A populist explosion

Unless you’ve been particularly unobservant or on an extended spelunking expedition, you’ll have noticed that politics has gone through a bit of a change recently. People whom we would previously have dismissed as loons are attaining political office. The gap between the political establishment and the man or woman in the street has become a chasm. And everything that we thought we knew about electoral maths no longer seems to apply. Continue reading

On pastures new

I’ve been to the Lake District three times now. And each time I go there my love for this remote corner of the country grows a little bit stronger. But I’m very aware that I do little more than skim across the surface of this ancient and revered landscape. I do not truly know it. I do not understand it. And I most definitely do not belong. Continue reading

On (flatpack) democracy

There’s a general feeling at the moment that voting in elections isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Politicians are all the same anyway, so the consensus goes, and you get an almost identical old bunch of self-serving, out-of-touch buffoons regardless of the candidate or party you select on the ballot paper. Whether it’s a national election or a local one, it seems, you might as well stay at home and rearrange your CD collection. Continue reading

One man and his hill

It started, as such things tend to do, with a Land Rover. Now, if you’re anything like me, this will be enough to get you racing out to buy the book. But add the bleak and forlorn beauty of the Brecon Beacons, a can-do cast of sturdy local characters and a ramshackle old farmhouse with an image problem. Well, that’s enough to make you want to ditch the laptop and get out there house-hunting. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you…) Continue reading

On the run

The more I run, the more I want to learn about running. Not from textbooks or training guides, but from the experiences of other runners. So it was an absolute delight to read two great books by fellow runners. Both very different in style and content, but both equally riveting. Even if you’re not really that into running. Continue reading

A very long walk indeed

In the summer of 2010, poet Simon Armitage decided to walk the Pennine Way from Kirk Yetholm, just north of the border between England and Scotland, to Edale in Derbyshire. His 256-mile route would take in the wilds of the Northumberland National Park, the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District, as well as the many highways and by-ways in between. The result is ‘Walking Home’. Continue reading

Does setting goals really work?

Goals are good, right? Practically all organisations set goals for themselves and for their people. Goals for sales. Goals for market share. Goals for personal performance. And not just any goals, of course, but SMART ones. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bounded. We all have them. And we all grumble about them. But the question is: should we really be setting goals at all?

In his new book, ‘The Antidote’, journalist and writer Oliver Burkeman asks this very question. And his conclusion might surprise, irritate or even horrify you. Because setting goals, it turns out, might not be the key to success after all.


The first problem with goals is what organisational behaviour expert Chris Kayes calls ‘goalodicy’, or the way in which an external target can become part of our own identities. To fail to achieve the goal means to admit failure as an individual. And this can drive us to take ever greater risks, sacrificing everything to achieve the goal.

This unquestioning focus on the goal leads to an unhealthy single-mindedness. Even in the face of mounting evidence that the goal is an unwise one, rather than revise the goal, organisations simply invest more effort and resources in achieving it. So when things inevitably go wrong, they go very wrong.

The second problem with goals is that they can stop us thinking for ourselves. Burkeman gives the example of New York taxi drivers. When it’s raining, he observes, it can be more difficult to hail a cab than when it is sunny. The obvious response is that there’s more demand, so of course it will be more difficult. All the taxis are already full.

But when economist Colin Camerer and his colleagues looked into this phenomenon in more detail, they found that while demand for taxis did indeed go up when it was raining, the supply of taxis actually shrank. It turned out that New York taxi drivers set themselves daily targets for earnings, which they reached more quickly when it was raining, as there was more business.

But rather than sticking around to earn a bit more from people desperate to get out of the rain, the drivers clocked off and went home once they had reached their target. Achieving the income goal for the day took precedence over rational behaviour and, indeed, basic common sense. The drivers had, explains Burkeman, invested in their goals beyond the point that doing so served their best interests.

The third problem with goals is that, contrary to academic experiments in the laboratory, the real world rarely allows us to focus on just one objective. What we do in one aspect of our work or of our lives invariably exerts an effect on other aspects. We can never change just one thing. Striving to achieve a goal in one particular area will inevitably have unintended consequences – and not necessarily positive ones – in other areas.

Burkeman gives the example of an executive who had set himself the aim of becoming a millionaire by the age of forty. He had achieved this goal, but he was now divorced from his wife, had health problems and was not in contact with his children. He had achieved his goal, but had suffered probably irreparable damage in other aspects of his life.

So why do we do this to ourselves? We set ourselves goals, explains Burkeman, in response to uncertainty. We don’t know what the future will hold, so we use goals as way of investing in our preferred vision of that future. Not because they will necessarily help us to achieve that vision, but because they help to us rid ourselves of the uncertainty that we encounter in the present.

What we should do, though, is turn towards uncertainty. We should learn to develop a tolerance for it, or even to embrace it. We should free ourselves from the shackles of the goals we set – and have the courage to face the future as it comes. Uncertainty, argues Burkeman, is where things happen. “It is,” he writes, “where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting.”

This post was first published at www.sockmonkeyconsulting.com.

Most definitely not an apology

There have been a slew of books in the past few years promoting what I would tentatively term a kind of ‘militant atheism’. The sensitively titled ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins is a prime example, though authors such as the late Christopher Hitchens and others have also contributed heavily to the genre. In fact, Hitchens termed himself an ‘anti-theist’, which is perhaps a more appropriate description of the message that these writers – and organisations such as the British Humanist Association – espouse.Unapologetic

While not an overly religious person myself, I have no objection to those of faith. And even as a physicist I am tending towards the view that science cannot explain everything and should perhaps stop pretending that it can. But I am highly dubious of any individuals or organisations, faith-based or otherwise, that try tell people what they should think, what they should do and how they should behave.

So it was with great delight that I stumbled upon Francis Spufford’s book ‘Unapologetic’. Short enough to be read over the course of a couple of lazy afternoons, it is a very personal – and well-written – account of the author’s relationship with Christianity. While it does not seek to defend Christian ideas, it does – as Spufford points out – spring to the defence of ‘Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity’. And it does so with style, wit and grace.

At the heart of the author’s narrative is the ‘Human Propensity to F**k Things Up’ (HPtFtU).* We all, he argues, screw things up from time to time. Usually, we can recover from these calamities fairly quickly, but sometimes they have more profound or far-reaching consequences. This doesn’t make us ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. It just makes us human. We’re bombarded constantly with images and ideas of how we ‘should’ be, which inevitably make us feel like pathetic excuses for human beings**, but we need to accept that we are who we are. We need, in short, to embrace our HPtFtU.

From here, Spufford takes us on an almost ‘stream of consciousness’*** exploration through his own spiritual and religious experience. It’s not really an argument ‘for’ or ‘against’ religion or the existence of God, but rather the author’s own personal voyage of discovery into what he himself describes as not ‘the kind of thing you can know’. I’ll resist the temptation to go into more detail or to quote my favourite bits, though, because (a) the narrative – and, indeed, the topic – doesn’t lend itself to being summarised, (b) there’s no index and I can’t find the bits I want to quote, and (c) you really should read it for yourself.

I suspect that this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Yes, it does meander a little. And yes, it does resort to pop culture references a little more frequently than is perhaps necessary. But it is an intensely personal account of something that clearly makes up a large part of who the author is, so I think we can allow him to write it how he wants. And while Spufford doesn’t try to get us to share his beliefs, merely to understand them, I can’t help but feel that his conclusions resonate for all of us, theists, atheists, agnostics and anti-theists alike. We are all going to f**k things up from time to time. But that shouldn’t mean that we approach life tentatively or with trepidation. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he says. ‘Far more can be mended than you know.’

* If you’re looking for a nice cuddly book to read aloud to elderly relatives, don’t choose this one. It’s a bit sweary. Or rather, it’s written how most of us speak most of the time…

** Or this might just be me.

*** Most of the book, the author mentions in the notes at the end, was written without much in the way of research in a Cambridge branch of a well-know chain of coffee shops. (Don’t we all want to write like that?)

In search of the good life

The thing that so often annoys me with books by academics in the social sciences is that they’re really good at telling you what has happened and why it has happened, but shy away from saying what we should actually be doing about it. They remain aloof, remote from the problems that they discuss, when what I really want them to do is leap in and get their hands dirty.


So it came as a welcome change to stumble across ‘How much is enough?: The love of money and the case for the good life’, by father and son team Robert (a political economist) and Edward (a philosopher) Skidelsky, which explores how and why we’ve fallen into the thrall of increasing economic wealth and then – to my delight –  explains how the authors think we could fix the problem.

Described in the introduction as ‘an argument against insatiability’, the book charts how we have used technology not to free up our own time (as Keynes had anticipated), but to work even more and even harder. And why have we followed this path? Simply put, because we want more. And more. And more. We have, say the Skidelskys, entered into a kind of Faustian pact, in which we suffer toil, inequality and destruction today, in the hope that tomorrow we will finally have enough. But, it seems, the lure of just that little bit extra is intoxicating. There can never be enough.

This begs the question: enough for what? So opens up the main topic of the book, which is the idea of the ‘good life’. And this is where the interesting stuff begins. (If you’re a free market capitalist or a cultural relativist, you might want to stop reading here, because the rest of the book – and this review – is really going to irritate you.) Because while we all have our ideas of what the good life looks like, the authors suggest that not all of our ideas are necessarily equally valid.

Most western governments do not like this idea. Instead, they adopt the attitude that we should all be free to do our thing and to live our lives with the minimum of interruption. As if all our different ideas of what constitutes the good life will somehow add up to a happy and contented world. But, as anyone who has ever watched the news will know, this isn’t how things happen in real life. As former diplomat Alastair Crooke has noted:

There is no God-given nature implanted in human beings, whereby, controlled only by pursuit of their own personal welfare, their unforced personal choices would combine together to produce an orderly and harmonious society.

The authors provide evidence from a variety of sources to show what most of us secretly suspected all along: increasing wealth is not making us happier. It is also destroying the environment and the planet on which we live. But more than that, say the authors, endless growth is senseless. Our current and unending pursuit of wealth is simply wrong. The long term goal of economic policy, they argue, should “henceforth not be growth, but the structuring of our collective existence so as to facilitate the good life.”

So what is this good life? Well, it’s a life that “is desirable, or worthy of desire, not just one that is widely desired”. And the authors do a reasonable job of identifying the various ‘basic goods’ that make up this life. Things like good health, friendship and harmony with nature. They then set out a series of social policies that could help to “reverse the onslaught of insatiability” and to promote the availability of the basic goods for all, including a universal basic income, taxation on consumption rather than earnings, and stricter controls over advertising.

This all means, though, that the state can no longer remain neutral between different moral beliefs and different ideas of the good life. And while this kind of state paternalism was commonplace in centuries past, it seems to fly in the face of modern liberal democracy. Except that it doesn’t, argue the Skidelskys. The ideas that we will need are already embedded deeply in our culture and in our morality. We just need the political courage to restore them to their rightful place.

This is a thoughtful book that will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in political philosophy or economics. It is well researched, well written and well referenced. But it does, though, read rather more like a selection of essays than a cohesive, well-argued book. As if the authors had been saving up material for some time, waiting for a convenient ‘hook’ on which to hang it.

And while the Skidelskys have clearly striven to bridge the divide between academia and the general public, the book’s occasional heavy prose and extensive detours into classical political economy mean that it risks disappearing into the abyss. (This may be why the book is currently less popular than it probably should be.) These grumbles aside, though, this book asks some important questions. And to the authors’ credit, they’ve also tried hard to give us some answers.