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Friday
Aug302013

On The Road


Never has a romanticised pre visualisation of an event been so diametrically opposed to the terrifying actuality, as was the experience of driving from LA to San Francisco.

On late summer evenings in London I'd pictured the Kerouacian ideal. Liquorice highways hugging the mountains to the right, a mist of ocean spray from the left. I'd rack the seat back and read passages of Bukowski and Burroughs to my girlfriend at the wheel as we blasted up the cowboy landscape in the Californian sun.

That's what I expected, because nobody tells you about the freeway. Nobody tells you that your first day of driving will be like being fired into a monstrous pinball machine. Walls of motorised death made up of a billion tonnes of hurtling metal enclosing you, threatening to crush you under it's terrible momentum as you desperately try to figure out what lane you're meant to be in.

A Mustang convertible, so irresistibly American when you book it online, feels like a child's toy next to the HGVs and SUVs and RVs pressing in and swerving around you. The absence of a roof only emphasises the soft pinkness of your skull compared to the brutally unyielding road you'd no doubt liquidise against in a vehicle roll scenario. You feel like an exposed nerve, raw and livid and helpless against the inexorably forward-thrusting mass of American existence.

To top it all off my friend sends me article relating Kerouac's apparent hatred of his years on the road and dismissal of the so-called Beat Generation as feckless wasters. It also points out that On The Road was published ten years after the events it describes, thus Kerouac (quite a politically conservative guy as it turns out) wasn't even talking about the generation he supposedly defined.

I didn't even bring Kerouac on this trip. My travel read is the criminally overlooked rock critic Lester Bangs, the guy Philip Seymour Hoffman played in Almost Famous. Bangs did the meat of his writing at a point when the hippy moment was already sinking into the melancholy of a missed opportunity. As we head into San Francisco and the birthplace of the counterculture I simplistically romanticise and Kerouac grudgingly grandfathered, Bangs' cynicism slathers a protective gauze over my rose tinted glasses.

Anyway, once you're past the freeway, the drive is every bit as spectacular as you've been led to believe.

I never learned to drive by the way. No big deal in London but in LA it's like telling people you're not fully toilet trained. But it means I get to fully soak in the landscape while my girlfriend does the driving. Cruising through Big Sur, where the horizon seems somehow further than you've ever known it to be, clouds spill up and over rolling mountains and each bend in the road reveals a new tableau that makes words like epic and majestic seem small and trite, you think that however drunk and grouchy Kerouac was he couldn't have hated it that much.

Tuesday
Aug062013

How To Find Meaningful Work


In 1980, Gorbachev visited Canada.

At that time the soviet economy was in the toilet and Gorbachev was about to inherit a monstrous, malfunctioning machine . On top of this, a report had just been published claiming the failure of the worlds first communist state was down to human factors. Laziness, apathy and shoddy workmanship were to blame. Not because Russians were lazy, but because they'd lost meaningful connection to their work.

Touring the vast North American farmlands (which were outperforming their soviet counterparts by a factor of ten)
Gorbachev asked a Canadian farmer "who gets you up in the morning?"

"Well" replied the farmer, "you just sort of get yourself up"

Living in a city as typically career driven as London, the topic of finding meaningful work is a conversational staple. So many, even those making good money, go about their work with bovine boredom, waiting to cash out and finally start living in some far flung future. The deferred life plan.

What they need, so the conventional wisdom goes, is to find their passion.

You see, it's not enough anymore to be passionate about a relationship or cherished lifelong hobby, the Successful Modern Person must be bursting with passion for his job too. He must be passionate about financial services or hospitality or human resources or whatever it may be.

Feel like an underachiever yet?

What makes this even more inadequacy-inducing is the construct of Your Passion as somehow existentially Out There, floating in the ether waiting to be discovered like some sort of vocational Lost Continent. Your Passion is something to be hunted, identifiable by the ball-tingling, head-splitting, heart-throbbing goddamn PASSION it ignites when you finally stumble upon it after years in the shambling limbo of non-passionate employment. Only then sir, are you a truly successful human.

The self help industry's obsession with specialisation is in part to blame for this.
"The specialist earns more", we're constantly reminded, and in this Information Age the definition of specialism is being shoved down ever narrowing corridors .

Many people feel either trapped by their supposedly pre-ordained specialist career or completely confused, dispirited and adrift having failed to randomly bob up against and seize upon their passion.

This is a harmful idea not just because of the inadequacy and panic it inspires, but because of the oppressively stagnant and inflexible model of personality it breeds. You are not born invisibly stamped with a lone passion which you must seek Golem-like till you find it or die. You can become passionate about any skill you have the will to work and improve at.

Passions are created, not found.

Which is not to say aim low, or continue in a job you hate, but perhaps passion is not as useful a criterion as you think. Was the Canadian farmer passionate about crop yields and milk quotas? Well, maybe. But it's just as likely he was too preoccupied with the absorbing, day to day challenges of the job and motivated by the potential rewards to worry about being passionate.

These things- a job complex enough to stimulate and challenge, and a link between effort and reward- are two of the three elements of meaningful work according to Malcolm Gladwell. The third is an element of autonomy and control over at least part of your work.

Back at that farm, Gorbachev gazed at the gleaming, expensive machinery and said to the farmer,

"They trust you with this?"

"I own this" the farmer replied.

A job that offers these qualities is a job you can become passionate about. Probably not blissed-out-of-your-mind orgasmic passion, but isn't that best reserved for other areas of your life anyway? Perhaps the quiet absorption, the problem solving satisfaction, the buzz of a good job well rewarded are more meaningful aims. I have been passionate about work projects on many occasions, usually just before getting bored of them.

Which brings me to the section where I'm supposed to impart some kind of wisdom of my own, but to be honest I don't have much. Reaching a happy place in my working life has been anything but linear, and an attempt to express it as a secret formula would be dishonest. I picked something I had an interest in, stuck with it through hard times and forged relationships with better people than me.

But I spent just as much time feeding passions that had nothing to do with work. Travel, writing, reading, music...

The best opportunities came about from chance meetings I happened to be prepared for, because I happened to know about a particular subject. Which, if anything, is an anti-specialisation argument. The well rounded person with good stories will often beat the blinkered career robot, and they'll always be having more fun.

Life is way messier and a lot less linear than the goal obsessed self-help industry wants you to believe. Getting lost and confused is part of it. But attempting to navigate your life with passion as your career-guiding pole star will probably leave you more lost than you really need to be.


Wednesday
Jul312013

The 5 Best Idiot Proof Exercises (And Why You Should Do Them)

When it comes to correct exercise technique, many gym goers have a knack for self delusion on a par with early stage X-Factor contestants.

They may assure you the exercise they're performing is a power clean, but what you're witnessing looks more like what happens when an upright row has sex with a round-back deadlift and they let the baby do crack all the time.

Obviously in a coaching situation I can correct a client's form, but that can get time consuming. Many desk bound clients are very uncoordinated, complicated exercises can necessitate the kind of moment-by-moment guidance usually reserved for colonoscopy cameras or the spectacularly drunk.

For that reason I use a lot of what I call "idiot proof" exercises. Here are my favourites.

1- Chest Supported Row - The bent over row is a fine exercise but it's got to be one of the most frequently butchered ones I see. People pay less attention to it because it lacks the spine-rupturing reputation of the deadlift or squat, but it carries its own risks. Plus a lot of effort is expended by the hamstrings as they hold your body in the correct position.

Simply performing your rows on a bench removes all of the typical barriers to good technique. It also places the stress squarely on the upper back since your hamstrings aren't twitching like Charlton Heston's upper lip at an anti-gun march.

2- Goblet Squat - The goblet squat has become my go-to exercise for the beginner squatter. The placement of the weight at the front of the body naturally discourages spinal flexion (which, under heavy loads, is the orthopaedic equivalent of staring directly into the sun).

The position allows greater depth because you don't feel like you'll fall backwards, which in a serious weight room may cause large men to titter at you.

3- Dumbbell Floor Press - Despite being as ubiquitous as Sam Worthington in 2009, the bench press is generally performed horribly. Flopping back on a bench and cranking out wobbly reps while his feet dance the cha cha cha, Mr Monday Night Bench Presser is not only reducing the training effect, he's also putting his shoulder health at risk.

The dumbbell floor press is useful for teaching the retracted shoulder position which is crucial to safe benching.

4- Hip Thrust - Everyone wants a nice ass. Unfortunately your nervous system tends to treat your gluteals like a pair of glasses on the head of a senile grandmother. It knows it left them somewhere, it just can't quite seem to find the damn things.

Many beginners can't flex their glutes, let alone use them meaningfully in a complex exercise. Liberal use of the hip thrust will give you an ass to rival my own: Like a Grand National winner's hind quarters shrouded in denim cut-offs.

5- Good Morning - A controversial choice perhaps, because the rare occasions I've seen this done at a gym have been akin to watching fingernails get torn out. But with a few simple coaching cues the good morning is a fantastic way to teach hip hinging and lumbar stiffness. The bar placement on the upper back encourages clients to stay in spinal extension while pushing the ass back.

It also has a pleasingly old-school name that puts me in mind of mustachioed Victorian bodybuilders and colossal East German shot putters. As far as exercise names go, the Good Morning is second only to the Two Hands Anyhow, which is a fucking brilliant name as well as a useful technique for eating a large burrito.

 

Monday
Jul292013

What Monster's University Tells Us About Success

I saw Monsters University this weekend, the sequel to one of my favourite Pixar movies Monsters Inc. It lives up to the high standards we've come to expect; it's funny, the characters are memorable and charming, its tightly plotted and technically incredible.

It also pulls off an audaciously clever bait and switch at the last minute by selling the viewer a dummy ending, all the more impressive for being both utterly believable and utterly disappointing.

I don't want to spoil anything so I won't get into specifics. But if you want to stay totally spoiler free, stop reading now.

Okay?

So anyway, the movie appears to have reached its natural emotional climax, and it's the standard Hollywood ending. The approved Disney message of hard work trumping adversity. That no matter how talentless you are you can achieve anything if you just really, really, really BELIEVE in yourself.

The bullies are vanquished, the little guy triumphs and the crowd goes batshit mental.

I was aghast. Pixar had finally dropped the ball, gotten lazy and complacent.

It rings completely hollow in the context of the rest of the film and more importantly it's a dangerous message.

The message that belief in oneself is enough to achieve great things is nonsense. If you want proof, turn on any TV talent show and watch deluded teens caterwauling at a panel of millionaires trying to prove they're the next Beyonce. These kids have self belief in spades, what they lack is an iota of self awareness.

If hard work alone were enough to achieve anything, dwarves would have equal representation in the NBA.

Hard work is important, as is self belief. But just as important is a awareness of your own innate talents and abilities, or absence thereof.

Which is why it's so impressive when Monsters University turns the standard Disney ending in on itself and makes that exact point.

Again, no spoilers. Go see the movie. But it manages to be absolutely positive and uplifting without being saccharine and cliche. More importantly it provides a message that is actually useful and reflects the reality of the world we live in far better than any reality show rags to riches bullshit. Which for a movie about anthropomorphic monsters who power their world by harnessing the fear of human children, is all the more impressive.

Tuesday
Jul232013

Portugal Interlude

A four hour bus ride from Lagos to Lisbon on three hours sleep and a baseball-bat hangover is nobody's idea of a good time and on top of that my back hurts.

Two nights ago my travel companion, during a bout of what could conservatively be described as horseplay, dropped me from his shoulders in the hostel common room. He was aiming for the couch, but his aim was impaired by six hours of stunt drinking and the fact that he was facing backwards while dropping me. My lumbar spine hit the corner of the table while the rest of me continued unimpeded towards the marble floor. A photo of the aftermath depicts me folded up at a wince inducing angle, like a man hit by a car while practicing yoga. Our friends and fellow backpackers are a frozen tableau of open mouthed horror, the night teeters on the edge, if it tips one way it's hospital trips, missed flights and disaster, the other and it's relief and a good story. It was not a disaster, it was just agonising. I eventually stood up and limped back to our room, my friend apologising all the way.

So While I'm failing to get comfortable the bus television screens a bizarre French film. From what I can tell It's some sort of spy spoof, the "humour" deriving from
its two buffoonish protagonists , who while idiotic and cowardly and incapable manage to frustrate their enemies efforts to ...kill them? Capture them? despite the villain's slicker gadgets, nifty martial arts skills, lacquered bad-guy mullets and intensely methodical approach to the job at hand. The humour is as broad as it gets, child-like in fact, which is jarringly offset by frequent racy scenes in which attractive female characters find excuses to lose most of their clothing.

But it'll all be over shortly and I'll have half a day in Lisbon before my return flight to London tonight, and though it'll only be a few hours it makes me want to travel on my own again.

The pleasure of solo travel was a revelation to me when I went to Thailand for OutThere Travel earlier this year. And thanks to that particular unfathomably jammy travel writing gig it's something I'll be doing more of in the near future.

Partly it's because I'm a natural introvert, which might sound unlikely in light of the above hostel wrestling story. But I am just an introvert who's learned that extroversion can be fun.

It's a spectrum rather than a binary state, even the shyest of us are in fact situational extroverts, blossoming in the right company. But if you want to know what end of the spectrum you occupy look at how you recharge. If you unwind, de-stress and rejuvenate by socialising then you're an extrovert, if you retreat into the pleasure of your own company, a book or a walk or a solitary workout, you lean toward introversion.

That's me. If it's you too, then consider solo travel if you have the opportunity. You'll learn about what's important to you, what kind of life you want to live and how self-reliant you're capable of being in the space of a few weeks.

You'll have the holiday you and you alone want to have, unadulterated by group desires or pressure to tick off the standard tourist attractions. Because let's face it, if you've seen one paralysingly beautiful temple you've kind of seen them all. If you want to see then of course, then great. But you may want to lie in a hammock and read and that's great too.

Most importantly you'll be forced to get truly comfortable in your own skin without distractions, a happy corollary of wifi being akin to moon dust in many of the places you'll want to go.

On which note, my free wifi is about to run out. Time to limp around Lisbon.


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