It's entirely possible that you've never heard of strategic incompetence and yet that you are, at the same time, a lifelong expert at it. If you aren't, you know someone who is. Strategic incompetence is the art of avoiding undesirable tasks by pretending to be unable to do them, and though the phrase was apparently only recently coined in a Wall Street Journal article, the concept is surely as old as humanity. Modern-day exemplars include the office colleague who responds to the photocopier message "clear paper jam" by freezing in melodramatic pseudo-panic until someone else steps forward to help; you're equally guilty if you've ever evaded a household task or DIY project by claiming you might screw things up. ("I'd do the laundry - I'm just worried I'll damage your clothes.") The Journal interviewed one executive who'd managed to avoid organising the office picnic for several years running. "You'd be amazed," he noted, "at how much I don't know about picnics."
A guest post I wrote for 99u.com:
The real problem isn’t that you don’t feel like taking action. Rather, it’s the underlying assumption that you need to feel like taking action before you can act.
You can read the whole thing here.
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.
You'd be hard-pressed, these days, to find a psychologist who doesn't think we'd be better off if we spent more time in nature. The problem, for those of us who live in cities and work at desks, is the "time" part: there never seems to be any. Whenever I make it into the hills for a couple of days, I'm so rejuvenated I swear I'll start doing it fortnightly. Then I don't. "Climb the mountains and hear their good tidings… the winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy," wrote the naturalist John Muir, enticingly – but that's too rarely an option. Very well, say the wilderness evangelists: at least spend an hour a day in your local park. Because who doesn't have a spare hour a day – apart from, well, lots of people? The research testifying to the benefits of immersion in nature keeps piling up. But it's not much use if you never get around to the immersing.
You almost certainly know at least one infuriating person who is what I'll call, for want of a better term, a life-choice evangelist. As the label suggests, LCEs are driven by the anxious insistence that whatever major decisions they've made – to get married, to have or not have kids, to sacrifice fulfilling work for a higher salary, or vice versa – are best for everyone. If he's married, an LCE will seem unable to comprehend why anyone wouldn't choose to be; if she's single and you're not, she'll drop hints that you should envy her freedom. Contradict an LCE, by suggesting an alternative life path, and you'll witness a face flicker of confusion, as if you might not be speaking English. If you really know nobody like this, then I'm afraid it's probably you. One simple test: at a wedding reception, have you ever, with aggressive joviality, asked an unmarried couple when they're going to tie the knot? Thought so.
A quick post I wrote for the Guardian about how calls for new kinds of "digital etiquette" are really about something else…
it's a good general rule that when people get so heated about other people not following some alleged "best" way of doing things, there's something else going on – and it's worth asking what.
The whole post is here.
I've never visited Finland. Actually, I probably never should, since it's a place I love so much on paper – dazzling, snow-blanketed landscapes, best education in the world, first country to give full suffrage to women, home of the Moomins – that reality could only disappoint. Even the staunchest Finnophile, though, might be sceptical on encountering the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. First outlined in a 2004 graduation speech by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen, the theory claims, in short, that the secret to a creatively fulfilling career lies in understanding the operations of Helsinki's main bus station. It has circulated among photographers for years, but it deserves (pardon the pun) greater exposure. So I invite you to imagine the scene. It's a bus station like any big bus station – except, presumably, cleaner, and with environmentally-friendly buses driven by strikingly attractive blond(e)s.
An economist walks into a bar. This is a true story; it's 2002, the bar is the Lava Lounge in LA, and the economist is an academic named Glen Whitman. He gets chatting to a fellow patron and mentions his line of work. "So," asks the stranger, "what are the Two Things about economics?" "Huh?" Whitman replies, confused. "You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important." Whitman thinks, then replies: "One: incentives matter. Two: there's no such thing as a free lunch." Which is arguably a pretty good summation of the whole of economics.
Until recently, I owned a mobile phone so chunky and ridiculous that people had started to laugh at it – including, memorably, the staff at the shop where I'd originally bought it. (In their defence, I'd had it since 2007, which is the Mesolithic period in phone years.) But if there's one thing psychology has taught us, it's that buying shiny gadgets is a guaranteed path to fulfilment, so I'm now the proud owner of a Nexus 4, a sleek, blemish-free slab of glass, 9mm thick. Well, I say "proud owner". "Proud but with a background hum of anxiety" is more like it. Because it is, after all, a blemish-free slab of glass – which means I can never quite forget the risk of dropping or scratching it.