Episode five

Ammonites and divas

30 mins

Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman

In this episode:

  1. How to avoid zero-sum thinking
  2. How to avoid setting impossible goals
  3. How to liberate yourself from perfectionism
  4. Learn to move in incremental steps toward your desired future

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Full text

Ammonite

Three hundred million years ago, in the carboniferous period of the paleozoic era, off the coast of the drifting microcontinent of Avalonia, a young ammonite died.

The squid-like cephalopod had been swimming for days without catching any prey.

It’s not clear how the young ammonite became separated from its school, but it had been alone for some time and had clearly taken a wrong turn. Nothing meal-sized moved here. The sea-bed was a mass of ancient bactrite shells, the sea-ravaged remains of trilobites, crinoids and coral tubes, slowly becoming chalky sediment.

Out of one eye, the ammonite caught sight of a tiny movement. Summoning what little energy remained in its tired body, the ammonite squeezed a feeble jet of water out of its chambered shell and turned towards the movement. A small shark. More than a meal — a feast. If only it could trap this bounty. But suddenly the weight of the ocean slowed everything. One moment it was reaching a tentacle into the open water. The next, everything went black.

The lifeless shell dropped to the sea bed and lodged among a billion more, just like it. A vast ocean of logarithmic spirals, within a vaster ocean. Small shrimps and ostracods picked the shell clean and left the roaring sea to blast it with coral sand in the mass graveyard of abandoned shells. The shells lay, themselves, on a soft bed bed of their dead ancestors, slowly turning to specks of calcite and aragonite, resting on a layer of hardened volcanic magma.

Compacting down under the weight of the ocean, the specks of shell pressed against each other, fusing into solid rock. Over time the forests high above collapsed and covered the sea bed with coal. The seas receded into swamps, depositing layers of sandstone and shale, then rose again, covering the hardened shale with layers of more shell dust. Layer upon layer of sediment compacted, over a hundred million years until Avalonia, slowly drifting east, suffered a cataclysmic collision with another microcontinent drifting West: Baltica.

The shock waves from this slow motion catastrophe ripped the crust of Avalon apart, forcing deep layers of rock to burst out and fold in upon each other, piling up and up into islands that poked out of the brine.

The ammonite shell, encased in deep rock for millennia, was forced up onto the rain-drenched surface, where eventually the spores of mosses and ferns turned to soil and the soil turned to forests of ash and maple. When the seas fell again and humans finally wandered here, they called this range of limestone hills Mendip.

Rising 1500 metres above sea level, they eventually peter out at the tiny limestone island of Steep Holm. I’m looking at it now, as I sit facing the Bristol Channel towards Cardiff, writing this.

Where the ammonite died, I now live and spend my days sifting through the detritus of that massive collision, along the tide lines. I found the ammonite encased in a sea-worn limestone pebble and have it on my desk.

Brocante

Eleven years ago, I was walking with Sophie and her two daughters down a path towards the beach at Lyme Regis when I spotted a jay fly across the field.

The beach at Lyme is strewn with ammonite fossils. They just fall out of the blue lias as the cliff melts into the sea. The shops in Lyme are all full of them, from whole specimens to polished cabochons, fashioned into jewels. After we had done our tour of these boutiques Sophie confided in me that she had always harboured a dream to open a brocante shop and fill it with found treasures from France’s rural flea markets.

I loved this idea for her and I loved that she confided in me, because it implied she was no longer mad with me about the jay thing.

I said: “That’s a great idea, you should do it.”

She said: “Yeah, well, I don’t know anything about the trade, so … forget it.”

I said: “Oh, sure. Because the trade is only open to people who are already in the trade.”

She said: “Don’t be sarcastic.”

I said: “OK, sorry. But why don’t you just learn what you don’t know?”

And she said: “How am I going to learn?”

I said: “Step one: start trading on eBay. You’ll make money quickly and learn what people will pay for things, what things are worth. Step two: use your profits to buy more stock and scale up. Once you have a thriving business, it’s a much smaller step to put that into a physical shop.”

She said: “eBay sucks. I want a nice shop not a horrible mail-order business.”

I said: “So open a shop.”

She said: “I can’t afford a shop.”

I said: “No-one can, you get a loan.”

She said: “No one is gonna give me a loan because I don’t know anything about the trade.”

I said: “So learn by trading on eBay.”

She said: “This is why I hate talking with you.”

And she was back to being mad at me. Of course she hated talking with me. I wasn’t going to enable her perfectionist victimhood and it maddened her.

Because she didn’t want someone to give her a plan: that’s work to do. What she wanted was someone to empathise in the moment with the hopeless nature of it all and say, yeah that sucks, poor you.

What Sophie harboured, what she treasured, was a picture in her head of a perfect outcome. It was a kind of still life, a static tableau of a prefabricated situation that is never created, it just is. Sophie smiling in her beautiful shop. Sophie surrounded by abundance and beauty. Sophie laughing. Sophie successful.

And while it’s great to picture the outcomes you want, this limpid fantasy could never come true. And the reason was that Sophie was the tragic victim of circumstances. Her fatal hamartia was having had kids at an early age and because of them she was now blocked from fulfilling any dream in her life.

Somewhere along the line, Sophie had started to prefer the fantasy of being blocked from fulfilment by her kids than the fantasy of achieving something. It was a fantasy that both revelled in failure and also let her off the hook for not working at something.

Because what better way never to fail than never to try? And lest anyone challenge her to pick herself up by her bootstraps and get on with it, she had the carte blanche, the trump card. I can’t because kids.

She didn’t want to work her way towards a dream. What she wanted to do was make that dream an all-or-nothing impossible pinnacle to scale and blame her kids for not being able to have it.

And I know what you’ll say. You’ll say, wait, you’re being way too harsh, she was depressed and because of this, she didn’t feel able or ready to climb out of the hole she felt she was sitting in. She just needed someone to sit with her in it and acknowledge her. You were insensitive to what she actually needed at that point. Well fine, I hear this. It is hard to sell people on the future when they are all about how they feel right now.

But I have a couple of problems with this thinking. Let’s just pick it apart.

The darkest birds

It’s 1998 and I’m sitting on the back stoop of a London bookshop, leaning against its blue steel fire doors, smoking a cigarette with my colleague, Katy.

We sit here every day, as the imperious and the peremptory of Mayfair pass by, occasionally stopping to make a demand. And Katy is fed up. She’s fed up because, although she has a job, so mustn’t grumble, the pay is low, the snooty customers talk down to us every day and the daily commute is a drudge. Her twenties are slipping away and this is not how she imagined her adult life would be. And when she tries to look ahead into the future, she just can’t imagine it. She literally can’t see where to put her foot next.

I feel that one way to describe depression is precisely this inability to imagine a future. This is the great singularity, the black hole, the tenebrous void that sucks all nearby stars into it and generates no light, only the stygian riddle: why bother? Abandon hope, there is no way out.

Why get up? Why smile? Why laugh? Why take part? Why reach out? What’s the point? What will it change? Because if you don’t know where you’re going, there’s no point in even looking for the car keys.

Katy sighs and says to me: “Is it too late to become an opera star?”

Interlude: the lamp maker

Once upon a time in a small town on the Danube delta there lived a man named Jan. Jan made lamps. Beautiful lamps. One day Jan decided to go into the lamp making business and sell his lamps. But he was terrified of what people would say if his lamps weren’t good enough. People would make fun of Jan and he would be humiliated. He would never be able to show his face on the Danube delta again. So Jan had to be the best. Not second-best. Not nearly best. The very best. The winner of lamps. Jan set the bar for “success” so high that only perfection would be good enough.

Failure was not an option. As far as Jan was concerned, it was a binary business: there was only the best lamps in the business or zero. He hired the best workers in the region, but he drove them hard. Their work was never good enough. There was always something wrong with it. “Do it again,” he would scream. “Do it better.” But no matter how hard they worked or how many hours, the lamps were never good enough for Jan. “I can’t sell this rubbish,” he spat. “You are trying to make a fool out of me.”

And so, no lamp was ever perfect enough to be sold and so Jan never shipped a single lamp. Soon Jan ran out of money to pay his workers and keep the lights on. The landlord took back the workshop and threw him out. So Jan never got to be the best lamp maker in all the Danube Delta, or even any kind of lamp maker. But at least no one could ever say Jan’s lamps were no good. The end.

That was a strange interlude and a terrible story. OK, let’s look at it another way:

The Milanese Nightingale

Why did my friend Katy get it so wrong with her question, is it too late to become an opera star?

Well … how many opera stars can you name? On your marks — not counting Pavarotti — get set, go.

How many did you get?

Yeah, I know you said Placido Domingo.

Look, Opera doesn’t generate a whole lot of stars. There are perhaps two or three lyrical singers in each generation who break through obscurity and become part of the public consciousness. And they are very much the exception, not the rule. The same, by the way, is true of pop singers, actors, writers, dancers and painters. Why, when taking your first step, would you want to pit yourself against the 0.1% who achieved mass recognition? It’s not reasonable. You’re being too hard on yourself.

I looked at Katy and, despite all of this running around in my head, in the diesel-spotted half-light of our London alleyway, the way she had applied the black kohl, curling up from the corners of her eyes like a cat from the sixties, she was a dead ringer for Maria Callas in her prime. The thing was, the way voices change, your late twenties may actually be too late to start — if the outcome you want is to be the number one lyrical singer in the world by the time you are 30.

But the world is full lyrical singers you don’t know, but who work every month and pay their bills. I know one. She does very well. She gets hired a lot. Every so often we’ll go out, drink whiskey and dance the tango. Opera star she is not. Nor will she be.

That was never part of the plan. She simply set out to sing. If you set out to sing, then singing is winning. And paying the mortgage by singing is crazy levels of success.

So why do we hold ourselves up to standards of perfection that we can’t possibly hope to achieve, except by some deus ex machina?

Binary

We live in a world, we are nursed and schooled in a pass/fail world of binary extremes, in which we are taught to equate success with fame, distinction and wealth and anything else we classify as failure. People at one extreme are winners in this high-stakes game and everyone else … well everyone else is a loser.

And we don’t want to be a loser.

Because society sneers at losers. Only success is allowed. No one can be a failure, the humiliation is too extreme. This is why we spend so much time and take so much care curating our online personas. We airbrush out the bad hair days, the job losses, the grief, the solitude and the hurting. Because we can’t bear the idea that someone somewhere will spy some tiny detail of our uncurated lives that slipped through the net and say: OMG, what a loser!

When the stakes are this high, it’s little wonder we start developing unhealthy coping mechanisms.

In the win-lose world, any outcome below perfection cannot be tolerated. Because if you show up with something less than perfect THEY ARE GOING TO LAUGH AT YOU. They are going to mock you, ridicule you, criticise you and … And all of a sudden this is really, really anxiety-inducing stuff. It’s actually quite hard to rationalise away something that in fact is borne out every day in the media and casual conversation.

“Epic fail.”

“What a loser.”

Our media love to build people into impossibly perfect stars then dash them against the rocks of loserdom, as their marriages break up under the pressure and they’re all with the drugs and the hookers and the court orders and the kids taken away and all the rest of it. They end up in the sidebar of shame with half a breast hanging out of a wardrobe malfunction. Hashtag loser.

Perfectionism is the coping mechanism we have developed to deal with this viciousness. Perfectionism is the obsessive need to eliminate any kind of error, to evade criticism or judgement from the people around us, including people we don’t know. This is a road that leads to illness.

Anxiety, insomnia and the physical symptoms that can come with anxiety, such as inflammation and autoimmune reactions are all around the corner if you set off down this road. It can also destroy relationships, too, if you demand from others the same kind of raging perfection you demand from yourself. Above all, worrying too much about the perfect destination, stops you from enjoying the journey.

But wait, I hear you saying. Are you saying we shouldn’t try for the best?

No, I’m not saying that.

Actually, wait. Yes I am.

Don’t try to be the best. Think about what best means. Best means winning against others, always. Best is a zero-sum conflict: there can only be one best so for me to win, you have to lose. I have to make you lose. By definition it’s a fight to the death.

Why do we need this?

We’re only singing, remember.

Singing is about making a connection.

It’s not a war.

We’re trying to make friends.

I told Katy: You want to be a singer? Take a step. Join a choir. Start singing now. Don’t second-guess it, don’t wait for perfect. Learn to become a professional class lyrical singer. When you’ve done that, getting from there to the fantasy, if you still want it, won’t be so many steps.

So she started it and you know what? Singing was enough. Just doing it made her happy.

Cinderella

Not everyone wants to sing, though. Imagine you feel unhappy with your life situation. You don’t have the good job or the amazing partner or the forever home of your dreams. So you set your sights on getting this because then you can be happy.

Er … In the meantime … what? Are you going to settle for unhappy until you find the perfect job and the perfect partner? Spoiler alert: they are not coming.

There’s no perfect job. Jobs are always imperfect: you always have to do at least one thing you’d rather not, you are never paid enough, no matter what you do. You always have to deal with a difficult boss because the very notion of having a boss contains within it a power imbalance that is permanently tipped against us. So no, there’s no perfect job.

There’s no perfect partner either. What is perfection? That moment when you can’t fault someone for anything? Holding a human being up to that kind of micro-scrutiny, apart from being borderline abusive, is doomed to failure. Each of us has life baggage, neuroses and habits that are, shall we say, sub-optimal.

Even Disney characters have their shadow side. I heard that Cinderella used to completely lose it if Prince Charming would leave the bathmat on the floor after a shower. And he was all like, don’t get hysterical and she was like I am not hysterical, you’re a slob and so it went on, ever after. But then they learned to relax a little because we need to live in a society and make connections. We don’t get to live  in our own private snowglobe in which everyone is our prisoner to be controlled the way we need them to behave in order to stop us from losing it.

The best we can hope for is someone who is kind enough to either turn a blind eye to our weirder stuff or generously embrace it as part of our complex charm.

Winning as losing

Unfortunately, the world is full of people that have been trained to see most situations and interactions as win-lose situations. Moments from which they will either emerge victorious or defeated. Where getting exactly what you want at any given time is “winning” and failing to get what you want is “losing”. And when you enter society with this mindset, then winning, rather than compromise, is really important.

John von Neumann, the father of modern game theory, classified these conflicts as zero-sum games, because the gain of one party is exactly cancelled out by the loss of the other.

For example, I play a game of chess with my partner. In order for me to win, my opponent has to lose.

In fact, capitalist socioeconomic theories depend on zero-sum conflicts. Insofar as in an economic system where there is only so much cash available, I can’t become rich unless I make you poor.

Same for any interaction, for that matter. If you think about it, the potential is there in any situation to fight a zero-sum conflict and get your way. I kicked up such a fuss at the restaurant that I got my meal for half price. Win. Sadly they won’t serve me any more and I’m banned from all the other ones in town because word gets around.

You see, a battle will get you what you want in the short term. But we’re not actually at war. We’re living in a world and working in an economy that is actually all about connection. What is needed is long-term partnership and in partnership, reputation matters. But we are so afraid of being cast as the loser, that we often feel we need to win when all we really need is to connect.

In the last walk, we looked at Sophie and her ex, engaged in a bitter fight for dominance after they broke up. Each thought it absolutely necessary to gain the upper hand over the other. Because what’s the alternative? Allow your opponent to gain the upper hand over you? What kind of loser would allow that?

Well. If there’s no fight, you don’t need winners and losers. Cooperation and collaboration was far more useful for Sophie and her ex and certainly for their daughter.

The myth of success

Here’s something else. Failure? It’s no biggy. If you fail, no one comes to kill you. You just get to play again. Fear of failure is only a shadowy stick that others use to beat you down. The truth is, failure is a strength, not a weakness. If you fail, you get to play again — and again and again until you find the permutation that works. Failing is playing without fear. And playing without fear makes you invincible.

Back in the paleozoic era, the ammonites shared the ocean with a relative, almost identical: the nautilus. Why did the ammonite fail as a species while the nautilus survives to this day? I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think anyone is sure. But if the ammonites hadn’t all died, we wouldn’t have that layer of limestone. The ground we walk on is the story of billions and billions of tiny failures: each one a step towards a monumental success.

No one is queueing up to give you the opera star job but guess what: that job is not for everyone, which is why so few get to have it. So whatever you do in life, you don’t need to be a diva about it. We can all create and rock our own brand of awesome and when we reach out for that together, in cooperation, well maybe we’ll make something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Getting your amazing project out into the world, where you or others can benefit from it, is a whole lot better than watching it flounder at your feet because you’re afraid it won’t be perfect.

Or to put it another way: who says you have to be the hill? Being an ammonite is noble and good enough.