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.
I get my best work done at the weekends. Not that I want to be working at the weekends, mind. But weekend works comes with a calm that is enviable to my midweek self.
In Leonard Cheshire’s, (a hero of mine) biography, he mentioned that whenever he wrote a letter, even if he had a pile of them, he’d write each one as if it was the only one he needed to write. Although it meant the pile took longer, he was able to give himself to each letter, without the shackles of time constraining his focus and commitment to each. It meant he wrote fabulous letters.
At the weekends, I’m not subjected to the deafening tick-tock of the progress clock, which leaves me rushing from moment to moment, task to task and meeting to meeting. I’m not sure I finish anything, or am ever ‘in the moment’, during the week.
We should work like it’s the weekend everyday. At the weekend, there’s time make a cup of tea, stare out of the window, take 15 minutes off to play the guitar, write a Simpletom blog (the infrequent nature of my posting is perhaps indicative of the healthy lack of weekend work) and do meaningful stuff that ‘I don’t have time for’ in the week. We’d have time to think and put that thought, carefully and considerately into our work.
We would do more substantial, more committed, more thoughtful work, if we always worked like it was the weekend. Today, we’re so subjected to the immediacy of things that work has become frantic. The bygone days of long boozy lunches, trips by steamer, disconnectedness seem far, far away – yet some pretty epic work (and thought) was achieved. Most modern thought-leaders and doers seem to want more time to think and breathe. Why don’t we just give it to ourselves. Why does midweek work have such a different texture from weekend work, even though it’s the same thing. Why do we prescribe one pace for one and another for another?
If we worked like it was the weekends, perhaps we’d not get quite as much done, but I’m pretty confident we’d get what we needed to do done, with more meaning and quality – of life and work. And so for another cuppa…
(or the art of Growing Down)
Yesterday was my birthday. I was dressed as a ninja cow at a festival, squeezed into a west-country barn full of ‘Almost Farmous’ revellers. We were ‘The Moo Fighters’, naturally. Seconded only by ‘Daft Skunk’.
The weekend consisted of dancing, laughing, drinking, firing water pistols at unsuspecting crowd members and generally indulging in large dollops of mischievous fun.
All perfectly acceptable fun for us youngsters, right? The issue being that I turned a wizened 34. My birthdays haven’t much changed since I was 18 and today my bones ache. Peter Pan is alive and well and, as a casual glance around the festival would suggest, he’s not alone. You can spot him easily – he’s the one with the bags beneath his eyes.
Are we eternally young, or merely adulesents? I wonder at what point we’ll become too old to find squirting people with water on a dance floor and then hiding most entertaining, and whether or not that constitutes a good or a bad thing?
I hope never. I’d like to nurture many of the wonders of youth – the lack of responsibility, humour, mischief, laughter, untidiness, carelessness, late nights, giggling, dancing that immaturity brings. I’d much rather live in a Roald Dahl novel than one by Austin, or Tolstoy, with their endless stream of grown ups, or children masquerading as adults.
We have many interwoven, sometimes contradictory, relationships with youth and growing up.
I was a late developer. As a summer baby, I was always playing catch up with hairier and taller friends in my year, some of whom had 11 months ‘extra time’. Not inconsequential when you’re a wee nipper on a frozen ruby pitch. Amongst those peers, I’ve now friends who’ve had three children, are captains of industry, divorcees, widows, drug addicts, alcoholics and celebrities. Some seem exceptionally grown up, with houses in expensive parts of London, pristine wardrobes, pensions and all the dinner party chat that complements their choices.
Others… well… haven’t. Yet some of the latter are more emotionally mature than the former and have had ‘richer’, more interesting lives. One friend could be described as the ‘furthest behind’, in terms of their careers… is one of the wisest, most worldly, experience-rich person I know. Another, a great friend who writes wonderfully here has just set off backpacking around the world, one-way, in his mid-thirties.
I’ve never understood the rush to grow up. Being one seems to mean attending parties where conversation never steers beyond pleasantries or politics. It means subverting ones true beliefs or self-expression. It results in wearing a uniform of chinos, collared shirts and boat shoes. It can mean rounding out all the passionate edges of youth and becoming ‘just another’ conformist. Add a bunch of reality, a sprinkle of boredom, a dash of failed ambition and a liberal sprinkle of responsibilities, loneliness and hard work to the mix and slow bake… and before we know it we’ve become a grown up. Past tense.
And yet, on the flip side, I’m envious of those adults who seem settled, self-confident and aware.
At a wedding a week ago the electronic music selection resulted in every person over forty retreating to the bar, save for one sixty-something who wasn’t scared to get involved. I’d rather be that person. Yet I want to do it because it feels authentic, not because of psychological stunting, or because I refuse to accept I’m the age I am. I’d like to be the godfather than a child goes to for both fun and sage advice, not one or the other.
Being ‘trapped in escapism’ is often an attempt to maintain the freedom of youth and avoid responsibility. Responsibility and maturity, particularly emotional maturity is, in my mind, always a good thing and yet so is a youthful energy and disposition to trying new things. Youth evokes passion, dreams, a healthy recklessness and hope that a weary elder can swat aside in the desire for routine, conformity and comfort.
So what to do? Can we bounce around like a child at a festival one weekend whilst holding down a job that requires huge responsibility, without giving one or the other short shrift? Can we extract the best from both maturity and immaturity?
There are good examples of a balance – The Dalai Lama, despite the weight that comes with being a religious leader, has a lightness, a giggle and a curiosity to match any child. David Attenborough, when asked about his passion said, “Many people ask me when I became interested in natural history. I’ve never met a child who isn’t, so I ask in reply at what age other people lost interest in the wonders of the natural world. I just never did”.
It’s a great shame when someone becomes too sensible to swim in the sea, dance, laugh, play practical jokes or takes things too seriously because they might look silly or get dirty. Both this beautiful poem as well as our deathbed regrets suggest that retaining the better parts of our youthfulness is important, and hard.
Let us nurture the wonders of youth. Let us be sillier, swim more rivers, make more mistakes, keep in touch with friends, work less hard, walk barefooted earlier, pick more daises and allow ourselves to be happy. I’ve started already this summer and it’s working. Come join.
(And I must leave you with this, which is the view from my window as I write this…)
One of the wonders of the modern world is opportunity.
As an entrepreneur, I’m continually excited by what is possible. Aided by lightning fast connectivity, jet engines, computing technology and a plethora of beautifully indexed information available at our fingertips… the world is our oyster, lobster and winkles too.
In a single week, an indefatigable person could dine in a San Franciscan Michelin-starred restaurant, walk through an African slum and give a talk at Davos. Another might kitesurf, skydive, go to a sex party, take mind-altering substances, play a gig at Glastonbury. Why stop there… why not combine the two?
It’s all possible if you read enough Tim Robbins, Tim Ferriss, Hello magazines or believe the latest Hollywood blockbuster. It’s just so disappointing we can’t clone ourselves because life is too short, you’ll get all the sleep you need when you’re dead and time is money.
I wonder where the being there for your friends, reading Bill Bryson on the toilet, doing some community work, empathy, writing, having an evening to think, meditation, going for a walk, sleeping well, responsibilities, calmness and, of course, simplicity fit into all this?
Have we made opportunity and escapism a fetish that undermines our ability to live healthy, happy lives?
This evening, back in London town, I have a couple of hundred restaurants and bars to choose from within a couple of mile radius. I’ve a few dozen applications, websites and guidebooks to help me choose them from and 7 devices in this house I could use to do so. I can tickle almost any gastronomic whim. With the means, I can go anywhere and do almost anything. Boy, isn’t it great to have all these options. I need to have options, otherwise my life is stale and we’ve wasted all this development and human endeavor.
I think not.
Do we even notice the joy of drinking a cup of tea, with leaves that have slowly grown and been picked by a 5th generation farmer on an Assam mountain-side? How many gastronomic delights are wolfed down, or sensations are given almost no attention, despite their wonder?
On a personal level, whether affected by these external forces, or driven by my own upbringing (being a professional musician aged 8-12, with all the discipline, restrictions and constraints that accompanied, was not at all healthy) – I’ve started to recognize that I’m trapped in what seems like a global pattern of escapism.
In fact, I’m really rather brilliant at it.
For me, the manifestation has meant that over the last 10 years, I’ve lived in lots of places, met loads of people, holidayed and partied across the globe. I’ve started a number of projects and finished very few. I’ve dated some wonderful people who I usually abandon because like all good entrepreneurs, I need an exit strategy, or just because if I’m not about to escape or if I don’t have an obvious alternative or escape plan then [alarm bells] my options are limited.
How sad. The kaleidoscope of opportunity has cauterized continuity and community.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s often been fun. But, I’ve noticed loneliness in myself and others who pursue these tantalizing escapes, scrapes and adventures. In the midst of being Peter Pan and chasing freedom, I’ve too often found myself alone, somewhere between one place and another, one relationship and another, and one piece of work and another. When the music stops, the escapee can find themselves without a place to sit. When I read stories of billionaires and their multiple homes, wives, yachts, interests and hyper-dysfunctional families, I am reminded that choice is a burden. When I look closely the eyes of those chasing ‘the capitalist dream’ at ‘exclusive’ events, I’ve started to notice the fear, loneliness and desperation behind the tanned, moneyed pearly-white smiles – which seems to get worse the closer these dreams get to fulfillment.
Recently, I’ve noticed a shift in myself to want to settle and to take on responsibility and commitment, even if it means I’m not as free. I’ve noticed that freedom comes from these commitments rather than from opportunity. With a solid and stable home, meaningful consistent work, regular friends and monogamous relationship, I sense we have the foundations upon which to be even freer, rather than chasing the elusive idea that freedom comes through keeping our options open.
We are who we are.
No matter how hard we try, we’re unlikely a Damascene moment will transform us into the person we’d always hoped we’d be.
You might if you try over a number of years, change a bit. But it’s unlikely. Plus, we forget that we can get worse as well as better. Years sitting at a desk, or in an unloving relationship, can mean we become worse, not better.
I know now, despite many years railing against it, that I’m better off sleeping regular hours. I’m not very disciplined, but I have a strong will that can combat that lack of discipline. I’m lucky enough to have been blessed with a good mind, body and ear – I find work, sport and music comes easily. But that means I’ve not had to fight to be OK at them, so I’ve been lazy with those talents.
I’m good with people, but I’m also impatient and judgemental. I need people around me, to help me be a better person and yet I can lose and isolate myself in my own world. I love being active, yet I find it hard to get started and so laziness can easily prevail without a catalyst.
It’s good to try to know oneself and to work with, not against oneself.
When I did the vipassana, it gave me a chance to sit and just be and start to come to know who I am. For a while, my ego, or just sheer boredom, fought against the practice. Eventually, without anything to distract, I was forced to listen to myself.
I noticed, deep within me, somewhere at the very core of my being, that there was something constantly moving, a restlessness.
It’s hard to explain, but it was almost like there was a motor whirring deep in my abdomen. Something tense, aggravated and angry. A psychological hornet.
Vipassana enabled me to listen to it… to feel it. I realised that it had been there all my life, without ever stopping.
Throughout the 10 days, I not only noticed this phenomenon, but occasionally the motion would stop, just for a second, and I felt at peace. I remember there was a deep sense of release when this perpetual movement took a moments breather.
That’s why I often felt exhausted, I thought – because when asleep, awake, resting, drunk, happy or sad, I have been using energy to fuel this motor. A motor that does nothing. A motor that is powered by fear, stress, ambition ego and expectation.
The motor only stopped completely during vipassana, but my sense is that it moves at different speeds depending on how I feel – the faster it moves, the less balanced I am.
The motor exists to ‘drive’ me and ‘propel’ me. It is a force of ego that attempts to make me a better person and push me on, and yet it is destructive. It consumes energy without contributing. Its wheels spin in its desire to propel me to places that, paradoxically, can only truly be reached naturally.
This is a strange concept, but I’m now aware of its presence within me, almost as if my ear is now attuned to the noise it makes.
I’ve also noticed that lots of people seem to be powered by a similar energy. When we talk of stress, anger, frustration, ambition, anxiety, insecurity, desire… the elements that combine to create attachment – I notice this motor in others. I imagine the motor and the energy is used and dispelled in many different ways. We all process and cope differently. But boy, what a waste of energy.
My battle… In fact that’s the wrong word, because it wants a battle.
My challenge, I should say, is to slow it down and let it stop. To starve it of its fuel. To give up, let go and let be. To recognize that change comes through acceptance and can only be reached without this motor running.
Mental note to self (although so difficult to remember) – I am what I am and the more I nurture my individual self, the less fuel this motor has and the more likely I’ll get where I want to be.
Which, is right here, at peace… rather than over there, at pace.
Congratulations, you’re very ordinary.
As I sit and write this, I overlook a tropical lagoon, mangroves and a few fishermen warming in the morning sun. A few energetic swifts wheel in a faint haze – evidence that despite the dry red earth and cloudless skies, the baked earth breathes life each day.
I am perched at a desk I made, 7m off the ground, sitting at this window in a house I built. It is an extra-ordinary setting, and yet for the last few days I’ve been feeling rather ordinary.
I’ve been re-watching the TV adaptation of Any Human Heart by William Boyd, one of my favourite novels. Boyd sums the book up with the line, ‘Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary’. The book, and the series, is a reminder that life is a patchwork of experiences, good and bad, high and low, at times introspective whereas at others uncontrolled reaction to external events.
Even a life, with its fair modicum of ‘ordinary’, seems all the more extraordinary when condensed into 4 hours, or a few hundred pages.
What about all the uncomfortable visits to the toilet? What about the nights that seem never to end, spent half-awake worrying about things that in the morning seem inconsequential? What about the banal, useless and dull days where nothing really happens? Boyd goes some way to capture that in his book, but cannot encapsulate the true nature of time passing in a few short pages.
I’m here, in Kenya, because there is life around each corner, from swims in the lagoon, to colourful daily interactions. Yet perspective can shift these from the glorious to simply frustrating or what I call trouble in paradise.
As E. B. White said, ‘Every morning I awake, torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savour it. This makes it hard to plan the day’.
At the moment, I’m stuck there – somewhere between. In the ordinary. I’ve a weight of ordinary work at a desk to do, each day, in an attempt to create something extraordinary for myself and for others. Yet I’m wondering if extraordinary things do evolve from the ordinary, or if in fact I’ve got it all wrong and that if being extraordinary is the only way to produce the extraordinary.
It’s great to see Tenner, which I helped start get new life and I was reading Richard Branson’s comments on the site (surely extraordinary that a project I helped start now has the most famous entrepreneur in the world commenting upon it – give yourself that one SimpleTom). His comment, that you should do what you love is oft-repeated, clichéd even.
However, many modern businesses start with a huge amount of work, at a desk. The results can be extraordinary. Airbnb enables exploration of people, cultures and human interaction in a way that wasn’t nearly as easy 10 years ago. But the business has been created by a lot of people spending considerable time sitting at a lot of computers in a few offices (not taking into account the years spent at computers learning how to use the computers). Although developers love to problem-solve and some of the results are incredible, the thousands of nights spent coding cannot be described as extraordinary.
I’m lucky enough to know a lot of extraordinary people. But most of them do very ordinary things, most of the time. Not that that is a bad thing. However, where I find myself stuck today is wanting to kitesurf more than answer an inbox of emails, build a canoe more than re-design a user experience.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m utterly convinced in our vision and that this project is extraordinary. I know that this feeling is a passing phase after a year and a half of fun, effort and dedication. But sometimes the threads that weave together to form an incredible tapestry, or the notes that create a haunting melody are as a result of time spent in stitches (of the wrong kind) or learning and repeating endless scales.
The irony is not lost. Here’s a blog on simplicity and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and here I am, writing a post on the desire for continual extraordinary-ness.
I recognize that every life – Darwin’s, Dahl’s, Newton’s etc have long stretches of ordinary. Today we’re fed with images from Facebook of people’s highlights (talking of Richard Branson, one recent facbook feed from a ‘friend’ was a picture of him playing chess with Branson on Necker). Those images don’t help me to remember the rewards, the extraordinariness, of ordinariness.
Perhaps it’s time to re-read Walden. Today I struggle with finding the beauty in the mundane. Moonlight can make the most colourful of landscapes appear colourless – some people might see it without the colour, others with accentuated beauty. They’re both there, in that moment.
I write this, not because I’m in a bad place, per se. A passing phase. But in recognition that simplicity is hard and because writing, exploring and sharing the feelings help.
I’ll leave you with a great post by Derek Sivers.