Monthly Archive: June 2012

Why we need more small towns

I’ve always been a capitalist. And I’ve often fancied myself as something of a big city sophisticate, though that was probably only ever in my head. As a result, I’ve occasionally rued the fact that I never found a way to live in New York City in my twenties. Certainly with my mindset at the time, the Big Apple might have quenched much of my thirst for opportunistic over-indulgence.

Increasingly I’ve been cured of such longings however, and as I’ve got older, I can’t imagine why a non-Native would choose to live there or anywhere remotely like it beyond the age of around 30.

At the same time, I’ve become repulsed by many of the things that I once thought might be exciting and cool about that sort of life.

This sprung to mind vividly during a Skype chat with my Dad this afternoon in which the conversation twisted and turned through family and sports and a number of other topics, before we ended up on the subject of the greatest of all capitalist heartbreaks: our banks.

Even as thoroughly discredited as banks in the UK are after they and their American counterparts dropped the whole world into a bucket of crap in 2008, they remain headed up by people who apparently think underhanded manipulation of the markets is a legitimate hallmark of capitalist vigour.

Fundamentally crooked, sociopathic and contemptuous. It makes me wonder whether there ought to be a cigarette pack-style label on all investment banking adverts, carrying a warning.

But there is a positive here and I’d far rather focus on what might be good than what is to my mind indisputably bad.

My lack of post-40 New Yorkiness marries well with my revulsion for big capitalism to reinforce my belief that what we need is more small towns. Not physical ones. Virtual ones. A small town mentality, perhaps. Small town communities that may involve you and your friends and some customers and suppliers, dealing with each other on a one-on-one basis, making truth and respect the guiding principles of all your relationships.

Rather than gorging yourself on other people’s money as the banks love to do, gorge yourself on the integrity and sanctity of your own reputation and both delivery and receipt of helpful experiences. Rather than protective self-interest and a blatant lack of concern for the consequences, a shared concern for doing stuff that moves everyone forward. Not in leaps. By inches. Growth is still growth when it is symbiotic.

Small townsfolk take the time to get to know one another and to take some care for each other’s well being. They share a human experience without trying to screw each other senseless along the way. They get that we’re all in this together.

It may sound like naïve idealism, but I no longer believe that’s bad. Not when the alternative is a repetitive cycle which threatens to make me, personally — and you too —  a very painful victim.

Getting out from the rock and the hard place without all the added emotion

I’ve been thinking lately about how binary I can often be. There are days when despite what I believe about balance, I feel either wildly successful or like a pitiful loser; either ready to trial-run the Comrades Marathon or too flat to pick up the phone, often without allowing myself access to any of the stages in-between. Days when I’ve reached some goals feel awesome whereas days when I have not, just suck.

That the emotionality of a situation can have me thinking in extremes – good or bad, lucky or unlucky, brilliant or utterly stupid – even though I know there are many potential alternatives lying starkly between them, is a source of some irritation and shame to me.

But I had no idea until recently just how much pressure it has been putting me under.

Perhaps you know how it can go: You’re no longer enjoying your job so your choices are to either resign and seek fulfilment elsewhere or drag yourself into the office every day. You’re not getting on with your girlfriend or boyfriend so your choices are to either call an end to it or grimly bite your tongue and accept it.  You’re out in the world pursuing an entrepreneurial dream and it’s leading you into financial discomfort so your choices are to either pull up the handbrake or risk certain doom.

It irks me that no matter how old I get, I’m still just one emotional spike away from binary thinking. Especially since I know from experience that this is not an all-in or all-out world.

And especially since when I realised some years ago that my opening response to anything new was to look for how it was challenging, threatening or demanding of a response I’m disinclined to give, I made a conscious effort to change so that I now ask: what’s likely to be the best thing about this?

But doing that merely requires a reflexive shift from one emotional spike to another, which is surprisingly simple. What is proving more challenging is figuring out when the heat is on, how to actively embrace the mundane, less-emotional responses that offer alternative pathways from between every rock and every hard place.

Because my God can I waste a lot of time otherwise.

Maybe good things come to those who aren’t aggressive jerks

Much of the language of success is blatantly aggressive, which it seems to me is probably at odds with its whole purpose.

Recently, a modified version of the saying good things come to those who wait was shared on my facebook timeline several times over a couple of days, with the last part crossed out and replaced so that it read: good things come to those who work their asses off.

It overturns an ancient piece of wisdom by adding a twist of the aggressive modern language of success, but it doesn’t seem to me to offer any benefit save to make almost everyone who reads it feel bad about themselves.

Do I work my ass off? I don’t know. I don’t know what that means. I can say categorically that my ass remains where it has always been so in a literal sense of course, no I do not. But in a figurative sense?

Well, the argument seems to me to be moot from the outset. Whoever modified the quote made the assumption that waiting meant sitting around and doing nothing where in fact it almost certainly meant working towards a goal but not being an aggressive jerk about it.

The reason I think this matters is because while I get the original advice and take some comfort in its suggestion that work done today will generate rewards down the road, I honestly don’t know how to measure the second.

By its implication, if I am honest, I’m probably doomed to never enjoy good things because I know people around me who work a lot harder than I do. It implies that the successful life is without balance and that frenetic activity trumps the exercise of patience.

Yet that was surely never the point of the original expression. If its intention must be made clearer, just what exactly would be wrong with: good things come to those who use their time constructively?

It doesn’t have the same balls as the modified version, but it means the same thing, and if we really need to specify that waiting isn’t the same as sitting around swatting flies then it still does the job.

More importantly, it does away with the confusion which causes me a good deal of anxiety at the thought of it — whether what I am doing really qualifies as hard work or whether this blog post, and indeed this whole blog, should really be categorised as just a waste of time.

Why I don’t have much use for other peoples’ opinions

I’ve realized lately that adulthood (which I think I may be beginning to achieve at age 42) is a matter of coming full circle, but with a few lessons learned along the way.

The realization came while measuring the weight of other peoples’ opinions in a conversation on Friday when I noted with a soaring sense of satisfaction that I didn’t feel the need to take a single one of them on board. This wasn’t news of course; I’ve been doing it for years. But what I didn’t fully appreciate was how guilt-free I was about it.

When I was younger I was like that too. I didn’t need anyone’s opinion about a single damn thing because  I literally knew everything. Everything. But like all young people, even my IQ, my bookishness and my relentless quest for context and perspective in everything from the rise of Duran Duran to the Cuban Missile Crisis couldn’t do anything to offset the fact that  I was functionally a total moron.

When I was around 14, I began to type out, on a typewriter, essays in response to newspaper articles on topics ranging from economic sanctions against South Africa to the rise of commercialism in sports. I remember sitting at my desk in those days as a budding Carl Bernstein, and I remember actively thinking that I understood the issues facing South Africa better than Edward Kennedy and Coretta Scott-King ever could as if my daily existence within South Africa’s borders trumped their thousand pages of research.

What I knew of the world then was naïve and probably irritating to the sane heads that surrounded me. I’m sure I got laughed at a lot.

I don’t think (I don’t think) I get laughed at as much these days. I’ve had the stuffing knocked out of me enough times to know that there are as many limits to my idealism as there are people who hold a different vision for the way things ought to be.

But it’s interesting how some circles close.

I’m not that 14-year old kid anymore, but I have almost as little need for outside opinions as he did. The difference now, is that the voice and the vision inside me for the way I want to live is substantially more connected with my post-idealistic view of the world than anyone else’s. Arrogance aside, I just know what I want now and have a pretty well-formed view of what is possible, for me, with my skills, my appetites, my fears, abilities and limitations.

I had to plant a stake in the ground sooner or later I guess and accept that if I know myself at all, even well-intended opinions fall short of the thousand page report I’ve been subconsciously writing on my own life.

I think we’re missing the point in this self-help lunacy

I guess I owe you an apology.

I realise that I’ve been guilty from time-to-time on this blog of indulging in the intellectually vacant art of self-help advice as if I have something special to say. And I am sincerely sorry about that.

This thought came to me today while idly browsing twitter on my train journey home.

Because there’s no signal in the tunnels that criss-cross under London, I only get to browse the top 20 or so tweets before my phone attempts, and naturally fails, to deliver the next 20 or so, so i’m stuck with what I’ve got. And that means I tend to read them several times when I realise I’ve once again forgotten to grab a copy of the Evening Standard.

This evening, the top 20 included two by a globally heralded self-help expert who has sold millions of books and gives talks to sell-out crowds all over the globe. And yet, what he tweeted in that moment seemed utterly insincere.

There’s no doubt that this guy has some stuff to say, and that a lot of his advice is worthwhile. But I’ve often questioned over the years why it is that people flock to happy idea merchants such as him when their own answers for their own lives are probably better than the ones he can offer.

Author Erica Jong is widely quoted as saying that: [Advice is] what you ask for when you already know the answer but wish you didn’t.

What happy idea merchants do is tell you things that are generically true under ideal conditions and suggest that you can apply them to your own life. It’s hit-and-miss of course because some of it is utter nonsense when applied to your particular circumstances. But they don’t tell you that.

But you know who gives good advice you can follow? You do, just as Erica Jong suggested. Your best friends do. Your parents and your siblings. The people who know you. Nobody else can tell you anything for sure.

Which is why I’ve decided it’s time this blog became a no-smug advice zone. I’ll tell you what works for me. I’ll tell you what I observe works for other people. Whether you choose to try any of it out is entirely up to you because you’ve got a keener understanding of your own capabilities than anyone else has. And isn’t that after all the whole point of self-help?

Ultimately, sharing ideas and ditching the advice just seems so much more honest.

Everyone else in the entire world is just plain wrong about you

God it’s easy to trash other peoples’ work.

It’s so easy to point out where people could have done better, should have done better; where if it had been left to you, you would have nailed it.

That’s what makes art critics so absurdly unique. Their whole raison d’être is the evaluation of work they’ve never attempted to do themselves.

But it’s only the very famous or the peculiarly interesting who enjoy an examination of the evolution of their work and the improvements they made along the way. The rest of us are caught under the glare of the specific moment in time when our work is first experienced.

That doesn’t matter in the face of great work, which often stands for itself, but it can have a major impact on work that’s striving to be great.

This is relevant to me right now because I seem to be surrounded by people who are stepping out with new business ideas and new creative projects.

Since they, and I for that matter, are relative newcomers to the worlds to which we’ve decided to belong, we each have improvements to make.

You can’t frame your work in that context however when you put it out into the world, which means people tend to see it as an end point, rather than another step forward on your evolutionary journey. It runs counter to your own best interests to explain that your work isn’t as great as it will one day be because you’re not yet very good at it.

And because they’re only seeing it for what it is at that moment in time, what might otherwise be reasonably marveled at may instead be considered to be a bit of a let down.

There is a very real danger in dwelling on that, and allowing your evolution to be halted while you try to explain your work.

But actually, what you should probably do is just ignore all the voices. Because unless they care enough to ask, the chances are everyone in the entire world is just plain wrong about you.

All my weeks are seven days long

It amazes me how well some people compartmentalise their lives. Here in the UK, we’ve just had a four day weekend to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubliee, which means the work week is three days long. Today, all around me, people were loving the midweek Monday because it is certainly something of a novelty.

But it’s been years since I got the five days on, two days off flow of a normal week and there is very little hope of me adapting to a four days off, three days on week, no matter how far in advance it was announced. All my weeks are seven days long. That’s how it has been since I was in my early 20s.

But my seven days per week are not 9 to 5 days. Not even the ones that should be. I’ve always been one of those task-punters, happy to put in 18 hours on a Saturday if that’s what is required, and guilt-free about pissing a midweek hour up the wall on a whimsical distraction.

I’m really good at focusing when I need to and I am perfectly comfortable saying that I can move mountains of work when I’m inspired to do so. The rest of the time, I’m a bit of a slacker. Because you see, to me, balance isn’t about kicking back for a couple of days when I get a break; it’s about popping in and out of my rhythm almost non-stop. A good idea at 3am needs to be taken care of then and there and I don’t feel bad for napping on a Sunday afternoon.

I don’t care for lunch hours. I prefer to eat while I work and take a 15 minute stroll or go and make a long phone call to someone who makes me laugh, a couple of times during the day. I like checking email first thing in the morning and blogging last thing at night and I attach similar value to the tasks that earn me money and many of the ones that don’t earn me a penny.

That lack of differentiation between off time and on time and work and play isn’t for everyone. And it goes without saying of course that I am single and childless (and petless) and therefore able to make those sorts of decisions. But it works for me. And it makes a celebration of a three day week redundant.

The challenge of having too many good choices

I’m in the process of making some really big decisions that will lead me in one or other direction over the next couple of years and being a chronic over-thinker, it means I find the whole thing a lot harder than it should be.

There are a couple of things that cause decision making for a guy like me to be a complex, slow and thoughtful process:

1) I have it good. The choices I must make are between two or three decent, palatable, workable options. If I had to pick between crappy ones, it wouldn’t be so difficult. A lot of people have to pick between a range of choices that all suck. Mr Mandela for example had to pick between living under oppression or risking his life to change it. I don’t have those sorts of choices to make so I must pick between a bunch of good ones. Pity me, why don’t you.

2) I have more than two good options. I hate having too many choices. Menus with six pages freak me out. Set menus with limited options almost always suit me better. And I don’t want to have to care enough about my cell phone plan to invest the time it takes to plow through the five hundred options. For me, fewer is usually better. When it comes to big decisions like this, multiply that by several hundred million.

At the same time, there is a part of me that knows that time spent deliberating will prolong the agony, but won’t ultimately change the outcome. Because I know, from past experience that any one choice is really as good as any other. The goal shouldn’t be to find the very best of all choices but to pick a good one and then go ahead and make it great. Which means that actually, I already know I am going to pick the least-developed, riskiest option … once I’m done evaluating all the others.

Do you believe in life before death?

I don’t know how spiritual I am. I don’t know if I’m spiritual at all for that matter. I know that I find there is enough to do on this bank of the River Styx to worry too much about what might come later. But I worry sometimes that I’m not exactly nailing this whole life before death thing the way David Foster Wallace described it in his brilliant existential essay for the Wall Street Journal back in 2008.

I have to remind myself constantly of two thoroughly conflicting points:

1) I’m lucky and should feel grateful to have what is fundamentally a decent life full of opportunities. Though I hate the tube ride in the morning, I’m lucky to have the opportunity to ride it at all in a city where too many people don’t have anywhere to ride the tube to, on an average working day. That has to suck. I don’t experience that. I ought to feel lucky.

2) Feeling grateful is an act of recedivism. It’s an acceptance that dreaming big is somehow impolite or inappropriate and that you should accept that what you have is somehow better than you deserve. It’s recedivism in the same way that people who commit crimes accept that criminal activity is what life has in store for them even when they’re being let out of prison for the third time. And just as gratitude is a liberating force that helps you break the chains of entitlement, it’s a prison from which it is paradoxical to dream.

These are the life-before-death issues I grapple with. Me wanting more than I have is ungrateful when many people have so much less than I do. But it’s only because people like me want more than I have and are willing to mobilise others to help me get it, that the number of opportunities increase for everyone else.

It isn’t greed. It isn’t sinister. It’s living. If there is life-after-death, I guess I’ll get a scorecard then. I reckon it will be heavily weighted on my success in mastering life-before-death though.