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

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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.

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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.

By Degrees: Lessons from My Decade of Being Thirty Something

The year I turned thirty, I was a student battling to put finishing touches to my master’s degree dissertation and pondering what the future had in store for me. That the success or failure of that year, and the year before that, came down to that singular task was the result of an unanticipated turn of events which turned what was a leave of absence to return to full-time study into having to leave my Nigerian job. Grad school, my response to the year before that, had made sense in my head largely because it seemed a low risk, given there was a reasonably high likelihood of returning. I, as it would turn out was ultimately mistaken.

For the first few months after, I was certain I would be up and running in no time – there was still the path to a post-study visa and I was certain my previous experience of pretending to know about rust at an oil major would be more than enough to get my foot in the door at any number of similar companies. A conversation with my Uncle C during this period comes to mind in which, talking post-study plans, I quoted a salary expectation which in hindsight was wildly optimistic. Months later, with comparatively few responses to the various applications I had sent out, and my expectations a lot more realistic as a result, bitterly cold mornings at train stations waiting for connections between Newcastle and the ‘Deen were the sum of my life, broken only by the pleasures of BBM chats with O and F that helped the time pass. Thankfully, things would eventually improve, culminating in a successful interview in the middle of winter and a relocation to the ‘Deen in time to return to full-time work by the first week of January of the next year.

Ten years down the road, it feels – at first glance – that I am in the same space again; wrestling with a desire for more seething beneath the surface and wondering what the big gains of the last ten years have been.The longer I look though, the clearer it becomes to me that the sense of being stuck and stale is the glass half empty version of events. The glass half full version is that there have been lessons learned and victories won over the past ten years. For one, now and again I stumble into conversations with the workmates I left behind back in ’09. These conversations typically segue into catching up on who has left the company (or been pushed out) or which high-flier has earned a move to Houston. Whilst on the level of financial gain and success I have most definitely been left behind by them, the one silver lining tends to be that I have had grown into more positions of authority and influence than they have. I won’t presume to imagine I have done as well as I could have but was is undeniable is that I have grown from the ultra reserved, tentative person that I was then into a more confident person thanks to the various work situations I have been thrown in. That is one of the lessons I have learned from the past ten years – only by letting go and stretching can one grow. It helps if the letting go is by choice of course.

My default setting, no thanks I suspect to growing up a Nigerian PK, is an intensely private one, the general sense whilst growing up that what happened in the house should be kept in the house; keeping up appearances and what not. Allied to that has been a strong sense of independence – if striving to do things by myself for myself counts as independence. Several times over the past ten years, people have come through for me and surprised me. A., who several times has insisted I spend my Lagos nights at his rather than in a hotel even on one occasion he was out of town, O who dropped everything to offer support when H passed and others too many to enumerate have been high points, underscoring for me a lesson that has been difficult to learn, it is OK to lean on people. I can only hope that I can be as a good a friend to others as these and more have been to me.

In the aftermath of H’s passing, and several times over the intervening years, it has felt like grief has acquired a life of its own festering deep within. There have also been several seasons of heartbreak occasioned by unrequited love amongst other things. My memories of the immediate aftermath of these events – thankfully now dim and distant – are of being brought low and unable to properly function. Time though has worked its magic and in the main whilst the memories still linger, the pain and hurt from them have faded into acceptance. That is something I try to remind myself of in the aftermath of disappointment, time usually brings healing in its wings.

My Myers-Briggs type is INTJ – if unlike Adam Grant you don’t think it’s hogwash – which perhaps explains my occasional bouts with analysis paralysis. Seemingly big decisions have often left me crippled with indecision from weighing all the pros and cons to minute levels of detail. A few come to mind from the past ten years – the Azerbaijan question, my Bachelor’s Conundrum to list a few – but with benefit of hindsight, in most of the instances, the individual decision would have made little difference in the end; sometimes the process of deciding is more important than the decision itself.

For all the high points from work there have been low spots too; not least the sense I have had more recently of being left behind. I suppose spending 8 years in the same building will do that to you, particularly when it feels like remuneration hasn’t been the greatest. A reticence to toot my own horn at times has contributed to this I suspect, as has my work visa-related restrictions which were only fully lifted in January of 2017. What key inflection points in my career over the past ten years there are have occurred because I have taken the bull by the horns turning offers from elsewhere into significant upgrades or being very clear about what direction I want my career to go next. Learning to sell myself better is something I suspect I will continue to struggle with but struggle I will until I gain ascendancy.

Of all the faith-based monikers kicking about, I suspect charismatic – with all its trappings – would probably have best described me ten years ago. These days, I self classify as a recovering prodigal, my attempt to describe the evolution in my beliefs on the big issues such as faith, origins and the fate of humanity. Given what we know about the age of the earth, the likelihood of there being a single Adam and all, I have increasingly found it difficult to hold on to a young earth, literal interpretation of Genesis and by extension the doctrine of original sin. Dark matter and dark energy however suggest to me that there remains a huge gap in our understanding of the workings of the Universe, a gap which means that I can completely discount the spiritual dimension with any degree of intellectual honesty. It is perhaps a poorly articulated God of The Gaps argument, but in conjunction with the subjective evidence of the answers to prayers I still get (or the coincidences that occur when I pray), I have to say I still believe, however tenuous that might yet be.

As I write this now with the emotions of the big day now long past – and all the cake and doughnuts well and truly digested – it very much feels like a time in which to draw a line in the sand and begin again, something I suspect I have been too eager to do many times in the past. Much as it was back in ’09, the question of how the next ten years will shape up is front and centre in my mind. What is incontrovertible though is that time marches on, and whether by action or inaction, every passing second is a step in a sequence of movements that will result either in a masterpiece or a very well polished turd. That is the way of the world.

Stripping, (TV) Binges and Thinking About Thinking

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By some unexpected twist of fate, I found myself heading into Central London on the hottest day of the year, a fairly tropical 37 degrees Celsius, and that for the first time since last December. The destination was the Nigeria High Commission on Northumberland Avenue, the plan to get my expired Nigerian passport renewed. To get here I had had to jump through several tortuous loops, not helped by the fact that my trips down to England are scheduled months in advance with impromptu trips being aggressively minimised due to the costs. My takeaway from my dealings with the appointment’s system was that the (re)scheduling system could be significantly improved  – first, you sign up via a third party web service, pay the booking fees and then get randomly assigned a date, one you can only change to a more suitable one by emailing back and forth, no less than six in my case – which meant in addition to the heat I very much had my mind prepared for a terrible experience which could potentially take the whole day. It might have been my low expectations, but the experience was far less stressful than I expected, sans the slow pace at which things trundled along from picking a ticket to getting called for an initial review and then submitting my biometric details. If there was a silver lining, it was that the slow pace of things – and the very many other Nigerians there for similar purposes – increased the likelihood of running into people I had not seen in a long time; 20 plus years and two kids in one case. That the most unsettling thing from all of that was wondering what the scrawny lad I ended up sitting across from on the tube from Charing Cross to Waterloo was up – to whilst reading from 2nd Corinthians 1 in a huge bible – is a miracle of sorts (events at the High Commission didn’t leave me mentally drained as they have in the past) or perhaps only the symptom of my low expectations.

A lot of my free time over the past month has been spent catching up on TV which, admittedly, is hardly the stuff of living intentionally  Be that as it may, all that TV watching did manage to throw up something to relish. The movie was The Upside, a comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy quadriplegic (played by Bryan Cranston) and his ex-convict Life Assistant (played by Kevin Hart) with the sub-text of his relationship with his devoted assistant who it would appear hs feelings for him (played by Nicole Kidman). In one of the surprise birthday scenes, the opera assembled for a private performance began to sing a tune which I thought was very familiar. My first thought – borne out by events in the end – was that I had heard it on an episode of Rhiannon Giddens’ Aria Code. one of my favourite podcasts from earlier in the year. It was indeed, a portion of the Queen of The Night Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The downside was that it led me down a YouTube rabbit hole which swallowed up the rest of that Saturday.

The one book I managed to finish in July, Alan Jacobs’ How To Think, is increasingly beginning to seem like an inspired choice not least for how often my Twitter timeline has tottered on the edge of a complete meltdown over the past few weeks. Existing online as I do at the intersection of being Nigerian (with all its spiritual, cultural and political baggage) and being an active seeker of intellectual complexity at times my Twitter feed has seemed like a frothing mess of controversial tweets and retweets, 140 character takes and counter takes and the occasional link to a think piece published so soon after the event it seeks to analyse that any claim to thoroughness could only be wishful at best. Many a time, I have started typing a furious response to a tweet only to catch myself mid tweet, sigh and walk away. I would like to think that the overriding driver behind my choice to not add to the noise has been noble but the longer I think about it, the more I see that most times it has been due to a fear of sorts – that the views I am about to share might get ripped to shreds by the collective wisdom of the frothing masses – or at other times fatigue from all the digesting and engagement I am having to do. A recurring thread in the book is how our perspectives, views and memberships colour our understanding of facts and (naturally?) drive us towards thinking in herds.  Social Media and its engagement algorithms drive us further into the depths of our herds, our Inner Rings (to borrow from CS Lewis) and our echo chambers. The final chapter ends with an offering of 12 ideas – a thinking person’s checklist – which are well worth a read. A few key ones for me not in as many words: Take 5 minutes, value learning over debating, eschew virtue signalling, gravitate towards communities that can handle disagreements with equanimity, assess your repugnances and be brave, one I can certainly use more of I suspect.

2019: The Year of Living Intentionally

The Year of Living Intentionally-2

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If I had to boil down the essence of the year of being thirty eight into one word, it would be coasting. It felt like I lurched from one crisis to the other, my actions driven more by the need to fight whatever fire glowed brightest than any form of plan or structure. As I stand here on the cusp of turning forty, I feel like something needs to change significantly – a fool at forty is a fool forever they say. That, and that there is someone who is significantly affected by my actions only makes it more imperative that I get my SH*T together soon.

I’d like for this year of being thirty-nine to be one of Living Intentionally. By Living Intentionally, I mean living a life that is aimed towards defined goals/objectives and which (by gathering the requisite data and analysing them) measurably improves. Defined goals/objectives suggest an overarching plan for life, various iterations of which have existed over the years. At its core that plan – derived from identifying the roles I fill, clustering them into three interaction spaces (Personal, Professional, Public) and identifying long term goals for each interaction space – can be summarised as:

  • Be the best husband, father, brother, son and friend I can be;
  • Excel in the Corrosion, Materials, Welding and Inspection discipline;
  • Live in and contribute to life in a great church and a great city.

So on to the focus areas for this year of living intentionally, which is organised around five themes.

Learn continuously (and become proficient in my core skill areas)
For work I pretend to know a lot about rust, which is one element of the wider job family I have spent the bulk of my career in – Materials, Corrosion, Inspection & Welding Engineering (MCI &W). For all the development activity I completed in 2018, it didn’t feel as structured as in previous years, driven largely by the fire-fighting I had to do at work. The goal for this year would be to go back to basics, review the competency definitions, identify my gaps and get a structured plan for closing them by self-study and or specific courses. Outside work, I became more and more intrigued by all the happenings in the data science/analytics/machine learning domain. From learning to code in python, I ended up taking a number of data science courses on Coursera and signing up for a Dataquest premium account for a year. This, and improving my writing skills I believe are the three areas I would like to develop proficiency in in 2019. The small changes identified in support of these goals are:

  • Complete my Dataquest Data Scientist path whilst studying for 5 hours a week*
  • Spend 5 hours per week studying MCI&W related topics*
  • Identify and complete a creative non-fiction writing course

Prepare (for fatherhood, ageing and eventual retirement)
Several elements stand out to me as being critical to being/becoming a good father, the key ones being building a solid spiritual and moral grounding to provide leadership within my personal circle, being more financially responsible so I have more disposable income and am also preparing for eventual retirement. Also as I totter on the edge of turning forty, what has become clear is that my metabolism is no longer what it once was, and downing multiple slices of pizza just won’t cut it anymore. It is also a time when lifestyle changes might yet stave off debilitating problems later in life. There is also the small matter of my life being split between the ‘Deen and Byfleet further down South. To get closer to these ideas, I intend to be intentional about:

  • Developing a daily practice of prayer and bible study (I have chosen to use the YouVersion app for its in built tracking and metrics)*
  • Save at least 10% of net monthly earnings*
  • Reduce weight to 80 kg
  • Run 3x a week (>20km overall) *
  • Improve average sleep to >6.5 hours per day: This is unlikely to be a quick fix as I first have to find and fix the underlying habits/issues affecting my sleep
  • Relocate to the Greater London  Area – another one that involves a lot of smaller changes including finding a job down south (in the same or different industry) or a means of replacing my current income
  • Read 25 books, covering Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, Popular science, The Church Fathers/ Church History, Personal Development (Reading widely and consistently is a habit I would like to give to my future kids)

Engage (family and friends better)
One of the consequences of my year of drifting was a slow disconnection from all non-essential communication. For 2019 I would like to get into a space where I have regular meetups and phone calls with my close friends and family. Specific objectives in this domain for 2019 are:

  • Speak to my father weekly*
  • Speak to my siblings monthly (one each week), in-laws once a quarter*
  • Write to my sponsored (Compassion) children at least once a quarter also
  • Meet up with one close friend each month*

Diversify (Earn Extra income)
They say death and taxes are the only things one can be certain of, which is why I would like 2019 to be the year in which I diversify my earnings. The obvious advantage of extra income aside, there is also the opportunity to insulate myself somewhat from the ebbs and flows of big oil and its effects on job security. Two things come to mind as options for exploring this – developing and then monetising any data science/ analytics skills I pick up and also exploring options for engaging the online gig economy. Lots of work to develop this further this year I suspect but one I intend to be intentional about. My notional target here is to earn >£1,000 from a side gig by year end.

Measure and Improve
They say you can’t improve what you don’t measure, which is why one of the themes for this year is to find ways and means to simplify measuring and reviewing my progress towards all the changes I’m trying to be intentional about. A few of the apps I use (Strava, YouVersion, Dataquest, Garmin) automate the process of capturing performance related data. For the remainder, loop will have to suffice as a repository for tracking data. The idea would be to develop a short monthly review template which will capture key datasets and also include some text/ commentary as a means of self-assessing where I am on the path towards these goals.

My Year in Reading 2018

It is that time of the year when others – more (or better) read than I – share the highlights of their reading from the year. As with last year, I’ve commissioned myself -unbidden, besides perhaps a desire to record the key themes that drove and/or came out of my reading – to weigh in with the highlights of my own reading.So here goes.

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Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was all the rage on the airwaves at the turn of the year, which is how I ended up grabbing a copy for myself and digging in. As I plodded through it, I found the mix of fly-on-the-wall behind the scenes reporting and qualified conjecture curiously engaging, drawn by the lurid details behind public events and happenings in what at the time had been a Trump presidency that seemingly lurched from one PR disaster to the other. A few themes ran through Fire and Fury – the Trump team being surprised by the election win and thus poorly prepared to lead, the hold of Stephen Bannon and the alt-Right and infighting amongst various factions of the administration. Despite strenuous denials at the time, the events of the year – multiple firings, leaks, indictments, evidence of Russian activities and prison sentences – would seem to give credence to the viewpoint of the book, more so as the year draws to an end.

After that maelstrom, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead seemed the perfect riposte given its subject which was life across (regular) America. Of the essays included, Upon This Rock resonated strongly, bringing back back memories of growing up within the Christian Youth subculture and bingeing on the music of its stars such as Relient K, DC Talk, Audi Adrenaline and Petra. Elsewhere in the collection of essays, there was reflection on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Darwin before Darwin (Constantine Samuel Rafinesque) and one of the more nuanced assessments of Michael Jackson – warts and all – I have read. This Christian subculture, amongst other things, also featured in Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, his description of growing up in South Africa including a reflection on the centrality of church in all its various guises. Other themes of interest touched on included the dysfunctional malehood of his step father, school and navigating the evolving racial landscape, all themes which have shaped is journey and his perspectives as he hosts The Daily Show.

Since reading Colm Tóibín’s 2014 essay, The Literature of Grief, at a time I was wrestling with my own grief and loss, each year I have returned to something related – sometimes tangentially – to his work. Last year was finally watching the movie Brooklyn, this year it was reading The Testament of Mary, a somewhat contrarian retelling of the latter part of Mary’s life as she jostles with the gospel writers who try to recast Jesus as the son of God, remarkably relevant to this age of fake news I suspect.

For new and emerging technology I read Soonish, a fly-by-the-seat-of-the pants look at upcoming technology with a focus on potentially transformative technology and the issues which need to be resolved to bring them to fruition. Quantum computing, rockets, scramjets, asteroid mining, fusion power and origami rooms all showed their heads in this wide ranging book. Jim Al-Kalili’s Quantum: A Guide For The Perplexed, was a fascinating review of the older scientific underpinnings of technology. His BBC podcast, The Life Scientific is one I have enjoyed over the years, and still do.

I found Austin Kleon from a retweet by Alan Jacobs, which led to my signing up to his weekly newsletter and reading his book, Steal Like an Artist. From the newsletter, I found Merlin Coverley’s The Art of Wandering, a reflection on the writer as a walker both in history and in modern times. It, the writer and/or his/her protagonist as a walker and observer, is a theme I have found myself drawn to over the years, influenced primarily by the works of the likes of WG Sebald and Teju Cole.

The two biographies I read this year; Jonathan Eig’s Ali: A Life and David Leeming’s James Baldwin, A Biography offered two perspectives on race relations in 1960/70’s America. Where Ali’s basis for fame was his brute strength -some would say his essential skill was the finesse with which he boxed- Baldwin’s was largely intellectual. The common thread in both their lives was dealing with the weight of their fame, and the expectation from all sides of the race debate – the establishment, white liberal America and the various Black empowerment factions to carry the flag for their various causes.Both biographies were deeply personal, making a strong effort to show the persons behind the huge reputations, full marks were achieved by both books in my opinion.

As a/an (armchair) Liverpool FC fan, John Barnes comes to mind as the most successful black footballer to have worn the Liverbird with distinction, it was fascinating to read of a black footballer from another time, Howard Gayle, who had the distinction of being the first black player to be part of the first team at Liverpool FC. He tells his story in 61 Minutes in Munich, which in addition to sharing his experience of coming on as a substitute against Bayern Munich in the 1981 European Cup final (the precursor to the UEFA Champions League) also delved into Liverpool – the city’s – slave trading legacy and the racism black footballers of that era had to deal with. Incredibly, in a year in which France won the World Cup, and a fairly diverse England team reached the Semi’s, racism in football is back on the front pages.

The Best American Essays collection has become a staple of my year. 2017’s version, edited by Leslie Jamison featured a number of noteworthy reads for me, Rachel Ghansah’s The Weight of Baldwin being one of the triggers for reading the fuller Baldwin biography this year. Jason Arment’s Two Shallow Graves, Emily Maloney’s The Cost of Living and Rachel Kushner’s We Are Orphans here were others I found noteworthy/ deeply personal for a various reasons.

The fate of book stores and libraries is a subject persons invested in them have strong opinions on, which was how I stumbled on to The Library Book, a collection of essays on the subject of libraries from famous names including amongst others Seth Godin, Stephen Fry and Zadie Smith.

In other reading, I finally managed to read Dinaw Mengestu’s highly praised The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine (a much lighter read) and Skye Jethani’s What’s Wrong With Religion, another one I picked up from listening to his (and Phil Vischer’s) podcast.

31 Days Of Journaling, Day 10: The Hero’s Journey

Photo by Brett Patzke on Unsplash

The Hero’s Journey makes for interesting reading, showing how in 12 stages the boy becomes a man as he journeys through a life. Although based on myths, the underlying idea behind this framework is that these myths work because they represent how we understand how life happens to us. Vogler’s model, which the folk at AoM espouse, is an abridged version of the original in the Joseph Campbell book (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and identifies 12 steps (from the Wikipedia page) as below:

  1. The Ordinary World: the hero is seen in his/her everyday life
  2. The Call to Adventure: the initiating incident of the story
  3. Refusal of the Call: the hero experiences some hesitation to answer the call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor: the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to commence the adventure
  5. Crossing the First Threshold: the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies: the hero explores the special world, faces trial, and makes friends and enemies
  7. Approach to the Innermost Cave: the hero nears the centre of the story and the special world
  8. The Ordeal: the hero faces the greatest challenge yet and experiences death and rebirth
  9. Reward: the hero experiences the consequences of surviving death
  10. The Road Back: the hero returns to the ordinary world or continues to an ultimate destination
  11. The Resurrection: the hero experiences a final moment of death and rebirth so he (or she) is pure when he reenters the ordinary world
  12. Return with the Elixir: the hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world

For what it is worth, it feels like in so many parts of my life I am somewhere between Stages 1 and 3, either having just being called or just having rejected the call for the first time. Mentors and mentoring are going to be key for this next phase of my life. This is certainly something that I will need to return to over the next few weeks.

Winging It

I am seating in a meeting, listening to the folk around the table drone on about some subject now lost to memory when it hits me – in the way I imagine an out of body experience might – just how much of what is often dressed as expert opinion is little more than strongly expressed opinion. Far from thumbing my nose down at others, it is a farce I very much consider myself as a contributor to. That sense of winging it, making things up as I go along, is one which has come to define the first half of the year for me; from the vagaries of the aforementioned work situation to the minutiae of doing life, spread as it has been between the grey, dull granite of the ‘Deen and the leafy, colour-suffused greenery of the Wey country.

In the best of years, I face the second half of the year with a sense of tentativeness, primarily due to the fact that the six weeks between the 8th of July and the 15th of August are deeply emotive ones. This year, that sense of being dragged unwillingly into the second half of the year is heightened by my middling attempts at meeting the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. Boiled down to its essentials, 2018 was the year I would read (and write) more, lose weight (to the tune of ~ 10kg), go a long way towards replenishing the savings my Chelmsford exertions drained and complete a timed 10k race. Some progress has been made towards running that 10k (I am currently training for the Simply Health Great Aberdeen Run) and have managed to complete 7 of the 25 books I hope to read in 2018, but what is abundantly clear is that a humongous effort is required to recover and meet these targets.

Elsewhere work (and multiple trips to the middle of nowhere), travel and machine learning have been my continuum. In addition to Pula, pit stops over the course of the year have included Inverness, Glasgow and various dodgy London backwaters. I am only six weeks into a twelve week machine learning course on Coursera but what it has done to reignite niggling doubts in my mind about the future cannot be completely quantified. Poring over matrices, gradients and numerical computations has brought back to mind things learned in Further Mathematics many years ago, with the near instant feedback a few lines scripted in Octave can bring raising the question in my mind of what I want to do long term. A year ago, I could have sworn the corrosion and materials discipline was it for me (hence the Rust in RustGeek) but a combination of needing to move down south and studying has made me question what shape or form the move should take. I am far from being at a level of proficiency required to completely dump my past life and switch industries but I suspect if this horse had its wish, I would be dumping my rust geek card and picking up a Deep Mind one, never mind they are riddled with contractors.

It is not only on the subject of the future that niggling doubts assail me. Faith, developing a coherent world view and how that interfaces with science and what we know about the physical world is something that has floated on the periphery of my consciousness for a long time. The pitfall in all of this thinking is entertaining doubt for its own sake only, or worse as a proxy for a cool, worldly wise spirituality rather than as a means to an end, figuring out objective truth. That, this engagement of the mind and reason in the sphere of faith, is one that the church has a rich tradition of; Augustine, Origen, Eusebius, Anselm – to whom the motto fides quaerens intellectum – and more recently the likes of CS Lewis and John Stott all come to mind. Three books, one on the go and two on the to-read list, are likely to feature prominently here; Diarmaid MacCulloch’s (the partly read one) A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years which attempts to chronicle the coalescence of various ideas into what we know and practise as Christianity from a historian’s viewpoint, NT Wright’s Paul: A Biography which looks to reinterpret Paul’s legacy from the perspective of a theologian’s who is not afraid to colour outside the lines a bit, and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood which given her antecedents is likely to be a more modern, doubter turned believer again view. Paul looms large in all of this, predictably, given his outsize influence on the New Testament and its shaping, and also how a lot of the ‘problematic’ bits of the new testament, especially it’s treatment of women relate to his teaching.

Identity is also another topic which has lingered on my mind these past few months, triggered in the main by the World Cup and the make up (and performance) of the French, Belgian, English and German teams. Trevor Noah’s take, the response from the French ambassador and his response all demonstrate how deeply nuanced the subject is. Whilst there is certainly some delight in seeing people like me do well for these countries (sans the English team of course which being the dour, Calvinist almost Scotsman I am I must hate), the fact that none of the ‘proper’ African countries made it out of the group begs the question of if these sons of African émigrés have achieved what they have in spite of, rather than because they have African roots. The Mezut Ozil saga does suggest it is a little bit of both, with there being a sense in which the acceptance of one’s visible otherness is bestowed almost as a reward for being of the good other. Acceptance or not, the one question I have’t being able to wrap my head around is what I would do if I had a kid who was great at sport. Would I encourage them to represent Nigeria or their adopted country?

There are a lot of weighty things to mull over, and a few trips to the middle of nowhere to navigate but I would like to think I can make writing more a focus for this second half of the year. The benefits are obvious, I think, from providing an outlet for clearing my head and organising the prodigal thoughts swirling about in my head to providing opportunities for deliberate practice. I make no promises though, may what will be be.