I meant to get this post finished in time for my 22nd birthday, on the 26th. That didn’t happen, so I told myself I’d have it ready by the new year. Well, that didn’t happen either, but better late than never. The following is, in what I hope will become an annual tradition, my thoughts on the year that’s just gone by: what went well, what went wrong and what I think I’ve learned.
To summarise, my 22nd trip around the sun has had some incredible highs and miserable lows, but overall it’s probably been the best year of my life. Here’s to year 23.
It’s also without a doubt been the most eventful year of life. A hell of a lot has happened to me in the last 12 months. January 2012 feels like a lifetime ago. I’ve moved house twice, started a new job, learned new skills, tried new things, read over 60 books, and met all kinds of cool and interesting new people. I’ve spent over 2 months outside the UK, in 9 foreign countries on 3 separate trips. I’ve had major breakthroughs and I’ve made unbelievable fuck-ups, and I’ve learned huge amounts from both. Here comes the highlight reel:
Warning: this post is both long, at over 4000 words, and extremely self-indulgent. If the idea of me talking at great length about myself sounds like something you’d be interested in (hi Mum), feel free to read it all the way through. If not, you may still enjoy certain parts, so clicky click these linky links and skip around:
- The Hitch
- Southeast Asia
- In summary…
A random German driver and myself
I spent my Easter break hitch-hiking across Europe, from Manchester to Croatia. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the two weeks I spent riding in strangers’ cars through the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia were probably the best thing I’ve ever done. The only reason I say “probably” is because it’s the second time I did it (I hitch-hiked to Morocco in 2011), and I can’t choose between the two.
I already wrote about this at length, so rather than repeat myself I’ll just link to my original post: Life Lessons From Hitch-Hiking Across Europe Twice.
I’ve never been overweight, smoked, or had any major health issues, so I always considered myself a reasonably healthy guy. Sort of like how everyone thinks they’re a reasonably good driver, that they read slightly faster than average and they’re not influenced by advertising.
This year, having made some significant changes to my diet and lifestyle, I now realise that I was wrong. What I thought was “reasonably healthy” was in fact pretty poor. The only reason I thought it was okay is because the average state of health in the UK is so depressingly bad that mediocre looks extraordinary.
I started 2012 as a vegetarian, briefly dabbling in veganism. While I’m definitely glad for this experience and learned a lot from it, I eventually just couldn’t avoid the conclusion any longer that humans are natural omnivores. The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain was the final nail in my veggie coffin and I added meat back into my diet around March. (Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body was an eye-opener too.)
I still have a lot of respect for vegetarians and vegans. (Merely by giving a second’s thought to the consequences of what you eat, you’ve done more than 99% of people will ever do. And, like I’ve said before, I think the books Eating Animals and The Vegetarian Myth should be compulsory reading for every human on the planet.) Ultimately, I want the same thing as you guys: widespread good health, a sustainable future and humane, conscious farming practices. I just disagree on the means.
The story doesn’t stop there though. Cordain’s book sent me down a rabbit hole from which I’m yet to emerge. The paleo diet isn’t just about eating meat; it’s about questioning every assumption of modern agricultural society and rejecting the neolithic non-foods that are destroying humanity. It’s one of those things where, on learning about it, you think “why don’t more people know about this?” Then you get sucked in further and further and you realise that the whole situation is far, far worse than you could ever have possible imagined.
I can’t possibly share everything I’ve learned in the space of one blog post, but there is one thing I now firmly believe: just about every commonly-held belief about health and diet is dangerously wrong. And if you think this is a radical claim, ask yourself: if the commonly-held beliefs about diet are right, then why is everybody so fat?
There’s this notion floating about that once you hit thirty your body should just start deteriorating, getting overweight and creaky, and that this is just a normal part of getting old that you can’t do anything about – in your thirties! This is just so unbelievably preposterous it’s staggering – name one other mammal that deteriorates like this immediately after reaching child-bearing age – yet the world has gone so insane that billions of people just accept it as fact. In the best article on health I’ve ever read, Michael Ellsberg calls this “collective cultural insanity” and I agree 100%.
I have a quote from the same article stuck on my wall:
Your cloudy, depressed, hung over, caffeine-jacked-up, sugar-high, sugar-crash, foggy, unclear consciousness just appears as ‘reality’ to you, and you have not the slightest idea that there is actually so much more available to you in your own consciousness, beyond what occurs to you as ‘just the way things are’ now, if you were to clean out your system of all the toxic junk you’re putting in it.
I can absolutely relate to what Ellsberg is saying here. The moment I stopped eating grains, it was like my brain had shifted up into sixth gear after trundling along in fourth for 21 years. Imagine putting on glasses for the first time after having blurry vision your entire life – except for your entire mind. I’m not exaggerating. When I eat a high-carb meal now I can feel the fogginess and fatigue settling in within the hour. “Christ,” I think every time. “Is this how I used to feel every day?”
(By the way, if your reaction to that quote is defensiveness… you’re proving Ellsberg’s point.)
I’m far from a paragon of perfect health now, and I still have a long way to go. I’ve always been skinny (especially when I was vegan), I can’t cook for shit, and I don’t enjoy exercise enough to do it for it’s own sake. But with the results I’ve seen so far on this path – not just in terms of how I feel but in the knock-on effect it’s had on every other area of my life – I know I’m onto something huge.
Being the big believer in continual self-improvement that I am, I do have couple of health experiments planned for this year. Right now I’m in the middle of going 30 days without eating gluten or refined sugar. I don’t eat much of these things anymore anyway, but I want to see what happens if I get a bit stricter in avoiding them. So far I’m enjoying the results.
Oh, and I quit drinking a few months ago too. I’ve already written enough about that. Suffice to say that it’s been a good decision and I haven’t looked back. (Actually, to tell the truth, I got hammered on New Year’s Eve, just as an experiment to double-check I wasn’t missing anything. I’m not.)
Annoyingly, even with the poor light this is the only half-decent group photo I can find with me in it.
For years I’d been obsessed with the idea of visiting Southeast Asia. I don’t know exactly where this fixation came from, but in summer 2012 I finally caved in and spent more than I could reasonably afford on a 6-week stint in Thailand and Laos.
I’ve tried on several attempts to write up my thoughts on this trip, but kept on giving in. Not because I had nothing to say, but because getting my thoughts into writing kept on leading to realisations that weren’t easy to process.
Here’s a fact of human psychology: when someone invests a lot of money, time and energy into something, they rate it far higher than they would have if they’d had the exact same experience for free. And if someone spends a four-figure sum on what they thought would be the trip of a lifetime and it doesn’t live up to their expectations, they find that very hard to accept and they tell themselves – and anyone who asks – that they had a better time than they actually did.
So it’s only now, over 5 months after I got home (wow has that time flown) and after a lot of introspection, that I’ve come to accept that the whole trip wasn’t really as great as I’d convinced myself it had been.
Don’t get me wrong; for the most part I enjoyed myself and I don’t regret going. (It was far better than anything I’d have done if I’d stayed in England.) But if I could go back there’s a LOT I’d do differently. Thailand and Laos weren’t the problem; I was.
Thailand (which is where I spent most of my time) is a beautiful, diverse country with a rich history and culture and a huge variety of things to do and see. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. I didn’t get much of that because I spent most of my time sleeping in hungover and drinking cocktails by the bucket. (That’s not hyperbole – alcohol in Thailand is literally served in buckets.) I was told before I went that Thailand is over-commercialised and overrun with tourists, and it definitely lived up to the hype. A friend I met out there summed it up perfectly: “Ko Phangan is the rich kid’s Malia.”
Not that I’m claiming to be any better than the average tourist. Everyone you meet out there (which, at the time of year I went, consists at least 80% of British university students on their summer break like myself) acknowledges that south Thailand is being destroyed by the tourist industry… but that doesn’t stop anybody, including me, from going right ahead and contributing to that decline anyway.
To be fair, not all of Thailand is like this, just the parts I went to. For me to complain that Thailand is nothing but pissed-up Westerners would be like like spending two weeks in the south of Florida and complaining that the USA has no ski resorts. You get what you go looking for, and I didn’t go looking for much that I couldn’t have got at home. On the surface, it was a lot of fun, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.
This was the fourth time in four years I’ve been backpacking (sixth if you count the two Hitches), but was unique in at least two ways. Firstly, I travelled with only hand luggage. Wow – what a game-changer. It really is so much better and easier. Why on Earth did I lug so much junk around with me on all my other trips? I’m never checking in hold luggage again. (Shout out to the excellent onebag.com for loads of handy advice on this subject – essential reading for any traveller.)
It was also the first time I’d gone travelling completely by myself (although I did meet up with a friend from uni for a a week or so in Ko Phangan). While this was a good decision too and I expect I’ll be doing it in future, it wasn’t always plain sailing and there were a few times when I struggled to meet people and felt more than a bit isolated and lonely. I know this wasn’t a problem with travelling solo per se – it was my own fault for not getting out of my comfort zone or making enough effort.
In fact, that pretty much sums up the entire problem with my trip: I didn’t make enough effort. My expectations were too high and I spent too much time waiting for the fun and adventure to come to me instead of actively seeking it out. A major lesson learned.
Okay, I’m pushing the limits of what I feel comfortable sharing now, and this all been a bit too negative. Fundamentally, I’m glad I went and despite some low points I did have a lot of good times, so I’m going to end by saying what I did enjoy:
- SCUBA diving in Ko Tao (probably my favourite place I visited) and getting my Open Water license – something that’s been on my bucket list for years.
- Going to a CouchSurfing meetup in Bangkok on my first night, and meeting up with Couchsurfers in a few other places. I’ve yet to meet a CSer who wasn’t a brilliant person.
- • Vang Vieng, Laos is the most ridiculous party town I have ever been to and was probably the most mental week of my life. Nothing could have prepared me for this place. If you think you have partied hard and you haven’t been to Vang Vieng, you are wrong.
- I spent a whole day one day in Ko Phangan zipping around the jungle aimlessly on a rented motorbike with the wind in my hair. I now understand why people love biking so much. It’s a strange combination of exhilarating speed and meditative solitude.* Very enjoyable.
- While the infamous Full Moon Party was pretty disappointing, the Half Moon Party a week before was great and probably the best night out I had all summer.
- Getting caught in a storm while taking the water taxi from Ko Phi Phi Lee to Ko Phi Phi Don. Visibility was near zero, the waves were taller than the boat was long and we were rocking from side to side like the earth was quaking… and (once I got over my fear of imminent death) it was one of the most breathtaking, adrenaline-soaked and memorable experiences I’ve ever had. I have never felt so alive.
- Jungle trekking in Khao Sok national forest. Stunning scenery and a nice way to relax after some heavy partying on the islands; the only downside was having to stop every ten metres to pull leeches off my feet.
When all’s said and done, Southeast Asia is a great part of the world really. I’ll definitely be visiting it again. Maybe even soon. Ahem.
This is getting ridiculous.
I told myself last January that 2012 would be the year I finally made something of music; that I’d record some songs, get better at singing, play some gigs, put a band together and do all the other things I’ve been telling myself for years and years and years that I’m going to do but somehow never make any progress on. Now, a year later, I still have very little to show for all my talk.
What I did do:
- Play and practice guitar shitloads, just like in any other year. There’s barely been a day in the last ten years that I haven’t picked up a guitar; that’s not likely to change anytime soon. .
- Get a couple of guitar videos up. More to come.
- Round about April/May I tried to put a band together with one friend on guitar, another on drums and myself on bass. We jammed a fair few times and, if I may say so myself, were sounding pretty good, then it all fell apart due to the other member’s existing commitments and lack of time. I was pretty disappointed by this as I really liked the music we’d been making and felt like we were heading somewhere. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. What’s sad is that I’ve been playing guitar for nearly ten years and this is the closest I’ve ever come to actually being in a proper band.
- Fully finished one more song and got another three or four to the “almost done, just need a few details finalised” stage. This brings my total count to maybe six or seven songs I’ve written, most of which are unrecorded have never been heard by anyone other than me.
- Made a couple of hundred pounds giving guitar lessons. I can’t see myself doing this as a full-time job but the extra income is always nice and I do enjoy teaching.
So I didn’t do nothing with music, but it’s still less than I could have done. I don’t know why I never get around to doing all the things with music that I say I want to do. It’s not like I haven’t had enough time. I just haven’t been making it enough of a priority. Maybe I’m scared of failure, maybe I’m scared of success. Maybe I just don’t want it enough.
I don’t even know what my musical goals are for year 23. There are some major non-musical things I want to accomplish this year that are going to have to take higher priority. Whatever the case, I’ll still be playing guitar every day and slowly but surely writing some songs that I’m happy with and proud of. We’ll see how it goes.
One new year’s resolution that I did manage to keep was to read loads of books. I told myself I’d read at least 50, which is probably pretty close to what I read in the average year anyway, but this time I wanted to keep count for curiosity’s sake. As it turned out, I’ve read over 60 books in all, plus 5 to 10 that I started but didn’t finish. Almost all of them were great reads that I gained a lot from, and a few were utterly mind-blowing. I look forward to the person I’ll be in a year’s time with another 50+ books’ worth of insights in my head.
Here are some of the best books I read this year, in very rough order of when I read them. Every one of these has changed my life for the better:
- The Education of Millionaires by Michael Ellsberg. (twice)
- You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier.
- The A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin. (twice)
- The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain.
- Virtually You by Elias Aboujaoude.
- The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley.
- Letters from a Stoic by Seneca.
- Anything You Want by Derek Sivers.
- Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield.
- Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield.
- Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday.
- The Charge by Brendan Burchard.
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. (reread it)
- Linchpin by Seth Godin.
- The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith.
- The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson
- In Defence Of Food by Michael Pollan.
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. (read my review here)
- The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene.
- The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
- The Game by Neil Strauss. (reread it)
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (reread it)
On a related note, I got a Kindle for Christmas 2011, and god do I love this thing. I don’t know how I ever managed without one. The future truly is here.
Facebook is the new masturbation. Everyone does it far more than they’ll admit, and everyone judges other people for doing it too much. I’d thought about quitting Facebook for a long time, because, well, doesn’t everyone hate Facebook? It’s a moronic, soul-sucking time-sink, full of idiots, posers, 200-photo albums of the same few people standing around in the same few clubs, “I love my boyfriend so much” status updates and endless uninteresting posts about X-Factor and football. We all know this, yet we tell ourselves we “can’t do without it”, so we grin and bear it and pretend we spend less time on the site than we actually do. A few days before my 21st birthday, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and permanently deleted my account.
… Aaaaand rejoined again after 3 months when I realised that a bunch of groups and societies I was involved with use Facebook as their sole means of communicating with their members and I couldn’t go without. I signed up with a fake name and picture and didn’t add a single person, and used FB only to check on those groups.
Then, round about September, over 9 months after taking the plunge, I gave in completely, changed my name and profile picture to my real ones and added about thirty people I know.
Yeah, so I guess I can’t do without Facebook either. It does come in handy every now and then, such as for organising events, and sometimes it’s the only way I have of contacting someone I need to contact. Such is the cost of living these days.
Still, those 9 Facebook-free months were glorious. It was astonishing just how little impact my lack of a profile had on my life – not to mention how refreshing it was.
The most important thing I gained from my Facebook fast was perspective. When you spend every day on the site, it’s easy to lose sight of just how much it screws with your head. Having taken a step back I can now see very clearly just how unhealthy Facebook is.
I’ve actually tried writing a longer post about this because I feel like I could write a LOT on this topic, but the words just wouldn’t come to me. That can wait for another day. What I’ll say for now is this: social networking is not socialising. It just feels like socialising, and that’s the danger.
Our generation is spending less and less time going outside and talking face-to-face, and I don’t like the implications. Facebook emphasises quantity over quantity, appearance over introspection and shallow, trivial bullshit over honest, meaningful relationships. I can’t imagine the damage that’s been done to kids a few years younger who grow up with Facebook throughout their entire childhoods and think that status updates a normal way to communicate.
One thing’s for certain: Facebook the company will never do anything to fix this, as the design choices that lead to healthy behaviour are the exact opposite of the choices that will make them more money. Make no mistake: Facebook is an evil corporation, and their only concern is what will make you spend more time on the site, generate more pageviews and become more and more addicted.
Two books I read this year – You Are Not A Gadget and Virtually You – really shook the way I think about Internet culture and Web 2.0, and shine a much-needed light on the dark side of technology that no-one ever wants to talk about. I highly, highly recommend them both, especially You Are Not A Gadget. The Internet is a wonderful thing, and has enormous power to change the world for the better, but it also has the power to do a lot of harm. So far in tech circles there’s been nothing but unquestioning praising for the former; it’s time we stopped pretending the latter doesn’t exist.
Before I finish, I should confess – as much as I don’t want to, but someone will call me out if I don’t – that for a long time I was the worst kind of Facebook user, the one you probably hid from your News Feed long ago, posting incessant pointless status updates every single day about the minutiae of my life and spamming your inbox with invites to all kinds of stupid apps. It causes me physical pain to think about how much time and energy I used to waste on the site and what an idiot I was. To the 600+ “friends” (a word that has become severely devalued) I had on my old account, I’m so, so sorry.
And to all the people who I’ve only met once, barely know or haven’t spoken to since we left school 4 years ago, stop trying to add me. I am not your friend.
If I had to describe the last year in one word, I’d choose mixed. There have been days when I’ve felt happier than I ever remember feeling, and days when I felt so downtrodden and shitty I could hardly get out of bed. Still though, the overall trajectory of my life keeps pointing upwards, and I’m pretty happy with the amount of progress I’ve made in the last 12 months. I’m not where I want to be yet, but another few years like 2012 and I should be close.
As for 2013, I have big plans. I have a very big announcement coming soon (although most people who know me personally already know it anyway), and some clearly-defined goals I want to achieve and habits I want to install. I would write about them here, but that would make me less likely to achieve them. All I need to do now is just put the work in.
*My mum will be horrified to hear that I rode a motorcycle. Wait until she finds out I crashed it drunk. Oh, and I got a tattoo. Happy new year!