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Got to be good looking cos he's so hard to see
This week: the secret trait of successful people, how to feed your mind, and my books of the year (oh and almost nothing about the election).
THE GIFT OF OBSESSION
This great post by the investor and generally clever guy Paul Graham is about a personality trait I have often thought is under-studied: the capacity to get really, really interested in something to the point of obsession. It's a trait that many high-achieving people share. Of course, there are several factors involved in success: ability, conscientiousness, luck. But one of them is this ability to sustain an intense, narrow interest for its own sake. For some people that interest will happen to coincide with a pathway to making money (like coding for Mark Zuckerberg) for others, it will remain a hobby. Either way, it's a gift: it gives people a sense of purpose and enriches their mind. But I don't think it's something you can teach or train for. I hope my children are able to get obsessed with something (other than Peppa the Pig). But I can't tell them to do so.
LOOK AFTER YOUR BILLS WITH LOOK AFTER MY BILLS
A word about The Ruffian's sponsor, Look After My Bills (or LAMB - not LAMD, as per the deliberate mistake I made last time around in order to snare your attention, none of this happens by accident you know). LAMB is an ingenious and very useful service: it not only finds you the best, most ethical and economical energy tariff, it does the switching for you and then auto-switches to the best one at the end of that deal. So basically, you save money and save resources without having to do anything. It only takes a couple of minutes to sign up. So check it out. It's good for you, good for the planet, and - perhaps most importantly - good for The Ruffian.
TOUR OF PISA
The new PISA results came out this month (the OECD's annual assessment of national education standards). Turns out Britain is doing pretty well. Well, England is. Scotland has taken a different path to England in recent years, focusing on "skills" rather than knowledge and rejecting academies; in short, a kind of consciously anti-Gove programme. It's as close to a natural experiment in education reform as you can get, and the result is pretty clear: Scotland is going backwards, England is making progress. Also of interest: Finland is continuing a decline that has been ongoing for a few years. The reason that's interesting is that up until now educationalists and politicians have breathlessly heralded its system as a marvel we all need to imitate. But Finland's earlier success may have had more to do with history and culture and luck than policy. Everyone's now getting excited about Estonia. But maybe we should stop trying to emulate the education policies of tiny culturally homogeneous countries and recognise that our own system, while it needs improving, is actually not bad. For more see this thread and article from Sam Freedman (education expert, former adviser to Gove and/but a scrupulously fair reporter of evidence). See also this post from John Jerrim who points to some concerning trends amid the good news.
The perception that society is currently undergoing an "epidemic of loneliness" is so entrenched that no matter how comprehensively it is debunked it only comes back stronger. A related myth is that loneliness is more common in "individualistic" societies like the U.S. and U.K. That turns out not to be true either. (I have to admit I was surprised by how well the U.S. comes out on this measure).
SAVING THE NEWS
The latest edition of Polarised features our interview with Dorothy Byrne, head of news at Channel 4 (you may recall that she made a splash with her Edinburgh speech earlier this year). We met in the middle of the mad campaign to discuss the new challenges that broadcasters face in reporting the news. Dorothy is a really thoughtful and candid guest, I recommend this conversation.
Came across this 2017 interview with the film director Christopher Nolan and it's full of interesting stuff on his approach to creativity. I liked his emphasis on reading (or watching or whatever) without purpose. I sometimes feel like I should only be reading things that are relevant to my work but of course you never know what might inspire you. In fact, that utilitarian approach is probably counter-productive to doing good work. Instead of thinking, 'what will be useful to read/watch?', we should be thinking, 'how can I get myself a more interesting mind - how can I cultivate this soil?'. Reading is nourishment, not fuel. (btw I also like Nolan's neat definition of narrative: "the controlled release of information".)
BOOKS OF THE YEAR
Herewith all the books I think I read this year (actually I've been fairly good at keeping this list up so I doubt I've missed any), together with one-line reviews.
61% of people in England use the train just twice a year or less.
Tom Whitwell's annual 52 Things list is a delight. As is Futurecrunch's 99 Good News Stories From 2019. Amidst all the bad stuff, small groups of determined people are quietly achieving good things.
This astonishing story of a boy who learned to play piano without having a piano is interesting on several levels, but one of them is that it might not have been possible with the internet. YouTube in particular is really transforming the way people gather knowledge and skills, not just at school but throughout their careers. Remarkably and somewhat concerningly, this is even true of surgeons.
Reading this cracked the frozen sea within. As did this, which is much longer, but if there are not tears in your eyes by the time you get to the last line you are even more stone-hearted than me.
BACK TO THE EGGPOD
On this lovely, cockle-warming podcast, Nicky Campbell and Rachel Burden, who co-present Radio 5's breakfast show, talk through the recently released Abbey Road outtakes, with host Chris Shaw. They also talk very touchingly and amusingly about their shared love of The Beatles. Not to state the bleeding obvious but there's a reason these guys are top broadcasters, they are just so good at...talking. Honestly, go hang out with them, it's truly cheering. I also commend this fascinating conversation between Adam Buxton and the evolutionary biologist Diana Fleischman. Diana will say lots of things you disagree with but in a way that makes you like her, people like this are valuable.
Hope you enjoyed this edition of The Ruffian, the last one of this decade. As you know, I rely on you to spread the word. Please share this link with everyone you know and with everyone you don't: https://tinyletter.com/IanLeslie