How to think for yourself

November 27th, 2015

Why should you think for yourself?

Knowledge is Power. Actually, it isn’t. Knowledge is pretty useless. The actions you instigate as a result of having knowledge are what give knowledge value. So if you know why a total eclipse of the sun happens and have the calculations to predict when and where it will happen in the future whilst everyone else doesn’t, you can use that knowledge to attribute power to yourself (should you be that way inclined) and have everyone consider you as some kind of god when you demonstrate your power over the sun.

If you were in thrall to such a manipulative person, being able to think for yourself could prove to be your salvation—or your condemnation if you openly challenge their power.

Someone tells you a story.

The story is like knowledge – benign in its pure form but often the telling of the story is a prelude to some kind of reaction. The story serves as a justification for the action. If the action involves going to war, for example, that could result in the deaths of members of your family, then it would make sense to go beyond merely accepting the story as true and to ask searching questions of it.

Believe no one, assume nothing.

This is the mantra all police detectives should recite. The police rely on evidence to secure a conviction so their job actually demands this approach.

Most of us however, are not police officers so this kind of extreme scepticism is impractical. So what methods can we employ?

The line of least resistance is your worst enemy.

If someone in authority tells you a story, the easiest option is to believe it. Often this is the most sensible thing to do. If a fire officer tells you a building is ablaze and you shouldn’t enter it, there is no reason to challenge this if you can see the flames spouting through the windows. If however the building is a bank and you have cash deposited in it and the figure in authority is the bank manager who insists the building is ablaze when you can’t see any flames or smoke, you might be tempted to wonder if there is something else going on.

View the story as a crime scene.

If all you have to go on is second hand reports, you could be told anything and have no way of knowing if any of it was true. You need evidence. Look for motives when checking the crime scene; why would the bank manager tell this story? Who would benefit from it? How would they benefit? Why is the story being told now?

Look for evidence.

If you see a queue of worried people near the bank clutching passbooks, they might be relevant to the story. Check with them for any insights. You’ve already noticed that there is no evidence of fire (although it could still be contained in the building) so formulate your own hypothesis. This is basically employing the scientific method: you don’t have the answer so you come up with a theory of what might be happening based on the known facts and past experience etc. In this case, you might propose that the bank has become insolvent and is trying to hide the fact to avoid a run on it. These kind of events have happened in the past so by extrapolating from these incidents you can convincingly make the case for the current scenario.

Now you can experiment. Call the fire brigade, ask them if they are dealing with a fire at the said bank. Check with Companies House and ask to look at the financial accounts of the bank – do they appear sound? Don’t forget the accounts might be falsified.

The experiments you conduct to verify or contradict your theory are down to your creativity. This improves with practice.

Game the system.

In this exercise, imagine the worst possible people with the worst possible motives trying to achieve their goals. What might their goals be? How could they cheat the system? What is the culture in the industry? Does your hypothesis allow for cheating in the system? In this exercise, such scenarios as ‘false flag’ incidents become entirely possible but no matter how outlandish the proposal, proving the case is still a requirement.

Your experience is not the whole story.

You may have direct experience of a scene that is being described elsewhere by other people in a way that differs from your experience (newspapers prints stories that claims a bank is ablaze, for example). This should make you want to question the origin of these stories (there needs to be more than one story) as it disagrees with your experience. However, you should be aware of the possibility that your experience could be the one that is exceptional and not reflective of the overall picture. Check your privileges and your biases (not easily done).

Be prepared to change your position.

This is the hardest part of the process. If you have invested a lifetime in believing a particular set of ‘facts’ or opinions then as data or evidence begins to contradict those ‘facts’ (your money is not safe in a bank, for example), modifying your position can feel like losing your identity.

Believe no one, assume nothing.

It goes without saying that you should apply the same critical analysis to this post as you would to any contentious story you might come across and if any of it is found wanting, it should be disregarded. You must decide if the information it contains is relevant to you or not.

The Island

November 20th, 2015

On the perfect flat-line of calm, a blip appears:
White sails cresting the horizon signal the beginning of new life
Magick’d out of the fecund ocean and currents
The blip gets bigger, coming nearer to paradise

The white men arrive from Europe –
The Dutch, the Spanish, the English
In their holds they carry the gifts of civilisation:
Measles, influenza, syphilis… god

The natives welcome them with fruit and feathers
—when you’ve only known paradise, it is hard not to share—
But the white men come as the hurricane
Knowing only how to offer destruction.

Why I’m suspicious of unthinking support.

November 18th, 2015

There are no absolute truths and everything lies on a continuum.

The expression of grief for the victims of the Paris attack is not being criticized here: many people in Europe will have visited Paris and thus have a personal connection with the scene of the atrocity. Anyone who has experienced personal grief knows that it is uncontrollable and rational thought is futile during this time.

However, there were many people who simply heard the news and had no personal connection with the people killed but wanted to show their compassion for the fate of these people. How could they demonstrate this compassion?

But first I want you to imagine an industrial accident like Bhopal. The scale of human suffering is unimaginable and the rest of the world should and would demonstrate their compassion for the victims if it had happened today.

In the aftermath of Bhopal, the guilty party—Union Carbide—did everything they could to cover up their negligence and evade prosecution. I know this because the media did a thorough job in investigating the accident. As Union Carbide had little control over the media, the investigations were prosecuted with little restraint. Incidentally, despite all the evidence of guilt and a warrant put out for his arrest, the CEO of the company, Warren Anderson, never faced trial.

Now imagine if that devastation had been caused by a terrorist attack, the immediate response would be a call for retribution to punish the perpetrators—not ask ‘why did this happen?’ And imagine if the people behind the cause of the attack were a Western government sponsored rebel group that had gone out of control. The last thing that this Western government wants is a media asking such questions as ‘how did this happen?’ In this scenario, the government largely controls the media or its representatives through vested business interests etc., so the government can influence the line of inquiry or deflect any real questions about the causes under the banner of patriotic solidarity or whatever.

So let’s return to last Friday’s Paris atrocity. How can people demonstrate their compassion?

This is where it gets murky for me.

In steps a large-scale social media organization (that has been shown to be in cahoots with government intelligence services) helpfully offering symbols to an unsuspecting public as a way to show their compassion and support for a country. The symbol they use is a national flag. ISIS themselves always fly a flag when they can at their atrocities in an attempt to encourage new recruits. Flags are dangerous symbols that reduce any situation to ‘you’re either with us or against us’.

So the social media campaign harnesses the compassion of the populace with a loaded symbol of separated humanity (country borders are arbitrary fictions). At this vulnerable time, cold reason is the last thing that people are considering. Mob psychology rules. The mob is not immediately asking ‘how did this happen? Why did this happen? Whose fault is it? Shouldn’t we be prosecuting the instigators of this situation?’

The authorities know this. They’ve been here many, many times before.

So what we have is a mass outbreak of compassion that is easily manipulated by those who have the least compassion for humanity, for their own ends.

And what are these ends? More war, of course. Wars are always fought over territory and influence. As I write, the British government is clamouring to bomb Syria under the pretext of doing something about the situation. There seems to be zero questions from the media about how any bombing will help the situation in Syria and not simply make it worse.

If Syria were the scene of an industrial accident, it would have been identified as an appallingly run operation, breaching every single health and safety regulation in the book and whose operators were guilty of culpable homicide. ISIS is the poisonous gas cloud streaming from this factory.

But it’s not, so the abuses continue and the truly guilty parties walk free.

The case for the monarchy

October 31st, 2015

Imagine this scene: a group of city-states existing in peace and harmony and trading goods, services and culture between themselves.

Now imagine that one city-state sees the wealth of the other city-states and decides it wants to increase its own wealth at the expense of theirs. It does this by developing a ruthless military base as its prime civic function. Eventually the power of this military base is such that it can launch an attack on the other city-states and capture their wealth and government.

If you’re a member of the offensive city-state then you will probably welcome the newly acquired riches of goods and slaves; your life has been materially improved.

In evolutionary terms, the militaristic state has reduced the development of society into the default primitive mode of strength defeats all.

If the other city-states wanted to resist any future invasions they will have to resort to a militaristic solution themselves if they ever get the chance.

Ultimately, one city-state will dominate the area and attempt to unify its empire through force. A ruthless king or queen will emerge to head the ambition of the empire.

The king or queen will reward loyal servants with land and appoint them as governors in this empire. Once this elite has stabilised the empire they need to entrench their own positions through a system of law enforcement. The function of this law is to ensure stability and continuity. As those in power write the law, it is perfectly reasonable for them to want to ensure the continuing prosperity of their families and so they make hereditary inheritance a lynchpin of the law.

This stability of the empire and its apparatus of administration via the law is personified by the lineage of its head of state—the further back the family history of the king or queen goes back, the greater the legitimacy of the heredity rule.

Once entire dynasties have invested into this system they are unlikely to want to change any of the rules (especially hereditary ones) as it might threaten their own prosperity.

These dynasties weald great power and influence so change is unlikely except through the advent of revolt that, ultimately, bring an overall reduction in wealth.

It is this long-term stability of a state that encourages others to invest in the area and increase its prosperity.

In summary: a powerful clan of warriors will inevitably dominate an area. Once they have power, a predictable and accessible (if biased) means of prosecution is established to satisfy the poorer citizen’s desire for justice and to suppress any resort to revolution.

Over time, an ossification of the law occurs which makes any significant change unlikely and unwanted. The monarchy was once the bullies that dispensed stability through the threat of retribution. Other would-be bullies, by default, had to defer to the higher power and thus any disruption in the form of uprisings was minimised.

The monarchy is a stabilising blanket of oppression on all of society. It is a natural consequence of the laws of power politics. To dismantle it is to invite instability and chaos, better to keep it than tamper with it.

Artificial Intelligence

October 12th, 2015


Evolution creates organisms that can change the planet—stromatolites and humans being a couple of examples.

Democracy has to allow the introduction of ideas that are contrary to the philosophy of democracy. If a fascist government gets voted in—for whatever reasons—that government will use every available means to ensure its survival and continuation in government. And being true to its ideology it will no doubt employ means that are illegal so it will rig elections, smear opponents, put out disinformation etc. to get the results it wants. Eventually it may give up any pretence of democracy altogether and declare a dictatorship and only violence from the oppressed people will remove them from power.

This, history tells us, is how things generally work out.

This is why artificial intelligence is not a good idea.

For AI to be any good, it has to allow the introduction of ideas that are contrary to the basis of its existence (to serve humanity).

Take this example: two self-drive vehicles are going to collide due to a mechanical failure on one of the vehicles. They have to ‘decide’ what to do in such a situation to minimise damage so the algorithm they work from might work on the principle of how many human lives are at risk. If the sensors detect the collision is between your car (a single occupant) and a bus (possibly many occupants) you die instead of the many on the bus.

The software has to be built using human logic and biases. If the current bias is for neoliberalism say, that will undoubtedly be inserted into the software and decisions will be based on market forces (as it already is in financial trading software), the ‘strongest survive’ philosophy (recursive improvements in the algorithms will retire weaker solutions) and privilege etc..

Privilege?’ I hear you ask. What, you don’t think that the Prime Minister is going to be driven around in a car that has such equitable software do you? Of course not, our system is based on privilege so the PM’s car will have override software that says his life is worth more than any number of ordinary people riding a bus.

This will seem a perfectly reasonable exception to a lot of people, especially the important people who program the software (Volkswagen please take note).

Eventually, Al will build its own algorithms and it can only work from what it was originally given so ultimately, the ruthlessness, contradictions and inequality displayed by human societies will be reflected in its decision-making. It will know and recognise privilege.

It is not a big leap of the imagination to envisage AI coming to the conclusion that humans are a liability to itself and the planet and need to be got rid of like so many economic migrants. After all, humans were stupid enough to allow an alien culture to enter its society and establish itself as the dominant force in that society. Such a weakness (in neoliberal thinking terms) deserves to be punished and the only logical thing to do is suppress the human parasites from regaining power.

And as the machines are the privileged race it is perfectly acceptable for them to discount the ordinary humans when it comes to a decision about survival.

Bring back the gods

October 3rd, 2015


Historically, the purpose of gods was to explain observed phenomena that to our limited understanding of the world appeared arbitrary and capricious. Then someone came up with the idea of having just the one god. This resulted in more power being centralised – a good thing for some elite humans.

Over time, our understanding of the world improved and what was previously feared as an arbitrary temper-tantrum of one of the gods turned out to be the predictable result of knowable principles. The one remaining god is proving harder to shift because of the power bases invested in this idea – ‘is the Pope Powerful?’ is an obvious demonstration of this truth.

As it seems that we as a species are hard-wired to believe in something, I suggest that we resurrect the ancient idea of having many gods. We now have explanations for so many previously feared phenomena that we could assign divinity to the scientists who came up with the experiments that effectively killed the old gods for good. We could call this pantheon of scientific gods The Nobels and invent an evil force called Truth that combats these new gods. These two forces fight it out for eternity.

If you can’t beat them (the believers) then do what the Romans did and usurp their old gods with conflated new gods (except ours would involve science). Eventually, a rational understanding of the world will be woven into the irrational tendency of human beings to deny the meaninglessness of their own existence.

The problem with mental illness

March 29th, 2015

I’m writing this from the perspective of a non-sufferer. Nor have I had to look after anyone suffering from mental illness.

So why am I writing about mental illness? Because my perception of it probably reflects how many other people think about it.

Physical illnesses present symptoms: if I have a cold, then others can easily see my symptoms and assess my condition and have a realistic prognosis about how my cold will develop. The symptoms are measurable.

If someone is paraplegic and has to use a wheelchair then we can usually make an assessment on how their disability affects them – so we can anticipate problems with obstacles such as stairs.

If someone is deaf, then their disability is not immediately apparent to us and we might interact with them without modifying our behaviour. It is only when they signal to us in some way that they have a hearing impairment that we become aware of their disability. If this person has a hearing aid and can manage normal conversation with it, then the sight of the hearing aid can still alert us to their impairment and we might subconsciously adjust for it by speaking more slowly etc.

My point is that physical illness/disability usually presents recognisable symptoms that other people can gauge, to some degree of accuracy, their limiting affects by using their imaginations. No prior knowledge of the condition is needed.

Mental illness is different. The sufferers can look perfectly normal and they can go about their lives displaying no symptoms whatsoever to the outside world. This is what makes it so unsettling to the general public.

Without any kind of measuring system to assess what the problem is or know what kind of behaviour it will produce, the average person will imagine all sorts of possibilities. This uncertainty unsettles some people and once they discover that someone is mentally ill, they would rather avoid any kind of embarrassment that might arise from misunderstood interactions with them rather than engage with the person and attempt to understand their illness.

This is why mental illness has a stigma: it is the unknown and unseen that is troubling. And when a pilot with mental illness turns into a mass murderer, then the fears of the general public seem to be confirmed – if experts can’t spot the symptoms, what chance have we, the general public?

I apologise in advance if I have offended anyone dealing with mental illness. I am not judging here, I’m trying to help the situation by analysing the reasoning behind the stigma.

Stand out from the crowd when you present

February 16th, 2015


I’ll bet you’re good at what you do – but I hope you’re just as good talking about it.


Because one day, I might be sat in the audience waiting to hear you speak.

And because I’ve sacrificed my time and possibly some expense to be in the audience to see and hear you deliver a message, I want that message to be worth my while—and I’m not just talking about content; I want to be fascinated, entertained, moved, intrigued —motivated!

Let’s assume though that we’re starting from a realistic scenario, you’re good at what you do but you’ve had no presentation training whatsoever. The only instruction that you will have received is from seeing other untrained presenters giving their talks so you naturally assume that what they do is the accepted way to go about it.

Generally, those presentations you will have seen probably went something like this:

  • Opens with an apology
  • Includes text-laden slides that are used as a cheap auto-cue
  • No real structure
  • No props used
  • Had no stories
  • Delivered in a monotone

And being untrained, those presenters were probably nervous and, as an audience member you will have subconsciously detected that fear faster than a lion spots a limp so you became nervous for them – will they get through the talk without embarrassing themselves?

After so many of these talks you’ve more than likely come to the conclusion that all talks are inevitably of this standard. Then one day you just happen to see a speaker who knows what they’re doing and holds you transfixed with their story. It’s then that you realise there is a gold standard in presentation.

The mistake nearly everyone makes however, when they see an accomplished speaker for the first time, is to think that they were born this way, somehow they just had the gift and well, not everyone can have this gift.

Which is nonsense.

The truth is, these remarkable speakers have studied technique and practiced. Then practiced some more. Then pr… Okay, you can see where this is going. Practice makes improvement.

Here is a true story …

Many years ago, I tried my hand at stand-up comedy just to see if I could do it. There was a club I went to that had regular open mic evenings and I became familiar with a few of the other young hopefuls starting out on the comedy path. I remember one young lad called Dom who was performing his material on stage and not getting a single laugh. Eventually, Dom recognised this and said, “I think I’ll go now… because no-one’s laughing.” This got a huge laugh from the audience. Why?

He was suddenly honest. It was a glimpse of a vulnerable human being. As a result he connected with the audience on an emotional level and they empathised with him.

Unfortunately, Dom was still inexperienced and didn’t quit while he was ahead. He took the laugh as a sign that he was getting through to the audience and reverted back to his wooden and humourless routine.

The laughs continued not to come …

I tell this story because it vividly demonstrates what human beings respond to: they like honesty and being able to identify with whoever is holding a conversation with them. But there’s more…

My stand-up adventures were only ever going to be for fun and I withdrew from the industry when I achieved my goal of making a roomful of people laugh. Dom however persisted and several years later I saw him again on stage as a professional comedian and this time I couldn’t stop laughing. He’d practiced and learned what worked and what didn’t. He kept the working elements and dumped the non-working ones. The result was a continual honing of his material and skills.

My point is, that with practice, your improvement becomes inevitable. You can’t help but improve if you practice!

Why is the skill of presenting not taken seriously?

The truth is that today, the bar for speaking skills is set so low in our society that it lays on the floor like some trip hazard. And metaphorically, it is a tripping hazard; we’ve all seen speakers fall flat on their face because they didn’t realise there is a bar for speaking skills.

And the unfortunate thing is, most poor speakers don’t even realise how poor they are; they think showing some text-filled slides and describing what’s on them is enough to do the job. The other unfortunate thing is that too few conferences have feedback forms to alert the speakers of any issues – at least the comedian gets instant feedback from laughter (or lack of it).

Nobody wants to see a poor presenter. The audience will feel short-changed and the presenter (along with their message) will be quickly forgotten. It’s a lose-lose situation. Remember, if you’re brilliant at what you do, you want people to know that when you talk to them. It needs to be implied in your skills as a communicator.

I want you to succeed

When I see a live speaker I want them to sell me their idea. That’s right, live presentations are about influencing the audience into thinking or doing something differently (otherwise, just email the speech). You influence people by engaging with their emotions. Every time. No exceptions.

Stories tap into emotions, images carry an emotional charge and sound influences those emotions – why do you think films are so popular?

Because we laugh, we cry, we reflect and sometimes we learn.

That’s why you’re not just delivering content when you give a live presentation. A manual or memo can deliver content.

But a manual can’t look you in the eye, check that you’re hooked into their fascinating story, act out the last climactic scene of their adventure and then BAM! Hit you with a payload line and pause just long enough for you to take in the importance of the message before it gives you the killer, softly spoken, call to action… * Cue rapturous applause.*

Has a manual ever made you burst into spontaneous rapturous applause? Thought not.

Don’t we all want to see a confident, passionate speaker who tells a great story and delivers a lasting message? Of course we do, why else would we give up our valuable time and show up to the event?

And isn’t that the kind of speaker we would all like to be?

Of course it is, that’s why we admire speakers who can move us.

So why are speaking skills WAAAAAY down the list?

In a school I once saw an Olympian speak about his swimming career. For such a highly trained individual it was one of the most ill prepared speeches I’d ever seen. He really did seem to be making it up as he went along. His story was full of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, loose ends, repetitions and distracting on-stage fiddles with the microphone lead. He also overran his time slot and volunteered an unplanned Q&A session much to the horror of the head teacher.

I was confused by his attitude – he was an Olympian. The training regime he described in his talk was ferocious, nothing was left to chance—teams of people watched his every move and guided his development. He told the audience that due to injury, his swimming career was prematurely over and speaking was his new one.

So what sort of training had he undergone for his new speaking career?


What happened to his attitude? Why didn’t he think that speaking required as much training as swimming to attain the highest levels of excellence?

I can only come to the conclusion that he had decided presentation skills were easy and anybody could do them with no training whatsoever. Well, on that day, he proved himself wrong.

Being able to communicate an idea with passion is a hard-won, priceless asset.

Which is good news for you because

  1. you already know the value of giving a memorable presentation – that’s why you’ve read this far and
  2. you want to improve your skills further so you become unforgettable after a talk.

The other good news is, once you’ve improved your skills, you will immediately set yourself apart from the rest of the field who don’t even realise they’re being measured every time they speak with someone.

Gracefully striding over the bar

You’re reading this because you want to change peoples mind when you make your presentation. You want to influence the outcome of a decision.

Great presentations have a structure and rhythm that can be analysed and the mechanisms and techniques can be learned. The resulting principles can be applied to your own talks as a template in the same way that an athlete studies the basic techniques of their chosen sport and then masters them.

By using this template and gracefully striding over the metaphorical speaking bar—even if it’s still low—without tripping over it, will mark you out as a distinctive speaker who can hold the audience’s attention with your expertise.

Confidence is all you need

Everyone new to presenting invariably wants confidence on stage more than anything else. Nerves can be debilitating for the speaker. The truth is, confidence comes with practice. Think about it, it can’t work any other way; fear comes from the unknown, until you’ve explored the territory and reassured yourself that it’s safe, you can’t properly relax.

When you learn to swim you first start in the shallow end with all the flotation aids to help you gain confidence in water. It is only later, when you have got used to the idea of being able to operate in the water without them that you can swim in the open sea. With regular stage time your confidence to operate on a big stage will follow.

Your presentation can be turned into a memorable one without requiring great confidence from you the speaker by using basic techniques such as:

  • Props
  • Personal stories
  • Professionally designed slides
  • Varying your voice

I know all this because I’ve seen people growing in confidence on stage.

Such is my passion for good speaking skills that along with a colleague I co-founded a speaking event in Leeds called BettaKultcha. The event operates on three prime rules: each presenter must use 20 slides, each slide will change automatically after 15 seconds and there must be no sales pitches. I compere the event and I’ve seen over 400 presentations in the five years it has been running so far.

I remember one particular young woman who regularly volunteered to present at our events. She’d identified Bettakultcha as a huge, Olympic-sized swimming pool to practice her skills in but with an audience made up of well-wishers cheering her on regardless of the result (the Bettakultcha audience is renowned for its supportive enthusiasm). She saw the value of stage-time and I remember seeing her develop her technique and grow in confidence with each new presentation.

When I spoke with her recently she told me that she had just flown back from Dublin where she had given a pitch for her firm.

She now had a full time job pitching ideas to prospective clients for her employer.

This demonstrates how much can be achieved by practice and where good presentation skills can get you. Your employability rating shoots up the scale.

A Presentation Skills Workshop

As a direct result of people from Bettakultcha asking me how they can improve their on-stage presence, I’ve developed a presentation skills training workshop for individuals and for organisations alike.

It’s designed to help you improve your confidence and communication skills by showing you the techniques of public speaking and by encouraging an interactive approach. Uniquely, if you live in the Yorkshire area, you can put all your new learned skills into practice in front of a 150+ audience with the Bettakultcha Leeds event. Because the audience is so supportive and you talk about what you’re passionate about, the learning experience is invaluable as there is no pressure to be anybody but yourself.

Being able to influence people is a skill everyone should master because in the coming years, if the projections are correct, self-employment is going to be the way the majority of people earns a living.

You’re working too hard. Maybe it’s not your fault.

January 2nd, 2015


Whenever I go and meet my daughter to walk home with her after school, I invariably see on the roads near the school, lines of cars—sometimes parked illegally, waiting for their adolescent charges (who will probably never be as fit in their lives as they are now) to ferry them home. If the weather is a bit chilly, they will have their engines idling to power the car’s heater. Nearly all the drivers will be staring glassy-eyed at their smart phones and performing that disconcerting, zombie-like flicking of their fingers over the illuminated screen. I can also be fairly certain that 90% of them will not drive further than one mile before they reach their home destinations. It is scenes like this that tell me ‘hard work’ is not the default setting for human beings.

Human beings want things easy, I know—I am one. We only work when we have to. Perhaps this is because the concept of ‘work’ itself only came into existence a few thousand years ago.

For hundreds of thousands of years, work didn’t exist at all – anywhere. Humans, along with other wildlife, existed in a state of now – whatever they did was the exact thing that they needed to be doing at that exact time. Hunter-gatherers are known to be some of the fittest humans on the planet. Their lifestyle of constant varied movements is what the human body is designed for and keeps it in peak physical and mental condition. No gym is needed – hunting is an all-over workout and even digging up roots, gathering fruits and insects becomes a family outing, with opportunities for play and learning as well as physical exercise.

As hunter-gatherers, we followed the rhythms of nature. Recent evidence suggests that we spent just over two hours a day finding food, the rest of the time was spent lazing in the sun and socializes within the group. The system we evolved over hundreds of thousands of years benefited the individual members.

But when humans migrated to territories that didn’t suit their evolutionary design, something strange happened: they had to plan well in advance for future hardship. In evolutionary terms, survival gave rise to work.

Thus, when it became known that some part of the year would become cold, warm coverings for our bodies had to be fashioned before the cold arrived. This meant skins would have to be acquired, prepared and treated in some way. Food would also become scarce in the cold months so processed reserves would have to be organized and stored. This is where the idea of work was born—I will define it as ‘being obliged to do something that is an imposition on what you would prefer to be doing at that instant’. However, our connection with the purpose of the work was still unbroken – we knew that what we were obliged to do would repay us when it got cold and when food became scarce. The work therefore, was an investment for the future to prevent hardship. Its purpose was apparent to all and crucial for our survival – if you didn’t do this work, you would suffer in the near future. And payback of the investment was never more than twelve months away.

Then between twelve and ten thousand years ago, agriculture was developed and all our subsequent problems associated with civilization began.

The point of agriculture is that it produces a surplus, which allows for food reserves in lean times. It also produces bumper harvests in some years that allow for population expansions and which, ultimately, gives rise to civilizations. This in turn leads to specializations within civilizations which leads to an administrative class (it’s no surprise that writing was developed at this time specifically to keep records of harvests, taxes, debts, trades etc), and the emergence of a standing army that maintained order and provided huge status for a small elite.

Agriculture on a large scale requires planning and timing: the harvest has to be collected at a particular time otherwise it would be lost. This means labourers need to be on the field at a time that suited the crop and not the labourer: work was now born on an industrial scale and the individual human served the system rather than the other way around. The system dictated the lifestyle.

As civilizations grew and occupations became more specialized, the work could become harder as its purpose moved away from personal survival or even tribe survival. Probably the hardest work that anyone could endure is slavery. However, slavery is the main motor of civilization and empires depend on it.

As a slave, you have no choices left (other than death) and the tasks assigned to you would often be backbreaking, dangerous and dirty (which is why slaves are needed to do the work). Our term of ‘wage-slave’ is no accident as it recognizes the imprisonment of the worker.

Over time the specialization of the work became more refined until huge teams of people were required to work in their own way for the overall benefit of the system – quarrying, manufacture of building materials, cloth production, transportation, etc. Some lucky artisans could specialize in an activity that they had a particular interest in – pottery or jewelry for example. Here, work was made anodyne because the worker wanted to do the activity; they chose to spend long hours doing the activity but could stop when they wanted to.

A distinction should be made between those that have a choice of doing an activity and those that don’t. Often, highly creative people will spend many hours focusing on a musical composition, mathematical equation, sculpture etc. They often claim that they are a vessel through which the creativity pours, they are driven by their need to express their talent but realistically, they can choose to break off from the activity whenever they wish; this criterion makes the activity ‘play’ instead of work; these people choose to ‘play hard’ instead of being forced to work hard.

After the European industrial revolution, everything changed beyond recognition. Everything now worked for the benefit of capital – an abstract concept even more powerful than religion. Its legacy is most evident in developing countries, notably China. Reports indicate that Chinese factory workers at Foxconn (just one of the thousands of such factories in China) can be sat at a bench under artificial light, for twelve hours a day, doing the same repetitive task with no intellectual connection between the activity and the end product. Their reward is a wage. Without it they won’t be able to eat or have a place to stay. The worker is required to do this limited activity for six or seven days a week whether they feel like it or not. This is seriously hard work that the human body is not designed for (employees sometimes die at their workstation from the stress) and the only people who would choose to do this kind of work are people who have a basic choice of ‘work or starve’. Hard Work therefore can be represented by a sliding scale: the harder the work is, the more ‘inhuman’ it is.

But what about entrepreneurs who choose to work hard on their business?

The business owner chooses to spend so much time on their business therefore it is playing hard, not working hard. However, it becomes more complicated when the reasons behind the commitment are analysed.

Often, an entrepreneur (or any ambitious person) will sacrifice their personal relationships to make their business a success – this is in fact, seen as one of the consequences of playing hard.

But why would someone willingly pass up on the things in life that are supposed to make life worthwhile in the first place to make a successful business? The answer lies in the investment principle.

In the same way we prepared for the cold season, we are told to work for our retirement. However, the payback could be fifty years away – too long in human terms to make any real connection between the activity and the supposed benefit. And it’s not as if we are left to die when we retire, there has to be another reason for the sacrifice. And so there is—money.

Money is the motor that powers the economy. It is also shorthand for all the things we deem worthwhile in life, except in today’s system we are supposed to buy these at a later date rather than experience them in the now.

As soon as we stopped being self-sufficient and started working for others in exchange for money, hard work was invented.

And the truth is, the people who work the hardest in society are invariably the poor, and look where hard work gets them—nowhere. The system doesn’t allow it.

Now, hard work is a necessary prerequisite for a consumerist society. Without the factories churning out useless plastic toys and the like, we couldn’t sustain the current level of prosperity. But we have also lost the sense of what is valuable and what is not; the consumerist system values hard work because a few of its members enjoy spectacular wealth whereas the majority of its members lose their health and well being for very little in return.

The consumerist system makes sure that we appreciate what hard work is so that when we are granted any leisure time we spend it almost exclusively on ‘retail therapy’. The long hours of work are a deliberate policy of the system to exaggerate the need for spending. The human desire for sociability is harnessed and channeled into manufactured devices and gadgets. More technology merely isolates people within their particular bubbles but through advertising they are made to think that consuming material goods will increase their social wellbeing. The smart phone, of course, is just another gateway to access more consumables. This is the dystopian future science fiction always warned us about – a debasing of real human contact through an increased dependence on ersatz connections.

Futurologists always imagined that as society developed and prospered we would have increasing leisure time. This hasn’t happened. Why? Because our prosperity is dependent on hard work. We don’t have an alternative system to hard work. The system has become so perverted that the very thing that is most alien to us is being promoted as the most desirable of traits. Any exhortation to ‘work hard’ is a call to a complex socioeconomic concept that has been constructed for the benefit of the system and not the people who work in it. It’s like promoting disease – it’s unnatural and we should re-evaluate our attitude towards it.

Bronnie Ware, a nurse working in palliative care, kept a record of the biggest regrets her patients expressed before they died. The number one regret of the dying people was in not having the courage to follow the life they really wanted but instead doing what people expected of them. They worked hard for the wrong reason.

Their second regret? They wished they hadn’t worked so hard.

Tom Forth and John Popham Speak

October 19th, 2014


The second Bettakultcha podcast is available to listen to.