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'Nearly all the problems facing society today cannot be attacked by single disciplines.'

Dr Alexander King

This blog contains hundreds of original articles. 

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"I couldn't stop telling people about this book. Wise and joyful, it genuinely changed the way I thought about learning - and it left me bursting to put it into action."  - Tim Harford, author of Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy

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

 

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Friday
May292009

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.

 

Thursday
May282009

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.

 

Wednesday
May272009

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.

 

Tuesday
May262009

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!

 

Tuesday
May262009

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?

 

Monday
May252009

steve pavlina, homer simpson and sanity.

Anyone with any interest in the blog as a tool for promoting inspiring essays of length and quality must eventually visit Steve Pavlina. Whether or not you agree with everything he says, you have to admit it’s lucidly argued, logical and sharp. The self-development game is full of similar information that constantly requires reformulating as times and situations change. Doing this with precision is what Steve Pavlina is good at.

But do you really want to be Frank Grimes?

Cast your mind way back to the 8th series of the Simpsons, when it was still genuinely funny. Homer makes an enemy at the plant- a new and keen employee called Frank Grimes. Frank takes work seriously and loathes the ineptitude and laziness of Homer. He resents the fact that Homer has a wife, a big house, three kids and seems genuinely happy whereas he rents a shoe box apartment and is friendless and undervalued. He tries to expose Homer by tricking him into entering a competition for kids. The idea being to show that Homer is just a kid. But Homer wins and nobody except Frank Grimes minds. In fact this last failure of the people of Springfield to see the hardworking value of Grimes drives him over the edge and he electrocutes himself whilst pretending to be as ‘stupid’ as Homer. Except he dies as a result.

If you can rent, buy or download this episode do so. There is more wisdom here than in any TV show I can remember. The way Homer negotiates with a crazy world without alienating people is brilliantly shown. And poor Frank Grimes, who has triumphed over incredible hardships to even get a job, is portrayed with merciless realism as the effective, hardworking, humorless dork that he is.

Attempts at self-development, personal improvement, outer achievement cannot depart too far from sanity. The advantage that the self-development coach has over the normal guy is that he only has to talk the talk, it’s sort of optional that he live it too. But normal people (unless they read self- help books for entertainment) want to live the advice they are taking on board- and if it tips you further away from sanity then it is not only useless it is worse than useless. It was pointed out to me by Tahir Shah recently how crazy it is to create a ‘hothouse kid’, a child who can perform brilliantly in front of adults, and, er, that’s it. The most precious and, maybe, dwindling quality out there is not brilliance but common or garden sanity. For every 160IQ genius who enters college two years early how many really sane people are there? The twentieth century has been a battleground for sanity on so many different levels from the artistic to the patriotic to the religious. And sanity has often not triumphed.

Self-development can really improve your life. It can get you out of a rut of pessimism and laziness. It can get you using discipline to achieve what you want to achieve. But, and this is why many people deride or are suspicious of self-development gurus, it can also make you nuts. As you conquer your disabilities, as you stride forward, as you gain that blackbelt and learn to speak before an audience of thousands you run the risk of beginning to despise those less determined, less persistent, less, motivated than yourself. You begin to assume that what works for you will work for everyone. You become arrogant, which is only a problem in as much as it is a form of stupidity. Frank Grimes is arrogant. He thinks he knows what life’s all about but he doesn’t. The curse of arrogance isn’t that it’s ‘bad’, it’s that it makes you think ‘this is all there is’,  that you ‘know the score’. In other words you have shut the door on further development.

In one great scene Homer shows Frank Grimes around his house and Grimes is astounded that Homer has met Presidents and even been into outerspace as an astronaut. But Homer’s success is symbolically the fate of the humble. They can keep on developing literally forever. They aren’t sure they are there already.

So just how much self-development can you manage before you go a bit insane? Well, when I did aikido, five hours a day five days a week with the Tokyo Riot Police for a year I went a bit mad. I forgot how to live. I was surviving not living. I never noticed beautiful or interesting things. But I improved no end at aikido. Similarly, when you take the time to write a book it’s very easy to go a bit nuts (one reason why so many writers are cranky) though the reward is having a piece of permanent shelf space.

I think the way to look at self-development is to see how you can use discipline, and learning stratagems, persistence, to improve sanity, rather than boost your own abilities no matter what. It means that any attempt to do anything to change your outer life must be weighed up as having an impact, potentially, on sanity. Some will have a positive impact, but many will tip you towards the negative. Then you need some therapeutic counterbalance. For example when I’m writing a book I reward myself with a lax physical fitness schedule. I’ve learnt the hard way that pushing yourself mentally and physically at the same time is just asking to be stressed out ie. insane.

Part of remaining sane, in the long term, means understanding that any achievement is at a price- either to you or to your family and friends or the general public. A small example is writing an insider non-fiction book about your work. The public will love it but your work mates may feel betrayed. Once you acknowledge that there is a sacrifice to be made and you don’t shy away from this, then you can make the choices that you won’t regret later.

One review of Steve Pavlina’s recent book perceptively made the distinction between self-development books as motivation (a great one is ‘Thinking Big’ by David Schwartz) and self-development books as life improving stratagem resources- which is more the end of the spectrum Pavlina occupies. Don’t get me wrong, he has some great stuff on his blog but the feeling I get is that Steve Pavlina is very focused on his own goals, very clear about them, and very good at expressing his own journey. But that kind of focus, if developed before you ‘have a life’ so to speak, can turn you into a Frank Grimes. But check it out for yourself.

Frank Grimes’ head is crammed full of a burning desire to get on. He wants to compete in life but he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t enjoy the riches of life at all- he only values their symbolic worth as tokens of success. But success as an abstract concept can only take you so far, it has to be success at something.

Being sane means realizing first what occupies your headspace before you try to cram it with more stuff, more ambition.

With sane self-development you realize that once you know what occupies your headspace you can then decide whether you want to ditch stuff or not. You can then move forward surprisingly fast. A former hippy, a German woman I met, who went from taking acid and living a life of basic indolence to training to be what she is now: a top cabinet maker, told me: “You can change your life in a month.” Which she did.

 

Sunday
May242009

introduction to timeshifting #1

I read David Allen’s excellent ‘Getting things done’, and indeed picked up some good tips, such as filing or replying to each email as it comes, thus clearing the dead weight of an inbox, and making filing as fun as possible, but something about the basic premise of the whole idea of time management got me thinking.

The bottomline is that in the modern fast-moving highly stimulating developed countries of the world we all feel we don’t have enough time. It almost feels palpable- this lack of time. Everyone I know seems to be juggling this most precious of resources like a desert sheik managing his scant water resources. In some cases it really seems like time is running out…We have busy families where both parents work hard, dash home to be home with their kids, go out as often as they can, fill up the weekends with sports and driving children around and being charitable. The side effect can be exhaustion (but some of these people are very fit, very competent people and they take it as a challenge); what NO ONE escapes is, though, is the sense that there just isn’t enough time available.

In this sequence of articles called TIMESHIFTING I want to look in detail at how it may be possible to rewire that sense of time scarcity and replace it with a sense of time abundance.

But before we go in detail and attempt to rebuild our sense of time we should re-examine how we think about time in our everyday lives. Here are a few different ways of seeing time:

a)     ‘chess time’- where you rush against the clock to make your move and then have all the time your opponent takes to think about the next move- the ‘up time’ is experienced differently from the ‘downtime’- one is in your control the other isn’t.

b)    Then there is ‘bought time’- for example you buy a taxi ride that takes twenty minutes rather than walk for two hours. What you do with the extra time is up to you.

c)     There is ‘prime time’ when you feel at your most productive and ‘slowtime’ when everything seems to take you twice as long as usual.

d)    Thinking about ‘not wasting time’ rather than ‘investing time’- it’s a switch from a negative worldview to a pro-active positive one.

e)    People almost always undervalue what they can do in five years and over value what they can do in one year. We are bad at imagining the passing of time- hence over runs and being late which gives way to a general vagueness for longer time periods.

Time, as you can see, is the ultimate subjective experience.

When I was 19 I was very keen on rockclimbing. Every opportunity I got I used to either train on boulders or travel to the mountains looking for routes to climb. I also, for an increased thrill factor, from time to time climbed solo without a rope. Climbing on the Scottish mountain of Ben Nevis I fell unroped off a rock face, about 35 feet onto a ledge, luckily, where I fractured two vertebrae. In the approximately 1.4 seconds that I fell I seriously felt time passing slowly- and of course in retrospect I can dwell on that 1.4 second stretch as if it were a month or more. The shock of the experience switched me fully on- and time expanded far beyond the usual experience.

Another climbing experience- doing a long route on the Island of Skye and being convinced I’ve been going for two hours and now it is about twelve O’clock- only  to retrieve my watch from the rucksack and discover I’ve been climbing for not two hours but six and it’s now four O’clock in the afternoon. I can still recall that sense of missing time- where did those four hours go?

An event last year. I went with three friends 4x4 camping in the desert. It was new to them and through their eyes it all seemed new to me. When we returned 24 hours later we all kept saying- it seems like we’ve been away forever.

Because we are conditioned by clocktime- from the flashing time on your computer screen to your mobile phone to your wristwatch and your car dashboard- we are lead to believe that the reality of time is mechanical, that any piece of time is equal to any other- yet even a moment’s reflection reveals the falseness of this position- if you wake up at 3 am and decide to stay awake until everyone else gets up even an hour drags so slowly- but the lunchhour between 1 and 2 in the afternoon just whizzes by.

The subjective experience of time is controlled by context and activity. Change the context or change the activity and you can bend time to suit your will.

Does Time use you?

Do you feel pressured, stressed, under time’s thumb; and yet seem to be getting nowhere in particular? Or relaxed and easy, yet able to pack a huge amount into a short piece of ‘clock time’? Do you use time or does time use you? One way you can use time is to set aside two hours in which to do nothing. Just sit. It's not that easy. But it will give you new insights into how you use time and what an uncluttered headspace feels like.

I was sitting in a bar in Tokyo with writer Tahir Shah waiting for someone to arrive who I had said I would introduce him to. But they didn’t turn up. I apologized for wasting his time. Tahir replied, and I have never forgotten, “wasting time is not a concept I subscribe to”.

Wow. This was the first time I had heard of such a generally accepted idea just rejected, tossed out, shorn of its potent negativity. And when I started to think I saw that it was impossible to waste time just as it is impossible to ‘kill time’. Time passes. What we do with it is our choice- and is always our choice- even if our expectations aren’t met. When we waste time what we are saying is that something we expected would happen didn’t so we were kept in a state of waiting when we weren’t living as fully as we felt was our due. Who’s stopping you? Only your expectations stop you from fully experiencing any moment you care to.

Wasting time assumes that one learnt nothing from an experience- yet we can never accurately tell which experiences were and were not crucial for learning. While studying aikido in Japan I found that I would do the same technique wrong about a hundred times before I suddenly did it right. I noticed that the top teacher Chida Sensei did not correct me straight away. He said, “You have to do something wrong a few times so that you really appreciate it when you do it right- if the teacher tells you too soon they cheat you of feeling the difference and you don’t learn the technique so well. You have to value what you learn.”

So even frustrating times can be validated later on – no one can really say one time is more useful or crucial than another- not without the possession of clairvoyance. What we can say, though, in a broader macro sense you can spend time not learning anything new and you can spend time on a steep learning curve- the choice is yours. If you arrange your life around learning nothing new, of never being surprised, of making each day the same- then don’t be surprised if your life seems to flash by. Maybe the only waste of time is dedicating a life to not learning.