The Art of Challenging Yourself

Besides doing a new thing each day in 2016, I set myself a couple of other challenges this year, both of which I am on track to fail, but that’s nothing new!

Ten trips to London

I should get to six. Five of these were organised by other people so the fundamental reason for the impending failure of this challenge is that I put absolutely no effort into it at all.

Nevertheless, I was very stressy about travelling on my own at the beginning of the year, and am marginally less stressy now, so it was a meaningful challenge to set and failure perhaps isn’t the correct word. And I had some fun days in London.

26 books in a year

This was a Goodreads challenge that I noticed some friends had signed up to. You can pick the number of books yourself and with 26 I tried to balance realism with optimism but so far I have read NINE! It’s November! I always used to read a lot although never at the same rate of knots as the rest of my family, but my ability to concentrate has abandoned me, plus a proofreading course a few years ago re-taught me to read SLOWLY (and I get even more distracted by mistakes in books than I used to).

I’ve sped up lately and have started to address my daft feeling of guilt about what seems to be the indulgence of reading. It’s never going to be indulgent at the rate I read. I don’t have the same guilty feeling about watching television and maybe I should.

Why set a random challenge?

We all have an opinion on New Year’s Resolutions – a harmless ritual; awful; pointless; essential; doomed to failure; unrealistic; the same each year. I think people partly make these resolutions because they have had a moment to pause and recharge their batteries and suddenly things seem possible that didn’t a few weeks earlier.

I enjoy setting myself something a bit different – I don’t know where it will lead, it won’t be a disaster if I give up on it but it will add a bit of structure, focus and interest to the year. Sometimes the interest comes out of the nitty-gritty rules you tie into the challenge, and which ones you’ll allow yourself to break.

Of the three challenges I set myself this year, if I’m only going to stick to the new thing each day, could that be because that’s the only one I’ve been doing publicly, and occasionally with other people?

Such challenges always involve doing new things, so all my earlier observations on the benefits of trying new things also apply!

Challengey books

img_20161106_101742When I looked through the list of (nine!) books I’ve read so far this year, I realised that by chance three of them were all about such challenges. It was my most recent read, Walking Away, that got me musing over the nature of challenges.

Simon Armitage: Walking Away

Armitage walks a section of the South-West Coast Path, giving poetry readings each evening, having taken no money with him and living off donations placed in a sock by his audiences. I had forgotten about my own vague and unrealistic life goal of walking this entire beautiful section of our coastline so I’m very glad I read this inspiring, gorgeous, painful and smile-inducing book and let the idea back into my head. The only part I have done seriously is at the other end, the 20-mile stretch from West Bay (from the top of that cliff in Broadchurch) to Branscombe, the victim village of the scavenging scandal following the wrecking of the MSC Napoli almost ten years ago. Here I am, bound for the Golden Cap – the highest point on the entire south coast – and Charmouth in the distance, and enjoying being tiny.fb_img_1477856543774

Armitage observes the changes in the way he sees things while he is undertaking his task, and how the passage of time becomes tied in with it. Anyone who walks – or runs or cycles – will recognise the feeling of physically progressing through the hours, and musicians and writers and book lovers will have similar alternative ways of measuring time. If your challenge has a timeframe, it’ll add a new angle to your awareness of time.

The list of acknowledgements in this book is enormous and I can attest to the huge contribution of others in my own small challenge, with their suggestions, invitations and problem-solving, dipping in and out to join me like those who appear and disappear on Armitage’s walk, with their own aims, routines, stories and treasures. Of the three challenges I set myself this year, if I’m only going to stick to the new thing each day, I suspect that’s because it’s the only one I’ve been doing publicly, and occasionally with other people. But the writer is unapologetic in his need to balance this engagement with time alone; apart from having to find time to write and plan his readings, the thinking time seems to be crucial, especially when the physical challenge is relentless.

When I was little, my mum and I made a list of very silly titles for books we could write. The only one I can remember now is A Sock Full. Simon Armitage has unknowingly beaten me to it with this book but luckily my title is still safe. Maybe I’ll write a poem about it.

Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Project

Fiction, but still a project – it’s there in the title. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say the project (to find a wife using scientific research methods) both fails and succeeds – or succeeds despite itself – and changes the protagonist’s life in ways he didn’t expect. New things feature heavily.

Helen Russell: The Year of Living Danishly

Through her husband’s job, Russell moves to Denmark for a year and decides to spend that year exploring the reasons behind the country being the happiest in the world, interviewing experts, grilling her neighbours and – guess what – trying new things.

More reading

I put out a plea for suggestions of other books in a similar vein. Thanks to Mum, Alex, Geoff, Dan, Nick, Rachel, Paul, Alison, Caroline, Anthony, Lauren and Kerri for your efforts and a bit of cynicism. I suspect some of these authors have written more such books than are listed here, and of course there will be loads of others – I’d love to hear your favourites in the comments.

Tony Hawks
Round Ireland with a Fridge: He attempts to hitchhike round the circumference of Ireland with a fridge on a trolley, in one month, for a bet of £100.
Playing the Moldovans at Tennis: Comedian Arthur Smith challenges Tony to beat the whole Moldovan football team at tennis and promises to sing the Moldovan national anthem in Balham High Road stark bo**ock naked if he succeeds.
One Hit Wonderland: Having only had one previous hit record (the classic Stutter Rap – Morris Minor and the Majors) he is challenged to have a Top Twenty hit anywhere in the world within 2 years.
Danny Wallace:
Join me: Bored Danny advertises for people to ‘join him’ without having any idea of what he wants to achieve and is surprised at the results.
Yes Man: When Danny is challenged to say Yes more, he vows to say Yes to EVERYTHING from now on.
Friends like these: Recently married Danny starts to think about his best schoolfriends he’s lost touch with and, having been banned from Friends Reunited, tries to track them all down.
Dave Gorman
 Are You Dave Gorman? (A quest to meet as many other Dave Gormans as there are cards in a deck.)
America Unchained (Travelling from the west coast of the U.S. to the east, patronising only independently-owned businesses.)
Tim Moore
French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France
Do Not Pass Go: From the Old Kent Road to Mayfair (Exploring the Monopoly board in real life.)
Charlie Connelly
Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast
Luke Rhinehart (George Cockcroft)
The Dice Man (Another novel – a psychiatrist begins rolling a dice to make life decisions.)
Pete McCarthy
McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in Ireland (Travelling through Ireland, obeying the rule that you should ‘never pass a bar that has your name on it’.)
Pete Brown
Hops and Glory: One Man’s Search for the Beer that Built the British Empire (A journey to discover and recreate the original India Pale Ale.)
Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love
We weren’t quite convinced that this fits my bill. A quest for self-discovery is almost too standard; self-discovery here should be the by-product of another challenge, possibly a slightly random one, and ideally something that anyone could do. A lot of these books are tour guides or manuals in their own way, and as a result you feel more involved while reading them.
Bill Bryson
A Walk in the Woods (Bill walks the Appalachian Trail.)
Anne Mustoe
A Bike Ride: 12,000 Miles Around the World (Retired headmistress spends 15 months cycling round the world.)
Susan Hill
Howard’s End is on the Landing (Author spends a year only reading books on her shelves.)
Jamie Ivey
Extremely Pale Rosé (Author and his wife search France for the palest rosé wine.)
Cheryl Strayed
Wild (A girl finds herself by walking the Pacific Ridge Trail after bereavement and divorce.)

What do they have in common?

As I haven’t read most of them, I shouldn’t really try to answer this. However, I’d like to believe that with at least some of them, the book was secondary to the project, rather than all of the authors thinking ‘I need to write a book, what strange and interesting thing shall I do?’ Or at least the act of writing was part of the reason the project worked, or the writing added richness to the experience. The challenges would have all been life-changing, book or no book. And does it matter if the whole point is to write a book? Inspiration is inspiration, after all.
There are some common themes in the motivation behind the projects – boredom, itchy feet, playfulness, bets, physical activity or travelling, or a desire to do something positive, get some headspace, regain some control or get far, far away when other parts of life are going wrong. 
But not all of them have one ‘target’, where the project is pointless if the target isn’t reached. A number of them would still make good books and stories if the author gave up halfway through. And I think this is a valuable lesson if you’re setting yourself a challenge – make the most of the journey. It will not be wasted and it could be the part that stays with you.
Especially if you write about it!
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