How Many Creative Options Do You Need?

This is a hard lesson to learn for many artists, myself included. Here it is, though: adding more creative options only causes you to reach a point of diminishing returns quite rapidly. Beyond that point, having more creative options available to you causes you to create worse art, not better.

The reason this is true is that selection and trying out different options displaces the actual creative work. In music production, it means you spend more time auditioning and tweaking, rather than constructing the essentials of your composition. In painting, it might translate into dithering over colour choices, brush selection, lighting options, or different poses, rather than getting on with the painting.

In music production, I often see people spending literally hours crafting their own kick drum sound, so that it is just right. Now that people mainly produce at home, they’re not paying a fortune for every studio hour, but how you spend your time carries opportunity costs. You have to consider the activities you can’t and won’t do, while you’re perfecting a single drum sound.

I submit that crafting your own kick drum sound, if it takes more than a minute or so, is a colossal waste of time. It certainly won’t guarantee that any song that uses your signature bass drum sound will be a runaway hit. What you actually need is a kick drum sound that’s good enough for your purposes, which you can find and use quickly. Searching laboriously through ten thousand variants isn’t a good use of your time either. The beauty of the earliest drum machines was that they offered a very limited choice of sounds, if any choice at all.

No matter how good the sounds you select are, your music productions only begin to suck a little less if you make a lot of tracks and you become adept at serving the feeling of the song, instead of fixating on incidental minutiae. Similarly, you need to aim for mixing and mastering that’s close enough, but done and dusted in a reasonable amount of time. Don’t rush, but don’t dawdle either. Indecision doesn’t make the music better.

If your music is, by some happy miracle, really popular, most people will experience it through cheesy earbuds or tiny, tinny laptop speakers anyway. The difference between a good enough production and one that has been methodically and tortuously perfected doesn’t matter and nobody cares, even if they claim they can hear the difference. Rigorous blind testing reveals that most people can’t actually tell the difference between good enough and perfect anyway.

What audiences care most about is the quality of the song writing. They like lyrics that resonate with them, delivered with energy, vitality and originality (EVO). You need to surprise them with something they weren’t expecting, but which they find entertaining. The performance needs to be honest and authentic.

Burying those qualities under layer upon layer of precision digital signal processing often strips away the very imperfections that make a song appealing. It’s why overproduction is an actual thing, to be avoided. If you find yourself spending time chasing infinitesimal audio quality improvements, you have essentially lost the plot. Nobody will even know you have, in the unlikely event that you achieve them.

So, finish more tracks and songs. Get better at being faster and more creatively decisive. Let go of the obsessions the music equipment manufacturers and industry magazines infect you with, so that you keep buying more stuff. If anything, pare down your sonic palette to a few workhorse essentials and use other more exotic sounds like condiments. A limited sonic palette can force you into doing better things with melody, harmony, counterpoint and rhythm. In other words, don’t let your available creative options bully you into paralysis.

A standard Digital Audio Workstation programme comes bundled with more than enough creative options, these days. Add a decent sampler and sample library and a few instruments (actual or virtual) and you can make really interesting music. It’s unlikely you’ll ever exhaust the permutations and combinations of all the resources you start with, either.

As a young guitar player, with a single electric guitar and a wah-wah pedal, it was challenging, but immensely satisfying to explore how many different timbres and textures you could find with just this limited collection of gear. Invariably, you were forced to venture way beyond the obvious and trite usages, that everybody else had already found and put on record, to the outer fringes, where the interesting sounds were to be found. Who knew there were at least six ways you could play a guitar with a Philips head screwdriver?

As a painter, limit your palette to five colours, at most, when you make a picture and use only three or four brushes. It almost doesn’t matter which ones you choose. What counts is your imagination and all the ways you can find to get the most out of these limitations. You can always choose a different five colours and four brushes for your next painting.

When it comes to creative options, less is so often more. Whatever choices you make, use the hell out of them and move on. What people want to see are the amazing things you did with what you had; not how good you were at shopping.

Make every creative choice count.

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Ethical Erosion

What if every problem that besets humanity could be traced to a single root cause? We may be the authors of our own misery for one very simple reason – we behave badly.

We behave badly, because we think we can get away with it, that one more little instance of bad behaviour won’t matter and because everybody else is behaving badly, so that somehow gives us license. We believe in personal exceptionalism so strongly that we confect all manner of elaborate and Byzantine stories, lies and obfuscations to justify it to ourselves.

It’s so normalised, now, that few even recognise when they are behaving badly. It’s just business. Get with the modern way. Good behaviour is so quaint. We’re all just following orders, but strangely, they’re orders we make up in our own heads, yet claim they’re external, or objective truth or some kind of natural law.

The kind of bad behaviour I am referring to is unethical behaviour. Small ethical compromises, made often and by millions, accumulates to create a hellish landscape for everyone. The damage is cumulative. Everyone points the finger at other people’s unethical behaviour, but few acknowledge the fact that unless everybody behaves ethically, who else is there that will? Why would you expect anybody else to strive to act ethically if you won’t?

You can encounter small ethical transgressions every day. Take this article, for example.

It emerges that the Coca-Cola Company (and probably the entire soft drinks industry, in reality) has been trying to tilt health advice and research in favour of its sugar-saturated product for years, paying a variety of ethically-challenged professionals to deflect any connection to their products’ role in poor health outcomes and toward red herring factors instead. If the company were ethical, they would stand by their product, unless independent research showed it was harmful. A sustained, concerted campaign to rig professional opinion in their favour indicates that if their product were definitively found to cause harm, they would prefer to deny it, cause confusion and obfuscate, to maintain their profits, rather than make the health of their erstwhile customers paramount.

Their unethical stance is baked right into how they spend their research budget. Their actions actually prove they’d prefer the truth not to come out, even if that leads to the premature disability and mortality of millions of unsuspecting consumers. It’s the mindset of a predator.

The same can be said of the tobacco industry, the glyphosate pesticide manufacturers, the wider pharmaceutical industry, the plastics makers and anybody else with a product of dubious public safety that they wish consumers to consume. The pattern of ethical transgressions repeats almost identically.

Today, the United States is in the grip of a prescription opioid crisis. People are dying in alarming numbers using what is supposed to be a medicinal and beneficial treatment. How can that be? Knowing it is a highly addictive and potent substance, you would think it would be marketed and prescribed very cautiously and that strict controls would exist to govern its supply. You would be wrong, though.

If you read this article: you will learn that this “product” is marketed aggressively, using sex, cash and guns to incentivise over-prescription. Doctors with ethical bypasses willingly participate as end points of the growing supply chain, because it is personally advantageous to them to do so. Personal exceptionalism, coupled with ethical erosion, in both the doctor’s surgery and the pharmaceutical company. Dispensaries are equally content to provide this untenable quantity of opioids, without serious question. Nobody cares what happens to the terminally addicted – addicts they have methodically manufactured.

Here is an invitation to the Intercontinental Hyperlipidemia Academy, though it is typical of hundreds, if not thousands of similar meetings and conferences.

In the Tweeted words of one physician, this seminar represents, in essence, “University professors from 4 countries paid thousands of $$$ to hawk drugs to ordinary physicians. Legalized bribery + intellectual prostitution from academics = Good Advertising for Drugs”.

In a British Medical Journal opinion piece, written by Richard Smith, he said, “Most scientific studies are wrong, and they are wrong because scientists are interested in funding and careers rather than truth.” Ethics, clearly, play a distant secondary role to personal enrichment and advancement.

It’s not easy to remain ethical in the face of extreme intimidation. Take, for example, the recent revelations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. In every one of his alleged assaults, there were people enabling his activities, or covering them up. Every single person that permitted his behaviour to continue is, unfortunately, ethically compromised, even if their defence is self-preservation. The only thing that could have stopped him earlier was somebody with sufficient courage and a strong sense of ethics. Indeed, what exposed him, in the end, were people with precisely those qualities.

It’s a pity he was able to destroy people’s lives, dreams and careers for as long as he evidently did. The lack of anybody willing to confront him about his aberrant behaviour, if anything, emboldened him to act even more unacceptably and fuelled his self-belief in his own personal exceptionalism, it appears. The ethical erosion, if proven, led to what are undeniably tragic accumulated consequences. For his part, Weinstein still denies the charges.

The software development industry has several serious ethical voids at its very heart, but they haven’t been challenged in any serious way, as yet. It is a commonplace for software companies to organise themselves as low-pay programming sweatshops, exploiting off-shore, third-world developers and naive, enthusiastic youngsters alike, to work extreme hours, under unconscionable stress, only to be summarily discarded once burnt out or too old (meaning past 35). This isn’t accidental, it’s policy. Company owners are openly willing to destroy the physical, emotional and mental health of their developers, while simultaneously denying them a reasonable home life and the important relationships that ordinarily accompany a good home life. They don’t care even a small amount about the welfare of the talent their organisations critically depend upon.

Another surprising ethical void in the software industry is the lack of adequate budgeting for software maintenance and evolution. Projects are funded on the basis that the software will be written once, completed and thereafter milked for profit. This is unrealistic, because software always requires refactoring, as the context it operates within changes, as the range of uses the software is put to expand and as the authors of the software learn more about how to make their software do what is demanded of it. It’s organic. If you’re not maintaining it, the software is becoming less relevant and fit for purpose daily. You can’t stand still.

Where the ethical dimension intersects with software maintenance is that, in lieu of adequate budgets and resources to keep the software relevant, the reputations of the original coders are trashed, while the current team is expected to do maintenance work “off the books” (meaning for free, in their own time, after working on new projects all day). This sustained, additional pressure, the result of not budgeting for software maintenance, manifests as an extraordinarily high burnout rate and slander about the professional reputations of the developers and their immediate managers. Careers have been prematurely broken by it. The root cause is a game of “just pretend”, where nobody alerts the CEO to the need to fund maintenance, or explains the reality of the nature of software, or else the CEO fully ignores it. All of these acts are tremendously ethically deficient.

Eventually, to relieve the pressure, programmers adopt an attitude of “just tell me what to programme.” They disengage with customers and with doing their best work. Thereafter, they suffer a loss of purpose and meaning in their lives, but keep going until there is a liquidity event at the company, whereupon their shares vest and they exit. They no longer care what their product does or whether it helps or harms those that come into contact with it. This is why we have surveillance capitalism and software monopolies that make people’s lives hellish. Developers give up caring about any of that, waiting for their ordeal to simply be over. Ethical considerations don’t figure at all, in this tragic melee.

The recent report into the causes of the great loss of life, in the Grenfell Tower inferno, reveals a veritable shit-show of penny-pinching, cost-cutting, cosmetic building changes that compromised or completely negated fire safety measures, death-trap design, naked profiteering, fraudulent misrepresentations about product safety and testing, lack of adequate maintenance, suppression and intimidation of resident complainants warning of the dangers, cover ups and not giving an actual damn about the safety and welfare of the low-income residents of the building. The true scandal is that this pattern has been repeated nationwide, in low-income housing everywhere. Thousands of people are today living in properties that put their lives in direct jeopardy. It’s a cavalcade of ethical failings, from almost every quarter, that remains largely unaddressed.

In the UK, recently, a family-run cosmetics company called Lush ran a campaign which drew attention to already married, undercover policemen who had duped left-leaning, idealistic young women into sexual relationships, many of which resulted in offspring, in order to infiltrate their activist organisations. These campaigns had spanned decades. On behalf of moneyed interests, who didn’t want their activities curtailed or scrutinised, these willing foot soldiers embarked on serious, sustained campaigns of deception and betrayal. The lack of ethics involved in ordering these reprehensible acts and of perpetrating them is monumental, yet Lush’s campaign was met with outrage, staff intimidation and threats of consumer boycotts for daring to suggest that elements within the police had acted in atrocious faith. There seemed to be a crazed adherence to the authority of those police officers, rather than a sober examination of the yawning ethical vacuum involved. It is indicative of a much wider ethical black hole in the general public at large.

Ironically, a universal ethical upgrade in all members of society would mean there was nothing terrible to organise against, so no need to infiltrate these now non-existent protest groups. Undercover officers would therefore not be necessary to do the infiltration. In other words, if the rich and powerful behaved impeccably, none of the rest of this sordid mess would have had a reason to exist at all. Little comfort to those children (from both mothers involved n each case) born of absent, duplicitous, deceptive, abusive, unethical tools of power and money, though.

If politicians acted ethically there would be no protesters or dissenters and hence no need to infiltrate them. It is for this reason that standards of probity in public life are so important, yet so many politicians engage in highly unethical practices, appealing to personal exceptionalism by way of justification. It’s self-serving, masquerading as public service and hence fraudulent.

The measure of a good cop is how many bent cops he brings to justice. But what are their score cards really like? It’s a very simple metric.

There are ethical deficits that don’t even make sense. They defy all rationality. For example, cleaning up Flint, Michigan’s toxic water supply would be an investment in the health and productivity of future Flint residents. Allowing their children to be poisoned by metallic neurotoxins guarantees, instead, that they will grow up impaired, disabled and debilitated. Caring for their needs will cost orders of magnitude more than cleaning up the public water supply (assuming they’re not just left to suffer and die unaided). Indeed, fixing Flint’s water would cost less than President Trump’s proposed vainglorious military parade.

Of course, Flint isn’t unique in having unclean water. Unethical acts in many municipalities means entire populations will wind up damaged. This is tantamount to grievous bodily assault resulting in permanent harm. Who will bear those costs? Are they even bearable?

For decades, now, airlines have known, with certainty, that cabin air is often toxic, laced with airborne organophosphates (which cause irreversible nerve damage) as a result of contamination by byproducts of engine lubricants burning in the plane’s jet engines. It’s an aircraft design flaw. Cabin air does not need to share the engine air intake (and in more recent designs, it doesn’t). Nevertheless, cabin crew and passengers alike have been permanently injured and even killed by toxic cabin air, despite decades of accumulated evidence. Under what ethical calculus can this be deemed acceptable?

The vast majority of the plastics ever produced have ended up in the oceans and waterways of our planet. As they break up, they become microplastics, which enter the food chain. All living beings, ourselves included, are consuming micro plastics in our food, with unknown consequences to animal and human life. Yet, we all blithely continue to use throwaway plastics and single use plastics. We know where “away” is, now. It’s in all of us and our children. We’ve turned ourselves into plastic waste containers. Where are our ethics?

Goaded on by the baying of an ignorant crowd, British politicians have embarked on a cynical campaign of “cracking down” on benefit fraud. It’s good for votes and they’ve been at it for the best part of a decade, now. The problem is that the actual incidence of benefit fraud, relative to the government deficit, is negligible, so in order to perpetuate the policy, the non-fraudulent have to increasingly be accused of fraud and made to prove their worthiness for continued community support. It’s a way of unethically manufacturing the appearance of widespread benefits cheating.

Even the word “benefits” denies that these payments are actually earned entitlements. In the process of trying to save money lost to fraud, the government has actually spent more on the additional administration and policing of the benefits system than they’ve saved. It costs more than it saves! As a society, we have spent money persecuting and further harming (and actually killing) people who were not, in fact, defrauding the system. We are paying for unethical cruelty, because it panders to people’s mistaken prejudices and keeps the politicians willing to oversee such a nasty and hostile regime in power, supported wholly by the votes of the wilfully ignorant. Choosing ignorance and turning a blind eye to the needless suffering imposed is an ethical failure of the highest order.

Politicians, you see, hold the keys to our metaphorical silverware cabinet – the one we’ve built up as a society, over generations, but they’re raiding it to stay popular, doing favours for their supporters with the public’s wealth and stealing simply because they can – because they hold the keys. Who’s to stop them? They exercise no self-control or ethical consideration. There is no ethical oversight.

How about artists? Are they ethically sound? Hardly!

Legion are the tales of debauchery and treachery, associated with musicians. They’ve blundered around, hurting people, for years. “Musical differences” are usually about one or more band members being shafted on the royalties. Their teatment of groupies (especially underaged ones) is exemplary only in its unconscionable excess. The death toll within the music industry is staggering. Manifold are the ethical lapses.

Are painters any better? A brief reading of the biographies of Picasso or Monet, for example, will reveal severely questionable behaviour, on occasions, toward other artists, their muses, their partners and children and to other adoring people in their entourage. These people were not saints, despite their genius with paint and canvas. There has also been a litany of painters using their art as a cover for their misogyny or paedophilia. Paedophiles are not child lovers at all; they’re child abusers.

Ethical behaviour is not, I regret to report, a hallmark of the artistic tradition, unfortunately. It’s exceptions only serve to prove the rule.

How about the establishment and the institutions we hold to be the authorities? Cover ups and serious ethical deficiencies are apparently everywhere. Read this account of the British Jeremy Thorpe affair, in which a powerful politician was tried for incitement and conspiracy to murder his erstwhile homosexual lover:

Not even Thorpe’s defence barrister, the reputedly dubious George Carmen, and the presiding judge escape with their ethics intact. This episode has all the hallmarks of a gross miscarriage of justice. The police, other politicians, the secret service and the media all experienced grave ethical failures. Many of these people retain power and influence, even today. It’s very sordid.

A former chancellor of the exchequer, who was once considered to be a candidate to be the next prime minister, now openly trades his influence and editorial integrity to the highest bidder:

In so doing, he has transformed the paper he edits into an advertorial pamphlet, rather than speaking truth to power and holding the ruling elite to account. Yet, he still expects advertisers to support his publication and ordinary people to read it, as if it had integrity. Why should they? It is an ethics-free zone. The architect of austerity is now the defiler of objective credibility.

A considerable amount is now known about the permanent, debilitating, character-changing consequences of repeated concussions to the head and the brain injuries that result from them. Yet, boxing, American football, heading balls in soccer – contact sports which have one consequence – repeated head injuries – are still promoted and supported as if none of that evidence existed. People demand their entertainment, even if the ethics of the situation are that it dooms the participants to live diminished, damaged, foreshortened lives. They’ll cheer at these brain damaging “sports” while tutting at Roman gladiator spectacles. It’s both hypocritical and unethical.

Bullfighting still finds an audience yet the same people abhor bear-baiting and cock-fighting. What’s the actual difference? Horse doping is still a commonplace, as is match fixing. Ethical purity is not to be found in these sports.

Sometimes, the people whose jobs depend on ethical suspension reach a point where enough is enough and a backlash results. Here is a passage from “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” by David Graeber, about digital photoshopping and the people paid to enhance images daily:

“We also work on TV shows and music videos. We reduce bags under the eyes of women, make hair shinier, teeth whiter, make pop stars and film stars look thinner, etc. We airbrush skin to remove spots, isolate the teeth and color correct them to make them whiter (also done on the clothes in washing powder ads), paint out split ends and add shiny highlights to hair in shampoo commercials, and there are special deforming tools to make people thinner. These techniques are literally used in every commercial on TV, plus most TV drama shows, and lots of movies. Particularly on female actors but also on men. We essentially make viewers feel inadequate whilst they’re watching the main programs and then exaggerate the effectiveness of the “solutions” provided in the commercial breaks.”

For those whose livelihood relies on sustained ethical compromise, it’s soul-destroying. Many of these people now contribute to a website called Adbusters, which seeks to tell the truth about what the media is actually doing. It’s their attempt to redress the balance and gain a modicum of absolution. Here is a passage I copied from the Adbusters site:

“Almost all the so-called “military correspondents” acted like army propaganda agents. Day by day they helped the army to spread lies and falsifications. The public had no alternative but to believe every word. Nobody told them otherwise.”

The same is true for almost all other means of communication, program presenters, announcers and correspondents. They willingly became government liars. Probably many of them were ordered to do so by their bosses. Not a glorious chapter.”

The media, too, it seems is an ethical graveyard – quite literally. The only hope is that some people on the inside will call it out. Better still, they should stop contributing to relentless ethical erosion. As a society, there’s precious little ethical behaviour left.

This has been a very difficult essay to write. In fact, it has been a slog. The injustices are stomach churning and there is no shortage of examples. Worse, though, is the litany of damage that ethical indiscretions leave in their wake. Ethical erosion is the root cause of much that is wrong with the world today and we’ve all played a part. If the political and economic systems we believe in and uphold impede ethical behaviour, or incentivise unethical choices, then they’re no damn good. We should get rid of them.

We look back at history and claim that the deeply unethical behaviour of our ancestors can be excused, because times were very different back then. I claim this is first class bunk. Ethical choices were always available. Some of our ancestors were giving relief to the poor, fighting for women’s voting rights, arguing for the abolition of slavery and providing alternative means of earning a good living to sex workers. They didn’t shirk their ethical consciences. Instead, they acted on principle and very often suffered for their convictions. Yet, no progress would have been possible without these rare individuals seeking to upgrade society’s collective ethics. Which side of history will you be on?

Can’t we do better?

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Dream or Dare

There is a game teenagers play called truth or dare. If you don’t know it, it requires you to publicly tell the truth about some usually private or intimate detail of your life, or else hold your secrets, but perform some reckless forfeit instead. It can be a very cruel game, but there’s an insidious in-built bias within it that I think requires deeper examination. Truth or dare suggests that daring is a method of evading the truth. In fact, daring instead of just dreaming is a confrontation with the truth.

I think it was J.K. Rowling who suggested that dreaming (of becoming a successful author, in her case) is all very well and good, but the real test of your mettle is whether or not you dare to try to realise your dreams. Action counts. In the life game of dream or dare, only daring can actually make your dreams come true. Endless dreaming doesn’t really change your situation at all, no matter how beguiling and comforting those dreams might be. Ultimately, you have to take some chances and do the work.

And you might fail repeatedly. Application improves your chances of success and recognition, but offers no guarantees. That’s the bitch of it all.

It can be extraordinarily hard to dare, when you’re already not coping and feeling overwhelmed. When you’re overwhelmed, you need help, but so often there isn’t any. Just existing can fully deplete your limited motivation resources. Finding the courage and energy to try to realise your dreams can seem utterly impossible.

I struggle with this constantly. I, like many dreamers, have big dreams I want to bring to fruition, but just holding station, without my life dissolving into uncontainable chaos, takes almost everything I’ve got. Progress is hard won. The prevention of regress seems like a full time occupation.

Sometimes the dream you have is too indistinct, or the end you dream about doesn’t convince you and this causes inertia. When your dream lacks detail, it’s hard to know which small initial steps will carry you in the right direction. It’s also impossible to tell how many steps might be necessary. That’s enough to stop you in your tracks.

If you can’t clearly visualise yourself after you succeed, in your imagination, feeling like it could never really happen for you, then your dreams lose credibility and daring to realise them feels futile. You first have to convince yourself you’re worthy of success and that yes, you can be the one that makes it. Wanting your dream to come true involves imagining it already has, in a peculiar way.

The problem with dreams is that they can be seductive. Daring feels like hard work and risk. Dreaming, on the other hand, requires much less stress, sweat, failure, disappointment and time. It’s difficult to go wrong, in a dream. Things are under your complete control and they turn out the way you decree. There are no compromises, no need to adapt to circumstances, no unanticipated disasters and little to confound your intention. Daring involves all of those inconveniences and many more.

If you’re in any way aware of your mortality, you’ll probably feel some aversion to spending your energies and limited lifespan on something that feels like a sure-fire failure. Yes, it might be a grand dream, but if it’s daunting, unlikely and unrealistic to your rational mind, you might feel crushing guilt and foolishness for spending any time at all daring to make the dream come true. Yet, dare you must. Dying with unfulfilled dreams, or worse, losing the capacities required to fulfill them as you age, is no picnic either. Many people end their days riddled with such regrets.

You might have the feeling that you don’t have the skills to turn dreaming into daring. You’re not alone. Nobody starts with every skill they’re going to need. Rather, you make the best of what you have and try to learn the additional skills you need, as you go. There’s no other way to do it. This is why it requires daring. You can never be sufficiently prepared to guarantee success. There’s no such thing. All you can hope is that you’ll get the skills you need by the time they become necessary and decisive. In that sense, it’s like walking a tightrope blindfolded.

You need persistent courage. Desperation can be a great motivator. Having no choice but to dare can be the factor that propels you forward. When you have alternative choices, it’s easier to convince yourself that some other path is easier and less risky. That, indeed, may be so, but it won’t get you any closer to realising your dream. Often, all you’ll do is fulfill somebody else’s dream, while neglecting or even abandoning your own. There is nothing sadder.

Sometimes, it’s better to have to realise your dream, come hell or high water, because you have no viable plan B. Even then, you can still fail and in all probability will. Resilience will be needed to pick yourself up and carry on toward your goal somehow. This cycle may repeat. It may repeat multiple times. Daring is a very hard road.

People who consistently dream great, big, brilliant dreams often get intimidated and gaslighted into believing their dreams and ideas are ordinary, by people that only have ordinary dreams. This is because that makes them feel better about their own ordinary dreams. It’s an easy trap to fall into. The grandiosity of the dream doesn’t always make it any less likely than a small dream. Small dreams are not necessarily easier to accomplish because they’re small. Many other factors come into play. Audacious, moon-shot dreams are not as common as ordinary dreams. If you have one, you should probably honour it. If you don’t dare to make this outrageously unlikely dream come true, there probably isn’t anybody else even trying.

Great things never come from comfort zones.

I found this useful graph of the emotional journey associated with daring to create anything great that you have dreamed, somewhere on the Internet:

The dark swamp of despair is inevitable and might even be necessary. While dreaming might be soothing and entertaining, daring is going to suck. Until it doesn’t. At the end, the joy you get from accomplishing your dream far outweighs the pleasure you get from merely dreaming about it.

Like many people, I’ve spent time reading about how dreamers turned their dreams into reality. We intuitively believe that if we focus on the successful and emulate what they did, we’ll be successful too. Unfortunately, this turns out to be incorrect. There’s something called “survivorship bias” and there is an excellent, lucid explanation of what that is here:

The problem is that the advice business is a monopoly run by survivors. A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight. The struggle to dare greatly is real and focussing on the winners means you ignore the lessons of all the failures. Most survivors, it turns out, were lucky. They like to tell you it was all part of their carefully executed master plan, but it’s a lie. Things simply went their way.

If we want to turn dreams into realities, we should also study the failures, to avoid the pitfalls that derailed their projects, but of course the literature is very sparse. Nobody wants to read about how people tried and failed. There’s no happy ending. Consequently, we remain blind to experience that might actually help us succeed. We dismiss the failures as if they had no merit. In fact, there may be patterns contributing to these failures, from which we never learn.

Interestingly, believing yourself to be lucky means you notice lucky breaks to take, and serendipitous opportunities that arise, better than people who believe they’re unlucky. If you think you’re going to be one of the lucky few who succeed, you’ll be more attuned to daring, as opportunities you didn’t anticipate, and weren’t part of your premeditated plan, present themselves. Being open to serendipitous circumstances increases your chances of actually being lucky.

Unlucky people, in contrast, are said to be more narrowly focused. They crave security, tend to be more anxious, try harder to stick to their plan and instead of wading into the miasma of random chance, open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation. They’re so hell-bent on seeking a specific goal, they completely miss other equally fruitful outcomes. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by, untaken.

Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences, yet routine habits build skills and are how you become persistent, in order to accomplish big things. These approaches are in tension. You need good work habits, to get things done and hone your expertise, but enough variety of experience to encounter and follow paths that might lead to better luck than the ones you habitually pursue. Do you see now why advice from those that succeed is too often riddled with self-justifications and faux wisdom, when the truth of the matter is that they made a happy, propitious choice, somewhere along the line?

The lucky try more things and fail more often, but when they fail, they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out. If you’re going to stop dreaming and start daring, you’re going to have to make peace with that reality. You might do everything right and still miss turning your dream into reality. If you’re lucky, by acting in a way that improves your luck, the roll of the dice may possibly favour you some day. If you keep dreaming, though, you’ll never be lucky.

Your best option, to avoid disappointment at your unfulfilled potential, is to dare, expecting to be lucky, but being resilient about it, when you aren’t. That’s the best you can do.

Some dreams aren’t big. Rather, some are small and exquisite in detail. Their size doesn’t make them any less worthy of admiration, but it also doesn’t make them any easier to realise. The corresponding dare needs to be equally intricate and detailed. And you still might fail. There are no guarantees, even with small dreams. Ask anybody that has repeatedly failed to realise one.

So, there you have it. Dreaming is fun; even recreational. It sows the seeds of better future possibilities. However, without daring to turn those dreams into reality, they’ll never be more than some happy ideas. Daring is painful, uncertain, risky, distressing and totally sucks, but not as much as never realising your dreams. That’s the human condition. Struggle is part of the deal. Reward for struggle isn’t always forthcoming.

Welcome to humanity.

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Expense or Investment?

It all depends on how you look at things. Two people can observe the same event, but because of their default mental models about that happenstance, conclude that two entirely different and irreconcilable consequences have resulted. What you think happened depends on what you believe about what you observed. In other words, it’s a narrative you create inside your own head. It doesn’t have an objective reality. It is no more than a story you tell yourself about it.

That story isn’t of your own invention, either. It’s derived from the stories you were told, by people you trusted, about events like the one you have just observed, throughout your entire life. Your internal monologue about the event is highly derivative. You don’t work it out from first principles; you adapt a previously heard narrative, which you believed, to fit the current circumstance. The stories you believe, to explain what you see, are not your own. IF the people you trusted kept you ignorant, your conclusion is equally ignorant. Most people rarely authentically think for themselves.

As an example, let’s talk about the sorts of things we classify as expenses, or costs. The same monetary transaction can be seen two different ways. On the one hand, if you pay for somebody’s time, you can view this as an expense. What you have forgone is the opportunity to spend your money in some other way. Instead, you spent it hiring a person. The money is gone. You feel poorer. Paying for their time, skill or expertise is viewed as a sunk cost. You can’t get a refund easily and you won’t see that money again.

Another way to see this same transaction is that your money, instead of being wasted frivolously on self-gratification of some other item of ephemeral consumption, has enabled a talented and brilliant person to keep honing their skills. That feels like a worthwhile investment. You have contributed to the betterment of this individual and the consequences of doing so has raised the quality of their thought. The returns that might one day accrue from this small act of paying money to somebody might be vast. They could be the next Einstein or Mozart, still in development. Even if they aren’t, they’re certainly a better version of themselves than they were before your money enabled them to learn and become better. The more you do this, the better the overall quality of thought in the society you share. This time, your financial transaction is seen as an investment not an expense.

Same transaction; different interpretations.

We customarily refuse to see the investment aspect, but that’s an arbitrary choice. There’s nothing inherently legitimate, valid or more worthy in counting costs and expenses, or reducing unique individuals to fungible Human Resources. We’ve been conditioned to count costs, but never to appreciate the benefits, as they geometrically accumulate. We are blind to the fact that paying people is an investment in them, our community, our society and our civilisation. Hoping that somebody else will view what we regard as an expense as their investment is magical thinking. Why should anybody view it differently to how we insist on viewing it?

You get this with training expenses. Every company wishes to hire highly trained and qualified individuals, but nobody wants to be the organisation that funds the training. The argument goes that if you invest in people, other firms will simply poach them, so better to keep everybody ignorant. That’s like saying we don’t stock that item anymore, because we kept selling out of it. While they express clear preferences for trained personnel, because they can see the value in that, they don’t see the value in creating such people. It’s illogical in the extreme.

We’re only fixated on costs and expenses because we’re stuck in a Dickensian mind set. This is the normalised narrative of our times and those that control the narrative have spent literally billions of dollars to control it. We only default to regarding investments as expenses because that’s what we’ve been taught since childhood. It’s a bizarre distortion overlaid on human nature.

Ask yourself some of these questions: What would be the value to you, personally, of becoming a great artist, writer or musician? What’s the value to you of living in a supportive community that cares, a clean environment, having the freedom and time to become your best self, while everybody else you live among is doing the same? Speaking entirely selfishly, what would be the benefit to you of eliminating corruption and tyrants (even the local, petty variety)? Would you experience less stress and greater well-being? Would you be less anxious and happier? What value do you place on improved mental health?

How life-enhancing would you find living without predatory, surveillance capitalism? Is it worth paying to contain and constrain the excesses of celebrity idols and oligarchs? Why do you hanker for a life lived vicariously through the gossip pages, about the rich and famous, when your own life could be so much better than it is, under austerity and extreme inequality? How do you even put a value on not living among stupid, ignorant, bigoted people? How would you value not living under the constant threat of random, indiscriminate gun violence?

These are all things you can invest in. You can organise so that the population, as a whole, invests in them. Today, our collective wealth is squandered on opulence, warfare, corporate subsidisation and tax breaks for the wealthiest. You can choose to spend that money more wisely, investing in people, rather than wasting it on death and destruction.

If the alternative view were to prevail, then commercial arts, like the music industry, would be investing in the sorts of things humans ought to be able to say and feel (through music), without fear or restriction. That would make a big change from the industry’s current behaviour, which is all about cost containment, one-sided deals and profit extraction. Artists wouldn’t be disposable and exploitable. Instead, they’d be assets to nurture.

I’ve never seen a job ad looking for somebody with unique talents, skills, curiosities and abilities. They all want you to be like somebody else, so that they can control the creative agenda. So much so, that recruiters routinely screen résumés with text matching software, which inflexibly matches on expected keywords. You have to fit into a predefined pigeon hole, or you aren’t even interviewed, let alone considered for the role. This effectively screens out the unique and non-obvious candidates. How is that investing in people?

Well, it isn’t, is it? No wonder human beings are treated as an expense, rather than an unlimited wellspring of unknown creative potential. If you try to dictate what gets innovated, you miss the much more valuable innovations that would inevitably arise, if you genuinely invested in people. Mission statements limit pure possibilities. The founder’s vision tramples all over everybody else’s. Why should this be, if the only purpose of the business is to flourish? Limiting the firm to the founder’s vision alone stifles spontaneous value creation. Yet, dissent is nowhere welcomed. This is another of those irrational, illogical behaviours, despite what they claim to be doing.

Here’s a case in point: A random sampling of Product Management roles advertised recently reveals that they are predominantly extractive in nature, not edifying. The prevailing ethos is one of farming – milking and corralling compliant developers and customers, like so many head of cattle, so that the maximum value is extracted from them in the most efficient way possible. These jobs and products are not about empowering people, investing them with agency, giving them meaningful choice and ensuring they thrive. None of that is on the agenda, except as a thinly veneered mask to sanitise and conceal the organisation’s true motives. Even Google has finally jettisoned their “don’t be evil” directive from their code of conduct. The fiction couldn’t be maintained any longer. Think, however, what additional value could be created if organisations invested in empowerment, agency, real choice and the well being of their people and customers. It’s not an expense; it generates an abundant return.

Investments in people, community, infrastructure, environment, libraries, health, education and other public goods are not altruistic. Not in the least. Ayn Rand would have never understood this, being the high priestess of parasitically accumulating personal wealth at everybody else’s expense. In fact, these investments are examples of enlightened self-interest. You’re paying for guarantees of future civilised, comfortable, amenable living. Seeing these expenditures as costs to be reduced, rather than investments in a better future, is simply perverse, yet the UK government’s ongoing and elongated austerity programme is precisely this wrong-headed.

If you’re an artist, you probably feel a certain amount of guilt (or guilty pleasure) when you buy art materials. After all, that money could be feeding a family, paying bills or reducing your debt. Art materials, though, are really an investment in yourself, as an artist; not an expense. They can help you become a better artist, provided you also make the time investment to actually use them. Even investing your time in pursuing your art can induce feelings of guilt. Most of us feel we have other obligations, particularly to employers, partners and family, that take precedence. Without spending the time on your art, though, you’ll never become the person you know, deep inside, you must become. If you don’t become that person, which so urgently asserts itself in your personality, you’ll wind up frustrated, unfulfilled, angry and resentful. That’s no use to any employer, partner or family member.

If you want to live in a world filled with beauty and tranquillity, with songs, art and something interesting to read, investing in artists and makers makes a lot of sense. Similarly, if you wish the community you live in to invest in you, then you should vote against austerity and social spending cuts. Tax evasion and avoidance is a deeply hostile act, not the act of a lone genius hero. Taxation has many egregious faults, as a system of accumulating and spending common wealth, but investing in a better future isn’t one of them. That’s arguably one of the few things that is right about taxation. There are other forms of investment organisation that would perform the function better than compulsory taxation, of course, but a profit-seeking motive (i.e. leaving it to privatisation) simply reduces the amount of investment available, without creating new value.

Some people object to taxation on the grounds of inefficiency. A hierarchical system takes the money and spends it in ways that most people don’t like. People who believe in public investment are horrified when they witness the waste and inefficiency that the hierarchy imposes, squandering a lot of the wealth in unconscionable ways. In fact, we don’t need traditional hierarchies to organise and administer the proceeds of taxation. We certainly don’t need the majority (if not all) of the tax collected to go straight into the pockets of landlords, via housing benefit and to further enrich bankers/investors, to cover the interest owed on government borrowing, as is the case today. There are many other network topologies of governance that do a far better job. The Internet is a working example of one such topology, but there are many others.

Historically, common land wasn’t left the ravages of a selfish free-for-all. Local people organised themselves, voluntarily, without hierarchy, to ensure that illicit enclosures were forcibly removed and abusers of the common resource brought into line. It wasn’t a committee, but more an example of comity. Comity is all about mutual benefit, through courtesy and considerate behaviour towards others. Committee is usually pointlessly bureaucratic, serving as an impediment to husbanding common wealth, rather than enhancing community property. Committees get bogged down in budgets and penny pinching cuts. They see everything as expenses. Comity seeks to enhance what is ours. It’s all about investment. We could actually fix the roads this way, filling the pot-holes and doing the necessary maintenance according to a system of comity. We don’t and that’s because people worry about the cost of their local government services, not about how to invest in their communities.

Maintenance is a bargain, compared to replacement or rebuilding. Some public investments are much better value than others. Maintenance is never an expense. It preserves and retains value that has already been realised. It’s an investment in retaining the value of some public good over the long term. Today, our governments scrimp on maintenance, cutting budgets annually, squeezing the ability for things to be kept in good order out of the system entirely. Consequently, our public infrastructure continues to degrade, due to the ravages of time and continuous wear, losing utility and value in the process. At some point, the infrastructure will become unfit for purpose and will either need to be replaced and rebuilt, or else taken away from the community forever. No sane accounting would fail to invest in maintenance, yet everybody thinks it’s an expense.

In the final analysis, debt financing encumbers every productive investment with a parasitic, value-destroying component, which compounds (exponentially), until the value destroyed overwhelms the value created by the creative investment. Other ways of financing are possible. Debt is not a law of nature – it’s a convention. We can change it. There are ways of issuing new money (e.g. sovereign money) and funding communities (e.g. universal basic incomes) that could transform how we invested in ourselves, each other and the places we live. No God decreed that for every issue of currency, you need to repay a banker some percentage of its face value. In fact, most Gods are strictly against usury. We’ve had our prevailing narrative controlled by usurers for hundreds of years and this is why we cannot imagine any alternative. Historically, there were numerous alternatives.

Regrettably, the majority of people think of artists as a burden on the economy – a pure expense. They’re thought of as scroungers and wasters, contributing nothing. The barriers to entry to being a full time artist are very high, especially in academic incarnations of the arts. Artists are paid very little, because they love making art, so ought to be prepared to bear the costs of being artists on their own, without adequate reward, or so the twisted, petty, jealous “logic” goes. Society doesn’t value artists as an investment in cumulative beauty and aesthetic pleasure for all. We’d rather live in dull, unstimulating, austere surroundings, thinking equally barren ideas, it seems. If we were to recognise how much better our lives would be, if we had an abundance of justly rewarded artists working tirelessly to surround us with interesting, attractive things and pleasant surroundings; filling our heads with new, exciting and engaging ideas or perspectives, then we might see paying for art and artists as more of a sensible investment than we do today.

The failure to invest in people reveals itself in bullshit jobs. According to the controlled narrative, which we all buy into, everybody has to work full time to earn the right to continue existing, even if the only jobs available for them are pointless and soul-destroying. Author and anthropologist David Graeber says: “If we just gave people the money to do what they like, even if a million came up with crazy theories, all you need is one to invent the teleportation device and it makes up for that million… Same with anything else.”

Here is a link to David’s article. It’s a jolly refreshing read:

In this article, he concludes that as many as one in two of us fall into pointless, useless jobs, such as being flunkies, goons, duct-tapers, box-tickers or taskmasters providing unnecessary supervision. That’s a tremendous waste of human potential and we’re all the poorer for it. Our insistence on treating these people as an expense, instead of investing in their precious, rare and individual curiosities and interests, means we never reap the unexpected windfall of genius. No wonder Millennials are so hard to please in the workplace, with their fancy notions of wanting to do something meaningful and purposeful with their short, precious lives. They happen to be right. Here are Richard Buckminster Fuller’s thoughts on the subject:

It’s time to stop worrying about expenses and to start thinking about investing. Under-investment has gone on for too long.

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Not That Kind of Hippy

I was a late onset hippy. Whereas the summer of love was in the late sixties, in the rest of the world, our far-flung town on the other side of the world really only embraced the values and ideals of hippydom some time in the early seventies, when I was entering my teen years. The Vietnam war was a recent scar, if not an open, festering wound, on youth culture, with boys only slightly older than me already broken, maimed, traumatised and suffering with undiagnosed and untreated stress disorders, assuming they were not already dead. Observing those destroyed, shocked, young men with our own eyes, my age group was acutely aware that if hostilities had continued, as they may well have, we’d have been the next crop of pointless canon fodder.

Those older youths that had escaped the compulsory draft considered themselves mighty lucky, but their rage and sense of betrayal was fierce. We knew then that the only people enthusiastic about war were those that could conduct it safely at a distance, playing with other people’s lives, while they accumulated prestige, power and war profits as great, patriotic statesmen. They took no personal risks. The blood spilled was not their own. They didn’t care about the shattered lives and limbs their words caused, or that their hawkish rhetoric was the volatile accelerant, which fanned the flames of destruction and death. We reviled those old men.

I lived in a very regulated, rigid, authoritarian, conservative society, so our forms of civil disobedience were mild. For all the talk of egalitarianism and giving a battler a fair go, it was a society organised around an inflexible, British-derived class system, with the working classes at the bottom, just above the European Second World War refugees/immigrants and the indigenous people they had displaced and treated abysmally, ever since they first colonised the continent. Obedience and conformity were assumed, enforced and insisted upon, as if they were the very foundations of a decent, patriotic society. Being different was forbidden. In fact, it seemed as if everything that wasn’t forbidden was compulsory.

Those with uniforms, charged with maintaining public order and the existing imperial power structures, thought nothing of cracking a few protester heads, leaving those that dared to disobey or refuse to conform with permanent, life-changing injuries. They were convinced they were doing good, in their closed-minded, chauvinistic bigotry. Their thought-programming had been so comprehensive and complete that the idea there were people who couldn’t see the point of war, let alone dying somewhere in Asia for a theoretical cause, was, to them, a totally unthinkable idea. They couldn’t have comprehended it, even if they had attempted to. Why would any young man refuse to serve his Queen and country, unless he was a low-life scum? That was the prevailing orthodoxy.

And scum we were. In the eyes of the conventional and older citizens of my home town, pacifists wearing outlandish flares, platform shoes and tie-dyed shirts, with long, effeminate hair, playing loud guitar music, were little more than common criminals in the making. In adopting the manners of what were then condescendingly called “gypsies”, the prejudiced assumed we were no good, thieving, promiscuous troublemakers. They felt it their solemn duty to correct us, or if that failed, to punish us for thinking differently to them and for holding values that opposed their casual resort to violence, their conflation of warfare with loyal, patriotic, national identity, their refusal to think for themselves and their willing abandonment of morals, when it suited them. Rules and adherence to them was what mattered most. They were hell bent on upholding authority at a time when submitting to the will of the authorities would get you killed, one way or another.

The prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was the hippy’s saviour. The message that brought him to power was that it was time for change (sloganised to the memorable “Its Time”). This resonated strongly with those of us that had seen for ourselves the unmitigated disaster conservative thinkers were prepared to blithely preside over. Ultimately, though, the establishment would have its revenge, ousting him and his progressive policies from power, in what can only be accurately described as a UK/US-sponsored political coup.

The democratic will of the people had been subverted and overturned by dark, unseen forces. From that moment onward, my generation, if they were awake and aware at all, realised that our democracy was a sham, that moneyed interests held all the power and called the shots, that our nation was little more than a client state of the US empire and that there were millions of ordinary willing accomplices living among us, propping up the whole stinking, festering shit heap.

What Kind of Hippy?

Bands like The Beatles deeply influenced us, with their overt preaching of peace and love. While their songs were presented as anodyne, disposable pop songs, safely ignored by the powers in charge, to us the messages in those song lyrics were a creed – something resembling a philosophy and a code to live by. We took peace and love seriously – at least as seriously as the war mongers took their military manoeuvres and shuttle diplomacy. I believed then and still believe today that peace is both desirable and possible and that the route toward it is to learn to love humanity, with all it’s flaws, learn to love the living world, rather than raping and abusing it and learn to love learning, to improve the general quality of how and what we think. Much of our current human insanity is born of hatred, dominance, violence and pig-headed adherence to terrible ideas. It was abundantly true then and it remains true still.

The thing about the hippy counter culture was that, even without psychedelic, mind-altering drugs, it raised your consciousness and encouraged you to think differently and imaginatively, for the better. You could absorb that mind set from the art that was made alone. Chemicals weren’t necessary to young, plastic brains, which are still open to surprising, novel and unexpected ideas. Maybe older hippies needed the drugs because their imaginations had already been disciplined out of them at school and had atrophied, but my age group was just coming out of childhood – a time in your life where your thinking habits are still being formed and are open to being shaped by whatever stimuli you encounter. You’re less prejudicial, when you’re a child and still eager to learn everything there is, as if it always was. You didn’t know some ideas were new, because they had always been there, during your short life. There was no hard boundary separating traditional and innovative ideas. The hippy ambience made an indelible impression on our developing brains.

The images and sounds, the fashions and the writings of the so-called counter-culture all encouraged you to take a look at things from an alternative point of view, to exercise your empathy and to speculatively conjure better options in your head. We dressed comparatively flamboyantly, relative to our childhood fashions and experimented with ideas, philosophies, spirituality, music and art. From a musical point of view, Pink Floyd and various progressive rock artists had a big influence on me. I especially liked their random, improvised jams, where new sounds were explored and the musicians were free to create experimentally without constraints, as it happened, without a plan. It was a very pure way of playing music. So many musicians lose the ability to play playfully, but this music was all about experimentation, exploration, experiencing music holistically and delightful joy. Playing, in the truest sense of the word. The hippy mind set definitely fostered a willingness to be open to new ways of thinking – something that the society I grew up in was pointedly lacking, with its obsession for traditional, conservative ideas.

The Vietnam war was relentlessly televised, with daily body count updates every evening at six o’clock. It was presented by solemn, conservative news readers, as a great national endeavour, but it came across as plain old butchery and factory-farmed murder at scale, to young pre-teenagers watching. It was obvious that violence was no solution, because the application of violence seemed to drag on for months, with no resolution to the situation. It didn’t seem to matter how much violence was applied, which we saw for ourselves on the nightly news, for what seemed like an eternity. No amount of violence ever seemed to be enough to make a decisive difference. You could cover terrified, naked children in flaming napalm, until their skin sloughed off their frames, as they ran away screaming in agony and still the other side kept on fighting back. It gave you the impression that violence was highly ineffectual. Given its lack of efficacy, then it becomes an exercise in wanton, sick cruelty and sheer futility. It wasn’t hard to conclude that eschewing violence was a very simple and obvious choice to make. It didn’t work. Violence just didn’t accomplish anything worthwhile. It still doesn’t. For all my life, wars have been waged somewhere and I never see a conclusion. If violence worked, it would end the moment it had accomplished what it set out to do. It never does.

War does not make a nation great. It makes it impoverished, shabby, tawdry, tainted and ashamed; turning bright, hopeful, obedient young men into savage murderers, for profit and conquest.

My countryman, a girl only my mothers age (or thereabouts), got people to start thinking about feminism and equality of the sexes. She pointed out something obvious, but never acknowledged. In the context of the times, it was courageous and refreshing. Bra-burning must have felt like genuine progress, but sadly women are still not liberated and there is an awfully long way still to go. At least the ideas moved society along a little. Every beachhead is important. Now that I am the father of a teenage daughter, the injustices and inequalities that remain, based on nothing more substantial than her sex, are something I think about even more than when the girls concerned were my peers. Is that reprehensible? I hope not. I had a view that the women who were my peers ought to experience equality in their lives and I believe it even more, now that I see the societal boundaries that attempt to constrain my daughter. Inequality of the sexes is unconscionable and always was. People simply refused to believe it.

When it comes down to it, equality is simply justice and fairness by another name. You don’t get to claim privilege because you belong to an in-group. In-groups are fluid and form only when similar people throw their weight around and treat others beyond their group as lesser humans. There is no meritocracy, in reality, and if you were born lucky, then your privilege is illegitimate and indefensible. The privileged try to defend it to the death, though. Violently. This is another of those mind set influences that hippies brought into my life. Tolerance and respect for diversity are values we adopted and held. The idea that you should help those that need help is axiomatic. Strangely, these things are not valued or evident in modern capitalistic societies. The mythical fiction they adhere to states that if you’re not winning, it’s because you’re a loser by nature and helping you is both wrong and won’t work anyway. It’s a pity they don’t try. The evidence would demolish their bad idea. They don’t try because they don’t want to risk having to rethink ideas they hold to be self-evident. They’d rather believe in being predatory.

The Unkindest Kind

For all their supposed enlightenment, there were things about the hippy counterculture that definitely grated on me. While I self-identify as a species of old hippy, I didn’t buy into the whole ethos and still don’t. I’m not that kind of hippy. Some of what the hippies held as values to live by are, to my way of thinking, very unkind. Some of their principles were mired in wilful ignorance and belief in preposterous propositions. Critical thinking seemed to be jettisoned along with conformity and obedience. Consequently, a toxic variety of group-think emerged, much of which was, to me, repellent.

Hippies, as a group, believed themselves to be very spiritual, even though they had long since ceased believing in organised religion. I shared their scepticism about large organisations, divorced from the experience of living ordinary lives, telling the populace what they ought to do morally and ethically, while themselves behaving in reprehensible ways, as the revelations about predatory child paedophilia and abuse have subsequently shown. Many of the clergy preached charity and mercy, while never offering practical help to those in most need and acting in thoroughly merciless ways. My grandfather was a valued member of his congregation while he was able to donate to their charitable causes, but rapidly ghosted when he lost his leg to diabetes and was struggling to survive. Organised religion left a lot to be desired.

However, the spirituality that many hippies filled their religious voids with was riddled with utter nonsense. It was no more authentic or reality-based than what they had rejected. In many cases, it relied on even more preposterous stories than those they had been indoctrinated with since their childhoods. To me, replacing one set of mystical superstitions with another doesn’t advance the human condition very far. Sure, there might be some just and beneficent ideas in all of these new spiritual belief systems, but a hell of a lot of woo as well.

I came from a more rationalist tradition. In my mental model, there are causes and effects that can be repeated. I like things like evidence and demonstrable proof. I dislike dogma – especially dogma that is selective about which evidence and demonstrable proof it will accept and which it will reject. It’s OK to entertain plausible possibilities, until you have good data, but not so after the evidence is in. Even then, I feel you should make sure you have all the evidence and are interpreting it the right way. We often make the mistake of considering causes and effects in isolation, ignoring the interconnectedness of most things. In the end, when you consider the interactions, the mystery is explicable.

Every hippy musician I knew, almost to a man (and it was more often than not, men), thought the holy grail of their music career was to land a record contract with a major record label. By the seventies, it was patently obvious that the record companies had been writing onerous contracts of enslavement, to the considerable disadvantage of the musicians that signed them, for several decades, yet everybody still wanted one (and arguably, still do). The one thing that was conveniently glossed over about the music business was the extraordinary death toll. Consider the body count of young (usually) men that met early, glibly dismissed demises. Basically, people were getting killed in the music business, one way or another. Why would you want to join an industry that was so uncaring about the welfare of its participants?

The answer to why the industry is so cavalier about its golden geese turned out to be simple. Researching the origins of the management of most major record companies reveals nefarious links to the CIA and/or the military industrial complex and a premeditated programme of cultural control of youth, to ensure that their rising insolence was snuffed out at the wick. The music industry was purpose-built to denigrate youth culture, to degrade and to humiliate, while appearing as a wholesome promoter and supporter of hippy values. In truth, it existed mainly to denigrate the peaceful ideals of young people, not to edify them. Acts were selected on the basis of their perceived and potential debauchery, destruction and nihilism, rather than for their positive influence on the culture. Musicians with integrity overcame this institutional bias anyway, but many paid a high price for going against the intelligence-led narrative. The whole industry was really a huge propaganda and thought control exercise, with catchy tunes used as the vehicle for delivering a consistent message. I guess this is one of the reasons that independent music production became a goal.

Another article of faith purposefully injected into the hippy counterculture, by people allied to command and control ideals, was that psychedelic drugs were necessary to create imaginative art. To believe in this nonsense, you have to be intellectually lazy in the first place. How can a magic pill change your thoughts to the degree that there are no ill effects, only a fruitful bounty of artistic originality and without limiting your agency, to act on those new creative insights? What could possibly make a chemical that smart and that precisely discriminating? As many outlandish ideas as the drugs might have induced, they also removed the physical desire and ability for those that had the ideas to actually bring them to fruition, unless they had an army of unintoxicated technicians to try to interpret their mad ravings and do the hard, boring work of manifesting the visions. Even then, there was an inevitable loss of fidelity, as the drug-induced idea was interpreted by those unimpaired, who were still able to create, make and do with real world tools and materials. Much of what a drug induced fugue informs you to do isn’t physically possible. It cannot be brought into real existence.

Once again, a little research after the fact reveals that psychedelic drugs were largely an offensive CIA psychological-operation, with the aim of suppressing, emasculating, eviscerating, disabling, impairing and incapacitating political and cultural dissent. It was meant to shut the protests and revolutions down before they started. If everybody was sufficiently stoned, to the point of irrationality, collective unity would be disrupted and nothing effective could be organised to oppose the powers that be from doing whatever the hell they wanted. And so it proved.

A related unfortunate consequence of this engineered mind-altering drugs epidemic, promoted by its infamous high priests, is that we, even today, underestimate the power and value of being able to think straight and use those thoughts with our physical agency to get things done. When you lose both, you’re eminently more easily farmed and corralled.

Hippies were into what they called “free love”. The problem is that free love never is. You cannot use other human beings for your own sexual gratification without considering their rights and needs. You can’t discard people like a used condom. They have feelings and dignity, which you shouldn’t harm. Hearts get badly broken. Children are often unintentionally created and bear the cost of having an errant, absent parent for their whole lives. The way hippy men tended to treat their women was, in my view, reprehensible. It bordered on being abusive. Actually, it often was abusive. For their part, hippy girls had been conditioned to accept male domination. The way they behaved around men was often equally appalling. They were still surprised to encounter sweet, gentle, considerate, peaceful guys and often didn’t know how to react to that. There was still a marked preference for bad boys, macho men and bullies. Many gravitated toward men that threw their weight around, as their fathers had to their mothers, or who used the threat of casual violence to maintain their dominant position in their personal relationships. It was very messed up. Feminism wasn’t embraced nearly as quickly as free love was.

The hippy musicians that I knew of, back in the seventies, were invariably subscribers to the maxims: “love ’em and leave ’em” and “treat ’em mean; keep ’em keen”. I thought then and still think today that this is an abusive attitude, lacking in commitment to another human being. Some of these musicians, it was widely understood, had a proclivity for underage girls. They were certainly unconcerned about accidental progeny or disease. Had any of these girls produced an offspring, the musicians would have treated those children abominably. That, too, was evidence of an abusive mindset. Yet, many of the girls that were attracted to these unreconstructed cavemen were so jaded and expecting to be treated badly, it confused and disturbed them if a man wasn’t like this toward them, such was their upbringing. Whenever they encountered a man who wasn’t quite as abusive, they tended to distrust and suspect them, rather than feel attracted to them. It was like a version of Stockholm Syndrome, except they were being held captive only by their own assumptions.

The saddest thing about hippy culture, to me, is that many of these hippies became complacent, wasteful, self-indulgent, narcissistic baby boomers of the worst kind, that took everything for themselves and left nothing for anybody younger. They’re currently consuming the earth with their gargantuan, insatiable appetites. As much as they declared war on the older generation, they have done the same to the generations that followed them. Today, they exist as a fat, dumb, contented population that rejects book learning in favour of gut opinion. They’re as conservative in their thoughts and habits as their parents and grandparents were, but they express their conservatism in different ways. This is the generation who, when all is said and done, embraced the Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal economic theory, with its bogus trickle down wealth lies, it’s manufactured austerity, extreme inequality and its predatory, self-serving, surveillance capitalism. They stopped giving a toss about anybody else. This is one of the effects of being indulged in their rebellion, without assuming the mantle of responsibility for improving things. They knew what they were against, but not what they were for.

Tragically, I and my hippy peers never found a way to be a genuine threat to power. We didn’t figure out how to seize power non-violently. Inequality is out of control and our opposition has been largely ineffectual. In truth, we didn’t want to let go of our own privilege, as a group, I suspect. Authoritarianism is again on the rise, as is intolerance, racism and sexism. We wound up with a deep democratic deficit, as a consequence of our refusal to engage and no viable, working anarchy.

This is not the kind of hippy I wanted to be and I hope I’m not one of them.

So much for sticking it to the man, man.

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Boring and Ordinary

There are people whose greatest fear is being boring and ordinary. They have an existential need to be special and outstanding. Obscurity terrifies them. Their whole identity is built on this foundation. Sadly, it’s not a very stable footing.

I’ve known people that have rejected a lifetime in partnership with lovely potential partners, because they feared an existence of routine domesticity. Usually, the rejected potential partner goes on to have a thoroughly exceptional, interesting and outstanding life, thereby demonstrating that the story of mundane suburban purgatory was largely a fiction that existed only in the mind of the rejecter, irrespective of reality. It’s tragic, but it happens.

Some would-be artists adopt the airs, manners and behaviours of genuine, unique, individual artists, because they need to inhabit that persona and be seen to be anything but boring and ordinary. Unfortunately, their artistic output is often unremarkable and inauthentic, because they’re only play acting. It’s a protective cloak to protect them from being perceived as average. Unfortunately, this cloak is rather insubstantial.

Most creative work, after the initial brilliant and inspiring idea flashes into your consciousness, is in fact dull, repetitive, boring, frustrating, uninspiring, routine and insanely risky. Anybody pretending to be an artist just wont put in the hard work to become genuinely outstanding. There will be no joy, flow or immersive fulfilment in trying to bridge the efforts, skills and quality gaps that separate what they imagine they want to create and what they actually can create.

Controversially, some people go to the lengths of self-identifying as something less conventional, sexually – not because they’re made that way, but rather as a contrived statement of how different and complex they are (or wish they truly were). These people invariably go on to have exceptionally conventional relationships. The pretence, again, was all a game, but one that is demeaning and insulting to those who are genuinely LBGTQ.

I don’t fully comprehend the mindset. If you don’t want to be seen as boring and ordinary, the only route out is to do the hard, persistent work to create interesting and extraordinary works. You become an interesting and extraordinary person by what you make. If all you make is a thin persona pretending to be interesting and extraordinary, you’ll get found out. This is one case where Imposter Syndrome has being an actual imposter as its root cause.

Why do people even worry about being seen as not boring and not ordinary? Where does the sense of entitlement come from? If you have curiosity and the courage to explore and take risks, then that’s a way of being that’s independent of the judgement of others. You don’t need anybody’s approval, permission or admiration. The joy and fulfilment is in honouring and investing in your interests, passions and inclinations.

I’ve met people that wanted to be famous rock stars, but who were unwilling to learn how to play or sing, compose music or discover how to use music production technology. They wanted to take a short cut. In truth, it wasn’t the artistry they were interested in; it was the unalloyed adulation. It never occurred to them that there had to be something outstanding about them and their music worthy of that acclaim.

As a music producer, there is an endless line of wannabe rock stars that pass through your recording studio; all wanting you to push the magic buttons that instantly convert their amateurish performances into chart-topping gold. There are no magic buttons. You have to learn how to craft a song, give a great performance and deliver authentic emotions. No plugin can do that for you.

There are large groups of people that have all the gear, but no idea. They think they can spend their way to greatness. If they buy the same gear as their artistic heroes, the theory goes, then they will be endowed with the talent, skills and insights of those they wish to emulate. It’s a trap, though. The closer to emulating your heroes you get, the less individual you appear. Ultimately, exact copies of other artists are textbook boring and uninteresting.

This is why nobody knows the names of the individual members of tribute bands. Everybody can name each of The Beatles, but nobody knows the names of the members of The Bootleg Beatles. It doesn’t even matter if the musicians concerned are technically better players. They’re anonymous.

For all their railing and posturing against being seen as boring and ordinary, most of these pretenders are, at the core of their being, fearful, hollow and disappointed people, both unable to come to terms with their essential boringness and ordinariness, yet unable or unwilling to do what it takes to be interesting, engaging, attractive and accomplished.

There is frequently an internal, unresolvable tension between wanting safety, predictability, certainty, security and a life free from stressful challenges, versus wanting to benefit from taking risks they don’t want to take, improvising and reacting to situations as they unfold that don’t conform to their imaginary life-script and the anxiety that accompanies not knowing how things will turn out, when they want guarantees of happy endings. This is how opportunities are missed.

I suppose at some level we all want our existence and contribution recognised. Nobody wants to live a meaningless life that leaves an obscure, insignificant legacy. We want our struggles to have been worthwhile. If that’s the case, your best and only hope is to find your own unique voice as soon as you can, through sheer hard graft.

The path is boring and ordinary and there is no short cut.

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The Ideas That Excite You

There are some ideas that fully capture your imagination and enrapture you. They pique your interest and stimulate your curiosity. In short, they excite you. Not everybody responds to the ideas that grab you the same way you do, so the ideas that captivate you are worth noting. They reveal important things about your essence, as a human being.

The ideas that excite you tell you about your true, authentic self. You can put your trust in them. They expose your most fervent interests and desires. These ideas are like a mirror, reflecting your private, inner life. When you feel lost, or don’t know what you want to do with your life, the ideas that excite you can act like a guiding beacon. Your reaction to them shows you what you passionately care about. Putting more of that into your life is invariably a good thing to do. Follow the ideas that affect you most positively.

The ideas that excite you are the ones worth pursuing. “Good” is a remarkably subjective concept, so these ideas at least meet your personal idea of what good means, even if you aren’t aware enough of how you, uniquely, define it, to articulate it. You can be sure that if the idea excites you, then at a very deep and unconscious level, you feel it’s a good idea, almost by definition. In a world full of choices and uncertainty, this is an anchor you can hold onto.

The ideas that excite you are the easiest to persist with and work on. They remain exciting and motivating even when the going gets tough. Sometimes, they’re so exciting, working on them doesn’t feel like work at all. Sticking with a direction and pursuing it, without deviation or discouragement, takes tremendous resilience, but you can ease the load by only pursuing a direction that makes your eyes twinkle. Life is hard enough, so dedicating yourself to ideas that enliven and enrich you lessens the burden. This is simple conservation of mental energy.

The ideas that excite you allow you to revisit your childhood passions, without embarrassment or self-consciousness. They allow you to recreate those carefree, lost moments from your youth, perhaps now only dimly recalled, so they have the power to rejuvenate you. There’s an nnocence and joy in that. Renewed enthusiasms feel like beginning again from where you left off, rather than starting from square one. It takes away some of the fear of failure. You know a little about this already and can proceed like you know what you’re doing, rather than feeling completely clueless.

The ideas that excite you tend to be infectious and, so, enable you to enlist help more easily. People trust in people enthused by their own exciting projects. It’s much easier to convince others to join you, when you obviously look like you’re having fun. These ideas that excite you might not excite anybody else, directly, but everybody is excited by an excited, exciting person. That’s just how excitement works. It’s multiplicative.

The ideas that excite you are generative. No idea that is exciting to you is a failure, if you remember to keep asking, “what else is this idea good for?” Add to the exciting idea by appending it with an improvisational, “Yes, and…” Every idea can spark another. You can even remix, repurpose, reimagine or strip it for parts and use the components of the idea in something else. Some other exciting idea may come of it. It’s bound to.

The ideas that excite you aren’t crazy, really; no matter what anybody else thinks.

Which ideas excite you most?

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