Why Play?

As children, we play. Nobody has to compel us to play or tell us how. We just do. We make up the games we play, using our imaginations. It comes pretty naturally, for most people. We play as a childhood priority. If there is nothing else going on (perhaps especially if nothing else is going on), children will begin to play, using whatever is at hand. Clearly play has some evolutionary significance as an activity, or it wouldn’t be such an innate, instinctual thing. We clearly play for a reason, but what is it? Why do we play?

A second almost equally valid question is why adults tend to stop playing. Do we stop because we’re done, or because it’s conditioned out of us by society, or is that an evolutionary adaptation too? Would a return to play and being playful have any benefits to adults?

According to this study, “adults can positively utilise their inclination towards playfulness in many situations. They are good at observing, can easily see things from new perspectives, and can turn monotonous tasks into something interesting. At the same time, playfulness should not be equated with humor. Instead we need a new vocabulary to describe it, write psychologists.”

So let’s talk about why we play and what use it might be, for both children and adults. Perhaps, through play, we can recapture some of the many advantages of play in our daily lives by simply choosing to behave more playfully.

Play is:

  • Voluntary – You do it because you want to. Even if people tell you to go and play, you don’t have to and won’t, unless you feel inclined so to do. It’s impossible to force anybody to play. Compulsion is the surest guarantee of all play ending. You are the boss of you, where play is concerned.
  • Intrinsically motivated – You play because it’s what you want to do. There is no requirement for extrinsic rewards. You don’t need applause or a monetary incentive. The profit motive is a very poor motivator of play. Play is not valued in the free market and you don’t choose what to play based on pricing signals. Although professional sports people play for money, the best one’s do it for love, whether or not they get paid. Money alone won’t guarantee great play takes place.
  • Recreational – The essence of recreation is that it allows you to recreate yourself, mending the wear and tear and renewing yourself. Play is an excellent means of rebuilding your tired mind and body.
  • Pleasurable – We play because it gives us pleasure. We like to play. We like how it makes us feel. It’s happy-making.
  • Enjoyable – Because we feel good, when we play, we enjoy the experience. It’s satisfying. It gives us a sense of closure, if that’s how we choose to end the game we play. It can equally keep us in suspense. We choose, according to our whims.
  • A means of developing and using your curiosity – If you want to get better at using your natural curiosity, play is a way to do so. Curiosity is useful in playing and playing can make you experience heightened curiosity. There are more questions to answer, because you are playing. Things occur to you, in that relaxed and pleasurable state and you feel inclined to pursue those thoughts. Playing is often about wondering why and exercising “what if” scenarios.
  • A way of learning – People learn in lots of different ways, but play has the advantage of being hands-on and highly visual, spatial and interactive. As a way of learning, playing with things is powerful. Messing about and bumping into things, with purpose, is a great way to explore the terrain of possibilities. Because your mind is in a relaxed and pleasured state, it’s more amenable to uploading information without friction. You also make better associations between information, emotional states and visual stimulus. Play is a great way to learn things.
  • Observational – Playing amplifies your senses. You need to observe well to play well. Learning to observe is the first step to learning how to think critically. It helps you miss less. Your ignorance is ameliorated, because play teaches you how to pay more attention to your situation. Situational awareness is an asset. The more you notice, the better questions you can ask about why things are as they are and consequently, the more fruitful will be your solutions for shaping the world in better ways than how they are now.
  • A way to gain and explore new perspectives – In play, new perspectives present themselves. There they are. You either pay attention and explore them, or you cease playing. Often, the only way forward, in a game, is to see things from a different perspective and solve the intractable in that way. The first time I drew anything upside down, I was lying down under the living room coffee table, scribbling on the under-side of the table top above me. Who uses a table from beneath it? I felt transported to another place and time. I loved that feeling.
  • Imaginative – If it doesn’t exist, you have to pretend. Pretending is one of our earliest games. We learn to imagine things as other than being what they normally are, in order to play with them. Thus, a useless stick becomes a medieval sword. A cubby house becomes a moon base. You have to draw on your imagination to turn the mundane and prosaic into magical playthings. You even have to imagine the magic.
  • Experimental – It might seem like just messing around with stuff, by play can also be an experimental method of discovery. Seeing how to do things by trying them is the essence of the experimental method. There is an element of having a go and just seeing what happens, involved in play. If things don’t work out the way you expect, you try something else. Play is all about trying out the various possibilities.
  • A good use of your hands – Much of our nervous system is devoted to control of the fine motor skills that govern our hands. In playing with things, we usually pick them up and manipulate them. We get to use our fine motor skills and develop new ones, strengthening the neural connections that go toward muscle memory. Musicians play instruments and to succeed, they develop dexterity and flexibility beyond what would normally be required for survival. Playing is an excellent way to improve your motor skills and finely co-ordinated hand movements.
  • Engaging of your senses – Through play, we can stimulate our sight, our hearing, our voices, our sense of touch and of taste, as well as other kinaesthetic senses. We can experience new sensations simply by playing the right way. During play, we can experience the world in ways that are ordinarily not available to us. Through playing, we can heighten our experience of our sensations, paying special attention to how we perceive and feel, during our play time. Playfulness can help you learn to feel more acutely. It also sharpens our reactions and responses.
  • Fearless, daring, courageous and uninhibited – When you play, the furthest thought from your mind is whether or not you will fail or what the consequences of failure might be. In the moment, you simply don’t care. This allows you to be fearless and daring, uninhibited by the fear of failure or the embarrassment of coming up wanting. While you play, you are a god-like creature with super powers. Nothing will stop you.
  • Not judgemental – When you watch children play, they almost never sit in judgement of their game or ho well they played it, preferring instead to simply enjoy the time spent playing. Nobody cares whether your playtime is optimally productive or efficient. That’s not why you play. You play to have fun, not to weigh up the pros and cons of what you are doing. It’s just a game, after all. This is not a bad approach to life, in general.
  • Immersive – Have you ever noticed how, when you’re playing, everything else about the world and your life recedes and you find yourself fully absorbed in your play time. You are completely and totally immersed in the world you may have created, as part of your play. All your cares and worries are momentarily irrelevant and cast from your mind. You inner critic is silent. You are at one with your task and completely involved, using your whole mind and body.
  • Strategic thinking made fun – Often, while playing, we have to devise and revise strategies on the fly, without the benefit of thinking time or deep introspection. Our strategies lead us to succeed in our game, if they’re good enough. Being made to think strategically, without necessarily being aware that we are, is a useful life skill to develop. We can use our strategic abilities in many spheres of our lives, so learning to do it, while enjoying the lessons, though play, is very useful.
  • A route to achieving focus and flow – One of the most sure-fire ways to find your focus and get in the flow is to start to play. In fact, if you can approach your daily tasks with a playful attitude, you’ll find procrastination falls away. Taking yourself and your goals too seriously can lead to paralysis, whereas treating both like a game, which you like to play, can turn even the most challenging tasks into something approaching fun. Certainly the concept of viewing daunting tasks as a game to play is amusing in itself. Play is a way to turn what you have to do into what you get to do.
  • Revealing – Play shows you how things really work. It’s only by messing with stuff, taking it apart and putting it back together again that you gain deeper insight into how mysterious mechanisms function. All young engineers know this. If you want to learn to design something, take a few examples apart and study how they tick. Playfulness is next to analytical, in this case. Finding new ways to reassemble things, so that they function in ways not originally envisioned is another good game. Using them in ways other than their maker intended is also another fun game to play.
  • Exciting – Let’s face it. Playing is exciting. Your pupils dilate a little and your heart rate races slightly. You might even break into a sweat. Playing makes you alert and the more you play, the more you want to play. Compared to the ennui of everyday existence, the opportunity to play is something children welcome with open arms. It’s a chance to burn off excess energy, if you’re a child, or to discover latent energy you didn’t know you had, if an adult.
  • Stimulating and arousing – There are biophysical changes that occur, when you play. When playing with an intimate partner, this can include psycho-sexual aspects, arousal and deep emotional and physical awakenings. Even plain old vanilla playing can still get the body into a state of anticipation and expectation, changing the makeup of your body chemistry. Who knows? It might even reduce inflammation and rejuvenate your cells – I don’t know. Somebody qualified should study this. Playing can be a little like exercise, especially if it is vigorous. You move your body and think harder, burning more calories. Playing a musical instrument is definitely a physical act that makes you sweat and use muscles normally left dormant. Dancing is similar.
  • Life-affirming – There are few comparable ways of feeling alive and connected to the universe than you can feel while you play. This can give you a feeling of being glad to be present in the moment. Play is something we share with many other living things. The ability to play and to enjoy it is testament to a deep justice present somewhere in the cosmos.
  • Free-spirited – Play allows you to let your spirit do as it will, seeking nothing more than the gratification that spending a part of your life time engaged in a pleasurable activity can give you. There are no external constraints necessary and self-censorship is also not required. Here is an opportunity to be who you are, however you are, without censure. Grasp it.
  • Vulnerable – When you play, your guard is down. You aren’t worried about imminent attacks by predators. You are more concerned with playing. This is the ultimate state of vulnerability, where you are free to exist in your natural state, untroubled by threats. Being able to feel as if there are no threats and opening yourself to others, as a vulnerable human being, is a privilege that not many other scenarios provide, in life. Anxiety is temporarily suspended. Peace and calm enter your consciousness as you immerse yourself deeper and deeper into your play time.
  • Both collaborative and solitary – I’ve always thought that all creativity is a subtle blend of things you come up with in solitude, on your own, and the efforts of teams of people who take your idea and enhance it with ideas of their own. Playing is similar. Some games are positively solipsistic. Others are more like cat-herding. Collaborative games require the development of giving and taking skills and playing in teams, this way, can be deeply satisfying. My favourite aspect of this dichotomy is that it simply brings to the fore the fact that a balance is required. Sometimes you have to fly solo. Other times, it’s no fun unless others take part.
  • Cooperative and trusting – Cooperative play stops as soon as anybody playing stops cooperating. This is an important life lesson to learn. Cooperation is delicate and subtle and it can be all that sustains the fun of play. In order to cooperate effectively, you have to learn to trust other people and for them to be able to trust you. Everyone has to do their part, or the play is unsatisfactory. This is why bands are such good fun. Being in one relies on you trusting each other musician to play along. You also have to do what you’re supposed to do, or the song isn’t served.
  • Improvisational and spontaneous – The vast majority of our play is not pre-meditated or scripted. It evolves and develops spontaneously, as new ideas occur to us and new questions arise to provoke our curiosity. You have to think on your feet, inventively and improvise your play with whatever you have. Look back over history and you can find artefacts of play things made of the most unlikely materials, but they were pressed into the service of the game, nevertheless. To improvise, you have to think quickly, flexibly and creatively. Play encourages you to do all three.
  • Self-directed and autonomous – It’s possible to play quite well without the explicit compulsion of the authorities or a government and their latent threats of violence unless you comply and obey. You have free will and you can exercise it, to create and play whatever you choose, whenever you wish. There is no ministry of play directing how and when you may play and you don’t need anybody else’s permission to decide to play. Isn’t it strange that we don’t think we can maintain civilisation without authoritarian leaders and their dictatorial institutions? If that were true, how on earth would we ever play?
  • Unconstrained and unlimited – Because play is fundamentally imaginative, there is no limit to the things we can imagine and pretend. There are no limits. If you can think of it, you can play with it. Ideas are excellent play things, as are fictitious scenarios and universes that exist only as ideas in your head. You can travel anywhere in your imagined universe at infinite speed, or go backwards and forwards in time, if that is your wish. Play is a place where literally anything is possible.
  • A taste of freedom – With nobody to tell you want to do and no boundaries, playing in an environment where you can shape your play time to be any kind of universe you can imagine is the closest our minds get to exercising the feeling of genuine freedom. There are no obligations, bills to pay or schedules to adhere to, if that’s how you choose to play. Being able to exist in this state of absolute freedom is perhaps the only time in our mortal existence that this is possible.
  • Outside of ordinary routine – Routine is mundane and monotonous, but so much of what we do, in our lives, can be categorised as routine and ordinary. Play, in contrast, can be different every time. It can be extraordinary and nothing like routine. The spontaneity of playing is a very effective antidote to feeling like you are stuck in a rut, with no way to break it.
  • Innovative and inventive – Because you make it all up as you go along, while you play, you don’t need to be an expert at anything and you can invent at the speed of thought. New ideas make the play a lot more fun and certainly more fascinating. If you need to strengthen you ability to invent and innovate, play is an effective way to get these parts of your mind working well. There’s nothing at stake, other than the fun of thinking things up.
  • Interactive – Play takes on a life of its own. As you create the game you are playing, or explore the space of possibilities, you effectively interact with your own game play, which in turn prompts new ideas, thoughts and curiosities to pursue. As you follow those leads, the nature of your play changes in response. We are both shaping what we play and it shapes us. This is the essence of interactivity.
  • Creative – You can make your own rules, fashion your very own playthings, play with ideas that nobody else is thinking, design your play environment and generally arrange your play time universe in any way you see fit. It doesn’t have to be anything like anybody else’s and typically isn’t. Making and playing are closely allied activities and the more creativity you can apply, the more satisfying are the results. Creativity, unlike in other parts of your life perhaps, is an unarguable asset in play.
  • An antidote to boredom, anxiety, stress, trauma and rejection – All of these things, if they afflict can make it next to impossible to create. You may have the desire to be creative, but lack the will, due to feelings like these. A trick you can play on yourself is to convince yourself you aren’t creating a damn thing – instead you’re merely playing. Creative people invariably find that as soon as they start to play with their medium and materials, they actually start to create, whether they intended to or not. Play kickstarts creativity and in so doing, alleviates those feelings of boredom, anxiety, stress, trauma and rejection. And as you playfully create, you make something tangible that you and others can admire or use. Immediately, you begin to feel better and better about yourself. The self-recriminations at the lack of your application evaporate. All because you began to play.
  • Productive – Even things you love to do can become a chore, if you have to do them productively. Sometimes, you’re not into it, you’re exhausted, or you just can’t stand the repetition. When this happens, making your chore into a game to play can make the task seem like fun, restoring your productivity. There are few better ways of facing down a mountain of work to do than to execute in small steps, playing with it as you do. Dance with the challenge and it will yield.
  • Rejuvenating – Want to feel younger, or reminisce nostalgically about a time when things seemed simpler and less-complicated? Want to travel back to the days when you were happiest and carefree, when you could spend all your time doing what you loved most? There’s an easy way to do it. Play!
  • Healing and soothing – Play undoubtedly has a way of taking your mind off your troubles. It removes you from your present situation and places you in an imaginary play space. In your mind, you might not even be in the present. You may well be imagining yourself in a distant universe. This ability to remove yourself from your turbulent difficulties is what makes play so calming, healing and soothing. If you hurt somewhere, then taking the pressure off the point that hurts can be just the remedy. Play alleviates the pressure.
  • An escape – Every now and then, we all need to escape our situation. We might be struggling with no respite, the cards may not be falling the way we would like, for us, or we may be in an impossible situation. Staying for the battle may be so fatiguing that you lose your stamina and ability to cope. Play is somewhere to hide, when it’s all too much. Make time to enjoy your life, do what you like to do and recharge your batteries and you may find that your life is much more bearable and your resources to cope with challenges greatly expanded. Play has some wonderful medicinal properties.
  • A way to take heart, when you feel heartache or heartbreak – You wouldn’t be human, unless you had experienced heartache or heartbreak (or both). These are both very bad feelings that can and do inflict significant damage on your mind and body. They hurt. They can hurt you physically. Play, on the other hand, gives you a chance to be included, accepted and successful. You might be drawing the short straw in life, but in your play life, it’s possible to be a winner, or a very good loser. Losses, while playing, are as ephemeral and temporary as you wins. They don’t really matter. This property of play can give you heart, when your heart is not in it.
  • Lots of fun – Let’s face it. The main reason we play is that it’s fun to play. We can always create more fun, too, when the fun runs out. In fact, play is a fountain of fun that never runs dry. Who doesn’t like having fun? Even the most curmudgeonly among us would have to admit that levity and enjoying your play time are both worthwhile.
  • REWARDING! – This is the bottom line, actually. We play because it’s rewarding – in myriad ways. You always get more out of it than you put in. It’s like the universe’s ultimate gift. The more you play, the better you feel and the more you know. There are so few downsides to play, that it’s a wonder it is ever frowned upon by anybody at any time. Perhaps their real issue is jealousy at not being able to enjoy the rewards of play themselves. It remains a mystery to me why we have come to regard play as frivolous and childish, when it’s such a humanity-enhancing activity. If people would only play, instead of waging wars and applying gratuitous violence to their every situation, we’d be a happier, saner, more enlightened species.

Playing is serious stuff. I love playful people.




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Rebuilding and Reinventing

Life can be a real bitch at times, despite all the things you have to be grateful for. You think you’re doing your best work, learning new skills all the time and creating copious amounts of tangible value, but events overtake you and you find yourself in the position of having to start your career path again, from square one. Often, this can be for the shittiest of reasons. Usually it is.

All the work you’ve done and all the things you’ve learned are scattered to the wind and you must rebuild. You no longer have access to your art or the resources you were previously enjoying to create your work. You lose contact with friends and collaborators, as you are cast out of your situation and into another.

Usually, this is a period of high stress. You may lose your income stream and not a little of your self-confidence. Resilience is required. You have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and reinvent yourself. 

Rather than seeing this as an unmitigated disaster, seeing it as an opportunity can be far more positively productive. That’s hard to do, when you’re still smarting from the insult to your happy plans, processing how it came to this and trying hard to stop caring about a situation you were previously passionately committed to. Dwelling on it is wasted time, however. What feels better is immersion into imaginative, innovative new approaches to your life and work, without the nagging, niggling issues you have left behind, albeit involuntarily.

Yes, you’re grieving, but keeping your grief in perspective is a good thing to do. It’s self-preservation. You can take stock of what you wished you had known, to have avoided the situation you’re now in, and can set about learning those missing skills. Sometimes, the skill you lacked was how to conduct an emotionally-charged, crucial conversation so that you get the outcome you wanted. In other cases, it could be a lack of empowerment you felt, due to not having specific technical skills that would have allowed you to create your own destiny, with your own two hands, without reliance on anybody else. You might simply realise that your guts were right all along and the culture you were joining was anathema to everything you hold dear. 

Instead of wringing your hands and regretting what caused you to have to rebuild, it’s better to embark on a programme of learning and self-development, to overcome the deficiencies you perceive may have lead to the present unplanned and undesirable outcomes. Reinvention is healing. It also equips you with additional shields against the same thing ever happening to you again. Skills build increased protection, though you can never have enough to avoid every unfortunate happenstance.

The exciting thing is that, rather than being overwhelmed by the mountain you have to climb to get to where you used to be (or further along), you can plan to do the things you love to do best. Motivation is usually hard to rekindle, after a shock to your path, but creating a disciplined work plan, where you eat your frogs first thing in the morning and eat the elephant by taking consistent, small bites, is the best way forward. Face and complete the odious tasks while you’re fresh and break up huge projects into doable pieces. The reward is getting to do things you always wanted to do, but lacked the time or energy. Now you have the time. Summoning the energy is your only real challenge.

Right now, I am in a period of intense up-skilling. I’m learning new things. I’m trying to overcome things that I felt were obstacles. For example, I’ve embraced creating digital art with my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. I’m learning both electronic and mechanical CAD. I’m writing a series of articles for a different audience. I’m creating the sort of culture I would wish to see in a company, by personal example and I am learning to programme all over again, but to create mobile phone applications and distributed ethereum applications, this time. This is a chance to progress my music production and to design fun products. Armed with these new super-powers, adding these to my already quite broad portfolio of skills, I’ll be better able to realise my ideas, innovations and dreams. I won’t need anybody else’s permission and approval and I can choose myself for success.

Reading is another important activity. Filling your head with new perspectives, approaches and ideas can be the rocket fuel that drives your reinvention. It can also help you feel less alone and singled out. What you begin to see is that you’re just the latest person playing out particular dramas and that there is good advice available. You don’t have to figure it all out yourself. There are people that wrote down their learning and it’s easily available in books. That’s like getting a helping hand.

Walking into a situation identical to the one that caused me such grief, simply to get a fast income stream, doesn’t seem wise to me. Repeating a mistake shows you learned nothing from it. It dooms you to repeat the pain. If I can avoid it, I’d like to do that. Ideally, to feel safe and secure again, you’d like to do everything all at once and take the fast track to success, but you’re human. You can’t. All you can do is fill your day with enjoyable, forward progress toward purposeful, meaningful goals and hope the rest will fall into place. There are some things you can control and some you can’t. Learning how to handle to difference is crucial.

Yes, it’s terrifying. Yes, there are people depending on me. That weight is enough to crush anybody, but you can’t let it stop you. The only viable option is to build a better future. Fortunately, better is always possible.

If you find yourself having to start again, take heart because nothing stays the same forever. Change is inevitable. You might surprise yourself at the good things to come. Sometimes, being denied what you wished for most fervently is the greatest stroke of luck you could ever receive. It’s just very hard to see that in the moment.

There are some very good resources here to help you get your act together: https://letsqueerthingsup.com/2017/07/22/adhd-survival-guide/amp/

The best antidote to pain is to try to have some fun and enjoy the process of reinventing yourself. Focusing on things you love to do is a pretty good way to accomplish that. It replaces the gloom with hope. You have choices to make and more freedom than before to make them. Grasp that gift.

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How the Rentier Economy Destroys Artistic Quality

Society is in denial. Flat out, head-in-the-sand denial. The consequence of our collective refusal to believe in the truth of the situation is a hollowing out of cultural life, a diminution of the ability to see the situation with undistorted clarity (thus guaranteeing its perpetuation) and a vacuum in both moral and emotional intelligence.

We think that certain established commercial practices are benign and even representative of the highest virtue, but in reality, they’re a form of insidious corruption so corrosive, we dare not acknowledge the true root cause of the devastation. We think it’s good, but it’s very bad. Ordinary people aspire to join the club, despite the damage the practice does.

Our laws and their enforcement are heavily biased toward protecting kleptocrats who store their wealth in property, speculating on its scarcity. We enshrine the rights of rent-seekers over other citizens. They’re not called land “lords” for nothing. Rentiers create scarcities for profit, by inserting themselves as gatekeepers, between supply and demand, distorting markets in their favour. With their wealth and its associated influence, they can and do shape legislation to do their bidding. 

Aside from the inflationary effect of these “choices” (because, in truth, they were always impositions), the knock-on effects of the ever-escalating monopolisation of real estate destroys the quality of all art made. Let me explain how.

We’ve reached a point in time where a London parking space can earn more than most artists can, in a year. Pause for a moment to contemplate that fact. A rentier can extract more money from an inert square of concrete than from the most prolific, productive, in-demand artist using the same real estate footprint as their atelier. Creativity is valued at nothing, in effect.

Engineering continual scarcity in the property market pushes up the prices of everything that requires premises, while at the same time siphoning off unearned income (where no value is created). Speculation on the value of property and the rate of rents artificially inflates the cost of premises. Since every enterprise, including artistic or creative ones, must factor the costs of premises into everything they make and sell, there is a pressure on artists to produce works that take less space to make and intense pressure on their time, to produce more saleable works in a given day and to move these works off their premises and into the premises of their customers, as fast as possible. These pressures lead to corner-cutting.

It’s basic economics: No time and expense can be spent on art making. Undeniably, you need to live and work somewhere, as an artist, so if the cost of premises is inflated, due to parasitic scarcity, your costs skyrocket, eroding your earnings. The same happens to the disposable income of your customers. The irresistible temptation is to try to make ends meet by compromising quality. Make it cheap and hope your customers still have some money left in their pockets to pay for it, after they pay their rents and mortgages to live.

The same thing happens to your art materials suppliers. They need premises too and can’t load their prices up with excessive transport costs either. Whatever materials they supply to their artist community they have to provide cheaply. More corners must be cut. More quality needs to be sacrificed.

In the end, artists become non-viable enterprises and are driven out. Their works are impoverished and lack quality. Consequently, the stock of beauty and culture, in human life, is diminished. Artists don’t get to demonstrate other ways of seeing or to introduce innovative ideas and perspectives. They are unable to showcase human values other than the manic accumulation of wealth without appearing hypocritical. Their authority and credibility are both mortally wounded.

It is no small irony that one of the factors that causes the gentrification of run-down real estate is he presence of a vibrant artistic community taking refuge and working in more affordable premises. The artists build the vibe and are quickly displaced by new-comers seeking the vitality of that part of town, driven out by soaring rents and property prices. They kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Choosing a rentier economy over one that rewards genuine value-added equates to choosing an artless one. It all adds to the pernicious Grenfellisation of our society.

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Creativity is Fragile

Some people think great creative works fall from the sky abundantly, like rain, rather than being being the unique and irreplaceable products of literally years of preparation, training and work, that means each one can never be replicated ever again.

We treat creators with such callous, cavalier indifference, not recognising the gifts that have been laid at our feet, imagining that if this creator perishes, another one of equal quality will be along any minute. We fail to acknowledge and appreciate how special each creation is and cherish each artist for their own personal perspective, in showing us how to see differently.

My son and I witnessed one of the very last live performances of the late Chester Bennington. The band was tight and well-rehearsed, the sound quality was superb and the performances as impeccable as they were passionate and authentic. Listening to him sing, he would have been the last person you would imagine would take their own life, in despair, a few short weeks later. The music he made was sublime.

Some members of the audience, far from soaking up their good fortune for being able to witness a moment that can now never be repeated, saw it instead as an opportunity to get drunk and cause offence to other audience members, resulting in their bodily removal from the arena, by security. What a waste. What a missed opportunity. The artists put an elaborate show on the road, with care and expense taken to present great sound, staging, lights and video and they travelled thousands of miles to present it, on these nights, but these audience members were wholly absent at a moment of precious artistic performance, the like of which we shall never see again. I wonder if they even paused for thought at the news of a rock singer’s untimely death.

Creativity and creators are fragile and ephemeral. You never know when they might be gone, forever. Each of their creations is a gem. You can’t imagine their works will continue to be cranked out in indefinitely, like some automated, robotic production line. Each batch of songs could be their very last.

Appreciate beauty for what it is. It’s the short-lived blooming of a delicate mind-flower that can easily be destroyed and lost. Be mindful and grateful that people struggle to fill the world with works that soothe, understand and reach your emotions. Be thankful that all the ugliness in the world is counterbalanced to the extent that artists are able to create aesthetic delights. 

Were it not for artists, the world would descend into venal, nasty, squalid brutality, with no relief or respite from the constant assault. Some, of course, don’t care how debased your existence is, so long as theirs is opulent, but artists do. They seek to uplift and edify everyone. Can there be a greater act of generosity, especially when the personal cost is often so high?

Thank you for the music, Chester Bennington. Thank you for sharing your gift and your pain, so that others didn’t have to feel so alienated and alone. Rest in perpetual peace.

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Creativity and Efficiency

In art, as in most things in life, creativity and efficiency co-exist in tension. If you optimise on creativity, it often isn’t very efficient. On the other hand, if you’re obsessive about efficiency, that can easily drive out creativity. The essence of efficiency is standardisation, repeatable process and reduction of deviations. Ironically, you can get very efficient at making the wrong thing. Only an injection of creativity can break the deadlock, helping you see the right thing to build, or even replacing a seemingly efficient process with a much more efficient alternative way.

Economies fixate on efficiency, assuming creativity will always be there to rescue it, even if nobody is prepared to pay for it. I submit that this fixation is because efficiency is easier, in some senses. There are fewer unknowns. You just apply method and perseverance. It’s easier to measure. Type one thinking, our gut reaction and instinctual response, is very efficient, but frequently wrong. Type two thinking, with its sceptical introspection and evidence-based conclusions, can be highly creative.

The fact is, you need both creativity and efficiency. One without the other is sub-optimal.

The way to combine the two is through purposeful play. Make time to explore, but set a deadline, so that you gravitate toward some kind of focussed conclusion, without prejudging what that conclusion will be. Play is learning. Learning can feel stressful and challenging, making you feel inadequate and lost, breaking you down and humbling your spirit, so approaching it playfully makes the discomfort of not knowing feel more like excitement and fun. The only time you are actually growing is when you’re uncomfortable. The secret to success invariably lies in the very thing you’re avoiding.

Together, creativity and efficiency define innovation. Innovation is the dialectic that is present throughout nature. It’s a dynamic equilibrium and a circular interaction. Creativity plants the seeds, saying yes to more new ideas, while efficiency thins out the seedlings, removing the less viable and saying no to ideas that look less promising. This spiral nature of innovation illustrates that creativity—ironically—is a key route to efficiency, and efficiency can lead to creativity.

The greatest innovators are rarely individuals, but rather groups that embody this tension between creativity and efficiency. Artists need editors as much as the commercial business of art depends on iconoclastic creators. A band of engaged musicians in creative tension frequently produces better music than the individual band members do, as solo artists. It’s difficult (though not entirely impossible) to be both creative and efficient at the same time. Your head space is either one or the other, at any given time and context switches take time and effort. 

In particular, one potentially powerful pairing, inside an ecology of innovation, is the novice and the expert. The novice is unconstrained because they have little idea of what is and isn’t possible, unafraid of asking questions and hence, producing surprises. The master brings the benefit of experience and judgement, helping to sift good questions from less useful ones. The two, in tandem, are a formidable team.

Is your artistic practice in balance? Do you alternate between creativity and efficiency, or are you stuck in one mode or the other?

Think how economies, public policy and companies could be transformed, if they deliberately and consistently balanced deviation and conformity. Imagine if both mindsets were equally valued and respected. That would be innovative.

We can but dream.

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Moving the Overton Window

We all look through it, but like glass, we don’t see it. We don’t even see the width of the frame or how it is centred, but it constrains what we see and how we see it just as surely as any ordinary window does. I’m talking about the Overton window.

What is the Overton window?

The late think tank policy formulator, Joseph P. Overton, made the observation that in a given public policy area, only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable, in the current climate of public opinion. The “window” of politically acceptable options is not defined by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they think they can support (or get away with) and still retain power. The window changes when ideas change in the constituency that keeps them in power. Sometimes, that’s the electorate, but increasingly it’s corporate donors and lobbyists.

Actually, Noam Chomsky talked about controlling the bounds of acceptable debate years ago, long before Overton, but let’s skip that technicality. In the diagram above, the two arrows are typically pointing toward more or less freedom. On the one side, we have benign anarchy, and on the other, authoritarian totalitarianism.

Who moves the window and what their motives are for moving it matters crucially. What’s their agenda? Is it transparent? Does it benefit us all, or is it predatory, rooted in a barely-concealed death machine project?

The greatest source of power of the elite is to convince others that what suits them is just common sense. For this reason alone, they spend literally billions on supporting the mainstream media and fake grass roots activism, buying up politicians to obtain legislative endorsement and taking ownership of media companies of every imaginable stripe. They propagate their point of view via entertainment, such as popular music, Hollywood movies and computer games and via advertorial content presented as objective, unbiased reporting. Their (usually unstated) aim is to keep public opinion firmly centred and aligned with their selfish corporate interests.

They carefully select their on-air, public spokespeople so that they seem plausible, trustworthy and independent, but who, in reality, have already accepted and internalised the elite agenda as common sense. We are saturated in exposures to a world view that suits these billionaires, until we convince ourselves, irrationally, that it also suits us…somehow. It’s not accidental and it’s quite purposeful. We think what we think because billionaires spend lavishly on making us think what they want us to think. Pure propaganda.

Austerity is an example. It is a con. Bankers and investors, who own us and everything else, want to extract exponentially more value from the workforce, through interest charged on money they create, from thin air, on behalf of governments. Granting a monopoly to create money to a cartel of private interests is such a corrupt sweetheart agreement, riddled with conflicts of interest, it is a wonder it persists. It persists, of course, only because reasonable, fairer, more equitable alternatives are kept well outside the Overton window by those who benefit most from the crooked deal. In effect, this cartel holds governments and the citizenry of entire nations to ransom by the simple expedient of refusing to issue any new money, unless public, common wealth is transferred upward, from those who produce it to the privileged, elite classes, who do nothing to earn it, other than creating the debt as a book keeping entry, using their monopoly position to do so, as enshrined in crooked laws now over a century old. Meanwhile, the vulnerable die of want.

What an impoverished, sad, lonely, narrow mindset, lacking humanity, compassion and empathy, is that of the corporate political donor and lobbyist. They consistently misidentify what is in their own long-term best interest and remain rigidly fixated on what they perceive to be their short term goals (i.e. unsustainable growth). Their minds are totally blind to (and absolutely closed to) wider possibilities, which would permit everybody to thrive. To their way of thinking, based on conventional, conservative traditionalism, it’s not enough that they win. Everybody else must lose. They inflict pain on themselves and their own elite class, in order to ensure the rest of humanity is not “unjustly” rewarded, such is their self-centred world view. For privilege to have any worth, they have to keep it scarce and exclusive.

The problem with the wealthy elite, who spend the most to move the Overton window in their favour, is that they isolate themselves. They live in a sterile, hermetically-sealed bubble of their own making, which locks them out of experiencing the stimuli and challenges that are necessary for creativity and a healthy brain to survive and thrive. Their remoteness from the concerns of humanity results in a form of cognitive suicide, where their brains become increasingly prone to bad ideas, which they adhere to doggedly. They lose the adaptability and neural plasticity required to respond to the rapid changes characteristic of an increasingly interconnected, co-dependent ecosystem, remarkable for its massive complexity. Those that move the Overton window most become progressively maladaptive and dysfunctional, as their locus of possibilities narrows.

To add to the perfect storm, public opinion is equally susceptible to bad ideas when communities become isolated and detached from wider humanity. When people have no direct contact or experience with others different to themselves, where diversity and multiculturalism are scarce, it becomes easier to propagate racist, phobic, wrong-headed positions, based on little more than pure prejudice and ignorance. A homogeneous society tends toward brain-deadness, quite literally losing the cognitive capacity to entertain and originate progressive ideas.

What’s the result? Neoliberalism and neoconservatism are the new normal. Barbarism is acceptable and assumed. Violence is blithely tolerated. The concerns and interests of labour have been all but forgotten. Blatant, outrageous usury, property speculation, financial hocus-pocus, wealth hiding, tax avoidance and unearned rentier incomes, based on being the exclusive gatekeepers of contrived scarcities, are celebrated. Actual value-creating activities are considered quaint and antiquated. The validity of proven, established, evidence-supported, scientific facts is flatly denied. We’ve become anti-intellectual, culturally impoverished and hostile to new ideas. We still think other people and the so-called authorities have a sovereign right to interfere with and constrain how we live our lives.

We live in fear of unknown, unseen enemies and accept the draconian excision of our most fundamental civil rights, so that those in power will keep us safe (which, ironically, they singularly fail to do, because that isn’t in their corporate interests). Sure, they sell expensive, elaborate weapons of mass destruction and consumer-grade small arms to everyone that will buy them, and then lobby hard to use them, so that they can be replaced, once destroyed, with something newer and more expensive, but none of this has anything to do with keeping you safe. It has everything to do with unsustainable growth.

As a counterforce to the billions spent by the elite, on behalf of their corporations, to arrange everything to their liking, artists have the capacity to shift the acceptable boundaries of public debate. They have the skills necessary to move the Overton window toward greater sustainability and freedom. Thought constraint takes place when human communication is controlled. This is why control of communication, by the elite, needs to be resisted.

Though oligarchs control the mainstream media, we live in the Information Age. We can choose to turn off the TV and tune into a radical’s Twitter feed instead. We can abandon our worthless New York Times and Daily Telegraph/Daily Mail subscriptions and scour Medium for objectivity. You can find independent media all over YouTube. We can tell our parents and friends that “The Truth Is Out There,” but they won’t find it on Fox News, the BBC, CNN or in the Washington Post and Guardian. We can give our time to ideas that matter and our attention to voices that articulate them.

More importantly, we can courageously create the world we want by talking about the world we want and acting as though it already exists. There is solid neuroscience that underpins the efficacy of this approach. It works.

We can abolish the bad ideas that lie within the Overton window’s current gaze and make them risibly obsolete. Laugh openly and derisively at every corporate-sponsored hack who tries to promote the same old discredited, tired, dangerous ideas, taken as “common sense”, but which have their origins in corporatist agendas. You owe them no respect in return for the contempt in which they have, for so long, held you. They’re taking the piss out of you, so take the piss out of them.

Every piece that gets written, by every unheralded internet writer, blogger or independent media journalist, moves the window a tiny amount. When millions are involved, no amount of corporate money, funneled into the pockets of corrupt politicians or complicit media conglomerates, can move it back, so be sure to express yourself. Use whatever artistic medium works best for you. We cannot rely on our failed institutions to change the conversation, but we can articulate it ourselves. We can harness the power and wisdom of the crowd.

Make subversive, defiant, deviant art. Small intellectual steps are better than giant cognitive leaps. Even the most open-minded resist huge leaps of understanding. Brains simply work this way. Make the old, benign, humanistic, valuable, once widely-accepted and socially-contracted ideas new again. Create and interact. Encounter and embrace diversity. Stretch the frame of the Overton window. Forget the false dichotomy between left and right. Think up and down, near and far, width, height and span. Be inclusive of as many innovative, useful, radical ideas as possible. We’re going to need to consider a vast solution space, to solve the world’s many intractable problems, most of which we’ve ignored because they have lain outside the Overton window.

Facts and logic are insufficient, but necessary, to move the window. Appeals to morality and emotions are also required (and are often cynically stage-managed, by those in power). Emotions, facts, logic and moral judgements are all open to manipulation, obfuscation, omission, misrepresentation and lies. The elite can and do twist all of these to suit their purposes. Keep your eyes open.

Events (natural disasters, terrorist attacks), mistakes (a bonfire of regulations, leading to highly flammable and toxic, high-rise death traps) and misrepresentation (for example, much of the UK Brexit/Leave campaign) can be used to stampede people toward new views and into accepting the previously unacceptable. The current controllers of the Overton window know this and have used these happenstances to their advantage. Beware of deliberately engineered false flag events. Call out the railroading and subversion of the aftermath of an event for nefarious purposes. Make people aware that this is how they’re being duped and played.

Because each public policy area typically has its own window, thinking holistically, as a window overseeing all other windows, could help us see the bigger picture and make clearer comparisons. For example, why is it acceptable to bribe a fringe political party with public money to cling to power, but unacceptable to consider pay rises for nurses, or to buy food for the working poor and their children? Provide an international, global perspective to parochial concerns and views. Consider the humanist point of view as bigger and worthier than capitalist concerns.

The weakness of the Overton window is that it treats the population as an undifferentiated, uniform, single, homogeneous average. No member of the included population is ever average. Everybody has their own concerns and perspectives. In trying to produce a one-size-fits-all policy, the centre of the Overton window frequently speaks to and satisfies nobody. It excludes the outliers.

The lingerie retailer, Victoria’s Secret, in promoting the “perfect” body, using stick-thin, genetically-fortunate models to do so, actually offended, alienated and enraged its customer base, because it tried to shoehorn them all into their ideal of the perfect average. Rounder, fuller figures were left out of the equation. The company paid a heavy price in lost customers, as a result. When moving the Overton window toward greater freedom and sustainability, you must include the excluded.

Activists already attempt to change policy and public opinion using petitions, social media swarms and mass emails to decision makers, but artists can organise crowdfunded creative campaigns, like TV ads or billboards, podcasts, animated explainer videos on YouTube, satirical parodies, TED-alike talks live-streamed on social media, a series of related blog posts, meme GIFs, web-hosted white papers, community events (e.g. creative stunts, performance art, flash mobs, silent vigils, peaceful walks for a cause), protest songs and so on. The list is almost endless. Most of us know the work of cassetteboy and banksy.

Artists who stand for a fair society, a thriving environment, social justice, human dignity and global peace can move the Overton window towards transparent, accountable politics. Mobilising for creative, collective action requires nobody’s permission (for the time being, in some fortunate countries). You can and should take action, to counterbalance the billions the oligarchs spend to move the window the other way.

Create your way to freedom and dignity.

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Resolving Uncertainty

What if I told you that the only thing that holds you back from being more creative, living a better life and inhabiting a much better world is uncertainty? What if I also told you that resolving those uncertainties is not only possible, but that it has become an existential imperative?

More correctly, there are two ways to soothe ourselves, when faced with uncertainty. One is to try to control the uncertainties, imposing our will on them. Increasingly, though, this approach fails (if it ever worked at all). The second, more effective way is to change your perceptions, by seeing differently.

Let’s back up a little. In evolutionary terms, caution and fear, in the face of the unknown, was a survival instinct. Don’t go into the dark cave, if there could be an ambush predator lurking within. Don’t eat the berries that mother doesn’t eat. Whenever we encountered uncertainty, it was a potential threat to life and well-being. We extrapolated from this to treat any uncertainty in the same way – with fear and suspicion.

What we fail to realise is that what seems uncertain to us can be fully understood and certain, in another person’s perception. However, because they aren’t us, we don’t trust their grasp on reality. We’re uncertain about them too.

Resolving uncertainty is a unifying principle across biology, and thus is the inherent task of evolution, development, and learning. Uncertainty is at the root of our worst fears. The problem is that we face infinitely more complexity, today, than we did millennia ago. Our response to complexity – to treat it with fear and withdrawal, because we don’t understand it – is, ironically, imperilling us far more than if we took positive steps to resolve our uncertainties.

An increasingly connected world is also inherently more unpredictable. As we become more interconnected, we become more interdependent. We can’t continue to approach our interdependency with fear and denial. That won’t make it go away. All fear will do is create greater tensions and instabilities in the interdependency. Politicians that call for isolation and division are making the problem, the uncertainty and the fear very much worse. They’re not helping; they’re regressing to the dark ages and causing immense harm, holding back our progress toward harmonious co-existence.

We fear the integration only because we’re uncertain of the outcomes. This is not a fear based on good evidence. This fear arises only because of faulty perceptions. The outcomes are, in fact, both knowable and highly satisfactory. The trick is to be able to see them. The uncertainties can be resolved.

How we manage our perceptions constrains how we deal with and shape reality. Perceive badly and you create dystopia.

The biological motivation of many of our social and cultural habits and reflexes, including religion and politics, and even hate and racism, is to diminish uncertainty through imposed rules and rigid environments… or in one’s vain attempt to disconnect from a world that lives only because it is connected and in movement. In doing so, these inherited reflexes—by design—prevent us from living more creative, compassionate, collaborative, and courageous lives.

Changing your perceptions, questioning your most fervently held assumptions, can change your brain profoundly. Due to the plasticity of your brain, new ideas, which resolve your uncertainties, actually change the very structure of your wetware. Different connections and associations are established in your mind, allowing you to comprehend scenarios once intractable to you. You gain the ability to make different inferences and thereby arrive at new insights. You are able to spot new patterns and perceive how things that previously seemed unconnected are part of the same entity. Ideas and actions, previously out of your reach, can be available to you, if you are willing to question your assumptions, and in doing so create a new, unknown terrain of wondering.

People who insist they’re not creative mean they haven’t learned to change how they see. It’s a choice. Consequently, they remain constrained by the certainties they’ve developed and imposed on their own lives, to make themselves feel safe and secure (strong and stable). Creativity requires that you take the risk of confronting uncertainty, without knowing whether you will succeed in your aim, or not. You have to take the chance that you will fail, perhaps humiliatingly. Humiliation, fortunately, need not be a mortal wound.

When people tell you to be realistic, they actually mean they want you to conform to their particular perception of reality. Nothing more. This control that they wish to impose on you is so that they can be certain about you. Control over your perception of reality, in perfect alignment with theirs, removes an uncertainty for them, by putting you in your place, relative to and according to their mental model and world view. You may, in fact, be better served by being what they would regard as delusional.

As an example, there is pressure placed on people to be positive at all times. Negativity is considered to be a threatening contagion, which must be eliminated, so that everybody else feels safe, secure and certain within their positive reality distortion force field. Positive thinking, though, is a double-edged sword. If thinking positively permits you to overcome your paralysing fear, so that you can exercise your intention with purposeful agency, then fine, but if it’s just a way to remove uncertainty by constraining it, so that you ignore reality completely and fail to act, then perhaps not.

Similarly, not all negative thinking is bad. A certain amount of dissatisfaction with how you perceive things to be can drive creativity and innovation, to improve things. On the other hand, a retreat into wallowing and inaction is not a good thing. I find that if I don’t feel a certain amount of dissatisfaction, my creativity and ability to innovate abandons me entirely. I can’t create a thing worth a damn.

The key to living more creative, compassionate, collaborative, and courageous lives is to confront uncertainty with an open mind, be prepared to learn and based on what your curiosity helps you discover, be willing to change your mind, based on new ideas and evidence. In short, changing your perceptions is the best way to resolve uncertainty and take away fear.

See differently.

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