Life: you’ve gotta squeeze it a little

I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.*
(John O’Donohue)

[Keith] Jarrett didn’t produce a good concert in trying times.  He produced the performance of a lifetime, but the shortcomings of the piano actually helped him.**
(Tim Harford)

It’s 1975 in Cologne, Germany and Keith Jarrett is sat in a car in the rain having walked out from the venue that had supplied a sub-standard piano for what was to be a sell-out performance.  Jarrett had asked for a Bösendorfer but the instrument supplied was too small for the venue, out of tune, with the middle black notes not functioning.  A nineteen year old Vera Brandes had arranged this performance and she came out to the car and pleaded with Jarrett to go ahead.  He relented and what followed was a performance that produced an album that has outsold all other solo jazz albums and solo piano albums.

Tim Harford opens his book Messy with this story, warning against the “tidiness temptation.”  Life is messy and when we embrace this, we find some of the most beautiful things come into being.  Constraints and limitations aren’t the trouble we think they are:

‘In a world without constraints, most people take their time on projects and assume far fewer risks, while spending as much money as you’ll give them.’^

We each come with limitations and constraints built in.  When we reject rather than embrace these, we can end up looking around us for everything being absolutely right before we’ll try something different.

There’s a relationship between messiness and tidiness and when these get out of kilter then we begin to have problems.  Messiness can swing into chaos and tidiness can become regimentation, we end up bottling the past and calling it the future.  Nassim Taleb knows a lot about messiness – or randomness as he names it.  In his book about thriving in a random universe, he writes:

‘You cannot look at the future by naive projection of the past.’^^

Here we are with another day.  It doesn’t wish us any harm, it offers to all of us the basics of air to breathe, time to use and space to move in and through.  It just needs some squeezing: a different way of seeing, the finding of challenges, asking questions, seeking possibilities and knocking on the doors that won’t open easily.

‘Young writers often think – are taught to think – that a story starts with a message.  That is not my experience.  What’s important when you start is simply this: you have a story you want to tell.  A seedling that wants to grow.  Something in your inner experience is forcing itself up towards the light. […] As you write a story, if you can let it become itself, tell itself fully and truly you may discover what it’s really about, what it says, why you wanted to tell it.’*^

(*From John O’Donohue’s Echoes of Memory.)
(**From Tim Harford’s Messy.)
(^From Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s Bold.)
(^^From Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.)
(*^From Ursula Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter.)


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The gamemakers

We all have our defaults.  Are yours helping you?*
(Seth Godin)

our instincts, our cravings, the things and places and ideas we burn for, the intuition that shells up from somewhere deep inside us**
(Elle Luna)

Knowing who we are and what can be our contribution provides us with the power to be playful – I am thinking about values, talents and passions which make it possible to be playful in the things we have to do, even in the things that are definitely not our first choices.  Of his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes:

‘In fact, one purpose of this book is to explore ways in which even routine details can be transformed into personally meaningful games that provide optimal experience.’^

Csikszentmihalyi names these “microflow” activities.  I am being reminded – and I need to be – how we can play our games within the activities of the day.  Johan Huizinga writes of playfulness as something we have known and lost and are able to regain, something always useful to the vibrancy of ancient societies (Huizinga was writing at the beginning of the twentieth century so his choice of words sounds strange to our ears):

‘This temporary abolition of the ordinary world is fully acknowledged in child-life but it is no less evident in the great ceremonial games of savage societies.’^^

There are times when we get to thoroughly play our games and other times we can be playful within the games of others: flow and microflow:

‘”The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow.” […] In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. […] But in the flow there is no need to reflect, because the action carries us forward as if by magic.’*^

The ultimate aim is to be so free and flowing in our playfulness and gamefulness that it becomes possible for us together to create new games that bring in a better future for the one or for the many.

(*From Seth Godin’s blog: Getting the default settings right.)
(**From Elle Luna’s The Crossroads of Should and Must.)
(^From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.)
(^^From Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.)
(*^From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, including a quote from a rock climber.)

Two universes

It is like the anthropic argument: If I had designed [the universe] differently, it wouldn’t have produced me.  So that is a meaningless question.  I’m prepared to make do with the universe we have, and try to find out what it is like.*
(Stephen Hawking)

All of us are smarter than any of us, so the value to all goes up when you share.**
(Seth Godin)

Stephen Hawking is responding to the question of how we would have created the universe differently.

There’s something in his response that is about about living in the direction of life rather than against it.

Here we are with all of this consciousness and awareness and what will we do with it to see all things thrive?

Seth Godin writes in his delightful eBook Graceful:

‘No one is born graceful. It’s not a gift. It’s a choice.’^

Gracefulness is something we’ imagined and provided expression for because we’ve taken a look at the universe and decided it’s more about abundance than it is about scarcity.

The more we act out of ego – an untrue understanding of ourselves (perhaps too high or too low an opinion of ourself and others, or an opinion that the world is here for us to use and abuse), the more the universe appears to be a place of scarcity.

The more we act out of eco – connectedness to all things and all people – an astonishing transformation takes place, the universe becomes a place of abundance. It’s the closest thing to alchemy and quite astonishing.

I feel my daily quest increasingly to be the exploration of ego to eco.

Without this mystery I can only survive.

(*Stephen Hawking, quoted in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: Stephen Hawking on the Meaning of the Universe.)
(**From Seth Godin’s blog: Yes, there’s a free lunch.)
(^From Seth Godin’s Graceful.)

The alacrity factor

This, then, is the problem with uniform systems of measurement: The more entrenched a system of measurement, the more difficult is for a deviant, and outlier, or even an experimenter to emerge.*
(Youngme Moon)

Unless there’s an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound.**
(Daniel Kahneman)

There may be another way of seeing things – everyone has a perspective.

Different perspectives bring conflict, however, and we don’t like conflict.  Yet conflict is a good thing more often than we realise.  The problem is how we work with it.  Visual artist Aftab Erfan takes the view that ‘conflict is unavoidable, that it is fundamentally a good thing,’ believing it to be ‘a doorway to wisdom and personal growth.^

Erfan reminds me of Scott Peck’s point in his book The Different Drum, how we have to move through chaos and emptiness towards community.  These three stages lie beyond pseudo-community – defined by everyone getting on with each other in a superficial way.  We may think that community is where we are trying to return to out of the chaos of disagreement and conflict but Peck’s point is that what we are seeking to return to is, in fact, pseudo-community.  Theory U echoes this in a number of ways.  Otto Scharmer writes about downloading, in which we don’t shake up our world or anybody else’s (pseudo-community).  This is followed by openness to another view, but which one will win (conflict, even chaos).  If we move forward, though, instead of returning to downloading, we will enter into dialogue (listening to the other, emptiness).  Beyond this, there is the possibility of new imaginings and possibilities that can only emerge from generative dialogue (community or “glory” as Peck described it).  –  believing generative dialogue lies beyond agreeing about everything for an easy life, or one argument winning over the other, to something new being imagined and created.

One of the important elements for the new-possible is to be different.

Youngme Moon writes about how providing feedback to her students in a particular way – naming five areas of performance – had an unforeseen outcome.  Her students now wanted to improve in their weaknesses.  This drive to improve weaknesses would only lead to everyone being the same.  She admits:

‘Just about everyone in my class was focused on improving their weaknesses. […] No one was playing to their strengths anymore  As a result, our class discussions had begun to lose their sparkle.’*

What Moon discovered in her classroom repeats in just about all areas where humans come together.  Friedensreich Hundertwasser named five skins we wear, and the fourth – social environment and identity – requires that we define ourselves if we are not to conform to others (the other skins are: epidermis, clothing, home and our planetary skin).

We need to know how we are different to contribute to bringing forth the new:

‘It is, however, through difficulty and opposition that we define ourselves.  The mind needs something against which it can profile and discover itself.’^^

Next time we’re in a room and ready to capitulate to the person who’s speaking most confidently and eloquently, let’s remember no one alone is wise to the point of all-knowing, rather, we are wise together.  Then let us share our thought, picture, feeling, song or difference.

Alacrity: brisk and cheerful readiness.

(*From Youngme Moon’s Different.)
(**From Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.)
(^Aftab Erfan, from Drawn Together Through Visual Practice.)
(^^From John O’Donohue’s Eternal Echoes.)



Not the feet – the stars, the stars

Look up at the stars and not down at your feet.  Try to make sense of what you see and wonder what makes the universe exist.  Be curious.*
(Stephen Hawking)

I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.  I cannot count one.  I know not the first letter of the alphabet.  I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.**
(Henry David Thoreau)

We need more than the everyday.  Tania Luna identifies how:

“We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not.”^

Nassim Taleb identifies something of the problem with comfort over aliveness when he writes:

‘For so many, instead of looking for “cause of death” when they expire, we should be looking for “cause of life” when they are still around.’^^

Native Australians follow songlines that mirror the stars above their heads.  And Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler offer an insight into what it means to be human when they use the illustration of the mariner – a person I imagine to be following the sun by day and the stars by night:

‘Autonomy is the desire to steer our own ship.  Mastery is the desire to steer well.  And purpose is the need for the journey to mean something.’*^

I need to change the imagery.  Whilst I get what Stephen Hawking is saying about not looking at our feet, they are the means by which we reach for more.  Taking one step after another is intimated in Richard Rohr’s point about moving to the edge:

‘It is ironic that you must go to the edge to find the centre.’^*

What we imagine to be the centre is not where we find the fullness for our lives to be.  We must take a journey, often to where we need to learn new ways of counting and find new words to use.  All of this is a series of steps away, not on some strange planet or possible if we only become a completely different person – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi helps us here:

‘To gain enjoyment over the quality of our experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in, day out.’⁺

This is what Chip and Dan Heath may well be referring to when they write about breaking the script.  Identifying how most people’s standout memories come from the period in their life when they were aged 15-30 – a time when many first things happened for or to them, experiences that are novelties – the brothers refer to this as a “reminiscence bump.”  They add to this something called the “oddball effect” that occurs when something stands out from the “brown” of life, appearing to have taken up more time but in reality didn’t:

‘Novelty changes our perception of time.’

When we stop looking at our feet and instead look to the stars, we’re breaking the script and living the drama instead.  It’s still the same story but it feels completely different:

‘Learn to recognise your own scripts.  Play with them, poke at them, disrupt them.’⁺⁺

Csikszentmihalyi offers eight components for stepping into our own curiosity (not someone else’s) – the “stars” are this close.  Look for a task that can be completed; be willing to focus and concentrate on it; see clear goals; be open or receptive to immediate feedback; the worries and frustrations of life fade before the deep and effortless involvement; there is a sense of control; the self disappears whilst involved in the task, reappearing at the close but bigger and more complex; and, the sense of time alters.

This is how we break up the script that has become routinised as we’ve grown older and we add novelty for an unfolding drama.

(*Stephen Hawking quoted in gapingvoid’s blog: What makes you amazing.)
(**From Henry David Thoreau’s Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.)
(^Tania Luna, quoted in Chip and Dan Heath’s The Power of Moments.)
(^^From Nassim Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes.)
(*^From Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s Bold.)
(^*From Richard Rohr’s Eager to Love.)
(⁺From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.)
(⁺⁺From Chip and Dan Heath’s The Power of Moments.)


If you have a group in Edinburgh looking for speakers to come and share something for an hour and would like to hear more about SLOW JOURNEYS IN THE SAME DIRECTION then drop me a line.  We have some fun with doodling and colouring.


And don’t forget to say thank you

‘Be quiet and stand still.’*
(Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber)

When we say thank you for something we’re noticing it and we will notice it again.  Gratitude matters for the future.

Instead of keeping moving, we pause, and in pausing we allow something not only to register in our head but also to move something to our heart.  This is important when it comes to its usefulness.  But I am not only thinking about usefulness and efficiency and functionality.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about the experiences of life:

‘There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life.  The first is to try making external conditions match our goals.  The second is to change how we experience external condition to make them fit our goals better.’**

This is an interesting note for how gratitude alters perspective and perception: gratitude in the basic things of life but also the more significant.  Csikszentmihalyi goes on to differentiate between those things that give us pleasure and enjoyment:

‘Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness.  Sleep, rest, food, and sex produce restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur.  But they do not add complexity to the self.  pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.’**

These things help us to feel restored but not to thrive.  On the other hand:

‘Enjoyment is characterised by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. […] After an enjoyable event we know we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it.’**

The warning here, then, is not simply to focus on pleasure because it will never move us forward into personal complexity – no matter what the adverts tell us.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their exploration of the power of moments, write about how:

‘Peaks spice up our experience.’^

Peaks are the things that stand out for us and are memorable within an experience.  Their advice in this direction?:

‘Just by disrupting routines, we can create more peaks.’^

Ursula Le Guin writes about how our imaginations need disruption too – we’re thinking about how we can notice more, be grateful for this, and use these things to create our future:

‘The imagination, like any basic human capacity, needs exercise, discipline, training, in childhood and lifelong.’^^

We’re moving.  Notice, be grateful, store, use in the future.

(*From Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber’s The Slow Professor.)
(**From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.)
(^From Chip and Dan Heath’s The Power of Moments.)
(^^From Ursula Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter.)

Get squinty with it

Morning is when I awake and there is a dawn in me.*
(Henry David Thoreau)

It’s all a question of learning to see.  Squint your eyes, squint your eyes.’**
(Paul Ingbretson)

How can we see the dawn in one another?

Why bother?

Because being right and someone else wrong only gets us so far; often the finding of something new will require that we also find one another:

“What happens because of what happens next?”^

To see in this way requires effort.  It requires that we do not give up because of how someone may first appear to us or how we struggle to understand what they say.

We have to squint slowly.

‘I love what I see.  Life excites me.’^^

(*From Henry David Thoreau’s Where I Live, and What I Lived For.)
(**Paul Ingbretson, quoted in Alan Lightman’s Dance for Two.)
(^From Alex McManus’ Makers of Fire.)
(^^From Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now.)

Tearing small holes in reality

at times, we accidentally tear a little hole in the fabric of reality so something on the other side shines through, exposing the darkness of our routine existence*
(Donald Miller)

We are perhaps the first generation in history, we postmodern folk, who have the freedom to know the rules and also critique the rules at the same time.**
(Richard Rohr)

If we were a lions or dolphin or perhaps an elephant. life would be quite different.  The question of how we live our lives would be nothing to concern us.  We may write fables about animal but the characters are really humans exploring how to live more humanly – or not, reflecting on how we have opportunities to bring more goodness into the world – or not.

It seems we’ve not finished exploring all that it is to be human.  More than ever before in history, we can look at life closely, ask whatever questions of it we want and then do something with it as we want to do.  Eckhart Tolle writes about what we now know, how what we think of as life is something we’ve made up, the proverbial  “cat is out of the bag” and won’t go back in.  We know we can make make up another story:

‘When you live in a world deadened by mental abstractions, you don’t sense the aliveness of the universe and more.  Most people don’t inhabit a living reality but conceptualised one.’^

It is our seeing this possibility to write different stories that provides us with the hope that we can do better:

‘What else changes a person but the living of a story?  And what is story but the wanting of something difficult and the willingness to work for it?’*

When I read this, I found myself thinking of a story I listened to yesterday.

Elizabeth Gowing was sharing the story of Hatemja and her young and large family, a story she tells in her book The Rubbish Picker’s Wife.  Hatejma is an Ashkali woman living in Kosovo and when Elizabeth met her, Hatejma’s children were unable to attend school because they didn’t have shoes.  Elizabeth, a teacher by background, began to tear holes in reality.  She worked to get shoes for her children, and when some were still excluded because the had missed out on too much time in school, Elizabeth taught them – together with around fifty other children in the same predicament.  When this meant the children couldn’t go rubbish picking and help their families raise a little money to live on, Elizabeth helped Hatejma and other women in the community to use other skills and make goods they could sell.  And when the original family were still living and suffering in their cobbled-together home, she helped them to secure a piece of land and build a own home.

We are all capable of tearing little holes in reality, according to our questions and our interests and our skills.

(*From Donald Miller’s Scary Close.)
(**From Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward.)
(^From Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth.)