Over several years I have slowly been arriving at the understanding of how dangerous and misunderstood the idea of talent can be.
Talent, the idea that a particular person has a particular gift; there are few more destructive, dream-killing, power-draining concepts. The application of the idea keeps me in my cage, serving other people’s agendas, eradicating my own… Along with my human-ness, for it is the natural existence of talent that makes me human.
Talent is universal, a sleeping giant present in everyone – and it is everyone’s challenge to see if they can awaken their giant.
I find that the mainstream view is that talent is something you either have or you don’t. And if you don’t, then you had better continue with your vain random search for something where you somehow do. I have heard this called the “fixed” mindset. It serves the purposes of experts who can earn a living from it, for as long as their special talent makes them essential. But it also serves my purpose when I’m afraid of exploring my own power. Maybe afraid of the repeated failure that is an inherent part of doing anything meaningful. Or maybe afraid of the confusing flood of emotions that comes from uncorking my own creativity. The absence of talent (or money or time – two other great examples) is a perfect way to disguise that feeling of powerlessness.
But if I can hold on long enough, through that dark uncontrolled fog of uncertainty and intense emotion, I might begin to realise my own potential and the breadth of possibility.
Talent is a human gift. I think we get it mixed up with skill. My experience of developing skill is a combination of hard work and, more importantly, operating from a place of curiosity and enthusiasm rather than desperation and “being better”. I don’t find it an easy mindset to maintain, as there are many influences around trying to proclaim my powerlessness.
For me, it is a long and intensely active journey, to perhaps begin to operate from a place of love, to perhaps begin to experience what I have heard lots of other people describe as “a sense of greater purpose”. I start with crappy skills, but I have had the best time of my life writing, drawing, making, and sleeping in the woods, to develop a set of crafts that I might be able to work with but are also just fine being themselves anyway.
But what was never absent, only ignored, was the essential ingredient – the universally shared, inexhaustible well of inherent human talent that invites in the infinite and the eternal, and makes me and everyone else a quirky sack of powerful magical energy waiting for the chance to be unleashed.
The World Cup might have brought a frenzy of goals (at times), but in the World generally a goal frenzy seems to be going on all the time.
Where am I trying to get to? A better question: do I need to ask myself that at all?
I understand why I do – I am trying to bring about some certainty and rational explanation to please myself strategically and intellectually. A strategy and a good rationalisation can be very reassuring.
But trying to get somewhere suggests that where I am is not good enough, and improvement is required. This sounds very worthy, but it is also relentless and very anxious. The attitude of trying to get somewhere never ends, and just tends to pick up workaholism, exhaustion, alcohol and expensive holidays along the way.
What happens in the absence of trying to create certainty by getting somewhere? The answer in my economic, moralistic, compulsive conditioning is: I become a lazy bastard. Not getting somewhere is inherently passive, and we need to be pro-active, is the message I hear broadcast in many convincing ways.
However, living in this supposedly shameful absence of goals, I have found that not to be true; the opposite in fact. Another tasty paradox for me to feast on.
When I am not creating certainty, I am inviting mystery… and that’s when the real action kicks in. Instead of things happening by me, they seem to happen through me; it still feels strange to describe it that way. I guess I mean that I end up doing things I never could have predicted, in ways I never would have considered I could. With much less alcohol and holidays involved.
That’s one of the differences that seems to come from choosing free will over iron will.
Ideas – the good ones – only seem to materialise when I’m staring out of the window, unthinkingly. Possibilities I could never imagine only present themselves when I stop striving to imagine them. Aaah… how delicious.
But sometimes things that seem like a paradox are not really a paradox at all, they are just the unfamiliar truth peeking out from behind the convincing illusion.
A very obvious clue that I missed for so long: my dreams only happen when I have relinquished control to sleep. Without permitting a meaningful release, I live in a dreamless, imprisoned state, trying hopelessly to get somewhere else. Completely unnecessarily.
I shall definitely keep trying to stop trying. Oh, hang on…
Another article of mine has sneaked into the online Diet and Exercise magazine – this one is about one of my experiments around eating. Check out riveting articles by food and movement experts, and by me, by clicking here:
The World Cup has begun, and the world is coming together… in their lounges watching telly.
If you really want to get in the mood (in the mood for what exactly though?), then you might want to watch this inspiring video by Beats By Dre. Well, it’s not a video, it’s an ad. I managed to find the version where you don’t need to watch another ad before you can watch the main ad, so here you go:
Unfortunately, when I watched this ad hype, it made me feel sad inside (I hope you only bothered with the first minute). The slow, tragic crumbling of a culture has never looked so stylish.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our kids could have role models present in their actual lives, living in their own towns; real people? Our real role models, if they ever drag themselves away from their tellies, would probably not fluff us with inspirational images and noises so that they could sell us headphones on the sly.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could participate in our own dramas, rather than have our pinnacles consisting of watching other people’s?
And now look - my cherished role model has been caught shagging a prostitute. And the tournament has now finished and I feel strangely empty (just like I did after the Olympics) because I’m not actually doing anything heroic myself. And I can’t hear the birds any more because I have to walk around wearing these bloody headphones like everyone else is.
But the video is packed full of celebrities though, that’s cool. I saw Nicki Minaj for 2 seconds. And it was fun rewinding 5 times the bit where the Spanish girl is pretending to have wild sex.
We are reduced, while Dre and Apple (now part of the same corporation) and Panini and UEFA rake it in while they can, laughing their arses off.
And all because I sent my own story off to the bench and brought on some very poor substitutes.
This is just the latest example of everyday mainstream consumer emptiness, a padded cell filled with beguiling, numbing distractions. But the door is not locked:
Switch off the telly, allow a bit of space to shelter from other people’s marketing messages. Once our own dramas have inevitably begun to write themselves, we might become role models for people in our orbit, especially the younger ones, by following those dreams. Maybe one day we might be able to make a phonecall like that geezer at the beginning (but without trying to sell anything).
Do I view the world as a safe or dangerous place? As I was coming home from sleeping in the forest the other day, I realised this might be a rather important thing.
Last year, before I started doing it, the idea of spending a night alone in the woods seemed scary. But after giving it a try, I was surprised at how at home I felt; I felt part of it rather than an impostor. The only monsters were in my imagination, and the only man with an axe was me. Before long, my attitude shifted to seeing the woods, and inevitably by extension my world, as a safe place.
The opposite can easily be the case, however. Watching the news can fill me with negative images. Watching nature programmes can present a twisted Darwinian picture of the natural world as a cut-throat competition, driven by the Selfish Gene. And working in an office can reaffirm this too, in a human environment. Everyone is out to take what’s yours, because that’s business, that’s nature. Plenty of people seem to enjoy all that, but I have found that seeing the world as dangerous and competitive has crippling implications, especially on my human-ness.
It seems to me that an anxious outlook is often the result of a lack of independent thinking, from swallowing messages from other people (this is of course not true for those living in objectively dangerous environments). I can be made to believe anything if I am sat in my swivel chair not thinking for myself. By outsourcing my opinions to the mainstream – newspapers and politicians and experts – I open myself up to manipulation. There are entire industries that have evolved to feed this the mainstream point of view (or “common sense”, as these industries prefer to call it), and steer me to their solutions. Easily achieved through the simple mistake of me wasting my attention on them.
If I think my environment is dangerous, I will probably be deterred from taking any risks, which keeps me obediently on the straight and narrow of the mainstream. This serves the interests of the mainstream very well… but not mine I think.
In this situation, one big risk I will probably not take is to allow myself to trust, and to be honest. Cultivating, through my own direct experience, a view of the world as a safe place, a complex system that I am part of rather than up against, encourages me to take the risk of, say, trusting other people with my honest feelings. And trusting myself with them more to the point. I might also trust my intuition and, just possibly, I might let my own creativity out of the bag.
Perhaps taking this risk of becoming properly human could be the most powerful and healing act I might be capable of doing for the world, to actually make it a little bit more of a safe place.
A person’s worldview will always be wildly wrong, and only a creation of the imagination to grasp the ungraspable. But since I can’t help having one, I’d rather do the things that nurture growth and sanity. It’s funny how something so major can be sparked off by something as simple as switching off the telly and sleeping in the woods. Or at least just switching of the telly.
“I saw this and thought of you” is, for me, the loveliest reason for buying a present, and usually brings the most happiness. In contrast, “I bought this for your birthday” began to ring hollow quite a while ago. I have noticed a real dimming of enthusiasm on my part for annual celebrations of most sorts. It might be because I have become mean and grumpy, or it might be because I increasingly smelled a kind of guilty obligation surrounding them.
Writing this makes me feel so scroogey, but cards are usually an utterly empty gesture. Not always – home-made cards, or cards that contain a hand-written letter are wonderful gifts. But Clinton cards with Dear X, Love from Y, where the ‘happy birthday’ part is already pre-printed, are not a thoughtful gesture; but I will be seen as unthoughtful not to send one. I used to make it easier for myself by having a pile of pre-bought cards and stamps in a drawer, and a load of Outlook reminders popping up in my calendar. When a birthday reminder arrived, I could fulfil my celebration obligation in 2 minutes flat, and bask for the rest of the year as a nice, thoughtful guy to that person. It wouldn’t be too much of an extension of this to spend an afternoon scheduling automatic e-cards to everyone I know, for the next decade, securing 10 years of thoughtful ness in 2 hours flat.
What is at the heart of this for me is the energy drain that comes from abstract things that have no meaning any more. This usually happens when the spontaneity has been taken out of things, and replaced with a required or expected structure. Annual celebrations have been brought down to their lowest demoninator – just look at the mindless way that piles of corporate Christmas cards are signed every year, usually while the person is still concentrating on their Powerpoint.
We are busy folk, and the celebration industry has made it easier for us by taking the thought and effort away, while using branding to maintain the appearance that it is still a nice gesture. It works for the busy folk. It certainly works for the celebration industry. It’s the spontaneity fairies that suffer, but if no-one believes in them then no-one sees them die.
Spontaneity is the most original and potent conveyor of feeling and expression. It does not work well with planning and repetition. That’s why we might find ourselves saying “Oh shit it’s so-and-so’s birthday again – what the hell are we going to get this year?” The whole idea of annual celebrations are flawed from the start, unless you are the type that naturally revels in them, as some people are.
Much more spontaneous, much more meaningful, are daily celebrations. The ones that just blurt out – about how the light through the trees looks, how lovely that smile looks, how happy you are to be there. These are gifts and celebrations that speak directly from one heart to another. And they are moments that the celebration industry has not yet found a way to get their claws into. But they are usually the first thing to disappear when a person stays too busy. Withered hearts.
Only recently re-acquainted with the spontaneity fairies, I fear I have gone too far, and it often feels like a self-betrayal when I do things that feel obligatory. Spontaneity, by its nature utterly unreliable, will not steer me through the requirements of modern life and modern relationships by itself. I’m sure I’ll grow up a little. But mine was locked away for so long that it can be forgiven for wanting to rush around for a while after being let out.
I am writing my own rituals, discovering my own ways of celebration and expression. This is authenticity at work. It is free of charge, free of guilt and makes me feel free. But it is not free of mess. It is closer to the source than scheduled niceness, but when the Clinton card is not posted it can paradoxically appear thoughtless.
Looking out my window in the mornings towards the river has made me gain an appreciation for mistiness and obscured views.
The way of thinking that has influenced me most through life has favoured clarity, based on the idea that things can be broken down piecemeal, analysed separately, and reconstructed in order to be fully and objectively understood. It is a very convincing approach.
It has been strange, and pretty exciting, to find that greater discoveries can be arrived at intuitively, through an objectiveless route that is vague and misty. It might sound like chaos, but perhaps it really follows the order of nature, the realm far too complex and interconnected to possibly understand or stand apart from. It seems almost logical now to me that nothing can be observed objectively (unless under the illusion of objective analysis).
Objectivity seeks to identify and destroy every mystery and replace it with a rational explanation that fits the objective view of things. But what about the mystery that provides the scientist’s eureka moment, or makes the poet’s work beautiful, the things she never knowingly learned? The subconscious is always at work in any situation that the conscious mind is trying to chop up and control.
Thoughts and writings happen one word at a time; that is how the logical, conscious mind works. But with nature and the subconscious, things happen in a sudden tangle, all affected by each other at the same time, like in a disco or speeding along the M4. It’s too much for the separated logical brain to handle, but not too much for the subconscious brain, which is an intimate part of the complicated unfolding. Maybe that’s why I started off crap at driving, and got a bit better when I relaxed (occasionally the same has happened on the dancefloor).
This kind of thinking is at work all the time in every moment of everyday spontaneous life. If the rational mind was in charge, conversations would be prepared speeches (like your first phonecall asking someone out on a date). On the street, we’d keep having to ask everything to stop so we can walk around and expect the different bits and get them to explain themselves.
So why is it seen as risky or passive to lack clear, fixed objectives? The irrational approach is not passive at all, as it is utterly part of the unfolding action, an intimate part of the experience. Usually, logic is numbing, as it seeks to dissociate from feelings in order to explain them; it is passive as although the mind and voicebox are busy, they have stopped the complicated natural dance from happening, in order to break it down and exert some kind of control. The irrational mind was already in a perfectly good place before the music was switched off.
I like the idea of my objective thought being a dull creature, a servant who needs to be let out of his room in order to help with practical, administrative stuff, and then shut back in again when it’s done. And I love the thought that when there is no fixed point of destination, there is never such a feeling of being lost – I am just where I am.
I also like it when I find an ancient Taoist word describing what I have been clumsily experimenting with: kuan - ‘no-thought’.
This kuan approach is not possible when there are teachers, shareholders, bosses or targets to be served, as they all require objective output and the elimination of mistiness. The rational Mind must dominate, and calls his friend Subconscious a lazy bastard and calls Heart an unrealistic softie. Whenever this servant is crowned, he becomes a tyrant, and destructive things happen.
Having made choices that have freed me a bit from these objective demands (but still saddled with the conditioning unfortunately), I have begun to taste what it is like to enter the dance of chaos and uncertainty, and find that I am perfectly equipped to deal with it, that I am it.
I have been reading a lot of fairy tales in the last year. Their authors are typically rural country folk, and therefore usually feature a poor person’s image of rich people. Kings and princes are often mean and have rooms full of treasure and spend all day hunting. And they are sick or stupid and easily outwitted by everyday heroes. These stories laugh at and ridicule the powerful.
Similarly, the image of poverty is often painted by rich people. It is pointed at and measured, and heroic quests are often undertaken to obliterate it. It is very nice for rich people to be concerned, and crippling poverty does of course exist (it has to, if there are to be rich people), but just as a poor person’s image of a rich man is rather stylised, so I imagine is a rich person’s image of a poor person.
Frequently this poverty is imagined in distant parts of the world, which is easier than turning up to the housing estate down the road. And frequently the debate is about how to lift out the victims, which is easier than debating about how we might be perpetrators. But it also involves a pretty narrow definition of poverty.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a popularised bit of science. Food and shelter are critical, that’s easily understood. When my hammock gets blown to bits by a rainstorm, I understand how easily some of those things are taken for granted. Rich people often characterise poor people as missing out on the things higher up on the scale (even though I’m not convinced anyone truly knows what “self-actualisation” actually means). But pretty early on the hierarchy is the human need for ‘love and belonging’. To me it seems that this human need, in its truest and purest form, is rather lacking in fast-paced modern societies, whereas in some “poor” societies (by no means all of course), they might not have money but they have something undeniably more enriching.
Maslow’s hierarchy is not a social hierarchy, but it can often be taken as such. Emotional poverty ignores social standing. A bit of survival wisdom says that without shelter, water and then food, you’ll last 2 hours, 2 days and 2 weeks, in that order. A lack of love and belonging isn’t so fast acting, so it can be easily ignored, but in the end can be utterly crippling, whether its victim is driving an Audi or walking 10 miles to fetch water.
Poverty isn’t just about money. Money can always help it along, as it can often be used to create gain based on someone else’s loss. Or it can substitute more precious things: I look around and I see extreme poverty, in love and belonging, in our culture. It has been replaced by consumerism – a frail substitute. I see a clear thread running between an emotional poverty in the “rich” world, and the behaviour that stems from this, and other forms of poverty in the “poor” world.
What if there is a way of enriching myself, that is not at the expense of someone else, but actually serves to collectively, un-measurably, but very meaningfully benefit the situation of people I’ll never meet?
I’m pretty clear about which poverty it is that I first need to be addressing.