Open Thinkering


Tag: books

Life has no instruction manual

I’m currently reading a book entitled Jimmy the Kid, in which hapless criminals decide to kidnap the child of a wealthy man after being inspired by a novel. As you’d imagine, things don’t exactly go to plan.

It’s reminded me of the futility of complaining that things haven’t turned out as you expected, when ‘what you expected’ was your life to replicate someone else’s. Rifling through pages in an attempt to find answers, as the protagonists of the Jimmy the Kid do on a number of occasions, doesn’t work. Nor does it’s modern-day equivalent of scouring social media, videos, and even blog posts like this one.

Even the same person in a similar context is unlikely to replicate the exact steps that previously led to success. As Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher noted, you can’t step into the same river twice; not only has the river changed, but you have changed. So it’s not possible to uncritically take advice from people who have achieved success and apply it to your own context.

I think this is why I’m finding the work on my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice so useful. It’s not the academic side of it that I’m finding so difficult (and interesting) but the application of it to my professional and personal life. The danger, of course, for any reflective person is in over-thinking everything.

Ultimately, there may well be an optimal strategy and approach for every situation. But identifying and implementing that in the moment is difficult based on the incomplete information we are likely to have on hand, distorted by our biases and previous experiences, and approached through the heuristics we have developed.

The only solution to this is to keep learning. Or, in the words of Alvin Toffler, to “learn, unlearn, and relearn”. Unlearning is difficult, and until I came across this free e-book from Casco Art Institute (a rather hefty PDF) I hadn’t seen many specific exercises for doing so.

So, no, life has no instruction manual. But that’s a fact that can liberate us to create our own futures, together, without being hamstrung by previous ‘best practice’ or ‘what worked last time’.

Don’t skip the best tracks

I can remember the exact moment when I realised the track Burnin’ by Daft Punk was an absolute banger. A few pints in, I was in Sheffield University’s Student Union bar and it came on as part of a DJ set. Almost two minutes in, the beat drops properly. Certified classic. I realised that ever since buying the album as a sixteen year-old, I’d skipped that track because I’d never listened to enough of it.

There are tracks I’ve skipped on other albums that I’ve gone back to later in life. As Heraclitus famously pointed out, we cannot step into the same river twice because the river’s changed but also we have changed. The context shift doesn’t just apply to books and music, but to relationships and, well, anything that we formerly have dismissed as “not for us”.

So this post is a reminder to myself, and anyone who’s reading, to go back and read, listen, and explore things that have previously been rejected. Sometimes, they speak to us differently as we age.

Things could be worse

I’m reading A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman at the moment. It’s an amazing read, and perfectly suited to our pandemic present.

It’s a long book, so I feel justified in skipping over the occasionally-lengthy descriptions of battles and campaigns, in favour of the much more interesting economic, social, and cultural history.

As a former History teacher (and someone with an MA in the subject) I’ve always found the undue focus on political and military history a bit boring, which is why I appreciate Tuchman’s comment on how it’s the extremes of time periods that tend to be recounted by historians.

In individuals as in nations, contentment is silent, which tends to unbalance the historical record.

Barbara Tuchman, ‘A Distant Mirror’

Tuchman throws in all kinds of interesting tidbits of information, such as two-thirds of the population of Europe being under the age of 21 throughout the 14th century. Half were under 14! She uses this to explain the general lack of maturity in everyone from peasants to nobles.

Some might wonder why I’d want to read something so ‘depressing’ as the population of Europe being reduced by a third during the Black Death. After all, isn’t that a bit close to home right now? I’ve actually found the opposite is true: reading things like this make you realise that we live in much more pleasant, civilised, and reasonable times, and that things could be far, far worse

This post is Day 21 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at