Sometimes I wish I were blind

Wouldn’t it be great to be blind? No, seriously. Think about it. Not all the time, of course. Just when seeing results in judging.

I asked a good friend of mine the other day if he would still love his girlfriend if she became significantly less attractive than she is now. His answer was “Of course!”

We don’t have relationships with appearances. We have relationships with people. How they look is really not very important at all.

And yet, first impressions are so significant. I certainly tend to seek out people who I find are physically attractive to me. I suspect this is quite natural (i.e. everyone does it), but I also find it extremely unfortunate.

As far as I can tell, there is no correlation between my impression of a human being’s attractiveness and the value their presence adds to my life. So can’t I just forget about appearances?

Perhaps this is a case of age overcoming biology. The older I get, the more interested I am in the substance of people and the less I care about how they (or I) look. Attraction is something I notice, but it doesn’t dominate my motivation the way it might have a few years ago.

It occurs to me while writing this that my tendency to value appearances less over time could be the result of having true, deep, honest, wonderful friendships. I’m fortunate to have friends who would support me through anything (and have done so) and whom I would support through anything. There’s nothing superficial about those relationships.

If only I could encounter people I meet for the first time with the same lack of superficial judgement.

Maybe they just don’t know

I like to go down the path of “What if I were to do… xyz?” Most of the time, such thoughts, if expressed to other people, are met with eye-rolling and responses along the lines of “Here we go again. Why won’t he just be satisfied with a normal boring life like everyone else?”

I typically find such responses extremely frustrating. To me, they represent a lack of willingness to engage in a creative discussion. If I talk about climbing a mountain or cycling the length of Africa or writing a novel or whatever might enter my head, then I voice those thoughts because I would like to actually explore them. And yet so often all I get back is an entirely unhelpful “It’ll never work. Stop dreaming.”

For a while, I’ve actively avoided such conversations in certain company because I expect to have my (sometimes quite enthusiastic and normally at least partially thought through) ideas shot down without being given any serious consideration at all. But that’s not how I want to be. I get excited about dreams and schemes and ideas. I want to share them.

I’ve wondered about the source of all the negativity. It doesn’t come from everyone. There are people who hear my ideas and respond “What a great idea! Go for it! I’ll be there at the finish line to see you make it!”

After some reflection, I’ve considered a possibility: maybe those people who respond negatively simply don’t know what I’m talking about. Perhaps they have no idea what it’s like to be thrilled by life. Could that be true?

Are they attempting to be reasonable and realistic? Are they trying to protect me from failure or disappointment?

I know what it’s like to take a racing car flat out through a high-speed corner. Do they? I know what it feels like to play a freshly restored grand piano on a stage. Do they know about that? I’ve slept under the stars next to a river and sat alone on a beach at night, just listening to the sea. Have they done those things?

Maybe they just don’t know there’s more to life than constantly making safe, sensible choices. Maybe someone needs to show them the world is a wondrous place full of possibility. Maybe that someone is me.

FOMO results from lack of perspective

This morning, I declined a request to connect on LinkedIn. It was tougher to do than you might expect. I’d delayed it for months. Why did it take so long? Because of the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

We live in the era of FOMO. That fear leads people to do things simply because they don’t want to forgo possible positive consequences. Note there is no guarantee of positive consequences, just the perception that they are possible.

Let’s look at this particular LinkedIn request. I didn’t recognise the name or profile photo of the man who sent me the request. I didn’t know the reason behind the request. If he hadn’t made the request to connect, I would have had no reason to do so myself.

Yet I wondered if connecting with him might have some positive result. I had no idea what that result might be. Perhaps a job offer? Or an opportunity to collaborate on some potentially interesting project? The defining feature of the potential positive result was that it was undefined.

I delayed declining the request due to my own FOMO.

And then I came to a conclusion. I have not a single reason in the world to connect with someone I don’t know or know of. I have real connections that are much more worthwhile and there are people I’m not yet connected to who could actually enrich my life.

I was wasting my time and energy worrying about this one person. In the grand scheme of my life, he doesn’t matter at all and never will. And at that point, I declined the invitation and started to write this blog post.

It’s easy to get stuck in the detail of a small decision. When that happens, the solution involves stepping back and seeing things from a global perspective. If it’s not important then, just make the decision and move on.

And if you want to connect with me on LinkedIn (or any other platform, for that matter), make some effort. Give me a reason to say yes. Claire Diaz-Ortiz has some solid advice in this regard:

How to Connect (With Anyone) on LinkedIn

From now on, if I get generic requests to connect from people I don’t know, I’m just going to decline them. It’s not worth my time and effort to even consider accepting such requests.

My worst habit: surrendering control

We all strive to live independent lives in which we make decisions freely and avoid being controlled by other people, circumstances and objects, right?

Nope. That’s completely wrong. My experience is that we spend our lives surrendering our freedom to just about anyone or anything at just about any time. At least I seem to.

Some examples for illustration:

1. I work in a job that requires me to be at work between 8am and 5pm. Why? I can’t think of a single reason why that’s a good idea. And yet I do it.

I’d much rather work shorter hours at flexible times with the ability to work remotely, even if it cost me a portion of my earnings. And yet I seem wiling to surrender control of the most useful time of every weekday of my life to someone else, simply because they pay me a salary.

2. I have lots of stuff. Possessions have to be stored, maintained, insured and used. In that way, any material possessions I have that I don’t really need are simply black holes that take away my time, money and space. In being reluctant to reduce the amount of stuff I have, I am allowing my possessions to control me.

3. I complain about circumstances that I can change, but I don’t change them. Do I think I have the perfect job for me? No. Do I manage my money well? No. Do I live where I want to? No. Do I manage my time well enough to do the things I want to do? No.

I do complain about those circumstances though, and that’s ridiculous. I am the only person in the world who has the power to change them. Yet I instead surrender control of my own life to the circumstances I find myself in.

Looking at the above, which is just a small sample of the ways in which I surrender control in my life, I am able to draw some conclusions. I allow other people, circumstances and objects to control my time, space, attention, emotions, money and location. More or less my entire life.

Consequently, I’m depressed. In context, that’s really not surprising at all.

I want to live an independent life in which I make decisions freely and avoid being controlled by other people, circumstances and objects. My choices don’t reflect that desire, however, and that’s a source of significant daily internal conflict.

Perhaps it’s time to take control of my life. Even if I do it wrong (whatever that means); even if I fail; even if it’s scary as hell.

Note-taking has changed my life

“Great idea. I must remember that.”

I’ve thought those words more times in my life than I could possibly count. Almost inevitably, I forget the bright idea and am left wondering what on earth it could have been. There are exceptions, but they don’t occur very often, and they aren’t necessarily the best of my ideas anway.

I’ve kept notebooks before, and used them almost obsessively for very short periods of time before more or less forgetting about them. The trouble is I have to have access to a notebook at any time, which is not all that practical for me. I don’t like to carry much around with me, and a notebook and pen therefore become an irritation more than anything else.

During 2014 I bought a tablet, and it’s proven to be one of the most useful possessions I have. I use it for, among other things, reading, web browsing, watching streaming video, reading and annotating sheet music, and, of course, note-taking.

I started to use the built-in note-taking software almost immediately, but didn’t really warm to it much. It was only when I installed Evernote that I started to experience the power of note-taking.

I mentioned that carrying a notebook and pen around is a bit of a problem for me. The same problem exists with the tablet. I carry it with me sometimes, like when I go to work, but a lot of the time it sits at home.

The beauty of an app like Evernote (I’m aware that this is not a unique feature – many other apps do this too) is that I can use it on any device. I can access my notes on my laptop, tablet and smartphone. If I feel like it, I can use someone else’s computer too. My notes are accessible anywhere, anytime, without restriction.

That really makes note-taking useful. If I have an idea for a book while I’m having lunch, I just pull out my phone and make a note of it. If I think up a theme for a piece of music I want to write, I’ll sing it to my phone or my tablet. If I see something that inspires me in some way, I just take a photo of it and it’s there in my notes to look at later.

While taking notes is useful when it happens, there’s another benefit that I didn’t quite appreciate in advance. When I look through my notes, occasionally I come across an idea I’d completely forgotten.

More unusually, I look at a note I don’t remember creating. That’s where I see the true value of taking notes in the first place. I can’t possibly remember all of my ideas. Yet there is value in those ideas that I would have forgotten if I hadn’t made a note of them.

Note-taking is now a habit. I’ve done it for long enough that I almost reflexively reach for my phone or tablet when I have an idea worth noting.

Yoda got it right: There really is no try

I have a difficult relationship with failure. The source of the difficulty is fear. I am afraid to fail. As a result, I hold back, which makes failure virtually certain in many situations.

I’ve known about my fear of failure for some time. It’s something I’d like to change, and I’ve given it a fair amount of thought without yet coming up with a solution.

This morning, completely out of the blue, I had a breakthrough in understanding the implications of my fear of failure. The breakthrough realization was this:

I am afraid to fail, so instead I reserve the right to fail in an acceptable way.

Instead of committing to whatever it is I am doing, I instead make a half-effort; I “try”. And at some point, I assess whether or not I think my “trying” can succeed. At that point, if I don’t think success is possible, I allow myself to change course and head towards easy, excusable, comfortable failure.

It’s much easier to accept that I “can’t” succeed in advance than to put myself on the line and fail despite my best efforts. In that regard, failure in any given situation in my life is not a lack of success. It is more likely to be a lack of willingness to show up; to put myself on the line; to commit, holding nothing back.


One example of this tendency to avoid failure in my life is found on the race track. A few years ago, I raced a 125 superkart in the club championship at my local race track. The general impression I got from my brief attempt at motor racing was that I was naturally quite fast, but I was never quite sure how fast I could be.

Failure in racing is quite scary. It involves finding the limits of machine and driver and then going over those limits. The result of failure on a race track is spinning and crashing.

In 5 race meetings – that’s 5 practice sessions, 5 qualifying sessions and 15 “heats” – I didn’t spin a single time. I was never once out of control of my kart. Not once.

Why not? Because I was afraid. I didn’t want to hurt myself. And so I held back. I drove at a speed that I deemed “good enough”, rather than going all out to be as fast as possible.

I failed in a way that was acceptable to me, rather than failing in the attempt to succeed fully.

The result of that “acceptable failure” was that I don’t actually know how fast I can be on the race track. I live permanently in a world of vague potential, rather than actual achievement.

In other areas of my life, things are the same. I “try” rather than “do”. I reserve the right to fail on my own terms to save myself pain, disappointment, embarrassment or humiliation. In so doing, I don’t really achieve anything. I’m always operating within what I know to be possible, rather than pushing the boundaries of my own perception to discover what really is possible.

I can see the negative effects of “trying” rather than “doing” in my work, music, writing, personal finances, personal relationships, etc. Pretty much everywhere.

In all aspects of my life, I am held back by a fear of failure. It’s universal. That’s not to say that I don’t ever experience success. I am able to commit fully sometimes, and when that happens success is truly exhilarating. But those experiences are few and far between for me.

I’m starting to see the wisdom of Yoda’s words in The Empire Strikes Back: “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

As long as I am “trying”, I will get nowhere. It’s time to quit trying, and start doing.

Necessary selfishness

I’ve come to a realization during the course of this evening: I am in a necessarily selfish phase of my life. I’m ok with that. And here’s why:

I’m starting to understand that in order to participate meaningfully in the world around me, I must first have a sense of who I am. Right now, my sense of who I am is vague at best.

For a while, I’ve been on a mission to find out who I am; to work out what I want; to learn to be comfortable with the person I am. If it sounds difficult, the reality is much more so.

And yet, I realize it is crucial that I carry on. Firstly, I must carry on for my own sake – I wish to live a fulfilled life of meaning on my own terms. And secondly, I must carry on for the sake of the people in my life – if I am to enrich their lives using my life experience (as I’m sure they would enrich my life using theirs), then I must first understand myself, the one who has had, and been formed by, that experience.

Right now, I’m in the thick of the selfish phase. And I don’t mean selfish in a negative sense. I’m not advocating self-serving behaviour that hurts other people. By selfish, I mean inward-focused.

At any given time, my attention is divided between myself (inward-focused) and those around me (outward-focused). When I say this is a selfish phase of my life, I mean that the inward-focused portion of my attention is larger than the outward-focused portion. And I’m happy with that at this point.

I can see that the selfish phase is temporary. There will come a time when I have a sufficiently strong sense of self that I can move my focus outward without fear of neglecting myself. I look forward to that day.

But for now, I’m focusing on me.

Follow your dreams, even if they kill you

On Saturday morning, I woke up to some sad news: Jules Bianchi, a 25-year old Formula 1 driver, had died from injuries sustained in a crash last October.

I blog about Formula 1 at and have done so throughout Bianchi’s short Formula 1 career. He was one of the drivers I rated highly, and I was hoping to see him have a long and successful career.

Since his crash in October 2014, it was clear that Bianchi’s injuries were very serious. Any recovery at all was likely to be limited and it seemed probable that he would not survive for very long. Just nine months after the accident, Bianchi passed away.

Motor racing is dangerous. Although Formula 1 has a remarkable safety record over the past two decades, everyone involved is aware that serious injury or death is possible every time a driver takes to the track.

Bianchi’s death is unwelcome proof of the danger inherent in racing. And yet no-one – not his family or friends, not his colleagues, not a single racing commentator or analyst – has suggested that Bianchi should never have pursued a career in motorsport.

And I think there’s immense wisdom in that. Bianchi was passionate about racing. He chose to dedicate his time and energy to becoming a world-class racing driver. Watching him at work, there was no doubt that he was following his dreams and that he found doing so immensely satisfying.

In the end, his dream killed him. Should he have done something safer, less risky, more “sensible” with his life? Absolutely not. What kind of a life would that have been?

Is living as long as possible the point of life? Surely not. A meaningful life seems, to me at least, much more important than a long life. Jules Bianchi, young as he was, seemed to know that. And what a lesson it is for me.

Risk is a part of life. In everything I do, there are risks, some of them physical, some emotional. Those are not reasons to hold back from pursuing my dreams.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that risks should be ignored. Risks should be taken into account and mitigated. Racing drivers wear helmets and protective suits and drive cars that are designed around safety structures.

Sometimes those precautions are not enough, as in the case of Jules Bianchi, and the result is tragic. But it would be far more tragic had he never followed his dream out of fear of injury.

Risks and challenges are not reasons to hold back. They are simply obstacles that must be dealt with along the way.

Whatever your dream is, If you want to do it, go for it. I only hope I can take my own advice.

Turning the golden rule around

We all know the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. It’s possibly the earliest moral lesson I was taught in my life, although I don’t specifically remember the first time I heard it. But what about turning that around? What about treating ourselves as we would treat other people?

In my life, the golden rule is a given. I don’t (at least not deliberately) treat other people in a way that I would find unacceptable if the treatment were directed at me instead. When it comes to how I treat myself, however, it’s a completely different story.

I’m my own most vocal critic. And I’m not talking about constructive criticism here. I’m talking about cruel, self-deprecating, abusive character assassination.

Any time I do something I consider “wrong”, I’m very quick to take the opportunity to remind myself how worthless I am. I’ve called myself lazy, ugly, stupid, hopeless, boring, and just about every other negative name you can imagine.

Such self-bashing cannot possibly have a positive result. And it doesn’t. I’ve finally got to the point in my life where I recognise that I’m only harming myself by gleefully enumerating (and liberally expanding on) my flaws to myself. I’m just destroying my own self-esteem.

However, when I’m faced with someone else’s shortcomings, I’m typically kind and generous. If someone hurts me in some way, my reaction is to try to understand what might have caused them to act that way. If their actions have damaged the relationship between us, I’m almost always keen to patch it up as soon as possible.

So if I’m kind to other people, why not to myself? When I’m down, why not build myself up rather than kicking myself?

In considering those questions, I’ve decided to turn the golden rule around and make a new rule for myself:

“Treat yourself at all times with the kindness you would show to others”

The value of real human stories

This morning, by chance, I came across the blog of Mara Wilson – the actress who played Natalie Hillard in Mrs Doubtfire and the title-role of Matilda in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s wonderful book. After not much reading (there will certainly be more), I was struck by the enormous value of real human stories.

It’s hardly the first time this has happened to me. It’s been a recurring theme of my adult life – human beings are interesting, all of them. It’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve received from my father – the idea that everyone has a story that is worth telling (fittingly, he’s a biographer and historian).

The human story that struck me today was in Mara Wilson’s blog post about Robin Williams, following his death in 2014. They worked together on Mrs Doubtfire, which was released when Mara was just 6 years old back in 1993.

Mara’s post is beautifully open and honest. She almost completely ignores the achievements and fame of Robin Williams and instead reveals the person she knew – the kind, caring, warm, nurturing man who put his energy into making people laugh. She also describes him as shy and vulnerable, which I would never have guessed just from seeing him as an actor and comedian.

She readily admits that she couldn’t face the prospect of being interviewed following Robin’s death. And doesn’t that speak volumes? She missed him, a man she hadn’t spoken to for a few years, to the extent that she couldn’t maintain her composure if she saw his face on TV.

I love stories. Reading fiction is a crucial part of my life. Writing fiction is slowly becoming part of my life too. So I appreciate the value of a well-formed fictional character.  But I’m reminded sometimes, like today, that no-one can invent a character as compelling as a real human being. No made-up joy or sorrow can even begin to approach the depths of the real joys and sorrows experienced by real people relating to each other.

If I can find other people’s real stories so compelling, then it stands to reason that my own stories – the real stories of my life – must also have value. If Mara Wilson’s blog post about her friend Robin Williams can touch me, a stranger to both of them, then perhaps my stories can have a similar effect on those who might read them.