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More on Polymathics

Short Story- Snow Monkeys

Above the hot spring the snow monkeys stare with jowled furry faces from the trees. Steam rises from the limpid water. The snow monkeys make no noise. They patrol the branches with arched backs, slowly. They are known to be the most intelligent snow monkeys in all Japan.

The hot spring pool has a certain discernible surface tension so the skin or surface of the water seems thicker than it ought, rocks slippery with algae line the hotspring or onsen as the Japanese call them. A diverted cold stream enters from one end. The water can be turned on or off with a great copper tap, polished green with verdigris.

The naked professors are arriving to judge the intelligence of the monkeys. There are three of them, all of great age and seniority. All slide their skinny bodies into the piping hot water, a neatly folded cold wet towel on their heads their only garb.

How can you judge a snow monkey’s intelligence?

The naked professors concur that it is difficult. They call for a round of hot sake brought by a trainee courtesan, which is nothing unusual. They drink the sake and replace the tiny porcelain cups on the lacquer tray with great ceremony.

They ask the courtesan, who is 20, what she thinks. She says she believes that intelligence is not about what you know, but about how quickly you can change your mind when you are proved wrong.

The professors are highly struck by this answer and call for another round of hot sake. It is brought by a young man wrapped warmly in a winter kimono. The professors ask him how one could judge the intelligence of a snow monkey. The young man sets down the tray and says he has no idea and bows deeply. Then he suggests that intelligence is not about being thought clever, rather it is about predicting what is and is not a waste of time. Intelligent people do not waste their time.

The professors make a few appreciative noises but they are less taken with this definition of intelligence. Nevertheless they call for more hot sake.

High above them the snow monkeys patrol the bamboo grove, heavy with snow. The sky above is as dull and white as snow. There is a Japanese proverb, “Even monkeys fall from the trees;” these monkeys, wisely, prefer to live over snow, a soft landing from a high fall.


Make everything you do enjoyable

Everything you do try to make enjoyable in some way. If you can't make it enjoyable in some way, quit it. Do this for a year, a month, a week, however long you can keep it up.


how I write by Paul Johnston


The simplest answer to the question “How do I write?” is “with difficulty”, but to be fair it is more complicated than that. I like writing and I usually have a lot of ideas of things it would be good to write, but execution is more of problem. I am reasonably disciplined at sitting down at the desk, but I certainly don't produce (or even aim to produce) a set number of words a day. Any progress I make tends to come in fits and starts – I will always write something, but there is a constant risk that the next day I will decide that what I produced was worthless and needs to be completely redone. The idea that you might slowly but surely transfer what is in your head onto the paper seems to me an impossible dream, but apparently some people manage it! My approach is more – force yourself to put something down on paper and then come back later and try to make it better.


I like to think I have a good feel for flow and I certainly want what I write to have a good shape, so when I read back what I have written, there are always lots of places where I think the gears change too quickly or the reader suddenly gets hit by an idea coming out of nowhere. At that point my paragraphs seem to me like unwieldy blocks of stone that won't fit together to make any kind of well-architected whole. In the past, what I tended to do was to try to use lots of filler, so that the reader's mind could sort of run smoothly through the text. The drawback with this approach is that you end up with lots of in-between bits that aren't really adding much value. Unfortunately that can happen both on the macro-level and on the micro with individual sentences becoming flabby as more and more words are injected to improve something that is never really going to work.


Three of the books I have written relate to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and, while I certainly can't think like him, it is reassuring that he seemed to struggle with some of the problems I face when writing. The richness and speed of his thinking left him with a wealth of interesting ideas that he struggled to put into a satisfying order. In his first book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he took a sledgehammer to the problem and presented his views as a forbidding set of numbered propositions with seven main propositions and lower level commentaries and sub-commentaries on them. So remark 5.5352 is the second commentary on the fifth commentary (5.535) on the third commentary (5.53) on the fifth commentary (5.5) on proposition 5. This approach certainly gives an appearance of rigour and order, but it is not really much help to the reader and I suspect with hindsight Wittgenstein would have seen it as both deadening and unsuccessful. In his later book The Philosophical Investigations he opts for a much freer style, but he is somewhat caught between his wish to convince and and an aesthetic and moral commitment to restraint and leaving some of the work for the reader. In fact, he never did solve the problem of ordering his thoughts or making them flow as a book. The later Wittgenstein was an author of notebooks and remarks – the books we have by him were put together (successfully or unsuccessfully) by his editor executors.

Kafka, about whom I recently wrote a short ebook, is very different writer, although he too was not great at finishing books. His prose is beautifully controlled and pure, which will no doubt come as a surprise to those who have read him in the folksy English translations of the Edwin and Willa Muir. Fortunately better translations are now available. In Why Kafka is Not Kafkaesque I tried to write in a more pared-back kind of way, so I think for me Kafka can be a positive influence. Less can be more and there are ways to create polish and rhythm that don't rely on lots of filler. So I am pleased with my e-book; a rather different kind of book for me and written in a different style. But Rome was not built in a day. I am still a writer that tends to do a lot of re-working – maybe that's me or maybe I just need more practice ...


Paul's excellent and thought provoking book can be bought on amazon- just click HERE


excuse me, is that a personal growth I see on your behind?

I have, like many habitual snickerers, always found the expression ‘personal growth’ a little funny. I have also tended to find the whole concept of ‘life coaching’ and mentoring a tad close to attention-getting self indulgence. But what do I mean here? What I mean is that I have never really thought about them except through the spectacles of an attention interchange. Which is very largely all that goes on in many social situations where one person is ‘seeking encouragement’ and the other is giving it. Author Idries Shah has covered the whole minefield of attention requirements very well so I won’t try and repeat what he has written, simply I’ll reiterate a basic summation of the idea- always assume the motive for ANYTHING is seeking attention; when you are satisfied it isn’t then look for other things going on. It’s a very useful method- and nothing escapes- not even this blog entry with its attention getting headline…

Once we are aware of the attention factor – giving and receiving it- we can both enjoy it (we all need a certain amount of attention as food, but probably, like food, less than we imagine) and we can move on.

Move on.

Which brings me back to personal growth. I think my problem has been the image of our real self as a neglected plant that needs mental baby bio to grow into some kind of superior vegetation, triffid-like in its luxuriance…Such an image suggests not evolution or development but the coiled and lurking overblown ego that can trap the unwary.

But recently, facing up to the boredom of just doing some work to earn money, I realised that without some kind of growth in self-knowledge, all enterprises were empty or damaged in some way. I am not suggesting one seeks madly for ‘lessons’ in everything. Rather, one should be engaged with the world in such a way as to maximise instances of learning. When we look for a ‘lesson’ we are just usually engaging our rational brain in making up a nice story about something. When we find ourselves in a leaning situation we usually feel a but pressed, maybe humbled- we don’t even need to put the thing learned into words- it just becomes a part of us.

So there is growth- but it is growth in ability to do things. Are there other kinds too? Of course-  growth in self- knowledge. By this I mean the dispassionate and accurate observation of buttons, triggers and other emotional hot spots that cause one to wobble as one progresses through life.

This growth is a growth in the light that is shed on the workings of your inner self or selves. There is no sense of accumulating or even changing, merely of observing.

That’s a bit passive isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe we should try and stretch ourselves by doing as many new and interesting things as possible, experience as much of this incredible world and what it offers and in the process learn more about it and ourselves along the way. The personal growth here is in growing our neural networks, making new connections. So this really is a personal growth (and may even bear a slight resemblance to something plantlike).

And when we have learnt something new- say a new language or a skill it opens up new possibilities and it reduces anxiety. In Egypt I learnt how to negotiate with illiterate Bedouin in desert villages far from my own comfort zone. A few years earlier I would have been scared to do this. The experience taught me many things and reduced any anxiety I have about negotiating with anyone. But I choose to view the ‘growth’ as a reduction in anxiety rather than me becoming ‘more’ in some way. Why? Because ‘more’ usually means an expanded ego, an inflation of the external personality we wield in public to get stuff done. We all know when we see someone made foolish and rigid by the ego that they have allowed to mushroom out of control; something better kept as well pruned as a small functional privet hedge in suburbia. No wild growth here please!

But wild growth in learning, yes. Wild growth in the amount of insight and light you can shine on what you do- as a non-judgemental observer who seeks not to fix but just to see.

So I think the reluctance I and others have about embracing the concept of personal growth is a reluctance to embrace ego growth that is mistaken for real growth in learning and insight. 

So how do you divert intentions about personal growth away from ego burgeoning and blooming? Put yourself to the test. Do stuff that requires you to learn. Travel. Push your limits. Accept you will be humiliated in the process and laugh it off. Growth in humour should parallel growth in understanding shouldn’t it?

I think we are at an interesting stage of human development. Only the infantile embrace ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘science will find all the answers’ or ‘this is all there is- be a happy child and enjoy it’. There is a growing awareness that the various modes of living available to us: art, business, sport, travel are as nothing in themselves- their real and major purpose is to enable us to grow- in self understanding and in life possibilities.



why lifeshifting?

Lifeshifting came out of an article I wrote for Esquire in 1996 when I interviewed 6 people who had made radical career shifts. I spoke to a lawyer who had become a worker on London Underground, a physiotherapist who became a dive instructor, a criminal who became a disc jockey, a footballer who became an artist and an IT specialist who became a hard access war cameraman. I realised that UPSHIFTING ie. the career, was dead, or at least dying. I knew from my own time living on peanuts that DOWNSHIFTING ie. dropping out was pretty miserable around Christmas, especially with kiddies. So that left this new kind of living where you found exactly what you wanted to do by LIFESHIFTING ie. changing your life so that it centres around what you want to do rather than around a way to make money. The idea is you do YOUR THING during your primetime and earn money at other times, or from your chosen interest. But what really appealed to me, and still does, is that multiple lifeshifting offers a practical application, or one of them, of POLYMATHY. Call it really practical polymathy.We are lead to believe that all 'top jobs' are occupied by smart people. But really smart people don't have jobs.I mean- why would they? Of course at times they (ah the mythical 'they') work very hard. But this work is like the work you do on a hobby that really absorbs you.

And those 'really smart' people don't often seem so very smart when you meet them, rather they appear enthusiastic.

I later found that many of the people I interviewed later went back to their old jobs- but only part time, the rest of the time they continued with their new interests and enthusiasms. I know from writing for a living that making money out of the thing you love can, if you aren't careful, turn into a treadmill which makes the thing you love(d) into the thing you'd really rather avoid...So lifeshifting isn't a panacea, rather its a way of energising yourself into making growth changes in your life.

I've also worked away at something I call TIMESHIFTING. This is very exciting as an idea but a little slippery to grasp but really it is changing your subjective perception of time passing by increasing the amount of learning in your life. It also includes making better use of that time by organising it around ways that suit your life pattern rather than a 'one size suits all' time of time management system.

There is a lot of material on LIFESHIFTING and TIMESHIFTING to be found in the archive or in the sidebar article listing ->



andy warhol's advice

Notice what you like doing.

Do a lot of it.

Find a way to get paid doing it.


trust and polymathy

Specialists only trust themselvs in their own area. In unfamiliar territory they have to rely on other specialists in other areas. So they get used to not trusting themselves. When Story Musgrave became an astronaut (he went on to log more hours aloft than any other US astronaut) he found that his background as a surgeon and an engineer helped in space where you have to rely on yourself. But he noted that it was his farm upbringing, where he learned 'to fix everything' that gave him the right mindset to be a self-reliant person. Being polymathic, having multiple expertise (even the mildest variants help) is therefore very beneficial in improving self-trust, essential even.