It is halfway between the southern summer solstice and Christmas Day as I write this, with just a few days left in 2017. As such it feels natural to reflect on the year that has just passed.
Years are curious units of measure. In some ways they seem to tick by quickly and blur together. Yet in recollection they stand as distinct layers, around which our character, worldview and sense of purpose are built.
On trees, growth rings visibly tell the story of a series of annual atmospheric events. As humans our layers are not so easily visible, but for us too each year adds additional colour and depth.
In some ways the trees live as we do. Some years we face fires, some we suffer drought, and some we just pass. While Nietzsche probably oversimplified in suggesting that the path to growth is through trauma, I do agree that when the going gets hard, those still standing get good. Maybe I am an optimist. Either way, the good news is that we get to give it all another go in 2018.
An awful lot has been said about the power of ideas. The visionaries, the dreamers, the entrepreneurs, the strategy setters, the creatives, and the big picture thinkers, all have brilliant ideas on how to change the world for the better. Ideas can be contagious, seductive, compelling and inspiring. The creation and sharing of ideas can sometimes even give off the feeling of real work being done.
But in the words of Steve Jobs, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. Day after day, early morning after early morning, meal after meal, meeting after meeting and phone call after phone call, whatever the domain the path from idea to reality points in the same direction, and is laid through a mixture of grit, resilience, focus and determination. This has been a hard lesson to learn for those of us who are quite content with our head in the clouds and our feet up on the couch. For while it may be nice to slack off or space out every now and then, there is no denying that ultimately the world is run by those who show up. The only way to make things be is to make things happen.
While Stanley Milgram is best known for his experiments in convincing strangers to electrocute one another in the 1960s, he has also played a critical role in helping make sense of urban anonymity. In the early 1970s, through a series of surveys and experiments in public places such as train stations and university campuses, Milgram explored and refined the concept of the familiar stranger. If you have ever seen the same person repeatedly during your commute, in the gym, or in another public place, and have found yourself both curious about them and resistant to making eye contact, you will have an appreciation for the type of relationship Milgram sought to understand.
The concept is not well studied, but as cities grow and social networks evolve, the familiar stranger is increasingly of interest to everyone from transport planners to epidemiologists to dating coaches. It turns out that even people we have never spoken to and know nothing about can provide us with feelings of grounding and community, while our unacknowledged presence does the same for them.
Home is a difficult subject. Are we from where we started? Or are we from where we have ended up? Can we really set ourselves up as locals whenever we come across a place and it grabs us, if we choose to stick around for a while?
For some, there is comfort in familiarity. For others, there is comfort in discomfort. While it is both a blessing and curse, I think I have a bit of both elements in me. For while I enjoy the smell of fear and sweat that comes with travelling far beyond my comfort zone, I also see the value in hiding underneath the covers longer than often, particularly on weekdays. As they say, wherever you go, there you are.
As the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius noted many years ago, the world itself is nothing but change, and our life is really just what our thoughts make it to be. Insofar as we have control over our thoughts, we have control over our lives. We may not always be able to control the stimulus, but from the perspective of the Stoic we should seek to control the response.
This is not always easy. Words have meaning, events have consequences, and our internal dialogue does not always follow the path we might intend for it. Like a dog let off leash in a park, or a bear finding its way into a populated village while in search of food, our minds can at times follow their instincts to strange and unfamiliar places with little provocation.
I had an interesting conversation recently with a musician friend about the relationship between creative process and creative output. We had just spent some time getting hands on with a vintage synth collection, and were reflecting on the extraordinary effort and patience required to get good sound and tight sync out of old analog hardware, compared to the ease with which software can do it all with a few clicks of the mouse today.
Creativity requires both inspiration and perseverance, and sometimes the creative process is nowhere near as enjoyable as we might hope, particularly where the tools used to create are unfamiliar, unwieldy, or unreliable. Hard drives the world over are filled with half finished works of musical genius, and every day funerals are held for those who died with much of their music still in them. Beginning is hard, but finishing is harder.
On one hand, it can be tempting to mistake effort for output, spending a lot of time twiddling knobs with little to show for it in terms of completed work. On the other hand, if music is therapy rather than vocation, maybe it is okay to enjoy the journey for what it is, rather than worrying too much about the destination in terms of end product. In either case, music is a voyage of self discovery, both for the maker and for the listener.
I find a lot of value in lists, sticky notes, and scribbles on paper, in order to keep my headspace as free as possible from having to remember things that can instead be written down and recalled. David Allen, a productivity guru whose work I came across many years ago, has had a profound impact on my life, not least of which because of his aspirational state of mind, called Mind Like Water. As the common definition goes, it is a mental and emotional state in which your head is clear and able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus. Done correctly, it allows one to become more receptive to finding a natural flow, where tasks unfold and get knocked off the list in a logical and organic sequence. The incredible mental peace I find when DJing and long distance running seems most serene when I have dumped everything I possibly can out of my head and into a bucket to deal with at the contextually appropriate future time and place.
The challenge, of course, is being diligent with it all, not just in dumping things out of your head whenever you can, but also in remembering to check your lists and notes regularly once you have made them. My assumption is that children would hardly be afraid of a Santa Claus that made detailed notes of their behaviour, but never bothered to return to those notes before coming to town. As with many things, keeping the discipline is easier said than done.
Events can at times unfold in an unexpected manner. There is surprise and novelty to be found in the gap between expectations and reality. Truth is indeed often stranger than fiction, if only because the bar for plausibility is so much lower in real life than it is in storytelling. At least in my experience, things that are hard to believe happen all the time, and usually when least expected.
Do we get to write our own stories? To some extent perhaps we do, at least insofar as we are able to control our interpretations of events. Psychologists speak of the locus of control, referring to the degree to which we believe we have control over the outcome of events in our lives. The thinking goes in part that those of us who recognise that we largely control our own circumstances are less likely to stress and freak out than those who feel their lives are largely at the mercy of external forces.
But what about those stranger-than-fiction sequences of events over which we truly have no control? For those times when disbelief must be overcome rather than suspended, it can helpful to think about how one might tell the story to others in future, in a manner that will not create disbelief at the time of its retelling.
Funny things, memories. Sometimes seeing a photo, hearing a song, or even reading the name of someone from another period of time can bring back recollections that otherwise remain buried. Funny too how important context can be. We may only remember something in detail when a specific sequence of reminding events lines up, like returning to a special place at sunset, or hearing a piece of music in a certain setting.
While it feels good in the heat of the moment to think that a special moment will never be forgotten, the reality seems to be rather different. At least from my experience, there are many special memories waiting to be rediscovered when precisely the right combination of sensory inputs is provided. Nostalgia can at times be a pleasant surprise.
How do you make decisions? Do you go with your intuition, collect and assess information objectively, or solicit opinions from those you trust? For some, it seems that consciousness is a smoothly flowing river. For others, conscious thought seems to drift between an orderly committee meeting and a raucous debate between opposing parties. Some of these internal forces are inclined towards action, and they debate against others who would really rather stay in bed on any given morning. Like the proverbial angel on one shoulder and devil on the other, at times it can seem as if different actors within us have very different ideas of what path leads to the ideal outcome for a given situation.
While I have not yet seen the Pixar animated film that explores this concept, I am learning over the years more and more about the values and motivations of the various vote holders within my internal decision making committee. While I have not yet fully defined each one of their roles and voting patterns, I can say with confidence that there is at least one permanent committee member for whom, for better or for worse, the answer is always yes.