The Lords of Unix

When I was a child, there were two very clever girls in my class.  I liked them a lot, because they were not only outstandingly clever, but very sweet, as well.  It was a joy to be in their company and I was fond of them both.  One day, though, they went mad.  I don’t mean literally mad, I just mean that it appeared to me as if they had suddenly taken leave of their senses.

I should explain.  There was a childhood game, which I wasn’t yet aware of, called “Arp-Arp”.  This was a way of creating a secret language, in which normal words are modified by adding the syllable “arp” immediately before every vowel sound.  Hence, “pig” becomes “parpig”.  “How are you today?” translates as “Harpow arpare yarpou tarpodarpay?”  It’s an ingenious game, enabled by a very simple rule.  These two, seemingly overnight, became expert speakers of Arp-Arp and speak they did!

The problem was I couldn’t figure out the simple rule, initially.  My two friends delighted in having “secret” conversations, within earshot of everybody, secure in the knowledge that nobody could figure out what they were saying to each other.  They became quite fluent, too.  I can remember the feeling of being excluded, of being bewildered by the stream of seemingly nonsensical, incomprehensible words flying back and forth and of trying desperately to crack the code.  They had a super power which I couldn’t access.  It didn’t feel fair and it was more than a little humiliating to no longer be their intellectual equal (a situation which persists to this very day, incidentally, but only because they both achieved spectacular things in highly demanding, intellectual careers, which I am very proud of them both for).

Then, by some chance or miracle, I figured out the rule.  I remember the moment.  The answer came to me in a blinding, sudden flash of lucid insight.  It was this simple?  Now I felt even more stupid for having made such a meal of trying to figure it out.  It was ridiculously easy, once you knew.  How could I have missed it?

It was a very useful life lesson, however, though I didn’t know it at the time.  When I became involved in software engineering, I used to meet a certain kind of programmer, from time to time (and several times in my career).  I like to think of this type of programmer as a member of the sacred order of the Lords of Unix.  What I mean by that is that they were fluent in the arcana and intricacies of using Unix, a computer operating system, when most programmers were not.  As with Arp-Arp, the rules of Unix are actually quite simple, if you know them, but initially daunting and quite incomprehensible, if you are trying to figure them out for yourself, with nobody to help you crack the code.

What was irritating about the Lords of Unix (and what I was well aware of) was the fact that they loved to tell everyone that would listen how special they were, because of their “secret” knowledge, yet what they were trading on was, to me, just another version of Arp-Arp.  They invariably built up their parts and acted as if they were God’s gift to software engineering, swaggering around and denigrating others, because they knew all the escape sequences and command line options off by heart.  Instead of sharing their knowledge generously, they guarded it jealously.  It was their one means of remaining one up on everybody else, after all.

What was self evident, though was that, for all their emacs customisations or rapidity with the vi text editor (another religious schism, which I won’t go into now), they couldn’t build things, out of software, that were reliable, useful and which delighted users.  Some of their software creations weren’t worth a damn, despite their astonishing insight into tar balls and gnu.  They couldn’t even agree, between themselves, how many spaces a tab character, in the source code, should be.  Was it four or was it eight?  Neither side would budge on the matter.  Consequently, much of the shared source code soon degenerated into an indentation mess.  Progress became all but impossible.

What was obvious to me was that they were bragging about and fetish-ising about the wrong super power.  Knowing Unix is fine, even at Unix Lord level, but knowing how to create software that was great to use, worked and which people would happily pay money for, was a very different super power – one which was as foreign to them as Arp-Arp had been to me, at first.  They had made a much bigger deal of a super power that wasn’t the only relevant skill required than was prudent.  It turned out that the Lords of Unix did not have a monopoly on wisdom after all.

Art is about connecting with humanity; emotionally, intellectually, instinctually.  It isn’t about technical skill or the mastery of arcane terms and knowledge.  It’s not about separating yourself from others; it’s about embracing them.  I think many artists run the risk of acting like the Lords of Unix.  They play up the importance of their superior technical knowledge, while being wholly unable to connect with an audience, on any level.

Guitar shredders notoriously do this.  They’ve become infamous for it, as a group.  They spend so much time learning to whip up and down the fretboard, playing every imaginable scale and arpeggio, with lightning speed and finesse, yet they fail to create music that reaches people, moves them or says anything worth saying, other than, “Watch me.  Behold my Lord of Shred skills, minions!  Weep at your guitar playing inferiority!”

So does every artist that is all about the technique.  In music, so many players worship the reproduction of other people’s improvisations, while being wholly disconnected from any ability to improvise in an original way themselves.  Isn’t that tragic?  Imagine developing a fine and nuanced taste for something you can’t actually do.  Painters, writers and poets are not immune, either.  Each group has their own equivalent of the Lords of Unix.  They are all hiding what are essentially the same as the rules of Arp-Arp, from what they assert are lesser, mortal artists of their ilk.  Meanwhile, their egos inflate in direct proportion to the boredom and disinterest they inflict on their hapless audiences.

Don’t pride yourself on your access to what you believe to be secret, occult knowledge.  Instead, use that knowledge in the pursuit of real artistic goals.  Share it.  The acquisition of secret knowledge, for its own sake, is not art; it’s narcissism.  Don’t be somebody that knows everything about how to write (or compose or paint), but has nothing to say and no ability to say it in their own distinctive way.

If you become one of the Lords of Whatever, I’ll come around to your house personally and speak Arp-Arp at you non-stop, while shredding interminably on my guitar and running a shell script to change the creation date of all of your computer files.

You can’t say you weren’t warned.

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What Humans Aren’t

I’ve been a human being for over a half a century now and in that time, you learn some fundamental things.  One of the things I have learnt, for which I can find no compelling counter arguments, is something that human beings are not.  Despite the accepted economic theory, the orthodox political ideology, the prevailing propaganda and the widely held and largely unquestioned assumptions, human beings are definitely not economic units of production.  You’re thinking of machines.  People are not machines.

Yet, the myth is adhered to so doggedly that you can scarcely find anybody that raises an eyebrow against the stupid assertion that humans are economic units of production.  The global economy and many advanced Western societies and their governments operate as if the myth were true.  Much of the Fascist agenda (and some of today’s British political policy, in fact) was predicated on the notion that it is morally correct to eliminate those, in society, who are not productive.  They called it “Eugenics”, and dressed it up in the dubious language of improving the species, but it really amounted to little more than not wanting to pay to keep those members of society that couldn’t make money for somebody else.  It was a corporatist agenda, at root.

Today, governments claim that it is risibly inefficient to collect taxes and then redistribute them, via tax credits, so they abolish the credits, but don’t stop collecting the taxes.  They penalise those on benefits and slowly, surely, deliberately starve out mental health services, disability support and unemployment benefits, as if everybody could, simply by deciding, return to being fully productive members of society on a whim.  In effect, they are inexorably eliminating the members of society that are not productive and people support them in this aim, by voting for it.  The difference between this and Eugenics is not very distinct.

Adherents to the “people as economic units of production” hallucination act assuredly, as if human beings have no value, other than their capacity to turn a profit for their “owners”.  It’s a shabby, morbid and myopic philosophy, yet people happily vote for it and lend it their support, to the present day.  Nobody questions the underlying assumption.  Perhaps this is precisely what humans aren’t.

If you hold that people are economic units of production, then you have to explain why productivity has been falling, or at least certainly not growing, in the UK, for quite some time now.  So far, the fact of falling productivity has baffled zealots, dogmatic demagogues, academics, politicians, financiers and economists alike.  They can’t make sense of it.  The underlying causes evade their grasp.

The answer, of course, is very simple.  Their assumptions are wrong.  They have assumed that people are economic units of production, but self-evidently, they are not.  This is why their theory fails to yield to their orthodox analyses.  They’re trying to prove a falsehood is a truth.  The fact that they can’t explain it ought to be telling them their theory is wrong, but they flog this dead horse relentlessly, nevertheless, in the hope that their error will be found in the second or third decimal places.  It’s a fool’s search.

If you, for a moment, accept that human beings are not economic units of production, then the drop in productivity is immediately and lucidly explicable.  Its root cause can be illuminated by examining the workplace and conditions of work that these human beings are required to be productive in.

Here is where all the productivity went:

  • There are millions of workplaces full of old, obsolete, end-of-life and highly unreliable computers, shitty printers, and decrepit software and networks, which otherwise productive employees are required to wait on, wrestle with, attend to and distract themselves with repairing or making do.  Think how much productivity is burnt, in aggregate, rebooting after an update, waiting on web pages or applications to load, due to the latency of slow, old hard drives, running bloatware with inadequate memory, updating software that insists on doing so and in hoping things will get better if they just turn it off and turn it on again.
  • Bad bosses.  It used to be the case that employees could force somebody to do something about a boss that acted outrageously, or who was completely ineffective.  Now, due to “worker flexibility”, bad bosses are given license to destroy productivity, abuse and intimidate workers, sack underlings in order to cover for their egregious mistakes and generally act as miniature tyrants, with the power over life and death over their direct reports.  Who would work hard to please such a person?
  • Unrealistic work tempo.  Many employees are stressed and overworked, on a sustained basis, for no reason at all, other than it being the “house style”.  There is a high incidence of burn out and those that succumb are simply discarded unceremoniously.  Those that remain keep their heads down and work just hard enough to keep from being noticed and singled out.  It doesn’t pay to be outstanding – either in a good or a bad way.  Employees are never given the opportunity to pace their work, use their energy wisely and take rest, to recover and refresh.  Instead, they are supposed to be machines, fully productive for every hour they are paid and then for some they are required to donate from their personal lives.
  • Bad workplaces, filled with cheap and cheesy furniture.  Many work in uncomfortable, poorly lit, inadequately ventilated, uninspiring premises and subjected to climatic extremes.  Their working environment is not somewhere you would want to spend your time voluntarily on a visit, let alone most of your working life.  If you want to make productivity vanish, make the workplace unbearably uncomfortable.
  • The misery and time spent commuting substantially reduces productivity, as people are exhausted by the time they reach their workplace and then accumulate more stress, wear and tear, throughout the working week, as they battle to get home to their families.  Their weekends are a total write off, as they seek to recuperate.
  • Companies think it is cheaper to hire any unskilled, untrained person, rather than the right person for the job, because they’re easy to fire.  They make no effort to select the best, nurture them and retain their services.  Employees, no matter how skilled and unique, are treated as expendable and replaceable, which indeed they are (sadly), provided you are willing to take the hit to productivity, during the changeover.  Because companies see their employees as interchangeable cogs, they rarely listen to their best and most valuable ideas and employees, knowing this, stop offering them.
  • Inflexible working conditions ensure that employees spend their requisite office time fretting about the things in their lives they really have to sort out, but cannot, because they’re at the office when they need to be elsewhere.  Home workers are distrusted.  In fact, as a general rule, employers have very little trust in their employees, believing them to be like children that require constant supervision and direction, or else they will be incapable of producing anything.  Treat them like that and that is how they will learn to behave – as passive and dependent, rather than self-motivated, engaged and wanting to solve issues by themselves.  Any variation in working hours is seen as a gross violation.  You can insist on inflexible working conditions, but the cost is productivity loss.
  • One way loyalty.  Employers demand tribute and fealty from their employees, but feel no reciprocal obligation to express their loyalty, in concrete and meaningful terms, to their employees.  They can and will fire them, as it suits them to do so and the employees know it.  Why would employees try extra hard under those circumstances?
  • With zero hour contracts and freelance short-term engagements, employers have unburdened themselves of risks and costs that they previously had to bear and they have, thereby, created widespread precarity, where people are one pay check from financial oblivion.  This has been accomplished by shoving all the risk on the employees, who lack the economic strength to withstand it.  By paying the invoices of freelancers and contractors slowly and late, even more of the risk is borne by these people, who are the least able to do so.  The self employed earn a fraction of the earnings of full time employees, for the same skill set and experience.  This additional precarity naturally impacts their productivity, no matter how diligent they are.
  • The joke and oxymoron of “self employment”.  In reality, what separates the self-employed from the unemployed are the invoices that the former issue.  A piece of paper is all that separates them from being thrusting, go-getting entrepreneurs, making the country great and disgusting, lazy, contemptible, work-shy spongers.  If it were you, how would that impact your productivity?
  • The lottery of evaporating share options, which vest (if they ever do) with no voting rights.  Many employees are promised jam tomorrow, in the form of share options that will vest, when they have jumped through sufficient hoops.  Many employees never see these share options vest, for one reason or another and it increases the incentives for employers to make such people redundant, just before they do.  Even if, through their efforts, the firm does well and the shares vest, the employee can forget any notions they had of having a greater say in how the enterprise they have contributed significantly to growing will be run in the future.  Share options are, on balance, a bit of a disincentive to being more productive, in many circumstances, especially when used as a cynical means of keeping real salaries down, on the promise of jam tomorrow.
  • Presenteeism.  This is the belief that employees must be seen to be at their post, for all the required hours, if ill and whenever overtime is required of them, whether or not they are actually doing anything productive or useful and indeed, whether or not they are in a physical state to even attempt to be productive.
  • Investment in the rentier economy, rather than in innovation.  Why risk your money investing in ways to make firms more productive, when you can buy assets that appreciate, without you doing anything, such as property, land or other items you simply rent out, for ever-inflating profits, as the bubble continues to grow.  Making something that might not work, because it is new and untried, while more productive, appears to be far more risky than buying property, for example.  In the long run, however, the opposite is true.  This is what we are now seeing, with the collapse in productivity.  Whereas we should have been investing in innovation and productivity enhancement, we preferred to speculate instead.
  • Ignoring the creative sector.  By deeming the creation of intellectual capital as “not real work” and refusing to value or pay for it, or even creating giant gate-keeping information engines to distribute it for free, the productivity of an entire sector of society is simply not valued or counted.
  • Bosses appropriating a larger slice of the excess production, leaving falling real wages.  If bosses are able to appropriate a larger slice of their firm’s output, as their own private spoils, there is nobody to stop them.  So they have and they do.  Bonuses for upper tier managers and the pay of CEOs have never been more disproportionate, compared to the rewards offered to the people that do the actual productive work.  Bosses are eating their own value-creation enterprises from the inside out, making off with the value, like bandits, while they still can.  It’s a predatory practice, but ultimately a self-destructive one.  Instead of investing in improvements to productivity, they simply take the money home and spend it on themselves or hoard it.
  • No investment in training or the development of people.  If you leave a workforce unskilled, bewildered and unimproved, it’s hardly surprising that productivity remains stubbornly low, yet so many firms rely on other firms to train people, so that they can poach them, or else insist that it is an employee’s own responsibility to improve themselves professionally, even though the cost of doing so is frequently beyond their means.  If all firms do this, and they do, then nobody pays for training, so nobody gets any smarter at what they do, so productivity improvements are all but impossible.
  • Why buy productive machinery, when you can pay minimum wage employees and still make the same profit, no matter how unproductive they are, compared to machinery?  This seems to be the modus operandi of so many companies, it beggars belief.  They would rather pay people to do things in an inefficient and unproductive way, than improve their processes and machinery, to gain higher productivity.  They can do this, because doing so does not reduce their profits.
  • Unhappy employees.  It’s hard to be productive when you are deeply unhappy, yet so many employers both do nothing to ensure their employees are happy, and actively contribute to their unhappiness, in a variety of ways.  That might make a boss feel powerful, but the price is paid in lost productivity.

You don’t have to believe my analysis.  You can read these references (below) to see similar insights into why productivity remains stubbornly low:

The denial of the intelligence, creativity, self-organisation, self-direction and self-motivation of humans is at the root of the economic crisis.  We aren’t recognising artistry.  The prevailing view, that everybody needs to be controlled by a privileged controller, is simply wrong.

If, on the other hand, you view humans as what they really are, which is creative beings – more like artists than machines – you come to recognise that they really are self-organising, self-directing, intrinsically motivated entities that are capable of creating their own optimal working conditions and working environments, to produce the best of anything, efficiently.  The irony is that people are much more productive, this way, even though productivity isn’t the only value or the only goal.  Regarding humans as creative beings opens up the possibility of harvesting many other highly valuable social benefits and public goods, not just increased productivity.  Of course, that would limit the opportunities for the privileged to lay claim to, and appropriate the fruits of, other people’s productive labour and their surplus production, as their own private property.

Societies need to decide if what they really want is higher productivity, by treating humans as creative beings, or to forcibly misappropriate production, so that privilege can be maintained, by regarding them as economic units of production.  So far, it has made its preference very clear.  That preference is the real reason why productivity is so low.  Orthodox analysts cannot see it.

They are treating humans as something they aren’t.

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Fear of the Unconventional

There is a significant population of people that are alarmed, scandalised, affronted and viscerally offended by pictures painted in bright colours, whether representational or abstract, or somewhere in between.  I have the anecdotal evidence.  They can’t stand them, but more than that, they secretly believe that such pictures need to be destroyed and the artists that paint them corrected and straightened.  It’s a funny reaction to what are, in fact, just pigments in a fluid suspension, applied to a blank canvas.  To their minds, however, something is profoundly wrong if the brightest pigments are placed on that blank canvas.  Isn’t that a rather strange reaction?

You can find similar populations reacting to electric guitar sounds, especially if the guitar sound is in any way distorted.  Somehow, the simple saturation of electronic amplification components constitutes the work of the Devil himself.  And don’t get me started on synthesisers and synthetically produced musical timbres.  Such things are considered to be degenerate and evil.  You are permitted to animate the molecules in the air if you start with a wooden stick, a string made from the intestines of a once living creature, the stretched skin of a dead animal, or a bone pipe, but woe betide you if you create those molecular animations using mathematics and electronics, without needing to kill any animals!

Where does this bizarre thought pattern come from and why can’t they see how ridiculous it is?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the matter is not one of aesthetic preference.  If it were, holders of that narrow aesthetic sensibility would support the preferences of people that instead, happen to like bright colours, distorted electric guitar sounds and music synthesis – that sort of thing.  But they don’t.  They also struggle to defend their purist aesthetic sensibilities with anything that approaches rational, sensible arguments.

What their view is really about is control and fear.  It’s the fear that artists that explore these tones, textures and timbres in their work are somehow completely out of control.  They’re wrong ’uns.  If somebody doesn’t do something to reign in their dangerous experimentation, it could lead to chaos, disorder and the destruction of society.  That’s what they’re scared of.  They worry about the loss of order and hierarchy, of obedience and discipline and their place within it, in favour of free spirited, joyful, curiosity-driven exploration of the full gamut of sounds and colours possible.  In short, these aesthetic purists believe, fervently and as an article of unarguable faith that they need to own other people and control them, as if such artists are incapable of rational self-control or self-discipline.  They treat those of us that play with the more unconventional sounds and colours as children, who must be prevented from acting on their own initiative, for their own good.

The irony is that they equate their inability to control other artists with anarchy, as if anarchy is an undesirable state of affairs, where the self appointed controllers are no longer able to control the wayward and dangerous others.  They see themselves as guardians of civilisation and decency.  What’s so civilised and decent about believing you have the right to own the thoughts, actions and expressions of other people?  What gives you the right?  Anarchy is nothing more than recognising that it is unjust to own other people.

Anything that represents change or newness, to these people, is not evaluated and subsequently embraced or discarded on its own merits, but rather on the extent to which it disturbs their established mental model of how they wish the world would work.  Why this should matter is rooted in the fear of no longer being able to understand and control the way the world does work.  It’s an obsessive need to impose their own, particular hallucination about how the world ought to be, upon the world as it actually is.  They’re trying to reshape reality in their own imaginary conception of it.  They can’t accept that some artists like to paint with the brightest colours in the box, or to play their guitars loud, or to hear something that can’t be produced with the remains of dead animals and trees.

The other thing that is often apparent, when somebody criticises your bright, abstract painting, your distorted guitar sounds or your synthetically augmented music production, is a veiled envy.  They spend a lot of time in self-denial and self-censorship, these people; acting and creating as they think they ought to, in order to remain acceptable to people that think just like they do.  They care intensely about what other people think of them and their art, so they are ever so slightly jealous of those that are free of those shackles, who make art to please themselves, without caring what other people think of it.  Perhaps it is the conflict between the herd instinct and the desire to be an individual that enrages them.

What is a given is that these people that fear the unconventional can’t help making their discomfort and displeasure at your work known.  They’ll be rude, dismissive, derisive and offensive in their appraisals.  Even on the venerable BBC Radio 4 Today show, presenters will feign a preference for classical music, as high art, over rock and roll, even though rock and roll is an art form that is well over sixty years old and hardly a threat to the established order of things, any longer.  Most Glastonbury attendees, for example, voted Conservative, according to a poll carried out by The Guardian newspaper.  Yet, the sneering and derisive comments are still broadcast.  Fear.  Pure fear.

Artists, more than most groups in society, are more unconventional than most.  Consequently, they bear the brunt of the widespread fear of the unconventional.  The criticisms are made as if being conventional is a good thing, for the progress of humanity.  It clearly isn’t and it is dangerous.  Unquestioning conformance and compliance to authority, for example, can get you killed.  Without the unconventional, progress is not possible.  Yet, even amongst artists, there are some very conventional artists, indeed.  You can recognise the orthodoxy in their work.  Does it inspire you?  Does it lead you to imaginative explorations of other possibilities, or is it merely decorative, to fill the blank spaces with something mildly less bland and anonymous?

My advice to people that have a fear of the unconventional is to mind your own business.  It’s none of your concern.  If your personal obsession is to uphold your own hallucinatory idea of what defines order and stability, keep it to yourself and get over it.  There are artists trying to do important, ground-breaking, exploratory work.  Stop interfering with them.

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I Don’t Know How to Make That

They don’t say it out loud, but you know it’s what they’re thinking.  In many creative pursuits (for example, writing software, or designing something), the maker will be asked to create something specific, according to some set of requirements, but they don’t know how to make it.  What happens next is where it gets really interesting.

The first thing is that it’s exceedingly rare for any maker to admit they don’t know how to make what they’re being asked to make.  You could argue that this isn’t very honest and you’d be right.  There seems to be a lot of shame and risk to reputation involved in admitting you’re at the very limits of your capabilities.  Everyone, instead, professes to know what to do, whether they do or not.

There are two possible choices of action, after the maker has declined to confess that they don’t know how to make what is being requested.  Both keep the person asking for something to be made in the dark, which is not good and will lead to potential disappointment (and subsequent loss of reputation, anyway).

The least honest will tend to make, paint, draw, write, play, design or do what they already know how to do, trying to pass off what they are able to make for the thing they were asked to make.  While the result seems like it was produced using a tried, tested and hence safe approach and it provides the requestor with something that is the best thing the maker knows how to make, it still isn’t the thing they were asked to make.  Sometimes, it’s very different.  Most times, it’s unacceptable.

The requestor, at this point, wonders why the maker wasn’t more honest in admitting they don’t know how to make what was asked.  They have spent their money, wasted their time and received something other than what they were looking for.  Why wouldn’t they feel aggrieved?

The other slightly less dishonest approach, but at least a partially creditable one, is to use the request as an opportunity to learn how to make what they don’t yet know how to make.  The maker can accept the commission as a challenge, without revealing to the client that they’re making it up as they go along and work diligently to produce exactly what they were asked to produce.  Unfortunately, it’s still a dishonest approach, because it keeps the requestor in the dark, too.

An honest maker, presented with a request for something they don’t know how to make, should say so, but offer to learn to make what is requested and to challenge themselves to become a better, or more versatile, or more knowledgeable maker.  Then the client has the option of putting their trust in the maker, knowing it might not work out well, or might take longer, or result in a not quite up to par result, the first time, or else they can walk away and find a maker that does know how to make what they want.  They are given the chance to assess the risk, based on reliable information.  That seems like common courtesy, to me.

Mostly, though, the client already knows they’re asking for something that, in all probability, nobody yet knows how to do.  That might be why they came to you.  If you can provide them with a reason to trust you, by showing what you can do, but also admitting openly to what you can’t do and showing willingness to extend your range of skills, until you can do what is asked, you just might get the commission.  They might feel that you have what it takes to challenge yourself, struggle and triumph.

We compromise ourselves and our customers, if we secretly stick with what we know how to make and try to force feed that back to them, no matter what.  We also undermine other people’s trust in us, if we use the opportunity as a learning exercise, but fail to admit to the fact.  The best approach, in my view, is to explain the challenge and invite the client to trust you to accomplish the learning and skill-building that will be needed, to make what you don’t yet know how to make.

If you achieve anything, without a struggle, it tends not to be very satisfying.  Stretching yourself, pushing against your own boundaries and then succeeding is much more rewarding, especially if you bring your client along the journey with you.  They will then know, for certain, that they’ve just bought something really special, which took a lot of personal commitment and soul to produce.

On the other hand, if you keep the struggle a secret, it’s likely that the customer will undervalue what you’ve just done, no matter how amazing a feat it really was.  That can be very deflating, but that’s how you made it look.

As a maker, being able to look at the fruits of your struggle, the one you agreed to undertake on your client’s behalf, with their full consent and say to them, straight to their face, that you made this – that is an amazing feeling.  I submit that it’s the reason we do what we do, in essence.

If you’re honest about the whole thing, you’ll both walk away smiling.  Creating is funny like that.

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Everybody Holds a Cherished Idea That Won’t Work

We don’t like to be the first to admit it and often we’re the very last, but it has to be said that everyone harbours what they think is a great idea, but it’s never going to work.

Artists, especially, have frequent flights of fancy that are wildly impractical, poorly thought through, based on self-delusional fantasy, wishful thinking or sheer unalloyed optimism, which have a likelihood of success infinitesimally close to zero.  That doesn’t stop us dreaming our dreams and being sustained by our beloved, but ultimately stupid, ideas, though.

How do you protect yourself from your own unworkable schemes?

As far as I know, there is only one way to prevent yourself from hanging on to an idea that can’t possibly work and that is to try it out.  See if it does work.  Try to make it work.  Get the proof.

The good thing about attempting to realise your implausible, whimsical, imaginative belief is that you will either confirm that the idea is, indeed, a poor plan, allowing you to discard it completely and move on, or else you will find a way to learn from your failure.  Alternatively, you may find a way to make the idea work, despite the myriad obstacles you discover.  At least you will always have the dignity of being able to say you sincerely tried.

Sometimes just sticking with the idea, doggedly and tenaciously, is enough to help you find a way to turn it into a workable idea.  There’s a lot to be said for figuring things out as you go.  Very hard problems are often surmounted because the person thinking about them refused to give up and go quietly.

Is the fact that we all cherish at least one very bad idea an argument against having wholly infeasible, nonviable, impossible, other-worldly, visionary ideas?  No.  I don’t think so.  I think it supports the opposite case, in fact.

Some of our best ideas ever, as a species, seemed like designs that couldn’t possibly work, at first.  In fact, without daring to dream these cherished ideas and without the will to attempt them and find ways to realise them, the human race would make no progress at all.  Our arts would not have developed in any significant way.  The same applies to our technology.  Humanity would be all the poorer because of our refusal to harbour mad, improbable, but cherished plans and ideas.

Some of the joy of nutty notions is experiencing the hope that they might come to fruition in reality.  Imagining the moment when something works, against all odds, is a very happy thought.  If you believe in envisioning and shaping the universe by what you call forth from it, just thinking the thoughts might be enough to bring them closer to experiential reality.  It’s a dubious proposition, I admit and one that is not easily susceptible to rigorous experimental proof, but also one that is exceedingly difficult to disprove.

In holding on to our crazy, brainstorm precipitates, we get to experience the playful journey involved in trying to make them manifest, tangible and less fugitive.   Besides, the admiration we can earn, for honestly trying to achieve something arguably Quixotic, is an added bonus.  Failures can be heroic.

Yes, there will be those that hold us in contempt for our patent folly, but don’t forget that our critics also hold cherished ideas that won’t work.  Nobody is exempt or immune.  Our flashes of implausible inspiration and imperfect insight nevertheless buoy us up and help us through what would otherwise be a bleak, meaningless existence.

Everybody has a bad idea that won’t work, but so what?  If we didn’t have those, we’d never discover the good ideas that will work.

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Time is Short

Today, I am painfully aware that time is short.  Retirement age is racing toward me at an alarming rate and yet I still have so much I want to do; things that have significance and meaning to me.  I want to do it all while I still have the physical and mental faculties to do it well.  My stamina is already not what it was twenty years ago.  I don’t think I have another twenty years of stamina, though I hope I do.  To be honest, I am already surprised at the myriad ways my body tells me it is wearing and not as resilient as it once was.  Projecting into the future, I can’t see things improving significantly and I anticipate more wear and tear, if anything, not less.

Meanwhile, I am aware that you can’t push yourself so hard that you die early.  On the radio, this morning, are reports of a well known politician, a contemporary, dead at 55.  That’s very young, really.  I have had a tendency to push myself too hard, to date.  Pacing myself is more important, now.  I know too many brilliant people that didn’t make it to their sixties.  To be honest, I miss them dreadfully.

I read another interesting thing, this morning.  A methodical analysis of start-up company successes and failures discovered that the most significant factor is timing.  Too early or too late spell doom.  Timing is more important than the quality of the idea, the quality of the execution, the business plan or the funding.  It is the dominant factor in success.  Your idea has to hit the sweet spot, when the world is ready to receive it and mad for it.

I’ve always tended to have ideas that are way too early, and then burnt myself out trying to move against the tide, only to become exhausted, depleted and discouraged, causing me to miss the right moment, when it comes.  The problem is that judging the right moment for when the world is ready for any particular idea is exceedingly difficult, especially as the world grows resistant to any new idea, it seems.  Right now, trivialities command the limelight.

I feel something a little like panic, because while I have been trying to move forward with the things I want to accomplish, the universe has had this way of inserting other, urgent, pressing existential problems to solve, while I am trying to solve my own creative challenges.  I have been blown off course and diverted, just making the practicalities of life work.  It has been a very painful distraction, when life is short and time is limited.  I feel resentment that I am required to solve some of them and will have to spend considerable and ongoing time doing that, instead of focusing on my self-defined mission.  I just couldn’t find a way to make it earn enough through my heart’s calling that it would solve the practical problems of living for me, without me needing to do anything else.

So, my reality, like that of many artists, is that I must spend a lot of my time making life survivable, while putting my creative projects to one side.  That just makes me realise how important those projects are to me and how much I want to spend any other time I can eke out at least moving them forward by increments, until they do gather some momentum of their own.  It’s entirely possible, of course, that all of the projects that are important to me will never find an audience willing to sponsor their existence.  While that’s tragic for me, it doesn’t in any way lessen their importance to me.  I’ll have to attempt them, even if nobody else cares, as is currently the demonstrable case.  It’s my own self-imposed burden, this mission of mine.

Meanwhile, I also want to pay as much attention as I can to those I love most, because this year has taught me that they can disappear at any time.  You never want to lose them with things left unsaid and undone together, because you were too busy pursuing your art.  It’s important to live life, as well as having purpose to life.  How do other people juggle all of this?  As best they can, I suspect.  It’s never easy.  Balance is hard to achieve.

Mortality, eh?

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The Emotional Trauma of Trying Hard

A friend of mine said something profoundly interesting recently.  He said, “Seems to be a certain truth in the suggestion that the lessons you find it hard to learn keep on coming back… until you learn them.”  There are things that are recurrent, in your life, that if you fail to learn from them, you’re doomed to repeat, until you do.  For me, it’s the hard life lesson that the things that make my heart sing the most are virtually worthless to everybody else.  They have no value and command no respect or reward, but to me, they mean everything.  These are the very things that make my eyes sparkle.  They are the things that light up my curiosity and enthusiasm.  As a consequence, the yawning, cavernous, abysmal gulf between what I love and what people value about me is thrown up into my face, time and time again.  They don’t care for my creativity, artistry or inventiveness.  What they are willing to pay for is my efficiency and ability to get things done, as a directed functionary – an effective cog in the machine, if you will.  It’s a painful reminder that everything about me that I regard as worthwhile is of no discernible consequence to the world of commerce at all.

Another friend of mine remarked on the recurrent nightmares that the more free-spirited, diligent, independent and creative engineers among us seem to share in common.  He noted that he and his colleagues all spoke about, “having nightmares about not being able to graduate because you somehow forget to attend some course.”  He reflected on this further:  “And what I found strange and memorable about it was I probably had only stopped having them in the not so recent past.  Probably 25+ years of decreasing severity”.  His explanation for why this might be such a commonly shared nightmare was that, “we cared a lot about what we did, and that could give you nightmares.”

I’ve had this same nightmare myself and it was recurrent.  I think it tells us something important about highly motivated, creative people.  I have my own ideas about why it might be such a common experience.  The way I see it, all creative people are shoe-horned into an institutional education system that makes constant judgements about their worthiness.  We are taught to seek approval at every step, for fear of being screened out and discarded.  Those of us that care passionately about what we do (making things well, for example) are subjected to a seemingly endless series of tests, tasks, challenges and burning hoops to leap through, or over, or to go around, or else we will be deemed unfit for the higher purpose to which we aspire.  It gets to the point where the thresholds seem artificial and arbitrary and the judges unqualified to tell whether you are good enough or not.

I think that, as a consequence of the continual pressure to prove one’s worthiness, seeking the approval of those outside of ourselves, all the time, we suffer from all manner of recurrent “failure” nightmares, “imposter syndrome” nightmares, “missing the boat” nightmares and “failure to qualify due to some stupid missed course or requirement” nightmares.  It’s a sign of psychological violence and damage.  People who care passionately about what they do, but who are told they require the approval and sponsorship of others, in order to be able to do it, feel the hurt and harm acutely.  The damage is caused by the fear induced in them that, for reasons out of their immediate control, they might be shut out of doing what they want to do most.  Judgement is harsh because it is frequently unjust.

The reality of the situation is stark.  Yes, you are good enough, because you are passionate about what you do and because you unfailingly try hard to do it well and to get better at it.  You want to please and you want people to be pleased with what you do for them.  Your passion is being offered in their service.  If you think about this rationally, for one moment, that’s the only grade you really need to pass.  You need to be content, within yourself, that you are doing the very best you can at the thing you love to do most.

Unfortunately, the ugly reality is that you are not permitted to do the thing you do best, no matter how passionate you are about it and how much you care about it, or even how good you happen to be at it, unless you can get past the arbitrary, senseless, frequently ignorant and indifferent gate keepers.  That’s why you’re being judged.  Those are the people with the power to crush your dreams and damage your soul.  How did they get to be the gate keepers anyway?

The truth is that the power of the gate keeper is arbitrary power.  It was given to them by a million different circumstances, but they all amount to placing them in charge of controlling others.  Whether that is through money, connections or lucky happenstance, all of a sudden a hierarchy is formed and this previously ordinary person is given the power of a God over who gets to play and who doesn’t.  Unfortunately, they’re still a fallible, ordinary human being, so in many cases they abuse their power or use it clumsily and capriciously.  They’re not equipped, in fact, to have power over whether or not another soul gets to express themselves in their purest, best way.  And that’s where it all goes wrong.

In lieu of wisdom, the gate keepers invent seemingly fair (but often specious) tests, gating conditions, standards, examinations, evaluations, certifications and the like, in an attempt to provide a means to tell who should go forward and who should not.  Sadly, they don’t know what they’re testing, they have little grasp of what a good one looks like, their tests and examinations are easily gamed and scammed and as a consequence, some of the bad ones get through and many of the good ones get shut out.

That’s why the money doesn’t always follow your commitment, passion and talent.  There are arbitrary, nonsense barriers in the way.  There are thousands of people you meet that can say “no”, but very few that can say “yes”.  None of that means you’re no good at what you are most passionate about, though.  It just means that access is denied for ridiculous reasons and you must spend a lot of your time and energy navigating the faulty gate keepers.

Were the world organised differently (and this is a real, workable possibility that we inexplicably leave sitting on the table), it would be possible to just do what you do best, without gate keepers.  What are they keeping you from?  Access to money?  Access to resources?  Why are those things scarce?  They aren’t scarce.  If distributed more equitably than they are today, you would have enough money and resources to do whatever you want.  The money and resources are there.  What is lacking is a will to distribute them.

The only reason that we don’t throw the gates open wide, so that whoever wants do to something they are passionate about can, whatever that happens to be, is because those sitting on the most money fear what will happen if they release their grip on it.  At the bottom of that fear is insecurity.  It speaks to their fear that, if left to their own devices to follow their own bliss, either they have no bliss (or don’t know what it is), or they fear they won’t be good enough to survive (which is a ridiculous fear, if the world’s wealth were distributed equitably), or else that their real talent is purposeless accumulation of money and the manipulation of others; a talent which won’t find a willing cohort of obedient participants, in a world where everybody else can follow their bliss.  The gate keepers fear judgement, too.  They can’t stand the shame.

It seems to me that if we decided, just decided, to remove judgementalism from the world and instead concentrate on doing what we all love to do most and do best, we could avoid the traumatisation of creative people and remove the fears of the gate keepers.  A product of the screening process, with all its approval stages and tests, is those recurrent nightmares and hard life lessons which, frankly, we could all live without.  They serve no purpose.  Psychological damage is not healthy.

I’ve seen it time and again.  I’ve seen very talented, motivated, selfless, passionate, excellent, creative people reduced to believing they are abject failures, because of corporate redundancies or institutional rejections, which often have their root in financial finagling, rather than due to any deficiency in the work effort of those people that cared about doing their work well and doing something worthwhile and important, in their work.  It’s wrong that these souls and spirits should be so wantonly crushed and oppressed.  It leads people to believe that they’re not good enough.

They are good enough.  They’re more than good enough.  These people are creative, artistic, hard working and effective at repeatedly producing imaginative results, in tangible form.  They’re much better than the shitty system of gates and gate keepers deserves; a system that we uphold only in order to maintain illegitimate, unearned and undeserved privilege.

Creative people can do better than this.

Update:  After posting this article, an advertisement for a paid workshop, where creatives could supposedly learn to make more money, appeared on my twitter timeline.  The thrust of the message behind the workshop turned out to be that creatives are marketing themselves ineffectively or wrongly.  To me, this is just another species of telling people that there was a vital course they missed, which will prevent them from succeeding and therefore failing, due to their own indolence.  It compounds the nightmares and inflicts more psychological violence on them.

I’m afraid the undoubtedly well-meaning person that offered the workshop didn’t receive my most charitable questions, I regret to say.  Needless to add, they completely failed to understand that their extraordinary claim (“make more money as a creative”) was not backed by extraordinary evidence.  They did not offer a money back guarantee for workshop attendees that failed to make more money as a creative, following the workshop and did not understand why failing to stand behind their product was problematic.  The course leader also could not or would not cite how many of their workshop’s previous participants had, indeed, gone on to make more money as a creative.

The world is full of people like this, who make money by telling creative people that their own starvation is due to some terrible lack in their approach, or due to some other profound personal flaw.  Please don’t give them your money or take their psychological abuse to heart.  If you are creating, you are already successfully doing it.  There are any number of external reasons, unrelated to your qualities as a person, an artist or creative being, which can prevent you from making money from your creative endeavours, irrespective of how diligently you market yourself.  I blog about some of them, often.

I think it is cruel, ghoulish and vampire-like to prey on the hopes and dreams of other creatives, in order to make your living, without putting your money where your advice is.  People that don’t at least attempt to succeed as artists have no business telling other artists why they aren’t succeeding financially, as artists, except that there are plenty of “training” businesses that do precisely that, aren’t there?  If somebody claims to tell you, a creative, how to make more money as a creative, ask to see their creations first.  Also ask if they have any hard evidence that their advice works and ask whether they are prepared to back the soundness of their advice with some sort of concrete guarantee of efficacy.  Telling you it’s all up to you how you apply their advice is weasel wording to get themselves off the hook from having to deliver what they promise.  You’re entitled to see the proof.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t take care of the marketing and promotion side of your creative life, but it is totally obvious and pointing it out, for money, isn’t very helpful.  Don’t let anyone bully you into believing that your lack of financial rewards is all your own fault.  You don’t need one more psychological scar or nightmare.  The fact that you create and care about your creations is amazing in itself and is a success of a kind that the moneyed world cannot adequately grasp.

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