Emotional Skills Archives - The School Of Life

It can take a while to see that we aren’t merely polite and well mannered; that we are manically on the side of trying to appease the moods and caprices of others at the cost of our own well-being; that we are inveterate people pleasers.

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Children have no practical or psychological alternatives to trying to cosy up to those who reject them. They naturally seek to place the explanation for their poor treatment on themselves. Their excuses for their wayward caregivers may go on without end, inspiring lifelong degrees of tainted creativity: the violence they were on the receiving end of wasn’t ‘just’ violence, they will tell themselves: it came from pain, it was a sign of strength, it was in a way justified by the bad school report. The emotional neglect was never as bad as such a term makes out: it was merely an old-fashioned toughness linked to admirable traits such as independence and resourcefulness.

We may throw ourselves into our work at school and subsequently in our career as a way of trying to secure the attention of parental figures who seem not to care that we exist. We may make exceptional efforts with our school projects, with our end-of-year exams, with our scholarship papers, because we aren’t only attempting to be good students; we are beneath the surface struggling to be the sort of children and humans that can receive the blessing of their creators. We may become known among our friends as ‘over-achievers’, but the truth is a great deal more poignant: we are the ‘under-loved ones’ who work furiously to try to feel legitimate in our own eyes.

We need to come to a dispiriting but emancipating realisation: those who demand to be impressed by their own offspring are not worthy of impressing; they are ill. It may look as if, with just another effort, we may finally secure the notice we long for, but we would be better off accepting the darker notion that we will never turn around someone who hasn’t already seen the point of us. A healthy parent does not require a child to perform in order to lend them their attention; they may be pleased when the child is doing well, they may be proud of them at moments of victory, but they do not make performance the sine qua non of their love. This requirement belongs to psychopathology, not aspiration.

The people pleaser needs to learn an unusual and little-mentioned art: that of giving up on people. Rather than continuing to maintain that there must be something wrong with them to explain the sour mood of their caregiver, they should take on board the unfamiliar idea that they have grown up around someone who was severely unwell. Rather than spend their life wondering what is so wrong with them, they can turn the tables and wonder what might have been so wrong with their progenitors for making such peculiar and inordinate demands on them.

We should stop expecting that we are about to be treated well, like an overeager puppy always looking out for signs that their owner has relented and will take them out to the park after all. We have been the lovelorn dog long enough, we have waited for our biscuits for an eternity, and now need to move away from those who exert a mesmeric hold on us by denying us what should naturally have been offered to us a long time ago. 

We don’t have to keep searching for an offence we haven’t committed. We have done well enough at work; we are sufficiently intelligent and decent looking. We have served far too long an apprenticeship in the school of suffering. It is time to make the remarkable discovery that we can dismiss others as they have dismissed us and concentrate for the remainder of our days on those blessed souls who already know how to freely grant us the kindness and approval we are worthy of.


We often complain that we have bad memories. We forget our house keys, the names of certain acquaintances and vital items from the shopping list. But what might count as a rank nuisance on a practical level turns out to be an unparalleled blessing on an emotional one. We are rescued from many of our sorrows not by active solutions or nifty work of the intellect but by our reliable tendencies to forget. Our minds are so constituted that the gravest incidents eventually slip from our grasp. We lose sight not only of the beautiful and kind things that have occurred – the bay of Naples at dawn, the taste of figs in autumn and the first night spent in the company of a lover – but also, more usefully, the catalogue of horrors that we were once certain we would never be able to surmount. However hysterical we may be, we can rely on the knowledge that we will soon forget what we are crying about.

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When in his fifties, the great English literary critic and essayist Cyril Connolly discovered a Latin grammar textbook that he had had at around the age of 10, when he had attended a fashionable preparatory school in Eastbourne, St Cyprian’s. On the flyleaf of the book, he had written in his most careful script, ‘Never [underlined three times] forget
how unhappy you were today, February 11th, 1913.’
Now, many decades later, he hadn’t the faintest recollection of what had so deeply upset him on that distant day, even though it must have seemed as if it would burn forever in his thoughts, sending echoes of misery across the entirety of his existence.

Our habit of forgetting might feel like a betrayal. A part of us wants to remain eternally loyal to the sufferings that consume our thoughts and to which our identities can feel indelibly bound. But our minds are efficient, unsentimental places that need to clear space for novel experiences, so eventually even our worst recollections become hazy and
neutered. We might realise that years have gone by without having given a single thought to a mistake that we had once imagined would darken our lives in perpetuity.

We may lament our far-from-perfect memories, but we should be grateful for them. If we had a recollection of every occasion when someone had been unkind to us, of every slight that had come our way, every mistake we had committed and every hope that had been frustrated, life would swiftly grow untenable. Fortunately, we have been endowed with a special incapacity. The slate is always, gradually being wiped clean, ensuring that we end up ignorant of what once left us certain that we should end our lives by nightfall.

To be criticised is never pleasant. It is rarely a good day when we have to read an unflattering social media post about ourselves, when we are given harsh feedback on a project or hear that we are being gossiped about by strangers. 

However, the question of how much criticism needs to hurt depends on something which has nothing to do with the specific attack we happen to face: how much we happen to like ourselves. 

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The degree to which we buckle in the wake of negative comments reflects how we, deep down, feel about ourselves. When we carry within us a sufficient ballast of love, criticism need never be very much more than niggling. We can overcome it by dinner time – or at least the end of the week. We can take on board with relative good humour that we are not necessarily loved by everyone, that not everything we do is perfect and that there may be one or two outright enemies, who would prefer us dead – even while most people tolerate us easily enough. There need be nothing surprising or terrifying in being doubted by a few others.

But for the more vulnerable ones among us, there is no option but to experience criticism as an assault on our very right to exist. We don’t hear that we are being mildly upbraided for an aspect of our work; we at once feel that we are being told to disappear. It isn’t just one or two people who are mocking us, the whole world is apparently thinking only of how ridiculous we are. We will never get past this moment of negative assessment; the hatred will never end. It’s a catastrophe.

If criticism from outside proves devastating, it is because it so readily joins forces with an infinitely more strident and more aggressive form of criticism that has long existed inside of us. We are already struggling so hard to tolerate ourselves against inner voices that confidently assert how undeserving, ugly and devious we are, that there is no room left for us to take on further reminders of our awfulness. The key of present criticism has inserted itself into a lock of historic hatred – and let loose an unmasterable surge of self-loathing. 

When we are suffering, we should remember that we aren’t exceptionally weak; we almost certainly had a far worse childhood than the average person. 

Once upon a time, we were probably humiliated and shamed without being soothed, held or reassured, and this is why we now take current criticism so much to heart. We don’t know how to defend ourselves against our enemies because we have never been deeply appreciated. We already hate ourselves so much more than our worst enemies ever will. A part of us is responding to adult challenges with the vulnerability of a child who faced disdain on a scale they couldn’t master. The present challenge feels like a catastrophe because catastrophe is precisely what was once endured.

We may not easily be able to stop feeling unhappy about criticism, but at least we can change what we feel unhappy about. Our vulnerability need not be – as we initially, instinctively think – a sign that we are actively awful. It is evidence that we were, long ago, denied the sort of love that we would have needed in order to remain more steadily and generously on our own side at moments of difficulty.


One explanation for the low-level sadness that often dogs our spirits is a lack of a seldom mentioned but essential ingredient in a good life: spontaneity. Without necessarily being entirely aware of the affliction, we may suffer from an excess of orderliness, caution and rigidity; we know pretty much exactly what we’ll be doing a year from now, we rarely make a move without having planned it in detail, we seldom go anywhere new on the spur of the moment. Our limbs are tight, our words are measured, our interactions prescribed. Everything is under close surveillance, but not for that matter especially satisfying. We haven’t danced in a long while.

What might, by contrast, a more spontaneous life be like? It would be one in which we were able to act with less inhibition and fear in accordance with our true beliefs and values. Around friends, we might, in a rush of unfettered emotion, but without anything romantic being meant by it, tell someone that we loved and admired them very much. Or we might, when upset by someone, allow ourselves to communicate hurt and disappointment directly. In company, we could feel free to outline what we actually thought about a political matter hedged in by groupthink. In bed, we might share one of our more intense and seldom-mentioned fantasies. In our work, we might embark on a bold and potentially life-changing initiative far sooner than we had imagined. In our leisure time, we might find ourselves starting to write a collection of recipes or poems – or else booking a flight at the very last minute and ending up in a country we didn’t know very well on an itinerary that we had made up only that morning rather than (as would be customary for us) a year or two before.


The opposite of spontaneity is rigidity, an inability to allow too many of our own emotions into consciousness, and a corresponding reliance on hard work, manners and precise timetabling to prevent intimacy with the raw, confusing, intense and unpredictable raw material of life itself. We are rigid, first and foremost, because we are afraid. We stay rooted to our familiar spot because any movement is experienced as intensely dangerous. We ruminate excessively as a way of trying to exert control over a chaotic environment through our own thoughts. We seldom act, out of dread of making a terrible mistake.


Spontaneity is almost always something that we have lost, rather than (mysteriously) failed to learn. It is a potential within all of us at birth, but it can – under the very wrong circumstances – be stripped from our characters. If we were to imagine a cruel experiment designed to rid someone of their capacity for spontaneity, one would probably need, at the age of one and half or so, to frighten them rather a lot (be it over a wish to ruffle an adult’s hair, explore a cupboard or sob uncontrollably). One would have to make the child feel that their emotions were too much to bear or illegal. One would shame them for any signs of exuberance or playfulness. And one might model for them behaviour marked by panic whenever something new appeared on the horizon: an unexpected ring at the door would be a crisis, a holiday a succession of possible catastrophes.


It’s in the nature of our psychology that a pattern developed in relation to one particular set of circumstances in childhood becomes a feature of adult character, until and unless we remember and understand its dynamics. In other words, we’ll continue not to be spontaneous until we can grasp how and why being so once felt so dangerous. The English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott spoke of a healthy upbringing being one in which a child was able to express their True Self without too much need, at first, for the compliance and hypocrisy of a False Self. Only when this True Self had had a chance to have its day could a person bear to submit to the demands of the world without too much loss of creativity or initiative. We need – with some urgency – to work out what happened to our True Self.


We should along the way recognise that many of our inhibitions are no longer warranted by the wide-open adult world, that whatever terrors we laboured under as children, we can afford now to relax our muscles, let our limbs hang more loosely from us and take a few risks to express our sexuality, our politics, our enthusiasms and our distastes. We might tell a friend we like them very much indeed; we might get stern with someone who keeps taking advantage of us, we might dare to make a move without a requirement to remove every last vestige of risk. We have for too long been clenched into place as if waiting for a blow that belongs to the past, not the future.


Were we to admire the work of the artist Francis Bacon, it might in part be because it seems to contain a small morality tale about spontaneity. Bacon’s canvases were, in their general layout, extremely rigid and coolly formal, being made up of sombre colours, symmetrical lines and stark perspectives. But in the middle of this austerity, Bacon typically allowed for a great deal of haphazardness and accident. He introduced figures composed with utmost serendipity, by throwing paint, and sometimes sponges at the canvas, by pressing his brushes into swirling shapes in a frenzy of calculated disorder.




                                             Francis Bacon, Turning Figure, 1962


We might need to do a version of Bacon’s experiments in our own lives; to prepare areas of great order and logic, but then allow for moments when we relax the shackles, safe in the knowledge that not everything is at stake and that the rewards may be decisive. We can throw paint and see how it lands, pay someone a compliment and see what happens, go to another country and be confident of somehow finding a bed for the night, turn our lives a little upside down and trust that they will be interesting at the very least. It may once have felt very safe to avoid any risk – but the real risk today is to lead the remainder of our lives without ever giving expression to the spontaneous True Self, hiding inside its cage, terrified and clenched. We can, at last, discreetly enough that no one notices at first, try to dance a little. Or take off without too much of a plan.

One of the reasons why our lives are harder than they might be is that most of us have not got a firm handle on the art of mature self-assertion; that is, the ability to put forward our interests in the face of contention in a way that comes across as credible, dignified, serene and effective. We are daily confronted by challenges to our positions that would require us to find a voice: a partner who subtly denies us affection; a colleague who malignly undermines our proposals; a parent who treads on our aspirations. And in response, we tend to behave in two equally unfortunate ways.

It was the genius of Aristotle, the first systematic Western explorer of human emotions, to see that maturity very often lies at a midway point between two extremes. His Nicomachean Ethics advances a famous tripartite table outlining ideal forms of behaviour – along with their two characteristically deficient or excessive departures.

And, to follow the model, in the case of the topic at hand, one might add a further line:

In response to threats, we typically follow one of two paths. We may say nothing: after all, who are we to speak, why would anyone listen; how dare we? None of which stops us hating and cursing inside. Or else we bottle up the toxins until they have built a head of steam, and then let rip in a tirade of insults, florid accusations and sulphurous vindictiveness which at a stroke destroys the credibility of anything we might have been trying to convey – and ensures that we can safely be put in a box labelled tyrannical and unhinged.

At the root of our failures tends lies one woefully familiar psychological problem above all: self-hatred. It is because we haven’t learn to love and respect ourselves (indeed, the very concept sounds instinctively alien and somewhat disgusting) that we say nothing, trusting that we have no right to take our own positions seriously. Associated with this is a despair at the possibility of any form of advanced intra-human understanding. We have no experience of dialogue working out, of someone clearing their throat, apologising for being a nuisance, and then calmly and eloquently articulating a point – only for their interlocutor to concede, to thank them for speaking up and to promise to look at things a little differently in the future. Our inner world is instead populated by shadow images of powerful tyrants who don’t listen, and meek serfs without any fair right to exist. Or else, from an associated form of self-suspicion, we rush our lesson and, by making a doomed assault on the integrity of our opponent, essentially prove to ourselves that we knew it could never work out.

It can – it must be said – be extremely exhausting constantly to assert oneself. In the course of a typical day, we will face an array of moments in which we should rightfully speak up properly, at once politely yet firmly, determinedly yet respectfully. It would of course have helped if we’d had early training: one of those childhoods read about in psychology manuals, the kind where a parent gently asks the upset three year old: ‘Darling, how do you feel about that?’ and listens to the answer – rather than telling it to stop being so damn silly or attacking it for being very inconsiderate given what a hard day it’s been at the office.

The challenge of mastering assertion too frequently lacks dignity. We should see it as one of the great psychological hurdles; to have learnt how to assert oneself steadily and graciously might be ranked a feat no less worthy of celebration than climbing a mountain or making a fortune (and a lot more useful).

We should assert ourselves not because it’s always going to work; indeed a bit of pessimism can be hugely handy, for it’s when we know that people might not get it at all that we no longer feel so desperate that they must. We should assert ourselves irrespective of results because it will lend us an all important sense of our own agency and strength. And we’ll twitch less.

To get us going, right now, we might consider where we are being gently but punishingly trodden on by those around us: people who are conveniently and cleverly telling us that it’s all our fault, or expecting us to do the heavy lifting, or relying on us to smile and put up with their ill temper. Unusually for us, we might properly take on board that life isn’t going to go on forever, that we have a right to be here and that there is a small  but fair chance of being understood – and therefore, for once, rather than simply saying nothing or shouting, we might wait until we are rested and feeling kind to ourselves and take up a position on a piece of very unfamiliar Aristotelian middle ground, patiently uttering some very magical words: I’d love it if we might have a quick chat at some point. Whenever it’s convenient. There’s just something it would feel great to discuss…

One of the most striking capacities of the human mind is our ability to get clearer about ideas that might otherwise have been vague or hard to grasp via the process of drawing analogies.

Analogy works by picking out a feature that is clear and obvious in one area and importing it into another field that happens to be more confusing and intangible. Take the analogical phrase ‘papering over the cracks’ – commonly used to suggest a shoddy, incomplete, lazy or dishonest manoeuvre. It is easy to develop a vivid image in our minds of how putting up wallpaper can hide multiple defects in plasterwork. But it might be much harder to see that, in a relationship, going on an expensive holiday won’t do anything to address the daily conflicts of life together or that, at work, moving to fancy offices won’t alter the deep problems with the quality of the management team.


In the early part of the twentieth century, while he was starting to write In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust was continually daunted by the task of trying to find words to capture his confused sense of how multiple each of us is. So varied are we, he thought, it’s almost as though every one of us contains multitudes, hiding under the cover of a single name. One evening, Proust was sitting in a garden in Paris looking at a fountain: from a distance, it looked like a single column of water. But as he approached it, he saw that it was actually made up of lots of individual jets arranged very closely together. It struck him then that a good analogy for a bit of human psychology he had been struggling to define would come from the Jardin du Luxembourg: we are each of us like a fountain, he thought, configured out of diverse, separate impulses, desires, attitudes and concerns that then from a distance (seen by another person) give off an impression of being unified and coherent.

Analogies shed light not only on visual or psychological phenomena; they illuminate whole areas of intellectual concern. For example, in order better to understand what art is for, we might drawn an analogy between art and advertising. We might say that a painting by Botticelli is a kind of ‘advert for tenderness.’

An advert for tenderness

Thinking about art in terms of advertising helps us to see something that we might have missed if we had stuck to more narrowly to an aesthetic lexicon: that many works of art are trying to persuade us of something rather than just pleasing us, they are trying to seduce us to appreciate a particular point of view and take their implicit philosophy deep into our souls. By drawing an analogy with adverts, which we know are obviously in the selling game, we can become newly conscious of the more didactic sides of certain paintings. We’re not being sold products as such, but we are being induced to ‘buy into’ attitudes and frames of mind.

Some of the best analogies function by illuminating an elusive area in one field with reference to a very tangible and every day one in another. When it comes to cooking, we know well that a certain ingredient can be very important in a dish even though it would be pretty useless on its own: for example, egg yolks play a crucial role in spaghetti carbonara – but a pure dish of yolks would be highly unappealing. This concept of one thing needing to combine with others in order to fulfil its potential value and of being unappetising without them is immediately simple to understand in the kitchen, but can be rather harder to grasp in other areas. For example, we often struggle to define what the role of money should be within a good relationship. Should it matter at all? Is it key? Should we even think of it? The best way to put it might be with recourse to a cooking analogy: money is one ingredient in the dish of conjugal happiness, but a pure pile of cash on its own, without other ingredients (such as tenderness and generosity, self-knowledge and attraction) is not going to be of any more use than egg yolks without Parmesan cheese, garlic, pancetta, olive oil and spaghetti. An analogy is a deft mechanism for importing understanding from one region of our minds where it is in good supply to another where there is currently a shortfall.

It can seem like it might take a special type of imagination to come up with helpful analogies – and that it took a rarefied degree of poetic genius to dream up the great literary comparisons, like when Wordsworth compared human loneliness to a solitary cloud drifting in the sky, in the title line of what was once one of the most famous poems in English: I wandered lonely as a cloud.

But helpful analogies are, in fact, everywhere because it seems as if the universe is inherently structured as a set of motifs that repeat themselves across fields: that the rain drops on a window will imitate the patterns of a dried out river bed and the fissures on the surface of Mars will follow some of the same logic as the lines on our palm.

This pattern repetition means that if we properly understand one aspect of one area, we already possess important clues for making sense of aspects of other areas. What goes on in national politics will have close analogies with what typically happens in a relationship. To understand a power struggle at the top of a large corporation, we might make a comparison with the machinations in a medieval royal court. The development of an adolescent can be illuminatingly compared to that of a frog from a tadpole. The behaviour of hormones in our bodies will follow some of the same patterns as air currents in the sky.

We are often more confused than we might be because we are brought up to think in silos. We should, when things get unclear, always reach around for analogies from apparently alien but secretly sympathetic domains: biology should be invited to illuminate art, art politics, politics relationships, relationships nature, nature our moods, our moods cookery and so on and so forth. The benefits of analogy forms an argument for keeping our minds well-stocked with knowledge from other disciplines, whatever domain we happen to be in. Engineers should – on this score – spend a good amount of time reading poetry, poets cookery books, cookery writers economics manuals and so on. And when we are at moments of particular confusion, we should try to break the stalemate in our thinking by looking out for patterns, processes or phenomenon in another subject that might bring a little clarity to our own. We stand to find a lot of lids that fit our respective jars.


Try to describe a dilemma you are facing with different analogies from foreign disciplines.

Complete the following:

– If my relationship were a car, it would be a…

– If key people in my office were animals, they would be…

– If my career were a kind of weather, it would be…

– If the problem in my life was a moment in history, it would be…

– If my body was a sort of material, it would be…

We banish a great many thoughts from our minds on the grounds that they are, as we put it, ‘mad’. Some of them evidently are: too mean, flawed, absurd or petty to deserve further exploration. But it’s one of the tragedies of our thinking lives that, amidst the detritus of dismissed thoughts, there are invariably a great many that could have been of high value, if only we had dared to examine them further, if only we hadn’t been so scared of their less conventional and more speculative dimensions, if only we hadn’t been so resistant to an occasional burst of ‘mad’ thinking.

Many of the greatest thoughts humanity has ever produced possess – at some level – an unusual and, from some angles, insane dimension. The masterpieces of art, the business plans of certain corporations, the conversations of inspired lovers, the visions of political theorists, all have elements of protest against the settled status quo, and contain aspects that are eccentric, contrary to received opinion and impatient with day-to-day practicalities – and yet that have for all this hugely benefited our species. Our thinking lives are grievously harmed by a background imperative to appear at all times wholly normal and entirely sane: we should, to maximise our insights, learn to make friends with moments of ‘mad’ thinking

A central step in ‘mad’ thinking is to temporarily set aside the normal (but not always wise) restrictions on our imaginations. For instance, money is naturally almost always a major consideration but in a spirit of ‘mad’ enquiry, we can ask ourselves how we’d approach an issue if money weren’t a factor. Maybe we’d suddenly see that a particular career deeply suited our nature, perhaps we’d concentrate far more on beauty or kindness, honesty or adventure, we might end up living in a completely different country or starting a new relationship. Without the inhibiting need to think only within the parameters of sensible financial planning, ideas that we usually censor might start to come to the fore, some of which could be highly valuable. Furthermore, it could turn out, on closer examination, that some of our desirable plans were not in fact entirely dependent on finances, it was simply that we had grown used to turning down every more ambitious idea on the grounds of money.

Similarly, around a career move we could ask ourselves, in a ‘mad’ spirit, what we’d do if we knew we couldn’t fail. Liberated not to think always of our laughing critics, we might discover that we’d very much like to pursue a business venture – if we it knew it would be solidly profitable after a few years; or perhaps we’d concentrate on sport – if we were guaranteed to reach a professional level. Or we might opt to spend more time looking after our children – if we knew this wouldn’t prevent advancement in our working life. Or we might spend our evenings writing a novel – if we could be sure that it would get published and sell a respectable number of copies. Of course, in reality there can’t be such guarantees but holding our fears aside for a certain amount of time helps us to identify our areas of real enthusiasm, longing and ambition that we would otherwise too soon push out of our minds.

©Flickr/Angelo Di Blasio

More broadly, we can use ‘mad’ thinking to develop our social and political perspectives. We might ask, for instance what our concerns would be if we could be the absolute ruler of the world for a month. Maybe we’d take a great deal of interest in architecture or reinvent the school system. We might rethink how people get rewarded and whose face appears on magazines. We could redesign holiday resorts or re-engineer the way leaders are chosen. This ‘mad’ exercise helps us to recognise social and political ambitions that may have genuine merit. ‘Mad’ thinking is not, as we might first suppose, at odds with reality, it is an imaginative mechanism for revealing less obvious – but important – possibilities in the real world.

‘Mad’ thinking may not contain precise answers (how actually to remake the media or wean us off fossil fuels) but it encourages us in something that is logically prior to, and in its own way as important as, practical and technological mastery: the identification of a particular issue that we would like to see solved or that moves us. Changes in personal life and in society and business don’t in any case usually begin with practical steps: they start as acts of the imagination, with a sharpened sense of a need for something new, be this for an engine, a piece of legislation, a social movement or a new way to spend the weekend. The details of change may eventually get worked out, but the crystallisation of the wish for change has to take place at a prior stage, in the minds of people who are free enough to envisage what doesn’t yet exist and isn’t as yet wholly reasonable.

One of the world’s most inspiringly ‘mad’ thinkers was the French nineteenth-century writer Jules Verne. In a series of novels and stories, he had the most unlikely thoughts about how we might live in the future. In 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, published in Paris in 1870, Verne narrated the adventures of the Nautilus, a large submarine that tours the world’s oceans often at great depth (the 20,000 leagues – about 80,000 kilometres – refer to the distance travelled). When writing the story, Verne didn’t worry too much about solving every technical issue involved with undersea exploration: he was intent on pinning down capacities he felt it would one day be important to have. He described the Nautilus as being equipped with a huge widow even though he himself had no idea how to make glass that could withstand immense barometric pressures. He imagined the vessel having a machine that could make seawater potable, though the science behind desalination was extremely primitive at the time. And he described the Nautilus as powered by batteries – even though this technology was in its infancy.


‘Wouldn’t glass shatter at that pressure?’ Keeping certain questions at bay for long enough to shape a vision. Original illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou.

Jules Verne wasn’t an enemy of technology; he was deeply fascinated by practical problems. But, in writing his novels, he held off from worrying too much about the details to the ‘how’ questions. He wanted to picture the way things could be, while warding off – for a time – the many practical objections that would one day have to be addressed. Verne was thereby able to bring the idea of the submarine into the minds of millions while the technology slowly emerged that would allow the reality to take hold. Eventually, we always need to work out answers to ‘how’ questions, but ‘mad’ thinking reminds us of the significance, dignity and legitimacy of starting with our intentions.

In his earlier story of 1865, From the Earth to the Moon, Verne had explored the notion of orbiting and then landing on the moon. He let himself imagine such a feat without getting embarrassed that it was entirely beyond the reach of all available technology.


It could become real in part because it had first been imagined. Illustrations by Henri de Montaut for the original edition.

Verne imagined that the United States would launch a mission to the moon from a base in southern Florida. He fantasised that the craft would be made of the lightest metal he knew (aluminium). He assigned what seemed an unspeakably large price tag to the venture; the equivalent of more than the entire GDP of France at the time – which turned out to be a very respectable guess at how much the Apollo programme would cost. It was a truly prescient imaginative description. His vastly popular book may not directly have helped any engineer, but it did something that in the long run was perhaps equally important to the mission: it fostered an aspiration. It explains why NASA named a large crater on the far side of the moon after Verne in 1961, and the European Space Agency followed suit with the launch of the Jules Vernes 2008, a rocket which travelled to the International Space Station carrying the original frontispiece of the 1872 edition of From the Earth to the Moon in its cargo bay.


The projectile, as pictured in an engraving from the 1872 Illustrated Edition.

Asking oneself what a better version of our lives might be like, without direct tools for a fix to hand, can feel highly immature and naive. Yet, it’s by formulating visions of the future that we more clearly start to define what might be wrong with what we have – and start to set the wheels of change in motion. Through ‘mad’ experiments of the mind, we get into the habit of counteracting our detrimental tendencies to inhibiting our thinking around wished-for scenarios that seem (in gloomy present moments at least) deeply unlikely. Yet such experiments are in truth often deeply relevant, because when we look back in history we can see that so many machines, projects and ways of life that once appeared extremely utopian have come to pass. Not least, Captain Kirk’s phone.


The ‘Communicator’ from 1966

We all have a ‘mad’ side to our brains, which we are normally careful to disguise, for fear of humiliation. Yet the road to many good ideas, precise insights and valuable suggestions has to pass through a few rather outrageous or ridiculous-seeming early notions. If we feel too much disgust or fear as our minds throw up their wilder suggestions, we will stop the thinking process too early – and won’t have given some of our best thoughts the chance they sometimes desperately need.


In the privacy of the mind, allow yourself time for some ‘mad’ thinking.

What is the biggest version of your current ambitions?

If you could not fail, what would you do?

If others would not ever laugh, what would you do?

If there were no financial pressures, how would you approach things?

If you could be the absolute ruler for a while, how would you reform the world?

Without thinking too much, complete the sentence: If you didn’t have to be sensible, I would….

Describe your ideal country: what would the houses be like? What would the ideal corporation do? How would people have relationships? What technologies would they have?


Select a few bits of this madness – and make it your goal.

One central problem of our minds is that they tend to throw out thoughts that are, above anything else, vague. They aren’t wrong, so much as extremely imprecise – which counts because it means that we don’t have a secure handle on what we truly feel or want and so are unable to steer our lives to accurate and satisfying destinations. The mind seems to suffer from a fateful laziness: it likes to point in very general terms to sensations and wishes without delving into their specific characters; it spontaneously gives us the overall headline rather than the telling and operative detail, which means that we are hampered in our ability to formulate exact plans and to diagnose our real problems.

For example, when we think about what sort job we’d like to do in the future, what may first and foremost come to mind is that it should be ‘creative’ or involve ‘working with people’. When we reflect on what’s missing from our lives, we might point at the problem by speaking of a lack of ‘fun.’ Someone might ask us how we found a recent restaurant meal and we might capture our impressions with the term ‘brilliant’. Such accounts are not false, but they are sorely lacking in the specificity that we require in order to understand ourselves and our situation properly. To find the right sort of job, we need a more accurate grip on our talents and sources of satisfaction than is provided by the word ‘creative’. Re-engineering our love lives will be an extremely indistinct affair if the missing ingredient cannot be rendered any more precise than an absence of ‘fun’. Finding a meal ‘brilliant’ doesn’t get us far in unlocking the secrets of successful restauration.

To work against the inertia of the mind, we need to ask ourselves further questions, we need to break down our vague first feelings into their constituent parts: what is it about ‘creativity’ that we really enjoy? During what moments of our current working lives do we feel dissatisfied? When we say ‘fun’, what is it we really mean? What are five experiences of fun we might recently have had? And what are their opposites? We start with generalities and we end up, if things go well with the questioning, with finely-grained truths.

©Flickr/Farhad Sadykov


This is hard work. The first person to spot the arduousness, and to pioneer focused thinking, was the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. He became famous in Athens for standing around the marketplace asking what seemed like very simple questions about what his fellow citizens were trying to achieve with their lives. They would tell him at once, and with great confidence, that they cared about ‘justice’ or that they admired ‘courage’ or that they were keen on ‘beauty’ or ‘art’. And Socrates would respond not by agreeing or disagreeing but by asking them what they meant by ‘justice’ or ‘courage’ or ‘art’ or ‘beauty’. These weren’t unfair questions: his friends were relying heavily on these words. But after a few minutes of more searching discussion, it would always turn out that these people couldn’t say at all clearly what they meant. Socrates was getting at something fundamental: we go around feeling that our thoughts are clear, but if we deliberately submit them to further questioning, we realise that they suffer from a grave vagueness. However, there’s no inner warning system to alert us to this, no intellectual alarm in our brains to shout ‘watch out, you’re being vague! You’re formulating plans with woolly ideas!’ And so we don’t easily realise how out of focus our minds are and how at risk we will hence be of hitting reefs and shallows.

Vagueness is a problem because it means failing to pick out what it is that really matters to us in any given situation: we’re circling the right territory but we’re not closing in on the core issue – so our thoughts are ineffective guides to action. Suppose we like a film, but we can’t really say why; when someone asks us, we can’t define what’s fascinating or impressive about it. Often this wouldn’t matter. But if we’re trying to become a cinematographer or script writer, we won’t know how to reproduce what has impressed us until we start to isolate what we really experienced.

In our thinking work, we are often like miners in search of a precious metal who initially always hit a compound ore – and need (but don’t realise we need) to sift out the valuable essence. Lack of a definition can sometimes seem like a purely academic worry but it is at the root of a great many failed efforts and doomed goals.

Big words and phrases we rely on – like courage, love, justice, fun, art, family – are the deceptive public outer casing in which our own experiences, loves and fears are approximately contained. However, our own meaning is likely to be much more specific, more detailed, more intimate and perhaps more quirky – and to understand ourselves, we will need to discover, individually, the words that lie behind these words.

The difference between vagueness and focus is what separates great from mediocre art. Marcel Proust had a friend called Gabriel de la Rochefoucauld, who once wrote a novel called The Lover and the Doctor, which he sent to Proust in manuscript form with a request for comments and advice. “Bear in mind that you have written a fine and powerful novel, a superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship,” Proust reported back to his friend in his characteristically polite way. But it seems that the superb and tragic work had a few problems, not least because it was filled with clichés: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” explained Proust, treading delicately, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality. It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”

Why did Proust object? After all, doesn’t the moon shine discreetly? Don’t sunsets look as if they were on fire? Aren’t clichés just good ideas that have proved rightly popular?

The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. They are, to return to the crux of the issue, vague. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or a moon, we won’t be getting at our actual sensations. When the first volume of Proust’s novel was published eight years after The Lover and the Doctor, he also included a moon, but skirted ready-made moon talk in favour of an unusual and authentic metaphor that better captured the reality of the stellar experience:

“Sometimes in the afternoon sky, a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to ‘come on’ for a while, and so goes ‘in front’ in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself.”

A talented artist is, first and foremost, someone who takes us into the specifics of valuable experiences. They don’t merely tell us that spring is ‘nice’, they zero in on the particular contributing factors to this niceness: leaves that have the softness of a newborn’s hands, the contrast between a warm sun and a sharp breeze, the plaintive cry of baby blackbirds. The more the artist moves from generalities to specifics, the more the scene comes alive in our minds. The same holds true in painting. A great painter goes beneath a general impression of pleasure in order to select and emphasise the truly attractive features of the landscape: they show the sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees and reflecting off of a pool of water in the road; they draw attention to the craggy upper slopes of a mountain or the way a sequence of ridges and valleys open up in the distance. They’ve asked themselves with unusual rigour what is it that they particularly appreciated about a scene and faithfully transcribed their salient impressions.

The goal isn’t to become artists or philosophers, but to do something that naturally accompanies these tasks: to turn generalities into specifics, to move from woolly first impressions to authentic details, to go from vagueness to focus – and therefore to give ourselves the best chance of reaching what we actually seek.

One of the truly frustrating features of our minds is that the more interesting or pertinent our thoughts happen to be, the more they have a tendency to escape our grasp. It seems as though there is a devilish correlation between how important and necessary a thought is to us and how likely it is to elude our command. The truly precious thoughts have something almost airborne about them so inclined are they to flit away from us at the slightest approach of our conscious selves.

It is telling that many of the world’s finest thinkers have equated ideas with winged creatures. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato compared the mind to a large cage in which a number of birds – or ideas – will be circulating. He added that we can only catch these birds when they are sitting on a perch, but that they spend much of their time agitatedly racing from one end of the cage to the other, leaving only a blur of feathers to behold. Great ideas may pass through our minds and yet it is quite another matter – as Plato knew – to persuade them to land in them.

For the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, ideas are like butterflies – and the talented thinker, like a skilful lepidopterist (which Nabokov also happened to be), must learn to lie patiently in wait until they can be coaxed into flying into the net of awareness.

Nabokov: in wait for a thought

For her part, Virginia Woolf expressed intense jealousy at Marcel Proust’s astonishing ability to catch so many butterfly thoughts and put into words the subtler concepts and tentative feelings that most of us register only in the outer airy zones of consciousness but cannot reach up to and turn into solid words: ‘Oh if I could write like that!’ she complained, ‘How has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut & as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom.’

The core reason why we cannot hold onto our bigger, more essential ideas is because – even though they are frequently crucial to our development – they also tend to induce intense anxiety. Just as a particular thought-bird or butterfly is about to settle on its perch or fly into our net, an alarm goes off in our minds; we panic, and the creature veers off at the last moment. We abandon our new train of thought and return to the comfort of more tamed, domesticated and familiar concepts.


We shouldn’t be surprised that thinking is so often interrupted by anxiety. New ideas threaten the mental status quo and are often sharply at odds with our current commitments and habits. An original thought might, for example, alienate us from what people around us think of as normal. Or it might herald a realisation that we’ve been pursuing the wrong approach to an important issue in our lives, perhaps for a long time. One part of us may want the butterfly thought to elude us in order that we won’t have to face up to regret or loss. If we took a given new idea seriously, we might have to abandon a relationship, leave a job, ditch a friend, apologise to someone, rethink our sexuality or break a habit.

To encourage ourselves to know our minds, sitting on our own in silence with a blunt demand that we should ‘think harder’ may not be the best approach. In order to give new, threatening-but-important thoughts the best possible chance of developing, we may have to make use of certain mental tricks. The mind sometimes doesn’t think too well if thinking is all it is allowed to do; so it should be a given a routine task to distract it and help it lower its guard. For instance, a long journey alone in a train or on a plane may render our mind more willing to entertain certain intimately challenging ideas. We can find reassurance that we are at a distance from the normal context of our lives; if we make a decision we won’t have to act on it immediately. Something similar might happen if we go alone to a cafe – or take a walk in the countryside: here the rhythm of our steps is semi-automatic, we half notice what’s going on around us – but it’s not important or urgent; the more paranoid, rigid surface of the mind can be gently occupied so that our deeper and more awkward thoughts can slip in unnoticed.

We should accept that our brains are strange, delicate instruments that evade our direct commands and are perplexingly talented at warding off the very ideas that might save us or help us flourish.

We might suppose that the best place to think would be a large room with a big desk, plenty of natural light and a window with a view – perhaps onto water or a park.

This is the premise behind the layout of most offices. The nearer one gets to the top, the closer one’s work station will approximate to this supposed ideal: in tribute to the quality of thinking that, ideally, one would do there. Bosses tend to have big desks and even larger views.

But these assumption are not – in fact – really true to the way our minds work.

The primary obstacle to good thinking is not a cramped desk or an uninteresting horizon. It is, first and foremost, anxiety. Often the most profound thoughts we need to grapple with have a potentially disturbing character. If we were to pinpoint them accurately and get clear about their significance, there could be a risk. We might discover that some of our past, rather cherished, beliefs were not as wise as we’d supposed; we might realise we were previously deeply wrong about something; we might have to make some significant and tricky changes to our lives.

As these potential implications start to come vaguely into view, our inner censor, motivated by a desire for calm rather than growth, gets alarmed. A vigilant part of the self gets agitated; it distracts us, it makes us feel tired or gives us a strong need to go online. Skilfully, it confuses and muddles our train of thought. It blocks the progress we were starting to make towards ideas that – though important and interesting – also presented marked threats to short-term peace.

It in this context that the shower emerges as so helpful to the way our minds work and earns the right to be honoured as one of the best places on earth in which to do any kind of serious reflection. Amidst the crashing water and the steam and with a few minutes of respite before the day starts, the mind is no longer on guard. We’re not supposed to be doing much inside our heads; we’re mainly occupied with trying to soap our backs and properly rinse our hair. The ideas that have been half-forming at the back of our minds, ideas about what the true purpose of our lives might be and what we should do next, keep up their steady inward pressure – but now there is a lot less to stop them reaching full consciousness. We’re not meant to be thinking and so – at last – we can think freely and courageously.


This quality of sufficient – but not overwhelming – distraction might equally well be present when we’re driving down the highway or walking in a forest; when there’s just enough for the managerial timid side of the mind to be doing to keep it from interfering with our authentic and bolder inner machinations.

Our world places a very high premium on good ideas – but spends very little serious effort in investigating why we find it extraordinarily hard to hatch them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: ‘In the minds of geniuses, we find our own neglected thoughts.’ In other words, so-called geniuses don’t have thoughts different from the ones most of us have. They’re just a lot better at not allowing their inhibitions and preconceptions to get in the way of properly entertaining them.

In a utopian future, we would get a lot more creative about what real thinking is and where it happens. We’d learn that the real enemy of good thinking isn’t a small desk or a modest view:  it is – almost always – anxiety, for which there can be few better cures than that library of our deeper selves: the morning shower.