Despite the ubiquity of social media, there still exists a frustratingly common culture of individualism, of entitlement and a failure to empathise.

Empathy is a beautiful thing, a powerful force for good. Thomas Clarkson, for example, was instrumental in founding the Committee for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade in 1787.

At the time, many saw slavery as an acceptable thing. The view was that the economy depended upon it, much as our current economy is considered to depend upon weapons, oil, carrier bags and those horrific polystyrene food containers takeaways insist on using, and is threatened by those terrible immigrants taking our jobs.

Fear tends to trump empathy.

Anyway, Clarkson published stories about what it was like to be a slave. How it felt to be whipped. He ran meetings and showed people the horrific instruments used in slavery – the chains, the cuffs.

He enabled people to empathise with the slaves. It led to a revolutionary social movement: boycotting of sugar, petitions, protests and, of course, abolition.


Might more people react positively to the plastic bag charge if their gardens and houses were strewn with litter? Would people participate in balloon releases if their meals were dangerously threaded with the detritus?

What of the idea of an empathy museum? Where you can make a t-shirt in a sweatshop and be given 5p for it. Buy a cup of coffee but experience the conditions the person who picked the beans has been through. Where you can borrow people for conversations to understand who they truly are. Realise they’re a person, just like you but with a different background, a different history and a different future.

I’m proud to say I’ve contributed (in a tiny way) towards just such a dream, through the uninhibitive ease of Indiegogo. The Empathy Museum is worth your time.

We can apply these principles to everyday life.

To how we treat our customers, to why we run our businesses, how we manage our staff. Where we source our products and materials, our labourers.

When you approach any activity you have the option to pause to consider how it might affect someone else.

The person you’re tailgating could be on the way to hospital to visit a loved on. The ‘scrounger’ on the street you scorn may have suffered a childhood beyond anything you could ever imagine.

It only takes a moment.

The path of desire

A desire path is a path created by people who actually use something, rather than those who simply design it.

Despite the best intentions of planners, with their ‘perfectly’ designed, aesthetic paths, people – and animals – tend to want to get from A to B.

If the provided paths don’t match-up to their needs, they’ll create their own: hence a desire path.

Leaving aside the obvious point of making sure you create things for the users rather than for some sort of private ego-boost / desire to be different (hotel lightswitch and shower designers, I’m talking to you)… the concept of a path of least resistance applies to many aspects of life.

Whatever you design, whether it is your to-do list, your private philosophy, your morning routine, your diet or your fitness regime … if the barriers are too great then you will simply take the desire path and skip what’s important.

That’s not to say you should assume you’ll never be motivated, but to suggest you make it as easy as possible.

A common example: if you want to start running but keep your trainers hidden in the back of a cupboard, you probably never will take the first step. Put your running clothes out the night before, put your shoes by the door.

If you’re struggling to take control of a certain area of life, I’ll bet good money that there’s discrepancy between the path you naturally want to take and the path you’re trying to force yourself to take.

Perhaps it’s time for some landscaping?

Higher than ‘yes’

“Writing is higher than walking, thinking is higher than writing, deciding higher than thinking, deciding ‘no’ higher than deciding ‘yes'”
William James, The Energies of Man.

Saying no – whether to anger (see yesterday’s email), intrusion into your precious time or some other kind of psychological or physical commitment – is one of the critical differences between functional busyness and unfunctional chaos.

In his essay, James argues that we rarely use all the powers available to us. We’re all familiar with the days when we can achieve astonishing amounts, and those when even the basics are a struggle.

Sometimes you wonder how on earth you haven’t achieved more; at other times the consideration is whether you will achieve anything again. These swings come and go to various levels for various people: some are blessed with little variation; others fight between overactivity and an inability to act at all.

Often the fluctuations are caused by external stimulus. James: “Excitements, ideas, and efforts, in a word, are what carry us over the dam.”

James argues that we respond to our environment. Country living is slower because the pace of life is slower. Move someone from rural to urban for a day and they will feel incorrigibly rushed. Move them for a year and they will have picked up the pulse of the city.

It is a strong argument, reflected in the one that you become the sum of the five people you spend the most time with.

Sometimes, however, moving to a different environment for just a few hours can be enough to spur you on. I find I get a lot of work done on long train journeys, or if I work in a different place for a day. That wouldn’t work forever: the change would become routine, but in the short-term it is indeed as good as a rest.

Restrictions may help: a tight deadline, or reduced resources will often focus the mind. But what might help you? James preaches yoga and hints at mindfulness, and talks of temperance – but more because of the notion of taking the pledge being a motivator than the benefits of abstinence.

I’ll leave that one up to you.

As James says, “The busiest man needs no more hours of rest than the idler.”

So I’d best get on.

Reaction times

The past and the future exist only in our minds: as memories (negatively, anxiety; positively, fondness) or as predictions (negatively, worry; positively, anticipation).

Each fleeting glimpse of the present is our true reality, and how we respond to it defines how we live.

‘Now’ defines our experience of life: not just the decisions you make, the seemingly minute ones which begin the branches of possibility and are generally (rightly) underthought, and the major ones which are generally overthought.

This is where you can, and should, be in control, but it’s ofen the point where we feel least able to. The past can be adjusted with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance; the future with wild optimism. I’d argue that it is the now that scares people; but that fear is generally disguised as either looking-ahead-anxiety or looking-back-worry.

Paulo Coelho, in The Alchemist: “At a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”

The zen concept of life being your actual experience of living is appropriate here. So are concepts of mindfulness and acceptance.

Your ability to react to things beyond your control will affect your happiness in an incredible way.

An example: your train breaks down. You are stuck on it halfway between stations and there’s nothing you can do: you aren’t allowed to leave it, nor (presumably) can you repair it.

Common reactions include: anger, frustration, tutting, sighing, huffing “typical” and aggressively biting into your egg sandwich.

But it is your reaction which defines how you experience this situation. React with anger and your experience is immediately, and wholly, negative.

On the other hand a calm acceptance, a consideration of opportunity, can turn a potentially horrible experience into a positive one. Suddenly you have time to read, to catch-up on email, to buy one of those little bottles of wine from the buffet service. Even just that rare opportnity to sit, quietly and peacefully, and contemplate. Perhaps you weren’t that enthusiastic about your destination anyway (there’s that cognitive dissonance kicking in).

What greater gift is there in the world than an unexpected hour (day, minute) of ‘me-time’…?

Learn to pause and think before you react. Ask yourself:

  • Is how I feel rational and proportionate to the problem?
  • Will a quick, angry reaction solve anything or make things worse?
  • What positives can I take out of this situation?
  • How would I feel if I was describing my reaction to someone else?

There’s enough anger and negativity in the world without needlessly adding to it.

“La crise du monde actuel comme oubli de la vie”

Michel Henry wrote about “the crisis of the present world as forgetfulness of life”.

Wassily Kandinsky, as a pioneer of abstract art, painted what he felt, not what he saw.

Etsuo Yoneyama, um, intellectually speculated that “living experience” is much more fundamentally significant than intellectual speculation.

Although we have physical manifestations of feelings – we laugh, cry, fume – ultimately emotions are something felt, something experienced, rather than something seen.

The Blue Rider, a group of artists which included Kadinsky, believed art should express spiritual truths, was revolutionary at the time. They questioned what they were doing, what the establishment believed, and why art should – and shouldn’t – be done in a certain way.

Henry was a fan. The concept of abstract art reflected his belief that life is about individual living experiences. That life and personality are inseparable: the pain of an individual is a part of their living experience.


The point is, you have to allow yourself to experience your life. To accept the hardships along with the happiness. To shout, swear, greave and mourn just as you laugh, love, smile and cheer.

Henry wrote that the most fundamental experience in our world is to become aware of our own feelings; it is proof of our existence, proof of life.

He differentiated between feeling, not just seeing. We can doubt what we see, but we cannot doubt what we feel – however hard we may try on occasion.

And yet, our lives become more and more focused on what we see. Or how we perceive ourselves as being seen.

Back to Henry: to be alive is to experience one’s actual life. Life continuously generates its own personality, which is then revealed each time as phenomena: e.g. joy, happiness, anger.

Life is generated by life. Your life is defined by your actual experience of living, not just your mere existence. That, arguably, is what makes us human. And your experience is precisely that. Yours. 

That is one of the beautiful things about art: it makes invisible life become visible. It is not a literal representation, but an expression of interal energy. A revealing of private feelings. A brief definition of yourself on canvas.

And in a way you life, your business, everything with which you surround yourself, is your canvas. Your expression.

What you do and how you do it says everything about who you are.

Eric Faÿ and Phillippe Riot wrote in their paper, “Phenomenological approaches to work, life and responsibility”, that a focus on short-term optimisation techniques will obliterate any sense of meaning or ethics.

‘Modern management’ frequently requires techniques which focus on calculable results and distant objectives. Experience takes on a fake, anticipated, abstract future: one where meeting targets, hitting deadlines and optimising the bottom line are the sole factors of perceived success, yet staff – people, individuals – are more likely to flourish and be proud of more emotional successes and personal growth.

Much as it’s hard to place an exact value on your office chair, your keyboard or your favourite pen: so too is it hard to value what you are contributing to the world.* It’s hard to measure true happiness and contentment – and so instead we measure what’s easy. Email open rates, website visitors statistics.

Money. The great, blind, emotionless measurement device.

(* Although there’s an argument that if you can’t value your contribution, perhaps you’re doing the wrong thing…)

There are a few interesting themes and ideas within here (and no real conclusion as such), so I’m going to continue exploring throughout this week. It’s a big, complicated subject, but also a fascinating one.

Let’s dish up something mega

Jamie Oliver supposedly has this list of buzzwords in his restaurants to encourage staff to use them when selling their specials. I have absolutely no idea if it’s true or not but it reads like it might be:-



It’s easy to mock a little. But if you ever hear the term “pucker grub”, you’ll probably think of the Naked Chef, and that’s a powerful thing to have achieved.

We all have our little phrases and words we like to use. It’s what forms part of our personality – sometimes in a positive way and sometimes, like, a little bit more negatively, do you know what I mean?

Get this sort of thing right for your business. Stand up for yourself, let your personality shine through. If your staff communicate with your customers, in any way, do you know how they talk or write? Does it reflect your business, not just in a professional way but does it get across the feeling you want to achieve?

What you say, and how you say it is a key part of how customers feel about your business. Just through your words, you can both attract the right customer and put-off those who might not be a perfect match. You can also influence perceptions about price, quality and service.

A scrummy dollop of awesomeness goes a long, long way.

What’s your half an inch?

A single step on a single stairway in a single city, yet it had control over many who dared to climb…

The step, you see, was half an inch higher than the others. A tiny change but so used to the stairs did each climber become that many fell victim to it and tripped their way into the Brooklyn sunshine.

We can learn two things from this.

Firstly, watching people trip up stairs can be pretty funny – or more specifically, their attempted nonchalance is. We’ve all been there. “No, really, I meant to do that. All part of the plan.”

Second is how little it takes to throw us off course. We adapt quickly: it takes just a few steps up some stairs to subsconsciously calculate the exact height, and we expect it to remain the same.

The change to our expectation, literally in this case, trips us up. It’s something that happens every day to everyone: the best laid plans etc.

You plan a positive day. You know exactly what you’re going to achieve. Then you’ll get a phone call, an email, or experience some other (often minor) incident which completely throws you off track and your planned productivity never happens.

Knowing about the half an inch, understanding what happens when you’re interrupted (even with a difficult problem) and knowing how to get your day back on track is critical.

It’s useful to have a mini routine to reset yourself: it could be as simple as making a cup of tea, stepping away from your computer, closing your eyes and breathing deeply to the count of ten.

But whatever you do, make it a conscious, specific thing so that when you do it you are clearly aware that everything’s alright again.

Enjoy your trip.

Liberty to think

William Tyndale gave us, in the words of Melvyn Bragg“the liberty to think, not the duty to believe”. 

The internet gave us not just the liberty to think but the freedom to be heard (even if we do mainly use it for photos of cats).

The mobile revolution will give people true liberty. Freedom to escape boundaries. A migrant taking a selfie on a beach is not indulging in self-centered narcissism but proudly proclaiming the prospect of a new chance in a life he didn’t choose.

Financial barriers will be eroded. Currencies may become less relevant in certain contexts – Bitcoin is already making inroads to that. Social ones. Fear: people feel safer if they can communicate. Geographical – I had made friends in Cambridge before I moved here, thanks to social media.

The ascent of mobile has made the rise of the internet look like a leisurely stroll up a nearby mound, compared to the near-vertical escalation of the-world-in-your-pocket. We no longer put mobile/responsiveness as an added extra in a quote. You get it, it happens.

What does it mean for you, for your business?

Well, in short, if you don’t know – or at least have a fair idea – you need to start thinking about it.


That doesn’t mean you need to develop an app (god, please, don’t develop an app unless you actually need to… “download this buggy software so you can read the same information that is on our non-mobile-friendly website”). It means you need to step back and consider how your customers might be using mobile.

Cleaning company? Plumber? Make it easy for them to send you pictures of the problem. Sell sofas? Drag and drop them into a mobile and use augmented reality.



Anyway. Mobile is very cool. It is changing the world so do try not to be left behind.

Our instant society blinds us to consequence

“I want” – gets. Our on-demand, instant access, credit-based, use-it-and-chuck it society cares for now.


This moment matters, not the next one. My moment, not someone else’s.

Trying yet another piece of software because the last one didn’t work overnight, interruptions, being late, get-rich-quick schemes, bottled water, that Ronnie Pickering road rage guy…

The relentless focus for so many is on me, and on now. That’s a terrible way to run a business, or live a life.

Slow down. The best way to create problems is to panic and rush head-on, unthinkingly into everything you do: that’s something most of us have been guilty of (some more than others).

That pause, that breath, that moment to consider before you do something could completely change your approach to it.

“What if …. could see me now? What would they think?”

“If my actions went viral on the internet, would I be proud?”

“Am I jumping blindly to a new, shiny solution or actually taking the time to make the best of what I’ve got?”

“Have I really thought about everyone involved in this situation?”

There is a sustainability movement which talks of seventh generation behaviour: consider the impact of your actions on the next seven generations.

It might not influence which piece of time management software, but it might make you think twice about buying the bottle of water.

Squeeze it down, too: what is the impact of your action on the next seven minutes, days, months, years?

I’m not advocating, for a moment, the abandonment of spontaneity: a beautiful thing which most people don’t have enough of in their lives. It is more a call for mindful spontaneity.

Seize the moment, but know why you’ve seized it.

A classic example is the ridiculous concept of “living each day as if it’s your last”. Absurd if taken literally, but most of us understand the concept behind it.

So much of life is a compromise – I’ll write another day about the things we’d do differently if we were starting from scratch – the only real solution you have is to control and affect what you can, in the best way you can.

Pause, think, consider – but then do. And do well.


Good habits are hard to break – even if it feels easy at the time.

The underlying, gnawing, nagging, “you know, that was a good thing you did. Why did you stop? Why?”…

Emails aside, the other daily habit I’d begun (and then stopped) in Cambridge was a swim. Last week I decided to start again. Not daily, but at least occasional.

“Tomorrow. No excuses.”

Inevitably I awoke to a torrential downpour, rain battering the windows. A good excuse to stay in bed, but I carried on. I was going to get wet anyway, was my reasoning, so I covered myself in waterproofs and cycled to the pool.

Realising along the way I’d left my membership card at home. Maybe I should just carry on to work?

I was half an hour early, because they don’t open until 7 on a Tuesday, apparently. Maybe I should just carry on to work?

I reminded myself of the No Excuses promise I’d made, and I knew from experience that if I didn’t do this then it’d negatively affect my day. Anyway, these are hardly major barriers.

I’d read recently about the Zeigarnik Effect – the intrusive feelings you get about something you started and didn’t finish. Incomplete things play on your mind, and that’s something worth resolving.

So I waited for half an hour, asked the receptionist to look-up my name on the computer and got on with it.

Then I swam. And thought. I’ve missed these emails. I don’t feel like I chose to stop writing the emails, more that a change of lifestyle made the decision for me. I’ve missed the routine, the feedback, the communication, the ability to put out little ideas and theories each day and see what happens.

Writing a daily email for two-and-a-half years, some 170,000 words (ish), was probably the best habit I’ve ever begun and maintained. Ultimately, you can do almost anything you want in life, if you’re determined enough – and I want to start again.

If you don’t have time to do something, make time. Get up half an hour earlier. Go to bed half an hour later. Skip the TV program. Cook yourself three extra dinners on a Sunday and use the spare time on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

There is always a way to achieve what you want to achieve. Just make it happen.