Wise Words

The BBC reported this week that two notes written by Albert Einstein, including his theory for happy living, sold for $1.56m.

Given to a courier in Tokyo in 1922 instead of a tip, Einstein (who had just heard that he had won the Nobel prize) told the messenger that, if he was lucky, the notes might become valuable one day.

When the courier came to his room to make a delivery, Einstein didn’t have any money to reward him.

Instead, he handed the messenger a signed note – using stationery of the Imperial Hotel Tokyo – with one sentence, written in German:

“A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.”

As I hove towards my 50th birthday; and find myself this lunchtime, sat with a nice cup of tea, in the kitchen listening serendipitously to Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on Spotify – I think Einstein had a point…

More of Einstein’s wise words (thanks to the BBC):

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

“We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.”

“When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.”

Sunny

😎

After two house moves in two weeks; last Sunday, post visiting a loved one in terminal decline and absolutely physically and emotionally shattered – I cried for the first time in a decade. It was just too sad.

But five days later the sun has come back out. Life is very simple. Get some sleep, be kind, work hard, do stuff, and crucially (as I’ve recently discovered) ruminate less; and the sun comes out.

My single biggest achievement in the last year – and arguably in my life – has been to train myself to think, act and be more positive. If you’re kind, interested, positive and helpful there is no situation you can’t improve.

For me it is a feat of application, discipline and will. It’s not my natural disposition. But sunny is the best way to be. Today it absolutely was; and I absolutely have been.

: )

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.

Autumn Sunrise

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On a misty morning
With the kids in the car
Turning left
The surprise of a huge sun
Low in the sky
A silver gold blob
Just too bright to stare at
Not too bright to blind
Heralds
An emergent phenomenon
Not easily had
Coming into being
In my busy head
Happiness
More than a brain state
A life lived instead
Myriad things
In work at home at play
To bring together
Before it is found
Easily lost
A single moment can confound
But in simple pleasures
Doing the right things
Caring for people
About things
And oneself
Happiness shines
At times
Just too bright to stare at
Not too bright to blind.

I talked to a taxi driver today – an old man and a nice one. He revealed he studied art a good many years ago. Very much against the odds on a scholarship, he went to the art school at the bottom of our road – near where he was taking me.

He said other cabbies sometimes mock when he says he paints, but it brings him great peace and satisfaction. I owned up that I’ve started writing poetry too. We found ourselves kindred spirits. It’s not always the winning, it’s often the taking part with art. This poem refers to yesterday, but some of the warm glow spilled into today’s conversation.

Five Minutes

What is time? Judging by my day today, five minutes is the difference between happy and sad, frustration, tears, pressure in the chest cavity and making it just in time – or just too late.

As Kierkegaard said, the demands of the ‘ethical phase’ of life are unlimited. And they lead ultimately to failure and despair. 

But perhaps not. Five minutes is also long enough to clear your thoughts, take a breath and change the internal weather. A smile, a shrug, a stoical thought and a moment’s reflection before marching on. 

It all gets done, and if the demands are unlimited, the rewards are too – a big hug from a small child, a smile of thanks from a good person you’ve helped and the sense of being appreciated, needed and loved.

As the philosopher king and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations:

The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts.

It’s not all bad meeting the insatiable needs of others, so long as you save the odd five minutes for yourself.

Sacre Bleu

A splendid weekend en famille à Paris was marred only by two extraordinarily slooowly served meals. I’d write Zzzzz. But with four children, from 4 to 8 years old, over an hour of waiting – each time – for any food was more @!&£.

I was less bothered than the people I was with. Perhaps because having lived in Paris, I find surly service strangely reassuring. As a Parisien taxi driver told me on my last visit:

God, he is deciding to make a very beautiful country. He is making it very big and putting beautiful countryside and animals in it. He is giving it very good food and very good drink. But then he is realising every-body will want to live here. Merde. So he has an ideé! He puts French people there, so nobody else will want to stay!

In fact once you get the hang of French ‘pipple’ they are quite straightforward. First contact is often brusque – borderline rude – to a British taste (or Australian since we were with Aussies). But give as good as you get and add a bit of humour and you’re ‘best mates’ in no time. It’s as if there’s a threshold of rudeness, which you have to meet, to join ‘Le club français’. Too polite and you’re not worth the bother.

An inscription on the pillared back of Versailles shouts out in capital letters ‘To all the glories of France’. You can’t beat Paris: the Tour Eiffel, the Champs Élysées, crazy driving, le hot dog, le steak frites et le petit café to finish.

Add to that the people. Splendidly rude. But often warm, once the ‘first joust’ is done. It wouldn’t be la belle France without them.

Heaven and Hell

I read in the New Scientist a while back that people who’ve suffered near death experiences commonly have a sense of drifting out of their bodies, floating above themselves and being drawn towards brightness above them.

Sounds heavenly. But according to the scientists there may be a simpler neurological explanation – the action of oxygen depletion on the brain.

My theory of Hell draws on Montaigne’s description of his near death experience falling off and being crushed by his horse. His delirium made time stand still, pain an irrelevance and his life pass before him scrambled in time and place by hallucination.

A troubled conscience taken into that context must be a special kind of torment. And stripped of all sense of time, it meets many of the classic criteria of Hell.

I watched the film ‘Source Code’ at the weekend. The hero is a massively injured soldier kept alive, artificially, so his brain can be deployed in a virtual timeshift to stop a ‘dirty bomb’. He saves the day. And his brain comes to a stop at a perfect moment – kissing the virtual ‘girl next door’ having saved millions of lives. Heaven.

We could all check out any minute. In olden times often with no warning in a brutal instant. Spartans sought glorious death on the battlefield – not much time to contemplate your sins in that kind of death. But there were plenty of other ways to go.

Montaigne, like the ancient philosophers he drew on, writes a lot about death. He points out:

We call that only a natural death; as if it were contrary to nature to see a man break his neck with a fall, be drowned in shipwreck, be snatched away with a pleurisy or the plague, and as if our ordinary condition did not expose us to these inconveniences… To die of old age is a death rare, extraordinary, and singular, and, therefore, so much less natural than the others; ’tis the last and extremest sort of dying: and the more remote, the less to be hoped for.

These days many of us will go slower and with plenty of time for delirium – troubled or ecstatic. Even in an accident there’s a fighting chance of oxygen, crash teams and intubation keeping you going long enough for a few timeless hallucinations. All the more reason to live well, without regret or a troubled conscience.

As Montaigne observes:

As an ill conscience fills us with fear, so a good one gives us greater confidence and assurance; and I can truly say that I have gone through several hazards with a more steady pace in consideration of the secret knowledge I had of my own will and the innocence of my intentions.

And quoting Ovid:

“As a man’s conscience is, so within hope or fear prevails.”

A clean conscience is a good principle for life. And, although I’m in no hurry to test it, I suspect also for death. If you buy my theory, bad deeds and a bad conscience could last an eternity in our final moments. Good ones potentially shimmer with ethereal light. Whatever you think comes next, a happy ending is another reason to invest in a good life in the here and now.

London’s Burning

As a red London bus burns a few hundred yards from our house, it’s one of those moments when you stop and think, ‘Did I get this very wrong?’

We have always taken the view that the ‘cheek by jowl’ nature of urban London was worth the aggro. It’s vivid, lively, mixed – at times a bit edgy but alive. And nice ‘people like us’ live dotted all around.

But people who are not like us live all around too. And when it all goes up in smoke and dead eyed teenagers smash up your high street, it makes you think.

In Aristotle’s day another city state or a neighbouring tyrant could violently disturb your contemplation. In Montaigne’s, frequent bouts of plague and civil war.

A few boarded up shop fronts and burnt out buildings is hardly a siege and sacking or a street by street pogrom. But still. It feels bad. I’ve been anxious today. For my kids, for my other half, our house and our safety. We are always but a few authority figures away from mindless violence, a few laws from anarchy.

Ordinary decent people are feeling it too. I’ve seen several almost exaggerated acts of courtesy and consideration between people of all colours and classes on my way to and from work. Pausing to let each other pass, small acknowledgements and hesitant smiles. In these acts people are trying to say “It’s ok, we’re ok.” Post it notes on a boarded up shop eulogise our area and criticise the yobs. A volunteer army came out armed only with brooms to clean up.


It’s finely poised in London today. As Aristotle said man is both the best and worst of animals.