A Story of Contentment & Purpose
A Toddler is Born
Business had started but it was progressing slowly, and I was entirely comfortable with that. Not having to pay a mortgage or rent helped, of course, but I knew that this thing would take a long time to build. I was going to have to do some proper marketing.
It was all going to be done online, and I had zero presence at that point. I’d always hated social media, and I still find it difficult to work with, so there was a lot to learn. Luckily, Ellie was working and earning just about enough to support us both.
I really wanted to make money, not just so there was some kind of income coming in, but just to know that this business, this machine I was building, might actually work. And even though it would yet be a long time before I was making a reasonable amount, I felt that, in not knowing what I was doing, I knew exactly what I was doing. Because what I was doing was learning. Having had a few happy CV clients, who’d used my work to get interviews, I knew the product was good enough, but marketing was a complete mystery to me.
I honestly thought that, once my website went live, it would just start attracting customers from Google. I had no idea what SEO was, or the colossal amount of work required to make my website visible. I had no clue about the intricacies and vagaries of social media. I wrote blog posts that might be read by 10 people, if I was lucky. And while I’m still very much learning all of this, and always will be, I can see how far I’ve come since those days of naïveté.
And oh my god, were there so many experts out there with so much advice. So much trite, irrelevant contradictory advice. So many ebooks, free courses and webinars. Countless stories of how anyone can build a multimillion dollar business overnight. All you had to do was buy one of any number of amazing courses for $1997.
I knew that some of those courses were probably good, but had no way of knowing which ones. I mean, I’m sure some people do know some valuable stuff and, if so, why not make a fortune teaching others? But they all had wonderful ratings, and I knew they couldn’t all be great.
Your strategy should be about content, they said. Well, I was writing bloody content and nobody knew it existed.
You should get social proof, they said, but I just couldn’t believe that. People would buy things just because some stranger online said so?
Accept all connection requests on LinkedIn! Be really selective about your network! Give all your advice away for free! Don’t ever work for free!
I was confused. So where were my first principles now, when I needed them most? The problem was that I didn’t have any. I still struggle to understand the first principles of marketing, although I’ve learnt some really key ideas.
This stumped me. I’ve always been a communicator. I know how to craft a powerful, compelling message, so why wasn’t I getting any traction? The answer was staring me in the face all along.
Bullshit. There’s just so much bullshit out there. Yes, there are people sharing valuable ideas too, but if you can’t tell which ideas are good, and which ones are bullshit, then they are effectively all bullshit.
And now we take a little diversion. I want to explain why I keep using the word ‘bullshit’. I’m aware that this word may put off some of my readers, and it does actually strike me as a little crass too. The problem is, no other word quite conveys the meaning so precisely for me. When I use the word ‘bullshit’ it means all manner of low quality information and disinformation. Bullshit can be true but irrelevant. Bullshit can be needlessly complex, or stupefyingly simplistic. Bullshit can be lies. Bullshit can be obfuscation. Bullshit is poor-quality information, and poor quality information is just noise.
And while the Twentieth Century is a strong contender for the title, the Twenty-First is the Century of Bullshit. Everyone’s a creator now. Have you heard that statistic about how more photos were taken this year than in the entire history of photography?
Probably bullshit. But it’s undeniable that there are more photos than ever before, and most of them are shit. And everyone’s a writer. Or a YouTube star. Kids are getting rich making toy review videos. So far, nothing of any worth has been invented in the 21st Century. Think of one thing.
The only thing I can think of that’s remotely interesting is the smartphone. I mean it’s a computer in your pocket, just like I dreamed of as a kid. That’s cool. Most people use it to consume or produce all the bullshit we’ve been talking about, but that’s not the smartphone’s fault, per se.
iPhones don’t zombify people; people zombify people.
Everything else that has been invented in the last 20 years has just delivered new ways to deliver new bullshit. Facebook? Bullshit. LinkedIn? Bullshit. NFTs? Bullshit.
I’m mildly excited about electric cars but most of the interesting technology in them is 50 years old, at least. I do believe some truly exciting things are to come though. It really does look like we might be getting nuclear fusion this time. Quantum computers do now exist, even if they’re in the most nascent of nascent stages.
It’s safe to say though, since the dawn of the web, nothing has really happened. And humans just cannot cope with the dizzying quantities of bullshit whizzing all around them. We are simply not emotionally equipped for life in such a hyper-connected world.
And so you can watch in slow motion as, without the necessary societal structures to manage this new world, the institutions, the laws — without any kind of repository of traditions, rituals or folk knowledge to draw on — we take guidance from the one voice that we can make sense of. This voice comes from the amygdala, deep inside our lizard brains. It has spoken to us for aeons, and unlike anything else these days, is constant and unchanging. And while it has not the slightest idea of what’s going on, because we’re living in a world so very different from that in which it evolved, it talks anyway.
It tells us to fight. It tells us to run. It tells us to fuck. It tells us to join the strongest tribe. It tells us to gain status in the tribe. And it tells us that we must survive at all costs.
And we listen to our old friend the amygdala, the only familiar voice left. Where’s the tribe? It’s on Facebook. Where’s the fight? It’s on Twitter but frequently spills onto the streets. Where do I run to? Just run round and round. How do I fuck? Use YouPorn. The amygdala speaks and we just about manage, in this nonsensical world we’ve created, to find targets for its instructions.
The greatest piece of technology ever invented, the cerebral cortex, stays out of it. Unlike the amygdala, the cerebral cortex is slow, but its strength is in its ability to parse information from a complex environment, to process this data and forge ideas, plans and models of the world. But it can’t handle this. At this point, we’re downloading centuries’ worth of articles, photos, and porn onto a ZX Spectrum, and it simply does not compute.
Why is this happening now? The times have always a-changed. How did we cope in the past?
The problem is that everything is changing faster now. The change itself is happening more quickly. The horse was the fastest form of transport for thousands of years. For most of the thousands of years, nothing really changed that much. Progress is not linear; its exponential. Change begets more change. We’ve barely started getting used to each brave new world before it gets replaced by a braver newer world.
The contradiction is that, while our lives have not been materially improved by new technologies in the 21st Century, we have learnt to make our technology smaller, cheaper and more convenient and, because that technology is primarily concerned with the creation, distribution and consumption of information, it churns it out with less and quality control. Most of the information is bullshit.
And the cerebral cortex can’t handle all of this; it just checks out. There’s just too much noise.
And that makes it very difficult to engage people’s brains. It’s no coincidence that so much of our cultural output is now focused on our feelings. This is the age of validation, false confidence and feel good memes. We can no longer think, so we just feel. So this is what I was up against.
And my god, did I love it. No matter how challenging it was to make my message heard, I knew I had to keep trying.
You know when somebody has a terminal illness and they remark on how precious life is, and they want to spend their remaining days as profitably as they possibly can? They don’t want to waste another second. Have heard anyone say that? I’d be interested to know if you understand what they mean? I never used to get it. I always held the belief that, should such an awful fate befall me, I would want to die as soon as possible.
Now I get it.
Those early days of running my business were remarkable. I felt that my whole life had been spent in the smog of some filthy industrial city, and I was now in the Himalayas. I was energised by the air that, until now, I never knew could be so fresh.
I’d wake up in the morning — every morning — feeling like the day was something to experience, not something to get through. And don’t you believe that I was going to be doing anything exceptional; I would be on LinkedIn, I’d be reading and researching, and I’d be planning. This mundane life had never felt so thrilling.
I still feel like that today. Poor Ellie, who had to suffer through the darkest days of my alcoholism, now had to come to terms with a life shared with an overgrown toddler. I still get so excited by the mundane details of my everyday existence that I have to take frequent naps. Ellie loves the new me more than the old one, of course, but it is an exhausting house for her to live in, it really is.
I couldn’t have lie-ins anymore. No matter how late I’d gone to bed the night before, I’d have to be up and working. And then sleeping, and then working.
It was in the early days of excitement that I noticed that, for the first time in my life, I always knew what date it was. I became aware that there was little monologue in my head saying, ‘The 6th of April — today is the day that we took on an accountant… The 5th of May — today is the day that we spoke to our first prospective client…The 12th of June — today is the day that we launched a new service.’
I had discovered what it feels like for life to be worth something. I had rarely wanted to die before this, but now, I really wanted to live.