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What's your next adventure?



Talent is either everywhere or nowhere. Think about that one.


Tweak your way to Success

We all dream of a single panacea, a single method, a single idea that will bring us success, or happiness, or health or wealth.

Diet books thrive on the idea that a single idea will make you thin. Self-help books promote a single strategy for success: better habits, thinking big, making friends, being emotionally intelligent, doing 10,000 hours of practice…

Yet deep down we suspect the reality…there is no panacea.

Instead there is something better: tweaking.

Tweaking is how you succeed. You keep improving a bit here and bit there. It might be a very small improvement- but every little helps.

If you go on a multi-day hike your rucksack is likely to weigh a ton when you start out. It’s just the way we are: you never know what you might need. But as you walk, you discard stuff. You start tweaking. I even once cut off all the extra straps I didn’t need. Can’t have weighed more than 100grams. But take off a 100 grams a day for ten days and you’ve lost a kilo from your back. In a month three kilos- and that IS a lot in backpacking terms.

Tweaking is recommended as a good way to lose weight. Use smaller plates, don’t eat after 6pm, stop snacking: little things, tiny tweaks- but they all add up. In New Scientist this week I read that leading weight researchers have a maxim: if you want to be skinny do what skinny people do. And when you look at skinny people they do a whole range of things from eating standing up to choosing well lit spots in restaurants. Tweaks. Just keep adding them to your repertoire to slowly improve.

When we change a big thing in our lives there is often a reaction- it can be detrimental and even put you off further progress. You plan to get fit and go for a five mile run when you haven’t run it years: you pull a ligament which puts you off any further exercise. Instead it would be better to tweak your daily routine. Walk faster, walk longer. Slowly enact change.

You’re worried that you’ll lose momentum? Not if your tweaks are all in alignment. It’s like writing a book- as long as you write a little each day, every day, it will get written. As long as the tweaks are connected with a defined challenge or goal you will improve.

You want to improve a relationship? Start by tweaking. Find the most irritating thing you do and stop doing it- you may find it is a very small thing.

You want to get wealthier? Don’t look for the blockbusting pay out, just tweak what you already have. Optimise your production little by little.

Running faster- don’t exhaust yourself- tweak everything instead: lighter shoes, different clothes, better diet, run at different times- try anything and everything as a potential tweak. And if it works- ues it.

Tweaking encourages a creative look at improvement. Instead of being straitjacketed use your imagination to try every kind of way to gain a slight advantage. If you imagine you write better dressed in a cape and top hat- then do it, if you think can paint better paintings by using candlelight- then try it. Tweaking restores the fun to getting better at things. Forget science- or, rather, see science as just one source of tweaks. There are many more.

Get tweaking!





50 years of The Sufis

It is 50 years since Idries Shah's groundbreaking book The Sufis appeared. Follow the below link for my article about it on the Royal Society for Asian Affairs blog site:


Nine Ways to Be Extraordinary

Being extraordinary doesn't mean becoming a freak, a publicity hound, a person forever trying to 'get attention'. It means, really, becoming more like your destined self. Being various, individual, your own man, does not require costly and extravagant endeavors. It does require finding out what makes you happy; it also means being unusually clearsighted about how to achieve what makes you happy. Most people aren't. They have too many competing plans. They are too greedy. To be extraordinary you will have to sacrice the warm and wooly headed feeling of giving no thought for the morrow. You will need to make plans and stick to them. You will have to avoid anything that threatens to derail your project.

1. Be polymathic.

Don't get too specialised, even if you are a specialist. There are specialists and specialists. Nobel prize winning scientists are TWENTY FIVE times more likely to also sing, dance, perfom magic tricks or do photography as a serious hobby than regular scientists. (Source: Dr Robert Root-Bernstein)

2. Think big, start small.

The classic self-help book Think Big by David Schwartz is great as a boost when you are feeling down. Thinking big is essential, if only to give your own ideas some sort of perspective. But it's easy to get carried away, so carried away you don't know where to start. Or you become victim to what I call the book/the movie/the app/the board game. This is when you have a good idea and you really think you're doing REAL WORK when you suggest turning it into a book/movie/app/board develop it across all platforms. That's the easy part! Make it work in one place only before you try and make it massive. Which doesn't mean you shouldn't think big, it just means beware of megalomania, when the desire for greatness runs frictionless and free, spinning in a vacuum and driving you slowly insane..

So, start small. You want to direct Hollywood films- great- start by making a film on a handycam about your postman or your cat or even your postman and your cat. Do something, anything, that actually gets you closer to where you want to be. Do something like that everyday, except on your designated rest day. Even Amundsen rested one day a week in his headlong race to the South Pole, Scott didn't...

3. Create your environment

When I was at university I noticed that those who got first class degrees hung out with the people who got first class degrees. The people who got third class (or worse) degrees - as I did- hung out with the thoroughly delightful people who got third class degrees. Never underestimate the effect your everyday environment has on you- which means your friends and family. As my good pal Fat Frank says: if your life isn't going where you want it to go: change your friends; if it still isn't: move. I will add to that the intriguing possibility of changing your name. Actors do it, and some artists tweak their names. Why not? if you can create yourself you may be able to create something else. And, finally, get a shed/room/workshop/office/shop. It's OK to run a business from home but it seems to work better when you have a purpose designated location.

4. Enrich others.

Don't think about making yourself rich all the time, think about all the others you'll make rich. It's a useful change in perspective. Think about working with people. Building teams. Even a writer can spread himself through helping other writers, teaching others what he has learnt. This is very different from getting people on board so that you can do less work, avoid responsibility. Enriching others means viewing them paternalistically, not parasitically. 

5. One thing at a time.

If you can stick to this you will achieve more than you could ever imagine. Here's a little experiment which will indicate how: imagine you have twenty million dollars, now imagine the next twenty years. What will you do? Five years going round the world? Five years making documentaries in remote places? a year learning Spanish? another year studying cordon bleu cookery?

After a while you’ll run out of things you can imagine doing. Because in your imagination you are doing them exclusively and one at a time. Do them all at once- which is the way most people approach multiple goals and you won’t achieve any sort of level in any of them. You’ll sort of muck about for twenty years and then it will be gone. John Lennon presciently wrote, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” Well that’s true- but only when you are doing lots of things at once including making plans. If you are doing one thing at a time, full on, full time then there is life, being lived. 

There is a reason why five years of French lessons leaves most school kids unable to even order a coffee in France whereas an intensive course for a month would enable them to order just about anything on the menu.

To do things one at a time, full time and full focus, is the most powerful ‘success’ technique there is. Worth knowing even if success is not your ultimate goal…

6. Meet your needs, just.

No one needs a nice car, a hot shower, a well sprung bed…not unless they are ill. If you’re alive and well, make do with less if it means you can do more of what you want to be doing.

7. Learn to love pain.

This is connected to the above. Life involves pain. Even easy peasy modern life with ibuprofen and codeine involves pain. Emotional pain, physical pain. You won’t get through life without a certain amount of both. But, hell, they’re only chemicals coursing through your veins, chemicals that with a little effort bear a slight resemblance to their supposed opposite: pleasure. Pain and pleasure share the same characteristic: they both hog lots of brain space, using up millions of connections. They both demand attention. But if you can connect pain with the idea of making progress- which as an athlete you must do, and as a hard worker you probably must do too, then you are well on the way to making pain, if not your friend, at least a willing accomplice and welcome acquaintance.

8. Go where the energy is.

This advice was given to me about writing. When you feel there is energy in a certain area of writing- go there. You’ll find out about yourself if nothing else. If a scene doesn’t interest you, has no energy, go where there is one.

But in life this also applies. People, who, when you leave them, leave you with energy are to be treasured. Those who leave you drained, to be avoided. Subjects that seem to be where the energy is- for you- are places to investigate. Countries too.

9. Set yourself challenges, not goals.

Man is a goal following creature. No goal means you’ll be setting up someone else’s, someone you may not even like or respect. But giving yourself a goal is a bit bloodless. It’s also a bit easy. My goal is to be CEO of BP, there, decided, now I can get back to playing with my Xbox. A challenge, like a bet, has more life, more edge. You challenge yourself because of a certain self-disgust with past failures. You accept a challenge from others because you want to ‘show them’. Both are more powerful motivators then simply deciding on a ‘goal’.



Be Extraordinary

What do self-help books offer? The promise of wealth? Success? Happiness? I remember a gut shot of recognition when I saw Anthony Robbins first book on the shelves: Unlimited Power! Isn’t that ultimately what the punter wants? Us?

All of us believe that we do indeed have a slumbering colossus within, waiting to do incredible things, if only we could just find the key…We firmly believe we are only using 5% of our brains, as in the movie Limitless, the only problem being in the details ie. accessing the other 95%.

Then there was The Secret- if you worship what you want to achieve you will achieve it.

I have a friend, the most successful entrepreneur I know from my callow days in academe, he’s a multi-millionaire and a very nice chap. Thirty years ago when he was a just a (highly successful) salesman he’d have a self help book on his desk next to his phone. “You don’t read them to get the answer,” he told me, “You read them to get re-energised when you’re feeling down. Then you can make that call and sound like you mean it.”

The father of another friend was also a very wealthy entrepreneur- he had a whole bookcase of self-help books. Maybe he, too, was using them to get some kind of lift. In any case it made me sceptical of the nay sayers, those who pour scorn on any attempt at self betterment using a book that screams: Go For It!

Naturally, there are some crap self-help books out there. But even the crappest has one thing, or perhaps two things, of value in it- usually stuff that they are repeating, or a lively quote they’ve borrowed from another righteous tome of personal development. There’s an awful lot of recycling going on in the self-improvement field.

Anthony Robbins, despite his nutty NLP ideas and simplistic pleasure/pain motivational schemas, hits the nail on the head with his titles: The Unlimited Power I’ve mentioned, along with Awaken the Giant Within. He understands that it is a FEELING we want NOW not some nebulous future state.

Stephen Covey with his worthy ‘Habits of highly successful people’ pushes, as many do, the concept of SUCCESS as the ultimate goal. Gawd knows I’ve been suckered down that alley a few times. Just what is it exactly I now ask? Being on telly? Having people stop you in the street? Lots of cash? And when does it start? Or end? The world is littered with successful people who think of themselves as failures because they aren’t as successful as someone else a notch higher up the bed post; Napoleon torturing himself because he hasn’t got to India as Alexander did, Steve Jobs thinking he isn’t Bill Gates, Bill Gates whinging that he isn’t Steve Jobs…

Success- as I’ve written elsewhere- is an exercise in framing an enterprise. Frame it so that it succeeds and you are a success. You have bragging rights. But you’ll still be disappointed unless you’ve grown to recognise the warm feeling in your midriff that success gives you- that’s what people want, cut to the chase and get the feeling direct from pills, the bottle, a line of cocaine. Which is why so many successful people turn to such things. Success, is, literally, in your head.

Money- well- there’s never enough and then you’re approaching the later stages of your life and you realise that hey, you don’t need that much, and actually time is rather more attractive as a commodity, and health isn’t bad too…

Beyond the functional requirements for money it becomes a ‘success token’. A kind of substitute currency for success. And success can likewise be turned into money.

So the books offer chimeras. Or they offer the equivalent of a day dream.

Real self-help is about building the exterior self, making it work better in the world, enabling you to be happy. Happy enough to pursue, probably at the same time, worthier goals of inner evolution. The two help each other, but it’s hard to concentrate on becoming a better person if you’re just not happy.

As Idries Shah suggests: first make yourself happy. Then think about higher studies.

Hitching yourself to open-ended concepts such as ‘being a success’ is a recipe for unrelenting toil and unhappiness. You need to be happy NOW.

I give lectures every now and then at Universities- I love doing it- but the message I find myself putting over time and again is: travel. Travel while you have no financial burdens and responsibilities, travel while you are still automatically open to new experiences, travel while you can still enjoy roughing it, travel while you can still be mentored by people along the way. With a bit of recalibrating, people of any age can do all of the above, but they can do other stuff too. People aged 18-30 often can’t- but they can travel.

And while I was on my own travels recently I connected travelling with ‘Being Extraordinary.’

When you come back from a trip- and increasingly I have ceased to use the word holiday, trips seem to offer more than that nugatory term seems to supply, when you come back you have this altered energy. Probably you are more relaxed, but usually you are more focused- things you have ignored for months you quickly achieve. In fact there is a curious parallel with the week BEFORE a trip when your productivity soars and you get everything finished in time and the week when you return when you blast through all the things you’ve been thinking about on the trip…what if you could just have the week before and week after and cut out the trip altogether?

Keep the trip. What I am circling is the idea that travel allows ANYONE to be extraordinary- by definition you are taken out of your ordinary and put somewhere new and challenging. That’s where your special energy comes from, and that’s where your special powers come from.

Special powers? Yep- all travellers know that after a few weeks you become a sort of superhero out there on the road. You can talk to anyone. Shyness goes- it has to- as you need to talk to lots of people each day just to survive. Of course you have your ups and downs, but basic extroversion becomes the order of the day. And talking to anyone you find a strange equality pervades the world of travelling. Just moving on- the downsides of class, race and sect just don’t drag you down. What other powers? Coincidence, happy chance encounters, miraculous meetings- all that becomes…expected. You become the beholder of strange sights, strange experiences, incongruities that seem to offer the key to a place, amazing rushes of energy.

Of course, all the time your money is running out, so, eventually, and probably rightly, you head home.

A week or two later you’re ordinary again.

Unless you decide to Be Extraordinary…all the time.

That, I have decided after long consideration, is the real deal. My next post will outline how…


More on Spiral Thinking

Spiral thinking is simply a tool to help you think better, and must be distinguished from Spiral Dynamics- a complicated, all encompassing, theory about the way the world works. I’ve written a little about spiral thinking before- an idea generated by myself and my good friend and Brookes University Business Studies Lecturer, Richard Mohun.

Spiral thinking simply utilises the analogy of the spiral to generate better ways to think, the spiral being ubiquitous in the natural world and a form very suggestive of dynamic, creative forces. One need only pick up a cone shaped sea shell to see the spiral lines inside, indicating the way it has formed, one can imagine, like a speeded up film, the slow turning and growth of the shell as it spirals out from tiny beginnings.

Continuing in this vein, one can picture vertical thinking as simply drilling straight down at a single spot, lateral thinking as making several test borings in a certain area, or, perhaps, randomly, but spiral thinking has no such limits- it simply grows and grows, spreading ever outward, until, like the spiral arms of the galaxy it encompasses a solar system.

It’s good to have a sense of the limitless possibilities of thinking- and the spiral encourages that. In my earlier post I suggested one imagined onself spiraling around a subject to get a better idea about it. In this one I want to look at other aspects of the spiral.

    Snakes naturally form into spirals, its what any dynamic line does. In native rock art it is one of the most common symbols encountered.If you map this spiral along one axis you get an increasing wavy line. Two spirals and you get two wavy lines. We're back to snakes again: the overlapping wavy line of two snakes escaping ->


Suggestively this is also a common rock art and textile motif in every part of the world. If these snakes continued maybe they would circle back to form a helix, a spiral in three dimensions. But look at it another way- the wavy line snake is really a series of ‘nodes’ and ‘packages’. Which is one of the most fundamental ways to represent thinking on almost any subject. You could represent a story as a single line, moving from plot point to plot point. But then you’d miss out the ‘bulk’ that gives weight and meaning to any single plot point. Instead, think of a story as a series of packages- where narrative is bulked up but not advanced, and nodes- where something happens that is important. Then imagine that snake spiralling around- allowing for return and repetition of events and ideas. Stanley Kubrick stated that a good film needed 'nine or ten non-submersible units'- packages with node points.

You can use the wavy line snake diagram to map out any project. Take an expedition. The packages are general areas that need addressing route, supplies, people. You write in stuff within each ‘bubble’ area of the package. At the node points you identify single issues that are crucial, bottlenecks if you like, essential to be fulfilled if the project is to progress.

If you are building a house the node points might be: get foundations in, do wiring, get bricks delivered. The package areas are for all the accompanying detail that also needs to be done but doesn’t require specific timing.

By using these wavy line diagrams, and by spiralling them back on themselves- so you revisit the same areas again, a bit further progressed; you get a much better idea of visualising how a project will unfurl. People are notoriously bad at imagining projects in the future- we are usually way too optimistic on timing- but using the wavy snake, and then further torturing it into a spiral, you can really visualise the quantity of work ahead.

From the above images you can get some idea, be reminded of, the number of natural spirals there are in the world. If you get into the habit of collecting such images you may find one that seems to suit some problem you are working on, may suggest a kind of solution, a way forward. I use the spiral idea in constructing stories- when I’m at an impasse I simply look for something that has featured earlier- I then repeat it- but with differences caused by the story having moved on a bit. You can spiral round three times and create a very satisfying shape to a tale this way- think of stories as diverse as the three bears and King Lear.

Mapping a spiral net gives a preset form to organising data for a non-fiction book or report. Inchoate material CAN be linked using a Buzan mind-map, but I find I usually just end up with a vast mess on the page- a load of overlapping lines like an insane circuit diagram. It just doesn’t help me. By using a spiral net as above, one assigns topics of decreasing necessity – judged intuitively- as the shape spirals out. You then look at connections both laterally and vertically along the lattice lines. This is a great prompt for further ideas and can suggest fortuitous links you may not have suspected.

Any regular shape, if you rotate it enough times with an increase at each step (in this case the golden mean is the increasing factor) will result in a spiral. It may well be suggestive to think of your project as having four corners, that you can rotate and enlarge over time.

Just as lateral thinking sought to connect creativity to linking random ideas together, spiral thinking seeks to do the same but using the anchoring notion of the spiral. This results in more usable ideas as the spiral already exists as one the strongest organising structures in the universe.

So this is the theory- now, if you have particular experiences when spiral thinking prompted a new idea or helped organise a project, please let me know- the email is at the foot of this page.


intelligence is over rated

An interview in New Scientist this week caught my eye: an Artificial Intelligence researcher casually began answering a question with “I didn’t want to conflate intelligence with skill…” It set me thinking: what if intelligence CANNOT be divorced from skill? What if it’s impossible to separate the two? Take an IQ Test- a measure of raw intelligence- look at how many skills it requires: reading- fast and accurately, counting- fast and accurately, taking on data in a conventional way (ie. don’t be too lateral with an IQ question), physical skill in holding a pen and ticking boxes. These skills may be taken for granted in the west- so much so that they are invisible to a phd student- but they are, in fact, hard won skills requiring someone to have spent a fair amount of time sitting down and acquiring them. What if IQ measures not intelligence but skill? 

Science drives wedges between things that are normally joined in order to generate new insights. Like a diamond cutter the scientist turns the gem of his study over and over looking for the ‘fault lines’. These are the places of least resistance- get it wrong and the diamond will shatter. I spoke to a geneticist earlier this year and he told me scientific research was all about asking ‘the right questions, formulating the question in the right way’. In other words, choosing where to drive that wedge in.

Some places admit the wedge easily. It makes sense to separate the weight of a ball when you drop it, from its size- as Galileo did. From this division Newton went on to derive his classical laws of physics. Some wedges work for a while- highlighting the gene generated vast amounts of science; but it now looks as if the cell is the real cornerstone- epigenetic feedback systems have made the gene look increasingly less important.

Maybe the scientific fraternity will discover that making ‘intelligence’ an isolated and comprehensible concept to drive psychological research was a bad choice to make. Maybe 'intelligence' should be replaced with notions of varying types of skill.

Almost the first job I had was putting up fences around building sites in Birmingham. It was job for skivers as the council paid our wages to keep us off the dole. The foreman was an Irishman who’d spent his life doing real building work and he tried in vain to get us to work hard. He once took a pick out of my hand and in a few quick effective blows broke up the concrete below allowing a hole to be dug. Lads mocked him (behind his back) because he couldn’t read or write but this man had real intelligence in the way he worked. Put an Oxford graduate (me) next to him and I was the one who looked unintelligent.

Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize winning physicist but he used to call himself ‘physics smart’ acknowledging his inability in other areas.

Psychologists have spent over a century and a lot of ink trying to define intelligence- maybe the intelligent thing to do would be to see that concepts of intelligence without ‘skill’, which has a qualitative side that can’t be given a number, are meaningless.

Lots of things become clearer. I have a friend who is brilliant at maths but made two huge marriage blunders resulting in great unhappiness. He’s about to make his third. He has maths skill: remembers patterns, likes numbers, can do arithmetic in his head- and as a result has a high IQ- but he doesn’t have people skill, can’t tell a good person for him from a bad one. Normally we’d call him one of those super-intelligent people who are also stupid. But I think he just has skills that he has over and under developed.

Learning ‘skills’ have been mocked for being too ‘basic’, but perhaps they were simply ill thought out when presented for judgement. Real learning skills such as a good memory, the ability to get ‘into’ a new subject, the ability to find your own way into a subject- these are all vital sub-skills that relate to the acquisition of further skills, some of which will earn you the soubriquet ‘intelligent’.

But we all know what an intelligent fellow is don’t we? That’s the problem. An intelligent chap is someone with a skill for analysis, a quick logical mind and doesn’t make the same mistake twice in the area under consideration. It is simply a conflation of several skills- all of which can be taught and honed.

When my kids were at the British School in Cairo I remember one child who had been been written off as utterly dim. But then one day a maths teacher noticed the girl had got a very hard maths question right- and all the others wrong. Was she cheating? The girl was of Indian origin and her English wasn’t very good. And her handwriting was appalling. More to the point she was very slow at forming letters and numbers- which later she found hard to read. It was only by chance that she managed to copy down a maths question right. No wonder she got so many wrong. But the real breakthrough came when they saw how she held her pen- in a way that made it impossible to write fast. She lacked a single crucial skill. The school gave her an intensive course that remedied this- and her improvement was amazing. Her ‘maths intelligence’ was dependent on a physical skill- holding a pen.

We talk about ‘street smart’- someone who can look after themselves in a non-institutional environment, someone who knows the ‘ways of the world’. His or her intelligence cannot be divorced from their skill at reading people and situations.

When people say “I’m not that intelligent” they almost always mean they were poor at maths at school and not brilliant at any other academic subject. Sometimes you meet people who announce “It took me until I was 30 to find out I was intelligent after all.” Both are being played by a bogus concept. It is better to think of life as a place where certain skills are needed. You may find you have some painlessly, having been to a school and university, others you may need to work hard for. But unlike ‘intelligence’- which in its fairytale world is a constant, something you are born with, skills acquisition never ends, and skills can become rusty with lack of use. 

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