When Does a Challenge Begin

(My first attempt to video some training – running along the Thames Path between Port Meadow and Swinford, past Godstow Nunnery & Bishop’s Lock)

When does a challenge begin?

In my research I think about this kind of question all the time. I work with questions like “what is the future?”, “what does it mean to choose something?”, “why do we feel a connection with some goals and not others? What is it about their place in time and geography that make them feel like meaningful things for us to choose to pursue while others are impossible to connect to?”, “why do some actions, like deciding not to go out with our friends on Saturdays this year but to stay in and learn everything we can about the civil rights movement and use that knowledge to lobby our local politicians, feel really meaningful while others simply don’t, like which side of the apple I’m holding to bite into first, or deciding not to check the time on my phone before I set off for work because that action is contributing to a demand for lithium that will ultimately devastate the world’s salt lakes?”

These are really important questions. Really difficult but really important nonetheless. They help us decide such crucial things as what stories to tell to encourage the next generation (or the previous one) to be a little kinder to the planet, or how to make a kid in a poor district in Peru who looks up at the stars and feels a sense of wonder believe that it’s worth pursuing her dream.

But it’s a tough switch to turn off. So I spend a lot of my life overthinking. Sometimes it’s thinking maybe it really does matter which side of the apple I bite first – which becomes such a hard decision I put it down and go hungry instead rather than face it. Other times it’s like being in a really rough washing machine, tossed between, “why bother with any of it?” and “how dare you think of pursuing a dream that’s meaningful to you when so many can’t?”

For more than four decades, these are the kind of things that have stopped me taking on really big adventures.

That’s a statement that feels somehow off. I’m aware of that (overthinking again). I’ve done a whole lot of things many people would never have the chance to, many of which have been the kind of things you might call achievements – played bridge (yes, bridge) as a junior international, been on a university athletics team, started a writing collective and performed poetry all over the country, won world titles in mind sports, been on too many TV game shows, and run ultramarathons. But I’ve never really set a challenge and seen it through. Everything I’ve “achieved” has resulted from hearing about something and giving it a go and seeing what happens. Even when I’ve done something like writing books, I’ve never written two in the same genre twice.

Or maybe, to come back to the kind of questions that keep me awake at night about the choices we make, those four decades and everything in them have been an integral part of the first steps on some other adventure.

There’s a story I tell sometimes when I’m talking to other people who are trying to figure out how to negotiate the world with ADHD. I spent years at university and then at work lurching from one deadline to the next, unable really to get my teeth into something until the deadline loomed so close the adrenaline kicked in and it seemed to just “pop out”. And most of the time I’d do OK. I got the top first in the year in my degree; I’ve won the World Intelligence Championship and I’ve won the Creative Thinking World Championship three times. But I’ve spent those years thinking, “if only I could do the same things but with more consistency, think what I’d achieve then.” It was only very recently, as I started to understand that ADHD has played such a big role in my life and my way of living and working, that it clicked – maybe running up so tight to the deadlines isn’t what held me back but what drove me forward. Maybe that was my best way of working. Maybe that’s why every time I tried to do something long-term and consistently I failed so spectacularly at it.

But I still had this hole inside. Other people achieved things. And by that I mean projects. Long-term goals that they worked at for years and accomplished, and that brought them satisfaction on the one hand, and people recognised and appreciated that effort on the other. Both those things have felt missing. I’ve never worked at something consistently for years (relationships with humans and animals aside) and felt what it’s like to cross the line knowing that something I planted as a seed had burst into bloom and then borne fruit. And while people sometimes look at what I’ve done and raise an eyebrow in a “what now” kind of way, it’s always backed by the feeling, “if you can just bowl up and do that it can’t be that much of a thing.” And a part of me feels they’re right.

But this is where all the threads pull together. I have known for some time that when it comes to research, I need to work in an interdisciplinary way – so I weave history, philosophy, sociology, film studies, biology, ethics, urban studies, even engineering into the things I write. And I also work on creativity – finding ways of helping people make more connections between things.

But it’s only really recently dawned on me just how much potential I could mine out of a project, a challenge, that was truly interdisciplinary. Something that was really long term but was composed of so many parts that each of them could be done the very best I can by treating them as short term projects.

So we come back to the original question.

When does a challenge begin?

My grand challenge, which at the moment I’m unimaginatively calling One Day Like This, began some time towards the end of January this year. And it began the first time I was up all night finishing a project in primary school – I remember it vividly. I was 6. The project was about water, and I wrote a series of miniature illustrated essays on pike and perch and chub and mermaids and finished it off by writing out the nonsense poem The Pobble Who Had No Toes. And it began with the first time I was bollocked during a project at school. It was also about water – measuring the speed of rivers at various points in their channels. We’d been set a deadline, but the teacher somehow thought it was as important to be 50% finished half way through as it was to be done on time. I wasn’t. And it began when I had a breakdown during my doctorate after which I’ve had to scrape occasional articles and appearances as an “independent scholar.” And it began each time my managers realised that the amazing performance they saw from me in the first 6 months of any job, and also in any crisis, would tail off into almost nothing as the job settled into a steady consistent routine that I found crushingly hard. And it definitely started when I read Hank Pfeffer’s amazing article Danger: High Voltage, and later Emilie Wapnick’s TED talks on multipotentialites.

All of these moments fed into a single realisation. If I want to undertake a project to get really good at something, I will do better at that one thing if my project is actually to get as good as I can at 6 things. I’ll do better at each, I’ll probably do more work on each because everything I do will constantly be fresh, and I’ll benefit from the interconnectedness because even things that are completely different nurture each other.

This challenge began when I realised that specialism, linearity, steady and consistent progress, were only one path and a path that only worked for one kind of brain wiring – a kind I didn’t have. People associate challenges a lot with single-mindedness. When I write about creativity and innovation, I write a lot about the importance of having goals that are divergent – aiming at several outputs from a course of action, trying to help kids be happy as well as good at maths, giving people enough money to meet their basic needs whilst being able to fund infrastructure, protecting people from cancer as well as Covid. The challenge began the moment I realised some brains need to undertake a single-minded pursuit of a divergent set of activities.

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