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Thursday
Sep182014

Autodidacticism

Fascinating long article by the polymathic Jack Kinsella on all sorts of improved self-teaching methods- really interesting and useful- will get you thinking for sure:

http://www.oxbridgenotes.com/articles/autodidactism/oxbridge_notes_guide_to_autodidactism

 

Sunday
Sep142014

Haughty and Generous

Idries Shah famously reintroduced the idea that traditionally it was often considered the ideal, or near ideal, character to be both haughty and generous. I was talking about this today with author and friend Jason Webster. I suggested that, like much of Idries Shah's apparently simple statements, it would reward further thinking. One could superficially understand being 'haughty and generous' to mean one should be snotty and snobbish yet also generous. But think back to those previous eras when the idea was first promulgated. Then there was a more rigid set of behaviours for each class. You didn’t really need to be snobbish- there was such an obvious difference between you and the next level. Snobbery only becomes necessary when you actual rub shoulders with the hoi poloi. In Egypt the upper classes can be snobbish, but I often found the real aristocrats weren’t- they were kind and considerate to all people they came into contact with because it was so obvious they were from another zone. And many were also generous.

Jason suggested being haughty in this context meant refusing to be flattered when people noticed your generosity; an antidote to ‘using up’ whatever accrues when one is generous. I think, though, that, in addition to this there is also the fact that a haughty person does not rely on others for sustenance, does not ‘consume’. He or she is a producer- and yet they pass on things of value to others- they are generous. They aren’t looking to take, they are looking to give. Being snotty has nothing to do with it- the real deal is about aiming to reach a place where you can help others without needing or seeking help yourself, which includes, of course, the ‘help’ of being praised.

 

Wednesday
Sep102014

The Polymathic Principle

 

Everyone will tell you one thing; specialise, specialise, specialise…don’t.

Suppose you have a child who seems unusually talented at science, who appears to have a natural inclination towards math and physics. You might be tempted to send your offspring to special classes in extra math with the dream that they would achieve great things if only they specialised early enough. Walter Alvarez, a doctor, saw things differently. His son Luis was gifted in science but he chose to balance this by sending him to a school specialising in arts and crafts. Instead of fast tracking through advanced calculus, Luis worked at technical drawing and woodwork…which didn’t stop him from going on later to study science and ultimately win the 1968 Nobel Prize for Physics. Luis attributed his success to his ability to build any experimental apparatus he could imagine.

Developing fine motor skills was also essential to the success claimed by celebrated US astronaut Storey Musgrave. His early training as a boy growing up on a farm gave him the skills ‘to fix anything’ just as crucial in a space station, as later degrees in engineering and medicine.

There is informal recognition of the advantage of a polymathic background: 82% of scientists and engineers surveyed by Robert Root-Bernstein answered Yes to the question “Would you recommend an arts and crafts education as a useful or even essential background for a scientific innovator?”[1]

But scientists and engineers are not alone in needing inspiration from elsewhere. Artists and writers also gain from having a non-arts background. WH Auden, Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov and David Foster Wallace all had maths or science educations in addition to their literary pursuits. In terms of multi-modal skills, Foster Wallace was also a sports scholar as a young man. Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey were both football players; Albert Camus played in goal for the Algerian national soccer team and Samuel Beckett was a notable cricket player in his native Ireland.

An early taste for multiple expertise is rather more common than we might think. My own childhood background is far from unusual: I built treehouses, go karts, repaired bicycles and motorbikes, took photographs, went rock climbing, looked at things under a microscope and wrote poetry. I managed to maintain this wide spread of interests into adulthood- by ignoring the advice given to me by careers officers, teachers, employers but luckily not my parents.

They understood the need to maintain a wide base of knowledge. Intuitively they understood about the synergetics of knowledge.

Alexis Carrel, Nobel Prize winner in Medicine learned, when he was a child, how to stitch incredibly tiny and intricate patterns from his lace making mother. He later used this skill in making ground breaking advancements in the field of surgery.

Hans von Euler-Chelpin focussed on fine arts at college before an interest in colour lead him to the sciences, eventually leading to the 1929 Nobel prize in chemistry.

Leading astro-physicist Jacob Shaham claimed, “Acting taught me how to read equations like a script with characters I had to bring to life.”

All these high achievers are demonstrating the same thing: there is great synergy in having multiple areas of expertise.

The  engine of polymathics, why it works, is the synergy between different areas of knowledge. The more you know the better- but not just arithmetically, exponentially. Fields of knowledge cross-fertilise each other in many, often surprising, ways. The kernal of creativity is, after all, putting together things that have never been put together before. Learning skills, honed on one area become useful in another. You get different perspectives the more you know, and a different perspective can mean everything.

Synergy is the ‘extra energy’ liberated in system that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an idea that has been around since Aristotle.

If you have three or more areas of expertise there is a real rise in many allied areas of knowledge acquisition and deployment. You learn faster and act smarter.

Why three or more? It’s what I have noticed. And the wider apart they are the better. Best is a physical or modal skill such as dancing or bookbinding or fly tying or parachuting PLUS a factual/informational field be it scientific, historical or literary PLUS an area of creative endeavor- singing, acting, writing, painting.



[1] Lamore and Root-Bernstein 2011

 

Friday
Sep052014

marx, opium, cocaine and attention

 

Marx is endlessly requoted as saying religion is the opiate of the people. In light of recent history a modern Marx might say religion is more akin to the cocaine or meth amphetamine of the people. Has religion changed so much it has gone from being a pacifying drug to an exciter of drama? 

We take drugs to make up for something lacking in our lives: happiness, calm, excitement, meaning. People know they are missing something in life. They look to balance themselves on the evidence presented, they look to stabilise using publicly available information. They try to become exoterically stable. But it’s impossible. The exoteric is composed of families, tribes, states, corporations- all of which give voice to ‘their’ own need for survival through people who have been sucked in to become inadvertent mouthpieces for these supra-human entities. Ever had a cause ‘take you over’? I have, briefly, it’s a delicious feeling of empowerment without guilt, doubt or confusion. But we are human individuals, linked with everything at an invisible, esoteric, level, not through the gross alliances of family and nation. Not that these aren’t important, they are, they provide the nutritional framework for life- what they can’t do is supply a real sense of ultimate purpose. Because what is most real (in many senses) is also hidden, then its concepts and ideas – when they become publicised- always run the risk of becoming traduced and cheapened, turned from being gold coins into metal discs good as a washer or a weight of some sort. The real meaning is lost and the esoteric concept becomes yet another item used by the exoteric world. The other day I was looking at a 19th century travel book about Iraq- it showed a drawing of the copper peacock of the Yezidis- a religious cult that still exists. Four of these copper birds were used to rally the people and were only revealed on special occasions. But from the drawing it was obvious that this was a sculptural representation of the path to personal enlightenment- the decorated handle indicating the different stages of growing awareness. Yet this item had become a kind of political device- rather like the mace wielded by western monarchs. It has been watered down to help the exoteric- the tribe- to survive. It happens with symbols- look how the yinyang symbol has become the flag of Korea, reduced from a meditation object to an emotional rallying point.

The esoteric is always having to reinvent itself, find new untainted ways to preserve and represent the kind of truths we need to make personal progress in this and future lives.

The exoteric world’s failure to supply meaning is further complicated because the same groups that fail to supply meaning distort things in order to appear as ‘supplying meaning’. In the current world a lack of involvement (caused by the disintegration of ‘traditional’ structures) means there are widespread feelings of worthlessness. Involvement supplies ‘A’ grade attention. If you have children compare the effect playing a board game has on them with merely asking to see their latest painting or lego toy. Involvement, as my friend Ramsay Wood informed me, is indeed the higher form of attention. 

But involvement is hard to conjure out of thin air. And the modern westernised world undermines structures that served very effectively to involve people in the past. These can’t be revived, alternatives are appearing all the time, but slowly and quietly. Meanwhile vast numbers of people do not get enough attention and drama in their everyday lives. So, if, in the past, when there was enough drama and attention in life, exoteric religion could function as something encouraging contemplation and patience, now more pressing concerns are forced upon its malleable form. In the exoteric world ‘religion’ is the first and most famous tourist destination for ‘meaning’. It’s the Tower of London. But now the ‘meaning’ people require includes this undigested need for involvement. Involvement that will generate high levels of attention and drama. Until we find a way of integrating that into the modern westernised version of life currently sweeping the globe, then expect religion to supply it in various grotesque and distorted ways. If the people need cocaine to get attention and involvement, they’ll find it.

 

Wednesday
Aug202014

twelve angry men

I've just watched the superb Twelve Angry Men, a classic movie where Henry Fonda persuades a certain jury they shouldn't be quite so certain. Subtle and brilliant in the way it deals with the way we make up our mind about things, I hadn't watched it - though I could have done - at any time in the last thirty years, because as a teenager I'd seen the Tony Hancock comic version, which lampoons the whole thing and therefore made me disregard the original. The British boast that their their piss taking humour reveals the reality behind the 'hypocritical' veil so often drawn across life. But what if piss taking actually covers up truth?

Tuesday
Aug192014

Zenventuring

 

I was going to write about the sixth law of adventure but something subtler gripped my imagination- the idea of combining ‘zen type’ thinking with adventure. I’ve been thinking recently about small scale and large scale adventures. It isn’t that hard to boost a small adventure into a big one. I’m a big fan of thinking BIG, as thinking big and thinking small take the same amount of effort (when viewed after the event). One just takes more boldness and less tendency to worry than the other. But thinking BIG should not get in the way of enjoying life. One can, all too easily, fall into the deadening mindset of only being ‘alive’ on some outlandish trip or another, which begins a polarising effect, a self-induced bi-polar disorder, that eventually interferes with even making those trips in the end.

Zenventures can happen anytime you step outside the door, but it can’t be guaranteed. You need to trip the switch somehow. A new route never before walked might work. Wearing a new and possibly ludicrous hat. What we are looking for is that tell-tale rise in spirits as we leave, and, at its most noticeable, as we trip lightly back up the steps to our home. Zenventures happen in the interstices of life, the cubby holes and whirl pools; I remember descending a river in Japan 20 years ago, I still recall almost all the details now even though it took only a day and didn’t require any special efforts.

I was talking to a pal with a camper wagon, he told me waking up in new places is very exhilarating, though his wife said she was ‘less keen’. On the road, house on your back, he told me Europe was better than Britain because we have less space here, more officious parking regs. I have often been tempted by the whole camper lark, put off by some of the tight lipped snaggle toothed dimwits I’ve seen plying the highways and byways (mostly the highways to be honest) – not my pals of course- they are all great. As a kid I remember walking up a back road near my house and seeing a 2CV parked, that baby blue colour they were – a French one with French occupants, - it was parked by a small patch of grass and they had a small tent pitched. How did they find this obscure spot I remembered thinking? Having a zenventure.

I read about a man visiting all the Starbucks outlets in the world. Talk about insane…ish. The more I read the more convinced I became. This guy, who had changed his name to some kind of street artist tag, said that he knew it was silly, ‘but a goal’s a goal’ and I thought how exactly right. And as psychologist Steve Carter points out, “A serious goal induces anxiety, which can interfere with your ability to achieve that goal. A non-serious goal doesn’t have that problem.” And like a diamond bullet between my eyes it hit me (I like this to happen fairly regularly so that I can use the aforementioned phrase) anyway it hit me that there isn’t a HUGE amount of difference between serious and non-serious goals when you take a distant enough perspective, and then it hit me, like a second diamond bullet etc that ‘high’ achievers often have a playful approach to what they do ie. they’ve turned it into a non-serious goal. Not that they’re ‘not serious’ about achieving the goal- just like Starbucks-man (3000+ outlets visited and counting) they are super dedicated, it’s just that they don’t have wrinkled brows and a demeanour that suggests an imminent nervous breakdown and that we should all admire their efforts as superior and worthy.

Zenventuring should not require drugs or alcohol. My hunch is that any slight effort, touch on the wheel, that lifts this excursion, episode, experience into the zenventuresphere is all you need. And that slight bit of effort, mental effort, mainly make sure things are not being repeated. But the list should be more exhaustive. Something like the requirements for ‘kaif’ that ineluctable eastern essence of vitality that either is, or is not, present. Zenventuring has about as much to do with Zen as most things borrowing some Japanese credibility, maybe a tad more; what we know about Zen is that you shouldn’t try too hard. This carte blanche for slacking is bookended or counterbalanced by an admonition to be present in what you do, which means, usually, given things you do your best shot. I like the idea that in a Zen monastery every day is planned out to the last minute, rung out with bells and lots of running about, but the moment another task comes up, say showing someone round the Zen garden then you are allowed to drop what you’re doing immediately. The timetable isn’t a ‘must do’ list it’s a ‘do this if you haven’t something better to do list’. Even that misses the mark a little, sounds a shade too downbeat and pessimistic. To retrack to zenventures: they surely are about finding that spark of novelty or originality that enables something to feel very present, on the nose, right there. As well as being fun or a good story or preferably both. Being able to find the fun in anything is a good zenventure attribute.

Going to the pub is usually not a zenventure. Going canoeing in surf when you’re something of a novice at it is, probably. Not sure why, maybe I’m talking about myself here…something to do with getting out of the comfort zone. A friend of mine just got back from picking up litter at a music festival, he said it was great because a) got free entrance, site, food etc b) wasn’t paid cash and in return there was no compulsion to pick up litter he didn’t want to (when people taunted him by dropping sweet wrappers in front of him he just moved on) and c) had something to do when he wasn’t doing what you think you’ll be doing at a music festival because he did that too. All of which set me thinking about how a dip, now and then, into the world of super low status activity is like getting a pair of optically perfect goggles after swimming underwater without them…

To go to the other end of the spectrum, a zenventure could pivot around doing something no one else has done before. Though I can feel myself getting dragged off into familiar territory here. What I am trying to nail is the pristine sense of having pulled something off, a kind of heist on the everyday, a wedge driven into a tiny fracture, which, with some applied force levers off a big chunk of …what? Freedom from the everyday cares, freedom from familiar downward spiralling tropes, and upward motion in favour of new directions, projects, people.

 

 

Friday
Aug152014

the way of the fool

 

The fool or jester is the only one who can tell the King the truth. How many CEOs are sophisticated enough to have a paid fool? A real fool who tells the truth and does not merely entertain?

I think it is instructive that fool is the national dish of Egypt (foul, fava beans, great for breakfast) and is also, in Egypt, the word used for ‘fill her up with a full tank of gas’- ‘Fool’. The real fool, as opposed to the negative energy often pumped out by stand-up comics, is not afraid to make bad jokes, be unfunny and be very uncool. I think one of the most daringly avant garde paths available today is being uncool. Almost every fifty to sixty year old I meet is just as ‘cool’ and cool conscious (allowing for the natural change of interest etc) as they were when they were teenagers. Learned nothing on that score then…too cool for school really means- “I am so shit scared about looking foolish that I will never get out of my comfort zone and never try to learn anything new.” 

The fool is someone who knows the comfort zone is of very limited utility. Life happens when you venture out if it, to the place of inevitable pratfalls. Not that you’re trying to be a burk (which is foolishness), rather you have SET ASIDE what you look like, how you appear, in order to do something new, learn something new.

The Japanese talk about 'begninner's mind'- the state of transparency you need in your head to learn effectively. Try being transparent when you meet people for the first time, you may well say things that sound foolish but also happen to be true.

 

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