Making it up as we go along

Growing up is many things – in turn exciting, hard, surprising, frustrating. It is also, as the years roll by, an exercise in disenchantment.

Life starts off well enough. The world of the toddler is populated by soft, fluffy animals and colourful plastic toys. Infants have fairy tales with knights, princesses, and talking animals. As a child, there is Santa Claus who brings you presents from the North Pole – if you've been good, that is. There is also the reassuring presence of grown-ups  – Mum knows best, Dad can fix anything, and uncle George will fill you in about life as he takes you for a spin in his sports car. The people who can handle things are in charge.

Then cracks start to appear. Although your teacher can work magic with maths, she doesn't have an answer to all your questions. History, it seems, is not just about facts, but also about interpretation. Your friends have different explanations for the mystery of the birds and the bees, and how can you tell who is right? Good still triumphs over evil, but why does evil keep coming back? By then you've figured out that a flying sleigh and a pack of reindeer can't deliver presents to all the kids in the world, and that you've been had.

You're now fully into teen doubt. Your perfect parents have arguments, lose their temper, and clearly haven't got a clue about what it's like to be you. To your horror, you realise that they never had to qualify as parents, and that your upbringing is one huge experiment. If you still believe in God after the trick they played on you with Santa Claus, you will find that the priest is getting increasingly coy about the truths in the holy book, and prefers to talk about metaphors.

Taking matters in your own hand, you delve into science – only to find out how incredibly vast and empty the universe is, with hundreds of billions of galaxies composed of hundreds of billions of stars, and that we seem to be alone in it. The straightforward story about how it all started has been replaced with a convoluted evolutionary theory with all kinds of missing links. The worst part of it is that nobody seems to be in charge, and nobody, no matter how powerful or wise, really has a clue about why the world exists at all. Life, you realise, is very much like a computer game without instructions, and with rules that keep changing.

This is your cue. Like the hero who has hit rock bottom, you shake off your fear and rebound with renewed confidence. The great news is that if everyone is just making it up, then you can do the same. There are no rules in love? Great, let's try out something new. Adults have just been repeating what someone else told them? Wonderful, you won't have to listen to them anymore. Degrees, full-time jobs, and nuclear families are all industrial age institutions? Brilliant, you can make your own way. The computer game of life may have changing rules, but you can design your own world, and propose your own rules.

Make sure to keep to your convictions. Don't let yourself be intimidated by those who profess to know. Experts? Bless their hearts, they get so focused for so long that they end up knowing almost everything about almost nothing. Scientists? Well, the math looks impressive. But physicists, by their own account, seem to have lost 70% of the matter in the Universe. They also espouse two wonderful theories that fully explain the physical world, except for the fact that they also contradict each other. Ecologist raise the alarm about species disappearing, but their best guess about how many species there are lies between 5 and 100 million – not the kind of ballpark figure that will usually get you a passing grade. Doctors look especially authoritative in their white coats, but their diagnosis is often really just an educated guess – as they will finally tell you when none of their prescriptions work. As for pundits and politicians, well, just remember Father Christmas.

The dirty little secret is that we have all been making it up as we go along. All of it. The history of how it all started, how we came to be who we are, what good and evil are, how one should live. Not that we've been totally useless at it. We've mastered the physical world well enough, with airplanes and computers. We've proposed theories worth learning and debating. Some people have even said surprisingly wise things: prophets, poets, pop stars, and even the odd philosopher. But none of them knows how one should live, and none of them can tell you how you should live your life.

The upshot is that life is not as reassuring and comfortable as it was with your fluffy toys, but the good news is that it's a wide open playground. Keep trying things out. Make some rules of your own, then break them just for good measure. To convince others, lower your voice to hit that authoritative tone – that is what teachers the world over do. And never hold back on being fully human – that is, on making it up as you go along.

Dunkerke – Dover ferry, January 20, 2015

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn

Why saying "no" is the most positive thing you can do

After the ice bucket challenge, the nomination game is really starting to take off. Having escaped the cold shower, I find myself nominated to provide a list of ten books which have had a deep impact on me. This is a really good question: what is impact? The classics I read in high school (Balzac, Rimbaud, Kerouac); my favourite fiction work – Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (as close to perfection as any mortal writer can get) – or the philosophy works which have shaped my thinking: Leibniz, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Camus, Foucault, Serres?

These books have impacted my life in terms of beauty, love and thinking – they have made me into who I am. And yet there is one unlikely candidate which has impacted me more than all these classics. William Ury is a key figure in negotiation theory and the author of Getting to Yes. Confronted by a personal situation – a daughter born with a handicap, and far too many demands on his time – he transmuted his belief in a redeeming Yes into a theory of a positive No.

A positive No is a Yes in disguise: it is a Yes to what you believe in, to what you stand for, to what you want your life to be. It is Yes to the choices you make as a fallible human being. It's the Yes that comes from your heart, from your gut, from your soul. At the same time, it is a No to professional demands on your time, to the exigencies of doctors with their own agendas, to the pressures of extended family, to decorum. What you say - the word you use - is No. What you mean is Yes: yes to the things that matter to you, Yes to those you love, Yes to the life you want to live. This is the most affirmative, joyous way to live.

The Power of a Positive No by William Ury is the key book that I nominate in this wondrous challenge. It's beautifully written – clear, sincere, to the point. It's a gift from a man who applied his professional knowledge to an intimate situation. Most of all, it is a blueprint and a wake-up call to all of us who find ourselves saying Yes far too often, for fear of being found insensitive, for fear of being rejected. We need to learn a deep wisdom: affirm who you are – by saying No.

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn

The 10 crucial elements of lists of 10 crucial elements

Making lists is a sure-fire way to tease your audience into reading your blog, and will catapult you relentlessly towards trending stardom. Here are the key things you need to know:

1. Make bold promises – a recipe for world mastery in 10 easy steps is a good start.

2. Use only superlatives, especially in your title. Elements must be crucial, fundamental or essential. Lessons must be the hardest, easiest or most deadly.

3. Always use a famous historical figure in your supporting anecdote. Napoleon visualised his strategy in drawing and put it under his pillow before going to sleep on the eve of his greatest victories. No-once can check whether this actually happened, so don't be afraid to make it up.

4. Authority derives from being polysyllabic.

5. Make sure that you give conflicting advice: successful leaders must be unwavering and extremely flexible. The key to success lies in the big picture and in the details. This way, no-one can actually follow all your advice and complain when it doesn't work.

6. It's imperative that you back up your advice by sound academic research. As Harvard Professors Feldenkreis and Bhavatti have conclusively shown, there will always be a study that supports your claim. Google your conclusion and take your pick from prestigious research departments.

7. Be brief.

8. Don't forget to surreptitiously plug your own website – the most effective technique for this can be found at

9. Never use 10 elements. Who has time for that? We know that highly effective people have 7 habits, that there are 5 myths about president Obama, that Sun Tzu's art of war lists 3 golden rules, and that according to Steve Jobs, there is always only one more thing.

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn

The music of cars to come

Electric cars are likely to become the next great success for the automobile industry. Although initially the energy savings may be negligible for lack of renewable energy sources to power these cars with, their green aura and the sizeable tax benefits for their purchase and registration will make them eminently desirable. The lack of exhaust fumes will definitely be a major advantage, especially in smog-filled cities. Another plus is that electric cars will be almost silent, especially at low speeds when tire noise is barely audible. This is another relief for city-dwellers, since cars make a sizeable contribution to the great cacophony of urban noise.

Silent cars may thus initially appear as something of a Godsend. But as anyone who ventures into traffic knows, we rely heavily on our ears to alert us to danger. Tourists in Amsterdam quite happily step in front of oncoming bicycles because they are literally only attuned to the danger of cars or scooters. Silent cars are thus likely to be as much of a liability as a boon.

We could of course re-educate pedestrians to be aware of the possibility of silent cars sneaking up on them, but a simpler solution, at least in the beginning of this brave new silent world, would be to add some extra noise to electric cars. This has actually be done before. When Japanese carmakers started producing nifty little sports cars modelled on the great British tradition, they found that their models, while providing a similar driving experience and boasting superior reliability, lacked a key ingredient: a nice roar. So rather than redesign the engine, they added some extra sound when the gas pedal is pressed down, to give the driver that all-consuming experience of roaring down country lanes.

In one respect, the Japanese had it easy: they knew which sound to imitate. The designers of our electric future, however, are spoilt for choice. What sound should an electric car make? We could make all cars sound like Bentleys or Jaguars, or Minis for that matter. Why indeed settle for a car sound at all? Any sound that warns reckless pedestrians and cyclists of its presence would be acceptable. Just as portable phones need to ring but are not limited to a ringing sound, so cars could make any sound conceivable. I myself would quite like to drive a silent car which produces the retro sound of a horse carriage.

But this is just the beginning. We could imagine cars sounding like a team of horses or a herd of elephants, like a flock of wild geese or a barrel of monkeys, or like low-flying airplanes or steamboats. Keen entrepreneurs will no doubt provide us with programmable car-tones on the model of ubiquitous ringtones. We will probably have cars that produce music, with more sophisticated polyphony than the warning beeps of reversing trucks with which we have learned to live. My girlfriend foresees a future where cars will drive around cities producing versions of Fur Elise and other great classics. Another dramatic comeback for Elvis is, literally, just around the corner.

The automotive future is thus likely to be a joyous, if possibly a slightly unnerving musical experience. While we can imagine our streets filling up with a carnival atmosphere and the birth of new musical stars, we can also expect conservatives and purists to long for the days when cars ran on petrol, fouled up the atmosphere and, most of all, sounded like cars. There are indeed those of us who still remember a world in which all phones had the same, rather demanding, ring.
Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn


Italo Calvino begins his magnificent tale-within-a-tale, If On a Winters's Night a Traveller..., by imagining the hapless reader in a bookstore, about to stumble on the very book he has just started reading. Before finding the new work by Calvino, though, the reader must survive a veritable onslaught of silent reproaches from row upon row of books across the store. The Books You Haven't Read are prominently displayed at the entrance, and their accumulated critical acclaim weighs heavily on the conscience of those seeking to keep up with Literature. Around the corner lie the Classics, thick Greek, Russian and German Masterpieces which no self-respecting reader can do without. Then there are the specialist books of one's profession, promising new insights, and more diffuse categories, such as the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them Too, and my personal favourite, the Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

This mixture of excitement and of guilt, even shame, is probably familiar to avid readers the world over. There is the joy at finding a new work by a favourite author, the smell of freshly printed bestsellers, the visual onslaught of trendy contemporary covers, and the blessing of celebrity authors gazing down from their monumental photo portraits. And yet inevitably the gaze is also drawn to that which one really should read if one only had the time, to that which everyone else has read and raved about, to reprints of perennial classics one has vowed again and again to tackle. Titles and covers also conjure up the piles of unread books languishing by the bedside and the pristine editions tucked away in a far corner of one's library.

The truth that relentlessly bears down upon one is that there are simply too many books and too little time. A few stolen evening hours, the occasional lazy Sunday, those two days when it was pouring down in Paris, these snatches of reading time cannot even begin to weigh up against the combined efforts of imaginative novelists, politicians with beans to spill, skilful chroniclers of our time, the confessed excesses of celebrities, and scientific theories masterfully rendered in layman's terms. The hapless reader is simply no match for ambitious publishers and skilful marketing, for a veritable mountain range of books with grows to new heights each passing day.

The mathematics, when contemplated, are unforgiving. Even the corner bookstore has more titles than one could read in one's remaining years, were one to do nothing else. More interesting books are published every single day than can possibly be read in a year. The accumulated store of the world's literature and knowledge is so vast that even limiting oneself to one in a thousand would overwhelm one's senses and one's life.

Although any visit to a well-stocked bookstore seems inevitably tinged with shame and regret, an unwelcome reminder of one's limited time and the shortness of life, the profusion of available books, the overwhelming sensation of there being so much more than one could ever take in, is also a blessing. Indeed, the sheer inexhaustible, continuously replenished stock of writing assures us of never wanting for something exciting to read. There is more than enough for every taste, there are mountains to consume for lovers of magical realism, of sarcastic travel writing or autobiographical psychobabble.

The pile of unread books which grows taller alongside every tome that we do finish, our falling further and further behind in our attempt to keep up with what's new out there, are in effect the best indicators of plenty. All the unread masterpieces and novel perspectives, all the stories and tales which will be left untold, are a sure sign of wealth. The blessing lies in the reality of standing amidst a overflowing fount of thinking and writing, of being able to pick and choose, and yet still be assured of excellence. The more we can afford to leave untouched, the more wealthy we truly are.

And upon reflection we discover that this is true not only of books, of course, but of all the things we encounter in life. The corner travel agent will be able to send us to more destinations than we can manage in a lifetime, and yet it is precisely that overkill which allows us to revel in the feeling of being able to go absolutely anywhere. Our portable player coyly informs us that it will take two hundred and sixty days of continuous listening to hear all that it contains, and yet that information makes us appreciate the track we do select even more.

We are surrounded on all sides with more than we could ever hope to handle. There are more possible encounters and conversations to have with those who cross our path everyday than can fit in our lifetime, and all that abundance makes any walk down a city street into a delicious profusion of possible and unused opportunities. The paradoxical truth is that the larger the pile of unused experiences, the greater our wealth. We are truly living in the age of plenty.

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn