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second law of confidence

The Second Law of Confidence: posture- how you stand.


Why are soldiers taught to stand up straight? Why do martial artists spend years perfecting kamae- stance? Why do dancers glide into a room and seem to own it?


Because confidence, as with all mental states, is NOT something independent of your body. We forget sometimes we are not a brain in a vat (with a couple of legs to get us around), we are a highly integrated mind-body continuum, and we ignore at our peril the benefits, and disadvantages having a body attached bring.


Try this experiment: walk into a room full of strangers, ideally a party of some sort. Observe what you feel like doing. Probably it’s what most people do, slide along the wall trying to fit in and not look conspicuous. And then oddly enough you’ll have a yearning to be spoken to and an equally strong fear of starting a conversation with a stranger. You’ll conclude something like “I lack confidence” or “I’m an introvert” or some other excuse (we will look at the introversion fallacy later on).


Leave and come back in. This time do the crucifixation pose- arms outstretched, as if stretching and encompassing everyone. Now you ownthat room. Walk towards the centre and without even trying you will start some kind of conversation.


It always works. Like magic. Why? Because you changed your status, and therefore your confidence, through posture, a very powerful move indeed.


The Mysteries of Status


For a more in depth study of status I suggest you read the books of Keith Johnston, starting with Impro, but for the time being I’ll detail all you need to know with regard to status and confidence.


Johnston, who is a theatrical director and teacher of genius, more or less invented all the improvisation games now used to teach students of acting. He studied the way primates acted and he studied the way early comic genius’s such as Chaplin and Keaton created stories. From this he realised that status is never far from any dramatic interchange. 


Dr Johnson (no t), the great English wit and thinker, wrote that two men can never be together more than half an hour without one thinking he is the superior of the other. 


And even if it isn’t conscious, we unconsciously project our assumed status wherever we go.


The reasons aren’t hard to find. Higher status primates get more food, a mate, and more ‘respect’. And since, sadly, most human behaviour is on a par with the monkey house, status is very prevalent. Especially in situations where your confidence may be threatened.


The good news is, that will all change from today. Impossible? Not if you really take on board the way status can be manipulated. And, secondly, when you recognise status moves made by others you won’t be floored by them. You won’t be taken in; instead you’ll be noting to yourself “ah, a classic high status move”.


Remember the impartial spectator again? That part of you we might call ‘the observing self’? Well you can empower it by going into ‘scientist’ mode. Instead of imagining you are a ‘manager’ who has to be on top of everything and control everything think of yourself as a ‘scientist’ who is there to observe and note down exactly what is happening. By being ‘a scientist of status’ you will be amused and interested rather than intimidated by people who habitually play high status.


For observational purposes we can think of behaviour as high, matching or low status. High status behaviour tends to bring out low or matching status behaviour in others. Low status behaviour tends to bring out high status behaviour in most people (the bastards!). People who lack confidence have usually inadvertently learned how to act low status. It’s their factory setting. And of course it can be changed.


We signal high status mainly through posture, then tone of voice, then how we speak and lastly what we say.


The signifiers are quite precise as Johnston has found. For example keeping the head completely still conveys high status. Watch how military commanders talk when they deliver a briefing or report- their heads never move. You can try this experiment. Next time you are talking to a stranger keep your head very still and do not touch your hair (what teenagers, acting low status, tend to do). As if by magic you’ll find that your interlocutor starts to move their head, probably even touch it. 


No try this: talk without blinking. You’ll find the person you are talking to starts to blink! And maybe even hesitate and fumble for words as you become more fluent. Blinking is a low status activity. Watch A list Hollywood stars as they perform- they very rarely blink (especially when dead…). One of the great examples of this is Kurosawa film Living- where a low status bureaucrat takes on the yakuza and wins- and you can see how his blink rate changes as his status rises.


Tiny cues signal status. A louder voice is high status. So is a lower one. And just to confuse things there is double bluff status where a quiet voice signals status as people are forced to listen carefully- think mafia don here. 


An overbite signals very low status- hence the rush for dental braces to cure this problem. Yet a little research reveals overbite is connected to posture. If you stand up straight and look straight ahead any overbite is much reduced. Standing up straight, head not moving, hands not touching head- this is the high status, high confidence pose to have.


Experiment out on the street. Replace your over bite with top and bottom front teeth matching together, the lower lip loose, lower teeth almost bared, rather like Marlon Brando in the Godfather. Sure as hell you’ll feel more confident, even aggressive as you march down the street (though talking can be problematic).


Experiment with posture, what in martial arts is known as ‘stance’, and you’ll discover some interesting things, the main one being, you can change your mental state by changing your posture. If you walk head held high, with or without a swagger, you’ll be thinking different thoughts to slouching along the street staring at the ground. You will start to discover that most of us keep our centre of consciousness, where we imagine ‘we’ are located as somewhere between the chest and the head, but mostly in the head. If you could imagine yourself as one of those diagrams that show the sensitivity of each part of the body drawn to a scale that reflects the relative sensitivity of that part (the tongue is huge as are the lips with a tiny back and legs) then you’d be a huge wobbly head on a pair of walking sticks.


No wonder you lack confidence! A huge wobbly head thinks too much and is fearful of getting damaged. Now walk the street imagining your eyes are at groin level, yep, right in your genitals staring out. Suddenly you feel far more connected to the ground, your centre of gravity is lowered, and you’re more perceptive, less judgemental. What’s more, the inner chatter will have slowed to a halt, replaced by observational noting.


You can practise shifting you imaginary eyes to the stomach, to the feet, to the finger tips. You can also practise an old kung fu trick of walking as if you are transparent, totally see through, just a skeleton, which is see through too. All this shifts your attention ‘out there’ which as we learned in Law One, is the first step in combatting confidence problems.




A trip back in time

Today I went to Bristol with my wife and my pal Chris. To be frank I wasn't looking forward that much to it as I had made several trips to European cities recently where guidebooks and google served to make us lost and confused and AWARE OF TOO MUCH ELSE THAT COULD POTENTIALLY BE DONE- plus, rushing to destinations we had decided from internet searches instead of just looking while on the ground. Then, quite fortuitously, the day before, I found for £2 a 1979 guide to Britain. It had two pages and a street map of Bristol. Suddenly my qualms evaporated. Navigating round Bristol using a 40 year old map was deeply reassuring. The lack of information- very comforting. There was the 'then and now' effect and also the fact that many things had gone...but not as many as you'd think. It was easy to navigate by churches, the river and bridges. Deciding what might and might not change added to the challenge. We did a fair bit asking as my wife wanted to see some galleries and we did find three...eventually. It was worth the wait- and we had a few pitstops at coffee shops along the way. The most gratifying part was when Chris tried to use google maps to usurp me...and my 40 year old street plan got us there faster and in better shape (on a phone the view is so narrow you can make egregious errors quite easily). So, a bit of experimental travel worthy of La Tourex, but also a lesson that less is more.


Celebrating Strangeness

I was talking with my daughter about Studio Ghibli and its extraordinary influence on world culture- if you are one of the few that don’t know they’re the Japanese animation studio behind almost every major anime to come from that country in the last thirty years. But unlike their clunky brethren in the States- Marvel comics- who, let’s face it, produce clichéd garbage for people brought up on superheroes, Studio Ghibli films are very strange. One of my favourites, The Wind Rises, is a fictionalised biopic of the designer of the Zero fighter plane of WW2- not about a man of action, not about a pilot- it’s about a man who spends his time….drawing. And his wife dies of tuberculosis. I don’t think that’s even a word in the Marvel Universe. It was the highest grossing film in Japan in 2013 and went on to makes hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. So, even though I value strangeness for its strange influence in the world, even on the most basic left brain analysis- box office takings- it does very well thank you. And the global success of the films underlines the influence of strangeness all over the world. Indeed Studio Ghibli has probably done more to spread Japanese culture- especially among the young- than any of the ubiquitous products of Japanese manufacturing.

Strangeness has been adopted by quantum physics to describe a quality preserved during the creation of a new particle but not preserved in its decay. There is something suggestive here- strangeness is elusive, can’t be bought and sold and passed on- it has to be created.

The connection between right brain creativity and strangeness is also interesting. Left brain creativity is a + b = ab (that’s a squashed next to b rather than a times b). Left brain is pure Hollywood- alien is a successful film, predator is a successful film- I know- let’s have alien versus predator! Imagine that meeting! Or the even more usual…Jaws…2 (and 3 and 4 and 5). Left brain creativity is the mind running along rails. It’s about putting pre-existing stuff together in a slightly different and somehow wholly expected way. Left brain creativity is when you think making a book into a play is a creative act. Well I guess it’s more creative than just reading the book, but not much. A right brain Japanese toy maker invented Transformers. Left brain people turned it into the movie franchise we have today. But those left brainers can only make further spin-offs and variations of the transformers idea. They cannot originate a new idea. A strange idea.

Right brain creativity is what we usually mean when we use the words really creative. Right brain ideas come out of nowhere. Such an idea takes us by surprise. Its antecedents aren’t obvious. It’s strange. When people reach for a word to describe it they usually stick with genius. Which is shorthand for I could never have thought of that.

But I prefer strangeness- it’s less reverential and more useful. Aiming for strangeness as an end in itself can push you from left into right brain creativity. It can open out the whole field so you aren’t restricted. You learn to tune into what you really like not what you think other people will praise you for liking. Finding out what you really like is not the easy path it sounds. By embracing strangeness you find out the limits of your interests, you get a map of the creative possibilities in your life.

One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of Shakespeare is that it is really strange. Even now, after years of scholarship, there are passages and phrases that resist definitive interpretation. The huge vocabulary, the exotic locations- they make TV and Film of the 21stcentury look babyish and cowed by comparison.

What are the roots of strangeness? They lie in the mysteries of the right brain and the many dimensional world we know that exists alongside and above and below this one. Strangeness is a concept that tends to find those who embrace the utter mystery and awe at all we do not comprehend. Go and look for it. Make it. Maybe even sell it.


First Law of Confidence

The First Law is: We lose confidence all the time. The trick is regaining it as quickly as possible. 

This law is derived from the great martial artist Morihei Ueshiba, who was complemented on how he never lost his balance. “On the contrary,” he replied, “I lose my balance all the time. I am just very fast at regaining it.”

Another one of my inspirers, the top Persian Carpet salesman of Australia, Fat Frank Nasre, once told me, “We all get knocked down by life, the trick is how fast you can get back up….once I was down for about two years. That’s too long.”

Losing confidence is in your head. It’s a conversation you have with yourself.

That’s right, though we’ll discover how to get confidence later on, losing what little you have is easy…

I was about to appear on Richard and Judy to talk about my book ‘Being a Man in the Lousy Modern World’. It was the top rated TV show for a writer. If they chose your novel for their book club it was guaranteed a place in the bestseller lists. For a non-fiction writer to be featured meant certain sales and acclaim. I’d already been on the Radio 4 Today Program with fellow writer Kathy Lette. She was funny and quick and expert at being provocative without being hostile; she knew how to joust with someone who had different views.

The Richard and Judy producers didn't want her to appear (Richard didn’t like her for some reason) so they got another woman writer, a nice enough author, but not a pro like Kathy Lette. This woman had never been on TV before and really looked nervous when I saw her in the Green Room before we were due to go on. I was then taken to a room full of shirts and told to pick one; mine was ‘too patterny’. Apparently it might confuse viewers…That was when I should have put my foot down. My shirt was a ‘lucky one’, one that I felt comfortable being in. All the ones they had – though clean or even new – were dorky polyester cotton in single shades of colour. But I wanted to be agreeable, I wanted to be liked. I chose the least offensive green one they had…

That shirt would come back to haunt me.

On the way out to the studio I met my fellow author. She was actually also green- with fear. Her complexion was like someone on a cross channel ferry in a high storm. About to throw up. In fact, as she was on her way back from the toilets, she may well have just finished being sick. As we waited she said mournfully, “I suppose you’ve done this loads of times…”

Beware the victim who speaks humbly of their failings…

But I didn’t know that then. I wanted to be nice and friendly, a proper fellow performer (and in this sense actors are much better than writers who are mostly loner types). So I said, “Nah, this is only my second time, I’m just winging it.”

She stiffened and said in an almost derisive tone, “Oh, I see.” And grew visibly less green before my eyes. I couldn’t believe it. She was using my self-deprecation against me. “I thought you were an expert.” Said flatly, as if she had exposed me as a fake.

But then we were on…

And in those twenty steps to the stage my confidence left me. Gone. Drained away. I’d let someone into my head- to be friendly- and they’d given me a kick. So that they could feel superior. Naively it took a while for me to realise there are people out there who are looking for chances to lord it over others- and they look normal, not like the classroom bully at all. But like all sadists they are masochists at heart. So when they aren’t dominating others they take masochistic pleasure in being a victim. Hence the earlier self-pity she displayed. Which also worked very well as bait…

Goddam it, I started to tell myself, ‘you AREN’T an expert’, ‘You’re a chancer who just ended up on TV’…and then the real killer: ‘what am I going to say when…’

In a second I had talked myself from easy self-confidence, a knowledge borne of experience that I could ‘be myself’ and be funny and interesting to a paranoid fear that I’d fuck up in front of millions (yes millions!) of viewers on live TV…

I’d lost confidence.

Richard tried hard. But I blocked all his invitations to run with the topic. Not quite monosyllabic answers, but close. I was also acutely aware of how much I was sweating in the stupid green shirt, just the sort of shade that showed up massive sweat stains. By the time the interval came Richard was glad to get rid of me, but then the producers wanted me back for a last word. As if intuiting how she had sandbagged me, my fellow author namechecked my book for me in that last segment and offered me the last word. No hard feelings. And, yes, earlier she was probably acting on reflex, hard childhood etc etc…

I was never asked back again. (But the lesson I learned was worth it when I later did multi-day radio and TV tours in Canada and the US.)

Just what made this appearance so different to the sparkling radio interview I had done earlier in the week? (Apart from the shirt.) 

None. In both cases I’d gone in with normal confidence, but I had no method in place to regain confidence if I lost it. And in the second interview I lost it.

You know the feeling. A sort of sagging, a sense of helplessness, a loss of inner pressure as if you’ve been punctured. And maybe your ego has been punctured. I didn’t need a method for the first interview- everyone had been nice to me. But I needed it in the second.

So what tricks are there to regain confidence? And I call them tricks on purpose.

The first is what I call the Nasrudin defence. Mulla Nasrudin is a joke figure from the middle east. They are hundreds if not thousands of funny jokes and microstories about him. In each story Nasrudin is either a fool or a fool who may actually be a wise man. They’re addictive (if you are in a group hearing them, you always want just one more) and they accurately portray in a humorous way how humans really react to things. But one common element of most stories is that no one really verbally gets the better of Nasrudin. Take this one:

Mulla: I was just in Afghanistan last year when I learnt their language fluently.

Friend: So what’s the word for lamb?

Mulla: I left before spring arrived so I never heard it.

Nasrudin doesn’t get trapped by mere words. The first defence is one of the oldest: attack.

Be cocky. In a humorous way. Or maybe in a not very humorous way. But don’t buckle. Don’t let the ball drop. This is the mysterious art of banter where the object is to probe and test another’s carapace. It can be cruel, it can be great fun; it is not a way to find out what someone really thinks. But if someone is attacking you it means they are closed, they are not open for mutual understanding and to let them in is folly.

The evolution of cooperation- tit for tit.

There is fascinating book by Robert Axelrod called the Evolution of Cooperation. In it he shows how antagonists- even in wars- can evolve to cooperate- through action rather than words. He persuaded large groups to play endless games of prisoner’s dilemma. In this game you don’t know what your partner will do. The idea is you imagine you are in two separate prison cells and both of you have been caught doing some crime together. If you both remain quiet you get only a year in prison. If one remains quiet and the other rats then the ratter goes free and the quiet one gets three years in jail. If both rat, then you both get two years in jail.

Now the really interesting question is: what is the optimum strategy for multiple games (over a 100) of prisoner’s dilemma? After all, in everyday life we mostly do 'repeat business'. One mathematician, Anatol Rappoport discovered it was really simple- play ‘nice’ (ie. be the quiet one) first and after that play tit for tat. And then he found that to avoid a misunderstanding leading to endless negative tit for tats at the beginning an even better strategy was ‘nice’ followed by tit for two tats. In other words if you were ratted in the first round you played ‘nice’ a second time to give the other player the benefit of the doubt- two strikes and you’re out.

Banter is based on tit for tat. You play ‘nice’ to everyone. If someone shafts you with a confidence shattering comment you play ‘nice’ a second time just in case it was a mistake. If it happens again you send the ball back with your own barbed comment.

Now this doesn’t sound very mature but then much of what passes for adult conversation is not mature. People play status games all the time- something we will look at in the second law. For the time being it is enough to know that once someone has tried to knock your confidence twice it is time to go on the offensive and banter back with your derogatory comments.

The damage is done?

But what could I really have done once I had made the initial mistake of letting my guard down? And guard is too strong a word, what I mean is really better conveyed with the idea of a sparring sword, maybe made of plastic, not real at all but good enough to keep an enemy at bay.

What I could have done, once I realised I was losing it, was deploy the ‘use the fear’ method. About to perform in front of the All Japan Yoshinkan Aikido Tokyo demonstration I began to feel queasily nervous. Mike Stuempel, one of the sewanin instructors said, “Everyone gets nervous, it’s how you use it that counts. Use the nerves to be sharper and faster.”

Now I had a way to convert any feelings of nervousness in to the mantra, “move faster and sharper”. The REAL benefit was that I had stopped looking inwards and was focusing outwards.

For this is the heart of the matter, once we look inwards we’ve lost it, whatever semblance of calm we had.

Fat Frank again, “When I get a customer to look inside themselves, maybe to answer an innocent question about their childhood, they are ‘open for business’ and usually I can make a sale.”

When we look inside ourselves we are ‘counting the donkeys’ as the Arab phrase goes. This refers to another Nasrudin story where he was taking nine donkeys to market and riding one. He got nervous from time to time, counting them but forgetting that he was actually riding one too- the result being that he was always a donkey short. He would then dismount and laboriously herd them together and count them again- and of course there was the full number again. This happened so many times he thought he ought to walk them to market- the result being that he arrived footsore and tired and frustrated, andtoo late to sell them.

In other words- a failed mission. And this is what happens when we introspect in the middle of doing something- we drop the ball, we lose confidence, we fail.

There is a time for introspection- often on a long walk after you have done something or before- but not during. Introspection is a habit like any other, and if you haven’t got tactics for stopping it dead then it can strike you down just when you need the most confidence.

As with all self-improvement, the first step is to be purely observant. What the philosopher Adam Smith called the ‘Impartial Spectator’. That part of your mind that clearly observes what is happening and coolly notes it down without judgement, without comment and especially without a ‘solution’. Next time you find yourself ‘looking inside’ see what happens next. Get used to the feeling and observe what triggers introspection. People with acute street smarts (ie. canny and manipulative) can often find your weakspot, be it flattery or an invitation to share confidences. See what you feel like when that happens again.

I am in no way suggesting you become a paranoid, closed-up person unable to share heartfelt experiences. It’s just that you need to be aware of what you are sharing. If it’s what you believe and you simply don’t care what people think then share away. But if you share in order to ‘get closer’, in other words expecting some kind of reward, then don’t be surprised if people use it in a way that doesn’t reward you in the manner you’d like. 

Use the tactic already mentioned, if you feel a drop in confidence, if thoughts of giving up crowd in: tell yourself that this is natural, this is healthy ‘nerves’ there to make sure you remain sharp. Just channel them. Don’t start an interior conversation.

Recently I had to give a brief talk about one of my expeditions as one of ten fellow speakers in a night long event celebrating adventure travelling. I hadn’t given a talk in a while, the auditorium was packed with hundreds of people and I noticed, apart from a guy who’d driven round the world in small truck, my canoe expedition was the least athletic one on display. I began to get nervous but I was prepared- I was wearing clothes that made me feel comfortable and physically fit (even if I wasn’t especially), and I channelled the nerves into an energy I could use on stage. If you go on Youtube you can see the talk- it is one of the best received I’ve ever made and several of the other speakers said it was the best that night. Yet I had been sure it would be a rubbish until I channelled the nerves into making it sharper and more energised. And immediately stopping my desire to start a self-defeating inner conversation.

We lose confidence all the time. Things don’t go our way. Rude things are said. Regain your balance by tit for tat. Give as good as you get. If a dart gets through, use your nerves to power forward- use that energy- and it is energy- to give a more energised performance.

The best advice I received about singing was from a former opera singer who told me that our normal reaction when we go out of tune is to sing with less energy, quieter- yet that makes us go further out of tune and we enter a dismal spiral of incompetence. But if, when you start to go out of tune, you give your singing more energy you find you get back in tune again. It’s counter intuitive but it works everytime. So, too, with confidence. When you find it starting to flag, give things more energy, more intensity, use the nerves you have as a source of energy to win through.

Confidence can be punctured by something small and insignificant- as we’ve seen- a stray comment, the wrong clothes. Later we’ll deal with ‘confidence scene setting’ to overcome some of these problems. But we can take heart from knowing how small these puncture wounds are. They are actually nothing. But they seem like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is when you need to take some time out, recalibrate, take a deep breath and power on.

Try and work on a confidence routine for something youhave to do. When I am writing I set a target number of words per day (1000, 2000 or more depending on the kind of writing needed). I then stick to that target. This means I still have juice in the tank for when the writing doesn’t flow. If you write 5000 words one day and think you can do that again and find you can’t, your confidence will take a hit. You may even give up. Better, take a break, recalibrate your routine, take a deep breath and get going again. Learn to say ‘Next!’


Somehow it gets passed on

I just saw two teenagers, dressed in the fashions of the day, walking along a country road. Both of them were holding stems of grass between their thumbs, their hands clasped over each other. The stem of grass is held taut and when you blow acts as a reed- making a squawking sound, or sometimes quite a sonorous note. I was taught to do this by my father and he learnt from his. These kids must have learned it from theirs, or an older relative. It cheered me immensely to see them thus engaged, grinning and making weird noises as they walked.


The Polymathic Economy

I was talking with my good friend Richard Mohun, a thinker and lecturer on business and economics, and we were talking about that good old economics chestnut, comparative advantage. Basically back in 1817 David Ricardo wanted to explain why on earth countries engaged in international trade even when they were less efficient at producing every single good than another country. He came up with the answer (it's to do with opportunity cost) and has wowed economics students every since. i can remember thinking when i studied the subject- wow- a real economics law that isn't obvious...And ever since 1817 the idea of specialising as an economy (a result of applying Ricardo's thinking) has been dominant in the minds of governments.

Except the ones we regard as renegade and even downright evil: the third reich, soviet russia, Mao's china- and maybe more acceptably, India until 1995 or so. These were countries pursuing autarky- the notion that a country should be self sufficient and not dependent on it neighbour's good will. Autarky is the macro-version of survivalism, self-suffiency and prepping for the next big disaster...

But is there something in between bending over and specialising as a country (and taking a massive hit when bigger and wealthier countries turn on you) and the lone nuttiness of pure autarky?

We think there is: the polymathic economy. In the polymathic economy we encourage as wide a variety of economic activity as possible. The idea is to enhance by cross fertilisation both creativity in the country but also perspective. I have shown elsewhere (see Micromastery, Penguin 2017) that even super specialists like Nobel prize winning scientists actively engage in arts, crafts and performing music far more than their more humble fellow academics. You need new ideas from somewhere and you need a complete break some of the time- both are supplied by a polymathic way of life. The main difference between a polymathic type and a specialist is attitude. The specialist jealously guards his patch; the polymath actively engages with other fields to steal new ideas...or even just borrow them.

The specialist economy (dumb shit like the 'knowledge economy', the 'finance economy'), encourage us to look inward and go into 'on guard' mode. Instead we need to be in explorer mode, entrepreneur mode. Real economic advantage is all about that strange thing economists are a bit cough cough embarrassed about - the psychological oomph of the people. Can't be measured, can't be pinned down- but compare Manhattan to Slough and you'll know what the difference is. To plan a polymathic economy couldn't be simpler. All key areas from manufacturing to services MUST be encouraged (which means just remove active discouragement and tariff/regulate/disrupt the hell out of cheapo crap imports in that area). Of particular interest are the arts. Nobel prize winners are many times more likely than regular scientists to actively engage in the arts. How do we encourage that? Simple. Forget grants and all that left brain nonsense. A minimum wage for a year for a creator- artist/writer/poet/musician- to qualify is easy, some evidence of work, some recommendations from existing artists. After one year an exhibition with the judgement decided on several things: quantity, quality and a long list of people who think said artist deserves her or his stipend. Mess up and you have a three year gap before you get another shot...kind of like parole. Of course, like anything, it requires judgement in its administration- but evidence shows polymaths are better at judging than specialists- not really surprising.

The main thing is, though, abandonment of the foolish notion of comparative advantage and engagement with the reality of real progress: a polymathic economy.



Zeroth Living

A young friend of mine just told me he is skint and doesn’t know what to do. He has free board and lodging from his parents but is unwilling to get a job as he is working on a film project of his own. I told him to join the zeroth community.

Zeroth living- a term I just coined- means living for zero, nada, no money, zilch. Yep. We’re not talking low budget we’re talking no-budget. You buy NOTHING. After looking at me in a non-plussed kind of way my friend started to get a big grin. “OK, I get it,” he said.

A week later he had:

Taken some old novels and replaced some other books in a communal library (an old phone box). The books replaced including a book about the art of Hornby Trains- on amazon it’s £8, he managed to get £2 for it from a second hand bookshop. Kerching! 

Persuaded a friend to let him use his high end sound gear for one month. Instant save of a thousand he needed to buy the gear.

Went on a picnic with friends in the nearby hills. Brewed up coffee on a stove. Much nicer than Costa.

Had a barbecue using wood found on the beach. You don’t need charcoal. The guests brought the food too.

The thing is, it’s catching. Once you start you see the possibilities. That's the great thing about it. When you are low budget it's all a series of glum choices (do I have one coffee or two and walk instead of taking the bus...) but when it's no budget it's now a challenge that's all about being inventive. And lucky. In Japan I fitted out an entire apartment from the gomi(Japanese word for garbage on the street). I found (with some help from pals) a CD player, a TV, a microwave and a chair (the apartment was so small it only needed one, guests took turns for the privilege of sitting). But over the years you get sluggish. You become like every other sucker- looking for money in a generalised way to solve highly specific problems.

You need a sound recorder- a specific problem. You need to make money to get it- now that’s a vague and highly general problem. Humans are designed to solve VERY specific problems. Indeed one of the mantras of the engineering business is that if you can define a problem accurately enough you’ve solved it. Yet all us poor fools are out there ‘trying to make money’- a very flabby and unhuman thing to be doing.

Zeroth living turns this on its head, it makes life specific again.

The most highly successful beggar I met had an intriguing method. He didn’t ask for a pound or even 10p. He asked for very specific amounts to satisfy very specific needs. He’d write on a sign “I need £3.32”. People would stop and ask why. “To send a parcel to a friend (true)”. Or he’d ask for a chocolate bunny and stand outside a shop selling chocolate bunnies. Once he asked for a Thesaurus when he was begging in Sydney. An outraged man shouted at him- “The fuck you need a thesaurus for – you’re fuckin’ homeless- you need money.”. He calmly replied, “Right now I need a thesaurus as I am writing something that needs more words than I know”. He had a journal which was part of his act- people who helped him got to sign it and look at it. I told you he was a clever fella. Ten minutes later the outraged man brought him a thesaurus, brand new.

Get specific.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this a bit desperate, a bit parasitic? Well, it doesn’t have to be. I just looked through the local free magazine for things that are free. A set of encyclopedias (complete edition), an Epson DX4000 printer, even a greenhouse if you can move it. We live in a world where everyone has too much stuff. To recycle it and make a little en route is doing everyone a favour. 

And the second thing is that money has changed its nature, rather subtly, over the last fifty years. Money used to be money. Now it has bifurcated into street money and property money. Since property has replaced gold as the new backing of all currencies we are slowly seeing a slide back into the feudal economies of yore where land was everything. Of course there are a few differences, but it’s the similarities that we should take note of. The vast difference between the value of a house and what an average year’s salary is should be some indication that street and property backed money are very different things. If you have property money you can convert it into street value and live like a king. In fact you ARE a king in the feudal scheme of things. But street money won’t buy you a hill of beans…

So get a bit feudal. Barter with your pals. Team up with them. Use the power of people and networks and the fact that you are only two degrees away from anyone who owns what you need to borrow. Borrow is the key. People have too much stuff and yet they don’t always want to give it away…just quite yet.

Join the zeroth community. Do it for a week just for a change. Use only the food that you have built up in your house, food you might otherwise waste. I’ve just run out of milk. Instead of buying some I’ll use that coffeemate I’ve had for a month or more. I’ll make some chappattis with that special flour I bought a while back instead of running out to get yet more supermarket bread. Want something fresh? Try a nettle soup or even risk a daring rummage in the freebie section of the supermarket. Yes I know it’s meant for people really in need but they won’t miss a tin or two. It’s only an experiment. You can replace those cans when its over. The point is to get into the spirit of ligging, zeroth living.

And you’ll be amazed at how many money making schemes come to you. Not vague ones, no complex operations, just quick ideas that use what you already have to hand, what you already know but were too befuddled to employ. It may even be as simple as sending out invoices you’d overlooked. Or trying an idea out on someone you were ‘too busy’ to ask before. But you have plenty of time now. None of it wasted in pubs and coffee shops and taking taxis and trains.

Oh yes, a bit of zeroth living never hurt anyone…