Lest you be tempted by the dream of freelancing …

I’m not complaining for a minute; this is the life I have chosen for myself and I love it. As in any job, though, there are good days and bad days.

I am often asked for advice by people who are considering going self employed in creative fields and my first line is a reality check. If I had known all this when I started three and a half years ago, I don’t think it would have changed anything, but this is my second attempt to “go it alone” after I learned some hard lessons the first time round, which was about ten years ago.

Dream

Reality

Shuffling to your PC in your pyjamas with a cup of coffee at 11am to start work Getting up at 6am and sometimes working ‘til midnight to meet a deadline.
Lunching with friends Skipping meals because you are “in the zone” and don’t want to lose the flow
Being your own boss and beholden to nobody Working for a string of “bosses” in succession and often simultaneously
Never having to fill in another job application Being on a permanent job hunt to line up the next month of work
Never having to go through another annual performance review Trying to stay on top of your game and develop your skills with virtually no guidance
Holidays when you want them No paid leave and the laptop comes on holiday with you because it’s impossible to “abandon the baby”
Extended amounts of time in your own little world Missing the banter and mutual support of a work environment
Doing what you love every day Tax returns, accounts, marketing, pitching and admin at least 30% of the time
Time to work on your “big idea” Shelving the “big idea” until things calm down a bit
Having control over your working environment Moving to the kitchen because the desk is too cluttered, tripping over the laundry pile and the dog/cat who is doing everything in its power to distract you
“My office is a coffee shop” Spending half an hour trying to get access to their unfeasibly slow WiFi, getting the shakes by lunch time (after your 4th espresso), going outside to take a phone call that you don’t want to be overheard
Practice the guitar in your “lunch break” Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and Stumbleupon in your “lunch break”

The Austerity Pantry Revisited

About a year and a half ago, I posted on an an experimental approach to food in Austerity Measures and the Simplified Pantry.

I had challenged myself to pare the contents of our pantry down to 35 items including herbs, spices and beverages. It still seemed extravagant in the face of this family’s meagre week’s worth of groceries.  Having switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons with comparative ease and a minimum of fuss 20 months earlier, I was keen to see what other possibilities opened up:

  • To eat a nutritionally sufficient, wholesome diet at a much lower cost
  • To eat a delicious diet without recourse to rare and exotic ingredients
  • To align our diet to global norms rather than those determined by our gluttonous society
  • To prove it possible to eat well on £15 per head per week
  • To save money by buying ingredients in bulk that would definitely be used
  • To cultivate an enjoyment of a simpler palette of tastes
  • To remove fatty and processed foods from the menu altogether
  • To flirt with the tantalising possibility of going fridge-free
  • To minimise trips to the supermarket

Well …

I have to admit a number of additional ingredients and indulgences have crept back onto the shopping list in the intervening months due to bad habits and convenience,  but not due to necessity. I also discovered a couple of new delicious dishes that didn’t fit the restricted pantry. Nevertheless, there seemed to be something attainable here that just slipped away.

Three particular areas were especially challenging:

Bread – I wanted to commit to only consuming bread that I had baked myself. The plan was to get a sourdough going that would not require yeast to be replenished as one of the 35 items. In reality, sadly my life is too hectic for sourdough and bread products on supermarket shelves proved irresistible.

Spices – These are relatively cheap and add instant variety, and 25g of most things lasts a good while, so the spice rack was never really reduced.

Staples – Under the heading of  “rice”, I managed to sneak in four different varieties (that’s cheating), and I  started exploring quinoa. I have since decided that quinoa is a “no-no” because it has become stupidly expensive and the poor Bolivians who grow it can’t even afford it.

However …

 

Bean Slop and Polenta

Bean Slop and Baked Polenta

I was recently summoned to view the multicoloured spreadsheet of household finances that my wife painstakingly keeps in order. It was there in black and white (or rather pink, green and blue) that I have failed on numerous promises to bring the wayward grocery bill under control. A few hours later, my reflection in a shop window provided an unwelcome reminder that the mirror on our landing is unreliable and distorts my wayward girth in a flattering way, too.

It is time to recommit to “The Austerity Pantry”.

This time, I am anchoring it to a rolling menu of eight or nine basic evening meals with porridge for breakfast and  soup or jacket potatoes for lunch. For the curious, this is how it looks at the moment:

  1. Lentil hotpot
  2. Pasta and sauce (generally prepared with leftovers)
  3. Chilli beans with rice
  4. Savoury rice (pilau)
  5. Chick pea curry (type and strength varies)
  6. Roast vegetables with polenta or couscous
  7. Bean slop (this is somewhere between a soup and a casserole and goes well with leftover polenta)
  8. Lentil dal
  9. Risotto (with mushrooms or whatever vegetables are to hand)

In theory, this regime can be sustained on a monthly bulk-buy of pulses, staples and spices, supplemented with a weekly selection of local organic veg … and a fridge is not really needed …

WIN!

Let “Finishing” be your Drug of Choice

As much as I despise psychological profiling, I know I don’t score highly as a completer/finisher.

Nevertheless, few things beat the thrill of finishing something; it’s a natural high.

If you have woken up to Monday morning blues, could it be the hung-over unfinished things of last week that are to blame?

If I ever start to feel bad about myself, I often find that not finishing something is at the root of the bad feelings. Conversely, actually finishing just one thing can put me back on top of the world and inspire me to go on to finish something else.

Unfortunately, it sometimes feels as if the price to pay for finishing is too high; I often settle for the cheaper thrills such as being ‘tweeted’ by a ‘celebrity’:

 

Finishing doesn’t have to be an expensive drug. There are all sorts of small things you could finish in the next five minutes – like emptying and reloading the dishwasher.

In order to get the week underway, I prescribe what I call a “finishing ladder”.

    1. Start with a small task and finish it. It feels good.
    2. Enjoy the endorphins but move up to a slightly bigger task before they subside.
    3. By the time you have two “finishes” under your belt, you’ll be looking for your next hit – go get it!
    4. Move on up the ladder towards bigger tasks.
    5. Before the day is over you just might be hooked on finishing.

Try to finish some stuff today …

Your dopamine receptors will love you for it.

Thinking and Creating at Ground Level: learning from a 9 year old

Watch this:

It’s no surprise, this clip has gone viral on YouTube. I don’t think we should be surprised to hear evidence that a 9 year old thinks deeply about the meaning of life and the universe. I’m prepared to take it at face value and, even if he’s repeating verbatim material from overheard adult conversations. That’s not the point I want to bring out in this post.

What is the important difference between this and a TED talk?

At a TED talk, the speaker doesn’t roll around on the floor scratch the ground, swing a baseball bat, shred twigs and stare at the sky. At some point in our development, an adult tells us,

Stop fidgeting!

Stand still!

Sit up straight!

Look at me when I’m talking to you!

Right there I think we start to lose something.

Last Autumn, I spent a total of about thirty man-hours at floor level with primary school kids. No furniture, just crayons and paper and our imaginations. I was co-authoring a storybook with them. Although I used muscles I’d forgotten I had, and I ached every night, I rediscovered the joy of creating at ground level and fidgeting incessantly, and I began to experience an awakening of creativity and a shift in perspective that I suspect had something to do with going back to a 9 year old’s way of working.

I have begun to incorporate ‘floor time’ into my creative practice. The floor is bigger than a desk and offers so much more potential for spatial interaction with ideas.

When I was about 11, I was so impressed with the idea of the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’ that I sellotaped together a long line of A4 sheets and drew the story of the stuff I was into at the time: frisbee battles, water bombs, balloon helicopters, forts with heavily defended ramparts, and various inventions such as my toothpaste-powered boat and the perpetual motion machine I was certain would make me famous. I never finished the ‘tapestry’, I just kept adding to it until it went a few times around the room.

I have never been able to dismiss my curiosity about how life might be without furniture, ever since I heard that living on the floor (eating, sleeping, learning) was the norm at Gandhi’s ashrams. In fact, for most people outside of the West, it is still a way of life.

The positive implications of floor living and fidgeting, for posture, bone and muscle, economics and energetics, are probably fruit for a few more posts. But, for now, how might some floor time benefit your creative practice?

Alexander Technique and the Semisupine Position

I have been interested in Alexander Technique for a few years now and have read a great deal about it, although sadly I have not quite been able to afford the experience of 1-1 teaching that is so essential to really progressing with it.

Frederick Alexander is one of the heroes of what I have called “the experimental approach to life“. His thorough exploration of his own body’s habits lead him to discover that the feedback our senses give us about how we are moving (or not moving) is not always accurate. From this he went on to develop the educational method known as Alexander Technique that is unlike any other physical therapy and which has applications to every area of life. It is so powerful I think it should be on every school curriculum because of its effectiveness in preventing chronic spinal injury alone.

I’d like to blog more about the things I have learned in this area but, for now, here is one of the simplest and most effective practices to ‘take home’ from it. Fifteen to Twenty minutes of “semisupine” a day will make a huge difference.

Put Your Knees Up!

The way that you lie down and get up again – yes the actual act of lying down and getting up again as well as the position you lie in when you are down can really make a difference. Active Rest is a practice of Alexander Technique that realigns and relaxes the spine, improving posture and awareness of the space the body occupies. Doing it for as little as 15 minutes a day makes a noticeable difference but you will enjoy it so much you will undoubtedly find more time for this simple practice.

During active rest also known as the !”semi-supine” position you lie on your back and bend your legs so that your knees are above your hips, this has the effect of rotating the pelvis and stretching the spine, counteracting the accumulated compacting effect of gravity on your body.

Traditionally, in Alexander Technique, the head is rested on a book or two to achieve a comfortable alignment in the semi-supine position. You will need to initially experiment with getting this right for you. Too many books and your neck will be forced upwards, too few and your head will tilt back – you are aiming for your natural line of sight to be perpendicular to the floor and ceiling.

To experience the benefits of active rest you can’t just fling yourself into position but need to think carefully about getting down and up again in the right way.

1. First place your books on the floor at your feet and stand facing them. Take two paces back and one to the side.

2. Go down onto one knee as if you were about to propose. Lean forward onto your arms, keeping your back straight and bringing the other knee down to put yourself in the crawling position like a baby.

3. Gently roll over by putting your backside on the floor in front of the books and allowing the rest of your body to follow so that you end up on your back with your knees up and hopefully your head resting on the books.

4. Place your feet on the floor, keeping your legs bent.

You are now in the semi-supine position so relax and enjoy it. You can put your arms out to the side with palms flat or rest your hands on your midriff with your elbows touching the floor. It may be an unusual sensation but it should be comfortable. You will notice your back elongating and may need to move your hips away from you in order to keep your head on the books. Don’t fiddle with the books or move your head if possible, rather adjust your hips if you need to.

During active rest you can do what you like but it is really helpful to imagine yourself melting down into the floor, feeling heavy, and letting all your weight go down through the points at which your body is touching the ground. You can focus on your breathing, feeling your diaphragm rise and fall and slow down. Just take the time to become aware of yourself and the space you occupy, the sounds you can hear and the sensations you can feel.

Try it for fifteen minutes. When you are ready to get back up, it is important not to rush things. You will be reversing each step you used to get down. If you hurry this you can easily undo all the good you have done so roll over onto one side and then onto your front on all fours. Bring one knee up and straighten your body before standing up in a gentle fluid movement.

Active rest takes practice but once you incorporate it into your routine you will begin to look forward to it and enjoy the improved sense of balance and posture through the day. Use it to restore yourself in the middle of the day.

Alexander Technique has variously been described as an educational method and even a state of mind. It works primarily in very subtle ways by allowing your body to rediscover the suppleness and grace you had as a child before you were told to “sit up straight” and “keep still” or picked up the bad postural habits we all carry through life and think are normal. If you are interested in learning more then it is recommended that you find an Alexander teacher near you or explore the numerous resources available on the Internet.

Review: 3-2-1 Stop Running and Start Living by Lorilee Lippincott

321 Stop Running and Start Living 321 Stop Running and Start Living by Lorilee Lippincott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are anything like me you have a vague sense of desperation about how cluttered and busy your life is and an equally vague idea that at some point you will go about simplifying it. The problem is knowing where to start. I have found myself wishing that someone would just take me by the hand and lead me through each room in my house in turn and help me to rationalise and minimise. So, Lorilee Lippincott’s book 3-2-1 Stop came along at just the right moment.

In fact, Lori’s approach goes a lot deeper than just de-cluttering the material environment, she takes the reader by the hand through the attitudes and aspirations behind our desire for simplicity, too. This is not simplicity for its own sake but simplicity with purpose that is rooted in our dreams. It is about making emotional as well as physical space in your life.

I think it is Lori’s conversational style and her generous and candid revelations about her own journey that make this book such a pleasant trip. It is exciting, too, because right from the first page you catch her infectious expectation that things can and will change for you. Beginning with some ground rules about attitude, Lori tackles the problem of “stuff” in the first section of the book. She gets down to brass tacks within a few pages. It’s not rocket science, it’s not merely theory, it’s common sense seasoned by experience and practice. Most of her practical recommendations are things I have half-heartedly attempted at some point in the past but I have benefited from having someone saying, “do this” then “do that” – once again, small steps. She even makes you take a step back and think about furniture. She then goes on to look at some of the typically problematic areas for simplification, and this includes personal areas such as money and past regrets.

These words come from someone who has actually walked every step she takes you through and that makes them personable and authentic. This book has become my “manual” for spring cleaning this year (and beyond) and it has renewed my commitment to a minimalism that is liberating and intentional.

Visit the website for 3-2-1 Stop Running and Start Living. 

View all my reviews

Life, Love and Work

Русский: Сергей Прокудин-Горский. "Лев То...

Tolstoy – one man and his beard

Try as I might, I can’t dampen my enthusiasm for a handful of writers I like to call the “rugged individualists” of the 19th and early 20th Centuries: Henry Thoreau (1817-1862), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) and even Jan Smuts (1870-1950). What keeps drawing me back to these figures? I’m not in a position to give a scholarly answer to that. I just find that their philosophy excites me profoundly. None of them were at home in ivory towers and, for them, their ideas were not the intellectual toys that they have become. For good or ill they experimented with life, that is to say they applied their philosophies to the real world and the things they could influence. I admire that and I feel it is difficult to point to equivalent figures in our own time – perhaps that will only be possible for people to do a hundred years from now.

I’m willing to acknowledge that their thought has been so influential on the assumptions that I grew up with that it is not surprising that I should find a sense of spiritual kindred. I would even struggle to name what ties them all together in my mind. They all diverged from the orthodox dogmas of the Church in some respects, they all affirmed some kind of self-reliance based on the divine aspects of human beings and something else about the interconnectedness of all things. They were rugged individualists. I know that our western “individualism” is “bad” but I can’t help feeling these guys had more in mind than the American Dream.

Well, that’s my apology and here’s an excerpt from “Love, Life and Work” by Elbert Hubbard, an influential thinker and practitioner in the Arts and Crafts Movement and a founder of the Roycroft Community. The full text is available from Project Gutenberg and here is an audiofile of me reading this excerpt for the GoingPublic project.

 

 

 Mental Attitude

Success is in the blood. There are men whom fate can never keep down—they march forward in a jaunty manner, and take by divine right the best of everything that the earth affords. But their success is not attained by means of the Samuel Smiles-Connecticut policy. They do not lie in wait, nor scheme, nor fawn, nor seek to adapt their sails to catch the breeze of popular favor. Still, they are ever alert and alive to any good that may come their way, and when it comes they simply appropriate it, and tarrying not, move steadily on.

Good health! Whenever you go out of doors, draw the chin in, carry the crown of the head high, and fill the lungs to the utmost; drink in the sunshine; greet your friends with a smile, and put soul into every hand-clasp.

Do not fear being misunderstood; and never waste a moment thinking about your enemies. Try to fix firmly in your own mind what you would like to do, and then without violence of direction you will move straight to the goal.

Fear is the rock on which we split, and hate the shoal on which many a barque is stranded. When we become fearful, the judgment is as unreliable as the compass of a ship whose hold is full of iron ore; when we hate, we have unshipped the rudder; and if ever we stop to meditate on what the gossips say, we have allowed a hawser to foul the screw.

Keep your mind on the great and splendid thing you would like to do; and then, as the days go gliding by, you will find yourself unconsciously seizing the opportunities that are required for the fulfillment of your desire, just as the coral insect takes from the running tide the elements that it needs. Picture in your mind the able, earnest, useful person you desire to be, and the thought that you hold is hourly transforming you into that particular individual you so admire.

Thought is supreme, and to think is often better than to do.

Preserve a right mental attitude—the attitude of courage, frankness and good cheer.

Darwin and Spencer have told us that this is the method of Creation. Each animal has evolved the parts it needed and desired. The horse is fleet because he wishes to be; the bird flies because it desires to; the duck has a web foot because it wants to swim. All things come through desire and every sincere prayer is answered. We become like that on which our hearts are fixed.

Many people know this, but they do not know it thoroughly enough so that it shapes their lives. We want friends, so we scheme and chase ‘cross lots after strong people, and lie in wait for good folks—or alleged good folks—hoping to be able to attach ourselves to them. The only way to secure friends is to be one. And before you are fit for friendship you must be able to do without it. That is to say, you must have sufficient self-reliance to take care of yourself, and then out of the surplus of your energy you can do for others.

The individual who craves friendship, and yet desires a self-centered spirit more, will never lack for friends.

If you would have friends, cultivate solitude instead of society. Drink in the ozone; bathe in the sunshine; and out in the silent night, under the stars, say to yourself again and yet again, “I am a part of all my eyes behold!” And the feeling then will come to you that you are no mere interloper between earth and heaven; but you are a necessary part of the whole. No harm can come to you that does not come to all, and if you shall go down it can only be amid a wreck of worlds.

Like old Job, that which we fear will surely come upon us. By a wrong mental attitude we have set in motion a train of events that ends in disaster. People who die in middle life from disease, almost without exception, are those who have been preparing for death. The acute tragic condition is simply the result of a chronic state of mind—a culmination of a series of events.

Character is the result of two things, mental attitude, and the way we spend our time. It is what we think and what we do that make us what we are.

By laying hold on the forces of the universe, you are strong with them. And when you realize this, all else is easy, for in your arteries will course red corpuscles, and in your heart the determined resolution is born to do and to be. Carry your chin in and the crown of your head high. We are gods in the chrysalis.

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