not going to argue that sometimes short-term solutions aren’t necessary. They are. Just nowhere near as often as you probably think.

One key take-away

Long-term thinking does away with the need for short-term thinking.

The reason you find yourself feeling desperate for a short-term fix is because you failed to invest in a long-term one. If you had, you’d never have created the situation where you needed a short-term fix in the first place.

Taking short-term solutions simply guarantees that before long you’ll be in the exact same position again.

A caveat regarding the extremes

It’s not “live fast, die young” or “become a monk.” That’s not at all what I’m talking about.

Thinking long-term has absolutely nothing to do with avoiding pleasure, or not allowing yourself to enjoy life in the moment. Conversely, it actually increases your ability to do both.

The “live fast, die young” crowd have to do that because they don’t know how to simply “live.” All they can think about is satisfying their immediate animal needs.

I think we can do better than that.

Make it personal

Except for death and taxes, everything else you do in your life is your choice.

It’s not that life is short. It’s that life is finite. You don’t have forever. I don’t have forever. And even if we pooled both our lives we still wouldn’t have enough time to do everything.

So a choice must be made. And when making this choice, you can go down one of two roads.

You can look at what the masses are doing, look at what’s popular, look at what’s cool, look at what’s trending… or you can look inside yourself.

One leads to a bleak, grey, desperate, hierarchical existence. The other leads to a life.

Personal connection

Songs that give you chills. Books you can’t put down. A job where the time flies and you can’t wait to go in on a Monday morning. A wife that you adore.

Spend as much of your time here on Earth as you possibly can doing things that you have a personal connection to.

You weren’t born a blank canvas. You were born with inclinations toward certain activities, certain fields, certain people, certain art… and you were born with a limited time-frame with which to explore. So explore.

What not to do

Don’t follow a career path you have no feeling for just because it pays “well.” No salary is high enough to make up for it.

Don’t champion an actor, a musician, a writer, a politician… just because they’re popular or famous or well-thought-of. Make your own mind up and own your decision.

Don’t pretend to value things you couldn’t give a shit about merely because they are “an institution.” Traditions are just peer pressure from dead people.

What to do

Measure everything you come across by how personally connected you feel to it.

Does it interest you? Does it make you curious? Does it make you want to come back for more? Does it make you feel alive when you think about it?

The better you get at listening to and trusting this voice inside you, the more you feel like you are living the life you were meant to live.

Zig when they expect you to zag

I watched Inglourious Basterds last night. My wife had never seen it before. It was probably viewing number fourteen or so for me, but even so, it had been a couple of years at least.

Most films I watch I don’t watch again. Some of them I do watch again, but they fare slightly worse with each viewing. And a very select few that I watch again just get better, and better, and better. Tarantino’s films are firmly in the latter group.

There are a lot of things that make Tarantino Tarantino, but if I had to pick one thing that sets him apart from 99% of filmmakers – and artists in general – it’s this:

He plays with his audience.

We want tension. Then we want resolution.

Storytelling is a uniquely human phenomenon, and it is based chiefly upon just two elements: tension and resolution.

We crave the thrill, intrigue, and stimulation of the rising tension, and then just at the moment when it’s about to become more than we can handle, we crave the comfort and familiarity of resolution.

If you raise the tension and then resolve it, then you have told a story. But you haven’t necessarily told a story worth telling. In order to do that, you need to zig when we expect you to zag.

Almost all art is pretty shit.

Most novels aren’t worth reading. Most films are bland and mediocre. And most music sounds like a badly disguised cover version of something that was already fairly unoriginal to begin with.

Why? Because the artist – being unaware, unable, or simply unwilling to do anything else – sets us up to expect a zig, and then… a zig is exactly what we get.

Mediocre artists don’t know how to play with their audience.

Their approach is completely passive. They make their work, and they hope that somebody will like it. They see their audience not as a collection of equals, as unique three-dimensional humans craving a real experience, but as inferior faceless automatons, nothing more than an inconvenience. In the end they just hope that they can make enough of these idiots fall for the hype and make their work financially viable.

Great artists, on the other hand? They respect their audience. How do I know? Because they put effort into creating an incredibly rich experience for them. By making them expect one thing, and then giving them something pleasantly different.

They expend an incredible amount of time and energy setting us up for a particular zig, and just when we expect it the least, they hit us with a zag.

Don’t confuse this with merely being wacky – there is nothing clever or innovative about zagging just for the sake of zagging. The key is in the set-up: go the extra mile to make us expect a particular zig, and when you give us a zag instead, we’ll keep coming back for more.

What Tarantino does

All good artists know about zigging and zagging, but even so they seem to see it as a necessarily evil to the piece of art – something that distracts from the higher and more important aspects of their work.

Tarantino, on the other hand, sees it differently – all the other stuff is there to serve the tension and resolution of the story, not the other way round.

So he’ll set up a scenario, and as though he were slowly but surely turning a pressure knob clockwise, he’ll gradually raise the tension between the characters on-screen.

If all he did were raise the pressure, however, we’d be bored to tears before long. And so every now and then he’ll dial it back. We get a false sense of security, a breather. Then a few moments later, something new is revealed – the pressure is back on, and this time it’s even higher!

After several of these cycles – raising the tension, easing it off a bit, raising it even more, easing it off again… we are now on the edge of our seat – when is he going to hit boiling point?!

And hit boiling point he does. Eventually – like that brief pause before the rollercoaster descends at full speed – he jams that knob all the way clockwise. There is an explosive climax – the details of which we could never have predicted, but that now we think about it works perfectly.

Where are people expecting you to zig?

Think about your art. What about it is predictable and safe? And what is shocking and subversive?

For any work to be truly masterful, it requires a blend of the mundane (the setting up of a zig) and the extraordinary (the unexpected delivery of a zag.)

It’s not necessarily to make everything you do surprising and capricious – that soon becomes just as boring as a boring piece of art – but a few well-placed zags, when everyone is expecting a zig, and suddenly your work will come to life.

You are finally making art.

Stop wasting time

Imagine a man walking up to a rubbish bin, taking his wallet out of his pocket, extracting a twenty-pound note, and putting it in the bin.

Now imagine that he does this at least once every day, sometimes several times.

I think you can agree with me that – unless he is engaged in some kind of performance art taking a dig at our capitalist culture – the man is wasting his money.

He is quite literally throwing his money away. How does that make you feel?

Are you angry with the man for being so wasteful?

It’s easy to see when somebody is wasting their money, but it’s not so easy to see that this is exactly what you are doing with a much more precious resource whenever you spend a single second of it not doing what is important to you.

Time

If the thought of somebody throwing money away stirs up strong emotions in you, perhaps even making you angry at their audacity, then you need to have a really long think about why the wasting of time is not stirring up the same emotions in you?

After all, time is a far more precious resource than money – it is finite. If you waste money, you can earn it back. But time, once it’s gone, is gone for good.

If everything is equally important, nothing is important

When you live as though you have all the time in the world, you lose a sense of proportion – everything ends up just as important as everything else. And importance is relative – if everything is important, nothing is important.

You spend your life is a grey area where – though you may have some things you really value – you have a huge amount of things mislabeled in your head as important which really do not deserve a second of your attention.

You don’t have all the time in the world. You have a fixed amount of life left. If you learn to live it well, even one more year can be the best year you ever had.

Pick what matters to you, and guard yourself against everything else as though it were cancer. If we were all as frightened about wasting time as we were about wasting money, we’d get a lot more important shit done.

Your past = your future

No matter how content or disgusted we might be with the life we have now, one thing is clear: we all want a brighter future.

But if you want to know exactly how your future is most likely to turn out, there’s a very easy way to see it: take a look at your past.

Look past the things unexpected things which happened to you that you had no part in – you were in a car accident, you were born into an abusive family – and instead look squarely at the things which you did have a hand in shaping.

If you do this for long enough, you’ll start to notice certain patterns – good ones and bad ones. People never do anything just once.

For example…

When difficulties arise, do you tend to see these obstacles as a spur to creative action, or as a sign to give up?

When people transgress you in some way, do you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, or remember it bitterly for years and vow revenge?

When thinking about the work you do, do you value solutions that offer you personally a short-term relief, or solutions which could benefit the world for decades to come?

Whatever you tend to do, that is precisely what you will continue to tend to do, and in this way the past creates the future.

Change the past

So if you find that your past contains things that, as you project forward in time, don’t give you the future you want, what is there to do?

You have to change the past. And you do that by acting differently in the present.

The past is like a magnet, or like gravity – no matter how much willpower you try to use to create a brighter future, it will continue to compel you into acting in the way you’re used to acting.

But you can use the present moment to break the habit, to change the script. When you do something your past self wouldn’t have done, you are, in effect, creating a new past, a different past. The gravitational pull is just as strong, but you’ve changed the direction slightly.

If you keep this up, you will have created a completely different past, and that past will now be the one that creates your future.

The difference between writing and typing

Upon hearing that Jack Kerouac had written his wildly popular novel “On The Road” on one continuous scroll of typewriter paper during a three-week benzedrine binge, the novelist Truman Capote famously quipped:

“That’s not writing, that’s just typing.”

It’s not that Capote was wrong, it’s that he missed the point.

Three weeks in the typing, four years in the writing

Putting aside the envy responsible for Capote’s quip – no writer relishes seeing another writer being launched into the literary stratosphere right under their nose – the truth is that Jack Kerouac had in fact been working on his “road book” for four whole years before he sat down to do the infamous benzedrine draft.

He wrote draft after draft. He tried different styles, different ways of telling the story he knew was in him somewhere. He put in the time, and he had the patience, to get to know his material inside and out – so well, in fact, that he could then sit at his typewriter and bang out something as incredible as On The Road in three weeks.

And so, in this sense, Capote was completely right – sitting down at a typewriter and just typing for weeks is not writing. It’s just that that’s not what happened with On The Road

The final result is just one piece of the puzzle

If you’re writing a novel, or a song, or a speech, then the most satisfying moment is finishing it. It’s having the novel on your hard-disk, ready to send to your editor. It’s having the song recorded and ready to share with your fans. It’s being 100% ready to deliver that speech.

It’s very easy, though, to confuse that final result with the whole picture.

You see, that novel, that song, that speech… that’s not the whole picture at all. That is merely the tangible proof – the evidence of the journey you’ve been on – what was probably a very long, very deep, and very challenging journey.

From the first grain of a little idea, to jotting down connecting ideas on napkins, to taking rainy walks to muse upon it further, to writing draft after draft after draft – each one showing you something essential to the whole, but not quite hitting the mark – to finally, finally, finally, having it all converge and become something you can hang your hat on.

There’s no point denying the intoxicating nature of finishing – of holding that final tangible result in your hands – but you make it all the more sweet by focusing on everything that comes before it, on knowing your material like the back of your hand.

The danger of the Kerouac “writing On The Road in three weeks story” is that just because he typed it in three weeks, doesn’t mean he wrote it in three weeks. Art takes time. Let it.

Keith James, Leonard Cohen, and taking your time

Keith James

I went to The Greystones on Sunday night, to watch Keith James. He’s a very talented man who tours the world playing the songs of Leonard Cohen.

Keith is a tribute act in the truest meaning of the word – rather than pretending that he is Leonard Cohen – whilst we all sit there knowing he isn’t really – he is instead just a man with an incredible amount of love and respect for Leonard’s work, paying tribute to the man by performing the best of it.

Whilst I sat with my Dad watching Keith perform not only Leonard’s songs, but also some of his poetry set to original music, I couldn’t help but be struck by admiration for Leonard’s fierce dedication to the craft – something I’ve read about plenty of times but never quite appreciated on this level.

Leonard finished slowly, but he worked hard

When Leonard started working on a song, he didn’t treat the moment as most of us do – as the start of something we’d be done with fairly soon. The song wasn’t some product, some commodity, and so the process of creating it was not something that had to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. To Leonard, the beginning of the songwriting process was the beginning of a long, deep, tempestuous relationship between the man and the song.

He took the position that the song was out there somewhere, and that, as a songwriter, it was his duty to write it. So he wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote.

As he wrote, he discovered all kinds of things that he knew were not really the song, but were just false paths and red herrings. Unperturbed, he chipped and chipped away at the marble, like Michelangelo sculpting David, until he arrived at what he knew was the song.

Sometimes this process took years, and even once a song had been written and performed for decades, he could still be found tweaking it in new live versions, proving that his job – the discoverer of the song – was never truly over.

Your relationship with your work

Contrast this with how most people create most of the things they create. We are in a rush to get something made as quickly as possible, for momentum’s sake. If it gets difficult, or it appears to be taking longer than we anticipated, we tend to give up. We were never in it for the long haul.

Instead of treating the creative process as something you are dreaming up from inside yourself and throwing into the world, see it as the developing and nurturing of a relationship between you and the piece of work. As you write, you are not trying to construct something out of thin air – you are simply attempting to get to know the work.

Just as it takes more than a day to truly know another person – you could live with someone your whole life and discover something new about them every single day – it takes more than a day to get to know the piece of work.

You see, your work exists already. It’s out there in the ether somewhere. And by putting in the hours, days, weeks, and months, to try to give it form, you are slowly developing a clearer and clearer picture of what it is and what it isn’t.

This process might mean you take longer – much longer – to finish your work. But… so what? The process will be infinitely more joyful and engaging, and your work will be of a vastly higher quality than those rush-jobs you’ve been doing up until now.

Fill your present moment with meaning

It is possible to both be fully in the present moment and to sow a brighter future for yourself. Our culture, however, creates a false dichotomy between the two, and what we end up with is citizens who fit the bill.

The two extremes

On one side you have the Epicurean hedonist. Lacking the requisite strength of character to persist with anything that takes time or effort, they instead claim that it’s better to “live for the moment.” Thinking about the future seems so boring and passé – what if I die tomorrow?

Whilst it can seem like a really bold and brave way to live, what people who claim to “live for the moment” are usually doing is avoiding facing themselves by indulging in bodily pleasures. Another drink, another burger, another shag… It soon gets very boring to be around these people.

If the moment they claimed to be living in was so fantastic, why would they crave the change in brain-state they can only get through ingesting chemical compounds?

There are people who live for the moment, but they will tend to be genuinely satisfied with the moment – not constantly in need of their next hit.

On the other side, you have the deferred-life-plan type. They focus on nothing but the future. They think of themselves very highly – they are not stupid thrill-seekers like the hedonists. They believe that by putting all their focus on the future, they can shape and control it.

This type lacks strength of character too, they just show it in a very different way: Whilst hedonists cling to the present because they fear the future, deferred-life-planners cling to the future so that they never have to face the present.

The dichotomy is false – you don’t have to be like either of these types.

Meaningful present = bright future

Living for the moment isn’t getting wasted and shagging. And sowing a brighter future isn’t scrimping every penny until you’re 65 and you can allow yourself to “enjoy” a retirement.

There is a middle path.

If you can find out what makes you feel alive – what gives meaning to your existence – then the more you make that thing a part of your life, the more your future will tend to just take care of itself.

Do the right thing, especially when it feels impossible.


“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying…or busy with other assignments…”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I have a very bad habit. I wonder if you share it too.

I love – I relish – the idea of taking responsibility for my actions. To me, that is what makes a mere human being a truly great human – being an active participant with skin in the game of life.

And I do. I do take responsibility for my actions… but only when it’s easy to.

Once it becomes slightly difficult – once there is risk – it all goes out the window. I tell myself that it wasn’t my fault, that I really didn’t have a choice, that I had to do what I had to do.

Bullshit. I’m just scared.

You always have a choice

Your measure as a human is not in how often you do the right thing, but in how often you do the right thing when it feels impossible to. When there are people that will hound you for it, when you will upset the status quo, when you will destroy sacred cows – this is when it is most important to not give in to your lower self.

It is precisely when you have the most to lose that you also have the most to gain by doing the right thing. It just depends how you frame the difficulty. Do you use it as an excuse to hide, or do you use it a spur to courageous action?

You always have a choice. Nobody can make you do anything against your will. Nobody can stop you from doing what you believe to be the right thing and nobody can take away your choice. Except – ironically – you, by telling yourself that you don’t have a choice.

Personal freedom

When we use the term “freedom”, we almost always use it in a particular way – to describe how able we are to do certain things without interference from others.

We talk about the freedom to vote for our leaders, the freedom to practise a religion, the freedom to work a job, the freedom to own land, or the freedom to run a business.

These freedoms – which, throughout history, have been enjoyed chiefly by rich, white males – are increasingly open to more and more humans. We are still a long way from the day where every human being will enjoy the same basic freedoms from birth, but we are nevertheless on our way. The brave people who fought for our right to enjoy these freedoms deserve every scrap of praise they get.

But we do those brave people a disservice if, grateful as we are for what they’ve done, we neglect to focus on a much more powerful and important type of freedom.

The two sides of the freedom coin

Physical freedom, as detailed above, is a great start, but it has one fatal flaw: It can only be granted to you by an outside party. You can’t just “take” it.

If you weren’t lucky enough to be born with a particular silver spoon in your mouth, the only way to enjoy certain freedoms is to passively wait for permission to be given to you, or to actively fight for that permission. Either way, you must seek permission before you can ever enjoy that freedom.

Personal freedom, on the other hand, is what happens when you own your very self. You own your thoughts, your deeds, and their consequences. And the best part is that you don’t have to wait for anybody to give you permission to enjoy this freedom – personal freedom is 100% in your hands.

Personal freedom role models

Frederick Douglass. Victor Frankl. Ruben Hurricane Carter.

One a slave, one an inmate in several concentration camps during World War II, and one a heavyweight champion boxer wrongly convicted of triple homicide. All three of them had their physical freedoms taken away from them for the cruellest reasons, over which they had no control.

Douglass – born into slavery – never even knew basic freedoms to begin with.

Frankl – by sheer virtue of being born Jewish – was sent to a concentration camp.

And Carter – the victim of a trial where no concrete evidence linked him to the crime, and where two thieves were given reduced sentences for their bullshit testimony against him – was given three life sentences.

In the most abject of circumstances imaginable, all three of these men discovered something which remains just as rare and radical today: personal freedom is available to you at all times, and only you can give it, or take it away, from yourself.

What’s the point if you’re not free?

We live in the freest time in human history – from a physical freedom perspective – but if we don’t learn to grant ourselves personal freedom, are we actually free?

What’s the point in being able to buy all the stuff we want if it we end up paranoid and fearful about losing it?

What’s the point in being physically free if we spend all day working in a office to pay our bills, and all evening in front of the TV trying to forget about our day at the office?

What’s the point in being able to vote in elections every four years or so if we don’t bother to vote with our daily actions on the other 1,459 days?

Personal freedom comes from within

Personal freedom – true freedom – has absolutely nothing to do with possessions, or indeed anything of a physical nature.

It is a function of the relationship you have with yourself. When you grant yourself ownership of your thoughts and deeds, and their consequences, you are free. When you remain shackled by what others think, or by what you are and are not allowed to do, think, or feel, you are not free.

You could be a slave, like Douglass. You could be in a concentration camp, like Frankl. You could be in prison, like Carter. But if you own yourself, you are freer than all the “free” people in the world.

New single: Unclean Seventeen

lyrics

I’m beautiful at all the wrong times 
I’m sweetness personified 
I’m aching to get out alive 
I drink hot buttered rum when I drive 

I’m dirty from my head to my toe 
In a cat-suit or a baby-gro 
I don’t come up for air when I blow 
You wanna love me, well I don’t want to know 

That’s why they call me Miss… Unclean Seventeen  

Got a wrist like a pneumatic drill 
Always make sure that I get my fill 
I cured my broken heart with a pill 
And I eat whatever I kill 

That’s why they call me Miss… Unclean Seventeen 

I eat whatever I kill 

That’s why they call me Miss… Unclean Seventeen 

credits

Oliver Manning 
– vocals, electric guitar, a tiny casio keyboard plugged into a giant leslie speaker, handclaps 

Conor Houston 
– backing vocals, bass guitar, handclaps 

Joe Wood 
– drums, handclaps 

Cradled, nurtured, and sonically perfected by Alan Smyth at 2Fly Studios, Sheffield.

Released April 20, 2018