Where the Limits Lie

“You don’t know where your limits are until you try to do something you can’t do. That’s where your limit is – right there where you quit” (Lazarus Lake)

We all know “you can do anything you put your mind to” is just not true (we do, right, I mean, it’s not even science; it’s not even six sigma away from “somewhere over there was science once”?). But it has always intrigued me the way so many people find it helpful despite its essential message being plain wrong.

This weekend as I hurt my way around the Bathurst Estate during my first timed race (24 hours – main takeaways learned – timed races are head****s; loop races are also head****s; timed loop races are the invention of some embodiment of distilled evil – but kind of cool too), I had spent a lot of time thinking about limits.

I have long thought people who are in some way neurotypical probably find this kind of inspirational fluff quote helpful because they don’t see words literally. They, ahem, literally don’t see that it is nonsense because of the work that words do for them. Sentences have an implicature that they simply don’t for many of the neurodivergent (don’t even go there on the, er, implications for why we as a society don’t even science and why facts are irrelevant in so much discourse). I’m pretty sure that’s true (though I’d love more research – come on, I work in a Linguistics Faculty, I must know someone who wants to do it). But it’s not the whole picture.

More of the picture probably comes from the fact that those of us who spend our lives pushing the limiter because of our neurology or mental ill health do more of what I was doing – thinking about our limits. When you run up against thigs you can’t do every hour of every day, you end up doing a lot of self-interrogation about it the way that many people who seem if not to drift through life at least to have a cruise control button that means they can do things like hold a conversation or eat a meal without touching a limit simply do not.

This is what I identified as at least a framework for these thoughts as I lay under the stars in 4 layers and my orange cheap as chips blanket bag contemplating why the reason I was unable to go out on another lap was the endless well-wishing of those who passed me (this is another problem with loop races. In a point to point ultra you at some stage, unless you run really erratically, find your place. And once you do so you can stay there, alone with your thoughts and concentration in a state of endless flow for hours at a time. In a loop race that doesn’t happen. Those quicker than you will always be coming past; those slower than you will always be appearing on the horizon, and with each comes an agonizing decision about interaction that tears you away from your thoughts, wrecks any chance of running your best, and drains your battery constantly to zero):

There are at least two axes of limit and they can be endlessly arranged. Making progress in any field depends, at a minimum, on accurately understanding where each limitation you encounter fits on each axis. Those axes are

  • Hard – soft. We are all, surely, familiar with this. Even those who find “you can do anything you put your mind to” helpful understand (surely?) it is not literally true. Hard limits are, for ease of talking, the thing that make the first part of the statement “you can do anything” untrue. I will never be the under 12 10k Nordic skiing champion of Kazakhstan. I will never be the under 12 anything. Because I am 46. My age is a hard limit. I will also never be able to run as fast as the fastest cheetah. My physiology is a hard limit. But “this is how fast I am right now” is a soft limit. I know (unlike, say, a 30-something Olympic athlete who has trained to the brink of collapse all their life) that with training I can be faster. Soft limits are what we need to hunt out, because they are the ones that contain the plasticity that training can push. But we equally need to sniff out hard limits because finding them means we won’t spend time training something we cannot change.
  • Internal – external. Those of us in the disabled community are very familiar with this distinction. In some ways it is another way of framing the medical-social model discussion. It is really important that we understand which of our soft limits has to do with something about us, and which js to do with something outside us. Because that will show us where to focus our efforts. A banal example is that how fast I can run 100 metres is in part limited by how much training I have done (internal) and in part limited by my access to equipment (external).

External barriers are often soft. They can be changed. But we often underestimate how difficult that change is to implement. Take those well-meaning runners encouraging me as they pass me in the night. First there is the question of whether they represent an internal or external boundary. Again, this gets a lot of thought in the circles I am part of. The tl;dr is this – there are many mental health conditions that could make this an internal limit, and if it is then it may be susceptible to the kind of training that something like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) offers. On the other hand if the cause is neurological, say a sensory processing/overload or communication issue, CBT will never work. The limit is external. But it is still a soft limit. It is changeable. The change would be for people in races not to talk.

And that illustrates the issue nicely. Because although that sounds like a simple adaptation, it is one that is, realistically, never going to be made. It’s the same in the workplace – it might be reasonable for me to request my colleagues don’t tell me about their family holidays if they see me in the corridor, but because of how most of society works (yes, “how it is” is not the measure of whether something is acceptable, but it’s an indicator of where to funnel your limited resources) it’s never going to happen that workspaces ban people swapping stories in the corridors (not for positive reasons anyway, and I for one would rather not live in a world governed by Amazon’s productivity dogma). There are ways in which race directors could make races easier for folks like me that would be worth me thinking about – handing out leaflets to marshalls saying “we have some neurodivergent runners with us today; if someone doesn’t reply to you please don’t think they’re rude (it says a lot about people’s own rudeness or ignorance that they would rather assume someone’s action is down to rudeness than a valid reason, doesn’t it?) or ungrateful” – and talking to them about. There are other things that would either require a huge campaign with all the resource-intensity that brings or simply won’t happen.

For me there were three real takeaways.

  1. self-knowledge really matters.
  2. internal soft limits are the sweet spot. I think this is why people we often call “privileged” seem to find making progress so easy. Why mottos like “you can do anything” helpful. Most of their limits are soft and internal. Many of them can easily find something holding them back that it is in their power to improve with training they are capable of undertaking. Many of us struggle look through our limitations and find any that fall into this category.
  3. not all soft external limits are equally soft.

My final takeaway is this, and it is really counter-intuitive. The most interesting limits we face, especially those of us who have a lot of them, are our hard limits. Intuition tells us two things:

  • The point of discovering our hard limits is to steer away from them so we can use our resources more effectively.
  • The key to approaching our hard limits is to accept them so we can move on.

I want to suggest that both of these are at least partially wrong.

If you go into it with eyes open, pushing at your hard limits can be incredibly valuable. Not in the “you may discover they are actually soft limits” woo kind of way. That’s just more imprecise language. But because in doing so you will almost certainly bend a whole host of soft limits you didn’t realise you had right out of shape. The key is the eyes open bit. Know that this is a limit you can’t lift (to avoid disappointment) and know the level of resources it will take to attempt it.

Accepting your hard limits sounds wonderful. Actually no it doesn’t. It probably only sounds wonderful to the kind of person who thinks “you can do anything you put your mind to” sounds wonderful. It sounds silly. And the recipe for endless therapy years down the line. Our reaction to our hard limits speaks volumes to the kind of person we want to be, the kind of world we want to live in. I personally refuse to act with acceptance to the fact I can’t end famine. I’m furious about it. And I refuse to be accepting about the things my neurology makes impossible for me. I am fuming about them. I will continue to wake up in the night wanting to scream about them, to fling my fists at the void and tell it to **** off (come on, this is basic Dylan Thomas stuff!!). Anger at the things we cannot change is, far from Francis of Assissi’s assertion (give me Thomas’ rage against the dying light over Francis any time!), not futile at all. It is purposive. It is a declaration of hope, of determination, of commitment, and most of all of humanity. It is meeting the fact that we are broken not with an untruth (“I am not broken after all” or “it is OK to be broken” [not to be mistaken for “I am less because I am broken” – seriously, some people refuse to accept the broken label because they read it as a value judgement – see above ad infinitum about using language properly]) but with outrage, and if you really want to achieve something then outrage is a pretty good fuel for the journey.

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Adjusting Expectations

Let me say this up front. The title of this post is an unashamed riff on one of my favourite videos from the fabulous Ethan Newberry, aka The Ginger Runner. You should all watch it.

This is the 4th year I have toed the line for Race to the Stones, my first ultra back in 2015 and a consistently fabulously supported and incredibly beautiful race on what is, essentially, the closest thing to a local hilly trail you get when you live in the flatlands of Oxfordshire.

In that time the race has evolved subtly. Most of the time for the better (wave starts from last year and rerouting the first section to avoid what used to cause up to 20 minute queues at early gates; the introduction of watermelon at pit stops; and this year’s basecamp food was definitely better than last year’s already fine fare); occasionally not so much (the removal of fresh milk from basecamp last year was a cruel blow – though maybe the fact I necked about 5 pints of it each of the previous two years has something to do with it).

selfie of me in running kit with running vest and race bib

One of the things about Race to the Stones (maybe it’s the close calendar proximity to Wimbledon) is the possibility of pretty much any kind of weather – last year unforecast drizzle that lasted 6 hours turned the early course into a skid pan. This year, for the first time since I’ve been running it, we had heat. I was excited about running in the heat.

One of the things about having the kind of mental ill health that makes every waking hour almost impossible to cope with is that you can become the kind of person who relishes extremes. There are two reasons for this. First, when most days are a battle with your darkest thoughts to stay alive, a few more millimetres on the mercury hardly feels like a challenge. Second, there’s the issue of differentials. I find simply existing in the world takes my life-difficulty level up to around 70-80% of “what a person can manage” pretty much every hour of every day. That leaves me next to no battery space to handle any additional challenge. Pit me against a field of people who operate at 10-20% on the same scale, and the sheer physics of it means they have me every time, with minimal exertion. Add on extreme conditions, though, and that gap suddenly works the other way. That 80-90% of potential difficulty most people never feel leaves a lot of space for them to suddenly find things get hundreds of percentage points harder. For those of us who struggle desperately every day, you could turn the Ridgeway into Death Valley and you’d struggle to make our lives more than 10 or 20% harder. In other words, tough conditions disproportionately affect those whose everyday lives aren’t so tough.

The stats tell the story when it comes to the heat. Last year, 114 people ducked below the magic 12 hour mark for 100k. This year that figure was 39. I was lucky. The heat, as I’d hoped, didn’t affect me – you don’t want to know the details but this year was the first time that the, er, bodily indicators suggested I got my hydration right.

And I was helped on my way immensely by having the wonderful surprise and honour of a good luck tweet from one of my heroes, the ultra runner and filmmaker Billy Yang (check out the incredible Life in a Day). His words were just about the soundest advice I think I’ve ever read:

“Remember: during the first half of the race, don’t be an idiot. In the second half, don’t be a wimp.”

I’ve always tended to go out way too fast and then hang on. This time, although I was comfortably running the lovely stretches of the first couple of sections, away from Lewknor and then the glorious mile or so of Grim’s Ditch from Nuffield, I eased slightly back, shouting (in the times I had the trail to myself) “this is for you, Billy” and feeling, all told, remarkably in control.

a trail covered in leaves running under overhanging trees
Grim’s Ditch – the most beautiful running trail.

Which brings me back to Grim’s Ditch. I love Grim’s Ditch. The first mile or so out of Nuffield is just about the most beautiful trail I’ve ever run on, a lovely downhill through ancient woodland. And that’s the problem. Woodland. Specifically the kind of canopy that makes for stunning dappled sunlight. I have only ever taken a tumble 5 times in my running life. 4 of those have been on a two mile section of Grim’s Ditch where root sand soil dance to tease my eyes in the spots of sun. A couple of weeks ago I removed much of the skin on my left shin but without doing real damage. Yesterday, I managed 2 of that total of 5 falls. And while I avoided any grazes, my ankles didn’t come off so well.

I knew the moment I hit the deck the second time that my beautifully controlled race had gone. One of the things I’ve learned in my “brief history of spills on the trail” is to perform a very quick instant diagnostic – from head to toe to make sure whatever the pain from the fall, it doesn’t increase with motion and pressure (but that I can still feel both motion and pressure) – before I continue. The pain in my ankle DID increase with pressure.

a path with tree roots
a couple of miles before Grim’s ditch and not in sunlight, but indicative of the roots’ cunning disguise

This was 18 kilometres in. Instead of carefully carving a personal best, the next 88k would be about preservation. And minimising damage – in particular minimising damage before my first ever 24 hour race in just 3 weeks’ time. I could already feel I was in really great shape. This was shaping up to be a summer of PBs if I just managed things sensibly.

But what does sensible mean? It’s a strange, vexing question. Fortunately the fact that I was now moving at a slow walk rather than a controlled run meant I had plenty of time to contemplate it.

For me, sensible is the canvas upon which the superlative is painted. I hear people talk about being sensible all the time as though it is a goal in itself. To me that makes no sense at all. The only reason not to go out and thrash myself until I drop in pursuit of something special is the thought that if I don’t, if I’m “sensible” that will help me do something even more special down the line.

It was like juggling as I hobbled. I was still making progress, however slow. That was helped by another great change for this year – kilometre markers every k of the way. But the further I went I increased the chance of doing longer-term damage, while my chances of a PB were now receding. Though I know that grinding something out against the odds is as much an accomplishment as any fastest anything.

By kilometre 36 though, 7k short of the next pit stop, I was down to painful 13 minute kilometres. That, in itself, wasn’t the issue. The real issue was that my footing was getting less and less sure. I was starting to trip as my ankles became less good at taking weight. And each trip made them more fragile.

By the time I reached the next pit stop I sat down to chew it over with the (excellent) medics. I explained my assessment – I could get the 7k to half way and base camp. I could not get 57k to the end. More important, I thought being out at night with unsure footing would be reckless, and potentially mess things up for more than just me.

voew of a llama over my shoulder
Got to love a race with a llama at the start

I left that pit stop fairly sure I would hit basecamp and convert my 100k non-stop to an overnight camp, and reassess in the morning. Thanks to a very strong ibuprofen and a finger of fudge (which really was just enough) I was able to find some reserves from somewhere and, although walking, make decent hiking speed of 9 minute kilometres. And then I sat down at basecamp and the moment I did, I realised that had been stupid. As the adrenaline wore off, even the ibuprofen couldn’t mask the pain. It was also clear the only reason I had seemed surer footed was that the last section’s trail is pancake flat (the trail, not the profile!).

a bag of chunks of mashed potato
Baked potato in a bag of salt – the perfect ultra running food

I asked myself what I would gain by starting again in the morning. I would, probably, get my 100k finish. But probably at the expense of a DNS for the 24 hour in 3 weeks. Would that really be a glorious act of bravery? Maybe it would. Then again, I could tell, injury apart, I was in the best shape of my life by far (the last section had shown me that as much as the first). I was in the shape where I should be trying to set PBs.

And as I sat there I thought of Billy’s words

“Remember: during the first half of the race, don’t be an idiot. In the second half, don’t be a wimp.”

And I thought, this is a season with two big ultras. A season of two halves. Carrying on for another 50k could be the biggest act of idiocy of all. And so I said heartfelt thanks all round and slunk off into the night (well, a taxi to Wantage where the bus back to Oxford awaited).

I woke up with soreness and a small blister but no lasting damage. I felt both furious with myself that I hadn’t carried on given the lack of major injury, but also relieved that I had pulled the plug in time. It took me 2 and a half hours by bus to get to Avebury and pick up my abandoned drop bag. It felt sad and strange being among the celebrations (it’s weird what exhaustion-addled brains conjure up – for me it was “because I haven’t finished I won’t get my end of race hot dog”), but by the time I was changing buses at Swindon that had been replaced by determination – to prove I’d made the right choice by crushing it over 24 hours; and to come back next year, maybe do the 50k and see just how fast I can go when not pacing myself (and see if I can actually run Grim’s Ditch stumble-free!).

Thank you Threshold for another great year (especially for moving me on the results from a 100k DNF to a 50k finish – I wonder if that’s to help with what was a heat-induced very large number of withdrawals!). See you again in 2019. I hope with milk restored to the basecamp menu! And thank you, Billy Yang!

How You See Me, How You Don’t – Aaron Swartz Day

Please comment on the latest iteration in the comments or by replying on twitter to @agnieszkasshoes I would like to hear from all #actuallyautistic voices as well as any and all employers willing to consider this project

You can download a pdf of the project as it stands here.

Background

“You ought always to be asking yourself all the time what is the most important thing I could be working on right now? If you’re not doing it why aren’t you?”

It can often feel as though we live in a time when there are very few real heroes. Or that everyone who gets caught on film engaging in acts of basic human decency is a hero now. You can make a good case that both are true. But Aaron Swartz really was a hero. He changed the world for the good time and time again. He founded movements, engaged politicians and people alike, did an enormous amount to promote the idea that the impact our lives have matters, on a practical level improved people’s lives through technology, and gave people hope that their voices could be heard. And, of course, he paid the ultimate price for doing so.

November 4th is Aaron Swartz Day. It will be marked by an incredible weekend in San Francisco, with an evening of inspiring speakers followed by a day of hacking around technology’s designed to protect the integrity of journalistic sources and make it possible to share information, to collaborate and to bring the truth to the public securely.

This event will be accompanied by other events across the globe, all dedicated to the same goal of preserving Aaron’s legacy.

With that in mind, I want to say a very little about what Aaron’s legacy means to me, and what I will be doing this weekend to contribute to it.

For me Aaron’s legacy is a very simple and very powerful one made up of the following elements:

  • It matters that we each, insofar as we are able, try to make the world a better place.
  • It is possible for each of us to make the world a better place.
  • Technology is essentially neutral. It is our greatest challenge and our greatest responsibility to us it, just like anything else, for good, but it is possible to do so.
  • Anything that makes the world better, in however small a way, matters, is part of a beautiful, profound project, and should be celebrated.
  • Whoever you are, however solitary your endeavour, however many and however powerful the voices telling you that you do not matter, that you cannot make a difference – they are wrong. You matter. You can make a difference. You are not alone.

I will be spending this Saturday contributing a very small part to that project.

  • The small problem I am currently working on is ensuring that everyone is empowered to fulfil their full creative potential to help solve the world’s wicked problems.
  • The small part of that problem I am trying to make mine is empowering the neurodivergent and those with mental health conditions to be able to fulfil their creative potential.
  • The small part of that challenge I am currently focussed on is making the workplace accessible to the neurodivergent so that they can make the maximum creative impact through it.
  • And the small part of that problem I am working on this weekend is creating a format template of CV that presents the skills, the capabilities, and the needs of brilliant neurodivergent people in such a way as to make not only a compelling case for recruitment in companies to be restructured so as to accommodate them but to ensure that once in the workplace they are employed in roles where they will be both fully empowered to achieve at the edge of their potential, and supported to do so.

Iteration 1

Idea: A new way of presenting information about people’s skills that matches skills with employers’ needs to overcome the structural barriers to recruitment to and retention of employment for neurodivergent candidates, and to remove the difficulties of executive function associated with application

Mechanics – a web-based interface asks very simple questions about an employer’s needs and the accommodations they are willing to make, which interacts with a “back office” of a person’s skills so as to produce a custom document that shows

  • Which skills match which requirements, producing a “skills profile” relevant to the job (in the form of one of those “points on concentric circles” diagrams
  • What accommodations are needed if any in relation to each skill so that employers can empower their workforce and be proactive about accessibility
  • What is the best way to ask candidates to demonstrate proficiency in relation to each skill (written answer, pre=prepared presentation, interview, webchat etc). This can also include evidence of skills to avoid the need for testing (such as links to a design project or a paper as well as qualifications)

How it works

Those looking for work would:

  • Compile elements within a structured database by answering questions (how would we make this so it required less executive function than a regular CV) about
    • their preferred method of working
    • their accommodations and needs
    • their skills (prompted)
    • examples of those skills and how they would like to be tested on them (again, suitable prompts to avoid executive function issues)
  • Send the interface link to employers who would then answer the set questions about their requirements so as to pull through bits of information from the database

Potential employers would (if they’re not willing to take this step they are not going to be up for making the kind of accommodations they need to):

  • Complete some very simple questions such as “which of the following skills do you need?”, “which of the following kinds of accommodation is your organization able to make in relation to this post?”

There would need to be free text possibilities to allow for specific qualifications etc if necessary, but these kept to a minimum (because answering open-ended questions is what we’re trying to minimise)

Applicant would get to review the “pulled through” document and edit then submit – the employer would then receive their custom CV

If successful, a support plan would be auto-generated

Iteration 2

Key questions

  • When we look at the skills that employers want and the skills that people can offer, is there a mismatch?
  • If so, is that mismatch the result of language?
  • If there is a language problem (company wants “something jargonese” and person has a skill of “really good at pie charts”) is this a problem that could be solved by some kind of translation in the interface? That is to say, company is able to ask for “xyz” and this is presented to applicant as “abc” and when applicant’s “abc” goes back to company they see it as “xyz”
    • Would this be helpful or would it actually avoid tackling the problem because potential employers need to be more open to people’s actual language and this might teach them that they needn’t do any of that labour?
  • Should potential employers be asked what problems they want solving/tasks they want doing as opposed to what skills they want, so as to avoid bias about “what they think they need?”
  • When a person enters something into the database, would it be helpful if
    • They were asked for a skill and could enter in response to a prompt, or would this cause problems with trying to figure out what the question is “actually” asking?
    • Would it be better to be given free text, and then given a list of different, multiple ways of tagging that text to indicate the areas in which it would be useful to employers (ultimately could there be “intelligent prompts” as to possible categories?)
    • There was a mix of the two, so that you know what the skills areas are but can 1. Add other areas and 2. Can enter free text prompted by those categories, and then tag it multiple times?

Iteration 3

apologies for the jpegs, this is the first skeleton of a workflow and how the interfaces might function. The next phase will see the category lists populated. All feedback as always welcome

Iteration 4

Particularly useful feedback on the employer portal, specifically the later “check” columns. Where a skill might present particular issues, rather than the “challenge” of the previous iteration, now framing that as a presentation of alternatives, suggesting how work might still be done but without the requirement for the exclusionary elements:

  • There would still be a required “explanation” box, but this would now be written not as the result of a challenge but as the result of a series of prompts.
  • The potential issues would still be raised, but now each would be accompanied by questions of a “what if…” format that would enable employers to proactively consider more flexible practices

Learning on the Run: 2017 Race to the Stones

Avebury 1

CN: anxiety, suicidal ideation

Every time you run an ultramarathon you learn something new about yourself. And the further you go, and the slower you go, the more you are likely to learn. Which means, at least on the second score, I should be a genius by now.

This was my third Race to the Stones, a 100 kilometre run along the Ridgeway. The first time, as I guess is the case for most newbies, the main thing I learned was that I could do it. I also learned that for me the oft-repeated dictum that your body can do remarkable things but the battle is to persuade your mind really doesn’t hold true. My threshold is what my body will do before caving in completely. I already sort of knew that from spending my late 20s powerlifting, living every workout on the very edge of what was physically dangerous. And I knew it from decades of staying alive through mental illness when it would have been so much easier to give in to the desperate desire to be dead.

Last year I learned something surprising. I am not particularly good at lots of things. And at some things I’m not too shabby. But in all things I am absurdly competitive. I had assumed that competitiveness would override anything, but when it turned out Ann was seriously ill mid race, I didn’t think twice about stopping to make sure she was taken care of. Running teaches you about your values, about where your boundaries lie, and it can often surprise you. A similar thing happened during training last summer when I found myself clambering into the Thames to pull out a sheep who’d ended up grazing too close to the edge. I’ve also learned that this border-case altruism most definitely doesn’t extend to swapping pleasantries with other runners while out on the trails – stories afterwards absolutely, but small talk is as unpleasant for the neurodivergent on the trails as off – and has the potential to utterly ruin an experience.

So what did I learn from this year’s Race to the Stones? Well, this year’s race was very much a dance of mind and body, flesh and spirit, learning a great deal about how my corpsely self functions, about the way life and our living of it is not illuminated by metaphor but *is* a metaphor. And I learned more than I have ever done in one concentrated burst about flow.

It has been a very difficult year for training, but for the first time I can remember, the month leading up to the race I was able to put in four weeks of uninterrupted training without any injury. And in the race itself it was clear before long that I was a lot stronger than I have been in the past. A bit heavier, yes (I’m working on that, and losing weight will be key to staying injury free), but with a much stronger core, and that made a big difference to a lot of the more technical parts of the course where I have struggled a lot before.

The Ridgeway is beautiful, and looking at the profile, it’s a pretty gentle place to run. In practice, a combination of vehicle access and soil type means that long stretches are rounded narrow single track consisting of chalk baked like cement with protruding flint. You literally have to watch every foot placement, constantly making tiny – and not so tiny – adjustments to your stride. This is exhausting mentally, but it also places massive strain on your ligaments and tendons, and on muscles like you adductors and abductors that see very little action when it comes to jogging along on a well-surfaced road.

But this year I’ve been working a lot on my core, thanks to Ann’s brilliant, simple tip of doing one leg balances every day – a perfect way to occupy those awkward minutes waiting for the bus. The result has been that, as if by magic, making those adjustments to foot position is now something I can do from the core, sparing my muscles and joints. And it’s had the greatest effect of all on some wonderful downhill paths, such as the root-strewn section of Grim’s Ditch, and a previously vicious quarter mile of single track coming down into Swyncombe, where I can now just open up completely and take full advantage of gravity. And that was the first thing I noticed – the transformative effect of being able to let go of all control completely, legs flying without encumbrance, heart rate never rising so long as the descent continues. The feeling of fluidity – of, literally, feeling that one has become a liquid sliding over the surface of the earth, is utterly magical, and add the side to side movement of those ever changing foot placements and it feels as though one is dancing with the earth.

A second effect of a stronger core and greater residual fitness is the ability to run out of trouble. We have had a warm, dry spring and the Ridgeway has been consistently parched. So, with the forecast showing a beautiful cool overcast day, I set out in road shoes to be gentle on my feet for the tarmaced stretches. But of course the forecast was wrong. The race began with 6 hours of steady rain (given that I am sitting typing this in a library not a police cell I can only imagine that my thoughts towards weather forecasters were muttered under my breath throughout that period). It wasn’t long before parts of the course were becoming like an ice rink. But while this required a sense of permanent at least semi watchfulness, I never felt in danger of slipping and sliding the way I have done in the past. Whenever the surface was a little too sketchy I was able to run my way out of trouble, light, skipping strides creating a contact less prone to losing grip.

So the actual experience of running was different. And that, in turn, changed my thoughts as I ran. There were more times when I was able simply to enjoy the pleasure of moving, of body and nature in contact, dancing together.

My second experience was putting to the test a piece of research I had always felt rang true, one which goes against one of the fundamental tenets of ultramarathon advice. The advice goes to start slow. Really slow, so you don’t blow up and crash out. The problem is while that might work for top athletes, as so often most of us reading the advice aren’t top athletes. And I read a great piece last year that showed you’re far better going out quicker – if you’re in the part of the pack I occupy (I finished Race to the Stones 696th out of 961 non-stoppers) you’ll end up at a crawl however you start, so you might as well bank some quick miles.

So I set out at a pace I knew from training I could sustain for more than 30 kilometres and decided to see how far it would take me. “Keep going till you blow up, then hold on.” I can’t quite understand why I have never formulated it as a principle before. It’s something I’ve applied to pretty much every area of my life where I’ve had any kind of success, yet it runs so counter to what we are told by coaches and memes and podcasts and “those who know” again and again. Which is another reason I need to get on and write my self-improvement for neurodivergents book.

The mantra ran through my head on a loop (when I wasn’t cursing meteorologists), and in particular I thought of one of my great inspirations, Anna Frost, who applied the same approach to her first hundred mile race, going out hartd to get as much done as she could before she hit the wall – only for her the wall never did come. She just won. In a very fast time.

Of course, I’m no Anna Frost so I did hit the wall, at about kilometre 60. But still, I managed to see 10 kilometres more of the course in daylight than I had done before, despite this year’s start being an hour and a half later tI did hang on, at a pace not really slower than when I had gone out more “sensibly”. For the last 30 kilometres at least my thought was simple – “I don’t know how I am going to finish this, but I know that I am.” Of course, I did know – one foot in front of the other and repeat. It’s that simple.

And here’s the important thing about that. Sometimes the cautious approach really is best. Sometimes you need to pace yourself and leave energy in the tank to get you through the last gruelling hours of a challenge. Bt sometimes it’s not, and unless you’ve thrown everything you have at something and then clung on for dear life when you’ve fallen off the cliff – how will you ever know? We hear a lot that life is a marathon not a sprint, but what the hell kind of philosophy is it to make sure you hit your 80th birthday with plenty of fuel in the tank just to be sure you cross the line strong? Besides which we also now know that often the best tactic in a marathon is to go out strong and hold on.

Finally, I learned more about flow. Running is perfect for achieving flow in different ways. On the road, with a sure footing, one can let one’s legs tick over metronomically while one’s mind finds its own rhythms. And on the trail, one is so aware of every foot placement, so focused on each root and rock that one loses oneself completely in one moment after the next.

We hear a lot about flow these days, about the importance, for example, of finding flow in our work, or a hobby. It is often portrayed as the ultimate hipster accessory, an indulgence for the lucky and entitled. But for me it has always been so much more than that. It has been a survival mechanism. When I’m ill, life is petty much about survival in the face of the overwhelming urge to die. It’s all about section two of the lessons learned here, one foot in front of the other and repeat.

But when I’m not ill with depression or mania, there is nothing to mask the underlying state of chronic anxiety. Living with anxiety means living in constant fear. I would describe it most accurately, I think, as living face to the sky with one’s neck upon the block, waiting for the axe to fall. Not knowing when, just knowing that it will. It is all-consuming. One’s life is spent endlessly playing out the different scripts that end with the fall of the axe. And there is never a script that ends any other way. Not ever. Not one. For me, the simplest everyday scenarios all end with my own death or, more often, my wife’s. Any situation that involves contact with, or even proximity to, another human being will end its trail of impeccable logic with death, despair, the loss of everything. I will sleep in an exhausted but delirious relief that I have avoided the axe for another day – but always knowing that the slightest noise in the night could restart the script.

Flow offers precious moments without anxiety. It absorbs so much of the self that there is nothing left over for fear. Worryingly, this is the same function that can be served by intense pain, which is one reason self-harm is one of anxiety’s closer companions. It is why I have never understood the “don’t take it too far” or the “why do you have to do everything to extremes?” voices that ostensibly demonstrate concern. Simple. Because it is only at the very edge cases of or human endeavour that we can find flow, and a few moments’ respite from the flash of the axe about to fall.

What I realised as I ran was that, again, so much of the advice we commonly receive is wrong. We should not be looking to make tiny pockets of flow in busy lives. That is the flow of hipsterism, of indulgence. Valuable, yes, of course. But possible? Not for so many. And its absence a source of easy reprosch for those who would rather blame the despair on the deficiency of the despairing than create a world that would minimize it. Far better to devote ourselves to carving out large chunks of uninterrupted time in people’s lives for them to find true flow, whether or not they find it alone under the stars on the trail.

 

 

 

 

Dressed for Success

Before I start, may I ask you for a moment of your time. If you have looked around you will know I am researching creativity and working on tools and systems to help people who have found themselves cut off from a creative life unlock their potential. The first step on that trail is to conduct several surveys, of which the first is now live. It will take 10  minutes and you should have a lot of fun. You can find it here. Thank you!

As you know, I have been reading Tim Harford’s wonderful book Messy this week. One of the chapters that induced prim air-punching was the chapter on work spaces. And yet, despite the fact he proclaims that what you have on your desk is none of anyone else’s damn business, the thing he fails to mention is the one thing that has held me back the most in my quest for “real” employment, and where I feel the greatest sense of relief and, almost literally, expanding brain capacity and all-around performance bandwidth the moment I enter “creative me” land. And that’s the subject of clothing.

Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.
Talking about poetry at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, able to give 100% of myself to what I am saying because I feel comfortable.

These days, we’re familiar with the anecdotes about Steve Jobs and his black sweaters, or Mark Zuckerberg only ever wearing grey T shirts because that way he never has to think about what to wear. Sadly, we are also familiar with stories of outrageous sexist dress codes, of women being forced to mutilate their feet in the belief that it  is an essential part of doing their job.

The problem is the same one we see played out again and again in the confusing and arbitrary codes of the workplace. What we see in the powerful as quirk and eccentricity we see in the workers’ corpus as disobedient and disrespectful. One is lauded for breaking the rules, the other required to keep them if they want to keep their job. And by rules, I don’t mean maintaining customer confidentiality, billing in a timely and transparent fashion, or adhering to the finest tolerances in manufacturing. I mean working from home. I mean what you wear day to day. I mean whether you sit or stand at your desk. I mean what pictures you have on the wall.

I am intrigued to know if the things that apply to a tidy desk apply to our adherence to dress codes, namely that whether your desk is tidy or messy is not important, but whether you got to choose how it looks is. Because this is essential about autonomy, empowerment, freeing our mind for the important things and then putting us in a frame of mind where we can attack them with gusto, my intuition is that it is. And my intuition is that the reasons organisations cling to rules in the face of evidence are equally as strange.

Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.
Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.

 

Let me rewind and give some context. I have always struggled with clothes. And in many different ways. I wear clothes very hard, for one, so I tend to wear through things – seams will fall apart as soon as I put something on, fabric rub through, shoe soles crack and so on. Then there is hypersensitivity. The feel of some fabric, some cuts of clothing, some shapes of clothing causes me actual pain. And the claustrophobia from wearing clothing that clings in certain ways (strangely the opposite is true when running, when I guess my body recognises the need for compression and the need not to chafe) takes over my mind at every moment. Getting anything done requires me to find ways of functioning that work around the fact that this massive mental weight is constantly there. It goes without saying if I am wearing clothing that makes me feel like this I will not do as well as if I choose my own outfit. It got so bad with one retail job in a chain store that I had to leave the job because I literally couldn’t do anything other than try and survive with the suit I was given to wear. I have a fairly complex suite of mental health needs, which makes staying in full time work somewhat tricky – the full time work I am able to do is a long way from anything I am capable of or qualified for doing as a result. (Hence the need to stretch a brain that is on the one hand desperately impaired but on the other full of what appears to be an unusual set of abilities that constantly want to exercise themselves is met through my extramural life of mind sports, mental health campaigning, public speaking, writing and private research.) But even this limited job is extremely tough – not because of the work but because of the other things it puts my way – social interactions, being in shared spaces, the expectation of eating and drinking communally at some meetings. Each of these requires large parts of my brain I could otherwise give to my work.

And clothing is one more of those things. I don’t have to wear a suit, and I am very grateful for that. But I can’t wear the comfortable elasticated waist trousers I would wear by choice. Apparently that sends the wrong message.

And here’s where we get back to the general points about dressing for work, and why telling someone what to wear is absurd.

The people in charge know it’s a trade off. I have certainly told my bosses that. And the manager of a woman forced to wear heels that hurt her feet or a person of colour forced to unbraid their hair must know it makes work harder for them. So to do the same work as their colleagues will take more. So they are doing less for the organisation, and as individuals they are systematically being denied equal access to performance based promotion. I have certainly explained this, and you would have to be particularly blinkered not to see it. Yet the demand is still there. and that means one of two things:

  1. They believe this is a trade off that’s worth it. Because something is more important than their employees being A. happy and comfortable and B. at their most productive, efficient, and creative.
  2. They just don’t believe us. Sadly, I fear that this is still a massive problem. Especially for those of us with hidden disabilities. You only have to look at the news to see people with Crohn’s being harassed for using the disabled bathroom. And those who have not experienced sensory processing issues simply do not “get” how headphones to drown out conversational noise would help; or having a quiet space to go and eat would be anything but “being demanding”; or having flexible hours would mean you were able to be at work when you were not feeling sick from your medication. There is still too wide an assumption that those with hidden conditions are making up demands they don’t really need because people just won’t believe us. That really isn’t acceptable and we need to keep working to change it – but that’s for another post.

For now, I just want to think what those higher priorities might be, and I want to encourage all the managers out there to have a hard think about their logic if they find themselves drawn to any of them. I have come across each of these. I think each of them is highly flawed.

  1. It creates the wrong image for clients. I still haven’t understood exactly what this means. It seems to boil down to “clients expect”, but clients expect a lot of things that appear on a spectrum that runs from slightly dubious to downright unacceptable and it is the job of organisations to separate out delivering superb service from pandering to prejudicial or outdated attitudes. Arrogating responsibility for that is simply lazy.
  2. You work better when you’re dressed for the part. There are so many people who believe that the way they believe you work better at a tidy desk. The message is simple – you might think you work better one way, but you’re wrong. Some people feel this way. Others feel differently. There’s room for all.
  3. It sends the wrong image to co workers. I have seen this meant in several ways – on the one hand I’ve seen it mean it sends the message you don’t care – but for that see point 2. Personally I think giving someone the freedom to dress how they want shows you care about being the best you can more than you care about an image. I’ve seen it understood as meaning that managers who dress casually won’t be respected by their staff, or are sending an unmanagerly message. But see Zuckerberg and Jobs. Maybe it’s not that “tech companies are different” but that staff who work at Apple and Facebook care about their managers’ vision, leadership, and skills more than their clothes.

What I’m trying to say combines two elements, but they do meet to form a single point. Some people need the freedom to choose their clothing because they have a condition that requires it. But it’s never really the best way to do things to make people ask to be made an exception. It singles them out, it requires a lot of resources from the people who have fewest to spare, it formalises s sense that some people are a disproportionate burden. Fortunately, if what is true of desks is true of dress, there is an easy answer – let everyone have the autonomy to choose their own clothing. Those who like to feel smart can do so. Those who need comfort can have comfort. Those who simply need to feel they can express who they are can do just that. So long as no one is breaking health or hate rules, what is the problem?

One of the things I care about passionately is making workplaces more creative. And that also includes giving the opportunities to be creative to those who have had the doors closed. I also care about making workplaces as accessible as they can be. Because accessibility enables diversity and diversity in the workplace has been shown again and again to be good in itself. And because it’s in the interest of all organisations that when their staff are working they are able to bring their A-game. And I have this ridiculous notion that is more important than having them in a tie.

 

“Not for the likes of you”: How The Self-Improvement Industry is Failing People with Mental Ill Health

You are probably here because, among other reasons, you are, like me, ever so slightly obsessed by self-improvement books, articles, and videos. I devour self-improvement books, and I can usually pick up something from pretty much each one I read. But I also have a big problem. And with the self-improvement, how-to-succeed, be-a-successful-entrepreneur industry as a whole. A good half of what I read makes no sense to me. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, it leaves me with a very simple message – success is not for you.

If I tell you that one in four people will share something with me this year, you will get an idea of what I mean. I have a mental health disability. Specifically, I have bipolar, though like many I have several co-morbid issues. Not all of the 1 in 4 who experience mental ill health every year will have a disability. A lot will, though. And that’s the thing. For a condition to constitute a disability in law, it has to have a long term impact on your day to day functioning.

Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute's report "Seeing Through The Fog"
Talking at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s report “Seeing Through The Fog”

For those of us with mental health disabilities the impairments we experience are manifold, but a significant number of the areas where we struggle just so happen to be those areas where self-improvement books point us. And that’s a really big problem.

First, let me give some examples. A condition like autism can severely affect the ability to communicate. The up phase of bipolar can impair concentration and judgement while the down phase, like depression, can create an inertia that affects the ability to start tasks.

The problem should be becoming clear. These are problems “everybody has.” And they are things that get in most people’s way when they are trying to start a business or get an idea out of their head and into the world. And self-improvement books are really good at giving people ways to get around them. I am reading one now that begins by explaining the most essential step of all is developing a “do it now” mindset. Struggling with getting things done? Always distracted by what you have to do in the day ahead? Do it now!

Well yay, go you, slap me round the face and call me Tony I never thought of that one! The thing is, people I’ll call, for want of a better word (and I know it’s imperfect because only a small subset of conditions are neurological rather than, say, chemical) “neurotypical” use the same vocabulary as those of us who are disabled use. So it appears to everyone concerned that we have the same problems and, therefore, the same solutions.

on the panel for the same event
on the panel for the same event, at Barclays HQ in Canary Wharf

But we don’t. When someone who has depression talks about inertia, they don’t mean they’re “feeling tired”. They don’t mean they’d rather be sitting on the sofa. In fact, most people I know with depression would rather be out there changing the world. But they can’t. As in, they might as well be sitting with a 3 ton weight on their legs having every trace of caffeine that’s ever passed their lips slowly withdrawn from their physiological history. And when an autistic person says they can’t make a phone call, they don’t mean they “get nervous” or “would rather watch TV.” They mean if they pick up the receiver you might as well be screaming white noise at 120 decibels as talking their language.

So when we read the language we use of ourselves for our problems with the world, and see “handy hints” about how to overcome them, we take home one or more of the following messages

  • I am not trying hard enough. In fact the books, classes, videos are telling everyone that people with mental health disabilities aren’t trying hard enough.
  • Running your own business and being a success isn’t for the likes of you.

I used to challenge people regularly. I’d say “you do realise if you said that to someone with depression, it could be really damaging.” In fairness, once people had realised that a similar vocabulary can mask greatly differing realities (not everyone does – some will always prefer the “you’re not trying hard enough” explanation, or will unable to get their head round anything else even if they try), they would agree.

And then they’d say “but I wasn’t talking about people with depression.”

And that’s nice. They get it.

But, HANG ON A MINUTE. We’re back on message again. And that message is that being an entrepreneur, or a creative, or simply successful, isn’t for you if you have a mental health disability.

Which brings me full circle, because the book I was reading was something about “finding your big idea” and the rant it sent me off on made me realise that among other things to do with creativity and empowerment, my big idea is providing the tools for people who have those difficulties in life to achieve the things they dream of. By understanding exactly what the impairments and barriers they deal with are – and where I don’t understand directly, talking to people who do, so that as well as giving people the skills to be creative, which is mission number 1 here, I can give people the strategies to use that creativity fruitfully in the face of the obstacles they need to tackle.

Which means not telling you to “do it now” but being somewhat, er, more creative than that. The self-improvement industry is letting people down, and it’s letting organizations down. And that’s a challenge I want to pick up and run with.

Questions:

  • Do you run a self-improvement business? What do you do for people who have mental health difficulties?
  • Do you experience difficulties because of mental ill health that make the advice you read seem as though it doesn’t work for you? What problems in particular?