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.

Behave predictably

October 13th, 2014

Having just jumped through a variety of security hoops to move some money from an old online bank account to a new account which pays better interest, I’m told by the ’system’ that my transfer is being reviewed. I can see the sense of this – any unusual activity could be seen as being potentially fraudulent and needs to be checked out. On the other hand, I could have just woken up from my inertia and realised that I was losing money by leaving this money in the dormant account.

The problem is this: to get a decent service from ‘the system’ it pays to behave in a predictable manner. If you’re impulsive, then the system will put obstacles in your way for ‘your’ benefit and security.

What this means is that we are being slowly conditioned into behaving in a predictable manner. And authorities just love populations that are predictable and compliant.

Of course, when it comes to the banks themselves behaving in an unpredictable and unlawful manner, there are few, if any, security checks.

Why algorithms are so scary

October 3rd, 2014

Crocodile trainers have an algorithm for the machines that they work with. The machines are the crocodiles and they display highly predictable behaviour. The trainers know that if they do such-and-such within such-and-such distance from the crocodile’s mouth, the crocodile will do such-and-such. In this way they can ‘control’ the crocodile.

Humans are machines too but our behaviour is not quite so predictable when compared with reptiles due to the sophistication of our brains – probably the most complex thing in the entire universe. Our behaviour is predictable though to a large extent, hence all the psychological research into shopping patterns and the insidious harvesting of online data by all the large corporations.

Eventually, our highly sophisticated machine brains will be able to produce highly sophisticated algorithms that will be able to predict what will become ‘viral’ in our social set ups.

Some are arguing that this is nothing to be afraid of, these algorithms are merely more tools that we have invented that will improve our … what?

Here is the crux of the problem; if our brilliant tools mean that humans have no work to do, what is left for humans to do? Do we all become artists? And what if algorithms can produce decent art?

And of course, this argument fails to extrapolate from what is current in our society – out of control secret service agencies, profit motives that don’t consider human welfare, power-mad politicians creating division etc.

Image an algorithm that could accurately predict human behaviour in nearly all circumstances. Sure, you could argue that such knowledge could be beneficial to the human race but all the historical evidence suggests that it would become the most powerful weapon ever devised in human history. Who would you want to have control of that?

Roger McGough in Ossett – Wakefield Literary Festival

September 20th, 2014


The word on the streets is that spoken word is the new heroin and that poetry gives the biggest high (wait until they try the Bettakultcha smack) and so when I heard that Roger McGough was going to make a personal appearance in Ossett as part of the Wakefield Literature Festival, I bought a ticket.

I was slightly anxious about the venue—Trinity Church—as cavernous churches do not lend themselves to good acoustics. I needn’t have worried though, a decent PA and a packed room full of textile-covered people meant every syllable could be discerned.

What I like about Roger McGough is his accessibility, he’s the recreational ‘gateway’ drug to harder stuff; what Banksy is to art so Roger is to poetry. It’s almost a misnomer to call it poetry, ‘rhyming jokes’ might be a better description. Don’t be fooled though, they’re jokes with razor blade edges, cutting deep into the psyche.

Roger looked fit and relaxed as he used his decades of performing experience to beguile and charm the audience. A well-balanced blend of light and shade characterised the early part of his set – the poem about the well-known Liverpool gangster (a true story) made the greatest impression upon me.

What’s weird about poetry readings is the space after the poem has ended. The audience’s reaction is to fill it with applause but Roger’s poems are short, so that would mean clapping every other minute. His experience showed through though and Roger almost conducted the audience’s response by effortlessly guiding them from one poem to another, every so often allowing a respectful pause for applause.

The latter part of his set played more on the comedic aspects of life and the jokes themselves were exquisite, I particularly liked the poem about Mr Blyton (husband of Enid) and him “reaching for her body, only to feel the velvet touch of Noddy” (I paraphrase from memory).  Such clever word play can be appreciated in a live setting, as Roger is meticulous in enunciating his crafted products.

On the down side (yes, the drug analogy again) his set lasted about an hour, he did a ten minute ‘encore’ then retired from the lectern without taking any questions. Nor did he emerge afterwards to mingle with the crowd (at least, not whilst I was still there). Has he not heard of ‘selfies’ and hobnobbing with the crowds? All the comedians seem to do it these days.

I also thought it was a waste to have such a large audience there (possibly two hundred) and not have any supporting acts. I have seen the Wakefield based, A Firm of Poets, and can attest to their quality – why were they not given a short slot? I also learned of the existence of the Black Horse poets that evening, one or two poems from them might have added to the variety of the event. Surely a Literature Festival is about promoting as much talent as possible? As much as I enjoyed Roger McGough I felt somewhat short-changed for my money. I’d given up my Saturday night to see him at an event; Roger turned up but the all-singing, all-dancing, jaw-dropping spectacle of an evening failed to materialise.

Addendum: I have been reliably informed that Roger did mingle with the audience after I had gone and was there until the last audience member left – good man. It was also pointed out to me that A Firm of Poets performed earlier in the day on a bus travelling to and from Ossett as part of the festival. I only attended the evening event so my impressions are of that part of the festival that I experienced and it seemed to be set up as a typical ‘night at the theatre’ type show so that’s how I reviewed it.

Why I might unfollow you on Twitter

August 28th, 2014


Apart from the bug in twitter that capriciously and secretly unfollows people for me, I do sometimes deliberately unfollow people.

You need to know why I follow people in the first place though to make sense of my unfollowings;

1. I want to get information

  • If I’m interested in a subject then I like people to link me to articles and stories that expand my knowledge of that subject. Thus, I will follow people who appear informed about the subject and who frequently share their sources of information.

2. I want my biases confirmed

  • I have a particular worldview and I look for informed support to validate that worldview.

3. I want my biases challenged

  • Any belief system can be judged by its ability to withstand criticism. My worldview does not include a denial of other systems— on the contrary, it welcomes informed comment and debate. However this does not include opinions, some kind of evidence is required to support any assertion.

4. I want to use the wisdom of the crowds

  • Quite often I can secure a service or piece of equipment through contacts on twitter so the people I follow often have large follower numbers or their biographies make them significant.

5. I want to be entertained sometimes.

  • Funny jokes, ideas, witticisms or images are a welcome break from the bad news and negativity that predominates my timeline.

So this is why I might unfollow you;

1. You don’t supply any information or insights.

  • I have limited time to spend on social media so I don’t want my timeline filled with pictures of cats, boasts of how busy you are or tales of how bored you are waiting in some queue. The odd tweet like that is excusable but not the vast majority.

2. I like to ‘work the room’

  • There are so many interesting people on twitter that I can’t possibly meet them all but that won’t stop me trying. Unlike some people who are following tens of thousands of people, I like to keep a manageable timeline and so trim it now and again. If a tweeter is limited in their benefits to me but they follow me back then I will be less inclined to unfollow them as the wisdom of the crowd criterion could still apply.

3. This relationship is going nowhere

  • Eventually, it becomes obvious there is no value in following someone – there is no interaction and no common ground anymore and their tweets are simply taking up space in my timeline.

If I unfollow you, it’s nothing personal (I’ll still say hello in real life if we’ve met before) it’s just that my social circle is evolving but limited in its capacity. If I have a disagreement with someone on twitter, that is not a cause for me to unfollow them, on the contrary, if their argument is sound then I’ll respect them even more.

I don’t use my twitter account for any specific goal so ultimately, it’s like talking to someone in a pub: if their conversation is predictable, monotonous, one-way or too technical for my interests, then I’ll excuse myself and look for another conversation.

Three important things that final year students need to do before they leave school.

August 22nd, 2014

Escape Children!

Education isn’t fully preparing students for the future. Homework is largely a waste of time and you don’t need to work hard to be a success—and that’s before I even get onto the three important things students need to learn.

I mean you can work hard to be successful if you really want to—and you will achieve success from working hard—but I didn’t want to work hard, I wanted to have fun, so I played hard instead. I’m not playing with words here – the distinction is important, someone playing hard is far more productive than someone working hard— that’s a scientifically proven fact. So the trick is to get paid for doing something that you love doing, something that you would do for free if that were the only option.

Here’s my story about how I managed to make a living from doing something that I love doing. I only wish my school had taught me this stuff before I left, I could have gone so much further, much faster if they had. Don’t get hung up on the details here, I talk about art but I could just as easily be talking about performing music or designing apps. The principles are the same. Just apply the principles …

1. Make something happen.

In my case, it was a picture. But in your case it could be a website, a film, a rap song, whatever.

I made a picture. I was very young and there was nothing special about the picture. But I liked drawing pictures so I kept producing them. Then slowly people started to like my pictures and so I made more pictures that I spent a great deal of time on. I would have made these pictures anyway, even if other people didn’t like them, because drawing was what I loved to do. I discovered that if people can see you’re passionate about something, they tend to encourage you and this makes you want to keep doing it and so inevitably, you get a lot better at it. This is why homework is generally a waste of time. If you’re passionate about something you’re already doing it at home! If you’ve no interest in a subject, why extend the misery with homework? Homework should be optional at school.

So people kept encouraging me to draw. Eventually, a school friend asked me to draw a picture of his girlfriend. This was significant. People wanted my pictures now. In order to make sure he got his picture, my friend offered to pay me for it and in an instant the future had revealed itself to me: I could get paid to draw.

Now I played much harder. I actually wanted people to like my pictures – a lot, and they did! The harder I played the more they wanted to use my skill.

You see how this works? It’s a virtuous circle: the better you become, the more they want you.

2. Establish your network.

Make contact with people who can help you. These might be people who do what you do and can offer you advice or show you new techniques or they might be people with influence – these could be mentors or connectors or administrators. When you associate with like-minded people, you tend to absorb their ideas and you become more creative as a result. When you collaborate with them you become inspired to try new things and explore new territory so always look for opportunities to do that. By the way, this works in reverse too – if you mix with negative people you’ll become more negative as a result, so pick your group carefully.

After a time, people at school started to talk about my skill. As a kid, I didn’t realise how important this was; it was good for my ego of course but more importantly, it established me as some kind of expert – I was the ‘go to’ guy for any kind of artwork. Teachers would seek me out and ask me to take on artistic projects. This is crucially important if you’re going to make a career out of something you love doing; become the expert.

And something else happened; my art teacher introduced me to other members of staff who were interested in art. I cannot tell you how important this part of the process is – you’re increasing your network with people who can help you in a much bigger way. One of the teachers at school (who I didn’t take a subject with) was particularly keen on one of my pictures that I was working on. My art teacher had shown it to him whilst it was in progress and this teacher subsequently bought it. Don’t wait for others to take the initiative, be proactive where you can.

Pretty soon I was famous as an artist inside my school and that gave me a certain amount of license regarding my behaviour and artworks.

Then one day I had a life-changing experience.

I’d been exploring the works of dissident writers and artists as part of my voluntary homework and I decided to do a ‘protest’ picture (remember what I said about getting inspired by the things that surround you?). What I came up with was a portrait of myself in school uniform being hung from the neck by my tie. This was being officiated by a teacher dressed in an elaborate gown and witnessed by an orderly faceless audience. In the audience I had hidden an oblique reference to one particular unpopular teacher. It was a ‘dangerous’ picture executed with my tongue firmly in my cheek and my art teacher (unbeknown to me) decided to frame it and hang it in the school on a stair landing that experienced a lot of footfall. As I came down the stairs to the landing during a break I could see an excited crowd of students viewing something on the wall in a gleeful way. When I realized that they were looking at my picture and I had caused their excitement I knew then what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: entertain people.

It was assumed by everyone that I would leave school and go to art college, which I did. But this was a double-edged sword because art school opened my eyes to other possibilities within the creative industries and I became fascinated with film making and acting. My picture making suddenly got a lot more ambitious.

Now, it’s generally best to stick with one thing only if you want to achieve ’success’ as defined by society. If you become the best that you can be at this one thing, your dedication and talent will impress people. However, you should always be aware of what you need as a human being rather than what you think society expects of you. In my case, I was curious about the world and I wanted to explore EVERYTHING even if that meant doing some of the activities I undertook rather badly.

As soon as you dilute your talents, the level of financial success you can expect becomes diluted too. But you can define success on your own terms, so follow your own path if that makes you happy. By the way, despite what may happen to you at school, you should always remember that your parents, guardians and teachers—generally—want more than anything for you to be happy in what you’re doing.

So in my creative career I explored writing, film making, music, performance and comedy. I always had enough money to live on and I always had fun. And I’m still having fun. And still collaborating and increasing my network – curiosity and experimentation never stops (sign up to receive my podcasts to see what I mean).

3. Learn presentation skills.

My latest creative output called Bettakultcha, is a collaboration with various people and it’s an event consisting of enthusiastic people giving five minute talks illustrated with 20 slides that last 15 seconds each. I’m the compère of the event and after five years of doing it I’ve learned to be confident and relaxed on stage. With a lot of people being terrified of public speaking, having a skill like that is a passport into a lot of jobs. Everyone has to pitch ideas to other people at some point – sometimes you’re not even aware that you’re doing it—if you’ve just discovered a new video game and you want to tell your friends about it so they’ll play it too, you’re pitching the idea to them. The same applies to a company wanting to launch a new product in the market place, someone has to pitch the idea to an audience that is usually spoilt for choice. And here’s a startling prediction: by the year 2020 – that’s like five years away – 50% of the working population of the UK will be self-employed. Think about that. 50%. That means half of you in any classroom right now will have to find your own work. Which means you’ll have to pitch for work. Now, if most of you have the same skill-set, how will a client decide on whom to give the work to? Maybe the pitch that inspired confidence, enthusiasm, efficiency, imagination, and good communication? And, right now, I don’t see these presentation skills being taught anywhere in schools, which means that if you learn them now, you’re already ahead of the game.

So to recap, these are the three things that you really need to know if you want to make a living from your skills:

1. Make something happen – when most people are passive consumers, this immediately makes you stand out from the others.

2. Build your network – find like-minded people, collaborate and share with them if you can, they’ll help you grow. Utilise your network – any chance you get for furthering your career, no matter how small, take it!

3. Learn presentation skills. Unfortunately, I learned this last crucial lesson too late to maximize on the opportunities that were presented to me earlier in life. Who is your biggest advocate throughout your life? You, of course, so it makes sense for you to be confident, articulate and concise when you want to impress someone who could be a future employer or patron of your talent. Being confident about yourself will be your biggest asset. The world is hypnotized and beguiled by confidence. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember that fact – confidence is conquest. But don’t confuse cockiness with confidence, that’s an entirely different thing.

Oh, and keep plugging away. The longer you stick at something, the luckier you will get and the breaks will fall for you. Talking of which, tell your instructors about me. Tell them you want me to speak in person at your establishment so you can learn more about making life rewarding and fun (see what I did there? Always be proactive).

Thanks for reading. Stay curious.