Forty-One

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

**

It was my birthday the other day, and in keeping with what is becoming a tradition of sorts, I spent the morning wading through a flurry of WhatsApp and text messages before a fairly lengthy video call with the niece who I almost share a birthday with. The rest of the day was spent off-grid, which has become one of the more enjoyable parts of the day. I don’t remember when the need to unplug on the day first came to the fore but I am finding that in the aftermath of all of that mental stimulation, some downtime is helpful. As I have reflected on here before, the five weeks between the 8th of July and the 15th of August tend to be emotionally draining ones. Dealing with a move – which is quite frankly a culture shock of sorts – has only added to that this year.

Turning forty seems significant, to be the onset of an important phase of life and a milestone (never mind it also being a magnet for slander on the interwebs :)). Forty-one, on the other hand, seems like an afterthought, just another notch on the pole of life occasioned by yet another spin around the sun of the earth. Having spent the first twenty and some in the Nigerian state of my birth, the next ten making my way in the world in Nigeria and the next eleven in the UK, it very much feels like a third phase of life. Interestingly, each move has taken me away from the safety of the cocoon in which I grew up, complete with all the trappings of the evangelical industrial complex. My focus this year is Delve Deeper, I suppose there is no better place to test one’s depths and roots than in a far country – to use the metaphor of the prodigal – with all the trappings of having to build credibility all over again. There is certainly no room for coasting. There are also the challenges of living and thriving in a post-oil world which, given the current source of my livelihood, I need to focus on, using today’s opportunities to create the tomorrow’s ones.

In all of that, I am finding the lyrics of NEEDTOBREATHE’s Hang On particularly fitting:

So hang on to the light in your eyes and the feeling
Hang on to your love drunk original reason
So hang on to the small town you love but you’re leaving
‘Cause you won’t be a fool for so long

Economists suggest I am a few years from hitting the bottom of my happiness u-curve. An uptick in happiness is at least something to look forward to, and the enduring tension of leaving the small town I love but which I’m leaving…

Hitting Reset: Some thoughts on adapting for a post-oil world

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

**
When I reflected on life at the turn of the year, and wondered what the year would be for me, Delve Deeper came to mind. Behind that was the understanding, inspired in part by the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, that everything worth its salt is tested, and only those which had roots sunk deep would survive. I was also on the cusp of quitting my job up north with the prospect of the move of a lifetime looming. Whatever your particular take on COVID-19 is — elaborate hoax, a pretext for instituting a new world order or a symptom of a broken world — what is incontrovertible is that in its wake has come a seismic change to the world and what we know of it. For all the preening, posturing and the facade of strength the world economies have presented, 2020 has shown it all up like an edifice built on shifting sands to use a biblical metaphor. The Emperor’s new clothes, for all we can see, are anything but a covering.

Within the wider context of the shutdown of the world’s systems, the latest iteration of oil’s boom and bust cycle hit close to home, the precipitous dive in the price of oil, particularly the Brent benchmark, from just under $70 to a low of $18 and change the latest trigger in the latest race to trim the fat by companies all along the oil supply and value chain. To be fair, COVID-19, the global shutdowns and the resulting supply glut were only the straw that broke the back of camel increasingly hassled by headwinds such as the continued rise of green energy and their activists, US shale and players (read Russia and Saudi Arabia) only too happy to throw their weight around in an attempt to eke out more market share. A perfect storm perhaps, but all told it is a sequence of events which leaves some (full disclosure like me) who are invested in the industry for their livelihood concerned about the future and what it portends.

With projects no longer economic at current pricing levels, job cuts at majors and their key suppliers are inevitable with BP looking to trim up 10,000 job globally and Saudi Aramco looking to do the same for about 8,000 jobs. Job losses in my old stomping ground in the North Sea were estimated to be in excess of 4,500 in June. Across the pond in America, the first bankruptcies have occurred with surely more to come, all symptoms of the highly leveraged low margin environment the oil patch, at least in the West, has become. Of course, one has to take the good with the bad, and roll with the punches, although it does significantly impact the prospects for attracting future talent into the industry. That, and improving the gender balance and the average age of those in the industry, have been stated objectives for the UK sector of the North Sea with various diversity and inclusion initiatives been fronted as recently as last week. There is also the slight worry that the boom periods between bust (and slash and burn) are getting shorter. Change is afoot in many ways than one.

Change they say is inevitable, it is those who are able to adapt who survive and thrive though, all of which has left me thinking long and hard about the future, and what it portends. The obvious response is to consider a career reinvention, one which untethers me from the tentacles of big oil. Three criteria come to mind in determining what sort of direction such a move might take: the development of domain agnostic skills (to ensure I don’t get stuck in a different version of the big-oil problem), a non-zero entry point( to ensure some or all of my current skills are transferable) and a high ceiling (to ensure there is scope for growth). My oil and gas niche, with some retooling, lends itself to some level of cross-domain application, being relevant across a number of high hazard industries where corrosion and asset integrity is a concern (nuclear, wind, buildings/ infrastructure and even automobiles) as do the quantitative and analytical skills which practising as an engineer have also developed. Risk analysis and management skills are also useful, as are project management and coordination skills.

I am betting on data, as it ticks all three of the criteria above with the added bonus of enabling remote/ flexible working practices and being applicable in my current role. It will take some retooling – for all my flirting with Python, there is a knowledge gap to be plugged there, as well as a time requirement to build the confidence and skills that deliberate practice brings. I may have missed planting this tree 20 years ago, the bigger mistake would be failing to plant it today.

The Diary: The Joy In Small Things

***
Seemingly like in the blink of an eye – like play like play in the pidgin English of my youth –  we are somehow at the end of May!  Summer is finally here, bringing in its wake the realisation that if I had stayed up North, the first of my Nine Fridays of Summer would have just gone past. As it is though, I find myself in an intermission of sorts, loitering in the space between a past life and the future in which an adventure in the sun hovers just out of reach, 70 days late. There are of course worse things than swapping grey granite for verdant green or being cooped up with family, like dying or very nearly dying like so many people, including a few closer to home for me, have over the past few months of this pandemic.

The reality of the lockdown first hit on a personal level sometime in late March, when my flight out was cancelled. My initial reaction is to take it as an extended holiday of sorts, cue extended hours of Football Manager but as time passes, each day blurring into the next, I find life without the tether of routine somewhat disconcerting. Its the first time since the autumn of 2009 that I have been in this place where there is plenty of time on my hands. Six weeks of a creative non-fiction writing course and National Poetry Writing Month do provide some structure and help mitigate the sense of floundering, the result of decisions taken earlier in the year as part of fleshing out what My Year of Delving Deeper would look like. It is thus only in May that the desire to stay creative and productive kicks in, no thanks to the reminders of the supreme productivity of Newton and Shakespeare in similar times from the Twitter productivity gurus.

One of the bigger impacts of all the time everyone suddenly has is a significant regression in the quality of my Whatsapp messages. Being Nigerian, with loads of older, Christian folk in my contacts, I find my inbox something of a ground zero for conspiracy theories of all flavours, from the 5G one peddled by a certain Nigerian MOG through a raft of others suggesting it is all a ploy to foist some religious or moral imperative on the rest of us. Elsewhere in my wider (Pentecostals) network, the miracle of hindsight manifests itself in various names – both well known and lesser-known lights – claiming some sort of prescience or other in having prophesied that a pandemic of such a nature was coming. What those who forward those messages on to me fail to answer is why, if these prophets were that certain, they didn’t shout louder for those of us at the back as Nigerian Twitter likes to put it. Those who cling to conspiracy theories do so as an attempt to find certitude and assert control of what is fundamentally an uncertain state, at least so says Skye Jethani who is a lot more clued into the Christian sub-culture than I am.

In retrospect, the things that stand out from the past 70 days – and some – are the little unplanned things; a picture from 2016 which brings back memories of Lagos and hanging with the old gang, an impromptu WhatsApp video call which segues into a three-way call that drags in A, I and C and dredges up fantastic memories of life, youth and friends that have become closer than brothers as it were.  I find myself measuring time in the small things and new routines, Mondays as bin days, Wednesdays as my Alpha Online days, Thursdays for joining the line that snakes around my local Tesco to stock up on food and water and Sundays for lengthy phone calls to friends and family around the world. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays have become portals of exploration, as my runs take me along paths which weave their way around the River Wey navigation paths. The bucolic sights that greet one’s eyes these days belie the fact that as recently as the 1960’s these were functional navigation routes. Private boats and yachts now line the waterway in places, a nod to the relatively well off folk who are our neighbours out here. Even those lie quietly, all furloughed in their own way, more than a few clearly showing signs of age and disuse, a metaphor for pausing to smell the roses and to enjoy the whispers of nature the world would otherwise have drowned out.

This is what my days have boiled down to; Reading, Writing and Running, and finding Joy in small things.

On Leaving

Of the many conversations I have had over the past few years, one sticks out in my mind, not for its length or its importance but for how odd it felt at the time. As I recall it, a travelling salesman and I had just finished a meeting and were heading to the kitchenette at work to drop our coffee mugs off when he asked: “How did you end up here?”.

Given he was white, and I am very much on the darker side of brown, it seemed at least to be somewhere between insensitive and provocative. That he needed my say-so to get his product approved only made the question, and its timing, even more interesting. Years later I would find out that he was Zimbabwean born, and that he took every opportunity to return there especially over the winter months. His question thus reflected more on the city than it did on me and my ‘rights’ to be there. As I sit here now with the benefit of time and some distance from my sojourn in that city, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit that question.

To begin, I have to return to my first days there, the enduring memories of which are of stiff upper lips, heavy overcoats and bitterly cold evenings with winds so ferocious they seemed to find their way through multiplied layers of clothing to torment my skin. What daylight that managed to penetrate the thick fog which sometimes rolled in from the sea overnight fell on dour, grey buildings, built in the main from the granite which was plentiful in the area.

After sharing a flat with a colleague for a month, I moved into the 13th floor of a council tower block, Spartan lodgings shared with a graduate student from the University a mile away, one of two which made the city a destination for students from all over the United Kingdom. Council tower blocks being what they were, it was not uncommon for the lifts to stink of stale cigarettes, for fights to break out in any one of the flats which often required the police to attend and for there to be someone stationed, permanently it seemed, on the benches next to the smoking area asking for spare change. There was a stabbing somewhere in the area, which prompted the police to visit with flyers appealing for information. Even the Receptionist at the Medical Practice I registered at made a point of warning me to be careful, once she’d seen my forms indicating I lived there.

On the plus side, on the days when the fog lifted, I could just about make out the sea in the distance, the number 13 bus stopped a few feet away from the entrance to the block which made getting about easy, and there was a football stadium a short distance away. They used to be good and counted themselves as one of a select few Scottish football clubs to have won a European Cup, thanks to the stellar talents of future Manchester United legend Alex Ferguson in the early 1980s.

I told everyone who cared to listen that this was merely a pit stop on my journey elsewhere. I was here for work and work only. “A year or two at most” was what I told The American when she DTRed our budding romance.

***


Tethered as it were to the sea, water and war have shaped the City’s identity over its more than 8,000 years of existence, enabling it to evolve from two tiny burghs at the mouths of the Dee and the Don Rivers, into its current status as Scotland’s third-largest city. Picts, Scots and the English all held sway over the city at various times and fought for it. Even the German Luftwaffe came visiting during World War Two, with unexploded ordinance being retrieved from its international airport as recently as 2018.

The sea though is not especially forgiving to those who depend on it for sustenance, the vagaries of weather and fish stocks sometimes combining to create extended periods where the catch is poor and thus food less plentiful. That and long, harsh winters which are not conducive to non-essential, frivolous activity perhaps place into context the people’s reputation for being grim and miserable.

Oil – also inextricably linked to the sea – has come to define the city to outsiders more than anything, as does its reputation for terrible weather, stark, grey granite city centre buildings and gruff people. All of this makes for interesting conversations with outsiders, who are wont to consider it a backwater of sorts saved only by oil revenue, the nouveau riche of cities perhaps.

To reduce the city to oil though is to do it a great disservice and minimise the tension between the old and the new which are visible beneath its façade. Wandering through the city centre, it is difficult to miss this in the smell of processed fish and the old derelict processing plants towered over by gleaming office blocks along Palmerston and Poynernook streets. Even the Torry suburb across the Victoria Bridge with a reputation for being rough has ceded significant swathes to the new, most recently a new housing development which replaced Craiginches, the now-closed, notoriously overcrowded prison. In pivoting to oil and gas the city has merely traded one fickle source of sustenance for another, big oil’s boom and bust cycles meaning periods of significant purse-string tightening and job losses are always around the corner.

To sense and understand these tensions is to take the first tentative steps in falling in love with the City for which I had The American to thank. We split up in April of my second year there, which made me accept that my lot was firmly tied to the city for the foreseeable future and opened my eyes to all the ways the City had been reaching out to me. I discovered a church family through the one person I knew in town and met a few others from work.  We still only grabbed lunch somewhere in the only decent mall we had, Union Square, or went out for evening drinks at Malone’s, an Irish bar just down the road from the office but what was clear was that a sense of being in it together was slowly building.

I learned to make small talk: gripe about the weather, the latest failing of the local football team and the ineptitude of the city council. I learnt to enjoy a full Scottish breakfast, dig into haggis with gusto, down a neat Scotch and to ken the difference atween smirr, dreich and drookit. Even the sea and the fog it brought was useful, lengthy runs by the beach became a staple of my exercise regimen.

***

In the days before I leave the city for the last time, it seems only fitting to revisit the people and the places it brought my way in my time there.

V, the precocious six-year-old who I have claimed as a God-daughter, bursts into tears when her father tells her I’m leaving town. I met them when I lived in the flat after the squalid council block in a season of loneliness and enjoyed their hospitality on many a Christmas day. The entire family and I spend a leisurely Saturday at the only amusement park in town. We have dinner together after which I get a handmade card as a memento. There are more tears and then a group hug and picture.

R, with whom I shared an office for six years, and I meet up for lunch the day before I’m due to fly. Between handling vendors and packing up my life into boxes, I arrive two minutes late just after he has fired off a typically acerbic text message wondering where I am on my phone. It’s our first face to face meeting in over a year but slightly more grey hair and slower movement apart, not a lot has changed for him. In many ways, he embodies my relationship with the city; simmering not sizzling, steady but close, more curmudgeonly grandfather than delectable damsel of interest.

Between sips of Turkish beer and bites from the koftes we order, we muse over the past ten years and our lives before that. “It’s the longest I’ve been in one place,” he says and then proceeds to reminisce on his life before coming up to Aberdeen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland all come up, and it shows in his accent which I imagine is a unique amalgam of all these places. Although retired, he’s opted to remain in the city even though somewhere warmer is ostensibly an option. “Aberdeen feels like home now”, is his explanation for not exploring other more exotic locations. Elsewhere for him, there are only vague, tenuous links to extended family to cling on to.

There is a faint nostalgia in his voice that I can relate to, seeing as I have now spent just over a quarter of my life there. This is a city that grows on you. At first brush, there is little of note to see but with time the city clasps you in a tight embrace. You get to know the city, delve into its innards and fall in love. It becomes home. And in leaving I find myself feeling like a prodigal turning his back on home, trading it for the lures of a far country.

I’ll be back.

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #3: An Interview of Sorts

This week’s assignment was to interview someone, summarizing what we learned about them in 300 to 500 words. Here goes.. Image by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

***
R was hunched over his phone typing furiously when I pushed the door open and walked into the restaurant, one of the many that dot the roadside on this corner of the seaside boulevard. I was three minutes late but he, ever the most punctual of people, had arrived early and was in the middle of typing an acerbic note to me.

In the 11 years since I first met him, six of which were spent cooped up in the same office space, memories of questionable banter and several meals and evenings out; a veritable tour of brews – and the uninhibited honesty that comes with having those – and cuisines are a large part of what remains. That we opted to do this over food was entirely in keeping with that shared history, particularly given the reasons: he opted to retire a year ago, I am on the cusp of moving on from the organisation that was part of our lives for all those years. It thus felt right to catch up properly before I headed out.

Selecting a main took more time than usual as it was our first time in a Turkish restaurant, the choice between the varieties of kebabs, casseroles and koftes somewhat overwhelming. For drinks, though it was more clear cut, ‘an EFES* for the young man’ he declared as he waved his hand in the manner of one holding court. Over food, our conversation turned to the subject of our time out here in this grey corner of Scotland, more than 30 in his case.

‘It’s the longest I’ve been in one place’ he said and then proceeded to reminisce on his life before the ‘Deen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland were a few of the places he mentioned, all of which he’d spent five or less years in, thanks to the somewhat itinerant lifestyle of a father who was in the diplomatic corps. I was curious as to why he hadn’t taken the opportunity of being retired to move somewhere else, warmer perhaps. ‘Aberdeen feels like home now’, was his response. All that is left elsewhere are tenuous links to vaguely familiar extended family members – “Our fathers have all died”, he said. “Us kids didn’t bother to stay in touch, we’ve all made other connections.”

In the tone of his voice, I sensed a faint nostalgia, once I know only too well. It is the burden of the prodigal to go out into the world – to a far country – to seek his fortune. At the best of times, that home can become a distant memory, at its worst home can become nowhere.

* a Turkish beer, settled on because in a few weeks time I’ll be working out of a ‘dry’ country…

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #1: People Watching

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Last week was about thinking about the underlying reasons for writing, this week was starting off on the journey towards sharpening our powers of observation, the idea being to hone our ability to find stories in the quotidian.  A city-centre eatery late one night was my muse.

***
It is a little after 8.30pm when the smell of French fries wafting in through the door draws me in. The first thing that strikes me as I stride through the door is how empty it looks, the bulk of the two-storied structure being cordoned off, with only the small section to the right of the counter open for use. I find the emptiness surprising given it is next to a major bus station and right in the centre of town. As I wait for the chance to order, I find myself behind three people, all decked out in the garb of people dressed to brace the cold, with the brightly coloured logo of a food delivery service gracing the insulated bags they hold.

A few feet away from the space I find for myself and my tray are three men with youthful faces, chattering away in a language which is not English, possible South East Asian if I were to hazard a guess. Their half-eaten burgers suggest they’ve been here a while, given how much of their time is spent in conversation interspersed with raucous laughter. When they are finally done, one of the three gathers up their trays and proceeds to empty them into the bin and then they leave, taking their mirth with them. Clearly close friends, or people connected by a shared lived experience I suspect.

Apart from them, the only other people in the room are a group of much older people – 2 men and 2 women occupying the central tables and someone sitting alone, sipping from a cup looking out onto the streets. Of the four, the woman who looks the oldest is slouched in her seat, hands folded together in her lap, two shopping bags beside her, listening it seems. Across from her a younger man with hair the same ginger colour as hers sits, leaning in, several discarded sachets of milk at his elbows, gesturing wildly. Between the accent and my hunger, I can barely make out what the subject of their conversation is but the name of the suburb to the south of the river comes up several times. Maybe a family squabble then, or given the reputation the small town has for being a difficult place, maybe an appeal to the matriarch of the clan for an intervention. All I can see of the fourth person are feet clad in streaked sneakers, the upper body obscured by a heater.

When I steal a glance at the group on my way out, I find the fourth person is fast asleep. Maybe, I have misread the situation after all.

2020: Delve Deeper

One of the biggest disappointments of 2019 for me was interviewing at a company across town and failing to land a job there. It was a company I had admired for some time, the role itself was to be the team leader for a small group of technical specialists overseeing a North sea portfolio and the pay was better; an added incentive. The interview itself started off well I thought but somewhere around three-quarters of the way through, it delved into territory I wasn’t overly familiar with. Part of it was a failure of preparation; I hadn’t taken the time to get intimately familiar with the company’s portfolio and thus prepare for any potential curveballs. The more I mulled over the disappointment, and let time do its thing, the clearer it became to me that this had ultimately been a failure of depth. I knew enough about my subject, had built a reputation in my locality and knew enough about the company to give the perception of competence and suitability on the surface. It was when the screws were turned and the veneer was stripped back, that a lack of depth – somewhat dodgy foundations if you like – proved my undoing.

In the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, Jesus tells a story of two folks who build houses, one on the sands and the other on rock. When the winds, rains and storms come, the house on the sand – without depth – falls flat whilst the one on the rock survives. The parable’s primary purpose is to exhort listeners to hear and do the words of Christ. There is however a wider principle at play here I believe, everything worth its salt will be tested, the only ones which survive are those which have depth and are inherently resilient. It is an idea not too dissimilar to ones raised by Nassim Taleb in Skin In The Game when it comes to assessing the credibility of others.

All of the above is why my focus for 2020 is Delve Deeper. To delve is to reach inside hidden spaces and search for and extricate something. Implicit in this is the expending of energy, which has opportunity costs. For this to not be an exercise in futility therefore, these hidden spaces have to contain something of value which is the focus of the search. For 2020 the search will be for deep knowledge in the various domains across which my life intersects. The wider objective is not knowledge for knowledge sake, it is using that knowledge to build systems and routines that can stand the tests and ravages of time and life and can deliver lasting value in my various interactions. It is not a focus I expect to be fully developed and understood in 2020 alone but one that might just guide me through the 2020s (coincidentally my forties).

For all its warts, 2019 wasn’t the worst of years, not least because the biggest disappointment of 2019 is mitigated by a work opportunity at the end of Q1 this year to look forward to. That said, being intentional and tracking a host of data points over the course of the year helped identify a number of life domains which are good areas to kick off this process of delving deeper with. 2019 was the year I finally managed to put words to the feeling of spiritual malaise I have wrestled with over the past few years, spiritual homelessness. My finances are another area where I need to build a level of robustness in. Several big projects over the last decade, and a few failed (Nigerian) investments, meant I haven’t derived as much value as I could from my earnings over the past year. That is something that needs to change, particularly given I am now ten years closer to retiring. The third domain I believe needs focus in the near term is my relationships. Most of the past decade was spent insulating myself from people, focusing on myself sometimes to the detriment of real-world relationships and friendships. In continuance of one of my themes from last year, engaging the friends and people in my life better is something that needs focus this year.

How does this translate into real-world action? Three main behaviours to change/implement:

  • Question my answers: My existing outcomes in the domains I have identified for focus are the result of years of learning (both positive and negative) and ingrained habits. Real change can only begin by identifying what those underlying answers are, questioning them and then looking to arrive at better answers, iteratively. I started a Codex Vitae, a book of life, inspired by Buster Benson. This is something I hope to return to again and keep updated over the course of the year.
  • Build Systems: Two of the books which influenced me the most in 2019 (James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You) highlighted the criticality of systems (things broken down into repeatable, routine activities) for effecting change. As knowledge from digging deeper comes to the fore, the focus would be to break down any required actions into daily routines to ensure they get properly embedded into my life going forward.
  • Implement a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle: One of the changes implemented in 2019 was to build a dashboard which tracked my performance against a few key metrics in each life domain. Its usefulness became abundantly clearer as I pulled my year-end review together. I plan to implement this fully in 2020, incorporating a weekly review process into the system to ensure learnings and opportunities to tweak things are picked up as early as I can.

To a Year of Delving Deeper then! Happy New Year friends and readers.

The Year of Living Intentionally – Revisited

***
2019 was my Year of Living Intentionally; the central idea being to stop living life on the huff but instead to define a plan and live by it. Five key themes came out from that period of reflection; Learn, Prepare, Engage, Diversify and Measure, with fifteen discrete actions identified across those themes. The screenshot above is of the dashboard that tracked the key metrics from the year. All told, a few great ones, several meh ones and a few epic fails. Data apart, I think the big benefit from this for the year is the visibility of my performance. I now need to build a practice of regular assessments and reviews to enable the Act-Check portion of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.

Those fifteen things? Here’s a more detailed assessment of where I ended up.

  1. Complete my Dataquest Data Scientist path whilst studying for 5 hours a week. [Miss, started but not completed, need to decide how Data Science and ML intersect with my current and future life paths and update my Materials & Corrosion Roadmap to suit]
  2. Spend 5 hours per week studying Materials, Corrosion, Inspection and Welding related topics [Hit, Progressed in Q3, culminating in getting a Welding related certification]
  3. Identify and complete a creative non-fiction writing course [Miss – not progressed, have however registered for one commencing in February 2020]
  4. Developing a daily practice of prayer and bible study [Hit. A few ups and downs but generally managed in the end. 263 completions for the year!]
  5. Save at least 10% of net monthly earnings [Hit, although several unplanned for projects meant this was used up by the end of the year]
  6. Reduce weight to 80 kg [Epic fail, ended the year at 96kg]
  7. Run 3x a week (>20km overall) [Meh, great in the summer, terrible in the winter months]
  8. Improve average sleep to >6.5 hours per day [Hit, improved overall sleep particularly in Q3 & Q4, thanks to restricting coffee to a maximum of 1 cup per day]
  9. Relocate to the Greater London Area. [Miss, not for lack of effort though. I did learn this year that desires sometimes require real-world opportunity which can be outside our control]
  10. Read 25 books, covering Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, Popular science, The Church Fathers/ Church History, Personal Development [Neither Hit nor Miss, ended up having read 15 books which was an increase from last year but below target. I learned in Q3 that scheduling an hour each day was the key to getting to read more.]
  11. Speak to my father weekly [Hit, managed to speak to my father every week this year which is a first for me as far as I can remember. Next focus is to attempt to turn that into deeper, more meaningful conversations]
  12. Speak to my siblings monthly (one each week), in-laws once a quarter [More hit than miss, a WhatsApp group helped as did scheduling monthly follows up as required]
  13. Write to my sponsored (Compassion) children at least once a quarter also[Meh, managed two letters, although I did add a second compassion kid in Q1.]
  14. Meet up with one close friend each month [Hit. U Square’s Handmade Burger Co store became my go-to place this year with meet-ups with A, O and I being highlights from a conscious decision to engage the people in my life better this year]
  15. Earn >£1,000 from a side gig by year-end [Miss, didn’t progress this actively over the course of the year although I did get a tax refund for just under £500 for my charitable giving over the course of the year]

The Year in Reading 2019

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. It wasn’t the most productive year of reading proper books (the web has cannibalised that for good for me I’m afraid) but a late spurt in November and December brought some redemption. For a more wide-ranging review of the year in books, check out the coverage at The Millions here. My previous attempts are linked here.

***

I have Justin Brierley to thank for turning me on to N.T. (Tom) Wright, his (Justin’s) two excellent podcasts – Unbelievable and Ask NT Wright growing into staples in my weekly media consumption, as well as becoming important voices in my ongoing journey of evolving faith. Thanks to this I had N.T. Wright’s Paul: A Biography in my hands as 2018 became 2019, its weight something that I found both comforting and grounding. A lot of the ideas in the book are ones that have been reiterated on the Ask N.T. Wright podcast – Paul’s Christianity as an expansion on and culmination of his Judaism rather than a tearing up and beginning again, the focus of his ministry as being the establishment of a new way of doing community to bring heaven to earth rather than a desire to insulate oneself from the real world and hope to be taken away to name a few – as such it is a book I intend to revisit again, this time with pen, paper and time.

A desire to evolve a productivity system that works for me drew me to a number of books on the subject of habits and behaviour change. Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You, a more ‘spiritual’ take on the subject and James Clear’s Atomic Habits both boiled down to the same ideas, ie that change happens in the (small, daily) details and no amount of posturing and signalling of intent will lead to change. Only by building systems and routines will our larger goals be actualised. These were themes also reinforced to some extent by the other book in a similar genre I read this year, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck.

Rediscovering my local library had the unintended consequence of enabling me to reacquaint myself with Zadie Smith via three books this year. I found Grand Union a difficult read, one that I was unable to get fully into (which given how much of a fanboy I tell myself I am was surprising). Thankfully, The Embassy of Cambodia and Feel Free brought redemption which suggests to me that it was the problem was the short story format of Grand Union not Zadie’s preternatural brilliance.

Besides Zadie Smith’s Grand Union, the only other piece of fiction I read was Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38Seconds in This Strange World, which I found fascinating both for its subject – the hidden lives of people on the outskirts of society – and its narrative perspective, the final memories that course through a brain in the final throes of death.

One of my goals for the year was to become proficient with Python, for which I couldn’t think of a better project than to apply machine learning techniques to predict the outcome of football matches. The Numbers Game and Football Hackers were two books I read along the way to aid my understanding of the current state of play of football stats. Though great reads, they were unable to help me towards my expected outcome. Real life didn’t help either, which leaves me still far away from developing that killer algorithm.

Alongside machine learning, Chaos Theory was an interest which bubbled to the fore for me this year. James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of A Science was my attempt to wrap my head around the basics of the subject. A good if sometimes dense read, it left me fascinated enough by the subject to listen to several hours worth of Steven Strogatz lectures on YouTube. Alan Jacob’s How To Think and Nassim Taleb’s Skin In The Game, read at different times during the year, also challenged me mentally, particularly given my love-hate relationship with Twitter.

Questions for Ada, I’m Lying But I’m Telling The Truth and the 2018 iteration of the Best American Essays made up the rest of my 2019 reading and precipitated one uncomfortable conversation on a flight to Heathrow. If there is any value to reading, it should be in its real world impacts, on the basis of the uncomfortable conversations and soul searching my year of reading spawned, it has been a good year of sorts.

Life In A Song (Or Two)

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The data is in, Planetshakers were both my artiste of the year and of the decade if Spotify’s number-crunching can be believed. Compared to 2018, I listened to 36% less music, although I suspect that had more to do with listening to a lot more podcasts than I did last year (thanks to switching to an Android phone and Pocket Casts), streaming more radio and the occasional YouTube binge.  What would be fantastic would be a service that aggregated my listening across all these platforms and thus enabled me to delve deeper into the underlying trends to my listening.

One positive from spreading my music listening across all these platforms is the cross-fertilisation that occurs between them. Several times over the course of the year, I’d hear a song on Air1 then pop into Spotify and descend into a rabbit hole for several hours, discovering a new favourite in the process. YouTube was also a useful source of inspiration for Spotify streaming; chief of which has to be finding Osby Berry (and Cross Worship) as well as People and Songs.  Even podcasts chipped in,  Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Records turning me on to Pentatonix (and in turn Naturally Seven) and Rhiannon Gidden’s Aria Code bringing the Queen of The Night aria to my attention. That cross-fertilisation is something I could use more of, particularly as it leads to discovering more music I might like. That discovery market just might be the next frontier for a streaming service to crack and get me to hand over my money.

A warning of sorts, this list is decidedly Christian as is a lot of my music listening. Here goes then, 10 of the songs which defined my year.

  1. Do It Again (Elevation Collective feat Travis Greene & Kierra Sheard): This was one of those songs I loved so much three versions of it made its way onto my Songs for the Dark Places playlist. This version was my favourite one, honourable mention for the Cross Worship/Osby Berry version too.
  2. Made A Way (Travis Greene): Although an older song, this was one that came to my attention first in 2018. It will forever be inextricably linked to A’s rendition of this in my Aberdeen church from what was a deeply fraught place for her.
  3. So Will I (Osby Berry): One of those songs I stumbled upon on YouTube, it ended up becoming a portal to discovering other music including Victoria Tunde. Another one of those songs I ended up liking more than the original.
  4. Control (Tenth Avenue North):  Church hopping earlier this year brought us to Welcome Church in Woking during their Why I Follow Jesus series and a message by Pete Hewlett which took in open-heart surgery amongst other things. This was one of the songs he had on repeat in those dark days, which brought it back to mind for me and on repeat several times during my year.
  5. YHWH (The Sound of My Breathing)[Donald Lawrence and The Tri-City Singers feat Jekalyn Carr]: Another one which made its way on to my dark places playlist.