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From Michael Lewis to Montaigne, the best writers first live an interesting life

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

A most unusual kind of jealousy settled over me this week: envy for the life of an 18th- or 19th century clergyman. Fortunately, I can explain. What do the following thinkers have in common?

Thomas Bayes (Bayesian probability). Thomas Malthus (over-population), Edmund Cartwright (who invented the power loom), George Garrett (who invented the submarine). They were all parish priests. 

The point, fortunately, is not that we have to enter the priesthood to think better. It wasn’t necessarily God that inspired them; it was autonomy. The Church inadvertently protected them from the need to “pursue a career” with their inventions and scientific research. Their research was self-directed, guided by personal whims and passions, rather than restricted by the rules of academic disciplines. They were hobbyists not “professionals”. We should remember their example.

That is one of the brilliant arguments in Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book. Taleb himself started writing when he was still a trader. His day job bought him freedom, time and autonomy to follow his intellectual passions. He wrote as he chose. Taleb is not alone. Stendhal was a diplomat, Trollope worked as a civil servant for the Post Office, Kafka was employed by an insurance company.

Just do something

Taleb’s argument makes me feel better about the awkwardness I suffer when I am asked how to pursue a “career” in writing. I’ve always wanted to say this: “Don’t! If you really want to write, then do so. Just don’t view it as a prearranged career, a battle campaign to be planned. Writing isn’t like that. Perhaps you need to do something else first.”

How many of your favourite writers, whether they are journalists or novelists, mapped out a career plan, ticking off all the available credentials and qualifications as they moved towards their prearranged destination? If your answer is more than none, then you clearly like different writers from me.

Let me give three examples. They are all writers I greatly admire, drawn from very different genres, all of whom experienced life outside the literary world long before they paid the bills with their pens. Michael Lewis is probably the most widely read and influential journalist in the world. Following his series for Vanity Fair about the crisis in the eurozone, the Economist argued that “Europe trembles before Lewis’s gaze”. Lewis started out as a banker at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s. Being inside finance, rather than viewing it with contempt from the vantage point of the media or academia, did more than provide a grasp of financial detail. More importantly, Lewis understood the nature of the beast. What he had seen, felt and lived as a banker formed the insights of his books – even though they were written long after he had fallen out of love with finance. Lewis did not pursue “contacts”, he lived his life.

As a poet, calligrapher, librettist and novelist, Vikram Seth’s work could not be more different from the urgent relevance of Lewis’s writings. But the idea of Seth studying “creative writing” is as unlikely as Lewis taking a further degree in finance. At school, Seth was thought more likely to be a politician than a writer. After studying PPE at Oxford, he pursued macroeconomics at Stanford. The real world fascinated him first; the means of artistic expression came later. After Seth made an epic voyage through China, Tibet and Nepal, his father urged him to write up his travel notes. They became From Heaven Lake, his first book. Nor did Seth “plan” his books; he was too busy writing them. He wrote A Suitable Boy (over 1,400 pages) in full before submitting it to publishers.

If Lewis is a champion of middle-distance running, and Seth leads the field over the marathon, Matthew Parris is one of our greatest sprinters, master of the 1,200-word essay. He was an MP before finding his voice as parliamentary sketch-writer and columnist for The Times. Public life came first, then the writer’s life. The practical realm gave way to reflection. The careers – or, better, the lives – of Seneca and Montaigne follow the same pattern.

Reflecting on all this led to a startling realisation. For 13 years, I was a professional cricketer. In my conscious mind, my ambitions in cricket were very simple and obvious – to play for England, to improve as a batsman, to succeed as a captain and so on. My friends often questioned why I carried on so long, even after I’d dropped out of contention for the England side. I can now see that the answers I gave – “I’m batting better this season . . . a breakthrough is round the corner” – were honest but incomplete.

Away from the crease

The untold story, which I didn’t understand, let alone acknowledge, is that cricket informed the rest of my life. First, it provided rich experience. A day lived in a position of leadership teaches you more than a year spent studying leadership in others. Later, when I withdrew into the writer’s world, I had a deep well of emotions and experiences with which I was still grappling.

Secondly, cricket gave me freedom. For seven months a year, I had a reasonably secure job (albeit a very demanding one). In the other five months, I could write exactly as I wanted – whether books or journalism – without having to pretend to be someone else to please an editor or publisher. For five months a year, I could live as a self-tasking academic, only without any papers to mark or research proposals to submit. I could follow any intellectual threads that interested me, no matter how obscure or unconnected to my “career”. In the process, I developed a love of freedom and autonomy that stayed with me even when writing replaced cricket as my main job.

Aristotle’s definition of the free man is one who is free with his opinions – as a side effect of being free with his time. The Church provided that freedom to the 19th-century parson. Cricket provided it for me. How back-to-front we get things. I used to think my vain, childish obsession with sport had taken up far too much time, preventing me from more serious pursuits. Now I feel only deep gratitude.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture