In 2017 I set out to complete what I called the Dandelion Challenge. It was named after Neil Gaiman’s 2013 keynote speech at London Book Fair, in which he encouraged the book world to be like dandelions, scattering a thousand seeds and seeing which would grow. I set myself six challenges for the year – projects that people traditionally said didn’t go together.
It was a reaction to a lifetime in which I’ve encountered the insistence that people make “progress” by specialising. It comes from what has always felt to me a deeply confusing belief that some activities “just go together” and some “just don’t.” It came from wondering what people like me were meant to do with our lives in a world that seemed to want us to make less of a contribution than we otherwise would for the sake of fitting into a box.
Perhaps the most misplaced pairing of things that “can’t go together” is the massive elephant in the room – specialism and generalism. “There is just so much knowledge now” the line goes, “that we can’t possibly specialise in something if we focus on anything else besides.”
But IS there really more knowledge now? Or just more written about what knowledge there is, much of it repetition? That’s one of the things I’m setting out to find out.
In 2017 I set out to do the following
3 projects of the body
- Run a 100 kilometre race (endurance)
- Compete at a powerlifting meet (strength)
- Row 100 miles (a mix)
And 3 projects of the mind
- Compete at the Creative Thinking World Championship (“right brain”)
- Compete at the Mental Calculation World Championship (“left brain”)
- Compete in a memory championship (a mix)
I managed 4 of them. Injury stopped the rowing and lifting.
At the end of 2021 I will be 50. And that’s another level of “things that don’t go together” (being older and achieving stuff competitively).
So I decided to brush off the challenge. And repeat it in 2022. Only by then I will be 5 years older, and to be fair to that extra experience I’ll have, I thought I’d
- Make the challenges harder and
- Instead of a year, do them all in the space of 24 hours, a day
- And then give a lecture and presentation on them before I go to bed.
So, on one day in the summer of 2022, I will
- Run 100 kilometres (endurance) on the Ridgeway, with a goal time of 15 hours, which would put me in the top 25% of athletes who compete at the Race to the Stones, the UK’s largest ultramarathon
- Complete all 3 competition powerlifting lifts (strength), with target weights of – squat 150kg; bench 100kg; deadlift 200 kg
- Complete an indoor row of the competitive standard distance, 2k (speed), with a target time of 7 minutes or below, the benchmark for high quality
- Complete a Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, the international standard for creativity, with a target of scoring in the 99th percentile
- Complete two memory challenges – a deck of cards in the fastest time possible, and the most numbers possible in 15 minutes, with targets of 52 seconds and 553 respectively, which would beat the current Masters record held by multiple World Memory Champion Dominic O’Brien
- Read, and understand, an unpublished novel, achieving a reading speed of over 1000 effective words per minute
I hope that along the way I will learn a lot. And I hope I can teach what I’ve learned – to give skills and belief to all those other misfits told that to succeed they need to stop being themselves; but most of all I hope I can teach the world that specialism isn’t the only thing that counts. That some of us whose brains and bodies just don’t work that way have something to offer to – so that at least some of those people who learn those skills find themselves in a world that enables them to flourish.
Finally, I will of course be writing books along the way. My book on creativity, Our Dreams Make Different Shapes, which came out this month, is the first of those. The second, Lift, is on its way,
And I want to highlight the work of two amazing charities, Apopo and Project Seagrass. Apopo trains hero rats to use their remarkable sense of smell in the effort to clear the word of landmines, and to stamp out tuberculosis. Project Seagrass works to study, and restore, the world’s seagrass meadows, incredible ecosystems that support thousands of species, prevent coastal erosion, and act as a carbon capture sink around 35 times quicker than rainforest.
At 2 years out, and with no telling what the future holds, this isn’t so much an accountability post as a “watch this space.” I am, of course, available for interviews, podcasts, and offers of things I’ll really need like shoes, T-shirts, pens, and decks of cards!