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Thoughts on failure - John C. Kirk

Jun. 1st, 2011

12:15 am - Thoughts on failure

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This year, my big plan was to cycle from Land's End to John O'Groats. I failed.

Most people I know haven't made that trip, which is absolutely fine, and I don't think anyone would criticise you/them for that. I also know (or know of) people who have done the trip, and that's a nifty achievement. However, getting partway and then stopping puts me into an odd category, because it feels worse than not attempting it at all. Intellectually, that doesn't really seem right, because it implies that the best approach is never to try anything new or different, thus avoiding the risk of failure.

Maybe it's easiest to explain it in terms of foreign languages. When I was at school, I took French, Greek, and Latin up to GCSE. Other people studied German or Russian, but I only know a few words in those languages. That doesn't bother me: I'm sure that I could learn them if I wanted to, e.g. if I put aside time for them. As it stands, I have plenty of other priorities. However, if I'd picked one of those subjects at school and then failed my GCSE, it would bother me.

Another issue is how much of yourself you invest in a particular project, i.e. how important it is to your identity. There was a good Shortpacked! strip about this recently (Catching).

When I was on my way to the Severn Bridge, a couple of other cyclists went past, and I'm guessing that they were doing LEJOG too. They were both male, middle aged, looking determined, and they had a fair bit of luggage (one had panniers, the other had a trailer). The Guardian had an article along similar lines: A very modern midlife crisis.

When I was at school (1989), I remember one of the other boys in science class asking me what I'd done that I was proud of, i.e. that I could claim as an achievement. Before I could answer, he followed up with "And don't say doing your Maths GCSE a year early, because we've all done that." I struggled to come up with a decent answer. It's a bit like the Vorlon/Shadow questions from Babylon 5: "Who are you? What do you want?"

Moving on to 2000, I went off to Egypt on a diving holiday (which I enjoyed). There was a bunch of us who hung out together there, and at one point we played snooker in the hotel. The other guys asked me whether I played, and I said that I used to (prior to that trip, the previous time was probably when I was at school). One of them said "You used to play tennis, you used to play snooker - what do you do now?" He had a point, which is one reason I went on that holiday.

I first started thinking about LEJOG in July 2009. In particular, I read SarahL's blog. Here's a quote from her Roundup and Final Thoughts post:

I came back from my trip and was thrown back into normal life. Straight back to work and into the heart of London's City Life.

I was instantly reminded of the general rudeness of City commuters... But I had something to fight back with. A smile. And a secret sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. An inner glow that couldn't be dampened, even with the rudest look or the most impatient elbow!

I stood on the train, sandwiched in and holding on to the overhead handrail thinking "I've just cycled Lands End to John O'Groats"! What a fab secret to have!

This reminded me of an old episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, where Lois becomes Ultrawoman, and they compare notes about wearing a costume underneath clothes (YouTube clip). Clark says: "It feels good after a while. Snug." It's not about showing off to other people; it's enough for you to know that it's there.

Over on Facebook, I said: "I suppose that there's no shame in failing this way (aside from insufficient paranoia)." I don't entirely believe that, though. When I was cycle camping last year, I read "The Tent, The Bucket and Me" by Emma Kennedy. For this trip I bought her new book: "I left my tent in San Francisco". I thoroughly recommend both books, which are now available in epub format. The new one is again autobiographical, telling the story of her trip across America with a friend after they graduated from university. Things keep going wrong for them, due to a combination of bad luck and poor decisions. However, what impressed me is that they kept going and didn't give up.

I then have to compare that to my situation. Did I give up and come home too easily? Should I have tried to find a way to keep going, e.g. buying/hiring a substitute bike? At the point where I abandoned the trip, I had 3 problems:
1. No bike.
2. No maps.
3. A day behind schedule.

I could have dealt with any 1 of those on their own. For instance, if my bike had been stolen when I was only 2 days from the finish, I would have figured something out, even if it meant taking the train to John O'Groats and grovelling to people who'd just finished. Before I discovered that the bike was missing, I had 2 problems to deal with, but that's still doable: if I increased my daily distance and found somewhere to buy replacement maps then I'd be ok. All 3 problems at once, though, was just too much for me.

Still, I'm trying to look on the positive side. Last year I took a week off work and did a cycle touring holiday around France. This year I took a week off work and did a cycle touring holiday around England (and briefly Wales), going from Land's End to Manchester.

This morning I received my photo from Land's End. It was only taken 9 days ago, but it feels like something that happened over a month ago. Similarly, yesterday morning I was in a hotel outside Manchester, but that feels like a week ago. I've noticed that time tends to rush by as I get older, with the days blurring together. One theory is that this relates to lifespan: if you're 5 years old, and you have to wait a year for something, that's 20% of your total life so far. I'm now 36, so if I have to wait a year then that's just 3%, which is less significant. However, I think it's more to do with similarity. When I was at school/university, I was living in different places (rooms) and studying different topics. By contrast, I've spent the last 6 years living in the same flat and doing the same job. When I was cycle touring, I packed a lot in, with different things happening each day. Today I've mostly just hung around the flat and looked at stuff on the internet. That's partly because I'm trying to keep my leg elevated, which immobilises me, but I don't normally have that excuse. So, the point is that if I get out and do new things then I can avoid stagnation.

Aside from my injuries, I think I am healthier now. There's a theory of "ride yourself fit", i.e. if you do lots of exercise every day then your body will adapt. This does depend on your starting point: if you haven't done any regular exercise before, then you try cycling 100 km/day, you probably won't be able to move after a couple of days. However, in my case I noticed that the journeys did get easier: I'd sleep well each night, but I wasn't completely exhausted. On Sunday, for instance, I basically cycled a Marathon by mistake and I was only concerned about the time I'd lost.

My weight hasn't changed much during the trip (I just lost 1 kg), but according to my scales my body fat percentage has dropped to 17.7%, which puts me in the "normal" range rather than "overweight". The last time it was that low was just after I did my cycle touring holiday last year, which probably isn't a coincidence. I know that it's not entirely reliable; shuripentu expressed particular doubts. However, since my waist also appears to be a bit narrower (based on doing up shorts), I'm inclined to believe it.

The challenge now is to avoid backsliding. My long term plan was always to cycle the whole way to and from work (roughly 27 km each way), and that should be easier once I'm used to doing longer distances every day. However, it's not really practical on the Brompton, because my back aches if I do long distances; that's why I bought the Roberts bike. Also, I still need to replace the front pannier after the car hit me.

Ultimately, it may be best to regard this as a practice run. I now have a much better idea of what a LEJOG trip involves, so I can try again later. If I'm lucky, the police will recover my bike. If not, I'll save up for a new one. I estimate that it will cost about £3,300 to replace everything that was stolen, but I'll get there. So, this isn't the end of the story.

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Date:June 1st, 2011 07:06 am (UTC)


To pick up your GCSE language analogy: Suppose you decided to study a GCSE at college, registered, studied for one year faithfully, bought the books/did the homework etc. Then at the end of that year your college announced that they were dropping that subject and wouldn't be teaching it. And there was no other college in the area that taught that subject. You would (probably) have to drop that GCSE, at least at that time. Would that mean that you had failed? In one sense perhaps, but due to factors beyond your control that you couldn't realistically have foreseen. In another sense it is very different from dropping out of the class yourself because you a. couldn't cope or b. couldn't be bothered to keep up the work. (And this applies whether or not you picked it up again in the future.)

And if you want to think about achievements, what about your SJA work, which you've been doing faithfully for years. Although I will probably never do the LEJOG ride, and don't mean to diminish it in any way, the continual work on SJA seems more 'impressive' in one sense at least.

I don't know if these reflections are helpful, and I'm sure that they don't diminish the irritation or the loss. But maybe 'failure' isn't quite the right word. And, based on your last paragraph, your response shows that you aren't giving up (which, again, questions the 'failure' concept.)

Best wishes
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Date:June 1st, 2011 05:05 pm (UTC)


Sorry again try hear about your bike. Try to look on the positives - you covered some serious millage (even by a fit fire-fighter's standard),you've lost body fat (presumably you've gained muscle), and have seen some sights!

Re insurance - a lot of the home policies referred to on your Facebook up your premiums, don't cover expensive items (or away from home), and ruin your home policy if you claim. I'm guessing you saved £100 p/y for the last 5+ years you've been in that flat so 1 lost is actually not too bad.

I think you should do the ride or a similar one again, and I'm sure you can. I regularly cycle to near Gatwick (about 26km) and sometimes back in same day, so I'm sure the full work trip is achievable for someone who can do Lands End to Manchester! Eat and drink some carbs before and after, and remember to freshen up at work!

I'm sure on a second hand bike for £100+ (or new for £300+) you could do this - I've been looking on Ebay and there's some good deals about. A bike for a few hundred is not too much of a lose if it gets stolen, scratched, etc. You can keep it in my garage if you like and access it when you please.

See you soon. Liam
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Date:June 2nd, 2011 08:58 am (UTC)
Move along, move along people, no failure to see here.

You simply didn't get to JoG. You learnt stuff, you enjoyed yourself, you had an adventure.

Things don't go right on long trips. We've dealt with everything from salt water contaminating two days food (we still ate it, it was all we had) to hospitalisations of members of the group (after resetting a dislocated shoulder so he could get out of the jungle). At the time it's grim, in retrospect, it all forms part of the adventure.

AndyV and I went on a climbing trip to the Picos de Europa in Northern Spain, and then spent nearly two weeks climbing in the Costa Blanca, 1000km away because the weather was better. It was a great trip.

Would we have been better going straight to the Costa Blanca? Probably. But we wanted to climbing in the Picos and took a chance that the weather was going to be good in November. It wasn't, so we adapted.

I have a definition of adventure that I use when I give talks on Adventure Education.

"Adventure (n): A risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome".

LEJOG is truly an adventure, you risk a number of things (time, injury, money, not finishing) and in return you get somethings back (adventure, views, fitness, meeting people, sense of achievement).

I'm very sad that it was something as horrible as having your bike stolen that brought your trip to an end, that truly sucks, not least because of the financial implications. But certainly I, and my friends I've mentioned your trip to, have been impressed both by your willingness to attempt the trip and they organised way in which you went about it.

For you to consider your trip a failure........no chance!

Since you have the obligatory Kirk Comic Reference (TM) above, here's a cult TV equivalent.

Kat: "It's better to live a moment as a tiger than a lifetime as a worm"
Rimmer: "Yeah, but who ever heard of a wormskin rug"

By attempting LEJOG You've firmly distanced yourself from the Rimmer model of life.
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