Friday, October 24, 2014

Steal & Push

As an artist your goal may be to create something unique. As a contrarian investor, you have to go against the crowd - and be right. As a scientist, you want to push the boundaries of human thought doing something no one has ever done before. In creative fields there is a big drive to depend first and foremost on yourself. You don't want to be sullied by others. You want to be an independent thinker.

Independence is not however the same thing as ignorance. Take the smartest person in the world and lock her in a room for a long enough period. Take an artist and close him off from the world. Take a scientist and remove the aggressive peer review - and you lose'Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn.' T.S.Elliot

Austin Kleon has written an awesome one-sitting* book with 10 lessons about being creative. One comment is that nothing is original: 'The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something "original," nine out of ten times they just don't know the references or the original sources involved.' 

Trying to be original is something of a burden. It stops you from working because you constantly worry. It becomes about you and being judged as original rather than the quality of the work. It becomes about your ego rather than whether what you are doing is of value. I regularly talk about Bruce Lee's 'Absorb. Discard. Add' philosophy. I think if you think of yourself as part of the bigger group, and the creative stuff happens at the edge, you need to understand and have in your toolkit the knowledge, experience and flair of the rest of you. You being the group. You being everyone. You being everything.

Then you push the boundary. You make everything bigger. Originality doesn't have to separate you from the world.

*Often books say what they want to say quickly, then spend the rest of the time padding it out sufficiently to appear serious. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Putting Issues Aside

There is too much going on in the world for us to figure it all out. 'The Humans' by Matt Haig is a story of an alien taking the form of a maths professor to prevent other humans from discovering the profoundly important proof the unfortunate chap has figured out. The alien has no 'cultural base' and so observes and tries to figure out the meaning of some human interactions. He takes spitting and the middle finger as a friendly greeting for example - unaware of the fact that this was related to him being found naked in the middle of a highway.

From when we are little we learn one way of doing things. For the most part we take big people as superior individuals who have figured it all out, so we accept lots of things. Our elephant** also gets deeply trained in the ways of the tribe. Slowly. With patience and love. In this period as children learn, everyone celebrates their small steps forward. We pick up the explicit lessons, but we also pick up the stuff that doesn't get expressed. We form habits. Our elephants fall in love with sweets.

My elephant loves South African sweets. I am quite diligent in getting through the tantrum tunnel of sweets by most check out counters in the UK because I just have to get passed the Kit-Kats and Peppermint Areos. My elephant hasn't fallen in love with the UK sugars. If I go to a South African shop, all bets are off, and if I make it out with change I have depleted all my self-control reserves.

Now that is just sweets. When it comes to the important stuff - the big ticket items - you can't just walk out of the Saffa shop. Issues such as religion, politics, sex, and diet can define the groups you have become a part of. Challenging the issues isn't necessarily challenging the issues - it is challenging the relationships that someone has. It is challenging the whole set of rules. For someone to change their mind about a big ticket item, they often have to leave the world they know. To get them to change their mind, you have to convince them not only that you are right, but that it is worth it for them to agree.

The chances that we don't have any doubts about the way things are done or our beliefs is very small. We all have only a certain amount of intellectual and emotional energy. We are quite good at putting issues aside because they make our head spin or because it feels like we are getting into uncomfortable territory. The food debate is one of these areas. As a South African, meat is very much a part of my culture. It is not just 'tantrum tunnel' stuff. A meal doesn't feel like a meal without meat. At a boy's braai (barbeque) in South Africa - chicken is considered the salad, and the balance to the meal is provided by bread and beer, completing the three food groups. If you go visit someone for a meal, there is close to a 100% chance it will be meat based. You will be putting them out and expecting a special meal if they know otherwise.

People don't like feeling judged. For the most part, I get the sense that most people are less evangelical about their religions nowadays in liberal societies partly because they realise that it makes being friendly tough when the other person literally feels you are bad and are going to burn for eternity. In a way, this is why it is tough to emotionally engage with the meat debate. It isn't just you who will have to change your mind. Most people will disagree with you as an early adopter. Most people will feel you are judging them, even if you aren't, if they know that your dietary choices are for ethical reasons. This has nothing to do with whether the arguments are valid. Here is just one example of why this debate is important:

I will carry on in my attempt to figure it out for myself. Here are three books that have been recommended to me as I wade into the subject. My interest is happiness, and I do believe diet is a big part of that, but I also believe relationships are a big part of it - so figuring out the best overall approach to chipping away at one problem has to take everything into account.


'Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer deals very directly and persuasively with our emotional and cultural attachments to food, and what it means for eating meat. I thoroughly recommend it.' - Isabel Goodman

'Speaking as a person who is passionate about food, I can empathise with your reactions to ceasing being a meat eater. Have you read "Meat: a Benign Extravagance"? In it Simon Fairlie makes a good case for the need to change the way we feed livestock, as well as the manner in which they are kept, he puts forward a sensible argument for meat being acceptable. His scholarly analysis is impressive and the book should be read by anyone piling into the meat/vegetarianism debate'.
Kate Griffiths- Lambeth (@KateGL)

Stuart Torr (@muttface) recommended 'The Ethics of What We Eat' to me many years ago and it has just sat on my bookshelf.

*Rider: Rational-side. Explains and justifies behaviour and attempts to direct it. Trains the elephant.
**Elephant: Decision-making, action taking emotional and automatic side. Listens to Rider when it wants to.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From The Beginning

What do Resevoir Dogs  and a Piano Concert for 6 year olds have in common?

Well, this Mr Black, once had to play at a concert. I was a Teaching Assistant for 18 months in between school and university and the school I was at was very musical with a very supportive teacher. When he found out I had always wanted to play piano, he showed me middle C and arranged for lessons. A few months later there was a parents concert for the students at my level, i.e. the 6 and 7 year olds. Now I presume this was an opportunity for the older, more mature, experienced 19 year old to show the youngsters that there was nothing to be worried about. Let's just say, I felt... Conspicuous.

When my turn came it started ok. I could play the pieces. I had practiced a lot. But I had practiced in the quiet of the music school after hours. Mid way through my first piece I froze. I looked down and all I saw was white and black. I had no idea where to put my fingers. I started again. Then froze somewhere else. Again, I couldn't push through as I was completely lost. Surely I couldn't start again... just push through. The embarrassment swelled and if my tear ducts weren't welded shut by toughness (and they weren't), my eyes would have welled up. I moved on to the next song which went a bit better.

Now being consoled when you are 6 is one thing. Being consoled by someone who is 6 is quite another. The whole next day I had very compassionate little people coming up to me and saying, 'Don't worry Mr Black, I thought you tried very hard.'

'Can I start again?' is something I have heard often. In public speaking, acting or any performance piece. We seldom learn things starting from a variety of places. Preparing for interruption. Preparing for things to go wrong. Forgetting the first line can basically mean forgetting the whole thing. Here lies the connection to Reservoir Dogs. Mr Orange has to come up with a story to convince the bad dudes that he is for real. An amusing anecdote.  He gets given some advice about how to make it his own. How to internalise it. When it comes to the performance, there were plenty of interruptions but he could not afford to look down and see just (Mr) Black and (Mr) White. He was not surrounded by compassionate 6 year olds. He did a great job.

So this time round as I relearn the piano, I am making a concerted effort to learn to deal with interruption and play on through. To be able to start from anywhere. To internalise the songs rather than just learn to play them from the beginning. One day, I hope to be able to play well enough to genuinely impress the little people.

(P.S. Don't watch the Reservoir Dogs clips if you aren't a Tarantino fan, or if you are 6)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Belly Up

When Yoga started moving westwards, one of the bits that didn't gain as much acceptance was the focus on breathing. Many forms of yoga do a cursory head nod as a brief warm up or at the end of the class. This is not because it isn't of value, but because participants are keen for a workout. They are used to, and expect to be sweating profusely or it isn't really exercise.

Whether in public speaking, swimming, running, singing or sleeping - breathing is the fundamental thing that we do, so our resistance to improving it is problematic.

A friend recently told me that his partner could spot when we was upset by him holding his breath. Saying 'breathe' to someone who is irritated probably has the same effect as saying 'Relax' to someone who is angry. Our breath is however a very good gauge of where our mind is at. Although it is automatic, it is one of the first things to go when things start to unravel.

One very simple technique Yoga teaches is 'abdominal breathing'. This is relearning the basic way we breath to use the full lungs. Often when we try take a deep breath, it is short, forceful and in our chests. In yogic breathing you learn to start by using the abdominal muscles. As you breath in slowly, the abdomen raises first. As you can see in the picture below, this makes space for the lungs to expand. By contracting the diaphragm, the belly rises. This is the opposite of what becomes the way to take a 'deep' breath where people end up sucking their tummy in. That is why it needs practise. A useful technique to learn to use your diaphragm is to lie on your back and interlock your fingers loosely. As you breath in, your fingers should part slightly. As you exhale, they come back together.

I am all for practical steps towards happiness. A great first step is breathing properly.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Seriously Fun

Fun is a great firestarter. When kids don't want to eat, you make the meal fun by adding colour or shaping it into a clown face. When kids don't want to learn, you turn it into a game. Inside every adult is a kid.

John McInroy (@JohnMcInroy) is doing a lot of good from an idea that was fun. He and his friend started wearing red socks on Friday to remember each other. The idea spread and became Red Sock Friday (@redsockfriday). We all witnessed the Ice Bucket Challenge and how quickly that spread. Because an issue is serious doesn't mean we have to be serious in our approach to raising awareness or in rallying the troops.

My inner kid loves Movember. It initially started as a bit of fun from a bunch of aussie mates. Seeing that there was very little awareness about testicular and prostate cancer, they decided to try create Movember as something similar to what is being done for breast cancer. The mo becomes the pink ribbon - but on your face. Since then MoBros and MoSistas have raised about £270 million across 21 countries supporting 581 projects.

I have worked for three companies and all three have been incredibly generous in their support for Movember. It has been a wonderful team building exercise and a great way to create a bit of office banter. It has also been particularly useful where offices are spread around the world. A little bit of healthy competition and a reason to send amusing updates helps people get to know each other.

I have tended to spice things up a bit by adding a forfeit. In 2010 I dressed as Charlie Chaplin to our Year End Party after reaching my target, the following year I ended up in drag with waxed legs, and the next a bald, grey-mo'ed Gandhi. I moved companies in 2013 and Movember was a particularly useful way of getting to know everyone. I wasn't quite brave enough to have an extroverted forfeit having only arrived two months before the start of Movember, but the firm was full of incredibly generous people and we managed to rally over 20 participants from around the world despite being predominantly client facing. The idea of Movember is now mainstream enough that executives participate.

With 10 days to go till the start of Movember, it would be great if you could start the office banter and get some teams together. Below is a clip from the founder of Movember telling the origin story.

If you are keen to join in, please do sign up, if you want to join my team - sign up here



Sunday, October 19, 2014

Popping In

I am a big fan of how borders are fading and we are spreading out. I have lived in London for almost 6 years now, but have been lucky enough to get to go back to South Africa regularly. Along with my source of news being Twitter or the internet, and social media providing contact with friends from around the world, I have not felt like I am really in a different country.

It is a very different experience from when I first came to the UK in between school and university. I got my first internet based email account and used to write emails back home in much the same form as letters. I was working as an Assistant Teacher and would need to arrange to use one of the school computers after hours to do so. I did not have a mobile phone and calls back to South Africa were expensive and so infrequent. That has all changed.

Having said that, I still think distance is still one of our biggest barriers to happiness. The benefits of spreading out have their trade offs. When I was growing up we used to have Sunday lunch at my grandparents house with our whole family. It was fantastic having a weekly get together. Following a Bruce Lee 'Absorb, Discard, Add'* philosophy, I have always thought the Jewish tradition of Friday night Shabbat dinner would be worth absorbing. I have been lucky enough to share two of these occasions with a friend and former colleague. There is good food and people make an effort to be there. The host prepares some 'food for thought' and there is a discussion. The discussion links back to texts that may have been shared and sometimes people are assigned something to look into in advance.

Spreading out is awesome, but the default is no longer that we live 5-10 minutes away from friends and family. I have lived in Putney for 6 years and I will admit that I don't have local buddies that I just pop over to see. London is very spread out and there seems to be a time barrier where if someone is further than, say, 20 minutes away - you don't tend to just drop in to see if they are around.

My point is that because of distance our relationships fall out of the habit category. We don't just pop over for a cup of tea because of the effort and time required making it not worth the risk that someone is not there or busy. Everything has advantages and disadvantages. Those who value staying close to friends and family and building a very local and strong community get to keep these things. Those who spread out get more of an opportunity to pursue their individual passions if they vary from the groups.

For the 'spreaders', I think we have to make a more conscious effort to invest in relationships. Perhaps we have to do things that feel false, like making notes of when last we spoke to people and setting reminders to make calls/have coffees/write letters. We are creatures of habit and distance makes the habit of investing in those we care for harder.

*'Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own' - Bruce Lee

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Happy Meal

If you had to choose a chief candidate for a happiness battleground - what we put in our mouth would have to be right up there. Tastes, like music or photographs, can link almost directly to memories of happy times. Food is a part of our identity. Our favourite dishes are friends. When we are sad - there is the buddy we turn to. To celebrate, we might have a favourite restaurant that we go to as a reward for a job well done. It can also be the glue that holds relationships together. A meal your mother made you. Somewhere you and your friends love meeting. Perhaps a memory of when you fell in love with someone. Cooking may be where you find your sense of flow.  It can be central to a national cultural identity, e.g. the braai.

It is also one of the biggest disconnects between what we rationally know we should eat, and what we want to eat. Beyond the simple question of eating healthily, there are now more questions being raised about the sustainability and ethics of how we generate our food. In 2008 I had an epic series of blog post debates with Stuart Torr (@muttface) on Vegetarianism with myself arguing for the meat eaters. In theory, I was trying to understand his decision not to eat meat, but in truth I was defending myself. We didn't resolve much other than I agreed:

1. Meat makes up too large a proportion of most wealthy people's diets.
2. The practises in factory farming are very concerning and there is persistent animal cruelty.

I subsequently started getting into Yoga, in which Vegetarianism is a very central part of the philosophy. Diet has not been one of the areas that I have focused on. This is in part laziness, in part not having enough time, and in part a deep emotional connection to the food I eat.

The amount of self-control required to not eat meat in a culture where there are only a few vegetarian options on most menus is huge. ORDER ENVY. I am not just fond of some meat meals, I have had a lifelong love affair with them. My brothers would argue that Trev and Spaghetti Bolognaise are synonyms. Then there is ignorance. I don't know how to prepare tasty vegetarian meals and to ensure that I am getting all the elements I need to stay healthy. None of these things were a problem on the two month long yoga courses I went on, and I felt awesome.

A very happy Trev. A very tasty meat free meal.

For the more militant activists out there, the ones who believe that our current culture of meat eating is perpetrating a holocaust (thus breaking Godwin's law), I think addressing some of the cultural and emotional attachments may be a better approach than a direct attack using moral philosophy. Jonathan Haidt (@JonHaidt) talks of being intellectually convinced after reading Peter Singer's (@petersinger) work but that it didn't affect his behaviour. It just added a layer of guilt. A video of a slaughter house stopped him eating meat for a while because it induced disgust, but that faded and the meat eating habit returned. I have a fair amount of self discipline and yet struggle when it comes to food. Reducing how much meat we eat and so helping to reduce the demand that leads to undeniably cruel practices within factory farms is going to have to rely on some very serious Elephant Training. What we eat and logic are only acquaintances. What we eat and our emotional engines are lovers.

Friday, October 17, 2014


Some jobs let you leave the work at work. They are contained. It does not mean they are unskilled, but there is nothing to worry about. The problems that present today are solved today, and you have the skill set to solve tomorrows problems. Other jobs are never finished. You are always working towards something. You are always planning, and by their very nature they will never be finished.

This makes relaxation difficult. We have weekends and seem to have settled on 20-25 days a year being sufficient leave for professionals. In most cases, a maximum of two weeks for professionals unless you are particularly skilled at sweet talking your boss. On Friday you are shattered. On Sunday you are preparing mentally for the week that lies ahead. So in truth you get Saturday. One day a week. Do you use that for relaxation? Not really. You use it for life. You use it for the stuff you are working for. Work hard. Play hard. It is not unusual to get back from a weekend or a holiday tired because we are trying to pack in as much as we humanly can.

On top of that, if the work isn't contained you get a 'Concertina Break' where all the work isn't put aside, it gets squished into the week before you leave and the week you get back when there is a mountain of stress to welcome you with open arms.

Source: Wikipedia

So we can't rely on those periods of not working to relax. Relaxation isn't really a luxury though. Without it we can't actually function, so we have to figure out some way to fit it in.

The Yogis talk of three types of relaxation*:

1. Physical Relaxation
Tension and relaxation are closely related. If you aren't exercising it does make it harder to relax. So this is why lying on the couch watching test cricket for a week doesn't leave you feeling relaxed. It just leaves you feeling awesome. Ok, I am getting distracted. We all feel better when we are fit and healthy. Yoga takes this a step further in gaining an awareness of all the muscles and learning to 'tense and release' each of them. It uses a process of 'autosuggestion' where you consciously go through the body tensing and releasing each part. The whole process helps relax those organs you don't consciously control either since they 'realise' everything else is relaxing. 'Yoga - Your Home Practice Companion' gives some very short routines that you can fit into your day. So that bit at the end of a Yoga class where 'everyone has a little sleep' is actually probably the most important bit. You are not sleeping, you remain very conscious but learn to completely relax.

2. Mental Relaxation
The physical battering we take or just the stress of sitting in a chair for hours on end, is much less of an energy sapper than the constant tension from worries and anxieties. Training yourself to be able to recognise the thoughts and put them in their place is goal of mental relaxation. This ties back to jobs that can or can't be left at work. You may leave the office but the office doesn't leave your head. There is a funny scene in the movie 'The Champ' where a reporter asks the homeless former boxer whether he has thought about his offer to write a story on him. He replies that he hasn't thought about it at all, he was 'saving that till later'. Controlling thoughts doesn't mean ignoring them, it just means giving the attention they deserve and not letting them be the boss of you. I couldn't find that scene, but this is another classic...

3. Spiritual Relaxation
I spoke about my concern yesterday that there are many moral leaders whose message gets restricted unnecessarily because of the groups we create. I think it would be great if we were able to have more platforms to share common ideas on happiness and how to live irrespective of group. Whether a minister, youth pastor, humanist chaplain, swami, imam or philosopher - there are huge overlaps where we have common ground. One of those is the relaxation that comes from identifying with something bigger than yourself. Spiritual relaxation is effectively a separation from your own issues - the ability to not identify with personal worries, sorrows, anxieties, fear, and anger which bring tension. This is not a religious thing or an esoteric thing. It is in my view one of the core reasons we search for those means of expression though. If through worship, watching videos of space, or meditation you are able to let go of your 'stuff' just for a bit, you end up having a whole lot more energy to get back into the game.

* See Page 202 & 203 of 'The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga'