You Can’t Do Everything; Stop Trying 2023 will forever be remembered (by no one at all) as The Year I Read Oliver Burkeman.

2023 will forever be remembered (by no one at all) as The Year I Read Oliver Burkeman.

Below are three links to three short-ish articles by the aforementioned Olly B, all warning us against the ironclad belief that we are immortal, a common belief that lures us into dangerous waters of endless distraction.

I am aware of the contradiction: more content to remind us to reserve our time for what’s important.

So while you could open all these links in new tabs to join the serried ranks of recipes for Mexican fire ant soufflé, podcasts on crypto meta AI parody gameshows and videos about the perils of PVC double glazing that, gasping for attention, will all simultaneously autoplay on double speed in a dystopic Honey Smacks symphony of post-capitalist shock and awe, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach.

Instead, gently ponder my compression of the articles into sentence-length maxims that might transform your life for the wondrous better. (And the links are there for those who love to flirt with deep water.)

52 Things I Learned In 2023 (Part 2)

And a warm welcome from yet another train, this one speeding its way to the snow-capped mountains of the Lake District National Park.

You might have noticed that I like to call our National Parks by their full name. Adding the words ‘National Park’ is not only helpful context for people who might not have any clue what I mean by ‘The Lake District’ or ‘Dartmoor’, but also serves as a reminder that people like you and me fought tooth and claw for these wild places to be opened up for the awesome right to pleasure of people like you and me.

Thank you for doing that, people of the past. In 2024, I want to challenge myself to fight for the rights of people of the future.

Anyway. Today’s story is Part Two of my round up of 52 things I learned in 2023. You can read Part One here or just crack on.

27: I’d never seen a clutch of baby birds in their nest before. Now I know why these mouths-with-wings are called ‘swallows’. Les Sauges, France.


28. Dartmoor is always sunny (except at night when it’s starry)

That’s just a fact I’ve observed from the 25 nights I’ve spent on Dartmoor since 2020.

29. Bladder wrack is a kind of seaweed and it’s both delicious and abundant in coastal waters

Just a little something I learned in May, kayak foraging at Old Harry Rocks with Dani from Fore Adventures.

Starting with the delicious serrated wrack, we gobbled our way over ocean and shoreline: popping bladder wrack, garlicky pepper dulse, slithery sea spaghetti, slimey sea lettuce, spinachy-sweet sea beet, sagey-toothpaste rock samphire, and the invasive, but eminently munchable wireweed.

30. ‘You can’t stop bad things from happening, but you can stop good things from happening through fear and hopelessness’

Credit Rich Chapman for one of the many things I learned at the fantastic Adventure Mind conference. Can’t wait for the 2024 edition.

31. Italy is full of hot springs just bubbling out of the ground

Seriously. Go to the middle bit. It’s amazing.

32. Nature IS Medicine

This is a lesson that goes deeper every time I shift into the nature mind of our wilder places. It’s something that hasn’t always gone hand in hand with my pursuit of the forty ‘Quality Hill and Moorland Days’ needed to qualify for the next stage in my training as an outdoor instructor.

What I need to learn and relearn is much slower and more delicate: I need to learn to stare at the ground and notice the eyebright, knapweed and oxeye daisy; to stare at the sky and read the changing cloudscape; to close my eyes and listen for skylark, snipe and cuckoo.

There is a medicine that you can only absorb through eyes, ears, nose, feet, breath: wind, air, sunshine, rain. Nature, the moor, the relentless acceptance and infinity of it all. Welcome, it says, welcome all. You are whole, it says. We are together, it says, together at last.

Good news though: I now have all forty days in the logbook and can take my assessment to become a Hill and Moorland Leader in 2024.

33: Yew trees are AMAZING. Not only can they live for thousands of years, but they are also entirely poisonous (lethal dose: 50g of needles) EXCEPT for their bright red berries, which aren’t berries at all, but arils. Box Hill, Surrey.


34. 2023 was a 3.48 feel good year (according to one of my three different daily diaries)

I wrote about 196,000 words across 290 entries in my daily diary in 2023. I don’t know what to say about the incalculable value of diary writing that hasn’t been said by people vastly more eloquent than me I me.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

~ Oscar Wilde. Who else?

I also filled two thick notebooks with my nightly ‘Five Great Things’ journal. Great Things only takes a couple of minutes and is a gentle way to tilt the mind towards quiet calm and restfulness, as well as capturing some of the day’s small wins (albeit illegibly).

Credit: I was inspired to start listing my Great Things after reading this article on For The Interested in February 2019 and it’s one of those tiny habits that make every day feel truly meaningful. Thank you, Josh Spector.

Finally, I also made 156 micro diary entries in a computer program that my dad made for me during the pandemic. (Thanks dad! 👋)

The program was initially designed to track mysterious symptoms of lethargy; in retrospect, I think I was mega stressed out by lockdown loneliness. It launches at a random time each day, asks me how I’m feeling on a scale of one to five and invites an optional written comment.

The results present fragments of my days — although they are all, by necessity, days where I happen to be near my computer.

From the good:

07/03/23 20:50. 4. Good day. Work. Sorting things out. Beach walk. Sauna. Long sleep this morning with plenty of dozing, dreamy, until 8.45amish.

To the less good:

11/05/23 14:43. 2. Headache. Tired. Just classic brain foggy symptoms like last year. Stress? So what’s the solution, if any? I’m struggling to write the newsletter, struggling to see the positive. Meditate? Belly full of gas from beany lunch.

My average recorded score in 2023 was 3.48, up from 3.23 in 2022, 3.24 in 2021 and 3.08 in 2020.

But what do these numbers mean? Not a great deal, I don’t suppose, but the data did help me identify the three counter-intuitive things I need to do when I’m feeling time-pressed and stressed (I say counter-intuitive because rest is not one of them):

  1. Be active outdoors
  2. See friends and family
  3. Aim for the exhaustion of what Josh Gondelman calls ‘good tired’ and what I call ‘being well used’

35. I still haven’t solved an imbalance in my relationship with screens, but a new laptop wasn’t the answer (phew!)

In 2023, I bought a new phone and, infamously, failed to buy a new laptop. Instead, I upgraded the battery on my old faithful 2017 Acer. Atta girl!

I spent about 550-600 hours staring at my computer screen in 2023. That can’t be healthy, but perhaps, gven the nature of my work and passion, it can’t be helped.

My phone use, on the other hand, can be helped. As my entry on podcasts suggests, I am keen to make my phone less useful in 2024.

I can hardly believe that I once locked my phone in a cupboard for a whole month. I missed only 4 calls and 44 messages — 2015 was a very different time…

Early in the year I successfully experimented with taking my SIM card out every evening until whenever I really needed it the next day, usually about 10am. That gave me about 10-14 hours of blissful phonelessness every day.

This experiment came to a crashing end sometime in March when I started to get really important messages from someone really important all the time. 😂

36: This is what I call a healthy relationship with screens. You’ll notice a sticker just below the screen that says: ‘Go away and read a book’. It’s my favourite quote ever and I was sent the sticker when I bought a book from Dog Section Press.

37. Friends = Wealth = Health

I hung out with friends or called them a total of 827 times in 2023. That’s two and a quarter friends a day on average.

This is an exceptionally silly metric and doesn’t really say anything to anyone, but it’s still meaningful for me. If nothing else, the data shows me two useful things: (1) the important people I might be forgetting in the busyness of life; (2) the surprise people I should maybe appreciate more for how often they show up for me.

38. I’m NOT completely broken as a human being (at least in terms of my gut health…)

In fact, my blood sugar control, blood fat control and microbiome health are all among the best in the WORLD (yep, I’m claiming it).

These test results were from the Zoe personalised nutrition program that I went on at the start of the year. I guess it means that my plant-based diet has been absolutely fine for my health.

The main change I made as a result of the program is the massive and joyful consumption of grapefruit.

39: Just a lucky pizza looking for a happy stomach. Homemade so NOT part of the $159 billion global pizza market. The country with the highest consumption of pizzas per person is not Italy or the USA, but, er, Norway, whose citizens apparently consider a particular brand of frozen pizza their national dish. Personally, I’m a total convert to cheeseless pizzas, but the world record for the highest number of formaggi on a pizza is not quattro, but 1001. Silly.

40. Am I runner again? Do I still sauna? And where do I even live?!

I went on eighteen runs across 65.6km in 2023; a looooooooong way off my peak as a runner four years ago when I did a hundred runs for 758km. But eight of 2023’s runs have come in the past two months, including three Parkruns (which I love). Am I back?

Going in the other direction, I did the same number of saunas as I did in 2022, but none since leaving to cycle to Athens in July. Am I no longer a sauna-er? Is visiting the sauna, a habit I once described as the keystone of my good health, important to return to my life in 2024?

Even more confused was the question of where I live. I spent only 156 nights at home in Bournemouth in 2023, a drop of nineteen sleeps from 2022 and a shade under three nights a week at home on average. The other four average nights were split evenly between two nights a-travelling and two nights with friends and family — 🙏 thank you to all my gentle generous hosts!


41. A day’s work as a vehicle delivery driver might get you £230 (and picking up hitchhikers is an assertion of our glorious humanity)

From Be The Miracle:

We humans are only fully self-conscious when we’re talking, laughing, rolling, relating with others.

42. The Supreme Court Has No Clue If You Have The Right To Build Sandcastles Or Not.

What I learned from this story is pretty much captured in its title.

Not even the judges of the supreme court know on what legal basis any of us have any right to go to the beach — any beach.

43. I’m definitely going to do more interviews with awesome humans

I’m delighted that both my Extra Ordinary Adventurer interviews hit the top ten.

The more I see, the more I realise that it’s just fantastic, an interview with epic cyclist Alice Baddeley, was also my most liked and commented story of the year — and for good reason. It’s not every day that you learn there’s someone out there who has cycled through every village, town and city in Sussex without once going back on herself.

44: ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.’ There’s something arresting about seeing our civilisation submerged in the sands of time. Okay, so a cycle path in Crosby is probably not what Percy Shelley was writing about in Ozymandias, but we would still do well to remember the transience of our arrogance.

45. Most people avoid talking to strangers, ‘despite the fact that they are happier when they do so’

From Interrupt, Gloriously:

Most people avoid talking to strangers — ‘despite the fact that they are happier when they do so’


‘Conversations with strangers not only go better than expected, but generally go quite well.’

46. ‘Don’t put your life on hold — ever’

‘What the hell have I been doing for the last 20 years?’ was the ‘heart-melting’ story of Lis van Lynden, who cycled around Britain in 2022, raising funds and awareness for people like her with multiple sclerosis.

I learned so much from Lis across our two long phone calls. Not least this absolute zinger:

It’s tricky when you have a lot of people die and you think you’re going to die yourself. You do go inwards, no matter how hard you try, but don’t put your life on hold — ever.


47. Consuming half a cup of ice cream per week is linked to a 19 percent reduction in your risk of developing diabetes (yes, reduction)

48. A juice company helped heal a degraded forest in Costa Rica by dumping 12,000 metric tonnes of orange pulp

49. Older people are just as good at learning new skills as young people — if that new skill helps other people, not only themselves

50. In July, The Dartmoor National Park Authority won a unanimous verdict in the Court of Appeal that reinstituted the right for all people to wild camp on Dartmoor

Privatising landowners Alexander and Diana Darwall have since appealed to the Supreme Court to get this judgment overturned. 🙄 Our struggle for free entry to the million star hotel continues…

51. The tale is over and the aubergine is boiled…

… is how you end a story in Tamil. And if you do better than random chance on this global idioms quiz, then fair play 👏 I got five out of twenty.


52. Shout out to YOU!

Finally, as ever, huge thanks to you — yes, you! — for offering me your eyeballs and perhaps a little corner of your mind.

At the start of 2023, 493 beautiful humans subscribed to this newsletter; today there are 666 (😈), including (pleasingly) 52 who regularly read every. single. one. Wow.

I’d like to pause here for a short round of applause for the wonderful people who pay a subscription to keep me in green teabags —

Thank you Mike, James, Joe, Geoff, Georgie, Libby, Maryla, Claire, Harri, Cass, Illia, John, Jo, Tudor and JMJ. And shout out to those of you who have paid subs in the past — I shall never forget you (GDPR permitting) 💚

If YOU would also love to support this newsletter in 2024, then knock me down with a blowtorch because — you can! Prices have been slashed and it’s now only £3.50 per month or £30 per year.

Just click this lovely link 👉 Subscribe now 👈 and a choir of angels shall descend upon thee at the most unexpected and inconvenient moment. 👼

For one-off contributions (or if you would rather not send £$£$ via Substack) you can zap cash straight to my Paypal and I’ll spend it all on books. No, really, I will. 📚

I’m excited to see what stories evolve through the coming seasons and I promise to distil as many as possible into these pages.

If you’re already gagging for more, here are 208 things I learned in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. If you missed it, Part One of 2023’s great things is here.

52 Things I Learned In 2023 (Part 1)

And a warm welcome from various trains running north and south along the east coast of Britain.

Today’s gargantuan story is Part One of a selection of titbits from the fullness of the year just gone.

For easy digestion, I’ve divided the fifty-two into sections, with half of each section coming today and the other half coming in Part Two:

  • 10 Things I Learned From Adventures
  • 10 Things I Learned About My Habits
  • 10 Things I Learned From The 10 Most Read Stories I Published In 2023
  • 10 Small Big Things I Learned From Others
  • 2 Big Shout Outs

But wait, Dave — that’s only forty-two things! Have you taken leave of your mathematical senses?

Aha, well spotted, Marvin. No, I haven’t. You shall also find, interleaved among these sections, ten of the 3761 photographs that I took in 2023, each of which tells a story from the year. Like this one:

1: Snow is beautiful and a lot of fun to share with friends and strangers. Peak District, March.

So, behold! Browse, scroll, submerge as the mood takes you. Enjoy — and keep your inbox peeled for Part 2.


2. Riding the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world is actually a little terrifying

3,842m above sea level is extremely high for a human to be. I spent a lot of time examining the rivets that held the cable car roof on. And screaming my head off every time the tin can ‘car’ bumped over the pylons that carried the cable, swinging vertiginously down, up, down, up, down, up, like one of those pirate ship ‘rides’ you see at inadequately insured theme parks.

In retrospect, one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.

3. I took two planes in 2023 — but haven’t paid for a flight in 14 years

In fact, after getting £300 compensation from Easyjet in August, I’ve actually made a profit — woohoo!

All jokes aside, the flights we take (or don’t) say a lot about us and the pushes and pulls that we feel.

Maybe you have chosen to build your life a long way from family and you travel back by air every Christmas. That tells you something about yourself.

Maybe you love travelling to parts of the world that feel very different to where you live, but you like to come back home too. That tells you something significant about yourself.

Maybe you’re like I used to be and you connect air travel with ‘getting away’. Maybe now, like me, you’re asking how far we actually have to travel in order to get away? — and what are we really trying to get away from or looking to find?

Taking those two flights, I learned more about myself and about what travelling overland has taught me over the past fourteen years:

Since 2010, terrestrial travel has become me. It’s grounded me and grown me up. A divining part of everything. Aeroplanes can’t do that for me. (Doesn’t mean they won’t sometimes pop up on a graph😝)

4. New Forest National Park has twenty-two trig pillars

And I’m determined to visit all of them this winter. Four down, eighteen to go!

5. Mind IS Body

This is something I learned (again) in June, while cycling from Liverpool to Northumberland and eating chips and gravy with a stranger called Graham:

Instead of trying to brute force my way through life on brain alone, I should remember instead to feel my way through the world with all-body senses. A long bike tour works, but so too does a regular morning run or evening stretch time.

The older I get, the more I learn and the more responsibility I take, the more important it becomes, not simply to get out of my head, but to get into my body.

6: Reflexes are AMAZING. I fell off my bike on Bloody Bush Road, 20km of gravel with little water and less food. ‘As the heavy bike slid out from underneath me — threatening to crush my leg under the weight of all my camping gear — my instincts took over. Without knowing how, my left foot hopped onto the falling cross bar and I leapt over the moving handlebars, miraculously landing in a running stumble, on both feet.’

7. A fly swarm sandwich is no hardship compared to flooding across 730 km² of your home

This summer I crewed the Thighs of Steel ride from Glasgow to Milan and then cycled the whole of the last two weeks from Dubrovnik to Athens.

It was hard cycling 1,330km and up two Everests in thirteen days, but not as hard as the devastation faced by locals in central Greece after Storm Daniel:

Barely a week before we cycled through, Thessaly was hit by more than a year’s worth of rainfall in just 24 hours. At least 17 dead. Homes, farms and villages wrecked over an area of 730 square km.


8. Podcasts are so 2023

I listened to 379.4 hours of podcasts on my phone in 2023. That’s more than an hour every single day on average, and an ear-watering 62 percent increase on 2022. This is not how I want to spend my life. Many of those hours were sound filling space; a fear of emptiness and of what thoughts might enter the void.

I have now deleted both podcasting app AntennaPod and BBC Sounds, which I also occasionally used to listen to podcasts as well as the radio. This is one habit that I won’t be taking into 2024 with me.

Huge thanks to the smart, funny humans behind No Such Thing As A Fish (391.1 hours), Quickly Kevin; Will He Score? (79.9 hours), The Anfield Wrap (55.6 hours) and Where Should We Begin (37.7 hours). I’m sorry, but I won’t link to any of these, just in case you are also trying to kick an audio addiction. Suffice to say, they are all terrific. If you are curious, you’ll know where to find them.

Thanks also to the developers behind AntennaPod, both for keeping me at times hugely entertained over the past two years and for supplying the horrifying data that is inspiring me to leave. It’s been fun; I’m glad it’s over.

My podcast listening since downloading an app onto my phone in July 2021

9. My year’s driving cost us about fifty trees — sorry trees, I promise to pay you back!

In 2023, I drove approximately 6250 miles the Corollavirus; that’s about a thousand miles more than in 2022 and 2021. Those thousand extra miles came in one mega road trip from London to the Peak District, Northumberland, Glasgow, Largs, Edale, Winchester and home.

This big stick man route represents many hours’ driving, but also the Adventure Mind conference, several stunning country walks, many friends and five freakin’ DOLPHINS 🐬🐬🐬🐬🐬

All in all, my 2023 carbon debt (the difference between the driving I did do and the trains I could hypothetically have caught) is about a tonne, or 50 trees’ worth.


11. All book reading is good and some of it is truly great

I started 47 books and finished 39 of them in 2023, about three books a month. That’s a completely average annual tally for me, but it’s the first year since records began (2013) that I read more fiction (24) than nonfiction (15).

I give a rating out of five to every book I read. Eleven books got my highest accolade, four of which I read in January and five of which were recommendations from friends. Two observations: (1) maybe I was feeling generous last January and (2) I should definitely borrow more books from friends.

Anyway, here they all are. I’ve bolded the ones that stayed in my mind all year.


  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  • Nip The Buds, Kill The Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
  • The Parade by Dave Eggers (🙏 thanks N!)
  • Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller


  • Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn (🙏 thanks G!)
  • Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (🙏 thanks C!)
  • The State Of Affairs by Esther Perel (🙏 thanks C!)
  • Lights In The Distance by Daniel Trilling
  • Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer
  • The Book Of Trespass by Nick Hayes
  • 92 Acharnon Street by John Lucas (🙏 thanks E!)

Side note: If any of you are wondering why I’m letting go of listening to podcasts, here is a list of all the podcast episodes that stayed in my mind all year:

  • 🤷

12. My counsellor isn’t good at invoicing (but he’s worth every penny)

I went to seventeen counselling sessions in 2023. That’s an average of once a fortnight when I’m in the UK and a happy increase from ten in 2022.

Doing this little review has made me realise that my counsellor forgot to invoice for one of our sessions back in May. I’m sure there are situations where I’d write that off as ‘bank error in your favour’, but I value our time together so highly that I’ve just gone and paid him.

Related reading: The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

I studiously ignored this book when I was first recommended it about five years ago. Now I’m morbidly fascinated by the connection between autoimmune disease (which I have) and trauma (which, in van der Kolk’s analysis, everyone seems to bear to some degree or other).

In July, New York Magazine published what reads like an even-handed profile of van der Kolk, covering both the reasons I initially ignored his book and the reasons why I have now not only read it, but learnt so much. In fact, the only reason The Body Keeps The Score is not on my best books list for 2023 is because I finished reading it on New Year’s Day.

13. Thanks to a 1% time investment some evenings, I can now comfortably shit in the woods

I did 142 stretching sessions in 2023, at an average of a little under nine minutes each. That’s all it takes to be able to comfortably shit in the woods.

I’ve been doing these evening stretches for four years now and it took about two years to notice a significant, genuinely life changing, shift in my flexibility. I can do the Asian squat, no problem. I can sit cross-legged on the floor, no problem. I can even stand up from lying down without using my arms or a Wallace & Gromit pulley system.

My yoga mat is always rolled out on my living room floor so that I never forget to stretch, almost always the last thing I do before going to bed when I’m at home. My only guidance is follow what the body needs and remember that one minute is better than none.

I’m building on this excellent habit in 2024 by enrolling in the Liftoff: Couch to Barbell twelve-week beginners strength training program designed by Casey Johnston, the brains and brawn behind one of the few newsletters that I read every week. If you’re quick, the program is currently only $4.


14. Name-dropping a celebrity really does get people to read stories

What Would Salah Do? is my most-read newsletter story of all time and hopefully at least a few people stayed for the lesson that footballer Mohammed Salah has to teach us about staying present and enjoying our moments of ecstasy when they come.

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.

15. I should run polls asking y’all about my writing more often!

Coasting In Public was a humble newsletter in which I asked your opinion on two possible approaches to telling my story of cycling around the coast of Britain twice.

Frankly, I’m surprised that it sits so high up in the list, my second most read newsletter of all time.

Maybe you simply enjoyed my little intro about a conversation I had in the sauna with a man who thought the government should buy a load of decommissioned cruise liners to keep refugees in detention offshore. On the plus side, he also wanted to end homelessness. People are complicated.

16. Sometimes the best emails are the ones I don’t think much about

Eudaimonic Adventure was a little dollop of wisdom gleaned from the fantastic Adventure Mind conference:

Eudaimonic wellbeing … is all about the human search for The Good Life. Eudaimonic adventure is not about what you’ve done; it’s about why you (really) did it. Who are you? What are your values? What does adventure mean to you?

17: Sometimes the sun really does shine out of your arse saddle. Eudaimonic adventure at its finest. Brighton, February.

18. Maybe I should repost more great stories

Are You Experienced? was a repost of a story from 2016 about my life-bending experience with psychedelic truffles in the Netherlands. It’s a great story. Most of you weren’t here in 2016 and I’m glad that a lot of you enjoyed it second time around.

The first indication that anything might be amiss is when I see how the wind in the trees becomes a woodsman with a moustache talking to me through the window.

19. Chronic bad news (as opposed to acute bad news that we can react to and fix) makes us feel powerless, leading to dissociative feelings of paranoia and, at the other extreme, despair.

The End Of Doomspreading was my attempt to coin two new words to help us call out people who spread chronic bad news:

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.


20. Scientific proof that a bull in a china shop wouldn’t cause any damage

21. A Big UK Trial Of A 4-Day Working Week Had Fantastic Results

Stop working harder; start working smarter less.

22. Schismogenesis is the process whereby two apparently similar groups of people define themselves in direct opposition to the other

Antischismogenesis is my made up word for the reverse process: a divided people consciously finding and building upon common ground. ✌️

23. The number of motorists in London has fallen by 64% since 1999, while the number of cyclists has increased by 386%

And there are now beavers in Ealing.

24. In April, a Syrian refugee was elected mayor of German village


25. Big shout out to the Thighs of Steel community

The majority of my working time over the last two years has been spent organising and crewing the two Thighs of Steel Glasgow to Athens rides.

At over 5,300km a pop, these were Europe’s longest supported fundraising bike rides and, as you can probably imagine if you’ve ever juggled fire while slacklining across the Grand Canyon in a sandstorm holding a newborn baby, they have both been, by turns, fucking amazing and a little bit fretful.

We won’t be doing Glasgow to Athens in 2024 and, to be honest, I’m grateful for a little break from the madness. 😅

More than that, I’m IMMENSELY grateful to the whole Thighs community for all the joy and wonder that you have brought to my life:

  • the 164 other cyclists who rode in 2022 and 2023 and who collectively raised £223,000 for grassroots refugee projects in Greece, Northern France and the UK;
  • the sixteen other core team who crewed these two rides, drove the support van, cooked a hundred delicious carb-loading dinners, and patched up a zillion emergencies;
  • the six other folks in our wonderful organising team;
  • the hundred or so gorgeous host families and communities that have put us up in their fields, forests, farms and museums;
  • all the volunteers at our partner charity MASS Action;
  • and, above all, the thirty (!) epic grassroots projects that cyclist fundraising has supported in 2022 and 2023. Covering everything from science to skateboarding, you can read much more about all those projects here.

It’s been a blast; now on to the next!

26: Even on my third time round, cycling to Athens with amazing, generous people continues to fill me with inspired grateful wonder.

That’s it for Part One — Part Two is right here.

And if you’re gagging for more, here are 208 things I learned in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.

Psychedelic Truffles: Are You Experienced? The weekend ended exactly the way it should: slicing tomatoes, cooking spinach and spreading hummus on bread. Making sandwiches for others.

And greetings from an armchair overlooking the ink black sea, where I’m listening (as I almost always do) to Le Pas du Chat Noir, an album of delicately thoughtful music written and performed by Tunisian ‘oud player Anouar Brahem, accompanied by piano and accordion.

According to my music player of choice, I’ve spent over 200 hours listening to this album since 2017, almost always while writing. Shout out to T (👋) for first sharing Le Pas du Chat Noir with me, way way back in 2007.

Isn’t music amazing, how it stays with us?

This post is a little different: a reprint (and minor update) of a story I wrote in 2016 about a guided psychedelic experience I took in Amsterdam that year.

I want to share this with you — for most of you I’m sure for the first time — because, like the music, this psychedelic experience has stayed with me through life. Earlier today, in fact, I brought one of my 2016 hallucinations as a starting point for a particularly insightful and moving session with my therapist.

I hope you enjoy the story. I’d love to hear from you: your experiences, your insights. It’s powerful stuff, this.

Are You Experienced?

Imagine the scene. You’re on holiday with a big group of people you don’t know too well. The twelve of you hired a huge house in the countryside, sharing rooms to split the cost. You’ve been sunbathing on cushions in the garden, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of summer, drifting away in a meditation on beauty.

At some point, somebody brought you a glass of water and a hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread. You weren’t too hungry at the time, so only ate half the sandwich, leaving the remainder on the plate to dry in the hot sun. You drained the glass of water, grateful because you’d left your water bottle upstairs.

An hour or so later, you decide to return to the attic bedroom you share, for a lie down in the shade. As you poke your head through the attic trapdoor, you see the following, in series: a collection of cushions arranged around the sun-trap window overlooking the garden you’ve just left; a plate bearing a half finished hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread; and a half full bottle of water – your bottle of water.

You can’t help but be overtaken by the odd sensation that you’ve just entered a scene you only recently vacated: the same meditative garden view, the same sandwich, and your bottle of water.

Life is full of leaping gaps. In this case, the leap is across the gap between the evidence before your eyes and the indisputable knowledge that you did not in fact recently vacate this room. So you make a leap and reconstruct the most likely story.

The cushions were most probably arranged there by your room-mate who, just like you, wanted to look out over the beautiful summer garden. Just like you, he became thirsty in the hot sun and, not wanting to leave his meditative perch, cast around for water. Then he saw your water bottle. You imagine him in that moment, twisted in his sitting position, caught in a deliberation: would you mind his drinking from your bottle? No, he decides: you’d understand.

You’re surprised, as you stand there in the trapdoor taking in the scene, that you’re grateful to your room-mate. You’re grateful that your water bottle could be there for him in his moment of thirst and that you could share with him the fundamental gift of water. But most of all you’re grateful that, despite only meeting the evening before, he showed faith in your generosity of spirit.

You walk up the last remaining steps and lie down on the bed, still looking at the scene: the arrangement of cushions, the sandwich and the water. A peace descends and you find yourself switching easily between the two perspectives on the scene. There’s yourself, unwittingly generous giver of water, and your room-mate, grateful receiver of water. Then it strikes you that both of you have been generous, for there is no gift without gracious acceptance. That’s why we ‘give’ thanks, you think to yourself: gratitude is itself a gift.

But you realise that there is a third perspective. Just as they had with you in the garden, someone, presumably the same someone, had thoughtfully prepared and delivered to your meditative room-mate an identical hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread.

As your heart begins to beat in a revelation of loving connectedness, you feel an urge to complete this circle of gratitude. Your clamorous stomach awakes and you get to your feet, walk to the cushions and fall upon the half-finished sandwich in glorious appreciation. The gift is completely consumed and the third perspective, the selfless sandwich maker, acknowledged in full.

The closing image of this scene is of you gratefully polishing off someone else’s sandwich. It’s an act infused with symbolism and indicates that, perhaps for the first time in your life, you fully comprehend exactly how much love goes into leaping the gaps that separate us as independent human beings. Next time, you promise the universe, you will be the one making the sandwich.


For me, the preceding scene sums up the enduring psychedelic experience, far more than tessellating visions of geometry, wise faces in wind-blown trees and melting roundabout rides. The psychedelic experience was one of connectedness, a dissolution of the narrative voice that we hear in our heads that seeks to separate our shared encounters with this world, to divide the I from the Us, the Mine from the Ours.


Psychedelics are illegal in the UK, and throughout most of the world.1 Psychedelic mushrooms are Class A drugs, a classification reserved for pharmaceuticals deemed to be of no known medical or therapeutic value and bearing a high risk of abuse. The crime of possession carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. The 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act extends that threat to cover the possession of anything that ‘affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state’. In its current form, the Act could be used to outlaw incense, perfume and flowers. Alcohol, caffeine and tobacco are exempted, while our prisons prepare for a vast influx of florists.

What we need are not more fear-provoked and fear-provoking legal bans, but mature, informed encounters with drugs, therapies and medicines that have such potential to create profound, mystical-type experiences of the world. Encounters such as the one extended to me by The Psychedelic Society: one timeless weekend in a rented house in Amsterdam.


We stood in a circle in the garden, sun shining on our faces, feet bare in the grass. Nine of us were there for the ‘experience’ and for most it was to be our first psychedelic trip. Guiding us through the encounter were three experienced sitters from The Psychedelic Society. Their job was to stay sober and use their wisdom and love to support us through whatever might arise: hunger, thirst, trauma and ecstasy.

In turn around the circle, each of us shared our emotions, fears and intentions for the trip. Some expressed nervous anxiety, others were thrilling with anticipation. I felt ready to accept whatever was to come with an open mind. Not too open, though. I was keen to explore the sensations of ego-dissolution that I had read about, but I was not prepared to go deep into trauma therapy and I wanted to trip alone, feeling my own way through the experience.

Besides the dose, there are two important factors in determining your variety of psychedelic trip: set and setting. Set is what we shared in that circle: our internal psychological environment prior to the trip. Setting is the external physical environment you will be tripping in.

The house where we stayed felt like a four-storey mansion squeezed into a cosy bungalow, sitting in pleasant grounds by the side of a canal in a commuter satellite of Amsterdam. It had been chosen for its comfort and the double-height downstairs living area was scattered with sofas, armchairs, pillows and cushions. Off to one side was a Japanese style dining chamber, to the other a jacuzzi. The hosts were clearly used to having tourists coming here to take advantage of the psychedelic loopholes for which Amsterdam is famous.

A sound system bathed the whole space with music designed for an Imperial College medical trial exploring the therapeutic uses of psychedelics for people with depression.

After a sage blessing, we enter the house in thoughtful silence and, one by one, brew a lemon, ginger and honey tea. When the water has cooled, we add 22g of strong Psilocybe Hollandia truffles. This will contain enough psilocybin to trip, but the exact quantity isn’t verifiable. The Dutch legal loophole that permits the sale of truffles doesn’t extend to extracting the psychoactive psilocybin compound, so we can’t dose precisely. Some of the more experienced, or adventurous, members of the group also take a capsule of Syrian Rue, an enzyme inhibitor that prevents the breakdown of tryptamines, including the psilocin that makes us trip, thereby deepening and extending the experience.

I drain the first infusion. Some people experience stomach cramps: that’s why we make the tea with ginger. I feel the first tinglings of a high, but it’s no more than a strong cup of coffee.2 I prepare a second infusion. I try to suppress my laughter, like I’m in a library, watching a bunch of strangers trying to keep it together, while everything dissolves around us. As my vision begins to fragment and my fingers lose their precision, I dig the truffle fragments from the bottom of my glass and chew them down. Then I lie back.

The first indication that anything might be amiss is when I see how the wind in the trees becomes a woodsman with a moustache talking to me through the window. I can’t hear his words, and it’s no more remarkable than an optical illusion or imagining the man in the moon. I’m still able to switch between reality and dream. It feels as though my blood is flowing engorged through my veins, somehow closer to the skin surface that usual. My heart seems to centre itself in my throat while a dull ache ties itself into my stomach. At precisely the right moment, I stand up and make my way into the garden, just about holding it together. I lie down in the grass, put on my eye mask and immediately disintegrate.


My upbringing was most definitely drug-negative. I went to a school where ‘drugs’ were for drop-outs, all illegal pharmaceuticals trawled and dumped in the same drag-net of mystery and fear. I never knew for sure whether my friends and family had taken psychedelics, and I had certainly never been in a situation where I could have taken any — and I’m fairly certain I would have refused if I had been offered.

Fear began to mutate into curiosity when, in my thirties, I first met people who were both well-adjusted and regular psychedelic users. Indeed, these people weren’t just well-adjusted, they were in many ways better-adjusted than I. Through them, I learnt that behind the fearful media image of psychedelics there was both science and history, which could, if we allowed, contribute to a much more mature and complete awareness of psychoactive compounds. Psychedelics have been used as both medicine and spiritual guide by humans for thousands of years and to dismiss such compounds as of ‘no known medical or therapeutic value and bearing a high risk of abuse’ seems to me at best an act of gross arrogance, at worst gross negligence.

After the hysteria of the 1971 global shut-down on scientific psychedelic experimentation, the doors are once again creeping open. Recent academic studies have found that responsible psychedelic treatment can help war veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, patients with advanced cancer diagnoses face death, and addicts overcome their drug, tobacco and alcohol dependencies in cases where years of conventional treatment have failed.3

For those of us mercifully free of serious addiction or severe trauma, Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University led a 2008 study into the power of psychedelics to occasion mystical-type experiences. More than half of the 36 people involved in the study, none of whom had ever taken psychedelics before, found that just one session with psilocybin was enough to rank inside their top five most personally meaningful experiences of their entire lives. This remained true fourteen months after the psychedelic was taken. Almost two-thirds concluded that this one psilocybin session had increased their sense of well-being moderately or very much, again with the results undimmed over a year later.

If this is news to you, then imagine my astonishment when I learnt that as long ago as 1991, psychologist Rick Doblin found that seven theological seminary students reported similar results — deeply felt positive mood and persisting positive changes in attitude and behaviour — twenty-five years after their only encounter with psilocybin.


In 2008 I was diagnosed with an under active thyroid and my doctor told me that I’d have to take synthetic hormones every day for the rest of my life. Over the first few months of taking these drugs, what I’d call my personality changed dramatically. I went from being comatose calm, cold even beside the radiator, sleepy-headed and slothful, to being energetic, carefree and ready to devour the life that had gone missing with my dying thyroid.

As the absurdity of our gaoled florists shows, all substances have psychoactive effects: everyone buzzes after strawberries and cream, and crashes with the sugar come-down. The only question is whether the balance of psychoactive effects make the drug valuable to the user. Thyroxine, for me, unequivocally answers the question in the positive; but if you, dear reader, took my dose, you’d probably shit yourself (and lose your hair and your sex drive, have trouble sleeping and climbing stairs, besides the heart palpitations and arrhythmias, nausea and vomiting).

In 2015, I became a vegetarian. My energy levels dropped through the floor: I just couldn’t eat enough. On day five I felt on the verge of dizzy collapse and had to roam the streets at night begging for vitamin pills. I gradually recovered, but over the following six months I lost four kilograms in weight. This caused a knock-on effect to my medication, flipping my thyroid into over activity. This imbalance led to anxiety, irritability, sensitivity to heat, fatigue and insomnia.

Whether we are aware or not, our biological and psychological well-being is in lock-step with all the stuff we ingest: food, drug, drink. The unnatural dichotomy between legal and illegal drugs is a distinction that I see as increasingly arbitrary and untenable. In my opinion, it would be shocking negligence indeed to dismiss the exploration of entheogens that human beings have used for millennia to explore the buried riches of our psyche and the furthest dimensions of the universe.


Don’t Panic. There is no established scientific link between taking psychedelic drugs and either physical or psychological health problems. Psychedelics are extremely low in toxicity: it is far easier to overdose on paracetamol, which is deadly in quantities you can pick up in any supermarket. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, there has never been a recorded overdose of psychedelics and, in a comprehensive review of the literature in 1984, psychiatrist Rick Strassman found that “well controlled studies of neuropsychological function have generally failed to discern significant differences between groups of LSD users and controls”.

Two 2015 surveys with a combined population of over 300,000 people found that users of psychedelics were no more likely to suffer from mental health problems than anyone else. Quite the opposite, in fact: one of the surveys, of 190,000 people, found that “[l]ifetime classic psychedelic use was associated with a significantly reduced odds of past month psychological distress”, suicidal thinking and planning, and suicide attempt. One team of researchers conclude that “it is difficult to see how prohibition of psychedelics can be justified as a public health measure.” In other words: if you are a healthy adult, you have nothing to fear from responsible psychedelic drug use.4


It would be easy to screw up. We are entering a delicate phase in our cultural appreciation of psychedelics. As the scientific community is finally permitted to resume sober examination of the potentially remarkable therapeutic and personal development uses of psychedelic drugs, there is a responsibility on all of us to educate ourselves and re-awaken a mature awareness of this precious treasure from our more enlightened past. We must remember that it was only in 2008 that the Netherlands made magic mushrooms illegal. The psychedelic truffles we ingested are only legally available in so-called Smart Shops (€25 per trip) because they were (probably by accident) left off the schedule of banned substances. Politicians very rarely lead; they react.

During this delicate phase, the work of organisations like The Psychedelic Society is vital to connect the strengths of the scientific academy with individual experiential knowledge and us. Only when we have taken personal responsibility and shown our courage, knowledge and maturity will politicians be able to find the courage, knowledge and maturity to change the laws we live by. The signs are promising, but — as the enduring 1971 global ban shows — it would be easy to screw up.


One of the beauties of the psychedelic experience is that you are entirely lucid throughout: everything you see, feel and do, you can remember and bring back to earth afterwards. That’s what makes psychedelics so useful for therapists treating anxiety, post-traumatic stress, addiction or depression: the patient can face their pathologies in a very physical and experiential way. There is no sense that my visions are unreal or that my thoughts and imaginings are fantasies: I can reach out and touch them and return home with them if I choose.

The first hour or so of my trip is spent rolling around on the grass, watching the light play with kaleidoscopic colours and geometry. I laugh at the absurdity of my internal narrative voice and watch as ‘I’ play whack-a-mole with the different voices of ‘myself’, squashing each one, only for another to arise. ‘Outside of this eternity,’ I write, ‘there is a me to wake up to. And who do I want that to be?’ There’s a lot of underlining in my notebook, as the words land with weight on the page.

At some point, one of the facilitators brings me out a sandwich. ‘Are you hungry?’ the voice says. ‘I’ve made you a sandwich. I’ll leave it here for when you’re ready to eat.’ I thank him distantly. Time and space has lost its meaning. Audio turns to visuals. The sound of a rustling in the shrubbery behind me turns into a family of rabbits, or a squirrel who snuggles to me for warmth. The harder I close my eyes, the more the universe turns purple. Later (whatever that means), I notice the sandwich beside me and eat half, leaving the remainder on the plate to dry in the hot sun. I gulp down the water someone has left for me.

Gripping my notebook like a life-buoy as the world swirls around me, I try writing down some of the realisations that arrive as I overhear other people talking. ‘Everyone’s on their own trip, but we’re all together,’ I note. ‘It’s frustrating because we’re not all as connected as we are.’ Then: ‘We share a memory.’ And: ‘Understanding each other is hard. So just listen.’ It feels like the veil of what we call reality has fallen away: I see that we are a unified, mysterious us — an us that includes each soul in its human body, but also each thread of consciousness in the plants and the planets — and we are all, in every moment, co-creating the universe.


After this peak experience of visionary revelation is over, I manage to stand up. I make my way slowly up the stairs to the attic room I share. As I poke my head through the trapdoor, I see the following, in series: a collection of cushions arranged around the sun-trap window overlooking the garden I’ve just left; a plate bearing a half finished hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread; and a half full bottle of water — my bottle of water. I can’t help but be overtaken by the odd sensation that I’ve just entered a scene I only recently vacated: the same meditative garden view, the same sandwich, and my bottle of water. Finally, I understand the depth of gratitude we feel towards each other for sharing the bounty of consciousness with all of us.

The weekend ended exactly the way it should: slicing tomatoes, cooking spinach and spreading hummus on bread. Making sandwiches for others.



While still a true statement, it’s worth nothing that, since I wrote this story back in 2016, psychedelics have been legalised, decriminalised or made low priority for criminal conviction in numerous countries around the world, with the USA, Portugal, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK joining the traditional heartlands of psychedelic use in Central and South America and Africa — and, of course, good ol’ Amsterdam.


I don’t drink coffee, so maybe imagine how it felt when you drank your first ever strong cup of coffee. Or a cup of really really strong tea.


The following are a selection of studies available at the time I wrote this story in 2016. Much much further research has been done since then, including systematic reviews and meta analyses that find in favour of guided psychedelic use as a safe breakthrough therapy for a variety of psychiatric disorders.

Oehen, Peter, Rafael Traber, Verena Widmer, and Ulrich Schnyder. “A randomized, controlled pilot study of MDMA (±3, 4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of resistant, chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Journal of Psychopharmacology 27, no. 1 (2013): 40-52.

Gasser, Peter, Katharina Kirchner, and Torsten Passie. “LSD-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with a life-threatening disease: A qualitative study of acute and sustained subjective effects.” Journal of Psychopharmacology (2014): 0269881114555249.

Bogenschutz, Michael P., Alyssa A. Forcehimes, Jessica A. Pommy, Claire E. Wilcox, P. C. R. Barbosa, and Rick J. Strassman. “Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: A proof-of-concept study.” Journal of Psychopharmacology 29, no. 3 (2015): 289-299.

Johnson, Matthew W., Albert Garcia-Romeu, Mary P. Cosimano, and Roland R. Griffiths. “Pilot study of the 5-HT2AR agonist psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction.” Journal of Psychopharmacology (2014): 0269881114548296.


Strassman, Rick J (1984) Adverse Reactions to Psychedelic Drugs: A Review of the Literature The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Vol. 172, No. 10 October 1984 Serial No. 1223 p591

Hendricks, P. S., Thorne, C. B., Clark, C. B., Coombs, D. W. & Johnson, M. W. Classic psychedelic use is associated with reduced psychological distress and suicidality in the United States adult population Journal of Psychopharmacology March 2015 vol. 29 no. 3 280-288

Johansen, P-Ø. & Krebs, T. S. Psychedelics not linked to mental health problems or suicidal behavior: A population study Journal of Psychopharmacology March 2015 vol. 29 no. 3 270-279 (2015)

See also: Krebs TS, Johansen P-Ø (2013) Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study. PLoS ONE 8(8): e63972. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063972

These studies used data from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 130,152 respondents, of whom 21,967 (13.4% weighted) reported lifetime psychedelic use. “[I]n several cases psychedelic use was associated with lower rate of mental health problems”.

The Essential Element Of Naughtiness This story is for anyone who has ever struggled to shower themselves with the kind of indulgences that they would so easily afford to others. You’re not alone.

‘I’m going to treat myself to a slice of bread’

Today’s story is for anyone who has ever struggled to shower themselves with the kind of indulgences that they would so easily afford to others.

You’re not alone.

I have been at the receiving end of some mockery this week for saying that a slice of my homebaked bread is a treat. Not only delicious, but a treat. As in: ‘I’m going to treat myself to a slice of bread.’

The offending loaf

With only a couple of weeks before the door knocking of Hallowe’en begins, the question has never been more pertinent:

What makes something a treat? (And why the bloody hell isn’t my bread one?)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a treat is:

Something highly enjoyable; a great pleasure, delight, or gratification

By this definition, my bread is certainly a treat: it is highly enjoyable, especially still warm, fresh out of the oven.

But, my loaf-disparagers argue, that doesn’t get anywhere near the nub of what it means to treat oneself.

And, with heavy heart, I have to agree that they are right.

The Essential Element Of Naughtiness

There is a strong line of argument that a treat should contain an essential element of naughtiness.

The argument goes that it’s the naughtiness that makes what you’re doing for yourself a rarity, and it’s the rarity that makes it a treat, in this case, by definition.

I don’t necessarily agree with this blanket definition of essential naughtiness — I would hate to rule out the angelic — but the concept of a ‘guilty pleasure’ is as good a starting point as any for learning what it is that makes a treat.

And even I confess that there is nothing naughty or guilty about my seeded rye sourdough. If you could bake, slice and butter the word ‘healthy’, then it would taste exactly like my bread. (If you want the recipe, it’s here.)

Naughty, however, is a relative term. What’s naughty for me — buying cut flowers for myself, catching the bus for two stops, or staying in bed past nine — might feel totally square to you.

That’s why I’ve devised a little game that will standardise our relative naughtiness. It’s called

The David Charles Patent-Pending Cocoa Solids Naughty-Treaty-Chore Scale

and you can play along at home.

Start reading from the top of the following list of chocolate bars. The game is to notice three points on the scale:

  • When do the bars stop feeling downright naughty to you?
  • When do they start to feel like a treat you’d happily and occasionally scoff?
  • When does even the idea of passing them between your lips feel more like a chore than a delight?

Here we go:

  1. Milkybar or any other white chocolate (zero cocoa solids)
  2. Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (minimum 20 percent cocoa solids)
  3. Cadbury’s Bourneville (36%)
  4. Lindt A Touch Of Sea Salt Dark (47%)
  5. Cocomolli Milk Chocolate (55%)
  6. OmNom Chocolate Madagascar (66%)
  7. Hotel Chocolat Island Growers Saint Lucia Milk Chocolate (70%)
  8. Green & Black’s Dark Chocolate (70%)
  9. Pralus Madagascar Criollo (75%)
  10. Chocolate & Love Panama (80%)
  11. Republica Del Cacao La Concepcion (85%)
  12. Amedei Toscano Black (90%)
  13. Amedei Acero With Maple Sugar (95%)
  14. World Market Dark Chocolate (99%)
  15. Hotel Chocolat Rabot 1745 (100%)

(Scale created with thanks to the encyclopaedic Chocablog.)

My personal naughty-treaty-chore range runs from the Chocolate & Love Panama (80%) to the Amedei Toscano Black (90%).

What that means is that anything below the Chocolate & Love Panama is proper naughty territory of which I would be a little scared and anything above the Amedei Toscano Black would be more of a battlefield than an all-you-can-spa pamper day.

But what’s really clever about The David Charles Patent-Pending Cocoa Solids Naughty-Treaty-Chore Scale is that the cocoa solid percentages can be used as a direct correlate for your own personal tolerance for naughtiness in any kind of a treat — indulgent desserts, luxury holidays, consumerist splurges, you name it.

So this is me:

As you can see, my tolerance for naughtiness is pretty darn low. For whatever reason, I shy away from naughty treats: they come with too much guilt to be pleasurable.

If this bell curve, spuriously derived from the pleasure I take in various chocolate bars, really can stand for how I view pleasure more generally, then it also reveals something mildly earth-shattering about my existence: how stingy, how limited, how unambitious I am with myself.

The human pleasure-verse, the area under the bell curve, is enormous and, for me, the vastest hump of experience is out of bounds.

I can see now: that really has to change.

Saunaing Alone

Something weird happens to my Naughty-Treaty-Chore Scale treat range when other people are involved.

Suddenly things that were, for me alone, unambiguously naughty, are back on the table (quite literally in the case of a decent tiramisú).

Have you ever noticed that?

It’s like my brain is constantly running up a ledger of okay-not-okay behaviour.

  • Not okay: tiramisú alone
  • Okay: tiramisú shared

But why should the presence of other people skew my behaviour so decisively in the direction of treatiness?

And what would it take to allow myself the treat, without company?

Well, yesterday, quite by accident, I learned the answer.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the Brothers in our men’s circle dropped a message in our Whatsapp group to say that he was going to The Saltwater Sauna on Sandbanks beach this Thursday at 15.45.

I love a sauna, but this is a fancy treat sauna — they have qualified Sauna Masters, for goodness sake.

It really is quite nice in there

Rather than straight-up deciding that I wanted to go to the sauna for myself, my brain did a rapid mental calculus and concluded that I was indeed permitted to attend this event because, not only would I get a sauna, but I would get to spend time with a Brother in a social setting outside of our men’s circle.

In other words:

  • Not okay: £15 sauna for me alone
  • Okay: £15 sauna with someone else

With only eight places available, this sauna sells out fast so I booked to join him right away.

Fast forward two weeks: I show up at the sauna yesterday at 15.45.

The man’s not there.

I spend 65 minutes at this treat sauna, all alone. And it’s worth saying right now that I had a lovely time.

This is a crucial point: I enjoyed the treat that I never would have allowed myself.

The logic of my pre-sauna calculus, however, boils down to something quite horrifyingly existential:

I believe that it is worth my while making a connection to others.

I do not believe that it is worth my while making a connection to myself.

Working within the confines of this belief, my little brain can make things incredibly complicated.

Instead of going straight for what I want, my little brain must find external factors that justify and permit what I want.

And it’s not only a connection with other humans that will permit my desires. There is a whole inventory of okay-not-okay justifications that my brain must run through before coming up with its final decision.

The Calculus

On and off for the past couple of years, I have been a member of a less fancy sauna and I would go two or three times a week, quite alone.

But these sauna sessions are not justified as me-time treats. They are justified by the following calculus of external factors:

  • Saunas are a healthy workout for the cardiovascular system
  • The period of cooling between sessions is an opportunity to read books, make notes, learn stuff and have ideas
  • Sometimes the conversations and stories I (over) hear in the sauna make me laugh, give me inspiration or shake old prejudices
  • Therefore, this quiet me-time, away from technology, is far from being an indulgent treat — it’s actually super productive!

It’s like my brain needs to be constantly monitoring my thought processes around my decision-making in order to evaluate whether or not what I’m doing is worthwhile.

My brain is happiest when it finds plenty of evidence that my desires are indeed permissible, like with the sauna. I’m going for my health, for my work, for the sake of other people.

Only then can I excuse my behaviour and justify each relaxing sauna with the soothing knowledge that it’s not really for pleasure.

But my brain really struggles when the evidence is mixed or conflicting. The poor thing keeps bashing at the buttons of the calculator, searching and researching for evidence to back my desires, and, ultimately, overheating, leaving me feeling exhausted and fully stressed out.


And my brain is so proficient at this process of justification and permission that it will always get there before me. It’s had forty-one years of practice and it’s going to take a lot of unpicking.

Noticing, as ever, is the first stage of recovery.

Noticing when my brain is cranking up to work on The Calculus. Credit the brain for how hard it’s working: how clever, how fast, how complex — respect to you, brain!

Only in the moment’s pause after noticing, might I have the space to reconnect with what lies beneath The Calculus: my needs and wants.

Somewhere, deep beneath all that high-wire brain gymnastics, there is a part of me that wants the treat for me: the simple reward of being alive.


Troubleshooting Treats: Start With Micro-Nice

There are days (like Wednesday) when it feels almost impossible to treat yourself with much love.

You’re grumpy. You’re unmotivated. You’re convinced that you’re nothing more than a lazy piece of crap.

What do you do with days like that?

The answer (courtesy of my friend Nettles) is the micro-nice.

You might not be able to give yourself much love today, but can you give yourself five minutes to roll around on the floor like a dog? (This was Nettles’ first suggestion. She’s that kind of person.)

Grand gestures are off the table today. No gourmet meals for one. No all-you-can-splash baths. No solo tickets to the cinema, theatre or bounce park.

Instead, ask yourself: What is the micro-nice version of being kind to myself today?

Start from where you are (a bit pissed off with yourself) instead of where you feel you should be (your own best friend).

See if there’s not still a corner of compassion where you and yourself can go for a little sit down and a cup of tea.

Start with micro-nice.

C’est La Vie En Rose That is life. It is what it is. But there is a lot more positive than negative in what it is. And we could all do with pointing that out to each other more regularly.

* Title credit: CW

Cycling long distances in the company of other humans has many benefits, but I think my favourite is how the movement, landscapes and conversation moulds the way our brains perceive the world.

Today’s little story comes from a realisation found in conversation, somewhere among the gentle hills of Magnesia and Pthiotis.

Why is it that the phrases ‘C’est la vie’, ‘That’s life’, and ‘It is what it is’ are only ever deployed, most often with a shrug, with reference to unlucky, unpleasant or undesirable events?

  • You miss your turning on the motorway: ‘C’est la vie.’
  • Your computer shows you the blue screen of death: ‘That’s life.’
  • The Tories are somehow re-elected: ‘It is what it is.’

I’m not arguing: that is life. It is what it is.

But I would argue that there is a lot more positive than negative in what it is. And we could all do with pointing that out to each other more regularly.

More often than not, life does wear rose-tinted glasses.

The slow autumn sun rises over the trees, the wind rearranges the turning leaves, and a robin out calls to me: ‘C’est la vie, my friends, c’est la vie.’

Don’t Confuse What They Think With What You Know One of the things that some people know about me is that I don’t use aeroplanes. I don’t fly. Well, turns out that I do. Sometimes.

A warm, rather stormy, welcome from Dubrovnik.

Coming into Dubrovnik harbour

It’s been a long journey for me to get here, to this single room seaview apartment, somewhat infested with opportunistic antlife.

First I cycled from Glasgow to Bristol to Paris to Geneva to Milan, then I roadtripped with C. from Pisa to Lucca to Lake Bolsena to Posta Fibreno to Mattinatella to Trani to Bari, then I — well, then I gathered material for today’s story — then I caught a ferry from Bari to Dubrovnik and finally I cycled, yesterday morning, in the heartbeat between rains, up the hill to where I now write, the twin bed in this single room seaview apartment, somewhat infested with opportunistic antlife.

One of the things that some people know about me is that I don’t use aeroplanes. I don’t fly.

Well, turns out that I do. Sometimes.

It’s a long story, but last Friday I flew from Bari to London, and then back again a few days later. It was my first flight in over five years.

The last time I caught a plane was in February 2018, which itself broke an eight-year absence from the skies. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Not flying has been a part of my personality for so long and I’m only a little ashamed to say that sometimes I’ve felt quite smug about it. What part of me am I destroying by flying again? This flight feels sometimes like an obliteration of self.

Today’s story is about how things have changed for me in the past thirteen years of by-and-large not flying.

For starters, flying last week did not feel like an obliteration of self. I don’t feel like I’ve dropped and smashed my favourite teacup. I panicked for a day or two that maybe I had done, but then I remembered something Bob Dylan once taught me:

1. Don’t Confuse What They Think With What You Know

As humans, we make choices.

After getting back from Egypt in January 2010, I didn’t fly again that year. It wasn’t really for any reason other than I couldn’t afford to travel at all, let alone book a flight.

I spent that summer hitchhiking.

As one year of not flying turned into two and three, it dawned on me that overlanding was not only making me much more imaginative about how I travelled, but also taking me to more beautiful places, introducing me to more wonderful people, giving me more adventurous experiences, and inspiring much deeper, more satisfying stories.

Cycling around Britain and around Tunisia. Catching rides with strangers to Lille and Barcelona. Pilgrimaging to Canterbury and Winchester. Sailing the Jurassic Coast.

By the fourth year, the idea of taking the plane was absurd: I didn’t have any need to fly, as some do, for work or family, so why would I do anything so limiting with my precious travel time?

But we are human and some of our choices can be misinterpreted by others.

Some people heard about my quitting aeroplanes and assumed that it was because of the crazy carbon emissions involved. Some of these people thought that going overland was a very noble thing to do, a sacrifice I had made for the sake of our environmental greater good.

Because of what they thought was my noble sacrifice, some thought of me as an example to be followed, some even suspected that I was a morally superior being (🤮), some admired this choice, some seemed to resent it.

Don’t get me wrong: one of the upsides of not flying is lower carbon emissions. That is a great thing. It’s not why I stopped flying, but it’s still a cool reason not to fly and part of the reason why I continue to not fly (most of the time).

Choosing not to fly was never a sacrifice for me, though. And certainly never a moral choice. Never.

Choosing alternative overland and sea transport has always been an essential part of the adventure — not the lesser of two evils, but the vastly greater of two joys.

Now to the reason why I’m telling this little story of how some people have misinterpreted my motivations for not flying: sometimes other people’s ideas of us can be so compelling, and repeated so often, that they get confused in our minds with our own idea of ourselves.

And that’s when the trouble starts.

The opportunity to take this flight came up a couple of weeks ago. It was a surprise trip: not in the calendar, but not one that I wanted to turn away.

With less than a day to get from Bari to Suffolk, and less than a day to get back for the ferry to Dubrovnik, travelling overland in either direction was impossible.

I’ll be honest: I got into a right tizz.

How could I both spend the weekend doing important things with people I love AND stay true to who I am, the person who doesn’t take aeroplanes?

It was a simple choice between love and principle.

Except that the principle — never fly — wasn’t really mine. It was one that I had internalised from the way that some people had interpreted my actions over the past decade or more.

This is no shame on them: we’re all abundantly free to take whatever we can from the way others behave. All power to the thief — I do it all the time.

But the lesson for me? Don’t confuse what others think about you with what you know about yourself.

I think Bob Dylan said that.

Not taking aeroplanes is still something that I believe in. But it’s not always the most important part of who I am.

I said that.

2. I’m Lucky I Found Something: Three Epochs Of Air Travel

My flying history falls into three epochs:

  1. Childhood, 0-18 years old: 24 flights
  2. Young adulthood, 19-28 years old: 53 flights
  3. Grownupness, 29-41 years old: 4 flights

Strangely, this neat division marries with the stories I tell of myself to myself.

Although I made what I call my first adult decision in 2007 (to study Arabic in Egypt, hang the academic consequences), it wasn’t until 2010 that I committed to what I think of as my grownup career and homelife.

Similarly, it was only after I stopped using aeroplanes that travel, and the writing that came with it, became essential: life-giving.

Shamefully, I can’t actually remember where most of those flights took me during those jetsetter years. Not like I remember those David-defining hitchhikes, pilgrimages and cycle tours of 2010-2013.

Aeroplanes got in the way: youthful, erratic, timid. A noisy distraction from the heart work of discovery travel.

That ten year burst of flights in my twenties mirrored the way I felt, the way a lot of people feel at that age: grasping, flailing, stretching, neurotic, near panic, reaching, twisting, begging, praying for what they might become.

I’m lucky that I found something and could calm down a bit.

(p.s. I’m not saying that this is what air travel means for everyone, only what this graph looks like for me, in retrospect.)

Since 2010, terrestrial travel has become me. It’s grounded me and grown me up. A divining part of everything.

Aeroplanes can’t do that for me.

(Doesn’t mean they won’t sometimes pop up on a graph😝)


These stories have been written to the soothing accompaniment of Listen To The Cloud, live air traffic control chatter set to ambient music.

I have so much to unpack about my recent encounters with aeroplanes, but I’m going to split the stories over two emails because, frankly, we all have lives to live.

Coming in a future episode: reverse vertigo, delirious cabin crew and grounded spaciousness. Plus how you can get paid for flying… 🤑

Andy Murray’s Nice It takes effort to look deep into the worst of us and to share the ways that humans, out of the darkness, respond with energetic hope and creativity

As a writer, I am — naturally enough — very deliberate about what I put out into the world for other humans to think about.

I’d be INSANE if I wasn’t equally deliberate about I take in from the rest of the world.


But somehow, a writer’s natural deliberation isn’t always mirrored by the reader.

Readers — audiences of all kinds, myself included — often accept what we’re told without critique.

Particularly when it comes to content that is presented as impartial fact.

I’m talking about The News.

You Can Take Dessert Or You Can Pass

In these pages, I’m the writer. Every idea I write about, you can be sure I’ve thought very carefully about.

I don’t expect every idea to land with everyone, every week. That’s fine. As long as you get something out of most of my stories, then you’ll probably stick around.

If none of the stories ever help you make the world a better place, then I expect you to take the sensible decision to unsubscribe and stop reading.

That’s normal. I write stories that help you (and me) understand the world a little better, not stories that you can’t live without.

You can take dessert or you can pass.

With its apparently impartial presentation of fact, The News somehow, perniciously, sidesteps this judgemental faculty of ours.

We swallow The News as a vitamin.

It might not taste good, but, like vitamins, we believe that The News really does ‘contribute to the normal function of a healthy immune system’.

Unfortunately, it really doesn’t. And, secretly, we all know this.

If I told you that I got my news from The Daily Mail, Fox News and Russia Today, you’d probably draw the conclusion that I was a shitbag.

If, on the other hand, I got my news from the same place you get your news, however — why, what a discerningly well-informed world citizen I am!

We always believe that everyone else’s news sources are trash, but never ours.

The News is not a vitamin; it’s dessert and you can choose to pass.

No News Is Good News

Taking care over The News that I read, watch or hear is something that I’ve written about on these pages before:

Since 2017 — for more than five years now — I’ve not regularly read, listened to, or watched any newspaper, website or broadcast.

For much of this time, I have allowed only one feed into my life, the constructive journalism of the fortnightly Future Crunch email newsletter.

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.

That’s why it was wonderful to hear that Angus Hervey, one of the people behind Future Crunch, was recently invited to open the TED conference with his version of The News.

Hope Is A Doing Word

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.

Always Take The Doughnut The tricycle was a scuffed red, with a wire basket fixed behind and a black electric motor strapped to the basket. Also in the basket: one box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, four remaining

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.

(In fairness, the painted No Cycling warning was covered in sand and may well, in any case, be insupportable under law — see here for the fascinating difference between cycling on a footpath and a footway.)

The tricycle was a scuffed red, with a wire basket fixed behind and a black electric motor strapped to the basket. Also in the basket: one box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, four remaining.

Before I really knew what I was doing, I blurted out: ‘Where are you going with those doughnuts?’

‘I’m going to see my wife, share ‘em with ‘er,’ he yelled back, reaching the first of the zigzag’s zigs. Then: ‘D’you want one?’

At this point, post-run, pre-breakfast, I should have said, ‘Ahh — yes please!’

But I didn’t.

Instead, I automatically said, ‘Nah, you’re alright, thanks. That’s really kind, though.’

‘I got ‘em free, at Waterloo station this morning. I told ‘em I was a delivery driver and if I could have a doughnut — they gave me the ‘ole box!’

At this point I definitely should have said, ‘Ahh, go on then — I’d love one.’ After all, it is nearly my birthday.

But I didn’t.

‘I missed my train last night, had to sleep at the station, didn’t I?’ the young man explains, letting me catch up as he struggled with his engine on the steep zags.

‘They won’t give me my money back, even though I got train insurance. Two ‘undred quid they owe me. It’s a joke.’

I commiserated, then smiled as his engine kicked in and the tricycle burned off up the zigzag, scattering the first of the family sunbathers and the last of the early dog walkers.

This microscopic, heartfelt, sunny connection with tricycle-doughnut man got me thinking.

And list-making.

Things I Can’t Do Right Now Because Of My Wrist

  • Type words on a mechanical keyboard
  • Play guitar
  • Shift gear on my bike (chainrings)
  • Open doors while carrying an object in my right hand
  • Get into downward dog pose

All very specific things that can be adapted around easily. (And at least one of which I can’t do even with a fully functioning wrist…)

Things I Can Still Do

  • Dictate words through my phone
  • Run
  • Flounder in the gentle waves
  • Have funny little interactions with strangers
  • Connect
  • Listen
  • Love
  • Allow

All the important things, in other words.

More than anything, though, tricycle man’s beautiful attitude taught me another of life’s little mottos: Always Take The Doughnut.

Proust’s Wrist 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’

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.

Score one for diary writing!

The Number Twenty-Four (And My Inevitable Mortality) There comes a point in every reader’s life when they realise that the number of books on one’s shelf vastly outnumbers the number of allotted hours for reading that remain on their own mortal shelf-life

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.

  1. The number twenty-four.
  2. My two shelves’ worth of unread books.
  3. 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:

  1. One
  2. Two
  3. Three
  4. Four
  5. Six
  6. Eight
  7. Twelve
  8. Twenty-four

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.

I could — there are only about fifty or sixty there in total, which is only about sixteen month’s worth (or g months if we’re counting in base twenty-four) if I plough through them.

But I won’t. I just won’t.

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.)

How to enter the prize draw:

  1. Go to my MASS Action x Thighs of Steel fundraising page
  2. Make any kind of a donation
  3. In your donation message, have a stab at the title or author of any of these snippets
  4. 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).

No cheating?

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…

  1. Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets (2005)
  2. Wild Signs And Star Paths, Tristan Gooley (2018)
  3. Journal Of A Novel, John Steinbeck (1970)
  4. Pronouncing Welsh Place Names, Tony Leaver (1998)
  5. The Book Of Trespass, Nick Hayes (2020)
  6. Artful Sentences, Virginia Tufte (2006)
  7. The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler (2001)
  8. The Songs Of Trees, David George Haskell (2017)
  9. In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan (1982)
  10. T.A.Z., Hakim Bey (1985)
  11. The Dance Of Connection, Harriet Lerner (2001)
  12. The Road To Oxiana, Robert Byron (1937)
  13. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (1962)
  14. Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer (2007)
  15. Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey (1968)
  16. Around The World On A Penny-Farthing, Thomas Stevens (1888)
  17. Baghdad Bulletin, David Enders (2006)
  18. No Destination, Satish Kumar (1992)
  19. A Hundred And One Days, Asne Seierstad (2003)
  20. All Together Now? Mike Carter (2019)
  21. My First Summer In The Sierra, John Muir (1911)
  22. Critical Mass, edited by Chris Carlsson (2002)
  23. When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, Martin M Antony and Richard P Swinson (2009)
  24. 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.

Negative Capability ≠ Stable Ambiguity 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

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

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

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
  • I don’t want responsibility
  • I act alone, as an individual
  • I need to know
  • I am grasping or pushing for something
  • I will live forever

Feelings That Might Indicate Negative Capability

  • I have faith
  • I am committed
  • I act with others, as part of something greater
  • I want responsibility
  • I surrender
  • I am open to being
  • I am in awe
  • I will never know
  • I will die

100% Endurance Contrary to the unfounded assertion of TS Eliot, April is not the cruellest month, but my happiest — and by some distance too

I’ve been pretty stressed over the last couple of weeks: a growing feeling of pressure that I recognise with dread from last year.

Shutdown cramped fog-brain.

Last year, with the help of my counsellor, I was able to draw some good lessons from the opaque nastiness:

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?

I do.

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:

  1. Cancel stuff to make space for yourself
  2. Run a bath, ideally with bubbles
  3. Light a candle
  4. Put on some whale song
  5. 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:

  1. Instead of cancelling, commit to ecstatic (and probably social) experiences to build pressure
  2. Dance, sing, play
  3. Trip, meditate, pray
  4. Get sweaty, get sexy, get fresh air
  5. 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.

✔️ Outdoors

✔️ Friends

✔️ 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.

Zoom The Fuck Out / Zoom The Fuck In What story do you and your team repeat over and over to each other, until that story becomes the unquestioned, unquestionable only story?

What story do you and your team repeat over and over to each other, until that story becomes the unquestioned, unquestionable only story?

Would you maybe benefit from a change of story?

This is a serious analysis of the Russian ‘firehose of falsehood’ propaganda model, but — besides offering protection against such tactics — it made me think about how these cognitive biases show up in our daily lives, in the stories (or propaganda) that we repeat to ourselves and to those in our inner circle.

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.

Zoom The Fuck Out

Catch yourself getting caught up.

Putin is singlehandedly destroying truth!

Hold on. Stop the doomspread.

Look around you: does life go on? Does the sun still shine? Does your dog still love you? Is the heat death of the universe more than a lifetime away?

Then Zoom The Fuck In

How can you use the struggle of existence, the struggle of reading this article and grappling with its consequences, to become a better player for Team Human, right now?

Okay. Go and do that, then.

Struggle-Play 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

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.

Alternate Realities

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’re suspicious that every Parisian waiter is out to destroy you because you once read a Guardian article on the topic. As a result, you don’t stray beyond familiar transglobal eateries like Subway and McDonalds.
  • 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?

As Jason Kottke noticed back in 2018, this better-doing-nothing conundrum also features in the work of newspaper proprietors, baseball superstars and most business entrepreneurs.

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.

What Would Salah Do? Or: Zen Fandom: Spectator Sports As Spiritual Practice

Why This, Why Now

On Wednesday night, there was a football game.

But, if you live in the UK, you knew that already.

You’re either:

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.

Shankly won three first division league titles in his fifteen years, his win percentage ranks him eighth out of all Liverpool managers and his team’s average points-per-game would only be good enough for fifth place in today’s Premier League.

Yet there is no one more important at the club, even today.

I tell Shankly’s story to help put two things together:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Every Game As It Comes

Before, during and after any match, including last night’s supposed title decider between Arsenal and Manchester City, you’ll hear managers and players alike trotting out the same old clichés to downplay the game’s importance.

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:

Salah celebrates scoring in the 5-0 win over Huddersfield in April 2019 (Straits Times, EPA)

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.

Now I don’t know exactly why Salah does these celebrations, but they remind me of Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines:

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.

Also Mohammed Salah. YNWA.

Interrupt, Gloriously 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

Thanks so much for your comments on last week’s oxytocin-fueled smiling at strangers story.

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.

Q: Do you avoid talking to strangers?

Yes? Good. You’re normal. Most people avoid talking to strangers — ‘despite the fact that they are happier when they do so’.

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!

Why though?

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.

Interrupt, gloriously

  1. Everything good in life is an interruption from something else. It’s just what you choose in the moment.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. Favour ringing their doorbell over ringing their phone.
  8. 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.
  9. 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’re lucky enough to live in a neighbourhood of best friends or if you’re lucky enough to have ‘good enough’ friends, don’t hesitate to interrupt them.

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).

I promise you that you’re not boring.

An Oxytocin-Fuelled Haze Of Euphoria A story about being overtaken by excitement in the company of strangers

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.

Quality smiles can reduce the negative effects of stress, as measured by heart rate and cortisol, while increasing mood-enhancing hormones like serotonin and possibly reducing blood pressure.

Your smile can also determine how fulfilling and long-lasting your marriage will be (ahem, science) or even dictate how long you’ll live (according to one contested study that failed replication, but let’s not allow that to bother us too much).

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!

Let’s Not Doomspread Loneliness Writing constructively isn’t hard: put solutions up top in the lede. Why wait until you’ve beaten us up already?

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.

Antischismogenetic Equifinality 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.)

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.

As the editors at Wikipedia succinctly summarise:

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…


Equifinality is the fancy word for ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’ (or, indeed, that gruesome idiom’s even more graphic progenitor: ‘there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream’).

Equifinality is almost a state of mind.

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.


The author would particularly like to thank Davids Graeber and Wengrow and, as ever, the editors at Wikipedia.

Doomspreading In Saunas A previous iteration of David Charles would have felt threatened by this man’s speech and seen him as an enemy to be fought and defeated

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.

One of the regulars had asked me about Thighs of Steel and so I was telling them a bit about what we do in solidarity with people on the move.

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.

‘But why does the government spend seven million pounds a day putting asylum seekers with no qualifications and no job in four and five star hotels — and giving them a phone, phone credit and fifty quid a week pocket money, to boot?’

A previous iteration of David Charles would have felt threatened by this man’s speech.

A previous iteration would have seen this fellow sauna dweller as an enemy to be fought and defeated. A previous iteration might have fired back what this man had missed: the cold realities of living in the UK as an asylum seeker.

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.

(I won’t mention quite yet that close to half of rough sleepers in London are not from the UK and that our asylum system and destitution are not as independent as he might imagine.)

Funnily enough, Dan Sumption (of pithy newsletter fame) told me he had an almost identical conversation about migration this week as well.

I hope you’re also having these conversations and I hope that the idea of doomspeech helps you make such connections about more than argument and antagonism.

The End Of Doomspreading 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


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 first: who here has heard of doomscrolling?

(When I ask this question in the real world, people older than me tend to look puzzled; people younger than me roll their eyes: like, obviously.)


Doomscrolling is what you call staring at your phone or computer, completely incapable of dragging yourself away from the endless carousel of negative news gunge.

And what happens when we do finally tear ourselves away from our phones and re-engage with the world?

A severe case of what computer programmers, statisticians and dieticians call GIGO: ‘Garbage in, garbage out’.

Who better to tell us about the impact of bad news on our psyche than the world’s oldest and largest broadcaster, the BBC:

It turns out that news coverage is far more than a benign source of facts. From our attitudes to immigrants to the content of our dreams, it can sneak into our subconscious and meddle with our lives in surprising ways.

It can lead us to miscalculate certain risks, shape our views of foreign countries, and possibly influence the health of entire economies. It can increase our risk of developing post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.

Now there’s emerging evidence that the emotional fallout of news coverage can even affect our physical health — increasing our chances of having a heart attack or developing health problems years later.

But bad news isn’t all bad.

Despair And Paranoia

There is no stronger spur to action than the sense that something is deeply wrong with our lives: we’d better fix this now or else.

It’s why humans have a strong bias to pay more attention when things are going badly.

And I’m grateful that we have this bias towards negativity: as I’ve written before, nothing gets shit done like anxiety.

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

With Others

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.

With Ourselves

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.

Am I The Most Notable David Charles In The Whole Entire Universe? There’s always a profit, even if it’s not in honey. You’re releasing your bees at half past six in the morning: that’s the time you see deer walking along the ridge. That's all part of the harvest.

This conceited question demands a few boundaries. And, within those boundaries, I think the straightforward answer to this question is yes.

But that’s not the same as the boundless, infinite answer to this question. Which we’ll get onto once I’ve finished stroking my ego.

First, let’s all say a big hello-how-are-you to David Charles:

David Charles, solicitor. I wonder whether he has a newsletter?

“David Charles” On The Google Front Page

The world’s biggest creepy crawler (that’s actually quite a clever search engine joke, if you please) seems a reasonable place to start when judging notability in the Internet age.

I searched in private mode and logged out of my Google account, which hopefully mitigated at least some of the bias towards my own search history. (More on that anon, however.)

Once you’ve stripped out the Google Maps and Images results, there are only six pure “David Charles” Google Search results on the front page.

1. David Charles Residential Sales and Lettings

You’d hope that there is or was a David Charles involved at some point, somewhere, but I’m discounting them because there is no David Charles on their Meet The Team page.

As there isn’t even anyone with the first initial D, nor the second initial C, I fear that they are only trading on our good name. Vampires unworthy of top spot.

2. David Charles Property Consultants

Seemingly totally unrelated to the residential sales and lettings company, but, again: no sign of anyone actually called David Charles. Founded in 1994 by Peter Amstell.

Given that they’re trading under, I’m furious.

3. David Charles Childrenswear

With a head office on Seven Sisters Road, this ‘Iconic British Brand for Luxury Designer Girl’s Dresses’ now has boutiques in Shanghai, Suzhou and St Petersburg.

At least they’re older than me: founded in 1970… by husband and wife team David and Susan Graff. My blood boils.

4. David Charles, Me

Give the first three results, I’m now wondering whether I should double check my birth certificate doesn’t expose my true name, Danglebert Thumpernickel.

5. David Charles, Welsh TV actor

The bastard that snagged before I could.

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.

Legitimate David Charles? Hard to say for sure because actors union Equity demand uniqueness in name.

I’ve given David Charles the benefit of the doubt because he is Welsh and Charles is a stoutly Welsh surname (although as many as 1 in 28 Grenadians are Charleses).

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.

According to one reviewer: an ‘important and impressive study of Aristotle’s hylomorphic psychology’. Price: £72

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

And deeper:

  • 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?

David Atiba Charles

Retired professional footballer from Trinidad, who was part of the Trinidad & Tobago World Cup squad in 2006. He didn’t get any playing time, but, to be fair, nor did I.

It’s harsh, but I’m ruling him out on the grounds that the ‘Atiba’ seems to be a foundational element of his name.

David Charles and David Charles

Both Australian, the first a retired politician, the other a retired senior civil servant.

Yes! From 13 March 1985 to 19 February 1990 there were not one, but TWO David Charleses serving in the Australian government. I am in awe.

David Charles

Professor and Vice-Chair of Neurology and Medical Director at Vanderbilt Telehealth, Tennessee.

But — controversy ho! — yet another David Charles imposter.

As you can see from Charles’ latest paper (BDNF rs6265 Genotype Influences Outcomes of Pharmacotherapy and Subthalamic Nucleus Deep Brain Stimulation in Early-Stage Parkinson’s Disease), his first initial is actually ‘P’.

David Charles

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.

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?

In this interview for BeeCraft Magazine, David Charles talks about how he used to take his bees to graze on the heather on Exmoor.

The interviewer points out that taking your bees to heather is a risky business because you never know whether it’s going to be a good harvest or not.

Quite apart from the high probability of bad weather on the moor, if the bees get distracted away from the delicious heather pollen, then that’s it for your honey.

David Charles’s reply is almost spiritual:

There’s always a profit, even if it’s not in honey. […] You’re releasing your bees at half past six in the morning: that’s the time you see deer walking along the ridge.

When you go to collect them on the way back, there’s a full moon and the deer are walking along that ridge again, silhouetted against the night sky.

That’s all part of the harvest from taking your bees to the heather.

All Part Of The Harvest

This David Charles died in 2020, aged 85 and a half.

Phil McAnespie of the Scottish Beekeepers Association was among the tributes:

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.)

How I … Stretch Because, let's be honest, it's not yoga

1. Definitions

I opened last week’s email with the grim origin story of what I call my ‘yoga’ habit.

I’ve never been under any illusion that what I’m doing is proper yoga, but a table tennis talk with a friend (and reader 👋) has put my misuse of the term to bed.

This is the dictionary definition of yoga that I have to hand:

Discipline aimed at training the consciousness for a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility that is achieved through the three paths of actions and knowledge and devotion.

Even by that cursory definition, eight minutes of stretches before bed while listening to an audiobook is not yoga — no, not even if that audiobook is Marcel Proust.

Calling what I do ‘yoga’ is like an American coming over to a village green in Oxfordshire and calling what they do with the wickets, whites and willow ‘baseball’.

My friend recommended I watch this short video by Blair Imani about yoga and cultural appropriation:

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.

I mean — how much more English can you get?

But there are more than 100 million cricketers in India, compared to only 229,100 in England. People from the Indian subcontinent, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, make up 90 percent of the world’s billion cricket fans.

It wouldn’t matter how many cute videos the ECB posted about cultural appropriation: whatever India calls cricket, well, that’s basically what everyone else is going to have to call cricket.

And what India is to world cricket, English is to world language.

2. You Don’t Need Anything But Your Body To Stretch

A few people picked up on my stretching anecdote and asked me for suggestions of videos they could follow along with at home.

But I couldn’t be particularly helpful because the follow along approach never worked for me, not books, not apps, not videos and not even in-person classes.

Stretching this way always ended up feeling like a chore, being asked to do things that my body couldn’t do, with no support into poses that could hurt me.

It was far too easy to feel like a failure.

Stretching only clicked into place for me when:

  1. I realised that one minute of stretching was better than none.
  2. I made it a permanent home in my bedtime routine, usually while listening to something — dribbling through Proust in this way was a transporting delight.

In the first seven months, I missed only three days.

I’ve never had a habit that solid before and the success came from having rock bottom expectations (one minute, that’s all) combined with something I already enjoyed (modernist French literature!)

You simply don’t get that level of kindness, generosity and forgiveness from a follow-along video.

If you don’t know any stretching moves, then my suggestion is:

  1. Follow how your body wants to move.
  2. Flick through a book in the library for ten minutes. You’ll get the idea.

Having said all that, a friend (and reader 👋) recently recommended Do Yoga With Me. I haven’t used it, but I’m sure it’s great.

Before the 1 minute thing landed, I used an app called Down Dog, which puts together a customisable playlist of videos for you. It didn’t stick as a habit, but it did teach me some cool moves.

How I Learned To Enjoy Wild Squats I’ve been amazed at what a difference this investment of 1 percent of my waking time has made to my flexibility.

A warm welcome from a squatted perch overlooking the ocean.

Following on from last week’s appeal for healthy habitual alternatives to any form of knee-based self-care, I have started using a squatting desk.

Inspired by a 2017 article by physical therapist Carrie Williamson, this is an almost certainly marketable term for ‘swapping my chair for an upturned kettlebell’.

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?

Thought so.

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.

Start from where you are, and start today.

Adventure When You Can’t Adventure? 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. We start from where we are

It’s been a slow start for Days of Adventure 2023: I’ve been recovering from the traumatic combination of road and gravity on my knee cartilage.

My usual vectors for adventure are out: no hiking, no cycling, no running, no skating, no surfing, no climbing.

Or at least, I thought they were out until I read Belinda Kirk’s book Adventure Revolution.

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.

Right, okay.

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 ✔️✔️✔️
  • Meditate
  • See or phone a friend
  • Go outside and watch the goats eat breakfast ✔️✔️✔️
  • Play guitar
  • Do press ups ✔️✔️
  • Do yoga ✔️
  • Take a cold shower ✔️✔️✔️
  • Write morning pages
  • Prepare dinner or bake bread

This is nothing remotely like trekking up a live volcano in Nicaragua without any feet — heck, it’s not even anything like hiking across Dartmoor on a sunny winter’s day.

But it is starting from where I am.

Sweating It Out With Strangers Put all your money on humanity, the stewards of the land, community, the carers and growers, and society, the builders and changers. We might not have money, but we’ll certainly have each other

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 now because 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.

PROOF: I’m Fine 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. I'm fine

Happy 2023! Or, for those of you still on the Byzantine or Roman calendar, I hope you’re all having a great 7531!

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?’

Instead, I got this:

Excellent blood sugar control…

And very good blood fat control. Gutted.

Looks like I’ll have to come to terms with Prince-inspired lexical horrors alone.

But, hold ur horses — what’s this?

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.

Let’s see…

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.

If you’re interested in reading more, I wrote this science-y explanation of how I (possibly) transformed my gut microbiome by cutting out sugar for three months.

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!

52 Things I Learned In 2022 We shall not cease from exploration so don't ask us to compromise our beliefs because we still have NO IDEA what wonders we're capable of. And other lessons from 2022


  1. The Nationality and Borders Act of 2022 was passed in April after the Commons rejected a series of amendments proposed by the Lords that would have protected compliance with the Refugee Convention. Heavy. In January, with the help of paradox, I tried to understand our part in all this, because we all have a part in the collective imagination of oppression. Resist.
  2. The proportion of British people who think immigration is ‘bad for the economy’ halved from 42 per cent to 20 per cent. Despite all the frothy headlines over ‘culture wars’, social attitudes in the UK are becoming steadily more liberal. Perhaps a reason why crime in the UK is now at its lowest level since the 1980s.
  3. 95 Thighs of Steel cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km and climbed up 757,975 metres of elevation, the equivalent of more than 85 Everests. 781 bowls of porridge, 11kg of peanut butter and untold megatons of pastries filled the 2,341,500 calorie cycling deficit. Oh, and we raised £102,020 for grassroots refugee projects around Europe.
  4. 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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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 — a gap that widens still further if we exclude transport. However, more egalitarian attitudes towards unpaid labour results in higher female sexual efficacy and more sex for everyone. C’mon now, guys.
  3. I can’t write a list of 99 Problems. (Incidentally, nor can Jay-Z: there are only nine distinct problems in his famous rap.)
  4. A huge amount, I’m sure, was lost during the TV editing process, but watching counsellor Orna Guralnik on Couples Therapy shows the significant weight that a therapist must bear in order to create space where a couple can work through their shit. (I hope what I learned makes up for the life I might have lost: on average, every hour of TV after age 25 reduces life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

  1. NVC relies on emotional granularity: expanding our vocabulary to be able to describe more precisely what we are feeling. Are we angry, annoyed or appalled? The benefits of emotional granularity include less binge drinking, less reactivity to rejection and less severe anxiety and depression.
  2. Responsibility is an energy. Responsibility is an energy. Responsibility is an energy. I must remember that. And, when I forget, I must remember that anxiety is also an energy!

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.


  1. Adventure follows a three act story structure and, just like stories, you can have an adventure about anything.
  2. There were 821 sleeps between my last pre-pandemic trip abroad (Urk with The Tim Traveller) and my first foreign travel post-pandemic (Rudenoise with The Tim Traveller). It was good to be back: foreign travel, if we allow it, is an exquisite empathy machine.
  3. I learned a heck a lot about myself and my compatriots (as well as to always carry a spare chain link) while cycling another 1,818km around Britain, from Kings Lynn to Inverness, with a side tour of the whiskey isles and kyles of the Argyll.
  4. I might have cracked the secret to wild camping while cycle touring in England. Even better, cycle touring is now a year-round activity for me. In winter, there are fewer dog walkers to sniff out your camp and, in the deep darkness after five, anywhere flat is a great, secluded place to pitch up.
  5. 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?

  1. Ecopsychology is defined as conversations around the dwelling place of our soul, where nature is our teacher and we can be but facilitators. In Sweden, apparently, secret beauty spots are called ‘wild strawberries’. Psithurism is the whispering sound of the wind among leaves.
  2. There is no point in walking the length of all the portici in Bologna. That’s why I tried.
  3. The ruined socialist luxury hotel complex at Kupari in Croatia scores 4.6 stars on from 179 reviews. Just up the road, the Chinese finished building a bridge in Dalmatia so that Croatia could join the EU in 2024.
  4. 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.
  5. As of 2020, mycologists had named about 148,000 different species of fungus. The current best guess is that there are at least another 2.65 million more to be stumbled upon. At the absolute most, my ignorant, but open-minded, walk in the Brecon Beacons unwittingly uncovered 0.0001 percent of fungal diversity.
  6. 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.
  7. 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


  1. It’s great to remember how much connection can be made in a year — and yet the numbers are finite and, like anything, need constant care. The work is worthwhile because happiness spreads through our social networks up to the level of our friends’ friends’ friends.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. Propinquity, committing your presence to the here and now, is the art of staying alive to the ever-present danger of The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis.

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.

  1. In 2015, I sent an average of 13 text messages per day. I just checked and, since I installed Whatsapp on my phone in July 2021, I’ve sent 13,358 messages — that’s 25 messages per day, an increase of almost 100 percent in six years. We overestimate how ‘convenient’ text communication is and underestimate how good a proper voice call will make us feel.
  2. Statista forecast that 8,890,000,000,000,000,000 megabytes of data were created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide in 2022. It’s completely overwhelming to think of all the billions of hours that are put into tending our digital society every day. Maybe it’s time to divert some of that attention back to our offline communities.
  3. I habitually check and recheck the sports pages as a form of self-soothing and reward. So it wasn’t a complete surprise to learn that losing my home internet connection was, ironically, a great way to connect, free of distraction, defaulting and spidering. (And, surprisingly, this wasn’t because I spent less time on messaging and email.)

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.


  1. 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?’
  2. The four hours after we wake is the absolute worst time to read or share The News. This isn’t about avoiding important information; this is about respecting how that information is going to land with your own hormones and those of other people.
  3. I strongly believe that we’re not living in a computer simulation. I’m probably wrong. Just one of 27 things that I currently or once believed and now totally don’t. Or soon won’t.
  4. Lesson: I really enjoy telling stories. In June, I did my first podcast with Bikepacking Buds.
  5. The second century followers of the gnostic Carpocrates believed that human souls must go through every possible earthly experience before they are released and return to god’s side in heaven.
  6. Humans are amazingly adaptable animals and even the relentless routine of Thighs of Steel cycle touring — early starts, big climbs, late nights — can become quotidian, tapping into fathomless reservoirs of energy that daily life rarely demands.

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.’


  1. 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.
  2. I learned how to surf. At least in theory: ‘the restless movement of the ocean against the underside of the board creates many additional hydrodynamic forces that combine with buoyancy to keep the surfer from sinking. Yes, it’s basically a miracle’.
  3. Laughing so much that you strain your intercostal muscles is INCREDIBLY painful. A reminder too that physicality is personality.
  4. 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?!
  5. I never imagined that investment in a digitised cartoon could set in motion a chain of events that end here:


  1. I took the Flight Free pledge again this year. It’s easy for me: overlanding wins on all three sides of The Travel Triangle: Cost, Time and Comfort. 2002 Dave would’ve taken four flights this year; 2022 Dave took none, dodging a literal tonne of carbon equivalent emissions. That doesn’t mean I stayed at home. In fact, I spent less than half the year at home and a quarter of the year travelling abroad.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  1. Simon Jackson, Head of Bike Fit at Cadence, chose a 45-second squat as his desert island conditioning exercise. This is the One Stretch To Rule Them All.
  2. Womb = Uterus. One of the many things I learned about the menstrual cycle on BBC podcast 28ish Days Later. Only 15 minutes an episode so nothing to lose.
  3. If you complain about your sleep quality, then you’re simply making things worse for yourself. Poor-sleeping complainers sleep worse and have worse health outcomes than poor-sleeping noncomplainers.
  4. 2022 was the year I finally learned how to make sourdough. I haven’t quite mastered the soggy bottom, but I’ll get there… Thanks to Annie for all her help. Also: Dark Chocolate Ginger Flapjacks. YES.
  5. For the sake of my blood sugar levels, I should eat a handful of almonds ten minutes before breakfast and remember to take a brisk walk after lunch and dinner.


  1. This is a list about things I’ve learned in 2022 and at the heart of that learning is YOU.

Knowing that you good people are out there, making time in your lives to read my stories, is why I reflect so deeply on the things that I do and make time to organise my thoughts in writing.

The feedback I get when you share my stories with your friends, reach out to teach me something new, or choose to support this project financially is a wellspring of motivation.

You’ve kept me going this year; I hope the words I’ve put down have sometimes kept you going too. Thank you.

Woolly Mammoths & Butterfly Wings Something frivolous and life-changing about how we can use redirects to break the palliative cycle of internet addiction and transform our most spirit-crushing micro-habits into a very silly game

This is so much fun. Watch what happens when I attempt to mindlessly browse the BBC Sport website yesterday 👇

BBC Sport » Wikipedia Random Article using Redirector

Over the last month, I’ve been mulling restlessly over my consumption of sports news.

As you know, I am a huge fan of No News Is Good News.

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.

Vacant Escapism

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.


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.

The gentle Papilio antimachus

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?

Nothing would be a good option.

Doing nothing, I would allow my brain the opportunity to rest, grow bored, and perhaps, in time, spit out a wave of brilliance.

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.

According to a 2016 survey of 1,000 random articles, 16 percent of articles are about sports. According to a random survey I just carried out, it’s now more like 25 percent.

But at least I now know of the death last year of Poerio Mascella, an Italian goalkeeper who played for Serie D side Pistoiese during their glory years of the 1970s.

After three days, my habit of mindlessly browsing BBC Sport, whether for fear or reward, has already withered.

I wouldn’t say that I have found a Zen-like state of peace with my relationship to my web browser, but I do now find myself typing in the address of with glee.

Ahh, there!

Now this story is written, I can spin the wheel and claim my reward…

Britney Spears’ favourite camping spot, Alstrom Point


More inspiration for random redirects:

Bonus: If you’re ever in need of emergency randomness, hit Alt-Shift+X from inside Wikipedia.

On The Lip Of A Lion What does breakfast do to me?

That’s a valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion!

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.

  1. 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).
  2. Pure avocado: blood sugar doesn’t rise at all. 4/5 on the hungry scale (wolfish).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

But, while a post-prandial walk (or any kind of exercise, science suggests) seems to flatten the blood sugar spike, it did leave my blood sugar levels lower than the other breakfasts. Something to play around with.

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.

I’ve no idea what might happen to me personally, but I’d never previously considered the idea that sequencing foods might make any difference at all. I’ll report back!

Rare words! brave world! Hostess, my breakfast, come!
O, I could wish this tavern were my drum!

Incidentally, did you know that, in France, they have breakfast at lunchtime?

In French, ‘dejeuner’ means ‘lunch’ in English, but etymologically translates as ‘breakfast’ — ‘jeuner’ being the French verb ‘to fast’.

Although some people also use ‘dejeuner’ to refer to ‘breakfast’, the more common term for ‘breakfast’ in French is ‘petit dejeuner’ or ‘little breakfast’. Very confusing.

Your Boat Needs A Crew

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.

In the words of shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown: if you miss the boat, it wasn’t your boat.

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.

Intrinsic Adventure The Days of Adventure project has made damn sure I protect time for my priorities. It’s taken me outdoors when outdoors seemed a long way distant


Friday 9 September

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.

Intrinsic Adventure

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.

And That’s The Point

Since the first day of this year, hiking the double stone row at Hurston Ridge on Dartmoor with two friends, I’ve written seventeen more stories of adventure this year: a wellspring of memories filled with community, wonder and connection.

That’s what the Days of Adventure have brought me since 2021, a constant reminder that ‘how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’.

There are 57 days left in the year. I plan to spend at least 13 of them outside, adventuring.

Are you putting your time where your heart is? What’s stopping you from making damn sure?

BONUS CONTENT: 17 Stories of Adventure

Adventures make me think. And when I think I often write. Here are the other 17 stories that I’ve written while on adventure this year:


*It was Calypso’s fifth time supporting the ride all the way to Athens and back. She’s beginning to creak, so we’re looking for an upgrade for 2023.

Do you know anyone who might have a long wheelbase high top van they want to sell or give away to a small cycling community with a big heart?

Winter Wins And in one year’s time I’ll be opening the freakin Palladium! (Or maybe I’ll just have sustainable momentum in the direction I want to travel)

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!).

As Ernest Hemingway once wrote to F Scott Fitzgerald: grace under pressure.

With that in mind, I have signed up to an introductory course in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a technique developed in the 1960s by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg.

I’ve also resumed my counselling sessions and (excitingly) joined a Men’s Circle here in Bournemouth (thanks LH!).


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: winter is the finest time to explore outdoor adventures in the UK.

Shorter days mean we can not only catch both sunrise and sunset at a reasonable hour, but also spend long evenings with the stars.

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.

So, in late November, I’m travelling up to Scotland to cycle another leg of my Round Britain ride.

Since 2020, I’ve cycled about 4,500km of the coastline and now I’m eyeing up the 650km from Edinburgh to Inverness.

This’ll be the first time I’ve done a serious cycle tour in the UK in winter. I’m curious. And foolhardy. And optimistic.

I’m also mushroom picking in the Brecon Beacons and, with my intrepid mum, going on an unexpected tea room of an adventure to Little Gidding, the fourth of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.


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!

Winter Wins

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.

Cornell University professor Karl Weick introduced the concept of small wins in a 1984 paper about redefining the scale of social problems.

‘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.

Winter wins. What are yours?

The Most Wonderful, Or Manifesting The Abstract One week with no home internet connection...

I’ve now been without a home internet connection for a week and I’m still appreciating my untethered peace of mind.

But it’s not like I’ve gone total caveman here.

I’ve got into a rhythm of working for four or five hours in the library, from whenever I finish my morning diary (see below) until my stomach tells me to get stuffed.

In the early evening, I’ll check my messages again in the lobby of the hotel where I go for my saunas. And that’s it for internet.

I appreciate that, in the grand scheme of things, this is still a very long time to be tethered.

2.6 billion people around the world live without a mobile phone and 360 million more have no internet connection either.

But I live in the UK, where there are more mobile phone connections than citizens and the average person spends 6.4 hours a day hooked up to those sweet sweet mbps (which I like the think is the noise our brain makes when it gets a dopamine squirt from some click bait headline).

Temperature Check Please

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.

Until this week, I hadn’t written what Julia Cameron calls ‘morning pages’ for a long time.

It was once a habit to write my diary first thing, but at an unspecified time in the past few years this became last thing at night: still a healthy habit, but with very different results.

𓉔𓄿𓃀𓂻: Manifesting The Abstract

Writing a daily diary is the engine-room of what I do. As I’ve written before: it’s my process.

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.

Don’t Rush To Press Writing, creating and flourishing - without a phone connection

The Boring Bit

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.

The Horror.

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.

Not that I’m counting the minutes or anything.

Minimum Viable Wifi

One of the stickiest ideas I’ve ever come up with is Minimum Viable Technology.

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.

Classic defaulting.

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:

  1. First draft in Q10, an offline text-only writer
  2. Second draft in LibreOffice, an offline word processing app
  3. Print out, read and edit with an actual pen
  4. Third draft edits in LibreOffice, offline
  5. Cycle to my friends’ house (thanks GC and BS)
  6. Copy over to Substack online
  7. TK gap-filling and typesetting online
  8. 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.

Now I’m thinking that I shouldn’t have bothered.

There’s something wonderful in running out of things to do and getting bored. It might be making me more curious, for starters.

I’m not someone who switches on the television and I’m not so interested in radio since I adopted my current No News Is Good News media diet.

With the gravitational pull of my sweet, sweet internet connection gone, the only distractions or entertainment in the flat are reading and staring out of the window.

I can no longer ‘reward’ myself with distraction defaulting.

I live alone so no one can pull me away from what I’m doing. No one on Whatsapp, no one on Signal, no one on my emails, no one on the phone, no one.

The closest I am to this kind of distraction is at the library, a five minute walk away. That’s a long way to go for a quick dopamine ‘treat’.

Instead I reward myself with a change of music, a chilli oat biscuit with maple syrup, by staring out to sea or playing guitar.

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.

The things that were not important were not done and that time regained opens up a clear horizon in the mind.

Interruptions don’t necessarily hold us back in terms of getting things done, but they do come at the cost of ‘more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort’.

Stress has been shown to make us feel more pressed for time (no surprises there) and feeling more pressed for time is antithetical to our wellbeing and our willingness to help others.

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.

Car Phone

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 An Energy Next time Sinjoro Maltrankvilo 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?

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.

What Bedtime Story Do You Tell Yourself? How to sleep, by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl

How rested you feel tomorrow will depend on the bedtime story you tell yourself.

If you complain about your sleep quality, then you’re simply making things worse for yourself: poor-sleeping complainers sleep worse and have worse health outcomes than poor-sleeping noncomplainers.

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.

Catching Up On Good News

Greetings from, well, the United Kingdom.

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.
  • The proportion of British people who think immigration is ‘bad for the economy’ halved from 42 per cent to 20 per cent. Despite all the frothy headlines over ‘culture wars’, social attitudes in the UK are becoming steadily more liberal.
  • Thomas & Friends got its first autistic train character, Bruno the Brake Car, and Peppa Pig got its first same-sex couple.

Amid the dread of returning to the UK, it’s good for me (and you too, perhaps) to remember that, at the same time as things going wrong, some things go right too.


I caught up on all that UK news by looking through the weekly Positive News ‘what went right’ archive, which you can also get as a newsletter.

Mycelial Contentment Fungi remind me that life is a simultaneous — and utterly entangled — act of personal exploration and collective creation

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 happy author, c. 2005

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.

It is very hard to be happy when you discover that the earth is burning. Or that Liz Truss has become Prime Minister.

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.

8,890,000,000,000,000,000 Megabytes

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.

Finding Balance

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’.

And it’s that in-person time that changes the wider world for the better, in all the ways that I discussed a couple of weeks ago.

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.

Mycelial Contentment

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

The Happiness Network. (In a parallel universe, I spend my life going around taking photos of fungi)

People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected.

I can’t believe I forgot to include the most obvious piece of research in last week’s newsletter about how our happiness is entangled with our networks.

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.

Read more:

Lies And The What What Now Now While livers and kidneys and stem cells do 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

Last week I told you no lies. But perhaps I was sparing with the truth.

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.

Also truth.

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.

Albania. Go. Now.

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 guilty Lake Shkodër (Montenegrin side)

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.

The Author, On His Death Trolley

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?

Why, on Monday, did I feel compelled to take a train from Athens to Thessaloniki, meet fellow core teamer Fen, drive Calypso to Alexandreia, park her up in a quiet suburb and catch another train with our bikes to Florina — only to turn around after a night’s sleep and ride 124km (into a strong headwind) back to Alexandreia, thereby linking Week 7 to Week 8 and making an unbroken land route of 5,428km all the way from Glasgow to Athens?

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.


Thanks to everyone involved, to Fen and the tortoise, also to Tim Ten Yen, and of course The Much Much How How And I.

The Opposite Of Control Is not chaos

I’ve not been well for the past three weeks, with fluctuating symptoms of fatigue, sore throat, headaches, blocked sinuses and stomach upset.

It’s not Covid, it’s not long Covid, it’s not a cold, meningitis, Lyme disease or glandular fever. Blood count, folate, B12, liver function — all healthy.

The longer this little thing drags on, even after two courses of antibiotics, the more convinced I am that it’s a manifestation of stress.

Simple as that.

Simple Is Complex

I’ve never forgotten something my sister once noticed at a gig when we were at university:

The easier a musical instrument looks, the harder it is to play.

  • Synthesiser: looks complicated, plays easy
  • Trumpet: looks simple, plays hard

The metaphor extends to medicine.

For example, I have an underactive thyroid.

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.

Letting Go

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:

  1. Focus on an issue you would like to feel better about
  2. Ask yourself: Is this feeling coming from a desire for control, a desire for approval, a desire for security or a desire for connection?
  3. 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?
  4. Ask yourself the question: Would I? Am I willing to let go?
  5. Ask yourself this question: When? Hint: the answer is always ‘now’ because the past is gone and the future never comes.
  6. Repeat half a dozen times, with slightly different inflections

During the session, I focused on my anxiety around the aforementioned and rapidly upcoming ride to Athens.

That’s where most of the stress in my life is right now and that’s how I suspect my sinus infection originally snuck in and, once, snucked, wouldn’t shift.

As I focused on that feeling, and as we made our way through the method, I realised three things.

1. My anxiety comes from a desire for control

I want to control every aspect of the ride — knowns and unknowns — to ensure that everything imaginable goes exactly as everyone involved could possibly dream.

That’s an awful lot to control. No wonder I get the sense that I’m operating a wee bit beyond my capabilities.

Looking back on those words, I realise too that my anxiety is coming from a good place: I desperately want people to have a good time and not die.

This is a good thing to want. Can I not be proud of my anxiety because it pushes me to do my best? Easier said than done.

2. But control is not an option

Unfortunately for my brain, control at this scale is simply not an option.

There are far too many moving parts to this operation:

  • 5,000km of cycling
  • 97 participants with all their own anxieties and excitements
  • 66 days and nights
  • 21 allergies or pre-existing medical conditions + Covid
  • 10 countries with 9 border crossings
  • 1 temperamental van 🙏

So, if control is not an option — what is its opposite?

3. The opposite to control is not chaos

The opposite of control is trust.

  • Trust in myself to do my best and rise to meet any challenge
  • Trust in the people around me to do the same
  • Trust in nature and the underpinning logic of the cosmos

Okay, so that last one is a little out there, but hopefully you know what I mean.

In the context of a dying star, our pettifogging anxieties seem a little insignificant, don’t they?

Whatever will be, will be and, don’t you see, it’s all perfect?

Anxiety arrives, with bugle horn and crack of whip, only when we lose our trust.


Of course, trust could (and perhaps one day should) be a whole post in itself — what is trust and how can we make more of it?

One thing I know for sure is that this bike ride generates exactly the right conditions for trust to thrive.

A bunch of people, each with unique strengths, surrendering to a unquantifiable, indefinable challenge far bigger than any individual, succeeding only together.

We’re ready.


I hope that this exploration of my stress has been a little helpful for you too.

If you’re seeing the connection between this post and my post about responsibility the other week, then ten points to you. Responsibility is an energy: distribute it wisely and you’ll power a whole network.

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of other good ways to manage stress, like going outside for exercise and eating a diet rich in prebiotic and probiotic foods.

Finally: if you’re crazy stressed, then please ask someone you (yep) trust for support.

Responsibility Is Not Heavy It's electromagnetic (metaphorically speaking)

We imagine responsibility as a weight.

This imagined foe finds expression in the metaphorical language we all use.

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.

What responsibility really looks like (metaphorically).

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.

Yesterday, for example, a 25,000 volt overhead cable fell onto a Birmingham railway line, causing ‘a spectacular fire with sparks, flames and smoke’.

That’s a lot of electrons spurting very quickly out of a literal fire hose.

Anyway. Don’t be scared. This is the wont of electrical charges, the world over, from time immemorial. This is the natural order of things.

And such is responsibility.

If you find yourself as the only conductive surface for an enormous electrostatic fire hose of responsibility, then god help you.

In plainer English: if you try to conduct all that responsibility through yourself, all alone, then you’re going to fry.

Like a tree caught in a flash of lightning, you’re going to burn out.

Stretching The Metaphor

Watching that touch-it-and-you-die 25,000 volt cable thrash around Birmingham of a summer’s day, it can seem a bit wild to remember that humans willingly generate electricity.

Oodles and oodles of the stuff.

Just today, just in the UK, humans have generated 608.3 gigawatt-hours.

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.

Big responsibility conducted through one person (ouch).

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.

Big responsibiity distributed among equals (ahhhh).

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.

Thank you.


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.


Photos: Okai Vehicles, Felix Mittermeier and Johannes Plenio

Squatting The One Stretch To Rule Them All

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.

I’ve long known that the squat (what a word!) is the best position for defecation and that millions of people all over the world sit comfortably in this position every day. But it’s caught my attention this week because Simon Jackson, Head of Bike Fit at Cadence, chose a 45-second squat as his desert island conditioning exercise.

This is the One Stretch To Rule Them All.

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…

Dream Architecture

Yesterday I finished reading The Men’s Group Manual by Clyde Henry. I’m not a member of a men’s group and I can’t really imagine joining, much less starting one right now, except perhaps in some kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone.

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…

Future Visualisation

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.

From The American Future Gap (Institute For The Future, 2017)

(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.

When we’re asked to imagine the future, we usually look around at what life we’re currently living, tweak it so it’s not raining quite so heavily, and that’s us.

And we’re particularly bad at imagining our own futures.

Jane McGonigal, lead author on the afore-pictured American Future Gap survey, explained it thusly in a 2017 article for Slate:

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.)

This explains why, sure, I can plan complex things like cycling from Glasgow to Athens with 100 other humans, but my time horizon is six months tops.

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.

If audacity is a muscle you need to build, see also: The Best Things In Life Are Audacious and Audacity Is Our Only Option. I think I’m due a re-read as well.

More Ideas For Future Visualisation

  • 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.

What do your pronouns mean?

No, I’m not wading into The Pronoun Wars. (Scrap ‘em all. More than half of the world’s langauges don’t have gender markers anyway.) This is something else…

Next time you’re having a conversation, notice what pronouns you’re using and think about what that might mean about your state of mind.

Here are some suggestions:

Saying ‘I’ a lot

Is this really all about you? Are you self-obsessed or self-reflective? Maybe stop in a second and ask the other person, ‘How about you? What do you think?’

Saying ‘You’ a lot

Are you arguing or accusing? Can you flip this around? ‘I feel such-and-such when whatever-happens.’

Saying ‘He/She/They’ a lot

Are you bitching about someone? Would you say this to their face? How would they respond if you did? Speak for them and add their defence to the conversation.

Saying ‘They’ a lot

Are you blaming an ill-defined other? ‘Experts’, ‘Tories’, ‘Gardeners With Fucking Leafblowers’. Can you be more specific? Can you take responsibility instead?

Using personal names a lot

Are you using personal names to respect or censure? Does it feel intimate or impersonal?

27 Things I Used To Believe And Now Completely Don’t

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 💀

I used to believe in the infallibility of these friendly guys

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.

For example:

(PSA: In the first half of 2021, Covid-19 was the cause of death in 37.4 percent of all unvaccinated people in the UK. Among those who chose to get two shots of a vaccine, the Covid-19 death rate was 0.8 percent. But, then again, this data is from the government-funded Office of National Statistics so you can magically confirmation bias that away too!)

Just Plain Dumb

But even worse than political breakdown, financial collapse and death is succumbing to the Dunning-Kruger effect:

Dumb people think they’re smart.

Or, as David Dunning and Justin Kruger wrote in their original 1999 paper:

Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

Smackdown. You do not want to get on the wrong side of Messrs Dunning and Kruger.

Follow up research on the Dunning-Kruger effect has since expanded the phenomenon to take in its flipside too:

Smart people think they’re dumb.

The more one learns, the more one realises how much more one has to learn, which leads high achievers to underestimate their level in comparison to the rest of us dumb-asses.

You see this a lot. Smart or skilful people tend to come with a healthy dose of humility. As ancient philosophy MVP Socrates apparently said:

What I do not know, I do not think I know either.

Or, as twenty-first century tennis MVP Rafael Nadal put it:

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.

(Told you it’d break down in five minutes.)

Always Right In An Infinite Universe

One of the wisest books I’ve read recently is Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey.

(Tl;dr: Poverty Safari is an attempt to describe how brains, humans, families and communities operate under conditions of financial scarcity.

It’s the anthropological-autobiographical partner to the more academic Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan, and you can read an updated summary of the research here.)

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

  1. 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!)
  2. Nation states are a sensible way of organising the different human communities of the world and borders must be protected against illegal intrusion.
  3. The police service is unimpeachable. Police officers know the law and will always enforce it fairly. (Also applies to law courts and politicians.)
  4. Morally and ethically, there is such a thing as Right and Wrong.
  5. There is only one type of intelligence — the one that I’m good at.
  6. When people let me down, turn me down or do me down, it’s probably because I’m in some way an awful person.
  7. Being well-travelled is about how many countries you’ve visited.
  8. Meat and dairy are an essential part of a healthy diet, or at least of a healthy diet for me.
  9. 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

  1. Robots and A.I. — ughhhh. Let me talk to a human! While we’re here: I strongly believe that we’re not living in a computer simulation. I’m probably wrong.
  2. Everything is relative. Morality, ethics, opinions, abilities, knowledge, whatever — it’s all relative. So back off.
  3. I’m a handsome clever clogs.
  4. I’m in great health and will probably live forever.
  5. I’m crap at music.
  6. I despise potato crisps or any crisp-like appetiser, such as poppadoms or Chinese crackers.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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

  1. Please can everyone stop voting Tory for a second? Thanks.
  2. 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.
  3. Every second I spend in front of a screen instead of outside in nature is killing me a little bit.
  4. 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.
  5. Fuck borders.
  6. Going on adventures is a wonderful thing to do and another way to build authentic connection with people and place.
  7. The mind is a body and needs stimulation, touch and movement.
  8. All property should be cooperatively owned. End landlords.
  9. Saunas.

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.

Hot Stones, Keystone Habits

I thought I knew why I sauna.

There is a legend that I tell around the hot stones about how, five years ago, I got injured while training for a half marathon.

So it was that, six weeks out from competition, I found myself frantically casting around the Internet for scientifically-backed endurance training techniques that involved, well, zero training.

Then I came across this 2007 study on club runners where three saunas a week for only three weeks led to an astonishing 32 percent increase in time to exhaustion on a treadmill.

Okay, so the saunas were taken immediately after training and the sample size was only six runners — but still.

If I could simply maintain my endurance fitness until the race, then I’d be golden. And so I signed up to the local leisure centre and started sauna-ing.

Lo and behold, six weeks later, I recorded my best ever time at the Gosport Half.

Okay, so the only other time I’d run there it’d been blowing a gale — but still.

I was sold on saunas and have been telling the story of why I sauna to anyone who would listen ever since.

But it’s not true.

Keystone Habits

A single low-powered running study might have been what first got me through the glass sauna door, but it’s not the reason I keep going back.

And the reason I keep going back has nothing to do with the evidence that saunas reduce blood pressure and inflammation, reduce chances of Alzheimer’s and depression, and 40 percent less likely to, ya know, die young.

No, none of them.

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 interesting strangers, 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.

It’s been a week of water and heat Sauna Diaries, Surfing and Warmshowers

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.

If you’re a cycle tourer not yet part of the Warmshowers network, please correct that immediately.

Unlocking Your Anxiety Archive Learn the transformative mental health protocol pioneered by rap star Jay-Z

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:

  1. Notice anxiety: ‘I feel anxious…’ This is often the hardest part. Practice noticing.
  2. Define anxiety: ‘…about filling up the Dolomites week on Thighs of Steel.’
  3. 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?’
  4. 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.’
  5. Empathise with anxiety: ‘I hear you, anxiety. I hear your persistent alarm signal and acknowledge that I should be doing something.’
  6. 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.

I mean, just for starters, there’s world hunger, the climate crisis and the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow.

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.

That’s huge.

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.
  • I’m also a director and cyclist-at-large at Thighs of Steel (please sign up to the Dolomites week in August — it’s so beautiful!)

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.

NOTE 2: Tim Ferriss does a more structured version of this Stoic-inspired examination of anxieties, which he calls ‘fear-setting’. You can read about Tim’s process on his blog.