Friday, 18 May 2012
A Ball Of String
It's just a ball of string. It sits on the windowsill in the office next to a golf ball, a couple of discarded AAA batteries, and a plastic tub full of highlighter pens, some of which work, some of which don't. It's sat there for the best part of eight years - ever since we moved into these premises. I'm sure it was me who bought it, put it there, but I've no recollection now of what I bought it for. What job had I once in mind for it? I've no idea. Did I actually use it at all? I don't know. So, it just sits there. A ball of string on a cluttered windowsill.
There's times in that office when I've had enough. In fact, it happens quite a lot. It might be a Friday afternoon. I might be ploughing through the following week's print lists, or composing an e-mail to ask a packing machine engineer to grace us with his presence as soon as possible, and charge us an extortionate hourly rate for the privilege of coming in to fix the machine that his employers charged us forty grand for, yet never works properly for more than a couple of weeks at a time. I might be making that fifteenth phone call to a customer who assured us that the few hundred pounds he owes us from three months back had been forwarded to our account when I last spoke to him a week ago, but has never turned up. Any of these things, or any number of other scenarios that throw themselves at you constantly when you run your own business. Most of the time, I'm fine. I'll take it in my stride, keep calm, press on with the next job. Some of the time, I'm not.
Then, I'll roll my swivel chair from the desk. I'll fold my arms behind my head, pissed off. Inevitably, my eyes will be drawn to the string. It's just a ball of string. And, whilst looking at that string, I'll think of the trap I've made for myself: the long hours required to make a small business successful; the mortgage payments I'll be making for the rest of my working life; the sacrifices I have to make to provide for a family. I'll think of the things I could be doing instead of being sat here, in this office, at this desk. I could be hiking a National Trail, paddling from the source of the River Witham to The Wash. I could be jogging in the shore break by Mabo's North End, or planning the final preparations for a month long walk along The Bibbulmun Track. I could be doing all of these things. But, I'm not. I'm at work. Sat in an office, turning back and forth on a swivel chair with my hands behind my head, staring at a ball of string. I do it all the time, and the same question always appears - there must be more to life than this?
I've thought a lot about the work thing and come to the conclusion that there's not a lot to think about. It's all simple equations and the bravery to do just what you feel is right.
My younger life was punctuated by periods of jobs that were all-consuming. Granted, I've found time to travel the world, fall hopelessly in love, have a number of satisfying and disasterous adventures, but I've also had times where I've done nothing but work, day-in, day-out, to the detriment of myself and anyone close to me. When I was younger, it seemed ok. I'd plenty of time to do things later on in life, and a little sacrifice now for the good of the future seemed fair enough. Nowadays, as I reach my mid-forties, the whole idea doesn't feel so right. The clock's ticking. The beat is strong. But who knows when it will stop?
I'll make this easy. It's always the best way. There's only one reason why we work. That reason is: money. Often you hear folks say, 'I love my job.' Maybe some of them do, but most of them are liars. There's many things I like about my job - being my own boss is one of them - and I'm lucky enough to wake up 5 mornings a week without the dread of what's to fill those days, but - truthfully - if I had the choice, I'd rather be doing something else than running a factory making colouring boards for kids to scribble on.
I go to work on those 5 mornings each week to earn money. Simple. That's the first part of the deal. The next is equally basic.
What do I do with the money? I've got 3 choices. I can give it away. I can save it. I can spend it.
Like everyone, I give money away now and then. There's lots of local groups that do great things and benefit at a real level through help in the form of time given or cash handed over. Large charities I usually steer well clear of. Giving away money at regular intervals helps us ease our guilt when we live in decent houses, drive decent cars, have decent relationships, have 'nice lives', and then are confronted by a reality that's too grim to reasonably comprehend - children with terminal diseases, families losing a loved one, kids crawling around waist-deep in shit on South American rubbish dumps when one of the richest nations on earth is next door. For this reason, and for maybe more, it's important to give some of your money away.
The second choice I've got is to save money. There's a rule here that needs to be stuck to, otherwise your life will become crap: only save money if it's for the singular reason of getting enough together to spend it pretty soon. Don't save for a rainy day, don't put money aside for a pension or so you can be 'comfortable' later in life. All that achieves is making your life right now not as good as it should be. We're brainwashed early on to 'be careful', and many people spend a lifetime saving for a future they never get to. Look at the people you know who are 'careful'. Inevitably, they lead 'careful' lives - ie. do nothing adventurous, dangerous or remotely interesting. Do you want a life that hollow? No-one dies whilst fondly reminiscing about the state of their savings account. Many die with the profound regret of not doing things they always wanted to, never having the courage to chase a rainbow, not having used that cash to help set aside big chunks of time with the ones they adore.
The third choice is to spend your money once you've earned it. This is, by far, the best option. Be careful though that you only spend the money you've already earned, not that which you've yet to earn. Credit is a form of slavery, targeted at the disillusioned aspirationals who sincerely believe that their lives will be transformed by a new leather sofa. Leave it for those thickos that can't contemplate any other option than walking the treadmill till the day they drop dead.
You can spend your money in 2 ways: either buying stuff or doing things. Each is necessary at times, but only the latter creates memories. The key to a happier, more fulfilled life is to spend less money on buying stuff, and more on doing things. That, my friend, is it.
It's the ball of string that's got me onto all this. A ball of string on a windowsill, nestling beside a golf ball, some dead batteries and a few items of cheap stationery. A ball of string for which the purpose is long forgotten. A ball of string that reminds me of the ticking clock, taunts me with glimpses of more desirable ways to spend my days, mocks me for spending too many hours doing something that I ultimately don't give a toss about.
Whilst I've been injured over the last couple of weeks, I've thought a lot about the work thing. I've thought about it a fair bit over recent years too, but never really taken action of any description. It's different this time. Hearing the beat again a few weeks ago reminded me of what life should be. Fabrice Muamba's collapse and Caballo's death just intensified the feeling. I can carry on, head in the dry sand, choking - or I can be brave, try to change, even if, initially, it's only slightly.
Reading this blog post recently struck a real chord, both in terms of what I buy and what I do. Reading this amazing piss-take helped me to decide where to start. With baby steps, I headed for the running shoe cupboard.
I've become increasingly less sentimental as I've grown older, but I always find it hard to throw away a pair of trainers. Some of them hold precious memories - a PB, a jog through Africa, the sprint up the promenade pull-over before I pointed out, in the darkness, the lights of Hunstanton over The Wash and then kissed Tammy for the first time. Most of them, however, hold no memories, just tainted promise.
Clearing out my shoe cupboard, it became apparent I'd been mugged, just like all the rest. Brainwashed by glossy adverts, tantalising short Vimeo clips and fawning internet reviews. Pair after pair after pair that I'd bought because I believed they'd make me happier, make me run faster, ease an injury, prevent an injury, make me a better runner. I looked at the shoes I'd bought over the last 2 years, some of which had clocked a thousand miles, but the majority of which had come nowhere near. Hundreds of pounds I'd wasted on stuff. Hundreds of pounds that could have been better spent on doing things, doing the things that make me tick, doing the things I love with the people I love.
I made 2 piles - trainers that were knackered; trainers that I could wear in the months to come until they became knackered. The first pile went in a black bag. The second pile got put away with the proviso that I wouldn't buy another new pair of shoes until I'd done that lot in.
Onto the clothes cupboard. I've been the same for as long as I remember. I'll buy nice clothes, save them 'for best', wear them once in a blue moon, and, before you know it, styles have changed, the world's turned and these clothes you've hardly ever worn will never be worn again. This job was easier for me - there wasn't the mental attachment that pulled at me when binning old trainers. Again, I made 2 piles - clothes that I haven't worn for a year and am, therefore, never likely to wear again ( I decided to keep my wedding suit - too many good memories - and, should Tammy eventually get sick of my restlessness, you never know if it might get used again in the future); and good clothes that I'd bought recently and hardly wore - I'd saved 'for best' - together with the stuff I generally wear all the time. The first pile went in a black bag, and the second pile went back in the wardrobe with the proviso that I'd start wearing all the time the clothes I'd saved 'for best', but never actually got round to putting on.
Before I'd embarked on this particular mission, I'd had optimistic visions of blitzing the whole house. Once I'd done the trainers and clothes though, the size of the rest of the task daunted me. A whole house of stuff we'd wasted money on, hardly used and now had become clutter could wait for another day.
By a simple action - an hour of sorting and rummaging, I'd proved to myself a valuable point. I buy too much stuff. Stuff I buy using money I earn from working long hours in a factory doing a job I don't give a toss about, at the expense of doing things that I'll remember always.
Of course, I'm no fool. All along, I knew the error of my ways only too well, but inertia sometimes makes it more difficult to change course, even if you know you're heading in the wrong direction. However, it took this action to highlight it and convince myself that a different fork is the right one to travel down.
My solution sounds straight-forward. In reality, however, it may be more difficult to achieve. Here it is:
a) - if I buy less stuff, I can spend more money on doing things - try out kayaking, learn to climb with the superheroes, take off more often to the Peaks or the Lakes, have more holidays.
b) - if I buy less stuff, I can spend the same amount of money on doing things as I am at the moment, but work less hours, as the amount of money needed in total will be less than it previously was. I'll gain time, and I'll use that time to enjoy the free things that a family gives all the time, but sometimes you're too busy to see - love, life, laughs.
Both of these options seem much better than the old status-quo, but I suspect the best way to go will be between the two. Buy less shit. Do more things. Use time, not waste it.
I'm only a few days into my experiment. The knee feels much better. The Salomons I bought at Christmas and stuck under the stairs, disillusioned after just a few runs, are doing fine. I doubt I'll need to buy any new trainers for a long while.
The expensive down coat that I bought months back, but hardly touched for fear of 'spoiling it' has survived a few trips around town, a lollop around the supermarket, and extensive bouts of just hanging out. Everyone compliments me on it. I'm finding it hard to take off.
My new work routine is showing promising results. Getting up at 6.30 in the morning after setting the alarm at 5.00 for years somehow makes the day seem brighter. A self-imposed work-time internet ban has saved me wasting at least an hour a day. I'll leave Fb for the 10 minutes before bed, and the blogs - I'll save them for the one night a week when Tammy insists on watching The Vampire Diaries or other such dire US drivel. The stand-up desk I've made not only helps my back ache but helps shave minutes off all paper-work - I've found that you're not as inclined to day dream when you're stood up as you are rocking back and forth, round and round on the latest model of swivel chair. The 10, 11, 12, 13 hour day will soon be down to a regular 8. Just by being smarter, my non-work day is longer. That's got to be a good thing.
It's just a ball of string. It sits on the windowsill in the office next to a golf ball, a couple of discarded AAA batteries, and a plastic tub full of highlighter pens, some of which work, some of which don't.
I stare at it, work done for another day. The superheroes will be keen to head off to Hubbards Hills for the first of the Wolds Dash races tonight. For the first time in a couple of years, I'll be able to make it without rushing. I think briefly of The 3 Peaks trip that's coming up in a couple of weekends. Sure, it'll be expensive, but something I've always fancied and will never forget. Money well spent. In spite of my shorter working hours, everything's done and business is booming. Christmas in the Blue Mountains might not be so far away after all.
I pack away my things, ready for the ride home, content in the knowledge that life is sweet.
I'll have a tidy up tomorrow I think as I shut the door behind me. The golf ball can go - don't need it now my foot doesn't need massaging. Those dead batteries too. But maybe I'll leave the string right where it is.
A ball of string. Worth nothing. A reminder of the error of my ways. The catalyst for this mighty kick up the arse.
A ball of string. Wierdly now, my most precious possession.