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The Seagulls

In the town the people made a living from fishing, mainly catching shell fish, but some ordinary fish too. After the fish had been hauled out and cleaned the seagulls sometimes descended for a feast but they knew to keep their distance from the alert and often short tempered fishermen. But the fisherman sometimes relied on the seagulls to lead them to the fishing grounds. A flock of gulls could often mean a shoal of fish beneath the waters.

The town grew famous for its sea air and delightful harbour and beach. Tourists came and made it wealthier. The fishing declined but still existed. The tourists loved to buy fish and chips and ice creams and over the years the number of outdoor restaurants increased. The friendly tourists wanted the sea gulls to like them. They wanted to be friendly to the world and they dropped chips and bits of food for the seagulls to eat.

The gulls did not change at first. But then the tourist numbers increased so much that one day it was possible to get more food from swooping down on chip wrappers and hapless kids with ice cream cones than from going out to sea to catch fish. On that day the first professional seagull was born, the first modern and well-adapted-to-current-life seagull. 

Very soon everything changed. Seagulls now preyed on the people. Who defended themselves with curses and thrown stones. The tourists still came and some still fed the gulls but that hardly mattered as the gulls now knew how to feed themselves. They grew more aggressive and daring by the month.

How does it end? Some believe the people will simply live indoors, give up their outdoor eating. Others believe in a mass cull of the pesky gulls…meanwhile the fishermen shrug their shoulders and head out to sea, guided by their electronic fishfinders and not their old pals the gulls…


temptations of the trickster

The trickster can be tempted and become the conman, even a criminal. Lots of traditional tales talk of redeemed highwaymen and robbers becoming top students...but the other way is also possible. Tricksters can trick their way into power and lose their sense of direction. They can be blinded by gifts and praise. A trickster who likes spartan conditions is lucky. A trickster who has a strong feeling for friends and family is not necessarily protected- even a snake loves its offspring. The only real protection a trickster has is his or her ends and means scale. When ends justify means you know you're slipping. 

It is because the trickster is so slippery that its hard to make any rules about them. Suffice it to say, to benignly keep your inner trickster in shape is incumbent on all those who would skip a little in their feet of clay...


you can't buy a lifestyle

I've written before that my wise friend Mark Antcliffe used to remark of dude foresters 'you can't buy a lifestyle'. He had observed that people buy woodland to become something like their idea of a woodsman but pretty soon it palls and they end up paying someone- like Mark- to manage it for them. They want the image not the whole reality.

People get lifestyle envy and sometimes even kick in their safe job to buy a fishing boat a la Forest Gump and go trawling for shrimp- but unlike the movie it presents a whole new set of headaches. Which isn't to say it can't be done- it's just the method is wrong. When you shift lifestyle it should be secondary to shifting mission or engaging purpose. Mucking about in the woods isn't a purpose- which is why the downside of that- maintaining woodland will quickly overwhelm. you have to be able to make what others call WORK into what you think of lightly as PLAY and that can only happen when you have a sharpened sense of mission. Otherwise stick to the day job.

A sharpened sense of mission requires sacrifice. It means that what you do is ALL you do- at least until you have created a sustaining bubble of people and activities around you, at least until you have shifted 'world'. I sometimes have taught people writing who are in the their 50s and 60s and they dream of 'making it'. Which is wholly possible- but at that age you can't muck about. Writing must be ALL you do (apart from stuff that sustains writing like a bit of yoga and some interesting conversations, a walk or two- but nothing that gets in the way). When I hear they are, in addition to the writing, playing in a skiffle band and slowly turning their garden into a miniature Heligan I know the writing project is doomed. When you change late in life you have to change sincerely- whole heartedly- otherwise the ghosts of your old life will drag you down.

A sense of mission is nothing very fancy or hard to instill. You just have to cut out all the distractions and only focus on your main thing. If you start to go a bit manic- maybe you chose the wrong thing. Maybe you chose something because of its image, the fond picture of you doing it. That's often a sign- when you want to be, say, 'an artist' more than simply painting or drawing pictures. The lifestyle should always comes second- even better if you rub a bit against it, aren't interested in telling folk your new trade. The doing is the key thing. How you will spend your time day after day even if no one recognises you as something special. And the right mission will have one or more things you are aiming at that are attainable- crazy goals are out. The right mission, for you, will energise- for sure- but it won't tip you over the edge. If it does, find something else.

You don't find passion and interest like finding a tenner lying in the gutter- you grow it. From small beginnings you cut out other things and do your main interest all the time- pretty soon you'll have a full blown mission on your hands. Make sure its worth it as you'll be skirting a slight madness the whole time...


street versus frame

There is the frame.

The art gallery.

The picture frame.

The theatre.

The book.

The photograph- yes a photo is a kind of frame.


Anything in a frame looks ‘good’. It attracts our attention. It has a sign on it saying ‘look at me’.


Lots of art in the 20thcentury played with the idea of the frame. 26 gas stations and various small fires by Ed Ruscha. Marcel Duchamp. Joseph Beuys. John Cage. Every gallery you’ve been that has a curated pile of rubbish in the corner. And it isn’t that badis it?


Then there is the street. In the 1960s the street became a place where you’d risk art that has no frame. A bare encounter. Street art. Graffiti. Mime. Street theatre. Busking. Selling fanzines. Drawing on the pavement.


Street art has no frame to fall back and be ironic about. It has to be something. It can’t be a pile of rubbish in the corner because there is plenty of that already. Street art has to get in your face a bit. It can’t be subtle, not in that way.


Somewhere between the two.


begging for it

Amanda Palmer- indie popstar and dark cabaret artiste among other things was famous a few years back for raising a million dollars on kickstarter for a new album. She then toured and in accordance with her usual practice invited local musicians to join her perfomances as volunteers to be paid in fun, beer and hugs. There was a backlash. People not connected to her twitter complained she was exploiting people. She relented and paid 'volunteers' a hundred bucks. But what if she had offered 'playing with Amanda' as a kickstarter option and CHARGED for it. A quick search revealed the band The Polyphonic Spree had done just that- asking $1500 for the priviledge of playing onstage with them. No one had complained, indeed it seemed kind of good sense in these days of hard to monetise pop music...

So as long as money changes hands exploitation has not happened.



Third Law of Confidence

The third law is devastatingly simple: saying your own name loudly and clearly. I don’t mean shouting it out, or enunciating it like a prat, I mean saying it so that everyone who needs to hear it can; and that they will hear it said with ringing clarity and…confidence. Or that is what they will infer. Even if your little heart is beating a hundred a minute and your palms are sweating, if you can say your name loudly and clearly when someone asks you, you will strangely become confident. The sweat will miraculously start to dry, the heart subside.


There are supporting acts to this law which I have gleaned from the always fascinating sci-fi author A.E. Van Vogt. These are- be able to offer sincere congratulations to someone- be it for birthday, promotion or new child, to be able to say Hello in a clear and unaffected way and to be able to ask again if you did not catch someone’s name when it was first spoken.


This is it. Nothing more. Confidence doesn’t start on the inside. It starts on the outside. If you act confidently, you become confident. Everyone has an anxiety machine inside them. Turn it to your advantage. Use that anxious voice to focus and deliver external behaviour. Don’t let it cripple you with inner dialogue. Just say to yourself- how can I use this excess emotional energy to my advantage? OK I’ll use it to be super sharp and precise in what I say.


The power of names


I was at a party and a woman of about thirty five introduced herself as Scraggy. She was good looking, had an attractive manner and yet she was proudly calling herself by a name that surely no one found anything less than repulsive. It was of course, as she told me, a school nickname. “Everyone calls me that,” she said with defiance, “I couldn’t care less.” Maybe not, but could. It’s like telling someone about a novel you like that has a stupid title. It’s embarrassing; it may even stop you recommending it. Though Scraggy was admirably unconcerned her school name lacked dignity. And it showed a willingness to bend to old school ‘pals’ who wanted to trap her in the submissive position of having to live with a daft nickname.


I’ve noticed that many successful writers and artists date their success from the moment they renamethemselves. There is something magical about a good name – and I speak as someone who has had to invent names for novels and short stories I have written. A good name brings a constellation of associations and is just easier to write dialogue and action for. A bad name is positively deadening. In between are the usual familiar names that are neutral- offering neither inspiration nor its opposite.


Some people have a habit of repeating their own name to themselves as a kind psyching up technique- how much more effective that is if your name is one that has the right associations and overtones. My good friend Helena Edwards, a writer and traveller, changed her name from Joan after a meeting with the celebrated Russian thinker G.I. Gurdjieff, “Joan? Joan? Everybody called Joan!” he said on meeting her. Helena told me she had always disliked the name but just stuck with it out of habit. And the thing was, Helena suited her much much better.


Traditional tribes- meaning people still living with an intact understanding of ancient knowledge- often have three names- the ‘public’ one that is used for dealing with the outside world, one that is used in the tribe and one that is reserved for the most secret purposes. To some extent this mirrors the ‘state name’ that many marginalised folk in the UK maintain alongside their ‘street name’. The ancient fairy story of Rumpelstiltskin shows the power of a secret name- once known, the knower has power over the named one.


Names summon up an identity in condensed form. They affect how people view you in the crucial first 30 seconds in which they make up their mind about you. Though there is something admirably uncaring about sticking with a silly name (the jokes Ed Balls must have lived through…) there is no harm in benefiting from the slipstream of a good name that people like to repeat. All this has a bearing on your ability to say your name clearly and loud enough.


So find the version of your name you are comfortable saying out loud in front of strangers. If it isn’t ‘you’, change it- or start using another. Or simply practice saying your name to the mirror in a blank and unstressed way- focusing on clarity and lack of overt emotion- no need to sound as if you’re laying an egg. A fairly flat unemotive tone can be your baseline as long as it is clear and pervaded by conviction. Of course people might mistake you for a copper…With practise, though, you will develop a way of speaking that convinces both yourself and the listener. Don’t shy away from videoing yourself offering congratulations and saying your name. It’s what actors and TV presenters do, so in this video-saturated age- why not you too? It may show up some alarming glitches and previously unknown habits, but it will improve your performance ten times over.


Performance? Exactly. You may have been labouring under the misapprehension that it is ‘the real you’ people are perceiving when you stride into a room. Nonsense. Only your closest friends and family know the real you in any kind of meaningful detail (and even they are probably half in the dark). No, the real you is something that people who meet you CANNOT perceive. You need to perform, to act, to present in order to re-present. You re-present your inner self by providing an analogousversion of your real self. And by real self I mean the ideal self- the best version of you. Who is naturally calm, collected, confident and coherent.


So you need to perform confidently in the way you speak. We have dealt with the neurological feedback of posture already. A confident way of speaking also feedsback and helps stem the anxiety. People barely register the content of what you say compared to HOW you say it (this varies, depending on how intellectually oriented they are, but broadly all people react to container not content). And the container is: the tone and volume of your voice. That is the real message you convey during such seemingly meaningless interchanges as saying your name and asking another person theirs.


Why do you think many Americans seem so much more confident than Brits in everyday encounters? Because these very skills- speaking clearly and offering congratulations- are things they learn early. I have seen some very shy and introverted Americans delivering witty and amusing and ‘confident’ speeches when they have to. Inside they’ll admit they are churned up and nervous- but the culture- in which being ‘relaxed’ is almost an artform- has encouraged them to disregard these feelings. Lacking ‘confidence’ of this kind is simply unAmerican…


Contrast this with the Japanese where it is good manners to act ‘nervous’ on a first encounter. It’s funny when you meet someone obviously relaxed doing their best to appear a little nervous and wary when meeting you for the first time. Of course the next time you meet it can be very different. But even the Japanese are taught from a very early age to shout out their name loudly and clearly when asked.


Nervous or not, the act of speaking with clarity and a decent volume will communicate confidence. And confidence breeds confidence. Your interlocutor will assume you are self-assured and act accordingly. Which will increase your steady bearing and so on in a virtuous cycle.



How deep is your voice?


Studies[1]have shown that deep voices are correlated to higher earnings as a CEO of a big corporation. Since such jobs are as much acting as substance, this isn’t too surprising. The fraudulent CEO of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes- who was listed by Forbes in 2015 as the youngest and wealthiest female billionaire in the US (before it was realised her blood sampling invention didn’t work) managed to raise colossal sums of start-up money with a stellar list of investors. The ability to convince investors was her speciality and she was known to have a special, unnaturally deep, voice for presentations… and a much higher voice for her private life. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, suffered from voice problems for several years after he adopted a fake deep voice while he worked in the corporate world. He claimed that though he was incompetent at his job he was always seen as promising owing to the ‘respect’ garnered by his deep voice. People thought he sounded confident even though he was talking bullshit…


Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not recommending the ‘con’ side of confidence. I am just revealing that confidence is NOT about inner state, it is about outer behaviour.


Status again.


Certainly higher status is signalled in primates by a deeper voice. A louder voice also has the same effect. As with our earlier discussion about posture and status, a kind of reverse high status can be achieved by having a very quiet voice- like the Godfather actor Marlon Brando- when a loud deep voice is expected. (Oddly enough many real life tough guys like Mike Tyson have high pitched voices.)


But confidence is not just about being high status. You can be confident and low status too. As long as that posture serves your needs. The hilarious Fast Show sketch that features the intrusive menswear shop assistants who keep saying ‘suits you sir’ ostensibly act low status- as befitting their humble occupation- but they end up dominating the poor customer with their lewd questioning. The fall guy or the straight man in a comedy act make act high or low status- it doesn’t matter which since it is all in the service of making people laugh. We in the West get too hung up in status without realising how malleable it is and how it is there to be used, rather than using us. It’s easy to confuse a high status manner with confidence, but real confidence is measured by what you do, not how you appear. Isn’t that a contradiction of the whole importance of speaking loud and clear? Not really- functional confidence requires good and clear communication skills- nothing more or less. The purpose of the third law is to eliminate hang-ups you may have about your ‘inner state’ when you are about to open your mouth. By greeting and congratulating people clearly and loudly enough you slay those fears.


How to speak on any subject for 15 minutes


Anxieties about speaking in public famously rival those of possible death. It is something that can reduce the most confident seeming person to a drivelling wreck and yet the solution to the ‘problem’ is fiendishly simple and based on improvised acting. From impro acting classes you learn to lose inhibitions about going on stage unprepared- which is as close to real life as it gets. The following exercise is from impro coach Keith Johnstone and it will give you everything you need to quell inner anxiety about public speaking- I mean if you can talk on ANY SUBJECT for 15 minutes what else is there to scare you?


It is irrelevant whether you know anything about the subject or not. For the first five minutes simply state what you are thinking. If it’s hot in the room, say so. If you had a bad car drive there, say so. If you are feeling nervous, say so. The bizarre fact is, once you admit you are feeling nervous in front of an audience you will no longer feel paralysed by that fact. What’s more, the audience will now be on your side and you’ll feel it. Just as a wedding audience are on the side of the best man, so an audience you tell the truth to, will be on your side. And by truth I simply mean what is going on in your mind and in the theatre. You have ceased mining your memory for a ‘good speech’ and become simply a transmitter of existing material.


After five minutes of this though your audience may be expecting more.


The next move is always interesting. Ask the audience. You’ll be surprised how often an expert in the subject you are supposed to be discussing is actually sitting in front of you. Partly it can be explained by the need of people who know a subject to test others in the same field. Partly, too, many experts are rather shy of putting themselves forward but wait for opportunities to do so that are created by others. Your talk could be such an opportunity. And if you are tasked at the last minute with talking on a subject you know absolutely nothing about for 15 minutes you need all the help you can get. You ask the audience politely and when you find your man or woman you introduce them respectfully to everyone in the room. You converse with them in an interested way and then you thank them sincerely and also ask the audience to give them a big hand too.


That’s another five minutes gone.


Now you are in the back straight and you have a final trump card: change the emotion. If you have been talking positively about nuclear power, killer bees or orchids you must now make a stunning revelation to the audience, “I am actually something of a fraud as I really hate XYZ”. You then go on a rant espousing the opposite point of view employing hate instead of admiration. If you have earlier been talking in an aggrieved manner, reverse it and start speaking in a relieved manner. Whatever you do REVERSE that emotion. The audience will be stunned…for another five minutes. At which point you wind up your impromptu speech.


These techniques can be used anytime and in any situation when you have to engage your ‘talking machine’. You can reverse emotion in a conversation to get things going. You can relay what you are feeling RIGHT NOW. You can show a real interest in another person and find out the subject they really know about.


When you know that never again will you be stuck for words it will cause a considerable dip in the anxiety you feel about speaking in public- and a consequent rise in all round confidence.


What’s your job?


Many people feel somewhat unnerved when they meet strangers and have to answer the inevitable question “and what do you do?” Some feel their job title is boring- so they answer “I’m a boring accountant”. Some soldier on and then chose to ignore the glazed eyes when they answer. But there is another way.


Instead of answering ‘accountant’ you could say what you really do each day- “I move things into different categories in order to get money for the things I want to get done.” I sometimes answer instead of writer, “I mostly write proposals for books that get turned down, maybe four out of five times, but sometimes become bestsellers.”


It doesn’t take much thought to come up with a description of what you reallydo rather than the tired old usual handle used to describe your work. And it is genuinely informative as many people don’t actually know what an accountant or a tax inspector does on a day to day basis. So, shift the emphasis from the usual to an unusual description in the active concrete present not the abstract and generalised past.


Another interesting tack is to say what you did that day- people are always interested in a day in the life of a stranger…


But the source of this anxiety is deeper, lying as so much does, with our sense of identity. Who am I? the philosopher has always asked and so, of course, does just about everyone else, I mean, who am I really?


Doubts about your real identity, the real you, your core, afflict everyone from time to time. If it strikes when you actually have to do something active and it gets in the way it looks very much like a failure of confidence. The fact is, your identity is made of up of multiple strands of self. Different ones come to the fore depending on the situation. Some can lie dormant for years, only to reappear with a vengeance. If you are wise you’ll weave these strands into an integrated self- as much as you can. And the ones that seem to contradict each other you just acknowledge and establish a work-around. For example – you may love the outdoors but your ambition has driven you to take an office job. In that case every month take off with no tent, minimal food and some warm clothing and simply rough it in the wilderness. Get an extreme version of the outdoors to counteract your long days indoors. Once a self-contradiction is acknowledged its destructive power is curtailed. It is when we try to force ourselves to be one thing or another but not boththat we face a backlash, when the dismissed self stages a comeback.


Establishing who you are, is less about introspection and more about being observant- especially when you are in a new or unfamiliar situation- such as travelling abroad. Watch what you do and what you gravitate towards and what you avoid. All this will supply useful information about who you really are.



The kind of attention we can work with


When you reply in a clear and loud enough voice you are being functional. The needs of the situation have been met. People standing near will know you know the score: that being shy and hesitant is a non-useful attitude. Their palpable relief (unless they are weird and sadistic and like picking on the timid) will result in easy conversation and follow up behaviour. But what has really happened is that you been in an attention exchange and behaved honestly. You have not demanded more attention from it than the situation can supply. If you talk over loudly, or in a whisper that people can’t hear, you are demanding attention, more than the situation is equipped to dish out. You are being needy and no one likes a needy person. When you realise that a lot of life’s misunderstandings stem from people who have too little attention trying to get more out of situation than it is designed to yield, you’ll be able to adjust your own behaviour- and instead of having that attention denied (what we do to ‘punish’ needy folk) you’ll get your fair share. Constructing a day so that it has enough fair attention interactions is not a difficult thing to do. And knowing how to get enough attention is a key part to being confident.






Theoretical Polymathics

Though I am much more interested in practical polymathics there does seem a need to clarify, in a theoretical sense, what is meant by polymathics. If only to highlight the dramatic difference in this way of thinking from all others[1].


Even where polymathy is advanced as a good thing it is treated rather tamely as mixing arts and sciences, in other words a compote of head knowledge. But the human organism has, we know now, a distributed intelligence. Because much of what we thought was done by the brain is actually performed and influenced by other areas of the body, we literally think with our entire bodies. And we use our bodies and include our bodies in all our activities. If you can't sit still for a long time you won't be able to do maths or write essays. So sitting still is a necessary academic skill. Beyond such simple examples there is the language we use. It is not derived from being brains in vats, it is derived from millenia of human experience involving physical exertion and physical skill. This provides both metaphorical and scientific clout to a new  perspective- that of polymathics.


Every area of knowledge- including mathematics has both tacit and explicit components. Typically, the tacit components are doubly hidden from view as they are the preserve of the people who are ‘good at’ a subject and seek to maintain their advantage. Being good at maths means more than memory and logical reasoning. It includes such diverse things as liking numbers, seeing patterns, having a feel for geometry, being enthusiastic about swapping algebraic forms around. Nietzsche was the first philosopher to promote the idea that foremost in knowledge is the value, the importance we attribute to a statement. Now we might add that how interested and enthusiastic we are is a key part of our ability to understand and perform in a subject area.


Maths is the province of people who are good at maths. People without maths ability have to take things on trust. People who are good at physics may understand Einstein, those who aren’t have to take it on trust. To be ‘good at’ art also involves tacit knowledge. Knowing how to cross hatch with style has many many applications but it is something made explicit with some difficulty and has to be learned as a skill. Indeed one definition of the tacit is that it is a ‘skill’ and not simply a series of logical moves made with information remembered.


So each area has a tacit component that is often overlooked – for various reasons, not the least of which being that it is difficult to write about and academic subjects are conveyed using textbooks and other written materials.


Tacit knowledge is built through experience rather than reading, though a certain kind of reading- autobiography for example- can really help speed up the acquisition of tacit knowledge.


Though there may be great differences between the explicit knowledge of a subject- a huge difference between integration and the history of Rome, there is something common about all tacit knowledge. Or there is more linkage here.


Polymathics focuses on the tacit knowledge aspect of all subject areas. It finds commonalities and is therefore a substitute for long experience in any area. It is a path to rapid skill and knowledge acquisition.


Academic study is based on the essential difference between subject areas. Indeed to receive funding for research your subject is prejudiced if it does not fall in an existing area. So funding- which is crucial in many areas- just reinforces the splintered image of knowledge.


But a premise of polymathics is that all knowledge is linked by a wider context. Also, that the context of a subject is vastly important. The denial or reduction of context is the simplest way to achieve odd, interesting and ultimately damaging results in any area. The more context you include the harder it becomes to ‘solve’ problems. It may be frustrating but it is better for everyone.


If all knowledge is linked in a Fortean way and if the tacit component of knowledge is much more common that we imagine we have some insight into the connection between genius and polymathy.


Polymathics is concerned with ranking the scope and range of knowledge from a new perspective. This is: how connected is the subject under study to the rest of the world. Instead of maths and physics at the top they might come at the bottom. Physical activities such as dance and martial arts may take their place. Artistic pursuits and making could also rank highly.


Polymathics starts from the position that we are humans- with minds and bodies that are interconnected and a social system that is interconnected. There could be no language without this prior interconnection. Before man spoke he was part of a primitive primate group that nevertheless communicated using rudimentary versions of language. Taking this anthropological view of language, refusing to privilege it simply because of its logical efficacy, is the final act we must take in discarding the obvious errors brought about by the Cartesian fallacy.


Polymathics is able to treat static and dynamic knowledge with due deference to each. Instead of treating dynamic knowledge as an inferior and limited version of static knowledge.


Polymathics is able to integrate both right and left brain perspectives.


One of the key questions in knowledge is: A) when does what I know cease to apply here?


And B): can I understand what I am seeing with my current stock of knowledge as my only interpretative guide?


Obviously B is a version of A. But the key point is: we are usually poor at recognising that we don’t understand what we are looking at. We are much more likely to represent it using existing knowledge, even if it’s wrong. This is modern version of a primitive man looking at an aeroplane and calling it a flying horse. That we are just as easily mislead as primitive men when it comes to the unfamiliar is a point of faith in polymathics borne out by countless observations.


Bending what I know out of shape to increase it’s scope is where falsehood begins. There are no ‘truth’ tests or handy Popperian gambits to help here. Everyone, in every area, is capable of being lead astray by their own enthusiasm and by the structure of the subject itself, into making statements that are unsupported, except by internal reference.


How do we know when we are going off course? Experience, usually. Making mistakes over a lifetime teaches some real lessons. We begin to get a feel for the nine tenths of the iceberg that is tacit knowledge. But some subjects have less experiential feedback than others.


Polymathics aims to simulate tacit knowledge, indeed is a substitute for it, enabling far more rapid understanding, far more accurate understanding and the ability to master subjects outside one’s ‘field’.


[1]Except perhaps those philosophies influenced by Eastern thought- Sufism, Daoism and Zen.