It’s been a tricky year, this, to write one of these reviews for. We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic, with a mutant viral strain racing through our capital. Many are isolated, loved ones are sick, businesses are shut and struggling.

The public discourse is crumbling, and we’re being swept along on both sides of the Atlantic by a wave of isolationism and division at a time when mutual understanding, nuanced conversation, and co-ordination have scarcely been more vital.

On the plus side, though, I got some painting done. Nice one, Mark.

So yes, it all feels a bit insignificant. And yet here I am publishing an article anyway - why? If there’s a theme to this blog, it’s probably personal development. By definition, this is a fairly personal endeavour. Of course, we want ultimately to align ourselves with the meaningful themes of our time, but, at least for me, the steps to get there begin in the mundane. Rather than a laundry list of shining achievements to proclaim, there might be a few small and personal moments of meaning along the way. Checkpoints in the everyday and practical which ripple into the depths of our character, an abstraction shaped by our concrete actions.

More than this, however, is that personal development done well is as much the study of our inadequacies as our triumphs. I don’t know a way of being that brings so clearly and so constantly our weaknesses to the fore. It is, after all, difficult to improve in an area where you think there is no improving required. This struggle, although enacted in the personal, is, I believe, a more universal experience than we might think. Each time I write something on this topic, I, to my surprise, hear from a few others who connected with something in the writing and felt less alone, or even just enjoyed taking a few minutes to read the article. And, so, find this not as a review of the year on a global basis, or a hot take on how we can solve the problems of the world, but instead as a personal development checkpoint, written as a journal entry, filled with the daily tasks of life, and published in the hope of being meaningful to even a single other, in the spirit of doing what we can with the tools that we have.

Robert Burns wrote, in To A Mouse, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and if there was ever a year that embodied the message of this poem, then it could well have been 2020. It’s all too easy to remember this time last year, sitting down with an open book, and writing goals or themes for the year to come, not knowing that circumstances would conspire to thwart them.

Opening Spiritual Doors via Painting

My first project detour this year was around working from home. As an acolyte of wellbeing, I’ve learned that our environment is a key component of our flourishing. Just as organised and beautiful surroundings promote a calm mood, chaotic surroundings tend to produce unease, an array of possible improvements as yet undone, calling to us for attention. As the prospect of an extended period of working from home loomed, I looked around the second bedroom where I had hastily cobbled together some computer equipment, not-quite-admiring the woodchip wallpaper and brown carpet, covered in part by old boxes, workout gear, and a wardrobe of questionable provenance and odour which was, mysteriously, the only thing that had been left in the house when I moved in.

Rather than spend a third of my waking life in the brown sadness box, I decided that it was now or never, and began to renovate this room. If you’d like to read more about this work, I did a little recap of the process, in the article here.

Of course, it’s in my nature to take an endeavour like this, and try to pull out a narrative, to imbue it with some meaning, to find within the task an appeal to a broader principle. The first lesson I took, was to roll with the punches. Not so much in terms of the course of the project itself, but in terms of doing the project at all. Renovating this room wasn’t in my plans for 2020, and, naturally, it came at those cost of letting some of life’s other spinning plates crash to the floor. I consider myself to be a fairly driven person, someone who tends to encounter an obstacle and then just keep trying to overcome it, and to consider anything less than total success, to be failure. In particular, even though the value of creating a suitable working space was much greater in the world of working from home than in the world in which I expected to be when I made my plans, there is still a part of me that considers the matters left unattended to be a failure.

As a particularly philosophical aside, there is, underlying this, an idea that perhaps an ideal version of myself could have done it all. In the cold light of day, not only is this unlikely, but in any case it’s just not helpful. We find ourselves, perpetually, falling short of our ideals. Should we ever reach them, the mere fact of our presence there would render them no longer our ideals. And whilst it’s worthy to submit ourselves to our ideal values, to follow a North Star, we can remember that this star is there so that we may find by it’s light the right direction in which to travel, and not that we may expect to walk upwards to meet it in the heavens.

In a year of restrictions, this type of situation, where reprioritisation in the light of circumstances was needed, occurred as a theme. Yes, it might have been possible to travel if we returned into quarantine. Perhaps one could have built a home gym to keep training all year round, at considerable expense and taking up considerable space. It would have been possible to start or expand a business, but surely much harder in a year with such an economic downturn and restrictions on movement. Relationships with those distant from us could surely have been built and deepened, but there has hardly been a more challenging environment with which to contend.

What this year helped to bring to the fore for me, was the potential downside to the highly persistent approach to problem solving, an approach which certainly comes most naturally to me, which is no doubt a reflection of a personality trait inclined to this direction. Perhaps our collective plans could have been enacted relatively unchanged, but the cost would have been so much greater, that had we assessed the circumstances in this way at the outset, the obstacle we are fighting to overcome would now belong to a step in a plan which wouldn’t have been a good plan at all. Perhaps all of our commitments could have been fulfilled in their entirety, but we must surely cut ourselves a little slack for striving against the tide of impediments and struggles this year has brought.

It’s important that we have an ability to frame these changes in direction as, to borrow a term from project planning, a pivot, and not as a defeat. I’ve explored previously the miraculous human tendency to assess our position in terms of our current goals, and so this slight change in perceptive framing can have a profound impact on our wellbeing. It’s the difference between failing at a goal, and all that that entails for our sense of worth, and using our judgment to realign, starting upwards on a new path along which we can make positive progress towards a new end.

All this to say, this year I’ve spent more time pondering the notion that sometimes it’s OK to take a breath, and to reassess your destination. To consider that perhaps it’s wise to recognise your place in a world which you cannot always control. In a more spiritual frame, it sometimes feels as though the universe guides us on the paths that are right for us. Some doors stick much more than we expect, whereas some that look bolted fast seem to spring open at the lightest touch, an army of helpers appearing unbidden at our side. Some, perhaps my favourite, need you to push just slightly harder than you think you can right now, almost as if designed, just for you, as a personal challenge. Yes, choose your doors, yes try hard to open them, but sometimes, maybe try one a little less stuck. You can always come back, with a few more adventures under your belt. Sometimes, you have to roll with the punches.

“Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
-Bruce Lee, Martial Artist

Being taught Consistency, Consistently

The second lesson, to some degree imparted by the same project, was the value of consistency. In the case of fixing up my little study room, the project took much longer than I anticipated. Whilst the bulk of the work was done in the evenings and weekends of May and June, I had started the process of planning and ordering supplies in March, and the room wasn’t fully complete until August. At times, mainly the times when my hair was full of plaster dust, my hands were cut and bleeding, a desk was blocking the door of the bathroom, the upstairs was filled with tiny fragments of wallpaper, and I was eating my meals in a few square inches around the keyboard on the dining table where I had moved my computer to, it felt slightly overwhelming. Again, the cure for anxiety was action, and a task that felt a little insurmountable was nonetheless surmounted, bit by bit, and little by little.

This lesson, also, was thematic. The value of consistency became conscious for me as a theme to explore around the latter segment of the year. Of course, at some level, we have an instinct that consistency is good, but I found myself actively noticing it, particularly in the backstories of many of the highly attaining people who I had encountered in books and podcasts over the year, almost as if a message from the subconscious. I returned to a practice of daily habit tracking for probably the longest time in my life to date, and set out to study the results.

One of these habits was reading. Specifically, sitting down with a physical book, setting aside the concerns of the day, and taking some time to explore the concepts within. Whilst at times I would read a few chapters, sometimes it would be only a few pages. I would at times read even for one minute, more concerned with the exploration of consistency than the quality of the act, at least initially. In a few weeks, I’d read three books in this manner, and found something worth taking away from each of them.

Firstly, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, in which I found that I was not alone in my experiences of meditation. Mindfulness, for me, has been a practice that opens a portal to the profound, not in a vague or ethereal sense, but through a set of experiences which can be fairly precisely articulated. There is a sense of connectedness with the people and things around you. A sense of the closing of distance between you and loved ones. A sense of seeing yourself and others more clearly, as though the ego and defence mechanisms of our actions and traumas are stripped back, and only the essence remains. A sense of compassion, and of love, perhaps sparked most clearly by the people we love, but expanding outward to cover the very nature of being itself, the good times for their joy and the tough times for their value. An acceptance of what is, and a sense that it could not have been other than this, a reduction in striving for things to be otherwise, but not in a manner that diminishes or competes with our material effectiveness, but rather enhances it through clarity of purpose and action.

To my surprise, I found some of these phenomena listed and explored in this book. There is always a draw for me in the abstract, and another in the spiritual, the wonder of simply being sometimes announcing itself from what was, until that very moment, the ordinary. However, I am also an engineer, and have, to some degree, the sensibilities of a scientist when it comes to exploring this world. To find so clearly listed so detailed an account which matched my own experience piqued my interest sharply, and I hope to explore the nature of this way of perceiving the world.

From Victor Frankl’s harrowing Man’s Search for Meaning, I was taught the idea that no matter one’s circumstances, one can still find a sustaining meaning, even when all other courses of action are prohibited, in the way one chooses to respond to and conceptualise events. This book was a challenge to read, the insight into the cruelty inflicted by men on others deeply disturbing, and a sobering reminder of the consequences of division, and of all that we have to avoid.

Finally, I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits. This was, rather appropriately, filled with useful and applicable knowledge on habit building, the very endeavour which I was undertaking. Whilst I will probably revisit the handy summary pages, there are a set of ideas which I can recall unprompted, the most central, perhaps, is that it is frequency, and not duration, of an action which helps habits to stick, and more, an idea held also by Jung, that it is our actions that determine the kind of person we are. So, therefore, the most effective way to become the kind of person we wish to become is to perform the actions that person would perform, as consistently as possible. With a nod to the idea that we can merely strive towards, but never attain, our ideals, Clear advises us that the best way to avoid slipping back into old patterns, is to commit, not to unyielding perfection, but to “never miss twice”.

Fitness as a Metaphor for Literally Everything

So, we’ve encountered a couple of lessons so far. The first one, don’t be afraid to change your plans, and the second, the only way to get somewhere is through consistency. Right. There’s no question at this point that I’m filled with these apparent paradoxes - my apologies to the reader. It’s surely either a sign of a scattered internal philosophy or, perhaps instead, of a sophisticated framework which can recognise the value of context and adapt to the dualistic nature of this plane of reality. I very much have my fingers crossed for the latter, but no doubt that time, and the reader, will be my judge.

“The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”
-Neihls Bohr, Physicist

I’ve written in the past about my beliefs that physical endeavour is an ideal lab for the science of achievement in general, or that it has the capacity to impart lessons of character, and reveal truths of our nature. In that spirit, fitness was a huge part of my year, and perhaps you will allow me to discuss one of my endeavours, and share how I found echoes of my themes in training.

Early in the year, I decided to test myself by running an impromptu half marathon, which would be my first. To self-analyse, this was no doubt a response to being under lockdown. In a time where actions were being restricted, I wanted to reassure myself that I still possessed a degree of agency, and that it was still possible to stretch myself to achieve something I had never achieved before, and this, not in the sense of rebellion, but instead as a way to find internal freedom of spirit in a time of physical limitation.

Whilst it wouldn’t be fair to claim that I was embarking on the run entirely untrained, there had certainly been no long-distance running training leading up to this, obviously quite foolish and spontaneous, decision. I had, the previous November, taken part in a 10k run, but the last time I had regularly run much more than 3 miles would have been roughly 10 years prior.

This would mean that meticulous preparation was key, so I woke up dehydrated and underslept, with a headache, and had a large fry for breakfast. I’d never run with a bag before, so I thought I had better do that too. I spent a few minutes looking at Google Maps, put some extra layers, a bottle of Lucozade Sport, a protein bar, and a banana into a backpack, and started to run.

Within 15 steps, the straps of the bouncing backpack had scratched a red line into my neck, so I, on this warm spring day, put on an outer layer which I had stowed in the bag in case of my, quite likely, collapse. Luckily, this zipped up around the neck and stopped the painful scraping, and I began to move again.

The first half of the run was freeing, and I took it slowly, running the few miles from my house to the beautiful scenery of the North Down coastline, and then following along by the sea. Despite the scenic surroundings, I was painfully aware that every step out into my there-and-back-again route was one which I would have to make again in the other direction. Without having completed a distance training program, or tested myself over much more than half this distance, I had no real physical basis for any certainty that I could. Shrouded by this cloud of doubt, was, however, a stubborn decision that today I was not trying to run a half marathon, but that I was running a half marathon.

At the halfway point, I paused to sit on a bench, clock still running, and consumed my packed lunch and Lucozade. I’ve since done some research into the matter, and it seems like the “protein-bar-on-a-bench lunch stop” strategy is not popular among elite half-marathon runners, but, hey, we’re exploring lots of new ground here.

The return leg was uncharted territory for me, but I had earphones and a physics podcast and was near the sea, so was very happy. I took a couple of walking breaks at the first signs of muscle tiredness, preferring to take it easy than to risk exhaustion or injury too many miles from home.

Before long, I had completed the return leg without incident and treated myself to a nice hot shower and a restful evening. When I looked at the calories burned I realised that I could eat a massive three-course Chinese meal, and quickly pondered whether I could simply run a half marathon every day and never restrict my food intake again. This notion was put to bed upon waking the following morning to find that it was, in fact, possible for leg muscles to congeal into a solid block. The furiously raging headache also suggested that something in the combination of a fry, not enough water, no electrolyte tablets, a protein bar, a banana, a 3-course chinese, and running thirteen miles untrained with a backpack wearing a heavy top, might not represent the pinnacle of nutrition and exercise science. More to discover here.

The distance, whilst merely a training run for many, was, for me, fairly challenging, and I would doubt my ability to have gone much farther, but the sense of achievement was real, and something that I look back on as a nice milestone from 2020. What stayed with me for longer, however, was an intense joy in and gratitude for being physically able to test my body, being able to pursue goals which I found challenging and meaningful, and the privilege to enjoy the staggering natural beauty of the glistening coastline.

And whilst this run was an early highlight for me, I found it difficult to find consistency in training in 2020. Gym closures, my choice to focus for a while on DIY at home, and a couple of overuse injuries meant I cycled through various routines with various focusses; powerlifting, pilates, rehab, running, walking, bodyweight training. At one point, I was training purely powerlifting, and was delighted to, for a few weeks, consistently break through some strength PRs, albeit at the cost of a few extra pounds of bodyweight. More recently, I found a focus again on running, and sluiced off 5-6 pounds in 3-4 weeks, which has gone some way towards tidying things up, and getting these results has been a great motivation for the future, as well as some confirmation that I am circling in on personally effective and sustainable routines in these disciplines.

Although I haven’t managed to dial in all of these aspects at the same time, thematically, this has been my way of rolling with the punches, of doing what makes sense as the circumstances allow. This has served to teach me that changing tack is not the same as giving up, and that it’s important to appreciate small achievements even when circumstances get in the way of what we might have hoped for.

As a partial antidote to my unfortunate habit of comparing myself, highly unfavourably I might add, to my fictional ideal self, it’s the second theme of the year somewhat to the rescue here, as I try to remind myself that velocity is more important than position, and that these modest achievements for 2020 have been borne out of, not superhuman effort, not of finding a magic formula, but of making small improvements, again and again, over the long term.

I’m often guilty of searching for a lifehack. A diet that doesn’t feel like a diet, a workout routine without the work. I’m now beginning to suspect that if there really is a magic ingredient, it’s an ability to strap in for the long haul, and, simply and consistently, do the work.

“No shortcuts, there ain’t no cheats there”
-G-Eazy, Rapper

A year, of course, can’t be condensed into a couple of stories. There were other times of trouble and concern, and of joy and celebration, other lessons to ponder, and insights won, other projects to tackle and opportunities to reflect, personally and collectively.

I, do, however, want to share one more thought for now. Throughout all of the year, I’ve been able to share these experiences in conversations with friends. I still hold the firm belief that I’ve found myself miraculously amid a group of the most thoughtful, talented, funny, inspiring, and positive people one could hope to meet, and it is my privilege to share in parts of their stories too. For any of my friends reading this, I want you to know how much I appreciate you! It is my biggest regret of the year that we couldn’t spend as much time together as we usually do, but there have been instead day trips, mountain hikes, coastline walks, hill climbs, take-away coffees, forest adventures, danders down the street, online quizzes, video chats, phone calls, and even text messages, and I have enjoyed every one.

Here’s hoping that there is a little more light, and a little less darkness, in 2021.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
-Hebrews 11:1