One song could change your life

I watched some old footage of U2 recently. It was an interview from Irish television in 1986.

They were already a big deal by then — they had played a great set at Live Aid a year before — but it was before The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and about a dozen songs that would make them one of the greatest live bands in history.

At this point they were still young Irish lads in their mid-20s, talking about Irish music and Irish life. The Troubles were still going on in the north, unemployment and emigration were sky high and Jack Charlton and the World Cups and the Celtic Tiger were still to come.

Bono was asked by the presenter, “What advice would you give young Irish bands?”

I loved his answer.

“There’s one thing. It’s taken me seven years to learn this. People in the band business talk about managers and agents, and how important that is, and indeed it is important.

“But writing one song… That song could manage you. That song could be your agent. That song could change your life.

“A three and a half minute song. You could write it on two strings. ‘I Will Follow’ was written on two strings of a guitar. Two or three chords. ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door was written on four chords. Most of the classic songs ever written were written on three or four chords.

“It’s the songs. U2 came to the fore on a sound. The songs are the most important thing.”

That advice.

A song can manage you.

A song can be your agent.

A song can change your life.

It’s exceptional advice, and not just for young musicians, either, but for creators of any age.

Create art. Let the art sing.

I thought about Bono’s words again today when I heard a new song.

It was a song that ripped straight through me, that made me want to sing the chorus at the top of my lungs.

From the first few chords I felt like I was listening to a song from twenty or thirty or forty years ago, from America, probably, or maybe, maybe there was a hint of something European there — a little poppy-electronic French, or moody Scandinavian, or the sort of song that made up the soundtrack for the brilliant German spy thriller series Deutschland 83.

So good I had to look it up.

(This rarely happens. My Shazam app is a barren place…)

So what was this classic song from decades ago from foreign lands?

It was “All For the Best” by Bleeding Heart Pigeons.

Released a month ago, by a three-piece band from Limerick, Ireland, who are so new there’s not even a Wikipedia page yet. (Expect that to change soon…)

So well done Mícheál, Cathal and Brendan.

With one four-minute song, you’ve done Bono and the rest of Ireland proud, and hopefully, it will be your manager and your agent for many years to come.

Give it a listen, see what you think.

Why is decision-making so hard?

Why is decision-making so hard?

We have an almost infinite number of choices ahead of us every day.

Watch this show. Read that article. Listen to this podcast. Open that app.

All of them are clutching at your attention, and the best* of them are helpfully designed by specialists in behavioral psychology who know better than you do how you’re going to respond to a certain trigger.

All the distractions make decision-making hard — deciding what to do — but it’s not the only thing.

Decision-making is hard, because most decision comes with a hundred tiny commitments to make that decision happen.

You decide to exercise more? Every day there’s another opportunity to double down or remove yourself from that commitment.

You decide to start a business? You cannot tell how many more commitments that’s going to take. (Although even if it doesn’t end in what others might call “success”, almost no-one regrets the decision to start a business…)

You decide to try a vegan diet, or keto, or paleo? Welcome to a world of infinite choices and obstacles, each of them pulling at your willpower.

Making a decision is a matter of being decisive.

But the true value of that decisiveness will only become clear when you give it time.

(* best = best to you may not be best for the shareholders)

The next step

The next step reveals itself.

Big dreams and significant goals and detailed visions of a better future have their place. If you have something big you’re aiming at, it’s a good thing to keep it visible.

Even better, write it down and put it somewhere where it’s in your eyeline every day. Visions of where you’re going are valuable.

But too much time spent thinking of dreams and visions can be counter-productive.

Because what’s going to get you there is a countless number of small steps.

It’s hard to think ten or five or even three steps ahead.

But you know the one step you can take.

After you take that, the next one will reveal itself.

Getting reminders

There’s a phrase that’s common in the particular lingo of horse racing: “Getting reminders”.

All sports and hobbies and games and pursuits have their own language.

Cricket is maybe the most wonderful example. There is a long list of phrases that seem to make no real sense outside the world of cricket.

“Silly mid off.”

“Leg before wicket.”

“Leg spinner.”

“In-swinging yorker.”

Horse racing is another example. Anyone who follows horse racing learns a new language of words and numbers and symbols and abbreviations.

One phrase that’s common during race commentary is “getting reminders”.

It’s shorthand for what a jockey does when his mount’s concentration or commitment has started to waver, and he flicks or smacks the horse once or twice with the whip to bring his mind back to the job.

It’s a different act entirely to that which sometimes gets jockeys in trouble with race stewards. “Excessive frequency” is when a jockey is deemed to have hit his charge too often, usually in the closing stages of a race.

Reminders, on the other hand, are often required. A quick sharp shock to stop the mind from wandering and get back to the task at hand.

All of us need reminders.

We seek reminders in great books, or quotations, or inspirational social media memes.

We know what we need to do. But sometimes we just need reminders.

Just like a racehorse.

Why accountability sometimes doesn’t work

Accountability is a common practice in business networking and self-development circles.

Accountability partners meet or talk regularly to keep each other on track to the commitments they’ve made.

The principle is a sound one. When we make commitments to do or avoid to do something, and we speak them aloud to other people, we are much more likely to see it through.

There’s science to accountability. It’s built on the human need to be seen as trustworthy and reliable. If we tell someone we’re going to do something, and we don’t do it, that erodes our reliability factor. Over time, this comes at great cost. It is not good for us to be seen as unreliable or untrustworthy.

But sometimes accountability doesn’t work.

Sometimes even when we say we are going to do something, and we commit to it, and we speak our commitments aloud to an accountability partner, we still don’t do it.

Why accountability doesn’t work

As far as I can see, the common factor when accountability doesn’t work is that, deep down, you don’t love yourself, and so worrying if other people think badly of you seems like an absurd thing.

If you don’t love yourself, you expect other people to think badly of you anyway. It is a big leap to see them thinking well of you. That leap is too big when you don’t love yourself.

If you don’t love yourself today, you won’t be able to have an optimistic view about tomorrow. And so, because the harm that comes from others finding you untrustworthy or unreliable doesn’t seem real or important to avoid, you don’t battle against it. In fact, you expect it. You expect it, because when you don’t love yourself, you find it absurd to think that others would ever find you reliable or trustworthy.

If you don’t love yourself, you can never really believe that others would think you worthy of love. It is not a big step to think that you are, in fact, unlovable.

So the first step to everything, the foundation of a happy life, is to love yourself.

If that’s the foundation, what are the materials that make up the foundation?

Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge that we are perfect beings of spirit and energy and light.

To tell ourselves nothing like you or me has ever existed in the history of humanity, and will never exist again after this sliver of time that we are here.

The spirit and energy and light in each of us adds up to love. We are not just capable of love. The most true version of each of us is that we are love.

If we can find that love in ourselves — because it is there, we just have to find it — then we can love ourselves.

And then we are much more likely to do the things we say we will do, when we say we will do them.

The human condition and the future-present principle

Two thoughts that bounce around in my head constantly.

1. I can’t accept that things won’t change.

One of the most fundamental laws of the universe is that things never remain the same.

Because of this, and because humans — you and me and everyone we know — are the result of millions of years of constant evolution, I know that change is inevitable.

But still we can find ourselves on a wet Tuesday morning getting tough on ourselves for our inability to make change happen.

We need to change things. We need to not accept things or situations that we find dangerous or dull or unsatisfying.

I strive to change those things.

I strive to change my circumstances, to change how I am in the world, to change myself.

I can’t accept that things won’t change.

2. I must remember that there are things in my life right now that, if they were to change, would cause me great grief.

Because of our evolution, we see everything that’s dangerous or threatening or just not the way we want them to be.

Our reaction to the danger or peril or dissatisfaction is to want to change them, to make it better. The instinct is a natural one, baked into all life, as old as the oldest amoebas — to want to preserve and continue life.

But we often do not see, or we find it more difficult to appreciate, all the things in life that are glorious and beautiful.

We get complacent. We take things as they are and part of us expects them never to change, and we chastise ourselves for being shocked when they do.

I must remember that there are things in my life right now that, if they were to change, would cause me great grief.


I’ve taken to thinking of this as the future-present principle.

We can’t accept that things will always be like this, so we must remember to look to the future.

We can’t neglect that some things right now are the best they will ever be, so we must remember to see the present.

It’s a bit absurd to try to think of both things, but both things are necessary.

Welcome to the human condition.

Leadership and inequality

[A version of this piece first appeared in my short Saturday morning “Three Things” email. To sign up for regular writing from me on life, thinking, acting and being, go here.]

Inequality is on everyone’s minds right now.

There is much totally justified anger and protest, and directed to the right places, that will help make change happen.

There is also some unjustified victimhood and violence, and a lot of that will only create a negative spiral in which nothing gets better.

Equality is not about equal benefits.

Equality is about equal opportunities.

You and I could get exactly the same opportunity. If you make more of it than me, I can’t claim inequality.

Reducing inequality of opportunity is a key challenge for the leaders of the next 20 years.

Most of the focus on inequality, though, is on inequality of resources. We often hear the stat about the top 1%, which usually looks something like this:

That 1% vs the 90% gap has been widening since 2000, and picked up the pace after 2010, which mirrors the adoption of Internet technology.

Redistribution of wealth is a challenge that every Government has had for thousands of years.

But a bigger challenge, I think, is to address inequality not of resources but of opportunity.

People who live in the wrong part of town get poorer school results, attend university at a lower rate, have higher levels of crime, illness and premature death. Equality of opportunity can change those outcomes.

Leadership and inequality: The challenge for public leaders

To reduce inequality, leaders need to take note of the access to opportunity, and peel back all of the layers until root causes are identified, and address each one in turn.

This will be a test of great leadership, and the leaders who emerge as great leaders will do so through the twin terror of global economic turmoil and joblessness and strife on the one hand, and the instant mass communication of the Internet and how the mob mentality can lower hard-won reputations forever in a matter of hours.

Those leaders are very likely to be criticised and ridiculed and loathed by very many who do not appreciate the complexity of leadership and responsibility.

That’s part of the job now.

Different types of leadership is emerging. On the one hand, the leaders who are playing the mass communication game: Donald Trump, and the Dominic Cummings influence in the UK, for two examples. On the other, the macro-thinking, care-minded tough-plus-tender approach of the likes of Jacinta Ardern in New Zealand.

The trouble is, the most important changes happen over the long-term whereas politicians in democratic nations are rewarded, or punished on, short-term change or circumstance.

That’s at a government and nation state level.

Leadership and inequality: The challenge for individuals

At an individual level, which is even more important to me — as the focus of many of these blogs and my podcast is on what it is that adds up to a life well lived, and as all major change comes at the individual level first — there are other challenges and opportunities.

When we as individuals notice, and grasp, the opportunities we do have to lead, speak up, take responsibility and ownership, we might be able to do more to address inequality than they appreciate.

Personal leadership means casting our gaze inwards first. Rule 6 of Professor Jordan B. Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life, is:

Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world

Personal leadership at an individual level is not easy, but it must be much more straightforward than public leadership, especially that which is driven less by ego and being centre stage, and more by contribution and impact and positive change.

The great leaders will make things better for the most people. It will be interesting to see who emerges.

[A version of this piece first appeared in my short Saturday morning”Three Things” email. To sign up for regular writing from me on life, thinking, acting and being, go here.]