I just got off the phone to A-on- a cut price energy company which has terrible reviews on the net- deservedly. Anyway- the woman grilling me asked if I wanted to give my email- I said no. She then asked if I wanted to receive 'email news of offers that will save me money'. I said no. She then asked if I wanted to receive other information by email. I said- 'You haven't got my email so how can you send me information by email?' She replied, 'I just have to ask these questions.' But that's mad, I said, you're acting like a robot etc etc generally blowing off steam. But I realised that even a robot could be programmed to not ask email based questions once it was established there was no email. Robots also do not go mad, unlike humans- me- driven mad, her- acting insanely. So now we have the unhappy, and so common it is hardly remarked upon, experience of humans reduced to behaving worse than robots...bring on the singularity! Roll out the androids!
Micromastery - learn small, learn fast and find the hidden path to happiness will be published by Penguin books (UK) in May 2017. It will be published in China, Taiwan, USA, Germany and South Korea in the months after that.
We think of basic life skills, if we think at all of them, probably as things we'd wish we'd known how to perform when we started out in adult life. How to speak on the phone. How to negotiate. How to get along with people. How to curb emotional excess in situations made worse by such excess.
But I think more and more that basic life skills have the largest overlap with what used to be known as virtues: courage, honesty, self-reliance, generousity, selflessness, compassion, objectivity. But virtues have had a pretty rough ride in the last couple of centuries. For one thing they've been hijacked by every deplorable regime, cult and self-appointed messianic figure to have walked the planet. For another, they have been tamed and trimmed by polite talk in the nursery and lost their cutting edge.
But still, if you want good employees, get virtuous ones. If you want to succeed, in the only sense worth considering, be more virtuous. The only thing the last few centuries of left brain wrangling have taught us in this area is: there is no direct 'material' justification for virtue. If you don't get it, forget it...
But lots of people do 'get it'. They sense the value- intuitively not logically- in being courageous, generous, less self-centred. So how do you learn these things? In the same way as you learn anything: by watching and repeating and monitoring progress.
I realised that inadvertantly I had used micromasteries in all of these areas to make real progress. The first being generousity. Like most students I was a notorious tightwad who viewed the acts of generousity by others as mere evidence of their ill gotten wealth. I was happy to receive the benefit of such generousity, less keen to provide it myself...But meeting a truly generous man changed this. I saw that he always paid the bill for small things, stuff I could easily afford. When I started to copy this, make paying the bill a default setting, I found myself appreciating better how to be generous. Note that I'm not offering any justifications for being generous- there aren't any that stand up to logical battering. But we all know it's a worthwhile thing to be. Actually I can offer one, a paraphrase of something written by Idries Shah- the generous man may not be wise, but unlike the miserly, he has the means to attain wisdom.
A micromastery employs entry tricks so that you can make rapid early progress and it identifies a rub-pat barrier, a place where two skills pull against each other. With generousity they are the requirement to give matched by the greed to be generous. You see men in the middle-east almost fighting to pay a bill. On one level that's kind of sweet, but really it's being greedy. A micromastery for generous behaviour would hope to avoid this. It would also need to be repeatable, small, rather humble and acceptable of being a test-bed for experimentation.
The obvious one for generousity is so small and unpretentious it might pass unnoticed- but it has merit and it works. You WILL learn what generousity is by practising it and watching your reactions. Do this: everytime the transaction is for a trivial amount, for coffees, snacks, cheap drinks- pay. Be quite robust and sneaky about getting in there with yor cash first. Watch your own reluctance and relief when someone else pays. This habit of self observation allows you to experiment. What happens when you pay and no one knows you've paid and you don't tell them? Harder isn't it? But that is the aim of generousity- to do it whether people know or not, with a distinct preference for anonymity.
The indirect benefits of generousity are vast of course, but probably best not to dwell on them too much...
There’s always a standard way to learn everything. Even tree climbing…I had been climbing trees since I was a child and was pretty good at it. I had later become a keen rock climber and learnt how to use ropes and other climbing aids- simply by reading, talking to others and watching. Years after that I discovered there was a whole sub-category of climbing devoted to topping out on super tall trees. This time, instead of following my nose, picking things up along the way, reading the odd book and just trying, I decided to do things the ‘official way’. I carefully copied from a ‘professional manual’ the way tree climbers arranged protection in trees and rigged up ropes. Instead of using my instincts- the right brain, I was following procedures- my left brain. I became so wrapped up in the correct method that I lost sight of the overall aim- don’t fall. Helping another climber secure himself (when he was already secure enough really) I fell about fifteen feet to the ground and injured my wrist. A wake up call if ever I needed one- learn YOUR way not the ‘official’ way.
Sports in schools are not actually taught really. The kids who are talented ‘get it’ straight away, the rest just kind of muck around and try and follow the rules the sports teachers yells at them. Left brain types- those, who, in the coordination of the detailed with the holistic, tend to favour the detailed- I include myself here when under public scrutiny- fail to learn things in the conventional manner. That you can change your whole learning style just because someone is watching and judging should be an incredible fact, but it’s all too true. As a child I had trumpet lessons- at which I made miserable progress. Then, during the winter holidays I thought it would be nice to learn some tunes- so I did- lots of them- all on my own in my bedroom. But when I went back to regular lessons in class I just stopped learning again.
I had a good memory, though, so I could learn left brain biased things like academic subjects. Anything where there was a greater need of right brain integration I failed at unless I did it ‘my way’- which I now see was a way of circumventing left brain bossiness.
A micromastery- which could be as simple as shooting basketballs at a hoop on the garage wall- is a stripped down skill that the slightly pompous left brain can’t take too seriously. You remain relaxed and open and experimental- and that’s how you learn. Maybe you watch a few videos, get a few ‘entry tricks’ to help you progress quickly in the early stages. An Entry Trick is a shortcut or cheat (as far as the left brain is concerned) but it supplies the all important motivational boost when you need it. With this low key approach you can learn in your own way.
Once you have learnt several connected micromasteries in one subject area- say cooking or painting or gardening- you have a firm foundation of success. You can pick what you need from the 'official way of learning' now, and eschew anything that doesn't work for you.
How left brain are you? It’s entered the popular language now- ‘I’m a bit aspergery’, ‘he’s definitely on the autistic spectrum’. It has even become a badge of honour- we’ve seen aspergers heroes in two Scandanavian crime thrillers and now Ben Affleck is an autistic spectrum assassin we are supposed to love. The message is that to really survive and thrive in the modern world you need to be…left brain. It’s a simplistic fantasy- most people with autistic disorders have a hard time of living- but it reflects our intuition that the world is becoming very left brain, too left brain- and we need to change somehow to cope. Either by becoming more left brain....or by flipping the left brain the finger...or by finding a way to reconnect to the right brain.
The right and left brain dichotomy has been talked about since ancient Greek times. Victorian physicians knew and commented on the possible functional differences between the two hemispheres. But only with experiments in the 1950s and 60s on people who had the link between the two hemispheres- the corpus callosum- severed, did scientific (ie. left brain) acceptance come to the notion that there are radically different jobs being done by each hemisphere. But since the notion of right brain activity is antithetical to a left brain view of the world a lot of left/right research has been bad mouthed and sidelined by academia. But it won’t go away (things that are true have that quality) and even if it only gains acceptance as a metaphor, it is still a vastly useful one. Malcolm Gladwell uses a very left brain style – footnotes, references to prestigious scientific papers- to try and depict right brain phenomena- and he must be congratulated. But in the end, the right brain is really only known on its own terms- no science, no references, no discussion and theory- the right brain is about an overall, holistic, instant, intuitive grasp of things- found in sportsmen, artists, dancers and musicians- people who can make magic. Because to the left brain, the right brain looks like magic. It must be a trick, it can’t exist.
There are schizophrenic patients who have to ‘think’ each step before they make it- this can be characterised as an extreme left brain dysfunction. I remember learning aikido in a very left brain way- only when I stopped caring so much and just ‘tried stuff without thinking’ did I actually get better. Of course the left and right brain always work together, but this can be harmonious or utterly discordant. Usually the aim is to master the left brain basics, the symbolic tools- writing, drawing from life, playing notes on the piano- before the right brain can take over and make something beautiful and meaningful happen. But all too often we get caught in left brain whirlpools and traps. Take shopping- a left brain substitute for many things, a kind of symbolic action. Every experience now is very quickly diverted into shopping. You want be a painter- here’s a full kit and easel. You want to go climbing- here is the latest rope and technology to buy. You like fashion- well these are the labels that are hot. The whole designer label thing is a fascinating example of the leftbrainisation (sorry) of the right brain activity of appreciating beautiful things. The whole notion of a beautiful garment is reduced to a symbol- a left brain abstraction.
The left brain likes to shuffle abstractions- it likes language and symbolic languages. It likes to make an abstraction from ‘real life’ – hence the strong left brain element in art which battles or harmonises with the right brain connection to beauty and the whole, the fact that everything is connected rather than disconnected. The left brain sees, names and numbers the 1000 parts of the butterfly, the right brain sees – and appreciates- the butterfly. Now mostly we do a bit of both, but increasingly there are jams and problems. Take the notion of a Phd. Many lust after those initials- they want the equivalent of a designer label. To pay for it they do 4 years (or more) hard work in private, virtually, for writing a book that 1.2 people (other than themselves) will read. Most Phds are never cited in other work. They are essentially a useless left brain madness…that just happens to underpin the whole of academia. The right brain knows that most Phd theses – the interesting ones – would be better written up a short article, preferably with lots of pictures. Ideally perhaps as a documentary…or simply, as happened in the past, a series of interesting conversations and maybe a talk or two.
The left brain demands for order and for everything to be coded into language makes for ridiculously long contracts, laws that are passed that no single person has ever read, and for the general belief that everything is banned or illegal unless it has been ‘allowed’. One interesting story I like is that of a homemade car builder who says that the first question people ask is ‘it must be really hard to get licensed’. They never ask about the 1000 hours it takes to build the car. In fact the licensing process is quick and easy- the officials are intrigued and knowledgable and pass the car without a hitch.
People imagine that the bureaucratic socialism of the Eastern Block had no counterpart in the west- it does- bureaucratic capitalism. Red tape is just the trimmings, so to speak, but the mindset of dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’- just in case- becomes transferred from areas where it matters (checklists for aircraft engine maintenance) to places where it doesn’t- school, the workplace, even social life.
Not that there isn’t a backlash. There is- left brain escape mechanisms- and we are awash with them. Drink, drugs, antisocial behaviour, violence….and the more benign variants: travel, art courses, obsessive exercise, back to nature survivalism. The problem is: a left brain escape doesn’t necessarily lead to a right brain experience. Or even a better function of left and right brain together. Various left brain, what one might call, viral routines, colonise anyone who attempts to effect an escape from left brain discipline. Viral routines include messages about things having ‘no meaning’ (the left brain cannot supply meaning, only the right brain can- hence as we have moved into being a more left brain society we have encountered increasingly in the last two centuries an epidemic in ‘meaninglessness’). Other viral routines include hoarding (you never know when you might need it), mild OCD, obsessive reliance on consumer sites and reports. Anything that promises a false security in place of the right brain functions of trust and instinct.
When one is overwhelmed by left brain requirements to be neat tidy and ordered one can flip and become really messy and disorganised. It’s a kind of protest. And it does take some strain off- but then living in a mess exacts a cost- its time consuming and embarrassing after a certain point. Paradoxically keeping a place minimalist, tidy and spare of ornament can leave the right brain space to flourish. Hence the ascetic and super tidy nature of many monks cells (and prison cells too). The left and right brain are functioning together here- as a whole- as they should. However another vicious viral routine is the one that says ‘there’s no good reason for that’ or ‘I have more important things to do’. So the left brain escape of mess becomes a left brain supported hell.
In order to connect to the right brain we have to do some left brain work first. It can be minimal- and should be- but it has to be done. My neighbour set himself the task of emptying his loft so it only had the chistmas decorations in it- which he could retrieve each year. He sold, gave away, dumped a mountain of stuff. He told me “Just the thought of it all piled up, overhead, bearing down on me. I had to get rid of it.” People talk about ‘peak stuff’ and they mean the point where possessions begin to take more out of us than we get out of them. Organising, cleaning even thinking about them- all takes energy and attention we increasingly feel we just don’t have.
So we reach a stage I call ‘switching off’. This is when only absolute novelty or a shock of some kind will penetrate through to us. We have essentially switched off general interest in the world because it requires too much left brain attention, left brain thinking- order, plans, routines, references, passwords- it’s just not fun. It doesn’t nourish our right brains. There is no meaning, beauty and life and wonder and awe in such things.
Look at people in the street of a big city- many are ‘switched off’. Often taking refuge in their phone. Only the pickpockets, photographers, street workers, kids seem to be alert to all around them. It’s OK to be focussed- the left brain does that very well so that a task can be completed, something can be learnt. It is a very necessary skill. But when ‘being focused’ becomes ‘ being switched off’ and no longer open to life then a necessary skill has become an aberration.
It’s also devastating for brain health. When we stop being open we start to live more and more in circumscribed familiar routines. Our brains begin to atrophy. We cease to be able to learn anything new.
Micromastery is about rejoining the right and left hemispheres in small, under-the-radar activity that stops you alerting all the left brain superstructure we tend to burden ourselves with nowadays ‘doing things properly’ ‘ mastering the basics’ etc etc. Instead a micromastery is a quick and easy way to gain a skill that uses both right and left brain. You regain your confidence in being able to learn new things. You begin to see you don’t need all the safety net of left brain pedantry after all.
I was talking to my pal Ted who runs a pop- up falafel stall. It's very popular and successful but he told me it took him two years to 'get everything right'- from the menu, to the place, the time, even the method of serving. 'You see,' said Ted, 'If one element is a bit off you've lost a customer. I thought it was all about having great falafel- but actually they only have to be 'good enough', just as every other element must be good enough. I started with crappy chairs and no one wanted to sit down. Then I got benches because they were at least 'good enough'. People don't judge food in isolation. The whole experience actually flavours the food too!' What Ted said chimed in with my own experience with many things I have attempted- big and small. A very modest example, but one which shows this at work clearly, was when I tried to get an Egyptian water pipe working. I'd bought it from the market and I just couldn't make it work. An Iranian friend came round and took charge. He explained that we have a wrong image of how the pipe should work. The wrong image is it will be a bit crap at first and then by sealing up leaks etc it will gradually get better and better- we can tune it so to speak. But actually it isn't like that. The water pipe is either on or off. It either works brilliantly or not at all. No single socket or connective piece in the pipe (and it has about five) gives any clue on how things are going with making the pipe work. So you fiddle about, get nowhere, and give up. As I had. But my pal upped the energy levels and kept going from joint to joint sealing each one better and better and then puffing and testing and resealing each joint (using foil if you're interested) until suddenly, as if by a mircale, the thing was working perfectly. Each seal needs to be above a certain level of airtightness. With one just below it, the whole thing won't work. No matter how great your glowing coals and tobacco holder it just won't work, even a bit. This shows the strange synergetic side success in an enterprise can have. You think you just need to focus on the main thing and the rest will kind of catch up as you go along. But it will fail if you think like that. You need to focus on each element in turn, fiercely and intently, raising it above the minimum acceptable level. It doesn't have to be brilliant- just good enough. Then you go to the next element. Keep cycling around all of then until hey presto you have a roaring success on your hands...People seem to know you need energy to succeed. This is one reason- energetic people are more likely to keep fussing around each element of a project until it succeeds. But if you know this is the right procedure you can employ it even if you don't happen to have a surfeit of energy.