Minimum Versus Optimum

It happened this morning while we were eating cheese.

It was a particularly good cheese – an extra-matured Red Leicester that my wife had bought on a whim, just to see if it was any good. For those of you that might not know, the quality of store-bought Red Leicester spans a spectrum of experiences, ranging from a dry-tasting, corporate, nondescript, bland substance most resembling plastic (i.e. purely functional cheese) to an exquisite, flavoursome, smooth and delectable taste explosion that lingers with a pleasing after-taste and makes you feel good inside.

It made us start thinking about and discussing why two superficially similar cheeses, costing approximately the same amount, in the wider scheme of things, should result in such different cheese savouring experiences. What could explain that range of quality, when the processes involved in making the two kinds were presumably quite similar?

Good cheese takes time and care to mature into a tasty, smooth sensation. You have to be meticulous about your choice of ingredients and the condition of your cheese making facility. How and where your cheese ripens also matters. Factory-produced cheese, in contrast, pushes the process for advantage to the maker, cutting corners and time, to get lots of product into the shops faster (to make more money), but the taste and texture inevitably suffer.

The cheese maker has a choice to make – do they do just enough to make a product called Red Leicester cheese, or do they care more than that, to produce something truly worthy of the name? Are they interested in giving the consumer something of value, or do they simply want to extract money from their pockets in the least expensive way for the cheese maker possible?

We see this dilemma between minimisation and optimisation in every field of human endeavour, particularly in the making of art. As a provider, should you exclusively focus on what you can take from the transaction, leaving the other party only just satisfied, or should you strive to see how much love you can give, to create a perfected, not excessive, experience.

It’s the choice between the least you can do versus the best you can do.

The difference between providing the minimum acceptable, versus unsatisfactory, is very slender. If you choose to only just satisfy your client, you’ve built yourself a relationship tightrope to walk. Any slight deviation from “good enough” equates immediately to “not good enough”. Providing the optimum, on the other hand, means you’ve been generous and caring enough to earn yourself the benefit of the doubt, if things go wrong. In any case, you gave as good as it was possible to give, without overdoing it. Who could possibly complain or condemn you for giving your best?

In software product development, at present, the in-vogue goal seems to be to identify and ship what is called the “Minimum Viable Product”, or MVP. Some people in the product development community objected to that assertion and said that the goal, instead, should be to ship the “Minimum Lovable Product”, or MLP, but I think they’re splitting hairs. The minimum viable product or minimum lovable product both sound like what you can get away with, to me. Optimum viable products (OVP) and optimum lovable products (OLP) are stronger and more robust statements of intention and quality. These, I contend, are more likely to be successful products.

Similarly, do you want a lean product, or one with a bit of muscle and a healthy glow? We could stretch the clichéd metaphors until the cows come home, but the point I want to make is this: providing the best you can is always better than providing the least you can get away with. So what, if it costs a little more, when the product is so much better value for the money?

Do you minimise or optimise, when you make your art? Are you consciously attempting to do your best, or just enough to make it saleable? If you’re like most artists, you lean toward doing your best work, because doing so gives you the most satisfaction. Art can be very long-lived (it can outlive the artist), so do you want your artistic reputation to be forever tainted by having not tried hard enough, or enhanced because the work you produced was of undoubtedly high quality?

High quality art doesn’t imply a particular style. It doesn’t mean unwarranted detail, the perfect reproduction of every hair and freckle on a portrait, or music played so meticulously, that all the life has been bludgeoned out of it. Optimisation is something more translucent and evanescent than that. It’s almost indefinable, in formal terms, yet almost everybody recognises it when they see it. “Best” is a very hard word to define precisely.

As a person that makes things for others, do you care briefly and then forget all about the work and its audience as soon as you can, or do you do your work with lasting commitment to the quality of the audience’s experience of your work and to learning ever-improving technique? In short, do you make the analogue of functional cheese, or exquisite cheese?

Artists and makers – you get to choose how you want to conduct and present yourself. You can opt to be short-termist and greedy, unconcerned about your impact on others or you can consider the long term and create with generosity and care. Algorithms cannot and never will give a damn. If your company is placing all its customer experience bets on big data analysis algorithms, guess which kind of organisation you belong to. It’s better to take time and to care about what you do and make.

Optimum is always better than minimum. It’s axiomatic.

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On Self-Determination

Being in command of your own destiny is a funny thing. Too little and you have no freedom or liberty. Too much and you harm yourself and the community around you. There is a delicate balance to be struck between the two extremes.

There are (at least) two ways to learn anything. You can opt for being spoon-fed your information, by didactic pedagogues, learning everything by rote, or you can leverage your intrinsic motivation to learn by following your own curiosity, learning to learn, as well as applying your learning skills to the investigation at hand. This latter style of learning goes by a term I only recently learnt myself – heutagogy. In truth, people probably learn best by blending some aspects of each of these approaches. Sticking doggedly to one or the other may, in fact, be the hardest way possible to learn.

Most painters pour scorn on those that paint by numbers. If that’s all you do, as a painter, it’s extremely limiting and eventually, you’ll learn nothing new and consequently stagnate, never improving at all. However, as a starting point, painting by numbers may have a lot to recommend it. You learn to see the shadows and outlines, where to place colours, how to handle the paint and brushes and if you’re adventurous, how to blend one colour region into another. These are all useful foundational skills to master, without initially having to worry about draughtsmanship, perspective, paint mixing and the thousands of other techniques that should eventually serve you, as a painter. It’s a great way of starting somewhere, as is the Bob Ross technique.

Still, most painters would tend to lean toward reaching into the depths of their souls and painting something that isn’t there yet, on the blank canvas. Even then, do you paint representationally or abstractly? Which option permits more freedom and artistic authenticity? Can you work within the guidelines of a stricter technique and still express your own personality and style, in a self-determined way? As with all questions of self-determination, there isn’t only one right answer, despite what some autodidacts might insist.

As a musician, you could choose to play exclusively from sheet music of other people’s compositions, or specialise in remixing, like DJs do, but others will lean toward creating their own compositions, or improvising in a live, musical conversation. Which way allows you more degrees of freedom; to play from your heart in order to say something meaningful to an audience, through your musical rendition? Opinion is divided. Do songwriters exercise more command over their destinies than concert pianists? It’s hard to say. We need them both.

I have writing friends that insist the only way to write is to outline meticulously and to edit and revise three, four or more times, before their manuscript is complete and ready for publication. Others (like me) strive to make their first drafts as close to publication quality as possible, with minimal rewriting necessary and with a structure clearly in mind, but not explicitly outlined. Different disciplines. They put quality at different stages in the production process. Concision and clarity can either be something you actively pursue, as part of your natural writing style, or else you can achieve it by refining loosely constructed prose in successive iterations. Which way is the more self-determined? Do you follow a writing formula, adhering compliantly to its rules, or do you trail-blaze your own unique writing style. Shakespeare introduced multiple neologisms – words that had never before existed in written works. Do you?

A frequent complaint I witness in social media is that women cannot find decent partners (men). If you allow them to elaborate, they say they want the stability, protective safety, security and social status that comes with a partner that has a steady job, earning a substantial regular income, yet they simultaneously expect to find somebody exciting, creative, intuitive, spontaneous, free-spirited, interesting, daring, unpredictable and open to risk, when it comes to career pursuits. They appear to be completely oblivious to the blatant contradiction in their requirements; simply not realising that the non-existent overlap in their Venn diagram means they prejudicially exclude practically everybody. Self-determination comes with the sacrifice of certainty.

In everyday life, we don’t expect the government to tell you when to brush your teeth, which brand of toothpaste to buy and when and what to eat. We expect to enjoy a modicum of self-determination in the everyday choices of living, not live a regimented, fully directed existence. Dull, indeed, would be the soul that consulted a government web site to choose one’s daily attire, yet those suit-wearing City folk have all but done that, haven’t they? They have their designated uniform.

Artists, in general, prefer less governance over their work than most other working people. Thankfully, most references to “degenerate” artists have faded into history, though the term is enjoying a disturbing and recent “revival” on 4chan. I cannot imagine what being an artist in the Soviet Union, under Stalin’s reign of terror, must have been like. Every brush stroke was subject to censorship and official approval. Free-spirits were very quickly crushed and innovation driven out of the artistic world completely. Still, it provided a living for a bunch of bureaucrats only too gleeful to wield disproportionate power over artists that could create what they could never imagine themselves being capable of producing. I guess to them, it was a perverse form of self-determination. They could make up their own arbitrary rules and enforce them on hapless artists, who had little choice but to comply, or die.

Silicon Valley maintains the consequences of what they’ve moved fast and broken are not their problem. They Imagine they’re creatively self-determining, taking control of the situation by sheer force of their will, but they’re not accepting their responsibilities. Who will be expected to mend all the potholed highways, so that self-driving cars can enrich their inventors? Their belief in their supreme isolation has consequences for the society around them, which they pointedly refuse to acknowledge. They think they’re engaged in extreme exercises in self-determination, but in the process, they are preventing other people from determining their own fates and lives. They’re barging in on other people’s concerns, for profit. Often, they cause a net loss of autonomy for the population as a whole. Our choices are limited to what they choose to provide.

On social media, they tell us that our time lines are our own; personalised to our tastes and wishes, but that isn’t true. What they fill your time line and mine with are ads you didn’t want to see and news items that pander to, rather than challenge, your prejudices. There is very little content in that publication that you would have actively asked to see. We don’t have very much self-determination at all, because control over what we see is not given to us. It’s sold to advertisers.

Anarchy, a system of self-determination that does away with rulers, imposes personal responsibility on each member of society, to get things done. There is no shirking. Under civic self-determination, unless we organise collaboratively to run the railways, there won’t be an “authority” to keep them running on time for us. Instead, though we take the lazy option of installing politicians, mystical supreme leaders, party politics and elections, so that we can pretend the pressing issues of our lives are somebody else’s problem. It’s a basic mass delusion. We think we don’t have to worry about environmental destruction, climate change, corruption, crime, the upkeep of decent social services, education and a myriad other necessities, because every few years, we vote and we pay our taxes. The rest happens by remote control, without us troubling our heads with any of it. Except the truth is, it doesn’t.

Here’s my proof that people actively opt against self-determination: those that complain about there being too much politics on Facebook and Twitter. These people point-blank refuse to engage in debate on subject matter that has serious impact and significance in their lives. They don’t even know how to debates the issues, so that actionable outcomes are reached by consensus. Instead, each “political” discussion turns into a war zone, with all sides fighting from entrenched positions, throwing insults at each other, defending their particular sacred cows to the death, until, by attrition, only one person remains standing, whereupon they declare themselves the victor. It’s a ridiculous way to consider the inevitable, weighty matters of life. Ignoring them entirely instead, leaving important questions unresolved or delegating them to a cadre of self-serving crooks and liars, who do as they wish, is perhaps the very worst response.

Community building takes diligent work, but we’ve almost lost the art, due to a toxic, Ayn Randian fantasy we appear to have swallowed uncritically and wholesale. We’ve come to believe in hyper self-determination, where it’s every man for himself, in dog-eat-dog competition that only the “strong” can survive, where each human accomplishment is nonsensically attributed to the grit and determination of sole individuals. It’s not only completely unrealistic to believe in such a fairy story; it’s also a philosophy of living which takes a huge, lonely, emotional and psychological toll on everybody that participates in it, whether willingly or not.

A popular pass time at the moment, Mindfulness, also has a dark side. While being a useful antidote to the insane anxieties associated with living in the current world, Mindfulness also kicks planning a desirable future and learning from the past into the long grass of being somebody else’s problem and responsibility. If you focus exclusively on the now, somebody else has to learn the lessons of history. Other people will be left to construct the future, according to their own plan and agenda. Like voting and paying taxes, it’s an opt out. You leave the big questions to other people to deal with, so that you don’t have to.

Humanity doesn’t appear willing or ready to shoulder the burden of personal responsibility that self-governance and self-determination imposes. We’d rather be passively governed, so that we can comfort ourselves that it’s all somebody else’s fault. As we watch the last dying embers of the living world extinguish themselves, we can take cold solace in knowing it wasn’t our doing. Except, it most assuredly was.

We’re good at self-determination in art and in learning, in the main. We know how do this. There are significant achievements made possible only because of our collective agency, applied collaboratively. Self-determination is a familiar skill. It’s not beyond our capabilities. We have the power. We don’t have to wait for our delegates to do the right things. We don’t have to witness people dying needlessly in hospitals, because our elected leaders refuse to spend our taxes wisely. We don’t have to tolerate racist leaders, or corrupt officials. You can simply act, as a population, in their stead. Fire them!

Our greatest creative potential is in the society we create and leave as legacy to future generations, yet we cry out like helpless babies to be governed by flawed, corrupted, mystical, self-interested leaders; to devolve doing the hard work to anybody else but ourselves. The result is, though, that nobody does the hard work and so the world crumbles to hell, while we bitch about plastic packaging.

Our determination to create the conditions for balanced self-determination (not too little or too much) is what will matter most. We need to look to ourselves first.

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Uncontaminated Creative Time

The productivity experts tell you it’s easy. We all have twenty four hours in a day, so finding creative time is just a matter of priorities. If you want to find the time to be creative badly enough, you’ll find it. You’ll simply not do something else. Job done.

Not so fast, productivity experts. Every artist knows there is more to it than that. Finding the time is part of the battle but the other part is about the quality of that creative time. It has to be uncontaminated time, or you get very little creative work done.

What do I mean by “uncontaminated”? It means time to create, unencumbered by worries or distractions, so that you can immerse yourself fully in the flow of your creative process. Uh-oh! Suddenly, that seems a whole lot harder to achieve than simply blocking out hours in your diary. How the heck do you eliminate worries and distractions?

The virtuoso rock guitarist, Joe Satriani, shared some observations from his own experience as a creative artist. He indicated that family love is very important to him, as an artist and human being. To quote:

“I hate to admit it, but artists need support. Musicians need managers and lawyers and accountants and techs around them, but the creative part, the soulful part, really needs a loving, supportive family structure, and also one that is intellectually and artistically challenging. Not for a second do I take for granted how much support, love, and help I get from everybody that’s part of my inner circle.”

Sometimes, the stresses and strains that inevitably accompany any life can be grist for the creative mill. Joe Satriani again (emphasis is mine):

“During points of incredible stress, creativity also comes through and does something. You go through a life tragedy and you write a piece of music that represents it. But besides a couple of songs that came out of some horrible moments, most of my best work came from when I was free to forget about all that stuff and just work on creativity.”

That’s a very important insight. Having a clear head, free from everything else, so that you can focus and work on creativity, leads to producing your best work. If you can’t decontaminate your creative time, you’re probably not going to produce your best stuff, by corollary.

Joe goes on to say:

“If we move that microscope even closer: Imagine you’re at a studio session, and you’re not happy with your guitar sound, and the producer is telling you to hurry up—versus the engineer or the producer telling everyone to leave the room so the artist can play around for a few hours until he finds the sound that makes him happy. So, when you’re in that situation where, as guitar players are, you’re just endlessly searching for that right tone, that right effect, or the right guitar, it’s great when the people around you give you that space and time to find that tone, before forcing you to start performing.”

Joe Satriani has produced something like fifteen studio albums and sold tens of millions of records. Finding the sublime works in his own creative capacities requires that he surround himself with people that make the space and time for him to pursue his curiosity. He needs the ability to, through playful experimentation, give voice to his inner creative vision. The sound he makes has to resemble the sound he imagines in his head, or he won’t be able to perform with the same command over the work he is bringing forth into the world. His authority derives from his comfort with the match between what he wants to produce and what he is physically able to reproduce.

In Joe’s own summation (with my emphasis):

“The take-away is: Don’t even think about it. Just concentrate on the music, being prepared, physically and emotionally, for the project, and then that part of you that’s the professional musician takes over. That’s the part that deals with scheduling, and the wrong gear, and having to change studios, or personal issues. Those things are always going to happen and you’ll never work out a formula for it.”

This is a very clear observation that magic can only happen, in your creative endeavours, when you can free your mind of everything else. To do that requires that there are people around you, who love you enough and believe in your creative work sufficiently, to selflessly take away some of that load. Behind every great artist is a significant person in their lives that takes on all the distracting details. This is somebody genuinely interested in what you are trying to create; a cheerleader, and concierge, if you like.

Clearly, as an artist you cannot simply expect somebody else to selflessly give up their own creative endeavours to support yours. It’s give and take. However, if you can surround yourself with people that support you in decontaminating your creative time, who you can mutually support by decontaminating their creative time in return, you might be onto something.

There are other ways of finding uncontaminated creative time. There are moments in the day where you can relax and cannot be interrupted (unless you allow yourself to be). One example is the thinking time you can carve out on the train (provided it’s not too crowded and rowdy). I find the quietest carriages at non peak times, when possible. This allows me to be alone with my creative thoughts, which I capture in Evernote, on my phone. It’s not “doing” time, it’s “planning” time. Planning makes the doing flow more easily.

The other place I find particularly productive, from the point of view of uncontaminated creative time, is in a hot bath. In this relaxed, private space and time, your mind is free to focus on creative planning. You can’t make anything, but you can think things through. The problem is that the ideas come thick and fast and you find yourself rushing to get out of the bath to write things down.

It’s worth being aware of the “inspiration paradox” – the idea that “innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms”. Science has discovered that we are most creative in the middle of the afternoon, when we are least able to focus on analytical tasks and co-incidentally less inhibited in our thoughts. We can more easily make surprising connections and join disparate thoughts together, when we’re more unfocused. If you’re going to daydream some new creative work into existence, a drowsy afternoon is often best. This is not because you are at your peak of productive efficiency, but because you’re too fatigued to do that stuff. Awake dreams have their place.

At those looser moments, a few distractions can actually help us spot connections we might have missed when our filters were tighter. For analytic problems, lack of inhibitory control is a bug. For insight problems, it’s a feature. Being able to let our thoughts drift, or for distractions to take us down new paths of curiosity, lets us synthesise new things in our minds. Making them real is quite possibly very much less demanding, when we have a clear vision of them in our heads.

“I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” – Henry David Thoreau

Decontaminating your creative time means achieving clarity of purpose and vision, while ignoring the trivialities that constantly try to invade our consciousness. Those you love most can help you best. It also means planning ahead, when you’re more open to the process, so that any creative time you can carve out is used to make, rather than conceive of, the work. Pre-imagined creative works are easier to realise, if your creative time is limited and contaminated by distractions. Find the clean time wherever you can.

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There is a very beautiful word that isn’t much used, in the English language. The word is confelicity.

If you’re like me, you wouldn’t have encountered it much either. It’s so rare that my spelling checker is complaining about it, as I write this post. Confelicity is delight in someone else’s happiness. It’s the very antithesis of a word borrowed from German, which you are more likely to have come across: Schadenfreude – happiness at someone else’s misfortune. Confelicity is the opposite of Schadenfreude.

I think it says something deep about our society that we’re more likely to have encountered (or even used) a word that means taking pleasure at somebody else’s misery than we are to have played with a word that engenders good feelings because something fortunate happened for somebody else. It speaks to a morbid egocentricity, doesn’t it? Why should we be more familiar with laughing while others are hurting, than smiling when things are going well for our friends? In reality, the world would be a nicer place if we had more capacity for confelicity, wouldn’t it?

Confelicity is a surprisingly powerful concept. Indulge me a little, if you will. In art, the ability to create works that give other people an emotional lift, or some other pleasurable feeling, is almost the entire purpose of art itself. Making a piece of music that others will dance to, or forever associate with key moments in their lives, is a remarkable feeling. It permits the artist to experience confelicity many times over, for a single work. It’s multiplicative. The same applies for painters, poets, sculptors, writers, you name it. Taking pleasure in making other people happy is often the sole reason an artist does what they do. It gives their work meaning and purpose.

Imagine if art criticism concentrated more on confelicity. Let’s say art criticism was geared toward recognising the confelicity in a work, or was written so as to cause happiness in both the artist and their audience, rather than tearing down the artist and their work, leaving them in shreds and bleeding, for the heinous crime of having tried to enrich and uplift the lives of other people. Much art criticism reduces to sheer bratty ingratitude, if considered through the lens of confelicity. It’s largely toxic and relies more on Schadenfreude. In that sense, it’s wholly destructive.

We seem to have a deficit of confelicity in the world, today. People generally don’t feel happiness at other people’s good fortune. In fact, they’re more likely to thoroughly resent it. How miserable and selfish can you get? But, it is undeniably endemic.

Think about how large multinational corporations are approaching their use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation. The ethos is to use these technologies against humanity, to reduce our well-being, in a tug of war for our souls, which they aim to monetise, so that they can maximise their profits. Where is their pleasure in making customers happy, in all of this? Given their public stances of putting the customer first, why do they not maximise their customers’ happiness and derive a sense of confelicity from doing so? It’s as if they are marketing in bad faith.

Does your government derive satisfaction from helping the people they govern thrive, or is their tendency instead to be punitive, prying, restrictive, cracking down and exposing people to austerity, so that ordinary lives are impoverished and miserable? What is their aim? Is it in any way confelicitous, or are they merely feathering their own nests by doing the bidding of a few billionaires, themselves wholly unconcerned with confelicitous feelings about humanity. Can you see how the attainment of confelicity could be a transformative goal, in business and public life?

There’s an old addage that it’s better to give than to receive. This phrase encapsulates confelicity (though it can be cynically interpreted to mean “do unto others before they do unto you”). In love and sexual relationships, there is very much more pleasure to be derived from making sure your partner is experiencing bliss than from your own feelings of sexual satisfaction. When both partners are taking care to derive happiness from their partner’s pleasure, the relationship is enhanced and strengthened. Confelicity is an aphrodisiac. It’s a turn on.

The world could change radically, if people spent more time seeking confelicity. It is a powerful antidote to envy and covetousness. Jealousy is dissipated. Imagine how the complexion of social media would change, if people had the aim of increasing feelings of confelicity. There would be fewer trolls, less rudeness, less offensiveness and fewer people deriving perverse pleasure from upsetting other people. Posting to increase confelicity, rather than for the nasty LOLs, would mean social media could become a more diverse, inclusive, safe place. Social media companies ought to take note, because at present, they are flirting dangerously with catastrophic context collapse and mass desertion. Nobody wants to be manipulated via their dopamine receptors, making people feel sad, lonely and unloved. Confelicity ought to be at the top of social media’s corporate key performance indicators.

When you come to think about it, how can you be an abuser or a predator, if you are practising the maximisation of feelings of confelicity? You can’t. It’s utterly impossible to be ruthless, pitiless and merciless, if you learn to regularly take pleasure in other people’s good fortune. Confelicity is, in essence, a manifestation of generosity of mind and spirit, yet it costs you practically nothing. Our current economic system, in contrast, has trained us, from cradle to grave, to pay no regard whatsoever to other people’s concerns or misfortunes, to crush rather than uplift and to regard any and all investments in other people, even through being pleased at their successes, as unbearable cost burdens. Our current economic system is brutal and nasty and denies that confelicity exists at all. Perhaps that’s one reason the word is so rarely used.

Imagine how confelicity moderates busy-bodies, who want to insinuate themselves into how you live your life (or how you create art). The straighteners, correctors and regulators of things that are none of their business at all fall away, if they adopt an attitude of choosing to cultivate confelicity. Less interference and meddling, through more delight at your happiness. How can you be censorious of anybody’s choices, if they make them happy?

The native Americans spoke of a malevolent spirit that infests minds, which they called “wetiko”. This, they held, lead to the destruction of everything, because of its selfish, greedy, insatiable behaviour; cannibalising every other living thing, in the service of having more. This is the mind virus that has become virulent in modern Western societies. Confelicity, of course, is an effective antidote, or moderator, of this spirit of the mind, which egocentrically is prepared to destroy a world it wants all to itself.

Confelicity encourages investing in each other, rather than cannibalising them and the living world. Wetiko-infected people asset strip the whole world, like a giant close out sale. Confelicity, in contrast, ensures that everybody has what they need, without destroying the abundance from which those needs are met.

Here is an excellent essay on wetiko:

In short, confelicity is the ultimate in non-toxic positivity. It’s a way of making yourself happy by ensuring that other people are happy first. Consequently, it’s a very nice way to live, encompassing gratitude and social support. What’s not to like?

Try it.

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Lost Mozarts, Lost Picassos, Lost Teslas

There’s an old joke in which a man inherits a dusty old violin and an aged oil painting from a dearly departed distant relative. Disinterested in these objects for their intrinsic or nostalgic value, he decides to get them appraised by a reputable auction house, with a view to monetising his windfall. The appraiser delivers his evaluation thus: “Sir, what you have here is a very rare Stradivarius and a little-known Rembrandt.” Suddenly enlivened at the prospect of raising an unspeakable return at auction, he timidly asks the appraiser, a renown expert in these matters, what he thinks they might be worth. “Unfortunately,” he responds with deepest regret, “Stradivarius was a lousy painter and Rembrandt couldn’t make a violin to save himself.”

What this story highlights is that, were it not for happenstance, both of these acknowledged masters may have found themselves in occupations that didn’t bring forth their greatest talents. Rembrandt may have had to take a job maintaining web sites, to pay the rent. Stradivarius might have been forced to work as an actuary, leaving his instrument making to his spare time, as a hobby. If this had been their fate, the world would have never had Rembrandt’s fine paintings and Stradivarius’ remarkable instruments. Our culture would have been so much the poorer for it.

A recent article in the New York Times by David Leonhardt, reporting on Stanford University professor Raj Chetty’s work on equality of opportunity, entitled “Lost Einsteins”, outlined the cost to humanity of innovations that never blossomed, due to lack of trust in and support for their innovators. Either these inventors were from a minority group, or grew up in the wrong environment, or were women. In every case, nobody backed their genius and so their ideas, hugely beneficial to humanity, were stillborn. Often, the innovators think their chances of succeeding are so unlikely, they don’t even try to get backing. There is a vacuum of encouragement.

The loss may sound unfortunate, but inconsequential. However, ideas and innovations underpin improvements in humanity’s quality of life. They help us to thrive and enjoy better standards of living. In short, they improve our lot, in life. In the study, researchers concluded that if all the so-called lost Einsteins had been able to bring their inventions to fruition, there would be roughly four times the innovation we benefit from collectively today. Put another way, we are harvesting the benefits of only a quarter of the brilliant ideas and improvements we could be. That represents a tremendous waste of opportunity.

That got me thinking about what else we lose, as a culture, when musicians, artists and assorted visionaries have to ignore their vocation, in order to earn enough to survive in an economy that you must fight tooth and claw within, for your very existence. When the prevailing economic system makes no investment in you at all, but is instead set up to prey upon you, forcing you to earn and pay your way on your own, or die, what else gets killed in the process?

What is the value of the collateral damage? How much does misemployment and underemployment take away from us all, so that a privileged few may appear to win at the current economic game? Why do we pursue a system that, in net terms, impoverishes everybody, so that the inequality between the winners and losers can be accelerated?

This being the run up toward Christmas, it’s interesting to contemplate the message in Charles Dickens’ tale “A Christmas Carol”. In truth, we, as a society, behave like Scrooge, when it comes to backing human potential, especially if the lost Einstein, Mozart, Picasso or Nikola Tesla has the wrong coloured skin, lives in the wrong place, is female, comes from the wrong background, didn’t go to the right schools or otherwise hasn’t networked with and been accepted by the privileged. We woefully underinvest in people with great potential, if they don’t fit the arbitrary criteria. And they know it.

Our collective attitude to those with a spark of artistic or creative originality is one of jealousy and mistrust. We fear losses and begrudge their abilities and chances of success. We feel diminished by their presence and fiercely protective of what we have earned, to date, for fear of losing even a small part of it, in a dog-eat-dog system where failure to pay your way means you perish. Every attitude manifests a desire to elbow competitors aside, to secure a larger slice of the pie, rather than encouraging and supporting others to bake a pie four times as big as the one we so covetously guard. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Our miserly, penny-pinching approach to investing in clever, capable people denies us the opportunity to enjoy much better, enriched lives.

This Scroogely cast of mind is baked into the very fabric of capitalism, which will happily eat the geese that lay the golden eggs, if there’s a quick buck in it. It’s hard-wired into the axiomatic rules of the game. To change it will require proven ideas, like universal basic incomes, to become widespread. People will need to realise that fiercely and selfishly guarding your pile guarantees that your pile is much smaller than it could be, as is everybody else’s. For now, our behaviour is evidence of supreme collective stupidity.

Inequality of opportunity and outcomes is damned expensive and needlessly so.

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A Tin of Nuts and Bolts

When you were a child, I bet some of the things you liked to play with most weren’t even toys. I know it was true for me, as it probably was for lots of people. This fact is inconvenient for the makers of those plastic toys that they like to promote so aggressively to parents, around Christmas time, but it doesn’t make it any the less true. Children have a way of finding fascination and wonder in the most curious objects. There is no distinction, in their minds, between an interesting piece of discarded junk and a slickly marketed consumer fad. The one that captures their imagination most is always the winner.

I’m so old, that when you used to buy ice cream, to take home to your freezer, it was packaged in robust tins; tins like chocolate tins used to be, with a pressed lid that slid on and off snuggly. This was long before the ubiquity of moulded plastic containers and just before the less than satisfactory waxed cardboard experiments, which made the ice cream in direct contact with the wax taste slightly funny. Ice cream tins are long extinct now, of course. I found a picture of the exact half gallon tin I mean on the Internet.

Farmland tin

These tins had just enough thermal mass to keep the ice cream from returning fully to its liquid phase, during the ten minute or so car journey back home from the then brand new supermarkets that had begun to appear in my home town, on any blazingly hot Australian summer day. Tins were a practical solution, if perhaps expensive to produce and bulky to transport, to and from the ice cream factory. A full one, falling on your foot from the height of the refrigerator’s freezer compartment, could hurt you a lot, if the edge of the tin became the point of impact.

The wonderful thing about these tins is that they seldom went to waste. An empty ice cream tin could serve for literally decades as a receptacle for all kinds of interesting collections. My dad had an interesting collection. He habitually put stray nuts and bolts (or other miscellaneous fasteners) left over from construction projects, found on the ground while walking around, or from the disassembly of defunct household appliances, electric motors or rusting motor vehicles, into his empty ice cream tin. Over time, the tin became filled to the brim with the most diverse collection of discarded fasteners imaginable. Some were new, but most were used. There were all kinds.

One of my most memorable and very favourite childhood experiences was being allowed to sort through my father’s large tin of stray nuts and bolts. Usually, my dad wanted me to search for a suitable nut or bolt to fix something, or to do an impromptu stock-take, to see what we had. Eventually, though, it became my habit to spontaneously empty the tin out on the polished concrete garage floor, for something to do, just for the sheer fun of sifting through all of these weird and wonderful parts. Having done so, I would methodically put each piece back into the tin, until they were all back where they came from. There was fun to be had in simply handling and examining each different, strange article. Feeling their shape in my hands and looking at them from different angles was actually pleasurable.

I freely admit I found fascination and wonder at all the different kinds in the collection. As a child, I had no understanding of what you’re supposed to like or any real concept of money. I didn’t know or care if each part was outrageously expensive or crazily cheap. All I knew is that these were spare parts, unwanted for their original purpose, but possibly useful in some other context as yet to be encountered. It was cheap fun, based on the appreciation of the intrinsic qualities of these fine, precision-made fasteners.

I loved counting them. I enjoyed sorting them and separating them into different categories. There was special satisfaction in finding parts that mated. What stopped them from coming apart on their own, I wondered? Figuring out what function some strange item or other had was an intellectual challenge that made me wonder who had made the part in the first instance and for what intended purpose. Working out why each was designed thus and not otherwise was another source of endless speculation that exercised my mind. Day-dreaming about what you could make with them led to long, extended flights of imagination. It was interesting to me, trying to fathom how each was made, by what manufacturing process and why the materials used were chosen. Each one had its own history – it came from somewhere or was once a part of something larger. Half the fun was the imaginative speculation about each piece’s back story.

With this ridiculously simple tin of nuts and bolts, I could find hours of enjoyment, lost in the flow of examination and invention. I took delight in their utility and charm. Each piece had its own intrinsic beauty or had acquired an interesting patina, with age. It was impossible to be bored, with such an interesting collection to hand.

Looking back on my childhood with the benefit of adult hindsight, I’m sure there was an aspect of feeling like I was becoming a grown up, through getting to know grown up things. It was a “man tin”, after all. Being familiar with and knowledgeable of all of these objects from my father’s adult world was the gateway to some kind of maturity and credibility, as a developing male. It was a way to be like my dad and to gain his fatherly approval and acceptance. I’d get extra attention from him, if he felt he could teach me things he knew about. Playing childish games didn’t usually engage him as much. Messing with man things, though, like tools or these nuts and bolts, always made him smile indulgently and encouragingly. He wanted me to learn about this stuff. It would help me become self-sufficient and useful to society.

In later years, as a teenager starting to design and build my own projects, discovering just the right part to do the job, from otherwise discarded junk in the tin, was absolutely joyous. That always felt like sticking it to the man, to me. It was a form of rebellious self-determination. I was developing my agency and sense of authority, learning to stand on my own two feet, at the same time. It taught me to have the courage to show what I had made and stand behind my designs. Having the ingenuity to improvise and make something useful out of what were discarded parts always felt good – as if you had gotten something for free.

Consequently, the nail and screw aisle in the hardware store became one of the most interesting places on Earth. There were even more kinds of strange and useful objects available. Each one was shiny and fascinating. Time spent in this section of the store was always filled with curiosity and wonder. Even today, I get the same fascination and satisfaction with tools and tool catalogues. Every art or craft has its specialist tools. These collections of specialised accoutrements, good for little else other than their designated purpose, are sources of endless pleasure. I’m equally enthralled by and at home with the paraphernalia of electronics, luthiery (guitar building), painting, music technology and kitchen gadgets.

They say that materialism is a terrible character weakness, but I contend that if materialism is in the cause of becoming a better, more capable person, who is able to do more to help others, then it’s not such an evil and wicked thing. Learning and knowing are not purely intellectual exercises, divorced from physicality. You have to include your hands and your body in the process. Knowing how to use nuts, bolts and tools, and becoming proficient at applying them to solve problems is not a bad thing and certainly not something to feel ashamed about. Finesse and grace, in using these seemingly prosaic items, is to be admired, not condemned or dismissed.

My favourite indulgence is guitars and I confess I have a few. They all do different things, cause me to play in different ways and inspire different songs to be written. I don’t really know why, but they do. Each one has a character of its own, despite their superficial similarity. I’ve found that having lots of cheaper guitars can be a lot more fun than fewer more expensive ones. I’m not much impressed by their price tags. Price is a very unreliable indicator of value. I’d rather have an instrument that opens up creative possibilities that were previously closed to me, which inspires me in new ways, than pay through the nose for a beautiful piece of what is essentially musical furniture, destined to be a never-played, monumental, museum piece. Untouchable musical instruments are as good as dead.

I don’t understand minimalism. Where is the intellectual and imaginative stimulation in throwing away all the seemingly insignificant, small things that make up a collection of junk? Yes, it’s true that it might look like so much inconvenient clutter and have no appreciable utility, but that’s to miss the point of tins of nuts and bolts entirely. It isn’t only about what good they are as nominal objects. It’s their cultural significance and the thoughts they can give rise to. It’s about seeing how they can work in different contexts. Your intelligence gets a work out and your creativity is appropriately stimulated. If you see these small objects as a cognitive burden and clutter bothers you, rather than inspires you, I think you’re looking at them the wrong way. A barren workspace doesn’t thrill me at all, no matter how white you paint it. I need those little prompts to ideation and innovation around me. Each one nudges my thoughts in its own peculiar direction. They’re invention fuel.

The impressionist artist, Paul Cézanne, painted endless images of humble apples, in every orientation, arrangement, light and state of ripeness imaginable. Why did he do this, when he could have, as the heir of an established banking family, easily painted fine silver table objects, expensive china, jewellery or gold bullion? The suggestion was that he took great pleasure in prosaic objects, usually overlooked by everybody as nearly worthless. With his artist’s eye, he wanted to elevate the superlative apple to the status of something more significant to mankind. This, in his view, is where true beauty lies. I think he was onto something important.

That simple tin of nuts and bolts, from my childhood, taught me to have an appreciation of small but intense pleasures. You could do the same with feathers, or pebbles, or the vast array of different leaves or flowers, for instance. The infinite variety of possibilities is a way of experiencing genuine, existential richness and wealth. I encourage you to make a collection of similar items of your own, whatever they happen to be and to savour each item in your collection for it’s own subtle, intrinsic values. It will change you forever, as a person. I think it’s a change worth making.

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A Journey Without End

I’ve realised something profound (at least to me). My prevailing feeling, asleep or awake, is that I’m in constant transit, on the way to a destination I’m not quite sure of, trying to make my connections on time, without getting lost or missing a flight/ship/bus. I strain to hear the garbled public address announcements telling me where I need to be, to make my departure on time. I squint to read the partially obscured direction signs in the distance.

There are obstacles and frustrations. In my default state of mind, I encounter problems that force me to rethink my travel plans spontaneously, improvising a new solution on the hoof. It never seems possible to sit and think, to work it all out. I’m always in motion to somewhere, with the anxiety of maybe never getting there, but I have no idea where. I just seem to be travelling toward it with great purpose and determination.

Accompanying this feeling is the need to gather information rapidly, process it and act on it. I worry that if I miss a clue, I’ll never get to wherever it is I’m going. Luggage gets lost. Travelling companions disappear without explanation or notification. Should I wait for them, or carry on? Maybe they’ve found their own, better way of getting there and we’ll meet up again at the end of the journey.

When I’ve found myself on the metaphorical bus, or ferry, or have found my seat on the train or plane, I’m never sure I’m on the right one, which is going to where I need to go. There’s no one to ask. As the mode of transport wends its inexorable way, as I’m looking out of the windows, I’m struck by how lost I would be if I ever got off, completely unable to find my way back or to my desired destination.

I’ve described this feeling I have metaphorically, but it’s how I feel, almost all of the time, deep down in my psyche. There have been enough real occurrences in my life where I am travelling alone, to a place I’ve never been, in the dark, armed with too little information or context, on tight deadlines, that I understand how this feeling can be so vivid. I’ve travelled extensively for business where this was the case in reality. It’s also how many of our family holidays to foreign places feels to me.

In a wider sense, though, it’s also an apt summary of how my career has felt, how learning new things feels (I am an insatiable learner of new things) and how the responsibility of fatherhood impacts me. I’m lost, trying my best to get there, thinking on my feet, under pressure and anxious about not making it. The consequences for missing a clue or a connection seem drastic.

I don’t know if anybody else feels this way. For me, the journey, which many people enjoy, feels somewhat stressful to me. I feel obligated to work things out quickly, to develop competence I lack before it’s too late, to be self-sufficient and not to let anyone down. It feels like fighting for your very existence against the terror of being left behind forever.

While I love to learn, it always feels like I never learn enough, fast enough, to put it to a use that will take me significantly further forward toward I don’t know where. Every accomplishment evokes the question, “what next?” There isn’t time to savour where you have gotten to, so far, because you need to move on, before it’s too late.

I never seem to get there. I’m always on the way. Other people appear to have reached their destinations and are enjoying the sights, but I’m never there yet. I’m stuck on the never-ending journey. Life feels like a struggle to keep moving forward while it’s still possible. If I stop moving, everything will turn to catastrophe.

I don’t know what to make of all this. The feelings are recurrent and strong enough to compel me to write them down. I’m sure it has deep psychological meaning and would explain a lot about me, but I’ve no idea what to do about it or how to respond. Intellectually, I know I’m supposed to relax and let the scenery go by, as I’m moving toward somewhere I really want to go, but I don’t feel that peace of mind. I feel beleaguered.

Self-development isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would do it. Maybe they do (of course they do) and I simply don’t know how. What drives the fear of failure? Why do I think I have to be more informed, on the ball and in charge of where I am going? Why does the journey feel so chaotic and out of my control? Why can’t I just relax and let it take me wherever it will?

I have these questions, but no good answers.

How about you?

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