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What's your next adventure?

Friday
Dec192014

Be Extraordinary

What do self-help books offer? The promise of wealth? Success? Happiness? I remember a gut shot of recognition when I saw Anthony Robbins first book on the shelves: Unlimited Power! Isn’t that ultimately what the punter wants? Us?

All of us believe that we do indeed have a slumbering colossus within, waiting to do incredible things, if only we could just find the key…We firmly believe we are only using 5% of our brains, as in the movie Limitless, the only problem being in the details ie. accessing the other 95%.

Then there was The Secret- if you worship what you want to achieve you will achieve it.

I have a friend, the most successful entrepreneur I know from my callow days in academe, he’s a multi-millionaire and a very nice chap. Thirty years ago when he was a just a (highly successful) salesman he’d have a self help book on his desk next to his phone. “You don’t read them to get the answer,” he told me, “You read them to get re-energised when you’re feeling down. Then you can make that call and sound like you mean it.”

The father of another friend was also a very wealthy entrepreneur- he had a whole bookcase of self-help books. Maybe he, too, was using them to get some kind of lift. In any case it made me sceptical of the nay sayers, those who pour scorn on any attempt at self betterment using a book that screams: Go For It!

Naturally, there are some crap self-help books out there. But even the crappest has one thing, or perhaps two things, of value in it- usually stuff that they are repeating, or a lively quote they’ve borrowed from another righteous tome of personal development. There’s an awful lot of recycling going on in the self-improvement field.

Anthony Robbins, despite his nutty NLP ideas and simplistic pleasure/pain motivational schemas, hits the nail on the head with his titles: The Unlimited Power I’ve mentioned, along with Awaken the Giant Within. He understands that it is a FEELING we want NOW not some nebulous future state.

Stephen Covey with his worthy ‘Habits of highly successful people’ pushes, as many do, the concept of SUCCESS as the ultimate goal. Gawd knows I’ve been suckered down that alley a few times. Just what is it exactly I now ask? Being on telly? Having people stop you in the street? Lots of cash? And when does it start? Or end? The world is littered with successful people who think of themselves as failures because they aren’t as successful as someone else a notch higher up the bed post; Napoleon torturing himself because he hasn’t got to India as Alexander did, Steve Jobs thinking he isn’t Bill Gates, Bill Gates whinging that he isn’t Steve Jobs…

Success- as I’ve written elsewhere- is an exercise in framing an enterprise. Frame it so that it succeeds and you are a success. You have bragging rights. But you’ll still be disappointed unless you’ve grown to recognise the warm feeling in your midriff that success gives you- that’s what people want, cut to the chase and get the feeling direct from pills, the bottle, a line of cocaine. Which is why so many successful people turn to such things. Success, is, literally, in your head.

Money- well- there’s never enough and then you’re approaching the later stages of your life and you realise that hey, you don’t need that much, and actually time is rather more attractive as a commodity, and health isn’t bad too…

Beyond the functional requirements for money it becomes a ‘success token’. A kind of substitute currency for success. And success can likewise be turned into money.

So the books offer chimeras. Or they offer the equivalent of a day dream.

Real self-help is about building the exterior self, making it work better in the world, enabling you to be happy. Happy enough to pursue, probably at the same time, worthier goals of inner evolution. The two help each other, but it’s hard to concentrate on becoming a better person if you’re just not happy.

As Idries Shah suggests: first make yourself happy. Then think about higher studies.

Hitching yourself to open-ended concepts such as ‘being a success’ is a recipe for unrelenting toil and unhappiness. You need to be happy NOW.

I give lectures every now and then at Universities- I love doing it- but the message I find myself putting over time and again is: travel. Travel while you have no financial burdens and responsibilities, travel while you are still automatically open to new experiences, travel while you can still enjoy roughing it, travel while you can still be mentored by people along the way. With a bit of recalibrating, people of any age can do all of the above, but they can do other stuff too. People aged 18-30 often can’t- but they can travel.

And while I was on my own travels recently I connected travelling with ‘Being Extraordinary.’

When you come back from a trip- and increasingly I have ceased to use the word holiday, trips seem to offer more than that nugatory term seems to supply, when you come back you have this altered energy. Probably you are more relaxed, but usually you are more focused- things you have ignored for months you quickly achieve. In fact there is a curious parallel with the week BEFORE a trip when your productivity soars and you get everything finished in time and the week when you return when you blast through all the things you’ve been thinking about on the trip…what if you could just have the week before and week after and cut out the trip altogether?

Keep the trip. What I am circling is the idea that travel allows ANYONE to be extraordinary- by definition you are taken out of your ordinary and put somewhere new and challenging. That’s where your special energy comes from, and that’s where your special powers come from.

Special powers? Yep- all travellers know that after a few weeks you become a sort of superhero out there on the road. You can talk to anyone. Shyness goes- it has to- as you need to talk to lots of people each day just to survive. Of course you have your ups and downs, but basic extroversion becomes the order of the day. And talking to anyone you find a strange equality pervades the world of travelling. Just moving on- the downsides of class, race and sect just don’t drag you down. What other powers? Coincidence, happy chance encounters, miraculous meetings- all that becomes…expected. You become the beholder of strange sights, strange experiences, incongruities that seem to offer the key to a place, amazing rushes of energy.

Of course, all the time your money is running out, so, eventually, and probably rightly, you head home.

A week or two later you’re ordinary again.

Unless you decide to Be Extraordinary…all the time.

That, I have decided after long consideration, is the real deal. My next post will outline how…

Thursday
Dec182014

More on Spiral Thinking

Spiral thinking is simply a tool to help you think better, and must be distinguished from Spiral Dynamics- a complicated, all encompassing, theory about the way the world works. I’ve written a little about spiral thinking before- an idea generated by myself and my good friend and Brookes University Business Studies Lecturer, Richard Mohun.

Spiral thinking simply utilises the analogy of the spiral to generate better ways to think, the spiral being ubiquitous in the natural world and a form very suggestive of dynamic, creative forces. One need only pick up a cone shaped sea shell to see the spiral lines inside, indicating the way it has formed, one can imagine, like a speeded up film, the slow turning and growth of the shell as it spirals out from tiny beginnings.

Continuing in this vein, one can picture vertical thinking as simply drilling straight down at a single spot, lateral thinking as making several test borings in a certain area, or, perhaps, randomly, but spiral thinking has no such limits- it simply grows and grows, spreading ever outward, until, like the spiral arms of the galaxy it encompasses a solar system.

It’s good to have a sense of the limitless possibilities of thinking- and the spiral encourages that. In my earlier post I suggested one imagined onself spiraling around a subject to get a better idea about it. In this one I want to look at other aspects of the spiral.

    Snakes naturally form into spirals, its what any dynamic line does. In native rock art it is one of the most common symbols encountered.If you map this spiral along one axis you get an increasing wavy line. Two spirals and you get two wavy lines. We're back to snakes again: the overlapping wavy line of two snakes escaping ->

 

Suggestively this is also a common rock art and textile motif in every part of the world. If these snakes continued maybe they would circle back to form a helix, a spiral in three dimensions. But look at it another way- the wavy line snake is really a series of ‘nodes’ and ‘packages’. Which is one of the most fundamental ways to represent thinking on almost any subject. You could represent a story as a single line, moving from plot point to plot point. But then you’d miss out the ‘bulk’ that gives weight and meaning to any single plot point. Instead, think of a story as a series of packages- where narrative is bulked up but not advanced, and nodes- where something happens that is important. Then imagine that snake spiralling around- allowing for return and repetition of events and ideas. Stanley Kubrick stated that a good film needed 'nine or ten non-submersible units'- packages with node points.

You can use the wavy line snake diagram to map out any project. Take an expedition. The packages are general areas that need addressing route, supplies, people. You write in stuff within each ‘bubble’ area of the package. At the node points you identify single issues that are crucial, bottlenecks if you like, essential to be fulfilled if the project is to progress.

If you are building a house the node points might be: get foundations in, do wiring, get bricks delivered. The package areas are for all the accompanying detail that also needs to be done but doesn’t require specific timing.

By using these wavy line diagrams, and by spiralling them back on themselves- so you revisit the same areas again, a bit further progressed; you get a much better idea of visualising how a project will unfurl. People are notoriously bad at imagining projects in the future- we are usually way too optimistic on timing- but using the wavy snake, and then further torturing it into a spiral, you can really visualise the quantity of work ahead.

From the above images you can get some idea, be reminded of, the number of natural spirals there are in the world. If you get into the habit of collecting such images you may find one that seems to suit some problem you are working on, may suggest a kind of solution, a way forward. I use the spiral idea in constructing stories- when I’m at an impasse I simply look for something that has featured earlier- I then repeat it- but with differences caused by the story having moved on a bit. You can spiral round three times and create a very satisfying shape to a tale this way- think of stories as diverse as the three bears and King Lear.

Mapping a spiral net gives a preset form to organising data for a non-fiction book or report. Inchoate material CAN be linked using a Buzan mind-map, but I find I usually just end up with a vast mess on the page- a load of overlapping lines like an insane circuit diagram. It just doesn’t help me. By using a spiral net as above, one assigns topics of decreasing necessity – judged intuitively- as the shape spirals out. You then look at connections both laterally and vertically along the lattice lines. This is a great prompt for further ideas and can suggest fortuitous links you may not have suspected.

Any regular shape, if you rotate it enough times with an increase at each step (in this case the golden mean is the increasing factor) will result in a spiral. It may well be suggestive to think of your project as having four corners, that you can rotate and enlarge over time.

Just as lateral thinking sought to connect creativity to linking random ideas together, spiral thinking seeks to do the same but using the anchoring notion of the spiral. This results in more usable ideas as the spiral already exists as one the strongest organising structures in the universe.

So this is the theory- now, if you have particular experiences when spiral thinking prompted a new idea or helped organise a project, please let me know- the email is at the foot of this page.

Wednesday
Dec172014

intelligence is over rated

An interview in New Scientist this week caught my eye: an Artificial Intelligence researcher casually began answering a question with “I didn’t want to conflate intelligence with skill…” It set me thinking: what if intelligence CANNOT be divorced from skill? What if it’s impossible to separate the two? Take an IQ Test- a measure of raw intelligence- look at how many skills it requires: reading- fast and accurately, counting- fast and accurately, taking on data in a conventional way (ie. don’t be too lateral with an IQ question), physical skill in holding a pen and ticking boxes. These skills may be taken for granted in the west- so much so that they are invisible to a phd student- but they are, in fact, hard won skills requiring someone to have spent a fair amount of time sitting down and acquiring them. What if IQ measures not intelligence but skill? 

Science drives wedges between things that are normally joined in order to generate new insights. Like a diamond cutter the scientist turns the gem of his study over and over looking for the ‘fault lines’. These are the places of least resistance- get it wrong and the diamond will shatter. I spoke to a geneticist earlier this year and he told me scientific research was all about asking ‘the right questions, formulating the question in the right way’. In other words, choosing where to drive that wedge in.

Some places admit the wedge easily. It makes sense to separate the weight of a ball when you drop it, from its size- as Galileo did. From this division Newton went on to derive his classical laws of physics. Some wedges work for a while- highlighting the gene generated vast amounts of science; but it now looks as if the cell is the real cornerstone- epigenetic feedback systems have made the gene look increasingly less important.

Maybe the scientific fraternity will discover that making ‘intelligence’ an isolated and comprehensible concept to drive psychological research was a bad choice to make. Maybe 'intelligence' should be replaced with notions of varying types of skill.

Almost the first job I had was putting up fences around building sites in Birmingham. It was job for skivers as the council paid our wages to keep us off the dole. The foreman was an Irishman who’d spent his life doing real building work and he tried in vain to get us to work hard. He once took a pick out of my hand and in a few quick effective blows broke up the concrete below allowing a hole to be dug. Lads mocked him (behind his back) because he couldn’t read or write but this man had real intelligence in the way he worked. Put an Oxford graduate (me) next to him and I was the one who looked unintelligent.

Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize winning physicist but he used to call himself ‘physics smart’ acknowledging his inability in other areas.

Psychologists have spent over a century and a lot of ink trying to define intelligence- maybe the intelligent thing to do would be to see that concepts of intelligence without ‘skill’, which has a qualitative side that can’t be given a number, are meaningless.

Lots of things become clearer. I have a friend who is brilliant at maths but made two huge marriage blunders resulting in great unhappiness. He’s about to make his third. He has maths skill: remembers patterns, likes numbers, can do arithmetic in his head- and as a result has a high IQ- but he doesn’t have people skill, can’t tell a good person for him from a bad one. Normally we’d call him one of those super-intelligent people who are also stupid. But I think he just has skills that he has over and under developed.

Learning ‘skills’ have been mocked for being too ‘basic’, but perhaps they were simply ill thought out when presented for judgement. Real learning skills such as a good memory, the ability to get ‘into’ a new subject, the ability to find your own way into a subject- these are all vital sub-skills that relate to the acquisition of further skills, some of which will earn you the soubriquet ‘intelligent’.

But we all know what an intelligent fellow is don’t we? That’s the problem. An intelligent chap is someone with a skill for analysis, a quick logical mind and doesn’t make the same mistake twice in the area under consideration. It is simply a conflation of several skills- all of which can be taught and honed.

When my kids were at the British School in Cairo I remember one child who had been been written off as utterly dim. But then one day a maths teacher noticed the girl had got a very hard maths question right- and all the others wrong. Was she cheating? The girl was of Indian origin and her English wasn’t very good. And her handwriting was appalling. More to the point she was very slow at forming letters and numbers- which later she found hard to read. It was only by chance that she managed to copy down a maths question right. No wonder she got so many wrong. But the real breakthrough came when they saw how she held her pen- in a way that made it impossible to write fast. She lacked a single crucial skill. The school gave her an intensive course that remedied this- and her improvement was amazing. Her ‘maths intelligence’ was dependent on a physical skill- holding a pen.

We talk about ‘street smart’- someone who can look after themselves in a non-institutional environment, someone who knows the ‘ways of the world’. His or her intelligence cannot be divorced from their skill at reading people and situations.

When people say “I’m not that intelligent” they almost always mean they were poor at maths at school and not brilliant at any other academic subject. Sometimes you meet people who announce “It took me until I was 30 to find out I was intelligent after all.” Both are being played by a bogus concept. It is better to think of life as a place where certain skills are needed. You may find you have some painlessly, having been to a school and university, others you may need to work hard for. But unlike ‘intelligence’- which in its fairytale world is a constant, something you are born with, skills acquisition never ends, and skills can become rusty with lack of use. 

Monday
Dec082014

new york times review of red nile

Review of Red Nile in New York Times this Sunday...HERE

Friday
Dec052014

Going higher: altitude, breathing and success

I was counting my steps as I went higher towards the 5000 metre Goeche-La Himalayan pass. I wasn’t walking that slowly but I found after 100 paces I had to stop. OK then, I would count 100 paces then rest and then keep going. After a short while I was down to 80 paces, then 60 before I had to rest. I wasn’t breathing that hard- altitude isn’t like that- your WHOLE body is starving for oxygen (even at this relatively ‘low’ altitude people feel it) but you just CAN’T go any faster- a leaden feeling in the legs is just as debilitating as the feeling of being puffed out. Your body knows there is enough air- so you’re not panting like a dog or someone who’s been holding their breath- what it doesn’t ‘know’, at first, is that this air is different and only has a third as much oxygen as usual. So it keeps on breathing as normal but registers the difference as headaches, nausea, odd body pains, yawning, increased flatulence- general system upsets. Over a few days the body (which is even dumber than the emotions) finally ‘get’s it’. The body’s systems realign. Your guts calm down. The lungs start breathing more deeply allowing the heart to stop beating so fast. More red blood cells are produced. It is this highly subtle interplay between heart, lungs, digestive and excretory systems that makes altitude such a hard one for modern medicine to pin down. Sometimes super fit young people are poleaxed by altitude while old unfit smokers have no problem. But if you look at the thing from a more general viewpoint certain things emerge:


Overweight people have a harder time than thin people

Fit people with mountain experience do better than fit people without mountain experience.

People with big packs do worse than people with no pack.

But the two key features of doing well at altitude are behavioural: don’t be a hero, and, act like a tortoise rather than a hare.

We all know the heroes on the hills; they carry massive rucksacks, often with other people’s gear in them too, just to show how strong they are. They do unnecessary excursions, wear heavy boots and crampons on flat snow and run downhill when they can. The heroes are often among the first victims of altitude sickness.

Heroes are also temperamentally unsuited to being a tortoise. It’s far more glamorous to being haring off ahead (and then getting that sneaky rest while the others catch up)- then haring off again. But as I was to find- the periods of haring get shorter and shorter- until you are resting as much as you are climbing or ascending.

Moving at altitude is fundamentally different to operating at sea level- you don’t recover quickly. You can’t have a quick rest and be good as new. You’re depleted every time you have to rest and won’t recover until the next day or even later. You have to be sly and cunning, husband ALL your resources and never waste any energy. And you have to be  tortoise.

Being a tortoise doesn’t mean you have to be super slow- though you may be. It simply means a 100% change in the way you approach moving at altitude. Forget pace, distance, time- forget all that usually motivates you in walking and running and think SOLELY of breath. The tortoise goes exactly as fast as he can without needing to stop, without his breath rate rising and his pain rate rising so much that he has to stop. You have to feel that the rate you are walking at you can carry on forever. In addition, when you get to a flat or downhill bit you have to resist the urge to hurry up, instead, you must act like someone who has switched out of gear on a hill, freewheeling to the bottom- going at a similar speed to other downhill drivers but not using any energy to go faster just because you can. Instead of wasting that downhill energy by running on ahead, maintain an only slightly increased pace and save energy.

I’ve talked elsewhere on this blog about being ‘sly with the river’- how you have to use every advantage you have when ascending a fast river. The same is true about moving at altitude- carry the lightest pack you can, or better- a bum bag or no pack at all. Forget lugging tons of water- hydrate heavily at the start and end of each day. Leave the extra lenses behind. Don’t wear monster boots, use approach shoes. Some altitude experts use cleated shoes even on glaciers, waiting until the last possible moment to switch into big boots and crampons- remember Nanda Devi (2nd highest mountain in India, 23rd highest peak in the world) was climbed without crampons because the bag containing them was lost. The sly ones, who may look like speed merchants, carry less weight and save all the energy they can.

But the main thing, for a beginner like me, was learning the ‘tortoise pace’, learning to key everything into whether I thought I could continue forever at this pace or not. And slowing down even to a crawl the minute I felt my breathing and heart rate soaring- say on the very steep bits.

As I approached the pass I still hadn’t learned. I was resting and resting more and more often. But when I arrived the guide had some bad news- the real pass was about a half kilometre further ahead- down 200 metres, up another 300, down 200 more and up another 400. I was crushed, but when the guide suggested I wait here until the party returned some inner pigheadedness rebelled. Bugger it- I was going to get to 5000 metres like everyone else.

This time I fixated solely on breathing rate. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop and rest and I knew by now that those who kept going without rests always overtook the ‘resters’ sooner or later. I didn’t need to worry how slowly I was going as long as I never stopped. And sure enough, as the final pass emerged, I was right behind the guide- who had been stopping with the front runner (who needed rests).

In that final ascent I ‘pushed myself’ in the sense that I could feel my legs getting a muscle burn- but that didn’t matter as long as I maintained the breathing rate. The breath rate – as many meditation systems proclaim – is the key to the whole thing.


Days after this Himalayan excursion to a Sikkim pass, I read of a fascinating character in a book entitled Running for their Lives recommended by my good friend Ramsay Wood. Arthur Newton was an Englishman living in South Africa in the 1920s when he decided to take up distance running at the age of 40. Four years later he was the holder of every amateur running record from 29 miles to 100 miles. Mere marathons were too short for him. Newton’s secret was that he was tortoise. His average speed was often 7mph- which is why a marathon was too short for him- but not many people can keep up 7mph for 13 hours without a single break. Newton’s whole training method revolved around forgetting the opposition, forgetting speed and simply aiming for a pace that he could maintain hour after hour without a break. A pace that would enable him to climb any hill without stopping and walking, because in a very long race it is the breaks that ruin your overall time.

Newton smashed all the distance records of his time by approaching running from a completely different perspective. Instead of treating a long race as an extension of a short race he treated it as a completely different beast, one that required energy saving as a key factor. Just as formula one drivers must worry as much about fuel and tyres as overtaking- unlike a drag racer- so, too, Newton realised that maintaining pace, as long as it was the right pace, was way more important for conserving energy. And energy conservation- which is repaid as second, third and fourth 'winds' is more useful than speed the longer you go for, the higher you attempt to climb.

If you want to go higher or further then the message is simple: treat the enterprise as one of energy conservation, slyness, maintaining your breath rate as much as one of power, determination and fitness. Ask yourself of any enterprise; how can I structure this so that I can keep going forever? It may reveal some surprising answers. 

 

Friday
Nov282014

adventure my ally

A long gap between my last post and this, reason being I have been travelling the length and breadth of the Himalayas for a new book I am writing...and it has been incredible. I don't always start a trip with a good vibe, often I am wary and full of foreboding, which all goes the minute you get on the plane. This time was no different, and yet by pure luck and happenstance I've managed to do far more than I anticipated- from trekking the Kuari Pass at the foot of Nanda Devi to meeting former headhunters in Nagaland to crossing into Burma to drinking tea in the Himalayan Hotel in Kalimpong (former residents Alastair Crowley and Alexandra David Neele) to walking over the 5000 metre Goeche La Pilgrimage in Sikkim to where I am now- at the Tawang Monastery 3000 metres up and about 30km from Tibet. Enough shameless boasting; I am soon going back to Cairo so what I have gleaned? Many things, which I shall unpack over the next several months; for now I am revelling in what I call the 'travel grinder'. Over time you get ground smoother by travel, your prejudices and ideas seem more like mere thoery and puffery, you get to living without 'having a view'. you naturally have to exercise intuition and best of all you have to start learning again- or else the grinder will get you but not in a nice way. Crammed into shared Sumo taxis going down atrocious roads you see how much you can strip away that you thought was 'you', was essential if not assumed. It's a lot about getting rid of baggage, seeing yourself in unfamiliar situations or reflected in your default reactions, the grinder wears it all away. Not over yet so luck still required, but if ever I needed reminding that solo adventure travel renews and reorients this last 2 1/2 months has proved it.

Tuesday
Nov252014

danger

'it is always dangerous to be reasonable with stupid people'

 

Mario Puzo