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And Your Week 8+9 Challenges Are...
...this season's swan song.
Welcome to another bunch of Everything Is Amazing challenges - the last for this inaugural season of this newsletter (more about that in a couple of days).
You pick one (or more!) of these challenges and take a pop at it/them over the coming week.
If you complete any of them, you will enjoy the unusual phenomenon of Having Done A Weird Thing For Reasons That May Only Become Clear Later. (I explain why that’s a surprisingly good thing here.)
Still haven’t had a go at anything? Your reluctance to act now pays off bigtime, as today you have a total of thirty challenges to choose from. Here are the first, second, third, fourth and fifth installments - and the remaining five challenges are below.
And since the UK is finally starting to open up a little, for the first time I’ve included a couple of non-lockdown challenges, just in case you have the freedom to get out and about. If not, you could ignore these, or save them for later.
Whatever you decide to do, leave a comment below (the more folk you tell, the better your chances of getting your challenge done):
This week’s challenges are as follows:
1) Teach The Basics To Someone Who Doesn’t Know Them
Have you ever heard the truism that the best way to learn something is to teach it to others?
“Students enlisted to tutor others, these researchers have found, work harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively. In what scientists have dubbed “the protégé effect,” student teachers score higher on tests than pupils who are learning only for their own sake.”
Here’s a challenge that will help two people become more curious (this challenge is very good value for money).
So, there’s you, and there’s another person - and you’re going to agree to do the following: taking it in turns, you’re going to give each other a short lesson on something you’re interested in and knowledgeable about. Let’s say, ten minutes each.
What could you give someone an enthusiastic ten-minute lesson about? Something you really love. Something you get nerdy about. Something you wish more people knew about, because it’s just so damn interesting.
Boil it down. Give them your best ten minutes on the subject. Go all-in.
And then they do it back to you, on a subject they care about.
The value of doing this is twofold. Firstly, you’re creating one end of an information gap - “a little foreknowledge, to break the crust of it,” as I said here. We’re generally not curious about things we know nothing about, but if somebody else can successfully teach us just a little bit about those things, our own curiosity can kick in and take us the rest of the way. And secondly, the teacher is forced to compose and boil down their own thoughts into a form that’s clear enough to be communicated to someone else. It’s a real win-win.
Many, many bonus points awarded if you arrange to do this with a stranger.
So what are you going to teach someone else this week? (Drop a comment under this post if you do this one. I’d love to know.)
2) Delay Your Gratification
You’ve probably heard about this famous test before now.
But there’s an update. According to recent research, it seems “your fate cannot be determined solely by a test of your ability at age 5 to resist the temptation of one marshmallow for 15 minutes to get two marshmallows.”
This suggests that the ability to delay gratification is a skill - something you can strengthen. And there are real benefits to acquiring this kind of self-control.
Have you ever looked out at distant mountains, wishing you were climbing them - and that wonderful faded blue colour they get when they’re far away made that sudden longing even more intense?
It’s because of the air in the way (see the xkcd cartoon heading challenge 1 up there). That’s the science. But writer - and, I’d argue, philosopher - Rebecca Solnit sees this blue as a powerful metaphor for something deeper:
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains…
We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance?
If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.
In other words, delayed gratification - the desire to have or achieve something counteracted with the self-control to hold off on it for now - is something you can learn to enjoy. It’s a frustrated enjoyment, sure. A self-teasing sort of thing. But it’s also something that gives you a powerful sense of direction in your day-to-day, and a lesson in looking across great distances without wanting to close them up, literally and figuratively…
Okay, enough philosophy. Let’s get practical.
For this challenge, you’re going to dangle a treat in front of yourself, then yank it away like some kind of jerk.
First, give yourself permission to get a thing you’ve been wanting to get for ages. Say, that book. Or that album. That thing you want, whatever it is. And it has to be a thing that would be available now - either instantly, or in a few hours, or next-day delivery at most, if you decided to get it.
Spend some time psyching yourself up for it. Make yourself really want it.
Nope. You can’t have it. Not this week. Sorry. Next week at the earliest.
Is this making you want this thing 100x more than you did before? How does that feel? Do you actually miss wanting stuff this much? In a world where everything is available pretty much instantly, how does it feel to have to wait like this?
That feeling is what this challenge is for. Have fun exploring it.
3) Lose Yourself In Your Own Thoughts
Your best ideas often occur to you when you're not doing anything much at all. Happens like clockwork, right? You're in the shower. You're out for a walk. You're washing the dishes. WALLOP. Hey, now there’s an idea.
So let's turn that up to eleven. For this challenge, you're going to throw productivity out the window and see if creativity flies back in.
This version of "doing nothing" is not the same as procrastinating. It's not completing that tricky level of Angry Birds 2 instead of doing something you’ve been putting off. It's not consuming vast tracts of Netflix on the couch, and it’s definitely not reading the news or scrolling through Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
It's merely sitting somewhere quiet and doing absolutely nothing. Just - processing. Giving yourself to think for a change - on something you’ve been meaning to think about, or on nothing at all.
Although, maybe we can remove the word “nothing”, because during this time you’re going to be doing a lot of positive constructive daydreaming: the state of pursuing enjoyable, intriguing thoughts to see where they lead. (Click on that link for good tips on how to do it).
The space to think is something we all know we need more of, but rarely make time for. Why do you always have to interrupt yourself? Why is that? (I’m hearing the voice of Sophie Stephenson in my head here.)
For most people, intentional daydreaming is a slow road to agony. It may feel okay at first, but then you get fidgety, or sleepy - and sleeping definitely counts as "not doing this challenge". You could stretch, to ease those aching muscles - but too much of that also counts as "exercise", aka. "doing something".
You are attempting to scale the foothills of daydreamy mindfulness here - and it’s sometimes an uncomfortable ascent. If you want confirmation of how tough it can be to keep doing nothing, read my friend Jodi's account of going on a Vipassana retreat for 10 days. It's an eye-opener.
So. Find a place that’s as open as free as you want your thoughts to be - but not so distractingly interesting that you’re continually dragged outside yourself. And just - sit.
How long could you comfortably do this for? Five minutes? Ten? Twenty? Okay - then aim to double it. Allow yourself the time to get thoroughly lost in your thoughts. (Keep a notebook nearby to jot down any unusually brilliant insights.) And if you find yourself getting bored - good! That might be doing wonders for your creativity.
Also, at some point it will probably turn into a huge pain in the ass, both figuratively and literally. But that's why it's a challenge - right?
4) (Somewhat-Non-Lockdown) Buy A Stranger A Coffee - Or A “Coffee”
All the strangers around you right now have had a really rough year, and they deserve a bit of a break. This week, in a small but meaningful way, you’re going to be that break - by performing a #randomactofkindness.
This challenge comes in three skill levels. Choose your flavour, take your pick.
EASY: While out for a walk the other day, I found the above bottle of Prosecco on a park bench, with a label stuck on it that reads “I AM NOW ON A DIET. TAKE THIS AND ENJOY. :)” I left it for the next person to come along - taking the photo was enough for me - and I bet it made someone else feel much happier with their day.
You could do something similar.
Leave something for a stranger: a small box of biscuits, a bottle of something enjoyable, a bag of coffee beans. (Something sealed is the most reassuring way to do it - and maybe something that won’t melt if the sunlight hits it.)
Leave it somewhere public: a bench in a park, a seat at the seaside, at the base of a statue.
Leave a note, saying something like: “Hi. Well, this has been a horrible year, hasn’t it? Here is a random act of kindness to make things slightly better. Please take it and enjoy. Cheers!”
MODERATELY HARD: There are people in your world who have made the last year a lot more bearable - or, you know they’ve made other people’s lives more bearable. They could be artists, nurses, teachers, musicians...
And now you’re going to say thank you to at least one of them, in the form of a “virtual coffee”.
If someone makes their living online, they might have some kind of “virtual tip jars” set up. They might also be using the Buy Me A Coffee service, so look for them on there.
But maybe they’re not, so you’ll have to get creative. Maybe you could have something lovely delivered to their front door, at the equivalent price of a coffee?
However you’re going to do it, you’re also going to say thanks - which is where the “moderately hard” part comes in. Include a heartfelt note. Say thanks honestly, and in more than once sentence, for what they’ve done for you this year. Get so honest it makes you squirm a bit. Do that.
And if you’re gifting a “coffee” to a complete stranger who has helped other people, explain to them why that’s been such a great thing to see, and how it’s helped you stay a bit more hopeful about humanity than you would have been.
SUPER HARD: One day this week, in broad daylight, you will stand at the window of a local coffee shop (if they’re supplying takeout right now) or some other shop, and as you're standing in the queue, you'll turn to the socially distanced person behind you and say, "Uh - I know this might sound a bit strange, but...can I buy your [whatever the thing is] for you?"
You will see a number of things flash across their face. Things like:
- "It's the start of some kind of sales pitch. Oh god, I HATE these people."
- "Mentally bewildered. Must be. Play it cool play it cool. Looks harmless enough so far..."
- "OMG this is the most cringey chat-up line I have EVER been on the wrong end of."
- "Awesome! I negotiated a pandemic only to meet my first serial killer. Halp?"
Seeing these thoughts on their face will make you feel enormously embarrassed and self-conscious. Great job. That’s how you know you’re doing it right.
The other person will almost certainly be confused by your actions. And if you’re a man on his own approaching a woman on her own, there’s a whole other level of What The Actual Hell Is This at work here. (Please keep a respectful distance, chaps.)
The aim of this challenge is to not make everyone involved feel super-awkward: it's to take the other person all the way from freaked-out scepticism to cautious gratitude - if you can, of course. They may be too weirded out. This is a weird thing to do, after all. But if you can convince them that yes, you are buying them a coffee/”coffee” for nothing, and no, there aren't any strings attached - you will blow their mind. Because, who does that, in these cynical, selfish times?
All this challenge requires is your willingness to feel like a complete bloody fool for about 60 seconds.
I believe in you. Go make someone’s day.
5) (Non-Lockdown) Dip Your Toes In Two Oceans Without Spending Any Money Getting Between Them
A few years back, British adventurer Alastair Humphreys walked his way across Spain.
“So what?” I hear you say. “Isn’t that the kind of thing adventurers do?” Of course. But Alastair is not just any adventurer.
His challenge to himself was to do the whole walk while busking with the violin to earn enough money to pay for food - undeterred by an alarming lack of both experience and natural talent on said instrument.
In other words Alastair, on top of being a professional adventurer, is also clearly some kind of lunatic.
(Last time I met him, he was cycling around the whole of Yorkshire as a way to meet interesting, thoughtful people. Yorkshire, I ask you. I rest my case.)
If you watch the above film, or even better, read the superb book he wrote about it, you may feel a growing urge to do something equally daft. (This is the kind of havoc that professional adventurers frequently wreak on society. Perhaps we need the equivalent of the Sokovia Accords to manage them.)
So either right now, or at some post-pandemic point when it’s practically feasible, you’re going to paddle in two different oceans - and, like Al, you won’t spend any money getting between them.
Because you have a creative brain, it’s already coming up with ways to cheat. You could buy a load of rail tickets beforehand - therefore you’re not spending any money during the journey, right? But come on. You’ll know you cheated. So whatever rules you set for yourself, stick to them unless it’s absolutely impossible to do so. (A fun way to not “spend any money,” as Al discovered, is to earn some cash enroute. How could you do that? I’m sure you can think of something.)
Depending on where you are in the world and the current state of things there, this challenge may be impossible, at least right now. But if you can swing it, it can turn into quite the adventure.
Here's your way forward.
(1) Choose your oceans. Let's say, like me, you grew up in the north of England - and let's say you're there now. You therefore have your pick of four oceans:
The North Sea, to the east.
The Atlantic, to the west.
The English Channel, to the far south.
The Irish Sea, to the west.
You can pick two of these.
(2) Get from one to the other without a spending a dime / penny / whatever-currency of your own money.
If you’re in the UK, a bike can get you from sea to sea from pretty much anywhere in a few days - and sometimes in just an hour or so. Or you could walk it. Or borrow a canoe. Or something I haven’t thought of because I’m a lot more boring than you are.
One mad option: ever tried hitchhiking? This guy did it across the whole of the States, from coast to coast. (It took him 5 weeks, bear in mind - but he did it.) This hilarious chap did it all the way up Japan. This website is all about doing it well, and staying safe while you do it.
Or - anyone you know heading in that general direction that you could get a lift with, allowing you to walk the remainder of the way?
As long as you don't spend money, anything is game.
(3) Strip off your socks and go for a paddle in the sea. You've earned it. And take a photo of your feet in each ocean, so you can show the world you did it.
How To Hold Yourself Accountable
Social media is swarming with people who want to hold your feet to the fire. Friends, family, loved ones - they are all standing ready to remind you of your bold promises to them and to yourself, at less than a moment’s notice.
So how about sharing your chosen challenge with them on whatever social media platform you choose, using the hashtag #EverythingIsAmazing ? That way, you can’t back out.
(And if you use that hashtag, I’ll see it too, and will be able to give you grief as well.)