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Micromastery has landed...

"Loving micromastery. Clever concept, well executed." Tim Harford.

"Micromastery is a triumph. A brilliant idea, utterly convincing, and superbly carried through." Philip Pullman.



Go and get it from a bookshop.

Or Buy online! Micromastery - learn small, learn fast and find the hidden path to happiness is published by Penguin books (UK) in May 2017. It will be published in China, Taiwan, USA, Germany and South Korea in the months after that.

You can get it at Wordery- click below

Or for those amazon junkies click this one:



is success quantifiable?


I thought it wasn't; but then I had a brief facebook exchange with a good friend, who adroitly pointed out that the success he achieved at winning the local pub ‘millionaire’ quiz was very quantifiable, especially the answer to question 15 which was ‘how many novels did Anthony Trollope write?’*

And it’s true- getting the answer counts as a success. We all have built in such notions of  ‘public’ success- that probably starts with school and university exam results and all the other nonsense of the job world (it’s interesting that exams as a concept are only a few centuries old- isn’t it amazing that the Greek, Roman and Elizabethan conquest of the world was managed without a single phd?). I digress. Once we venture out of the cocoon of academia or the corporate bubble, we get out into the murky but realer world where we have to ask: does winning the pub quiz ‘beat’ sailing around the world even if the pub winner feels like a hero and the sailor doesn’t?

Because it seems to me that ‘success’ is pretty pointless unless it engenders happiness in the succeeder. If it simply bumps you up a grade in the eye of the public then what’s the point?

We all need attention but making the attention you get hard to get seems perverse. People saying you are great, money, applause- all that is very nice, but if the only way you can get it is to climb Everest in your underpants then it seems inefficient- especially when you can get the same applause from winning the pub quiz.

I have a young friend who justifies doing work for which he doesn’t get paid as ‘looking good on the CV’- and this is a good idea, it’s how he motivates himself. When I was doing aikido and had to face something grueling I used to tell myself that if I wrote a book this would be good material. I guess this is a way of converting something to a higher ‘success’ value by realizing that external success can cause internal success-happiness-feelings.

But who hasn’t berated themselves from time to time for not having been a ‘success’? It seems we are really keen to use this word, and cause ourselves and others grief with it, without actually examining what it really means.

The external part of success is what everyone agrees on- more or less: winning the competition, making X million dollars, writing the blockbuster. But the internal part, the ‘success feeling’ is more obscure.

One friend of mine has a very ordinary job, hobby, wife and children- yet everything he does is couched in terms of huge and lasting success- and he is a happy man. He sells his boat for more than he bought it- you’d think he had just won the lottery. His son gets into a very ordinary university- he’s produced a genius. Contrast this with a millionaire entrepeneur I mentioned in another article who had a distinguished war record, had invented and patented several new products, made several million when that was a lot of money, drove a Bentley with a personalized number plate- and yet thought of himself as a ‘failure’.

There must be a way of sidestepping this mental morass without getting sucked in, without having to take sides and either be ‘for success’ or ‘against it.’

A friend once advised me: ‘if you’re going to self-publicise, self publicise- but don’t publicise the fact that you aren’t self-publicising’. There’s something in this. Don’t downplay your own successes. We shouldn’t have to shy away from success just because public conceptions and media estimates of success are crude.

How much success does a man need?

Perhaps the gravest error is  believing that success is a person rather than a particular achievement. It would be less confusing if it was seen as grammatically incorrect to state ‘he or she is a success.’ Instead people would be coerced into saying he succeeded at that, she succeeded at that. That would make it easier.

But we’re stuck with the realer world.

Maybe there’s another way of looking at this. Author Christopher Ross suggested to me that the basic unit of activity was the success pay-off. A success pay-off is the burst of inner energy you get when something you do succeeds. Now, the trick is, to design your life so that you maximize the success pay-offs. Make your to-do list ten items long, do them all and you get the pay-off. Make it twelve and fail on one- and you get no pay-off- even though your external ‘success’ rate was higher.

The millionaire probably saw anything less than ten million as a failure. My boat selling friend sees making twenty quid a success. One is happy the other isn’t.

But is one deluded?

That’s the nub. And the second nub is: if we settle for ‘lesser definitions of success’ we won’t be driven on to succeed at bigger things.

But a desire for success is a pretty blunt motivator. Pretty dull and rough and injurious to mental health. ‘Success’, as in some vague conception of a ‘better inner state than I now have, which will be miraculously provided when I win the big prize’, never occurs.

I thought that after I had published a book, won a prize, made money writing I would feel different inside. Of course I didn’t. I say ‘of course’ because if you had questioned me BEFORE I would have denied that I was aiming to feel different. It was only afterwards when I felt a bit flat and ordinary did it come home that I had been expecting some kind of existential salvation, a shift to a higher plane, as a result of ‘success’. This superstition lurks in our culture of fame and celebrity. Kids sense it- which is why so many answer that they don’t care what they do when they grow up as long as they are famous.

But if ‘success’ won’t make you feel any different why aim for it? Because success pay-offs provide the nutritive energy we need for living. And if you start too low (a day’s success being to buy a stamp at the post office- believe me I have been there) -all you need to do is set yourself a rising scale. If you achieve ten things today easily on your to-do list aim for twelve tomorrow, if you wrote 500 words easily try for 1000.

The pleasure you feel at such successes are the same as any success engendered pleasure- such as winning the pub quiz- as long as you heartfully enjoy it and don’t let your mental critic knock it and mutter ‘it’s nothing’.

We live in a ‘success’ oriented society. People think that the luck of ‘winners’ will rub off on them. We touch the clothes of the successful just as in previous more religious ages people visited shrines. Famous (in the Hello Magazine sense) people often report that when they are interviewed knick knacks go missing- an ashtray, a comb, even a packet of cigarettes. Knick knacks nicked to leverage luck.

This gets back, kind of, to my comments on writing. A goal is a target expressed in numbers. Success is vague and useless. You have to quantify what you consider counts as a success. You have to set up a success pay-off situation with numbers as your guide. Instead of hoping your book, music, film or product is a ‘success’ quantify what would count in your eyes as a success. Selling 5000 copies? 2000? Obviously you are going to have to balance unbridled optimism against realism and experience- but remember, you can always up the numbers next time. There is no need to be in a hurry.

*Answer: 47.



five axioms of walking

First axiom of walking

The interest of the walker’s thoughts increase in direct proportion to his load being lightened and the day cooling. Gradient is only important at extreme ends of the spectrum.


Second axiom 

Nothing beats walking along a contour high above a great evolving view.


Third axiom 

The second axiom can be entirely nullified if your boots are hurting you badly.


Fourth axiom

Racing downhill with a load on will damage your knees eventually even if you think it won’t.


Fifth axiom

Passes beat summits every time on a multiday hike.


timeshifting #2

One of the conclusions of both Edgar Allan Poe’s strange mystical essay “Eureka” and Einstein’s musings on the Universe is that both came to believe that Time is Space. The technical side of this insight does not involve us- but the metaphorical truth implied does. In psychological terms time really is space- inner space and outer space.

The feeling that we ‘don’t have enough time’ is bound up with feeling really cramped, restricted, bombarded and most importantly NOT OPEN. We are looking for reasons to say no, clear the desk, get away from it. We are perpetually involved in flight rather than curiosity, which is a necessary precursor to the survival of any kind of animal- it must after all be curious enough to find new food. This lack of openness also connects to the inability to learn. But also, the sense of being cramped and lacking space makes us feel time’s arrow is flying by. But travel out into the wilderness, and the desert is the best place for this, and you discover that all that endless space causes a kind of vacuum in your head. Your problems seem to diminish, get lost in the vastness. And because there is so little to see in the desert, every rock and every dune becomes a focus for your attention. You are suddenly OPEN again, searching out things to look at, greedily almost.

The inner space in your head, that follows the exposure to vast empty outer spaces, experiences a sudden and dramatic drop in the feeling of time moving by very quickly. You arrive at the present. You get to the present- and when you arrive it is as if time is almost standing still- even though you can see the clockhands turn it has no MEANING. You no longer feel anxious.

My dayjob for a while was taking harassed top executives out into the Egyptian Sahara Desert and getting them to experience this vast opening of outer and inner space. I have seen a, formerly ultra serious and, rather worried sales director, dance and sing after a mere 24 hours in this environment, people run up and down sand dunes, others announce it has been a turning point in their life. After seeing the effect such empty spaces can have (doesn't always happen) I feel it is no coincidence that the mono-theistic religions, started in similar places; and that early monasticism began with men and women retreating from the hurley burley of Roman life with its society clubs, circuses and busy life. The Roman Empire is long gone but the desert remains the same.  As a starting place for weakening the merciless hold that time can have on you try to find some empty space in your life.



cairo near death experience and the kindle reader

Today a great big truck almost ran me down as I cowered in our frail Honda Civic, the one whose engine I replaced the other month. What a waste of a nearly new reconditioned engine it would have been not to mention human life if that truck had continued its path of lumbering ferocity. But its driver, far from having not seen us, knew we were there and wanted to just give us a little existential thrill, a near death experience before breakfast.

However this is not what caught my eye, which was: that truck has really old fashioned low-tech cartlike axles. That was really what I was thinking as the monster ground into view and loomed over us before shuddering to a halt millimetres from the car’s thin shell. The truck was a huge one used to haul pulverized stone. It was new but the design- the heavy axles and thick cart springs dated back centuries- this is how wheeled vehicles have been built ever since the invention of steel. But strip away the gleam and glitter and all working trucks look like this. Saloon cars might have fancy suspension and integral body shells but when it comes to doing a job- cart springs and a cantilever ladder chassis is standard.

In other words trucks have reached their technological prime.

To attempt to improve them would be like trying to improve a table. Which is also a piece of technology, a very old one that reached its prime in prehistoric times. Actually someone did try and improve on the table in the 1970s with a design based on a flat plate of aluminium that hovered over a massive electric field generated by AC current going through specially arranged coils- the same system used for certain monorail trains. This hitech table could be any height. It could be raised or lowered with a simple dial, or even at a distance with a remote control. But strangely it never caught on. I mean never. Because tables have reached their technological prime. They do being a table better than any amount of electronics can. There is no economic, aesthetic, or even plain dumb reason why a high tech table should instantly make all normal tables redundant.

Now you see where the kindle electronic reader comes in. It’s a high-tech table. It does lots of clever things. But it misses the point completely: a book is a piece of perfected technology- it’s reached it’s prime- it can’t be bettered, except in an economic sense by being made more cheaply or aesthetically by being made more beautiful.

Of course, for academics needing to lug a trunkful of books to a remote hideaway to read- the kindle makes good sense. For anyone with a ton of reports to refer to on an aeroplane flight- it will have its use. But for people at home, who HAVE to read on screens all day it’s madness. We want a break. I edit on paper because I need variety. Humans, believe it or not kindle people, like change. And for normal folks, who enjoy the feel of flipping back and forth with no pauses, who enjoy spilling their coffee on a paperback, who enjoy turning the page over at night before turning over to sleep, who enjoy buying their three for two before their beach holiday, who like looking at books on their shelves in their library at home- well those are technological requirements the poor old kindle just can’t meet. You see, the designers made the humongous mistake of thinking that a book is just content the way a digital track is just content. But it isn’t. A book is size, shape, smell, font, font size, author’s dedication, coffee rings and ultimately something to wipe your backside on in a tight situation. Can’t wipe your ass on a kindle even if you wanted to.

And though that would have been the right note to finish on there is the final thought, that element of apology that always comes with a bad idea: ‘we’re almost there with this thing, give it a few more years and the electronic reader’ll be perfect’. Uh? Did the Sony walkman come with a caveat? Did the CD have a label saying ‘almost OK’? Did mobile phones apologise for not being good enough? Real breakthroughs are self-evident, they don’t need explaining. If people stop using tables I’ll eat my kindle.



zenslacker #4

Zenslacking is about taking the less obvious route in a mad world, of which you are very much a part, so:

1.    Make a joke against something you hold most dear.

2.    Try, for a day or so, taking nothing seriously, even taking nothing seriously not seriously.

3.    Don’t ask why the world is mad- it just is.

4.    You think you need more money. What you need is to be more in the present. Wanting more money is being rooted in a future fixated frame of mind. You are hardly alive in such a state of mind. The feeling of desperately wanting money (not food or water- that’s different and real) is a good reminder that you are moving too far ahead in time too quickly. You’re literally on another planet. This is the mad world, not the now world. To stop worrying about money isn’t always easy. One way is to sit and try and force yourself for an hour to think of as many ways to make money as possible- the more stressful as well as the eminently dull and sensible. Sicken yourself with money lust- than have another cup of tea and a biscuit and look out of the window at the world.

5.    Find a good place to do nothing. Find good people to do nothing with. Do nothing as often as is bearable.

6.    Something always comes out of nothing

7.    Keep doing something until you are sic of it.

8.    Do things that need willpower everyday or on a day you have designated ‘shit day’. Prepare for that shitty day by reminding yourself about it.

9.    What will be written on your tombstone?

10.  Make time for old friends. If you find you are too stressed to take phonecalls from old friends then the next time it happens deliberately prolong the call until they are the one to end it.

11. When you find yourself getting that ‘trying hard’ feeling, take a pause. Think of mentally changing gear, dropping down a gear, expending less effort, less revs.



kiteout day

Get your Kite Out!

16 June 2009

Everyone loves to fly a kite, especially children.

The aim of kiteout day is simple: that every child on that day all over the world flies a kite.

It could be a bought kite or a homemade one. Homemade will be more satisfying. And if the kite is made from recycled stuff then it will be even more satisfying. I conjecture.

This 16th of June help your kids to fly a kite. Tell a teacher at their school to organize a kite flying/making session that day.

There is no message except this: everyone loves flying kites the world over. So let’s all do it!

And get prepared for next 16th June- 2010 for an even bigger kiteout!



six day working year

Yep. Six twelve hour days= 72 hours= 1.38 hours a week work.

Forget the four hour week guy. (Timothy Ferriss- author of the "Four Hour Working Week".)

Except these six days can’t be divided up and diluted. They are six whole longish days. A real day’s work times six.

A day is a magical thing. It isn’t just hours. Think of the great days of your life. They dwarf all the wasted ‘hours’ you may have experienced.

The first millionaire I had the opportunity to meet, an entrepeneur who had made his fortune developing and selling a plastic chicken drinker of all things, told me he worked, really worked about six days of the year. Hence the title. Oh he pottered about the office, watched things ticking over, did the mechanical work of invoicing and answering the phone when no one else was around; but real work- work that added to the value of the company, work that changed things, work that made a difference? Six days.

As a writer I know there is the grunt work of getting the words down. It can take months. It just takes time though. Set it up right, reduce distractions, have the right word count program and you’ll make it. But the real work- the ideas, the characters, the frame of a book- it can take minutes. A novelist I met before I had written anything- he was on his third novel when I met him told me something I know now is true though it sounded unbelievable- you can rough out a novel in a day.

According to Genesis, God made the world in six days. On the seventh he rested. Maybe we can garner some metaphorical truth here- we only need to focus on six days of real work a year. Set aside those days when the great leap forward is to be made, or, when you feel that real work is happening go with it and don’t strangle it with mere routine.

Writer Milan Kundera is fond of pointing out that there is a lot of mechanicality in writing a novel and composing a symphony. There’s a lot of filling in, kind of like what cgi technicians do when they fill in all the details in the background of a movie. Maybe it would help to divide what you do into the gruntwork, the filling in, and the real six day work that moves you forward. Maybe you could even get others to do the grunt work.

Timothy Ferriss’s book the ‘Four Hour working Week’ offers a wonderful dream- but most people want to work- but not too much and not at something hateful. They want to be useful. It’s OK surfing for two weeks when you’ve earned it through hard work, but you try surfing 50 weeks- it ceases to be quite such fun- when I did aikido full time it was pretty grim- not at all the fun and games of a couple of classes a week- it became, in fact, professional. Writing too, ceases to be anything like the fun it was when you dabbled, even if you develop a compulsion to write or surf, it just isn’t like the good old amateur days.

People want to work less, earn more, and do more rewarding work. When I mention that the San Bushman of the Kalahari, before many were forcibly relocated, obtained al they needed for living, doing 17 hours work a week- and this in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, people nod with recognition- yeah 17 hours a week- I could just about handle that.

So seventeen hours of maintainence work a week and six days of real work. What will I do with all the time left over?