Archive for January 2014

Events! In the UK! In August and October!

A few events I'm involved with in the UK over the next few months. If you're in the vicinity, I'd love it if you could stop by and say hello:

Wilderness Festival: Conversation with Matthew Quick
At the Wilderness Festival near Oxford I'm excited to be hosting a conversation with the novelist Matthew Quick – the brilliant author, among other things, of The Silver Linings Playbook. That's at 12.45pm on Friday August 8, in the Secret Forum.

How to be interesting – and why the best bits of life are more than 'interesting'

SunsetDo you long to become a "thought leader", thinkfluencing your way from TED talk to tech conference, lauded for your insights? I hope not. But if so, you could do worse than consult a paper published in 1971 by the maverick sociologist Murray Davis, entitled "That's Interesting!" (I found it via Adam Grant.) What is it, Davis asks, that makes certain thinkers – Marx, Freud, Nietzsche – legendary? "It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true," he writes, "but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting." Even in the world of academia, most people aren't motivated by the truth. What they want, above all, is not to be bored.

You need more inboxes in your life. (Yes, you read that correctly)

MailboxesIf you're feeling overstretched, at work or at home, let me make a suggestion: you need more inboxes in your life. I'm aware that this may strike you as the delusional ramblings of (to use the neuroscientific term) a wrong 'un. Isn't your existing inbox already overstuffed with emails? Who needs more of that? But I mean it. I've felt this way ever since installing Evernote, an app that's been called an "everything bucket", into which I fling all manner of electronic clutter: articles to read later, thoughts jotted down in text files, photos I take on my phone. These all accumulate in my Evernote inbox. Then, once or twice a week, I spend half an hour clearing it out: filing things, reading others, deleting rubbish. If this sounds like pointless bother, let me blow your mind: your life's already full of inboxes. You just don't realise it yet. And it can be surprisingly liberating once you do.

The taxi-meter effect, and the benefits of counting your days on earth

ClockAt a new cafe in Shoreditch in London that made the headlines a few weeks back, you don't pay for your coffee or the Wi-Fi; instead, you pay just to be there, at a rate of 3p per minute. Doubtless this innovative approach will go down well in the vicinity of what I believe we're now supposed to think of as Britain's new technology hub, aka the Old Street roundabout. But a pay-per-minute cafe would put me on edge. Being conscious of how my money's dribbling away is the exact opposite of the mindset I hope to achieve while sipping a latte. My goal is to forget the passage of time, however briefly – not to be reminded that the sooner I leave, the more I'll save.

It's not that life used to be simpler, or people less narcissistic. It's that you got older

Parkville'It really was the last time when the world was simple and small," sighed the US television writer Adam Goldberg a while back, explaining his decision to set his new sitcom, The Goldbergs, in the 1980s. What made that era different, he argued, was that the internet hadn't yet erased distance; your world consisted mainly of your immediate family and surroundings. But if you teleported back to Goldberg's world in 1985, I don't think it's his lack of web access you'd notice first. Like me, Goldberg is in his late 30s; in the 1980s, he was a child. "The 80s wasn't 'the last time the world was simple'," one commentator, Paul Waldman, chided on his blog. "The 80s was the last time your world was simple." The hazy memory of a simpler past is enormously powerful in politics: see the Tea Party, or the hate-nostalgia of the Daily Mail. But look closely at the era being praised, whether it's the 40s or the 90s, and you'll frequently find the praise-giver was about seven at the time. Unless you're eight, the world really has changed since you were seven. But possibly not as much as you have.

The best way to judge character? Don't always trust your gut

DinnertableWhat's the best question to ask on a first date? Many forests have been felled for books dissecting this question, but a few years back the dating website made a startling intervention. If you want to know the chances of a first encounter ending in sex, its analysts said, the question to ask is, "Do you like the taste of beer?" If you're concerned with long-term compatibility, the question is, "Do you like horror movies?" When registering, OKCupid users answer hundreds of seemingly innocuous queries – the one about beer, it transpires, is most strongly correlated with positive views of first-date sex. Liking or disliking horror films, meanwhile, is a better predictor of a lasting relationship than beliefs about God. We could invent theories to explain this: maybe people who score highly on "sensation-seeking", as psychologists call it, enjoy both casual sex and cheap ways to get drunk? But the point about Big Data is that you don't need theories. The correlations are there, whether or not they seem to make sense.

Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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