Your own deep well of wisdom

There is one thing that’s true for everyone.

Wherever you are in the world, whatever you’ve done or seen or experienced, whether you’re 18 years old and just setting out on the path through adulthood, or you’re 78 and you’re thinking about how best to invest the final chapter of your life, it’s true for you.

And it’s this.

No-one, in the long history of this earth, has gathered the exact same set of experiences and struggles and values and skills and knowledge as you have.

No-one, ever.

All those things — the experiences and the struggles you’ve been through, the values you’ve identified and the skills you’ve earned and the knowledge you’ve built up — all of them add up to your own deep well of wisdom.

You, wherever you are in life, are in possession of a great well of wisdom, unlike anyone else who exists right now, and unlike anyone else who has ever lived.

Often, we diminish the value of our own knowledge and experience and skills, and magnify those of others.

Often, we see ourselves only through the prism of how we see others.

Consciously or otherwise, we compare ourselves, and we might find that we don’t match up to them.

And how could we?

We are unique in our way, and they are unique in theirs.

You are magnificent.

Your own deep well of wisdom makes you magnificent.

Breathe in your magnificence, raise your face to the world, and know that this day and every day that has gone and every day that will come will add another layer to the uniqueness of who you are.

Visualising your own virtual board of advisors

I’ve always struggled with the concept of “visualisation”.

Sports psychologists talk about how athletes visualise, in detail, the thing they want to transpire when they get to the track or the pitch or the pool deck.

Visualisation owes something to Napoleon Hill, whose 1936 book Think and Grow Rich has been a staple for many who have dedicated themselves to self-development.

Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.

To fully conceive and believe something, it’s necessary to visualise it in the mind’s eye as if it’s already happening, or better still, has already happened.

Another of the many techniques Hill put forward is the virtual board of advisors, or invisible counsellors: a group of role models who can advise us on a specific problem we’re having, all from within our own imagination.

For years, as I struggled with visualisation, my approach to problem-solving was to avoid it and hope it went away (if it was a real problem, it never did).

In recent times, as I’ve overcome a few drumlins and small hills and set my sights on some bigger and more mountainous of challenges in my life, my preferred approach has been to walk or to write: both are highly effective, in their own way.

(To write through a problem, I just start writing, freestyle, and see what comes up. To walk through it, just start walking. Both writing and walking are most effective after more than one hour of commitment — it’s in the second or even third hour, typically, that some solutions to the problem present themselves. In this way for a time Charles Dickens walked for three hours every evening in the London of the mid-19th century.)

The virtual board of advisors, or invisible counsellors, is different, and sometimes even more powerful.

It requires us to sit, with our eyes closed, and imagine the advice we might receive from several role models who we believe would give us sound advice. They can be alive or dead, or even fictional. All that matters is that you believe they have sound advice to impart.

You can try it for yourself.

  • Write down a challenge you’re facing
  • Write down a list of people who you see as role models
  • Commit to even five minutes closed eyes meditation
  • Visualise those people with you in a room
  • And just see what they have to say

The spread of ideas

The tagline of the TED talks organisation is “Ideas worth spreading”.

It curates ideas worth spreading, and helps elevate and amplify the message around the world.

It works, too. Careers and entire movements have started from the ripple effect of the TED stage.

There’s a blog about the impact of a TED talk as outlined in a 60 Minutes special:

[The producers] started thinking about the long-tail impact of talks, about how they spark viewers to action in the moment but can also subtly reshift the way they think in ways that might not be obvious for 10, 20, 30 years.

“We ended up doing it the TED way, which is the personal stories and the big idea,” says [Henry] Schuster … “The big idea out of all of this is: putting the TED Talks online. Because otherwise, TED would still be … this great, cool, quirky conference. But it’s not. It’s an internet phenomenon.”

And that’s the key part: “internet phenomenon”.

TED chooses ideas worth spreading, and tries to spread them. But the internet is a million times more powerful than one organisation.

Without the internet, TED would still be a “cool, quirky conference”. But it’s not. TED is a movement, which in turn helps start movements.

The internet is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. It up there with agriculture, the wheel, the printing press, the electric light bulb, the internal combustion engine and vaccination.

All those inventions made a positive impact in ways that are almost impossibly to quantify.

All drew a line in the sand.

Before, when things were as they were, and after, when things would never, ever be the same again.

We are only beginning to see the effects of the internet.

Many people still lament how Twitter is toxic (parts of it is), how Amazon don’t pay enough taxes (they don’t), or how Facebook is dangerous for humanity (the setup of the company suggests it is).

But if we focus on that, we miss the bigger point.

The Internet spreads ideas at light speed every millisecond of every day.

There’s an old phrase that goes:

A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.

That’s even more true now: sensationalism, fake news, conspiracy theories and sound bites without nuance or context can spread quickly.

But those dedicated to the truth cannot just give up, and the same mechanisms of light-speed communications are available to them too.

There’s a law in physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

If you consciously choose to bring good energy the next time you meet someone, you will see how good energy can spread.

The internet magnifies this in a way we can’t even begin to understand.

Humanity’s progress depends on using the power of the internet in positive and productive ways.

The honesty trade-off

In the short term, when you don’t speak honestly:

  • Other people might like you a bit more
  • You will like yourself a bit less

In the short term, when you speak honestly:

  • Other people might like you a bit less
  • You might begin to doubt yourself a bit more

In the long term, when you don’t speak honestly:

  • Other people will trust you a bit less, and begin to dislike you
  • You might begin to like yourself a lot less

In the long term, when you speak honestly:

  • Other people will trust you, and begin to like you a lot more
  • You will like yourself a lot more

One of the best ways to approach life is honesty over the long term.

A long term commitment to honesty takes three things:

  1. Resilience, because in the short term honesty can raise the hackles of people close to you
  2. Reflection, because if you’re going to be honest, you need to figure out what your truth is
  3. Patience, because the long term takes a while



Offenbach, Dylan and the timeless lesson of perseverance

Jacques Offenbach, a French-German music composer who died 140 years ago, is back in vogue this year.

During his life he wrote almost 100 operettas — a form of musical theatre bridging the gap between the classic operas (Mozart) and modern musical theatre (Andrew Lloyd Webber).

Operetta were seen as popular, with no grand ambitions and just a few singers or actors, shorter than the epic operas, and designed expressly to entertain the public for a few francs. (There are claims that Mozart was the first to use the term “operetta” — literally, “little opera” — and it doesn’t look like he was using it as a term of endearment.)

Johann Strauss was another composer who worked a lot in the style, but Offenbach became the main player: he opened the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in Paris in 1855, and produced operettas there for the next 20 years or so.

Music is serious business, so he had to apply for a license for his new musical theatre. The license came with strict conditions: he could stage only one-act comedies, with or without music, with fewer than five characters. He was compelled to stage works from other composers and satirical sketches were forbidden.

Why this rabbit-hole down 19th century French music history?

A couple of reasons.

  1. Bob Dylan’s new song “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is based almost entirely on “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman 
  2. Last week I rewatched Life is Beautiful, or La Vita E Bella for the first time with my kids. It’s one of a small number of movies I saw twice in the cinema, and “Barcarolle” is a centrepiece: first in the theatre as Guido tries to win over Dora, and later in the concentration camp, when Guido plays the same tune over the loudspeakers as a coded message to his wife.

Offenbach died before The Tales of Hoffman was complete, four months before it was premiered in the theatre.

He is remembered now almost exclusively for this and especially “Barcarolle”. His greatest work came after decades of tireless work.

Dylan’s Offenbach tribute also comes at the end of his career. He will be 80 next year, has released 39 albums in 58 years (his new release may well be his last) and he has crafted a beautiful tribute to someone who paved the way long before his time.

We can all learn from all of that, I think.

A re-commitment to daily writing

Inspired by two people I admire a lot, Seth Godin and Tyler Cowen, I’m back to daily writing — publishing one short blog a day.

Seth is a business and marketing writer who, through his online learning vehicles, is transforming the online education industry.

Tyler is an economics professor at George Mason University and runs the Marginal Revolution website (strapline: Small Steps to a Much Better World).

Both Seth and Tyler have been publishing one blog per day for well over a decade.

Seth on daily blogging:

I haven’t missed a day in many, many years – the discipline of sharing something daily is priceless … Over time, the blog adds up. People remember a blog post a year after I wrote it. Or they begin a practice, take an action, make a connection, something that grows over time. The blog resonates with people in so many fields, it’s thrilling to see how it can provoke positive action.

Tyler on writing every day:

I write daily, in almost a religious manner. I write on Christmas Day, I write on Sundays. I like to quit writing before I get tired of writing, that way I’m hungry to come back the day after. And the real enemy in writing is days when you get nothing written. If you write something every day, I don’t care how much or how little it is, it’s going to add up, and over time you’ll get more done each day. Just make it an absolute rule. It might not be writing for everyone, but whatever it is, do it every day, get better at it every day. Do it.

Writing is essential to me, and I understand how skills compound, so writing something every day seems sensible.

My daily writing

My daily writing will be about improving how to think, how to live, how to interact with others, how to show up in the world. Overall, it’s how I might be marginally better at whatever I’m doing every day.

My commitment is 200 words a day, and none will be longer than 400. (I write longer essays, here)

On average, people read about 150-200 words a minute. So 200-400 words a day is between 1-3 minutes of reading time.

There are two ways to receive each blog:

[This is 399 words, so on the upper limit. I’ll be back each day with more.]

The wonder of the growth of grass

Not far from where I live, there’s a road where I often walk, jog or cycle.

It’s a quiet road — not quite the “grass growing up the middle” type you sometimes get as you go deep into the Irish countryside, but whatever car traffic there is is sporadic and moves slowly, so it’s a safe haven for walkers and joggers and children learning to ride a bike or whizzing down a slope on a barely under control scooter.

During the early days of the pandemic, when general lockdown and the 2-kilometre rule was active, I passed a newly built house where a couple of men were putting the finishing touches on a new lawn.

The soil was raked, the stones were picked and seed was sown.

I passed there again last week.

It felt like no time had passed, but the grass was thick and reaching for the sun.

There is wonder in growth.

With some tending, and a little warmth and moisture, and a little time and space, things grow.

Whatever we’re trying to grow — a startup business, or our own understanding of ourselves and the world — we sometimes miss out at least one of the elements required.

Growth happens when we provide the sustenance needed and take care not to forget the time or the space.

One song could change your life

I watched some old footage of U2 recently. It was an interview from Irish television in 1986.

They were already a big deal by then — they had played a great set at Live Aid a year before — but it was before The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and about a dozen songs that would make them one of the greatest live bands in history.

At this point they were still young Irish lads in their mid-20s, talking about Irish music and Irish life. The Troubles were still going on in the north, unemployment and emigration were sky high and Jack Charlton and the World Cups and the Celtic Tiger were still to come.

Bono was asked by the presenter, “What advice would you give young Irish bands?”

I loved his answer.

“There’s one thing. It’s taken me seven years to learn this. People in the band business talk about managers and agents, and how important that is, and indeed it is important.

“But writing one song… That song could manage you. That song could be your agent. That song could change your life.

“A three and a half minute song. You could write it on two strings. ‘I Will Follow’ was written on two strings of a guitar. Two or three chords. ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door was written on four chords. Most of the classic songs ever written were written on three or four chords.

“It’s the songs. U2 came to the fore on a sound. The songs are the most important thing.”

That advice.

A song can manage you.

A song can be your agent.

A song can change your life.

It’s exceptional advice, and not just for young musicians, either, but for creators of any age.

Create art. Let the art sing.

I thought about Bono’s words again today when I heard a new song.

It was a song that ripped straight through me, that made me want to sing the chorus at the top of my lungs.

From the first few chords I felt like I was listening to a song from twenty or thirty or forty years ago, from America, probably, or maybe, maybe there was a hint of something European there — a little poppy-electronic French, or moody Scandinavian, or the sort of song that made up the soundtrack for the brilliant German spy thriller series Deutschland 83.

So good I had to look it up.

(This rarely happens. My Shazam app is a barren place…)

So what was this classic song from decades ago from foreign lands?

It was “All For the Best” by Bleeding Heart Pigeons.

Released a month ago, by a three-piece band from Limerick, Ireland, who are so new there’s not even a Wikipedia page yet. (Expect that to change soon…)

So well done Mícheál, Cathal and Brendan.

With one four-minute song, you’ve done Bono and the rest of Ireland proud, and hopefully, it will be your manager and your agent for many years to come.

Give it a listen, see what you think.

Why is decision-making so hard?

Why is decision-making so hard?

We have an almost infinite number of choices ahead of us every day.

Watch this show. Read that article. Listen to this podcast. Open that app.

All of them are clutching at your attention, and the best* of them are helpfully designed by specialists in behavioral psychology who know better than you do how you’re going to respond to a certain trigger.

All the distractions make decision-making hard — deciding what to do — but it’s not the only thing.

Decision-making is hard, because most decision comes with a hundred tiny commitments to make that decision happen.

You decide to exercise more? Every day there’s another opportunity to double down or remove yourself from that commitment.

You decide to start a business? You cannot tell how many more commitments that’s going to take. (Although even if it doesn’t end in what others might call “success”, almost no-one regrets the decision to start a business…)

You decide to try a vegan diet, or keto, or paleo? Welcome to a world of infinite choices and obstacles, each of them pulling at your willpower.

Making a decision is a matter of being decisive.

But the true value of that decisiveness will only become clear when you give it time.

(* best = best to you may not be best for the shareholders)

The next step

The next step reveals itself.

Big dreams and significant goals and detailed visions of a better future have their place. If you have something big you’re aiming at, it’s a good thing to keep it visible.

Even better, write it down and put it somewhere where it’s in your eyeline every day. Visions of where you’re going are valuable.

But too much time spent thinking of dreams and visions can be counter-productive.

Because what’s going to get you there is a countless number of small steps.

It’s hard to think ten or five or even three steps ahead.

But you know the one step you can take.

After you take that, the next one will reveal itself.