A calm manifesto

I have had a number of opinions over the last few months. Well, that would be an understatement; I’ve had a lot of different opinions over the last few months and years. All of which, when considered in the round, when averaged up and combined, thought about deeply and evaluated for their impact on my life, have added up to a sum total of very little at all.

I’m writing this because I’m starting to grow weary of my own constant desire to change and improve myself. My life over the past few years has been an undercurrent of love and gradual progress – as my wife and I have got over illness, conquered assorted fears together, overcome a myriad of barriers put in our way to have a child, and together grown up and experienced our lives through the eyes of Freddie, who is now nearly two years old.

In that time, I’ve managed to convince myself that I should write more, lose weight, exercise, take on big challenges, learn to code, teach myself formal project management, run a team, write more (again), learn to code (a different language this time), read more management books, become more entrepreneurial, and a whole host of things, most of which I don’t really stick to for that long. The vast majority of these things have made little or no difference to my life as I plod along.

While reviewing some project management documentation this morning, preparing for an exam in about a weeks’ time, I started to panic. “I’m not ready” I thought, “I’m going to fail!”

You can argue that the concept of failure is something that has roots in our very evolution – after all, failing to run or hide from that sabre-toothed tiger will result in our very demise – but that argument falls a little flat when considering the challenges of modern day life. I won’t die if I fail this exam; in fact, I’ll learn a little, try again, and probably pass – albeit a little later than expected. My family won’t starve or become homeless if I don’t learn Javascript or Ruby or some other new fangled programming language. Sure, being an entrepreneurial type would be really nice – I have, after all, come back to this subject many many times – so there must be an inkling of desire in there somewhere, but even so, it’s not the end of the world if I don’t achieve it *right now*.

But seeking the constant rush of self improvement has led me to forget (sometimes) that underneath all this is a life that makes me happy. I am fortunate enough to have a good job, a loving wife, and a happy son who makes me laugh in ways I never expected. When I write about how I should take on a new challenge and then promptly shame myself when I don’t hit that goal or series of steps immediately, I take away a little bit of the life that truly makes me whole.

When I get up that little bit earlier to get into work so I can study, or I get home that little bit later so I can finish off some piece of work or another, I may make some progress in one area, but I’m trading it for happiness elsewhere.

I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles in my life. I’ve beaten cancer, for a start; I’ve recently battled depression and come out the other side with a better understanding of myself, I’ve been promoted at work and now have a team. I’m slowly and surely making things better, and trying to be a better husband and father has always been at the top of my notional agenda, even if I sometimes fail to make it the top of my actual one.

Rather than make a series of promises, and set even more goals, I’m just writing this as a note to my future self. Hitting – or missing – a new target every day, or every week, is not really necessary; being happy is the real goal – and I can do that without constant challenges.

Needy Facebook

A few weeks ago, I stopped logging into Facebook regularly; simply because I started to hate having to scroll endlessly to catch up with people I barely knew. The absolute bombardment of ads and sponsored content didn’t help, either.

I feel much better, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much, and my life is just that little bit simpler. Facebook, however, has decided that my absence is not good enough – so knowing that I’m not using the app, it’s decided to spam me with email instead.

I think I’m going to have to log in one more time – just to turn off email notifications.

Social

My Facebook feed is a mess.

My occasional visits are now a sea of demands, challenges and judgement. What used to be an arena of friendship, where I learnt about the people who I cared about, where I sat down around a fire and listened to their stories and shared my own, has become a noisy bazaar.

If I were to call you up and ask you to meet, would you pick a cosy cafe, where we could share a slice of cake and a casual cup of coffee, or would you ask to meet in the middle of a thoroughfare, where we were constantly interrupted by hawkers? Would you think less of me if I did nothing but told you about the accomplishments or opinions of total strangers, and left you after half an hour, none the wiser about my life?

What if throughout our conversation – one barely heard over the noise of adverts, irrelevant and blinding videos, the constant barrage of racist chants and misogynist bellowing – we were interrupted by people who came to our table and beseeched us to buy this little trinket or another, or harangued us to sign up to their poorly assembled pamphlet packed with conspiracy theories and hastily repeated half truths, barely understood by their authors?

Is this what our friendship has come to?

I love you all. I want to hear about your lives. Those who use this social networking tool in the way it was originally intended – to share their successes, feelings and challenges with the people they respect – have become buried under a tremendous mass of garbage and self interested promotion, shared over and over again to the point where the original message has become diluted or lost entirely (if it existed at all, in any meaningful form).

If I want to watch a man abuse another in the street or join a gang of callous strangers casually dismiss someone I have never known, then I have countless other avenues in which I can pursue those pastimes. Should I ever become that sort of person, then I am less of a man myself.

If I want to win a competition, do my chances improve by shoving it down the throats of the people I love? How do I enrich other peoples’ lives by simply passing around a pile of notices that, if posted through a letterbox, would be dismissed as junk mail and binned unopened?

I am not blameless. I do not speak from the moral high ground. I am as guilty of self promotion as the next man. I, too, have shared ‘stuff’ I thought was funny without a care for the time of the people who would read it.

But I am sick of being instructed to take a stand by people I don’t know. If you value my ability to make my own judgements, then present me with the facts and invite my feedback. Please don’t expect me to parrot your entreaty, because by doing so you cheapen the value I place on my friends.

You want to win competitions. I understand that. You have been invited to share a picture of a pile of goods, with the vague promise that someone who does will win said stash. Sadly, you haven’t considered the fact that the person asking you to share on the off chance of winning seeks no more than your connections. If I advertise, then I know my reach will be more greatly extended if I suggest that you will be better off by pushing this on your friends. Have you proof that this person intends to stand by their promise? Have they shown any evidence that they have created winners before? Or is our so called friendship so cheap to you that you will gladly sacrifice it for the sake of an meaningless and vanishingly small chance of winning an insignificant prize?

You feel strongly about a charity. You feel that I don’t understand how little we as a population care about an illness untreated, or a minority shunned. You want to tell me about that. I invite you to do so. All I want is for you to tell me in your own words. Please, tell me, face to face, what this means to you and how I can help you. Does your cause need money? Can I volunteer some time to directly assist them, perhaps to sit with those who are sidelined, or left uncared for?

If all you want from me is to slap up a cheaply printed poster on the global billboard already overwhelmed with similar messages (all equally misspelled and poorly written) in the hope that this time someone in power will listen, then you are wasting my time and yours. I don’t believe that you will make me feel more strongly about it by challenging me, either. Can you really tell me that I don’t care about the cause because the message is antagonistic? If you think that of me, then we are not the friends I thought we were. Why is my attention so cheap to you that you will happily waste it?

I declare bankruptcy.

If I can’t create a heartfelt story or tell my friends about something that I genuinely believe will warm their hearts, then I won’t do it. I won’t step into that loud, brash, cheap marketplace if I can’t bring something considerably more valuable and place it right in front of those who I love.

Starting from now, I will not participate any more. I will, instead, do something I should have started doing years ago.

I don’t want to try and decipher your story from a pile of junk mail. I value you too much to cheapen your life with an endless stream of rubbish. I pledge never to share a video, message, competition or opinion unless it is written in my own words, and comes from my heart.

You are my friend. Can we talk, face to face? Let’s share a cup of coffee, and you can tell me about your life, and share pictures of your family. Tell me about mutual acquaintances I have yet to catch up with. If you are thousands of miles away, then please, take my email address, and email me. Here’s my skype contact details. Let’s chat over video. Give me your address, and I will write you a letter, and enclose some photos of my family. I’ll tell you a story, and you can tell me one. Are you going to be nearby? Please let me know where you’ll be and when, and if I possibly can, I will come to see you.

It’s time to rekindle the friendships I value so much.

Murder your darlings

“Murder your darlings”

Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (1863 – 1944)

According to the high venerated Wikipedia Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch encouraged his students to murder their darlings, or quickly kill off those things they thought dear to them, in order to start afresh and anew. It’s a very good point. It also applies to those things that started off as fun, but over time became more of an obligation, and lost their lustre in doing so.

Back at the beginning of 2012, I started a little blog called Bloody Complaining. This was to be my dumping ground for all the complaints that my friends had to listen to every time I saw them; I had used the more traditional location of the Facebook status update to share these with the world previously, but I just came across as a whinger. Nobody likes to be thought of as a whinger.

Over seven months, I piled all my likes and dislikes into this sounding off point. I had set myself the high bar of posting every day and never repeating myself; this was incredibly easy for the first month and got progressively harder as the months wore on.

I found myself struggling to complain. The adage of never repeating myself was designed for the benefit of my many readers, or so I thought, but looking back at the early posts I realised – too late – that they were generic and any complaining on the same broad point could be seen as repetition. I had ruined my chances before I started.

It became a chore, this little complaining blog. Days would go by without an update, and then I would hurry to backfill the missing days. Often I found myself documenting seven or more complaints at once, and then inserting them carefully into the timeline. These complaints became weaker and weaker and my outrage dimmed, rending the last few posts little more than a bit of a moan.

And then July came, and I posted on the first two days, but ran out of steam. My iPad showed my Omnifocus reminder to post a new complaint every day, but I didn’t. I let each day lapse, and the distance between the last post and the current day grew larger and larger.

By the end of July, the gap was just too large, and it occurred to me that this fun little experiment had run its’ course. I was no longer able to complain as vociferously as I had done before, and the creation of new posts was no longer something I looked forward to, but something that was just hard work.

So yesterday I posted my last post. I may well keep the blog there as a reminder of what I managed – over 180 separate complaints is no mean feat, after all – but is now a static piece of memories for me.

I murdered my darling, and today it finally occurred to me what that phrase means. It was a necessary murder.

Warm

I have a recurring desire to stay warm. You might think that this is a perfectly natural desire, one that is replicated in every human being on this planet, and that is probably so; nevertheless I have this desire and for me it is new. Let me explain what I mean.

When I was in hospital, I would often spend days lying in bed. Certainly, at the start of my treatment, lying in bed was all I could do. It was an effort to move, and the energy required to lift my legs out of the bed and move them to the floor, locate my slippers, and re-arrange my clothing so I didn’t inadvertently expose myself was just too much to bear.

So I spent a lot of my time just lying there. I indulged myself in conversation with my fellow ward-mates and waited for the next drug round or feeding time. It felt a lot like being in a zoo, with the one obvious exception of tourists not coming around to view me in my native habitat and poke food through the bars.

In an environment like this, when food and drugs were prescribed at predefined times, I allowed myself the luxury of sleep. In fact, this was not so much a luxury as a necessity – chemotherapy drugs are designed to flatline your whole antiviral system, and this in turn puts your body through a hell of a lot. On the outside, you are relaxed, calm and slightly dozy. Inside, multiple wars are being fought and won. It’s a lot of work.

When I slept, I often curled up into a ball, on one side, and drifted away. I became oblivious to the noise of the hospital and the varied comings and goings of those around me, and retreated into idle dreams and just plain flat out sleep. This was always easier in the afternoon, when shafts of bright sunlight shot through the windows and illuminated the ward.

I found that I naturally gravitated to the sun, and let it gradually warm me through as I dozed. As time went on, it became a natural thing to do – when the sun lit up my little space, I slept.

Now, nearly a year after that experience, I still find simple pleasure in sleeping in sunlight. Like a cat that curls up in front of a warm fire, or a spot on the floor that is bathed in light, I find myself wanting to catch a few moments of bliss, get comfortable, and sleep.

Perhaps this is a way for me to re-live the few pleasures I had when I was going through my treatment. Certainly while my body was wracked in pain or simply fighting a multitude of battles on my behalf, I was able to mentally relax, free of the normal structures of daily life, and let others manage my destiny for me.

I guess in retrospect it was a time when I could return to being a child, shuck off the responsibilities of adulthood, and live my life on far simpler terms. Now I am returned to the usual day to day challenges of work, I live for those moments when I can return to easier days.

Procrastination

It took me weeks to get started on writing this post. Oh har de har de har.

Like many of the people I read on the Internet, I suffer quite badly with procrastination. That is to say, clearly the majority of the people I read on the Internet don’t suffer with procrastination, or I’d have nothing to read as they would have loads of great ideas but never get round to writing them.

I’ve been told that I’m a good writer. I’ve been fortunate enough to be blessed with the sort of friends that consider my jumpy, abject, long winded prose and the ability to never manage to write a short sentence as a good thing. I’ve been told that underneath all this self effacing concern for my ability to get anything done at all is a good deal of dry wit, something that I have been trying to exercise on the other blog – bloodycomplaining.com – but even there I sometimes fail to express myself properly and just come across as a bloody complainer.

Which, I suppose, is just the point. That’s my place to vent and complain about the world and all the injustices that it serves upon me.

Tangents… Hmmm… Lovely tangents. Where was I again?

So, I’ve been told that I would make a good writer, but the problem with that is the people who tell me that have read stuff that I have written. Ergo, they have experienced the benefits of reading good output when I finally get around to producing it, but that gestation period between an idea appearing in my head and me being sufficiently motivated to actually sit down and write about it can be a very long time.

I’ve tried countless ways of addressing the good old procrastination bug, but the underlying point, I think, about procrastination in the first place is that it originates inside your head, and the inside of your head is a incredibly complex place to start messing around with. Besides, the inside of my head is also where all the reading I do about addressing procrastination goes too, and that makes it kind of hard to deal with.

It would be like trying to evict a horrible smelly flatmate by reading lots of magazine articles and books on “evicting a horrible smelly flatmate” and leaving them open all over the place – if he doesn’t want to go, no quantity of subtle hints or strategies that he knows exist because you openly share them with him are going to make a difference. Do you see what I’m getting at here? The analogy is a bit tenuous, but up there in my convoluted brain it sort of makes sense.

There is a bit of me that is stopping me doing my best thing, but I’m not going to be able to overcome it by reading more things about overcoming it, because by reading about overcoming procrastination instead of just getting started on something I love doing, I’m not actually solving the problem. At all.

Ooh, just got distracted by the idiotic laughing lady in the room next door. I’m typing this in a hotel on my iPad, just after I spent the last ten minutes wondering what the hell I was going to do because I was so bored.

Anyway.

Ironically enough, the very point about typing a post about procrastination is kind of helping me get out of the very problem I was having in the first place. You see, I started this blog with a good reason in mind, typing little posts about the horrible illness I had, and how it affected my life and everything, but as time stretches on and it fades into the distance, just like I knew it would, I find myself wanting to nurture this online place I call home, rather than letting weeds grow all over it like so many other blogs I started.

Blurgh. Long sentences, poorly punctuated. Not my greatest moment.

Anyway, that’s kind of it for the moment. My bit of procrastination busting that might spur me on to achieve more things. At least I’m not staring into the mirror and wondering what the hell I’m going to do with the next half an hour.