synthetic authentic

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Wrote this the other day to a friend to mark his 58th birthday:

‘Here’s a happy thought for you, courtesy of British screenwriter and TV producer Russell T. Davies: “The world turns under the march of the feet of nice people”. I like that sentiment, true or not. And I’m learning to honour the weight of the word ‘nice’, overused and underappreciated. And of course I count you in the regiment of nice people I know.

Blessings on your birthday. Eat cake with your morning coffee!’

On reflection I think it is a true sentiment.  Nice is variously defined as virtuous, subtle, fine, agreeable, and polite.  All elements that need defending in a time when crude, unscrupulous, self-aggrandizing rascals find widespread admiration.  Life would be intolerable without the company of Nice people.


Every now and again I come across something that stops me in my tracks and causes me to go back to read or listen again and again, and then a few times more.  In January 2020 my wife Anne put me onto episode 117 of the podcast Hidden Forces that did just that.  I listened to it twice in rapid succession and I have been back to the trough several more times since.  

In this episode of the podcast, host Demetris Kofinas interviews writer David Epstein about his newish book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.  Since this blog is for my children’s edification (though they don’t yet really know it exists), let me cut to the chase and offer the insights I gleaned in point form:

  • Reflection – this is the key trait of “successful” people – only when we review what we have experienced and ask questions such as “Did I suck at <insert an activity> because of something I did, or am I just really bad at it?” that we can gain the insight we need to decide whether to keep working on it or to move on.
  • Good Learning always involves struggle.  If we find something easy (e.g. we know more than 50% about a new skill or subject) then it’s probably not the best learning experience for us.
  • Innovation – the best innovation happens in a crisis.  We are forced to figure out what other people in our organization know, and then to collaborate with them to figure “it” out.  When the crisis passes we revert to protecting our turf and innovation wilts.
  • Broad Based Learning – when we start a project we need to keep our scope broad and to read and research widely.  By definition we don’t know what our project truly entails until we have done the work to “feel out” the edges – only then can we work our way into the centre and focus.  This always feels inefficient, but it pays dividends in the long run.
  • Good Match Quality – Be willing to take the time to sample broadly and try many things because this allows us to achieve a better match between our interests / strengths and our work.  Bear in mind that this is likely a life-long process so don’t assume that it’s once and done.  Beware shortcuts (e.g. articles that promise “Top 5 Life Hacks”) because there’s no way we can find self-knowledge without putting in the work.  Don’t be distracted by “head starts” other people appear to have over us because that way of thinking assumes that we are on a stable trajectory all through our lives.  This is almost never the case.  “Late bloomers” often prevail because they took the time to work things out early in their careers.

Anyone want to buy me the book for my birthday?


New Year’s Day: Church Bells

by Malcolm Guite


Not the bleak speak of mobile messages,

The soft chime of synthesized reminders,

Not texts, not pagers, data packages,

Not satnav or locators ever find us

As surely, soundly, deeply as these bells

That sound and find and call us all at once

‘Ears of my ears’ can hear, my body feels

This call to prayer that is itself a dance.

So ring them out in joy and jubilation,

Sound them in sorrow tolling for the lost,

O let them wake the church and rouse the nation.

A sleeping lion stirred to life at last

Begin again they sing, again begin,

A ring and rhythm answered from within.


Sounding the Seasons, by Malcolm Guite


I cannot think unless I have been thought,

Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.

I cannot teach except as I am taught,

Or break the bread except as I am broken.

O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,

O Light within the light by which I see,

O Word beneath the words with which I speak,

O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,

O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,

O Memory of time, reminding me,

My Ground of Being, always grounding me,

My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,

Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,

Come to me now, disguised as everything.


Malcolm Guite – O Sapienta An Advent Antiphon



Thing.  At. A. Time.

Kids.  Trite as it may sound, that’s generally the way to get things done, however big the task.  I know from experience that it can be paralyzing when faced with a huge job. Where to begin?  How to get through it? Will it ever end?

It’s May 2018 and I am just coming to the end of a downsizing project that involves opening up 1,600 boxes of personal belongings.  Personal effects which had been accumulated over the course of a sixty year marriage, many of which had not seen the light of day for decades.  Their owners had put them away, hoping to get to them soon.

However big the project, just start somewhere.  As you persevere you will find a way through the task.  You will build momentum that will carry you through to the end.  What starts out like a confusing jumble will gradually clarify. And before you know it, you will be at the end, marveling at the truth of my opening statement.  One. Thing. At. A. Time.


If you’re not proud of it, don’t serve it.

If you can’t do a good job, don’t take it on.

If it’s going to distract you from the work that truly matters, pass.

If you don’t know why they want you to do this, ask.

If you need to hide it from your mom, reconsider.

If it benefits you but not the people you care about, decline.

If you’re going along with the crowd, that’s not enough.

If it creates a habit that costs you in the long run, don’t start.

If it doesn’t move you forward, hesitate then walk away.

The short run always seems urgent, and a moment where compromise feels appropriate. But in the long run, it’s the good ‘no’s that we remember.

On the other hand, there’s an imperative to say “yes.” Say yes and build something that matters.

by Seth Godin

Important advice, but included here for my remembrance.  My kids haven’t inherited my chronic amiabilitis.  They already know how to say no.

Thanks to my friend Tim who shared this with me.


“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at three miles an hour.  If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or of thoughtfulness.”

I have always “felt” this to be true, but I have had neither the wisdom nor the eloquence to put it into words.  It makes sense to me that living, working, and making decisions at light-speed comes at a cost.  Only time will tell at what cost.


Wanderlust – A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit


Some T-I-C* notes on writing a “How To” Blog Post about creative endeavours.

  • Just get started.  What are you waiting for?  “Today IS the first day of the rest of your life!”
  • You have an audience of one, so take risks – only you will know how badly you suck.
  • Eschew the Web – FaceBook “Likes” are for losers.
  • Failure is your friend.  It’s your best teacher, and it’s kinda free – embrace it.
  • Finish what you started even if it is crap – there is always benefit in finishing, even if it’s to prove that you’re not a quitter.
  • Seek instruction and heed your teacher’s advice.  But beware free advice – it’s usually worth less than you paid for it.
  • Practice.  Everyday.  But only if it’s helping you improve and not because of some rule about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.  That’s a feel-good myth.
  • Having a curated body of work can be satisfying, but it can also be stultifying.  A dozen sketches is a project.  5,000 is a legacy.  Be scared.
  • Don’t do it for the money.  Because although you think it’s “art” no one else will.  And even if they think it is, they won’t pay you for it.
  • There’s no such thing as “original” – everything is derivative.  A few years ago Solomon said: “There’s nothing new under the sun” and he was right.
  • Remember, in the final analysis no one cares.  And neither should you.  Much.
  • Finally, know when to stop.  No one likes to hear you bitching about your hobby.  When your friends stop going out for coffee with you, even when it’s your turn to pay, it’s a sure sign that it’s time to try something else.  
*T-I-C = Tongue in Cheek

Landscapes (2)

“I travelled to Normandy and to Brittany.  I took pictures of Paris and I understood that I wasn’t interested in just any landscape, that in fact I was incapable of photographing the ‘beautiful’ French countryside.  It was only in Lorraine, where the new steelworks had greatly transformed the region, that I really started taking photographs.  I realized that it was precisely with this kind of landscape, transformed by contemporary men, that I felt a true affinity.”

Josef Koudelka

That’s my kind of photographer.


Every now and again I catch myself playing the “what if” game – you know, the one where you picture your younger self, living your boring, pedestrian life as the kid that no one noticed because you were so chronically and genetically uncool, untalented, and unremarkable so as to be invisible.  Then one day you turn up at school having won the Wimbledon Singles Boys Junior Championship.  Overnight, you go from bullied to fêted, zero to hero.

I recently heard Bradley Wiggins speak about his life on a BBC Radio 4 interview*.  For the uninitiated, Wiggins is a celebrated British cyclist, 2012 Tour de France champion, holder of seven Olympic medals, and six time gold medallist at the Track World Championships.  On hearing that he was on the 2013 New Years Honours list for services to cycling, he is reported to have said:

“I’ve won a bike race, you know, and I feel a little bit inferior to everyone.  I was just talking to some of the other people getting stuff, and asking them what they’ve been honoured for, and they are historic things, ground-breaking science or whatever.”

What?  Tour de France?  Four Olympic Gold Medals?  Six World Championship Gold Medals?  I’d call that an achievement worth celebration.  That he has achieved all of this without cheating (in a sport marred by high profile cheaters), while being a great ambassador for the sport in Britain and an inspiration to a whole generation of young athletes, should surely qualify him for the knighthood.

Wiggins sees it quite differently.  Asked about his achievements, he speaks about his wife and two children and keeping a marriage of 13 years.  Asked about how he felt winning the Tour de France, he spoke about his gratefulness to his supporters, and how he felt compelled to turn away from the dignitaries on the podium at the Champs-Élysées to face his British fans who had travelled all the way to Paris to see him win.

One more anecdote from the Tour de France to cement in your minds the kind of man we are dealing with.  I quote from Wiggins’ Wikipedia page:

During stage fourteen, a mountain stage, a spectator threw carpet tacks onto the narrow road at the top of the Mur de Péguère climb. Several riders suffered punctures, including Evans, the defending champion, who lost approximately two minutes while his team repaired his bicycle. Wiggins and his fellow members of Team Sky emerged without a puncture. Believing that a puncture resulting from an unfortunate incident should not determine the fate of a competitor, Wiggins then had his team-mates and the rest of the peloton slow down to allow Evans and other affected cyclists to catch up.  It was perceived as a generous act of sportsmanship and Wiggins was called “Le Gentleman” as a result.

My interest in humility has recently been stirred by my son’s curious response to success.  If you don’t already know, you need to know that I hold my children in high esteem.  They certainly did not inherit their father’s skill at mediocrity.  However, gifted as he is, my fifteen year old hates being called out for excellence.  He resents being praised for doing good work.  And he particularly despises being asked to play the piano “because you play so well.”  In the interest of family harmony, we have had to coach doting grandparents and unctuous uncles to refrain from public praise.

Wiggins seems to have taken a similar approach to success.  As a child he worked hard to fly under the radar so as not to be picked out by his teachers.  When asked by his teachers after winning a race at the Junior Track Championships why he had never said anything about his racing, he said “I didn’t feel the need to”.  He was happiest to be left alone to do his thing and not to stand out.  In fact, his invisibility caused other competitors to underestimate him.  After winning the Tour de France, many of his peers said that they remembered him as a bit of a clown and karaoke king, but “they never expected him to win the Tour”.

Maybe my son is on to something.

* Desert Island Discs – Sir Bradley Wiggins, 10th May, 2015