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The Power of Oomph

The other day I was injected with cortisone for a lung complaint. It had a very strange effect. As well as ridding me of lung inflammation it started to speed my brain up. I developed grandiose ideas. I believed I could, just by moving fast enough, achieve anything, raise any amount of money, do a 100 things at once. Mania, no doubt. It subsided, more or less. But left me thinking about a few things- which has coalesced into this notion I now have of Oomph.

“Give it more Oomph,” we say. Or, “He hasn’t much Oomph.” I started to conceptualise Oomph as the necessary ingredient to any project. Big projects needed more Oomph than little ones. Making a lego model needed less oomph than building a model from scratch. Oomph was comprised, in a less than obvious way, of money, expectations, knowledge/experience, persistence, ability to learn from errors, willingness to think big, boldness; yes, I think that just about covers the list. I wondered why, I, as a boy, until I had been on an organised scout hike of 50 miles, had been unable to achieve such a march on my own with my pal. Answer: not enough oomph. But going on the organised hike gave me experience/knowledge, new expectations, increased my boldness and expanded my 'thinking-big' facility. No doubt about it, for me, the scouts was a great oomph builder.

I wondered why some people were able to tackle massive projects with the same financial resources as others who claimed they had not enough. Oomph. I saw that people brought up in wealthy families (as long as they weren’t made useless by this) often had more Oomph than people brought up in poor families (except those of course with the burning desire to succeed)- because they had higher expectations, more 'thinking-big' facility- which included taking on board the increased number of petty things you have to do when you have something big to run. What actually happens is that you let go of worrying about details. You let others decide. You have to let go as you would lose perspective on the whole thing. It doesn’t mean you can’t swoop down on key details from time to time, but you need that overview to know what is and what isn’t key. If you have seen someone else running, say, a grand hotel, then running one yourself isn’t so daunting- even if you have no real idea how to do it. I always assumed I could work as a teacher simply because my parents had been teachers. Actually I had to learn pretty damn fast on the job because I had little special aptitude for teaching, probably about average or even less…but I had Oomph for the job supplied by observing my parents and the extremely powerful motivator “If HE can do it so can I (by golly)”. We learn by observing others, if, in this case, we mean by learning not the aquisition of a skill but the acquisition of a WIDER perspective- more 'thinking-big' ability. 'Thinking-big' is only stopped by lack of nerve and not removing the obstacles before making the attempt, whatever the attempt is.

Oomph can be nurtured. Oomph can be drained away. People with Oomph can Oomph-inspire each other. Sitting around with people without Oomph can result in losing it.

Money brings Oomph- or can do. Lots of people with money spend it in their minds as soon as they get it. They then, mentally, are actually poor. They don’t USE their money as a tool, as an Oomph generator.

When you’re ill you lack Oomph. Feeling super fit you may or may not have Oomph. Youth may have energy but generally lacks Oomph because of a lack of knowledge/experience, lack of thinking-big and undeveloped persistence. Oomph is energy plus vision, wide angle vision, the ability to get your head around a large project.

You could of course simply keep nurturing something and watch it grow. You could start like jewelry designer Azza Fahmy with a corner in someone else’s shop and gradually expand until you have a chain of your own stores and outlets all over the world. You only have to keep pace with your growth, you only need enough Oomph to get you top the next stage and keep you from freaking out and blowing the stage you are in.

I love the rewards of Oomph, the imagining of great things without actually putting the work in. If you imagine the work in too much detail then you wouldn’t start. Part of Oomph is the ability to shut off this part of the imagination and just focus on what you have to do today. When faced with the daunting task of copying the entire Buddhist Cannon, Samurai Tesshu said, “It’s easy- I only do one page at a time.”

Oomph fuel can include imagining the end result, but this is a quick burning kind of fuel. Better is Oomph conservation methodologies. You put in place procedures, lifestyle checks, physical STUFF that keeps your project on target. It’s the less extreme version of sleeping in your office to get the work finished. How to conserve and grow your Oomph is probably of greatest interest and utility.

I think stories remain the single most powerful Oomph source around. The stories you heard as a child, the shawl of narratives you were clothed in; these provide your basic Oomph starting point. Cultures decline because the stories aren’t told anymore, or the stories lack inspirational quality for some reason. Maybe they became old fashioned and out of date. Unless you have a particular sympathy with the past stories of riding around in a horse and cart won’t cut it in the age of grand prix racing cars. Some stories are naturally more resilient than others. Stories of blue blood or even royal ancestry can supply incredible Oomph, but even these can run dry: the old Plantagenet family that ruled England became known as gardeners in the 19th century. In fact almost all the ‘aristocracy’ of England is descended from rich city merchants of the last few centuries rather than the ancient families of the middle ages. Times change and so do the stories that inspire us, that give us Oomph.

Stories are the news brought back by someone who ha done what you want to do. They are the basic instruction kit, supplying not just the technical stuff, but the intangibles that can be lost in any dry how-to explanation. Chay Blythe set out to compete as a round the world sailor with NO experience of sailing. But he had rowed the Atlantic in the company of an experienced sailor- John Ridgeway. He had his Oomph bolstered by his Atlantic row and his association with other would-be record breakers. Simply by keeping the company of people whose routine talk is HUGE will enable your Oomph to be multiplied.

But why? I mean what’s the point? Why crave Oomph? The interface of energy and information is the heart of the matter. When people say all you need is energy they are plain misleading. You need a way to organise information, you need stories (one way), methods, approaches and most of all vision. Vision is pure information, in the modern sense of the world, yet it interacts with energy to produce…life. Oomph is about finding better ways to organise the energy at your disposal- by using it you will maximise it. This is the opposite of death, in a way.

By rooting Oomph in the very forces of life and death we see it is something to take a little seriously. I don’t mean one should panic, but one should at least know it for what it is. In aikido great stress is laid on posture- which seems very trivial- yet, after a while, one realises one’s posture reflects one’s inner state, one’s level of Oomph, and by some curious alchemy, adjusting one’s posture can change your thoughts of defeat into those of victory. No small thing.

If you are out of the mainstream, out on a limb, no visible support, your Oomph may dribble away. One of the world’s great yachtsmen was Bernard Moitessier- yet after his record breaking sail not once but twice around the world via the three capes he retired for ten years to Polynesia to write, smoke spliffs and do a bit of gentle gardening. Not that it made him THAT happy. He took to noticing how the modern world was destroying all the peace and calm of the islands. He tried various plans for helping Polynesians but they weren’t too interested. In the end he went to America and gave talks about his great sailing trips- which worked for a time, but then he found all his money went on day to day living and gradually he lost Oomph. He ended up, at 55, working as a building labourer working for 10 dollars an hour- until actor Klaus Kinkski paid him to sail him to Mexico. Moitessier hated the compromises that came with the mainstream, but he ignored the nurturing power of the mainstream, as useful to anyone as the gulfstream or any other global current is useful to a sailor. You sail against the wind too long and your sails will be in tatters.

What Moitessier feared was that his ‘inner Oomph’, so to speak, would be stolen by the mainstream. How could that happen? He was, for example, very happy to work as a rep for pharmaceutical company when the money was needed for a new yacht. It was when he had to earn money just to ‘live as others do’ that he veered away from the mainstream. He didn’t want to look like he had sold out. Perhaps he sensed tat this would dilute his reputation even if it increased his earnings.

If you have a job, say, in hotel management, it may well give you all the skills to run your own hotel, yet, paradoxically, deprive you of the Oomph to do it. I know people who work in the movies business who have the kind of access lots of would-be film makers crave, yet they are uninterested in making films themselves. They are content with their own little patch. The mainstream nurtures Oomph but also destroys it by limiting and trimming the narrative you inhabit. The mainstream narratives are supremely boring. The most exciting thing is to become the boss of something and tell others what to do and get a big house and a fancy car. Wow. Or become a success on TV with lots of fans. Hmm. And then what? Moitessier sensed that the outsider narrative was way cooler, it gave a sense of excitement to life that was lacking in the dull 9-5 routine. Even though success at writing brought welcome, and exiciting, acclaim, unless that acclaim rises exponentially you soon get used to it and start looking around for other more thrilling things to do.

Unfortunately the outsider narrative- so attractive in the 1960s and still attractive now- also deprives you of the mainstream’s nurturing qualities: being part of something, earning opportunities, modern conveniences.

Can one square the Oomph circle? Obtain mainstream advantages without dying of boredom? Well, the internet has certainly helped people who live away from things to derive income from the majority. Fast travel has aided this too. On the other hand the remote places, as Moitessier saw, have been invaded by the same forces operating in favour of the mainstream.

I have made this lengthy diversion into the life of Bernard Moitessier because he exemplifies in an exaggerated fashion the nature of Oomph. This is a man who built from scratch several boats. Who sailed singlehandedly through the world’s roughest oceans, pioneering techniques of sailing taken for granted by today’s ocean racers, who wrote many books still avidly read today- all evidence of massive Oomph, and yet who succumbed at various points of his life to periods of very little Oomph. I don’t believe for a minute that it can all be blamed on brain chemistry. I think the narrative of opting out of the mainstream, of assuming the modern world to be evil, deprived Moitessier of his natural Oomph- which could only be kindled when he was near disaster- as in his several ship wrecks. In other words: he needed challenges to spark up his Oomph but he subscribed to a narrative that derided challenges as part of the bullshit mainstream world.

Oomph rises to the occasion. Big occasion, big challenge- the more Oomph is called forth. Big projects, if we don’t succumb to the malaise of thinking we are therefore ‘important’, are a way to eliminate pettiness. By doing so we soar, what Moitessier termed ‘achieving escape velocity’- except in his cramped vision of the world he seemed only able to do it when sailing on great journeys or staying on remote islands. Is it a matter of ‘conning yourself’ in order to reap the benefits of a big project. In a way, yes. But once any project is underway it develops its own life, its own logic. I remember at the end of my three season odyssey across northern Canada it seemed absolutely logical to continue westwards in a log canoe to Hawaii. I didn’t, for many reasons, but at the time it seemed I was ignoring the obvious thing to do. It is much easier to ‘con yourself’ if you have a group of like-minded conspirators. You conserve your Oomph for the project rather than in fighting nay-sayers.

We have arrived here at a crucial conclusion. Oomph isn’t something you get like a tank of gas. It’s all around us. Oomph is our natural condition. The problem is- stuff gets in the way. Getting Oomph is more like ‘maintaining a connection to the Oomph source’ by removing obstacles. For example- the slow boring process of getting a book edited and published is a real oomph killer. That’s why people in the past wrote way more books than writers today (though more are writing today I guess). Your average published author- like me- goes through a hand wringing process of writing, changing, editing, proofing etc etc. This gets you down and saps Oomph bigtime. When you finish a book – the first draft- you are so high you want to just keep on writing. But the structure says: hold on- start editing, start sapping your oomph. Now there is a new option ‘indie publishing’ via kindle and amazon. Just get it out. Editing improves a book from 20% to 3%. The first edit can improve it to 95% of the final version- that last 5% can take a year!!!! I buy from any bookseller with a 95% rating or above. It’s good enough- and if you write another book instead of constant editing then the world is ahead in a big way.

So the main point is: accept that Oomph is natural and start looking for the Oomph killers in your life. Stuff that stops your natural flow, your natural enthusiasms. Don’t worry about money, about success, think about FLOW, about setting up an unopposed production line, kind of, so that you can do what you want to do continuously and mellifluously.


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