The best time to start a business

Is now.

We can’t go back and do something in the past, so it’s always now.

There’s an old adage that goes, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Businesses are a bit like trees.

When we think about starting a business, we might fall think about business in terms of what businesses have been for 20, 50, 100 years.

We think of the paperwork involved, or the capital required for office supplies, equipment, skills, marketing, etc. etc. etc.

All that is important, but equally, business in 2020 and beyond will be a bit different.

Yuval Noah Harari has written two excellent books on the future of humanity. Both were published before the pandemic changed so many things, but they’re more relevant now, not less.

In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, he writes:

Most of what people learn in school or in college will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40 or 50. If they want to continue to have a job, and to understand the world, and be relevant to what is happening, people will have to reinvent themselves again and again, and faster and faster.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he writes:

To survive and flourish … you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of some of what you know best, and learn to feel at home with the unknown. Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown while maintaining their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the First World War. You cannot learn resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture. Teachers themselves usually lack the mental flexibility that the twenty-first century demands, since they themselves are the product of the old educational system.

Starting a business is an exercise in resilience and adaptability and optimism.

For the last century, job security was about having one steady job.

For the next century, job security will be about having a number of unsteady jobs.

The best unsteady job to have is your own little business.

Multi-billion-dollar unicorns receive disproportionate attention.

But the business that pays you a living wage, and perhaps in time can support one or two or five other people, is no less important a business.

The best time to start a business is now.

If you’ve been thinking about it, do it.

Moments of mindfulness

I first wrote a little about mindfulness a while back, thinking about the movement towards mindfulness, and something Kevin Barry, the Irish writer, said about the merits of mindlessness.

Can mindfulness ever cause your mind to be too full? Where’s the line between mindfulness, defined as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”, and over-thinking?

Going too far the other direction, mindlessness can cause mindless acts, which might often have negative and far-reaching consequence.

But perhaps there’s a balance to be struck.

I’ve been thinking more about mindfulness over the past few weeks. I made a new attempt to start a meditation practice, perhaps the fifth or sixth time I’ve tried it over the past few years.

None of the previous efforts worked, for a couple of reasons: I really, really, really struggle to still my mind on my own and just sit quietly, so I always felt I needed a guided meditation practice, but all the guided meditations I tried seemed strangely unsettling: odd, disembodied voices, on top of a soundtrack of soft music that I found distracting.

I’ve been listening to Sam Harris’s podcasts for a few years now, and generally find him a brave and compelling voice of reason and questioning in a world that’s quick to rush to judgment.

I was aware that Harris, who is a neuroscientist and has practised mindfulness meditation for decades, had put together a meditation app and platform, Waking Up.

The introductory course is gentle and satisfying, and while I would not say it’s easy, the series of 10-minute guided meditations have given me a glimpse of what a sustained meditation practice could give.

One of Harris’s pieces of encouragement during the first week is to notice moments of mindfulness throughout the day: nothing more than noticing your awareness of the present moment, out of and away from the swirl of thoughts about the past and future that routinely occupy our minds.

And in a way, that’s all mindfulness really is: noticing our awareness of, or our awareness of noticing, the countless small things that show themselves to us every day.

The point of productivity

Productivity has long been a big sub-industry within the business world.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done or GTD methodology, honed over 30 years, has sold millions of books, and prompted a wave of frameworks mapping GTD to the digital world. And that’s only one methodology … there are many, many more. (Todoist has helpfully compiled a quiz which allows you to decide which productivity framework is right for you.)

An article about Allen’s methods in The Atlantic magazine way back in 2004 started with the line:

The modern condition is to be overwhelmed by everything.

If overwhelm was the modern condition 16 years ago — before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, Slack and all the other communications apps and tools and systems that can add up to the present everyday norm for hundreds of millions of people around the world — how are we to describe the current norms?

What is clear to me: distraction is everywhere, at every moment of every day, and the ability to avoid distraction and find focus and actually get things done can seem something like a superpower.

But it brings to mind a question: what is the point of productivity?

“Productivity” is different to “being productive”.

To be productive is to honour something central to what it is to be human. We are creative spirit beings, and to create is to produce something we value.

Productivity is a step beyond being productive, I think.

Productivity is ticking off lists of important things, to satisfy some earnest we’ve set for ourselves, or which, occasionally, have been set for us by others, mostly bosses.

Sometimes it seems like we invest in productivity only to get to the next list of things that need to be done, and that the end point of today’s productivity is only the need for more productivity tomorrow.

Being productive is good, but when it comes to productivity explicitly, it’s good to ask some questions beginning with, “Why?”

Why do I need productivity?

What feeling do I want that lies beyond this period of productivity?

Why is this thing I’m doing important?

When I asked the question on Twitter (below), there were several thought-provoking replies:

  • “a feeling of accomplishment or money to pay bills”
  • “At the end of a good productive day, filled with a lot of deep work, I’m far happier for the rest of the day.”
  • “Contentment and satisfaction”
  • “Keeping your promise to yourself. integrity.”
  • “Happiness and being content.”

Learning about life from an oak tree sapling

Trees are the greatest gift.

Francis Harvey, the poet, has a poem called “Blessings”.

It opens like this:

Yesterday for some reason
I couldn’t understand
I suddenly felt starved of trees
And had to make tracks⁣ towards the
Beeches of Lough Eske
To set my heart at ease⁣
And stand there slowly adjusting myself
To the overwhelming presence
Of all those trees.⁣
It was like coming back
Among people again
After living for ages alone.

[Tom French, another Irish poet, read “Blessings” and a number of other poems, what he calls “secular prayers” in my podcast interview with him at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic]

At the start of summer, we received a gift from a family member: a little oak sapling in a pot, grown from cuttings.

I recognise Harvey’s love of beech trees — across the road from where we live, in the centre of a dairy farm field, soars a mighty beech, perhaps hundreds of years old. It lost a massive bough in one of the storms of the past few years, which changed its complexion entirely, but it remains as powerful as ever.

I love beech trees, but oak are probably my favourite, and when you’re trying to figure out life, a three-foot oak in a pot is one of the greatest gifts you can receive.

(A few years ago, during a spell in Valencia, Spain, I jogged the length of the Turia Gardens several times. It’s an oasis of plants in the middle of a big city, and at one point I saw the telltale leaves of an immature oak, and that sight — both the expectation of it, early in the run, and the memory of it later — sustained me through many hot kilometres.)

While I was deciding where best to plant this gift, it sat in its pot for a couple of weeks. One day as I walked past, I noticed the leaves were wilting.

I hastened to get it in the ground and douse its roots in loosened earth and compost and water.

But it seemed like it was too late.

The leaves withered to a darkened green, and then, almost overnight, to a much lighter shade, and one by one they turned to brown, and several fell off.

It was heartbreaking, in its own small way.

A month or so later, as I was tidying some kids toys from the garden, my eye was caught by a flash of something green. A dozen fresh shoots had emerged: after several weeks of untimely hibernation, the little oak was back to life.

During its difficult weeks, when my novice gardening left it neglected it in its pot, it had done everything it needed to survive.

Draw back. Close in. Preserve energy. Wait.

And when conditions were right again, it burst back into life, and then it struck me that there might be lots to learn about life from the silent wisdom of a tiny oak sapling.

How to overcome the fear of missing out (in five easy steps)

FOMO is a famous acronym in the acronym-rich tech culture of today. FOMO is the fear of missing out.

The fear of missing out is what prompts many of us to do many of the things we do.

The fear of missing out is, in large part, responsible for the viral loop which has seen Facebook become one of the biggest companies in history and made it Public Enemy Number One for many people who feel (not without justification) that the combination of its unsettlingly uncharistmatic CEO, its desperate drive for profit and the compulsive daily use of many of its 2.5 billion users is an existential threat to modern society.

When Facebook was starting out in the frat buildings of American universities in the mid-2000s, the fear of missing out on a place in The Face Book compelled people to sign up in droves.

And the more who signed up, the more who were destined to sign up. Because, the fear of missing out.

The fear of missing out is folly, though.

Because one cast-iron certainty of life is that you will miss out on a countless number things.

Every little thing you choose to do, you are missing out on an endless number of other things you could have chosen to do.

When you understand that the fear of missing out is the modern manifestation of an ancient, almost pre-human part of your brain, which was designed to ensure your safety, security and survival, you begin to realise that it is something you can safely ignore.

And FOMO can be overcome.

How to Overcome the Fear of Missing Out (in 5 easy steps)

  1. Notice the fear (because noticing our thoughts is one of the foundational principles of cognitive behavioral therapy)
  2. Call it what it is, aloud (because voicing something has a way of disarming it)
  3. Write it down (because writing things down makes them more real and less intimidating)
  4. Acknowledge that it is the manifestation of an ancient part of your brain (because evolutionary psychology is a real thing)
  5. Laugh about it (because laughter about oneself, especially the things that are outside our control, like our ancient brains, is a building block for great humility, and humility derails FOMO like almost nothing else)

400 words about the uncertainty of adulthood for all young adults

Approximately 60,000 people in Ireland take the State Leaving Cert exam each year. The equivalent of a packed outdoor arena full of young men and women, taking something labelled with such finality as the “Leaving” exam.

Leaving what? Leaving to where?

This is just one little country. The population of Ireland makes up just 0.06% of the world’s population. All over the world, there are young people taking tentative first steps into adulthood.

If you’re one of them, you are doing this at a time of great uncertainty too.

You are reaching adulthood just as a pandemic of new illness sweeps the globe, with all the suffering and fear it brings.

You are entering into a technology-heavy culture in which the way we do everything changes often and rapidly.

You are becoming a man or a woman, and a citizen and a role model and a leader too, because whether you know it or not, people everywhere will look to you to see how you do things.

Here’s a short, unordered list of things to take with you into the uncertainty of adulthood:

  • Times of great uncertainty are common. In fact, they’re so common that the only certainty is that you will experience great uncertainty many times in your life. At least once a decade, and maybe more.
  • The knowledge that times of great uncertainty are common should make uncertainty easier to bear.
  • Uncertainty about yourself, and your place in the world, your purpose and the grand questions (the meaning of life!), is just as common.
  • Uncertainty will make you stronger. Because uncertainty is, in fact, certain, having certainty about anything is a weakness.
  • Uncertainty and indecisiveness are different things. You can be uncertain and decisive. In fact, this is what you must aim for, because decisiveness amid uncertainty is how great leaders live. (And you are a great leader in the making, whether that’s in a public role, or within your community, or your family, or just a great leader of your own life.)
  • Uncertainty makes you humble, and that’s a good thing, because humility is one of the best states of being human. (Benjamin Franklin wrote 12 virtues before adding humility as a 13th only after being advised to do so by a Quaker friend, who found him occasionally overbearing and insolent. So Franklin added humility, with the simple description: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates”.)

#124: Boredom and economic growth, a theory about genius and a question about experiences

One thought from me: How boredom drives economic growth

Distraction from boredom is the main driver of economic growth.

If enough of us become more accepting of our tedious present moments, we might collapse the economy.

Global economies rely on our inability to be okay with ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It wasn’t always this way.

It has been made this way by developments in four types of technology:

  • entertainment technology (including Netflix, Spotify and YouTube, which have made on-demand entertainment a habit that billions of people will never be able to break)
  • communications technology (including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, which bring the best elements of the lives of others into our consciousness on a daily — or hourly — basis, and stealthily compel us to feel dissatisfied with our own existence, which we mistakenly think of as mundane)
  • commerce technology (including Amazon and eBay, which make it simple for us to salve our desire to buy things as a treatment for our boredom with our mundane existence)
  • financial technology (including all the world’s biggest banks, which generate profits out of our indebtedness on month-to-month high-interest credit cards)

It’s true that human nature has been susceptible to this for thousands of years.

The Roman political leaders followed policies that were labelled “bread and circuses” by the poet Juvenal:

to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction or by satisfying the most immediate or base requirements of a populace — by offering a palliative: for example food (bread) or entertainment (circuses).

In general, people will be susceptible to costly distraction. As two people described when I wrote a little about this on Twitter, it’s akin to a “mass hypnosis” or “mass hallucination”.

So in general, this susceptibility has been around for thousands of years.

But at an individual level, we don’t have to fall victim to it. At an individual level, we can notice when we’re being gently coaxed to purchase a balm against boredom, and once we notice it, we have a much greater chance at resisting it.

A more sustainable balm, I think, is mindful creativity, which I wrote about in last week’s bulletin.

One thought from someone else: A theory of genius

I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they’d seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends.

Which is an uncomfortable thought. If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that’s one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy.

If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it’s not our fault if we can’t do something as good. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as genius. But if you’re trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right.

— Paul Graham, writer, entrepreneur and investor

From “What You’ll Wish You’d Known”, an essay of advice for school students who may be about to embark on a college or work career

Paul Graham has written several long essays on life and business, and all of them are worth reading. The piece referenced here was initially to be delivered as a speech to a high school class many years ago, but the speech was cancelled, and he wrote it up as an essay instead.

One question for you

What is one big experience you’d like to have in your life which, for whatever reason, you’ve been putting off for a long time?


The universal language of touch

There was a documentary about bears and bear research on the BBC last weekend. It was called “Bearwalker of the Northwoods”, and it followed Lynn Rogers, an American bear researcher, on his daily work to study and better understand the black bears of the American back country.

Rogers, who is now 81 and is still the principal biologist of the Wildlife Research Institute, has been learning about and learning from the wildlife of Minnesota, and especially bears, for more than half a century.

During the documentary, he gets up close with bears, and runs some educational programs where he helps others do the same, to demonstrate that black bears may not be the two-dimensional villains they’re often made out to be.

“It isn’t that they like me,” he says at one point, “it’s that they trust me.”

In another scene, he is so close to a black bear that he reaches out and caresses him with the back of his hand, and he says,

Touch is a universal language. We get data from touch that we cannot get by any other means.

These words shone out like a beacon. I heard them during the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-July 2020, and more than a decade after “Bearwalker of the Northwoods” was originally filmed and screened.

At this time, touch has become something dangerous. Social distancing has become the norm of every day. We are warned about the dangers of touching our faces. We are tentative about hugging our loved ones.

And yet, touch is one of the five senses that make us what we are. It is a universal language that allows us to gather information from the earth, and allow the earth to gather information from us.

As we move into a more digitised world, where information transmits globally in seconds, where many people read ebooks or listen to audiobooks or carry all the information they need in their smartphones and tablets, touch is a sense that has already been marginalised.

Covid-19 has marginalised it still further.

But touch is essential and universal, and a life without the experience of touch is in many ways lesser, substandard, incomplete.

The meaning we make

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist and psychiatrist who spent years in four concentration camps during World War II, where at least four family members died: his wife, both his parents and his brother.

When the war ended and he was freed, he wrote his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning, in just nine days. He later re-married and Elly was with him for the next 50 years before he died, aged 92, in 1997.

By the time he had entered the concentration camps, Frankl had already invented the psychological treatment process called logotherapy, literally “healing through meaning”.

Frankl disagreed with his fellow Austrian psychological forefathers Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, whose respective theories of psychology were that humans were driven by the need for pleasure (Freud) or the need for power (Adler).

Frankl, on the other hand, believed strongly that the meaning of life was meaning itself.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked … Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Each of us is questioned by life. It is not up to us to question.

We can not search for meaning, nor can we ever find it.

But we must make it, because meaning is among the most powerful drivers.

We must make meaning out of whatever it is we are going through, or have gone through, and the meaning we make must relate to the service of others.

And when we succeed in making meaning out of our endless little problems and minor tests and major struggles in this life, the meaning we make from them will make everything worthwhile.

We choose the meaning. It’s up to us, but it relates to others.

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it.

And while that could feel like a heavy burden — it’s quicker, always, to take on a thing given to us by someone else than to craft something for ourselves — there is joy and liberation in it too.

We make meaning out of whatever it is we go through, and the meaning we make makes life better for people other than ourselves.

As life philosophies go, it’s not a bad one to live by.

How to get back to normal

The best way to get back to normal is to fully appreciate these two things:

  1. There is no normal
  2. There is no going back

The normality we might yearn for was a way of being that was built by two things:

  1. Habits: The things we do every day or at least every week, and because we do them as a matter of routine, and do them over a long time, they become habits. “You don’t decide your future. You decide your habits, and your habits decide your future.”
  2. Safety: When we look back, we see a false version of the past. Why? Because the past that we see, that was in some way a normality that we now crave, has only revealed itself as a cradle in hindsight. When we are in the moment, we are afflicted — whether we fully appreciate it or not — by the uncertainty of what comes next. That uncertainty poses some threat to our safety always. When we look back at some normality, because we are armed now with the knowledge of hindsight, we cannot imagine any of the low-hum anxieties that existed in our minds back then. And so we see a time when we were safe, and that safety is the normality we crave.

So if there’s no normal, and there’s no going back, what can we do?

Perhaps also, we do two things:

To be present with our present anxieties

We can try our best to appreciate that our innermost anxieties about what follows the present moment is never, ever going to go away. It will always be there, low-hum or full blast, in every present moment we ever experience, and since there’s no avoiding at (as avoiding it is to be irresponsible and therefore unsafe) the best we can do is to be at one with those anxieties. To appreciate them fully as an essential part of what it is to be human, moulded by a hundred thousand years of evolution, and to embrace this deep innermost part of who we are.

To strengthen ourselves against all that is to come

No matter what stage of life we are at, it is our opportunity and our responsibility to strengthen ourselves. To get stronger in mind and body and spirit. It is not about installing a home gym and pumping iron every day (although for some of us, that is a legitimate next step). It is about reflection. Reflecting each day and each week on the things about us that make us strong and the things about us that tend to weaken us. And then we can refine our strengths, and bring our weaknesses into the light where we can remove them or turn them into strengths.

There’s no going back to normal.

There’s only going forward, cresting the wave of the unstoppable passage of time, and making the best of whatever each moment gives us.

There’s only uncertainty, and uncertainty is normal.