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And Your Week 1 Challenges Are...
...entirely optional - but fun! Have a go.
This is the Reader Participation bit of Everything Is Amazing, where I recruit you to go do something daft, just to see what it does to your curious brain.
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The specifics about how this particular weekly email works (as explained in more detail here):
I ask you to pick one (or more!) of these challenges and have a go over the coming week.
Um...that’s it, really. It’s not exactly complicated. But beware of thinking this is easy. If you think it’s easy, you think you’ll get it done in no time, no sweat, whatever - and then you’ll be tempted to procrastinate again and again throughout the week, and suddenly you’ve only got the last twenty minutes left before bedtime next Friday and well, meh, it’s just not worth it now, is it? (This is the most common way of failing these kinds of challenges - far more common than having a go and making a total pig’s ear of them.)
Ready to make a total pig’s ear of something new?
Of course you are. That’s why I like you.
Here are your challenges for the week ahead.
1) Explore Your Nearest Mile Every Day
If that’s not enough of a challenge by itself: find something new within that mile every single day for the next month. Call this your TIL Month - short for Today I Learned - or something like that. Buy a nice new paper notebook, the kind you can’t wait to write in, and use it to document your journey. Do something to make it feel special and excitingly keep-uppable.
Do it consistently for a full month.
It will change your experience of the world right now, I guarantee it.
2) Strike Up A Conversation With Yourself
As you may have gathered by now, my name is Mike Sowden - and for a couple of years, I've been having occasional chats with Mike Sowden.
Sometimes we talk to each other, back and forth, like this:
Mike seems like a really nice guy. He lives across the Atlantic from me, and occasionally comments on my Facebook wall in public to completely freak everyone out.
There’s also a Mike "Hip" Sowden who landed a Tiger Shark with a very puny-looking fishing rod in 1967. Never been able to track him down, alas.
As I write this, I just spotted another Mike - a Michael Sowden, this time (nobody calls me Michael except relatives when they’re telling me off about something) - and, curiously, he lives just outside my old home-city of York. So I just sent him this probably terrifying message:
”Hi Michael. I know this is super random (I promise I'm not spam - at least, not intentionally) but I thought I'd say hello, because we share the same truly *excellent* name (my uncle was also a Michael Sowden) - and also because I spent 12 years living in York. Small world...
Anyway. Hello from a namesake-stranger.
In the unlikely event that he doesn’t Block me, that’s another Mike Sowden to occasionally chat to.
There are hundreds, thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of people in the world with your name - and they all live very, very different lives. You'd learn a lot about corners of the world you've never been to, if you got chatting with those folk - and they'd learn a ton of interesting things about you, too.
If you’re a nerd like me, you could even pretend they’re your mirror-universe counterpart! (Probably best you don’t mention this to them, though.)
This challenge is hardly an original thing to do. In 2000, the comedian Dave Gorman attempted to find the population density of Dave Gormans per mile across the UK. I won’t be going that far, in every sense. You don’t have to either.
But - aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to at least say hello to the other [insert your name here]s out there?
Sure you do.
So go introduce yourself.
Facebook is an easy first port of call. Do a search in the top bar. Twitter works too. Or any decent-sized social network.
If social media doesn't come up with the goods, turn to Google (or your preferred search engine). See if you can find an e-mail address - although you may have to go hunting, if it's just an image.
3) “Lagom” Your Possessions
Say what now?
It's a Swedish word. My friend Lola wrote a book about it. Totally worth reading. My friend Anna wrote a different book about it. You should absolutely read that too. They’re both great.
But if you want it in a nutshell, lagom more or less means "moderation" - or "just enough" or "not too much, not too little" or all the other Goldilocks-esque synonyms we use to denote enoughness.
Enoughness is coming back into fashion in a big way. Toomuchness seems to be at the heart of a lot of modern ailments, like the environment-ruining pressure that encourages us to always strive to acquire the next new expensive shiny thing - which usually leaves us just as dissatisfied as before, except broke as well.
Anyway. All those worlds of pain won't be fixed in one tiny challenge like this, so let's zoom in on just one part of it.
Your house is filled with things you haven't used or enjoyed in ages - and in most cases, that's really bad for your peace of mind. Unused possessions tend to have a tiny amount of guilt attached to them. A part of your emotional bandwidth. They say, "I remind you of all the things you never got round to. Or, putting it differently, the ways you suck."
(No wonder you hide them in the back of cupboards all the time.)
You can go full Marie Kondo on this and get really silly - but this isn’t really about going hardcore minimalist until your home feels empty and lacks a visible human history. This is just about knowing what you have - so you can decide if you actually want it or not.
Time to kill lingering material regrets and move on. Here's how.
Audit your possessions. Go through everything - clothes, books, sports equipment, anything you've been hanging onto because who-quite-knows-why.
Find anything you haven't used or enjoyed in 2 years, and put it in a pile on the floor. Antiques, family heirlooms and items intended for someone else are out, obviously, but anything else is up for grabs. Pile it up.
Are you going to use it this month? Really? Last chance. If you really want to start playing squash again, or finish knitting that sweater, or learn Norwegian, why don't you just start this month? Be brutally honest - will you? Can you imagine starting anytime in the next 4 weeks? Why not? And if not...
Why not get rid of it? Sell it. Give it to a charity shop (if you’re in hard lockdown, stick it in bags marked TO GO for now). Ask someone you know if they’d like it. Put it in the bin, if you absolutely must. Just get rid. Draw the line and make sure this stuff is finally on the other side of it. Then see how you feel. Better? Then do it again - until everything that's left is stuff you actually, really want. Hey presto! Your home is suddenly a hell of a lot more fun to be in.
4) Learn To Write At The Speed You Think
What we call "writing" usually works like this:
(1) Excited thoughts emerge from the brainpan area.
(2) These thoughts bustle and jostle through the nervous system, heading for the fingers, accompanied by stirring victory-march music. (Note: I consulted a number of doctors writing this. It's all factually accurate.)
(3) The fingers act like a series of gates, like a border crossing or the gates to the Acropolis in Athens. They're massively overcrowded, because thoughts are only being let through at the rate of one or two every second - aka. the speed you write or type.
(4) Total gridlock. Utter chaos. Thoughts are packed together as they wait to be let through. Everyone's fed up and complaining.
(5) The seemingly endless wait makes thoughts start doubting if it's worth queuing, or if they have a right to be let through at all. Many drift away, some encouraged to go home by a disruptive character called the Inner Editor. He/she seems to want to stop any thoughts getting through, period. Bit of a jerk, to be honest.
(6) Eventually a few scattered thoughts make their way down the fingers - and the results are kinda disappointing. There's a huge difference between what sets out from the brain and what is getting communicated outside the body. Sad trombone noises are the soundtrack to this whole experience.
(7) You look back at what you've written and think, "ugh - really?"
If you learn to type or write faster, you help eliminate this bottleneck. You will be able to sound more like you, the unfiltered, un-gridlocked thoughts emerging from your mind. You may shave years off the decade it’ll take you to get anywhere meaningful with your voice. Those thoughts will still need editing later, but for now, they will be so much closer to what’s going on inside you.
So, go do that - and sound more like yourself than you ever have.
How To Get Started
Typing: Ratatype has some great tips, tutorials and tests to get started. The worldwide average speed is 37-44 words per minute. If you can double this by the end of the week, without too many errors, you will have halved the bottleneck of thoughts preventing you from saying what you really, actually mean.
Handwriting: Writing by hand has many, many creative benefits (here's a nice round-up). But it's also physically hard, as anyone who has recently completed a handwritten exam will testify. There's no way round it. This is about building the muscles for the job, until your hand isn't cramping all the time. A smoothly rolling pen is a must (modern gel pens fit the bill) and paper that doesn't scratch or blot. But - just write, write, write. Write anything and everything. Write until you ache, and come back when the aching goes away. But start by measuring your personal words-per-minute speed. How many more words can you cram in? Only one way to find out.
5) Listen To Everything By A Musician You Really Dislike
Yeah, I know. Your nose is wrinkling with disgust. You can’t see the point. You may take this challenge just to try to prove me wrong. (Bring it, my friend. I’m ready for you.)
But in a lot of cases, what we call "musical taste" is just down to the amount of times we've listened to something.
(Hate-mail incoming in 3, 2, 1…)
Music is a compounding educational experience, and sometimes, what sounds Utterly God-Awful is really a reflection of your ignorance of what it’s trying to achieve inside your ears.
So, by this admittedly controversial way of thinking, if you force yourself to listen to music you hate, it is quite possible that you will come to appreciate it in a new way. This will help teach you that nothing in life is 100% bad.
(Apart from maybe that album cover up there.)
This week, then, you're going to take a musician or group whose work sets your teeth on edge, and turn into their newest superfan.
You're going to hunt down everything they ever did, and listen to it. You could also read articles about how those works came to be composed, but that's a bonus / super-masochistic. The only requirement here is that you listen, with as open a mind as you can keep under the circumstances.
(My personal choice would be Wolverhampton rock band Slade. Every year, their song Merry Xmas Everybody threatens to entirely ruin my festive season. To me, it’s like an existential kick in the nuts - the death-rattle of joy itself. So that’s where I would start.)
At first, this challenge is going to feel really, really horrible. That's a cert. No way around it.
But once you get past those first awful minutes (or hours), you may - may - start to find things you enjoy amidst the smouldering musical rubble. Certain refrains may soothe your convulsed brow. You may think certain songs or performances are "not as bad as I expected"...
And after a few hours, you may find your tastes have changed, just a little, but enough for you to begrudgingly admit to yourself that this music is not as irredeemably awful as you thought it was.
Or, you'll learn that it’s exactly as bad as you thought it was! Fair enough. Now you know. No need to waste any more of your life on it. But the main thing is that you gave it a proper go here.
But no, you'll probably get something from the experience other than "ugh" - and in future, you'll won't be so quick to completely write anything off in life, like places, or people, or political ideas - or other music that immediately seems to rub you up the wrong way.
You're very brave if you do this challenge. Good luck.
If you really want to commit and kick your backside into gear, click through to the Web version of this article and leave a comment, right now, saying which challenge you’re doing over the coming week: