Vale Anthony Bourdain

I first heard the news about Anthony Bourdain coming home from a night out in Ho Chi Minh City. Part of the reason we were in Vietnam was because of Bourdain – he evangelised the country and its food and I hung on his every word.

I looked up to Bourdain – he was a fantastic writer, a traveller and a lover of street food. I was first introduced to him watching No Reservations, one of the iterations of his television show. I read Kitchen Confidential in Costa Rica, and soon devoured his follow up books. His cookbook (illustrated by Ralph Steadman of Gonzo fame) has pride of place in our kitchen at home. His shows were about more than food – he shone a light on our shared humanity through food and booze.

He was curious, adventurous and non-judgmental. Nothing was ‘weird’, just different to our limited definition of ‘normal’, a definition he encouraged us all to expand. He was and will continue to be an enormous inspiration to me and many others.

He left behind a fantastic body of work – you can read about him in this great piece in the New Yorker, browse The New York Times ‘best of Anthony Bourdain’ or check out his life through photos over at Esquire.

I’ll aim to do him proud by spending the next two months sitting at small plastic tables, eating delicious local street food, sinking cold Vietnamese beers and sharing conversations in the country that he loved visiting most. I hope he has found peace. Vale Anthony Bourdain.

 

Artisan is the future

artisan

I just read a great article about the growing movement of ‘artisanal’ products. In a world when goods are becoming so commoditised, hand-made wares made by expert craftsmen suddenly seem very appealing.

I think there are a few things driving this trend. ‘Custom made’ has always been a way to differentiate in the luxury market, though it’s more than that. I think consumers are becoming more conscious of waste and want something reliable, something they can “BIFL” (Buy It For Life is a growing subreddit).

I believe there will be a continuing trend towards bespoke, unique and customised products, with a hefty premium on those crafted by skilled artisans.

Here’s the article.

Desiderata by Max Ehrman

Speaking of timeless advice and beautiful writing…

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Jack London’s advice on writing

One of the great techniques I learned about during the Learning How to Learn course was ‘Pomodoro’, which sounds remarkably like what Jack London used to do (he called it ‘stints’).

I believe his advice applies not just to writing but to anything creative or deep that requires a state of flow. More than 100 years on it still applies.

Don’t dash off a six-thousand-word story before breakfast. Don’t write too much. Concentrate your sweat on one story, rather than dissipate it over a dozen. Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will none the less get something that looks remarkably like it. Set yourself a “stint,” [London wrote 1,000 words nearly every day of his adult life] and see that you do that “stint” each day; you will have more words to your credit at the end of the year.

Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived. They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your fingers. They are doing things, and their work bears the internal evidence of how it is done. Don’t wait for some good Samaritan to tell you, but dig it out for yourself.

See that your pores are open and your digestion is good. That is, I am confident, the most important rule of all.

Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.

And work. Spell it in capital letters. WORK. WORK all the time. Find out about this earth, this universe; this force and matter, and the spirit that glimmers up through force and matter from the maggot to Godhead. And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life. It does not hurt how wrong your philosophy of life may be, so long as you have one and have it well.

The three great things are: GOOD HEALTH; WORK; and a PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth—SINCERITY. Without this, the other three are without avail; with it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.

Originally found at AOM.

Less stuff, more time

For a while now, I’ve had an obsession with time. I think a lot about how best to spend my time, what I value, what brings meaning to my life and how to make sure I’m making the most of what I’ve got.

When I first started my ‘corporate’ career I was impressionable and started reading GQ, buying expensive suits and shirts, shoes and ties, tie clips and even bloody pocket squares! I try now to be a more conscious consumer but I realise it’s a really easy trap to fall into.

“We have a lot of stuff but we are poor in terms of our time and control of our time,” says Schor. “We must shift onto a path where we are less orientated to accumulating stuff and more orientated to accumulating time, connecting with people, building social capital. It is not how many toys you have when you die; it is much more the richness of your social life, that’s what really matters.”

This is an excellent quote from the really simple but well written article in Womankind “Why we need more time, and less clothes“. From a personal and sustainability perspective, it’s always interesting to think about whether you really need to buy a new set of threads.

Navigating your career path

I grew up with a pretty traditional mindset about career paths, and I thought I knew exactly what I wanted. I put my head down in school and studied, went straight into a very practical degree and then threw myself into landing a job at the most prestigious professional services firm I could find. When I finally came up for air I started to question whether I really wanted to be a ‘Partner’ or whether I was sleepwalking all along.

I’ve since spent a lot of time reflecting and thinking about a ‘career path’ and most importantly, how I’d like to spend my time on this earth. I recently came across “How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You)” on the excellent Wait But Why blog and it is one of the best frameworks I’ve seen for introspection and analysis on this topic.

A couple of my favourite quotes are:

The real cause of tyranny of choice is accurately seeing the sheer number of options you have in today’s world while delusionally seeing those careers as the 40-year tunnels of yesterday’s world. That’s a lethal combo. Reframing your next major career decision as a far lower-stakes choice makes the number of options exciting, not stressful.

I think the tunnel analogy is excellent – I now view work experience and learning as cumulative and broadly applicable across different careers (outside of certain deep niche skills).

A better goal is contentment: the satisfying feeling that you’re currently taking the best crack you can at a good life path; that what you’re working on might prove to be a piece of an eventual puzzle you can feel really proud of. Chasing happiness is an amateur move. Feeling contentment in those times when your choices and your circumstances have combined to pull it off, and knowing you have all that you could ever ask for, is for the wise.

Great common sense advice.

 

Learning how to learn

I’m very fortunate to have some spare capacity at the moment to do some self-directed learning. There are a few topics that I’m interested in doing a bit of a deep dive into, as well as the general learning about new places, languages and cultures that comes with travelling.

With that in mind, I signed up for Coursera’s most popular online course: “Learning how to learn.” I found the four week course to be fascinating, informative and very well structured and taught. Essentially it’s a meta-look at how the brain learns and is filled with practical tips and tricks to improve the way you learn. Some of those tips and tricks formed the impetus for me to start writing more.

I’ve taken some notes on some of the areas I found most interesting or useful:

Focussed and Diffuse Modes of Thinking

The brain can only operate in one mode of thinking at a time. Focussed thinking follows well established neural pathways, where you are thinking about things that may be difficult but you’ve done before or know how to do.

Diffuse thinking is more freestyle, big picture or blue sky thinking. It’s letting your brain wander and create new neural pathways and connections to solve a novel problem.

It is important to create time for both modes of thinking. I often find I get a lot of ideas while in the shower, riding my bike or doing other random activities. I now understand this is my brain working in the diffuse mode!

The importance of sleep and exercise

The course really opened my eyes to the rhythms of the brain, which is always changing and generating new neurons. Your brain needs time to rest, to work away in the background, to clean up toxins and to deepen neural pathways. Both sleep and essential in this maintenance work.

Recruit dopamine and work on the process to help you focus

You can recruit neuro-modulators to help you beat procrastination. For example, dopamine is in the business of predicting future rewards and helps regulate your motivation. Scheduling rewards at the completion of the task can train your brain to maintain motivation.

Procrastination is your minds way of switching focus away from something that causes your anxiety. Process is the framework you can set up to minimise procrastination and maximise focus while completing difficult tasks or learning hard-to-grasp concepts. Using the Pomodoro Technique and ensuring your environment is distraction free (no phone in sight, no push notifications) are great ways to set yourself up for success.

How to bed things down in long term memory

Long term memory is important because it is where your brain stores fundamental concepts and models. There are some techniques you can use to ensure that the concepts you learn are stored properly in your long term memory and that you can access them easily.

Spaced repetition, recall and self-testing are fantastic ways to ensure you are really learning a concept, and also to practice retrieving that concept from your long term memory. Writing down or explaining to others are also techniques that help you retain information.

Summary

I felt like a lot of the concepts taught in the course are things I know intuitively, but perhaps couldn’t explicitly explain. It’s great to understand more about the science and neurobiology behind learning, as well as the cues to recognise what is happening when I feel like procrastinating. The practical techniques are really useful and I’m looking forward to learning more effectively.

I highly recommend this course for anyone studying, working or interesting in learning something new. I think it would be fantastic to teach at a high-school level – a lot of these tips would have been great when I was studying back then!

 

Searching for Syria – evocative use of media

Searching for Syria - Screenshot

SearchingForSyria.org is a website put together by the UNHCR in partnership with Google. It’s a great example of storytelling on the web, using fantastic photos and an interactive site to convey a message.

More like a powerpoint presentation than a traditional website, navigation is minimised and stunning, full screen images take centre stage. “What was Syria like before the war” engenders empathy – google searches, Gorillaz concerts and days at the beach highlight universality, hammered home by personal stories and anecdotes.

Content and messaging is easy to read and clever use of media (like overlaid before and after photos with a sliding divider) amplify the words. The stories and images are truly horrific, and the statistics break your heart.

I think that efforts like this are really crucial in helping people understand the breath taking magnitude of a crisis like this and more importantly breaking down stereotypes and emphasising the human connection, the sameness in all of us.

The Best of Journalism

Conor Friedersdorf  is one of my favourite writers, and one (along with Sam Harris) that I turn to for nuanced (and counter-intuitive) takes on current affairs.

He puts together a “Best of Journalism” newsletter and each year publishes a list of over 100 exceptional pieces of journalism. This is an amazing snapshot of long form, investigative journalism that will keep you interested for hours.

Get lost in the abyss here.

How to remember what you read

I’m a pretty voracious reader of articles and too often I get carried away, read too many things then run out of steam. I always worry that I don’t take enough in.

This article talks about the difference between passive readers and active readers. I try and mix the books I read (generally popular fiction or biographies, literary fiction and non-fiction) for variety and to maintain a good rhythm, but too often I think I read passively.

One of my goals of 2018 is to ‘consume less, create more’ and I think this ties in nicely with active reading. I want to get the most out of the time I spend reading, and hopefully publishing some notes will help me do this.

I like the suggestions presented in the article:

  • Getting context (something I usually do after reading to avoid spoilers, but will aim to do up front).
  • Understanding what you want to get out of the book.
  • Relevant reading (about things you are working on or thinking about).
  • Take notes (I do this occasionally, but will try and do so more diligently).
  • Make mental links.
  • Put it down if you get bored (I struggle with this, preferring to finish a book or movie I don’t like just to get the full picture).

There are also some suggestions for after reading. I have a long list of books / articles that I want to read, and this accumulates faster than I can get through it. So when I finish a book, I’m usually excited about jumping right into the next one.

The “Learning how to learn” course I did earlier this year focussed a lot on reflection and recall being important for bedding down long term memories.

  • The Feynman Technique (I’d never heard of this, but it is essentially “Explain it like I’m five”).
  • Think about where you can apply it.
  • Teach others what you’ve learned (I’ve always found ideas sink in a lot more when you have to explain them to others).
  • Goodreads (I’ve written small private reviews, but will aim to write more public reviews on this blog).

I think I’ll be coming back to this article over the year and using it to improve my retention, to make sure I’m consciously taking actions to read actively and improve the way I read!

Note: I just started work on a project I’ve called Mental Models – I literally put the website up this morning. I noticed that this article also has a Mental Models section – serendipity?