Reflections on Beijing

For almost as long as Beijing has existed people have continually warned about its cultural last days. Whenever I mentioned to my well-travelled friends that I would be living in Beijing they without fail would spin some line about how it’s just not the real China anymore. I imagine these are the same people who with every Burning Man lament it is never as good as it was.

Beijing may have once had a glorious past, but given that this now lies buried under a Starbucks, I may as well enjoy the supposedly culturally apocalyptic world that remains.

It’s true that a part of me wishes that I could live in a Hutong – a traditional single-storey street of courtyard dwellings.  These once crisscrossed the city in their thousands until Beijing decided it wanted to host the Olympics. Instead, I’m confined to the 22nd floor of a generic apartment complex soaring almost ashamedly into a haze of pollution; a cloud with the dubious silver lining of an increased likelihood of respiratory problems.  

I also wish I could have seen the original temples and palaces which represented a historical legacy of three millennia, but instead, I must be content with thinly-veiled illusions which upon closer inspection reveal hastily erected concrete beneath.

However, for me, the spirit of the city no longer lies in the lost buildings which were swept away in the name of development but instead is embodied by Beijing’s hipsters filling techno club Dada on a Saturday night and the gaggle of high-schoolers crooning songs in a KTV. I see it in the hustle of my friends working in Beijing’s startups who, when I call them in a counterfeit-Belvedere induced blur in the early hours, will invariably still be in the office. The spirit is also in the smell of Hot Pot that for some reason I can never get out of my clothes for all the Persil in the world.

My Beijing is not your Beijing, and it’s not anyone else’s Beijing. You can create your own bubble, curating your personal levels of cultural exposure. You might mix with the well-dressed perfectly manicured expats in San Li Tun drinking cocktails at prices that would make a Londoner blush.  Alternatively, you can while away the hours in a park watching a sexagenarian catapult small stones at a tree or be stage-managed by chain-smoking old men as you try to unravel the nuances of Chinese Chess. The history might only be as real as the alcohol, but what makes me love the city is the newly emerging culture that reveals itself more with every day I spend here.

Increasingly, the metropolis is being fuelled by waves of migrants from across China driven by an idea embedded in the Chinese consciousness that Beijing is the Chinese dream. They’re bringing with them fresh ideas and perspectives that are shaping the Beijing of tomorrow. The truth is that while the culture of old Beijing may have disappeared, new stories are already starting to be written. The city is not the ubiquitous high-rises that replaced the beautiful chaos of the Hutongs or the rough concrete facsimiles of historical landmarks, but rather the 20 million minds working on creating a future that matters to them.


Introducing The Polymath Show

I’ve been trying to learn about polymaths for years now. I’ve been asking questions about the role of polymaths in society to people around the world from Chris Anderson, the owner of Ted to Ian Goldin. I’ve also read every book I can get my hands on about the importance of.

I’ve also been working on setting up a podcast for nearly a year now exploring how to actually live as a polymath and develop multi-disciplinary skills. Finally a couple of days ago I quietly launched The Polymath Show which will produce videos, podcasts and articles about polymathy in the 21st century.

The first episode of the podcast is now live and you can listen to it below. In it I share my thoughts on what it means to be a polymath arguing that rather than being an adjective used only for geniuses in our society, instead it should be a goal that everyone can aspire to.

I’ll be releasing much more content through The Polymath Show in the future so please subscribe to the weekly newsletter on the site and check out all the articles and videos already online.

Giving it a week 

I have an idea for a project that I am really excited about. It’s ambitious, it could make a real difference in the world and as far as I know hasn’t been done before.

It’s definitely out of my depth and I don’t know yet whether or not it’s actually something that I’m able to do. It’s also risky with a high chance of failure and could be copied by someone else which has made me reluctant to approach other organisations.

Yet, I want to do it anyway. I know however with projects like this that it is hard to pull the trigger and devote myself entirely to it because there is a fear that it won’t work out.

That’s why for the next week this project is all I will be working on. Literally. No other side project or any other work will be done for 7 whole days so if I don’t feel like working on this project then nothing gets done.

This is also the only opportunity I’m going to give myself for this project. If after a week I haven’t managed to make any progress then that will be it. The idea will go on the back-burner and I move onto something else, failing fast.

If after one week however I have made real, tangible progress that demonstrates clearly to me that this could be successful then I know this is something that I can focus on and continue to pursue.

One big advantage is of this is I will have no fear when it comes to sharing my ideas with potential partners because I won’t allow myself to continue with it anyway unless I make progress, and in order to make any progress I need to share it and risk it being copied.

It also means that I have to focus on real work and prioritise the things that matter. Sure I could start a Facebook account for it or design a fancy logo but with just a week things like this that won’t help me to get closer to progress no longer seem like good uses of my time. This idea is based on the Pareto Principle suggesting that 20% of the effort leads to 80% of the results. This week will be full of that 20% work.

7 days or 168 hours. The project starts now.

Results Day

Nearly a year ago I made the decision to apply to the University of Oxford. As I write this in just 14 hours time I will find out whether or not I will be studying there for the next four years.

I don’t know whether or not I will meet the requirements of the offer I was given by the University back in January, and the pressure to not let down the friends and family who were so excited back then is high.

I’m sharing my story of my experiences over the past year in the application process in a YouTube video which is both a personal diary and a guide to anyone thinking of applying on what to expect from the process and that however unlikely they may think it is that they’ll get an offer it’s still worth giving it a shot.

I hope that tomorrow I will open my exam results to the news that I have got in but if not I’m excited about the prospect of beginning again to forge a different path in my life. Seth Godin has spoken about the importance in creative work of embracing the idea that this might not work. Applying to Oxford has reinforced for me the importance of this concept in life in general, and should I fail to get in I look forward to finding something else to devote myself to that might not work either.