Understanding wisdom, part one: The good

Sandy boy One of the benefits of ageing (usually promoted by the aged) is that as the years pass and the lines deepen we gain wisdom. I imagine wisdom as functioning like a crystal ball, but rather than being fuelled by magic, it’s powered by knowledge accumulated through experience. And as we gain wisdom that gypsy trinket becomes more powerful, it enables us to gain insight into the potential consequences of our actions and decisions. It might not help us predict the future, but it can empower us to alter the way it unfolds.

Hindsight is an insidious gift, it enables me to imagine an edited version of my life. How many times have I wished I could rewrite a year, an hour, a moment, knowing what I got wrong the first time?  How much more accomplished might my life be if I could undo that thoughtless comment, that spending of a taxi fare on three more drinks, that stuttered and premature admission of desire? But hindsight is also useful, especially if I use it in an equation like this: hindsight + consideration = wisdom. And as hindsight is only possible with experience, experiences are a necessary part of developing wisdom.

I’ve tried to rewrite this equation, adding in a component for any knowledge that I acquire through reading, research and television. Hindsight + consideration + Frank Herbert + Twin Peaks = wisdom. But I think I was fooling myself, I don’t believe watching Pretty in Pink or 500 Days of Summer improved my ability to make more considered romantic decisions. Not compared to the stinging memories of public rejection, scorned tattoos and love gone wrong. My discomforts, my excruciating embarrassments, they have provided far more coherent and consequential lessons than any film or book. Except maybe Once.

That hasn’t stopped me attempting to short-cut the wisdom crafting process though (and ignore my equation). After making the decision to switch to writing for a living I tried to cram wisdom. I studied freelance journalism, read Steven King’s “On Writing”, and watched every season of Californication. And three years later I now understand that it is writing every day which improves my capabilities as an author, not reading about how to do it. I imagine the same applies to knife fighting, ventriloquism and parkour. Making decisions, trying new things, taking action, that’s the way to build wisdom. And living an eclectic and varied life comes with serious fringe benefits, being willing to try new things is the greatest way I know of to combat prejudices, whittle away at naiveté, and teach myself to be humble.

So undergoing experiences means we develop hindsight, but that’s just one of the components of my equation. I spent a lot of time in my twenties and thirties running away from conformity, from repetition, from ruts. I gathered stories and leapt into adventures, but somehow wisdom seemed to side-step me. I’d recover from the more painful mistakes by jumping into a new adventure, and somehow the failures became just a measure of how resilient I was. How nothing could break me. So many of those failures could have been avoided with just a little reflection, a little consideration. I didn’t take time to examine how my wins and losses were affecting me, nor how they affected others. And instead of wisdom I ended up manufacturing regrets. It was only around four years ago that I found the courage to simply slow down and examine my darkest moments with as much scrutiny as my brightest. And in forcing myself to examine past decisions, I finally started finding ways to improve my future. Some wisdom, at last.

So my ongoing advice to myself is two-fold. Firstly, say yes. Do I want to try out my neighbour’s new crossbow over a couple of cans of beer? Yes! Though accumulated wisdom tells me that switching to Bourbon after we run out of Stellas is a bad idea. Through doing, learning, achieving, I grow. Secondly, there’s that consideration side of my equation. I need to reflect on my experiences, in order to develop. If the natural progression of spending Thursday nights firing bolts into bags of sand is dressing in a camouflage onesie and tracking sun bears with a loaded automatic weapon, then maybe it’s time to switch to sand boarding. I’m not so good at the killing.

In five weeks I’ll be looking up at the Pyrenees from a small town in the south of France, and taking my first steps on a five hundred mile walk that runs from Catalonia to Galicia. I’ll be exchanging stories over ciders, popping blisters next to open fires, and trying to avoid accidentally ordering octopus in Basque. My strongest motivator for this journey is introspection, both my own, and that practised by the other pilgrims. After around five weeks of walking I should reach the West coast of Spain, at a little place called Finisterre, and there I’ll look out over what was once considered the end of the world. And I’ll reflect on what I have done, knowing that while I might not have found answers, with some consideration I can at least ensure my experiences generate some wisdom.

I’d like to dedicate this to the memory of my grandfather Colin, a man whose wisdom I never took enough advantage of. But his curiosity about the world was inspiring, and I’ll be looking
out for him in the changes of weather above France and Spain. Laters Grandad.


Horizons (charging into)

Kapiti cropped large

Two days ago I finished writing a story. It began as a tale about two kiwis and a Canadian who decide to use gangsters and mobsters to market their new vodka, hoping to gain street cred and instead attracting a range of terrifying challenges. But I was somewhere between New Mexico and Utah two years ago, watching electrical storms on four horizons when I realised that Vodka just wasn’t enough. As I viewed spectacular lightning splitting dusky widescreen horizons, I knew my characters needed grander problems than smuggling spirits into Liberia and the Ukraine would earn them. I needed to take on something that would echo across the world, something which would require commentary from the Pope.  So these human lightning conductors decided to invent a better religion, and the vodka became part of the back-story. But that’s another story for a different day, publishers willing.

Soon after I began work on the book, I started writing this blog. As I set off on a research trip to the USA and Europe my life seemed to have become interesting enough for me to find something to write about every couple of weeks. I find that when I’m travelling I live at a much faster pace. Each day lived seems so visceral, so textured, so rich. Every meal is newly spiced, every conversation has an accent, every dawn is described by new sounds. Each morning makes a promise, that the day will harbour some lesson, some learning, some new understanding. I want to share the revelations, the encounters, the mistakes and consequences. And then I return home, and that pace drops away.

I haven’t posted anything here for eighteen months, not because I haven’t been inspired, but because the achievements were gradual ones, and their rewards were ones of delayed gratification. And because working in a job for an income rather than outcome stifles my imaginative creativity. It’s been a period of building for me, a passage of time during which I’ve managed to set myself up with foundations for a simpler life, one which enables freedom and creativity. And it has helped me further understand the joy of simple living, with kind and thoughtful people. But my passport hasn’t been soaked with the sweat of border anticipation for far too long, and my pack lies forgotten beneath my bed, comforted only by memories of a brief and beautiful jaunt through a Buddhist kingdom. And I want to write a new book, so I need character inspiration, semi-autobiographic comic relief and the rewards that come with making simple mistakes in unknown lands with friends I haven’t met yet.

I’m six weeks out from a flight to Paris, I’m buying walking shoes and train tickets, and my heart beats louder in my dreams. The world is opening up again, my skies are wider than an office window, the winter storms are all around me, unframed, unbound. The pace is picking up, the sound of a jet overhead has regained a personal significance, and as I watch others post photos and thoughts from Castle Donnington, Positano, the Orkney Islands, envy has given way to a feeling of fellowship. I’ve written 150,000 words about another man’s journey, it is time to slip back to first person perspective again. And it’s time to share my ideas once again, and hope to strike a chord, provoke a response, or even provide inspiration for someone else’s adventures.

The great thing about horizons is that just like tomorrow, they lie just out of reach. But unless we’re clinically depressed, our progress towards tomorrow requires no effort, no act of change, no brave decision. But to approach the horizon, that demands a building of momentum, a setting of sails, the anxious lottery of purchasing Easyjet tickets. And most of all it require the triumph of adventurous spirit over apathetic submission.