26. It's always the wrong time to do anything

And you're doing it very well

The London I moved to was very different from the London I live in now.

Or was it? How do you even measure difference in an entire city? Back in 2012 people told me I should have moved to London in 2008, except the ones who put the flag in 1991, and never mind those who said I’d missed the good London by at least 40 years.

And so it goes. You are always arriving late to the party when the party is a heaving mass of cultural significance with 8 million other partygoers. 

I was told the same thing about my first agency. Yeah, it's good now but you should have been here five years ago! Then it was mad clown jugglers on fire in the lobby. We did drugs off tables made out of other drugs! Clients flew us to Morocco and we'd expense bottles of holy water just to pour them out into the streets.

It's rare to ever arrive at the beginning of something, even a relationship. By the time you understand a relationship is happening you've probably been in one for months. Then you try and retrofit it to an acceptable timeline for when people ask questions. When'd you get together? What was your first date? Who made a move on who?

How did it all begin?

You should have done it tomorrow already

We say “hindsight is 20/20” so much it should be paying rent in all our mouths, and it’s not remotely true. Hindsight is so blinkeredly myopic we might as well be viewing the past through a telescope marked “THIS HAPPENS IN THE FUTURE”. Of course we know now what we should have done then. That’s not 20/20. That’s looking at the first line of an optician’s chart and saying, “It’s the alphabet, right? Like, eventually it’s just the whole alphabet?”

A popular thing to do in 2007 was to calculate what would have happened if back in 2003, instead of buying an Apple product, you’d invested the same amount of money in Apple stock. Well, I bought an iBook in 2003 before going to law school, and that would have netted me $300k by 2007. Now? I’d be a millionaire many times over.

Except I wouldn’t, would I? Because that’s not how time works. By that rationale I would still be married, twice, because at some point in the past I got married (twice). Follow any straight line of progression and you’re dancing along a crooked back. Nothing goes the way we think it will and it’s always the wrong time to do anything.

You know who doesn’t worry about the right time to do things? Really rich people.

Money has a way of making you look like a genius

When this is over, and it will someday be over in one form or another, there’ll be a plethora of articles on all the “clever” people who saw OPPORTUNITIES and took advantage of them.

These articles are going to pretend some of those people were able to Mentok the Mindtaker their way through a global pandemic right to the sweet, profitable truth at its centre. And it will be so much bullshit, because they didn’t know how it will turn out. None of us do. They just have enough resources that not knowing didn’t matter.

Here’s a banal statement that is nonetheless kind of useful: there are things we can control and things we can’t. It’s banal because, well, duh, but useful (no, really) in that there are a loooooot of people who will claim you can control way more than you can. And you may find yourself nodding along with those people—if only I’d bought that stock, moved a year earlier, left my job—and dreaming of what might have been.

For example, almost everyone agrees now is probably a bad time to be born. And yet, guess what? Babies! Top of the list of things you can’t control is which era-defining moment you’re born into.

Hey everybody who tried to make money during the next global recession - why’d you do that?

You did your best, you have always done your best

This is true because it has to be true, and I say it without reservation and without knowing you. Whenever you’ve done something you’ve done it to the best of your ability at that time. Even if, at the time, you paused before doing it and said, “I am not trying my best at all and frankly it’s not even close,” you still did the best you could do. Because whatever you did WAS your best.

Could you have done more? Yes. More isn’t the same as best. Whatever you did and however it was mitigated, constrained by your thoughts or desire or ambition or resources, was what was available for you to do. That’s how time works. We do what we do when we do it, and then, and here’s the best part, here’s the part that takes all those clever people mentioned earlier and just shoots them out into fucking space, then we can decide the next time whether we want to do more.

Money means it’s always the right time to do anything. Money means you get to say you tried your best.

But I’m guessing you, like me, don’t have temporal distortion money. And when our effort is assessed, even by us, it’ll often be found wanting. “Did I do enough?” is the awful question at the heart of almost every mental health issue I’ve ever had.

Should I have tried harder? Borrowed money?


Been a different person entirely?

Wanting to have done something better is human and leads to progress. Thinking you could always have done something better is shitty and the kind of mythology pushed on us by people who’ve never owned a calendar. These Hermione-Time-Turner-from-birth pieces of filth just keep failing upward until they’re the President of the United States.

Tread lightly over your past and go boldly into the future. You’re doing your best. We’re all doing our best.*

*Except Trump and Boris Johnson, who continue to do the absolute worst.

25. Passive income for the soul

Enough is enough, part 2

In 1999 the two most significant things that happened in my life were watching Fight Club and hearing Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun for the first time. My life was a little different back then.

For those who don’t know, Sigur Rós is an Icelandic band that sounds a bit like whales singing over an orchestra played by a computer. Which is to say, totally awesome. Thom Yorke name-dropped Ágætis byrjun when discussing the change in Radiohead’s sound between OK Computer and Kid A. And since Radiohead was and is my favourite band of all time, this album took on a holy shine. I listened to it a lot.

Fight Club is a hasn’t-aged-well movie by David Fincher starring Ed Norton and Brad Pitt’s abs. It’s based on a really-hasn’t-aged-well-at-all book by Chuck Palahniuk, which now reads like an incel training manual. It was my favourite movie at the time and continued to be for years and years, battling it out in a kind of mutant death match with the (far superior) (oh god so much better) (how was this even a question) In the Mood for Love.

Anyway, without going into too much detail there’s a scene in Fight Club where Brad Pitt’s character, a kind of MMA Jesus called Tyler Durden, is taking Ed Norton’s character, a nameless schlub who, it turns out, is also Tyler Durden, through a tutorial on how to make soap from human fat. And before you can say “homoerotic much”? Brad’s placing a thick, sloppy kiss on Ed’s hand, then dumping lye all over it, causing, in Brad’s listless drawl, a “chemical burn”.

Ed thrashes around on the floor as one might in this situation, and Brad tells him he needs to experience and endure this pain because all life is pain or something or other. It’s been awhile since I watched it. But the next part I remember perfectly - when Ed says he gets it, Brad looks at him and says, ever so slowly, “No, what you’re feeling is premature enlightenment.”

It’s possible I’ve been feeling that. And it feels great.

We need passive income for the soul.

For those who don’t know, passive income is a term for money you make without actively working for it. Investments are a form of passive income. I once met a guy who had made millions with a website where people uploaded Flash games. To anyone under 35 that probably sounds like bullshit, but I swear this was once a thing you could do. The appeal of passive income is obvious - you fill up your bank account without any direct effort.

Now think about your mental wellbeing, or overall satisfaction, as a vault like in a bank. Some things put stuff into the vault, and some things take stuff out of it. Keeping your soul satisfied can’t be your full-time job. It can’t be something you have to work at all the time. Because then you’d be emptying out the vault as fast as you fill it up.

This is where passive income comes in.

Soul-based passive income is when something you do requires little to no effort but delivers a lot of satisfaction. And that requires two things:

  • repetition

  • an absence of goals

As some of you know because I wouldn’t shut up about it, before less precedented times kicked in I bought an iPad and started drawing. This differed from all previous attempts at drawing in two fundamental ways (I already just said them). One, the iPad gave me the license to do the same thing over and over again. (No paper! No guilt!) Two, I had no goals whatsoever in what kind of drawing I’d do, or level of draughtsmanship I’d achieve.

As any twelve year-old trying to nail a kickflip will tell you, repetition is how you get better at something. But normally the reason for all that repetition is to achieve a goal. So whut up wit dat?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ve tried a lot of things because you had some kind of result you wanted to achieve. And, if you’re anything like me, that was always why you stopped.

My life has followed a predictable pattern. I start doing a thing. Then, either when I realise I’m not “naturally” good at it or don’t reach the level I want to reach, I quit. My life has also involved a lot of therapy.

As I outlined two weeks ago, this global pandemic knocked me out of that loop. Maybe because there aren’t a lot of alternatives to just carrying on. Or maybe I’m high on my own supply. But I think it’s the absence of goals that’s given me an infinite capacity for repetition.

Behold! The field in which I grow my fucks. Lay thine eyes upon it and thou shalt see that it is barren. 

This lack of defined ambition has allowed me to do a thing over and over again until, at some arbitrary point, I become satisfied with my skill level. And then, and here is where this rather long newsletter FINALLY comes together, then when I do that thing I can just do it with nary a thought because I am certain of a satisfactory outcome.

It’s as close to passive as you can get and still be involved.

To continue with the awful economic analogy from before, this diversifies your portfolio. I now have several forms of passive income: writing, drawing, cooking, exercising, photography. Doing any of these things pays immediate dividends into my mind vault, stocking up the treasury for days when the world decides to go fully pear-shaped (or just my sense of the world).

Is this enlightenment? Some kind of Zen transcendence? I don’t know. It probably isn’t. Who cares!

So, to recap. Take a thing you like doing and do that thing a lot without a specific goal. Through repetition gain a certain mastery of it, allowing you to do the thing to a level that provides you with consistent satisfaction. (Thing!)

Passive income for the soul.™️

Wonderfully translated into Arabic.

24. We aren't going on a summer holiday

So take some time off

I’ve recently switched jobs. And in working out when to finish my old job and start my new one, I decided to leave a two week gap. You know, take some time off.

Time off? At this time of year? In this part of the country? Localised entirely within my kitchen? Yes.

I know I'm talking about taking time off when occupational security is at an all-time low. Furloughs and redundancies are undeniably shitty, and I don't mean to suggest having a job you need time off from is somehow just as bad. I was unemployed for three months a couple of years ago, and it was terrible. But in the interest of being able to care about two things at once, I care both about people who need work and people who are working.

Those I know who’ve been lucky to stay employed during this storm don’t seem to be taking holidays, choosing to wait for more precedented times. It’s understandable. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Save those days up for when the bars and airports are open, the beaches non-socially distanced, and strangers non-lethal.

So you can’t take a holiday. But I think you should take time off.

In North America we call them “vacations”. I struggled with holidays when I got to the UK, like I did with Autumn (“Fall”) and rubbish (“something untrue, garbage”). What I didn’t struggle with was getting 25 of them a year, on top of bank holidays.

(“Statutory holidays” in North America, which is exactly what you call something when you mean “I’d give you less time off, but it’s illegal”. Especially apt because 10 days is our criminal standard for vacation days.)

Both vacation and holiday imply an activity, specifically the activity of going somewhere else. This is so inherent to our understanding of the terms we had to invent the abominable “staycation” for when you take one but remain where you live.

Three questions you get asked when you take time off:

  • “Going anywhere interesting?”

  • “Have anything fun planned?”

  • “I’m jealous.” (Not a question, and also super weird because everyone gets the same amount of holiday to take.)

I am such a holiday goer, to an absurdly proud degree. So absurdly that when I look at other visitors wherever I’ve flown, I think, “tourist”, and mean it in a bad way. Not me. Not me. I am a traveller. I research my location. I make maps. I go to where the locals go to drink and eat and then poop out the same things that locals do.

At the end of March I had a trip planned to Bologna. It would have been my first visit to Italy. And you bet your bottom-dollar that trip would have featured an offensive amount of “best ever” this and “hidden gem” that, along with nuclear-grade sneering at people taking photographs of each other and themselves. Yeah, that fountain looks so much better with you all standing with your hands up in front of it, you TOURISTS.

And then a global pandemic happened. Trip cancelled, holiday cancelled, days off cancelled.

I would have happily stuck with this non-holiday taking when something else happened. I got that new job. And the idea of going directly from one job to another job before more certain times could kick back in felt a bit off. Essentially I’d sign out of Slack and close my laptop, and three days later open a different laptop and sign into a different Slack.

So, despite living in a city where taking any unpaid time off is kind of a bad idea, I decided to take two weeks of unpaid time off. Two weeks when none of my honed holiday skills would be of any use whatsoever. Two weeks when not only wouldn’t I plan anything, but I couldn’t plan anything. Two weeks with nowhere to go, no one to see, nothing to do.


There is a difference between a holiday and taking time off, and right now, perhaps more than any other moment in recent memory, we need to be taking time off. I know that work offers both a distraction from the neverending hell of news updates, and a routine when individual days are hard to track and weeks blend together like so much maple butter syrup on hot pancakes. But work is still work, and our brains need downtime.

Downtime away from the news, away from Twitter, away from text threads and Houseparty and Zoom and maybe even breadmaking and mask sewing. Downtime with no other aspiration than to give our minds a freakin’ break.

And if you don’t know how to have a mind break without any of those things, maybe just the time to learn how to do that.

Downtime too from even things we generally enjoy, like the planning and executing of elaborate trips. I may read some books. I may learn Ableton Live. I may bake a cake. Or I may do none of those things.

Success, says the art critic Jerry Saltz, is time you spend doing what you want. For me, it’s simply been time when I’m free. Free from work, yes, but even free from my own ambitions, aspirations, and goals.

I wouldn’t want to live like that every day, and lord knows when this is “over” I’m going to want a holiday. But for now? Take some time off.

23. Enough is enough

and that is enough

Several years ago I got into running. I needed to, because my brain was being difficult and sending all sorts of bad vibes into me. I used an app. I set goals. (One was a sub-20 minute 5K. I managed 20:23.) I joined a group at work who ran at lunch. And I ran a half marathon on the hottest day of the year where people threw up and passed out on the route.

After the half I looked for a full marathon. I thought about Berlin, the fabled home to personal bests thanks to a relatively flat route. But then I left my job. I visited Berlin for a month. When I got back, I didn’t feel like running a marathon, and because I didn’t feel like running a marathon I didn’t feel like running at all. Without a big goal there wasn’t a point.

I’d been looking for a gym. I had the sense my body wasn’t as awake as it should be, and I wanted a place to liven it up. But I don’t like gyms. I don’t like the people in gyms. The ones that looked right cost a small ransom. I started to feel bad about myself, like I was making excuses. Like my real problem was motivation and not money or time or that gyms are terrible, terrible places.

When it became clear we were going to be inside for awhile I pulled out the yoga mat I’d bought for unclear purposes and did 50 burpies. Not continuously. Ten burpies, then seven, then twelve, then two. Until I’d done 50. The next day I put a belt on a kettlebell I’d been using as a doorstop, slid in a wood dowel I had from when I broke my shoulder and needed to stretch, and did some bicep curls. I called this my prison workout. (I’m not totally clear that isn’t offensive, if not a bit insensitive. Let me know if you have a better name.)

Anything is better than nothing. This is really not true of some things, but it’s mostly true for a lot of things. A bit of writing is better than not writing if you’re trying to write. Jason Kottke tells me it’s called “greasing the groove”, doing exercise pretty much whenever it occurs to you. It’s less daunting and a lot more fun than setting big goals and not achieving them. It’s playful. Remember play? And since we’re indoors so much it makes sense to just do things when the mood strikes.

Ten pushups here. Five squats there. Keeping the body moving, waking it up, feeling it stretch and lift and pull.

And then I started running again. No app. No goals. I put on a podcast and run for the length of the podcast. Got half an hour? It’s Hello From the Magic Tavern. Feeling like I have an hour in me? Strong Songs or Do By Friday

It’s creeping into all my activities. I draw when I feel like drawing. Right now it’s these album covers. I write songs if there’s a song to be written. And I eat when I’m hungry, which isn’t at 8am, 12pm, 6pm, but at 11:32am and 3:45pm and sometimes once a day and sometimes six. Because it turns out our lives have a rhythm utterly divorced from capitalism. (Is it alright if I leave my soapbox here?)

Goals are good. They give you something to aim for. But not everything needs a goal. Some things just are. Some things, a great many things, are good in and of themselves for the duration for which they last. Most activities have some kind of inherent good to them outside of even the barest outcomes. If this were a motivational poster, it’d say something about how it’s the journey not the destination.

But motivational posters are for sociopaths.

So instead it’d say whatever it is you want to do more of but can’t, do the smallest amount of that thing to still be that thing.

(Or, and I can’t stress this enough, let go of everything if you need to and exist as the version of yourself that exists right now.)

(You know how when someone tells you to ‘relax your shoulders’, and the first time you were like what are you even talking about, and then you did it and were like whoa wtf why are my shoulders so high all the time? And then someone said relax your jaw and you were like, hang on, and then the same whoa and it was like is my whole body just a clenched fist constantly ready to strike?)

(Yeah, like that.)

Whatever gets you to the other side, take care of that boat. It’s going to see you through these hard waters and I’ll be on the shore waiting to secure the line.

Amazingly, this has been translated into Arabic.

22. We didn't need a global pandemic

and yet here we are

We didn’t need a global pandemic to know we are all connected.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to care about the most vulnerable.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to realise we should fund, and fund heavily, our social infrastructure.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to know doctors and nurses are important, and bus drivers and shopkeepers and the people who deliver the mail and clean the streets and everyone who makes our lives possible.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to check in on friends and loved ones.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to take up baking, understand the power of yeast, flour, water, and salt, perform the sacred rites, whisper the magic spell, “Don’t you fucking fall down.”

We didn’t need a global pandemic to take out coloured pencils, crayons, markers, paper, scissors, macaroni, glue, and glitter.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to ask our neighbour how they’re doing.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to get on a bike.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to read the stack of books by the side of our bed.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to make up a pub quiz about the early 00s, with categories like Which Spice Girl Said It.

We didn’t need a global pandemic to care about ourselves.

We didn’t need one, yet here we are. Now, I’m not going to tell you why coronavirus is actually good for us because frankly those hot takes are offensive as hell. Shut up about that. It’s happening and it’s terrible and good things are also happening and one thing didn’t need to lead to the other and they’re not mutually exclusive.

So many of our global problems require individual action. And it’s hard to feel, to really feel, how that action matters. When we eat less meat, drive fewer cars, sort the recycling, it’s hard to feel we’re doing anything at all.

But now the impact of our actions is literal and direct. Staying at home WILL save someone’s life. Not going out WILL help flatten the curve. Individual actions have always had value, and now we can see just how much.

Beyond that, communities that existed before but were maybe a little quiet have risen up and made themselves known. I can’t walk a block without coming across another sign offering help, a leaflet pointing to community groups, neighbours walking by to chat at a socially approved distance. Teachers streaming lessons on YouTube. Musicians performing entire concerts on Instagram. Crowd-sourced recipes. Vodka pivoting to hand sanitiser.

People care. People care so much. Every day I’m reminded of that, not by the news or Twitter but by looking out my window and seeing… no one. By the sign above a set of camping chairs, telling you to borrow one if you’re going to sit in the parking area. By the local cafe who made and delivered the most incredible hot cross buns, to me, a person who does not like hot cross buns.

People have always cared and for the first time I can remember, I think that caring is going to change the world.

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