2019: arriving at myself

Every man rushes elsewhere into the future because no man has arrived at himself.

Michel de Montaigne

This year has been a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I’m not going to talk too much about my Moodle work, partly because I’ve written a lengthy retrospective about the (ongoing) project, and because I want to focus on more personal things here.

I’ve been to fewer places for work than in previous years, but that’s to be expected given how little time I’ve had for consultancy work. Outside the UK I’ve been to Barcelona (twice), Lisbon, and New York. With my family I’ve visited New England (summer) and Iceland (winter) on holiday.

Back in July I made a decision to take a back seat with We Are Open Co-op for a few months. That turned out to be a great decision as my colleagues flourished in my absence, re-configuring the co-op to be less dependent on me. I got back involved in early December and represented the co-op at the recent CoTech Winter Gathering in Newcastle. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to playing a much bigger part in 2020 now that I’m reducing my Moodle days.


Everything was put into perspective this year by my good friend Dai Barnes passing away unexpectedly at the start of August. While I’ve had to deal before with the death of older family members, I was so unprepared for the passing of someone who was only a decade older than me that it hit me really hard. He was such a great guy.

Eylan Ezekiel and I recorded a memorial episode of the Today In Digital Education (TIDE) podcast of which Dai and I had recorded so many episodes. It was also my honour and privilege to give a eulogy at the memorial service held at Oundle School.

The grief I experienced around Dai’s death made me realise that I needed to step down from my position as a Scout leader. I’d been thrown in at the deep end a few months before and, because I always appear (as Sarah Wilson puts it in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful) “high-functioning,” I was just left to get on with it.

The more anxious we are, the more high-functioning we will make ourselves appear, which just encourages the world to lean on us more.

Sarah Wilson

In actual fact, the Scout leader role triggered a whole lot of things from my teaching career that I hadn’t fully dealt with. For example, I’m plagued with perfectionism, and, it turns out overly-anxious about health and safety issues. Ultimately, I took too much on and, as ever when it comes to voluntary roles, others were all too happy for me to take things off their plate. I don’t blame them; everyone’s busy and I looked like I knew what I was doing.

It was actually a pretty big deal for me to step down from my position in Scouts citing mental health reasons, as it was an admission to myself that I couldn’t cope. There was something there that needed confronting, so I sought help through the NHS. When the waiting list was too long, I decided to start paying for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It’s been great so far.


So 2019 has been the year when I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am, despite my protestations, an anxious person. Some of this is to my benefit and keeps me on my toes, driving me forward. Some of it, however, can be pretty debilitating at times. I’m learning to manage it by first acknowledging it.

While I made the decision to seek some professional help, I’ve realised that (just like my migraines), to a great extent my anxiety just part of who I am. Yes, I take medication and seek therapy for the worst excesses of my mental health issues, but in many ways, my differences give me some ‘superpowers’. I do seem to have a bit of a spider sense for how things are likely to turn out.

Ultimately, I’ve realised that it’s OK to not be ‘OK’ — and to let other people know. I’ve learned to let go a little and draw more boundaries. It’s alright just to be me, and not some idealised version of me that either younger Doug, or the wider world, expects.


One material difference in my life as a result of these realisations, and also partly inspired by Morrissey, is that I’ve largely stopped watching, listening to, or reading the news:

Stop watching the news!
Because the news contrives to frighten you
To make you feel small and alone
To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own

Morrissey, ‘Spent The Day In Bed’

I succeeded in this venture to such an extent that my wife even had to tell me there was a General Election coming up! It’s remarkably freeing to disconnect from the news cycle, which, after all, is basically having your attention focused by someone else. People tell you about the really important stuff anyway.

It’s common for us all to complain about not having enough time, but when you strip away the inessentials, it’s remarkable how much time we really do have. No-one actually needs the 24-hour news cycle.


Something that’s counted as a real achievement for me this year is to complete a Mountain Leader course. This took place over a series of weekends this Autumn in the Peak District, Lake District, and Snowdonia. I was able to book a place after completing 20 Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) over the last three years.

Whether or not I go on to do the week-long Mountain Leader Assessment (which requires me doing at least another 20 QMDs beforehand) it’s been a fantastic experience. I feel so much more prepared to take friends and family on expeditions now, including wild camping!

Again, this is interesting when I reflect on what has been my default approach to life. A side-product of my upbringing was that I’m competitive in everything, so to do this just for my own benefit – without thinking about whether I’m the best person on the course, or how to ensure I get the assessment done as quickly as possible – is wonderfully liberating.


I think all you can do in life is aim to be better than the day before. That’s been tough this year; I’ve fallen out with family members, berated annoying tradesmen, been unduly harsh with my children, and generally acted like an entitled middle-aged white guy. But I am trying to be better, and find reading that the works of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Baltasar Gracián really helps. (And yes, I’m very aware that these are all dead white guys. I’m trying on that front, too…)

When the world around you appears to be going to hell in a handbasket, when political engagement seems pointless, mincing around with a sign on a Global Climate Strike seems… not enough. However, as Sun Tzu reminds us:

However critical the situation and circumstances in which you find yourself, despair of nothing; it is on the occasions in which everything is to be feared that it is necessary to fear nothing; it is when one is surrounded by all the dangers that it is not necessary to dread any; it is when one is without resources that it is necessary to count on all of them; it is when one is surprised that it is necessary to surprise the enemy himself.

Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War’

We can choose to be fearful, to allow others to dictate the narrative. Or we can choose to grab it and live our own lives. That starts with simple things like how we choose to live and work, what kind of food we put on our plate, our purchasing decisions, and the way we relate to one another.

For me, because many of my interactions with the wider role are mediated and I spend a lot of time in front of a screen, the choices I make around technology play an important role in reflecting my thinking and values. This year, once again, I’ve flip-flopped between trying to make my life easier and more seamless, and then retreating based on my investigations into surveillance capitalism.

There are no easy answers here and choosing to retreat from the world feels like giving up. So I’ll keep on keeping on, even if it seems like sometimes I’m inconsistent. What was it that Emerson said about a “foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds”? (and I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that “consistency is the hallmark of the unimaginative”)


This year, I ended up getting into what I think is a good routine with Thought Shrapnel. After attempting to write an article a day in January and February, I took a break for Lent. During that period, I realised that what I was attempting was unsustainable, and so came up with a rhythm that has me posting three times per week (one article, one microcast, one link round-up). I then pull this all together into a newsletter to go out every Sunday.

In terms of the most read Thought Shrapnel posts this year, the list goes:

  1. The best place to be is somewhere else?
  2. Bullshit receptivity scale
  3. Let’s (not) let children get bored again
  4. Social internet vs social media
  5. On the death of Google/Apache Wave (and the lessons we can learn from it)

However, if I had to pick my top three, I’d go for:

I’ve been fortunate enough to be backed in this endeavour by my Patreon supporters, whom I appreciate greatly. Thank you all.


I’ve experimented with a range of things this year such as Wednesday surgeries and a Slack-based book club. I’d like to experiment much more next year, through both the co-op and Thought Shrapnel. I think it’s time to be a lot more radical in my thinking, or at least the way I choose to write and talk about my thinking.

One frustration for me this year has been that I don’t feel that I’ve given myself time to just ‘sit’ with the ideas from the things I’ve read and listened to. While Thought Shrapnel continues to be a fantastic outlet for initial processing, it takes time and reflection to synthesise these into new coherent structures.

One outlet for that might be a new e-book. I’m amazed that the book of my thesis, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, continues to be reasonably popular. After six years, though, it’s probably due an update – or a sequel!


I never used to understand why people would pay money to go and see where famous authors or artists cranked out or otherwise created their masterpieces. I remember being shown J.R.R. Tolkien’s desk at house of the friend of a friend. It was a nice desk, but so what?

These days, I’ve come to realise that it’s not the artefacts themselves that are of interest but the milieu in which the author or artist created their work. It’s led me to think about my own, much humbler work, and how our house and my home office is set up.

What kind of activities does the layout of our home prioritise? What’s the default thing to do in our shared spaces? Because I work from home, these things are important. One small step we took this year, which took a whole campaign of persuasion was reconfiguring our lounge. I bought, at a steep discount, a Samsung ‘The Frame’ television which genuinely looks like a piece of art when in standby mode. This means that our seating is not longer pointed at a screen but is more suited to reading and conversation.

This stuff matters and, since reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking about organising the various kindw of work I do into different, intentionally-created, spaces. At the moment I tend to spend about 70% of my working time in my home office, separate to the house. The rest of the time I spend at the kitchen table or in the lounge, while my kids or at school, or once or twice a week I venture to a local coffee shop.

‘Eudaimonia Machine’ mentioned in Deep Work

I admit it’s a bit of a digression from this retrospective but I can imagine working in a three-room home office based on the Eudaimonia Machine. Mine would combine gallery and salon, as well as library and office. The most important space, after all, is the chamber, which I would probably call my Fortress of Solitude


Other than the time spent with family and friends, there have been a lot of things I have greatly enjoyed this year. In particular, whole host of new music that was either been released 2019 or I’ve discovered this year has made my life better.

Here are a few examples:

  • Bat For Lashes – Lost Girls
  • The Chemical Brothers – No Geography
  • Hot Chip – A Bath Full of Ecstasy
  • Quantic – Atlantic Oscillations
  • Tycho – Weather

In addition, Bonobo and Disclosure dropped some tracks which makes me hopeful that they’ll both release albums in early 2020!

I listen to very different music when running and in the gym. In fact, when I’m not lifting weights I’m often listening to podcasts, with my favourites this year being:

  • THE ADAM BUXTON PODCAST by Adam Buxton
  • Akimbo by Seth Godin
  • Athletico Mince by Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson
  • Friday Night Comedy by BBC Radio 4
  • The Tim Ferriss Show by Tim Ferriss

I’m subscribed to a whole bunch of podcasts, so just to highlight some particular episodes from those not mentioned above:

  • How big tech is dragging us towards the next financial crash (The Guardian’s Audio Long Reads)
  • Lauryn Hill: An Education (Dissect)
  • Orlando Figes on Cultural Change in 19th Century Europe (Dan Snow’s History Hit)
  • The Rapture (In Our Time)
  • Victoria Coren Mitchell (Off Menu)

When I’m doing focused work, I use Brain.fm. This app, to which I have a lifetime subscription, is also really useful for sleeping on flights and strange hotel rooms.

I’ve read so many books this year that the following list leaves out many fantastic books that I enjoyed greatly. Nevertheless, of the books I read (and re-read) this year, here’s an eclectic top ten:

  1. Against Creativity by Oli Mould
  2. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
  3. Being Numerous by Natasha Lennard
  4. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
  5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  6. Independent People by Halldór Laxness
  7. Maybe Zombies by Laura Hilliger
  8. Obfuscation: A User’s Guide For Privacy and Protest by Finn Brunton & Helen Nissenbaum
  9. The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born by Nancy Fraser
  10. Psychopolitics by Byung-Chul Han

I watch very few films and TV programmes by myself, which obviously has an impact on the kinds of things I end up viewing. On a flight earlier this year I did end up watching a documentary called Free Solo which was incredible. I’ve also enjoyed watching all of the series of Billions and La Casa de Papel with my wife (the latter is more prosaically translated as ‘Money Heist’ in English).

I’d rather spend my screen-based free time playing on our PlayStation 4 than watch television. This year was, I think, the 23rd or 24th year I’ve played a game in the FIFA series. We bought FIFA 20 when it came out and my son is now able to beat me on occasion. My daughter’s pretty good too…

Other than that, while Dai was still with us, I played a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 with him. It’s an absolutely incredible game, and I used to love dramatic shoot-outs with the law, while drinking whisky and talking with Dai about life, the world, and everything.


I wrote this retrospective over the course of a couple of weeks, stealing time here and there to type words into the WordPress app on my phone.

Smartphones are, or can be, an existential threat to our peace of mind and individuality. While I love feeling connected to the world, I very much regret the thoughtless way organisations have adopted messaging apps to augment or replace email.

On top of this, social media apps are increasingly designed to be addictive, meaning that the amount of time we spend sharing stuff with one another, whether professionally or personally, is growing exponentially. I’d love to thing that all of this was contributing to the health and wealth of humanity, but I fear the opposite is probably true.

I’m being careful about the apps I put on my phone, reminding myself that replying instantly to family, friends, and work colleagues is a choice I can choose to make. Conversely, I can choose to prioritise what I’m doing right now, be it a thought I’m having or a conversation I’m engaged in. Some things can wait.

I’ll finish, then, with another quotation from Montaigne, one that I’ve read many times before, but truly come to understand this year:

The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.

Michel de Montaigne

2 Comments

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  1. “I think all you can do in life is aim to be better than the day before.”
    Agreed, and appreciative of your articulation of it, as a mantra reminder of our limits and potential.
    Peace,
    Kevin

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