Irrelevant Complexity 1) – Odd Jobs

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‘Relevant complexity’ is my theory of everything: satisfaction and joy arise from the pursuit of complex, worthwhile and comparatively challenging pursuits.

Art history, particle physics, the raising of children, the preparation and enjoyment of good food etc etc – all relevantly complex.

You need to learn, improve, occasionally triumph – and sometimes feel you actually know almost nothing – to achieve the satisfaction of mastering relevant complexity with a good degree of skill.

Then there are hobbies. Same effect Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ – as one become adept or expert but some risks: becoming a bore or solitary obsessive. I have achieved ‘flow’ by hoovering well, even cleaning a fridge. But these are not monuments to my life’s work or relevantly complex pursuits I’d want defining who I am.

What’s in? An eclectic and erratic list: cooking, relevant; gardening, chore. Writing, relevant; drawing embarrassment. Cleaning the fish tank, chore (and only tolerable if I’m left to do it properly) odd jobs, drilling and hanging things source of great irritation and angst. Why?

Because it’s hard to get odd jobs right. Our walls are rubbish, you only ever do a thing once – so you make maximum mistakes, never get the chance to practice what you’ve learned. And the smallest thing can take disproportionate time for a disappointing effect; which then stares down at you in reproach for years. Aaargh. Irrelevant complexity.

My latest botched odd job stares down at me here:

Curtain derailed
DIY failed
Drooping drapes
In awkward shapes
Lots of screws
And hacksaw blades
Variety of fixings
Wobbling and fiddling
Scarcely blocking the sky
Humble pie.

But every cloud has a silver lining. After three separate wasted days on and off up ladders, with hacksaws, at the DIY shop, I definitively gave up in a huff on our lounge curtains.

Then a miracle intervened. My beloved took to the ladders, took up the drill and made it all hang together. Perhaps she found it satisfying enough that she might become Oddjob now… Fingers crossed.

Arts and Draughts

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I found myself talking Art – with a nice bloke I’ve never met before – in the pub this week. It was at a leaving do for my other half.

Neither of us look like gallery buffs. But a happy coincidence of amateur enthusiasm for the painterly arts, meant two slightly awkward men – with ostensibly nothing in common – had a surprising bond.

He told me about a couple of lectures he’d been to at the National Gallery: what’s hidden in Turner’s boats and skies, what’s interesting about (two painters neither of us usually find remotely interesting) Gainsborough and Reynolds.

I told him about ‘Barge haulers on the Volga‘ and the problems of perspective for Renaissance composition (realism can really get in the way of symbolism – see Uccello navigating the transition from Medieval to modern above).

We finished on intrigue and alchemy in Nineteenth century porcelain (him) and the challenges of making colours and the discovery of new blues (me, him and Monet).

A cracking natter. We could’ve done footy – he offered me Everton FC early on. But something about him (chair of his local synagogue, England Rugby shirt, a bald head and long grey curls) made me venture portraiture.

I’m so glad I did. Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ in action.

Fridge Frees

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Proof, if ever it were needed, that Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ can be found in any – and I mean any – activity. This morning at 7.45am, I began chucking some veg and old bottles of chilli out of the fridge…

…Two hours later the entire fridge, glass shelves, drawers and door storage sparkle clean as a whistle; for the first time in over five years.

What possessed me? A combination of ‘homo faber’ (Hannah Arendt’s thesis that man needs to work) and ‘flow’ any task done with focus and intensity brings absorption and satisfaction.

Positive feedback from my astonished ‘other half’ helped too. Amazing what a week off work does for you – plus a brief respite from the kids.

As I said to the missus last week, I sometimes have an uncontrollable urge to take some autonomous action, to get on and do something – anything. Hannah Arendt explains why:

“Men are free…as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

A fridge frees.

Sport as Life

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The thesis: truly great sporting skill and self-expression come best when not too structured, not too investigated, not too explored.

The counter: nearly-great performance is helped by study, stats, practice and heightened professionalism.

Stimulated by a cricket ground conversation with a good friend – and his kindness in buying me Ed Smith’s ‘What sport tells us about life’, I’m pondering the balance of thought and action, impulse and impact, standing up and standing out.

Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’ comes from matching high challenge with high skill. This suggests a linearity – progressive improvement. Perhaps for some things and some people it’s more non-linear: in life, as well as sport.

A great work, a stunning goal or a pivotal intervention – are they more likely as a ‘moment of genius’? Or perhaps as likely a moment we could potentially judge as ‘madness’, depending on the outcome. Do our greatest interventions come where we ignore risk and just ‘act’, with no conscious consideration of the chances or consequences.

There is a fate and fatalism side to these moments – whether in politics, war, life or sport. The sense that the script has already been written and destiny calls – a feeling that life stands still, the world is watching and it was meant to be.

The best goal I ever scored – volleyed low and unstoppable from a zinging cross – had that sense of time standing still. There are moments in working life too, I can recall, of almost out-of-body otherworldliness when the stakes were high, but ignored, in favour of speaking-up and speaking out.

Of course you remember the moments it came off – not when it didn’t. There’s lady luck and ‘confirmation bias’ to thank in ‘memorable’ moments too.

Perhaps what we call ‘genius’ is simply the product of a self-belief which ignores the situation and unconsidered – sometimes lucky, but often skilful – action. How many times you pull it off determines how history judges the ‘actor’.

But the ‘average’ means many must fall below, for a few to soar above. Heroes ignore the odds. Most of us consider them. But maybe we should all ignore the odds too – at least once in a while.

Relevant Complexity 3) Classical Music

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For the second time in as many weeks, my testy mood has been dramatically improved by the prompt application of ‘relevant complexity’. Taken to the point of some irritation by relentlessly noisy and restless kids, a dose of classical music in the ear lifted my humour immensely.

Above the fracas, I found solace – iPod on – listening to a collection of classical greats on ‘shuffle’ mode. One came on I ‘kind of’ recognised, but suddenly found myself very much liking. So I googled it – it is Saint-Saens Symphony No 3; aka his ‘Organ’ symphony.

Pursuing my quarry, I googled Saint-Saens. Poor man. Recognised as a prodigy and polymath, he is damned with the faint praise of ‘not having up with anything genuinely new’. Just a synthesiser of the best of others and somewhat ‘derivative’. Oh dear.

I was briefly tempted to back off him. But I enjoyed his ‘Carnival of the Animals’ – at the wobbly performance in which my daughter was a ‘balletic bird’ last year. So I stiffened my resolve: ‘So what if he wasn’t original’, he’s improved my Sunday mood, so let’s stick with him.

Next stop a classical music website to see which of the myriad versions of Symphony No 3 on iTunes might be worth a few quid. Who? Er who else but Charles Munch, of course, composing the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1957. Fat chance of finding that, I thought. But sure enough – and not too pricey – the original RCA recording is in the iTunes store. So I bought it.

First major shock – it crackles throughout. Clearly recorded on vinyl, it’s a thumping rendition, but it crackles and pops like our old wooden Marconi record player once did. Bit of a shock to the ‘Digitally remastered’ system, but I warmed to it. RCA really should buy a new record deck though.

Next I googled the ‘story’ behind the composition and instead stumbled across a full length video of a US college orchestra playing it. So I had a watch…

By now an aficionado of Symphony No 3, I know: it should not be shorter than 35 minutes, nor exceed 40. The best bit, from whence the organ magisterially enters the stage, is about 7 1/2 to 8 minutes from the end.

And watching it on my iPhone I discovered an innovative thing Saint-Saens does get some credit for – some cutting-edge ‘four handed’ piano playing. The beautiful tinkly piano which follows the organ is achieved by two people playing the same ‘old Joanna’ at once. Stunning.

Not since my son’s favourite – Tom and Jerry playing Edvard Grieg – have so many fingers simultaneously tinkled the ivories in our house. He made me chuckle by recognising Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor the other week, announcing – ‘That’s Tom and Jerry!’

So there you have it. From irritation through initiation to ‘relevant complexity’ in less than a day, with some of Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ en route and even some ‘concerted cultivation’ via Tom and Jerry. The ‘adjacent possible’ is now a trip to the Royal Albert Hall to enjoy Saint-Saens live – or even better Tom and Jerry.

Perhaps for the first time I ‘get’ classical music. Myriad, sounds, stories, instruments, conductors, orchestras, halls, versions, performances and emotions – never mind composers – all brought to life in truly ‘relevant complexity’. No wonder it took my mind off things.

Ham Fisted

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Man handling
Pipe fitting
Wire stripping
Fuse popping
Floor slopping
Finger trapping
Pushing and shoving
Dishwasher in
Knackered out

Why is it most ‘manly’ installation tasks come round so infrequently that you make all the mistakes in the book? Having wrestled and heaved the new dishwasher into service, I look back on several now obvious errors of approach. If this one busts I’m laughing – I now know exactly what’s what behind the sink. But it’ll probably be another 10 years before I get to do it again, by which time I’ll have forgotten. A sense of relief but not much ‘flow’ – except all over the kitchen floor.

Relevant Complexity 2) Hobbies

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Until last year I absolutely didn’t get ‘hobbies’. Now I am persuaded hobbies maketh the man. The big mistake in life, I reckon – observing overwork, depression and recession hitting even the most high powered of my friends – is to have your work completely define who you are.

As Aristotle said: All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.

Sure we all have to earn a living. And if a trick of fate and a twist of ability take us to major responsibility, so be it. But a wider reading of Aristotle suggests no man can be ‘excellent’ who only works; much less ‘happy’.

Who we really are is often better indicated by what we do for leisure and pleasure. Of course being a ‘wage slave’ doesn’t always leave much space or time – and in antiquity, for most, there’d have been no time for leisure or pleasure at all.

But what we ‘freely’ do is a window to a person’s soul. Or perhaps better – as a typing mistake just suggested – a window to a persons ‘souk’: the bazaar of stuff we do and like.

A lot of hobbies are conventional: sports, music, walking, reading and none-the-worse for that. Some are apparently bonkers. I know a man who has laboriously constructed a scale railway in his back garden which his own daughter is forbidden to touch.

Some hobbies are sociable – choirs, ensembles, ramblers. Some are quite solitary – stamps and the myriad forms of collecting. Some border on sociopathic – travelling football fans notably. But what they all have in common is they endlessly fascinate the aficionado and generally bemuse the disinterested onlooker.

Of course once you spot it, the driver is ‘complexity’. Hobbies enable us to collect deep knowledge, unique complex skills and relevant (at least to obsessive) complexity. Hobbies are Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ par excellence – high challenge met with high skill.

“Who scored the winner against Scunthorpe in 1974?”, “What was the printing error in the 4d Commonwealth Games commemorative stamp?”, “What’s the winter plumage of that bird?”, “Can you play Schubert?”, “Is that a class 47 locomotive?”, “Is that a Bordeaux or a Burgundy?”

All of of these bring ‘flow’ to the expert. They are validated, either, by one’s personal appreciation of oneself or the appreciation of the ‘community’ of expert practitioners, fruitcakes and obsessives who share our particular interest.

But the art of life – and hobbies – I think is to weave together our passions with the other things we care about: family, friends, communities. There is joy to be had in literally any hobby – with practice we progress and develop mastery of its complexity.

As Aristotle said: ‘Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. [Or maybe a hobby?].

But there is also a trap – eccentricity and sheer oddness. The trick is in making at least some of our hobbies cohere into ‘relevant complexity’ so they define and develop us as much as our work does.

A friend described how he and his teenage son seek the ultimate ‘fried breakfast butty’ every Saturday. It’s about the only thing which always brings them together; relevant complexity. Building a garden railway, for me at least; irrelevant complexity. Writing for pleasure, relevant; long stints staring at the telly, irrelevant.

Albeit, as Aristotle said: different men seek after happiness in different ways, I think sewing (or knitting for my other half) ‘relevantly complex’ hobbies into the fabric of our lives is essential to properly embroidering life’s rich tapestry.

As Aristotle said of education, but might have said of hobbies if he’d read Csikszentmihalyi:

Education is [Hobbies are?] an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.

And

Education is [Hobbies are?] the best provision for old age.

But, of course, who am I to say. As the great Greek also points out:

Happiness depends upon ourselves.

And the fact I am secretly proud that I know what a Class 47 locomotive is, shows the perils and pleasures of hobbies. Keep it relevant.

Relevant Complexity 1) The Spice of Life

20120108-152605.jpgMy new theory of everything: all purpose and enjoyment in life is found in ‘relevant complexity’.

I came to the idea via the Hungarian American psychologist Mihili Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of ‘flow’: that we achieve optimum experience when we meet considerable challenge with considerable skill. Or put another way – when we master complexity.

I propose, that, the value of doing something and the intrinsic enjoyment in doing it, lies in it having and creating further ‘relevant complexity’. Let’s prove the pudding with food.

Does relevant complexity describe our relationship with food? Yes, I think it does. I’ve started doing lots of cooking lately – not least Indian. I seem to really enjoy it. Why? It needs doing. I get a break from the kids. When I get it right I get positive feedback from the missus. And, I mostly quite enjoy eating what I cook.

Notwithstanding there are some great dishes which are very simple, most of what’s considered ‘tasty’ in the world’s cuisines involves blending different ingredients, tastes and textures in relevant complexity.

To many, too much of one, one that’s out of place or the wrong blend of ingredients creates irrelevant complexity – often simply nasty. In fact I’d argue that even the simplest ‘great’ foods rely on great ingredients – which are often very complicated to grow, make or rear, requiring optimum care and conditions.

As the scientific chef Heston Blumenthal points out, cooking is applied chemistry. The complexity comes in applying it to that most unpredictable of non-linear systems – human taste.

And tastes develop and mature with experience. Taste doesn’t stand still, it is cultivated and grows. Blame ‘flow’, if the challenge doesn’t move on we become bored.

So, I conclude the joy in making and eating food lies in creating, enjoying and cultivating a taste for ‘relevant complexity’. It’s the spice of food life. Mmmm.

Guilt

I was reminded of one of my own ‘mottos at work’ this week – don’t start with an apology. We often start an encounter by excusing ourselves for things that aren’t really our fault. That, or making an unduly self-deprecating comment. Why?

Well when it comes to a big ballsy idea you can’t beat Nietzsche. What say you to this: all our animal instincts that don’t get let out into the real world get turned inside. This is Nietzsche’s idea that our ‘will to power’ is either expressed externally or turned in our ourselves – often as guilt.

Nietzsche is an interesting chap. Unashamedly elitist, cultured, a fine writer. But also discomforting and highly speculative. His punt – based on no particular evidence it must be said – is that there was a time when we were cruel but cheerful. Guilt didn’t exist. Just debts to repay and retribution to enact.

Depending on whether you were owed to or in debt, you were either cheerfully duffing someone up or being duffed up. But there were no hard feelings – even if it was painful and cruel. The nobly savage, jolly, barbarian life.

This reminds me of the Viking laws someone gave me a copy of a couple of years ago:

Be direct, brave and aggressive, grab all opportunities, use varying methods of attack, be versatile and agile, attack one target at a time, don’t plan everything in detail, use top quality weapons, keep weapons in good shape, keep yourself in good shape, find good battle comrades, agree on important points, choose one chief.

Not much introspection there. Sensible organisation, plenty of ‘flow’ potential and a good deal of what we would consider cruelty. I also suspect not much guilt… And by the sounds of it a fair bit of cheerfulness.

And this is what I find interesting in Nietzsche’s thesis. The barbarism and cruelty of dominance and power led to vivid, guilt free lives – nasty brutish and short no doubt, but vivid and guilt free. For Nietzsche, guilt is simply energy we can’t expend elsewhere. So why do we all feel guilty all the time?

Because we can never do enough (Kierkegaard) if anyone could view what we’re doing as wrong then it is wrong (Kant) and even when we do do the ‘right’ things they may turn out wrong (Mill).

Nietzsche asks a perfectly good question; why do we feel so guilty for everything? These days I’m feeling less guilty about spending that energy better elsewhere.

Stamps

I’ve written before on the topic of ‘flow’, children and embroidering life with rich experience – large and small. And we managed all four this morning, thanks to a cheap packet of world stamps.

The agile, and occasionally restless, mind of my now seven-year old daughter was completely and delightfully absorbed in sifting stamps from España, Nederland, Polski and the long forgotten Deutsche Democratik Republik.

Some of these stamps were around when I was her age. And the fiddly licky hinges haven’t changed either. Throw in a cheap album and she was completely absorbed in finding countries, licking hinges and sticking in stamps – despite her brother’s periodic attentions.

We learnt some geopolitics – there are 200 odd countries to find, different political systems from democracies to dictatorships and some memorable symbols and landmarks – from the Statue of Liberty, to St Martin from Czechoslovakia on his snowy white horse.

And all for a tenner. Stamps trumped her Nintendo for prolonged attention and ‘flow’ and we learned some things too. Cards, chess, stamps, books – the old favourites are still the best for kids sometimes.