Sometimes, as during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, I’ve gone directly to more-or-less non-news analysts, such as research scientists and civil servants, or to crowdsourced aggregators like Wikipedia.
Everything else newsworthy comes to me through the filters of friends and the people around me — as likely to be the birth of their new niece as the sinking of a submersible off the coast of the Americas.
It’s not a perfect system, of course. I’m sure I do miss out on the odd thing that might change the way I think or act.
But it is one hell of a lot better than the old system I had, which was to try to stay on top of E V E R Y T H I N G.
Opening The Fire Hose Of Shit
From around 1995 until 2017, I used to listen to the radio news every day and (once I had an internet connection) trawl the pages of the BBC News website, scrapping for more information on whatever stories were top of the media agenda that week.
I felt like it was, in a vague, non-specific way, an important duty as a citizen to stay informed. And one stayed informed with a daily news report.
Unfortunately, this is how most of The News is reported:
Crap thing happening
Life getting worse
No end and no solution in sight
If you don’t believe me, let’s do an experiment. I’m going to go over to the BBC News website right now and see what kind of story they’ve chosen to tell about the world today.
(Feel free to skip this bit — it won’t make your life a better place.)
Murder arrests after man fatally stabbed
Sexual violence helpline pauses over lack of funds
Former PC faces trial over misconduct charges
Julian Sands’ brother on ‘overwhelming’ tributes
National police training in wake of mass shooting
Glastonbury Festival crew member dies in tent
Drink-driving arrest after car crashes into house
Andy Murray surprises girl who uses tennis prosthetic
Let’s be honest, opening the BBC News page — with its carefully cultivated projection of impartiality and fact — is like opening a fire hose of shit.
But here’s the kicker: just like me, the writers behind The News put a hell of a lot of thought and effort into the stories they’re telling.
The fire hose of shit is a choice; it is only one story, one vision of the world.
We don’t have to buy what they’re selling.
Let’s All Be Andy Murray
This shitty story nightly repeats, like the tolling of a death knell, the message that humans, collectively and globally, are failing.
(Except for Andy Murray: he’s nice.)
We’re failing ourselves, we’re failing each other and we’re failing the planet.
Andy Murray aside, there is no energy, no hope and no creativity.
Thanks to some quirk of human psychology, this apocalyptic vision is an extremely compelling story. So we share the worst of us.
It actually takes a great effort to share the best of us.
It takes even more of an effort to look deep into the worst of us and, resisting the temptation of negativity, to share the ways that humans, out of the darkness, respond with energetic hope and creativity.
When we only tell the stories of doom, we fail to see the stories of possibility.
The hundreds of examples of progress in human rights, rising living standards, public health victories, clean energy breakthroughs, technological magic, ecological restoration and the countless extraordinary acts of kindness that take place on this planet every day.
I believe that if we want to change the story of the human race in the 21st century, we have to start changing the stories that we tell ourselves.
And we have to remember that hope isn’t a noun. It’s a verb. It’s not something that we have or something that we’re given. It’s something that we do.
Millions of people around the world chose to hope in the last 12 months and then rolled up their sleeves to get it done. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to do the same.
And Now The Weather
It’d be totally remiss of me not to include a proper theme tune for today’s news broadcast and, who else, but Bill Bailey.
Yesterday morning I was walking back from the beach, up the cliffside zigzag, after a sunny run, swim and friend surprise (👋), when I heard the shuddering skid of something wheeled and weighted right behind me.
An electric tricycle.
The young driver wrestled the heavy vehicle into a right angle turn and pointed himself up the zigzag (No Cycling).
‘I nearly missed it,’ he said, before whirring the engine, pumping the pedals and overtaking me at a crawl.
Rather than giving in to some kind of nimby-level irritation at the interruption to our pedestrian slowway, I inspected his vehicle.
Happy Friday and welcome to Bournemouth, where I am writing — no, wait — that’s a lie.
I’m actually dictating this to you through my phone because I have somehow injured my left wrist and it hurts to type.
This injury was really bumming me out — until I re-read my old diaries.
When this injury made itself known last Friday, I had no idea from whence it came and was seriously concerned that my 560km ride from Liverpool to Newcastle had triggered nasties.
Not good when only weeks away from joining Thighs of Steel on a little two month ride from Glasgow to Athens…
A friend of mine got a horrible hand injury from cycling last year that took six months to recover. I can’t do that.
Then, on Monday, the shooting pain caused by my mild evening stretches triggered a flashing memory — a moment exactly like Proust’s petites madeleines, only with more downward dog.
One day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind.
She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell.
And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake.
No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.
(I absolutely love that book.)
Unlike Proust, rather than spend the whole of the rest of my life lying in bed tracing back to source this momentary mnemonic sensation, I searched my 2022 and 2021 digital diaries for the word ‘wrist’.
Prosaic, but effective.
I found two patches of entries, in April and November 2021, where I complained of an identical injury to my left wrist.
Reading on, I was relieved to learn that neither of these injuries happened after cycling. The first might have happened pushing my nieces on the swings for an hour, while the second probably happened on a climbing wall.
In November 2021, the injury took about ten days to recover, but only after I stopped typing for a week.
The worry of my injury’s uncertainty has been replaced by resignation — even relaxation — and, furthermore, my diaries uncovered a recovery action plan and timeline.
Today’s story isn’t even a story. It’s a silly game, born of the ocean-inspired collision of three things floating on the waves in my mind.
The number twenty-four.
My two shelves’ worth of unread books.
My inevitable mortality. (Or at least, a busy summer wherein I shall do little reading.)
1. The Number Twenty-Four
This is, of course, the best number out there.
No — don’t contradict me, I’ve done a full survey of all the numbers, including many that are top secret, and none of them are better than twenty-four.
I mean, for starters, it’s the smallest number with eight factors — eight!
Read ‘em and weep:
This is why we divide rotations of our Mothership Earth into twenty-four hours: we can comfortably divide the day into halves of twelve hours each, thirds of eight hours each, quarters of six, and so on.
Twenty-four (24) is divisible, not only by both its independent digits (2 and 4), but also by the sum of those digits (6). This is what’s called a Harshad number.
And, just to show off, it can even be divided by the multiple of its digits (8).
The name ‘harshad’ took its etymology from Sanskrit: it means ‘joy-giver’.
Twenty-four also happens to be my birth date, which also happens to be later this month.
And that’s a lot of joy for one number to give.
2. Two Shelves Of Books
For the past three years, I’ve been indulging in the pleasure of buying books.
It began during lockdown, when the libraries were closed and I couldn’t spend any money on anything else (I hadn’t yet discovered bread baking).
Since then, I’ve bought more books per year than I’ve read and this has created an anxiety-inducing surplus.
Which brings us nicely onto…
3. My Inevitable Mortality
There comes a point in every reader’s life when they realise (like a dull blow to the back of the head) that the number of books on one’s shelf (never mind on one’s reading wishlist) vastly outnumbers the number of allotted hours for reading that remain on their own mortal shelf-life.
This is compounded by the accusatory glare of books bought in the first flush of lockdown and still with spines unbent, all hope crushed by the page-limiting design of my summer on the bicycle.
I accept now that I will never do justice to all of the books that sit on my shelf.
As a writer myself, this pains me further: think of all the years — not to mention all the bankruptcies, migraines, mortgage defaults, psychological breakdowns and RSIs — that went into creating these books, sucking out the heart and soul of every author, hoping for a connection that I will never give them.
Even though I could.
So today’s story is a silly game: herewith, please find twenty-four passages from page twenty-four of twenty-four of my unread books.
It’s my way of paying tribute to the extraordinary love and bloody-minded exertion that we all put into our earthly contribution; a contribution that will leave no trace on the overwhelming majority of humankind.
And, who knows, maybe some of these passages will intrigue me enough to make me pluck them off the dusty shelf…
Twenty-Four Passages From Twenty-Four Unread Books
Hey, let’s make this a proper game, shall we?
Shall we actually, though?
Every one of these passages is from a real book by a real author, published sometime between 1888 and 2020.
See if you can guess the title, writer and, for a very special harshad point, the year of publication.
Answers at the bottom.
Oh, go on then!
After all, what kind of a game would it be with no prizes?
(Well, actually, Dave, it’d be the kind of game that values intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards, but let’s be honest: intrinsic rewards are for squares.)
In your donation message, have a stab at the title or author of any of these snippets
If you’re right (or if I think it’s a great guess), then I’ll send you a free book from my unread shelf of doom and pop it in the post to you (if you live in the UK).
Nah, fill your boots — cheat away!
David Perry (1994) postulates that the surface area — hence its absorption capability — of mycorrhizal fungi may be 10 to 100 times greater than the surfacde area of leaves in a forest. As a result, the growth of plant partners is accelerated.
‘No, not close, but let’s see how far. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants … fifteen elephants … twenty-five elephants … It’s still a long way off, more than five miles away.’
It is Friday and I have sweated out one page and a half. If I did not know this process so well, I would consider it a week of waste. But I know better than that now and I am content.
Rule: Pronounce ‘g’ as in ‘get’.
‘g’ in Welsh never sounds like ‘j’, as in ‘gentle’.
cragen — shell — kraggenn
You can follow these fence lines and walls all across the country on your Rights of Way, you can keep to your codes of conduct and never question this status quo. Or you can cross these lines, look inside this system and find out who put them there, and how. Because someone cast the net; something cast the spell.
Yet accomplished writers usually seem to have something else in mind when deciding how to put sentences together: the better the writers, of fiction and nonfiction alike, the more they tend to vary their sentence lengths. And they do it as dramatically as possible.
She said it took her over an hour, because she was arthritic by then, but when she finally found her clitoris, she said, she cried.
If Ecuador is to leave oil unburned, then Ecuador alone must shoulder the cost of lost oppportunity. Those who have so far put most of the fossil carbon into the atmosphere, the citizens of deep-pocketed industrialised nations, were not willing to take on part of the financial burden of restraint.
To Freud, though living surrounded by women and otherwise seeing so much and so well, women’s relationships seemed increasingly mysterious, difficult to discern, and hard to describe.
This book is nervous like coffee or malaria — it sets up a network of cut-outs & safe drops between itself & its readers — but it’s so baldfaced & literal-minded it practically encodes itself — it smokes itself into a stupor.
Reacting to the anxious climate of family life, they blunted their curiosity, narrowed their perception, and followed the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy that ruled the family. Children know at a deep, automatic level what they are not supposed to say or tell or even remember.
After visiting the orange-belt and the opera-house, we went to bathe. Suddenly out of the crowd on the seafront, stepped Mr Aaronson of the Italia. ‘Hello, hello — you here too? Jerusalem’s so dead at this time of year, isn’t it? But I may look in tomorrow. Goodbye.’
The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.
We are the poem, his poem says, that emerges from the unity of the body and the mind. That fragile unity — this brief parenthesis of being — is all we have. Celebrate it.
Suddenly and simultaneously they discover me, prone on my belly a few feet away. The dance stops. After a moment’s pause the two snakes come straight toward me, still in flawleess unison, straight toward my face, the forked tongues flickering, their intense wild yellow eyes staring directly into my eyes.
After crossing Bear River I find myself on a somewhat superior road leading through the Mormon settlements to Ogden.
Shadi claims to have been in the Foreign Legion, and he seems nuts enough for this to be true.
After twenty-three days of complete fast, Kundan died. The Jain community was happy to hear this news. I was sad. The monks said he had conquered the fear of death.
The broom is a palm leaf twice his size. He might have been sweeping all his life. Had this been Disneyland one might have thought he was put there to represent a worker from the past. But the hunchback is real, and his task is to keep the desert sand away from the historical copies. The man and the palm leaf seem to be the only genuine articles in all of Babylon.
Undaunted by the reality of being a single parent with a three-year-old son, she took inspiration from a film she’d seen about a woman who’d travelled across the Siberian tundra on her own in the 1920s. ‘I thought, “If she can do that, no equipment, just a big coat, I can walk to London, because I’ll just get myself a good litttle pram and da-da-da.”’
JUNE 10. Very warm. We get water for the camp from a rock basin at the foot of a picturesque cascading reach of the river where it is well stirred and made lively without being beaten into dusty foam.
When Scott Martin wrote a favourable article on Critical Mass in Bicycling magazine’s January 1994 issue, several reader retorts ensued; including ‘I’m disappointed to see Martin supporting this perverted brand of Street Justice,’ and ‘Your glorification of juvenile delinquents blocking traffic and assaulting motorists upsets me.’
Even if your performance is not affected directly, perfectionism may still reduce your ability to enjoy your work or may influence the ways in which you treat others at work.
One might cite Antony, in Antony and Cleopatra, as he tries to answer the question about what kind of thing is the crocodile: ‘It is shaped, sir, like itself, just so high as it is, and moves with its organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.’ And, Antony might have added, it progresses through its days and nights very much at its own pace.
With The Greatest Of Thanks And Respect To…
Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets (2005)
Wild Signs And Star Paths, Tristan Gooley (2018)
Journal Of A Novel, John Steinbeck (1970)
Pronouncing Welsh Place Names, Tony Leaver (1998)
The Book Of Trespass, Nick Hayes (2020)
Artful Sentences, Virginia Tufte (2006)
The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler (2001)
The Songs Of Trees, David George Haskell (2017)
In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan (1982)
T.A.Z., Hakim Bey (1985)
The Dance Of Connection, Harriet Lerner (2001)
The Road To Oxiana, Robert Byron (1937)
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (1962)
Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer (2007)
Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey (1968)
Around The World On A Penny-Farthing, Thomas Stevens (1888)
Baghdad Bulletin, David Enders (2006)
No Destination, Satish Kumar (1992)
A Hundred And One Days, Asne Seierstad (2003)
All Together Now? Mike Carter (2019)
My First Summer In The Sierra, John Muir (1911)
Critical Mass, edited by Chris Carlsson (2002)
When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, Martin M Antony and Richard P Swinson (2009)
Time, Eva Hoffman (2009)
UPDATE: After writing this piece, intrigued, I started reading Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer and didn’t stop until I’d finished. It’s a wondrous book, full of inspiration for both writers and readers.
Right. Brace yourselves. Today I’m going to take two happily and clearly defined terms from two very different fields of study — literary theory and couples therapy — and invalidate both by applying them to a tangential third: your life.
1. Negative Capability
The poet John Keats coined and defined the term ‘negative capability’ in a private letter to his brothers:
when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason
Keats presents this as a good thing, his poetic model being none other than William P. Shakespeare, who erases himself as an authorial voice in the text and instead lets his characters roam free range over the whole of human thought, belief and action, without ever tapping the audience on the shoulder.
This suspension of the judging, grasping author is a lovely concept to define and negative capability has burrowed its way into the everyday language of psychotherapy and mindfulness.
For the mindfulness buffalo, negative capability is a fourth possible response to any stressful situation: we can fight, flight, freeze — or we can sit with the uncertainty.
For the psychotherapy bison, starting with the work of Wilfrid Bion (as previously in these pages), negative capability represents an openness to being rather than knowing.
In all three use cases — aesthetics, mindfulness and psychotherapy — negative capability is a virtue to be sought after.
But what about when, in spite of all our poetry readings, deep breaths and counselling sessions, uncertainty simply won’t stop feeling uncomfortable?
What happens when good negative capability goes bad?
2. Stable Ambiguity
Originally coined (it seems) by couples therapist Terry Real, Esther Perel defines stable ambiguity in the context of romantic relationships where people feel ‘too afraid to be alone, but unwilling to fully engage in intimacy building’.
This results in relationships with unclear status, blurred lines and prolonged break-ups, as one or more people are held in a ‘holding pattern’.
As Perel writes:
We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to have someone available to cozy-up with when it’s snowing, but if something better comes along, we want the freedom to explore.
In this relationship culture, expectations and trust are in constant question. The state of stable ambiguity inevitably creates an atmosphere where at least one person feels lingering uncertainty, and neither person feels truly appreciated or nurtured.
Perel is clear: stable ambiguity is baaad.
But hang on. Don’t people who feel like they’re being kept in a ‘holding pattern’ just need to up their negative capability game?
Speaking like this, theoretically, on the page, the answer to that question might seem obvious — but what about when you’re actually in the moment, living this experience?
How can we tell when a situation is one that calls for negative capability and when it’s a stalemate of stable ambiguity?
Even more tricky: how can we tell when a situation flips (or more likely slides) from one to the other?
Even more more tricky: what if we take these questions out of the messy world of romance and into the even messier world of The World?
It’s one thing figuring out when your lover is ghosting, icing or simmering you, but it’s quite another to pick the bones out of the zillions of other relationships we ride throughout our lives.
And uncertainty pops up everywhere: office politics and geopolitics, macroeconomics and home finances, every time we catch the bus, every time we hit the road, the state of our house plants, the state of our biosphere.
How can we tell when we need to breathe through our pettifogging whinny-worries and when we need to bloody well do something because, quite frankly, we’re getting mugged off real nasty?
Maybe you’ve got the answer. The best I can do right now is make some lists.
Feelings That Might Indicate Stable Ambiguity
I want control
I want my freedom, choice and to keep my options open
But it’s one thing to learn my lessons, it’s another thing entirely to be able to intervene decisively, in the shadow of the darkest fog, to give myself the best chance of rising strong.
For that, we’ll need more powerful medicine…
Do you know exactly how you were feeling a year ago today?
At 2pm on 12 May 2022, I was feeling a ‘not bad’ bog standard 3 out of 5. For context, here’s what I noted down at the time:
Working on the newsletter. Tired the last couple of days. Rising stress with Thighs?
You see, most days, I log how I’m feeling using a nifty little app that my dad made for me during the first Covid lockdown.
It’s dead simple: at a random time in the day, a box pops up on my computer and asks me how I’m feeling on a scale of 1 to 5. I can then add a few notes for context.
I’ve logged 644 days since September 2020 — almost exactly two thirds of available days — so there’s a good bunch of data in there now.
From all this delicious data, I can tell you that my average wellbeing score is 3.24.
I’d say that was a bit better than not bad, edging, in that very English way, towards pretty good.
I can also tell you that, contrary to the unfounded assertion of TS Eliot, April is not the cruellest month, but my happiest — and by some distance too.
Over the past three years, April scores an average of 3.63. The next happiest months are May and November, both scoring 3.33.
On the shoulder of summer, I think April takes me by delight with its leafy freshness, frisky birdsong and moony evenings.
While the April thing was unexpected, entirely predictable is my score from June last year, the nadir of my brain foggy symptoms.
June 2022 ~ May 2023
From 20 logged days, June 2022 scored a shocking 2.65 — a full 1.08 points lower than April of the same year.
Looking back over my text comments, it’s easy to see that I really wasn’t feeling great for a full fortnight in the second half of the month:
Woozy. Skin tender. Heady. Took painkillers. Hot. It is hot though.
Tired and heady and throaty. Sunny, hot. I felt better on Monday when it was cooler…
Just absolutely zapped. Another nap today. I thought this morning I was feeling a bit more energetic. Throat and nose better. But a headache (wine?!)
Just bumping along at the bottom. A bit heady. A bit sinusy. A bit tiredy. 2 weeks now…
What’s worrying is that these comments could have been written at any point this week. Here are my notes from the past two days:
Really tired today. Yesterday irritable. Today just whacked. Hot and headachey. Exhausted. Went for a run this morning and a meditate. Urgh.
Headache. Tired. Just classic brain foggy symptoms like last year. Stress? So what’s the solution, if any? I’m struggling to write, struggling to see the positive.
Just to be clear: I’m not worried that I don’t feel 5 out of 5 every single day — I’m human, after all.
No: I’m worried because I really don’t want to repeat how I responded to my lowest feelings last year.
2022: The Rest Recipe
Last year, my approach was to cancel things — often social activities — in a desperate attempt to create a feeling of space.
I cancelled a weekend of outdoor instructing. I stayed at home when my friends went for a bike ride in the New Forest. I even cancelled a big part of my fortieth birthday party — and, worse, forced everyone to meet me in Basingstoke.
Now. This urge to cancel isn’t an obviously stupid idea. I was feeling physically and mentally drained; it’s not insane to think that I needed to rest.
Indeed, the internet is littered with countless stress-busting blog posts featuring variations on the rest recipe:
Cancel stuff to make space for yourself
Run a bath, ideally with bubbles
Light a candle
Put on some whale song
Read a book
The only problem with this approach, for me, is that it didn’t work — and often left me feeling worse.
So what might work for me?
In the words of the Michael J Fox movie that never was, it’s time to go…
Back To The Data!
Let’s flip over and look at what happened on the 23 days since 2020 when I have logged the top wellbeing score of 5.
What do these days have in common?
For starters, no fewer than a quarter of my best days have landed in Aprils, but besides that, I’ve identified three themes to my notes.
1. Active Time Outdoors
Sunny. Out all day, more or less. Saw G. Run, skate, walk.
18km walk. Sunny. Dartmoor. Slow morning reading. I was tired yesterday, but today’s walk and sun really energised me. Relaxing?! B came down in the evening.
Freezing cold toes, but loving the ride. In a community wood after burger and chips at Scotland’s best takeaway 2021 in Burntisland.
2. Seeing Friends And Family
Apart from getting soaked… Had a lovely morning with mum and dad, second breakfast at Chineside. Then cycled 50km with G and J!
So nice to be with thighs and eating amazing food! Super sunny too! H, G, E, J, J, A, F, I!
Tiredish, but happy to be here and with C. Faffed on the computer for ages, but then got a bit of focus on Monday Tasks.
3. Tired Contentment From The Feeling Of Having Been Well Used
I think this is my favourite commonality to my best days.
Tired, but content. Felt woozy a little earlier. One sneeze. Fluey!? DofE.
Tired, but great. Moon rising. Just got back from a great day’s walking in Dartmoor. Sunny, mostly. Gorgeous evening. Got back safe. Lovely, wind-chapped. Well used.
The thing that really jumps out at me from this analysis of my notes is that tiredness, discomfort, unproductivity and even flu symptoms don’t always mean I feel like shit.
Remember: these are days when I maxed out on happiness.
Physical and mental exhaustion can leave me feeling incredible.
2023: The Release Recipe
While I understand that the rest recipe is nice and can make space for pressure to dissipate, the evidence would suggest that, personally, I get much more out of the complete opposite:
Instead of cancelling, commit to ecstatic (and probably social) experiences to build pressure
Dance, sing, play
Trip, meditate, pray
Get sweaty, get sexy, get fresh air
Then — boom! — let all that pressure go in a cathartic release
A good example of this was last week, when I travelled up to London to go and see Yard Act, not once, but twice, two nights in a row.
On the face of it, this was self-destructive behaviour. I wasn’t feeling great when I left home on Thursday lunchtime and I lost half a day of work and two nights of good sleep.
But that doesn’t even begin to capture what I gained.
The euphoria of the catharsis, the release, stayed with me all day on Friday and Saturday and, even though I was tired, I got plenty of good work done.
From Rest To Release
Just to be clear: I’m not against bubble baths.
I think the rest recipe might work well for people who lose their sense of self in the stress of their lives — those who feel that they are always serving others, perhaps.
They’d be justified (perhaps) in wanting a little more me-time.
But my stress is different: it’s the stress of too much me-time and, specifically, too much me-indoors-time.
It is my I that feels the responsibility of organising a 5,400km bike trip for 104 people and it is my I that works and (most often) lives alone, indoors, in front of this computer screen.
So it makes sense that creating more space for my I to be alone wouldn’t work too well at relieving the pressure.
What I need is to lose my I, forget my I, subsume my I to the ecstasy of the sublime experience. To get out of my head.
Even last year, with stress building to what felt like breaking point, the moment the wheels started turning and we set off from Glasgow with that first group of wonderful cyclists, every drop of stress fell away, released into the air.
If it’s release rather than rest that I need, then there’s simply no point cancelling things to create a sense of space.
This year, I’m determined to do the opposite: commit to much more time losing control in order to create a sense of release.
If the way I felt after going to see Yard Act (twice) is any guide, then this approach is also going to be a lot more fun than a bath — with or without bubbles.
ps: After writing two thirds of this newsletter, on Thursday, I left my computer and cycled out into the sundown to meet friends on the beach for pizza.
✔️ Well Used
It’ll surprise none of you to hear that I felt much better.
Thanks to G (👋) for the pizza, B & M (👋) for the dance, and C (👋) for the original inspiration.
Repeated exposure to a statement has been shown to increase its acceptance as true.
The “illusory truth effect” is well documented, whereby people rate statements as more truthful, valid, and believable when they have encountered those statements previously than when they are new statements.
Even with preposterous stories and urban legends, those who have heard them multiple times are more likely to believe that they are true.
If an individual is already familiar with an argument or claim (has seen it before, for example), they process it less carefully, often failing to discriminate weak arguments from strong arguments.
This is a good example of what I think is a fairly healthy general principle for approaching scary news: zoom the fuck out, then zoom the fuck in.
Today’s story is the statement of the bleeding obvious.
Stuff is hard.
Anything worth doing is a struggle.
We know this.
To pick up on last week’s story (co-written, in a way, by Mohammed Salah): the struggle is the process, the only way to do anything worth doing.
The struggle is where the value is at. So why does the struggle have to feel like such a struggle?
Well, it doesn’t.
It’s A Mindset Thing
As I’ve written before, we have two mindsets and we jump between them like monkeys between the trees of a forest.
Our fixed mindset:
Skills aren’t learnt; they’re natural talents
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
This should be easy; if it’s not easy, it’s impossible
Better to avoid completion than to risk exposing ourselves as frauds
Deal with problems and setbacks as we’d wish them to be
Results above all
Our growth mindset:
All skills are learned (some are just learned so young that we’ve forgotten how)
If anything, old dogs have an advantage, building new tricks on old foundations
Value patience, persistence, perspiration and process over defeatist ‘shoulds’ or impossible ‘can’ts’.
Better to admit our ignorance and learn by asking for help
Deal with problems and setbacks as they truly are
Process above all
It’s not that our brains are all either 100 percent fixed or growth, by the way — if you think that, then you’ve got a fixed mindset about mindsets.
You will access both mindsets at different times in your life, in different domains. Maybe you’re a creative in the kitchen, but a despot at your desktop.
That should be enough to show that you can choose between them.
Anything worth doing quite often shows up first as a fixed mindset struggle: an obnoxious obstacle to be effortlessly overcome by our natural genius.
In this case, only success can be a success.
But we can also frame it as a growth mindset struggle: a roll in the hay, a game to play.
In this case, taking part — stepping into the arena and grappling with what’s before us — that is the only success.
Our two mindsets make such a difference to our lived experience that switching between the two feels like switching between alternate realities.
Imagine travelling to Paris for the first time in your life with a fixed mindset:
You can’t learn a word of French because your language ability is fixed at zero. Alternatively, you feel you ought to be good at French because you got an A at GCSE, but you don’t risk crashtesting any actual conversation because you might get something wrong.
You’ve not got much to report when you get home, besides a desultory slideshow that might have well have been Xeroxed from your thinly used copy of Lonely Planet Paris.
An otherwise identical traveller with a growth mindset might as well be in another universe:
You don’t know a word of French, but that doesn’t stop you trying and failing repeatedly, slowly improving over the weekend, but never really getting beyond good-humoured willingness.
Some Parisians visibly wince when you say ‘Bon-jaw’, but others laugh kindly and help you translate the menu of the irresistibly crowded brasserie that you stumbled across on your late night ramble across town.
Your new friends show you a secret tunnel that leads down into the catacombs and, when you get home, everyone’s badgering you to tell that story again about your night dancing to a Brazilian funk band in the bunker underneath Saint Lazare station or the grisly tale of what you found in The Room Of Cats.
A Game We Never Want To End
Our fixed mindset is quite often based in a false world of apriori paradigms, often learnt by rote in childhood: a world of imagined shoulds and oughts.
Only if you think you can, will you. If you think you can’t, well, you won’t.
By contrast, our growth mindset is rooted in the real world of a posteriori experimentation: a world of constant trial and error.
Whether you think you can or you think you can’t yet, you will try and try again.
The difference between the two realities of the fixed and growth travellers is the difference between (our worst possible definition of) work and (our best possible definition of) play.
The best games make us curious, experimental, vulnerable and willing to learn.
They make us willing to play again, over and over, building on and testing our skills, enjoying the pleasure of the flow more than the endgame of victory or defeat.
The very best games we never want to end at all.
From inside a growth mindset, life itself feels like a game we never want to end.
The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play?
And now: a warning against pointlessness.
It’s an astonishing fact that almost every time we do anything, we probably could have got away with doing nothing at all.
In some cases, we would have been better off doing nothing at all.
Sometimes, when I publish this newsletter, I end up with fewer subscribers than I had before I sent it.
Was it worth my while putting hours of work into writing the damn thing?
Kottke quotes from a remarkable-sounding book called Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity by Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores and Hubert Dreyfus:
Business owners do not normally work for money either. They work for the enjoyment of their competitive skill, in the context of a life where competing skilfully makes sense. The money they earn supports this way of life. […]
Saying that the point of business is to produce profit is like saying that the whole point of playing basketball is to make as many baskets as possible. One could make many more baskets by having no opponent.
What this means is that the value of almost everything we do comes down which mindset we apply: are we focussed on fixed results or growth process?
So the motivation of my writing this story cannot be found in what value it might hypothetically bring for an unknown number of readers, sometime in the future.
That would be a fixed mindset idea of value.
The motivation — and immediate value — is found in what the process of writing does for me, at this very moment.
That sets the growth mindset in play. The pressure’s off. I can enjoy myself, experiment and be curious about what I learn next.
I don’t need you to love every word, but, all the same, I hope you found something to take away with you today.
or one of the 99 percent of the population whose lives are in some way affected by results, through the miserable or euphoric emotional scars they leave on the 48 percent.
For years, I’ve shied away from writing this piece because I thought it would be numbingly boring to people who aren’t sports fans.
But I’ve come to realise that, in the non-words of semi-mythical Liverpool FC ur-manager Bill Shankly: ‘It’s more important than that.’
Both sides of the 48 percent divide got in touch with me about the match on Wednesday — one half to help manage the behaviour of fans who put football before family and the other half to help manage the pit of despair that an adverse result had thrown them into.
As my Arsenal-supporting co-thinker (👋) put it:
[I] definitely need to take a leaf out of the David Charles book of How to Be a Zen Football Supporter
So here we are.
I think today’s story has something for anyone who has ever found themselves emotionally over-invested in the lives of strangers — or for those seeking to understand and support those of us who do find ourselves getting into mental muddles over events completely out of our control.
What Bill Shankly Actually Said
Bill Shankly was the charismatic manager and coach of Liverpool Football Club between 1959 and 1974.
Shankly was the man who ‘created the idea of Liverpool’ by binding players and supporters together in a socialist pact where everyone works for each other and everyone shares in the rewards.
Under Shankly, Liverpool fans adopted their pop-song anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone and invented the concept of crowd participation through song, something fans all over the world do today.
In the 60s, 70s and 80s, this unity between players, club and fans turned Liverpool FC into a titan of the sport: a position they still hold sixty years after Shankly arrived.
There’s an enduring myth that Bill Shankly once declared that football is more important than life and death.
He never said that.
Shankly said only that the game had been more important than life and death to him — and, speaking months before his death, he confessed that he regretted his decision to put football above the suffering of his own family.
And, the thing is, Bill Shankly’s results as Liverpool manager weren’t even that good.
Don’t get me wrong: he was successful, but his Liverpool sides didn’t dominate in the manner of later Liverpool managers in the 1970-80s, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 1990-2000s or Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City today.
Yet there is no one more important at the club, even today.
I tell Shankly’s story to help put two things together:
Putting football over family is always a bad decision — not only for fans, but also for those managers and players who couldn’t be more integral to the game.
Results, especially trophies, are only a small part of how even the greatest are remembered.
So how did Shankly end up in a position where football, for him, was more important than life and death?
And how did the rest of us get to a place where we’re nodding along with the mythologised version of Shankly’s Regret:
Some people say that football is a matter of life and death. I say they’re wrong. It’s more important than that.
Sublimated Passions, Escapist Self-Regulation
Sport, especially, in the UK, football, is often seen as a ‘safe’ social container for the sublimation of passions whose expression is otherwise unacceptable.
The story goes that sports give supporters the cathartic opportunity to express tribal aggression, screaming joy and tearful heartbreak in public, and — taboo of British taboos — share those emotions with strangers.
We could say that watching a football match is an intense ninety minute practice of emotional self-regulation.
Our team scores a goal. Can we enjoy the moment, the dopamine, the pleasure, the release, the aesthetic experience, without becoming dependent on more?
But hold on — the video assistant referee is checking the goal for a very tight offside. Can we ride our anxiety into excitement or will we let it take over and become a jibbering mess?
After a five minute wait, our team’s goal is disallowed. Can we absorb the blow without being floored, can we recognise that the call was tight and that the aesthetics of the non-goal still stand as a moment to enjoy nonetheless?
Our team concedes a goal, despite what we thought was a blatent foul in the build-up. What will we do with all this anger, the burning sense of injustice, that’s suddenly arrived?
Despite all their efforts and energy, our team loses the match. The referee blows their whistle and we’re hit by a taunting, humiliating, triumphant roar from the opposing team’s fans. Can we nevertheless say ‘thanks for a good game, well played’, comfortable in the knowledge that, although this may be disappointing for the players, this isn’t an important life event for us, only practice for those times when, despite all our efforts and energy, things, perhaps genuinely important things, don’t go our way?
Most of the time, unfortunately, supporters (including myself) don’t look at it like this.
We don’t realise that our over-investment in sports is the perfect training ground for our real life emotional triggers and subsequent behaviour.
A Word On Catharsis
I believe that sports offer one significant advantage over other art forms when it comes to the psychological benefits of catharsis, the emotional release that comes with the satisfying release of emotion.
You see, generally speaking, the storytelling arts — novels, film and theatre — do the catharsis for you.
When you go and watch a play, you’re taken on an Aristotelian journey of conflict and resolution and, assuming the author has done their job well, even when the story is tragic you leave the theatre feeling in some way torn to pieces and made whole again.
This is where sports have the edge. They’re not a pre-designed cathartic story. There is no author.
They’re actually more like a slot machine or Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.
The conflict is there, but there’s no guarantee of a satisfying resolution — exactly like life. It’s the perfect training ground.
But, far from helping us self-regulate outside the game, our failure to recognise the spiritual practice of spectator sports can mean that, when results don’t go our way, we try to soothe ourselves with yet more ineffective escapist forms of emotional self-regulation: binge drinking, comfort eating, black moods and (let’s not forget) domestic violence, which peaks around football matches.
None of these tactics work, of course, because we are seeking control over something beyond our control. We are addicted to the slot machine.
If anything, approaching sport in this typical and fanatical way is actually damaging to our ability to self-regulate our emotions in real life.
After a bad defeat, only the footballers get the chance to put it right. Spectators don’t.
We either practice Zen Fandom or we lash out.
So where next?
The Dead End Of Giving Up
It’s worth saying that giving up is an option.
It must be liberating to drop that emotional load: to realise the truth that none of this sports circus ever mattered and none of it ever will.
How we use our precious time on earth is a hideous exercise in choosing to not do an infinite number of other wonderful, worthwhile things.
The hours I pump into being the spectator of football matches is necessarily time not spent in realms of connection where I am an active participant and can influence the outcome one way or another.
We must choose between spectating the living experience of celebrity strangers, or participating in the living experience of our own close community.
We can’t have both. 🤷
The temptation to quit altogether is strong. But also, I believe, a bit of a psychological dead end.
Firstly, the idea of giving up spectator sports ignores the fact that football is deeply embedded in UK culture and is extremely hard to disconnect from, especially for those of us with a lifetime of fandom behind us.
Secondly, quitting the sport would be a missed opportunity for growth, especially when a lot of the emotional investment is wrapped up in teenage shame, humiliation and dominance.
Fanatical Teenager Energy
When Liverpool win, I am transported (in a symbolic kind of a way) back to school.
I can hold my head up high, look my classmates in the eye and maybe dish out a few crowing remarks to that weekend’s losers as I swagger into the classroom.
In the real world, of course, there is no school and there is no classroom and there are no classmates.
Being a Liverpool fan as an adult has no bearing on my social status whatsoever.
Worse, actually: my chosen designation as a Liverpool fan, despite the hours I put into the role, is functionally meaningless.
There is no higher power here. There is no grand, unifying purpose — of either sport or club — to which I can align myself in daily life.
Liverpool is one of the most ideologically motivated clubs in the world, yet I struggle to see how I can apply the holy commandment ‘pass and move, it’s the Liverpool groove’ to either my writing or my relationships with family and friends.
It really is only a game.
But a part of us stubbornly remains that fanatical teenager — and that’s not a bad thing in itself, if we strive to direct that energy usefully.
And this is where I turn for inspiration to the players.
This is typical of what the actual participants in a sport will do: break the game down into components small enough that they can hope to inflence their outcome through the skillful execution of their process.
Winning a league title is an outcome way beyond the ability of any one team, let alone player or manager, to control. A league title is one possible consequence of winning many games in a season.
Hence the cliché ‘take every game as it comes’.
But even the outcome of a single game depends on far too many interrelated complexities for any team, player or manager to control.
Instead, players focus on the tiny things that they can control: their training and preparation and the minute-by-minute execution of tactics and skills.
Nevertheless, winning a single game is only one possible consequence of even perfect execution of the game plan.
That’s why, in defeat as much as in victory, the participants of a game will obsess, not over the result, but over what really matters: process, process, process.
In other words: the opposite of what we as fans do.
We are the ones with the least control over the outcome and we are the only ones who allow ourselves to wallow deep in the disappointment of our team’s defeats and joyride the crest of euphoria long after victory.
That’s the paradox of fandom.
What Would Salah Do?
If a footballer gets too wound up after a heavy defeat, it will have a huge detrimental effect on their performance in the next match and, consequently, everything that they are working towards.
That’s why they train not only their body, but also their mind: so that they can deliver excellence on the pitch no matter what state the game is in.
Imagine — if we spectators could adopt pretty much any modern footballer’s approach to the game, then we might actually enjoy watching!
One of Liverpool’s greatest players, not just of the current team but of all time, is an Egyptian called Mohammed Salah.
Not only is Salah a practising Muslim who marks every goal with the sujud prayer, he’s also been known to celebrate on the pitch by doing a bit of yoga.
Imagine, in the explosion of joy that erupts around you, with your teammates, coaching staff and 50,000 supporters going crazy in your ears, taking a moment to be here:
This celebration, one of several that Salah chose to dedicate to his meditation and yoga practice, came after he scored in the 5-0 win over Huddersfield in April 2019.
The result took Liverpool back to the top of the league table in a season where they would obliterate the all-time record for the most number of points recorded by a team finishing… second.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
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
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
Salah is sending a message to any supporter who will listen: calm the fuck down.
In varying degrees, scoring that goal, winning that game and, certainly, winning that 2019 league title were all out of Mohammad Salah’s control. And he was the one on the pitch kicking balls.
This is nothing more than another moment in our lives, Salah was saying.
Soon enough, it will all be over, so let’s breathe, shall we, and leave space to relish what we have, here, now.
The Spiritual Practice Of Spectating
Now, look: this wouldn’t be a practice if it was easy.
If becoming and remaining a world class striker isn’t easy for Mohammed Salah, why should becoming and remaining a world class spectator be any easier?
The emotions around being a football spectator are real and can be gut-wrenching. But we already know, if we’re frank with ourselves, that we grow fastest through adversity.
The harder our emotions are to process, the harder the struggle — and the better we can become as humans. That’s how spectating can become a spiritual practice.
In theory at least, the sports fan should be the best-trained person in the room to manage the hot emotions of anger and injustice of a brewing conflict, or the bitter disappointment and shame of getting fired, or even the temptation to add insult to injury when we triumph over our foes.
We’ve been there so many times before watching our team play, we should be pass masters at this.
But we’re not.
Becoming The Intro-spectator 😂
To turn this around, we need to flip the focus: we need to morph from passive spectator to active intro-spectator.
We should be not so much interested in the consequences of a heavy defeat for the business of The Liverpool Football Club And Athletic Grounds Limited with whom we have zero investment besides this inexplicable and inconsequential emotional attachment, so much as with the consequences of that heavy defeat for our own spiritual growth and emotional stability.
This isn’t about them any more, this is about us.
Any football score, good or bad, is our cue to, yes, feel our emotions, but not allow them complete mastery over us.
In that way, like Mohammad Salah, we better learn how to ride the vicissitudes of life.
If Shankly’s message is a warning about the spiritual danger of becoming over-invested in sport, then Salah’s is a gentle reminder of what we have to gain.
Salah works hard to train his mind for performance on the pitch; his performance on the pitch gives us the opportunity to work hard to train our minds for performance in the world.
Intro-spectating is zero-stakes training for healthy emotional self-regulation in the truly high-stakes moments in our own lives.
Every game we’re drilled on our responses to pleasure, anxiety, excitement, anticipation, goodwill, dread, generosity, anger, graciousness, injustice, gratitude, humiliation and magnanimity.
So let’s practice them.
Special thanks this week to DRL (👋) and CW (👋) for the conversations and provocations that led to this ridiculously long piece.
Anna (👋) says ‘Good morning’ to people on her morning runs and reports a better than fifty percent return rate. Paul (👋) shared the ‘two finger smile’ of Ajahn Brahm — a thoroughly silly morning habit that helps transcend the gap between consciousnesses.
This week, we’re going to get serious. With science and everything.
This is not my assertion, but the findings of psychologists Gillian Sandstrom and Erica Boothby from their mini meta-analysis of seven studies that looked at our (annoyingly interrelated) stranger-danger fears:
We fear that we won’t enjoy the conversation, that we’ll find it awkward or pointless
…that our conversational partner won’t enjoy the conversation
…that either ourselves or our partner lack good conversational skills
…that we won’t like our partner
..that our partner won’t like us, will find us boring or straight-up reject us
The good news is that Sandstrom and Boothby found that we’re most anxious about our partner enjoying the conversation and not finding us boring.
We’re not so worried about our partner turning out to be as enthralling as a table lamp.
More proof that, yay, we’re self-obsessed humans!
What else are we?
Sandstrom and Boothby also looked at personality differences between those of us more or less fearful of opening a conversation with a stranger.
There are a few relevant divergences in type (openness, extraversion, self-esteem, conscientiousness), but the one that really jumped out at me was on a measure called SOCIAL CURIOSITY.
(Dunno why I put that in all-caps. Seemed fun at the time.)
There are actually two types of social curiosity: overt (asking people questions = good) and covert (gossiping, snooping or spying on people = bad).
Sandstrom and Boothby found that the more socially curious you are, the less worried you will be about speaking to strangers. Surprise!
Unfounded opinion incoming…
I think overt social curiosity is important because it throws the attention away from oneself (Oh god, am I boring? I’m boring you, aren’t I? Boring boring boring beard bus boring) and shines it back on the world-at-large and, in this case, the other person.
This is exciting news. We might be able to dampen our social fears through the disarming curiosity natural to two people meeting for the first time.
What stands out about this person before you? If nothing stands out, then — even more curious — what are they hiding?
I’m not suggesting that you turn every conversation into a social interrogation, but, fuck it, suppose that you do: few would describe even the most casual chat with MI5 or the FBI as ‘boring’.
If overt social curiosity might get us over the hump of opening a conversations, what happens next? Well, according to Sandstrom and Boothby:
Conversations with strangers not only go better than expected, but generally go quite well.
Aw. That’s cute.
Even better, Sandstrom and Boothby offer a few practical suggestions on how to get past our (false) expectations around connecting with strangers.
1. Go back to conversation school
Getting a few tips on how to have good conversations with strangers increased people’s beliefs that both the stranger and themselves would enjoy the conversation.
I don’t know what tips appeared in the studies that Sandstrom and Boothby analysed, but here are a few I’ve picked up over the years:
Deliver a sincere compliment: ‘Cool shoes!’, ‘Delicious cakes!’, ‘Mad skillz!’
Add a question to your compliment: ‘Where did you get them?’, ‘What’s the recipe?’, ‘Can you teach me?’
Comment on your shared context (bonus points for positivity, gratitude and avoiding the weather): ‘This is the best playground’, ‘The quinoa salad is superb’, ‘Tuuuuuuuuuune!’
Ask a question (non-invasive): ‘That book any good?’, ‘Ooh, is that the quinoa salad?’, ‘Mind if I take this seat?’
Address the elephant in the room: ‘Sorry I’m so sweaty — that hill is a bitch’, ‘It’s crazy busy in here — come and join our table’, ‘You’re in a good mood today!’
Such anxiety-reducing tips probably make a conversation more likely to happen, but they didn’t improve the actual experience for study participants — because such conversations with strangers tend to go well anyway!
2. Notice the good stuff
Taking the time to reflect on a positive conversation with a stranger, not surprisingly, reduced anxiety about future conversations with strangers.
The more positive experiences we have — and the more vividly we acknowledge that they have indeed happened — the better we’ll feel about seeking out more.
What you don’t want to do is have a shitty conversational experience. That’s a bad thing and, Sandstrom and Boothby found, will likely set you back significantly, especially if you have a tendency to ruminate on upsetting situations. (Like I do.)
Obviously, a shitty experience is not always in your control. What is under your control is putting in the reps.
Have faith in the science that tells us that, not only are we exaggerating our own fears, but that, on balance, positive experiences will vastly outweigh the negative.
Easy said than done, I know. But this is us.
3. Permission granted!
Sandstrom and Boothby also stumbled over a tantalising possibility for a cheap intervention that could lead to more conversations between strangers: simply give yourself permission to talk.
You know this already: there are scenarios where not speaking to strangers is abominably rude.
At a mutual friend’s birthday party, for example, we all have implied permission to conversate with complete unknowns and generally, given enough booze/vol-au-vents/dancing, that is exactly what we do.
But what if we granted each other permission to speak in almost any situation we might share with a stranger?
I’m not saying that a ride on the Underground is exactly the same as attending your friend’s birthday party. But I’m not saying it isn’t a bit the same.
This is all well and good, but what I’ve come to realise is that, while connecting with strangers is (usually) a beautiful thing, what perhaps we need most is the courage to connect with the people we already know best: our friends.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I’m certainly not the only one who has: we seem, as a species, to be becoming less tolerant to anything that impinges on our own control of our time.
And that includes connecting with the greatest people in our lives.
Why aren’t I constantly hanging out with my best friends?
Oliver Burkeman, in his zeitgeist-busting must-read Four Thousand Weeks, nails it with characteristic precision:
We might be […] guilty of […] treating our time as something to hoard, when it’s better approached as something to share.
Burkeman argues that our Twenties’ desire to excercise tyrannical control over our time on earth leads directly to ‘the loneliness of the digital nomad’.
The more flexibility we have over our schedules and our living and working lives, the less likely we are to randomly hang out with the same people over and over again, including our very best friends, whose suzerainty over their own schedules leads them to make totally different, autocratic decisions for their living and working lives.
Somehow we never quite align and the less we align, the more fear we have about ceding time-control to others, and the more fear we have, the less we align.
Have you noticed this too?
Many years ago, in a move that I thought would finally grant me total power over my own existence, I chose the path of the keyboard-wrangling freelancer.
Whether it was co-writing a sitcom or interviewing a Nicaraguan agriculturalist on Zoom, I became, on the face of it, independent.
But independence doesn’t mean only independence from the annoying things about working with others — early mornings, deadlines, interruptions, printer jams — it means independence from everything about working with others.
I became independent from the messy business of ‘other people’. You know the ones: the ones you can never fully bring under your control; the ones that, in the final analysis, bring you all the joy.
I may have reduced my dependence on others, I may have reduced interruptions, but I could never eradicate them. Interruptions, as Burkeman irritatingly points out, are inevitable.
In fact, the closest thing to a guarantee in this life is that you will, just as you think you’re really getting somewhere, be interrupted.
And of course, one day, you’ll be interrupted — from an idle daydream, a conversation about something important, or maybe just from the washing up — for the final time.
So, I agree: we need to cede control. Not only control, but our delusions of control.
Especially when those delusions only stop us from relishing, nay, encouraging interruptions of joy.
Stakes is high low
Our anxiety towards strangers is small fry compared to our worry-worry about interrupting — a synonym for ‘spending time with’ — our greatest friends.
That anxiety comes from a false belief that the stakes are high, that we risk irritating our friend and being ourselves rejected:
We don’t answer the phone to a friend because we fear that, by doing so, we are somehow committing to an hour-long phone call that might take over our day.
Nor do we phone our friends, not only because we ourselves fear long conversations, but also because we fear we’ll be interrupting them from something more important.
We don’t drop round a friend’s house because that’s not what’s done these days. What if they’re out? What if they’re busy? We have phones, we could phone them, but instead we send a text and the moment goes unanswered.
If we do phone them, they don’t answer because See Above and See Above.
In all cases, reaching out makes us vulnerable to rejection and, frankly, we’re not sure we can handle that.
What we need to do right now is to lower the stakes massively and show that we risk nothing by reaching out to connect.
We do that, not by interrupting our friends less, but by interrupting them more — much more.
As Sandstrom and Boothby showed, only repeated positive experiences can reduce our anxiety over future interactions. And this finding was true of strangers: imagine how powerful the effect with our best friends.
So, let’s give our friendships a new tendency.
Everything good in life is an interruption from something else. It’s just what you choose in the moment.
Expect, and welcome — even demand — friendly interruptions. Many of us are buried deep by habit in lifeless, controlling communication strategies: you will probably need to order your friends to interrupt you. Give them permission.
These are your friends: if you’re in the middle of something you can’t pause, tell them so. In a nice way. You are not rejecting them because you’ll interrupt them back later. Or, even better, if you’re struggling with something, tell them so. They love you, so why not rope them into helping?
If you interrupt a friend and they say ‘not now’, this is NOT rejection. Chances are, they’re doing something else, possibly with other people. It’s still NOT rejection.
If we’re honest, it’s this fear of rejection that often stops us from connecting in the first place. Respond with more reps. Invite people to connect more often, not less, and the sensitivity to rejection will lessen.
Don’t write off all your friends because one turned you down on this occasion. Try another. If you run out of friends, say hello to a stranger (see last week).
Favour ringing their doorbell over ringing their phone.
Don’t use text, voice or video messages for anything that could be a live rendezvous or a phone or video call. Text, voice and video messages are not and will never be the main story: they’re explanatory footnotes, appendices or DVD extras. They only work as an adjunct to the existing foundation of person-to-person synchronous communication.
Show your friends that it’s okay to have a two minute phone call. It’s okay to stop by their house merely to exchange pleasantries on the weather. Stakes is low.
If you live apart from your friends, interrupt them remotely.
If you can’t find friends near or far, interrupt a stranger. It’ll go better than you think.
Whatever you do, interrupt. Loudly, proudly, interrupt, gloriously.
Thanks to DRL (👋) for sharing the Sandstrom and Boothby paper with me. Thanks to GC (👋) and LH (👋) for the friendship interruptions chat (and lunch). Thanks to Oliver Burkeman and CW (👋) for bringing it all together.
I get so much from conversations with friends-who-happen-to-be-readers and I hearwith grant you full permissions (without expiry) to comment or email me back with your own experiences or anything at all that pertains to this or any past and indeed future story (or potential future story if you want to start giving me ideas).
As close readers among you will know, I’ve spent much of the last week in France, visiting friends (👋) in Paris and Chamonix.
If you’ve never been, Chamonix is a terrifying place where people don practical clothing and highly impractical footwear and then throw themselves off actual mountains in a variety of increasingly outlandish ways — strapped to two metal prongs or a single fibreglass plank, dangling off a rope, sometimes deliberately not dangling off a rope, tied with string to an enormous silk bedsheet or, for the truly deranged, wearing nothing more than a big coat with flappy bits, before launching themselves into the sky.
Suffice to say, I did not do any of that. To be honest, even the cable car was a bit much, at least on the way up.
On Monday, however, we took a genteel train (firmly on rails, I noted) from Chamonix up to Montenvers, where the tail of the Mer de Glace shyly uncurls from behind a mountain, spitting out skiers and snowboarders in a gruntling manner that even I confess looks rather fun from a distance.
We ate sandwiches in the sunshine and then hiked back down to town through the snow.
But that’s not what this story is about at all. This story is about being overtaken by excitement in the company of strangers.
Nose pressed against the window of the train, moving slowly enough to catch the eye of passing pedestrians, passengers in crossing trains or midday quaffers at cafés, I started doing this thing that I’d forgotten I do — waving ecstatically, grinning like a loon and throwing out rapturous thumbs up and fist pumps.
Reactions were mixed.
It’s not standard behaviour for an adult, see. Not even for one wearing a bobble hat. Strangers don’t know quite what to do with the incoming data.
Shock and the moving train quite often left no time for any response, but my friend and I enjoyed watching those of relaxed and nimble mind move quickly from confusion, through panic and shyness, to why-the-fuck-not-wave-back?
A bolt of electricity passed between strangers and thus a moment was shared.
I learned this trick off a Polish bear-of-a-man called Marko who I met learning Arabic in Tunisia back in 2008. He was a charismatic fabulist with a thousand and one nights’ worth of tall stories and almost as many uses for the neat vodka in his everyday carry hip flask.
I was never quite sure how much of what he told me was true and how much of it didn’t matter that it wasn’t.
But I’ve never forgotten his audacity and penchant for giving strangers in the street a mighty white smile, thumbs up, high five or, indeed, shoulder bump.
It’s all about being deeply uncool, as confident-lunatic as you can be. And if it works in cooler-than-cool Chamonix, it works anywhere.
Even in London.
Flashback to 2013…
Way back in 2013, I was writing a book called You Are What You Don’t, about the art and science of positive constraints, imaginative twists on the unwritten rules of life.
I experimented with living without things like mobile phones and supermarkets, but also without abstract concepts like borders and walking. It was all about breaking my previously unexamined habits to learn what was really going on underneath (and whether, in truth, it’s more hygienic not to use toilet paper).
Then I decided to transgress that most London of social injunctions: There shalt be no smiling eye contact between strangers.
It all started halfway through reading the following convoluted sentence from the introduction to Mark Boyle’s second book, The Moneyless Manifesto:
While collectively taking off the lens called ‘How much can I get?’ and putting on another labelled […] ‘How many people can I make smile today?’ […] wouldn’t by itself cut the Gordian Knots of climate chaos, […] it would make for a crucial starting point.
Suitably inspired, I started logging smiles on my Nokia’s rudimentary spreadsheet function. I already kept track of all the money I spent, why not log smiles too?
‘I bet I can get a smile out of this’
The first sign that this was a project worth pursuing was on day one when I saw a man in his sixties help a woman with her heavy bag up the steps at Winchmore Hill station.
A few minutes later, I found myself walking behind the man towards my friend Beth’s house (👋). The path was too narrow to overtake comfortably, but he sensed me tripping on his heels, so he turned around and said something like, ‘You’re too fast for me nowadays.’
Normally, I would have just muttered a thanks and walked on, but this time I thought, ‘I bet I can get a smile out of this.’
So I slowed down to his pace and we chatted pleasantly, until we were both bowled out the way by a couple of kids hurtling down the path at us. We shared a smile and a laugh, and I added one to my spreadsheet.
What gets measured, gets motivated.
An oxytocin-fuelled haze of euphoria
I garnered a tidy eight smiles that first day and was pretty pleased with myself, fully expecting future days to hover around a similar mark or lower, considering I spend most of my life cloistered away in my lonely writer’s garret.
Little did I suspect that this innocent smile-gathering game would take total command of my life in an oxytocin-fuelled haze of euphoria.
The game lured me into doing pro-social smile-based deeds, like buying biscuits for an entire indie band I only vaguely knew (four smiles), and pressed me to turn rudimentary human interactions into fully-blown friendly encounters, including the somewhat risky manoeuvre of making my neighbour smile at the urinal.
There was no social opportunity too private to squeeze a smile from a stranger and I learnt that it’s even possible to smile down the telephone: the other person can always tell and, almost imperceptibly, the conversation lightens and brightens.
The Smiler’s Credo
By the end of the first week, I was regularly hitting twenty and thirty smiles a day and I’d developed a full-on smiler’s credo.
Remember, I told myself, even a single shared smile is infinitely and immeasurably precious. A moment spent smiling with another is a moment spent in the company of the divine.
Smiling, I decided, is defiance in the face of the hostility of the universe: it’s how we humans thumb our noses at the vanishing unlikelihood of fate that we should end up existing at all, never mind here and now, together in the same space-time.
If I knew that I could make a stranger smile as I passed them in the street, then surely I had an overwhelming responsibility to do so, without delay.
I’d catch people unawares as they walked from the station to work, sneaking smiles into their commutes. I’d change seats on the train once I’d smiled at all those around me: another carriage awaited my beneficence.
I knew nothing of these people’s lives, but I knew what a surprise smile from a stranger sometimes meant to me. On a dull day when the clouds cover our spirits, sometimes all it takes is an unexpected smile and the whole day can turn around.
‘I felt like the universe was falling into place for me’
One miserable evening, a wonderful friend (👋) was dumped by her now-verifiably-silly boyfriend.
My friend was devastated.
We sat together on my sofa as she cried on my increasingly soggy shoulder, but nothing would console her: neither sympathy nor indignation — not even chamomile tea.
But the next day, with hope in her eyes, she told me how she’d been on the tube, still desolate with her agony, when the man sitting across from her gave her a smile.
‘I felt like the universe was falling into place for me,’ she said, ‘That it was supporting me, right at the moment when I most needed it.’
Smiles are powerful, healing magic spells that we’ve all got, stacked up, waiting, ready to go, inside of us.
Infinitely renewable, sometimes they’re tapping on our teeth, bursting to get out, other times they’re lurking deep down somewhere next to our kidneys and it takes all our pushing to birth them into the world.
But please don’t let them fester from underuse — they’ll only grow mouldy down there and you might end up with some kind of infection.
It’s imperative we use them, throw them out with careless abandon, because none of us can ever know who will need our smile-of-the-moment most desperately.
You — little old you with the creaky knees and the occasional patch of eczema — you could be the nudge that makes the nigh-infinite universe fall into place.
A little jolt to the heart
One random Tuesday, I was smiling at people on the escalator, as they came up and I went down. Most stared dully back, or snapped their glance away like frightened marmots, but one woman smiled back and I felt an instant shot of pleasure.
I bounced off the end of the escalator, beaming: smiles beget smiles.
It wasn’t much, this little jolt to the heart, but it was something: I felt seen and acknowledged by another member of the human race and it felt very good.
These moments didn’t happen every time I won a smile, but they happened often enough and, without buying a ticket, you can never win.
If we fill our days with these moments, and recognise that by doing so we are also filling other people’s days with such micro jolts, then perhaps we can spread the revolutionary idea that life is, despite everything, at least occasionally worth living — not because everything is rosy and all our problems are solved, but because someone else, a stranger, is there with us, on our side.
It’s a Team Human thing.
How quickly can we change the culture of an entire city?
After a couple of weeks of smiling my head off, I decide to ramp things up. I start saying good morning to random people on the street.
The pleasure I feel, that jolt when another person responds in kind, intensifies.
Instead of turning inwards when the day starts badly, I turn outwards with a smile and a cheery, ‘Good morning!’
I become insufferable.
But I don’t care: it works. A greeting is even harder to dodge than a smile and my spreadsheet numbers jump up again. The positivity of connection electrifies and energises me for longer. I live for this shit now.
It doesn’t matter at all to me that the other people are strangers. In fact it seems to help: the smile or greeting is completely without precedent, free of social obligation, a completely unearned and unaccounted gesture of goodwill, no strings attached.
No strings, perhaps, but every smile puts out a slender filament, like the exploratory hyphal tip of an underground mycelial network.
A smile, you see, is contagious. A smile, even from a stranger, can override the control we have on our facial muscles: we simply can’t stop ourselves from smiling back.
So when someone makes me smile, I carry that smile along with me for a while, until it bursts out from me to someone else. And so it is that the levity of a smile travels from host to host through my neighbourhood to who-knows-where beyond.
A smile at a stranger communicates that you are not afraid, that you know they are friend not foe. It communicates to them that their community is around them and that their neighbourhood is relaxed, content and ready to support.
This sense makes me wonder about how quickly we could change the culture of an entire city.
Be more Egyptian
I’ve been lucky enough to spend a good chunk of time in a few different countries, with very different cultural norms when it comes to interacting with strangers.
Two stand out in my mind: Egypt and Andalucía, Spain.
In Egypt, it is considered rude not to personally greet everyone when you enter a room, whether you know them or not. Try that next time you go down The Red Lion.
Those Arabic greetings are also much more meaningful than their desultory English equivalents (‘Alright’, ‘Hi’, ‘Morning’).
The polite greeting in Egypt translates as ‘Peace be upon you’, which is lovely, but pales beside the standard morning greeting, which comes as a call-and-response:
‘Morning of Goodness!’ you say.
‘Morning of Light!’ I reply, or perhaps ‘Morning of Flowers!’
It’s really rather pretty, when you think about it.
In Andalucía, I found that it’s customary to greet people as you sit down next to them on the bus. Public transport becomes an everyday opportunity for a good natter, whether they’re a stranger, a neighbour or that bloke you’ve seen about town who wears the hats — you know the one.
I returned from both trips a more polite, more gregarious citizen and I wondered: why is London not like this?
Even in Cairo, a city two or three times the size of London and infinitely more polluted, chaotic and stressful, people still greet each other as they cram onto or dangle off the side of the microbuses that weave in and out of thick traffic.
In London we keep ourselves to ourselves, and even folks from Andalucía know to keep their traps shut on the Underground.
A culture, evidently, dictates certain actions to its citizens, so that they ‘fit in’. These actions become habits: walk fast, head down, elbows tucked.
Whenever the possibility for human interaction becomes a real and present danger, hide your eyes behind your phone or, in extremis, behind a copy of the free newspapers that the authorities hand out on the street for that exact purpose.
These habits engrain themselves into our character, whether we want them to or not. We become avatars of the keep-yourself-to-yourself culture, and in so doing we help pull outsiders into alignment.
Changing a culture means changing the habits of its citizens, which starts with changing their actions: hard to do against the pull of the tide.
Recommended Daily Allowance
After a few weeks of counting smiles, I can pin point exactly how many I need per day to feel good about myself: twenty.
Less than twenty and I can feel a little grouchy and listless at the end of the day.
I can handle more than twenty, but a lot more can feel overwhelming. And no wonder: according to reports of a study funded by Hewlett Packard, a good smile (the highest scoring was Robbie Williams’s) can be as stimulating as two thousand bars of chocolate or £16,000 in cash.
Even if these scientific studies stretch and break the limits of their validity, wouldn’t you still rather live in a world where the wildest extrapolations of the power of smiles hold true?
For a month in 2013, I was there, in that world.
And, whenever I remember to do this thing that I forget I do, I’m back: in the forgotten world behind the rain and the umbrellas and the washed-out faces, behind the make-up and the masks.
The only thing we need to access this world, anytime, is the secret password. No one can change the password because the password is the same the world over — a smile.
Thanks to RK (👋) for hosting me in Chamonix and for joining me in lunatic connection with strangers. Thanks to CW (👋) and the whole MMT team who inspired the germ of this story — and thanks to my 2013 self (👋) for writing most of it a decade ago!
This Quanta story by Marta Zaraska follows the classic doomspreading journalistic model so you’ll have to scroll right to the bottom to find the work that is being done to help support people who feel chronic loneliness, but, if you can avoid getting caught in the cheap attention trap, it’s an interesting read.
Example of anxiety-inducing sensationalist doomspreading:
10 hours without social contact is enough to elicit essentially the same neural signals as being deprived of food 🤮
Example of constructive storytelling, from the last two paragraphs in the article:
While interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy, promoting trust and synchrony, or even ingesting magic mushrooms could help treat chronic loneliness, transient feelings of solitude will most likely always remain part of the human experience. And there is nothing wrong with that, Tomova said.
She compares loneliness to stress: It’s unpleasant but not necessarily negative. ‘It provides energy to the body, and then we can deal with challenges,’ she said. 🥰
In the last 432 words of their 2,000 word article, Marta Zaraska covers four possible solutions for chronic loneliness (which I’ve bolded) and offers a comforting arm around the shoulder for the rest of us.
But how many people will read that far? The first 1,500 words are, by and large, doomspreading, explaining why chronic loneliness is a terrible thing and how difficult an emotion it is for scientists to study, let alone treat.
Take note, journalists, all — writing constructively isn’t hard. It doesn’t even mean removing the darker details, but why not put solutions and that arm around the shoulder up top in the lede? Why wait until you’ve beaten us up already?
I sort of don’t want to know the answer to that question.
If you notice a journalist who opens with doomspreading, do yourself a favour and skip ahead to read the final paragraphs first.
Today’s story is little more than the smashing together of two fancy words that I learned recently.
(And, actually, one of them I made up.)
Schismogenesis is the word for a process where apparently close neighbours somehow end up defining themselves in direct opposition to the other.
Protestant and Catholic, Conservative and Labour, Mods and Rockers, Reds and Blues: despite sharing so much, we lurrrrve to amplify our divisions and differences.
In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson show how tenaciously we tend to cling onto our sides of the argument (or indeed angle on reality), no matter what evidence or alternative is put before us.
It describes a positive feedback loop of action and self-deception by which slight differences between people’s attitudes become polarised.
Fuelled by cognitive dissonance and the confirmation bias, that’s (at least one element of) schismogenesis in action.
Antischismogenesis is my made up word for the reverse process: a divided people finding — and building upon — common ground.
(Or at least the ability to notice where difference exists and retain the openness of mind to continue to listen.)
While antischismogenesis does happen naturally — chuck a couple of reasonably open-minded, relaxed humans together and it’s surprising what common ground they’ll find. What, you love pizza too?! — it can seem that schismogenesis is the weightier force, particularly insidious as (for most if not all people) it rarely happens with malice aforethought.
What we need is a concept that will guide us towards, not malice, but benevolence aforethought…
There so are many different ways of ending up with similar-looking results that it’d be INSANE to judge anyone because they aren’t doing it exactly like you or because they don’t look like you or talk like you or even think like you.
Sometimes you’ve got to let them do it their way.
In fact, you could say that the spirit of equifinality is exactly what we need to find in order to rebuild our communities through antischismogenesis.
What we need is a mouthful: antischismogenetic equifinality.
Go on, give it a try — if nothing else, it’s fun to wrap your tongue around.
How we actually do antischismogenetic equifinality is another matter entirely.
The Discerning Traveller’s Comprehensively Empty Guide To Antischismogenetic Equifinality (On A Shoestring)
As it’s a concept that I just made up, there is no behavioural toolkit for antischismogenetic equifinality, but I bet it’d include all the usual tricks of the communication trade:
Learn about the ordinary human tendency for schismogenesis between in-groups and out-groups. Done ✔️
Notice where schismogenesis has nurtured division in your own life. What kind of people are in your circle of friends, colleagues and nodding acquaintances?
Notice when you are actively manufacturing division from others. Don’t forget that division isn’t all blazing rows and fisty-cuffs. It’s most often as mundane and insidious as silent prejudice.
What’s your internal monologue when you pass a member of the out-group in the street? How about when you hear your favourite worst enemy on the radio or read about their latest egregious behaviour in the news? If you’re anything like me, you’ll despatch with relish the three Ds: dismiss, deny and denigrate.
Learn about and notice your own susceptibility to the cognitive biases that make us all think that we’re not only the best, but also sparkling exceptions to any and every rule. Cognitive biases, our mental blind spots, are like a baseball bat to the knees of equifinality.
Interrupt the opening of any division with extra-ordinary behaviours, which usually begins with you reaching out in a spirit of curiosity. Nonjudgemental curiosity is the practical precursor of equifinality.
Ask open questions (instead of leading questions), listen for what others want to communicate (instead of what you want to hear) and check that you have understood others as they want to be understood (instead of how you’d like to label them).
Employ random acts of kindness to set spinning a virtuous cycle of connection between strangers.
But I bet you’ve got a million other ideas and I’m totally here for them. Hit the comments.
Thanks to everyone who shared and messaged about last week’s story, The End Of Doomspreading — it’s already my sixth most-read edition of this newsletter.
My drive is to help us develop more effective ways of connecting with people who start on the other side of an apparently deep divide and turn difficult conversations into connective conversations — like the one I had in the sauna yesterday.
From the other side of the bench, another man piped up: ‘I don’t think you’ll get many people who disagree with immigration in theory,’ he said, ‘at least, not for people who are here to work hard and contribute to the economy.
Alternatively, a previous iteration might have felt angry, so angry that I might have spent the rest of my sauna time simmering in outrage, completely incapable of forming a coherent response until much later. We’ve all been there.
But yesterday, I was curious.
I could tell that the man was doomspreading and doomsplaining: not only passing on ‘the world’s all going to shit’ propaganda that he’d swallowed, but also pushing his pessimistic moral opinion that there are deserving and undeserving human beings.
Because I recognised that he was doomspeaking, I knew that this man needed empathy, not argument.
So I listened for the underlying fears and emotions. What I heard was confused resentment, fuelled by a deep sense of injustice.
I also hate injustice so it was easy to empathise, not with the content of what he was saying, but with his emotion of confused resentment and his unmet need for justice.
Although we only had a few minutes before I fainted from heat exhaustion, we quickly found some common ground.
‘If they’ve got all this money lying around for five star hotels,’ the man said, ‘why don’t they look after the people who are already here, instead of giving it to people who just arrived?
‘Why don’t they use it to end homelessness?’
Zing! Why not, indeed?
From our opening statements, this man and I were apparently entrenched on opposite precipices of a gas-powered flaming canyon, where even a single step towards each other would get us burned alive.
But now I can see how easily we could work together on something we both believe in.
Even if we radically disagree on freedom of movement (at one point he suggested that the government should’ve bought up all the decommissioned cruise liners to keep refugees offshore), he urgently wants to end homelessness.
I can get with that, so that’s where we can start.
A couple of weeks ago, I met a young man who lived in a world of confusion, threat and mistrust.
Within a couple of minutes of meeting, he was telling me that he felt like straight men ‘like us’ were on the bottom rung of society’s ladder.
He followed this up with a story about the deliberate derailment by the US government of a train carrying nuclear waste, an act of state-sponsored vandalism that would create a Chernobyl-like exclusion zone across Ohio.
‘You can look it up anywhere,’ he said. (So I did.)
He was in despair at the state of the world, at how big business and governments are conspiring to wreck the planet, and he explained his plan to raise enough money to buy some land in the country where he could build his own community from scratch, a safe haven for those like him who had ‘woken up’ over the past couple of years.
Before you misunderstand me, this is not an eye-rolling-at-bonkers-conspiracy-theorists moment.
Please believe me when I say that this person had very good reasons to see the world the way they do.
And, while I don’t necessarily share his view of current events, I sympathise deeply with the underlying emotions of confusion, threat, mistrust, fragility and despair and with his urge to escape to a utopian community where everything is perfect.
We Need New Words For This
We all know what manspreading and mansplaining are, right?
Manspreading: Typically of a man: to take up more than their fair share of space, either physically or metaphorically in conversation, etc..
Mansplaining: Typically of a man: to explain (something) needlessly, overbearingly, or condescendingly, especially (typically when addressing a woman) in a manner thought to reveal a patronising or chauvinistic attitude.
Love em or hate em, neologisms identify stuff in the world and the best of these new words can also facilitate change.
Since being able to name and frame the behaviour, I have become more aware of my own tendency to take up space. Sometimes I shut up or pull my legs in a bit.
(Incidentally, the man- prefix isn’t such a neologism as you might imagine. Manswearing — to be guilty of perjury or oath-breaking — goes back a thousand years. I love that.)
Credit to whoever came up with these man- neologisms and I hope they don’t mind me appropriating the -splaining and -spreading pattern for my own purposes.
But it is, and should remain, an acute pain reflex.
When that reflex is combined with the chronic negativity of a planet’s worth of bad news gunge, the only reasonable responses, once we’re saturated and burnt out, are crippling despair or reductive paranoia.
Despair is pretty much the only appropriate response if your brain takes a stab at fully understanding and empathising with the depth of misery generated by more than a day’s worth of headlines.
It cripples our belief in our strength to make meaningful change and our drive to leave the world a better place as we depart than when we arrived. In our despair, we retreat, disconnect and close the door to strangers, even friends.
Paranoia solves for despair by reducing the overwhelming complexity of human existence to an easily comprehensible, if false, explanation.
We’re controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring and there’s nothing we can do but escape into a fantasy world with our dwindling allies.
Despair and paranoia are two extremes of rational response to overwhelming complexity and I’m sure you’ll recognise yourself at some point on that miserable line.
Doomspreading And Doomsplaining
That’s why I believe we need new words to swiftly identify — and interrupt — the disempowering, alienating discourse that happens when doomscrolling, whether our own or others’, bleeds into our ways of being, our actions and our conversations.
The aim is to strengthen our belief that we can influence events, make meaningful change and grow a better life for all beings.
So may I introduce to you two new words:
Doomspreading: to dominate a conversation with the perspective that everything is going to shit.
Doomsplaining: to explain how everything is going to shit, especially in response to the alternate perspective that things are kind of going okay.
I told a friend (👋) about the concept on Monday and was thrilled to get this message from her on Wednesday:
I think we need this.
We need to be able to notice what’s happening when it’s happening and we need to be able to step in and stop the drift towards despair and paranoia at source.
Somehow, we need to find a way of throwing ourselves a lifeline to a better world.
Stopping The Doomspread
The way we stop the spread is not to engage or challenge and certainly not to block the superficial content of doom, but instead to hear and empathise with the underlying emotions.
The chap I met at the start of the story was upset because he felt like he wasn’t being heard, that he was being lied to by government, and that businesses he couldn’t control were destroying the planet. All he wanted was the security of his own home and the warmth of an understanding community.
Goddam, I hear that!
Once I’d heard that, this man, this ‘tin foil hat’ (his words) conspiracy theorist, was ready to hear how I see the world.
We parted, each trusting the world a little more.
Ironically, by expressing his beliefs to someone who didn’t believe them, this man’s desire for an understanding community became possible without going through the hassle of setting up a countryside hermitage.
Remember that this method applies as much if not more to ourselves as to others.
If you find yourself doomspreading, pause, and see if you can dig down below the ‘facts’ and instead express your underlying concerns and your unspoken needs.
What do you really need from this interaction? Reassurance? Understanding? Safety? Fairness? Honesty? Choice? Acceptance? Friendship? Help?
This expression of need will be so much more relatable than your rant about Prince Harry and so much more likely to lead directly to a solution that you can actually act on.
The world is complicated. I have so much empathy for people who find it too much — I do too sometimes.
But, as much as we’d love to, we can’t ever fully control; we can only fully collaborate.
The wonderful thing is that, through collaboration, we build trust and this trust creates resiliant and loving communities.
Resiliant and loving communities solve their own problems and, suddenly, our lonely despair and paranoia is replaced with cooperative strength and courage.
So let’s all start by calling out doomspreading: it doesn’t help.
David Charles’s IMDB profile informs us that he has appeared in shows such as Grange Hill, The Bill, Doc Martin, The Crown and something called High Hopes, in which, pleasingly, he played Prince Charles.
6. David Charles, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Yale University
No doubt a notable fan of Aristotle, but, seriously, who’s looking this far down the list?
There was a brief summer where both David Charles and I were engaged at Oxford University: he as professor and I as messenger boy. No wonder he felt like he had to move abroad to make a name for himself.
Among The Weeds
That’s it for the first page on Google, but I can’t help myself diving deeper:
David Charles, psychic who does Youtube readings for the Royal Family and ‘red hot lucky lottery numbers’
David Charles, legal counsel at McKenna & Associates, Pittsburgh
David Charles, Account Executive at Alan Boswell Group, an insurance brokers
David Charles, Head of Risk and Compliance at Calibrate Partners, a wealth management hedge fund
David Charles, Teaching Assistant Professor at EdD, Organizational Change and Leadership, University of Southern California
David Charles, teacher at the University of Havre Normandie with an interest in nineteenth century French literature
David Charles, an internist at a clinic in Rockville, Maryland
David Charles, solicitor at Darby & Darby in Torquay
David Charles, Principal Engineer at Kingfisher IT Services in Olney
David Charles, cofounder / CEO of The Strive Initiative, Pasadena
David Charles, Client & Market Development Manager at Clifford Chance, Frankfurt
David Charles, psychologist in Louisville, Kentucky
And — pass the oxygen — deeper:
David Charles, a farm vet in Derby
David Charles, Programme Director at the Disclosure and Barring Service (I regularly update my DBS certificate — has my paperwork ever crossed his desk?)
David Charles, Head of Climate Action at University of Strathclyde (congratulations on recently handing in your PhD, sir!)
David Charles, Partner at Bickerdike Allen Partners LLP, an architecture and planning company in London
David Charles, an accountant in Glasgow
David Charles of David Charles Ministries, producer of hits like Standout Christian, Thank You Father and God Sent Riddim, with as many as 30 monthly listeners on Spotify
Okay, too deep now.
Or, wait — not deep enough — the CEO and Founder of David Charles Ministries is none other than David Burkley.
What the actual hell? Can everyone just keep their hands off our name, please?
Spitting feathers at the gamesmanship of these masquerading charlatans, I turn my attentions to that bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia with a redoubtable test of notability embedded in its editorial code.
People are presumed notable if they have received significant coverage in multiple published secondary sources that are reliable, intellectually independent of each other, and independent of the subject.
Selecting only the David Charleses who are (probably) still alive, what do we find here?
British drummer, recording engineer and record producer, most notably for The Charlatans 1997 album Tellin’ Stories. Last active: unknown.
So, in summary: there are six notable and living David Charleses recorded on Wikipedia. Two of them aren’t bone fide David Charleses and another three are, by all accounts, long retired.
The only one who stands is David Charles, our favourite professor of philosophy, who, famously, languishes not one but two places below me in the Google rankings.
The Search Concludes
And I’m afraid that this is where we must call a halt to our search.
Yes, I could plough on through the 48 David Charleses on IMDB. But only two of them are notable enough to have pictures and both are spurious: David Leach (AKA ‘David Charles’) and David Charles Rodrigues.
Yes, I could investigate the ten David Charleses listed on Discog, the music database, and I could sign up to Facebook or LinkedIn and continue my trawling there, but I think we have enough data, don’t you?
And I’m sure you’ll agree with my conclusion: yes, I am indeed the most notable David Charles in the universe.
But you knew that already. That’s not what’s interesting.
Shamefully, I’ve spent hours this week trawling through dozens of internet biographies of other people called David Charles and what I’ve found is that we’re all, in some way, notable.
Who am I to argue the superiority of my name against the achievements and efforts of the Principal Engineer at Kingfisher IT Services? The Principal Engineer, for pity’s sake —
An enthusiastic and expert Technical Leader with an impressive track record of design and delivery of innovative and robust solutions to demanding business and technical challenges.
No, I don’t know what any of that means either, but it tells me that notability is in the eye of the beholder, certainly to ourselves, but also to loved ones, students, teammates, psychic clients and both human and veterinary patients.
Utterly Irrelevant / Utterly Essential
This search has simultaneously made me feel utterly irrelevant and utterly essential.
David Charlesing is a team game and we are all making our contribution, each in its own way notable.
That is our goal, if we needed one, and, if we needed an exemplar, then who better than David Charles of Somerset, former President of The British Beekeepers Association?
I only got to know and speak with David on a small number of occasions, in particular at the National Honey Show, and at all times found him to be a warm and friendly person, who would put himself out to assist you in any way he could.
All David Charleses, we all play our part.
Some of us look after bees. Some don’t.
Some of us will spend our lives with you. Some of us you’ll only get to know and speak with on a small number of occasions.
But however a David Charles comes into your life, that’s still notable, both for you and for us.
That’s all part of the harvest.
The kicker, of course, is that, despite my lofty appearance on Google, I don’t appear anywhere at all on the search engine I personally use, DuckDuckGo.
It simply doesn’t matter.
(And, yes, I am an admirer of Dave Gorman. I’m not him.)
And, to be honest, I’m not bothered about learning the deep roots of yoga — I’m sure it’s a worthwhile world of study, but it’s not why I’m here.
I’m here to improve my flexibility to the point where I can poo comfortably in the wild. In other words (literally): I’m here to stretch.
Yes, I got a lot of my stretch moves from what were called yoga books, classes or videos, but, if I’m honest, my main justification for using the term is because it’s a short word that fits into a narrow spreadsheet column.
So I’ll add five characters and call it by its name: stretching.
1a. The English Language And Cultural Appropriation
This is not going to turn into a story about cultural appropriation, but it’s worth noting that the English language holds a special place in global culture.
This comes with an astonishing array of benefits for native speakers, but also a few things that we need to look out for.
To stick with the cricket example, imagine if Indian cricketers adopted new rules that meant you got eight points for a six (but it was still called a six for reasons that everyone else has forgotten), you had to hit the ball with a hammer and there was no afternoon tea break. 😱
The England and Wales Cricket Board would be appalled — cricket is our sport, first played on our lawns over five hundred years ago, with the first laws of the game written down by our Grace the Duke of Richmond and the Second Viscount Midleton for two matches played in Surrey and Sussex in July 1727.
Since December 2019, I have recorded 772 at-home yoga sessions, at an average of 16 minutes per day (currently more like 8 minutes).
I’ve been amazed at what a difference this investment of 1 percent of my waking time has made to my flexibility.
The fact that I can get into the Asian squat position is a minor miracle considering that, three years ago, I couldn’t sit cross-legged on the floor.
But there is a gross story about why I started stretching on the daily — you want to hear it?
In summer 2019, I cycled with Thighs of Steel from Paris to Bordeaux and then from Ljubljana to Athens.
Every night for four weeks, we’d wild camp — along with everything that entails.
Sleeping under a scrap of canvas, washing in rivers or lakes, eating high-carb meals under the stars as the sun set and dawn rose.
And, of course, pooing into a freshly dug hole in the ground.
This isn’t where the story gets gross.
At first, the pooing was fine.
My flexibility wasn’t up to much, so I wasn’t able to position myself over my poo hole very comfortably, but that didn’t seem to matter so long as I dug the pit near a tree against which I could balance myself.
But then all that high-carb food caught up with me and I got a touch of constipation.
Constipation is uncomfortable enough, but, with a relaxing toilet seat unavailable and physically unable to squat, I found myself straining harder than I usually might.
And this is where the story gets gross.
One morning, after porridge at a beautiful riverside camp spot in Croatia, I strained so hard that I slightly tore my anus.
The discomfort stayed with me for the rest of the ride — and I can tell you that one thing you really don’t want while cycling for ten hours a day is even a slightly torn anus.
When I got home to the UK, I vowed that I would do something about my inability to defecate comfortably without a throne.
So began my daily yoga sessions — and now look at me. Not only can I take wildly adventurous poos, but I can even write gross stories to you while crouching in a kettlebell-supported squat.
Belinda was expedition manager on the BBC 2 series Beyond Boundaries, in which eleven men and women trekked 220 miles across the Nicaraguan jungle and desert, dodging bandits, wading through crocodile infested rivers and summitting a live volcano.
In short: one heck of an adventure.
What’s this got to do with me and my knee cartilage?
The eleven members of the Nicaragua expedition included two in wheelchairs, one deaf, one blind, one double foot amputee, two arm amputees, one with spina bifida and three single leg amputees.
I read this as a gentle reminder that we all, all the time, have to ‘start from where we are’.
It’s not much use me dreaming of all the things I used to do or mourning for all the adventures I’ve had to cancel over the past month.
Better to start from where I am today and accept that hiking across Dartmoor or cycling through the Lake District just isn’t going to work for me right now.
That doesn’t mean everything else is off the table as well. Far from it.
But I must start from where I am, not from where I used to be or from where I think I should be or from where I would one day love to be.
The first challenge for me today is not to swim with crocodiles, but to interrupt an alienating cycle of inactivity.
Here’s my current pattern of thinking:
Rest my knee ➡️ Limit walking and exercise ➡️ Stop going outdoors much ➡️ More work, more screentime ➡️ Low mood, poor sleep ➡️ Stop doing much of anything and head back indoors ↩️
It’s a slippery slide, especially when I’m clinging onto the hope that this won’t be forever, that the knee pain won’t last and things will return to normal soon.
I mean, they probably will — I spoke to a very reassuring physio on Wednesday — but still, no.
I don’t believe that the best first response to any problem is to suck it up and wait it out. That’s not me.
Not only does such a solution fail to reflect the reality of where I am, it also spits on the unbelievable good fortune of every minute of my existence.
Instead, I’ll start from where I am and honour the time I have now — not mortgage it against some contingent future.
So this week I’ve instituted a new rule: no screens until I’ve done at least three beautiful things for the good of my today self.
This list of ideas is still growing and welcomes new suggestions. A ✔️ indicates what I’ve done since Wednesday:
Read a book ✔️✔️✔️
See or phone a friend
Go outside and watch the goats eat breakfast ✔️✔️✔️
The big reason I keep going back to sauna is stories.
Conversations with a revolving cast of regulars and passing trade always make me think or feel something.
Sometimes I think those conversations are worth writing down and sharing.
So here you go: four short stories from sweating it out with strangers.
#1: Put Your Money On Humanity
The other day I had a meeting with my investment managers —
Wow, what an opener. That’s sauna life for you.
— and I asked them, where can I put my money so it’s safe?
And they said nowhere.
Isn’t that remarkable? There is nowhere that the professionals can say will be 100 percent safe for your money right now.
Even gold, they said, even gold.
Sorry for the depressing conversation —
No, no, it’s fine —
This is me speaking nowbecause I’m actually finding it a reassuring conversation.
This man is learning the truth that money can’t actually do anything for you. Only humans can.
And machines built by machines built by humans.
But mainly humans.
Maybe, instead of finding somewhere for his investments to live happily ever after, this man should put all his money on humanity, the stewards of the land, community, the carers and growers, and society, the builders, dreamers and changers.
In the future, we might not have money, but we’ll certainly have each other.
#2: Socialist Rather Than Progressive
I met a man in his fifties, I’d guess, who was anxious, scared and angry, all because of what he’d seen on TV.
What’s happening in Afghanistan, in Iran and in China, he told me. Terrible, terrible things.
When I pointed out that there wasn’t much he could do about that, he replied: You’re right. It’s no better here with the clowns we’ve got in charge.
You know, a few years ago I watched that Plantagenets programme — and nothing changes. It’s the same today, right? The rich get everything and the working classes get nothing — we’re serfs to them, that’s all. Serfs.
When I suggested that this world view might have been influenced by the same bad news he caught from TV and that some things might have changed a bit, he said: I’m with you, but I need more convincing.
The idea that things haven’t changed since the death of Richard III in 1485 strikes me as a little defeatist and surely more likely to result in things not changing, even if we would dearly love them to.
In the past 537 years, we have at least in the UK built a society where education and healthcare is free to all, without financial, ethnic, gender or class barrier.
If nothing changes, then why are so many people fighting so hard to keep it that way?
#3: You Only Live Once
You Only Live Once was his mantra. On his lips and, tattooed, on his shoulders.
He worked in fintech and talked about the price of gold and the US dollar. (Bearish.)
His plan, not this year, but next, was to fly to Cape Town and, from there, five or six hours by plane to Antarctica, with another two internal flights to tour the white continent.
It’s not cheap, but it’s a once in a lifetime trip, isn’t it? Four days with only fourteen other people on board.
He hates being around other people, you see.
He hated Prague. He had to get up at 6am to walk across the Charles Bridge because of The Masses.
He believes in working first and going away after. He only wants one or two weeks a month for Euro breaks. Then one longer trip at the end of the year, when he’d earned it, you know.
Before Christmas, he did the German Christmas markets. He flew Lufthansa on two legs of the trip, from Berlin to Munich and from Munich to Prague. (Which he hated.)
At this point, our investor from the first story asks, mildly: Do you ever consider trains for these short hops when you’re in Europe?
He only lived once, you see.
#4: Changing Lanes
He introduced himself as an HGV driver from Ewelme.
His daughter stayed on the lower shelf. His wife stayed in the hot tub. His son stayed quiet.
He used to be a chippie — the woodworking sort not the fish frying sort — decades in the trade. Eventually, he quit. It was doing his head in.
He retrained as an HGV driver. A big gamble for a fifty-year-old with a young family. Big gamble.
But he didn’t take to the hours at the wheel, the days of asphalt-induced solitude. Too lonely. Misses shop talk.
Now he works a couple of days on the HGVs, but does a nice sideline as a skip driver and waste refuse operative.
They’re a proper team. He loves it.
And look at him now, five years later on New Year’s Day, staying with his young family in a spa hotel on the south coast.
If you’re unhappy, I suppose, you’re never too old to change lanes.
My year started with dancing and Dancing Ledge, followed by an assault on a wardrobe, and then finally getting all the results back from my Zoe personalised nutrition experiment.
Data! — what a wonderful start to the year!
This Zoe experiment measured my blood sugar control, blood fat control and the contents of my guts. And, as a confirmed hypochondriac, the results are actually quite embarrassing.
What I was vaguely hoping for was some sort of blood or fecal explanation for my inherent recalcitrancy, soporific laziness, and, of course, those violent depressive episodes following any use of the letter ‘u’ in ‘sentences’ such as ‘what u up 2?’
Yes! — I have a SHOCKING diversity of microbial species living in my gut!
No wonder I’m completely broken as a human being — frankly, it’s a miracle that I’m even able to sit here and type these wor— Oh, wait.
Apparently, Zoe have discovered that there’s actually a ‘more powerful’ measure of gut microbiome health than mere species diversity, one based on the ratio of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ bugs in my tumtum.
Turns out that my constitution is bullet proof. How irritating.
Oh well. Let’s put that aside and look instead at what all this data might mean for my eating habits.
For data nerds (and, if you’ve got this far, that’s you), this is where the fun begins.
Zoe rolls all those delicious data points together, feeds them into an algorithm and spits out a score for every single imaginable foodstuff that you might put into your gaping maw (except, for some conspiratorial reason, strawberries).
These findings are not earth shattering — who knew that scoffing cake might be suboptimal for your diet? (But if you are going to scoff cakes, scoff these…)
Personalised nutrition is more about tweaking the little things, making subtle improvements through substitution or combination.
My personal takeaways (TAKEAWAYS) from this experiment thus far are:
Eat kale, broccoli and peas every day — green stuff, basically (mind blown, eh?)
Go mad on apples, oranges, avocados, passionfruit, cherries and grapefruit, but avoid dried fruit (except semi-dried prunes) and, while I’m in the fruit aisle, not much point in picking up bananas either (interesting)
My protein is, predictably, going to come from lentils, beans and tempeh (basically beans) — mind you, I haven’t been (BEAN) eating much of this sort of thing and my daily nutritional intake (which Zoe also calculates) has been totally fine without it
Swap out peanut butter for almond butter (that’s gonna get spenny) and balsamic vinegar for white wine vinegar
Eat bulgar wheat or pearl barley instead of rice, pasta or potatoes (and if I have to eat potatoes, go for sweet potatoes)
Add extra virgin olive oil, olives, hummus, nutritional yeast, kimchi and all kinds of seeds to everything (even the Welsh cakes)
When eating carbs, make sure to combine them with fats
Let’s see food combinations in action as we build the arch-hipster uber-brunch, smashed avo on toast, starting with just plain toast on the left:
See how one tablespoon of EVOO transforms that slice of rye sourdough toast from a worrying score of 45 (‘enjoy in moderation’) to a handsome score of 75 (‘enjoy freely’).
Smash some avo on top and — BOOM — 86 points, which I think translates to ‘gorge horrifically’.
So that’s how the Zoe program works. I won’t keep going on about it in this newsletter because it is, by definition, personalised to me.
It is also extremely expensive — £450 in total for the testing and four months of working with the data (that’s what I’ve started this week) — and most of you have much better things to be doing with that kind of money.
But I hope this little tour has helped you ponder a little about what’s going on inside you (and perhaps only you) when you put things inside yourself.
There are some predictable and unavoidable generalities — eat your greens daily, save your cake for special occasions — but your microbiome, like mine, is unique and will behave differently with everything you eat.
If you are interested in trying the Zoe program, then I have an invite code that will get you instant access (otherwise there’s a waiting list). Hit me back and I’ll send it over.
And, by all means, I’d be happy (possibly a bit too happy) to go into excruciating detail about anything else you’re curious about. Just wind me up and set me going.
I have one last question: anyone know how to make sourdough from gram flour?
ps: Oh, by the way, I am also extremely grateful to my little bugs for being so goldarned healthy. It makes me wonder what effect the past couple of years of more-or-less veganism have had on the little blighters. Doesn’t seem to have done much harm, anyway.
pps: I’m also thrilled to see my uncool attraction to Emmental backed up by the data. Number one, baby!
One of the projects we supported this year was Calais Migrant Solidarity, a No Borders activist group that I worked with when I first went to Calais in 2014. It’s remarkable that they’ve been a constant presence there, challenging the noisy narrative of our deadly border and organising with people on the move, since 2009.
It was great for us to be able to find such a wonderful funding organisation who would support our work without asking us to compromise our beliefs or messaging.
Man Sloth Mode is a temporary ‘depressed’ (low energy, low affect, low arousal) state of being, usually triggered by specific environmental factors, to which men are particularly susceptible. Man Sloth Mode was my most widely read, shared and commented story of the year, so it was great to join a Men’s Circle in Bournemouth, full of people eager to take their place on earth.
I’m one of 27 percent of people who rarely or almost never think about what I might do five years or more from now. I tried to fix this with a floor plan. Not sure it worked, but it was fun. I also learned that setting SMART goals and seeking high levels of accountability might be doing me more harm than good. Better to set up — and then appreciate — life-enriching processes.
The course I took in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) opened my eyes to the power of identifying what needs I am expressing when I realise that I’m feeling (say) frustrated, excited or overwhelmed. More on this topic in 2023, but for now here’s a quote from the founder of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg:
When the sole energy that motivates us is simply to make life wonderful for others and ourselves, then even hard work has an element of play in it.
Imagine we never felt anxious. Sure, we’d be mellow as fuck, but there’d be no adventures, no laughter, no stories to tell our grand kids. I’m anxious — GREAT. My body is priming me to get shit done. So let’s do it.
Perhaps another 2,500km to ride before my round Britain twice tour is completed. Or perhaps not…
Looking at the gaps in the journey already — the northeastern tip of East Anglia, the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, the Black Country, the Welsh heartland, and, not least, Grimsby — I’m wondering: shall this ride ever be complete?
My 100th Day of Adventure started with me trying to discourage the local dogs from chewing up our cyclists’ helmets that’d been left scattered around camp after a long day’s ride. The year ended with a staggering 127 Days of Adventure.
It’s impossible to acknowledge, let alone thank, all the visible and invisible kindnesses that made Thighs of Steel possible this year. Philoxenia, the love of strangers and travellers, is alive and thriving.
I’m really lucky to have shared adventures this year with over a hundred wonderful people. You know who you are, but special mention to my mum who stomped through the clag with me on the twenty-five mile trail of Eliot’s Little Gidding.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
I saw or spoke with 54 friends and family (-3 vs 2021) across the course of 957 interactions (+119 vs 2021) this year. 17 of those friends and family (31%) accounted for 700 interactions (73%). However, among the 12 most important of those friends and family, year on year interactions went down by 117 and I managed to increase my contact with only 3 of those people this year. On the plus side, I made 2 new friends this year, while 4 old friends also made a welcome comeback.
It feels like I have friends everywhere I go. I also realised that I love hosting people: this year I welcomed my first pair of Warmshowers cycle tourers (and promptly passed one of them onto my friends in France).
Instead of ‘minding your own business’ or jacking up on virtual propinquity through your phone screen, look to strengthen the connections you have with the beings immediately around you. You never know when and how they might need you — and you might need them.
Nothing creates the impression of limitless time as having nothing to do. Not because I’ve done nothing, but because I stopped when I’d done the important things.
In Italy, instead of making small talk about the weather, denizens prefer gastronomic tittle-tattle: ‘What did you cook last night?’, ‘What did you have for breakfast?’, ‘Terrible year for aubergines — but how about dem courgettes, eh?’
As we sweated up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, one of the cyclists remarked: ‘I can’t wait to go on more adventures like this, now I know what I’m capable of!’
I had to disagree with her: ‘No you don’t. That’s the point. You’ve cycled 600km in six days, in a heatwave, and you still haven’t hit the wall. You have NO IDEA what you’re capable of.’
The Beatles: statistically not as good as Dylan. Plus you can still see Dylan perform. Whether you enjoy the experience might depend more on what you believe is the purpose of live music: to recreate the recorded material or to create something new, specific to this place, these people and this moment in time.
Going to the sauna is a keystone habit for me: not only good for my physical health, but also a big screen-free reset button for my mind. I never know who I’m going to meet or what 80 degree conversations I might have: the Egyptian owner of a local nightclub, a woman who runs psychedelic sacred spaces… my childhood babysitter?!
I never imagined that investment in a digitised cartoon could set in motion a chain of events that end here:
I took 38 car trips this year, driving a total of 5106 miles — the distance from Bournemouth to Beijing. This is slightly less driving than in 2021, but still the equivalent of 48.3 mature trees’ worth of carbon. My average trip distance was 135 miles, less than the average range of even the cheapest electric cars. Hm.
Climate Action Tracker rates the UK as having one of the most effective net zero policies in the world. Even so, that policy is still ranked as only ‘almost sufficient’ to limit global heating to 1.5C. Must do better.
But I also have the misfortune to be a fan of certain sports — or, rather, I find myself seeking out sports news as a sort of soothing medication for certain twenty-first century maladies of the soul for which a lasting cure would risk rupturing the fabric of my fragile ego.
The last month, then, has been ripe for medication.
My dissatisfaction with sports-soothing was particularly acute when I was cycling from Edinburgh to Inverness a few weeks ago (stories here and here) — especially as the icy weather and early darkness would lure us indoors, often into places where the football was showing on screens large and small.
I found these ghostly attractions hard to resist and the vacant escapism of watching other people literally play out their lives in the desert heat of Qatari sports grounds created in me a strong sense of cognitive dissonance.
Subsuming myself to a screen is the very opposite of the connections of propinquity that I say I most value, and those I say I seek, most especially when I travel.
Either I’m a useless hypocrite or else nnnguhhhhhh?
What Cost Sports-Soothing?
I didn’t know what to do with this uncomfortable cognitive dissonance until, early this morning, at home in bed, I found myself switching on the radio to catch the last rites of the England men’s cricket team winning in Pakistan.
I could have been night-dreaming, day-dreaming, or even just listening to the whine of tinnitus in my left ear canal.
Instead I was lying in the dark, listening to someone else describe what they’d seen someone else do on a patch of lawn 6180km away.
Once I’d finished revelling in the statistical playground that was England’s ‘historic’ (what does that even mean?!) victory, I was sobered by an uninvited soul-searcher:
What opportunity cost am I absent-mindedly paying for my addiction to sports-soothing?
I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of opportunity costs — they’re the things you could have done instead of doing the thing that you went and did.
When you start thinking about opportunity costs, it can rapidly spiral you into needing-a-lie-down-time.
Like: I studied Egyptology at university AT THE COST OF EVERY SINGLE OTHER DISCIPLINE, INTEREST, VOCATION, CAREER and, indeed, EXISTENCE.
Gosh. Thanks, Dave. Massive FOMO. Just what I needed more of.
Woolly Mammoths & Butterfly Wings
The way I see it, there are two species of opportunity cost that arise from our life choices.
There are the woolly mammoth costs, like not choosing a degree in radiology, fine arts or Xhosa and the careers thereby closed off forever.
Psychologically, the woolly mammoths are actually fairly manageable. They are so big that we tend to commit one way or another: interminable regret or indignant justification.
And, being egotistical fipple-flute humans, we tend to go for the latter.
Even if the decision is fairly arbitrary (I was always more Indiana Jones than Star Wars as a kid), it’s our decision so we don’t usually find it too hard to make peace with our chosen path.
Like the actual woolly mammoths, the psychological pain associated with massive and obvious opportunity costs tend to go extinct pretty quick. Definitely within 800,000 years, anyway.
But our daily lives are brimming with minute decisions that bear almost invisible opportunity costs that take their power from accumulation: our habitual opportunity costs, the butterfly wings that become the hurricane.
And our habitual opportunity costs aren’t just any common or garden butterfly.
They are none other than Papilio antimachus, the African giant swallowtail, which oozes a deadly poison called ouabain that kills by cardiac arrest.
Despite being smaller than a chequebook, these are the ones you need to be worrying about.
Masked in a cloak of apparent insignificance, we don’t tend to notice the cumulative cost of our chequebook-sized habits until we look over our end-of-life accounts and marvel at how much we’ve spent.
Whereas woolly mammoth costs loom large and fade rapidly, butterfly wing costs loom almost invisibly small, but simply won’t stop growing, dammit.
What’s the opportunity cost of choosing to take the bus to work instead of cycling?
Well, maybe not much on Day One, but come Day Four Thousand And Forty Seven, you might realise that you are still not a confident cyclist, not able to fix a puncture, not as fit as you once were, not as stoic in a rain shower and maybe not even in such a good place psychologically.
103 Lost Moments
Picking a random week in the past month, from my web history I can see that I scrolled through 103 unique BBC Sport stories.
That’s fourteen stories a day and doesn’t capture the number of times I refreshed the headlines, only the number of times I clicked through.
What were the opportunity costs for each of those 103 stories? It’s really hard to say without context.
So here’s context: I lied. That wasn’t a random week in the past month: that was the week I cycled from Edinburgh to Inverness.
Now what was the opportunity cost of those 103 disconnected moments?
Those moments when I could have been watching, listening, speaking, breathing, sharing and connecting with the landscape, society and stories around me, I was instead reading up on the ‘frightening depth’ (what does that even mean?!) of Gareth Southgate’s squad.
Fear & Soothing In Las Dave-gas
Now. I don’t want to beat myself up too much here, but I do think it’s worth plunging my Marigolded hands into the dirty washing up bowl of my mind, just once, to see if I can scoop out the gunk that’s been blocking up the drain of my mind and triggering my mindless sports-soothing.
If I can locate the trigger behind all the tabs, then I might be able to soothe those triggers in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling disconnected and all cognitive dissonancey.
Firstly, let’s get this myth out of the way: I’m certainly not triggered by a need for information when I click over to BBC Sport.
And this probably goes for you too, whatever your medication be. We seek information in a specific and timely way, we don’t go browsing for it.
Ah! But what’s this, dredged up from the deep, mottled with mould and crawling with lice?
Two triggers that get right to the base of my ganglia: fear and reward.
This trigger is a fear of what might happen if I permit my brain a moment without focus.
It’s not boredom. It’s not yet boredom.
It’s a state of pre-boredom. My brain flags the end of one activity and rapidly steps in with another, even if vacuous, to fill the void.
Over the past thirty years of maturation, my brain has somehow morphed into the encephalous version of an early Victorian preacher declaiming hellfire and damnation, for an idle mind is the devil’s workshop!
So I scroll over to BBC Sport and soothe my fraught neurons with talk of how French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris texted England’s Harry Kane after the latter struck a penalty kick, if anything, a little too well.
A despised manager gets the sack, a rival loses heavily to a lower league team, a goalkeeper in amateur football scores with a goal kick.
Once in a month, the one-armed bandit shells out and a deal is struck: my mind’s association between BBC Sport and pleasure is stuck.
The next time I finish writing a paragraph, I reward myself with the BBC’s analysis of Ben Doak’s career prospects.
The outcome when I satisfy triggers of both fear and reward is a soothing of the mind. Rather than staying with the end of a task, I soothe my agitation with sport.
A Wave Of Brilliance
If my BBC Sport habit isn’t working for me, then what can I replace it with?
However: it’s very difficult to replace a habit of doing something with a habit of doing nothing. That’s why they call them Zen Masters and not Zen Easypeasers.
That’s also why I’ve struggled with using distraction-taming apps like Freedom or Unpluq: they simply block your access to such and such a website.
They don’t offer any alternative, except sometimes a homily about taking a moment to breathe or some other patronising guff that doesn’t come close to meeting my desperate underlying need for soothing.
If I can’t have nothing, then what I need is something that promotes connection through novelty, something that rewards and soothes, and something that, through its randomness, might INSPIRE something in me instead of leaving me with the uneasy knowledge that Ronnie O’Sullivan compared his snooker opponent to Mr Bean.
Then, in a flash, I realised that there must be a way of programming my web browser to redirect every BBC Sport page to the Wikipedia Random Article page!
Within seconds, I’d found the Redirector add-on for Firefox and my sport-soothing days were over.
Ironic, then, that Wikipedians, like me, seem to have an overwhelming obsession with sports…
There are 6,590,624 articles in the English Wikipedia, about half of which are stubs containing nothing more than a couple of sentences.
This week, prompted by an app called Zoe, I have been experimenting with my morning repast.
On Tuesday, I ate a single bagel, then nothing for three hours. On Wednesday, I devoured a bowl of nothing but avocado. Thursday was (glory be) avocado on a bagel and today was a plain bagel immediately followed by a 30-minute brisk walk.
And here’s what those diabolically calibrated breakfasts each did to my blood sugar:
Note: The yellow line is when I ate breakfast. The blue shaded area is the three hour test period.
Plain bagel: blood sugar spikes and gradually descends — but remains higher than my typical baseline for this time of day. 5/5 on the hungry scale (ravenous).
Pure avocado: blood sugar doesn’t rise at all. 4/5 on the hungry scale (wolfish).
Bagel + avocado: blood sugar rises, but only after a 30-minute delay and it never goes as high as on Tuesday. 1/5 on the hungry scale (I could eat).
Bagel + walk: again, blood sugar rises, not as high as on Tuesday, but followed by a more steeper and deeper decline. 2/5 on the hungry scale (peckish).
One of the things I find interesting about these breakfasts is that there is no place for protein.
I’d always thought that protein = satiety, but it turns out that combining carbs and fats also = satiety. Even a brisk walk = satiety! How can a walk fill you up? Mind blown.
I was also struck by how much fat Zoe recommended I eat with my bagel: 200g. That’s two whole avocados — a lot more than you’d get on your smashed avo in a hipster cafe.
So that’s a couple of things I never knew about my body. I’m looking forward to learning more, particularly about what times of day I deal with food best — my glucose levels seem to struggle in the evenings.
(Note: Your blood and guts might respond to this kind of experiment very differently. There’s a reason why this is called ‘personalised nutrition’. See how you go!)
Tomorrow, breakfast will be a bowl of avocado, a 10-minute pause, and then the bagel.
What are you most fearful of or what stops you from bringing every part of yourself to a relationship and sharing your whole heart, warts and all, with your partner?
I’m a newish member of a Men’s Circle, a group of guys who meet every fortnight to listen (and talk). We also drink tea and eat biscuits, but mainly we listen (and talk).
Every meeting is an inspiration — not because we all sit around patting ourselves on the back, but because everyone, every week, has So. Much. Going. Down.
No one’s behaviour is perfect all the time, of course, but the circle leaves me feeling that it’s outright miraculous how generous, loving and, well, functional everyone is most of the time, given what’s going down in our lives and in our heads all the time.
And the people around this circle aren’t special (no offence). Every person I meet on the street, in the library or at the sauna will also be wrestling with just as many demons, internal and external, I’m sure.
The circle changes the way I see the world:
Someone’s rude? Wow, sorry. You’ve got a lot going down right now. (Probably needs a circle…)
Someone’s kind, despite everything that’s going down right now? Double wow — thank you. (Probably needs a circle…)
Everyone — in the circle and beyond — is doing their best and, transcending the banality of the motivational poster, we really are all in this together.
Popping The Question
The question at the top was a prompt brought to this week’s circle by one of the men.
But it wasn’t his question. It was a question he’d been given after asking several women another question:
If you could put just one question to a whole group of guys, what would you ask?
Unanimously, every time, this was their answer:
What are you most fearful of or what stops you from bringing every part of yourself to a relationship and sharing your whole heart, warts and all, with your partner?
Big question, huh?
But what was really interesting was the unanimous response from men around the circle. We threw the question right back:
Wait a second — are you sure you’re ready to hold space for me to be vulnerable with you?
Depth Or Distrust?
It’s not that men didn’t also want a deeper level of connection in their relationships, but I think it’s fair to say that we all shared past experiences where our partners haven’t always welcomed male vulnerability or seen it as a strength.
Without breaking any confidences, many of us had been burned in the past when we have tried to share wholeheartedly and found our vulnerability rejected or pushed back, a shaming experience that contributed to the breakdown of several relationships.
Hence the distrust around the circle: if we feel that we’ve been punished for showing vulnerability in the past, what makes you different? Why should we trust you when you ask us for wholeheartedness?
I refuse to conclude from this apparent impasse that our partners might be saying they want one thing when they secretly want another — that sounds pretty patronising to me.
I reckon there’s something much more interesting going on here.
You’ll Need A Surgeon For Open Heart Surgery
(Note: I’ll be talking in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women’ in the context of heterosexual relationships here because that’s how it was framed in our discussion and, as a cis heterosexual male, I don’t feel qualified to talk across the whole rainbow of humanity’s wonderful combinations and pollinations.
I’d be super interested to hear how it plays out from your perspective if you fancy replying to this email.)
I think it’s perfectly possible that a woman can desire more wholeheartedness from their partner, while, at exactly the same time, the man in this relationship finds that his wholeheartedness isn’t always positively received.
These two experiences are not incompatible.
One of the distinctive traits of Man Sloth Mode is that men, particularly those in relationships, become increasingly dependent on their partner — another experience that was echoed around the circle.
It’s more than likely that your partner really does want you to be more vulnerable with them. It’s also highly likely that it’s neither healthy nor possible for them to carry the weight of being your only emotional support network.
It’s one thing to open up to your partner, it’s quite another to tear into your flesh, rip out your ribcage and spill blood and guts in the hope that they can perform open heart surgery.
(Note to self: you’ll need a surgeon for that.)
Shooting Ourselves In The Face (As Per)
In general, women survive relationship breakdown much better than men, primarily because, well, for example:
The analyses reveal that women have larger networks and receive supports from multiple sources, while men tend to rely on their spouses exclusively.
Once again, the support systems that men fail to put in place around themselves, in combination with an overreliance on one (let’s be honest) caregiver, is shooting ourselves in the face.
(I say face rather than foot here because, frankly, I’ve always wanted to start a new idiom. But it’s also a more graphic reflection of the damage we’re doing to ourselves, not to mention the messy clean up job required of other people.)
Women want more vulnerability from their men, but men don’t trust that they will be held, most probably based on past experiences where they have become overreliant on a single partner.
It’s a heartbreaking cycle that will only be broken when men find emotional support from outside the pair bond.
Your Boat Needs A Crew
Reluctance to share wholehearted vulnerability comes from a deep-rooted fear of rejection.
In answer to your question, women, that’s what we’re most afraid of.
But — but but but — that fear only looms so large for us because, most often, you and you alone represent at least, ooh, 80 percent of our entire emotional support network.
No wonder we’re petrified of rejection. Your acceptance is (almost) everything to us.
And that, my friends, is an INSANE way to live our lives.
It’s totally unrealistic to expect one person to carry such pivotal weight in someone else’s life — no wonder sometimes our vulnerability is rejected. It’s too much to bear.
The solution is to create an independent emotional support network — like a Men’s Circle — that can nourish us with the affirmation, acceptance and assurance that we need to feel heard.
(Hint: a network is not one person. Shoot for twelve and you might get six.)
High up in the rigging of love, with that net beneath to catch us, the rejection of one person, however important they may have once been, is not the be-all and end-all.
It’s just one person who couldn’t accept your wholehearted beingness.
And that’s a muuuuuch easier lesson to accept if you’ve got your whole crew beside you on the harbourside, friends and comrades who’ll buy you fish and chips, help re-pack your sea chest, and wait with you until your ship finally comes in.
I’d spent a pretty sleepless night trying to discourage the local dogs from chewing up our cyclists’ helmets that’d been left scattered around camp after a long day’s ride.
We were all still feeling pretty tender from our brush with some kind of Montenegrin lake-bourne vomiting bug.
Considering that, only two nights previously, I’d half-slept on a trolley in A&E, I felt incredible on yesterday’s ride.
Powering up the shady steep slopes of the Albanian Dajti and swooshing untrammelled down the other side, zipping through sixty kph mountain tunnels, out and over metalwork spans over thousand metre drop gorges.
I’d felt incredible, that is, until lunch.
Then things went rapidly downhill. Luckily, the last thirty kilometres of yesterday were indeed rapidly downhill.
So, although I woke up on Friday morning feeling okay, I was glad to be spending the day in Calypso, our twenty-year-old Ford Transit support vehicle*.
We waved the cyclists off, packed up camp and drove onward, over the Korab Mountains and into North Macedonia.
At the border, we discovered that we didn’t have valid vehicle insurance for countries outside the EU and would not be allowed to continue until we bought a 14-day insurance pass for €50.
Love that no border guards had cared about such legal niceties in Albania.
In 2019, as one of the conditions of their accession to NATO, the Republic of Macedonia agreed to adopt the geographical qualifier ‘North’, appeasing Greek political concerns.
As Calypso chugged into her ninth country of the tour, I noticed that someone had peeled away the cheap sticker that had announced the country’s new name, revealing the old beneath.
Together we flew over the border mountains to Lake Debar and followed the Black Drin all the way to Lake Ohrid, through pine forests and beside glittering water, marvelling at the beauty of the day’s ride from the hot cabin of Calypso.
We found camp on the shores of Lake Prespa and started to cook two tonne carbohydrates, with the moon rising over the distant blue of the Baba Mountain.
But we had no phone reception on the lakeside beach and, as time ticked on, somewhere out there in the gloaming, most of our dehydrated, delicate cyclists were climbing a mountain.
I climbed back into Calypso and drove the sharp zigzags to the top of Galičica, nerves rising with each switchback and no one in sight. Did they have lights? Had they run out of water, food? Or worse?
Then, somewhere near the summit, a dozen sweat-stained cyclists drifted like ghosts from the gloom before me, spirits high.
Sucking with relief, I refilled their waters and handed out lights and fleeces for the long descent.
Then I followed them down, headlights flickering against reflective cycle tape. The stars played on the lake below.
That day was my hundredth day of adventuring in 2022.
215 Days of Adventure (And Counting)
Last year, I wanted to spend more time outdoors and less time in front of the computer. To make sure that happened, I set a target to have 100 Days of Adventure.
This is my definition of a Day of Adventure, a simple yes or no: did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?
‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because I want DOA to be a binary measure that works for everyone. What’s significant and adventurous for you will feel different to everyone else: maybe dangerous, maybe dull.
After a slow lockdown start, I ended 2021 with 102 DOA, a healthy increase so far as I could tell from the years before.
The project was such a success that I decided to keep it rolling into 2022.
Today, we are 308 days deep into the year and I’m proud to say that I’ve spent over a third of that time outdoors, adventuring: 113 days.
A Big Year
I always knew this was going to be a big year: I was scheduled to spend 46 days on the road this summer with Thighs of Steel, cycling from Glasgow to Milan and then from Dubrovnik to Athens.
Days of Adventure are not necessarily biased towards these kind of exotic foreign epics: after all, I spent 35 days cycling around southern England in 2020.
But there’s no question that this big year owes much to the relaxation of pandemic lockdowns and border controls, allowing me to adventure abroad.
In fact, there was so much adventuring going on that I had no time to celebrate passing my 100 day target. So that’s what I’m doing today.
(Seriously, I mean that: yay 🥳)
Although my definition of adventure is flexible enough to encompass almost anyone doing almost anything, I know that it’d hard for most people to hand over a third of their year to adventuring.
(Besides the fact most people wouldn’t want to!)
100 days in a year is ambitious. 113 days (and counting) is straight-up ridiculous. When I stop for half a second to think about it, I feel very lucky.
For some reason, tracking my Days of Adventure is really working for me. This story is about why that’s the case and how something similar might work for you.
It’s a story that begins with a cautionary tale.
Goals Are Dangerous
My old philosophy tutor told us of a friend of his who had a long-time dream to collect a first edition of every record put out by a ridiculously niche record label.
(I think the label was some 1970s Americana psychedelic weirdness, but that’s not the cautionary part of the tale.)
This was back in the days before eBay and Amazon so tracking down the records meant trawling through secondhand junk markets across the world.
There were only about twenty records to find, but the search took him decades. Every LP that he finally found only raised the rarity of the next.
By the late-nineties, we were told, he had found all but one of the records. It’d been six years since he’d added to his priceless collection, but for as long as he hadn’t found that last LP, the game was still on.
Then he found it.
What a moment. What a feeling that must have been, after so many years of searching, to have finally completed the set, to have won the game.
To our tutor’s enduring incredulity, his friend never bought that last record.
He picked it up in the shop, flipped it over and read the sleeve notes. Then he slipped it back onto the shelf, went up to the desk and sold the lucky shopkeeper everything he’d worked to collect over the past twenty years: the entire back catalogue of this ridiculously niche 1970s Americana psychedelic weirdness label.
That’s the cautionary part of the tale: even an extremely difficult goal will, with dogged human persistence, be completed.
And then what? Emptiness.
Once he’d found the final piece, there was nothing more for our collector to do but scrap the lot, like breaking up a jigsaw puzzle.
That’s the danger of goal-setting — and that could be the danger inherent in a project like 100 Days Of Adventure.
But there’s something different with the design of that game, a difference best illustrated by another project of mine — now permanently shelved.
The Country Game
Back in the early 2000s, I had a friendly competition with pals to see who could travel to as many different countries as possible.
(Okay, it wasn’t always friendly — Monaco and the Vatican really got people’s backs up.)
The only rule was that the visit had to include at least one overnight stay and at least one activity of cultural interest. In other words: travelling across borders on the night train did not count.
It was a great game because I was usually winning (especially after making up a rule that added the Canary Islands and Gibraltar to the list of officially recognised countries due to something or other about non-contiguous borders and nautical miles).
And therein lies the problem with this game: the joy, for me, was in winning the game, not the experience of taking part.
Contrast this with the DOA project: I didn’t even notice that I had ‘won’ the game. I was too wrapped up with the experience until I sat down to write today.
It wasn’t that I took The Country Game particularly seriously, but the nature of the game mechanics generated serious discussions about how to reduce duplicates (each country could only count once) and how to maximise border-hopping with every trip.
To the spitting jealousy of the others, one competitor snared six countries in a single holiday to the Baltics. All within the rules.
In contrast, there’s no way to ‘game’ the DOA project without lying to myself.
I can’t score if I haven’t been outdoors for a significant chunk of the day doing something vaguely adventurous.
That kind of point-scoring is all about experience: it’s a reward that is intrinsic to itself. It’s found within, not without.
The problem with The Country Game is that its rewards were extrinsic, with no reference to the quality of experience within the game.
Quite simply, the reward of visiting a new country was to score one point.
And after that?
Visit another country, score another point.
And after that?
Visit another country, score another point.
And after that?
Visit another country, score another point.
And so on until there is no more ‘And after that?’, only the emptiness of the completed record collector.
Protect and Prioritise
I know I’m lucky to work the jobs I do, but over the past two years, my DOA score has been more than a mere coincidental symptom of my work and lifestyle.
Even this year, even with those 46 days (technically hard at work) with Thighs of Steel, I still wouldn’t have reached 100 Days of Adventure without making an effort to clear my diary to create space.
The DOA project has made damn sure I protect time for my priorities.
It’s taken me outdoors when outdoors seemed a long way distant — particularly at the short end of last year, when I was scrambling for days, a time that generated some of my most cherished memories that winter.
6 Thighs of Steel London Cycle Club rides and 4 New Forest Off Road Club rides
1 day hiking and 1 day mushroom picking on the Purbecks, plus another day doing conservation work on Brownsea Island
18 days’ travelling overland to spend time with friends in Paris, Rudenoise, Chantilly, Bayonne, Madrid, Lisbon, Barcelona and the inside of a long-distance coach while trying to stifle a heavy cold during a pandemic panic
September 17, 30 degree heat, Akropolis in sight. The culmination of seven months’ hard preparation and two months’ hard riding.
It was a spectacular summer, filled to the brim with vivid experiences and vital friendships. But, as I reluctantly turned my handlebars back northwest, I felt pretty empty.
So, as our ferry chugged inexorably across the Channel, I started a list of things to get excited about this winter.
When your whole being has been consumed by one or two projects and both those projects come to an abrupt end at the same time, it takes a force of will to step outside once more and rediscover, or reaffirm, who you are or who you aspire to be.
If I were an athlete, this winter would be my ‘off-season’, an opportunity to focus again on the basics, the training and training ground routines, rather than the exhilaration and exhaustion of competitive matchplay.
What do I want to learn? Where do I want to stretch myself? Who do I want to become for next season?
I won’t jinx the entire list by sharing it here, but here are a few winter wins that give you an insight into three areas where I want to grow.
Leadership & Communication
The nine months I have spent this year helping to steer Thighs of Steel have taught me a lot about myself and particularly about how I respond under pressure and time stress.
The main thing I have learnt is how important it is to keep lines of communication open, be honest about my feelings and needs, and make sure that empathy is flowing in both directions, between myself and the rest of the team (and, well, anyone else too!).
Out of season hotspots, like Dartmoor, the Lakes, North Pennines, Wales or the Highlands, are empty. The views, like the shadows, are long and clear and the weather is either exactly as expected or surprisingly delightful – no possible disappointment.
Learning forces us to remember that we’re not dead yet.
It reminds us that our brains are plastic (the good kind of plastic) and that we are very much unfinished animals.
Whether teaching your old self a new trick or honing a dulled blade, learning shows us that, in spite of everything, we are making headway.
A great winter win to have in your back pocket.
This year, as well as the NVC course I mentioned, I’m learning how to make sourdough from the delicious bakers at Bakehouse 24, getting guitar lessons from a chap who works for Specsavers (thanks again LH!), and building a FREAKIN SAUNA with a carpenter friend of mine.
I’ve also enrolled in a four-month Zoe Personalised Nutrition programme that involves a continuous blood sugar sensor, gut health and blood fat tests… and loads of muffins. Can’t wait!
I’m not usually one for bucket lists, but I really needed this.
I know that I can’t do everything on my list, but just knowing that I’m already doing some of the things, even if only the small things, will give me enough momentum to carry me through the dark days.
‘Once a small win has been accomplished,’ Weick wrote, ‘forces are set in motion that favour another small win.’
What one small, good thing can you do today that will set you up for another small, good thing tomorrow?
Yesterday, for example, I asked a friend whether she knew anyone who taught guitar. Today, she sent over the number of that guy from Specsavers who teaches guitar on the side. Tomorrow, when I’m back in the library, I’ll message him to set up a lesson.
And in one year’s time? I’ll be opening the London Palladium!
Or maybe I’ll just be a little better at making music. Either way, I’m happy: I have sustainable momentum in the direction I want to travel.
And if, at any point over the coming months, I feel myself drifting or dissatisfied, then I can come back to this list, remind myself of why I’m here, and do one small thing to regain that momentum.
Besides my data diet, I’ve been particularly enjoying having some distance from text messages, which have a nasty habit of crash landing in my brain like meteorites from outer space.
When we speak to someone on the phone or in person, we usually open with some variation of ‘Hello, how are you?’ — and, quite often, we listen to the answer.
We do a temperature check, we attune ourselves to each other, and only then, when it’s appropriate, do we announce our needs, whatever they are.
We can’t do this human temperature check via text message because they are, by nature, asynchronous.
We can never know the state of mind of the recipient in the instant that we communicate with them.
That’s an astonishingly optimistic way to go about a conversation, isn’t it? And, given how much we message (145 per day on average in 2018), isn’t it amazing that we’re not all nervous wrecks already?
So it’s been nice to be able to step away from text messages for all but a few hours a day. Nice to know that nothing can crash land — it’s like a temporary force field has been thrown up around Planet Dave, only disabled by libraries and hotel lobbies.
The Most Wonderful
But the most wonderful gift of this untethered time has been what feels like a reclamation, a reclamation of something that I had forgotten was mine: my early mornings and my evenings.
I usually wake up some time between half six and half seven. That gives me a couple of hours before the library to read, write and walk.
I don’t know what I did in the years when I had an internet connection, but I know that my mornings were nowhere near as grounded.
All my adventures, many of my stories and myriad other gifts of mental processing can be traced back to these pages.
It’s a quiet place to unload, unravel and understand. (Not so quiet today: Back In The USSR playing right now — written at the height of the Cold War, it still suprises me how radical Paul McCartney could be — and how good on the drums too.)
In Egyptian hieroglyphic script, each word ends with a determinative symbol that gives context to the preceding consonant-sounding signs.
For example, the determinative used at the end of the word relating to motion is a pair of legs walking — as in the word 𓉔𓄿𓃀𓂻 (shelter-vulture-foot-legs walking: h3b) meaning ‘send’.
But here’s the one thing that has stayed with me in the twenty years since I studied Egyptology: the determinative used to connote any abstract concept, such as ‘greatness’, ‘dignity’ or ‘truth’, was a scroll of papyrus: 𓏛
Because it’s only through writing — in this case, on a roll of papyrus — that we can manifest the abstract.
It’s like magic.
Once we have captured and written down our abstract thoughts, we can examine them at a distance, modify, modulate and manipulate them. Under the spell of our penwork or typecraft, we watch as our mind changes.
Writing a diary (journal, morning pages or whatever you call it) is a form of self-counselling.
My diary means I can arrive at face-to-face counselling sessions with the ingredients of my mind, my thoughts and emotions, at least half-baked.
I don’t just tip mental shopping bags, bursting with random ingredients, all over my counsellor’s kitchen floor. I’ve already prepped the meal.
So I’m grateful to my phone network for screwing up and bringing me back to my morning pages.
I now write twice a day: a thousand words on my untethered laptop, looking out over the slow winter dawn, and a thousand words on my Neo Alphasmart typewriter, tucked up in bed with the curtains drawn on the moon and stars.
Morning pages to write myself into a positive, productive mindset.
Evening pages to tie up any loose ends before sleeping, to reflect and regenerate.
Same Time, Different Tenor
Comparing this disconnected week with the very much connected week before, I was surprised to find that I spent the same amount of time on my devices — including the exact same time on messaging apps and email.
Not what I was expecting at all.
The difference was in the detail, however. I spent three hours more on my laptop and three hours fewer on my phone. Consequently, this led to an 8 percent increase in what RescueTime calls ‘Productivity’.
Given that I wasn’t trying to be more ‘productive’ and that the only apparent difference between the two weeks was my internet connection, this is a useful insight.
I don’t know what you use your mobile internet connection for, but I’ve also been happy to find that I haven’t missed any of its other features.
Mildly inconvenienced at times, perhaps, but not in any way that made me ungrateful for this opportunity for silence.
Social Gravity Pulling Us Back
But there’s only so long that our society will tolerate those without a tether.
Already I’ve run into problems dodging through two-factor security and accessing my bank account. There are also some websites that won’t work in the library.
No, not those ones! Honestly. Who do you think I am?
I mean totally legit ones – Substack, for example.
In the UK, the unseen forces of social gravity pull us strongly back in the direction of, not merely a mobile phone, but an internet-enabling smartphone.
Remember, though: this kind of social physics is not Newtonian. We can — and will — push back.
My phone actually started working again yesterday.
Between the hours of 9pm and 10am this morning, however, I kept the life-giving SIM card stashed away in a lock box outside the flat. Bliss.
With a little care and preparation, I believe that Pandora’s box might just work.
Earlier this year, tediously, Virgin Mobile transferred all their customers (hi) from the EE network to Vodafone.
(Did you know that there are only four actual mobile phone networks in the UK? All the other providers are just piggybacking.)
For 99.99 percent of Virgin customers, this move made absolutely no difference. For me, however, the switch was terminal, as I happen to live in a Vodafone dead zone.
It’s a strange story because outside on the streets, on the beach or even in my garden, I have full bars and leopard leaping 30mbps 4G coverage. Inside the flat, however, that drops to a caterpillar crawling 2mbps on the dreaded H+.
Why? How? Why?!
The Vodafone antenna is on our roof. Glorious reception in all directions but down.
Unfortunately, unless the wind is blowing just right, this stuttering connection is nowhere near good enough for me to work from home.
So earlier this week, I changed network providers. All well and good, until they tried to port my old phone number to the new SIM card.
Then something broke.
Now my phone can’t connect to any network. I can’t make calls and I can’t connect to the internet.
In fact, because I don’t have wifi installed in the flat, I haven’t been connected to the internet while at home for all of 48 hours.
Work = Internet?
This is probably the longest I’ve been without internet in my own home since I lived on a smallholder farm in 2009 and my work consisted of digging vegetable plots, hunting for chicken eggs and throwing apples for the pigs.
Even that was only a brief hiatus in a connective link between the dial-up of 1998, via broadband ethernet, to the arrival of wifi and 3G.
Despite being a late-adopter of the smartphone, I’ve been more or less tethered to the internet at home since I was about sixteen years old and certainly for the whole of my working life.
Since I left university, to a greater or lesser extent, my work has also depended on a reliable connection to the internet.
From finding my first English students through an advert on Gumtree to writing and designing a website for people I never met in meat space, the internet has always been an essential business partner.
But even in 2022 it would be wrong to say that my work is entirely dependent on the internet.
In fact, now that I find myself without, I realise that my writing work is a long way off needing the reliable always-on connection of the sort that fills most homes – and filled mine until 13:07 on Wednesday afternoon.
The guiding principle is that, when deciding what tool to use, start by defining the task and then choose the least complex tool that will do the job. No more, no less.
For example: I need to get some food later. The shops are 4km away, but I only have an hour to spare and I’ll have a lot to carry home. That’s the job.
The tools at my disposal are: my walking legs, my bicycle and my car. The least complex tool to solve the problem is my bicycle with a couple of pannier bags.
Choosing the bicycle, I’ll save money and petrol over the car, while keeping the head-clearing benefits of physical exercise at a speed considerably faster than walking.
But far too often we act with the principle of Minimum Viable Technology turned upside down.
Instead of first defining the task at hand, we’re dazzled by the tool and go searching for jobs it happens to be good at.
To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
We have a spectacular tool at our fingertips – the internet – and so we bend almost every aspect of our entire existence into internet-shaped tasks.
In so doing, we accidentally generate a scrolling stream of work to grind through, in service of the tool.
Back in the 90s, who would have predicted that inbox overwhelm would become a daily battle for almost everyone with an internet connection, i.e. almost everyone?
In the creation of ubiquitous instant always-on asynchronous communication, the internet has turned human interaction into a stressful game of whack-a-mole.
But was ubiquitous instant always-on asynchronous communication ever defined as the job we needed done?
The tool has made civil servants and secretaries of us all.
The problem is not that the internet can’t be our Minimum Viable Technology for some (even many) tasks.
This newsletter wouldn’t be in front of your eyeballs right now if I hadn’t decided that the internet was the right tool for the job.
The problem with the internet is that, once chosen as the right tool for some tasks, it has a nasty habit of taking over everything else as well.
I’m sure someone clever has written a long treatise on how every business is now an internet business, but I’m more interested in what this takeover means for us as humans living our puny little lives.
More specifically: what it means for me. And, for me, the always-on internet means two things: spidering and defaulting.
Sometimes when I sit down at my computer to write a newsletter, that’s exactly what happens. My fingers, my brain and the internet work in a smooth and equal partnership.
Writing this way feels like a conversation with the rest of the world: pulling the data of other people’s experience into a synthesis with my own and putting that back out onto the network.
It’s a rare sensation. More often, I catch myself spidering.
Instead of looking inwards for authentic inspiration, I venture out onto the web.
I search this thing, that thing. Read this article, that article. Follow this link, that link. Type this, type that. Nothing sticks.
Before I know it, two hours have passed and I’ve got 43 tabs open and only 12 words on the page. That’s spidering.
Defaulting is what happens in the twelve hours of the day that I’m neither properly focussed on a task nor asleep.
The internet is always on. At home, my computer is always there. Until yesterday, that combination meant that the internet is not only always on, but always there.
As a freelancer (and increasingly for y’all nine-to-fivers), that means my work is always on and always there too.
I’ll drift over to my computer, handily stationed in the dominant middle of the room, and I’ll file email, cycle on rotation through the same default websites, tidy my spreadsheet calendar, check messaging apps, try to read something, buy something I don’t really need.
This is not productive work, this is ‘can’t switch off’ work. Footling around, tweaking, checking and triple checking. Busy work.
But do you know what I really hate about defaulting? When I use it as a ‘reward’.
I’ll be in the flow of writing and suddenly realise that I’ve been working for 45 minutes straight and, as a ‘reward’, I’ll check the BBC Sport headlines.
Reward defaulting is the WORST – it’s not refreshing, it’s not rewarding, it’s just blind dopamine addiction.
Always On, Always There
Who is at fault here?
There will be readers who say that all my spidering and defaulting behaviour is simply ill-discipline. Fair enough.
But once I’ve acknowledged my ill-discipline, what then? Just try harder? Ha!
My problem is not with my internet connection as such; my problem is with my ‘always on, always there’ part. But separating the two is almost impossible.
So far as I know, I can’t buy a nine to five connection. I either have the internet or I don’t.
Yes, I know there are apps out there that will limit my internet connection. I know because I use two of them: Freedom and Unpluq.
It’s true that I haven’t used Freedom to permanently disconnect myself – but I have used it to limit my access to certain websites. And I have also discovered how easy the app is to circumvent.
The temptation to circumvent my own discipline is much too great: waiting for me behind that protective firewall is a delicious banquet, every last megabyte morsel of internet goodness.
This is the reason why the most effective positive constraints are black and white: I don’t use aeroplanes to travel. Not: I don’t use aeroplanes to travel except sometimes when I do.
So, assuming I ever get my phone to work again, how the hell can I design a positive constraint that will keep the always-on, always-there internet out of my house?
Well, first of all, let’s see how I managed to write today’s newsletter, wifi-free.
A New Old Way To Write
Before today, I’d written 330 editions of this newsletter and I’d say that about 312 of them were written in the same way: with a solid internet connection running in the background.
It’s no wonder that, at first, this new way of working felt a little uncomfortable. Unstable. Untethered.
Writing a newsletter is a complex task, made up of dozens of smaller individual tasks – but I’ve realised today that only a couple of those smaller jobs are best done while tethered to an internet connection.
The rest are best done without internet – not that they can’t be done while connected, but they’re best done without.
This is where it helps to define the three major areas of newsletter writing according to Minimum Viable Technology principles.
Problem 1: How to get this newsletter in front of your eyeballs
With limited budget to spend on postage stamps, my options are pretty limited here. The internet is the Minimum Viable Technology for the job. Thank you, Substack.
Problem 2: How to research this newsletter
The internet might be the fastest tool for grabbing a quick quote and it might even be the best tool for prospecting and sieving for content – but it is also a resource that is available to almost everyone.
If almost anyone can perform a web search, then, however tempting for the writer, that work has less value to the reader.
Do you know how many hours a day the average American spends online? Well, yes you do. As much as I do, anyway. The answer’s right there, a few taps away.
The seductive ease of the internet squeezes out slower, deeper, more valuable research that I can do from my own experience and my own library – particularly when so many of the stories I write here are inspired by the physical books (not online articles) that I read.
The Minimum Viable Technology is my own brain in the first instance – not out of arrogance, but rather trust that I already know roughly what it is that I want to say, what line of argument to take, or what emotion or reaction I’d like you to have in response.
When my brain inevitably runs dry, my home library of about 400 books is there for inspiration: a much deeper well than a surface-level web search.
You can trace the origins of this story, for example, to two books by Cal Newport: Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email, both of which I’ve written about before and both of which are sitting on the desk right next to me.
As writers, we are spoiled by the wealth of knowledge found on the internet, forgetting that our personal libraries are probably better provisioned than 99 percent of libraries that ever existed in the millennia before 1960.
It’s rare that I write something so entwined with online research that I can’t put anything down on the page, but for those more research-heavy stories I can imagine a process of going back and forth to an internet connection between drafts — not during.
Missing research can be skimmed over in the draft using a marker like TK (a rare letter combination in English, standing for ‘to come’) and the gaps filled through batching when an internet connection is restored.
Stupid example: I had no idea how many mobile phone networks there were in the UK, only that there weren’t very many. I only looked up the exact number just now, before hitting send.
Quick Note On Batching
This morning, I went to the library to use the internet. Before going, I made a long list of things to do while I had a connection.
Besides getting in touch with my mobile phone service provider, I wanted to message a few people, send a couple of emails, check some train times and the weather forecast for a mushroom picking adventure.
It was all done quickly and easily. That’s the joy of batching tasks – like doing all the washing up in one go. And when it was done, there was nothing to keep me in the library.
If I’d been at home, those same jobs would have cropped up here and there throughout the day and either interrupted my flow or taken much longer thanks to my old friends, spidering and defaulting.
At the library, I simply got to the end of my list and felt almost disappointed: is that it? Is that all the business I have with this lofty invention to whom I dedicate so many hours at home?
Problem 3: How to actually write this newsletter
Writing is a long process of drafting and redrafting and, because of twin threats of spidering and defaulting, I think almost all that work is best done without an internet connection.
One of the big advantages to writing this newsletter offline is that I couldn’t rush to print.
I spent two hours writing the first draft of this newsletter and the temptation was to hurry over to the library and get it up on Substack for editing.
But then I realised that I didn’t need to. I could do all my edits in LibreOffice at home, still with no internet connection.
This new writing process unfolded over eight stages, the first five of which were offline and occupied five of the six hours this story took to write:
Second draft in LibreOffice, an offline word processing app
Print out, read and edit with an actual pen
Third draft edits in LibreOffice, offline
Cycle to my friends’ house (thanks GC and BS)
Copy over to Substack online
TK gap-filling and typesetting online
Publish online (yay!)
Those first two stages are the bulk of the work and took about four hours – probably about average for an epic story of this kind, but, with no distractions, I found the process more enjoyable, smoother.
Not only that, but with all the time in the world at my disposal, I could print out a copy of the text and take it to the sauna with me to do some relaxed line edits.
Why not try, just this once?
Quick Note On Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime
One of the things that I did in the library earlier was to download a bunch of podcasts that I could listen to offline at home.
And here is the challenge I promised at the top: I bet you still find it IMPOSSIBLE to cut your home internet connection.
83 Percent Offline
Clearly, this newsletter isn’t going analogue any time soon.
But I’ve learned that five out of six hours, 83 percent, of the work can be done offline and this slower, less distracted process has undoubtedly made for a more focussed story.
(A better story, though? You be the judge of that!)
Even if the internet is the Minimum Viable Technology for many jobs, that doesn’t mean that I need it piped into my home twenty-four hours a day.
The question returns: how the hell can I design a positive constraint that will keep the always-on, always-there internet out of my god-damned house?
Given the spidering and defaulting tendencies and temptations of the internet, I’m afraid that only a radical solution will work. Something stronger than Freedom, Unpluq or my own willpower.
Okay, so… I’m going to try leaving my phone in my car in the car park outside, eight flights of stairs away.
I’ll still be able to do all the internet things I need to do when I need to do them, but, as well as the mild discomfort, there’s no way of charging my computer down there so I’ll be limited to an hour of connected time anyway.
If I need longer: away to the library again.
All the other things that I need a phone for, like using maps or (umm) phoning people, are done (or better done) outside anyway. Let’s walk and talk.
Oh – and yes: I am aware of the crushing irony of this.
No internet in the flat was the reason that I changed mobile network provider – yet also precisely how I came to discover that what I really want is… no internet in the flat.
For now, though, even my car phone solution is a luxury. I still haven’t got signal. (Sorry friends!)
Talking of friends: I was chatting about my predicament last night and someone pointed out how annoying it is for everyone else when one of you doesn’t have a phone.
Phone connection is part of the social contract now: if you can get in touch with me anytime, then I can get in touch with you anytime. That’s the deal.
So one friend suggested I leave my smartphone in the car, but keep a dumbphone in the house for calls. I’ve enjoyed the silence of the past couple of days, but I can’t deny that this is a fair and pragmatic suggestion. Thanks GC!
Anxiety is a big reason that Thighs of Steel managed support 95 cyclists over 5,408km from Glasgow to Athens and raise over £110,000 for grassroots refugee projects.
All thanks to good old anxiety.
I don’t mean that metaphorically, mystically or even mythically. I mean that in a very concrete way.
One tiny example
Two weeks before the ride set off, I was up late, worrying. As you do.
With 50 cycling days across 9 arduous weeks, Thighs of Steel is built on a rigid schedule: there is scarcely any wiggle room for disasters that take time out of the day.
Restlessly I mind-scrolled through each of the weeks, trying to imagine how they would all go horribly wrong, in as much catastrophising detail as my stress-addled brain would allow.
Week 2 of the ride, from Bristol to Paris, involved 529km of beautiful cycling through the cathedral towns, rolling countryside and luscious woodlands of southern England, into croissant-nibbling, cheese-munching, chateau-spotting France.
We would cycle, we would camp, we would cycle, we would camp, we would cycle, we would camp, we would catch a ferry, we would cyc —
Shit — I haven’t booked the ferry!
Heart pounding, blood rising, I leapt out of bed and dashed to the computer, praying to the four goddesses of St Christopher’s lucky rabbit foot that the ferry we had to be on would have last-minute space for 17 cyclists and a massive van.
We could neither afford the re-route to another port a hundred kilometres away, nor the five hour delay to wait for a later ferry.
Of course, the four goddesses were smiling upon me that night. But the real reason that disaster was averted was thanks to — yep — good old anxiety.
Good Old Anxiety
Like I said, that’s just one tiny example.
The disaster-spotting and problem-solving energy of anxiety came to our rescue thousands of times before we ever left home and on a near minute-by-minute basis during the ride.
The towering success of the ride was founded on anxiety.
The problem is that, if you have my sort of interpretation of anxiety, then that last sentence sounds AWFUL.
Who wants to feel anxious the whole time? Anxiety is a horrible feeling! (says I).
But this is only one interpretation of anxiety.
There is another sort of interpretation, one that acknowledges the energy and power that anxiety gives us.
Imagine the opposite. Imagine we never felt anxious. Imagine we went around in a semi-tranquillised state all the time. Nothing would happen!
Sure, we’d be mellow as fuck, but there’d be no adventures, no laughter, no stories to tell our grand kids.
Heart Pounding, Blood Rising
Ultimately, anxiety is a physiological response to a situation: heart pounding in my chest, blood rising to my neck.
However, the fact that I have interpreted anxiety as ‘a horrible feeling’ is wholly psychological.
For some reason, ‘horrible’ has become my default interpretation of that physiological response — at least in some circumstances.
Heart pounding, blood rising is actually my physiological response to quite a few things, many of which I interpret as ‘right good fun’.
But when it comes to what I call ‘work’, I default to an interpretation that makes me feel shitty about the energy that I call ‘anxiety’.
Incidentally, this seems to be getting worse as I get older, and as more and more of my day-to-day activities are labelled as ‘work’ and therefore potentially labelled as anxiety-inducing.
And that’s not all…
Shitty Interpretation = Shitty Thoughts
My shitty interpretation of anxiety leads to a cascade of shitty thoughts.
Firstly, I feel shitty for feeling shitty. I beat myself up for feeling anxious instead of some other emotion that I’ve labelled as ‘non-shitty’.
Secondly, I’m more likely for my shittiness to take over and colour the rest of my world experience.
For example: if there are other people around, then I’m likely to try and pin the blame on them for some aspect of the situation.
Why didn’t anyone else book the ferry? Why did it have to be me up at night worrying? How crap am I going feel tomorrow after losing so much sleep?
Then, thirdly, I feel shitty about myself for being shitty about other people.
Not One, But TWO Vicious Cycles — Yay!
So that’s shitty thought cascade is vicious cycle number one:
Anxiety ➡️ Being Shitty About Others ➡️ Ugh, I’m Shitty ➡️ Anxiety Rebound
But until now my only management technique for anxiety has been to try to push the anxiety further away: I shouldn’t be feeling like this. I should be feeling tra-la-la, la-di-dee instead.
Unfortunately, something you probably know about human anatomy is that our feelings are held in place (with cartilage to the spleen, I’m told) by a very powerful spring: push them away and they come back twice as hard to smack you in the face.
And, boom, that’s vicious cycle number two:
Anxiety ➡️ Push Anxiety Away ➡️ Anxiety Rebound
So the alternative interpretation of anxiety cannot be the false YAY I’M SO HAPPY LOOK AT ME I’M HAPPY.
The alternative interpretation is (drum roll and pull quote please):
I’m anxious — GREAT. My body is priming me to get shit done. So let’s do it.
Don’t ignore the anxiety or push it away. Don’t pretend that anxiety is always a lovely buzzy feeling of excitement (but remember that sometimes it is).
Instead, acknowledge that anxiety gets shit done. Respect the energy it generates.
All those physiological changes in our bodies make us perform better. Anxiety is not hindering, but empowering us.
That shot of adrenalin, the pounding heart and the rising blood give us the physiological boost we need to spot and solve difficult problems and work through disasters without anyone dying (hopefully).
Anxiety is not enjoyable, but it is useful.
So this story is a shout out to anxiety. I want to remember all the millions of times in the past that this uncomfortable emotion has saved all our asses.
Then, next time Sinjoro Maltrankvilo (as they say in Esperanto) comes galloping along, maybe I can tip my hat, grit my teeth and welcome him with a stern handshake and a whiskey.
My pardner’s back in town. What’s the job?
Thanks to Ben from Align Mind Body for a good chat that clarified how I’d tackle this topic today. As a meditation teacher, Ben knows all about observing emotions and finding that space between observation and interpretation. And — oh look! — he’s running an Intensive Meditation Foundation Course, starting on 24 October.
Personally, I use a passage in Viktor Frankl’s Auschwitz memoir, Man’s Search For Meaning, to train myself into the belief that I am indeed an excellent sleeper:
Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong! I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other.
The first night in Auschwitz we slept in beds which were constructed in tiers. On each tier (measuring about six-and-a-half to eight feet) slept nine men, directly on the boards. Two blankets were shared by each of the nine men. We could, of course, lie only on our sides, crowded and huddled against each other.
… And yet sleep came and brought oblivion and relief from pain for a few hours.
It’s been exactly three months since I was last ‘home’ and two months since I left this island.
Anything big happen since I left?
Let’s see now…
Work on the world’s largest windfarm was completed off the coast of Yorkshire. It’s record will superseded by another being built off these shores next year.
Waltham Forest became the first council in the UK to divest fossil fuels from their pension fund.
A trial showed that Oxford University’s malaria vaccine is the cheapest and most effective yet, with protection up to 80 percent. Not bad for a disease that (speculatively) may have killed 50 billion humans to date.
The University of Manchester have developed the first diagnostic test for Parkinson’s.
Period products became free in Scotland.
Cycling is booming in the UK with weekday journeys up 47% since 2021.
Doctors will soon be able to prescribe free bikes.
86 percent of British companies that took part in a 3,300 person trial of the 4-day working week say that they plan to keep the model.
A pine marten was spotted in London for the first time in a century.
This is part of an accidental mini series on the psychological and ecological benefits of taking new perspectives on life, society, citizenship and the planet.
The first part of the mini series looked at what I see as the organisational purpose of Thighs of Steel and took a new perspective to help me understand why I do anything at all: connection.
This second part will look more closely at happiness and take a new perspective to help assuage or at least understand the economic, ecological and existential distress that so many of us are feeling right now.
I’ll be honest: I wish I could have spent another twelve years researching and writing this piece, hands buried in the soil.
Think of it as a work in progress and please be gentle!
The Three (Or Four) Species Of Happiness
All good things come in threes:
Jesus, Joseph and Mary
Earth, Wind And Fire
Wet Wet Wet
Human happiness is no different: there are exactly three different species. (Except when there’s four, but we can ignore that one later…)
The first species of happiness is the kind that you can only feel when you’re inside the experience right now.
You might feel a sort of experiential penumbra of good vibes for a short time afterwards, but basically the happiness is gone as soon as you leave the situation.
For example, the visceral happiness you get from playing on a swing:
The question at the root of this first variety of happiness is: Am I having fun?
The second species of happiness is the sort you feel even when you’re no longer actually inside the experience.
This is one kind of time and space travel that humans can do: quite unbidden, a remembrance — oh, yes, I’m happy! — pops into our mind.
This sort of happiness is unlikely to stem from playing on the swings. Even this one:
(Watching that video, I think I screamed as much as they did. Worth the build up.)
This second species of happiness is more likely to crop up through a satisfying work life, successful relationships or a family of supportive friends.
The question at the heart of this second variety of happiness is: Does this feel right?
The third type of happiness goes deeper again: it’s an existential happiness, reaching out far beyond our selves and our immediate circle.
It comes from the sense that we exist as one small element of a community and society, a landscape and ecosystem that is thriving in unity together.
The question is: Are we all, people and planet, thriving?
This happiness is something I have felt in the past.
I’m not alone in struggling with it right now.
The Fourth Species
The fourth species of happiness that we can safely ignore is the kind that yogis and Russell Brand talk about:
Transcendence of all earthly happiness through direct connection with The Oneness of The Universe.
But you can forget all that for now — except one word: connection.
(Yes, I know — I’m obsessed with this idea.)
Because all three (or four) species of happiness depend on connection.
Back A Second: What Is Happiness?
Happiness is what happens when our sensory bodies come into contact with an experience and form a positive emotional bond.
When we play on the swings, that bond is easily broken by leaving the playground, and our happiness fades too.
When we form a close relationship with another human, such bonds are more complex, cropping up in more and more of our experiences and environments the longer and stronger that we share a emotional connection.
If that connection is predominantly positive: happiness ensues.
But even the strongest interpersonal relationship cannot sustain our happiness if the ecosystem around us is sick.
This is where the mushrooms might help. (Not like that! Although…)
The Great Entanglement
On the way back from Greece, I (finally) read Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life.
The subtitle is How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, And Shape Our Futures — and, yes, there is a lot of stuff in there about how fungi can forage for food, eat rocks and find the fastest route through IKEA.
But what struck me most forcefully was how, as a mycologist, the more Merlin learned about his subject, the more uncertain he became about what it means to be human.
The first living organisms on land were a collaboration between algae and fungi: lichens. The algae could photosynthesise to produce energy from the sun and the fungi could digest minerals from rock: the perfect partnership.
Likewise, plants are a collaboration between the above-ground photosynthesising organisms and the below-ground fungal mycelial networks that break down and transfer nutrients from organism to organism.
And the breaking down element is crucial: until fungi like the white rot fungus ‘learned’ how to digest plant matter, the earth was coated in a pile of dead plants, kilometres deep.
(This is how we got coal, by the way.)
By digesting dead vegetation, fungi guarantee the cycle of nutrients from one living organism to another. This is the thing we call soil. It wouldn’t exist without fungi.
Even humans are a collaboration between ‘humans’ and untold millions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that help, among many other basic living functions of body and mind, to break down the plants and animals that we eat as food.
It becomes increasingly difficult to determine where human ends and the rest of ecology begins.
Life is, indeed, entangled.
Back to that question of existential happiness: right now, do you feel like we are all, people and planet, thriving?
If you’re anything like me, that’s going to come across as a really stupid rhetorical question.
Apart from major scientific advances like the Vegan Sausage Roll, everything’s going to shit.
So what can we do about it?
Here’s one thought.
(It’s not a very clever or original thought, but hear me out because in a second I’m going to get you to imagine being a fungus and that’ll change everything.)
As a society, perhaps we have been putting too much effort into tending our digital networks.
(Told you it wasn’t very clever or original.)
I don’t just mean social media, I mean the creation of the whole World Wide Web.
Statista forecast that 97 zettabytes of data will be created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide in 2022.
That’s 8,890,000,000,000,000,000 megabytes.
It’s completely overwhelming to think of all the billions of hours that are put into tending our digital society every day.
By necessity, that time is being diverted away from our other projects and has perhaps contributed to the neglect of our society offline.
That’s not to say that I think online networks can’t be extremely powerful — I doubt that social attitudes in the UK would be becoming so liberal, so quickly if it weren’t for the internet.
But I think we have to be careful that our online networks really are strengthening our ‘real’ offline lives in the direction of greater connectivity and solidarity with the people and planet that make up our ecosystem.
I think this hybrid online-offline model is why Thighs of Steel works so well: people discover the project online, meet each other online and communicate online.
But then we come together for two months in the summer to create a living, breathing community in the ‘real world’.
The difficulty is how to imagine change when our problems are so complex and our individual capacity is so limited.
One answer is to change our imaginative model of what it means to be an individual.
(Okay, here’s where things get trippy!)
What if we imagined ourselves as a single exploratory growing tip of a fungus, tiny and courageous, but directly, intimately, unbreakably connected to, entangled with and backed by a mycelial network of unfathomable power and complexity?
Human As Hypha
The growing tips of a fungus are called hyphae, so imagine yourself as a single hyphae, one little growing tip of the human mycelial network that is exploring our society, the landscape, this universe.
It’s easy for you to feel like an individual.
Look too closely and hyphae totally behave as individuals, merrily wiggling around through the soil, looking for yummy dead things to munch.
But zoom out and we see that, despite their apparent behaviour, hyphae are not individuals.
It’s not like there’s a central brain or body that tells the individual hypha what to do, but each one is plugged into a complex and responsive network.
You see: fungal hyphae can somehow sense and communicate across the network.
(I’m not even going to try and butcher the young science: I beg you, please read Merlin’s book.)
If one hypha finds some delicious dead tree stump, very quickly (and mysteriously) the rest of the network will stop what they were doing and turn their attention to devouring it.
As a human hypha, you are exploring on behalf of every other actor in the network — all the other hyphae who can and will respond to every move you make, every touch and every discovery.
That gives you, the connected individual, power, agency — and responsibility.
The network decomposition of the dead tree stump is no mere act of destruction. The capturing and recycling of nutrients is a life-giving act of creation: what we call soil.
As a hypothetical human hyphae, recognise that your influence extends far beyond the human network.
You are also exploring and creating on behalf of the vegetation, the plants and the trees, that depend on the network for life support. No network, no soil.
Consequently, you’re also exploring and creating for the insects and animals that depend on vegetation, and so too for those predators that depend on the life and death of their prey.
See how you are connected — not hypothetically, but literally — to everything else in the ecosystem.
This is how mushrooms help me fill the pit of despair that has taken the place of my third, existential, species of happiness.
Fungi give me a lens through which to see my existence as both individual and plural.
If I fall into the trap of seeing myself as an individual alone, then it’s too easy to feel powerless about the existential problems we face as a species.
It’s too easy to bumble along, exploring life — experiencing the first two species of happiness, perhaps — but never seeing my intimate role as part of the network that is creating this ecosystem.
And without the sense of living within a healthy ecosystem, I have no hope of experiencing the foundational existential happiness.
Fungi remind me that life is about more than my own personal exploration.
It’s a simultaneous — and utterly entangled — act of personal exploration and collective creation as part of the network.
The metaphor of the human hyphae gives me license to explore and create, to follow my own path, but also to ensure I nurture a healthy network and, in so doing, healthy soil and, ultimately, a healthy ecosystem.
And, perhaps, existential happiness.
So let’s commit to the roles we were born to play: as entangled explorer-creators.
Thanks for reading — I hope some of it made sense at least. If not: get yourself a copy of Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake and take a look at this marvellous world from a myco-centric perspective.
Postscript: Entangled Happiness Networks
People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected.
Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). … This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.
I said that Thighs of Steel left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.
I also said that 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km over the course of 49 days.
But there’s a gap between the truth and the whole truth, right? You know what I mean.
In those 49 days, we didn’t quite cycle all the way from Glasgow to Athens — even after you excuse us the cross-Channel ferry.
We missed a bit.
Let me take you back to Dubrovnik and the beginning of Week 7.
Probably A Hill / Gravel / Borek
Covering the 800km between Dubrovnik, Croatia and Thessaloniki, Greece inside one week was always going to be a big ask.
And not just because of the distance.
The mountains of Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia barred our way to the cotton and pomegranate plains of northern Greece.
Oh, and all this on a route we’d never done before, on roads that could run out at any moment.
Naturally, it was hands-down the most popular week of the trip, selling out on day one on this hapless promise of unknowable adventure:
This is the week for people who LOVE not knowing what’s around the corner (clue: probably a hill / gravel / borek).
We’ve never been to North Macedonia before (have you?) so we’ve no idea what to expect, but the internet tells us it’s freakin’ gorgeous (if a bit hilly). We’re looking forward to the endless views and the bottomless mountain lakes.
As ever, we don’t know where we’re staying each night until that day, so we may be welcomed into homes, adopted by villages or wild camping beside a river. Expect to meet extremely friendly strangers and strangers who are extremely confused by us.
Before The Lake
After two days climbing through Montenegro, including the sixteen switchbacks of the Kotor Serpentine, we camped on the edge of Lake Shkodër, right on the border with Albania.
We arrived at camp in time to blow up the inflatable aubergine (yep), chuck a frisbee around in the shallows and then, because apparently we weren’t tired enough after a 97km ride, embark on a leisurely grueling swim out to a rocky island.
About halfway across, I was reminded that, over water, however distant your destination seems to appear, you should triple it.
The evening sun hurt our backs, the lake weeds caught our strokes, the vast current clubbed our legs.
We struggled back from the island, crawled ashore like wet things from the Pleistocene, and collapsed into a pot of dinner as mosquitoes danced.
Within 15 hours of that ill-advised swim, I was fixed to a drip in an Albanian hospital while my friend was being jabbed in the butt with a needle of drugs.
After The Lake
We think we picked up the stomach bug from dirty water in the lake, but who knows.
What is certain is that, although almost everyone managed to cycle the 130km from Lake Shkodër to Tirana, by midnight all but five of the party were stricken.
There are no days off on Thighs of Steel, but there was no way we were going to cycle any further the next day.
Thighs of Steel, maybe, but bellies of jelly. Or worse.
A rest day was the only option.
Luckily, we had found a bucolic campsite up in the foothills of Mount Dajti, populated with ducks, chickens and a clutch of (now) horrified campervanners.
The proprieter was a jolly woman who, after seeing our condition, mocked us for not being able to handle our alcohol. When we revealed the true extent of our indisposition, she was appalled — until we explained that we’d picked up the bug in Montenegro.
‘Ah, Montenegro!’ she cackled. And restocked the toilet paper.
By the evening, most people were able to prop themselves up on an elbow and nibble a little plain pasta. A couple of us managed a game of Bananagrams. Some mad cats even cycled down to the city for a tour of the fleamarkets.
We called council and made the decision that anyone who could hold down the morning porridge could ride on the next day — with the proviso that Calypso, our beloved support van, would scoop up any strugglers.
But our recovery day meant we were travelling one day behind schedule.
In our fragile condition there was no way that we could make up the time, so, instead of reaching Thessaloniki on the seventh day, we ended the ride in Florina, a hot, flat ride over the border from Macedonia.
Then we caught a train.
In Thessaloniki, we snatched one last dinner together before saying our goodbyes.
The next day we welcomed the final week’s cyclists and rode six days to Athens.
5,304km from Glasgow, but somehow missing something…
Connecting The Dots
Why is it that we feel compelled to finish things?
I don’t know. But it felt really good. And not just because of roads like this:
It felt good to honour the ride that was a year in the making. It felt good to honour the other cyclists who couldn’t ride the full route during Week 7.
It felt good to take to the roads again and remember the purity of why we do this without the frantic circus that comes with riding in a large group.
It felt good to join the dots.
We have now raised £96,964 and if you want to help us join the dots to our £100,000 fundraising target for refugee solidarity charity MASS Action, you can donate here.
I know times are tough for pretty much everyone right now, but every donation makes a difference. Take these examples of what a donation could do for the Khora community spaces in Athens:
£10 buys 20kg of fresh fruit and veg to serve at the Khora community kitchen, free for anyone who needs a hot meal with friendly faces
£50 covers the costs of running the Khora Asylum Support Team for a day, providing vital, free legal support to asylum seekers in Athens
£100 pays the electricity, water and gas bills at the Khora kitchen for a fortnight
£250 covers food supplies needed at the Khora kitchen for a whole month
It does feel good to have connected the dots, to have finished a project. Like, really finished it.
But now, sitting improbably beneath a glacier, I’ve come to that other moment, where one project ends and I feel…
The What What Now Now
Well, the immediate what what now now is that I need to get to a secret location on the edge of the Morvan in central France. There, awaiting repair, is Calypso, fallen at the last, with oil spewing from her undercarriage.
But once the mechanics have been called, once the vehicle has been recovered, once she limps onto the ferry and makes her tired, troubled way back home, and I have, perhaps, showered and slept, then I will be faced with the what what now now.
Projects like Thighs of Steel take everything you’ve got, all thrown into a threshing machine, and scattered, in this case, across barren gravel tracks from the Clyde to the Acropolis.
During this grisly process, something powerful and enduring is created from the entrails of the various participants — no doubt about that — but it can take some time for everyone to regenerate.
In the meantime, while livers and kidneys and stem cells are doing their surreptitious work, the rest of the world, friends, family and lovers from back home look on and ask of us the what what now now.
The answer is I don’t know know now now.
But I do have some ideas, generated from a grid I made, which I’ll share because you might also find it useful if you’re having trouble figuring out your own what what now now.
To avoid jinxing all my nascent plans, here’s an empty one, drawn in the back of a notebook designed in Tehran, bought in Athens:
Get stuck in. Add or change the columns and rows until you have your own full-on personalised Zwicky Box of What What Now Now.
The thyroid is an endocrine gland that secretes three hormones that dictate the basal metabolic rate of almost all body tissues, manage our appetite and stimulate the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids, increase the rate of our heartbeat and mitochondrial activity, and play a key role in our sexual function, menstrual cycles, and sleep and thought patterns.
Looks pretty complex, no?
But when things go wrong, the thyroid plays pretty easy: one blood test to diagnose; one pill to restore normality.
Stress, on the other side, looks simple. But jumping jacks does it play hard.
We all clearly see the cause, but where is the cure?
Unpicking An Opinion
Stupid question: what is stress?
Let’s say it’s a troubling sense of anxiety that rides into town when external or internal demands on your performance exceed your capabilities.
But hold on.
Human beings are wonderful creatures. Our capabilities rise to the demands placed upon us.
This is why there is such a thing as eustress: motivational dollops of stress that actually improve our physical and mental performance.
Without the stress of a fierce opponent, neither of tomorrow’s Wimbledon finalists, Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur, could rise to the level demanded of tennis champions.
Even when demands on our performance do exceed our capabilities — why — that’s what we call learning! And there’s nothing bad about learning, is there?
So the negativity around anxiety must contain the seeds of something else.
We can see this physiologically, as well.
Anxiety is what’s known as an arousal state. It makes my heart race, shallowing my breath, making me sweat, butterflying my guts, tiring me out.
But these are the same symptoms as the arousal state of excitement. The only difference is the interpretation put on the two: one negative, coming from a place of fear, and one positive, coming from a place of joy.
If stress can be positive; if anxiety can be excitement; if falling short can be learning; then, anxiety as a response to stress is just, like, your opinion, man.
But it goes without saying that I not finding my current state of mind particularly joyful. I am not excited; I am fearful. I can’t even make space to see all the wonderful ways I am growing and learning.
Our radically varying responses to stress, then, must burrow deep, much deeper, into our core beliefs about ourselves as human beings.
The cure for stress, the one everyone will tell you, looks as simple as the diagnosis:
Relax, don’t worry, just let go
Thanks. Now what the fuck do you think I’m trying to do?
I can’t tell you how many hot baths, naps and slow walks I’ve had over the past three weeks. Sure: feels great. Now what?
Well, yesterday, my counsellor invited me to try the Sedona Method of letting go.
The Sedona Method, according to Rational Wiki, is a ‘roll-your-own New Age self-administered psychotherapy’. At this point, I’ll try anything.
If you can’t afford the $100 online course, here’s what I did with my counsellor:
Focus on an issue you would like to feel better about
Ask yourself: Is this feeling coming from a desire for control, a desire for approval, a desire for security or a desire for connection?
Ask yourself one of the following questions: Could I let this feeling go? Could I allow this feeling to be here? Could I welcome these feelings?
Ask yourself the question: Would I? Am I willing to let go?
Ask yourself this question: When? Hint: the answer is always ‘now’ because the past is gone and the future never comes.
Repeat half a dozen times, with slightly different inflections
Responsibility is something we hold, bear, carry or shoulder. Responsibility is a heavy, weighty thing that can be handed over, dodged or ducked.
Sometimes responsibility even falls on us.
No wonder that, in our most solemn moments of responsibility, we speak — quite literally — of the ‘gravity’ of the situation.
This Is A Terrible Metaphor
Responsibility doesn’t behave like a weight.
A weight on your shoulders will always slow you down, drag you down, bring you down.
But responsibility doesn’t always feel like that, does it? Hell — I don’t think it even often feels like that.
If responsibility were a force (metaphorically speaking), then it wouldn’t be gravity.
Most of the time, responsibility is empowering: it gives us the energy and motivation we need to achieve cool things.
I’m sure you can think of many times in the past when someone handed over responsibility to you — and it made you feel lighter, stronger, faster, energised, electrified and empowered.
The Thing Got Done. Right?
Far from being a gravitational, weight-like thing, responsibility is much more like a vitalising force that we absorb, store, conduct or distribute.
Yep: a better energetic metaphor for responsibility is electricity.
One idiomatic hint that responsibility truly is more electrical than gravitational: we say that the person responsible for a task is the person ‘in charge’. I found this amusing.
Where a cumbrous weight will always slow us down, electricity, when it’s hooked up right, can grant us superhuman speed — like one of those mad scooters you get nowadays.
Okay, cool. So we’re agreed that responsibility isn’t a weight, but an electricomagnetic energy. Where does that lead us?
The Party Balloon Of Expectation
We can imagine now that the responsibility for any given task is generated energetically from the expectations and obligations involved, like the build-up of static between a woolly jumper (obligations) and a party balloon (expectations).
The more friction between obligation and expectation, the bigger the metaphorical electrostatic charge and the bigger the energetic potential of responsibility.
Energy = exciting!
Yes, but a word of warning too.
Once generated, that high charge of responsibility can suddenly seem scarily high voltage.
Oh shit. A hundred people at the party and no balloons.
Even more worryingly: all the energy we’ve generated between obligations and expectations has a worrying propensity to be discharged through the nearest conductive surface.
This is exactly like — you see where I’m going — electricity.
For scale, imagine the UK is a building site and imagine that everyone on that building site has been working hard for eight hours.
In order to get through 608.3 gigawatt-hours of energy, that building site would need as many builders as India has people.
I’m not sure that scale model helped, but the point is that we generate a huge amount of power in this country and yet, somehow, we share it around, more or less safely (Birmingham railway notwithstanding) and then use it to do loads of really cool stuff like typing emails to strangers on the Internet when really we should be stuffing our faces with birthday banana bread.
Given how destructive electricity can be, isn’t that marvellous?
Responsibility is the same.
We generate oodles and oodles of the stuff, every day of our lives, because it’s a powerful motivating force that helps us do loads of really cool stuff.
Yes, it can turn us into charred steak quicker than you could say ‘medium-rare’ — but only if we try to absorb it alone or conduct too much all at once.
If instead, like the national grid, we find a way to distribute that energy — share it with friends, colleagues, sauna buddies — then together we can power all manner of wondrous things.
End of metaphor.
Responsibility is a powerful force: share it around or you’ll get fried.
Or, to wilfully paraphrase Spider-Man:
With great responsibility comes great responsibility.
Etymological Side Note: What’s response got to do with responsibility?
According to the OED, a response was, originally, the answer given to a question asked of an oracle. A response is a reply: an answer.
If you are responsible, then you are the one answerable for that duty: you’re accountable.
For the first time in my life, I can sit cross-legged on the floor. Seriously: first time. At primary school, aged six, I remember pretending I’d stapled myself in the thumb so that I could have the ‘special’ (AKA ‘only’) chair at storytime.
This transformation in my flexibility is down to the cumulative power of doing a couple of minutes of yoga every evening. And it has genuinely improved my life: I can now have a picnic with friends without making them gather around a bench.
My latest small-but-mighty obsession is the flat-footed squat.
And wow. I love it. I love it so much that I want to fill every forgotten corner of time with a squat. Waiting for the kettle to boil, on the phone, at the beach. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to work at a squat desk…
Nevertheless, I got a lot out of reading the book because it explains, as if to idiots, the principles of non-violent communication and gives clear instructions on how to build constructive conversations, designed to bond human beings as equals.
One of the suggested meeting topics in the book was for each man to draw the floor plan of a boyhood home. It’s a powerful exercise (for all genders, I’m sure) that can unearth long-buried memories.
I can get with that.
Sometimes, on the threshold of sleep, I imagine myself an invisible, weightless spirit-bird, flying over and around old homes, swooping between floors to explore each before rising starward again. Beats Netflix for me.
Anyway, at the end of the floor plan exercise instructions, Clyde Henry suggests a variation where everyone draws their ‘perfect dwelling’.
Henry doesn’t offer any interpretation of this idea, but it seems to me that, rather than throwing us back on our childhood, this variation could help us visualise, with pen and paper, a dreamy future.
As someone who dwells all too often in the abstract, the pen-and-paper practicality struck me as an important part of an important tool that might help me do something I’ve never done before…
How do you see your life in five years?
At first pass, this doesn’t seem like a tricky question. It’s the sort of question your careers advisor at school would ask and you’d roll your eyes and be like ‘Ugh, I’m gonna be dead by then. SO OLD.’
But when AW3T asked me this exact question a week ago, I realised that, aside from the increasingly teenagery ‘dead by then’ answer, I hadn’t a clue. Not a Scooby.
It turns out that, while some people can’t keep their mind’s eye off their Five/Ten/Fifty Year Plan, some people can scarcely imagine breakfast tomorrow, let alone the second middle name of their third grandchild-to-be.
(Side note: Is this a symptom of Man Sloth Mode? I suspect it may be.)
If you’ve got It All Planned Out, you can probably skip today’s story.
But if you’re stuck with me in the Breakfast Club — and, to be fair, that’s probably at least a quarter of you — then let’s crack on and find our futures.
(Crumpets are a good shout tomorrow, btw.)
In A Minute: Clyde Henry’s Floor Plan Task
But first, let’s be clear: humans are bad at imagining the future.
Typically, when you think about yourself, a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, powers up. When you think about other people, it powers down. And if you feel like you don’t have anything in common with the people you’re thinking about? The MPFC activates even less.
The further out in time you try to imagine your own life, the less activation you show in the MPFC. In other words, your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.
Furthermore, and as if that wasn’t enough, as we imagine increasingly distant futures, our imaginings become commensurately vague.
(This is called Construal Theory. There’s no need for you to know that, but I spent ages reading about it for this story so now it’s your problem.)
So, while I have a very clear idea of what I’ll be doing between now and October, I couldn’t begin to describe what my life might look like in a year, much less five or ten years.
Imagining May 2023 is, for me, like trying to cloud-watch on a foggy day. Through steamed-up glasses.
Finally: Clyde Henry’s Floor Plan Task
And here is where we come back around to Clyde Henry’s floor plan task because marks made in ink on paper are both imaginative and practical.
That’s exactly why architects use both pen and paper to make detailed plans that bring into being actual houses with plumbing and cavity insulation. They don’t just vaguely tell builders to sort of, you know, build, like, a house with, er, walls and stuff, I guess?
And we in the Breakfast Club can use the same physical properties of pen and paper to force ourselves out of a purely hypothetical fantasy realm and into the realm of reality.
So I took half an hour and sketched.
Looking down at my floor plan sketch, I can see the light breaking over the woods and falling onto my lap as I lie drowsy in the bay window.
Standing up and pushing open the French windows, I can smell the resin of the wood and hear the far-off songs of swallow and stream.
I can feel the cool grass against my bare feet, and the heat of split logs, as I mooch over to the fire pit, just in time to take a s’more, flame grilled à point, from the outstretched hand of a friend.
I have succeeded. I have visualised a future for myself that goes far beyond the here and now, beyond the six-month horizon. For this dream dwelling is surely situated, at bare minimum, five years from today.
But, dear Breakfast Clubbers, visualisation is only the start because now it’s time for the easy part…
Ice Cream Execution
Why do I call this the easy part? Because we’re Breakfast Clubbers.
We don’t have any problem with executing a plan in the here and now. We just never had a plan — until now.
Now we have our floor plan.
Okay, okay. There’s probably a bit more to it than that.
We might have to practise our floor planning over and over again before our futures take on the kind of single-minded clarity that we need to feel confidence in our vision.
But let’s give ourselves a pat on the back today. Until this morning, we’d never even had the confidence to picture our futures, let alone create them. Now at least we know how it’s done.
It takes courage to first imagine and then bring into being a life significantly different to the one you’re currently heavily invested in.
Courage, that is, or — favourite word claxon — audacity.
Write down your task-by-task schedule from a dream day in 2027, complete with meal plans (don’t forget to brush your teeth).
Flip through a prospectus from a university, adult education college or anywhere else that sells future selves. Stop when something jumps out at you. Read the description carefully. What makes you connect to this future?
Make a scissors-and-glue collage of stuff that whispers big dreams to you. Whatever you do, don’t use a computer — print if you find something online.
Take a psychedelic and make notes.
Finally: use FutureMe to send your visualisations to yourself in a year’s time.
Thanks to A3WT for the gentle prod that resulted in the foregoing and, perhaps, the going forth.
I hold strong opinions. Dangerously strong opinions.
The way that the human brain works, strong opinions like mine can lead to political breakdown, financial collapse and even death 💀
Most human beings hold at least a few strong opinions thanks to something called the confirmation bias. Duh, duh, DUH.
Because of, I dunno, evolution or something, our mystical skull goo (or ‘brain’) automagically seeks and celebrates evidence that supports our entrenched beliefs and rubbishes and discards evidence that contradicts them.
Humility is the recognition of your limitations. I always work with a goal, and the goal is to improve as a player and as a person.
This is the same Rafael Nadal who has won an all-time high 21 Grand Slam tournaments, the crowning achievement in tennis. What improvement? What limitations?
So whenever you notice yourself holding the sharp end of a strong opinion, take a minute.
Is the strength of your opinion really justified? Like, really justified.
Or are you just plain dumb?
Now: Be Like The Tree
But strong opinions don’t have to mean inflexible opinions.
If I can use a shitty metaphor that’ll break down in five minutes: imagine a hurricane ripping through your town. Sorry.
A skyscraper has a strong, inflexible opinion. It’s going dowwwwn. But a tree has a strong, but flexible opinion. It’s going to survive the storm by bending with the wind.
So be like the tree.
Strong opinions are fine — good, even — I will strenuously defend my strong opinion about the right of all beings to free movement across the planet. Go on: I dare you!
But strong opinions shouldn’t be like a badly constructed skyscraper in a hurricane. They should be re-examined in the light of new information, contrary viewpoints and changing circumstances. Like a tree.
In the latter pages of Poverty Safari, McGarvey addresses the apparent inability for political parties to work together to solve really important systemic problems like poverty.
McGarvey points the finger squarely at the confirmation bias and our desperate need to be right, no matter what the dire social consequences:
In a global civilisation dogged by political and religious tribalism, occasionally asking ourselves where we may be mistaken becomes a radical political act.
Isn’t it a bit convenient that we, the ‘good guys’, always find ourselves not only on the right side of history but also on the right side of every argument on the right side of history?
In an infinite universe, on a planet that has existed for billions of years, the chances of us being right about everything are slim, surely?
[…] There’s arguably more virtue in admitting you’re mistaken and correcting your course, than there is in stubbornly believing you haven’t been wrong since you were a teenager.
So (finally) here’s a list of:
9 things I once strongly believed and now completely don’t.
9 things I strongly believe today, but suspect I might not in the future.
9 things I strongly believe today, but am actively canvassing for contradiction — help me out, won’t you?
I suspect that sharing these beliefs should come with some sort of a trigger warning so please don’t take them too much to heart.
My point here is more to recognise where I now strongly disagree with my past self. And you can ask yourself the same question.
9 Things I Once Strongly Believed And Now Completely DON’T
Drugs are bad and will lead to addiction, destitution, imprisonment and an early grave. Drug users are, therefore, Bad People to be greatly feared. (Remember: these are opinions that I now strongly disagree with!)
Nation states are a sensible way of organising the different human communities of the world and borders must be protected against illegal intrusion.
The police service is unimpeachable. Police officers know the law and will always enforce it fairly. (Also applies to law courts and politicians.)
Morally and ethically, there is such a thing as Right and Wrong.
There is only one type of intelligence — the one that I’m good at.
When people let me down, turn me down or do me down, it’s probably because I’m in some way an awful person.
Being well-travelled is about how many countries you’ve visited.
Meat and dairy are an essential part of a healthy diet, or at least of a healthy diet for me.
I sleep badly 99.9 percent of the time. (It’s actually 100 percent — nah, only kidding. Compared to some horror stories I hear, I sleep really well. Sorry.)
9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Suspect I Might Not In The Future
Everything is relative. Morality, ethics, opinions, abilities, knowledge, whatever — it’s all relative. So back off.
I’m a handsome clever clogs.
I’m in great health and will probably live forever.
I’m crap at music.
I despise potato crisps or any crisp-like appetiser, such as poppadoms or Chinese crackers.
‘Everything is amazing and no one is happy.’ I hope I always believe the first half of that quote and I really hope that, magically, everyone in the whole wide world contradicts me on the second half.
For most people, looking at the weather forecast is a total waste of time. We’re in the UK, you’re going to need a raincoat.
I don’t deserve enduring happiness in my relationships. Because that would be too easy.
9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Am Actively Canvassing For Contradiction
Please can everyone stop voting Tory for a second? Thanks.
Authentic connection is the single most important thing we can do for each other and for the planet that we live on. That could mean going for a muddy walk in nature or sharing a ribald laugh with a stranger.
Every second I spend in front of a screen instead of outside in nature is killing me a little bit.
Reading a physical book, however, is probably the best way of building our empathy muscles to help us with #2. Also: books we can read outside.
Going on adventures is a wonderful thing to do and another way to build authentic connection with people and place.
The mind is a body and needs stimulation, touch and movement.
All property should be cooperatively owned. End landlords.
Now, over to you — how wrong am I? And how wrong have you been?!
Thanks to AT for the motivation to turn this nagging thought into a story.
The reason I keep going back is that taking a sauna is, for me, a keystone habit.
A keystone habit is one habit that leads to a cascade of others. A keystone habit can be positive, like how exercising first thing in the morning gives you energy for the whole day.
But it can also be negative, like how checking your phone first thing in the morning sends you into a spiral of doom scrolling that leaves you tired and hopeless for hours.
And that last negative example is the clue to why visiting the sauna is a particularly powerful keystone habit for me: 90 degree heat does terrible things to technology.
Yes, saunas are wonderful for my health, an excellent place to meet interestingstrangers, and the perfect environment for quiet reflection.
But, above all, I most value how visiting the sauna gives me the precious opportunity for two hours of completely screen-free time in the middle of the day.
That sentence deserves its italics.
Busy Is A Decision
Now, before you switch off in disgust, I know that most people can’t take two hours to f-off to the sauna on a Tuesday.
I’m very lucky to work for myself and set my own hours and workload. The downside, of course, is that I set my own hours and workload.
When you work for yourself, there is no clock to punch and your work is never done.
Last year, on average, I spent more than 46 hours per week looking at screens. That’s six and a half hours per day, which is already a lot and doesn’t even account for holidays or weekends when I’m not at my desk.
On heavy weeks, that went up to over nine hours of screentime a day.
Two hours to read, reflect and recharge in the middle of the day is an investment that pays back more, beyond measure, in creativity and energy, than it takes in time.
This keystone habit creates a significant break in the day, triggering a cascade of other positive habits, both at the sauna — reading, rest, reflection as well as talking to strangers — and afterwards, in the way I approach the remains of the day — with calm, perspective and creativity.
But it takes a counter-intuitive psychological switch to fully embrace that ‘busy is a decision’ and that sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all.
So I leave my sauna kit by the front door, ready to go.
A Note On Accessibility
Sadly, in the UK, not everyone will have an affordable nearby sauna. My only advice is: move to Finland.
Actually, my only advice is to take a second look. Most council-run leisure centres have a sauna these days.
That’s where I used to go until I realised that the sauna was too important a habit to neglect and that the 15-minute bike ride was too high a cost. I am now a short-term member of a local hotel spa.
Other people join the gym; I go for the sauna.
Despite everything that the sauna gives me, it still sounds incredibly indulgent to me. I dread to think how you see it. 😂
Here’s how I rationalise it: if I keep up my habit of going three times a week, then the average cost per visit will be £3.15 — much cheaper than the leisure centre and not much more than a cup of coffee.
My point is: if you find a keystone habit that works for you, do whatever you can to make it happen. It’s worth the investment.
Yesterday I went for a sauna, a serendipitous, super-heated rendezvous with an Italian shamanic healer and, Paulo, a New York-born Italian-Irish dad who takes daily saunas so that he’s ‘mentally and physically ready’ to fight.
Paulo grew up tough. His own grandma would slap him if he chewed his food more than three times — I guess because not gobbling a scarce meal must be ingratitude.
Tough, ya know?
While myself and the shamanic healer sweated on the top deck pine, Paulo paced the tiles below, arms wheeling, trying to figure out how he could have been raised with such hardship and his own children with smartphones.
Winding back the clock, on Monday, I surfed my first proper waves — a 3.5ft primary swell, if that means anything to you.
I say ‘surf’… Apparently, the Bournemouth surf has a notoriously short interval between waves. As the first of a set broke over my board, the second was on top of me, smashing said board into the back of my head.
There’s a good reason why surf schools teach you to protect your head and neck when you come off. Takes practice though!
That night, as I did my yoga, half a cup of seawater flushed out of my nose.
Before all that, last weekend, I hosted my first ever Warmshowers cycle tourers, a pair of wonderful Dutch women doing a loop of southern England, before one cycles on alone to Portugal.
Pam and Laura were full of that energy you can only get from riding a really long way.
I’ve stayed with some incredible Warmshowers hosts all over the UK and Europe and, finally, I now understand the vicarious gratitude that my hosts must have felt.
There is a boundless joy in being able to open my door and offer so easily the solution to every need. A hearty stew on the stove, a couple of dry towels, a capful of washing detergent. A chair, a bed. Peace.
Pam and Laura’s Saturday night out in Bournemouth sounded like a blast: their pragmatic fleeces and practical shoes sharing bar space with a tirade of stag and hen fancy dressers.
Two species eyeing one another over cocktails and cider.
One of the most powerful tools in a Stoic’s mental toolbox is something I call the anxiety archive.
Building your own anxiety archive is a semi-structured, reasonably objective process — a HAZMAT suit and a pair of forceps — that helps you safely hold your fears, raise them to the light, examine them from every angle and see them for what they truly are: allies.
Lurking in the shadows, the nameless monster is most feared.
(Side swerve: it feels like the worst media outlets know and deliberately play on this, right?)
But, if we’re respectful, we can take that nameless monster on a journey of understanding and finish up with a fear that is, not only acknowledged, but accepted and even welcomed as a stir to action.
The journey goes something like this:
Notice anxiety: ‘I feel anxious…’ This is often the hardest part. Practice noticing.
Interrogate anxiety by questioning its supporting emotion or rationale: ‘Why am I anxious about this? Is there good reason to be anxious? Is a deadline approaching? What emotions do I feel besides anxiety? Where do I feel resistance? What do others expect of me?’
Understand anxiety: ‘This isn’t about the Dolomites, this is anxiety about my procrastination. This is the social anxiety of reaching out to cyclists and cycling groups with whom we don’t already have a relationship.’
Empathise with anxiety: ‘I hear you, anxiety. I hear your persistent alarm signal and acknowledge that I should be doing something.’
Act in concert with your anxiety: ‘I’m going to set a timer for ten minutes, find one cyclist or cycling group and tell them about this amazing ride we’re doing in the Dolomites.’
I don’t take my fears on this journey nearly enough, but I want to share two occasions in the past ten years when I have — and what I’ve learned from looking back.
Building My Anxiety Archive
In January 2012, I was inspired by hip-hop superstar Jay-Z to write up my own ‘99 Problems’.
Mine were less about systemic police brutality and racial profiling and more about ‘only having a single bed’ and ‘the mysteries of bicycle brakes’.
And I only got as far as 23 before I dried up.
Isn’t that amazing?
For all the worries that I had in my life at the time — from the laughably ridiculous (‘A lot of my clothes have holes in them’) to the genuinely worrysome (a bully for a housemate, relationships with ‘no flow’ and ‘No regular income’) — in sum of all of this anxiety, I still couldn’t come up with enough problems to pen a half-assed sonnet, let alone an era-defining rap.
(But, yes, if you’re wondering, thanks to my ongoing battle with eczema, the itch was one.)
Six years later, in February 2018, I wrote down another list of everything that was bothering me at the time.
I did little better: 28 anxieties.
Magic #1: Problems Get Boring Fast
Of course, if I really put my mind to it, I could easily bust out a list of 99 — or even 999 problems.
But part of the anxiety archive exercise is to realise that, for me at least, I get bored of worrying long, long before I hit Jay-Z’s 99 problems.
(And I’m not alone: I can only actually count 9 distinct problems in Jay-Z’s famous song.)
As they start to pile up under my pen, a wave of exhaustion overtakes me. Writing down any more starts to feel silly.
Instead, helpful solutions spring to mind, as well as gratitude for the many, many things in my life that aren’t problems.
Looking down at the abstracted, objectified feelings that fill my spreadsheet (natch) gives me a different perspective on my anxiety.
They either look silly (buy some new clothes, Dave) or they become puzzles to figure out (talk to my neighbour or move house).
My mind becomes active rather than reactive. I can put away the archive and get on with my day, lighter.
But the anxiety archive isn’t only of use in the moment. I recommend storing your archives on a computer for posterity so that you can enjoy…
Magic #2: This Too Shall Pass
Browsing through my 2018 anxiety archives from the vantage point of today, I am amazed to find only two remain in full force.
Another eleven are notably quieter for the passage of years, still something I think about from time to time, but now scarcely worth a mention.
That means that more than half of the anxieties on that four-year-old list leave me with nothing more than a wry smile at the memory.
It’s immensely reassuring to recognise that I am, for example, no longer anxious about the state of my arteries or whether or not I’m ‘good enough’ to write entertaining, interesting, useful stuff.
Of course, I could fill this email with a dozen more juicy anxieties that have crept up on me since 2018, but — and here is where the magic is — the strength of building an anxiety archive is that it gives me incontrovertible evidence that ‘this too shall pass’.
From my anxiety archive, I know that there’s a solid chance today’s most pressing anxiety will, given time, become tomorrow’s wry smile.
Unlocking My Anxiety Archive
With the distance of time between us, I can see from both my 2012 and 2018 anxiety archives that the worst rarely happens and, when it does, it is rarely the catastrophe that I foretold.
Indeed — and here is where I invite you to give me a hearty slap in the face — these difficult moments were hidden opportunities for growth.
What we once considered weaknesses, with practice and patience, become strengths.
For example, the breadth of work that I do, meandering across industries and skillsets, was once a great source of anxiety.
For years, I believed that I had no focus, no commitment and no purpose.
The exact same breadth has, since 2018, become a source of strength.
I am a writer: I write this newsletter, as well as comedy with Beth Granville and environmental science journalism.
I’m an outdoor instructor, working weekends with kids as they plan, organise and execute their first overnight expeditions.
This plurality of interests is, well, interesting. My diverse portfolio is, by its nature, more robust to shocks. Much is work that I can do from anywhere, setting my own boundaries.
Most importantly, however, I truly value this work and my enthusiasm carries over into a more positive relationship with myself and the rest of planet.
It took a lot of energy to get here — and anxiety was an integral part of the process.
Anxieties Are Allies
Anxiety doesn’t have to feel like a darkened, locked room; we can choose to feel this emotional force as a powerful motivating ally.
But before we simply let our anxieties pull us along, willy-nilly, we must first harness the energy by noticing, naming, interrogating, understanding and empathising.
As a regular part of our self-driving engine of inspiration, we can also then go back through our anxiety archive to identify and celebrate how we found the strength to grow in years gone by.
You see: buried in our own personal anxiety archive we will find the proof that we already possess everything within ourselves that we need to in order to rise and meet today’s challenges — not in spite of our fears, but thanks to them.
NOTE 1: Anxiety can be devastating. The anxiety archive is intended as a mental health check-up, not an emergency intervention. Don’t hesitate to see a professional counsellor if you think you might need one.
Today I’m going to build on everything that I wrote last week, encorporating as many of your wonderful contributions as I can.
In fact, last Saturday, I got so excited by your responses that I had to make a load of changes to the original article, so please go and read that if you haven’t already.
Then come back for more diaries.
What’s In A Name: Man Sloth Mode? Secondary Carer Sloth Mode? Drive Care / Take Care?
One of the things that surprised me about the comments on last week’s email was how many women said that they had noticed themselves slipping into man sloth mode — to the point where a friend asked if they could drop the ‘man’ bit altogether.
Of course you can — it’s yours!
Before delving into the terminology, it’s worth saying that I don’t necessarily believe these women when they say they go into what I called man sloth mode.
So, while I accept that women (being human) can and do go into some sort of sloth mode, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as common and nowhere near as acute as the male strand that I discussed last week.
Aaaaanyway, that aside, what was particularly interesting was under what circumstances people told me they go into sloth mode.
Just as men tend to sloth mode when a woman is there to take care of all the life admin, so it seems that adults of all genders can easily slip into sloth mode when they go back to their parents’ for the weekend.
Having just spent a week with family, I can relate. But I’m getting better at noticing man sloth mode and acting before it impacts too badly on other people. (And I still think you’re overpraising when I fill the dishwasher, mum 😂)
Fascinatingly, I also got an email from a friend who is part of a two-mum family. They described how one person, who they call the primary carer, often carries the ‘emotional and functional weight’ for everyone in the family unit.
‘Traditionally,’ my friend wrote, ‘it’s the Dad that slips into Man Sloth Mode, but take out those genders and you’re left with secondary carer sloth mode.’
My friend also made a brilliant distinction between what she called ‘drive care’ and ‘take care’ modes — and how she and her partner have bounced back and forth between the two as they’ve matured.
If I’ve understood correctly:
Drive care = someone who sees and actively straightens out the chaos of life: a person who cares
Take care = someone who would rather passively adapt themselves to the chaos of life: a person who receives or benefits from care
I love how this distinction acknowledges that we can find ourselves more or less in one or the other mode at different times and in different contexts in our lives.
As children, naturally, we are take carers. As parents, naturally, we are drive carers.
Within the parental bubble, it is common for one or other of the partners to take the more active primary care role. And I think the same is true for relationships without children: a primary carer emerges. Which sucks.
So: what do you think about dropping the man from man sloth mode? What about my friend’s secondary carer sloth mode and the drive and take care distinction?
Oooh — talking of inspired new terminology. How about this, from the irrepressible M.C.:
Man sloth dodging (noun,verb): Man sloth dodging is when the female partner of one man makes direct contact with the female partner of another man in order to guarantee the successful and timely arrangement of social plans. 🤣
So good. More please!
Utimately, the point here is to develop language that facilitates conversations. Have we done that? Maybe. Can we go further? Definitely.
Psychological Fragility And The Male Response
The response to last week’s newsletter was genuinely wonderful. I loved getting screenshots of when you shared it with friends. 😍
But I couldn’t help noticing that the strongest responses were from women. Largely in the form of: YES, THANK YOU FOR NOTICING.
I feel a bit of fraud, given that ninety percent of the ideas behind man sloth mode were smuggled away from conversations I’ve had with women.
Nonetheless, it’s gratifying to hear that I nailed one of the purposes of the article: to really hear and validate what other people are saying.
Ultimately, however, I wrote this whole thing for men — to help myself and other males take responsibility for the direction of our lives and our relationships — so it’s their reaction and response that I’m most worried about.
The tricky thing here is that men tend to be, in the words of one friend I spoke to last week, ‘psychologically fragile’. After all, that’s why primary carers feel they have to overpraise their male partners and colleagues for the slightest cooperative behaviour.
Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like we men don’t tend to deal well with our flaws being pointed out, nor with other people providing us with a solution that we haven’t come up with by ourselves (and subsequently been overpraised for our cleverness).
I have essentially dodged this problem by coming up with a solution (man sloth mode) for which I have been acknowledged and praised (again: thank you). This assuages my ego and paves the way for me to be a bit better.
But I want to find an accessible way for everyone to talk about these problems.
A female friend of mine told me that she’d love to send my article to a bunch of the men in her life, but was a little nervous about how it might be received, as a ‘personal slight’ or even ‘man-hating’.
So how do we reach men?
Do you know, I think the answer might be…
The Sweaty Stranger In The Sweaty Sauna
Bear with me.
Last weekend, I shared a sauna with a lovely chap called Ren.
We chatted about this and that: how awkward a sweaty silence can be in a sauna, how nice it is to chat to strangers, even if they’re sweaty, stories of past sweaty sauna escapades, and so on.
Then, because we were two sweaty men sitting on a sweaty bench in eighty degree heat, I decided to broach the topic of last week’s newsletter.
This was the first time I’d chatted to a total stranger about these ideas and I was unsure what to expect from a half-naked sweaty man in his mid-fifties.
Reader, Ren practically slipped off his bench with enthusiasm.
Ren’s father had died when he was very young, so was brought up by his mother. His mother, as it happened, was a feminist and determined to make sure that her son did his share of the housework.
Ren cleaned the toilets, did the dishes and the mopping, as well as the cooking. By the time he was an adult, Ren could actually function as, well, as an adult.
He only realised this was weird when he went to university and all his peers were, to put it bluntly, slobs.
Now happily married with two kids, Ren boasts that he does seventy percent of the housework at home, simply because, having started at such a young age, he’s better at it than his wife.
Ren is living, breathing, sweating proof that boys can learn this stuff, if only we teach them.
‘Kids,’ Ren tells me, ‘pick up on your actions, not your words.’
‘You think you’re doing your kid a favour by not making them do the washing up, but you’re not,’ Ren says, mopping his brow. ‘You’re only saving up problems for them later in life.’
Boys need adult householding skills not only for the bloody obvious reasons like hygeine and diet, but also for the sake of their adult relationships.
Ren was taken aback when he got to university and realised that all the other young men were slobs, but he was delighted to find that his domestic talents were valuable, attractive — sexy even.
Man Sloth Mode ≠ Sexy
Guys: science tells us that men who do the dishes have more sex.
Actually, there’s nuance here and the nuance starts badly.
‘Traditional’ gender conventions have actually been found to increase the amount of sex had by heterosexual couples.
The explanation for this is that traditional ‘sexual scripts’ of ‘male sexual control’ privilege male sexual desire and men, basically, want to have loads of sex. So that’s what happens.
But, as the adults among you have probably noticed by now, there’s a lot more to our ‘sexual scripts’ than this.
So, yes: more egalitarian attitudes to domestic and paid labour leads to a reduction in sexual frequency, through the mechanism of male sexual control.
As I said: boooooo.
But, if you study the model closely, you can see that male sexual control comes at a cost in communication. Weird. The more the male is in command of the sexual situation, the less likely they are to communicate with their partner.
Communication was measured, quite simply, using the following question:
When you have had a particularly difficult or bad day at work or in your daily activities, what is the percent chance that you will tell [PARTNER] about what is going on?
The more egalitarian each partner’s attitude towards work, the more likely they were to report a high percentage and actually discuss their problems, together. Honey, how was your day?
That sounds like a nice thing to have in a relationship. But it’s got nothing to do with sex — or has it? Yes.
Carlson and Soller found that, with higher scores for communication, came higher scores of ‘sexual self-efficacy’ — for both male and female. The more men and women talk to each other, the more sexually self-efficacious they become.
Sexual self-efficacy is sexual empowerment. You can play along at home by (strongly) agreeing or (strongly) disagreeing with these statements:
If my sexual activity is not satisfying, there is little I can do to improve the situation.
I feel that it is difficult to get my [PARTNER] to do what makes me feel good during sex.
If our birth control choice is not satisfactory, there is little I can do to improve the situation.
Now here’s the clever part: as female sexual self-efficacy rises, so does sexual frequency for everyone.
➡️ Egalitarian attitudes towards domestic and paid labour
➡️ Better partner communication between male and female
➡️ Higher women’s sexual self-efficacy
➡️ Higher sexual frequency 🔛
But wait — there’s more!
In a 2015 study of first-time parents (a role that is heavy on household labour), researchers found that more equal division of labour (presumably excluding the actual birth labour) led to greater sexual satisfaction for mothers and greater sense of romance for fathers. Aww…
Frankly, nothing I’ve said here should come as a surprise. Tired, overworked, annoyed women are unlikely to find a sloth man sexually attractive or, for that matter, have the energy or even the free time (which is, incidentally, gendered) for sex.
And yet, at the risk of slapping you in the face with stating-the-bleeding-obvious research one too many times…
In 2017 Swedish researchers found evidence that relationships where there is an unequal division of domestic labour, combined with a general sense of entitlement among men, are — BREAKING NEWS — liable to end in a breakup.
Right. That’s enough now.
Are you a man? Do you enforce and enact traditional sexual scripts of male sexual control to get your rocks off? Okaaay… And how’s that working out for you?
End On A Positive
So what now?
Well, besides a little idea I have for setting up a sweaty sauna men’s group, now I go for a quick walk and then I go to bed.
But before I disappear, one of the most thoughtful responses I got to last week’s email included a ‘not yet fully-formed thought’ about the role of positive self talk in man sloth mode.
My email last week might have made it sound like there was a lot of work to do. And there is. But it’s important to focus on the positive and acknowledge when we are doing our best.
The good news is that every moment we live between now and our death is another moment to do our best. So let’s not beat ourselves up when we slip-slide; let’s just keep on noticing when we do.
I will finish now by repeating my four point, work-in-progress strategy to draw ourselves out of whatever we call this sloth mode of being:
Call yourself out publicly and explain what’s going on (without being boring or attention seeking). At first, acknowledging man sloth mode out loud will really help, but the ultimate goal is to effortlessly skip from stage one directly to stage three. (Who knows: stage one might one day miraculously vanish altogether…)
Seize the initiative. Take positive action to drive yourself out of man sloth mode. If you genuinely can’t think of anything to do, simply ask how you can help and listen to the answer. WARNING: If you find the other person instinctively micro-managing your contribution, don’t get annoyed. Remember that they might well be used to dealing with man sloths as if they were children. Politely request that they step back: you’ve got this.
If you discovered in stage three a pretty basic life skill that you couldn’t do without a lot of help, go onto the internet and learn how it’s done properly. Do not waste other people’s time: they are not your personal life trainer. If you regularly find yourself unable to think of helpful things to do, then spend more time observing the things that other people do to be helpful. Copy them.
Huge, huge thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s article and all the conversations that have contributed to this one. Please share your experiences and let’s keep thinking and acting on this!
But none of these scales or inventories helped me understand what was happening.
Stuck In The Mud
On paper, things were going well. I’d just co-written and co-produced a successful Edinburgh show, now commissioned for BBC radio. I’d also been hired to work for The Bike Project, helping them give bikes to refugees in London.
In March, I moved into a lovely houseshare near Burgess Park with my partner. We had a garage for our bikes, tomatoes in the garden and only shared a bathroom with one other couple.
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt like an adult — I even managed to buy us a super king mattress for £10 off a millionaire in Kensington.
Life was totally going my way, but I seemed to be stuck in the mud, somehow unable or unwilling to let it flow.
This feeling of mudiness not only affected my mental wellbeing, but also — not surprisingly — affected my relationship.
Then, as now, I worked from home and found myself, most days, pretty much waiting around for my partner to get back from work. Then, somehow, I thought, my life could begin.
Except, increasingly and understandably, I wasn’t the sort of person she wanted to spend time with. Who wants to hang around that guy?
(Side note: An introductory counselling course should be on the national curriculum in its entirety, but if you only take one counselling technique into your life, take these 12 Blocks To Active Listening.)
This course taught me a lot that I didn’t know about the simplest things. One of those things was the importance of simple observation of your own mental landscape.
That summer, with the help of those psychological instruments, I observed that I didn’t always feel ‘dissatisfied with life’ and that, most often, the balance of my life was toward ‘positive experience’.
It wasn’t difficult, then, to pay closer attention to the moments when I felt most positive.
I’ll give you a second to roll your eyes.
Yep: it was those horribly rare occasions when I got out of the house to spend time with friends.
On 28 October 2017, I spent half an hour building a spreadsheet to keep an eye on how often I was seeing my friends. Then I phoned my parents and met up with an old primary school friend for a stroll along the beach and a Harvester.
I originally set up the spreadsheet as a 30-day experiment in order to, in the words of my diary at the time, ‘see what my social support is like and how we can build and expand and whatnot’.
Over four years later, I still update my (now legendary) friends spreadsheet every single day.
Why? This newsletter is the answer to that question.
I don’t intend for this to be the final word on masculinity, but more of a provocation. Only by talking about this stuff can we hope to live in a more harmonious, creative and joyful future.
I would LOVE to hear your side of the story: your experiences, observations and coping mechanisms. Thank you.
What Is Man Sloth Mode?
Essentially, man sloth mode is a temporary depressed state of being to which men are particularly susceptible.
I don’t mean depressed in the diagnostic sense — although it can lead to that — I mean low energy, low initiative, low activity, low affect, low arousal.
And it’s worth reiterating that this is a temporary state, usually triggered by specific environmental factors.
It is perfectly possible for a man to miraculously exit man sloth mode when faced with a stimulating environment, such as a table tennis table, a lively speakeasy, or a room that really needs its skirting boards deep cleaned (real life example).
There is one enormous environmental elephant in the room here, which I’ll get onto in a second.
First, however, let’s look more closely at the symptoms of man sloth mode so that we all know what we’re talking about.
Man Sloth Mode: The Symptoms
Man sloth mode has a diverse range of symptoms, covering life at home, work and play.
In fact, it’s actually useful to split them into two strands. Let’s call them social man sloth mode and work man sloth mode.
These are not mutually exclusive, but you might find that you slip more easily into one or the other.
What’s interesting is that, while almost everyone has stories of work man sloth mode, social man sloth mode seems to go under the radar. Which is a big shame because social man sloth mode is quite literally a killer. But more on that later.
First: the symptoms.
1. Social Man Sloth Mode
As we’ve seen, when I was balls deep in man sloth mode, I inexplicably stopped doing the things that make me happy.
In so doing, I effectively outsourced the majority of my social support network to my partner. Not cool.
Here are some more symptoms of social man sloth mode that you might recognise, in yourself or loved ones:
Not seeing your own close friends
Not doing the things that make you happy, or other inexplicable radical change in past-you and now-you
Spending a disproportionate amount of your free time on passive past-times like watching television or scrolling through the internet
Losing your ambition or get-up-and-go in both social and work settings
Piggy-backing on the social plans and activities of other people
Increased dependence on one other person for social support
Never hosting social events
Saying things like, ‘I don’t mind, you decide’ when asked what you want to do
Not introducing other people to your close friends
By the way, I’m not talking here about feeling bored or apathetic when faced with niche social pursuits. I can understand why some people might be less enthusiastic than I am about spreadsheets, word etymologies and bike pannier bags.
This is about switching off from social contact and activities or shifting into auto-pilot when you used to take the initiative.
2. Work Man Sloth Mode
This is the one that a lot of people get proper angry about — and for good reason.
While social man sloth mode tends to be a slow boiler, work man sloth mode has an immediate and disruptive impact on the lives of others.
This is all about the essential admin that goes into basic human functions like eating food, inhabiting a home, wearing clothes, and caring for other humans.
The symptoms of work man sloth mode include, but are not remotely limited to, the following:
Doing shared tasks badly so you’re never asked again
Only doing the fun or exciting bits of shared tasks
Only doing joint activities on your terms: your way, your timeframe, your strengths, your activities
Waiting until instructed on tasks, rather than taking the initiative; requiring micro-management in those tasks
Offering to help someone else in a task and then not moving from the sofa
Neglect of basic self-care: cleaning, cooking, washing, exercise
Tolerating or simply ‘not seeing’ deteriorating living conditions until someone else fixes the problem
Failure to anticipate future problems, especially when they concern other people (and responding to criticism by saying that you’re ‘living in the moment’)
Failure to anticipate the needs of others
Limited expressions of gratitude, including compliments, gift giving and appropriate apologies, creating a sense of entitlement, taking advantage or simply not seeing the work others do to keep the world spinning around
Always having an excuse or shifting the blame: ‘but you enjoy doing X’, ‘you know I’m no good at Y’, ‘I physically can’t see the problem’, ‘I’m just more laid back than you’, ‘you make me feel like a failure’, ‘I can’t multitask’, ‘I’m too tired after work’, ‘yeah, you being so busy has been hard for me too’, ‘you’re not being fair — I do the bins!’
Do you know what I’m talking about? Recognise yourself or any of the men in your life? Can you think of any other symptoms? Please let me know!
The Enormous Environmental Elephant
Yep: the biggest environmental predictor of man sloth mode is the convenient presence in that man’s life of a woman.
Someone to pick up the slack, someone to keep our lives ticking along.
Stop A Second, Dave: Why Do You Hate Men?
I don’t. I write this because I am a man and I love men. I think they’re pretty cool. At least some of the time.
I write this because, when we unwittingly slip into man sloth mode, we’re shooting ourselves in the face.
As a friend said to me only last night: it’s as if the world has moved on and men haven’t noticed.
In the past seventy years, at least in wealthy liberal societies, gender roles and opportunities have changed. Today, all around me, I see inspiring, active women and men struggling to get up to speed.
Real life example: I moved to Bournemouth a couple of years ago and I’ve found it much, much easier to make female friends.
Is this because too many men are stunted by social man sloth mode?
Admittedly there has been a pandemic on, but consider this:
The surfing class that I recently joined is female led and majority female
The off-road cycling club I’ll be riding with tomorrow is female and non-binary led and majority female (tbf, their motto is ‘shred the patriarchy’)
Plus I’m the only man in the room when I train at my local bare-knuckle bloodsports wrestle club
But personally I see far more women than men putting themselves out there, doing epic shit and making the most of life: at home, at work and at play.
What about you? When you think about successful adults in your life, the ones who are totally smashing it out of the park, who comes to mind?
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing
Sometimes, when my female friends talk about what I’m calling man sloth mode, they see an evil, almost Macchiavellian intent behind the behaviour.
Maybe they’re right, but I genuinely think that, most of the time, the lethargy of man sloth mode is unwitting.
We don’t know what we’re doing.
That isn’t an excuse — I just mean that most of us lack the emotional self-awareness to properly understand what we’re doing to ourselves.
If we seriously confronted what we do to ourselves by choosing inaction, then we would see that man sloth mode makes us miserable.
That’s exactly what happened to me. Unconsciously, I was letting a woman do the cognitive and emotional labour of, well, pretty much my entire life.
(Just to be completely clear: man sloth mode was NOT something that my partner did to me. I accidentally choose it for myself, like pulling clothes out of the wardrobe at random and only realising at an important job interview that I was wearing Mickey Mouse pyjamas.)
The Truth Of What We’re Doing To Ourselves
In 2016-17, I was what we can call a functional man sloth.
I still did the basics of cleaning, washing, shopping and whatnot, but I stopped doing anything interesting outside the home and just kind of hung around waiting for my partner to make my life exciting.
(Note 1: The studies referenced above almost universally report these statistically significant effects for social isolation, not necessarily for feelings of loneliness. You may know some people who are perfectly happy when they are alone. Happy, but, statistically speaking, probably not healthy.)
(Note 2: This study of social isolation and gender neatly summarises the differences between the social support networks of men and women: ‘men generally get their emotional needs met by their spouses/partners while women often get their emotional needs met by their female friends’. Boom. That was me: social man sloth.)
Why We Need (The Concept Of) Man Sloth Mode
Despite the shadowy threat of depression, illness, death and suicide, rather than trying to change our behaviour, we men find it easier to deploy a long litany of excuses and finger-pointing to re-write the narrative of what we’re doing so that it sits more comfortably with our sense of self-esteem.
The man sloth imagines a world where other people genuinely enjoy scrubbing the toilet bowl, where other people just need to chill out more and where only we’ve had a hard day at work.
‘Besides,’ the indignant man sloth cries, ‘we do the bins once a fortnight!’
I believe that this inability to accept responsibility is at least partially because we don’t have the language to understand our own predicament.
This makes it very difficult for us to talk about the problem as adults, to address our behaviour without resorting to insults or shame, and to change ourselves for a more just society.
Hence our need for a new concept: man sloth mode.
(Almost inevitably, the term ‘man sloth’ was created by a woman. Thanks G!)
Hang On: What’s Wrong With ‘Selfish Lazy Man Child’?
‘But Dave,’ I hear you cry, ‘we already have the words to describe such a man: we call him a selfish lazy man child.’
It’s a good question. Why (apart from lucrative opportunities for merch) do we need an entirely new term for such age-old behaviour?
Firstly — and I flagged this up earlier, if you remember — man sloth mode is a mode, a temporary state of being, not a fixed character trait.
(By the way, I have thought about removing the ‘man’ and calling it ‘default sloth mode’. Maybe that would not only make it more palatable to our male ego, but also recognise that this is a collection of behaviours that men seem to revert to almost by default when someone else is there to take care of us.)
The problem with terms like ‘selfish’ and ‘lazy’ is that, even when objective rather than accusatory, they come across as fixed character traits. If you’re lazy, then you’re lazy — and always will be.
Terms like these, although often thrown around in bitterness, can actually turn into excuses to protect the status quo: ‘He’ll never change, he’s just lazy’ or ‘You know me, love, I’m a lazy bum’ (said with a forgive-me-twinkle in his eye).
But adult males are more than capable of stepping up into very active roles (in fact, sometimes we all wish they wouldn’t, but that’s another story…)
‘Man child’ is a little better. It at least acknowledges that this is largely a problem with men, rather than ungendered character traits like selfishness.
Man sloth behaviour is also very child-like and friends even tell me that they have to speak to their male partners as if they were children just to get them to function.
This ‘mothering’ seems to happen in at least four ways:
Making deals to the effect of ‘you can watch TV if you do the dishes’
Silently spinning plates and tidying up after them
And the most pernicious: over-praising the accomplishment of basic tasks, like successfully chopping two carrots (real life example)
But we are not children.
Treating us like children is not only degrading for the ‘mother’, a role that friends tell me makes them feel guilty and ‘naggy’, but it also re-enforces infantile behaviour.
It needs to stop.
Real Life Example Of Over-Praising: The Man’s Barbecue
The Man’s Barbecue begins several days before, when The Man’s Partner makes a list, does the shopping and invites guests.
The night before, The Man’s Partner spends a couple of hours preparing salads and marinading the meat.
On the day of The Man’s Barbecue, The Man’s Partner tidies the garden, sets out the table and welcomes the guests.
Meanwhile, The Man cracks open a beer and drags out the barbecue and coals from last summer. With great theatre, the guests gather round to watch The Man light The Man’s Barbecue. He can’t find the matches.
The Man’s Partner finds the matches.
The Man’s Barbecue is officially lit. The Man sits down beside The Man’s Barbecue with a poker and another beer. Two hours later, the meat is still raw. The Man’s Partner finishes it off in the oven.
While The Man’s Partner cleans up in the kitchen, the guests pick through the last of the salads and applaud: ‘Wow, Man, you sure do a great barbecue!’
I Understand Why You Do This, But Please Stop
Treating an adult male as a man child inadvertently enables the status quo.
The tougher reality is that we can do all the adult stuff and, if there’s some stuff we still need to learn, then it’s not the responsibility of anyone but ourselves to act as our trainer.
There is no excuse: the internet is stuffed with detailed instructions on how to do every single adult task required for modern living.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect men to become mind-readers, but they must become able to hear the needs of other people and to teach themselves the necessary skills to respond effectively.
No one likes to think of themselves as selfish, lazy or a man child. When we are told those things, either in words or through actions, we don’t hear needs being expressed. Instead, we re-write the narrative to maintain the coherence of our self-image.
That’s why ‘selfish lazy man child’ doesn’t work and that’s why we need a new term: something that men will actually hear and respond to.
3 Reasons Man Sloth Mode Might Just Work
It acknowledges that there is a problem: sloth behaviour isn’t desirable
It applies to all men: it’s not a personal attack
It’s a temporary state of being, like boredom or anger, that we can shift out of
(While we’re here, a word on #2: A lot of women, when I describe man sloth mode to them, say: ‘But it’s not all men’. Fellas, let’s be honest here: yes it is. We might be susceptible in different ways at different times and perhaps to different degrees, but this is surely universal among men.
I genuinely believe that I’m one of the ‘good guys’, but the whole reason I’m writing this article is because I still need to find reliable ways of levering myself out of man sloth mode.)
Hopefully I’ve done at least a half-assed job at explaining what I’m talking about and convinced you that we men need new language so that we can talk about what’s happening to us when we’re being crap.
Hopefully, too, I haven’t offended too many people: please remember that this is very much a first draft and I still need your help to understand what’s going on.
Phew. Okay, now it’s time to go deeper.
What Causes Man Sloth Mode?
I think this is an important question because the answers can help us, as men, understand what we can do to change.
But first, a warning: we don’t want to be trapped on either side of the explanation canyon:
I don’t want to come out of this section shrugging my shoulders and saying, ‘Love them or hate them, men are just like that!’ Nor do I want to point the merciless finger of shame at the individual man.
The path on one side of the canyon won’t change anything, while the other path might (and only might) change a single person alone.
I want to come out of this section with answers that will open up a path right down the middle.
I want to believe that the problem of man sloth mode is both tractable and bigger than any one man. In fact, I want to believe that it’s excitingly gigantic (more on that in a bit).
So here we go.
First up is the depressing answer that things are the way they are because things are the way they always have been.
In the UK, according to the government’s Gender Equality Monitor, women do 25.5 hours of unpaid work per week, while men manage only 16 hours — and more than 7 of those are spent on transport, probably commuting to work.
At this pace, it will take 210 years before we have eliminated man sloth mode. I’ll be dead by then. Too slow.
But if a couple of centuries is too long, then how about millions of years? That brings us nicely to my second answer to Where Does Man Sloth Mode Come From?
My Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️
Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, evolutionary or otherwise. But this is a story that might help some men move past any feeling of being under personal attack, paving the way for positive action.
Bear with me on this one because it might sound for a while like I’m making intractable excuses for man sloth mode. I’m not.
Massively Generalised Proposition: Men evolved for explosive life-and-death activities.
Men seem to have an evolutionary advantage when it comes to stuff like fighting (to the death), sprinting (to kill things) and lifting heavy rocks (to crush things).
This massively generalised proposition has two aspects:
Men perform better when they and their loved ones are under threat or facing an epic struggle, rather than when faced with the non-threatening day-to-day life admin
This life-and-death stuff tends to be explosive: it requires a huge outlay of energy in a short space of time
The consequence of all this is that, when not under threat or facing an epic struggle, men will conserve energy for when they really need it.
There you go: a neat little evolutionary explanation for man sloth mode. We’re not being lazy or selfish, we’re saving our energy so we can throw rocks at bears.
The problem is that, most of the time, for men like me, a life-and-death threat or epic struggle never materialises and we can slide unwittingly into a semi-permanent state of man sloth.
(There is one notable exception to this dearth of life-and-death in our modern man lives. Included in my list of life-and-death activities is mating. Yes: we can be pretty good at seduction.
So now you also have a neat little evolutionary explanation for that infuriating tendency for men to be incredibly attentive right up until the moment you decide to sleep with them.
As a good friend said to one of her girlfriends who was being messed around: ‘Hun, he wasn’t leaving it six days to reply when he wanted to fuck you.’ Amen to that.)
After reading the first draft of this article, a very smart friend cast doubt over the suggestion that evolutionary pressure could possibly exert much of an influence over our lives today.
She also described her scepticism about gender essentialism, the idea that evolution has somehow prepared ‘men’ as a biological category to do things differently than it has prepared ‘not-men’.
But, she added, ‘Maybe the concept of evolution and the concept of the biological category has!’
So the challenge for us men is how to use this popular, if scientifically unlikely, evolutionary story to support men’s growth rather than to fossilise it.
Where Does That Leave Us?
The point is that my Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️ pins the ‘blame’ for the existence of man sloth mode on powerful forces outside of our control.
That doesn’t mean we shrug our shoulders and give up: it means that we now have two ways to understand our predicament and two approaches to change.
On the one hand, the social conditioning explanation shows us that change is possible: if slimy girls can learn how to anticipate the needs of others and change the sheets more than once a year, then so can we adult males.
On the other hand, my Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️ helps us shift the weight of individual shame or guilt (which isn’t helping anyone) and understand what might motivate us to elevate ourselves out of this temporary depressed state of being.
In a word or six, we men need something that’s…
Excitingly Gigantic (But Also Totally Achievable)
This is where we get back to my legendary friends spreadsheet.
Every evening, I take a second to note down the number of meaningful interactions that I had with friends that day, either in person or on the phone.
Then, every Monday, in my personal finance and business accounting spreadsheet, I write down the total number of meaningful interactions for that week.
Over the past year, my average weekly total was 16 friend interactions, with a record high of 36 and a low of just 3 (shocking and only partially explained by the November lockdown).
I have data like this going back more than four years: that silo of numbers is (to me) excitingly gigantic, making me feel like my social life is some kind of epic data-based struggle.
At the same time, the individual actions that I take every day are almost pathetically achievable, pandering to my default laziness even on my most man sloth mode days.
The spreadsheet plays to my strengths as a man, but its purpose is to hold me to account.
Am I feeling a little blue today? Well, maybe it’s because I have only spoken to three people all week.
Finally, this is the answer to the question posed at the start of this newsletter
Drum roll please because coming right up is my answer to why, over four years later, I still update my (now legendary) friends spreadsheet every single day:
Rather than outsourcing the management of my social support network to a woman, I have outsourced it to a spreadsheet.
My friends spreadsheet was the first of my excitingly gigantic but also totally achievable strategies to protect myself against the type of chronic man sloth mode that I fell into back in the winter of 2016.
I have plenty of others, like my two daily journals that help me watch my mental health or my 100 Days of Adventure challenge that pushes me to get outside regularly.
But these strategies only tackle personal pickles like my year-long social man sloth mode.
They don’t cover (except obliquely) the more immediate man sloth mode behaviours that result in other people picking up the majority of society’s practical care work as well as the bulk of its cognitive and emotional labour.
We need a strategy that will help us in the very moment that work man sloth mode strikes.
What About Strategies To Defeat Work Man Sloth Mode?
Confession: I don’t really know. This is all new so I’m still experimenting. I would love to hear from you on this one.
What I do know is that the creation of the term ‘man sloth mode’ has already helped me overcome its seductive allure.
Last night, I went over to a friend’s house for dinner. She was in the middle of cooking us a curry and, when I arrived, I noticed that I could quite comfortably slip into man sloth mode.
I felt a strong urge to do nothing but drink tea and chatter inanely while she worked at the stove, making the dinner that I would later scoff contentedly.
But instead of succumbing to man sloth mode, I called myself out.
I explained what I was feeling using the language of man sloth mode (it helped that I’d spent the whole day writing this article). Then, instead of sitting down and watching her work, I made rotis for us to eat with the curry.
This might not sound like much (and it really isn’t), but it is, I hope you’ll agree, a step in the right direction.
If this is a strategy for overcoming acute daily man sloth mode (and I think it could be), then it has four stages:
Notice yourself slipping into man sloth mode. If you’re not sure when this happens, look closely at the symptoms listed at the top of this article
Call yourself out publicly and explain what’s going on (without being boring or attention seeking). At first, acknowledging man sloth mode out loud will really help, but the ultimate goal is to effortlessly skip from stage one directly to stage three. (Who knows: stage one might one day miraculously vanish altogether…)
Seize the initiative. Take positive action to drive yourself out of man sloth mode. If you genuinely can’t think of anything to do, simply ask how you can help and listen to the answer. WARNING: If you find the other person instinctively micro-managing your contribution, don’t get annoyed. Remember that they might well be used to dealing with man sloths as if they were children. Politely request that they step back: you’ve got this.
If you discovered in stage three a pretty basic life skill that you couldn’t do without a lot of help, go onto the internet and learn how it’s done properly. Do not waste other people’s time: they are not your personal life trainer. If you regularly find yourself unable to think of helpful things to do, then spend more time observing the things that other people do to be helpful. Copy them.
As the infamous man sloth Theodore Roosevelt once berated himself:
Get action; do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create; act; take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.
Life in man sloth mode is miserable. It is ending our relationships, fossilising our personal growth and slowing killing us. For our sake and for your own sake, get action.
Coda: Over To Us
This morning I was chatting to a friend on a bike ride. She’d just had a blazing row with her partner about his passivity and told me that the ideas around man sloth mode gave her hope for her relationship.
Guys: let’s not make that a false hope.
Over to us.
Now It’s My Turn To Ask The Questions
Have I gone too far? Not far enough?
What strategies do you have to protect yourself and others from man sloth mode? (Or whatever you call it)
Have I missed any symptoms, major or minor, of man sloth mode?
Is there an equivalent mode of being to which females are more susceptible?
Thank you so much to everyone I’ve spoken to about this topic over the past million years and thank you to everyone who has responded so thoughtfully to this article.
You have all been incredibly generous with your experiences and helped me mis-understand things a little less.
Special thanks to BG for holding up a mirror to the man sloth over so many years, to GC for coming up with the term ‘man sloth’, and to LH — for dinner!
But I have, since last year, been a skateboardist. So I at least understand the principle of balancing on a small thing with no handlebars and riding in an approximately forwardsly direction.
Naturally, this experience was next to no help at all when plopped onto an unstable surface like the ocean.
Fascinating fact: it’s the unstable surface of the water that actually keeps surfers afloat. As amazingly buoyant as modern surfboards are, they couldn’t overcome the gravitational effect caused by the hefty addition of an adult human, the weight of which threatens to sink said human into a watery grave.
My first lesson (with the awesome humans of Resurface) was spent lying flat on my face, windmilling my arms in the seat and scootching around the white water, occasionally feeling the rush of a wave beneath me, but mainly just kind of bobbing around pleasantly.
The few times that I did attempt to crawl onto my knees, the carefully callibrated balance point of the board would mysteriously vanish and I’d go for a quick swim. Hence the wetsuit.
But for the most part, I lay atop the board, surprised by my buoyancy, enchanted by my ripple-eye view of the world. I’m not sure if that’s surfing, but I want more of it.
I recently finished reading Blue Mind by marine biologist Wallace J Nichols.
I thought I was buying a popular science book on the cognitive and social benefits of being in or near the water, but what I actually got was a surprisingly disassociated collection of anecdotes, lightly supported by scientific footnotes.
In some ways, the book was a little like my experience of surfing: never quite knowing what would happen next or even from what direction ‘next’ would come, but more or less buoyed through the experience with only the occasional, perhaps refreshing, dunk.
Rather than having an array of science-y data at my fingertips, I’m left instead with a generalised sense that the ocean (river, lake, stream or shower) can be a force for good in our lives.
‘Blue mind’ is Nichols’ term for ‘a mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness’, by no means exclusive to the ocean, but promoted by safe experiences with water.
Many of the studies that Nichols cites have nothing to do with any kind of liquid, which makes his thesis based on limited but favourable scientific evidence and then buttressed by not-implausible extrapolation.
In ‘The Men Who Stare At Trees’ I explored the health benefits of being in nature and it’s true that some studies have found an enhanced positive effect when water features are involved.
Matthew White was also one of the researchers involved in a 2019 study that found better general and mental health among people who lived less than 5km from the ocean, an effect particularly strong for the lowest-earning households.
This is why Nichols positions the oceanic ‘blue mind’ as an antidote to both the hyper-stressed state of what he calls ‘red mind’ and the apathetic, depressed state of ‘grey mind’.
It’s also why I found myself flat out on a surfboard, staring into the setting sun, mesmerised by the light and sound of the lapping ocean, nudging me gently to shore, in blue mind.
maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
Thanks to everyone at Resurface Bournemouth and to AT for getting me into the water. Six lessons, including wetsuit and board hire, cost me the unfathomably low sum of £95. The next session is Monday — can’t wait.
Welcome to the First Class carriage of the 9.10 from Barcelona to Paris.
I wouldn’t normally travel First Class, but these were the cheapest seats by far (€49) — a fact abundantly evident in the crowded aisles of the carriage.
There’s a family of five occupying the three seats ahead of me (fair play to them), beside an American husband and wife team with divergent approaches to crash-learning French in the six hours before we arrive.
The wife is patiently grinding her way through Duolingo, writing out convoluted sentences like ‘Voulez-vous aller en voiture au magasin?’ (‘Do you want to drive to the shop?’), while the husband taps ‘Hello, how are you?’ into Google Translate — whereupon the app promptly crashes. He’s now playing Candy Crush.
I’m three legs into my four-legged journey back to the UK from Portugal. I left Lisbon late on Wednesday evening and, after sliding through Madrid and Barcelona, I’m due back in Bournemouth tomorrow evening.
All the friends I was staying with in Lisbon will be making the same journey by plane, a fact that’s made me reflect on why I chose to travel overland instead.
It comes down to the three essential factors of any journey, which I shall pretentiously call the Travel Triangle:
How long does it take?
How much does it cost?
How comfortable is the traveller before, during and after the journey?
Most people probably only think of the first two sides of the travel triangle when they’re planning their holidays and, thanks to government subsidies and low-cost airlines, planes are perceived as both faster (obviously) and cheaper (criminally).
That’s why I want to spend a little bit of time exploring how on earth I managed to end up with an overland itinerary that was not only justifiable according to the travel triangle, but actually preferable on all three sides compared to flying.
Plane versus train: speed test
Firstly, let’s look at what would happen if we tried to match up trains versus planes on the plane’s strongest side of the travel triangle: time.
Although my overland journey will take three nights and days, I’ve calculated that it is technically possible to leave Lisbon at 10.30am and arrive in Bournemouth the following afternoon:
1030-0505 Coach from Lisbon to Bordeaux
0558-0929 Train from Bordeaux to Paris
1113-1230 Eurostar from Paris to London
1315-1600 Train from London to Bournemouth
Unfortunately, this hectic itinerary would lose out to flying on all three sides of the travel triangle:
At 30 hours, it would take three times as long as flying (including getting to the airport and going through security and immigration).
One way and booked three weeks in advance, this journey would cost about £240, compared to about £140 by plane.
On this schedule, the poor traveller would not only miss out on a night’s sleep, but also spend 25 out of those 30 hours on their backside. Not healthy.
Using the travel triangle, it’s easy to see that long distance overland travel cannot compete with planes on speed. If you need to get somewhere as soon as physically possible, it’ll probably be quicker, cheaper and more comfortable to fly. Sorry.
But there is good news!
If we tweak our itinerary to favour the strengths of overland travel rather than the strengths of flying, then it’s not hard to come up with journeys where overlanding is not only justifiable, but preferable — on all three sides of the travel triangle.
Train versus plane: rematch
The following sentence sums up the great strength of overland travel:
No one (but no one) wants their plane to stop mid-way.
(Once upon a time, while waiting for a delayed train in Brussels, I heard a fellow traveller lauding this particular benefit of air travel: ‘At least you either arrive or you don’t.’)
Assuming that most people don’t wish to disembark mid-way, my friends who fly get two stops: London and Lisbon.
In stark contrast, my terrestrial alternative needs freakin’ bullet points to encompass the delightful array of city breaks I’ll enjoy:
This was my first trip abroad since 2019, during which time two friends had moved out of London to live in Paris and Bayonne respectively. So, when my co-writer Beth Granville suggested working together for a week in Lisbon, I immediately knew I could plan a trip that fully exploited the strengths of overlanding.
In Paris, Tim and I did some hiking in Rudenoise and Chantilly; in Bayonne I got to hang out with friends in Basque country, hiking in the foothills of the Pyrenées and visiting the pretty towns of Sare and Saint Jean-de-Luz; in Madrid I met up with a new friend who’ll be cycling with us on Thighs of Steel this summer; and in Barcelona I got to sleep off a cold I picked up in the Saharan dust storm that hit Lisbon on Tuesday.
As I write these words, our train is passing over a narrow spit of land that bisects a vast lagoon on the Mediterranean coast near Narbonne. It would have been easy to have added yet more adventures to my journey — the Algarve and Andalucía, Bilbao and San Sebastián, Montpellier and Nîmes.
The lesson is that, if we plan itineraries that take advantage of overlanding’s great strength, then the travel triangle magically starts to work in our favour.
Round 1: Cost
Yes, the face value of point-to-point train tickets are often more expensive than the plane equivalents, but this all changes when we start to add stops.
My overland journey from Bournemouth to Lisbon and back cost me £366.
(Incidentally, the London-Bournemouth leg is both the shortest and, horrifyingly, very nearly the most expensive of the entire journey.)
I booked only three weeks before I left and, while it’s reasonable to say that I didn’t get the best prices, it’s also true that I probably couldn’t do it very much cheaper. The Man In Seat 61 suggests around £300.
(Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to add the cost of overnight stays to the overall cost of overland travel because that’s all part of the holiday. For full disclosure, however: I stayed with friends in Paris and Bayonne and spent £60 on two nights in Madrid and Barcelona.)
Looking at flights, I can see that Bournemouth to Lisbon and back costs around £220-240. So flying direct would have saved me about £120 — but only if I’d been happy to miss out on seeing my friends.
(Note: If you book further in advance, and want to spend the night near Stansted Airport, you can get cheaper flight-based journeys at around £170-200 return from Bournemouth. But I want to compare apples with apples. Thanks to JCK for this research!)
If we only include my longer stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, then travelling by plane would have cost another £140. If I were to add Madrid and Barcelona as well, then flying would be sheer craziness.
Take home message: overlanding with stops is cheaper than flying with stops.
Trains 1 Planes 0
Round 2: Time
With cost out of the equation, the decisive factor in choosing between overlanding and flying will, for most people, be time.
I’m not talking about the time taken for each leg of the journey — the longest of my overland journeys was eight hours, which is less than I would have needed to get from Bournemouth to Lisbon by plane.
I’m talking about the total amount of time the traveller has for the whole trip — and how they want or need to spend that time.
If you have two weeks’ holiday and you want to visit friends in Paris and Bayonne or stop by Barcelona and Madrid on your way to Lisbon, then travelling overland is the best way for you to travel. End of.
If you only have a week’s holiday, then Lisbon is off the cards for overlanders unless you’re prepared for the hectic itinerary that opened this piece. Sorry.
The same is true if, for some reason, you need to be in Lisbon for as much of the whole two weeks as possible.
For example: flying to Lisbon would occupy about 6 percent of a two week stay. Even at its fastest, overlanding gobbles up 18 percent, with a more relaxed itinerary swallowing 22 percent of your total time away.
On this occasion, for me, the time allowed for the whole trip was flexible — a few days either side would have made no difference.
But overlanding did help me change the way I spent my holiday, not only by allowing those stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, but also in moments like this, where I have the time and comfort to do some writing.
(In fact, if you are lucky enough to be able to do actual work on the long train journeys, then you might even be able to earn back the cost of overlanding — good for you!)
Trains 2 Planes 0
Round 3: Comfort
This is where things become a little more personal, as we all define ‘comfort’ in different ways:
How anxious does this mode of transport make you feel — both before you leave and during the journey?
How many bags do you need to take?
How much space do you need?
How much information do you need to feel reassured?
How comfortable are you operating in foreign languages and in unfamiliar cities?
Militarised airport security, train ticket barriers or coach driver whimsy?
Drinks trolley, buffet car or service station?
How do you feel when you arrive?
For me, trains win on every count, every time. Coaches are a bit more problematic: less information, less space, less smooth — but I’d still choose them over the airport security and border checks that make me feel like a pre-criminal.
Trains 3 Planes 0
Think of the children!
Many people choose to go Flight Free because of the massive 95 percent reduction in carbon emissions when travelling overland compared to flying.
According to recent research by The Jump, individual citizens have primary influence over 25-27 percent of the total emissions savings needed to stop ecological breakdown. That’s pretty cool. It means that we can all take direct action today.
(Note: this 25-27 percent figure is an average and lower income groups are responsible for far fewer emissions. The more you earn, the greater your obligation to change.)
Of this 25-27 percent, reducing our use of aeroplanes to one short haul flight every three years would deliver a 2 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.
That’s a bloody good reason to stop flying. But it’s not my reason.
Journalists around the world have celebrated this vindication of the pernicious claim that ‘laughter is the best medicine’.
It’s all lies.
When you have an intercostal muscle injury, laughter is manifestly not the best medicine.
In this case, laughter is, almost literally, side-splitting.
If humans have personalities, so do muscles. Some are extroverts, showing off their range and power, like the hamstrings or the biceps, making their presence felt with almost every movement of your body.
But some are introverts, happiest when unnoticed and, like the muscles of the eyeball or the omohyoid, scarcely ever consciously felt — until something goes wrong. Then: beware the quiet ones.
The intercostal muscles of the rib cage are introverts.
Their job is to help you breathe by expanding and contracting the rib cage so that the lungs beneath can fill and empty of air.
In the same way that a hamstring injury doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop walking, so too an intercostal injury means that you don’t necessarily have to stop breathing.
What it does mean (in both cases) is that you should avoid explosive exercise.
In the case of a hamstring injury, now is not the right time to go sprinting.
In the case of an intercostal injury, now is not the right time for the six bodily functions that make life worth living:
Is there a more important muscle group than the one that helps suck in the air, not only of survival, but of life?
It started with a hiccup
It all started with a hiccup. Not a particularly large or loud one, just a normal hiccup on a hilltop near (appropriately enough) Rudenoise in France.
I felt a twinge in my side, but nothing more. The next day the twinge grew a little worse, but nothing insurmountable. I’d also pulled a muscle in my calf on the same walk. No big deal. I can walk it off.
There are many types of laughter. Some laughter is a social lubricant, either totally or partially under conscious control. This kind of laughter is fine.
But there is a laughter that is orders of magnitude more violent, more explosive and almost completely involuntary. More like a sneeze, in other words. This is what the songs we made with Abandoned Rugs do to me.
Now, these songs won’t necessarily make you laugh quite as much as they make me laugh. But imagine being six years old again. Go back to your most childish, playful self.
Now give your inner child unfettered access to an array of musical instruments, recording equipment and one very talented musician.
The magic of Christmas reduced to the banality of boredom and the sheer absurdity of trusting me (of all people) with the parody of a famous choral soprano leaves me helpless.
I’m standing on the grass,
I’m standing near the garden shed…
Professionally, I’m sure I’ve done better work, but nothing so reliably reduces me, personally, to paroxysms of laughter.
Unfortunately, such laughter rips into my intercostal muscles with uncontrollable and terrible force.
Laughing myself to death
The next day I catch the train down to Basque country. On Saturday night, I sleep fitfully and wake up almost in tears, unable to even roll over to get out of bed.
Luckily, I’m staying with a GP and, with the help of some serious Spanish painkillers, bought to ease my friend through the Camino, I feel much better on Monday and Tuesday — as long as I don’t go much further than a polite chuckle.
On Wednesday, however, I arrive in Lisbon. For some reason I decide not to take any painkillers. Despite the fact that I am here to spend a week with my comedy writing partner Beth Granville and our friends, writing funny jokes that make people laugh uncontrollably.
It’s a disaster. I manage to hold it together enough to survive the first course at dinner. Then I share a story about an ex, a bath and a game of chess…
Doubled over in the restaurant, struggling to breathe, not because I’m overcome by laughter, but because my lungs are unable to expand enough to draw oxygen into my blood cells through the pain.
It’s at this point that I wonder whether laughing oneself to death is a thing.
In the same way, with an injured intercostal, I can feel myself consciously measuring my responses to other people. It’s simply too painful to let go and laugh with my friends. I can do a half-hearted chuckle — but who wants that?
I notice that I’m holding back from saying things that I know the other people will find funny because I can’t risk the laughter tripping my muscles. It’s a whole new way of being in the world (and a bit of a shit one). Personality is physicality.
In the same way that mountains, valleys and the ocean play a decisive role in our experience of clouds or sunshine, so too does the morphology of our bodies influence our own psychological weather.
There’s no point ignoring the basic principles of our existence, our facticity.
If you’re feeling irritable, maybe you need to be kinder to yourself. Stop pushing so hard. Ease off for a minute. Your body needs a break and your mind is responding with antisocial behaviour, in the hope that you’ll isolate and rest.
One of the things that people say they appreciate about his newsletter is that I don’t tend to respond to current affairs. So I won’t do that today either.
(Except in this one bolded, italicised sentence, where I hope you will join me in a primal effort to extirpate all our collective rage:uggghaaaaaaaaghhhhhhgghghghghhguuuugaahhgahhhhhhhhguhggggggggghghgahhghhuuauauhghghghguuauuhghghghhghgghhgfuckssakefuckssakeghghgughghaagughhghhhhgagg.)
While I won’t respond to The News directly today, I will do something very much in keeping with the mission of this newsletter: I’ll show you a graph.
And then we can play a little game called: ‘What’s the time Mr News?’ or ‘What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing?’
But first a quick note about a hormone called cortisol.
Cortisol is an awesome hormone. It’s quite literally what gets us out of bed in the morning. Cortisol’s superpower is that it gives us energy, fast. Quite handy.
One little problem with cortisol, however, is that, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, it can be pretty darned stressful. In fact, cortisol is often called ‘the stress hormone’ (an unfair nickname, given the number of other useful jobs it does).
You see, one of the things that cortisol can do is make you better at noticing crappy things and then make you feel crappier about those crappy things.
(To be fair to cortisol, this combination of crap-ray-vision and fast energy does make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. There wouldn’t be much point in us having a hormone that responds with high energy when primed by the sight of white fluffy clouds or a field of kittens.)
In summary: although we are very lucky to have cortisol, we don’t want to mess with it.
Okay. Now here’s the graph:
And all together now…
‘What’s the time Mr News?’
If The News were a neutral report of the comings and goings of the tides, the pattern of the clouds on the water, the first catkins on the hazel and the first daffodils on the verge, amid the nest-building busyness of spring, then all would be well.
This probably comes as news to no one, but the science suggests that digesting The News with your breakfast will set you up for a crappy day.
What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing? Not until at least 4 hours after waking up.
The News Is A Privilege
The thing that gets me is that, for most people, The News is a privilege.
For people directly affected by the events reported in The News, it rarely comes through newspapers, social media or the television. The News comes as a knock on the door, a cry from a neighbour, a storm cloud on the horizon.
The News that the rest of us experience is a repackaged biography of other people’s lowest points, their worst moments, their most cataclysmic life events decontextualised for sensationalist (dare I say) entertainment in homes on the other side of the planet.
Worse: this style of ‘hard’ News can be addictive, often designed to manipulate our hormones to maximise eyeball retention, to maximise profit.
I am not saying that we should ignore social and political events.
As psychologists Boukes and Vliegenthart put it in 2017, The News ‘is generally understood to be crucial for democracy as it allows citizens to politically participate in an informed manner’.
And I’m all for sharing more information to empower democratically active citizens.
But Boukes and Vliegenthart then go on to demonstrate that, due to its focus on ‘negative and worrisome’ events, The News as we know it has a ‘negative effect on the development of mental well-being over time’.
I don’t think any of us are surprised by this finding. But it’s time that we all took the science seriously and acted with total respect for the awful power of The News.
Please Don’t Abuse The News
Respect your own hormones: give yourself at least a few hours after waking up before stepping into fire hose. Turn off your breaking news notifications, delete your news apps, watch awesome nature videos instead of The News.
Respect other people’s hormones: don’t share The News — at all, if you don’t have to — but at least not without considering how it might land. Be aware that other people simply aren’t prepared to hear The News from you. They probably opened their messages with eyes still half shut hoping for a love note… And now they’ve got This.
If you’re not sure about sharing something; don’t. Wait for the right context. I understand that The News is traumatic and humans seek to share that traumatising information to soften the impact, like a freefalling skydiver landing on a trampoline.
If you feel traumatised by The News, first seek out a genuine connection with a friend, set up the context, and only if it’s right then share your pain.
Remember that The News is mostly awful life shit that’s really happening to someone else. If you are lucky enough to have the choice, then please spend the morning beside a quiet stream, watch the buds on the branches, listen to the soft news shared by the chattering birds.
‘I am losing the precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.’
Through all his raillery there ran a note of longing for the wilderness.
‘I want to see what is going on,’ he said. ‘So many great events are happening, and I’m not there to see them. I’m learning nothing here that will do me any good.’
Outside my window, I can hear the gulls. So many great events are happening.
A friend who reads this newsletter says that, most of the time, he gets to the end and doesn’t really know whether he’s understood the message.
The comment made me laugh, but it’s a really good point. What is my message?
Shut off your screen, right now, and take a fourteen minute news-check on nature.