The Future is Ours

Crane DawnI was on a flight from Hong Kong to New York recently when I realized something that could change my life forever. How little time we spend actually thinking. I don’t mean worrying about the trivia that fills our minds with useless thoughts every moment of the day. I mean stopping for a considered time to clear our minds of meaningless nonsense and to think about something different, something perhaps bigger than who we are today or the contribution we could make to this life.

And it started me thinking about the ambition of my youth and for a moment I was sad and lost and then I simply thought of something that filled me with an overwhelming sense of exhilaration. The thought that ambition is not over until we choose to give it up. And it is our choice whether we live this life with the thoughts of something bigger or lose ourselves in the everyday minutiae of nothing at all.

By thinking about something – writing a novel, starting a business, a charitable cause or whatever it may be – we have a proven chance of achieving it. But all the time we have meaningless arguments inside our heads, reliving the past or worrying about things we cannot change, we are wasting something vital that could change our lives forever – using our minds to create a beautiful and more enriched future.

So now, I am banishing any thought that has no purpose, the internal nonsense that goes around and around and burns up the most important development of evolution, the ability to think for ourselves.

It has taken six billion years to evolve us to where we are today, with the most developed brain of any species. The limbic brain and the neocortex, 3 lbs of jelly that represents the absolute pinnacle of evolution. We can use it to play Candy Crush all day or change the world we live in. In the end it is down to thought and motivation – and the other great gift we have. The gift of freedom of choice.

Don’t waste it.

I have been writing again after many months of absence and I feel thrilled that once challenged, our minds come forward with a mass of creativity, of invention, of wonder. I’m now half way through writing a new book and I feel more excited than at any time in my life.

Be excited for all that can be rather than worried about all that may be or all that was. We have been gifted the greatest thinking machine of evolution, the human mind. And we need to use it.

The future is waiting to be created. And it is all ours.

A Crying Shame

Rainbow LighteningOn our first day at grammar school, each of us had to state out loud our name and address while the teacher wrote down our individual details. Around the class the roll-call went until it came to me. When I said my address, the teacher looked up from her register.

“Oh! I didn’t know we allowed anyone from that place to come to this school,” she said.

My cheeks blushed and I cast my eyes down at the desk while the whole class looked down on me and sniggered. The emotion I felt, most powerfully, was that of shame. I was ashamed that I had been allowed to attend grammar school when it was clearly against the rules of their society. The teacher had given her humiliating judgment and the class agreed.

It was clear that the emotions those class members felt were a mixture of judgment and pleasure. The pleasure of shaming a poor boy from state housing coming to a wealthy grammar school.

There is a huge difference between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment is a sense of being exposed without having violated some personal or social norm. On the other hand, shame is a painful feeling about oneself, often as a result of being judged in a social context for being sinful.

It’s ironic that society mostly looks down on people who have very little and looks up to people who have everything. Should judgment really be so shallow that I should look with disdain at a hungry child but look with admiration at someone who has a sprawling estate and a personal cinema room?

Frank McCourt, the sadly deceased author of Angela’s Ashes, said he could not watch an appeal for hungry children on TV without weeping. He wept because he knew the gnawing pain of hunger. He also knew the absurd sense of shame that society can make you feel for being impoverished. The same feelings I had in that grammar school classroom.

If we look at the other end of society’s measure of wealth, we see that the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. Yes, billion. Is that a shame? It depends what they do with their wealth and whether the contest to see who has the biggest super-yacht is more fulfilling than giving a destitute child a glass of milk each day. It’s not for me to judge.

Regardless of wealth, we can all live in a state of constant poverty. A poverty of compassion, a poverty of humanity, a poverty of true happiness.

But I do want to thank my teacher for something. She taught me that it’s a crying shame to judge people by their possessions or by where they live.

Remembering Fathers

Love DadI don’t have many memories of my father, but I remember like it was yesterday how he said he was going out to see a man about a dog and never came back. I was six years old. The only time I heard from him again was when he sent me a postcard to say I was now the man of the house and should take care of my mum, the way he knew I would.

For the rest of my childhood, I held onto that tiny postcard and slept with it under my pillow. I played a movie inside my head in which my dad had taken passage on a boat from England to America where he was making his fortune. Soon, he would return and we would eat chicken everyday and drink lemonade, even if we were not thirsty. He would hug me and give the greatest gift of all – his smile and praise for being his boy.

But I would not see my father again until I was a young man. He cried when we met and I wondered about all the adventures he had had without me. We were strangers with no shared memories beyond him joking that he wanted some of my hair because all of his had fallen out.

And then, by some hideous twist of fate, he died on my birthday. It seemed like a tortured final gift from someone who had never sent gifts for any birthday before. He died alone and in poverty. There was no adventure in America, no fortune, no lemonade. Any chance for us to know each other as men was gone forever.

But I have no time for pity parties. I found ambition from my father’s absence. The same movie that he should have starred in became my movie and I came to America to find my fortune. The memories that I should have had as a boy became the memories I made as a father to my own children.

Now, my youngest daughter is six years old and I cannot imagine abandoning the memories of her upbringing to a stranger. I cannot imagine the emptiness of losing a thousand moments of joy that are made just by coming home and having her leap into my arms. And I cannot imagine the loss that a man must feel when he realizes it is all too late because the child he could have known is grown and the beautiful age of innocence is lost forever.

Fatherhood lives in shared memories. It is the movie that is the life of our families. It is our authentic, unique existence.

Around the world, we are celebrating our fathers and being a father. We celebrate fatherhood because it is the greatest gift a man will ever know. And as we stare into the loving eyes of our children, we have our own precious sense of immortality.

And no one can take that away.

Final Words

Haunted HouseI signed my will at the weekend. They still call it a Last Will and Testament, conjuring up images of grieving relatives weeping at your bedside as you sigh your final breath and let go of this mortal coil to meet your maker.

But as I signed the document, my first thought was not of my grieving family but of a movie called the Cat and the Canary, starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. I saw that movie on TV when I was a small boy and, although it is a comedy, it scared the living daylights out of me.

In the movie, the will is read at midnight and the entire estate goes to the beautiful, young Paulette Goddard. But there’s a catch for the heiress: because of a concern about a streak of insanity in the family’s blood, she must stay sane for thirty days or lose the fortune to another family member.

Everyone has to stay the night in the spooky mansion, haunted by many spirits. It’s an open invitation for greedy relatives to drive her, overnight, into a state of total insanity.

I doubt there will be such drama when my will is read, even if there is a streak of insanity in my family’s blood. But signing your will does make you think about death. We’re all going to die, but thankfully, most of us don’t know when the end will be. So maybe we should start living as if this is our last day.

Well, if I was living each day as if it were my last, I can tell you that it would be one heck of a lot different from what it is. For a start, I would be eating a bacon, egg and cheese roll for breakfast. With a beer. And not organic muesli with skimmed milk.

And another thing, I would be spending all my money on a beach holiday with my friends and loved ones, partying till I drop. And not getting on the New York subway at 7 am to spend twelve hours in the grasping clutches of corporate America.

What’s more, I would get a sleeve tattoo and always speak my mind, whether people liked what I said or not. So no. Living each day like it is your last does not work at all. Unless you’ve inherited someone’s fortune.

Maybe living like we know that life won’t last forever is a better way to think about it. Just stop worrying about all the meaningless trivia and enjoy it while we still can. Before we’re all declared insane for eating organic muesli and getting on the subway at 7 am.

But I do like the thought of my will being read at midnight in a haunted mansion.

Yes You Can

Sleeping MonkeyI’m realizing now, after all these years, that almost all self-discovery is worthless. Don’t get me wrong: I think it is incredibly important to know yourself, perhaps the most important thing that you will ever do. But the process of knowing yourself through self-discovery – or “introspection” – is completely flawed.

We need to see ourselves from the outside-in.

Left entirely to our own analysis and self-discovery, it is impossible to see ourselves as we truly are. It is through the “Introspection Illusion” that we believe we are all better car drivers than the average (statistically impossible) but more ominously, that we are incapable of achieving our greatest dreams because of our lack of talent, our flaws, our weaknesses.

The single greatest obstacle to achieving our goals and dreams is embodied in the sincere belief that we will fail. And we all do it – fail before we even begin.

You see, when we look inside ourselves, we find fear and doubt more often than we may find courage and belief. And such is the power of fear and doubt that it crushes our ambitions. The dreamer that you were when you were seventeen becomes the disillusioned, boxed-in adult, fearful of failure

But success finds itself through a determined belief that you can achieve something.

So, rather than believing that you are an above average driver but could never play the piano, start talking to those who are closest to you, those you trust, those whose opinions you value. Ask them what strengths – and only strengths – they see in you. You may be amazed. And list the things you have done that you never thought you could, however small. Keep the list going and add to it every day. Then take just one thing you never thought you could do and start the journey towards achieving it.

Stop looking inside yourself and finding failure – an excuse to never start. Don’t fall for the Introspection Illusion.

Build a view of your amazing self from the outside-in. You are so much more than you know.

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