The regular meanderings of an author’s mind. This author’s. Thoughts and commentary about just about everything, bookended in the context of my writing career. Links to fascinating tidbits I’ve inadvertently stumbled across, reflections on intentional living and a good dose of mindfulness to boot.
One of the most powerful things I have begun to do recently is a very simple gratitude practice. This began as I was recuperating from a third operation on my back in six months, and spending a lot of time reflecting, reading and discovering podcasts. One was The Tim Ferris Show, and an episode in particular where he discusses keeping a gratitude journal.
My initial reaction was of the ‘Yeah, right’ variety. But that is our brain’s default reaction to new and scary. So I decided to give myself a week and stick with it to see if I could detect any changes in myself.
The practice I now subscribe to is very simple. Each morning, following my own mindfulness practice, I write down three things for which I am grateful. I select one from each of the following categories:
1 – a relationship, past or present – or a moment within one
2 – an opportunity, past, present of future
3 – a material object in my immediate vicinity (this one is easy and fun, but also has the serious element of getting me to reflect on stuff and what I need)
With each choice, I sit down and consider what I’m actually grateful for, take a moment to picture each one in my mind and ask myself, why am I grateful for this? I try to connect with the feeling of gratitude in my body, as well as my rational mind’s explanation of why I am grateful (which I record in a journal).
Can you identity just one thing you’re grateful for, right now? Bring an open mind to it and see what you notice.
NIS runs regular Pecha Kucha nights – invited speakers have 20 images and 20 seconds per image to give a talk on whatever subject they choose. This is mine from back in 2012, on vegetarianism and saving the planet. Enjoy.
I always intended to do another, but never quite got around to it. I love the format, and the evenings are fun and inspiring. Leaving China and NIS this year, so I’ve missed that opportunity.
I’ve been asked to re-post my 2015 graduation speech, so here it is, both in video format and transcript.
Last year, you may recall that my predecessor played David Bowie’s song ‘Changes’ as a part of his Graduation Speech. I thought I’d develop that idea. So I’m going to perform a song – well, kind of…. My thanks and apologies go to Baz Luhrmann, whose classic, ‘Wear Sunscreen’ I have perhaps destroyed….
The long-term benefits of mindfulness have been documented by scientists
And I advise you to explore it if you haven’t already
If I could give you just one piece of advice for the future
Mindfulness would be it.
The rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
Than my own meandering experience, I will dispense this advice now
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth
Some of you, I know, are able to do this
But to those who cannot, trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back
At photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now
How much possibility lay before you and how radiant you were
You are are more beautiful than you currently imagine
Don’t worry about the future
Or know that worrying won’t ever help you as much as planning will
The real troubles in your life are going to be things you could never have guessed at
And only character and ingenuity you build now will help you then
You will figure out a career. Probably more than one.
You will find someone who loves you. Probably more than one.
You have a whole lifetime.
Time takes time – the only sure way to fail at life is to abstain.
Make some decisions that scare you
Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts
Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours
Don’t waste your time on jealousy
Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind
The race is long and in the end, you’ll realise that it’s only with yourself
Be the friend you wish you had
Trust other people – they’re doing the best they can
And dealing with stuff you know nothing about
Enjoy moments of your life
Without feeling you have to post them on Instagram or WeChat
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life.
The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives
Some of the most interesting 30-somethings I know still don’t
Learn to cook
Save for the future
Learn about the stock market and compound interest and investment strategies
Understand that money isn’t evil,
But neither is it an end
Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t
Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t
Maybe you’ll win a Nobel prize, maybe you’ll prevent a war
Or make your parents’ prouder then they already are today
Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much
Or be too hard on yourself either
Your choices are half chance, and so are everybody else’s
Enjoy your body, use it every way you can
Don’t be afraid of it or what other people think of it
It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own
Make that a part of who you are, not just something you do
Disconnect from time to time
Get to know your parents,
Know that they will not always be there, and you have to make the most of the time you have
Be nice to your brothers and sisters, they’re your best link to your past
And the people most likely to stick with you in the future
Understand that friends come and go
Don’t promise to keep in touch when you know you won’t
But don’t burn bridges either, because one day you’ll be happy to meet people you knew when you were young
Know that going back to the country of your birth isn’t necessarily the same as going home
And that going home might never be the same again
Accept certain inalienable truths
One day you will be that 30 year old
And when you are,
You’ll fantasize that when you were young
Prices were reasonable, politicians were more noble, air hostesses were prettier, movies were better
And children respected their elders
Respect your elders
Don’t expect anyone else to support you
The world doesn’t owe you a living, but if you treat it right
You’ll find that it lets you carve one out for yourself
Don’t mess with cosmetic surgery
Your true beauty cannot be reworked with a scalpel
Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it
Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of re-working the past
Shining it up and remembering our own dreams
And offering them to future generations to run with, when perhaps we did not
Here is my Graduation Speech for the Class of 2016.
Class of 2016, it is my honour and, quite frankly, a relief, to be able to address you today, on this, your pre-graduation. I must say that I was told that my first draft of this speech was too dark, so trust me, this is the lighter version.
So here we are… graduation… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial hardships, through midlife crises and affairs to remember (and affairs to forget), through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, in fact, diminishing tolerance in general, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.
Graduation is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own appropriate symbolism.It is fitting for this auspicious rite of passage, that we find ourselves in the theatre.And here you all are, soon to be on the same stage, quite literally, and at the same stage in life.That matters.That’s important.And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all.Male or female, Asian or Western, tall or short, sportsperson or gamer, highly academic or, mm, not so much, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. None of you is exceptional.
Certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your Exhibitions.Smiles greet you when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet or Instagram update.Why, maybe you were even published in the Purple Duck!And now you’ve conquered high school… and, sure, here we all are, gathered together for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the latest in a growing line of Graduating Classes to emerge from this impressive theatre…
But don’t get the idea you’re anything special.Because you’re not.
The empirical evidence is everywhere, and the numbers do not lie.In the US, where many of you aspire to go, no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 38,000 high schools.That’s 38,000 valedictorians… In China this year, 9.42 million students will takethe Gaokao, or University entrance examination…But why limit ourselves to high school?After all, you’re leaving it.So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 7.4 billion that means there are 7,400 people just like you.And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, as you are aware if your teachers have done their job well, is not the centre of its solar system, your solar system is not the centre of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the centre of the universe.In fact, as any half-competent astrophysicist will tell you, the universe has no centre; therefore, you cannot be it.Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should probably tell him.
“But, hang on” I here you protest, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!Deepak Chopra tells me I’m a unique strand in the intricate web of life!”And I don’t disagree.So that makes 7.4 billion examples of perfection, 7.4 billion unique strands.You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.If everyone wins a prize, then the prize becomes meaningless.In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another we have, in the West,and to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.
As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavours. It’s an epidemic — how many times have you been one of the best? One of the best students in your class, one of the best athletes on the team, attending one of the best International Schools in Asia, applying to one of the best Universities in the world…I hope your education here leads you to stop and think about the words “one of the best.”We say “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition.But the phrase defies logic.By definition there can be only one best.You’re it or you’re not.
If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for the exhilaration of learning, rather than for any tenuous advantage you feel it may bestow upon you.You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.I hope you’ve learned enough to know how little you know… how little you know now… at this moment… for this is just the beginning.It’s where you go from here that matters. 30 is the new 20, and a Bachleor’s degree is the new High School Diploma – what guaranteed your parent’s generation good job will quite possibly guarantee you nothing. You’ll need a Masters Degree where my generation really didn’t. There are Harvard, Brown and LSE graduates making Lattés for a living in this global economy, going back home to live with mum and dad, because rent is astronomical and the dream job to which ‘specialness’ makes you feel entitled just isn’t there.
I’ll quote, if I may, from Michael Kimmel’s 2008 book, ‘Guyland’ where he investigates the culture of University attending youth. ‘I have encountered so many young people’ writes Kimmel, ‘whose parents have run interference for them, picked up after them and unjustifiably told them they were special, and who are now surprised ……that special doesn’t necessarily translate into preferential treatment in the outside world.’
OK, here’s where it gets lighter. Honestly, I don’t want you to be despondent in response to this dose of realism. As you graduate, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about.Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.Be worthy of your advantages.And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect.Develop and protect some moral fibre and demonstrate the character to apply it.Dream big.Work hard.Think for yourself.Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.And do so with a sense of urgency.
The fulfilling life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mummy and daddy ordered it for you.Your goal is to pursue happiness.That’s a verb – a doing word, I feel I should remind you. You need to get busy. Don’t wait for your passion to find you.Get up, get out, explore, find it for yourself, and grab hold tightly with both hands.
Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence –a byproduct.It’s what happens, as John Lennon pointed out, when you’re busy making other plans.Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge and enjoy the view.Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.Go to Venice to be in Venice, not take a trophy selfie to post online.Be mindful and be present in all that you do: not just to reap the benefits yourself, but to spreadto the other 7.4 billion and everyone who comes after.And then you will see that the wondrous and perhaps surprising contradiction of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.The greatest moments of life come only with the acceptance of the truth that you’re not special.
Because everyone is. So don’t misremember what I’ve said here for dramatic effect – all of you, each of you, is as special as everyone else. What I wanted to warn against was a sense of entitlement, that somehow your ‘specialness’ is enough. In fact, special is more something you do than something you are. It’s now that you get to make your mark, now that you get to make a difference, now that you get to do something special.
My sincere congratulations on getting this far Class of 2016.I trust that our co-Valedictorians will massage any wounded egos. I wish you love and happiness.For your own sakes, and for ours, please live extraordinary lives.
In the true spirit of Austin Kleon’s ‘Steal Like An Artist’, this was not all original work. I first came across a graduation talk last year from David McCullough Jr,. who gave this speech at Wellesley High School in the US in 2012. I’ve tweaked it and I hope made it more relevant to our community. His message remains a powerful one. So thank you, David.
One of my favourite books from 2015 also turned up on Daniel Pink’s top ten for the year:
(My top ten would have included the last Discworld novel from recently deceased Terry Pratchett, The Shepherd’s Crown.)
The rest of his recommendations are below. I haven’t read the other 9…
MY 10 FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR.
Okay, every other “media outlet” is assembling its end-of-year best books list. Why not the Pink newsletter? Herewith, in alphabetical order by author, the 10 most compelling books I read this year.
The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander
In 1996, Alexander, a well-known poet, met Ficre Ghebreyesus, a chef originally from Eritrea. Within a few weeks, they decided to get married. Within three years, they had two sons. Then in 2012, Ficre dropped dead of a heart attack. Alexander’s account of her grief is riveting. I read nearly the entire book in one sitting.
Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Justice by Adam Benforado
Law professor Benforado argues that our legal system is built on assumptions about human behavior that just aren’t true. Some examples: Eyewitness testimony is utterly unreliable, yet we use it to convict people. Human beings stink at detecting lies, yet jurors think they’re great at it. And, amazingly, false confessions are quite easy to produce. This book deserved way more attention than it received.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Whenever a book gets as much acclaim as this one — glowing reviews, a National Book Award nomination, even a Presidential endorsement — I become a bit skeptical. But this fast-paced literary novel, which tells the story of a marriage from two contrasting perspectives, deserves every plaudit. It’s gobsmackingly good.
How to Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Another 4Q4 book. Former Stanford Dean of Freshmen Lythcott-Haims aims her howitzer at helicopter parents — and teaches us how to trust our kids.
Infamy: The Shocking Story of Japanese American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves
Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor 50 years ago, the U.S. government rounded up more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and incarcerated them at “relocation centers.” This remains one of the most disgraceful episodes in American history. I read this back in April, but Reeves’s elegantly told tale has new relevance today as some of the very same xenophobia and racism rear their heads again.
The Arab of the Future: 1978 to 1984 by Riad Sattouf
Young Riad has a French mother, a Syrian father, and a head of shockingly blond hair. In this graphic novel he tells the story of his early childhood. Fans of Persepolis will love this one.
The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim
A regular guy leaves academia to become a speechwriter for the Governor of South Carolina. Complications ensue. This chronicle — at once hilarious and sad — is the best book on politics I’ve read in years.
Find a comfortable, alert posture. Shrug your shoulders, take a few breaths, and bring your awareness to your physical and emotional state here and now. Open your computer or click on your phone.
Consider both your intentions and expectations. As you focus on the icon, notice what experiences you have in your mind and body. Why are you visiting this site? What are you hoping for? How are you going to react and reply to different kinds of updates? By checking your social media, are you interested in connecting or distracting?
Close your eyes and rest your awareness in your emotional state for a couple of breaths before you begin to engage. Opening your eyes now, look at the first status update or photo, and then sit back and close your eyes again.
Notice how you are responding—your emotion. Is it excitement? Restlessness? Jealousy? Regret? Worry? How does this emotion manifest in the mind and body? What do you now feel like doing? Reading more, following a link, sharing something yourself, ‘liking’ something? Something else? Wait a breath or two for these feelings to pass, or focus on your breath, your body, your surroundings.
So this’ll be a short one, then. Actually, I was going to title this ‘On Creative Schools’ as it was prompted by reading Ken Robinson’s latest book of the same name. Whilst I could simply review the book and share his thinking, I’m sure it has been done better then i could already. If you are involved in any way in education, I urge you to read it. Very little I’ve read recently compares in its insight and urgency. Teaching, learning, educating… these things have always been vital.
Ken Robinson talks about personalising education, moving from the mechanistic model of education which was dictated by the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century to a more organic, individualised, looser system, no less rigorous, but more caring and compassionate. He cites various examples of grass-roots practice where the ‘revolution’ is taking hold. He decries the politicising of education and the test-driven agenda which is destroying creativity and destroying lives.
It’s a call to action. If you are involved in education, there is something for you to do, now, to make a difference.
I am ending a six year stint in China and taking a break from education, which is perhaps ironic. I’ve done this before – a year off in Greece led to ‘The Alpha to Omega’ and a year off in Vietnam led to ‘Is’ as well as all the benefits of being a home-dad to our new-born daughter. And now, the plan is different, and evolving. There is a large wall map of Canada up in the lounge, and we are in the midst of buying an RV in Quebec, our intention being to tour across Canada from August to October, and then down the West coast of the US to finish up in California, sell the RV and head back to Europe for six months of rural France and no school for the kids. Which is why I’m feeling enthused about Robinson’s book as well as, at the same time, wondering where I fit into this picture.
I began teaching back in the very early 90’s as a Reception teacher in Blackpool in the UK. By ’95, I’d been an Early Years Coordinator and then a Special Educational Needs coordinator, completinga post-grad. certificate in Special Ed. I had had my fill of teaching in the UK, along with other good reasons for a change of scene, and ended up back in the role of Early Years coordinator at an International School in Athens, Greece. I was told on arrival, to stay for no more than to years, otherwise I’d never go back to the UK. I took little notice then, but I now find myself contemplating a 26 year career of teaching in Greece, Belgium, Vietnam, Thailand and China. I’ve taught every age group from 4-18, been an ICT teacher in the IB Diploma, a Drama teacher, a Geography teacher, a Theory of Knowledge teacher, a Primary School Headteacher and lastly, a High School Counsellor. It sounds eclectic. I’ve completed a Post-Grad Diploma in Counselling and a Masters Degree in Philosophy. And I wonder what it is I’ve been looking for. I love to learn, to understand systems from within and to make real connections with people. But what next and how to make a difference?
This upcoming year off will undoubtedly result in more writing, lots of reflection, and some soul-searching. I was very kindly offered the chance to come back to my existing job. But a personal revolution is afoot. I want to explore other possibilities. I want to visit some of the excellent Universities I have been advocating our students for. I’ve often thought of a closer involvement – teaching maybe – at a higher level. But now I’d also like to visit one or two of the schools Sir Ken cites in his book, and talk to some of the people about their work and how I might be a part of it. I’m not job-hunting, but doing some serious reconnaissance for the future. Our one year off is potentially going to be two; some frugal living and back-to-nature, back-to-basics lifestyle changes could see us living in France 2017-18 for the year, having the kids either attend local schools or be home-schooled, whilst we explore a mini-retirement à laTim Ferriss.
So, whilst education has so far been my life, it now feels both scary and invigorating that I don’t know where that life will take me over the next two years. There will always be opportunities on the International teaching circuit – and our own children deserve the opportunities that presents. But once I get my head out of that rather narrow mindset, I see immense possibility and opportunity. But for now, not working and being as present and mindful about life as I can be feels like the right and best thing to do.
As a post-script, if you’ve never heard Ken Robinson talk about education, do yourself a favour and settle down for 20 minutes of thought-provoking education:
I was reading Paulo Choelo recently. An article he had written included a story about Genghis Khan who went hunting in the desert with his favourite falcon. After an unsuccessful hunt, Genghis grew thirsty and searched for water. He supposedly found a small stream but when he filled his cup and raised it to his lips to drink, the falcon tore it from his hands and spilled the water. The falcon repeated this action three times. Furious at such behaviour, and desperate to drink, Genghis slew the falcon with his sword. As he threw the bird’s body in the scrub, he discovered a dead poisonous snake in the water source – had he drunk the water he would surely be dead. The falcon had been trying to save his friend’s and master’s life…
The story put me in mind of the legend of Gelert, in the village of Beddgelert (meaning “Gelert’s Grave”) in Gwynedd, north-west Wales. A Welsh prince returned from a day’s hunting to find Gelert, his favourite hound, jumping to greet him covered in blood. The prince then saw his son’s crib empty and the bedclothes strewn on the ground. In a fit of rage he killed the dog, believing it to have slain his son. The dog’s dying yelp was answered by a baby’s cry. Behind a nearby rock, the prince found his baby son, next to the body of a large wolf, which Gelert had clearly attacked and killed. Legend has it that the Prince buried the dog with regal honours, and never smiled another day in his life.
Who Knoweth the Spirit of Man… by Byam Shaw (1901)
This led to thinking about our friends and the stuff they do sometimes.
We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to dig beneath appearances and uncover the true motivation in the actions of others, before we judge them.
And we need to be mindful that our own actions, if executed in anger, can never lead to positive results.
It takes a certain sort of kind set to know when to give up. We are taught that perseverance is a quality to develop. I beg to differ.
Give up playing it safe. Very little was ever achieved by taking the safe option or the most certain route. If you are aiming for more than mediocrity, playing it safe is something you need to give up. Takes risks.
Give up on self-doubt. It’s unproductive and, very often, simple catastrophising. Focus instead on all that you have achieved, on every time it has worked out and on each success you’ve had in life. Everyone experiences self-doubt – the trick is not to listen.
Give up self-judgement. We are often our own harshest critics. Think instead what you would say with love and compassion to another person. Most of what we do is the best we can do under the very special set of circumstances under which we do it. Be gentle with yourself.
Give up negativity. Positive thinking can sometimes be misconstrued as unrealistic and unfounded, but it really only means acceptance. Accepting that what happens can be viewed as a learning experience and that what in the past we first thought was a disaster led to beautiful things. Negativity can only destroy motivation and self-respect. In giving up negativity, one raises the bar.
Give up being out of control. Rolling with whatever life throws at you is no plan for success. We can all live a ‘reactive’ life in this sense and achieve nothing but survival. Life is abut more than mere survival, so take control of your own path. Make your own decisions in the knowledge that you will own the outcome, whatever it may be.
Give up perfection. If you wait for the perfect moment to do anything, you are guaranteed a long wait. If you only accept perfect outcomes, you are guaranteed disappointment. Let go of the need to be perfect, and accept yourself as good enough.
An exercise in writing to prompt – the aim being to write on themes or questions you might not usually write about. Feel free to respond to the questions yourself in the comments below.
1. How would it be to see snow for the first time?
Incomprehensible, assuming one were already an adult and had no conception of it from TV or similar exposure. That’s hard to imagine in this day and age though. Maybe it would even be frightening. Children see new things all the time, and would be completely unfazed.
2. Which would you choose if you had to: to be deaf or blind? Why?
I have always thought that being blind would be more frightening. Having considered it seriously in the light of a friend who is deaf and now going blind, however, I think I’d prefer (tough choice, I know) to be blind. If you are deaf you are truly cut off from other people, unable to communicate effectively, to appreciate music, to listen to speech. I think this form of isolation would, in the final analysis, scare me more.
3. Which job could you never do? Why?
Work in an abattoir. I’m a vegetarian.
4. Is there a book you have read and would actively persuade others NOT to read?
’Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain. I was supposed to read as part of my A-level English course and could never got more than half-way. It was just plain self-absorbed diatribe about the Second World War. Technically, it doesn’t count then, since I haven’t read it all. I spent a long time with the belief, after this, that one should never leave a book unfinished, however bad it may be. Having written a couple, I know the time and effort it takes, and as a reader, I owe at least that to the author. Nowadays, however, possibly as a nod to my own mortality. I’m increasingly of the opinion that life is just too short to spend on mediocrity. If it doesn’t grab me quickly, I’m unlikely to persevere in the absence of strong recommendations to do so, from those I respect.
5. ‘In 1990, compared to the two previous decades, The US saw the highest juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes ever; teen arrests for forcible rape had doubled; teen murder rates quadrupled, mostly due to an increase in shooting. During those same decades, the suicide rate for teenagers tripled as did the number of children under fourteen who are murder victims.’
( ‘Emotional Intelligence’ Daniel Goleman Bloomsbury 1996.) Why would anyone want to bring children into this world?
Because of sunsets and sunrises. Because of the ocean. Because of the smell of the air after a storm. Because of a grandparent’s smile. Because of humanity’s inherent optimism. Because of the sound of laughter. Because of the dew on a rose on a spring morning. Because even if they fall in love just once, just fleetingly, just momentarily and have that feeling returned, then it is worthwhile.