Learning on the Run: 2017 Race to the Stones

Avebury 1

CN: anxiety, suicidal ideation

Every time you run an ultramarathon you learn something new about yourself. And the further you go, and the slower you go, the more you are likely to learn. Which means, at least on the second score, I should be a genius by now.

This was my third Race to the Stones, a 100 kilometre run along the Ridgeway. The first time, as I guess is the case for most newbies, the main thing I learned was that I could do it. I also learned that for me the oft-repeated dictum that your body can do remarkable things but the battle is to persuade your mind really doesn’t hold true. My threshold is what my body will do before caving in completely. I already sort of knew that from spending my late 20s powerlifting, living every workout on the very edge of what was physically dangerous. And I knew it from decades of staying alive through mental illness when it would have been so much easier to give in to the desperate desire to be dead.

Last year I learned something surprising. I am not particularly good at lots of things. And at some things I’m not too shabby. But in all things I am absurdly competitive. I had assumed that competitiveness would override anything, but when it turned out Ann was seriously ill mid race, I didn’t think twice about stopping to make sure she was taken care of. Running teaches you about your values, about where your boundaries lie, and it can often surprise you. A similar thing happened during training last summer when I found myself clambering into the Thames to pull out a sheep who’d ended up grazing too close to the edge. I’ve also learned that this border-case altruism most definitely doesn’t extend to swapping pleasantries with other runners while out on the trails – stories afterwards absolutely, but small talk is as unpleasant for the neurodivergent on the trails as off – and has the potential to utterly ruin an experience.

So what did I learn from this year’s Race to the Stones? Well, this year’s race was very much a dance of mind and body, flesh and spirit, learning a great deal about how my corpsely self functions, about the way life and our living of it is not illuminated by metaphor but *is* a metaphor. And I learned more than I have ever done in one concentrated burst about flow.

It has been a very difficult year for training, but for the first time I can remember, the month leading up to the race I was able to put in four weeks of uninterrupted training without any injury. And in the race itself it was clear before long that I was a lot stronger than I have been in the past. A bit heavier, yes (I’m working on that, and losing weight will be key to staying injury free), but with a much stronger core, and that made a big difference to a lot of the more technical parts of the course where I have struggled a lot before.

The Ridgeway is beautiful, and looking at the profile, it’s a pretty gentle place to run. In practice, a combination of vehicle access and soil type means that long stretches are rounded narrow single track consisting of chalk baked like cement with protruding flint. You literally have to watch every foot placement, constantly making tiny – and not so tiny – adjustments to your stride. This is exhausting mentally, but it also places massive strain on your ligaments and tendons, and on muscles like you adductors and abductors that see very little action when it comes to jogging along on a well-surfaced road.

But this year I’ve been working a lot on my core, thanks to Ann’s brilliant, simple tip of doing one leg balances every day – a perfect way to occupy those awkward minutes waiting for the bus. The result has been that, as if by magic, making those adjustments to foot position is now something I can do from the core, sparing my muscles and joints. And it’s had the greatest effect of all on some wonderful downhill paths, such as the root-strewn section of Grim’s Ditch, and a previously vicious quarter mile of single track coming down into Swyncombe, where I can now just open up completely and take full advantage of gravity. And that was the first thing I noticed – the transformative effect of being able to let go of all control completely, legs flying without encumbrance, heart rate never rising so long as the descent continues. The feeling of fluidity – of, literally, feeling that one has become a liquid sliding over the surface of the earth, is utterly magical, and add the side to side movement of those ever changing foot placements and it feels as though one is dancing with the earth.

A second effect of a stronger core and greater residual fitness is the ability to run out of trouble. We have had a warm, dry spring and the Ridgeway has been consistently parched. So, with the forecast showing a beautiful cool overcast day, I set out in road shoes to be gentle on my feet for the tarmaced stretches. But of course the forecast was wrong. The race began with 6 hours of steady rain (given that I am sitting typing this in a library not a police cell I can only imagine that my thoughts towards weather forecasters were muttered under my breath throughout that period). It wasn’t long before parts of the course were becoming like an ice rink. But while this required a sense of permanent at least semi watchfulness, I never felt in danger of slipping and sliding the way I have done in the past. Whenever the surface was a little too sketchy I was able to run my way out of trouble, light, skipping strides creating a contact less prone to losing grip.

So the actual experience of running was different. And that, in turn, changed my thoughts as I ran. There were more times when I was able simply to enjoy the pleasure of moving, of body and nature in contact, dancing together.

My second experience was putting to the test a piece of research I had always felt rang true, one which goes against one of the fundamental tenets of ultramarathon advice. The advice goes to start slow. Really slow, so you don’t blow up and crash out. The problem is while that might work for top athletes, as so often most of us reading the advice aren’t top athletes. And I read a great piece last year that showed you’re far better going out quicker – if you’re in the part of the pack I occupy (I finished Race to the Stones 696th out of 961 non-stoppers) you’ll end up at a crawl however you start, so you might as well bank some quick miles.

So I set out at a pace I knew from training I could sustain for more than 30 kilometres and decided to see how far it would take me. “Keep going till you blow up, then hold on.” I can’t quite understand why I have never formulated it as a principle before. It’s something I’ve applied to pretty much every area of my life where I’ve had any kind of success, yet it runs so counter to what we are told by coaches and memes and podcasts and “those who know” again and again. Which is another reason I need to get on and write my self-improvement for neurodivergents book.

The mantra ran through my head on a loop (when I wasn’t cursing meteorologists), and in particular I thought of one of my great inspirations, Anna Frost, who applied the same approach to her first hundred mile race, going out hartd to get as much done as she could before she hit the wall – only for her the wall never did come. She just won. In a very fast time.

Of course, I’m no Anna Frost so I did hit the wall, at about kilometre 60. But still, I managed to see 10 kilometres more of the course in daylight than I had done before, despite this year’s start being an hour and a half later tI did hang on, at a pace not really slower than when I had gone out more “sensibly”. For the last 30 kilometres at least my thought was simple – “I don’t know how I am going to finish this, but I know that I am.” Of course, I did know – one foot in front of the other and repeat. It’s that simple.

And here’s the important thing about that. Sometimes the cautious approach really is best. Sometimes you need to pace yourself and leave energy in the tank to get you through the last gruelling hours of a challenge. Bt sometimes it’s not, and unless you’ve thrown everything you have at something and then clung on for dear life when you’ve fallen off the cliff – how will you ever know? We hear a lot that life is a marathon not a sprint, but what the hell kind of philosophy is it to make sure you hit your 80th birthday with plenty of fuel in the tank just to be sure you cross the line strong? Besides which we also now know that often the best tactic in a marathon is to go out strong and hold on.

Finally, I learned more about flow. Running is perfect for achieving flow in different ways. On the road, with a sure footing, one can let one’s legs tick over metronomically while one’s mind finds its own rhythms. And on the trail, one is so aware of every foot placement, so focused on each root and rock that one loses oneself completely in one moment after the next.

We hear a lot about flow these days, about the importance, for example, of finding flow in our work, or a hobby. It is often portrayed as the ultimate hipster accessory, an indulgence for the lucky and entitled. But for me it has always been so much more than that. It has been a survival mechanism. When I’m ill, life is petty much about survival in the face of the overwhelming urge to die. It’s all about section two of the lessons learned here, one foot in front of the other and repeat.

But when I’m not ill with depression or mania, there is nothing to mask the underlying state of chronic anxiety. Living with anxiety means living in constant fear. I would describe it most accurately, I think, as living face to the sky with one’s neck upon the block, waiting for the axe to fall. Not knowing when, just knowing that it will. It is all-consuming. One’s life is spent endlessly playing out the different scripts that end with the fall of the axe. And there is never a script that ends any other way. Not ever. Not one. For me, the simplest everyday scenarios all end with my own death or, more often, my wife’s. Any situation that involves contact with, or even proximity to, another human being will end its trail of impeccable logic with death, despair, the loss of everything. I will sleep in an exhausted but delirious relief that I have avoided the axe for another day – but always knowing that the slightest noise in the night could restart the script.

Flow offers precious moments without anxiety. It absorbs so much of the self that there is nothing left over for fear. Worryingly, this is the same function that can be served by intense pain, which is one reason self-harm is one of anxiety’s closer companions. It is why I have never understood the “don’t take it too far” or the “why do you have to do everything to extremes?” voices that ostensibly demonstrate concern. Simple. Because it is only at the very edge cases of or human endeavour that we can find flow, and a few moments’ respite from the flash of the axe about to fall.

What I realised as I ran was that, again, so much of the advice we commonly receive is wrong. We should not be looking to make tiny pockets of flow in busy lives. That is the flow of hipsterism, of indulgence. Valuable, yes, of course. But possible? Not for so many. And its absence a source of easy reprosch for those who would rather blame the despair on the deficiency of the despairing than create a world that would minimize it. Far better to devote ourselves to carving out large chunks of uninterrupted time in people’s lives for them to find true flow, whether or not they find it alone under the stars on the trail.






Why We Are Wrong About Creativity

Creativity. Whether we are a massive organisation looking to break new ground or an individual wanting out of a rut, it is the one thing everyone wants more of. Yet of course it is the great unquantifiable.

Anyone my age with any kind of artistic leaning will probably remember the inner – or, quite possibly, outer – fist pump we did when Robin Williams, playing the teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society, had his students read out fictional scholar J Evans-Pritchard’s formula for calculating the greatness of a poem before having them rip the page from their books. Because poetry is not a matter of science, it is a matter of art. It cannot be captured in a formula, it can only be felt in the reader’s heart.

Keating was, of course, utterly and catastrophically wrong, despite being right about many things in the course of the film – from the problem of human transience to the importance of unusual perspectives and most basically of all the fact that poetry is great.

But about this, he was wrong, and in the few moment I have today I want to explain why it matters so much that we understand how he was wrong. Because unlocking our creativity has the potential to change our species’ future in infinite wonderful and unexpected ways. It will enrich our lives through culture. It will meet the challenges we will face this century that now feel so large we cannot bring ourselves even to glance at their shadows. It will bring us myriad new ways to understand, describe, enjoy, and simply wonder at the vast and beautiful universe of which we are a part.

But if we carry on creating the Keating way it will bring us only the mawkish sentimentality we find in every other Robin Williams film.

The reason so many react in horror to the notion that we can in some way measure creativity using a formula is that they understand this to mean that creativity somehow happens by the operation of that formula. And when I say “understand” I am, of course, speaking antonymically.

As it happens, we have a pretty good way of measuring creativity. It’s called the Torrance Test. A variant of it is used in the judging of the Creative Thinking World Championships. It assesses the creativity of time-constrained answers to specific questions, such as devising novel uses for everyday items or finding solutions to open-ended problems, along three axes: prolificness, that is, the sheer number of ideas generated; originality, which is to say those answers given by fewer people in response to the same question are weighted to count more highly; and elaboration, which looks at how fully thought through or developed your responses are as well as their complexity. Possibly counter-intuitively (though if you have such intuitions you may want to read more about creativity) but importantly, what is not measured or scored in any way is whether any of these ideas would actually work.

To give an example of how this works in practice, in the 2016 Creative Thinking World Championships one of the tasks we were set was a “down the back of the sofa” problem, how to find uses for recovered misplaced items, specifically thirteen odd socks, a chopstick and one glove. In the 20 minutes available I had lots of suggestions, but apparently what earned me the highest marks was my idea of using the socks to mark out the 13 months of a lunar clock, with the chopstick to serve as a gnomon, whilst the glove doubled as a coxcomb so that the moon, believing it to be a crowing cockerel, would be reminded to follow its proper path through the heavens. It is, perhaps, not surprising that no one else came up with such a ridiculous idea, and it is certainly very fortunate that marks are not awarded for whether it would actually work, but in its favour in terms of elaboration it served to link the three separate items into a single notion that, at least within its own rather limited little world, made sense as a whole.

In fact, there is an even more accurate measure. It is, indeed, the most accurate measure in the Universe. One might put it that if God played dice, this measure would be the equivalent of the first roll taking place as the Bigness Banged and subsequent rolls continuing right to the heat death of the Universe without ever rolling anything but a double six.

And it’s this


That simple formula expresses Hubble’s Law. It is used to calculate the velocity, V, at which the Universe is expanding. Whether you look up at the stars or in through a microscope or around you at the swell of the sea or the iridescent dance of the bird of paradise or the endless rippling retreat of the sands or the smile on a lover’s face, every single thing you experience today, or look back at across the ocean of time or forward to the death of the last star is possible only because of the precise value of the terms of this equation.

If V were lower, then gravity would mean the entire universe would collapse in on itself before it got under way. Any higher and its fundamental particles would spin away into oblivion before they could ever coalesce to form the most basic of compounds.

How did this remarkable universe, dependent on such a precise measurement, turn up on our doorsteps? This is not the point at which I leave science behind for religion. One of the most popular explanations is that of the multiverse, a theory initially devised, as trivia fans will know, by the brilliant mathematician and cosmologist now best known as the father of Mark Everett, the lead singer of the rock band Eels. What it states is that every possible universe there could have been has, in fact, occurred. And an immeasurable number of those where the conditions did not support the beautiful complexity of our own have, simply, collapsed or floated away into the infinite wastes.

This point is essential if we are going to understand creativity. The Cosmos is the greatest innovator of them all. And that is because it has all of time and all of space and all the matter and energy there will ever be as its toolkit. And yes, it has produced what we see today. But it has failed not once, as we might do putting an Ikea cabinet together, or a hundred times as we might do as an author looking for an agent, or a thousand times as Edison may have done whilst inventing the lightbulb, but an infinite number of times.

Adam Grant, in his wonderful book Originals, tells us that when it comes to human creativity this cosmic principle holds true. The one thing research finds that the most innovative human beings have in common is not “talent” or, as memes would tell you “these seven great ways of organising their live.” It is simply this – like the greatest innovator of them all, the Cosmos, they fail more than others.

And this is the great dilemma most of us face. The freedom to fail is a privilege very few of us truly have. Most of us cannot take time out of our money-earning day to pursue, with the few productive hours our brains allow us, activities that may lead either nowhere or to failure. Those of us who can are the lucky few, and we must never forget that. This is one reason why finding the essential innovative solutions to this century’s greatest challenges – the AI singularity, the possibility of transhumanism, food security, automation of the workplace, resistant bacteria, disease, and climate change – will best be served by providing a universal basic income. It is why one of the aims of my own creative enterprise Rogue Interrobang is to provide “freedom to fail” studentships to enable people to follow their strange obsessions and peculiar dreams for no other reason than to see where they might end up.

Worse, and because so few of us have that privilege I am tempted to say – from a global perspective at least – criminally, those of us involved in the creative world, perhaps especially those of us in self-publishing, treat success with an almost cultish reverence. We seek to maximise our chances of success by pursuing those strategies that have been successful. And when we receive a new initiate we groom them for success by providing them with the most tried and tested tips from successful people on how to replicate that success. And governments, of course, are as bad, seeking to fund only those endeavours with the greatest chance of success.

There is a reason, of course, we are so tempted to pursue success from the outset of a project when every piece of evidence we have is that creativity at its best happens when we repeatedly follow an idea to destinations of interesting failure. And it is one that brings us back to cosmology, where, and in many context, we will hear the phrase “The Goldilocks Zone”.

As you might gather if you are familiar with fairytales, most often used in reference to the distance a planet needs to be from its star for life to be sustainable, in any context the “Goldilocks Zone” refers to that place which is, in relation to some particular thing, “just right” – neither too big nor too small, too near nor too far, too much nor too little.

As creatives, the search for our own elusive Goldilocks Zone takes us in search of just the right amount of failure. And it’s a question to which there is probably no one answer. One problem is that of the scale of our creative endeavour. As a writer, this is something I feel particularly keenly. If my creative endeavour is to contribute the best I can to humanity’s rich cultural tapestry, then my goal is best served by a life of constant failure. The numbers tell us that we will have more and better works of true brilliance and originality and life-changing, epoch-shaping possibility if we all throw everything out of the window and push ourselves in every interesting direction. Most of those directions will be dead ends but because we are all doing the pushing, those that are not will open up spectacular new vistas.

The problem is that as individual creatives, unlike scientists who take precisely this approach and for whom success means the success of the endeavour as a whole rather than their individual part of it, we seldom see ourselves as part of this bigger quest.

For me, this narrow horizon is a cause for sadness, and possibly the root cause of most of my feelings of ill-ease with the literary community, especially that part one could identify as the “self-publishing industry”. The more of us who change our definition of success from the micro to the macro scale, the brighter the future for our cultural landscape. But, of course, we come back again to the constraints of needing to keep a roof over our head. And that is why, on the one hand, the answer to unlocking the creative future of our species is the provision of a universal basic income, and on the other the most exciting places to watch are those inhabited by the amateur and the hobbyist, precisely those written off as less serious or less important by the “industry”. Because it is when a person’s horizon can be the macro and not the micro; when they can pursue their ideas fearlessly; when they are, simply put, free to fail that they can best contribute to the great numbers game of culture.

But of course we do not have have a universal basic income, and it I entirely natural for people to want to be the most creative they can be within their own lives. And if that is the case, my closest approximation to a creative goldilocks zone, welcoming dead ends yet maximising the probability of useful innovation, is summarised in the principle:

wide and deep

Which is fortunate, because that just happens to coincide with two of the most effective methods of learning we have, the building of expertise through years of deep practice (what Malcolm Gladwell brought to prominence with his 10,000 hour claim), and short, targeted bursts such as we find in the “learn anything in 20 hours” method expounded by Josh Kaufman. These are things I have intuitively always practised, almost certainly by luck, which is perhaps why I have both enjoyed good fortune in creative thinking competitions and in equal measure baffled audiences with my mash-up lectures on such topics as mathematical models and mediaeval torture instruments or the common ground in Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy and 17th century marriage tracts.

By wide and deep, what I mean is that we do best when we bring long-in-the-making expertise to constantly new fields, or a stream of new perspectives to a problem of which we have a detailed and intimate knowledge. It turns out, as Adam Grant explains when talking about the effectiveness of innovation, that wide and deep is not, as I had thought, just my personal experience of a peculiar quirk. What he found was that the most effective innovators in a field tended to be extremely knowledgeable people who were new to that field.

In order to facilitate this process of crashing different parts of my knowledge, Hadron Collider-style, into each other to see what strange particle traces might result, I use another technique that has a long history within the world inhabited by those of us who live in our minds – the memory palace. This ancient technique was just a few weeks ago demonstrated in a study carried out by Boris Konrad and others to actually alter the neurological wiring of those who adopted it, alongside their performance at feats of memory. It involves building a personalised mental superstructure, which in many cases is, literally, a giant building (hence the term memory palace) with easily distinguished and recognisable rooms, and then placing the different parts of one’s knowledge in those rooms so that, when one wants to retrieve a fact, one simply walks, in one’s head, to the appropriate room and retrieves it.

When presented with a problem such as those found in creative thinking competitions, I will tackle it by wandering around my memory palace a wing at a time seeing in each place if there is anything there that might help me solve it.

And I will add to it constantly – making sure that I carry out a constantly revolving stream of 20 hour learning bursts, making myself a mini expert in one subject after another. And wherever possible I will go beyond simply learning a new subject – as I learn I will let natural associations form with everything else I know, noting every connection, finding ways to turn even the most random of them – such as the observation that the mathematical model of a particular function somewhat resembles the shape of a Judas Chair, something I filed away and later explored and turned into a talk about membranes and distortions and the way things react when we pull them out of shape.

And so I end up with my creative to do list, which always presents itself as a series of possible connections, ways on which two parts of what I know might be similar in interesting ways, or operate in the same manner or share something so tenuous as that both remind me of marmalade. Because the atrium of my memory palace is the knowledge base built on a lifetime’s learning rather than these superficial flights of fancy, most of these connections, certainly the ones that hold my interest the longest, will in some way refer back to it. For me that core of deep knowledge is around subjectivity, agency, narrativity, and all the various other terms we use for the ways we seek to understand and express ourselves in the world and in relation to each other. If I ever achieve anything more than amusingly quirky it will be from the colliding of that core with the myriad branches springing up on the periphery. I may, indeed I probably will, not. And I am very lucky. That will not take the roof from over my head, though I would, of course, appreciate a little more time to go about the business of failing that having a day job and two other jobs on the side does not afford me.

I want to begin to wrap up then, as Neil Gaiman ended his glorious 2013 address to London Book Fair, by urging those of you who are able to do so to embrace the pursuit not of success, but of failure. Because that is where the greatest, the most exciting, the most important, and for the future of our species the most critical creative and innovative success truly lies.

And having set out to show how, like science, creativity is not only quantifiable but a game that is best played by the numbers, what other place could I possibly finish than with one of the great formative influences on millions of people my age, the man who more than anyone else showed that the scientific could be an object of beauty, the beautiful made more so by being subject to the measure of science.

In the words of Carl Sagan:

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

Changing Conversations

It is always a fine line to tread when one has a very strong agenda for change, between the political and the supra-political. Especially so when the issue in question lacks the fluidity that allows many of the most useful debates to have their natural rhythm. But as today is “Brexit Day”, it is both timely to mention it and important to do so in order to explain why I want to drive what I do here in a particular direction.

It is not a secret that I am a passionate advocate for the EU. I am not going to get into the past, present, or future debates on Brexit here, but the way I have phrased that sentence shows, I hope, the principle reason for my frustration with large swathes of not just the public Remain campaign but so many of my colleagues on social media. And it is indicative of a larger problem, which is what concerns us here and will take the rest of the post. One of the most infuriating things was, and still is, seeing people who share my passion get their rationale so wildly and so consistently wrong. With the wonderful exception of Scientists for the EU, high profile Remain campaigners singularly failed to put the case *for* anything. Not even for an idea. And that is heartbreaking, infuriating, and negligent in equal measure.

London’s Southbank Undercroft

For me the case for Remain was simple. It was about a vision. And it was about the details of which that vision was made. By day I work for an academic faculty that receives a lot of EU funding. And we use it to bring together the best minds from across Europe and the world to do incredible things. The money we get from the EU comes with strings that are very different from those that come from our UK funding. They are strings that tell us not to do something quantifiably useful or “impactful” or whatever those woefully poor understandings of science mean. They simply tell us to go out and get the best minds to do the best things we can. And in the wider university we have students who take part in the EU’s Erasmus programme, which sends students to other countries to learn languages and benefit from expertise within their field throughout the EU. For me, being for the EU is about being for collaboration, cooperation, putting our heads together and figuring out the stuff that matters. It’s about seeing a problem and tearing it to the ground. It’s about saying there should be no barriers to solving the things that hold us back or that threaten to destroy our planet, and also celebrating the things that make us all better from education to art. Sure, it fails in practice a lot. But it’s about a collective statement that making the world better is what matters. And the Remain campaign utterly failed to get any of that across. It left the ideas part of the arena as open land for the Leave campaign. And it continues to be a misconception of Remainers that Leave won because people were hooked on what the campaign was against. But you don’t drive public conversation by being against something. That may be what it looks like, but you drive conversation by having a simple idea about what you are for. And that is what anyone who wants to change a conversation must articulate.

But this post, and this website, and my work here is not about campaigning for membership of the EU. What it is about, however, is, just as in that instance, a vision and a set of pieces that coalesce to form it. It is about creating a world in which we are all empowered, individually, as groups, and as communities formed in every kind of geographical configuration, to develop and use our skills for good, specifically in the challenges that face us as a planet.

What I want to be part of, then, depends on two kinds of vision – one for what kind of a species and world we want (one that steps up and solves the problems coming its way), and for how we want to treat individuals within that world (removing every barrier that stops them contributing in any way to that wider goal by using their skills in the way they see best fit, be that through research, through the care and support and enabling of others, through the creation of a rich cultural landscape that feeds all our dreams, or just through having the time to think without fear of hunger, war, or disease so that their thoughts can fly in glorious directions that may prove utterly fruitless without fear of failure).

And it also depends upon enacting the practical steps necessary to build a world in which that vision can happen. In order for that empowerment and the global unlocking of potential that would accompany it to take place we need two massive shifts. We need a universal basic income – because of the time and capacity it frees up by the fears and insecurities it removes. And we need universal open access to the sum of human knowledge – because to use that extra time and the talents it frees up, we need everyone to be able to use them.

But, and here’s the key thing – those steps, the ones that lead to the key foundations, cannot be built by fist pounding or anger or by decrying all the things they are not. They can only be built by capturing imaginations one by one, by inspiring new generations and old. And that means changing our conversations. The world I am trying to build is a world, for example and most importantly, where the link between a person’s value and “work” is cut. It is a world where we aim not to work more but less. Where we do not seek to call out those who are not “hard working” but seek to call out those who demand hard work for no good reason.

But that link between work and value is so hard-wired in our day to day thoughts and conversations that we can only begin to build this kind of world by changing the conversation. And that means not criticising, not being hateful, not labelling. It means being passionate about where value should lie, It means showing the value of all humans regardless of their capacity for work. It means telling stories of human value. It means making the case for the arts, for science, for collaboration and cooperation, for the incredible things that happen when we remove people from pointless and exhausting “work” without removing their means of survival. It means celebrating exploration and experimentation. It means showing a kid on the other side of the world from wherever we may be doing a cool thing and getting people to say that’s what I want to do – not because the story was told on social media and not because the kid got a patent or got hired by a big company or got a book or media deal – but because the kid did a cool thing.

In that spirit, here’s a video. This is Skater Girls Cambodia.

I discovered this brilliant group through Sisu Girls who do incredible work promoting role models for girls the world over. Don’t watch because of the good work or the worthiness, just because they’re awesome.

This, of course, is a pitiful sketch. Aspects of it are inadequate (but I have my useful life to build upon it, and the part of the conversation to which I am contributing is a tiny one). Parts of it are woefully misleading (there is a tendency in my enthusiasm to sound aligned to a not very helpful libertarianism that would leave behind those not able to contribute or, conversely, part of some dry utilitarian planned system in which value is still attached to usefulness. Neither is true, but nuance, while essential, takes time and words that belong to the future. I am, as I hope what has gone before shows, committed to the highest quality of life for all, regardless of capability, and also to curiosity, creation, and research for their own sake, apart from impact. And parts will simply be wrong, in ways ‘I haven’t begun to understand but will come to.

But this is a start, and that is the most important part of anything. And an explanation. Our work, those who are with me on the road, will always need to be done at three levels – the visionary, the practical, and the conversation-changing

Dressed for Success

Before I start, may I ask you for a moment of your time. If you have looked around you will know I am researching creativity and working on tools and systems to help people who have found themselves cut off from a creative life unlock their potential. The first step on that trail is to conduct several surveys, of which the first is now live. It will take 10  minutes and you should have a lot of fun. You can find it here. Thank you!

As you know, I have been reading Tim Harford’s wonderful book Messy this week. One of the chapters that induced prim air-punching was the chapter on work spaces. And yet, despite the fact he proclaims that what you have on your desk is none of anyone else’s damn business, the thing he fails to mention is the one thing that has held me back the most in my quest for “real” employment, and where I feel the greatest sense of relief and, almost literally, expanding brain capacity and all-around performance bandwidth the moment I enter “creative me” land. And that’s the subject of clothing.

Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.
Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.

These days, we’re familiar with the anecdotes about Steve Jobs and his black sweaters, or Mark Zuckerberg only ever wearing grey T shirts because that way he never has to think about what to wear. Sadly, we are also familiar with stories of outrageous sexist dress codes, of women being forced to mutilate their feet in the belief that it  is an essential part of doing their job.

The problem is the same one we see played out again and again in the confusing and arbitrary codes of the workplace. What we see in the powerful as quirk and eccentricity we see in the workers’ corpus as disobedient and disrespectful. One is lauded for breaking the rules, the other required to keep them if they want to keep their job. And by rules, I don’t mean maintaining customer confidentiality, billing in a timely and transparent fashion, or adhering to the finest tolerances in manufacturing. I mean working from home. I mean what you wear day to day. I mean whether you sit or stand at your desk. I mean what pictures you have on the wall.

I am intrigued to know if the things that apply to a tidy desk apply to our adherence to dress codes, namely that whether your desk is tidy or messy is not important, but whether you got to choose how it looks is. Because this is essential about autonomy, empowerment, freeing our mind for the important things and then putting us in a frame of mind where we can attack them with gusto, my intuition is that it is. And my intuition is that the reasons organisations cling to rules in the face of evidence are equally as strange.

Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.
Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.


Let me rewind and give some context. I have always struggled with clothes. And in many different ways. I wear clothes very hard, for one, so I tend to wear through things – seams will fall apart as soon as I put something on, fabric rub through, shoe soles crack and so on. Then there is hypersensitivity. The feel of some fabric, some cuts of clothing, some shapes of clothing causes me actual pain. And the claustrophobia from wearing clothing that clings in certain ways (strangely the opposite is true when running, when I guess my body recognises the need for compression and the need not to chafe) takes over my mind at every moment. Getting anything done requires me to find ways of functioning that work around the fact that this massive mental weight is constantly there. It goes without saying if I am wearing clothing that makes me feel like this I will not do as well as if I choose my own outfit. It got so bad with one retail job in a chain store that I had to leave the job because I literally couldn’t do anything other than try and survive with the suit I was given to wear. I have a fairly complex suite of mental health needs, which makes staying in full time work somewhat tricky – the full time work I am able to do is a long way from anything I am capable of or qualified for doing as a result. (Hence the need to stretch a brain that is on the one hand desperately impaired but on the other full of what appears to be an unusual set of abilities that constantly want to exercise themselves is met through my extramural life of mind sports, mental health campaigning, public speaking, writing and private research.) But even this limited job is extremely tough – not because of the work but because of the other things it puts my way – social interactions, being in shared spaces, the expectation of eating and drinking communally at some meetings. Each of these requires large parts of my brain I could otherwise give to my work.

And clothing is one more of those things. I don’t have to wear a suit, and I am very grateful for that. But I can’t wear the comfortable elasticated waist trousers I would wear by choice. Apparently that sends the wrong message.

And here’s where we get back to the general points about dressing for work, and why telling someone what to wear is absurd.

The people in charge know it’s a trade off. I have certainly told my bosses that. And the manager of a woman forced to wear heels that hurt her feet or a person of colour forced to unbraid their hair must know it makes work harder for them. So to do the same work as their colleagues will take more. So they are doing less for the organisation, and as individuals they are systematically being denied equal access to performance based promotion. I have certainly explained this, and you would have to be particularly blinkered not to see it. Yet the demand is still there. and that means one of two things:

  1. They believe this is a trade off that’s worth it. Because something is more important than their employees being A. happy and comfortable and B. at their most productive, efficient, and creative.
  2. They just don’t believe us. Sadly, I fear that this is still a massive problem. Especially for those of us with hidden disabilities. You only have to look at the news to see people with Crohn’s being harassed for using the disabled bathroom. And those who have not experienced sensory processing issues simply do not “get” how headphones to drown out conversational noise would help; or having a quiet space to go and eat would be anything but “being demanding”; or having flexible hours would mean you were able to be at work when you were not feeling sick from your medication. There is still too wide an assumption that those with hidden conditions are making up demands they don’t really need because people just won’t believe us. That really isn’t acceptable and we need to keep working to change it – but that’s for another post.

For now, I just want to think what those higher priorities might be, and I want to encourage all the managers out there to have a hard think about their logic if they find themselves drawn to any of them. I have come across each of these. I think each of them is highly flawed.

  1. It creates the wrong image for clients. I still haven’t understood exactly what this means. It seems to boil down to “clients expect”, but clients expect a lot of things that appear on a spectrum that runs from slightly dubious to downright unacceptable and it is the job of organisations to separate out delivering superb service from pandering to prejudicial or outdated attitudes. Arrogating responsibility for that is simply lazy.
  2. You work better when you’re dressed for the part. There are so many people who believe that the way they believe you work better at a tidy desk. The message is simple – you might think you work better one way, but you’re wrong. Some people feel this way. Others feel differently. There’s room for all.
  3. It sends the wrong image to co workers. I have seen this meant in several ways – on the one hand I’ve seen it mean it sends the message you don’t care – but for that see point 2. Personally I think giving someone the freedom to dress how they want shows you care about being the best you can more than you care about an image. I’ve seen it understood as meaning that managers who dress casually won’t be respected by their staff, or are sending an unmanagerly message. But see Zuckerberg and Jobs. Maybe it’s not that “tech companies are different” but that staff who work at Apple and Facebook care about their managers’ vision, leadership, and skills more than their clothes.

What I’m trying to say combines two elements, but they do meet to form a single point. Some people need the freedom to choose their clothing because they have a condition that requires it. But it’s never really the best way to do things to make people ask to be made an exception. It singles them out, it requires a lot of resources from the people who have fewest to spare, it formalises s sense that some people are a disproportionate burden. Fortunately, if what is true of desks is true of dress, there is an easy answer – let everyone have the autonomy to choose their own clothing. Those who like to feel smart can do so. Those who need comfort can have comfort. Those who simply need to feel they can express who they are can do just that. So long as no one is breaking health or hate rules, what is the problem?

One of the things I care about passionately is making workplaces more creative. And that also includes giving the opportunities to be creative to those who have had the doors closed. I also care about making workplaces as accessible as they can be. Because accessibility enables diversity and diversity in the workplace has been shown again and again to be good in itself. And because it’s in the interest of all organisations that when their staff are working they are able to bring their A-game. And I have this ridiculous notion that is more important than having them in a tie.


All the Broccoli Became James Corden: The Problem of Finding Creativity’s Goldilocks Zone

In Originals, his brilliant tour through the inner and outer worlds of the world’s most innovative thinkers, Adam Grant tells us that these stars in our firmament have one thing in common. They fail more than other people. In his 2013 speech to London Book Fair, Neil Gaiman acknowledged this same trait with his call for publishers to apply the dandelion method to their trade, trying, as he put it, a thousand things in order that 100 might take seed.

Creativity and failure cannot be separated. Brilliant ideas emerge from a primordial soup that is given its potency by sheer weight of numbers. Writers generating the sparks of plots know this. Inventors know this. Artists know this. And if you’ve ever taken part in a task of the kind used in the Torrance Test, the benchmark test for measuring creativity (and the kind of test similar to those used in the Creative Thinking World Championship), it is something you will recognise as being central to the very essence of creativity. Creativity is, at its base, the mashing together of stuff that’s never been put together before, in ways that have never been tried before, to see what happens.

This is why the best creative out there is nature. Nature gives us everything from pulsars to the murmuration of a million starlings, black holes to graphene. Evolution not only gets to experiment with all of the mutations – it gets to run those experiments longitudinally in a way scientists can only drool over. And then there’s cosmology, which has given us the universe in which this conversation is able to happen thanks to infinitesimally finely-tuned parameters like the Hubble Constant (which means there is just enough matter that gravity stops everything flying off into nothing, but not so much that it all collapses back in). On one reading of the multiverse model, we find ourselves in such a wonderful world precisely because literally all of the not so well put together ones have happened and, like something from Douglas Adams, failed.

The Undercroft of London's Southbank is one of the most creative spaces in the UK
The Undercroft of London’s Southbank is one of the most creative spaces in the UK

The problem we have as creatives is that we don’t have billions of years or trillions of possible universes to play with. We have a few decades, lives limited by numerous external factors, and the strictures of circumstance. We cannot generate all of the ideas and test each one. We cannot run longitudinal experiments on random mutations. There just isn’t, as it were, the longitude to do it in. If we as creatives pursued the nature’s super-top-optimal strategy of try everything then there is every possibility we might miss the answer to providing clean, renewable energy to whole nations because we are too busy exploring what might happen in imaginary worlds where at 6.43 pm on a wet grey Tuesday all of the broccoli becomes James Corden.

There are, of course, collective creative endeavours that have found pretty effective equilibrium models that narrow the scope of possibility enough to cope with the whole being finite thing whilst allowing maximal flexibility by the throwing numbers at it method. Science is a really good example. We fund, as a society, experiments to test a whole load of conjectures knowing damn well that most will be dead ends without, if we are doing it right, prejudging which those will be. Another really good example is literature. Anyone can write (and as a slush reader trust me, they do) absolutely anything and send it forth and most of it will be, politely, the kind of thing that makes one think, aw how nice that people have a hobby. And that avalanche of the average and sub-average is the precondition for the few soaring works of originality that occasionally break the surface.

So, we can celebrate the fact that we are a part of a glorious process at the macro- and the supra-macro-level. But what about how that creative imperative can play out in our lives? Are we subject to an overwheening irony that dictates the only difference that we, as individuals, can make, is to allow ourselves to be played by these grandscale numbers games? Well, I’m not going to dismiss the notion out of hand. There’s a lot of work to be done in the field, but the myth of the singular genius is, thanks to the likes of Adam Grant, being replaced by a different mythic image, that of the shape slowly emerging from a bubbling soup of possibility.

But might it be possible for us to make a genuinely creative difference in our own lives? What might lives dedicated to that end look like?

If you go into any bookstore, or even have the misfortune to take a wrong turn in the labyrinth of life and wind up in the living hell of a management training workshop, you will have been imbued with a lot of incredibly positive mantras and techniques. Blue skies and non-boxes and multiple hats and rhymes that sound like something from the 1990s news. Because it’s not the business of the self-improvement, er, business to sell you failure, or even uncertainty.


It’s all very well devoting your life to thinking outside the box, but without there being some kind of box, and some kind of reference in your thought to that box, you are liable to spend your life experimenting with scenarios involving James Corden and broccoli, or at the very least a variety of commonly available brassicas. And this brings us to one of the big questions for humanity – would our future as a species be better if we threw our collective effort behind boxless experiments even though we know that for many people their lives will be experimental dead ends? Is boxing individuals in better using our resources, or is unboxing them and celebrating green Corden the only way to maximize our overall creative success? And how on earth do we square that with economics?

And this is where, as so often, we descend to question and conjecture. Which is not a bad place to start, especially as this post marks the start of my own project, a systematic exploration of the nature and potential of creativity on the human, the organisational, and the societal levels.

Let us assume that absolute creativity, whatever that may mean, is the province only of those forces with infinite resource. There must still be an optimal amount of creativity for a life. Here we face a question I want to come back to in the weeks and months to come, but to leave aside here. It is the question we have already asked, and it is this – how does a creative society balance optimal ingenuity for the world with optimal ingenuity for each individual who finds themselves part of that whole with their separate and equally valuable dreams and desires and needs?

Let’s say for now that the idea of an individual’s optimal ingenuity makes sense. How do we achieve that? What is the best way for us to be creative? How can we go about it so that we have the best chance of hitting on the best idea that will change the world or people’s perspective on it the most, and ideally for the best?

That is the set of questions at the heart of the research that, in short, will constitute the main work of this blog, and this part of Rogue Interrobang, for the years to come.

Fortunately, I have a conjecture that I want to put to the test. I will explain how I arrived at it, and why I think it has potential, later. But for now, I will simply state it. See what you think. Does it make sense? Does it have legs? Does it fit with your own experience of being creative or watching others around you follow an original idea through to a truly creative conclusion?

It’s not particularly startling. It’s certainly not, I am sure, original or overly creative, but it’s been niggling at me for a long time, hinting at me, asking me to take a closer look, so here it is:

Creativity occurs at the intersection of deep knowledge and broad knowledge. Deep knowledge of a subject means that you have mastered the workings of the small field in question to the extent that consciously or unconsciously you start to become aware of the flaws and fissures within it, to have a feel for its landscape. But deep knowledge also means that you know something so well that you have internalised its “rules”, have developed a blindness to fresh perspective. Broad knowledge brings a voracity and enthusiasm and furious connection-building that sees everything as new, free from preconception. But it also leaves you navigating in the dark, lacking an atlas of its semi hidden pathways and pitfalls. It is in the constant change of focus, the zooming in and zooming out of perspective, the bringing of deep knowledge to play on new fields and constant newness on an intimately known terrain that the possibility of truly meaningful innovation will most likely and most profoundly occur.

And that’s where I’ll leave it for now, ready to revisit with a rationale and a methodology later. In the meanwhile, over to you. What is creativity? Is real originality possible and does it matter?