Yearly Archive 2018-10-27


Sh*t Happens

Sh*t Happens

There is a short phrase that I’ve been quite fond of in the context of project management and product development for years. Those two words are “Shit happens!”. The meaning, of course, is that undesirable things happen. And more pertinently, unexpected undesirable things happen. No amount of planning will give you 100% certainty. As Donald Rumsfeld famously stated:

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
– Donald Rumsfeld

No matter how well we think we’ve predicted the future, there are always unknown unknowns. This is why it is wise in project management to build in some contingency and in agile we speak of the “cone of uncertainty” (source: Steve McConnell). Not just because things take longer than we estimate, which they often do (optimism bias), but because unpredictable things will happen to derail us far more often than we like to think.

Don’t be a Turkey

Former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile reminds us that our history can blind us. We base our future vision on our past and in particular assume that the worst that can happen is based on the worst things that have happened in the past:

“But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst [known] case at the time.”
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile

Taleb refers to this as the “turkey problem” after the analogy of a turkey who is leading a happily fed and comfortable free-range life only to have a big shock come Christmas (or Thanksgiving day in the US).

And then we have the Black Swans which Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes in his book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” as highly unpredictable, high-impact events that we post-rationalise, erroneously:

“…an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact…. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb in “Black Swans”

Black Swans can be both good and bad. The bad ones may be described (by me) more crudely as:

“Wildy Catastrophic Shit Happens”

A central idea in Taleb’s book is not to attempt to predict Black Swan events, but to build robustness to negative events and an ability to exploit positive events. A theme central to Antifragile also. Life is ultimately pretty volatile. We can become more antifragile by building up our resources against undesirable events. Taleb uses the analogy of building muscle in access to what you typically need so that you can deal with situations that place unexpected extra demands on you. For example, if you exercise and build strong back muscles, even though those muscles may not get used to their full extent much of the time, when you suddenly find yourself lifting something very heavy your back muscles will support you through this event. You will be less fragile – you will not slip a disc. The same applies to other aspects of our being and in particular our “cognitive muscles”.

So rather than investing effort in avoiding volatility – life’s ups and downs – we should invest effort in building our ability to ride life’s ups and downs – to build resilience – become antifragile. Life gives us opportunities to build our cognitive muscles every day, in small and not so small ways. Each is an opportunity to strengthen these muscles for when we really will need them. Possibly even to survive.

Distorted Lens

A central idea of (secular) Buddhism is that one of the greatest sources of human suffering stems from our distorted view of reality. Of course, our view of reality is always distorted to some degree and so some suffering is inevitable. However, the more narrow-minded we are, the greater that suffering is likely to be. This lies at the heart of Zoom-Out and the strapline “Optimise your reality”. We can shape our own reality and the closer that reality is to the nature of things, the less likely we are to suffer. Another way of expressing this is in terms of the gap between our expectations and what actually happens – our expectations gap. Again this can result in a good experience, a positive surprise! But can also lead to a bad experience, a bad surprise.

Joseph Tussman (1914-2005), an American educator and chair of the philosophy department at University of California, Berkeley put it this way:

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”
— Joseph Tussman

So if we Zoom-Out and broaden our mind to the complex and often chaotic nature of the world we inhabit, the more resilient and adaptable we will become. Just consider how much our realities are shaped by people and how complex and unpredictable people can be. If we treat surprise as learning and not something to get defensive about or try to dismiss or avoid in some way then we can better manage our own expectation gaps. A nice way of summarising this is to see uncertainty as something to embrace rather than deny or limit – “Embrace uncertainty”.

Of course, we all need a degree of certainty in our lives. We just want to be able to assume certain things will happen today. For example, the sun will rise in the morning, my clothes will still fit when I put them on, the office will still be there when I get to work, etc. But as humans, we also need a degree of uncertainty. If everything is 100% predictable we will get very bored and will not be challenged. Novelty and stepping outside of our comfort zones are keys to human growth and fulfilment. So there is obviously a balance. The key argument here is that if we can cultivate greater tolerance for uncertainty, then we can face life’s challenges in a more proactive way. As Abraham Lincoln once said:

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
– Abraham Lincoln

What’s your preferred balance between certainty and uncertainty?


Disturbing Views

Zoom-Out is ultimately about how we choose to see things and situations. So regardless of how predictable or unpredictable an event is, we should always be mindful of separating our perspective on the event to the actual event itself. What story are we telling ourselves about the event? What meaning are we attaching to the event? Remember that we have a choice and do not have to accept the default one that arises in our mind. We can be proactive and take responsibility (response-ability – S.R. Covey).

“People are not disturbed by events but by the view they hold about them.” – Epictetus, Stoic philosopher

Optimising Your Reality

So what can you do to optimise your reality?

In summary, cultivate the following daily:

  1. See Volatility – see the world and people for the volatile systems they are
  2. Embrace Uncertainty – aim to embrace uncertainty rather than eliminate or control uncertainty
  3. Don’t be a “turkey” – don’t judge the future by the past
  4. Expect Black Swans – see that life is shaped by Black Swans – highly unpredictable, high impact events
  5. Overcompensate – build up your resources for dealing with what life throws at you; build up your physical and mental muscles in preparation for the unexpected
  6. Avoid Burnout – recognise signs of your resources running low, for example, “burnout” (overworked) and take steps to replenish and rebuild
  7. Take Response-Ability – take responsibility for your responses. For negative events, see what story you are telling yourself – what meaning you are attaching to the event – and replace with a more helpful version


  • Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (2012) “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder”
  • Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (2007) “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”
  • Stephen R. Covey. (1989) “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change”

Turkey Image by Tracey O’Brien from Pixabay


Who is responsible for your reality?

Let me ask you a question.

Who is responsible for your reality?

If you are unhappy about something, in other words, there is something about your reality that you are unhappy about, then you may blame your government, your local council, your utility provider, your travel agent, your postman, your local store, your neighbour, your partner, your family, your parents, your employer, your colleagues, etc.

Is there anything else you would add to this list? Actually, it may be more accurate to ask, is there anyone else you would add to this list? It’s perhaps interesting to reflect that the greatest source of our distress is usually OTHER PEOPLE! The Zoom-Out Social and Zoom-Out Person Dimensions come into play here (more elsewhere).

On one hand, you can admire your ability to be judge and jury for all of these people – these criminals damn it! What on earth is wrong with them, why can’t they do the right thing – why can’t they get it right? Aaargh! So if all of these people are the perpetrators of our distress then what does that make us?


Of course, you don’t think of yourself as a victim. But if other people are responsible for our distress, for our satisfaction with aspects of our reality, then surely that makes you a victim in each case.

For example…

Your boss misses your 1-2-1, again. Your boss has all the power in this situation. Worse, they did it on purpose to damage you in some way.

Your delivery person failed to deliver your parcel. And it contains a present for your nephew. Now they won’t get a birthday present from you.

Your local council has imposed a parking permit scheme on your road which you absolutely oppose and despise.


In all of these cases, the behaviour of another person or group or people has made you ______________. Fill in the blank. And this is the point, the blank here is what YOU actually fill in. You provide the response to the event. This is what taking responsibility is really all about.

It’s your Response-Ability.

In 1989, Stephen R. Covey, in his best selling and highly influential book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, habit number one focuses on this very topic. Habit 1: Be Proactive. This is your ability to be in control of your response. To chose your response and not to be trapped in a stimulus >> response pattern like Pavlov’s dog.

Epictetus, almost 2,000 years ago put this another way:

“People are not disturbed by events but the view they hold about them.”

ZO Twitter - Epictetus quote

This points to the core of what Zoom-Out is all about. That we are the creators of our own reality. For any fans of The Matrix movie, we are the machines and we are also Neo. Of course, we are not masters of our reality, not to begin with. This needs practice. We need to cultivate this ability, just like Neo in The Matrix. But it starts here… taking responsibility for your own reality. As long as you are trying to “fix” what is out there, trying to “fix” other people or passively blaming them, then our realities will ultimately never improve. After all, there will always be someone to blame if you see the world that way. So adopt a meta-perspective, notice how you contribute to your own reality through your responses and start to take more control them. Over time you will gain more and more control over your own reality and your own destiny. This is a worthy and fruitful path.

Did you notice any other benefit here? By changing our perspective we change outcomes. And that includes not adding to the misery of other people. It results in being more objective and constructive in our responses. Which in some cases will dramatically alter how people react to us as well. So not only are we taking control of our personal, subjective realities, we may just be making the world a better place AND improving our place in the world.

Bubble Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay



Response-Ability: Stephen Covey:….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..0.6.310…0j0i30k1.0.RqcFxYRNm7E


Zin & Zoot Evolved

Zin and Zoot are our friends from Planet Zoom. Or put another way, visual metaphors with anthropomorphic features that represent our Zoom-In and Zoom-Out abilities.

If you were to take an analogue camera, a couple of humans and an alien from the farthest reaches of the universe, place them into a quantum splicing machine (available now at all good stores), you might just end up with something resembling these guys.

They started as hand sketched on flip charts as wireframe characters in 2015. It was pointed out to me sometime later that Zin was reminiscent of a certain part of the male anatomy. A few design iterations later and our friends have evolved.

Today I can unveil the new look for the characters:


Zin & Zoot Evolved

Zin and Zoot are our friends from Planet Zoom. Or put another way, visual metaphors with anthropomorphic features that represent our Zoom-In and Zoom-Out abilities.

If you were to take an analogue camera, a couple of humans and an alien from the farthest reaches of the universe, place them into a quantum splicing machine (available now at all good stores), you might just end up with something resembling these guys.

They started as hand sketched on flip charts as wireframe characters in 2015. It was pointed out to me sometime later that Zin was reminiscent of a certain part of the male anatomy. A few design iterations later and our friends have evolved.

Today I can unveil the new look for the characters:


Derren Brown’s “Miracles” Zoom-Out

Derren Brown is undoubtedly Britain’s favourite “mentalist”. He’s built a career out of showing how easily people’s perceptions and actions can be manipulated. In his Miracles stage show (available on Netflix) from 2015, he does this in a truly dazzling fashion but he also helps the audience to Zoom-Out, big style.

Some Zoom-Out highlights include:

“It’s your view of events that disturbs you and not the events themselves”

– Epictetus

“To be happier, focus on what you can control not what you cannot control. And you can only control two things: (1) your own thoughts and (2) your own actions. You can’t control what other people think and do.”

– Epictetus

Stories – Your ‘world’ is largely defined by your own personal stories from the past that you tell yourselves in the present. These limit you massively and also cause suffering.

You are the miracle – The miracle of being born at all. You are a unique line of ancestry through your parents, your grandparents, all the way back to single cell organisms. The odds of you even being here at all are truly staggering.

If you have a Netflix account you can watch it here – highly recommended:

Netflix – Derren Brown – Miracle


Right View

In Zoomology and as Zoomologists we speak of finding the most helpful perspective. Of seeking out the most helpful perspective in any given situation.  This is underpinned by the Zoom-Out principle:

“All perspectives are wrong but some are helpful”

The Buddhist philosophy has a powerful resonance with such Zoom-Out principles. One aspect of the Buddhist philosophy, in particular, is the notion of ‘ignorance’ (Avidyā). Ignorance in this sense refers to our distorted view of reality and is the root cause of Dukkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness). The Buddhist path, therefore, involves obtaining a less distorted view of reality especially with regard to impermanence and our notions of self amongst other considerations.

This concept runs through the Buddhist “Noble Eightfold Path” and begins with “right view” (or “right understanding”).

“The purpose of right view is to clear one’s path from confusion, misunderstanding, and deluded thinking. It is a means to gain right understanding of reality. In the interpretation of some Buddhist movements, state Religion Studies scholar George Chryssides and author Margaret Wilkins, right view is non-view: as the enlightened become aware that nothing can be expressed in fixed conceptual terms and rigid, dogmatic clinging to concepts is discarded.” – source Wikipedia


The Mysterious Case of Free Will

Free will has endured a long run of, well, freedom. Could that time be at an end? Yet again, free will has been summoned before the court. The prosecution has mounted a fresh case which they believe will, at long last, be decisive.

A sense of intense anticipation hangs in the air and all eyes are on the judge.

Judge: “We will now hear the opening statements”.

The Prosecution: “Thank you, your honour. We will categorically prove that free will is a con-merchant of the highest order. A confidence trickster! A master illusionist! You will hear expert testimony proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have no free will whatsoever and you are not even free to decide the outcome of this case.”

This statement provokes an uneasy tension in the courtroom, tinged with bewilderment at what this could all amount to for the judicial process itself and for everything.

The Defence: “The prosecution would have you believe that free will has deceived us all, perpetrating one of the greatest hoaxes in human history. That we are all automata controlled purely by the forces of cause and effect. That all of our decisions and actions are predetermined. We shall present the case for free will and show that you are actually free to conduct your lives and indeed free to choose a verdict in this case.”

The Judge: “Can I please remind everyone to stay calm in this highly emotive case and keep an open mind. The Prosecution, are you ready to present your case?”

The Prosecution: “Thank you, your honour. We call to the stand our first expert witness, Benjamin Libet”.

The Prosecution: “You are Benjamin Libet, a pioneering neuroscientist in the field of human consciousness?”

Benjamin Libet: “I am.”

The Prosecution: “You and your team put free will to the test. Can you please explain what you did and what you concluded?”

Benjamin Libet: “Our aim was to determine if free will is what it appears to be or is actually a fraud. So we devised a simple test where subjects were asked to press one of two buttons. At the same time, they were asked to observe a clock and record the time at which they made the decision to press one button or the other.”

The Prosecution: “That seems straightforward and a fair test. What did you find?”

Benjamin Libet: “I should add that we connected the subjects to an EEG machine so we could monitor their brain activity. What we discovered was that the brain showed activity indicating a choice before the subject was consciously aware of that choice. The time gap ranged from half a second to five seconds. We gave this the name “readiness potential”. So this proved that even a simple choice such as selecting one of two buttons to press is not subject to free will. Therefore free will is purely a subjective illusion.”

The Prosecution: “Thank you Dr Libet. No further questions.”.

The Defence: “Dr Libet, isn’t it the case that the timings captured in your experiments were imprecise and subject to human error?”

Benjamin Libet: “Yes, but…”

The Defence: “No more questions your honour!”

The Prosecution: “We call to the stand Sam Harris”.

The Prosecution: “Thank you for being here. Can you confirm that you are Sam Harris the acclaimed author, philosopher, neuroscientist?”

Sam Harris: “I believe I am, yes.”

The Prosecution: “Could you please share with the court your expert conclusions regarding free will?”

Sam Harris: “Certainly. I have no choice.”

Sam exposes a wry smile which does not land well on the judicial assembly.

Sam Harris: “Ahem, right. Well, I wrote a book on the subject in 2012. From all of my years studying neuroscience and the human condition, it is clear to me that thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. I could demonstrate now with a simple experiment…”

The Prosecution: “Thank you but we do not have time for that right now. No more questions at this time.”

The Defense: “No questions your honour.”

The Judge: “We shall take a short recess at this point. We will continue at 2 pm promptly.”

During the recess, the Defense comes to a startling realisation and one which they believe guarantees the acquittal of the accused. They are eager to resume.

Back in the courtroom, the Defence approach the bench and discuss something with the Judge who’s facial expressions go through a series of dramatic landscape changes ending up in what might be described as furrows of ‘thought pain’.

The Judge: “Another recess is needed for me to consider the Defence’s position. Please assemble again at 2:30 pm.”

The hands of the courtroom clock move in the only direction they can while the neurons in the Judge’s brain fire in the only way they know how.  The court reconvenes.

The Judge: “Hmmm. This is most unorthodox but the Defence has asked to jump straight to their closing statement. So we are obliged to hear what they have to say”.

The Defence: “In this case, it is impossible for free will to be found guilty of fraud. On the one hand, if free will is found guilty this means that the guilty verdict was not by choice but predetermined by cause and effect alone, hence the trial is not valid and the case must be thrown out. If on the other hand, free will is found innocent, then free will goes free. In either case, free will must be cleared of all charges.”

The Judge: “I must admit the Defense’s logic is sound. Free will, therefore, you are free to go.  Case dismissed”.

And with that, we hear the final fall of the gavel for free will. Or is it?

Image by kalhh from Pixabay


A wise monk’s powerful and simple formula for happiness

Do you have a formula for happiness?

Last night someone suggested one to myself and around 500 other people.

The suggestion came from a wise 82-year-old man.

So you sit up and listen.

What’s more, he’s a former monk.

So you sit up even more and listen.

The occasion is an Action for Happiness event in London (19 April 2018) and the man is Satish Kumar and he’s an Indian activist and editor. He has been a Jain monk, nuclear disarmament advocate, pacifist, co-founder of the Schumacher College and is the current editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. And we’ve just watched an award-winning film featuring him entitled “A Quest for Meaning”.

So you definitely sit up and listen.

After watching the film Satish took questions from the audience. His formula for happiness is:

  1. Learn from the PAST
  2. Celebrate the PRESENT
  3. Trust the FUTURE

“Trust the future” – not always easy. Anxiety is often associated with thinking of the future. And anxiety in society is on the rise, especially among younger people.

Satish described what is needed to cultivate trust and that is courage.


Satish gave an example which is an example of an Odds Zoom-Out and a Univeral Zoom-Out.

Consider our inclination to trust people. It’s easy to be driven by fear and avoid trusting people. Avoid trusting people in case they betray you or cheat you.

The more courageous perspective is this:

“I prefer not to be cheated but would prefer to be cheated once in a while rather than never trust anyone at all.” – Satish Kumar

>> an Odds Zoom-Out; and a Time Zoom-Out

In other words, do not focus on a single ‘bad instance’ and an imaged one at that. Focus on the big picture over time. Of all the opportunities to trust someone, only a small number are likely (odds) to lead to something bad. Obviously, wisdom should be employed. Don’t trust a crook for example.

Satish also added:

“There is no guarantee that I will never be cheated.” – Satish Kumar

>> a Universal Zoom-Out (no law of the universe).

So to sum up and elaborate on Satish’s formula:

  1. Learn from the PAST
  2. Celebrate the PRESENT
  3. Be COURAGEOUS and Trust the FUTURE

Wishing you much happiness and success!


Einstein’s profoundly useful insight on reality versus experience

One of the things I really enjoy about exploring and researching Zoom-Out is how it crosses multiple schools of thought – spans multiple genres (it’s a real genre spanner in Mighty Boosh speak).

I was looking for sources regarding the nature of human emotion and came across a paper entitled: “The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization” by Lisa Feldman Barrett. And lo and behold, I came across this unexpected gem:

If the history of science has taught us anything, however, it is that human experiences rarely reveal the way that the natural world works:

‘Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not; however, it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world’ – Einstein et al., 1938, p. 31

Einstein is such a significant icon in the history of human thought, I just had to look it up – this is the page in Einstein’s classic book on which this appears:

So what does this insight from one our greatest Physicists highlight from the point of view of a Zoomologist? It reminds us that any model we construct about reality, is just that, a model and can never be truly known to be the model. For there is not one-true-model. This applies in trying to define precise physical predictions and “laws” of reality that will keep aeroplanes in the sky, drive nuclear reactors, predict solar eclipses and understand the destiny of a black hole. When it comes to everyday human experience, we also construct models to navigate our world. A model as we have discussed before should be judged on how useful it is to us. And we are free to construct as many models as we like in our search for such a helpful model.

This points us back to the Zoom-Out principle:

“All perspectives are wrong but some are helpful” – Zoom-Out Principle

If you have further interest in Einstein’s book, here’s the description:

For what purpose has this book been written? Who is the imaginary reader for whom it is meant? It is difficult to begin by answering these questions clearly and convincingly. This would be much easier, though quite superfluous, at the end of the book. We find it simpler to say just what this book does not intend to be. We have not written a textbook of physics. Here is no systematic course in elementary physical facts and theories. Our intention was rather to sketch in broad outline the attempts of the human mind to find a connection between the world of ideas and the world of phenomena. We have tried to show the active forces which compel science to invent ideas corresponding to the reality of our world. But our representation had to be simple. Through the maze of facts and concepts we had to choose some highway which seemed to us most characteristic and significant. Facts and theories not reached by this road had to be omitted. We were forced, by our general aim, to make a definite choice of facts and ideas. The importance of a problem should not be judged by the number of pages devoted to it. Some essential lines of thought have been left out, not because they seemed to us unimportant, but because they do not lie along the road we have chosen.

This book is a reproduction of an important historical work. Forgotten Books uses state-of-the-art technology to digitally-enhance the work, preserving the original format whilst repairing imperfections present in the aged copy. In rare cases, an imperfection in the original, such as a blemish or missing page, may be replicated in our edition. We do, however, repair the vast majority of imperfections successfully; any imperfections that remain are intentionally left to preserve the state of such historical works.


Sleep Well

It’s well established and well documented that one of the key wellbeing and performance boosting activities is…

Sleep zzzzzzz

It’s also a powerful Zoom-Out enabler in that it takes a cognitive effort to Zoom-Out and if you are tired, then your ability to do this is diminished.

Sleep could also be a “keystone habit” because when we have had enough sleep we:

  • have more mental energy – important for Zoom-Out activity
  • are more likely to exercise
  • have greater self-discipline – so tend to eat better for example
  • get less frustrated by setbacks in the day (higher resilience)
  • find it easier to get through a demanding day – one that demands mental/physical energy and alertness

Sleep as Antidepressant

Not only can sleep boost happiness, it can be more effective in some cases than antidepressants. Consider this  quote from the book “Lost Connections”

Irving and Guy realized—using these, the real figures—they could calculate how much better the people on antidepressants were doing than the people on sugar pills. Scientists measure the depth of someone’s depression using something named the Hamilton scale, which was invented by a scientist named Max Hamilton in 1959. The Hamilton scale rages from 0 (where you’re skipping along merrily) to 51 (where you’re jumping in front of trains). To give you a yardstick: you can get a six-point leap in your Hamilton score if you improve your sleeping patterns. What Irving found is that, in the real data that hadn’t been run through a PR filter, antidepressants do cause an improvement in the Hamilton score—they do make depressed people feel better. It’s an improvement of 1.8 points.

Irving furrowed his brow. That’s a third less than getting better sleep. It was absolutely startling.

– Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions – Bloomsbury Publishing

So getting better sleep in some cases can be three times more effective than anti-depressants. It should be noted that Hari does point out that individual cases do vary and that anti-depressants also have a short-lived but potentially powerful placebo effect and can in times of crisis provide a useful role. But the point here is to highlight the relative size of the impact of getting a good nights sleep.

Jordon Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist, cultural critic, and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Actually, this paints a one-dimensional picture of a fascinating person and increasingly cult figure. He also draws upon philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology and religion. He’s also the only member of the research-oriented Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto that also has a clinical practice.

In Peterson’s latest book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”, he describes how important sleep is for mental health. In the following extract, from “RULE 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, Peterson is talking about keeping anxiety at bay – or more generally, walking the line between Order and Chaos – a key Peterson theme in this book and his other works.”Erratic habits of sleeping and eating can interfere with its function <keeping anxiety at bay>. Uncertainty can throw it for a loop. The body, with its various parts, needs to function like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Every system must play its role properly, and at exactly the right time, or noise and chaos ensue. It is for this reason that routine is so necessary. The acts of life we repeat every day need to be automatized. They must be turned into stable and reliable habits, so they lose their complexity and gain predictability and simplicity. This can be perceived most clearly in the case of small children, who are delightful and comical and playful when their sleeping and eating schedules are stable, and horrible and whiny and nasty when they are not.It is for such reasons that I always ask my clinical clients first about sleep. Do they wake up in the morning at approximately the time the typical person wakes up, and at the same time every day? If the answer is no, fixing that is the first thing I recommend. It doesn’t matter so much if they go to bed at the same time each evening, but waking up at a consistent hour is a necessity. Anxiety and depression cannot be easily treated if the sufferer has unpredictable daily routines. The systems that mediate negative emotion are tightly tied to the properly cyclical circadian rhythms. The next thing I ask about is breakfast. I counsel my clients to eat a fat and protein-heavy breakfast as soon as possible after they awaken (no simple carbohydrates, no sugars, as they are digested too rapidly, and produce a blood-sugar spike and rapid dip). This is because anxious and depressed people are already stressed, particularly if their lives have not been under control for a good while. Their bodies are therefore primed to hypersecrete insulin, if they engage in any complex or demanding activity. If they do so after fasting all night and before eating, the excess insulin in their bloodstream will mop up all their blood sugar. Then they become hypoglycemic and psycho-physiologically unstable. 22 All day. Their systems cannot be reset until after more sleep. I have had many clients whose anxiety was reduced to subclinical levels merely because they started to sleep on a predictable schedule and eat breakfast.”- Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Penguin Books

That last sentence is worth repeating, considering it comes from one of the worlds leading clinical psychologists and practising psychiatrists:

“I have had many clients whose anxiety was reduced to subclinical levels merely because they started to sleep on a predictable schedule and eat breakfast.”

Sleep and loneliness

Did you know there’s a link between loneliness and sleep patterns? Returning to Johann Hari’s brilliant book, Lost Connections, one of the connections we have lost is effective and meaningful social connections. He talks about how the Internet came along at a time when society was becoming increasingly fragmented, increasingly about the individual and with less community (i.e. after the 80s and for decades before that). So the Internet appeared to provide a solution, to help us become more connected again. Hari writes:

“As I researched this book, I kept coming across this apparent contradiction: I was traveling across the world learning about how we had become profoundly disconnected—and then I would open my laptop, to be shown that we are more connected now than we have ever been at any point in human history. A huge amount has been written about the way that our mental migration into cyberspace—our spending so much time online—is making us feel. But as I began to dig into this, I realized that we have been missing the most important point. The Internet arrived promising us connection at the very moment when all the wider forces of disconnection were reaching a crescendo.”

“Before the Internet addiction, they had felt lost and isolated in the world. Then the online world offered these young people things that they craved but that had vanished from the environment—such as a goal that matters to you, or a status, or a tribe. “

“The Internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other. The collapse had already been taking place for decades by then. The web arrived offering them a kind of parody of what they were losing—Facebook friends in place of neighbors, video games in place of meaningful work, status updates in place of status in the world. The comedian Marc Maron once wrote that “every status update is a just a variation on a single request: ‘Would someone please acknowledge me?’ ”

“After all his years studying loneliness, John Caccioppo told me the evidence is clear: social media can’t compensate us psychologically for what we have lost—social life. But more than that—our obsessive use of social media is an attempt to fill a hole, a great hollowing, that took place before anyone had a smartphone. It is—like much of our depression and anxiety—another symptom of our current crisis.”

– Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Bloomsbury Publishing

Back to the connection between loneliness and sleep… Hari also writes:

“There’s one neat way to test it <loneliness> . Anywhere in the world where people describe being lonely, they will also—throughout their sleep—experience more of something called “micro-awakenings.” These are small moments you won’t recall when you wake up, but in which you rise a little from your slumber. All other social animals do the same thing when they’re isolated too. The best theory is that you don’t feel safe going to sleep when you’re lonely, because early humans literally weren’t safe if they were sleeping apart from the tribe. You know nobody’s got your back—so your brain won’t let you go into full sleep mode. Measuring these “micro-awakenings” is a good way of measuring loneliness.

– Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Bloomsbury Publishing

So if you feel in any sense lonely, by working on face-to-face social connections, a dominant happiness booster in it’s own right, you are likely to also improve the quality of your sleep. And the better you sleep, you are likely to have more energy for life and cultivating your social connections. So this is a potentially positive reinforcing loop.

Sleep as a Zoom-Out power tool

As mentioned in the opening to this article, proactively Zooming-Out and Zooming-In in a helpful way requires cognitive effort. This effort can vary a lot too depending on how challenging the situation is and how familiar a particular Zoom-Out or Zoom-In is to you. A good way to ensure you start the day stocked with a good supply of cognitive energy is to get a good nights sleep.

Sleep is also a powerful Zoom-Out tool as well. I often speak of Hot and Cold perspectives. Hot ones are those forged in the furnace of high emotion – often negative emotion. This is common in conflict situations for example. Literally “sleeping on it” to “cool off” is a great way to get a broader and more balanced perspective. Better decisions can be made before taking action, thus avoiding rash and unhelpful action that may make us feel good at that moment but in the bigger picture do ourselves and others more harm.

How long is a good nights sleep?

Short answer = 7 – 9 hours for an adult

The amount increases as you decrease the age. For teens it can be up to 10 hours and increases quite a lot as you go further back in age.

So it does vary with age and per individual. It makes sense to aim for the higher end of any estimate and if you wake up before, awake and refreshed then get up.

I hope you sleep well.

Further Reading:

Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay


Happy Easter

Happy Easter from the Zoom-Out team!

We hope you and your family have a wonderful break!

It doesn’t look like we will be seeing much sunshine this Easter and some parts of the UK are expecting snow! So here is a little sunshine from us.


The Greatest Gift

What’s the greatest gift you can give to someone? The greatest gift you can give to everyone you know and everyone you meet? A gift you can give anytime without any preparation? A gift that costs you nothing?

I wish I had realised this, or been told about this ‘gift’  this when I was young. I would most certainly have lived a more effective and fulfilling life to this point. My relationships would have been enhanced enormously, not just with friends and family but with everyone I work with or meet. I’ve actually been aware of some people that are naturally good at giving this gift and perhaps you are one of them.

OK, so what is this gift?

This is the gift of attention.

To give someone your complete and undivided attention.

This applies to your friends, family, your kids, your work colleagues and friends, your stakeholders, your boss, the person driving the bus, the person at the checkout, the person checking your ticket on the train, well, you get the idea – everyone!

Attention control is power

Zoom-Out Principle #06 states: “Attention control is power”. We are not talking about the power wielded by some dark overlord over their minions – “Kneel before my mighty attention! WHA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!”. No. Not that. No, this is the power to optimise your reality. The power to lead a more effective and fulfilling life.

Attention is at the core of Zoom-Out. It’s about paying attention to what we pay attention to. In this case, paying attention to people and paying attention to if, when and how we pay attention to people.

Cultivating finer control over what you pay attention to and proactively controlling your attention is an incredibly useful skill. Perhaps one of the most useful human skills of all. To get philosophical for a moment, this touches on the topic of ‘free will’. Whether free will is real or an illusion – and some of the greatest minds on the planet are convinced it’s an illusion (e.g. see Sam Harris on free will) – the more control we have over our attention, the more control we have over our lives – control over our personal reality. Whether that control is real or illusory, I would propose that in a pragmatic sense, it’s incredibly helpful.

People are the universe’s gift to you 

A Universal / Social Zoom-Out is relevant and helpful at this point.

When I step back (Zoom-Out) and ask myself “What’s the most important thing in life? The thing that makes it all worthwhile?” – it’s people.

That most certainly includes the workplace. One of the things I focus on as an Agile Coach and Happy Work Coach is that people are the most important aspect of any business. Focusing on (i.e. giving attention to) results at the expense of people is completely self-defeating. It’s people, and only people, that produce the results!

On a personal level, if people are the most important thing in life, how much of my day do I intend to focus on people? People instead of writing that report? People instead of process? People instead of tools? People instead of doing my admin? People instead of entertaining myself with a book or a movie? This is a good question to ask yourself when planning out your day.

Friend or Foe?

Another useful “mind hack” here is to aim to view everyone you encounter for the first time as a friend and not a potential “Foe”.  Our ancient brain and instincts can trigger defensive reactions in us. Even territorial ones. Being mindful of this and counteracting the effect is another useful skill. How much attention we pay to a person and particularly the type of attention we give, can be very much influenced by the frame through which we view them – “Friend or Foe?”. Like our legal system, aim to assume Friend (innocent) until proven otherwise.

Types of attention

Following on from this, pay attention to the type of attention we give to people. In the modern, digital, always-connected age, it’s very easy to give people attention via text, instant messaging/chat, email, social media, etc.

But there is nothing more powerful and valuable than face-to-face attention and interaction. (For any Agilists reading this, it’s interesting to note here that this is an explicit part of the Agile Manifesto!).

I am guilty of this quite a lot. I can be on an instant messaging system typing away, communicating with a colleague who is sat two desks away from me, or even next to me! OK sometimes, it’s being respectful of not demanding their attention back, so they can respond in their own time, and this certainly can be the best thing to do.  But often,  it would be far better to stand up walk over and give them my full attention, face to face.

There are countless articles written on the topic of effective communication and how to greet someone. They often point out:

  • Eye contact is key – maintaining eye contact with the person but not in an overly intense way – a soft gaze not a glaring stare!
  • Body language – by aware of your body language – face the person full on – be open, inviting and non-threatening – no crossed arms (unless their arms are crossed – see Mirroring next)
  • Mirroring – from NLP and other sources, this is matching the other person’s tone and volume of voice, their rate of speech and body language. This tends to put people more at ease and feel good about the interaction and your attention.

Cultivating attention control

Attention control is at the heart of Zoom-Out. It’s also foundational to Mindfulness. So including some mindful meditation in your life is a great way to not only cultivate mindfulness, it’s a great way to boost your ability to Zoom-Out and Zoom-In in a helpful way. I will write an article on this topic soon.

Leadership style

One of the topics that really fascinates me is that of Leadership Style. I am a trained Coach and it was interesting to learn and realise that Coaching is a leadership style as much as it is a tool. Underpinning coaching is the act of giving someone your complete and undivided attention (part of the coaching presence). Truly and fully listening to the person. Listening to understand. Switching off the voice in our own head. Paying attention to the person in front of you and not formulating what you are going to say next, waiting for your turn to say something. Immersing yourself in that person’s reality as much as possible, not your own. And this approach is not confined to a “Coaching Session”, it’s style of leadership we can use to great effect much of the time. We can use this in a work setting – with people that report to you, with your boss, with your boss’s boss, with colleagues. We can also use this outside work, with our kids, with our friends, with anyone. It’s simply a way of ‘being’ with a person. Giving them the gift of attention.

To give is to receive

As the saying goes, “To give is to receive”. So as well as this being the greatest gift, it will also benefit yourself enormously. At times it can take a lot of effort but it will be worth it. It can make you feel really good too!

Why not reflect on this and think about the people in your life and how much attention will you give them? And what form will that attention take?


Read Obituaries

When I was young and living at home with my parents, we had the local newspaper delivered every day. I was once a “Paper Boy” myself to earn some extra pocket money – it was also a rite of passage in my school days.

The daily ritual of reading the paper would invariably end up with either my mum or dad declaring that someone famous was now dead. I would often complain, stating that is was very morbid to be poring over the obituaries every day. I just thought it was very dark and a bit weird at the time – hardly entertainment!

Like many things when we grow older, we begin to appreciate behaviours in our parents we once thought odd or unfathomable. Reading obituaries, as it turns out, is a very powerful and inspirational tool – who’d have guessed? As well as the focus on death as a reminder of our own mortality, it’s also a reminder of a life lived, often to the full.

I was re-reading one of my favourite books on creativity recently, Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work” (sequel to “Steal Like an Artist”) and he has a chapter dedicated to this topic. He writes:

One day you’ll be dead. Most of us prefer to ignore this most basic fact of life, but thinking about our inevitable end has a way of putting everything into perspective. – Austin Kleon, “Show Your Work” p25

That sounds uncannily like a Zoomologist – almost verbatim how I have written before. Austin goes on to write – and I love this – about near-death experiences and not being so brave:

Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while keeping it at arms length. – Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work”  p27

As I write I just remembered my time working at the BBC on a new version of the BBC homepage. This had an “obituary module” which could be activated by editorial to link to the obituary of a famous person when they died. These obituaries were pre-written and ready to go at a moments notice. I used to wonder how famous you had to be to have an obituary written about you while you were still alive!

I think this is a great Zoom-Out tool – even better and more accessible than “Cemetary Walking”. In Austin’s own words:

Try it: Start reading the obituaries every morning. Take inspiration from the people who muddled through life before you – they all started out as amateurs, and they got where they were going by making do with what they were given, and having the guts to put themselves out there. Follow their example. – Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work”  p29

Why not bookmark one of the obituary newspaper columns now – for example:

And how about this for starters:

If your life’s journey is a creative one, I can highly recommend these two books. They are simply inspirational and bursting with life and practical advice.


The Blue Marble

This image literally caused the whole world to Zoom-Out.

The Blue Marble is an image of the Earth made on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft travelling toward the moon. The photograph was taken at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 miles) from the Earth’s surface. It is one of the most reproduced images in human history.


Attention Bubble


Life often demands that we give our attention to unpleasant things. Like smoke that contaminates the air we breathe, sometimes the best strategy, when we can’t avoid it, is to contain it.

WHY do it?

When we need to deal with a prolonged and potentially unpleasant matter, the extent to which this triggers negative emotions and negatively impacts your life is strongly influenced by the amount of attention we give to it. For example, consider doing your critical admin or accounts, moving home,  looking for a new job, going through a divorce, etc.

It also depends of course on the type of attention we give it – the perspective we hold. Here we are concerned solely with the amount of attention and limiting the extent to which that impinges on the rest of our daily life. In this way, we maintain balance, optimise our performance and maximise our wellbeing, day-to-day.

In summary: “Minimise the blast radius.”

WHAT is it?

The notion of an “attention bubble” aka “Zoom-In Bubble” is that we place bounds around our attention to a particular thing. Bounds in time and space. So we decide when and where we should be paying attention to it. The rest of the time we can free our minds and attention to focus on other things.

Attention is like breathing life into something. Deprive it of air and it’s not alive. Like a flame that burns, deprive it of oxygen and the flame goes out.

HOW to do it

Here’s how to put this tool to use.

1. Be clear about the goal

First of all be clear about the goal. The goal may evolve but you should have a strong sense of how important it is, any time constraints and the approach you need to take.

What’s the value of achieving the goal?

What’s the impact of not achieving the goal?

How will you know when you are done?

Writing down your goal with a set of “success criteria” or “done criteria” is a really good way to check and help get clarity.

This will ensure it only gets the amount of attention it deserves. And ensure it gets attention in time if there are time constraints.

2. Identify steps, especially the first step


3. Create the Bubble – constrain your attention to a time and place 

…. Pick and create an effective time and place to pay attention to it.

… Timebox to a time each day or week or whatever works.

4. Protect your Bubble

… Don’t allow any other distractions during timebox.

… Outside timebox forget about it.

5. Maintain your Bubble

… Set a reminder so you don’t forget.


Be mindful of your email, chat and social media usage. Might they pop your attention bubble? Email and social media are slippery attention slides… they can easily distract us and take us off down rabbit holes when we would rather not.

Here’s a tip for email for example.

In gmail (Google mail), you can create a label to represent a bubble, e.g. “House-move”. Then you can create a filter to match any emails relating to this topic or from associated people, and set matching emails to be labelled with “House-move” and also crucially, to bypass your inbox as they arrive. This is paramount to bypassing your attention – at least until the relevant time. Hey presto, you don’t get distracted by these messages when checking your inbox for other reasons. And when you are in your “House move” attention bubble, process the emails under this label and deal with them there and then only.


Martian Postcard

A writer friend of mine recently gave me a sheet of A4 paper and said, “Here, read this martian poem”.  I expected to see some script in an alien dialect with undecipherable characters.

What was written on the paper was the brilliant poem by Craig Raine quoted below. This turns out to be one example of martian poetry. A visit to the planet Wikipedia reveals:

“‘Martian poetry’ was a minor movement in British poetry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which everyday things and human behaviour are described in a strange way, as if by a visiting Martian who does not understand them. Poets most closely associated with it are Craig Raine and Christopher Reid.

The term Martianism has also been applied more widely to include fiction as well as to poetry. The word martianism is, coincidentally, an anagram of one of its principal exponents, Martin Amis, who promoted the work of both Raine and Reid in the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman.”

Here’s the poem that was my first ‘close encounter’ of the written ‘3rd kind’:

A Martian Sends a Postcard Home

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside –
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves –
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

– Craig Raine, 1979


Pale Blue Dot

The greatest selfie ever taken? From a Zoom-Out perspective, certainly. Also the greatest distance – you’d need a very long selfie-stick indeed to beat this one.

Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles, 40.5 AU), as part of the Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.

In the photograph, Earth’s apparent size is less than a pixel; the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space, among bands of sunlight scattered by the camera’s optics.
Voyager 1, which had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at the request of astronomer and author Carl Sagan.

… in case you missed it…

Carl Sagan’s Lecture

During a public lecture at Cornell University in 1994, Carl Sagan presented the image to the audience and shared his reflections on the deeper meaning behind the idea of the Pale Blue Dot:

“We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994

Sagan also titled his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” after the photograph.


Out of Time – a Zoom-Out Parable

A Zoomologists tale…

From up here, Jim could see for miles. In fact, as the cliche goes, he could exclaim, “I can see my house from here!”. Well actually, he could see every house he’d ever lived in. The terraced home in London that he lived in until the age of eight when his dad landed a job at a chemical company in Germany. The house in Dusseldorf where he stayed until the age of sixteen. Every house in fact, until the very last where he lived to the grand old age of 92. His final dwelling place and resting place. For Jim died peacefully in his sleep at 3:33 am on February 24th. That’s a few moments ago by the way. Although time is now not what it was. Or wasn’t what it is now. When you are out of time, time takes on the ultimate significance. Undeniable. When you are out of time, time loses its meaning. When you have both run out of time and stepped out of time, there’s no more time and time is no more.

Time is now an echo of a life once lived. But a life lived to the full. A life forged by the person that lived it. Not a passenger. Jim was up-front, grasping the controls, driving the vehicle of his life’s journey.

You see, Jim was a ‘Zoomologist’. No matter which house served as his residence, he recognised that his reality was largely of his own construction. That he resided within his own personal reality and that he was completely responsible for the furniture. Obtained not from Ikea but from Idea. From the raw material of thought that occupied the space between his ears.

Responsible for the layout, for the clutter, for who and what he invited in, for its upkeep. Responsible for the windows and curtains. Responsible for how much light he allowed in.

A Zoom-Out Parable


The Blind Men And The Elephant (poem)

This ancient parable of the blind men and an elephant is pure Zoom-Out.  There have been subtle variations of the parable over the ages. Its roots can be traced back to the ancient Indian subcontinent and Buddhism.

It is a story of a group of blind men, who have never come across an elephant before. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their partial experience and their descriptions are in complete disagreement on what an elephant is. In some versions they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest and they come to blows.

The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to project their partial experiences as the whole truth, ignore other people’s partial experiences, and one should consider that one may be partially right and may have partial information.

The parable is quoted below in the form of an elegant poem by John Godfrey Saxe.

Poem by John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,
who went to see the elephant (Though all of them were blind),
that each by observation, might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant, and, happening to fall,
against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the elephant, is nothing but a wall!”

The second feeling of the tusk, cried: “Ho! what have we here,
so very round and smooth and sharp? To me tis mighty clear,
this wonder of an elephant, is very like a spear!”

The third approached the animal, and, happening to take,
the squirming trunk within his hands, “I see,” quoth he,
the elephant is very like a snake!”

The fourth reached out his eager hand, and felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like, is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree.”

The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said; “E’en the blindest man
can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an elephant, is very like a fan!”

The sixth no sooner had begun, about the beast to grope,
than, seizing on the swinging tail, that fell within his scope,
“I see,” quothe he, “the elephant is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan, disputed loud and long,
each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,
tread on in utter ignorance, of what each other mean,
and prate about the elephant, not one of them has seen!

About John Godfrey Saxe

John Godfrey Saxe was born in Highgate, Vermont on June 2, 1816. He entered Wesleyan university in 1835, but left in his freshman year. He graduated at Middlebury College in 1839. Over the next four years he studied law in Lockport, New York, and then in St. AI-bans, Vermont , and was admitted to the bar at St Albans in 1843. He was the superintendent of common school from 1847 to 1848 and became the state’s attorney in Chittenden county 1850-51. He purchased the Burlington Sentinel and was the editor until 1856. He served as the attorney-general of Vermont in 1856 and was also the deputy collector of customs. Twice he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1859 and 1860.


William Blake as Zoomologist

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

– William Blake, from Auguries of Innocence, 1803

The Ancient of Days is a design by William Blake, originally published as the frontispiece to a 1794 work, Europe a Prophecy. It draws its name from one of God’s titles in the Book of Daniel and shows Urizen crouching in a circular design with a cloud-like background. His outstretched hand holds a compass over the darker void below.


‘This Is Water’ by David Foster Wallace

“This Is Water” is pure Zoom-Out.

It is the title given to a commencement speech (and later a derived written publication) given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College on May 21, 2005. Wallace was described as the most influential American author of his generation. His works included the classic Infinite Jest.  This is also the only public speech David Foster Wallace ever gave outlining his outlook on life. Time magazine has ranked This Is Water among the best commencement speeches ever delivered.

I highly recommend listening to his entire, inspirational and moving speech, available here on YouTube:


Art as Zoom-Out

Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) on art as Zoom-Out:

“[Art] unsettles us awake, disrupts our deadening routines, enlarges our reservoir of hope by enlarging our perspective, our grasp of truth, our capacity for beauty.”



Sandsend [poem]


Oceans new beat oceans past
Across the seas of moments lost.
Walk with me in the here and now
Discover the golden life in the cold rock.
Cliffs above us at once may fall
The ground beneath our feet
Will beat a hasty retreat.
But this day will last forever.
Lovers transcend the sands end.

– Rob Aston, 29 Aug 2009
(written on Sansend beach, North Yorkshire coast, England)

Fossil ammonite, preserved in iron pyrite, or ‘Fool’s Gold’. Credit: GB3D Type Fossils Online/British Geological Survey (c) NERC

Jimi Hendrix as Zoomologist

The story of life is quicker
Than the wink of an eye
The story of love is hello and goodbye
Until we meet again.

– Jimi Hendrix, 1970


Peering at the inner workings of the universe [art]

This is a modification of the Flammarion wood engraving by an unknown artist. It is referred to as the Flammarion Woodcut because its first documented appearance is in page 163 of Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (Paris, 1888), a work on meteorology for a general audience. The woodcut depicts a man peering through the Earth’s atmosphere as if it were a curtain to look at the inner workings of the universe.

The original caption below the picture (not included here) translated to: “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…“.



The Perfect Map

What is the single greatest source of missed opportunity, frustration, anxiety and stress? Here, we explore this through the power of storytelling.

Sit back and tune-in for a Zoom-Out fable: ‘The Perfect Map’

‘The Perfect Map’

– A Zoom-Out Fable

Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a beautiful palace filled with treasures. In his early years, he would run around his palace, his heart filled with joy and delight at his surroundings.

His favourite sight was the ceiling of the great hall which was breathtakingly high and painted with beautiful imagery that appeared to constantly morph before his eyes. And at night the ceiling revealed it was encrusted with magnificent shimmering jewels and faintly glowing patches of gold and silver leaf.

But over time the king started to take his palace for granted. He would stride through the great hall and no longer notice its magnificence.

One day he summoned his chief courtier for counsel. The king had decided he wanted to go forth and explore his wider kingdom.

The courtier agreed, “A king should survey his kingdom and the gifts that it bestows my lord”.

The king replied, “I shall prepare to go out at once, bring me the map of my kingdom, the whole of my kingdom!”

“Erm, no such map exists my lord.”, the courtier sheepishly replied.

“Then make me this map at once! The map must be perfect in every detail! Nothing should be omitted and it must be completely accurate!”, insisted the king.

“But my lord…. I mean yes your royal highness”, the courtier thought better of resisting the king’s demand.

The king’s finest cartographers toiled for months much to the impatience of their ruler. The kingdom was surveyed with meticulous precision. The most precious parchment and pigments were used for its construction.

Finally the map was ready and rolled out before the king on his dining table as he ate, such was his eager anticipation. The king was most pleased and didn’t finish his meal. He was so keen to break free of the confines of his palace and reap the rewards of his wider kingdom.

At first the king was thrilled to be setting out. The sense of freedom. The new sights and sounds. The fresh smells and sensations. But before long, things started to deviate from his expected plans.

As he entered a grand forrest he saw that the trees were much more densely populated than depicted on his map. This made for much tougher passage. “Who put all of these extra trees here? To thwart my advances!”, the king deplored. No one was around to hear him and the trees did not respond. The king very soon gave up and back-tracked out of the majestic trees.

At one point on his journey, a short distance off to his left rose an impressive waterfall and at that instant the sun’s rays spawned a stunning rainbow in the engulfing mist. On the map, the river was depicted but the cascade was not evident. The king therefore passed by oblivious, never glancing in its direction.

Another time he came across a river that was much wider than the one on his map. And to add insult to injury the river was flowing in the complete opposite direction. “Why does this water flow in the opposite direction to my travel?, the exasperated king retorted. The water did not respond.

Each day, something about the world would differ from the map and exasperate the king. “What has gone wrong with this world!”, the king demanded. “How can I be expected to enjoy life and fulfil my dreams?”

He often came across fellow travellers. They would invariably suggest he update his map and compare with their own. But the king would not listen. How dare they! Did they not realise he had the one true map? Perfect in every way.

Once, the king got completely lost. He became desperate. His precious map was held closely and firmly. Meanwhile the world it seemed was out to thwart the king’s desires. “Why does the world not conform to my map?”. He grew increasingly disillusioned with his kingdom. He protested at the world and tried to change it, so that it conformed to his map. But to no avail.

One day the king was walking along a coastal cliff top. With an overwhelming sense of frustration and disillusionment, he stopped in his tracks and at the top of his voice declared, “What a dreadful and treacherous kingdom I inhabit, what is the point of being king of such a domain?” With this, the king removed his precious crown and cast it into the sea.

The waves swallowed the crown without judgment, pity or empathy. It sank without trace but still with the flickering prospect of being at some time retrieved.

And the king clung to his map for the rest of his days cursing and kicking back against the world.

Rob Aston, London – 19 Jan 2018

Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay


Bill Hicks Zoom-Out – “It’s Just a Ride”

I was recommending some comedians to a friend the other day. As well as being entertaining, comedians are natural perspective-shifters – they show us funny ways to look at the world. I’m particularly drawn to those comedians, often self-deprecating, that poke fun at the less glamorous or darker aspects of human existence, so recommended George Carlin, Marc Maron, Louis CK.

It was then I remembered Bill Hicks. A friend introduced me to Bill Hicks the best part of 20 years ago and I’d not watched any of his material for a long time. This prompted me to jump on YouTube and watch Revelations again. His seminal performance at the Dominion Theatre in London 1993. Who can forget “Goat Boy”?

I watched it for pure entertainment value.

And then, as he dons his dark coat and hat to close the show he asks:

“Is there a point to my act? I would say there is. I have to.”

His answer is his famous “It’s just a ride” monologue – full transcript below – but don’t just read it, hear it from the man himself – it’s beautifully Zoom-Out-esque. See how many Zoom-Out Principles you recognise.  Bill Hicks is a honourary Zoomologist for sure.

Full transcript – Bill Hicks “It’s just a ride”

You’ve been fantastic, and I hope you enjoyed it.  There is a point.  Is there a point to all of this?  Let’s find a point.

Is there a point to my act?  I would say there is.  I have to.

The world is like a ride, in an amusement park.  And when you choose to go on it, you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are.  And the ride goes up and down, and round and round.  It has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly coloured, and it’s very loud and it’s fun.  For a while.

Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question: “Is this real, or is this just a ride?”

And other people have remembered, and they come back to us, and they say, “Hey, don’t worry.  Don’t be afraid, ever.  Because this is just a ride.”

And we . . . kill those people.  Ha-ha!

“Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride! Shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.”

It’s just a ride.  But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that?  And we let the demons run amok.

But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride, and we can change it any time we want.  It’s only a choice.  No effort.  No worry.  No job.  No savings and money.

[It’s] a choice, right now, between fear and love.  The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off.  The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one.

Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, into a better ride:  Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defense each year and, instead, spend it feeding, clothing, and educating the poor of the world – which it would do many times over, not one human being excluded.  And we can explore space together, both inner and outer, forever.  In peace.

Thank you very much, you’ve been great.  I’ve hoped you enjoyed it.  You’re fantastic!  Thank you!  Thank you very much.


Self Pity [poem]


I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

– D H Lawrence  (1885 – 1930)

Words can be powerful tools for helping us gain a perspective on our perspectives. A perspective on our feelings. Words can help us to Zoom-Out. Once we can recognise and label a pattern of feelings, especially painful or destructive feelings, we can see it more clearly for what it is. We can then treat it for what it is. In the case of self-pity, we can see that in the scheme of the universe, self-pity is not at all helpful. We can let it go.

It’s wonderful how words can preserve and carry “Zoom-Out thinking” down the ages, so we can benefit from perspectives from beautiful minds, like the words above.

Image by gabicuz from Pixabay


Tame the “Golden-eyed monster”

As humans we are endowed with an incredible power. One that we all too often take for granted. The power itself goes unnoticed.  The power itself is not harnessed to its full potential. In fact it often does us harm without us realising. It creates a universe that we inhabit much of the time. We ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ this universe as much as the ‘real’ one (whatever that actually is). We experience delight, joy, intrigue, fear and sadness in its grip.

What is this power?

This is the power of your imagination.

“Imagination is the golden-eyed monster that never sleeps. It must be fed; it cannot be ignored.” –  Patricia A. McKillip

Your imagination will interpret your current situation and project its own version of that reality into your consciousness. It will take you on a trip to a fictional future. A future that will never exist or at least never exist exactly as you just ‘experienced’ it.

“I have suffered a great many misfortunes in my life, most of which never happened” – Mark Twain

In human evolution, this imagination has served us well. It has enabled us to play out “what if” scenarios in our mind and mentally rehearse for challenging situations, possibly life or death ones. However, left unchecked, your imagination can run wild and be ruled by your insecurities, fears and no-longer helpful animal instincts.

Real or imagined?

It’s a well established fact that your brain cannot tell the difference between something that’s real and something imagined (see further reading at the end of this article). This in part is why reading a story or watching a movie can be such a powerful experience. Also consider how memories that manifest in your imagination can stir up such powerful emotions.

The choice is yours

You have a choice. You can take more control of this incredible power.

“Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worth while.” – L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Try this quick exercise/experiment:
1. What have you got coming up tomorrow?
2. How are you currently imagining it?
3. How can you improve your imagined version to make it function more effectively for you?

The first step is to notice when your imagination runs in a direction that is not serving you and not contributing to your happiness in the short-term or long-term.

The second step is to acknowledge what is happening and ‘take the reigns’ – you can redirect your imagination. You can imagine something more useful or valuable to your well-being and happiness.

Consider these examples:

Example 1: Staff presentation

Situation: You are on your morning commute to the office. You have a company staff meeting at which you are scheduled to give a presentation.

Your imagination on auto-pilot: You imagine your turn to present and people in the audience wanting you to forget your lines or screw up in some way. You are tense, stressed and can’t wait for the day to be over.

Instead you choose to imagine: Imagine yourself enjoying giving your presentation regardless of what others may or not be thinking. You are relaxed during the presentation and it goes well.

It can also be helpful to recall a time when you have felt and functioned as you would like to in a similar situation, and apply that feeling to the imagined scenario.

Example 2: Job interview

Situation: You are on your way to a job interview.

Your imagination on auto-pilot: You imagine other candidates that are “better” than you going for the interview and how could you possibly compete against them?

Instead you choose to imagine:  Imagine yourself as a unique individual and that you may be the best fit for what these unique interviewers are looking for.

Harness the Power

This takes practice but like any exercise gets easier the more you do it. Your imagination is an incredible force. It can undermine your happiness or if you take control, it can be used to boost it.

Is this something you have already experienced? Is this something you do naturally?

Please share your experiences and insights by leaving a comment.

Further Reading

‘Visualisation Alters the Brain’

‘The Power of Creative Visualisation’

‘The difference between imagination and reality in the brain’

Originally published on – May 2015


The Doors of Perspective

The Doors of Perception is a philosophical essay, released as a book, by Aldous Huxley. First published in 1954, it details his experiences when taking mescaline. The book takes the form of Huxley’s recollection of a mescaline trip that took place over the course of an afternoon in May 1953. The book takes its title from a phrase in William Blake’s 1793 poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The lines appear at the end of the poem (full poem below this):

From a Zoomologist’s point of view this strikes a chord, since “perception” and “perspective” are closely related.

As Zoomologists, we are on a “trip” to open the Doors of Perspective.

Here’s the full William Blake poem: