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Sincerity, anti-fragility, resilience.


Talking with my fellow writing teacher, Jason Webster, (We are at next weeks Moniack Mhor course in Scotland) we both latched on to the advice to writers given by writer Barry Lopez: Read. Get away from the familiar, find out what you truly believe.

I just checked this as my memory had rewritten ‘get away from the familiar to ‘get away from the usual’. I think that adds something- you could go to China to get away from the familiar, but you could still take the usual approach. I quibble, and anyway, the far more important item on the list is: find out what you truly believe.

This takes some unpacking. If the quest to find out what you truly believe is not sincere, is rushed, then the result will be worse than not even trying. To find out what you truly believe has little to do with grand beliefs and more to do with small things. You start by asking what you believe about fish and chips or beach holidays or clouds before working your way up to larger issues. Why? Because a sincere attempt at finding out what you truly believe needs precise language, and the language of big belief is saggy and misused beyond…belief. Once you have got the hang of finding out what you truly believe on the smaller things you might try sidling up to the bigger issues. You might find you only need to circle them. Perhaps you can find a few beliefs you can fly like the long curving tail of a kite doing loop the loops up above…or perhaps not. When the right language is lacking you have to rely on the right time and right place to indicate what you mean. Just pointing is enough on such occasions. Meaning you need to build a lot of context before you can begin to say what your true belief is.

I’ve been writing for myself and others since I was sixteen- a long time - and it took me AGES to work out a) I had to be sincere about what I believed and not clever, flip, or acceptable and b) my most seemingly unacceptable beliefs turned out to be my ‘best’ material.

Which is what it’s all about. When we fake it up the people who like us forgive us. It’s like seeing a relative at Christmas acting in charades. The world, however, is harsher. But when we are accurate and truthful in saying what we believe the world pays a different kind of attention.

So there is a worldly ‘incentive’ to be truthful too.

Nassim Taleb has originated the idea of being anti-fragile, that is, being able to take knocks and learn from them, improve. Being robust and unchanging is not so good. You stay standing, but like even the toughest rock you’ll eventually be eroded. To be fragile is worst of all. You just fold up and give up. Writers in their pursuit of finding out what they truly believe must be anti-fragile.

Which takes resilience and sincerity. Resilient enough to keep getting back up and sincere enough- from time to time- to take a good hard look at themselves and say what is, and is not, working. Not in the middle of a project- too dangerous- but before beginning a new one, before rushing in and repeating old mistakes.

If you want to hear more on this sign up for the course at Moniack Mhor-


Are you a dog or a human being?

Dog trainers report that ending a training session on a negative note, when the dog has failed to achieve a task and not received the expected reward, results in up to SIX WEEKS of setback in overall training.

Are we so very different from our furry friends? I beg to suggest that in many respects we are not. So when you engage on something akin to a path of training: self-improvement, building a new business, writing a book, studying it makes sense to end any session when things are going well, on an upnote with a self-given reward.

We tend to treat ourselves worse than modern teachers treat us. Mostly they take care to leave children with a positive result at the end of each lesson. But when we have to educate ourselves, or build something on our own, we can lapse into beating ourselves up, ending sessions on a down note.

So don’t be surprised by a six week psychological setback.

So much of doing your own thing is being UP and motivated. Why makes things harder by imagining you are above learning from a dog?


What gets better as you get older #2: being a connoisseur

People mock wine experts less than they used to. More wine is being drunk, for sure, but also the general level of connoisseurship has gone up. More and more people know what good wine tastes like. The notion of being an ordinary person with connoisseur level knowledge is no longer incongruous. We sWe see connoisseurship levels rising in lots of areas: cookery, gardening, natural history.

Becoming a connoisseur takes time, for sure, but also patience. Moreover it is something that just keeps getting better the older you get.

It is also something that keeps aging brains healthy. When we become interested in something we form circuits of neurons, but for these to become permanent we need to focus and concentrate on what we are experiencing. It needs to be important to us; once it is, brain plasticity and neural growth happens, and keeps happening what ever age we are.

The outdated notion that the brain stops growing is SO utterly wrong and yet also somehow comforting, it provides lots of people with the excuse that an old dog cannot, and should not, be attempting new tricks. In fact in research that started with old rats rather than old dogs, it's been conclusively shown that neural growth continues whenever there are learning challenges that we care about. But without connoisseurship we quickly level off and cease to care that much about our initial object of interest. We find one wine ‘we like’, and simply switch off.

As we get habituated to something we require fewer neurons to recognise that which is familiar. Our circuits rationalise and microglia hoover up unused connections. The result is we have a less rich and more abstract experience. Which is less memorable. Habitually doing something without wanting to appreciate its subtleties, or improve at it, results in connective decay, as we ‘switch off’.

The Biblical injunction that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well is backed up by neuroscience. Habits that have no connoisseurship potential dull and blunt our minds over time.

The effect of having a connoisseur mindset is very useful. Once you see yourself as mastering the subtleties of one area of activity you can transfer them to another.

If you’re an expert wine taster you can transfer this skill to being a better cook—that seems quite obvious. But what about being a better judge of antique furniture or birdsong?

When we become greatly interested in something, when we build connoisseur skills we sharpen our ability to discern small differences. This discernment skill can be accessed by analogous thinking- a by product of greater distribution of any mental event. By using analogous translations of grades of subtlety from the original connoisseurship we can transfer its use to a new area of interest.

Without becoming precious (I can’t help remembering the Roald Dahl story about the fraudulent wine expert) connoisseurship in whatever interests us is something to cherish as you get older; it also provides a reason for younger people to see an obvious value in aging.

Indeed when someone is held up as being ‘young at heart’ they are often demonstrating something that is merely human: learning something new.

Dr Stanley Karansky, at ninety years old, describes himself as a lifelong self-educator. But rather than dabble, each new interest becomes an engaging passion. In an interview with Dr Norman Doidge he says, “I became interested in astronomy five years ago and became an amateur astronomer. I bought a telescope because we were living in Arizona at the time and the viewing conditions were so good… I’m willing to put pretty intense concentration and attention into something that interests me at the moment. Then after I feel I’ve gotten to a higher level at it, I don’t pay quite as much attention to that activity and I start sending tentacles to something else.”[1]

This powerful focussed learning pays dividends in health. Though Dr Karansky has had two heart attacks, one at 65 and another at 83, he completely recovered. His parents who did not share his proclivities for learning died young- his mother in her 40s and his father in his 60s.

Connoisseurship- whether of the serial kind or simply sticking to one area and ever increasing the levels of subtlety- seems natural to me; it’s healthier for the brain and it is one more area of human activity that gets better with age.


[1] Norman S. Doidge “The brain that changes itself”. Penguin 2008


What gets better as you get older

As people age they focus, or tend to, on the things they are losing, the things and faculties that are worsening, the situations and events that are sliding into chaos or decay. It is all part of the default pessimism of most cultures. Why is this the default setting? Because a culture is living YOU if that makes sense. You’re like a single cell and your existence serves the culture, to some extent, but since the culture is not alive- it has been created by humans- it is parasitic on human energy to keep it alive. Like the matrix it feeds off our vital forces, and that drain is experienced by us as pessimism. Without its supply of human energy the vampiric culture dies, it displays itself as energy hungry and casts aside those who cannot blindly feed it- therefore it prefers the young to those who have wised up, the old.

Yep, that’s the first benefit of aging, you’ve seen through the culture. You know you have to pay lip service and do your civic duty but that’s it. No overtime here will gain you anything. Your energies are better spent relating to real people.

As you get older is makes sense to focus on that which CAN evolve and improve:

You get to be less self-centred (if you try)

You become better at detecting subtleties

You see the bigger picture

You can predict things better

You have more foresight

Now the harder part- which requires work:

You can be less anxious

You can be more lighthearted

You can give more in every sense

Faced between making a heavier response and a lighter one you can choose the lighter one

You can learn more effectively

You can better identify worthwhile goals

You can be more use to people

The list could be longer but this is a start. The real regeneration of any culture begins when old age is seen as a revered and worthwhile goal not some kind of horrible garbage bin end to a beautiful, prolonged and self-centred childhood.




getting in the right head space

Half the battle is turning up. Half the battle is coming back to your work after taking a break, several times if necessary. And half the battle is getting in the right head space (all battles command more than 100% from you). This can be helped by travel, sleeping at a different time from usual, being ill, drinking, plenty of danger there for mistaking one thing for another. The best way to get in the right head space for taking photographs is 1) start taking pictures straightaway, bad ones especially (or very vaguely interesting ones if you prefer) 2) get closer  3) keep moving  4) get above people and look down 5) get below and look up 6)take more bad pictures 7) get closer . As William Burroughs said, good writing happens when your nose is right on the wheel in front. Writing and taking pictures are similar in that when you are in the right headspace you see possibilities everywhere.

Of course one of the main enemies of the right head space is getting precious about being in the right head space. You need to get rid of any pressure- self imposed or other-people-imposed. You need to be outside time- achieve this by other going very fast or very slow, machine gunning or simply staring. Increasingly, though, I find that almost any photos are good, almost any writing is good. Maybe the right head space is simply the one that says 'make something' rather than "it's not good enough". Not good enough for who?


11 things about the future I am contemplating

The future will be homemade

Life will be a niche in the future

The future will be human

A few big things will fail

The only agreed morality will be sustainability

The future will be opt in/sign up not opt out.

New forms of family and old forms of family will still be paramount

The future will involve fasting: food fasting and information/stimulation fasting. We’ve messed up our physical and mental digestion through over eating and we are stressed and distorted from too much information- people will regularly fast from both.

The future will be business not nation driven.

The future will tend away from either/or,  and, this/that

The future will be about growing things yourself

Time spent not driving/commuting will be seen as a major form of success





Here is a link to an article I wrote for the excellent essay magazine AEON on altitude and how it helps and hinders life...