If In Doubt, Do

Photo by Sarah Campbell

Excellent advice from Paul Graham’s essay
‘How To Do What You Love’

Although doing great work takes less discipline than people think — because the way to do great work is to find something you like so much that you don’t have to force yourself to do it — finding work you love does usually require discipline. […]

Sometimes jumping from one sort of work to another is a sign of energy, and sometimes it’s a sign of laziness. Are you dropping out, or boldly carving a new path? You often can’t tell yourself. Plenty of people who will later do great things seem to be disappointments early on, when they’re trying to find their niche.

Is there some test you can use to keep yourself honest? One is to try to do a good job at whatever you’re doing, even if you don’t like it. Then at least you’ll know you’re not using dissatisfaction as an excuse for being lazy. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll get into the habit of doing things well.

Another test you can use is: always produce.
For example, if you have a day job you don’t take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you’re producing, you’ll know you’re not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. The view of it will be obstructed by the all too palpably flawed one you’re actually writing.

“Always produce” is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you’re supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. “Always produce” will discover your life’s work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.

Advertisements

The Book – An Introduction

I’ve been in one of my Hemingway periods (long bouts of thinking followed by short bursts of writing) and find work on The Book slow as a consequence. To that end I promised myself three hours of today of proper pen-to-paper writing.

For me, the following rough-cut excerpt is the closest I’ve yet come to saying what I want to say. What do you think? If this was the introduction would you keep reading?

Each story you are about to read hinges on this simple truth: extraordinary people become who they are by fixing their eyes on a goal and moving towards it. That’s it.

Their magnificent, heart-warming, inspiring stories are possible because they are doers. There is no magic formula, no prerequisite, no mystery to their success. They simply set out to do something, to live a certain way, and the act of doing it was the sole precondition for their success.

Along the way each of them developed the skills, knowledge, and beliefs that sustain them and help them progress, but those only followed the first, the essential thing: action.

They have lives like Goldberg Devices – fantastic contraptions that no one else would have dreamed up, with outcomes decided by a single motion transferred through weird and wonderful mechanisms. Unexpected twists, peculiar levers and unnamed bits of machinery that come together to propel their lives forward.

They stopped waiting for the perfect moment, the clear-cut path, the secure position, the external affirmation. They decided: this is what I’m going to do, and did it, without guarantee or assurance.

Once they took that step, things happened. They found ideas, courage, inspiration, experience, friendships and knowledge that became part of their progress. As they moved forward, each step revealed the next. They gained momentum. They achieved their goals. They created news lives and saw the world through new eyes.

They discovered that those who do, can.

What matters isn’t what you have or know; where you live or how much you earn. What matters is what you are willing to do. As you’ll discover, anything is possible. You can conquer illness, climb mountains, unite a nation, change your career or save a child’s life. You can become an artist, an explorer, an athlete, a hero. You can live the life you’ve always dreamed of – if you will.

Picasso and the Art of Genius

The following short essay was my entry to the Frieze Magazine 2012 essay competition. It didn’t win but I rather like it (prejudiced as I am) so here it is.


Picasso – Encounters with Genius
(Picasso & Modern British Art, Tate Britain 2012)

I used to be anxious in museums, dogged by a guilty suspicion that my failure to find joy there was due to some congenital internal defect. Vapours of self-doubt clouded my vision. If I read more about art, purchased the audio guide or better-suppressed my impatience with shuffling tourists and hyperactive schoolchildren would I feel something? Once, I stopped and said hello to a little girl sitting on the floor of the Tate Modern, engrossed in Enid Blyton. “I like stories better than pictures,” she said.

As a rule, I do too – with exceptions for genius. “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken.”* The first time that bell chimed in me was on the dim-lit first floor of a municipal building in Mérida, Mexico. Sixty-seven of Picasso’s drawings were arrayed across two rooms, the pencil-lines of the sketches beckoning like fingers. Forgetting art exhibition etiquette, and my date, I stood nose to glass, trying to memorise the invisible something captured there. I went back three times in as many weeks.

The next chime sounded in Mallorca. After a late-night ferry crossing my friend and I stumbled into the train station, mute with exhaustion and simmering irritation. There was something insistently familiar about the ceramics exhibited in the main hall. Finally it clicked: “I didn’t know Picasso made plates.” We clutched each other’s arms, giggling like teenyboppers at masks with poked-out tongues and playful pitchers in the shape of fish with painted smiles and – I swear – a twinkle in their exaggerated eyes.

Picasso & Modern British Art
arrived at the Tate Britain. I went warily, half expecting Picasso to sag beneath the weight of expectations. Sure enough, some of the paintings were heavy, clumsy, jaded. The bell was silent. Then my eyes shifted and my ears rang. Picasso’s work clamoured its existence, a barbaric yawp that drowned out the adjoining British artists. I don’t go into a museum expecting to feel sorry for artists, but seeing the canvases of Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon hanging all limp and seasick I thought: oh, you poor things. Nobody who isn’t a genius should have to share wall-space with Picasso. “I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses.”*

Each piece pulled me closer. Once or twice, I laughed aloud. The twined black and white fingers in The Three Dancers; the playful, tender sexual energy of his nudes; the puckishness of a domestic collage; beneath the surface of each an unmistakeable, ineluctable energy. What is it? Technique, innovation, and colour; yes. Audacity, humour, sensuality, also. Love, death, politics, and beauty, too. But not one of these things alone, nor any combination, was satisfactory explanation for my smiles or the swift prickle of tears. Enriched and refreshed, but none the wiser, I left and went for a long walk, listening to the bells.

When I described the exhibition to a friend he picked up on a word I kept repeating and asked: “What defines a genius?”

This was an unexpected challenge. The only answer I could think of was: “I don’t know, you just know.” We sipped beer and talked about something else. Then I realised there is a common bond of genius – all genius, whether in music, art, literature, or life. To be a genius is to have a unique perspective on the world and the ability to create something which transmits that vision. Picasso rings true because when you look at his work you see what he was seeing. You are looking through his eyes.

Now, I feel more comfortable in museums. A gifted artist can create something to please the eye but if there is no gong-strike in my soul I don’t worry. “In each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken.”*

*Gertrude Stein from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Big Quitters Start Small

Quitting is an exercise like any other. You don’t have to rush in and try to deadlift the heaviest thing in your life. The big, scary weights aren’t going anywhere so you may as well start with something you can pick up.

For example, when I went to Mexico I quit buying facial cleanser. At first, it was just because I was flying hand-luggage only and it was over the 100ml size limit. So I took off without it. A few days of soap and water on the road and… nothing happened. My skin – long accustomed to expensive cleansers and moisturisers – remained exactly the same. It didn’t flake off or swell up or go greasy.

Now I use Dove bar soap once a day, which costs less than a quid and lasts for months. This represents a considerable savings over £6-£10 on a cream cleanser that lasts a few weeks, so switching has saved me a lot of money.

More importantly, once I realised that ‘cleanse, tone, moisturise’ is pure marketing bullshit I started wondering “what else do I really not need?”

Turns out I can live without a huge handbag collection and a closetful of impractical shoes. Nothing bad has happened as a result of only owning one winter coat and one pair of trainers. Sure, I still have loads of stuff I treasure and would hate to get rid of but it’s good to know I don’t need it.

Admirable Lives

Wish I could claim these beautiful words as my own, but they belong to EM Forster

The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create something, or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power… They found religions, great or small, they produce literature or art… or they may be what is called ‘ordinary people’, who are creative in their private lives, bring up their children decently, for instance, or help their neighbours.

Join the IQ Club

Join the IQ Club — because smart people know when to quit.

Quitting is good. Seriously. If you want to be happier right now quit something.

What bugs you? Your job? Your crummy relationship? The headlines? Carpooling? Organising play dates for your kids? Pretending to be interested in your friend’s kids? Grocery shopping?

Whatever it is, take a deep breath and say – preferably aloud – “I Quit.”

You can. You are an adult, of sound mind and free will. Act like one. Do not say “I can’t.” If you won’t, be honest and say that. But don’t say “can’t”.

We’ve been sold this bullshit that in order to improve our lives we need to do more. So we run ourselves ragged to work harder, go to the gym more, eat six small meals a day, be more sociable, catch up on the latest whatever, do up the spare room… the list runs on forever. As long as we play that game we’ll always be a few tick-boxes away from perfection, so quit.

What do you have to lose? Bad habits, bad relationships, boring friends, time-and-money wasting hobbies you don’t really enjoy, uncomfortable shoes, the respect of people you don’t give a shit about anyway.

The reason a lot of us don’t quit stuff is we’re scared to falling behind. Bollocks to that. Let’s stop chasing impossibilities and revel in taking control. Be a proud quitter.

Join the IQ Club by posting a comment saying what you’re quitting, email or Tweet @CilaWarncke with your IQ(uit) pledge. My favourite “quit” wins a bar of chocolate and a copy of “On Self-Respect” so hit me up and make it interesting!

A Poem for 2009

This was scribbled in pencil on the first page of an orange spiral-bound notebook discovered at the bottom of a box. Written, I guess, around Christmas 2009. Thought I’d share in honour of National Poetry Day.

Christ…
The Reason for the
Season is a fantasy.
Dragons, the Four
Horsemen, blood and
Fire behind
Moonbeams. What
Do we celebrate?
A hole torn in the fabric of civilisation. The
Pulse of the planet
Skipping in fear or anticipation.
Twenty centuries of
Stony sleep vexed
To… a storm in heaven?
Nine years: one for
Every alleged feline life.
Signs and wonders, three
Wise men. Three
Blind mice. See how they
Run. Salvation isn’t
Free.
Jesus.