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Back to First Principles

Suggested Song: I Believe in a Dream, Bill Magill Suggested Drink: French 75: champagne, gin or cognac, lemon, simple syrup. (a virgin version included in link)

Like almost everyone at the break of a new year I’d been plotting a different start to the next phase. A revival. Covid was diluting down, I was vaccinating up, and my system was primed for an animated resurrection of dormant, or perhaps entirely new, ambitions. Bring on 2022! On January 1, nothing. January 2, …still drawing blanks. Midmonth found me even more aimless and adrift. My reliable custom of new-years rebirth had abandoned me. What was happening?

Entropy : en·tro·py /ˈentrəpē/ noun A process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder. (Merriam-Webster).

Covid has been an easy out for getting sidetracked on life’s plans. Can’t travel. Hate Zoom. Off balance. Fair enough, now it’s time to get over it. Nature’s natural order is always toward disorder. Plants wilt and die. Cells in our bodies corrupt (and we wilt and die). Gears rust and software gets buggy. As Neil Young sang, rust never sleeps. Entropy never rests. When all bogs down one needs a strategy.

My very first vocation, pre suffusing in rosé on hot Provence afternoons, before teaching business, prior to financing startups, previous to writing reports on stocks and markets, earlier than wrenching on Star Wars lasers, … no way, way before all of that, I worked on cars. I’ve been up to my elbows in axle grease and wrapped many a rusty tailpipe in muffler bandage. A car mechanic makes his living on entropy in action.

All grand ambitions lose momentum and yield to gravity without an equal or greater force to keep them in motion. The bigger the plans (and the best plans are absurdly audacious), the greater the effort required. Consider this Magill’s 3rd Law of Life Motion. When inspiration flags and ambitions suffer from the entropy affliction, return to first principles and apply a dose of Spartan discipline. This is the antidote.

First Principals :  first prin·​ci·​ples / fɝːst ˈprɪn.sə.pəlz / noun (plural) The basic and most important reasons for doing or believing something. (Cambridge Dictionary)

Near the end of January I shared a coffee with Jonathan Simons (more on him below) and had a breakthrough: I needed to get back to first principles. When I upended my life 12 years earlier – when I quit my job, divorced my wife, and moved across the globe – what the hell was I thinking? That was a deeply disruptive decision to all involved, so what was the motivation, the justification, behind that madness, that moment of this I must do now!? What were my first principles?

First, some backstory.

When I moved to Aix-en-Provence in 2010 I had a big basket of mid-life dreams to pursue: write essays and books, record music and produce a musical, teach, give workshops on audacious life leaps, suffer a mad love affair, and try being Bill in entirely new and not yet understood ways in an unfamiliar land. The cable cars, foggy slopes, domestic surety, and San Francisco’s world of high-tech finance were in my rear-view mirror; ahead was nothing but alien green field.

These things I mostly did, but to little acclaim and largely unnoticed (the love affair excepted). My first compilation of essays – Postcards from a Runaway – was published in 2014 on Zook, which summarily folded. My 2018 album – Last Night at the Ha-Ra – was self-released and still hasn’t generated 1,000 listens on Spotify. The musical I staged around that album score has yet to gain traction with stage or screen producers. I did find a home at INSEAD teaching startup creation, so that gets a check. And I managed to convince Sorbonne CELSA to let me to teach entrepreneurship through the lens of life change (what I call interpreneurship), which they accepted with a puzzled look: Interpreneurship, c’est quoi ça professeur Magill? Bless them.

Regrets? Anyone telling you they live life with no regrets either (1) is being dishonest, or (2) lacks the humility to admit that every now and then they seriously fuck up. Do I question the move to Provence and abandonment of my former life? No. Am I frustrated at my continued obscurity? Yes. But I didn’t take this path expecting quick celebrity and riches (I’ll take them). I pursued a deeper life wild in new experiences, relationships, and possibilities that would fuel a body of celebrated work that would outlive me. When I recalibrated on these first principles, which nowhere state the words rich or famous, a crippling sense of frustration washed out, a deep sense of ease washed in, and I exhaled. Revival. I was good.

If you find yourself adrift at this point into the year, take a moment to define (or redefine) your first principles, then reengage. How? These 3 steps are working for me:

  1. Reset: Firstly, chill and don’t do jack for a few days or weeks; focus on getting back to your baseline. (For non-American readers, jack is short for jack shit. If you’re confused as to why shit is proceeded with jack I have no idea, it’s an American thing. … Speaking of American things, you’ll find a tune of that very same name on my 1996 album Eskimo in the Sun. Click here to listen. Big bobaloo kahuna baby!). During this reset (1) go minimalist and (2) feed the basics. Get as many distractions out of your daily quotidien as possible. Embrace your hermitude. Books. Netflix. Hikes. Meditate. Contemplate. Get healthy. Go naked. Baths (with plenty of bubbles or salts; your skin and soul will thank you). Don’t overthink your principles or ambitions, just re-find your balance. That desire to make a big reach will start to stir again.

  2. Apply Discipline: There’s a time to be Athens, a time to be Sparta. All night decadence, all day recovery, bank-breaking adventures and other fun forms of hedonistic mischief will be waiting once you’ve relaunched. Athens reveled in grand displays of indulgence and creativity; Sparta in restraint and prowess. It’s a moment for minimalism and structure. When resetting to first principles get your Sparta on.

  3. Reaffirm: Once you’ve established a stable state rewrite those first principles. If you no longer believe them, change them. If you never had them, craft them. What do you stand for now? What is your personal doctrine? What needs to be said about you at your eulogy? Find that supreme north star that guides all of your actions and major decisions. A distilled, incontestable, single statement of your name here raison d’être. Stew on it, write it, test it, reshape it, and then honor it. Companies refer to their first principles as a mission statement. Some good examples:

  4. BBC: To enrich people’s lives with programs and services that inform, educate and entertain.

  5. Walmart: We save people money so they can live better.

  6. GE: We bring good things to life.

A powerful mission statement propels all employees toward a common, worthy, and clearly-defined corporate goal. Your first principles should similarly get you oriented toward a bright north star, cutting through all the turbulence and lulls that separate now and the realisation of your grand life ambitions. What gift do you want to leave behind? This will help get you there.

Two final notes:

A big thank you to Jonathan Simons. Our chat at Mana Cafe in January pulled me out of my creative stupor and back to first principles; the breakthrough mentioned above. Jonathan is the founding editor and publisher of The Analog Sea Review, a collection of poetry, essays, fiction, and fine art for those “wishing to maintain contemplative life in the digital age.” He is a most inspiring purist, unavailable by email, text, or phone (he doesn’t own one). No online presence, no digital wake. Exchanges require pen and paper. I love it. If The Analog Sea Review is not yet available in your neighborhood bookstore, please press them to carry it. Contact me for an introduction if curious.

To those of you whose grand ambitions center on artistic creation, if you too are toiling in anonymity take solace in the fact that some of history’s most revered artists – Schubert, Van Gogh, and Brontë being just 3 examples – left this world still largely unappreciated outside their small circle of supporters. This did not, however, corrupt their artistic vision or provoke them to toward conformity. Be provoked; never conform. If you are to be remembered for anything it will be that singular gift that only you could offer.

Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence

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