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Uncertain futures

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

Hello all!

As you may have seen, I have just released a couple of songs that I’ve had in the vaults for a few years now. ‘In Submarines’ is climate change paranoia bubbling over—I was trying to get across the feeling that the world may be a worse place for the next generation. ‘Make Believe’ is a tonic to that fear, describing love as a sanctuary from the worries of the world. I don’t think either viewpoint is necessarily right or wrong, rather they are two sides of a balancing act between optimism and pessimism.

In other news, I’ve read a couple of excellent books over the last few weeks that have affirmed and solidified how I feel about music, research, and life more generally. The first was ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Taleb, which was great fun. The main point I took from it was something I also got from ‘The Signal and the Noise’ by Nate Silver (both by way of Karl Popper, I think)—predicting events that are far in the future and have a number of contributing variables is extremely difficult. It sounds like a simple point, but it has profound consequences for social science in particular. To take an example from my field, psychology research is often promoted as providing a guide for how to make governmental, organisational, or personal decisions. Psychology researchers often make very confidant statements about the importance of their research, and it’s easy to be persuaded by the ‘scientific’ dressings of peer-reviewed papers. Unfortunately, real life is a lot messier than the lab—and the lab is already pretty messy! If you apply psychological research in a straightforward way, you are likely to be disappointed. To get around this, my personal heuristic at the moment for evaluating psychological theories and research is how useful they are for a given purpose, i.e., what they do. I think it’s worth ‘trying before you buy’ as much as possible and remaining sceptical until you’ve had a chance to evaluate the results for yourself. Whatever you do, don’t trust anyone who says that if you use their theory, you will definitely get the outcome you want—psychological research (and social science more broadly) isn’t at that point yet, and possibly never will be.

More generally, given the difficulty of predicting future events, it seems like the best strategy in life is to maximise your capacity to both ‘roll with the punches’ and take advantage of opportunities that come up. If you can’t really predict the good or bad things that will happen to you (but you know both are likely to happen at some point), it’s worth having the resources to respond to situations flexibly. It makes me a bit sceptical about the benefits of locking yourself into a specific career or taking out a 30-year mortgage, or other similar commitments. What if your industry or the housing market suddenly collapse? What if you get to the end (getting to the top in your field, paying off your mortgage) and you feel unfulfilled? In other words, if you make grandiose, long-term plans for yourself, you don’t know whether you will be able to get to the end, or if the end is even worth all the effort! Maybe I’m wrong about this, but it seems like a better approach is to figure out what is working or not working for you in the moment and acting accordingly to improve your situation. You might not get as ‘far’ in life, but at least you’ll have a better chance of heading in the right direction.

The other book I read recently that made a big impression on me was ‘What Is Art?’ by Leo Tolstoy. Again, it’s a fun read—his scathing description of being dragged along to see a performance of Wagner is pretty entertaining. But also, I think he makes a really important, fundamental point: art is about communicating feelings. Accordingly, art has power (its ability to transfer feeling from the creator to the audience), and direction (the specific feeling that is being transferred). Therefore, great art is power harnessed in a ‘good’ direction. The second part of this, direction, is obviously subjective and culturally determined (as it should be)—Tolstoy believes that the best direction for art is to communicate the fundamental values of Christianity, which I don’t necessarily agree with. But I think his definition of art is the best, or rather most useful, that I’ve come across. Another argument from ‘What Is Art?’ that I couldn’t agree more with is the idea that overly formalising art can take it in the wrong direction. In other words, artists (including musicians) should live in the world as much as possible and use their art to express their interactions with it, rather than getting too obsessed with art for its own sake. What’s more, they should seek out new experiences feelings as much as possible. Spending every day in the studio won’t make you more creative—but moving to a new country probably will.

As I was reading this book, I started writing some new music. I wanted to express how I felt about the world we live in, in this moment, and once I’d written about a dozen songs exploring those feeling I had nothing more to say, so I stopped writing. The temptation was to keep going, to start to force music to come out. But having said what I wanted to say, I need to wait until I have something more to say. Instead of holing up in the studio, I’m going to get stuck into some more prosaic (but better paid) work and spend more time socialising. Time to let my creative desires recharge! After all, by my own logic there’s nothing more creatively inspiring than going out and interacting with the world.

Take care, and trust the process!


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