Degrees of Success

I received a very fancy magazine from Dundee Uni recently – matte, heavy-weight paper –  celebrating 50 years of independence from St Andrews. It was cover to cover of stories of alumni who had made their mark in their field. There was the Oscar nominated film-maker, the owner of a worldwide private member’s club, the physio to a gold winning Olympic team, the British High Commissioner in Ghana, the comic artist who had made it onto DC Comics within a few years of graduating, the microbiologist who made it onto the Forbes’ 30 under 30 list.dav

It was in part inspiring but mostly crippling. It made it out that success in your field was the most important thing you can do in life; that to really make it in life you have to be at the top and influence loads of people. That to be a mover and shaker is the pinnacle of life. That how worthwhile your life is depends on the degree you have utilised your degree. 

It really made me doubt what impact, if any, I would have on the world. Given how my work life is going, will I ever make it? Essentially, I am working in a job I needn’t have gone to uni for, so in some senses I am not really using the degree. I sometimes feel I have gone backward, especially as I completed a college course after my university degree, to stay in my field. And I have no idea, in my late 30’s, of the general trajectory of my career.

Maybe it’s because of this I hold onto a broader definition of success than Dundee Uni allude to. Call it jealousy if you like. But for those few stories of people at the top, there are thousands of others just putting in the hours, day to day. So here’s some more everyday markers of success. 

Success is coming through depression (and a bad case of burn out), a break from uni, and coming back to finish a degree.

Success is getting up on Monday morning.

Success is about surviving the day not unscathed but wounded and refusing to go down like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Success is about getting stuff done regardless of how you feel – both in the low and highs.

Success is about keeping the negative talk muted – or on quiet – so that you can concentrate on the bigger stuff.

Success is getting up on Tuesday.

Success is about plodding on through the mire even when you feel like every ounce in your body aches, your heart has no desire to go on and your mind tells you that it’s just not possible.

Success is about managing self-loahing so that you don’t harm yourself.

Success is getting up on Wednesday.

Success is about doing the best you can and not getting lost in the trap of being at the top: not all of us will be first but we can all cross the finish line.

Success is getting up on Thursday.

Success is about coming home Friday having seen through another week, despite everything it’s thrown at you.

Success is about working day in day out at the thing you are called to do, because that is where you fit and that is where you make a difference, be it in front of many of a handful.
Perhaps I set the bar too low and I could aim higher. I do, when I am well which I am at the moment, but I have lapses especially with regard to self talk and getting up… I have markers of success within my day job as well. But we keep going, you and I dear reader, and in so doing are making successes of our lives. 


Cutting the Noise

I am not the same man I was ten years ago. On many ways this is a good thing, but in others I am worse. Ten years ago I was content in my own thoughts. I loved listening to music or reading but I didn’t need these things. 

Now I spend an inordinate of time trying to amuse myself. I browse Imgur far too much. You have to dig for gold even in the most viral page (it takes way longer in usersub). I have many old programs I would like to watch – House of Cards, Breaking Bad, The Thick Of It – but I can’t sit for thirty minutes anymore, because while I am ‘watching’ I am simultaneously online browsing nothingness. This weekend I discovered that Spongebob (another long-running series I had been aching to watch) is perfect for me because it’s genuinely funny and identifiable and about twelve minutes an episode. (BTW, I would be Squidward). Spongebob was perfect at getting me into a place in which I could watch more grown-up programs. 

Which really makes me wonder why I have let myself become so accustomed to Imgur, youtube, Twitter and Facebook that my brain struggles to switch off. But it’s more than that. If I’m by myself I will most likely fall asleep with reruns of old comedies playing in the background – comedies I could recite backward. Comedies which are so like friends they are a comfort. Or I read the exact same comedy book every night (I go through the five part trilogy multiple times a year). Why do I need distractions all the time? 

I read a book for a solid two hour stretch on Saturday. I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I was in that world for that time. I felt what I think I seek in all the noise I have: connection. 

Yet there lies a disconnect between that desire for being part of something bigger than me and the way I go about it. When I flick through any of those social media, all I’m really doing is passively watching other people’s lives and it makes me feel small, like my life doesn’t matter. At the same time I am trying to live their life through their images, their stories, their memes. This is similar to when I was reading that book. I was emotionally involved. I was there. It wasn’t noise. It was reality. I put on noise because I can’t listen to my own thoughts. I am discontent. 

So the obvious answer would be to “disconnect.” Well, yeah. But the truth is at the moment I need that noise. I need to find a way of becoming less reliant on it. I guess the noise prevents me thinking, which is ironic because this blog has become more and more diaryesque, and thus a space for becoming content in my thoughts. I’ve downloaded one of those phone use tracker apps, and I will be forgetting it’s there so that I use my phone as normal this week. This will help he better diagnose the problem areas. Then I cut down on the phone usage and begin to reconnect the disconnect so I begin to be content again. 

Why Parkrun?

What makes a man jump out of bed at the same time he should have left the house, throw on the nearest running gear, justify a lack of breakfast by “it’s just going to be a fasted run,” abandon the car in the first space he finds, hop out with one hand locking the car, the other starting the tracking app and the legs starting running, jacket unzipped, hoping to not be that late? Parkrun, that’s what. When my body woke me up on Saturday I had a clear choice: stay in bed and run later or Parkrun.

Parkrun is a weekly, free and timed 5k hosted by volunteers all around the world. And yes, I am verbing the noun. Saturday’s decision was an easy one. But I realise it sounds ridiculous to go through all that stress to run 5K at a free run (it would make sense if I was about to lose an entry fee!) when I could have just calmly stepped out of the house at a time that suited. I guess it comes down to the fact that I friggin love parkrun in a way I don’t love any other 5k training run.

It’s sociable, but anonymous

I would love to be a member of a club, but the times just don’t suit because of my working pattern and other commitments. As an introvert it takes time to build relationships, even with people who have shared interests. Some Parkruns are huge – the busiest I’ve seen Edinburgh is 600 people – which can make it daunting. But the sheer scale has an advantage – it’s a crowd, which means you still have the benefit of being with people, but can do so without actually talking to people. Everyone is really focused or chatting with the people they came with.

Yet I have found myself making conversations with people, like I’m doing in this photo from Saturday. I’ve not seen those folk again, but it doesn’t matter because for those moments we are chums. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had were with people I will never see again. This has given me confidence in the whole ‘being personable’ area of life, which I often struggle with. The last couple of times I have bumped into people I know, which is cool. It’s a chance to catch up with them after we’ve gotten our breath back. That human connection, no matter how small, is an important boost to a person.

It’s a marked out course, but it’s not a race.

My Parkrun registration email is dated January 2013. Yet I never actually took part until January this year. This was mostly a confidence issue: I’m not incredibly fast, I have terrible form, and never really felt I could call myself a runner (still don’t sometimes feel that way). Sometimes when I run in my local haunts strangers laugh at me.

Parkrunners are some of the loveliest people, and no-one really cares about form or pace. When someone slower gets a PB, we praise ’em! In Edinburgh some people have to walk back along the route to get to their car. Those fast runners are always humble enough to cheer us slow ones on. If I had known that I would have gone when I first registered. There’s a reason this photo of Dawn Nisbitt is so powerful.

Dawn Nisbet crossing the finish line with her hands in the air and a big smile on her face

Parkrunner’s rightly love this photo of Dawn Nisbet at the finish line!

It’s like any other running event that you pay for, except it’s free. There’s the same buzz of people cheering you on. The marshals keep everyone safe, and there is a tail-runner to make sure everyone gets to the finish safely. You can walk. Some people aim to run the whole thing without stopping; some people make Parkrun their final run in the couch-to-5K program. I really regret not doing this, as it would have made my first 5k actually memorable.

There are kilometer markers every km. This is horrible if it’s your first run in a while as you really feel you’ve done twenty by the time you see the 1km marker. But it means you can do some funky speed work with the run. Run the first couple of minutes at each km faster, then recover. I’m trying to do the 2nd and 4th km’s in 5 minutes to train myself to run at that pace.

The crowd also means you can practice race strategy. It’s easy to be caught up in the crowds at the start and let them take you faster than you should be going. So the day before Stirling I specifically did the whole thing as if I were doing the first 5k of the marathon, reminding my body what that pace really felt like (it was in some ways tougher than blitzing it out). On a day you arrive late and have to play catch-up (I’ve done this three times now…) the timing doesn’t matter so much to me as being able to get into the body of the kirk. One day I arrived about 4 minutes after the gun and felt I would never catch them. That run became purely psychological.

It’s a change of scenery

14 of my 15 Parkruns have been at Crammond, which is a back and forth. I generally prefer circles, and I really thought I would get bored of doing the same route week in week out. I would look at the locations of other parkruns and wonder how long it would take me before I went to those instead. But it’s been fun to watch see how the promenade and the Firth of Forth change during the seasons.  As you do the route once a only once a week this is easier to appreciate, a bit like a granny remarking each Christmas “my, how you’ve grown!” In the heavy training seasons when you’re pounding your local routes over and over, your mind and legs can get bored, which is demotivating. On this note, doing a parkrun while on holiday (as many people do), gives an opportunity to see a non-touristy part of town and meet some locals.

One run and you’re done

After 15 Parkruns I still want to sing “all the people, so many people – and they all go hand in hand, hand in hand through there: parkrun! … it’s all about the joggers, who go round and round…”

I know, Albarn called them joggers. We’re runners, and we despise it when anyone calls us a jogger! But there’s truth in the song. It’s catchy, not just because the two syllables mean you can easily swap ‘parklife’ with ‘parkrun.’ There’s something more to it.

“I sometimes feed the sparras too. It gives me a sense of enormous well-being.”
The song is really about having time to watch all the people in the park. The line about feeding the sparrows says to me a lot about Albarn’s state of mind. Sometimes the small things give us the greatest sense of achievement. Regardless of the timestamp my Parkrun stays with me the rest of the day. I find it hard to get-up and go at the weekends, especially when I am by myself! Parkrun means I have already gotten up, and went, and did by 10.30, which is a pretty big kick in the face to the part of me which calls me lazy and a thinker not a doer.

Parkrun is almost a non-negotiable (we skipped Inverness on the basis it was blattering, which would have made running on grass in road trainers somewhat treacherous). Having Parkrun as a ‘thing’ helps me get out the house and achieve at least one quality run a week. This makes it perfect for when you’re in maintenance mode or just too dang busy. And it doesn’t take all morning, which means you can look still look forward to your chores with the joy they deserve.





“What are you reading?” 

If I’m honest I’m fairly glad that no-one has asked me the question “what are you reading?” bible-wise. I have recently been good at ignoring my spiritual health.

When I think about the little bible i have read, my mind inevitibly drifts toward habits. Yet the only habit I seem to have successfully formed is the habit of saying how terrible I am at forming habits.

I do not know why I am so concerned about this. Maybe it’s because I am always in the game of self-improvement, and habits seem to be a gold standard of behavioural change. CBT is all about changing thought life habits and making them better ones. To take the old analogy of learning to drive, you know you have learnt to drive when you are able to do the actions without consciously thinking about it (to say “without thinking” is a misnomer as there is a lot of brain power still used, and of course driving does require full concentration). Habits can increase your ability to do other things.

It is like a life-hack but in reality it is difficult to hack. Once a habit is formed, you are able to just get on and do it, which leaves brain power for other things. The habit, once formed, leads to a simpler life. it provides a base from which more complex things can be achieved.

Having a regular time of reading and praying is vital in the Christian life. We are encouraged to make it a habit. And I have once again been challenged by this because today I hit a 20 day streak on a brain training app, and as we all know it takes 21 days to form a habit, right? Wrong. It actually takes a minimum of 21 days, and could take anywhere up to 254 days.

I know that the science on these brain-training apps is… sketchy, so I’m almost embarrassed to say that I use one of them, but y’know what? It takes five minutes out of my day. It makes me feel I am doing something good for my brain. Time shall tell whether it has long term benefits – but it does wake my brain up, which makes it a dangerous thing to do before bed. It may be entirely useless, in which case I have only wasted five minutes a day.

I am going to do something similar to impact my physical health: a very short strength program a couple of times a week. Yes, I would probably see bigger gains by becoming a gym rat but I would rather make a small change I can keep to. If I want to run faster I’ve got to start somewhere.

And it has got me thinking. If I am so wrapped up about making these mental and physical changes, where is the effort into my spiritual well-being? The adage that we put time into the things we love is true. So there is the harsh truth that I don’t love God as much as I either claim to or want to. The remedy: get to know him better, which means – yep, reading His word.

I have tried so many plans in the past, and I have one major gripe with them. Even if I find a good one, I always fall behind and then pretty much read for the sake of the tick, rather than communion with God, which as Tony Reinke helpfully reminds us, is the point of reading.

So I am now taking a different approach with very general plan: read through the New Testament. That’s my plan. Sometimes when I have tried to read through the bible I set myself artificial targets, like a few chapters at a time. But chapters don’t really work in the same way as they would in other books; sometimes the new chapter begins halfway through an author’s logic. I have been looking out for a reading bible – one without the chapter and verses, but I haven’t found one yet. They allow for a more natural reading style, perfect for reading the bible as a whole.

Until I find one, I have downloaded a bible onto my kindle. I have a bible app as well, but there is so much gumph on it it often hinders a straight reading process. My kindle bible still has chapter numbers, headings and verses, but it does still at least make for a slightly more natural process. I can simply read it as it comes. I am not setting aside time to, but simply reading when I have time. Which, as my twenty day streak tells me, I have oodles of