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More on Polymathics

The difference between a wise and foolish man.

A man wiser than me asked me what the difference was between a wise and foolish man. I started to expound at length on being objective and not rushing in, on integrating the personality and trusting your observing self. He agreed with all I said, but then, in the spirit of making a mere addition to my list, but providing really, a succinct alternative perspective, he held up his thumb and forefinger showing a tiny gap between them- “that’s the difference between a wise and foolish man”.

We imagine that the gap is much much wider. That it has to be filled with all kinds of learning and experience. That a ‘wise’ man or woman is cut from very different cloth from ourselves. None of that is helpful as a picture of where to go to get ‘more’ wisdom. Even that sentence is wrong headed. If you have a window you can’t see though you need to start removing things that are blocking the view. Instead we start piling more and more stuff in front of the window. Everything we do gets in the way of seeing clearly, but we need to do something- because we are human- and that is the paradox we have to solve all the time. It never goes away. You have to do the minimum without ‘doing the minimum’- you have to find an activity that keeps you from becoming lazy and heedless but doesn’t make you obsessive and anxious.

We live in an age in which there is no shortage of things to make you anxious. So avoid them. When you are less anxious you have enough ‘psychological time’ to be able to see clearly. Psychological time is that feeling of having lots of time rather than feeling rushed- it is a combination of time, energy and lack of anxiety. When you have enough psychological time you can develop a better sense of when to do something. It is often said that wisdom is right time, right place, right people- increase the rightness of places- the work you do or where you travel- and people- who you associate with- and you will increase the instances when correct timing is applicable. But in a sense it is all about timing. It is about being comfortable doing nothing without its cause being heedlessness or laziness. Instinctively knowing the right time to do a thing is rightly seen as a mark of superior knowledge. But the difference between being in rhythm and out of rhythm is like that tiny gap between thumb and forefinger- very small.

One reason why travelling is very useful is that your circumstances don’t control you. You can move whenever you want. This gives you the freedom to go or stay depending on your intuition. By trusting your intuition when you travel – in small ways at first and then in bigger ways – you develop a better sense of ‘good timing’. Why is humour so beloved of the wise? Because it encapsulates the importance of timing and the importance of incongruity. Get the timing wrong and a joke doesn’t work. Learn to spot incongruities and you will be funnier as a humourist; you will also develop clearer perceptions about the way the world works.

Can you teach yourself better timing? What do you think?


Great new editing service

Are you struggling with a manuscript or a book proposal?

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change the circumstances

It's easier to change the circumstances of your life than the life itself. That's why we seem so amazed at how we 'change' on a journey or holiday. Then we come back home full of good intentions and slowly the old life reclaims us; not because we were lazy or lacked willpower, simply because it was the right life for the circumstances. Changing these externals is much more powerful than tinkering with the internals.


A new kind of thinking is required.

When I start blaming others I have to remind myself: The world is mad. No one is at the controls. All governments operate like Bart Simpson saying ‘sniff my butt’, ‘pee on that lampost’ to a dog doing its own thing, hoping their near simultaneous commands will be interpreted as controlling the dog- when in fact nothing is controlling it. Corporations all act out of self-interest, ie. primitive childish behaviour at best. At worst they cause major problems of oppression, resource depletion and pollution. But to be ‘against’ them is to play the same game of failing to integrate with all the disparate elements of life.

One major step forward is to understand that the highly unsophisticated mainstream approach to stories and their power (though co-opted by business and derailed into mere selling) results in us LIVING stories created by others.  When we have an unsophisticated grasp of the power of stories to describe psychological (broadly speaking) processes rather than real life in all its complexity we suffer some kind of ‘story deficiency’. We end up trying to make our lives ‘like a story’. Usually some kind of fairy story, an heroic quest, a love story. When life lacks interesting experiences (which techno-capitalism tends to encourage) then we look for stories to live vicariously; we can easily project a story on the world that can be very destructive. The whole debacle in Iraq was because a story gripped the US neocons- ‘Saddam is the new Hitler’.

The more cut off we are from everyday realities the easier it is to imagine we can live ‘a story’- everywhere we are encouraged to narrowly ‘follow our passion’ at the expense of developing a sane and rounded existence. Of course ‘sane’ doesn’t mean doing a humdrum job and watching TV- when over half the population of the US and the UK have some mental health issues in their lives- ordinary life as depicted in commercials and by mainstream media must be suspected as a major cause of insanity.

Instead of banning things and opposing things we must ignore them and give less attention to them- this is another ‘sophisticated’ tenet of any new way of thinking. In our primitive modern society we give MORE attention to that which is disabling, thus fuelling it. The most extreme case is terrorism, which could not exist without the oxygen of free publicity. But newspapers say “if we didn’t report it the internet would”- you see the problem.

Science offers no help in the process of becoming wiser, but it does provide some useful psychological and anthropological evidence of how humans work. Many psychiatrists and psychological experts specialise in the disease they have. A depressed psychiatrist will be trying to cure a depressed patient. An obsessive will be studying and helping an obsessive. Does this matter? You decide.

Companies and institutions love meetings and groups- it is a way of turning contemplation into action. But contemplation takes time and a lack of noise. Every moment of our ‘doing nothing’ time is there to be colonised by TV, Internet and fun consumer activities. Sitting quietly and doing nothing is valuable- boring Sundays in the UK when nothing was open contributed more to sanity than Sunday shopping.

A new kind of thinking will make doing things without ego gratification normal and healthy. Charitable work (as in much of the East) will be secret and low key- not a form of corporate advertising as it now is.

Unfortunately we are now at a stage when only those with an abnormal need for ego gratification seek employment at the higher level in government and corporate institutions. A ‘normal’ person would simply not put up with the kind of double talk and posturing needed to be a public figure these days. The talk is all of transparency- but this transparency is what forces ‘leaders’ to follow the crowd ie. old and pervasive stories that grip the populace.

There is no solution- the next step is not a coercion of one part of the populace to do what their betters think is…better. That way lies the tyranny of Pol Pot and other modern primitives. The only way forward is to integrate the need for action with the need for acting wisely- which includes, very often, doing nothing. Currently the childish notion of ‘any action is better than nothing’ is widely accepted.

It is an ancient form of wisdom to accept that crowds only act sensibly in times of mutual danger. This is why many ancient people would elect a war leader and sack him as soon as a war is over. Then the crowd is dissipated, since only in smallish groups can the intricacies and lack of drama of real decision making be appreciated. Governments hate losing power so they oppose such decentralisation. But this leaves them with a problem- a large, pissed off crowd. How do they deal with it? The method of a war leader is coercion and appeal to the general good- which in a war is obvious. The reason why modern governments invest in bogus wars on drugs and terrorism is that it enables them to coerce people en masse and yet keep them from decentralising and taking away the delightful feeling of power that governments have. What is this power? Not the power to get things done, rather it is a feeling of importance, the delightful sensation of receiving a great deal of attention- ego gratification. If you have ever been on TV you’ll know the feeling.

The dangerous form of ego gratification means doing unwise things because on a temporary level it ‘feels good’. Only when this is under self-observation, ie. you are perfectly aware of what you are doing, is any progress made in eliminating unwise behaviour. I stood for parliament some years ago as an experiment. Within ten minutes of attending my first political hustings I saw that modern democratic politics is 95% about getting elected or re-elected and 5% about doing something helpful. And that 5% of action has to be newsworthy. Since most really important stuff -isn’t, then any politician is either mad, an idiot or ‘normal’ but suffering from an abnormal need for ego gratification. I know a few politicians and they are lovely folk- kind and helpful- but they do not acknowledge they are in the game solely because it’s a game they want to win. If the prime minister stood up and said that getting elected is EXACTLY the same as winning at Monopoly he’d be sacked for being ‘not serious’. Some politicians seem genuinely astounded that they can’t ‘get things done’. One thinks of the ‘cones hotline’ of John Major- even that, a phone line to report too many cones on the motorway failed after a few months. The ambitious ones are blind to this, holding on to power is their game, and the delight of being in power is reward enough. Playing at being a real leader is a small price to pay.

I am not advocating that we remove politicians- someone has to empty the garbage as they say- but what is required is a new kind of thinking where instead of ‘civics’ we are taught ‘psychologics’ where the real motivations of those who seek power are revealed to school and university students.

There are many ways that the new kind of thinking could take hold- first we need to teach at school that in the world, man’s circumstances- his machines and businesses and institutions have a life of their own that is not being directed. There is NO PLAN. And there never can be until we integrate the desire for action with that of contemplation divorced from ego gratification.


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

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