Twitter eats my brains. Facebook eats my brains. TV eats my brains. Alcohol and bad food eat my brains.
But I like having my brains eaten.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. So this Jack is going to do jack for a few days over Christmas.
And you know what? It’ll be great. I’ll come out the other side chilled and ready to go for 2013.
A lot of the people I follow on Twitter are challengers – they say ‘Do more, do it now, be the best you can be, don’t stop!’. I realised I don’t really need that. It makes me feel bad for taking time to relax, and anyway I’m quite bad not doing stuff. Something in my brain makes me do project after project.
I think that bit of my brain is the tastiest. So I’m going to let Twitter, Facebook, TV, alcohol and bad food gorge themselves on it. Dinner is served!
And when my brain regrows, it’ll be different. I’m reading Papillon at the moment. I’m teaching undergrads about digital media. In January I’m moving to a new company in a new industry. I’m probably going to move out of London in the next two months. Fizz pop fizz pop! Lots of new synapses and pathways being created in my head.
All this is good:
1) Let the zombies eat your brains from time to time
Self-improvement is a weird and loaded phrase. But whatever you call it, it can’t possibly be linear, so don’t sweat it when you want to take a break.
2) ABE: Always Be Exploring
New stuff is the stuff of life. Think of your most interesting friend. Isn’t it the one with the most curiosity?
3) The Emergent Self
Ha, that sounds wanky! But I’m starting to get uncomfortable with the idea of the Quantified Self, where you measure everything and continually iterate to improve yourself in various ways. Much cooler to be the Emergent Self – letting the zombies eat your brains periodically and exploring new stuff so it regrows differently every time.
All this is good.
It’s quite relaxing not to worry about continually getting ‘better’ and ‘better’.
There was a lump on my testicle and it needed to be investigated.
I went to the doctor and she sent me to the hospital for tests – a bad sign. There was a lump and the doctor was worried.
I walked around those few days in a trance. I couldn’t taste anything. I felt like my whole body was inside my head and that I was one step removed from what I was doing, like there was a pane of glass between me and the world.
Maybe I should have been thinking about all the stuff I still wanted to do with my life but actually all felt was fear. It consumed me, froze me, jellied my brain. I couldn’t talk to people properly but I didn’t want to tell anyone what was going on. I just wanted it all to go away, I didn’t want to be me any more and I really didn’t want to be ill.
I went to three different departments at the hospital and in the last one you could see people who actually had cancer and were going through treatment. I remember one guy in a wheelchair being pushed past the seating area I was in. He had no hair, his skin was pale white, he had the sweats you get when you’re feverish, and he looked totally zoned out, in a daze.
This guy looked really ill and I think he was going to die.
‘Todd Green?’ – my turn.
I stood up and walked with the doctor through to a dark room. I lay on the bed and the scan began. My head started spinning and it was like in books and movies where you see all the things you’ve done and people you’ve loved whirling past at once.
The doctor stopped scanning.
‘Mr. Green, you’re ok. It’s not cancer. You’re all clear.’
Thank fuck for that.
‘The lump is just a …’ – I don’t actually remember what it was because as soon as I got the all-clear my brain was flooded with relief and gratitude and love for this wonderful life and all I wanted to do was run up a mountain and jump the moon and sing ‘You and I are gonna live forever’ from the roof of that terrible, beautiful hospital.
If it really had been a film then some profound life change would have happened that day – as I walked out through the hospital doors I would have gone down on my knees and sworn to the universe that I would never again take anything for granted, that I would love and honour my fellow human beings in some new and cosmic way, and that I would immediately quit my self-serving job and dedicate my life to helping the afflicted.
That didn’t happen.
But the thing that has stayed with me, nearly four years later, is the feeling of fear.
For that short time I really felt utter, engulfing terror. Writing this has made me peer back into the abyss but I was a few steps down there for a while, and I can barely imagine what it must be like for people who live there for real.
I’m pretty sure my brain prevents me from feeling that fear every day – the whole experience has been assimilated now because in the end I wasn’t ill, and because otherwise it would be difficult to get on with stuff.
And I’m glad of that, because I don’t want to be thinking ‘Make the most of today, who knows what tomorrow will bring!’ all the time, or even ‘This could be your last pizza, better enjoy it!’.
But revisiting that experience is a powerful thing, even if it’s only once in a while.
It does make me more excited about the day. It does make me more grateful. And it does make me worry less about what’s 5 or 10 years down the road, and focus on what’s happening right now.
Today I’m writing my blog, playing tennis, and going for dinner with my girlfriend. And I’m going to bloody well enjoy it.
It’s very hard to think that I might have given everything, and it might not be enough
– Nathan Fagan-Gayle, X Factor UK contestant 2012
It’s pretty clear to me now that I won’t ever play football for Liverpool, but I never really tried that hard to make it happen.
What hurts more is when you really go for it, and it’s one of your real strengths, but you still fail – like when I wanted to study at Cambridge for my MA but didn’t get the grades.
I revised really hard for three months solid but only scored 63% overall – the exact average for my year, but below the 65% I needed to get into Cambridge.
It hurt because I’d always been good at academic stuff, and now I had failed.
Nathan failed too. He was knocked out before the live show stage and I only remember his name because I wrote down the quote. Hopefully he’ll bounce back.
The hardest thing when failure happens is to prevent it from defining you. You are not ‘a failure’ even if you fail. The phrase ‘I’m a failure’ = defining your entire self as such. In fact you only failed at that one thing. Not at life as a whole!
It’s hard to think like that. A few years later I applied for a PhD at Cambridge – deep down, one of the reasons was probably because I wanted to have another shot at being accepted.
This time I was – but I turned them down. Perhaps it felt like revenge, I don’t remember. There were other reasons too. But the lizard part of you always prefers it when you’re in control. Yeah, it was definitely me that broke up with her.
Here’s what I learnt from that whole experience about how to fail:
A) It happens
Even after a long run of good results, and a megaload of revision, I still couldn’t reach a high enough mark.
B) It’s ok to feel sad about it
Failure hurts, but that’s ok so long as it doesn’t swallow up your whole definition of yourself.
C) Your brain adjusts fast
If you don’t let the failure consume you, it will be forgotten or assimilated soon enough. I hadn’t thought about not failing to get into Cambridge for a long time before starting this post. Brains are good at adapting if given time.
D) Always consider quitting
There’s no shame in moving on to something else. Most people say ‘Just keep trying and you can achieve anything!’. That’s bad advice: (1) it’s not true and (2) it assumes that what you want now won’t change in future. Bad bad bad. Moving on should always be an option.
E) There’s always another way of doing it
I did my MA anyway, and was very fortunate to do it at Nottingham. I was grateful they accepted me at short notice and tried to repay them by working hard. I made some great friends there too. And I was still able to get a PhD offer from Cambridge a few years later, even though I never planned to apply again after the MA rejection.
Each failure is specific to the circumstances at the time. Tick-tock, times change.
A million tiny things happen every day that mix everything up. It’s like a kaleidoscope that never stops. Every night there’s a little shift round to the left or right. So everything changes a little every day. Failure is either temporary or irrelevant.
My life’s ambition is to go into space, so a few years ago I applied to be an astronaut.
At the time anyone could apply to ESA (the European Space Agency), so I went to the doc and to the hospital, had a bunch of tests done, filled out the application form and sent it off.
There was little chance I would succeed. But it made perfect logical sense to try.
There are two ways of getting into space: (1) become a billionaire, or (2) get hired as a professional astronaut. Maybe one day I’ll be a billionaire but I don’t want to count on it. So I just applied.
Actually, all my best decisions are made when I ignore the chances of failure and just do it.
Want to learn how to code? Ok, build a website.
Want to try building a business? Ok, start one now.
Want to find out if teaching would be a good career move? Ok, do it part-time and see whether it’s fun.
Like that girl a lot? Ok, ask her out.
These simple decisions are the best.
A) You can’t regret them
If it doesn’t work out, no big deal. You did the logical thing and tried. Your mind is at rest. Ssshh now little brain.
B) You know exactly why you made them
It’s a simple formula. You won’t get confused about your motives. Want something? Ok, have a go.
C) You always gain something unexpected
Building a website taught me how the internet works. Starting a business taught me a million things that I put into a recent post (How I lost £1,500 when I was 23). Teaching part-time right now is making me 10x better at explaining stuff and speaking in public. And the last girl I asked out is going to become my wife next summer, so that one worked out pretty well too.
Worrying about failure kills good decisions. Whenever I worry I lose the magic power to make simple logical decisions and I waste my life fretting. I’m glad that didn’t happen with applying to be an astronaut.
The physical tests and most of the application form were ok, though I couldn’t really disguise my lack of a PhD in astrophysics or biology. The weakest bit though was when I had to describe my experience in radio communications:
I did hospital radio for two years when I was at school. I was a presenter and had my own weekly show.
But since I haven’t actually heard back from ESA, I assume they’ve got me on the reserve list.
I looked down and my legs were in slow-motion, sinking into the pavement, running through water.
And then I was thinking too hard about running and my legs went out of sync and got even slower and so heavy until I knew I couldn’t get away, so I stopped and turned around.
They came up fast behind me and then… and then… I snapped awake and realised I was sweating and my t-shirt was soaked and cold and clung to my back, and it was still only 1am.
I didn’t want to go straight back to sleep in case my brain made me finish the dream, so I turned on the radio. Somewhere else in the world someone was having a living nightmare and they couldn’t wake up.
I only get dreams like that when I’m stressed.
This is a stressful time. I may lose my job by Christmas because my company is considering shutting down most of the work in my team.
My amazing girlfriend flew away for a week today and I hate being at home on my own.
And I’m putting pressure on myself to keep writing and deliver good classes in my other job and to eat well and keep fit and keep up with friends and support my colleagues and so on and on and on.
Winston Churchill used to talk about The Black Dog – the depression that periodically weighed him down. Though I don’t have depression, the phrase comes back to me sometimes.
But today I bought a couple of pairs of braces for a 20s fancy dress party, and they charged me two pounds instead of four. Then I bought a cheap pair of trainers – first time I’ve had a waterproof pair for three months! – and they charged me £7 instead of £13. Then my favourite bakery had those mini focaccia things that are so delicious, and I caught an earlier train than expected, and just now I saw a guy playing a wonderfully heartfelt version of Let It Be on one of the public pianos at the station to his adoring girlfriend. And when the people in front of me left a ticket in the machine I caught them up and they were so grateful.
None of these things is going to help me save my job, or get a new one if needs be.
But they all let me know that today is going to be a good day.
I haven’t had a bad dream for months.
And, believe it or not, as I was finishing this post I saw a black dog.
One year ago today, I was extremely bloody nervous. It was day 1 of a project called Me In TV.
Here’s a short video about the project:
The aim was to give young people from tough backgrounds access to the TV industry. Over five days the participants created a TV show idea, filmed and edited a trailer for it, and then pitched their idea to a panel of TV experts. The young people were from Community Links, and the event was held at FremantleMedia.
It was so much work that it nearly killed me and Josephine, who ran the project with me. At one point I was waking up at 5.15am and I stopped trusting pencils.
But it worked out really well. Everything came together, there was a great atmosphere throughout, and the feedback was amazing: it averaged 96% positive on every single thing we measured.
Last week I was asked to offer some advice to a lady working on a similar project. So, on the anniversary of the project launch, here are 10 things I learnt from Me In TV.
1. Record everything
I had made a huge mistake on my previous project, and I didn’t want to repeat it.
I did nothing to record the event, so afterwards it was hard for those involved to tell people about what they’d done. “So I attended these workshops, and we were working some kind of social enterprise, er…”.
For Me In TV I did the opposite. meintv.org was built to record everything. In a project like this, it’s important that everyone involved has something to point to afterwards – a link for their CVs, a reminder of what the project entailed, and something they can be proud to show other people.
2. Get a partner in crime
There’s no way the project could have been such a success without Josephine Serieux. About two months before launch, I realised I had way too much to do and was struggling to prioritise. Getting a partner in crime means you get more capacity, but also more ideas – Josie changed loads of stuff for the better.
3. Give everyone else a clear vision (even if it’s still in flux)
It took me about six months to set the project up. The plan was changing constantly throughout. But I realised early on that I should keep that a secret. That way anyone I was trying to sign up would feel confident that I knew what I was doing, even if everything was still in flux.
4. Find a leader the young people trust
You’re dealing with a lot of nervousness and uncertainty in projects like this. So you need a Jason Forde. He’s a youth leader from Community Links, and because he had the trust of the students before the project began, he could ally their fears and (almost) always get them to turn up on time even when they’d been working late the night before.
5. The non-charity people will be the most nervous
The biggest single mistake I made in the planning was misjudging what one of the tutors needed from me. She didn’t need ideas, or structure – she needed reassurance! It hadn’t occurred to me that my colleagues would be more nervous than the students.
But for them, this project was an unknown – even though they would only be teaching the stuff they get paid to do every day, none had never taught before, and none had ever worked with young people from tough backgrounds (not that there was any difference in practice from any other youth group, but pre-launch it’s all about perception). It took me ages to figure all this out, and it nearly lost me a tutor.
6. Have a single, clear end goal
Me In TV built towards a grand finale: the pitch. Having this single, clear end goal was exceedingly useful. It meant that the students were highly motivated to pay attention. They knew they had to do the pitch, so they were grateful for anything that would help them prepare for it.
7. Clearly define and explain what happens afterwards
I got these questions a lot: would there be jobs for the students at the end? Or at least job opportunities that they could apply for? Would there be more training, or mentorships, or follow-up workshops on CV-writing and interview skills?
No no no. Me In TV was meant to be self-contained. It was supposed to give the students skills, experience, and contacts. But it took me a while to define that list, and to make it clear to everyone – hence the repeat questioning. Know what happens afterwards before you even start.
8. Look for spin-off opportunities
We had a problem: 6 spaces in the project, but 7 people desperate to do it. At first I said no to Emmanuel - everything had been set up for a group of six and it was too late to change it.
Thankfully, one night I realised that I could just invent a role for him, without changing anything else. So Emmanuel became the Content Producer, tasked with recording the experiences and reactions of the students, and posting them on the student blog. He did a great job – 40 posts during the week of the project! – and still got to learn a lot alongside the other students.
9. Make it measurable
All this good stuff is harder to communicate without numbers. You have to be able to put numbers on your project, because numbers make things tangible. Here are some key numbers from Me In TV:
Website: >3k views in the week of the project, 1k visits, ~500 uniques
Feedback stats: 96% positive overall; 100% of tutors described as Excellent or Very good, 95% of students said they learnt useful future skills on every single day
Cost: £800 (kindly funded by FremantleMedia’s HR department)
Cost per hour – students: £2.96 per hour of training delivered to the students
With these numbers I could create a solid project report to send to everyone involved, and to all the people elsewhere who had heard about the project and wanted to know more. If you want to read it yourself, the full project report is now online.
10. Reward everyone
I gave all the tutors a hand-written note.
And I added every single person who made a contribution, however small, to the list on the Who’s involved? page.
No-one expected it. And it took ages. But in many ways it was the most enjoyable bit.
So what happened in the end?
I wrote to all the students last week. Two have found work in TV production; four have not; one didn’t reply (perhaps he’s busy on a production somewhere? I don’t know). All of them were very happy to have been involved, and very grateful to my colleagues for their help during Me In TV.
So if you’re thinking of doing a project like this, I hope the ten things I learnt are useful.
I’m very proud of this project, but if I wish I’d known all this before it began!
I’m still wearing werewolf make-up. Today is going to be a struggle.
I’m tired and hungover, but I’ve got to edit a video and prep for next week’s teaching.
Yesterday, though, I woke up feeling great, and had a really good day – after plenty of sleep I ate well, did some exercise and got lots of fresh air.
That probably wasn’t what Athanasius Kircher had in mind when he drew this picture, which shows the connections between the macro and microcosm, and was featured in the Mundus Subterraneus (Underground World) he published in 1664.
But if ever there was an illustration of how the external affects the internal, I’m seeing it now in how last night’s partying has affected my motivation.
Thankfully, I know the trick of getting over it. Reading the excellent Public Domain Review article on Athanasius generated the idea for this post. And when I write I always get more energy, which I’m going to use in a minute to start on the video. And since I like video editing, I know I’ll be up for the teaching prep later on.
Knowing about the connections between the external and the internal enables you to use them. Everyone’s wired up differently, but writing, editing and teaching work for me.
I’m still going to have to get rid of the make-up though.
One day I woke up and realised I had wasted 200 hours of my life.
I’d spent two years trying to brighten up nearby high streets by getting local artists to redecorate the shutters of closed shops.
Total number of shutters decorated: 0.
I thought I’d lined everything up: the local council, the planning authorities, nearby schools, a bunch of excellent artists and arts groups. I made a little website, wrote a manifesto, and got some local press coverage (the photo above was in the local paper).
But I just could not get any shop owners to sign up. Even the one guy who said yes quickly disappeared off the face of the planet (that might be an exaggeration, but I hope not. Bastard.).
I figured that persistence was the answer.
I spent weekends and evenings on the project, took days off work, spent money tracking down landlords, changed the way I described the project to people over and over again, and so on – all to no avail.
But when I woke up that morning, it hit me: executing the project well wasn’t just difficult – it was impossible.
Persistence wouldn’t help. I just wasn’t set up right.
I couldn’t convince the shop owners to trust me, because I had no track record.
And I couldn’t persuade the shop owners to take a risk, because I worked in another part of town all the hours they were open, so I couldn’t sell them on it in person. I wasn’t able to build trust.
Without that trust, and without the time or the proximity to build it, extra hours and extra money weren’t going to add much.
So I changed it.
I threw the whole project out, and fixed the problems of time and trust.
I had got close to a lady who ran one of the kids’ art groups, and had an intro to a guy who ran a local charity. So I figured out a way to put those two together, and got the hell out of the way.
Instead of a street art project, I proposed an art exhibition: we would put the kids’ artwork from the summer term into an exhibition, and the exhibition would be in an empty shop unit that had been taken over by the charity.
Auriol from Kite Studios would teach the kids how to produce art, and Shaylesh from Healthy Planet would get the shop set up and look after the exhibition. Luckily enough, the council agreed to fund the project too.
And so, one day in June 2010, we got all the kids and their parents and teachers down to the shop unit, and opened up the exhibition for everyone to see. It was so great! The place looked amazing, the kids were so proud of themselves, and everyone had a blast.
So clearly, time and trust are important.
But doing something that you personally are well-placed to do is essential.