My TEDx is done…
Perhaps short for ‘Tom’s Exhausting Diary’, or ‘Tom’s Extreme Dichotomy’, the latter encapsulating the hypocrisy felt giving a talk on simplicity whilst living an entirely complex life during the process.
Plus ca change.
Hopefully my outfit and, of course, the talk itself will help further explain how I feel and what I learned from the process… this photo was taken a few buttock clenching seconds before going on stage. I look calm. I am not. That’s a pretty normal state of affairs for me. Many people have commented on how generally chilled out I appear to be…
Don’t be fooled. The last month or two have seen many sleepless nights. If I look younger than I am, my picture in the attic is heavily wrinkled.
This talk couldn’t have come at a worse time for me – I was forced to write my ‘talk proposal’ during the only holiday I’d found time for this year. Spending precious moments on Vancouver Island holed up in cafes on my laptop rather than enjoying the place and time with my traveling companion.
I accepted the opportunity to do a TEDx for a few reasons. Firstly, I knew that like writing, it would force me to consolidate my thoughts. I’ve now been blogging for years and yet still am unsure as to where I’ve got to. I knew the TEDx would force me to crystallise some of these down to 12 minutes or 1500 words… to focus. Secondly, I’m terrified of public speaking, so this was a huge personal challenge, one that had sat on my bucket list for a few years. Why we put ridiculous, uncomfortable challenges on our bucket lists is also something I deal with in the talk – but I can summarise neatly in 4.5 words here – because we’re dumb.
Then, just in case I wasn’t cramming more shiny goals in to my magpie like mouth, I offered to live in a tent in rural Somerset for a month prior to the talk, as well as doing another talk at Bristol University in preparation. Double, triple dumb.
Which all would have been fine if I was a insomniac retiree, but I’ve also knew going into this that I was about to start fundraising for my business. Something that requires singleminded focus. Quadruple dumb, squared.
A TEDx talk takes A LOT of time. It was an intense few months grappling with ideas, cutting, editing, asking wonderful friends to look at the proposal and making further changes and so on.
Couple all of this with pitches to investors in boardrooms, negotiations, intense meetings and then finish the day with a trudge across a boggy field into a tent and you’ve got a highly chaotic, not-simple life.
So… What did I learn? What have I understood?
I don’t want this to be a spoiler, but there are a few thoughts I want to capture whilst they’re still fresh, as well as some of the 13,500 words and some that didn’t make it into the final cut… In no particular order:
– Nature, the outside and real life is only a put down screen and a front door away. My previous post, I hope, captures some of that wonder (https://simpletom.co.uk/2015/11/05/wood-you/). Adventures are easy to have, even if you’re at work in your normal life. At any time you could camp out for a night, or walk a different route home. Climb a wall, tree or hill. Sounds simple, I hardly ever do them.
– The more I immersed myself in the process of watching others’ behaviour, particularly with smart phones, the madder and madder the world seemed. 90% of a train platforms and whole cities filled with people staring into and relying on their devices, without even realising they’re doing it. Leave someone 10s alone and the majority will pick up a device. The damage this is doing to our psyches must be terrible. Almost everyone recognises this, but very few people do anything about it.
– We chase unrealistic, unreachable and unhealthy goals all the time, at the expense of our own happiness. People don’t know what makes them happy. We have no idea where we’re headed or why we do many of the things we do.
– Most people care more about the rewards of their work than the content.
What next… for me, a bit less. Some focus.
Perhaps a camper van to enable me to access the countryside more regularly. More of the same, I hope without quite so many of the rough edges and hypocrisy…
My name is Tom and I’m not an alcoholic.
Picture the scene…
It’s late, you’re tucked deep into an East Berlin bar with an old friend. The walls, bare and industrial, speak of deep conversation, of exploration of humanity and history. The candlelight suggest intimate conversations of art, of philosophy, of human connection.
It’s a moment where work, when pressures slip away and, once again, you can rub spirit to spirit with another human and just talk and talk in licentious splendour.
Remove alcohol and you wouldn’t even be there in the first place. The conversations over a beer, the truths shared and the languid eyes replaced instead by an early morning. Perhaps a jog? Read the paper? Some work?
Or join them but ask for a cup of tea. Yeah right. Deep in the old DDR, where fellow humans once risked lives to be with one another and you want a what? Just a tea? You mean to say that you would sit here – whilst others open up – and you’d have a tea? Come on, just have one beer. Enjoy yourself. Relax. What’s wrong?
…and so goes so many evenings. The insidious creep.
Alcohol has been with us for millennia. The beer soaked saw-dusted floor of a medieval tavern, a wine-filled Roman amphitheater or the whiskeys in a western tavern.
The pulling up of stools that has for generations symbolized winding down, catching up and setting the world to rights. There’s to be no more of the day’s rushing. Or a dinner party amongst friends with oodles of red wine, music and laughter. Our sex lives would likely have been less interesting if it weren’t for this elixir. Alcohol opens doors and experiences.
These are a few of my favourite things.
Plus its all OK, because I’m not an alcoholic. The odd blow out here and there, but mostly in moderation. Sure, in the run up to Christmas, with parties and catch ups, this can be a daily occurrence. But tis the season. It wouldn’t be quite right to have mince pies, mistletoe and tinsel without a glass here and a glass there.
I don’t quite know where this all started for me. Until the age of 22 or so, I didn’t like the taste of alcohol and I’d only been drunk a handful of times. The almost paralytic drunk first time, when aged 14 with freshly minted livers, we’d not known that half a bottle of vodka isn’t wise… to drinking behind bike sheds or in bushes in the rain simply because it was forbidden, and forbidden things were infinitely enticing.
Alcohol has become such a prevalent feature of my, of all of our, lives that I don’t think we question it any more. If we discovered it for the first time – this moreish liquid that can wreck families, make your head thump, but the night before loosen inhibitions in amazing ways – perhaps we’d treat it with some respect. Yet I’ve seen captains of industry acting like 4 year olds as if that’s to be expected… funny almost – “God we were wrecked last night, wasn’t it awesome, I think although I can’t quite remember”. It’s such a fixed part of our lives, so normalised do we even see if for what it is?
Alcohol is sophisticated. Wines crafted over centuries. Generations of love poured into a single taste. As you sip you instantly experience the many lives of dedication to that one flavour. The blood of that artisan and sometimes even Christ, all in one. To ignore it would be like wandering through the Louvre blindfolded.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to gain some perspective and objectivity. Around last Christmas I mostly didn’t drink for 6 months. This year I’ve had patches on, patches off. I’ve been to weddings, gigs and festivals, perhaps the nexus of the non-alcoholic person’s blow outs, and remained sober.
Here’s what I’ve noticed. Though please remember – I love fun, naughtiness and adulescence. These are not conclusions I necessarily wanted to come to:
Moderation can be much harder than not drinking at all. Once you’ve had a pint, the second is so much easier to justify when coupled with the dopamine release. It would be so wonderful to have one, indulge and then stop but, for me at least, this is harder than not drinking at all. That makes me sound like an alcoholic, but I’m not.
Overall, I’m way healthier when I don’t drink. I sleep, on average, a half to an hour less each night if I haven’t been drinking for a few days and my quality of sleep is way better too. As a result, or perhaps in addition, my brain works better. I also feel I have much more energy during the day. I get more done and seem to have more time. For someone that has battled tiredness, this alone is a pretty compelling reason to abandon drinking altogether. I just feel better. I’m less prone to mood swings and low ebbs. I feel together, stronger and more emotionally powerful. There’s a mental and emotional sagginess that accompanies drinking that you only notice when you start to put some distance between yourself and the sauce.
Its very possible to have a good time, perhaps even a better time, completely sober. In fact, while alcohol gives the impression of opening people up – downed defenses decrease and tongues loosened – I’ve noticed that true connection, empathy and sensitivity actually decreases. In extreme, when people are properly drunk they, quite literally, turn into toddlers. Witnessing the scenes of normally erudite, intelligent, considerate people when inebriated is hilarious when involved but tinged with a moronic sadness when viewed from a sober perspective. I’m sure you’ve witnessed a ‘hilarious’ moment as seen by a drunken crew, that from the outside seems pathetic. That’s before that tears, fights, anger and the hormonal surges that often accompany.
Late nights don’t happen nearly as frequently. When drunk, evenings spill into the night and we roll into bed late. When sober, it’s harder to ignore pressing eyelids and the kebab, or rolling on somewhere else is much less appealing. As such you gain mornings but lose parts of the day when exciting things can happen.
Most people recognise all of this, at least semi-consciously. Tell them you’ve not drunk in a while and the reaction is usually along the lines of, “Yeah, I should too”. “Hangovers are just getting worse and worse”. Normally followed by a “But”. I haven’t even covered the horrors of the bad hangover… it’s not pretty, as evidenced:
Couple the above reasons with macro studies and the evidence becomes more damming. A Harvard study, conducted over 75 years – the largest longitudinal study in history, found that alcohol was the main cause of divorce, depression and mental disabilities. Sure, the study cites alcoholism but please don’t tell me that just because you limit your intake you suffer none of the consequences. I’m pretty confident that moderate intake results in moderate effects. Oh, and alcohol alongside cigarettes, contribute to premature/early deaths.
The slightly less scientific James Altucher points out that firstly, alcohol is a depressant, so why tempt it. It’s also a poison and damages the immune system. He concludes that he’s no puritan, just the opposite. But that he simply wants to live a long life with high quality in his later years. Fair enough.
There’s no doubt of alcohol’s damage when you visit places like coastal Kenya or backwater towns in the US, Australia etc. The cost of alcohol’s influence on our collective health systems is extraordinary. They say that 12% of the total health expenditure is for alcohol-related causes. That’s before absenteeism, and things like psychological problems if the Harvard study’s results are true – they claim 57% of divorces are due to alcohol. Woah.
So where does this leave us? Are we all living in an alco-hell? It seems pretty damming. I have a couple of friends who don’t drink. They seem more energetic, quicker to laugh, brighter. Yet some who gave up for powerful reasons, two of whom are therapists, have decided to drink a bit again after a long time without. Perhaps it’s just not possible. Perhaps the benefits of loosening up, talking, company and conviviality are so potently beneficial that we should all just enjoy ourselves.
Yet my experiments seem to lead to the same place – to giving up. The evidence seems, particularly powerful as I write it out, to be overwhelmingly in support of the abstainer. Yet that cut off feels overly restrictive. It doesn’t allow for spontaneity and fun. It’s an admission that alcohol is more powerful than I am. Surely, I’m in control of it, rather than the other way around. Yet again, writing it down it would seem that perhaps we’re not as in control as we think we are.
Plus I’m lucky, I don’t put on weight and I’m not an alcoholic and my family hasn’t been overly affected by alcohol. Those would be slam-dunk reasons for eternal sobriety.
So, where does this leave me? Tonight I’m heading out… again… into the Berlin night with a different friend.
But I think I’m on a clear path to severely limiting my intake permanently, if not stopping forever. I don’t have a problem, yet even that is a problem. If I can find the balance and have a glass or two a week without any of the negatives, I shall continue. But if the precariousness continues – this inability to walk the tightrope, I’ll give up. It’s just not worth it for now, even without the longer term health benefits. The damage that it does to our life is so huge, albeit insidiously so that it’s truly not worth it… even close to worth it when examined.
My name is SimpleTom, is society an alcoholic?
– What alcohol really does to your brain “Alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making your feel great. The effect is that you keep drinking to get more dopamine release, but at the same time you’re altering other brain chemicals that are enhancing feelings of depression.”
At the end of the summer I made my first pilgrimage to Burning Man. It had sat resolutely on my bucket list for a few years and finally it was happening.
The Burn has always appealed for a number of reasons. I love the values that emanate and encapsulate what it stands for – radical inclusion, self-sufficiency, expression, creativity, outrageousness, chaos, and counter-cultural rebelliousness, amongst others. It sticks two fingers up at mundane civility. It challenges adherence to stale norms. These, coupled with the extremity of its natural setting, make it one of the most adventurous, enticing events that exist. Something I just had to experience.
However, the reality was very different from the fantasy. Rather than enjoying the festival, I found myself despondent, lost and alone, exacerbated by the sensation that everyone around me seemed to be having the time of their lives.
Earlier this week back at home I went for a run over Clifton suspension bridge, only to be stopped by the police as someone had just jumped to their death. Whilst I was enjoying a deeply enriching autumnal evening, another person had ended their life. An extreme example, but a reminder that two people can experience the same moment in the same place in very, very different ways.
Burning Man was not all bad. In fact, I feel like it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my adult life. Months later, I’m still affected by what happened to me out there in the desert. I’m glad it was on my bucket list, as it taught me more than I could have imagined, in most unexpected ways.
This post is an attempt to capture some of that learning before – like the playa dust that I’m still shaking from luggage and clothing – it’s no longer perceptible.
But before I begin, a deep thank you to the friend who invited me to his camp and shared his tent with me. This post might sound unappreciative, or you might feel responsible for what happened to me. Don’t. My experience doesn’t reflect the extraordinary generosity and spectacle you and your team created. The responsibility is all mine. Secondly, to my friends who scooped me up at the end and, with oodles of love and warmth, nurtured me through the decompression. Thank you.
I made some interesting choices before the festival. I had a number of different offers to join camps, but none from people I know very well and so really, I was heading to this festival alone and, truth be told, I quite liked the idea. That should have been the first warning sign – I would never go to Glastonbury on my own!
Yet my life over the last decade, perhaps longer, has been one of the ‘lone wolf’. I have moved from country to country, business to business. I have transformed from someone who didn’t like to spend time alone, to someone who revels in it. My dependencies on people and life at home made traveling in my early years often painful and a discomfort. Yet I have become someone who can live on the other side of the world away from my family and friends and be happy, mostly. Before Burning Man I was proud of that transformation – I’d become self-sufficient. And in that independence, I felt powerful.
I believe that boarding school leaves a child detached long into adulthood, sometimes permanently. One learns to fend alone, away from family. During those years at school I never mastered the art – or perhaps never managed to feel comfortable in that aloneness, despite it being one of the things I was being unwittingly schooled in.
However, in later years I’d grown into it. The detachment became a useful armour. In San Francisco I’d lived in 10 different apartments and for a couple of years afterwards living out of a suitcase moving from country to country, working remotely and I loved it.
The entrepreneur’s way is one where you are forced to plough a lone furrow and I have done that on three continents. My independence has also become a defining feature of my love life – I have remained single for most of my adult years and, although it’s hard to understand what the alternatives might have been had I been more open, it’s felt right. Or at least no-one has convinced me otherwise… yet.
Others who’ve been to the armour-building world that is boarding school don’t seem to have taken such a radical approach to their independence. And whilst I have had moments of missing and wondering why I have shied away from opportunities to remedy this, I have been true to myself – even despite societal pressure and regularly attending events where dozens of my friends are all partnered up, without exception. It’s been a part of my growing. An analysis of my love life would be worth a separate post, or posts, but I digress.
This independent Tom is the person that ventured out to Burning Man – the man who’d learned to fend for himself. The powerful, independent being that had grown out of my lonely, bullied and troubled youth. (I don’t describe it this way to try to attract sympathy – after all, whose youth is not troubled?)
I felt ready to be able to dip in and out of the various parties, experiences and opportunities that the festival offered. I may be over-analysing but it was almost as if this was a chance to put that independence to the ultimate test… and I crumbled.
I’ve never really believed in Damascene moments, but this is as close as I’ve been to that, or a breakdown. Somehow the searing desert light shone a spotlight on many of the choices that I’d been making over the years and pierced deep into my hardened heart. I found myself in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – the Temple at Burning Man – weeping. Anyone who’s been will attest to the extraordinary emotion that this remarkable place can induce. Yet, whilst others mourned for lost lovers, family and friends. I mourned the years without deep human connection in which I had slowly become protected against the world. It was all me, me, me – something again that the amour had hardened and encased.
In the desert, some combination of events led me to a place where my armour was removed and I, feeling naked without it, had the shit kicked out of me just when self-reliance was most needed.
I don’t really feel the need to go into much more detail regarding specific events. In fact, nothing particularly drastic happened. A clutch of moments. Wandering off into the uninhabited areas of wide expanse feeling deeply alone. Battling through dust storms and playa dust. Climbing statues and art installations. Riding art cars. ‘Sleeping’ (the use of inverted commas appropriate given I was 15 meters from a $160,000 sound system) for 24 hours solid to try to escape. Attempting to engage in conversations, but lacking in confidence so that, despite the radical inclusion, I couldn’t click and found myself regularly misconnecting. Heading off to a sunset party and finding the music, drinking and cavorting so predictable and so boring. I realized that over the years I had been to hundreds of bars and clubs pursuing cool, yet enjoyed very few. Alongside love, I’d like to write another post about the pursuit of cool and how unhappy it makes so many people.
Perhaps the overwhelming feeling was that, despite the fact Burning Man was new and many of the countries and adventures I’d been on were too, I was taking the same me on each of those journeys. Deep within the amour that once protected me, I had become less and less open to what was really happening, instead shielded by that disconnectedness. You can travel the world and meet extraordinary people, but if ones armour is too thick, you see and experience very little of it.
The realization that hit home was that life was about people, love, connection and being open. I know this already – I have read and acknowledged it a thousands times – but I have never really felt it like this before. Like many things, until you experience something emotively, knowledge remains conceptual.
Burning Man felt pivotal. I’m proud of the independent man that I’ve come to be. As a (sometimes too) sensitive, emotive, empathetic person – my independence had been hard won. But I hadn’t realized how resolute it had become, nor that the armour, that would have been far more valuable in my youth, had started doing much more harm than good.
It feels that Burning Man was the apex of that journey for independence. Now to turn back.
It will take time… little, gentle steps in a new direction. Personalities are like shipping tankers – they take a long time to turn around. Even in the last few months, I’ve slipped back into old ways. But… now I have new knowledge this breeds new power. I’ve noticed there’s strength in vulnerability and noticing the armour and that it is long past its sell-by-date, and trying to keep noticing it, is the first step.
Sadly, as people get older, I notice they often start to become less and less connected to people – the clichéd middle-aged man who over works and has few friends to confide in as they retreat into their family, work and responsibilities.
It seems I am swimming against the current, again… but so be it.
I’m ready to begin a return journey… to people, to connection and to vulnerability and back to Burning Man one day with a different agenda.
A few months ago I was compelled to write an ‘open letter’ (http://bit.ly/1dkuwcA).
I suggested I’d organise a ‘sleepathon’ in San Francisco in aid of the homeless. The response has been amazing – if we can get just a few more people to sign up, it looks this event will happen in September!
If you’re bothered by the homeless problem in San Francisco and want to help, please share this letter and sign up here http://bit.ly/RAfwSV
Why a Sleepathon? San Francisco is one of the most extraordinary places in the world. The scope of opportunity, innovation, energy and entrepreneurship remains unparalleled.
Yet despite this and the wealth that has accumulated, the city disappoints if measured by the way it looks after its less fortunate. The American dream here is enjoyed by a few, sandwiched next to the American nightmare.
After writing the last letter, I’d expected little or no response, perhaps criticism. After all, who am I to suggest such an event? What good would it do? Shouldn’t we leave the problem to the State, or to those more experienced? Is it hypocritical for a bunch of privileged people to have a jolly one evening? So familiar are the problems on Market Street or in the Tenderloin that many people believe the scale of the issue is beyond tackling, or worse still, feel apathetic or no longer notice. Yet it makes me feel a bad Samaritan, impotently witnessing desperate scenes whilst ‘living the dream’.
Amazingly, my last letter struck a chord and responses flooded in, including interest from some very high profile residents willing to participate. Given that support, I’m willing to invest a few weeks of my time this year to try to make it happen.
I envisage a night in a safe space – a park, a hall or a public area where people stay for the whole night. A night of fun, with music, an auction, talks by those who understand the problems and a hackathon in which participants can brainstorm ideas that might help. Perhaps even a little bit of sleep if we’re lucky, alongside friends and supporters.
We might all be a bit tired the next day. Let that be a badge of honor, demonstrating a willingness to do something. At the very least, we will have learned a little and had some fun – at most we might raise some money and awareness.
Please sign up to join us here – http://bit.ly/RAfwSV – and please, please do forward this on. If people don’t sign up I’ll take that as a lack of desire to make this happen – no hard feelings, but in the spirit of entrepreneurship there’s no point dedicating a lot of effort if there’s little interest.
Please do get in touch if you’ve any thoughts or questions. I look forward, I hope, to spending a night with you in September.
A few months ago I wrote this ‘open letter’. The response was amazing and I’d like to see if I can make this event happen in September in San Francisco – so I wanted to repost this here and then I’ll follow on with more details shortly.
If you’re interested in joining (or if you’re not in San Francisco, at least helping out) please a) sign up and b) send this on to friend, family and lovers in California. Thanks!
I am a homeless man, living in the Bay Area. But I’m also not that dissimilar from you – I am an entrepreneur with a new business, currently on 500 startups. Fortunately for me, my homelessness is a choice.
When I read your post last week, it deeply upset me. So this weekend, I went down to Market St this weekend to talk to a few people on your behalf.
Sadly, this guy pictured can’t join one of your hackathons as his hands are in really bad condition, which is why he’s homeless as he can’t find work. He was also wearing a number of medical bracelets – he is a very sick man.
Despite having very little, he offered a flower as a sign of peace as well as a hug. He was dirty, as you rightly noted many of the people in the area would be. But in my mind a hug outweighs the inconvenience of a bit of dirt.
The people I spoke to seem to differ in opinion about the feeling that ‘it’s a privilege to be in that part of town’. They think the opposite, as this article indicates – they see it as a curse to be squeezed next to the rich.
In your open note, reported here you said:
“It’s a burden and a liability having them so close to us. Believe me, if they added the smallest iota of value I’d consider thinking different.”
Greg, they see it as disturbing having you so close to them… At least you get a comfortable bed at night, whereas they often have no-one to turn to and nowhere to go. It’s way worse for them because it’s far, far harder to look up at someone who has all the opportunities that life can offer from rock bottom, without opportunity or hope, than it is to look down and watch your step. Many of them are very sick, physically and mentally – you might want to read this article by Russell Brand who eloquently writes about the struggles with addiction here.
Which leads me to my request for help. You organize hackathons – it’s time to do good by your position. You are clearly disturbed by the presence of so many homeless people. So, rather than chastise you for your remarks, I want to ask you to help them.
I too am disturbed by the number of homeless, desperate people in San Francisco. As an entrepreneur with the capacity and opportunity to help, I would like to do something about it.
I propose we organize a Sleepathon, building on your success organizing such events. Imagine a night where we encourage as many people as possible, the extraordinarily privileged tech entrepreneurs especially, to sleep out for the night and raise money for the homeless. Could we get Mark Zuckerberg, Ev Williams, Kevin Rose and others to join us to sleep out for just one night? If we got a thousand people to join us and asked their friends and colleague to sponsor them, imagine what we could do.
Perhaps we could find somewhere a little more comfortable than Market St for you, like Dolores Park? Have you noticed how cold it’s been the last few weeks? Some homeless people froze to death. These are people’s parents, children and siblings. Perhaps we can organize the event for the spring, when it’s a bit warmer too – giving us some time to get ready? Who knows, like my current ‘homeless’ situation, perhaps it could even be fun?
Let’s use the unfortunate nature of your recent publicity to raise awareness, money and show support for these poor souls who haven’t been caught by the same protective layers of society that helped you and me.
Are you with me? Sign up here to register interest.
Yours in anticipation,
PS – PLEASE SHARE THIS letter if you want it to happen – I’ll organise it if there’s enough interest (even if you don’t get in touch, Greg!)