How Fighting Fantasy beat traditional stories

In the three decades since Fighting Fantasy began, games have changed our concept of story forever.

When I was 10 I wanted, for a brief period, to be a professional Fighting Fantasy player. I was so fascinated with the now-iconic green-jacketed gamebooks, emblazoned with the legend “Thrilling fantasy adventures in which YOU are the hero!”, that I hatched a plan to make playing them my job as a grown-up. The market for professional gamebook players never materialised, but fantasy gaming has become big business. If I’d chosen to hit the Magic the Gathering pro tour, or joined a videogame clan I might have stood a better chance.

What made Fighting Fantasy so addictive for my 10-year-old self, and for a generation of geeks around my age, was the combination of two things we love with a passion: stories and games. I’m fascinated by the way in which the massive growth of gaming in the 30 years since Fighting Fantasy was first published has changed how we think about stories – so I was very lucky to grab some time with one of gaming’s most influential figures, Ian Livingstone, co-creator of Fighting Fantasy, founder of Games Workshop and lifetime president of Eidos Interactive, the company behind Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.

“I started playing games as a child and never stopped,” Ian says when asked about his own passion for games, which started with classics like Monopoly and chess, then war games and board games before he discovered Dungeons & Dragons in his 20s. “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to turn my passion for playing games into a business of making them.”

It was Dungeons & Dragons that helped fulfil that ambition. Games Workshop purchased the UK rights to the cult role-playing game in 1975, which established the company’s mission to make progressive games for core gamers, and led in turn to the immense success of the Warhammer franchise in the 1980s. Dungeons & Dragons established an entirely new paradigm for gaming, one that brought story and character into games as never before. “In many ways paper and pencil role-playing creates a much deeper gaming experience than many video games,” Ian argues. “The narrative is made up as the game is played out rather than along a predetermined arc written by the games designer. This unstructured format of role-playing on the big screen of the imagination can’t be bettered in terms of unique user experience.”

It was on the big screen of the reader’s imagination that the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks played out. Ian and co-creator Steve Jackson wrote the books in a second-person present style, with branching story narratives and a dice-based game system bolted on. “Fighting Fantasy gamebooks empower the reader, who felt the anxiety or joy of being fantasy heroes themselves – they lived or died by their decisions. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” And a lot of people did exactly that: more than 17m Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were sold, in 28 languages. And Fighting Fantasy is still going strong, with Chinese translations launched very recently.

“There are thousands of traditional books which are of course brilliantly written and have incredibly exciting storylines and thought-provoking philosophies,” Ian continues, as we talk about the differences between traditional novels and interactive fiction of the kind pioneered in Fighting Fantasy. “Yet traditional books have a linear storyline and sometimes a hero which the reader may or may not relate to.” The appeal of a gamebook then is that it allows the reader to be at the absolute centre of the story. The idea of a thrilling fantasy adventure where YOU are the hero is more than just a clever marketing line, it’s central to the success of Fighting Fantasy and a very significant part of how games have changed stories.

The techniques Fighting Fantasy employed to put you at the heart of the story became standard in the burgeoning videogame industry. “In the early days of computer and videogames there simply wasn’t enough available memory to include a compelling story, let alone graphics, speech and music. But today that’s all changed, and storytelling has become an important and integral part of a videogame.” Graphics are near-photo-realistic, characters more believable, and professional writers are transforming the experience of story-led games such as Deus Ex and Mass Effect. But first person action and branching story narratives are still the standard ways of telling stories.

Are we becoming a game-culture? Fighting Fantasy gave a generation of readers a first taste of what games can bring to stories, and the videogaming industry has gone on to take gaming from the parlour and make it an absolutely central part of contemporary life. Gamification has become the trend of the day in the world of marketing, with companies such as Zynga and their game Farmville exploiting our hunger for games to hold our attention and sell us products. In her super-insightful TED talk of 2010, game designer and academic Jane McGonigal asked if gaming could help make a better world, arguing that an estimated 1.5 billion “virtuoso” gamers represent a massive untapped resource of expert problem solvers just waiting to … solve all the world’s problems! Games put us at the heart of the story, in a world where very often we feel far out on the edge.

That was once the traditional role of novels as well, but increasingly stories are also reflecting our hunger for games. Game of Thrones charts the power struggles between warring families in a medieval fantasy world, with each new chapter like a new move on the chessboard of Westeros. The Hunger Games has cashed in on our thirst for competition and its consequences in our daily lives. Perhaps we’re becoming aware that in a world where everyone is the hero of their own story, the inevitable outcome is an ever more competitive society, and we demand books and films that reflect this reality.

I finish my conversation with Ian Livingstone by asking him the Desert Island Discs question for gamers; if he was stuck in the grim far future of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise, which game would he take to keep himself entertained? The writer of Fighting Fantasy has more than 1,000 boardgames and thousands more videogames, but there’s only one choice for a true gamer. “I would probably play chess because it is the ultimate pure game, and I will always be able to improve no matter how long the war goes on.”

Originally published on Guardian Books

What is Hachette fighting for?

The Amazon books team deliver some interesting, but non-specific, data on ebook prices. Bottom line – lower prices deliver higher revenue and profits because e-book prices are “highly elastic”. So indie authors putting their work on for £2.99 against the standard publisher price of £8.99 are doing exactly the right thing.

It’s worth noting here that ebook prices now behave much more like the dynamics of crowd-funding than traditional book pricing. Your product is essentially unlimited so you price at the point that produces the highest volume. It’s clear publishers don’t understand this yet. They are setting prices on the basis of product scarcity – put simply, publishers still don’t understand the market for ebooks.

One more note on our proposal for how the total revenue should be shared. While we believe 35% should go to the author and 35% to Hachette, the way this would actually work is that we would send 70% of the total revenue to Hachette, and they would decide how much to share with the author. We believe Hachette is sharing too small a portion with the author today, but ultimately that is not our call.

via Amazon.com: Customer Discussions: Update re: Amazon/Hachette Business Interruption.

This begs the question, if Amazon are fighting for higher author royalties and more profits overall, what are Hachette fighting for and why does anyone support them? It’s clear, Hachette are fighting for their existing and increasingly outmoded business model. They’re fighting for stasis in the face of inevitable change. Worst of all, they are fighting against changes that are vastly to the benefit of writers. I still say this is a fight authors do best not to take sides in. But if you are going to join the battle, you’re a fool not to see Amazon as your ally.

Look at the state of British Sci-Fi

Strange Horizons publishes a large an interesting report on “The State of British Sf and Fantasy” which with the input of six authors does a fairly good job of reflecting many current trends. I take issue with Juliet McKenna’s opening essay The Market and Trade. Not because it is incorrect – it is well researched and has much useful information. But because it is myopic in its focus and unforgivably negative in tone.

Writers earning a living wage from their fiction and giving up the day job is an increasingly unlikely prospect. Advances for novels continue to fall and the contractual rights surrendered become ever more all-encompassing, giving publishers first call on income from foreign translation and other formats. Backlist sales once sustained writers but with bookshops no longer holding such stock, that revenue has shrunk for most but the top sellers. Short story and small press deals cannot offer enough money to make up such shortfalls. Direct sales through ebooks may bring writers a higher return in percentage terms but those authors who make significant sums remain newsworthy precisely because they are the “man bites dog” stories of publishing.

via Strange Horizons Articles: The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium, by Juliet E. McKenna, Kari Sperring, Nina Allan, Dan Hartland, Martin Lewis, and Maureen Kincaid Speller.

An “increasingly” unlikely prospect? There are more writers than ever earning a living in the genre. It’s a much more likely prospect. Why the intense and inaccurate negativity?

What is missing from McKenna’s purview? Digital, ebooks and most critically the indie author revolution. There’s nothing to gain from bemoaning the problems in traditional publishing without paying detailed attention to the context giving rise to those problems. WE’RE IN THE MIDST OF THE MOST RADICAL CHANGE CHANGE IN KNOWLEDGE DISTRIBUTION SINCE THE PRINTING PRESS WAS INVENTED. The publishing industry as you know it is an artefact for of the pre-digital era, there is absolutely zero chance of it continuing in its established form in the face of digital technology, and yes of course writers trying to shelter within the collapsing infrastructure of that industry are going to have an increasingly hard time.

Where are writers earning a living wage today? In self publishing. How are writers protecting their intellectual property from publishers contracts? By self publishing. How are writers profiting from their backlist? By self publishing. When are short stories making unexpected profits for writers? When being self published. How does McKenna characterise self-publishing? As the “man bites dog” outlier of success. No doubt many writers and publishing professionals continue to see it that way. They’re likely to continue on the same downward spiral McKenna describes for as long as they do so.

Why do you hate indie authors?

Hugh Howey once again shares another interesting perspective on the indie publishing revolution, in this case a refutation of the frequent criticisms of the Author Earnings reports methodology, from the unnamed Data Guy behind those reports.

I do apologize to those whom this information proves troubling, but it is a fair view of what is happening in the world of ebooks today. And all the trends we’ve seen point in the same direction.

via Data Guy on the Author Earnings Methodology | Hugh Howey.

Howey’s brief quote there interests me, because it raises the simple question, why are so many in the industry so vindictively determined that indie publishing can not exist? I see the same fatuous counter arguments placed against the existence of indie publishing again and again. The data is unreliable! Jesus H Christ folks just spend five minutes on the internet looking at the hundreds of indie authors clearly doing very well with their work. They’re just a few needles in a haystack! All success in any creative field is like being a needle in a haystack. Do you use the very rare success of traditionally published authors to condemn the traditional publishing industry? Most indie authors sell no books! Most authors FULL STOP sell no books. They spend years making submissions and in slush piles and learn nothing. Yes, you might claim it’s better to publish nothing until an agent or editor approves you. Personally, I think its better to give that power to readers.

Indie publishing is real, it’s here to stay, and its tranformative effect on the industry is just beginning. So the question remains, why do you hate it so much?

Where are my international Amazon Associate commissions?

Many book bloggers and even writers earn commission from Amazon by linking to books and other products sold by the giant online retailer. But many of them are leaving money on the table by not directing their international readers to the right international Amazon store! Jesse Lakes of GeoRiot steps up with a great guest post which shows the problem and offers some handy solutions. Answer The Question is my regular slot for guest posts, you can get details on how to contribute here.

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Where are my international Amazon Associates commissions?

Marketing products online has many mysteries – few of which are easily solved. However, without a crystal ball it’s nearly impossible to know the answers, so you may be missing the “thing” that crumbles your efforts or propels them into the stratosphere. 

If you use affiliate links from the Amazon Associates Program you have likely come across one of the many questions GeoRiot got a little obsessed with – “Where are my International Amazon Associates commissions?” Fortunately, we have our own crystal ball of sorts, and are happy to share our findings.

The Answer

It turns out that most marketers fail to consider their international audience when promoting items, using something we call “raw links.” Raw links are ones that only go to a single destination (such as amazon.com). Users who normally purchase in other stores (amazon.co.uk, amazon.de, or one of the other 11 international Amazon stores) are often inconvenienced due to language, currency, shipping, or account barriers and likely won’t buy anything.

Think about it, if you were in LA, would you buy something from Germany if it were also available on Amazon.com (with Prime!)?

Probably not.

However, sending international visitors to their local version of Amazon is only half of the answer. The second half stems around using storefront specific Associates Programs. Of those 13 total Amazon storefronts, 11 have separate Amazon Associates Programs (Mexico and Australia don’t have one – yet), and commissions can only be earned when the Associates ID comes from that Amazon store’s Associates Program.

For example, a German visitor should be sent to Amazon.de using a tracking ID from the Amazon PartnerNet (the German version of the Associates Program) while a Canadian visitor goes to Amazon.ca with the Canadian version of the Amazon Associates Program to get credit for that sale.

To sum it up, this means that not only do you need a link that sends a visitor to their local Amazon store for the product you are promoting but you’ll also need to affiliate it with the tracking ID from that same Amazon Associates Program.

Great!  …So then how do you manage to send users to the right store, with the right ID attached for each individual click?

The Solution

Some marketers add separate links for each of the Amazon stores for each product you are recommending, or create different geo-targeted versions of your site for each segment of your visitors, but those solutions can be cumbersome for your audience and time intensive to maintain.

Alternatively, you could check out a “Link Management” service (such as GeoRiot) designed to tackle exactly these types of problems automagically.

When researching be sure that your solution not only “localizes” (changes the domain of the URL to the correct store), but also “translates” (finds the same product in a foreign storefront even when the ID changes) for every click.  This provides the best experience possible for every user, leading to a higher chance of a conversion, and makes you a happy marketer.

Now that you’ve stared deeply into our crystal ball, hopefully that helps explain one of affiliate marketing’s greatest mysteries. With the extra money you earn from international commissions, you can hire someone to solve the rest. Happy linking.

I tell you, ergodic is the future of fiction

The novel’s great strength is also its great weakness. A novel is (with a few rare exceptions) the work of one author. That can give it a depth, coherence and unity that is rare in our modern world. But it is also a challenge to our modern way of being. We’re creatures obsessed with social interaction. And we live in age when every conversation is now two way. If we expect to be able to answer back to film stars, governments and corporate brands on twitter, why would we sit still for a twenty hour lecture from a novelist?

The literary answer to this is voice. Shamelessly populate the novel with the words, perspectives and opinions of the author. The commercial answer is story. Strip mine the history of narrative for compelling story arcs, and put them down on the page in transparent prose that deletes any sense it was created by a human imagination. But there is a third option, currently under-explored, that I believe will play a very major part in the next few decades of literature.

Ergodic literature is defined as requiring non-trivial effort to navigate. If a traditional novel requires trivial effort to navigate – simply reading the words in the order written – then an ergodic text is handled in ways that demand greater effort from the reader. The term comes from the Greek words ergon meaning work and hodos meaning path. Ergodic fiction is the path that requires work.

The most famous and accomplished novel recognised as ergodic is House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. Multiple narratives are presented to the reader as unordered fragments of text taking various formats. The story is there to find, but the reader has to work to construct it. The reader must be active in the creation of the story, which then becomes interactive.

But it is not interactive in the common sense of that word. The reader is not interacting through the trivial device of selecting a path through a branching storyline. This is not a Choose Your Own Adventure game-book, or an action video game with cut sequences. Books already demand a far deeper form of interaction from the reader than trivial plot dynamics. Novels require the reader’s imagination to bloom in to existence as stories. And ergodic literature works with, not against, the extant interactivity of all novels.

But an ergodic text kinks the reading experience in a way that can reengage readers disenchanted with a 20 hour lecture from a novelist. All readers are already deeply engaged with ergodic texts. On today’s internet we move through a webwork of blog posts, news articles, social media statuses, annotated memes, video clips, podcasts, forum posts and comment threads. The challenge of constructing a personally meaningful narrative from this effectively random barrage of information is compelling to us. Our minds and imaginations are now wired for that deep interaction with out texts. And it’s that behaviour ergodic fiction can use to re-engage the reader.

I’m sorry I can’t point you to more effective examples of the ergodic fiction in action. Many have tried, most have failed. But then, that’s exciting right? It means the challenge is there for the taking. Go to it.

Just how many literary worlds are there now?

Online meme factory Flavorwire published a list of the 35 most influential writers on the internet recently. It’s a…questionable list at best. I know most of the names on it, and I’ve read many of those who have books published. But it reads in large part like a list of the authors friends on Twitter, which I imagine with some research it would prove to be.

The list inspired some of the Sci-Fi writing world’s rooting, tooting, gun shooting right wing authors to come up with an alternative list of writers that also look rather like the author’s friends on twitter. Hmmm…I sense a trend here.

You don’t need to become a mainstream media figure to have a successful career as a writer today.

The internet and social media have a fracturing effect. The grand narratives of mass media are shattered in to a thousand small stories, each playing to their own niche audience. This is even more true in literature than other media. Books have always attached to niche audiences and sub-cultures. But that fracturing multiplies with every new technical advance in publishing.

Looking at the online world of books I see many strong communities. There is the traditional literary world, still surfing the momentum of its former mass media dominance. As the strong online discussion around today’s Booker prize list demonstrates, it is translating well to social media. Genre fiction has a massively strong presence online, especially Sci-Fi which has become the de-facto mainstream literature of online geek culture. But crime, romance and other genres also have their fanatical followings. The politically affiliated literary communities are interesting. As mentioned, right wing conservative science fiction is a thing, but so also is liberal science fiction, and both are relatively removed from mainstream sci-fi (which is largely apolitical). The Flavorwire list is really a list of bloggers and social media gadflys who publish books as an almost secondary activity. But again, that’s another perfectly valid literary community.

What powers these niche communities is participation. Who wants to be a passive consumer of culture when you can start making your own? The internet is now stuffed full of communities of self-published writers. Or largely unknown writers who have banded together to form their own publisher. Some of these also have a readership beyond their immediate circle, but most are more of a circle jerk, creating the impression of an audience when really no one is listening.

Where audiences do exist though, the multiplicity of online literary worlds is a new paradigm for writers. You don’t need to become a mainstream media figure to have a successful career as a writer today. In fact a much more viable career option is to find a niche community you love and become a writer for that community. And with so many literary communities co-existing online, that’s a more viable career

Will the next wave of publishing technology favour writers?

Independent author Susanna Shore expresses the bottom line on the state of independent publishing in a well thought out post on Kindle Unlimited.

As a KDP author, it’s impossible for me to remain completely neutral, even when keeping outside the dispute. Generally, I tend to favour the opinion that all big companies look for their best interests. For now, Amazon’s interests are favourable to me, but that doesn’t mean they are on my side, or that their interests will continue to be in my favour. Moreover, I don’t have to be on their side to benefit from their desire for profit. In this, I’m firmly on my side, which doesn’t mean I didn’t feel sorry for the authors affected by the dispute.

Read more of So…Kindle Unlimited

The high emotions engendered by the transition from print to digital publishing often cloud the basic facts. As Shore bluntly states, that transition, lead by technology innovated by Amazon, has fallen firmly in favour of writers, and particularly those writers with the energy and skill set to publish independently. Digital eliminates the entire print, distribution and retail chain that once sucked so much value from the wealth generated by publishing books. Now a writer can write and then publish a book to one of a half-dozen ebook marketplaces, Amazon Kindle being by far the largest, and keep hold of most of the wealth the book generates. Even after a substantial cut has gone to the marketplace, the author still gets a far higher percentage return.

But we live in fast moving technological times. The model of a few centralised ebook marketplaces is likely to disappear as fast as it appeared. I personally doubt it will last beyond the end of this decade, 2020. But what might replace it, and will the next wave of publishing technology continue to favour the author?

One way to understand the success of the Amazon Kindle marketplace is as a byproduct of the limitations of internet search. What do I mean by that somewhat jargon heavy statement? We need a central marketplace for ebooks, because Google search doesn’t quite fulfil that function. A Google search can help you find an author or book, but it quickly hands you over to anther information source that actually holds more extensive meta-data on that author or book. Amazon, or the Amazon owned Goodreads, are nearly always the top returned result for any ebook search. And of course it’s in the Amazon marketplace that you actually buy the book, and download it to your e-reader.

But the next stage of internet search has the potential to entirely bypass the Amazon marketplace, and other similar marketplaces for digital goods like ebooks. The semantic web is a simple idea made complex by a somewhat off putting name. In brief, it is the idea that every piece of information on the internet is tagged with the meta-data that describes it. For example, my name “Damien Walter” would also be tagged with my place and date of birth, web address, email etc etc and thousands or millions of other pieces of “meta data”. An ebook, let’s say Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, would be tagged with all the meta-data relevant to it. For instance, it’s current sales data, recent related tweets, reviews, and all kinds of other useful information. Once you have extensive semantic data on most ebooks, Google can effectively displace Amazon as the marketplace for ebooks.

Why? Because when you search, say, for “Science Fiction” on the semantic web, Google will return a far more useful result to you than the current Amazon science fiction category. It will be able to show you bestselling titles, top authors, most talked about books on social networks, and a huge amount of other data tailored to your needs. And all of this data will be decentralised. It will be provided directly, by publishers, by authors, and by readers. And of course, with it’s own robust payment systems, Google will happily deal with the translation to buy this product directly from the author, again without the involvement of Amazon. Instead of uploading an ebook to the Amazon marketplace for a 35-70%, authors might instead upload their new book to their own website, tagged with all relevant semantic data, and sell it via google for 97%, minus only Googles 3% transaction fee.

This is of course speculative. But given the current trends in our technology, there’s every reason to believe that the next technological developments in publishing will give even more power to authors than the Amazon marketplace has done already. Authors are, until computers start writing fiction, the only essential worker needed to create novels. As such the tendency of technology to automate all kinds of work will also tend to shift more and more power away from publishing professionals of all kinds, and towards the author.

Yes writing is a waste of time.

The Think Buddha blog features a charming essay on the necessity of time wasting to creative life by Tory Syracuse (it’s a three year old essay but, self-evidently, time wasting is a timeless subject) and it has some interesting things to say about the flow state of writing.

One of the great gifts of writing—and, though I don’t have much experience in other areas, I imagine this is true of most forms of art-making—is that it is not a linear process. Too much structure and focus on the end goal will, at least for me, derail the entire creative act.

Writing cultivates flowing, associative thought, the loss of time, and the spontaneous yet concentrated creation of something from nothing.

I have general writing goals, and I certainly have to impose discipline on myself to make room for writing in my day, but the generative process itself blessedly un-goal-oriented.

Goals and outcomes are all well and good for strategic planning, career paths, and athletic feats.But to similarly structure every aspect of life is to lose the art of it

via In Defense of Wasting Time.

That flow state is what I am in writing for. I can get it in other activities, but in the same way a heroin addict isn’t satisfied by a methadone hit, it’s writing I come back to for the most powerful hit.  (Drug addiction isn’t a frivolous comparison either, it literarily is the escape from self that we go looking for in narcotics.) Non-fiction can take me to the flow state consistently, but it’s fiction writing that really rings my bell.

Writing challenges us to do something that we are, as humans, terribly bad at doing. We’re trained by our culture and our schooling to be organised, productive, focused. We learn that if we want to achieve something we need to concentrate. All of these things are about asserting our self in the world. But writing demands the opposite. To write brilliantly we must forget ourself. We have to let go. And for most of us, letting go is haaaaaaard.

We want to make writing conform to our need for focus, productivity, organisation. We set word-counts. We aim to write a book a year.  We try and top the bestseller lists. But it’s all nonsense to make ourselves feel like we’re in control, when really the whole of writing is letting go of control. We want writing to not be a waste of time, when really the best thing about writing, is that it always will be.

Writing is hard because we like it that way

My friend and fellow word-herder Will Buckingham has something  to say about the pleasure – and pain – of writing. In short Mr. Buckingham believes writers like to big up the misery experienced while writing in order make ourselves look all brooding, dark and mysterious, instead of the shallow pleasure seekers we truly are. Well, Mr Buckingham I have only this to say to you.

No Comment.

The world is full of people doing difficult things. It’s astonishing. The prevailing orthodoxy that people are, at root, lazy — as if human beings are little Aristotelian universes, and need some kind of outside prompting, some primum mobile, to get things going — is simply nonsense. Sometimes, to be sure, people are doing difficult things out of necessity; but very often, people are doing difficult things because difficulty can be fun.

via The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing | Will Buckingham.

Well, maybe just a brief comment.

I’ve been listening to The Second Machine Age recently (audiobooks while jogging are my primary non-fiction consumption opportunity) It’s an interesting book on the far reaching effects of workplace automation and the exponential growth in computer power. Boiled down the book’s message is that the few remaining “jobs” in the near future will go to super intelligent, super creative workaholics while the rest of humankind malingers around in poverty. It’s an argument somewhat undermined because The Second Machine Age is a book that understands machines much better than it understands people.

People don’t hate work because it is hard. We hate work because it is routine and repetitive IE it is easy. The “hard” part of most jobs is that they are done for exploitative corporations and bureaucracies intent on stripping value out of workers. As Mr Buckingham makes clear, humans actually love doing difficult things. And a writer is defined by their love for the difficult, complex and sometimes murderously frustrating act of writing. We don’t need to worry about people sitting around watching TV and eating pies if we liberate the from work. Most people who slob around in that way do so because their creative spirit has been crushed by work. If we took the burden of uncreative, exploitative jobs from the shoulders of humans, they would actually work much harder, at truly creative work like writing.

Success. It’s not what you think it is.

The problem with success is, it never ends.

We talk a lot about success even when we don’t use the word. Who has the best job. The biggest house. The handsomest lover. I’d make a poetic list but you get the idea. As  humans we waste most of our time chasing after success, in one form or another. Who has the most? How did they get it? And how do we get our own?

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That fearsome beauty is the buddhist Wheel of Life.  With its demons, ghosts and gods It may look supernatural, but in fact it is all about the real world that we live in. It illustrates what buddhists call Samsara, the cycle of material existence. If it looks familiar, that’s because Samsara is what we in Western christian culture call heaven and hell. But in buddhist culture heaven and hell aren’t somewhere else. We make them here on earth, as part of the cycle of Samsara.

It’s a cycle because the Wheel of Life never stops turning. Buddhists divide Samsara in to six realms, the lowest are pretty hellish and the highest are rather heavenly.  Living creatures struggle to progress around the wheel so they can escape hell and live in heaven. But the cycle is an illusion. Once living creatures have rested in heaven a while, they are sent back to hell, to begin the cycle again.

Figure

At the heart of the Wheel of Life are a pig, a snake and a rooster. Imagine a hamster wheel, but instead of a hamster you have these three animals, and they are always chasing one another, so driving the Wheel of Life forever. Remember Tom and Jerry and their bulldog pal Spike from the Warner Bros cartoons? These animals are a lot like that.

Tom-and-jerry-pictures-and-wallpapers-tom-jerry-and-spike-cartoon

Of course the world isn’t literally turned by a pig, snake and rooster. These are symbols for three basic human behaviours. Craving, aversion and delusion. I prefer to call them greed, hate and delusion. Those are better translations for Western minds. We act out these behaviours all the time. When we see cake we get greedy for more. We hate the cold and try to escape it. And we fall easily in to delusions, like obsessing about how our hair looks. Who cares? We do, because we’re deluded.

“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same”

If by Rudyard Kipling

So this is success. It’s acting in greedy, hateful and deluded ways to get the top job, the big house, and lots of people pretending to be your friend so they can get at what you have. It’s being the King, the Boss, the Star. And  it’s the illusory belief that these things will last when they won’t, and that they are better than the alternative when they aren’t. Take a look at the world around you. How many people are on the treadmill, running the rat race, climbing the ladder, and walking the eternal cycle of Samsara? How often do you find yourself making the greedy, hateful or deluded choice to get ahead?

That’s most of us, most of the time.

Siddhartha Gautama – an Indian prince who gave up the family trade to become a bum, then later taught some cool ideas about being free and living well – suggests an alternative. Instead of acting with greed, act with generosity. Instead of acting with hatred, act with kindness. And instead of being deluded, try and see the truth. Your haircut doesn’t matter. It truly doesn’t.

Buddhism calls this being skillful. because it’s hard, and requires skill. Greed is your trained response, so to be generous you have to catch yourself in the moment, and choose to share that chocolate with your friend instead of snarfing it all down your gullet. That’s hard, and even the most skillful people fail at it all the time. We’re only human, after all.

Rudyard Kipling finishes the poem If with the two lines: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.” Kipling and Buddha both have the same message. If you can skilfully control your behaviour, you’ll be a man. Which is to say, a human.

The real measure of success isn’t your place on the Wheel of Life. It’s the quality of you’re humanity. So you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Fine. But when you make that $10M bonus do you hoard it away, or give it away? A skilful person can pursue worldly success, it’s a fun thing to do. But they won’t do it at the cost of of their humanity. It’s our skilfulness that makes us human. And it’s being human that is the greatest success.