When publishing a book in Britain or the US about eastern spiritual practices – meditation, yoga, reiki – there’s an unwritten rule as to the cover design: it must feature a lotus flower, pebble, clear sky, still lake or smiling statue. (You can generate titles by randomly combining those words, too: Smiling Pebble In A Clear Sky: The Art Of Meditation. Out now in all good bookshops!) These cliches reflect the widespread assumption that the traditions of south-east Asia are all about slowing down, looking inwards and cultivating calm: the things you do, in other words, when you’re desperate for a break from the pace of modern (implicitly, western) life. But for Gregg Krech, an expert on Japanese psychology, that’s only half the story. Look closely at such philosophies, he argues in a new book, The Art Of Taking Action, and you’ll find they’re full of practical advice for getting things done. True, his book’s cover shows some bamboo strips by a pond, but there’s nothing so placid about what’s inside.
Do 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.
When it comes to dealing with life's low-level conflicts – the kind of petty sniping some of you may just possibly be about to experience in the coming days – the Japanese martial art of aikido might not seem a promising source of solutions. Faced with a clash of views over turkey preparation, TV viewing choices or your uncle's thoughts on the immigrants, it's impractical to wait for a physical confrontation and then, using only the gentlest of movements, to rechannel your assailant's energy to send him or her somersaulting backwards over the dinner table, neutralised yet unharmed. But an approach surprisingly close to this in spirit – admittedly without the somersaults – lies at the heart of a book entitled Aikido In Everyday Life, by Terry Dobson and Victor Miller, published 35 years ago and due for rediscovery. Their metaphorical version of aikido won't impress bystanders like the person-hurling one. But it may prove more useful.
As we stumble again into the season of overindulgence – that sacred time of year when wine, carbs and sofas replace brisk walks for all but the most virtuous – a headline in the (excellent) new online science magazine Nautilus catches my eye: "What If Obesity Is Nobody's Fault?" The article describes new research on mice: a genetic alteration, it appears, can make them obese, despite eating no more than others. "Many of us unfortunately have had an attitude towards obese people [as] having a lack of willpower or self-control," one Harvard researcher is quoted as saying. "It's clearly something beyond that." No doubt. But that headline embodies an assumption that's rarely questioned. Suppose, hypothetically, obesity were solely a matter of willpower: laying off the crisps, exercising and generally bucking your ideas up. What makes us so certain that obesity would be the fault of the obese even then?
My favourite bit of "meta-advice" – advice on how to deal with the advice that rains down on us from friends, books, columns like this – comes from the novelist Rick Moody. He happened to be talking about writing routines, a topic with which I'm dangerously obsessed, but his wisdom applies to any work, and to relationships and life in general. "The insight I offer you is this," he told the Writeliving blog. "There's no one process, and as soon as I imagine some approach to generating work is foolproof, it becomes suddenly worthless to me, and I have to start over." If, like me, you're always fiddling with your work systems, reorganising your stuff, testing new tricks for cultivating habits… take comfort. One tactic works for a while, then the self-sabotaging part of your brain gets wise to what you're doing, and the cycle begins again. The problem isn't that you've failed to find the One True Secret of productivity, happiness or love. The problem is believing you ever might.
Ethical philosophy isn't the most scintillating of subjects, but it has its moments. Take, for example, the work of the US philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, who's spent a large chunk of his career confirming the entertaining finding that ethicists aren't very ethical. Ethics books, it turns out, are more likely to be stolen from libraries than other philosophy books. Ethics professors are more likely to believe that eating animals is wrong, but no less likely to eat meat. They're also more likely to say giving to charity is a moral obligation, but they were less likely than other philosophers to return a questionnaire when researchers promised to donate to charity if they did. Back when the American Philosophical Association charged for some meetings using an honesty system, ethicists were no less likely to freeload.
I interviewed Malcolm Gladwell for the Guardian on the occasion of the publication of his new book, David & Goliath:
Malcolm Gladwell is in his natural habitat – a cafe in New York's West Village, down the street from his apartment – engaged in a very Gladwellian task: defending Lance Armstrong. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, who despite all appearances just turned 50, has a tendency to hoist both arms aloft like a preacher when a topic inflames him. And the topic of doping in sports does. Why, he wants to know, is it OK to be born with an abnormality that gives you surplus red blood cells, like the Finnish Olympic skiing star Eero Mäntyranta, but not OK to reinfuse your own blood prior to competing, as Armstrong apparently did? Why are baseball players allowed performance-enhancing eye surgery, but not performance-enhancing drugs? "Imagine," Gladwell says, "if all the schools in England had a rule that you can't do homework, because homework is a way in which less able kids can close the gap that Nature said ought to exist. Basically, Armstrong did his homework and lied about it! Underneath the covers, with his flashlight on, he did his calculus! And I'm supposed to get upset about that?"
You can read the whole thing here.
It's often been observed that the future didn't turn out as predicted. By now, thanks to technology's advance, we were supposed to be working 15-hour weeks, spending the rest of our time on great literature, conversation, and leisurely jetpack trips to the dome-covered shopping mall, to check out the latest range of 1950s horn-rimmed spectacles. Instead, we're busier than ever. But it's worse than that, according to David Graeber, the anthropology professor credited with helping to launch the Occupy movement: much of that busyness is completely pointless. Entire professions, he argued in a recent essay in Strike! magazine, consist of "bullshit jobs" that the world just doesn't need. If nurses and rubbish collectors disappeared overnight, we'd be in trouble; but "it's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish". What explains this proliferation of pointlessness? Graeber concludes, true to his anarchist beliefs, that it's all about social control. A population kept busy with bullshit has no time to start a revolution.
Recently, on my first trip to Australia, I finally tasted Vegemite. At the time, I didn't realise I was having a philosophically significant experience, but according to the American academic LA Paul, I was. She uses the example of Vegemite to illustrate something that seems obvious, but that's actually rather intriguing, about "phenomenal knowledge" – the knowledge of what it feels like to experience something. The intriguing point is this: you can obtain such knowledge only from experience. No matter how much information I might be given by others about what Vegemite tastes like, that information can never amount to experiencing the taste itself. By the way, Vegemite tastes a lot like Marmite. I know: major anticlimax.
Anyone born in the 70s to parents of an even slightly knit-your-own-muesli disposition must have encountered the horror of "non-competitive games". The intention was excellent – to show that vanquishing other people needn't be life's guiding value – but non-competitive games fall short in one crucial respect: they're no fun. (Sorry, Woodcraft Folk, but you know it's true.) Recently, by contrast, I played Gears Of War: Judgment on a friend's Xbox, performed atrociously and had a brilliant time.