Everything is environment

In ‘The Nurture Assumption‘, Judith Rich Harris challenges the idea that children are mainly formed by their parents. In 462 pages, Harris goes over many ideas, the main one being that the environment in which children grow up has a much bigger influence on children’s future than their parents. It’s an appealing idea that should release some pressure off the shoulders of parents, but also a pattern that I keep seeing everywhere.

On the most spiritual level, author John Muir noted, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Muir means butterflies and flowers, to larger-scale ecosystems and how clearing forest leads to floods. But you can also apply this to something as corporal as business or sports.

In the book ‘Total Competition‘, Ross Brawn writes about taking the role of technical manager at Ferrari’s racing team in the late 90s. Instead of focussing on designing the cars, he made sure the departments were structured orderly: Aerodynamics communicating with the engine and suspension departments. And so even the sport went through regulation changes, Ferrari was able to adapt, winning six straight team world championships. Similarly, Paul Graham argues that startups who release software faster than their competitors will win, regardless of their starting points. A brand that is able to sell its products at full price will likely beat competitors that need to rely on discounting to do so, because the latter will quickly deplete its resources.

These parallels also work at a personal level.

How you party or write your grocery list

Chess player Garry Kasparov was once asked by a journalist how many moves ahead he could think. The people in the room were probably expecting a huge number, one that would explain the brilliance of Kasparov, but he simply replied: “There is no answer for that. The main thing in chess is not how many moves ahead you can think, but how you analyze the situation.”

If the journalist thought that Kasparov was a good chess player because of the many decisions ahead he could make, then Kasparov’s answer proved he was a good chess player because his skill allowed him to handle each new situation. In other words; it wasn’t his good decision-making that led to his ability to play chess, it was the other way around.

And life is just like a game of chess. Don’t look for a single decision or single act. Crash diets don’t work. Habits do. These things come in the dozen: Wealthier people spend less time behind the TV, more time with friends, and eat healthier.

The thing that surprised me about fellow Chinese language students at GoEast Mandarin is how fit most of them are and how regularly they exercise, either through swinging kettlebells or flexing themselves during yoga — even though exercise has nothing to do with learning Mandarin. And yet it has everything to do with learning Mandarin vocationally in your twenties or thirties.

Helena Bonham Carter said: “I think everything in life is art. What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone, and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in, and all your dreams. The way you drink your tea. How you decorate your home. Or party. Your grocery list. The food you make. How your writing looks. And the way you feel.”

Annie Dillard describes it as “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”, or worded by Zen Buddhists: “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

An interesting life to make interesting work

I once read an article about the funeral of a famous artist, how one attendant spoke to himself about how he would have loved to have a life like the now-dead-yet-still-famous artist. “No you don’t”, replied someone who overheard the comment, following it up with a passage on how troubled the life of the commemorated artist had been.

I tried in vain to find the article and the artist’s name, but I remember this gist. And there’s a long list of troubled artists, from Van Gogh who cut his ear off, to Sylvia Plath who put her head in a gas oven. His whole life, Salvador Dalí was haunted by his dead brother.

Would Kahlo have been as great with two normal legs? Would Ray Charles be such a great pianist with full vision? And yet my point isn’t about the troubled artist myth, because inspiration doesn’t always need to come in personal injury. James Salter flew fighter aircraft in the Korean War before writing books and Hemingway was an ambulance driver in World War I. Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five so vividly because he was there, in a meat locker of a slaughterhouse while the Allied bombed Dresden.

Read the biography of any famous author, and nine out of ten you’ll find something interesting in their biography. They’ve lived abroad when they were young, or they were bullied as a child, or their parents divorced or bankrupted.

Inspiration doesn’t come out of thin air.

John Hegarty said: “If you’re just reading and looking at shit all day, you’ll think shit and you’ll create shit. So read great stuff, look at great stuff. Surround yourself with great people. Doesn’t say you want to be like those people, but you be inspired by those people. Absorb as much as you can, but make sure it’s great.” Alex Steer says it poetically: “Knowledge is a banister, not a baseball bat.” And Rob Campbell writes: “Taste is limited to the circle you expose yourself to. Far too many limit it to advertising rather than creativity.”

When students ask me how to make more interesting work, I tell them to have an interesting life first. This advice sounds so simple it seems almost useless, and yet it’s the best I could give anyone.

You want to be a writer or artist? You don’t need to read more, you need to live more.