Archives for category: effectiveness

It’s May. How did that happen?! Anyway, taking a look at the TH blog I’m reminded of why I never kept a diary: that the minute there’s anything interesting going on in your life, there’s no time to write about it (professional diarists excepted, of course). Anyway, the point is, if you judged from our blog you’d imagine this has been a quiet year for us, whereas it’s probably been the most busy we’ve been since we set up shop together almost nine years ago. So, now that we’ve almost reached 2016’s mid-point, I thought I’d capture some of the highlights.

What you will have seen here, of course, is a lot of cross-posting from Angel Academe. For those out of the loop, AA is our network of largely (though not exclusively) female angel investors, set up as part of Sarah’s mission to encourage more female HNW’s to invest – and invest specifically in female-founded tech start-ups. So far it’s been quite a year for us. Among other things we’ve: screened close to 100 business; held our first 2016 pitch-based “studio” event (with another one right round the corner); closed three funding rounds since January, with another three in the pipeline; and run the second of our Investor Academe workshops for those new to angel investing. We also launched the third year of Entrepreneur Academe, the mentoring programme we run on behalf of the City of London.

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Birdsong, one of the 2015 Entrepreneur Academe conhort

For details on all our Angel Academe, Investor Academe and Entrepreneur Academe work, check out the AA website. Many thanks to our sponsors for their continued support of our work: Thomson Reuters, haysmacintyre, Kingsley Napley and of course the City of London.

Our big consultancy gig of the year has been working with the fabulous Wales Millennium Centre on their digital strategy. We’ve been in Cardiff pretty much every week since January, really getting under the skin of the organisation (as is our wont), and figuring out what it really needs to achieve through digital means. It’s a crucial point for the organisation as it begins to commission its own work alongside the work it does as a presentation house. If the musical Only the Brave, which we were lucky enough to catch during its inaugural run, is anything to go by, then there’s an exciting future ahead for the Centre, and we’re delighted to pay even a small part in that.

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Sarah takes a snap of the Wales Millennium Centre

We’ve been doing work closer to home, too. Our Future City is a project that brings together educationalists with professionals from the arts, culture & heritage sector to improve “the lives and life chances” of children and young people in the city through an engagement with creative practice. Simon’s been helping them think about the impact of digital media on young people and how they might develop a programme around “digital skillfulness”. It’s also been great to be working once again with our old friend Marc Jaffrey, OBE.

Following her success in last year’s UKBAA Awards and Tech City Awards, Sarah made the Maserati 100 list, which celebrates those helping to build the UK’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. There’s also been a fair bit of public speaking for us both, with engagements for (among others): Mass Challenge/Wayra, Cass Business School, the Digital Catapult, Goldman Sachs, the Association for Cultural Enterprises, Brighton Aldridge Community Academy… the variety alone should give you a good impression of how diverse our work has been over the year. Oh, and of course we’ve kept up our long-standing associations with UKTI and Innovate UK.

Lastly, I’m still managing to keep my skin in the creative game, with my DGMFS Media project now releasing digitally-distributed music: my own, and that of friends and fellow travellers. If nothing else, it’s an education about what it means to be a creative practitioner in the digital age.

That’s it for now: just a snapshot, as I say. As ever, you can keep up with us on twitter: @turnipshire, @simonphopkins and @angelacademe. We’ll try to back here with another update before the year’s out 😉

Simon

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For so many reasons, 2015 was a watershed year for Turner Hopkins. It’s certainly been an enormously busy one, and one inevitable consequence of that has been that we’ve not been posting here as regularly as we’d previously done. A couple of years back we might have panicked a little about that; after all, a strong social media presence and an active blog are surely part of the toolkit for self-respecting digital media specialists, right? Too true, but we’ve come to cut ourselves a little slack on the issue, and accepted that living through interesting times often means you don’t have much time – or energy – to write about them. We’ve also been spending more time communicating through our newsletters – which if nothing else puts us on-trend! Anyway, enough post-rationalising, and on with the review.

It’ll be more than apparent to regular visitors here that Angel Academe, in all its guises, has been the dominant force in our lives for the last year. Here’s the 2015 round-up Sarah included in her most recent AA newsletter:

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Wow, what a year! We’ve made 7 investments with several other deals in the pipeline. The amount raised so far this year is nearly double our 2014 total and from double the number of investors. Many of the women and men investing were making their first angel investment, so congratulations to them as well as everyone else taking part. 

We received and reviewed well over 500 applications to pitch to us this year from a very wide range of women-led technology businesses: from big data to healthtech, fintech and ecommerce. Of these, 15 passed our 3-stage screening process and then pitched at one of our “Studio” events attended by more than 80 angelinvestors over the course of the year.

We also ran 2 Investor Academe sessions, our half day investing workshops, with 25 of our angels as well as bite-sized Tax and Legal Academes prior to the last 2 Studio events.

Our second Entrepreneur Academe cohort has just graduated, taking the number of women founders we’ve mentored to over 50. We ran 12 mentoring sessions this year and, now that the City of London has confirmed sponsorship for next year, we’re in planning mode for 2016. 

In the summer we were honoured to received the UKBAA’s Angel Syndicate of the Year and last month we picked up Funder of the Year in the TechCities Awards.

But it’s not all been about Angel Academe, as we continued our broader-based strategic work for a range of both new and returning clients. Here are some highlights.

The BBC Academy invited Simon to curate two whole days of workshops for the organisation’s leadership, looking at various aspects of the digital landscape. We took on a pretty wide perspective, looking at issues as diverse as managing teams through disruption, “intrapreneurship”, new ways of conceiving and delivering concepts and the role of data in content personalisation and recommendation. We were particularly pleased to able to draw on our wider network to bring new faces into to the BBC, including Friday’s Anno Mitchell, Ramona Liberoff and Abundance Generation’s Louise Wilson. Our thanks to everyone who gave up their timely freely to make these days so successful.

As part of the sessions, Simon delivered a two-hour masterclass looking at his pet topic of the last few years (one which he’s since reprised for the BBC College of Journalism): how to become more personally and professionally effective in the face of potentially constant digital distraction. The sessions mixed theory with practical application and were of course highly interactive, and it’s fascinating to see the degree to which many highly experienced, capable and often brilliant people are really struggling to avoid distraction in their work.

We continued our ongoing relationships with several governmental groups, including UKTI, Innovate UK and the KTN, with work ranging from inward investment to funding competition design and general research. And of course, we continued to work with various other areas of the BBC, including the Market Engagement Team, for whom we delivered a set of detailed case studies.

We were also delighted to hook up with a couple of old friends and former colleagues.

Simon and Marc Jaffrey, OBE, worked together a decade and a half back at the BBC. A genuine polymath, Marc is currently consulting on a fascinating project running in our home town of Brighton and Hove. Our Future City is looking at the impact of education and the arts on young people in the city and kicked off the year with a series of workshops mapping out the terrain. Marc asked Simon to come along and provide a “provocation”; the result was a 20-minute tirade outlining his worries about young people and technology. You can read Simon’s presentation in full here – if nothing else it really was a provocation. In any case, we’re delighted to say that we’re continuing to work on the programme in 2106.

It was also good to be working once again with the pioneering British internet outfit state51, on whose behalf Simon attended Forum Europe‘s Future of Digital Content and Services conference in Brussels.

We’ve read a lot between us over the year, but a handful of books stand out with regard to digital technology:

We continue to get most of our news from two principal sources (ones with mercifully international perspectives): The Economist and The BBC World Service. But of course the podcast continues its inexorable rise and rise and several have been mainstays for us over the last year, including:

And finally, cultural highlights of the year have included Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the ROH, Purcell’s Indian Queen at the ENO, and three standout visual art shows: Magnificent Obsessions a the Barbican, The World Goes Pop at the Tate and Joseph Cornell – Wanderlust at the V&A. And we’ve been delighted to witness the thriving of Jazz in the Round, the monthly show put on at the Cockpit in Marylebone by our good friends at Jazz on 3.

So that’s been our 2015. We wish everyone a thriving, prosperous 2016 and look forward to seeing many of you throughout the year.

Sarah and Simon

 

 

So here are two very different books on a similar zeitgeisty topic – and one very close to my own heart: thriving in the digital age.

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Manage Your Day-to-Day is a collection of essays and interviews edited by Jocelyn K Glei and published by 99U, which on publishing platform Behance refer to as their “missing curriculum that you didn’t get in school highlighting best practice for making ideas happen”. A such, it has something in common with ReWork by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, which essentially discussed the new approaches to work being trialled by 37 signals. Thought leadership and brand building hand-in-hand.

Because Manage is an anthology, it’s arguably less of a single, coherent argument than ReWork, but it’s thoroughly engaging nonetheless, with some real insights. The collection breaks down into four sections: “Building a rock solid routine”, “Finding focus in a distracted world”, “Taming your tools” and “Sharpening your creative mind”. So like I said, pretty zeitgeisty, but nonetheless recommended reading for anyone feeling assailed by tech, comms and workload – which would be most of us, I’m guessing.

The best essay here, for my money, and certainly one of the most beautifully written, is by film maker and designer James Victore. On the subject of meditation he has this to say:

“There are no shortcuts. And any technology-aided shortcut robs you of the work. Recently a concerned friend of mine suggested an app that coul help my meditation practice. I try to be open to new ideas, but this seemed like a choice between playing Guitar Hero and actually learning to play guitar. Maybe the work of developing a good meditation practice is worth it. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe there are skills I can develop – unaided – that will only make me stronger. Why adopt a crutch only to let your muscles atrophy? Why cheat yourself of the effort? The work, the process, is the goal. It builds character. It makes us better.”

This really resonated with me. Not that I have anything against the likes of Buddhify, and the brilliant Buddhist Geeks frequently looks at how tech can enhance contemplative practice. But when I hear Dave Asprey going on about 40 Years of Zen or Holosync I start to wonder whether too much goal orientation is slightly getting in the way of the real deal.

And he signs of with this:

“Not everyone will be capable of shouldering this task of responsibility or of being a good example for their children. But the heroes of the next generation will be those who can calm the buzzing and jigging of the outside direction long enough to listen to the sound of their own hearts, those who will follow their own path until they learn to walk erect – not hunched over like a neanderthal, palm gazing. Into traffic.”

Those are my italics and I put them there as that line reminded me of the point I made at the end of my recent presentation in Brighton about kids and tech – that we, as adults, need to set an example to the next generation by developing our own skillful practices with regard to technology.

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Arianna Huffington’s Thrive is a very different book. Let me get out of the way, first, three problems that I have with it. Firstly, there’s way to much Oprah and Deepak Chopra in here; it gets dangerously close to the whole spiritual materialist lobby for my own tastes. Next, as a good friend and fellow novice contemplative put it to me, isn’t there something inherently dogdy about using mindfulness practice to make Western capitalism work that little bit more smoothly? And finally, more personally, I’m always a little wary of immensely wealthy and successful people pointing out that there’s more to life than wealth and success…

But, but… I think I’m being unfair here, because Thrive is, for all my caveats, a very honest book, one that’s extremely wide ranging in its references, from classical poetry to neuro-science, and is, in any case, written for a mainstream audience who might well be encountering many of these ideas for the first time. Maybe Huffington, an experienced journalist, the author of 14 books and of course a very public figure, is exactly the right person to bring this message to a wide audience.

So what is this message exactly? Huffington terms it the “third metric”, to accompany those other measures of success in the world: money and power. She argues that to truly thrive we need to tend to our physical, mental and spiritual well-being at least as attentively as we do to our professional lives – and probably a lot more so.

She divides the book into four broad headings: “Well-being”, “Wisdom”, “Wonder” and “Giving”. She illustrates each with a wealth of citation and practical advice that advocates, among many other things, a regular meditation practice, walking, getting enough sleep (hint: almost certainly more than you’re getting), curiosity and learning, the avoidance of digital distraction and, er, getting a pet. (On the subject of the last but one, I was really struck by Huffington’s observations about her peers, who seem to be, to a person, utterly addicted to digital connectivity, and twitchy if left without a device for more than a few minutes. I know it’s bad amongst many of my contemporaries, but this is of a different order of magnitude.)

So, my snitty, snobby misgivings aside, this is a clear, accessible read and helpful compendium of advice for doing more than simply “coping” in the modern world. (And my thanks to Sarah in particular for talking me down off my high horse on several occasions and pointing out for whom this book written, and the value it might bring them.)

Simon

I’m grateful to the KTN’s Tom Campbell for pointing out yet another fascinating piece in The Guardian, a think piece by the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the celebrated This is Your Brain on Music. The article is effectively an executive summary of Levitin’s new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, which presents the argument that modern communications tech is having a massive negative impact on our brains. Regular readers will know that he’s pushing on an open door with me on this. I’ll certainly read his book, but mostly as evidence gathering for what I already believe (and yes, probably as an exercise in confirmation bias). Nonetheless, the artice is a concise summation of the potential psycho-physical damage wrought by connected tech: reduced concentration, increased cortisol and adrenaline, sleep deprivation and on and on.

I was particularly strock by this passage about the role of email in our lives:

Before email, if you wanted to write to someone, you had to invest some effort in it. You’d sit down with pen and paper, or at a typewriter, and carefully compose a message. There wasn’t anything about the medium that lent itself to dashing off quick notes without giving them much thought, partly because of the ritual involved, and the time it took to write a note, find and address an envelope, add postage, and take the letter to a mailbox. Because the very act of writing a note or letter to someone took this many steps, and was spread out over time, we didn’t go to the trouble unless we had something important to say. Because of email’s immediacy, most of us give little thought to typing up any little thing that pops in our heads and hitting the send button. And email doesn’t cost anything.

Sure, there’s the money you paid for your computer and your internet connection, but there is no incremental cost to sending one more email. Compare this with paper letters. Each one incurred the price of the envelope and the postage stamp, and although this doesn’t represent a lot of money, these were in limited supply – if you ran out of them, you’d have to make a special trip to the stationery store and the post office to buy more, so you didn’t use them frivolously.

This really chimed with me, because my first job was in in the post room of the Virgin Records HQ in London, so I have a hands-on – if decades old – memory of how people “did” mail back in the 80s. Let me concentrate on internal mail as some reports suggest that as much as 40% of work email is internal.

Here’s how you would send a memo,then, back in 1987. If you were one of the higher ups, you might dictate it to a secretary who would then type it up. If you weren’t, you’d do it yourself. On a typewriter. If the memo was to go to someone else then you copy it using a sheet of carbon paper – hence “cc”, or carbon copy. If you needed it to go to, say, 5 or more people then it would be photocopied by some poor sap like yours truly. (Anyone who’s struggled over a 1980s photocopier will know just why I used the phrase “poor sap” there.) Finally, the memos would be placed in in reusable “for internal use only” memos something like this:

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Oh, and again, yours truly or one of my colleagues would distribute said mail into pigeonholes… just a couple of times a day.

What a staggering waste of time, right? How can I possibly decry the obvious efficiencies that email has brought us? Well, here’s the thing. Precisely because creating and sending mail used to be so onerous… you almost never did it. Seriously, if you were sending an internal memo in any large company in the mid 80s, it was because you had something important to say.

It’s not difficult to see where I’m going with this. Wind forward thirty years and email has become the job. Most readers will instinctively know this to be true. An email from a client to me this morning thanked me for “not clogging up already clogged inbox” because on finding out that he wasn’t in the office last week I didn’t send him a mail. That “clogged inbox”, I would suggest, is ubuiquitous in modern work life, and yet it’s a relatively new thing. I can remember starting at the BBC in 2001 and email really not being an issue – not least because few of us had handheld devices (Blackberry users seemed like sadly addicted corporate workaholics). By the time I left in 2005 it seemed to me that email had become the chief source of stress for all managers. (Interestingly, meetings would be second on that list, and ironically, a third of emails seemed to be either scheduling or following up on meetings.)

But, but… the insanity of this is that, with very few exceptions email is not the job – it is at most, a communication about the job, and very often not even that. Our working life has become utterly meta, a job about a job. Now that’s a staggering waste of time.

In his book The 4-Hour Work Week, author and biohacker Tim Ferriss (a big Turner Hopkins hero it must be said) derides emails as “brain farts”. Over the years his position seems to have mellowed and he now thinks of email as a powerful tool to be used judiciously. I agree, but just how do we go about acquiring that judiciousness? Well, here are a few strategies that I’ve tried on and off over the years, with varying sucess.

Limit the number of times you access email every day. As my dental hygeinist likes to say about flossing, once a day is the gold standard. Unlike flossing, however, the more sessions, the more poorly you’re doing. I would suggest three at the max. And when you do mail, do it – and that’s all – do not multitask. If a mail requires action then schedule that action for later – put a link in your “to read” notebook on Evernote (I recommend having dedicated reading time week for these links or any documents), put “call Charlie” in your diary at a given time, whatever. File or preferably bin the mail, move on. Stop after 30 minutes – at the most.

Do at least one task before checking your mail – and preferably don’t check your mail before midday.

You should aim for white space at the bottom of your inbox. To do so will require ruthlessless in your your triage. The next few points cover that.

Bin or file all CC’d messages; if the mail isn’t addressed to you specifically it’s not worth even glassing at, and is almost certainly someone covering their arse. Do not allow someone else’s arse covering to devour your time.

If it looks like spam, it is spam. Bin it without even looking.

Ditto anything that’s allegedly funny or diverting. Seriously, the microseconds of amusement you’ll get from following the link will not make up for your cortisol level in aggregate.

Unsign from every mailing list you can. This can feel like a game of whack-a-mole as every time you give your email address to a hotel or restaurant or whatever, you’ll end up on a mailing list. But persevere – this is a never ending job, but within two weeks you’ll have got rid of 90% of the offendors and it’s pretty easy to keep on top of things thereafter.

If there’s any source that you really, really want to follow then ask yourself if you couldn’t so better by using a feed reader and subscribing to their feed. The beauty of a feed reader is that you go to it – quite the reverse of email.

Turn off all email alerts, on all devices. Actually, turn off pretty much all alerts for anything on all devices, but most especially email.

You need to accept that for a while this is going to feel uncomfortable – indeed, it can feel like giving up an addiction. Furthermore, as per recovering addicts, you’re going to piss people off, I guarantee it. Colleagues, friends and loved ones will be angry that you’re not getting back to them – how dare you? Don’t worry, they’ll get used to it.

And remember, if your boss asks you “didn’t you see my email?” it perfectly legitimate to say “no – I was doing some work”.

Finally – and again, I’m with Ferriss on this – when you do write an email, do it properly, as though you were writing a letter. Don’t just dash out a “meet Wednesday?” one liner, which is as inelegant as it is disrespectful. Essentially, do unto other’ inboxes as you would have them do unto yours.

And I want to finish by saying that if this comes across as preachy, I apologise. It deeply angers me that millions of hours are wasted every year on this crap and that an apparent efficiency aid has made us the most unproductive working generation in history. And yes, I certainly fall off the wagon now and then. I found myself only this morning checking email on the Tube. Why? I had a good book to read, people to look at and ponder about, daydreams to dream, an incessant monkey brain to keep me amused. And in any case I was only going five stops – could I really not bear to be bored for five stops on the London Underground? Apparently not – so I checked the iphone. Old habits etc. Like I say, this is a lifelong task, but I suspect it’s only going to become ever more crucial for all of us.

Simon

PS. Levitin incidentally makes the point that email is something the young consider for “old people” and certainly he’s right about their personal media use – but I suspect as they join the workforce, this will change.

PPS. My favourite Memo ever:

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I enjoyed this brief post from Hypebot, the music business and tech blog, entitled “12 simple ways to be a happier and more productive musician“. Although it’s aimed at musicians, it could frankly apply to any creative professionals, and includes suggestions that echo our thinking about personal and professional effectiveness, including the importance of knowledge and skills acquisition, exercise and general health, steering clear of negativity and keeping out of debt. I personally would have added something about mindfulness and digital downtime in there, but it’s a good list nonetheless.

Simon

Last week I attended a fantastic all-day event at the Brighton Dome, the first of a series of sessions under the banner “Our Future City”. The events are aimed at bringing together educators and creative practitioners to think about how services for children and young people in Brighton and Hove could be improved and sustained over the next few years. Our good friend Marc Jaffrey OBE, who’s designing and delivering “Our Future City”, asked me along to give a short presentation related to one of the initiative’s key themes: “digital”. Marc asked me to say something that would get a conversation going, and to be at least a little provocative. What follows, then, is a transcript of the talk (with a little polishing and a few additional references); I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether it succeeded in being a provocation.

Earlier this week, by way of stimulus for this talk, Marc sent over a recent piece from the Guardian, a fascinating interview with Ian Livingstone. I’m sure Livingston is known to many of you. He is, of course, the founder of Games Workshop and the man who gave the world Dungeons and Dragons and Lara Croft amongst much else.

But he’s also a man whose opinions about creativity and learning are highly sought after in policy-making circles. Crucially, right now he’s looking to start a free school in Hammersmith that would be based on his thinking. And that’s where it gets interesting, because there’s already a free school in Hammersmith – one founded by journalist and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People author Toby Young.

Livingstone and Young, I think it’s safe to say, have polarised opinions about education. The former is broadly a child-centred progressive who believes that technology should be used in the classroom to help children become more creative problem solvers (he also believes that coding should be taught in all schools). Young, on the other hand, believes in the kind of knowledge-based learning that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1950s grammar school. (These are somewhat broad brushstroke characterisations and I apologise if they’re a little crude, but you get the picture.)

You might expect me to incline to Livingstone’s view, what with me being a “digital media consultant”, and if you’d have asked me about it as little as five years ago I would have done so, unequivocally. Now I’m not so sure. Let me be clear about this: it’s not because I think we should return to a 50s grammar school education. I had one of those, albeit in the 70s and 80s, and it strikes me looking back that most of my time in school (and much outside it) consisted of moving words from a blackboard into an exercise book and then at periodic intervals, reproducing them on a piece of paper in an exam. It was, essentially, a process of moving words around different surfaces with the possible side effect of some of them sticking in my memory. A staggering waste of 10 years, in my opinion.

No, the reason I’m concerned about tech in schools is that I’m worried about what tech is doing to our young people full stop, and I would like our places of learning to be islands of respite from the digital storm. (One clarification from the get go, when I’m saying “tech” here I’m using it as a stand in for “ubiquitous, internet-connected tech”. I’m certainly not talking about the presence of computers in, say school music rooms or photography labs, where I think it’s hugely powerful.)

I believe that the last 10 years has seen an unprecedented experiment carried out on an entire generation: on the way that they think, behave, interact and, well, simply are. Of course it’s only metaphorically an experiment. In reality we’ve seen a series of technologies (web 2, social media, hand-held devices and so on), haphazardly developed and almost entirely driven by commerce (with a little bit of wide-eyed philosophical cheerleading from the sidelines). But it’s sure feels like an experiment to me, and I think it’s unconscionable for anyone who’s in the “digital industries” (that is, people like me) not to raise some of the concerns I’m about to raise. I’m not saying that any of my assertions are iron clad; instead I’m encouraging some genuine questioning about them. So let’s get to it.

Attention A lot has been written about what the connected digital age has done to our ability to concentrate. Two of my favourite books on the topic are Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s The Distraction Addiciton. They’re very different books but interestingly start from similar positions: that of middle aged men, both working in the technology sphere, noticing their own ability to concentrate diminishing with their use of tech.

I think that’s something most of us past, say, our mid-30s would recognise if we were honest with ourselves. So I ask this: if this can happen to those of us who grew up before the advent of the worldwide web, let alone social media and the smart phone, then what’s going on with young people who’ve never known a world without them? There are some thinkers – Steven Johnson comes to mind – who believe that young people are simply developing new ways of thinking that are far more about parallel processing than about prolonged, single-task absorption, and that’s just the way it is. But I wonder if we’re not losing something vital here? Isn’t single-task absorption – think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow states” – something we all seek as educators and creatives?

Constant stimulation So this relates very closely, of course. In his early 90s book On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, the psychotherapist and author Adam Phillips relays a case study about a young child who is developing behavioural problems, despite being healthy and being brought up in a loving, comfortable environment (I confess I’m relating this from memory, so some of the details may be a little off). Anyway, turns out the environment might be too loving, as this kid’s parents are pushy beyond belief, and there’s no extracurricular activity this child doesn’t pursue. Put simply, this child never has the opportunity to be bored, and surely being bored as a child is a crucial part of our learning and growth, and not least the spur to the development of a rich inner life.

But these days, no one is ever bored, not in a real way – they don’t allow themselves to be. Rather they seek constant stimulation, which I view to some degree as a running away from the self. Go up to Brighton Station now; I guarantee that anyone under 30 who’s on their own (and plenty that aren’t) will be staring at a handheld screen. Or get on a bus and try to find someone idly staring out of the window. What the hell happened to daydreaming? We used to get into trouble at school for it, but I’d be putting on the curriculum!

Retention One area where I vaguely agree with Toby Young is on the importance of learning facts. Where I suspect we diverge is what facts we should learn; the problem with all fact-based learning is that it comes with an agenda (Dan Carlin has spoken eloquently on this matter – check out the “Controlling the Past” edition of his excellent Common Sense podcast). Furthermore, in a world of infinite facts, any choice of what to teach is going to be arbitrary and somewhat of a drop in the ocean. No less a figure than the great historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has argued that we should ditch the teaching of history in school and instead concentrate on skills (although he suggests algebra and Latin, which is where I suspect he might lose some).

But, again, I wonder if we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? I’m not so concerned about the specific facts that we learn  – and hopefully remember – so much as that we develop the ability to do so. Socrates vehemently opposed the introduction of writing into academia as he thought it would negate our need to remember anything. What would he have made of Google?! I’m all for more creativity in the classroom and more attention given to problem solving and team work. But do they have to come at the expense of teaching kids to remember stuff?

Ok, they’re my big ones. Here are a few quickies to be going on with, although I could bore you to death for hours on several of them.

Sleep It’s generally accepted that the human adult needs something in the region of eight hours’ sleep a night, with a variance of 45 minutes or so either side. I have friends that poopoo this, but I would suggest that I’m backed up by a long history of dictatorial nut jobs who “got by” on five hours’ sleep or less. Take your pick. After all, if we were all getting enough sleep then every third ad on the tube wouldn’t be asking something along the lines of “Tired? Then you need X, “X of course being some dubious mixture of caffeine and multivitamins. No, you don’t need X, you need more sleep!

Anyhow, I digress. Teenagers have always needed more sleep. The 16-year old that stays in bed til late afternoon isn’t being lazy (or at least not entirely); he’s being a victim of hormones. The trouble we have now is that teenagers are getting less sleep than the rest of us, because the device(s) that accompany them all day long accompany them all night long too. I put it to you that we are raising a generation of massively sleep-deprived teenagers, and the results will be catastrophic. Probably already are.

Peer-pressure The teenage years have always been about peer pressure. It’s the time when we first begin to grasp our place in a future adult world in which personal politics will be our life-long companion. But peer pressure used to stop if not at the school gate, at least at the front door. These days peer pressure is a constant companion, as eternally present as all the other babbling. I’m not talking about the edge cases here, either, the victims of cyber bullying campaigns who have tragically taken their own lives. I’m talking about all young people, perpetually on the lookout for likes, for virtual approval. Life in the face of raised or downturned thumb: how do they ever escape?

Porn Ok, let’s get on to the tricky one. I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of porn, feminists vs free speech libertarians and all that (in any case, this is a difficult week to debate the limits of free speech). Nor am I going to talk about the impact of pornography on relationships (although I’m convinced that it’s profound for all ages). In the context of today – a day in which we consider children’s creative lives – I’m concerned about the impact of pornography on the development of a creative imagination. Here’s why.

I’ve already discussed the development of imagination in young children in the context of boredom. I believe that the onset of puberty, with all its years of longing and loneliness, has traditionally been alleviated to a great extent by the development of a rich inner life – the life of sexual fantasy. The need to develop that life, however, is no longer there. When every conceivable sexual act – conducted between any possible combination of any kinds or number of people – is available at the touch of a button, what need is there to fantasize? Again, I’m not talking about the outliers here, all that Dark Net nasty stuff. I’m talking about freely available mainstream porn. I genuinely believe that the development of imaginative capacity (because imagining is a skill, that needs to be learned and practiced like any other) has been massively diminished by the advent of ubiquitous hardcore porn.

Tactility & leaning One of my other concerns about porn is that it reduces sex to a largely visual (and partly auditory) experience. But this applies elsewhere too, not least to learning new physical skills. I’m a huge fan of forums and youtube threads as learning aids. Indeed, I’ve written on several occasions about a pet favourite: the sub-culture of heavy metal and “shred” guitar playing. For many, the web is a place of hugely accelerated learning.

But there are pitfalls here too. Some “naturals” may take to a skill just by watching some instructional videos and trading advice with fellow forum members. But most of us need hands on advice. And when it comes to physical skills, whether it be thwacking a golf ball or pulling off a pirouette, I really mean “hands on”. I know from personal experience that when I come out of my one-on-one classical guitar lessons, I feel that my entire body has been rebalanced. You might be able to learn to code C++ in a forum – but not something that actually involves your body.

Self-obsession And if I’m not already painfully in the grumpy old man bracket by now, this last one will finish me off. Put bluntly, I think we live in an age of shocking self-obsession. I don’t believe technology is the only – or even chief – driver here. A perfect storm of 60s individualism and 80s credit-led consumption (along with the dubious freedom of “choice”) certainly helped kick things off. But tech has been the icing of the cake: we are in every way the age of the selfie.

Why’s that important here, beyond it being generally repellant? Because I believe that both the act of learning and creative practice in general are about the loss of self. I doubt I would find much disagreement about that in this room. Indeed, a major component of creative practice is often to turn off that nagging “inner voice”. But how much more difficult is it to turn off the constant (and for what it’s worth, almost always woefully inaccurate) narrative of self for a generation who’ve been encouraged to think of little else?

So let me conclude with a caveat and finally some suggestions.

Firstly I want to make it clear that my observations about young people are not meant as criticism. I have children aged between 19 and 24; I’ve spent years in not only their company but in that of their excellent friends, too, and I’ve never failed to feel enriched by it. A clarity of thought, unencumbered by “grown up” (and largely very dull) concerns and a generally vibrant enthusiasm utterly makes up for a lack of experience in the world. My observations about young people, then, come from a position of profound concern – and to a great extent from a position of anger about what is being done to them to make a small number of men on the west coast of the USA stupendously rich.

Furthermore, I certainly don’t want to deny the untold riches brought by the Internet or the world wide web or even the social web. In any case, I’m certainly not a Canute: this stuff is here to stay. Indeed, in the words of 1Xtra DJ Charlie Sloth (whom I had the pleasure of hearing talk at a recent BBC event about music and tech), it’s only going to get worse.

So what do we do about it? Well, Marc has used the Buddhist term Loving-Kindness on several occasions this morning, so I’ll follow suit and use another: Skillfulness. I think it is incumbent on all of us who work with the young to think deeply about our relationship to, and uses of, digital technology. And then we need to develop greater Skillfulness in that relationship and those uses. For each of us, our “Skillful Digital Practice” will be different, as it will be profoundly personal. But it must be equally honest. Developing these practices will be a lifelong project. But only if we pursue them will we be in a fit state to help our young companions develop their own. Thank you.

Simon

A couple of months back, my good friend Chris Jones asked me for a reading list related to meditation practice. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why, as Chris is a far more experienced contemplative than me. Nonetheless, I sent him over some notes, adding listening into the reading list; as I’ve pointed out recently, more and more of my information is coming from the world of podcasts, which is going through something of a golden period at the moment, I believe.

So then, as contemplative practice has become something of a cornerstone of my effectiveness practice over the last few years, I thought it might be useful to post here what I said to Chris, with some editing. And before I plunge in, I do want to stress that I’m under no illusions here: I am strictly a novice at this stuff.

I’ve ended up here along a familiar trajectory, I think: mindfulness-based exercises in the MBSR tradition, post-yoga breathing exercises, extended mindfulness of breath sessions, walking meditation and so on. I’ve ended up with zazen partly because I’m drawn to its austerity, partly to keep the distracting peak experiences to a minimum. Mostly, though, I think I like Zen’s straightforwardness, its lack of spaced-out-ness.

So many of the books on the subject – and they’re endless – are about history/philosophy and not about technique. However, all of the books below are to some extent about technique and all have been hugely useful to me.

Some writers:

Jon Kabat-Zinn My gateway drug, the founder of MBSR and a great man, I think. His best writing certainly defies the disparaging “McMindfulness” tag thrown at “secular mindfulness” by some in traditional Buddhist circles. My favourite of his, and certainly the most “Buddhist” is Coming to Our Senses. K-Z is particularly good on technique, as he’s been teaching for three decades – mostly to newcomers and lay people.

Stephen Batchelor Another great man, I think: lapsed monk and author of the controversial Confession of a Buddhist Atheist and Buddhism Without Beliefs. He’s a Brit who tried pretty much every tradition, for decades – Tibetan, Theravadan, Zen – and to some degree settled on the last as a blueprint for a secular but nonetheless rigorous approach to the practice.

Noah Levine Different territory entirely. Levine is a tattoed punk, a former alcoholic and user who has used the practice to overcome some dark stuff. (Interestingly he’s the son of a pretty high profile American Buddhist – Stephen Levine.) He’s resolutely Theravadan, so ultimately not my bag I suspect (“Strictly old school Therevadan”, he notes wryly at one point). But, but – he’s VERY good on technique, and his books all centre on this. Try The Heart of the Revolution – it’s all about compassion and practice and I found it both inspiring and pretty confronting, which may say more than I’m prepared to admit.

Brad Warner Mr “Hardcore Zen” himself. Another punk, and a DEVO fan so already filed under “what’s not to like” – also bass player, Japanese monster film fanatic (he worked for the studio that makes Ultraman for some time) and ordained Zen priest. Coming from the Zen tradition there’s something almost wilfully obtuse about his writing. You get that from title alone of his last book: There is no God and He is Always With You. Sarah and I were lucky enough to see him talk in Glasgow last year. He’s due back in the UK in November so worth keeping an eye out for any talks.

Ben Michaelson I’m including him for a different reason. His book Evolving Dharma is a great introduction to how Buddhism is currently changing in the West – not least in response to communications tech. He’s an erudite writer – he’s written academic texts on, among other things, Kabbalah (he’s a self-confessed JuBu) – but this book is highly accessible. I found it hugely useful in mapping out the range of practice currently out there and how I might relate to it all.

Now that’s a short list, I know, but it’s the stuff that’s been most useful to me. However, as I said, books are only where my research into this stuff have begun. It’s in the world of blogging and podcasting that this has really taken off and so much of my thinking and practice has been informed by these:

  • Hardcore Zen – The blog aforementioned Brad Warner
  • The Secular Buddhist The blog and podcast of the Secular Buddhist Association; the podcast, hosted by Ted Meisner, is excellent.
  • Present Moment  The SB’s sister blog and podcast, also hosted by Meiner, looking at mindfulness from a less explicitly Buddhist perspective
  • Tricycle  Too hardcore for me, I confess, but essential reading – the online magazine of contemporary American Buddhism.
  • Buddhist Geeks – My favourite. Vincent Horn is a great podcaster and his show is almost entirely interviews/dialogues that explore the interface of contemplative practice and technology.
  • The Naked Monk – A fine blog from a British ex-monk turned mindfulness teacher.
  • Dharmaseed – A wonderful, constantly updated, library and repository of Buddhist lectures and talks.

Hopefully that’s enough to go on for any newcomers. I’d welcome any thoughts – including brickbats – from more seasoned practitioners.

Simon