Sunday, 15 March 2015

Linklater's Boyhood: finding meaning through family and connecting with others

Mason Evans, protagonist of Boyhood, at the movie's brilliant ending. Photo source. 

Boyhood, the extraordinary 2014 movie shot intermittently over twelve years by Richard Linklater, maps Mason Evan’s journey from six to eighteen years old, with all of the challenges and moments of joy in-between. The beauty of the film is ingrained in this detail, or the day-to-day intricacies of experience, emotion and connection.

As Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason's father, neatly states,

It's Tolstoy-esque in scope. I thought the Before series was the most unique thing I would ever be a part of, but Rick has engaged me in something even more strange. Doing a scene with a young boy at the age of seven when he talks about why do raccoons die, and at the age of 12 when he talks about video games, and 17 when he asks me about girls, and have it be the same actor—to watch his voice and body morph—it's a little bit like timelapse photography of a human being.

Boyhood is a story of family and connection from start to finish, although it is realistic and not without difficulties. We see sibling disputes, disagreements with parents, and failed teenage relationships that cannot fail to strike a chord.

Mason complains to his then-girlfriend, Sheena, that, "I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I'm just not.", adding that, "I find myself so furious at all these people that I am in contact with just for controlling me or whatever but you know they are not even aware they are doing it."

Sheena replies by asking, "in this perfect world where no one is controlling you. What's different? What changes?" To which Mason responds, "Everything. I mean, I just wanna be able to do anything I want, because it makes me feel alive. As opposed to giving me the appearance of normality."

From one existential crisis to another, Mason is searching for meaning and a way to define his purpose. I love Boyhood's celebration of art and creation, yet as the film closes, we’re left thinking that perhaps Mason's pursuit of purpose lies precisely in the relationships that we’ve seen him shape in the last twelve years.

Reading Harry Potter in Boyhood.

After all, our lives aren't truly marked by the things we tend to obsess over achieving. Working past 5pm every day won’t win a place in your eulogy, nor will having the biggest house of your friends (I enjoyed how Arianna Huffington wrote about this in Thrive).

At one point in Boyhood, during a road trip to Austin, Mason explains why he wants to to delete his Facebook: “I just want to try and not live my life through a screen, I want, like some actual interaction… a real person, not just the profile they put up”.

We don’t need to delete our Facebook, but simply remember that life is made up of connections (as Whitman recently reminded us), and a life is remembered for the impact that it has on others. Creating a mark on the world is often more to do with connecting with others than making a name for ourselves. This is how we create meaning, and quite often it’s how we cultivate happiness too.

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Saturday, 7 March 2015

Navigating a Confusing World with Whitman's "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances"

Walt Whitman photographed at his home in Camden, New Jersey. Samuel Murray, 1891.

"Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances" by Walt Whitman is included in my favourite poetry anthology of last year, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden. It is chosen by Stephen Fry in the collection, and it's also alleged to be J.K. Rowling's favourite poem.

I love this poem because it recognises that the world is a confusing place. It's not always easy to find meaning, and I think we all occasionally ponder why we're here.

Whitman seems to be telling us that this is understandable. Yet he also suggests there is a solution of sorts: spending time with those who are important to us, and creating meaning through connection.

The final four lines are worth learning by heart. As Stephen Fry beautifully puts it: "It's Uncle Walt at his most perfect, I think. The strangely jerky parenthetical hiccups in the middle all build into an ending that never fails to choke me".

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances by Walt Whitman

Of the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,
May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known,
(How often they dart out of themselves as if to confound me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, aught of them,)
May-be seeming to me what they are (as doubtless they indeed but seem) as from my present point of view, and might prove (as of course they would) nought of what they appear, or nought anyhow, from entirely changed points of view;
To me these and the like of these are curiosly answer'd by my lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

From Leaves of Grass

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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Mastering the art of being brilliant (and how to be one of the super-happy 2%)

During a recent mentoring session I was recommended several books for business and personal development. These were to help me work out where I want to be, where to start, how to become a more confident leader and thinker, that sort of thing.

The books included:

It was this last book, The Art of Being Brilliant, which the mentor really had good things to say about. The book, she told me, helps you to develop the kind of attitude that takes you from good to brilliant in all aspects of life.

The Art of Being Brilliant

We reckon only about 2% of people fall into the category of feeling consistently great.  The “2%ers” stand out a mile. They are enthusiastic, optimistic, energetic, effervescent and possess a 'can-do' mentality. Research shows that they live longer, are more productive and raise the happiness levels of the people around them.

- Andy Cope and Andy Whittaker

It's an easy read, at under 200 pages. There are lots of diagrams (simple ones, mind), drawings, and pages to write down your answers to questions. 

The first set of questions includes:

Being brilliant with Andy Cope and Andy Whittaker
  • Think of someone who inspires you. What exactly do they do that makes you feel so brilliant?
  • Who are you at your best?
  • It's your 100th birthday and there's a big family party in your honour. Someone is going to stand up and say a few words about you. What would you like them to say?

The book is full of positivity, and shares "six common-sense principles to transform your life". It sounds quick-fix, but like the authors say, it's really all just common sense that we could do with being reminded of.

If you want to discover what you're good at, make the most of what you've got, and work out where you want to go next, this book is a superb place to start.

A quick warning: this book contains a lot of exclamation marks.

It's safe to say that positive thinking won't let you do 'anything'. However, it is even safer to say that positive thinking will let you do 'everything' better than negative thinking will. Positive thinking will let you use the ability which you have, and that is awesome. It works this way. You can walk into a dark room, flip on the switch and immediately the room is lighted. Flipping the switch did not generate the electricity; it released the electricity which had been stored. Positive thinking works that way - it releases the abilities which you have.

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Sunday, 8 February 2015

Marina Keegan's list of interesting stuff, and why we should create our own

I wrote about Marina Keegan's book The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories towards the end of last year. I suggested that the collection could be used to find hope and the courage to be creative, but there was something else that particularly inspired me.

This was Keegan's list of Interesting Stuff, which is mentioned in the book's introduction by the essayist and professor Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman recalls how, in an application to her first-person writing class, Marina wrote the following:

About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That's what I call it. I'll admit it's become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter's hand gestures, to my cab driver's eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.

I find this fascinating: a source of creative wisdom and inspiration, yet also a trove of memories and everyday experiences.

When reading The Opposite of Loneliness, Fadiman's mention of Marina's list sets us up for the stories and essays ahead, and it's hard to doubt the influence it must have had on her writing and creativity.

It's something more than a journal, and much more personal than using Evernote to collect snippets of interestingness on our phone.

Let's keep note of the words that inspire us, the smallest moments of beauty we notice, and thoughts that come to us that don't fit any other list.

More list worship

Sydney Smith's twenty antidotes to depression
Ernest Hemingway's list of twenty books we ought to read
Leo Tolstoy's "Rules of Life"
Charles Darwin's list on the pros and cons of marriage (and the importance of books)

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Sunday, 25 January 2015

Amusing books and blazing fires: Sydney Smith's 20 antidotes to depression and low spirits

One of my favourite lists in Shaun Usher's brilliant Lists of Note is that of essayist and clergyman Sydney Smith. Sent to Lady Georgiana Morpeth in February 1820, Smith listed twenty pieces of advice to help his good friend overcome a bout of depression.

Sydney Smith, wit and provider of good
Upon considering the advice listed (which includes feel-good fiction, blazing fires, and not seeing further than dinner time - my favourite), Smith clearly had a knack for cheering up a friend, and his advice hasn't lost much value since.

The letter starts as so,

Foston, Feb. 16th, 1820
Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you.

Not turning a blind eye to depression - we're off to a good start. Sydney then goes on to share his twenty pieces of advice for Georgiana, creating a trove of useful advice that is easily better than most self-help available today.

Sydney's twenty pieces of advice for "low spirits":

1st. Live as well as you dare.

2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.

3rd. Amusing books.

4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.

5th. Be as busy as you can.

6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.

7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.

8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for
dignified concealment.

9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.

10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.

11th. Don't expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.

12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.

13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.

14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.

15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.

16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.

17th. Don't be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.

18th. Keep good blazing fires.

19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

A special edition of Lists of Note,
published on
To further my fondness for Sydney Smith, he also wrote beautifully about the virtues of tea and coffee in his memoirs (1855):

"Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? how did it exist? I am glad I was not born -before tea. I can drink any quantity when I have not tasted wine; otherwise I am haunted by blue-devils by day, and dragons by night. If you want to improve your understanding, drink coffee. Sir James Mackintosh used to say, he believed the difference between one man and another was produced by the quantity of coffee he drank." (A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. p. 436)

Back to his list. Like so much else in the anthology, it is superbly displayed, uplifting to read (and re-read), and surprisingly applicable to modern life.

If you have the wonderful Lists of Note collection, be sure to find a Post-it note to mark the page (it's List 079).

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Saturday, 17 January 2015

Find meaningful work & nurture creativity with the 99U book series

One of my best-loved non-fiction books is The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp: an inspiring mine of creative wisdom that can apply to all manner of projects, professions, and plans.

I included this book in my list of books for bookworms to treasure in their libraries, and I've also delved a little deeper into the concept of "reading archeologically" that's explored in the book.

I'm constantly on the search for books that provide a similar level of creative motivation, and the closest I've found are the three books in the 99U series.

A beautiful design with even better content: Maximise Your Potential, edited by Jocelyn K. Glei. Image credit: 99u.

Jocelyn K. Glei, editor-in-chief and director, leads the 99U in its mission to provide the "missing curriculum" on making ideas happen: from that initial burst of creativity, to getting it down in paper, to getting your ideas heard. Glei oversees the 99U website, and she's edited the book series that includes Manage Your Day-to-DayMaximise Your Potential, and Make Your Mark.

The books are insightful, beautifully-designed, and provide a reading experience that goes beyond looking at the 99U website (which is brilliant). If you enjoy investigating creativity and new ways to innovate your work and thinking, give these a go.

To achieve your best work: Manage Your Day-to-Day

I first read Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind last spring, during lambing time on my family's farm, and loved it. Read this one if you'd like to adapt your mindset to maximise creative thinking and day-to-day innovation in your work and projects.

This book encourages: "Stop doing busywork. Start doing your best work". Some of the talented contributors with lots of wisdom to share include Leo Babauta, Lori Deschene, Seth Godin and Gretchen Rubin.

The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and e-mail off. - Mark McGuinness

To be bold and take risks: Maximise Your Potential

Next up is Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career. This book teaches us that, "success isn't about being the best. It's about always getting better", and focuses on stepping outside our comfort zones, building new skills, and tapping into true potential by taking risks and acting boldly.

This book is a good place to start if you feel that there's something holding you back from creativity. Read it and learn from the great minds of Joshua Foer, Cal Newport (who played a leading role in my education hacking article), and Behance founder and CEO Scott Belsky amongst others.

When we are working with intention, we toil away endlessly—often through the wee hours of the morning—on projects we care about deeply. Whether it’s building an intricate model of an ancient ship, writing a song, or mapping out an idea for your first business, you do it out of genuine interest and love. If you can make “work with intention” the center of your efforts, you’re more likely to make an impact on what matters most to you. - Scott Belsky

To create a business with impact: Make Your Mark

The most recent book is Make Your Mark: The Creative's Guide to Building a Business with Impact, which is much more business-orientated than the other two books. The message on achieving impact through entrepreneurship and innovation is a brilliant one, but if - for now - you're looking to build creativity, focus, and a positive routine in your projects and day-to-day thinking, I'd recommend starting with the other two books.

After reading Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximise Your Potential, you might even be inspired to build your own business: keep an open mind. This book - "a business book for makers, not managers" - has some one-off advice from the bright minds behind Google X and Facebook, amongst other leading companies and startups.

Artist, architect, and activist Maya Lin’s purpose shows up not only in what she makes but also in what she chooses not to make. She spends her time focused solely on the projects and causes that allow her to grow and contribute. She says “no” to the rest. Restraint and discipline come to those who are clear about their purpose in life.

Are you looking to build your creativity this year, or are you planning to dedicate more of your free time to creating, building, or learning new skills? If you are, this book series is a superb starting point to get inspiration flowing and the first ideas on the drawing board.

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