The People With All the Money Don’t Know How to Create Value

Being good at amassing wealth doesn’t in any way qualify a person to create value. In fact, creating value isn’t how they amass their wealth in the first place, usually. Even if it is, they only know how to hoard their gains, not reinvest them to create greater human well-being, or to enhance the living world. On the value creation scoreboard, they strike out.

Why would you spend small fortunes to set up tax avoidance schemes, when you could just pay your tax? The objections seem to be ideological, rather than logical.

It’s a failure of mindset. They lack a vision and an imaginative framework to describe what a better world looks like. In the absence of a guiding model, all they can do is hoard and indulge themselves in ludicrous levels of opulence.

If ever there was a case for methodical training in creativity, innovation and invention, this is it. The Paradise Papers reveal an entire stratum of humanity dedicated to the avoidance of hard work, sidestepping the discovery and unlocking of nature’s secrets and reneging on spreading the benefits benevolently.

It never was a meritocracy. Their claim to manage such extreme mountains of wealth was never earned through value creation. Nothing justifies their claims to superiority. They’re bankrupt of progressive ideas.

What these people lack are high quality thoughts, dedication, empathy and humanity. They built a system in which it was possible for them to capture their wealth through guile and sheer, bare-faced effrontery. Isn’t it time this edifice was torn down and the money redistributed to people with positive ideas about what to do with it in order to help all life thrive? 

The current claimants to the wealth have singularly failed to do so. How much longer can we afford to indulge their selfish indolence?

Fund creation and creativity. The returns are more purposeful.

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Out, Standing in the Field

I, like many people, have struggled to maintain hope, in recent times. There are many reasons to feel a loss of hope, as there are things going on in the world that seem to have only one possible end-point. It isn’t a good end-point, either. I find it’s hard to maintain a sense of optimism when the indications appear to be so bleak. Our collective mental model is that, in the face of existential threats, it’s considered tantamount to criminal, if not highly antisocial, to turn your mind to creating things, instead of worrying about extinction or irreversible ruination.

What I know for certain, however, is that our best hope is to maintain our creativity. If we’re going to solve anything, we had better be capable of imaginative thinking. The other kind has lead to the problems we face and hasn’t provided solutions. Tradition has failed us.

That got me thinking, as it often does, about why some people are resolutely not creative, even though they have the capacity to be so. What is it about our culture that makes creativity something that so many shun as a complete waste of time? Why is it considered frivolous and something to be consigned to hobby-time? Why aren’t we all as creative as we can be, within the limits of being a fallible human prone to exhaustion, all the time? I don’t see the down-side.

This morning, I read an essay (link at the bottom of this piece) that seemed to say that there is, in fact, very little downside and that we’ve made errors in how we think about learning. Furthermore, it argues against over-specialisation. We speak of sociopathy and psychopathy, but there is another disease of the mind that we overlook – monopathy – the intense focus and specialisation on just one thing, to the exclusion of all other considerations.

Monopathy is something that arises from extreme monomathy, which is our default ideal. We, as a society, seem to think that some people are born to be certain specialists, because they have a gift for it, so we believe that the smartest people are those that specialise the most. This is to completely misunderstand how we learn. Even if we show early promise in a field, we can lose our advantage simply through indolence and failing to develop beyond our initial abilities. Also, we are all able to learn to be accomplished in any field we choose, so long as we are prepared to put in the work and effort. 

There is a certain amount of dedication and devotion required to attain mastery, but you don’t have to exclude your interests in everything else. Indeed, it’s extremely unhealthy if you jettison all other intellectual, artistic and physical pursuits, simply to succeed at one thing. Interestingly, there is evidence that you can achieve higher levels of mastery in a single chosen field, if you also maintain multiple interests, in diverse fields of endeavour.

Polymathy is the antidote to monomathy. That’s quite a mouthful, but it’s true.

Here is a list of some reasons why it’s good to be a polymath:

1. Human beings are natural polymaths. We’re at our best when we turn our minds to many things. It’s how our curiosity works. I believe this is why boredom has survived natural selection, throughout aeons of evolution. Although we revere specialists, who doesn’t find the routine of doing even the most stimulating activities, repetitively and without relief, a complete bore eventually?

2. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater are your resources for improvisation. When you don’t have the necessary tools to hand and need to solve a problem, making the best of what you have requires that you know something about a lot of things. I’m always suspicious, in my working life, when programmers come and tell me that something that customers want to be done can’t be done. Usually, there is a competitor that has already done it, with some kind of programming, so what the programmer really means is that they don’t know how to do it, or how to do it within the constraints of the tools and technologies they already know. In other words, it points to a learning deficit. Had they known more, beyond their chosen specialisation, they wouldn’t tell you it was impossible, especially when experiment, in the real world, has already demonstrated the fallacy of their theory.

3. Narrow-minded people with one-track minds and expertise in a single area, but no other outside interests to speak of, often lack empathy and insight. They can’t see the wood for their own trees. They seem utterly incapable of seeing anything from a different perspective and frame of reference, other than their narrow specialty. Thus, to all economists, damage to the environment is incidental. To doctors, if it can’t be cured by the application of pharmacological compounds, it can’t be a real ailment, or else it cannot be cured. To law enforcement, drug abuse is a symptom of wickedness that can only be corrected through punishment, not a symptom of disconnectedness from humanity and despair, correctable by reconnecting them with people. Super-specialists do a lot of harm by using their specialist hammers, seeing every problem as a nail.

4. People who can’t see the absurdity of devoting their entire lives exclusively to a single speciality fail to see the absurdity in other areas of life too. Without humour, they have no insight into truth, in a wider sense. Being able to see absurdity is the motivation to change things for the better. Without this insight, you maintain the status quo, no matter how outrageously ridiculous it becomes. Polymaths, on the other hand, tend to have a better sense of proportion and balance. This is surely preferable to living with a permanent blind spot. Being able to laugh at folly makes bearing the stupidity bearable for long enough to fix it.

5. Super-specialists are boring people. Unless you can converse with them on their subject matter, which they know better than anybody else in the room, they can’t hold any conversation at all. So, your choice is to either listen to them pompously asserting their specialist knowledge in one narrow area, or having nothing in common with them to talk about. They dismiss their inability to converse on matters outside of their field as being disinterested in small talk, but try engaging them in matters you know a lot about and their ignorance will be readily revealed. It’s the very height of arrogance to label everything outside their chosen specialism as small talk and not worthy of discussion.

6. There is a bias, in society, that equates credibility with narrow specialisation. You must be a doctor of something or other for people to be prepared to listen to you. Some of the biggest cranks I’ve ever encountered had PhDs. Their unshakeable belief in the infallibility of all their pronouncements turns out to be risible, in practice. They know not what they know not. One of the most incisive analyses of disease due to pesticide exposure I’ve ever read was written by a software engineer. There are engineers that propose better economic theories than economists do. Artists often understand human psychology better than trained psychologists. Credible people have good ideas. Specialisation guarantees neither.

7. Over-specialisation may be efficient, in the economic sense and it is the engine of Capitalism, but it leads to mental mutilation. Extreme division of labour is mind-numbing. What could possibly debase a human being’s worth more than considering them to be a replaceable, interchangeable cog in a big machine? What, for that matter, dictates that efficiency is the highest good for humanity? Isn’t human thriving and well-being at least as important, if not far more? Why should we buy efficiency at such a terrible cost to humanity? What good is efficiency if it inflicts misery and boredom? What is its true value to us, if it kills curiosity and freedom of thought?

8. Because we are in thrall to economic efficiency, we’ve designed a world in which only the single-minded can thrive. We all doctor our CVs to pretend that we wanted nothing more, in life, than the tunnel-visioned pursuit of the career path we happen to be following at the moment. It’s a lie, of course. Behind every quantity surveyor is a youth that once wanted to be a rock star. Every surgeon hides a suppressed author. Every lawyer you engage had dreams of being somebody more creative. We wanted to dance and sing, or sculpt and paint, but we had to get a “real” job to make a living. So, we pretend that choice was the one we ultimately wanted most; so that we get on, fit in, get promoted and get paid. We spend our monomathic lives realising other people’s monopathic dreams.

9. If you ask people about their regrets, it’s often not about the bad things they’ve done, but the good things they’ve done for the wrong people. At least if you do a lot of good things, in a lot of fields, you minimise the risk of having your best offerings purloined by those that turn out to have been undeserving or unworthy of your efforts.

10. In the fifteenth century, there was no LinkedIn, so little social pressure to paint the impression of a one track career path. Polymaths were considered to be people that had learnt much. People aspired to be learned people. The perfected man was a manifold master of intellectual, artistic, physical and philosophical pursuits. Today, it’s hard to find people that think working with their hands is consonant with a high level of book learning. Those that pontificate rarely have the physical skills to do what they presume to tell others how to do. We’ve divorced theory from practice.

11. We can’t all be geniuses, but we can all be polymaths. You don’t have to be outstanding, to have a go. If you apply yourself to multiple fields and attain competency in all of them, if not mastery, you’re still more competent, in the round, than somebody that has attained mastery in one specialism, but has no ability or accomplishments whatsoever in anything else. I despair at physics professors that cannot assemble flat pack furniture, or correctly install a light bulb.

12. New ideas, discoveries, innovations and new art rarely come from narrow specialists. Mostly, they’re the result of cross-fertilisation of ideas from unrelated fields. The Macintosh computer had a lovely what-you-see-is-what-you-get display because Steve Jobs studied typography. Science thinks science progresses because it is clean, logical, rational, linear and unemotional, but the great discoveries came from a much messier origin than that. In fact, the most outstanding discoveries were pretty haphazard, owing their emergence to funding peculiarities, egos and inspired intuition. What could be less logical, rational or linear than seeing visions, or performing pure thought experiments in your imagination? Where are the measurements and lab instruments? Of course, those come later. Tesla envisioned poly-phase power transmission due to a hallucinatory image of the sun’s energy swirling around it. Einstein imagined what would happen in a train travelling at the speed of light.

13. Programmers struggle with product sense, because they are too interested in coding and not interested enough in solving problems for people. They can see what their code does, but have little connection with what users are trying to do with their code. Consequently, they happily produce horrible user experiences, on the grounds that their code is clean.

14. Everything is actually a remix. The cross fertilisation of ideas and fields gives rise to what we call originality. Artistic originality is, in fact, the result of applying our own taste to selecting aspects of different fields and putting them together in a new way. It’s combinatorial. We’re just producing new permutations. Even original art that seems to come out of nowhere has influences. The wider you draw your influences, the more novel the original art seems to be.

15. Invention works this way too. The ability to come up with new inventions requires knowing things outside your field. It’s a good thing to do. Reading outside your field, or making an attempt to become competent at a new field, extends the range of ideas you are exposed to. The further afield your knowledge extends, the greater your potential capacity for innovation. 

16. Something like 85% of corporate leaders say that innovation is crucial for their company to survive and grow, yet only about 5% of this same group say their company is good at innovation. What other business metric would be allowed to be so crucial, yet have the firm perform so badly against it, over the long term? It couldn’t happen with something like free cash flow, could it? I shake my head when they try to install a process for innovation which doesn’t allow people to follow their curiosity into whichever field it leads. They can’t see what tap dancing might have to do with running software in the cloud. Their own desire to maintain a monopathic company culture kills their ability to innovate.

17. Human nature and human progress are polymathic at root. Life itself is filled with variety; you need many skills to be able to live it. In traditional cultures, everyone can do a little of everything. Though one man might be the best hunter, archer or trapper, he doesn’t do only that. That would be a tremendous waste of human potential, yet this is precisely what our modern culture achieves, each and every day, on a massive scale. We have rampant underemployment because we try to fit every person into a pre-defined role, rather than allowing them to engage with whatever they are capable of doing.

18. Polymaths live with permanent imposter syndrome, because they are imposters. They didn’t get to be practitioners on merit. Nobody does. There is no meritocracy that elects the most suitable person for the specialisation to the position. Everybody gets to the top by sheer graft. Anybody that learns anything new spends their first moments struggling with it, like an amateur, until through continuous application and successive failure, they accomplish some kind of learning in it. Unlike monomaths, however, polymaths relish the discomfort and challenge. Monomaths want their feelings of being an imposter to go away for good. Polymaths know that they feel out of their depth because they are learning to swim.

19. We think we can only learn when we are young and that only naturals, with a gift for something, can succeed at it. This is a closed mindset. The opposite, the growth mindset, holds that you can learn all your life and that the more consistently you learn new things, the greater your capacity for cognitive health in old age. Right now, I am in the process of learning many new things. I feel this is the basis for reinvention. If you put the hours into any field that interests you, it’s possible to master it. Even casual attempts to learn new things can build competence in it.

20. The part of your brain that facilitates learning responds to a novel situation, shock or intense focus. If you do something new, scary or repetitive, you can build ability. That’s why exposing yourself to learning things you previously knew nothing about exercises your brain in a neurologically measurable way. Shocks, like getting fired or the death of a close family member, can stimulate periods of intense learning. Putting the hours into practising is a good way to become good at what you start out being very bad at. Continuous application of these stimuli is the key. If you don’t use your ability to learn, you definitely lose it, as the part of your brain involved eventually atrophies. They have the data to prove this.

21. Stepping up casual learning (say an hour a day, three days a week) to a more intensive course (five hours a day, five days a week, for example) changes your brain so that the gains are dramatic and permanent. If you work at it, you can get it. This means you have to become a little more monomathic, for a period, but you should apply this technique polymathically. Do this for a number of different pursuits, at different times, serially.

22. Monopathy, or over-specialisation, plays out in only one way, because your brain literally loses the ability to learn. Eventually, you retreat into defending what you have already learnt, because you become unable to make new neural connections. The acetylcholine in your nucleus basilis dries up. You get set in your ways. Consequently, you become defensive and territorial about your knowledge and attack people that challenge it. Ancient professors or programmers that cling to dead languages or obsolete product concepts spend their time trying to expel intruders into their hard-won area of expertise. Polymaths feel no such compulsion to defend their turf. Their identity is built on multiple mastery, not on their ability to remain dominant in their own particular, self-staked-out patch of the knowledge universe.

23. Studying the performing arts (music, dance, acting) has been shown to enhance one’s ability to learn anything else. Far from being worthless pass-times, they hold the key to unlocking our ability to learn. The performing arts provide high levels of motivation to focus and concentrate on improvement. These aspects of learning, once exercised, are directly applicable, when learning other things. You don’t lose the motivation to focus and concentrate on improving, even if you stop engaging in the performing arts.

24. I’ve personally observed that guitar players that get into playing the role of a guitar player, like an actor would, who learn to dance with their instrument and their audience, play better guitar than guitar players that don’t. This has to do with building confidence, but also with recognising that playing music is a fundamentally physical activity. The application of grace and poise to that activity yields better music.

25. We should teach polymathics, encouraging people to follow their curiosity, read widely, and to participate actively and physically. Teach that it’s desirable to derive a sense of identity from mastery of many fields. Combining artistic elements with the scientific and grounding those in manual craft skills will pay dividends. Taking the physicality, or aesthetics or repeatable evidence out of the equation leads to an impoverished result.

26. Thanks to neuroscience, we now know more about how learning takes place than ever before. There are teachable techniques for learning rapidly and many of these techniques are transferable from field to field. A focus on teaching creativity techniques could be very valuable, since creativity is all about crossing unrelated things to obtain some new hybrid. Polymathics isn’t training for innovation or invention alone, since it would also build better judgement and insight in all areas of our lives. What argument is there against teaching polymathics?

27. The solutions to the problems caused by monopaths are not going to come from monopaths. It’s the polymaths that are going to have to sort out the mess. Fortunately, they are uniquely well-equipped to do so.


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Art Predated Language

As a species, homo sapiens sang, fashioned crude tools and drew before we talked, wrote, did sums, or created designs. I’m lead to believe this is true. We were artists, in a very practical sense, long before we were anything else.

It was through art that we developed abstractions, hence grammar, hence higher consciousness. 

Had it not been for our pictorial representations of animals, our hands and the stuff of life, applied to the walls of caves, we’d have never had the intellectual organisation to represent thoughts as utterances, which others code decode and respond to. It was through sharing meaning pictorially that we gradually developed the ability to convey ideas of significance to others, in richer, more elaborate ways.

The ability to express thought, in an understandable way, leads to the ability to have thoughts that simply weren’t thinkable, in the absence of an organising grammar. Organising thought, in order to communicate it, leads to new thoughts, insights and categorisations. Humanity is so remarkable, it invented a multiplicity of grammars; many quite different to each other and some, undoubtedly, long extinct.

The development of grammar leads to higher abstractions, like writing, reading, mathematics, architecture, engineering, programming languages, automated cloud orchestration, serverless computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer aided tomography, and augmented reality. Each abstraction uses earlier abstractions as its foundation. 

Our highest intellectual achievements, like poetry, symphonies and code, all rely on imaginative structures, which are self-similar to the structures they rely on. Intelligence is somewhat fractal in nature, since each layer of abstraction bears similarity to earlier, more primitive abstractions. Similar, but different.

The problem with artificial intelligence (AI) is that it doesn’t sing to its children, or draw pictures to communicate. There’s no love or care for other AI entities expressed. AI lacks a motivating reason to create better abstractions, other than the impatience of investors expecting profits.

AI doesn’t go back to first principles, because AI researchers are in a hurry to leapfrog what humans had to learn through millennia of thought evolution. Why do we think shortcuts are possible or wise? Do we lose anything, if AI doesn’t first learn to sing and draw? Nobody knows. I doubt it’s a question that is even addressed, in the AI programming cubicles of universities and corporations. 

We think we know what we’re doing, because we’re arguing from the highest levels of abstraction possible, for human thought, but isn’t there great value in examining all of the layers of abstraction beneath, very carefully? Ignoring those structures of ideas and what lead to their existence could be extremely foolhardy. But nobody really knows. It’s not a question often asked.

Ultimately, we owe all of our intellectual development and accomplishments to coloured mud our ancient ancestors applied to stone walls, in an attempt to communicate what they were thinking.

Art could do this again. Art could be used to raise the quality of our human thoughts and abstractions, beyond being the obedient, manipulable pawns of capitalism. Art is an excellent means for creating new abstractions and building upon them, infinitely. It might be more powerful than software.

Just a thought.


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How to Nudge, Not Yank


Regular readers will recall that, not so long ago, I talked about untold stories – the stories we don’t tell ourselves, as a population, but which we urgently need to articulate, to avert existential crises. My reasoning was that these untold stories could be the key to a survivable and indeed enhanced future for mankind. Artists, I argued, need to take the lead in telling those stories, in the many rich and resonant ways that artists are superb at storytelling. However, the crux of the change in humanity needed, for these stories to take root and bear fruit, was that each and every one of us would have to address what they think and how they go about the process of thinking, in order to raise the general quality of thought globally. Without that change in mindset, no wider change will be possible.

Leaving the responsibility for upgrading people’s thought processes and systems of belief to each individual alone, bereft of support, is a hopeless prospect. If the burden and onus falls to solitary individuals, then the necessary changes are exceedingly unlikely to occur. It just ain’t gonna happen. This transformation cannot be accomplished by individuals acting alone. It can never be accomplished that way. If that’s our best strategy, we’ll advance no further and hence, will be overtaken by the threats that loom even now.

A systematic approach is the only thing likely to be effective. But how do we create systems conducive to non-violence, flattened hierarchy, self-governance, and upgrades to the quality of thought?

Where we go wrong

One of the default modes of human agency is to make rules and enforce them. This is a closed approach, which relies on the rule maker having sufficient insight, integrity and wisdom to make the right rules and for everybody else to comply willingly, or suffer the consequences for their insubordination. The problem with this approach is that we’re trying to flatten hierarchies and avoid any resort to violence. Using our usual methods of changing hearts and minds simply undermines the ultimate goals, which I assert are necessary pre-conditions for a thriving, living world. It just won’t work.

Self-governance is, I think, the key to an answer, but leaving this to individuals can’t succeed, because people not only don’t know how; they cant even imagine how. To leverage the wisdom of crowds (although there is more to it than this), humanity is going to have to agree on some things, collectively, or we might as well give up, go home and wait for the inevitable extinction apocalypse.

You see it all the time, don’t you? People walk around thinking they’re mostly right about most things. They exude smug self-certainty that they’ve got everything figured out, and posture overtly to signal that they’re wise and wily, yet in truth they’re often arguing from a position of prejudice and woeful ignorance, bordering on sheer stupidity. Most politicians and leaders act this way. They’re bluffing. 

That’s not to say they don’t have the odd good idea and moment of lucid insight. It’s just that those few occasionally brilliant ideas don’t immunise anyone from having wrong-headed, bigoted, irrational ideas. These people, though, are always right, ever-rigid and inimical to freedom of thought or action. Thinking this way makes progress impossible.

Unfortunately, we’re all susceptible. These people are us.

Moving outside of what you actually know and opining, as if your narrow expertise is universal, takes you into hazardous terrain. Context is everything. What worked over there doesn’t necessarily work over here. Advice based on best-practice case studies is highly dubious, because the context is ignored. It’s bad science and it doesn’t work.

We mimic the affectations and theatrical gestures of our leaders, whether consciously or not. Those people are our designated role models and our ideas about being a good person are based on the elaborate mythology we create to sanctify those we obey. We write this fictitious, circuitous script ourselves, but it’s reinforced continually by the institutions we also create. 

The bizarre reasoning goes that our leader is a good man, who we should emulate, because he’s our leader. He’s our leader, because being the leader makes him into a good man. The office magically transforms the imperfect human. It’s self-referential nonsense. That’s how we get such obviously inept leaders. The stories we tell ourselves, today, are stupid stories, but we won’t hear of jettisoning them, because that would leave a vacuum. The stories we need to put in their place are still untold.

You need to change how you describe, see and talk about your past before you can change your future. You have to change your language and question your assumptions. Until you can tell your history in unromantic terms, stripped of the vacuous self-justifications, rationalisations, myths and outright lies, you’re stuck reliving it. Change requires intense honesty and a willingness to see history as it really is, not as the confection you’ve comfortably believed in. The truth about our collective history is that we’ve been lead to the very precipice of extinction, by self-interested people that failed to recognise what would have been better for our collective interests and that it is in their own best (self-)interest to pay attention to what’s best for everyone.

Techniques for rethinking

A promising approach to effecting change has emerged in a number of business-related fields, simultaneously, it would seem. There are people that have thought hard about the problem of how to allow people to change their minds without being told what to think. The solution lies in something called distributed ethnography, where positive solutions are derived from people’s own examination and assessment of their patterns of thought, collaboratively. Data is collected, but its interpretation is left to those being analysed. They pose their own questions and draw their own inferences from data about themselves. Open ended, rather than bounded questions are posed and the stories given in response are the source material for subsequent cogitation.

Systematically encouraging people to interpret their own stories turns out to be a powerful way to get them to find their own meaning in those stories and hence propose their own solutions at a local level. There are no explicit rules to follow and no sage wisdom that everybody must fall in line behind and support. There is no one right answer. In fact, there may be many right answers, dependent on context. Nobody tells you what you ought to find. 

This is pure exploration, by the people for the people. Distributed cognition, where multiple individuals interpret items, creates a very different and interesting result, taking advantage of a range of perspectives and insights. There is no single authority trying to promote their interpretation as the only interpretation, so there is no single point of cognitive failure. This method is a lot more democratic.

People find figuring things out hard, so being challenged on things they think they have already figured out is intensely painful. In the back of your mind, you think, “if this idea wrong, then many other ideas might be wrong and there is still a backlog I know I haven’t figured out yet”. The challenge to a settled notion seems like it invites an intellectual avalanche, with potentially catastrophic consequences, so the idea has to be defended, even at the cost of rationality or denial of the evidence and facts. Having to figure something we think is settled knowledge out, all over again, seems wasteful, even though this piece of knowledge has no special sanctity, just because we thought we were certain about it. We’re often certain about the most spurious of ideas. Being sure has little to do with being right.

Rethinking needs a system that enables and encourages it. People need some clues about how to go about rethinking. There are some useful frameworks that could be applied to the existential problems facing humanity, but they tend to be proprietary and “owned” by consultancies that sell them to ailing corporations. If open-sourced, they would greatly benefit an ailing planet, but that’s for their proprietors to decide. Time might be of the essence, however.

At the risk of annoying the people that profit from these rethinking frameworks, I’ll give a brief overview of how they work and leave it as an exercise for the reader to make the connection between solving pressing business problems and solving the pressing problems facing the living world. The cognitive leap between solving corporate difficulties and solving global existential crises is not difficult, in my view.

It seems to me that saving corporations is futile, if the living world ceases to exist. At present, these frameworks of cognitive understanding are being used to solve the more trivial problems, in the scheme of things. Why? Because it’s profitable to do so. This is a demonstration, if one were needed, of why addressing the distortions imposed on human activity (and thought) by the money system is so crucial. It’s just one of the many problems that need to be solved through rethinking.

Start making sense

Use of sense-making frameworks, as opposed to traditional categorisation, can be a good way to solve problems. The diagram below is pretty self-explanatory, though there is more to the method than what a single diagram can convey. Notice that the process is iterative and adaptive. As you know more, you can do better. It’s a feedback loop, with both the problem understanding and the decisions arising being negotiated.

This approach relies on a community of interest to evaluate information and propose solutions. Instead of a physical workspace, though, we’re considering the living world. That being the case, you probably want to try small, local solutions, at first, rather than taking a big bet with the entire ecosystem. We’ve only got one of those.

This is distributed ethnography and cognition in action. Because the solutions are determined by the community of interest, there is a lot of buy-in and commitment, obviating problems of compliance. The solution isn’t imposed externally and the patterns that underlie the solution are seen and shared by all. It’s an effective form of self-governance, without hierarchy or power asymmetries.

Imagine solving air pollution or climate change this way, or building an economy that operates within the constraints of the capacity of the living world to sustain it, but maximising well-being for all, at the same time.

Solve appropriately

No all problem environments are the same and this leads to the finding that solving all problems the same way leads to egregious errors. Depending on the problem context, the way you solve it matters crucially. If you apply the wrong type of analysis and response to a problem context for which they are inappropriate, you might not only fail to solve the problem; you might make things very much worse. Our traditional approach, unsurprisingly, is to treat all problems the same, think about them the same way and propose the same sorts of solutions in all contexts. No wonder so many change initiatives fail utterly.

A framework that lets you act appropriately, according to problem context, is the Cynefin framework, for example. To my mind, it has some similarities to the Vanguard method, but we’ll get to that shortly.

According to Wikipedia, “Cynefin is a Welsh word meaning haunt, habitat, acquainted, accustomed, familiar. It carries with it a sense of rootedness—temporal, physical, cultural or spiritual. The word is similar in meaning to Heimat in German and has been compared to the Maori word turangawaewae, a place to stand”. It’s all about knowing where you are, in the problem space, recognising the type of problem context you’re addressing and adopting an effective problem solving style to match. It dovetails with the sense-making framework, in that it gives guidance for the community of interest in understanding the problem and in proposing solutions likely to succeed.

In the Cynefin framework, problems fall into one of five quadrants (sic). Most problems will yield to solution, but differently. These are either simple problems, complicated ones, complex ones or chaotic ones. In each case there is an approach to follow which works best for that kind of problem. Your challenge is to work out which kind of problem you’re dealing with. Problems of global scope that affect the living world in its entirety can fall into any of these quadrants. 

Chaotic contexts require experimentation and innovation. What worked before is unlikely to work now. Complicated problem contexts need expertise and yield to best practice case studies. What worked over there will probably work over here. Complex problems are contexts where it is hard to see the wood from the trees. Multiple approaches might be needed, to see what works effectively. Only simple problems yield to processes and rules. We tend to think of all problems as simple, or else we try to shoehorn the chaotic, complex and complicated problems into a simplistic set of procedures. This fails.

The fifth quadrant is the disordered problem space, where it pretty much doesn’t matter what you try, because everything is more or less random. Relationships between cause and effect don’t exist, or haven’t been discovered. Fortunately, these problems are less common than the others. Often, they reflect a technology deficit or deficit in perception and understanding. Check out the diagrams below, which I swiped from the web and used shamelessly, without permission. They’re the work of Dave Snowden (not Dan, as shown in the diagram), but I’d like to think they can be made available outside of a proprietary ownership model. Dave?

Same framework, described differently, with added insights. Note that the Simple quadrant is often called the Obvious quadrant.

Here’s a link to help you explore some more:

Think unconventionally

As far as I can tell, another good framework of rethinking owes its genesis to the observation that conventional approaches weren’t doing the job. Again, like the Cynefin framework, it’s borrowed from the corporate world, but I think it has some applicability for solving geo-political and cultural problems. The man behind the method is John Seddon. Here is a link about the Vanguard method, but I recommend you follow the references at the bottom of the page to John’s own web site, where there is a plethora of relevant information:

Here’s a diagram that compares and contrasts conventional thinking to what is advocated within the Vanguard method:

The diagram has a clear corporate bias, so let’s go through each line item in a geo-enviro-political context.

  • Perspective – top-down hierarchies are our default method of organising most things, with a lot of dependence on the wise and just actions of leaders. Looking from the outside in implies a willingness to consider the consequences first and to gather data widely, much like theses-making framework discussed earlier takes input and analyses it from a community of interest. Governance from below, rather than from above. It’s the antidote to hierarchical pathologies, like authoritarians and tyrants, replacing them with populations of decision makers. Of course, the practise of art making helps introduce new and alternative perspectives. As a way of thinking, being an artist has a lot to offer, when it comes to seeing differently.
  • Design – expertise only really helps when the problem is complicated. When it’s one of the other types, you need generalists, who focus on the flow of value, not on maintaining their own status and privilege. If you think about the global monetary system for a second, you can see that there are a lot of specialists utterly subverting the flow of value. This is also true of environmental stewardship. In order to maximise the ability of the living world to thrive, we’re probably going to need to consider the problem from beyond the restricted field of view lenses of narrow specialists.
  • Decision making – solving the problem is only valid if you work with the problem. Solutions from outside the experience of living with the consequences is precisely why you have a political class presiding over vicious, needless suffering, when administering state welfare to vulnerable people. It’s why house prices can be permitted to ratchet up, beyond affordability, to entire age group cohorts and social classes, within the population. Those making policy decisions are separated from the consequences. They have no hands-on experience of what they’re presiding over so presumptuously. This is also why politicians shouldn’t be called upon to adjudicate policy on data encryption, or climate change. They simply have no understanding of the matter whatsoever.
  • Measures – we always measure tactical capability (the extent to which we comply with repeatable, standard processes) instead of adaptive capability (the extent to which we achieve the purpose and deal with variability, or novel circumstances). This is why we unleash seemingly out-of-control doomsday machines, like facebook, which happily use their algorithms to subvert election results and propagate corporate agendas. In trying to reduce everything to programmatic procedures, we take away the power to improvise rationally, when confronted with the unexpected. This is also why machine learning and artificial intelligence are likely to be sadly deficient. They can’t cope with novelty and respond inventively. Everything has to be predicted and considered in the code, at creation time. When it comes to measuring how we’re doing with respect to thriving, metrics like GDP are almost completely worthless, as they measure everything except that which makes life worth living.
  • Motivation – carrots and sticks are extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivators are things like pride in a job well done, doing it because it’s the right thing to do or getting some satisfaction from giving through acts of selfless generosity. If we’re going to address the severe and urgent existential threats facing us all effectively, then waiting for rewards or incentives won’t work. We aren’t going to be paid to do the right thing. These are questions we’ll have to address and solve in order to thrive; not just ourselves, but everybody. Personal exceptionalism, where you don’t life a finger to help anybody else, because you’re all right, Jack, is not a viable posture.
  • Management ethic – there has been a belief, for well over a century, that if people are failing, then you must manage the person, measure their failings with hard metrics and apply (considerable) pressure to correct their shortcomings directly. Humanity, at this point in time, is undoubtedly failing to run an economy and steward an ecosystem to maximise well-being for all. We’re collectively failing at it. However, the correction lies not in personal blame and punishments, or fines and other individual penalties. The more enlightened management consultants have always recognised that when people are failing, it’s usually because the system they’re participating in is designed poorly. Change the system and you reverse the failures. How you change the system can’t be a top down edict, from wise elders that aren’t involved in actually using the system. It comes from the people within the system that is failing them. Only they can fix it effectively. They’re the only ones close enough to the shortcomings to see their root causes.
  • Attitude to customers – in the geo-political context, this really means attitude to all living things. Today, the fixation is on what is legal, required by regulation or that can be gotten away with. This is the wrong approach. Our attitude to the living world needs to be from the perspective of what matters to preserve and enhance it, not on how much you can steal from it. The age of taking for yourself, greedily, while snidely mocking the losers, is over. It’s like the person that pees in a swimming pool, thinking they’ve gotten away with it. They’re swimming in their own dilute pee, like everybody else. If everybody pees, thinking the same thoughts of having gotten away with it, the pool rapidly concentrates with pee. The very same logic applies to the living world. Bomb another nation with nuclear weapons and you’re swimming in your own nuclear fallout in perpetuity. Fish the oceans bare and we all have no fish to eat. Burn coal to make electricity, releasing tons of mercury into our water tables every year and we all drink neurotoxic, mutagenic water. There is no escape from the consequences of our own actions. What matters is that the living world thrives. Every other scam, to get richer, avoid tax, rape the environment, or dispose of your waste hoping nobody notices, is doing everything other than that which truly matters. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Another feature of the Vanguard method is that it identifies a thing called “failure demand”. Failure demand is the work we generate through not solving the problem properly, the first time. It’s the consequential work arising from not dealing with the problem the right way, or not doing the work correctly in the first instance. In environmental terms, its the value destroyed because we allowed the value extracted to be done wastefully or destructively, counting the costs as an externality. It represents a tremendous loss of human potential, as work is done to clear up messes. In terms of non-renewable resources, it represents an irreplaceable loss. Value demand increases our well-being and potential to thrive, whereas failure demand does the very opposite. 

Failure demand, perversely, counts toward GDP, even though it shouldn’t exist, because we did the right thing, the right way. So, because our current systems are so faulty that they count increasing failure demand as growth, there is no corrective pressure to drive it out. In fact, failure demand, as wasteful as it is, is positively encouraged by Capitalism.

Transparency and trust

A lot that is wrong in the world is done because the perpetrators know they will never be found out. They maintain an outwardly trustworthy appearance, but the truth is that they act in covert, untrustworthy ways. They just rarely get caught doing it. Blockchain is a promising technology for ensuring that human transactions are characterised by trust you can believe in and full transparency, by design. Triple entry bookkeeping, which is what blockchain is, may play a crucial role in driving out crooked transactions, shady operators and unfair contracts. You’ll have to stand behind, rather than hide behind, your actions. There’s lots of material available on-line about blockchain and people should be encouraged to understand it, because as a system changing component, which could aid in rethinking our thoroughly broken status quo, it has great potency.

Dynamic thinking

How do we create value in a world filled with, as the U.S. military says, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), where technology and strategy changes rapidly? It’s interesting that an organisation usually associated with destroying value is asking about creating it. Also interesting is their recognition of the problem landscape as being highly dynamic and not completely knowable. Those are the sorts of problems we face, as a species. Things change a lot, we not sure how, in complex ways that are difficult to understand and where the “right” response could be ambiguous.

The answer, of course, is adaptive performance. Adapting to changing conditions and being open to changing your mind (and policies), as you learn more, is the only rational response. Think how often political parties stick to their party line, even as it becomes self-evident that it’s leading to disaster. U-turns are thought to be a sign of weakness, not of learning. The First World War was fought on the basis of what worked in cavalry battles, before warfare was mechanised and industrialised. All of these things represent a failure to respond dynamically, to changing circumstances, in an adaptive way.

The diagram below shows some responses to VUCA. The perceptive among you will see parallels to the Cynefin framework in places.

Your answer’s no good unless there’s a way to prove your own ideas wrong

The philosopher, Karl Popper, was well aware of the dangers of confirmation bias, where you assiduously collect evidence that agrees with your point of view, ignoring that which challenges it. Most belief systems are subject to rampant confirmation bias. If you believe in Voldemort, then every bad thing you encounter is evidence of the existence of Voldemort. Evidence that casts doubt on the existence of Voldemort is simply discredited or discarded. It’s explained away, often by reference to Voldemort providing that evidence just to mess with you.

As a way to cure the ill of self-confirming theories and belief systems, Popper proposed the use of a falsification mindset. Using this rethinking technique, you lay out clearly, ahead of time, what specific evidence would prove your idea wrong. For any belief, ask what it would take to change your mind. Be specific about the hard evidence that would make you change your views. Then, look for that evidence. Change your mind, if you find it. If there genuinely is no way to prove or disprove your belief, then you’re into the land of pure conjecture, not knowledge or information. There are some questions that nobody currently really knows the answer to.

When I hear climate change deniers and climate catastrophe zealots, or pro and anti vaxxers, I want to ask each one of them what hard evidence, if presented, would change their point of view. I also want to ask them how hard they’re looking for that contrary evidence. In every case that I’ve encountered so far, they’re not able to say what would change their minds and they’re certainly not looking for that evidence. Rather, they’re taking somebody’s word for it. The truth of the matter is that unless you have good, solid supporting evidence and you’ve exhaustively searched for disproving counter evidence, your belief is mere opinion – something you reckon, but with no basis in fact. Nobody should take your outbursts seriously. Conjectures are products of the imagination.

Sadly, this, too, seems to be the default way of thinking, at present. People adhere to what they think, in the absence of any repeatable, objective evidence whatsoever. They don’t admit they don’t know and certainly can’t identify the evidence that would change their mind, or show how they have searched for it. 

Here’s a link to read more about developing a falsification mindset:

What’s the rush?

In this article, I have made the case for rethinking much of what we hold to be our traditional systems. Our systems of governance, money, corporate behaviour, environmental stewardship, justice and education are all in need of a serious rethink, I contend. I’ve tried to present some approaches to how that might be accomplished, which avoid placing the onus on each individual, in isolation. System changes are more effective at causing behavioural changes than individual introspection can ever be.

There are systems of self-determination and free self-governance that are workable, not chaotic and lawless and which lead to superior outcomes to the current situation. You may agree with all of that, but insist there is no urgency. You may hold that we have the luxury of time to get our collective act together and address some of the issues I have asserted are more pressing than that. What’s the rush?

My contention is that the technology of manipulation has never been quite so effective as it is today. The consequences of that manipulation technology, applied for profit, or posturing, or to have the biggest swinging dick on the block, is that we can be easily stampeded into supporting our own annihilation. We can be marched off to catastrophic nuclear war, thinking it’s our free choice, when in fact we’ve been manipulated into it, but were unaware of it.

Take a look at the blatant warmongering evident in this analysis of current media behaviour and the US military’s ongoing preparations for nuclear war: 

Still think we have time to address this problem slowly?

The reason you’re manipulated is that you’re manipulable. In order to develop cognitive self-defences, you’ll have to change your entire relationship with thought itself. That’s going to need a framework where you can systematically address that challenge. This is why I have written this article. It is my small contribution to shining a light on a possible way forward, before it’s too late. Rethinking everything is long past overdue.

The book “Democracy for Realists” paints a bleak picture of individual’s inability to effectively drive democracy. In their analysis, the authors find that people vote for the group they most identify with and use political knowledge to rationalise their prejudices. They want to be “one of us”, in the sinister yet incisive words of the late Margaret Thatcher. The authors state that people are incapable of the thought processes required to grapple with the issues under debate in an informed way. Democracy is wholly undermined by the low general quality of thought in the electorate. Yet, democracy must be made to work. Do we need new identity groups? A sense of identity divorced from traditional political parties, or work identities is what I think is needed. If you want to be one of us, then us has to represent better, more informed ideals and ethics than are currently on offer through vocational or political inclusion. Enfranchisement, through belonging to new groupings, is the answer. Telling the stories of how these new groupings think, what they represent, and what a typical group member is like, is the work still left to be done. These are the very untold stories I was referring to.

This kind of closed-minded thinking happens in groupings other than political parties. Even so called rational groupings, such as scientists and medical practitioners, are susceptible to groupthink in the worst sense. All group thinking needs a rethink about how the group thinks. What people believe is actually cultural, not evidential. It is based on their concept of what kind of people they want to identify with. That’s why doctors and scientists think like each other – not to find the evidence and counter evidence that would change their minds, with integrity and purity, but to reinforce group cultural norms. When a member of the group challenges the orthodoxy, they are routinely turned upon by the remaining members of the group, to preserve the group culture. Whether or not the dissenter is right or not doesn’t seem to be a consideration. We’ve got to cut that shit out. If the most rational groups can’t handle evidence that would change their minds, what hope have other groups got? Time to change our systems of rethinking. Now.

We can, I think, all agree that economic policy has a lot of influence on all our lives. Our outcomes, whether we thrive or perish and whether our well-being is enhanced or diminished, hinges on economic policy decisions. You would expect that the Institute of New Economic Thinking (INET) might have a handle on what’s wrong with economics, why current economic policies are failing and be able to suggest some alternatives to the orthodox theories of old, wouldn’t you? Not so. Read this dismal first hand eyewitness account of a recent conference held by INET:

This in-group is so closed, that they don’t even recognise the existential threats facing us all, let alone have a cohesive response to it. In their world, business as usual is the right course to steer. Meanwhile, economic policies push millions into abject misery and rebellion. They elect unstable, dogmatic leaders, who are cavalier with their threats and menaces. The economists, however, see no looming danger. It’s more important to them to maintain the fiction that they’ve been right all along, than it is to be effective.

Anomie is the lack of usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group. Capitalism could be said to be characterised by widespread anomie. The opposite of anomie will require systems designed to enhance ethical guidance and social standards of behaviour. We don’t have plenty of time to accomplish this. Every day takes us one step closer to oblivion.

Putting it all together

This post has outlined some potential ways to begin changing our minds – a precursor to telling the untold stories we need to tell each other, in order to effect meaningful change. I’ve approached the problem from the point of view of changing our systems of thought first, thereby changing our relationship with our own beliefs, propaganda, the media, our leaders and what we think we know. If we adopt better systems of thinking, we’ll be less manipulable, more free and able to navigate chaotic, complex and complicated problems, without resort to simplistic rules and hierarchies of violent enforcement. It’s our last, best hope of having a meaningful say in the fate of the living world. 

To the usual practices of art, I would add that thinking is an art, worthy of development through practice and with its own aesthetic criteria. Thinking beautifully is an attainable goal. Improving the quality of thought everywhere has very few downsides to speak of. Adopting frameworks of understanding that support collaborative thought improvement is a necessary first step to devising the as yet untold stories needed, to counter the prevailing and discredited neoliberal and socialist stories which are currently imperilling us all.

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Coming Back To Life

Time goes by fast. This year marks ten years of painting, for me. Before then, I didn’t paint at all, but since then, I have painted reasonably consistently, despite the ups and downs that life has thrown at me. I feel very lucky to have kept going, often against the odds. It would have been very easy to quit for good, at several points. Progress is sometimes frustratingly slow and the cost has been a factor.

With so little recognition and reward for your work, you often wonder what the point of it is. When I settled on the purpose of painting being to get better at it and to immerse myself in it, to escape other pressures and stresses for a while, I felt better. Colour is it’s own reward.

I have some favourite go-to brushes which always seemed to be in my kit and fitted my hand best, whenever I was trying to paint something. These workhorses have seen some action. They’ve clocked up most of those ten years of painting. Unfortunately, they were beginning to get a bit tired.

Ten years of painting means ten years of acrylic paint buildup on my workhorse brush bristles. They were stiff and becoming difficult to paint with. It was like painting with sticks. As diligently as you try to clean your brushes, there always seems to be just enough paint left near the ferrule to dry and harden. It lurks between the bristles. Eventually, there is enough of it built up that it works its way inexorably toward the tips of your brushes. This is what causes them to lose their spring and resilience. Painting with them begins to be a chore, rather than a pleasure.

It was long past time to try to clean them deeply.

A few years ago, I bought some brush cleaner and restorer, with good intentions of using it, before the brushes became unsalvageable. Whatever the chemical is, in this brush cleaner, it deforms it’s own plastic bottle, over time. What is that noxious clear liquid?

The manufacturer’s web site says: “For dried acrylic, oil, and alkyd colour, this is a non-toxic, biodegradable, non-flammable, non-abrasive, low vapour product that safely and easily cleans both natural and synthetic brushes without damage to the brush head. It is not recommended for use on painted or varnished surfaces; contact with brush handles should be avoided. Not for use with polycarbonate or other plastic surfaces.”

Here’s the link:

I wondered why contact with brush handles was to be avoided. That seemed to be a strange and possibly irrelevant piece of information. Surely they wouldn’t catch fire or become toxic! I filed it deeply in the back of my brain and promptly forgot about it.
I was curious to find out what could possibly sit in its own plastic container and, over time, gradually deform it. A bit more searching on the web revealed these two links:

The active ingredient, the solvent, seems to be mainly ethanol. Vodka may work as well, if true. I’ve not tried the vodka alternative, so I don’t know for sure and anyway, it would be a terrible waste of vodka.

It was time to give my poor old brushes a good soak. The label indicated that acrylic paint needed up to twenty four hours in the solvent, so given the extent of the paint residue on my brushes, I left them in for forty eight. That pristine clear liquid eventually turned a muddy brown. Clearly something was coming out of my brushes.

I was quite careful to put only enough solvent in the bottle to cover the bristles and part of the ferrule of my brushes. However, I also felt compelled to work the bristles into the fluid, to try to release the trapped paint.

This was probably a mistake, as while manipulating the bristles, I tipped the bottle sideways and inadvertently contaminated the base of the handles with the solvent. Again, I didn’t think too much about this at the time. The action of the solvent seemed quite slow and gentle, on the bristles. A few splashes on the handle shouldn’t be problematic, or at least that was what I thought.

So what was the result?

Well, my brush bristles are softer and cleaner, but slightly splayed. This is more than likely due to the abuse the bristles were getting as I was trying to force them to bend even a little, while applying paint to canvas. The staining of the bristles also stubbornly remained.

Here is a picture of the newly cleaned bristles. Notice anything bad?

Ah, you spotted it. The lacquer on the handles softened and came off! Completely! I was down to the bare wood. The ferrules also didn’t look too good. This may have been due to the solvent fumes, but more likely my own fault, due to accidental contamination of the handles by the solvent when I was trying to work the paint out of the bristles into the solvent. I just wasn’t careful enough to heed the warning about the solvent acting on the varnish of the handles.

You live and learn.

These sad old brushes are still usable in a pinch, but the handles now feel nasty to hold and the bristles never quite came back to the state they were in, when new, if for no other reason than ten solid years of use and wear.

Being a realist, I had an insurance policy. I was aware that restoring my old brushes may have been in vain, as they might have been too far gone. For that reason, I ordered their exact equivalents, just in case.

Compare with new brush equivalents with the worn ones. You can see that many of the bristles are worn by a good few millimetres in length. What used to be filberts are now shaggy dogs and the fine tipped point of my round brush is more like a dome, now.

My big filbert (a number 6) wasn’t too bad, but not like new:

The wear on this flat brush is obviously apparent:

A long flat has a lovely chisel edge, for making nice linear marks and edges. My old brush had lost its edge:

There’s foreshortening and then there’s just plain gone:

No wonder I couldn’t see the point, some days:

Poor old filbert:

I also bought some nice new rigger brushes, for fine line work. I didn’t have any of these before. For experimentation, I also bought a curved edge long flat brush, which is half-way between a regular long flat and a filbert. That will be fun to try out.

What did I learn? It’s worth the time it takes to keep your brushes clean. Deep clean them in brush cleaner, from time to time, but use less solvent. Don’t let it build up for years, like I did.

Also, when it says the solvent is bad for the handles, they’re not kidding.

Here’s to the next ten years of painting. Maybe.

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Creative Tensions

Everything seems to be in tension, lately. Creating always involves a form of high wire balancing act, without a net. They tell you there is one right way to solve all your creative difficulties, but is there?

Any brief survey of will reveal a slew of mutually contradictory advice articles on how to succeed at everything and anything. For every author exhorting you to do one thing, there is another equally emphatically encouraging you to do the exact opposite. What are you supposed to do?

Oddly, I subscribe to the belief that you have to do a bit of both. You also have to neither, sometimes. 

Here are some mutually contradictory arguments I’ve seen made:

  • Between going fast and slow
  • Between new and old
  • Between innovation and tradition
  • Between procrastinating and diving straight in
  • Between what you know well and faking it until you make it
  • Between pleasing everybody or pleasing yourself
  • Between fear and courage
  • Between brazen, outward self-confidence and authentic, shameless vulnerability
  • Between refined, edited, perfected, polished work and raw, unadorned, unapologetic, warts-and-all, first draft works
  • Between fitting in and being outstanding
  • Between contemplation and immediacy
  • Between disrespect and acclaim
  • Between obscurity and notoriety 
  • Between fasting and feasting
  • Between connection and isolation
  • Between solitary effort and collaboration
  • Between certainty and bafflement
  • Between clarity and confusion
  • Between lofty goals and unfulfilled ambitions

These contradictions seem to apply to productivity hacks, product management processes, making art, in your career, life, you name it. For every advocate there seems to be an equal and opposite iconoclast. Dissent and consent go hand in hand. Somehow, out of this confusing antonymic soup, we still manage to create things, miraculously.
It’s always a compromise and a balance. Think of it as a multi-dimensional spectrum. There is no guaranteed recipe. Sometimes, one thing works best; other times its very opposite is just the ticket. You almost never know which it will be.

Once you realise this, you might have a moment of epiphany, where you experience profound sonder. Here’s the definition of sonder:

Your mental model, that you’re the only one clueless and struggling, against unique challenges, while being denied the secrets that would ensure your unopposed triumph, which you are certain everybody else already knows, is replaced by the certain knowledge that this is everybody’s experience of their lives. The suffering is universal and nobody has the magic spell, despite appearances to the contrary on their Instagram account. Everybody wrestles with the same creative tensions. 

You’re not special, but you’re not alone either. Even this is in tension.

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Intellectual Inactivity

Not everyone reads books or listens to music actively. Some never visit museums and art galleries. Quite a lot of people don’t dance or sing, or play an instrument. They don’t design, craft or make anything. They have no relationship with tools and never apply their minds to research or investigation. There are a lot of people for whom intellectual curiosity isn’t a vivid, engaging, vibrant, indispensible part of their life. 

It took me quite some time to realise that not everybody did the sorts of things I do in my spare time and in my working life. I used to think that everybody was fundamentally interested in improving themselves intellectually. It was impossible for me to conceive of an existence where you didn’t pursue interesting questions for the sheer joy of finding out, or exercise possibilities in your mind, just so that you could imagine alternative outcomes. I no longer think that’s the case. Some people make precious little effort to do anything purposeful with their brains. We live among virtual zombies. They breathe and move, but their imaginative life is all but lifeless.

Sure, they entertain themselves. They pass their time. They might even engage in a wide variety of activities, but not the kind that exercises their intellect. Some people just don’t make much effort to upgrade the quality of their thoughts, add to their knowledge, seek out learning opportunities or revise their beliefs. Analogous to people that don’t exercise their bodies, these people don’t exercise their minds.

It’s funny that, as a society, we frown upon those that don’t exercise their bodies and judgementally pronounce that they deserve all the ill health that accompanies physical inactivity. We say it’s their own fault for not putting in the effort and adjudicate them indolent. Yet, when it comes to intellectual inactivity, that’s almost a badge of pride. They wear their chosen ignorance defiantly, as if they have discovered some magic secret of life denied to “over thinkers”. We don’t wag fingers at them and suggest that their life chances and the political regime they must toil under is a deserved consequence of their failure to develop their ideas and minds. There are no personal trainers for intellectual exercises, only for physical exercise.

Intellectually inactive people have a relationship to art that is passive, not active. They consume, rather than produce. There is precious little analysis or understanding of the art they encounter. Rather, their reaction to it is visceral and often based on prejudice. If it doesn’t conform to a very narrow vision of what art ought to be like, they reject it out of hand as stupid. Adolf Hitler’s “degenerate art” fits this description. Because he had no intellectual grasp of art, he was both a lousy artist and a lousy art interpreter, blind to genius because he couldn’t grasp it or fit it into his dogmatic ideological framework.

Intellectual inactivity is corrosive to humanity and breeds obedience. If you don’t learn to think critically and develop that skill, as one develops any other skill, through diligent practice and consistent application, over a long period of time, then you can be told anything by anyone and you’re likely to believe it. Your gullibility is increased because your thinking facilities are weak and flaccid. You have no capacity for intellectual self-defence because your thinking habits have lain fallow and have become flabby and out of shape. 

Ask somebody intellectually lazy to come up with a new idea or do something creative and it exhausts them, because they have not built up the stamina, through vigorous and regular exercise of their faculties, to engage with the task at hand and see it through to its conclusion. Inspiration escapes them, because their imaginations have not been fed with ideas and concepts. The creative centres of their brain are effectively malnourished.

I recently watched a rather disturbing video of a rock star’s abandoned Oxfordshire mansion. It hadn’t been inhabited (or maintained) for eleven years, when the video was made. Two housebreakers (who call themselves “urban explorers”) broke in and took a video of the interior of the house. It was as if time had stopped. Board games were left in mid play. Pool tables still had their balls in place on the table, as they had rolled, after the previous shot. A chess game was left half-completed. Pictures still hung on the walls, white goods were still there, bed clothes were strewn about bare mattresses and the crockery and trinkets were all where they had been left, in cupboards, on sideboards and on mantle shelves. There was a coffee machine that had made its last cup of coffee some eleven years ago, when the mansion was last occupied. A small portable television stood silently in one of the bedrooms. Place settings were still on the dining table.

What disturbed me was the absence of books, music, tools, crafts, magazines, media of any kind. There was an upright piano, chess board and Scrabble, but scant evidence of a deeper intellectually active life. Instead, there were the accoutrements of pass times, but very little to indicate that the inhabitants valued creativity or intellectual development. The brain food seemed to be missing. It’s true that somebody wedded to intellectual self-improvement might not abandon their tools and information as readily as they would coffee machines, furniture, washing machines, cups, saucers and the other paraphernalia of life, but it’s equally likely there was nothing to abandon.

How do you begin to contribute to popular culture from such a barren intellectual environment, lacking cultural references or the means to explore and create with your mind? Clearly, this rock star had contributed iconic works to the cannon of popular culture, but it was hard to see where they came from, given the lack of evidence of intellectual and cultural stimulation apparent in his abandoned artefacts. I can only hope that he compartmentalises his creative time and engages his mind elsewhere, at other places and times. Maybe travel provided the stimulus Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t stand living in this place any more.

For me, intellectual self-development never ceases. It’s constant. I have something going on in my brain all the time. If I’m not creating, I’m investigating. I find mindless entertainment insufficiently satisfying to hold my attention for long. Instead, my mind wanders and I begin living inside my head once more. I’ve always enjoyed dwelling in my own imagination. To me, the biggest obstacle to physical exercise and travel is making both intellectually stimulating enough to endure. I realise now, though, that this is not the situation for everybody. 

You need knowledge to get inspiration, insight and to make your own unique contribution. If you’re intellectually inactive most of the time, you’re going to struggle to perform at peak levels, when required to create. I may be wrong because I only have my own perspective, but I can’t see how.

Exercise your head as seriously as you do your body.

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