Chapter 15: Staying curious … and continuing to adapt

This month’s musings again see me making reference to Donald. Not “The Donald” this time, but a different one.

Instead, it is that renowned philosopher and thinker – Donald Rumsfeld – to whom I refer.

For those unfamiliar with his work, he was the US Secretary of Defence during the Iraq War who introduced the world to the concept of “known knowns” – things that we know we know – and “known unknowns” – things that we know we don’t know. Then there were “unknown unknowns” – things we don’t know we don’t know.

Confused? So was pretty much everyone at the time, as I recall – including myself.

But recently, I have had cause to consider that this man – previously the subject of widespread ridicule – might actually be a genius.

Over the course of the preceding months, whilst implementing the “1 planned thing” model, a number of unexpected events had occurred that got me thinking this Donald – “Rummy” to his friends – might be on to something after all.

And so it is that during this last period I have been seeking to apply Rummy’s teachings to my own life, with really quite remarkable results.

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It had all started back in mid September when I finally managed to summon up the “courage” and force myself – on the spur of the moment – to go out for a ride just for the sake of it.

I had hit the wall the previous day, having gone out the day before that to fetch supplies and spent too long chatting to the shopkeeper – blame the cognitive recharge effect. It made me realise that I had nothing to lose by trying.

Despite some initial trepidation over what route to take, I followed my nose and ended up making the much traveled journey to the very same shop and back, albeit without a stop – unintentionally setting a new distance record of 34km in the process. My legs even felt fairly strong on the final climb before home – a sign that I had managed my efforts well.

More significantly, the cognitive effects were exactly as predicted – all the benefits with none of the costs – enabling me to pop to the pub for a swift half with my wife that evening after making the dinner, rather than slump in front of the television.

Obviously, I was up in the middle of the night due to all the excitement, then experienced difficulties walking the next day due to inflammation in my right leg – but positive signs, nonetheless.

Then, in late September, I managed to achieve my life’s ambition – ride my bike and walk the dog on the same day – by not planning to. Sticking to the “1 planned thing” model, I had elected to sacrifice the dog’s needs and go out on my bike in the morning, as I needed to collect prescriptions for myself and my son. I rested as usual after lunch and then found myself kicking my heels because my wife had prepared dinner in advance without me realising – so I ended up taking the dog out unplanned. My walking was much better than expected, with my legs feeling like they were under my control for the whole hour.

Finally, in early October, I repeated the mid September episode, albeit inadvertently. I went out to the fishmongers only to find it closed when I got there due to coronavirus, so ended up doing nothing other than riding my bike that day – followed by another successful trip out in the evening.

At the time, I didn’t give too much thought to these phenomena – regarding them as bonus items in the “1 planned thing” model and choosing instead to remain fully focussed on achieving my goal of getting my driving licence back.

Subsequently however, with my assessment out of the way – and so the need to stay out of fatigue less critical – my curiosity has got the better of me. Whilst waiting for the DVLA to deliberate on their decision, I have taken the opportunity to investigate further.

It occurred to me that the common thread across all these scenarios was the unplanned element.

Recalling Rummy’s words of wisdom, I found myself pondering whether I had stumbled across my own version of his philosophy. Was there a distinction to be had between “planned knowns” – things that you know you need / want to do and so you plan when to do them – and “unplanned knowns” – things that you know you need / want to do, but you manage to get them done without planning to?

Making sense? Wow – it hurt my brain trying to explain that!

In simple terms, could I somehow find a way to trick my brain into allowing me to do more things of significance on a consistent basis – by not planning to do them? The ultimate application of Rule 7 (Use the element of surprise), perhaps?

After all, just because I don’t plan to do something doesn’t mean I don’t get it done. The “see it, do it or don’t do it” approach that I had developed (see Chapter 9) means that I already manage to pick up lots of small things that need to be done along the way, without planning to do them.

My plan was to go back to basics by just riding my bike for the sake of it, whilst seeing what else I could get done, either before or after – without planning to, of course! In effect, reverting back to going out on my bike simply as a means of recharging my brain.

On the 10th of November, I set out on the exact same route that I had ridden in mid September, having vacuumed the house then laid down for a rest beforehand. This time my legs felt battered going up the final climb. When I got home, I ate a snack, then tried to use the element of surprise by taking the dog out for a walk when I wouldn’t normally have considered it. I lasted for about 10 minutes before having to concede that I couldn’t control my legs well enough to continue.

So not entirely a success.

Taking stock of things over the next couple of days, I concluded that I had gone in too heavy with my initial foray – jumped straight to the end game, so to speak – and so decided that I would lower my expectations and try again.

To cut a long story short, over the next fortnight I made numerous further attempts to complete 2 of the disciplines in my own personal triathlon – vacuum, bike, dog walk – in a single day. Each time, I deliberately avoided planning when to undertake the second discipline – so making it an “unplanned known” in my new parlance.

The results on each occasion were mixed – for example, sometimes I was able to control my legs when walking, sometimes not – but the aggregate result was pretty clear.

At the end of the fortnight, I had covered considerably less distance on my bike and at the same time significantly diminished the enjoyment that I get from walking the dog.

If it ain’t broke …

Additionally, I had taken to grinding my teeth (and drinking more beer!) – presumably in my efforts to get through my increased workload – the “full up” feeling in my legs and back had returned and the toes on my right foot were curling up, as though attempting to grip on to whatever surface I was standing on.

Thankfully, at this point the DVLA came riding over the horizon to save the day. At the end of November, I received notification that I had passed my assessment and was once again the proud owner of a full and valid driving licence!

This gave me a much needed lift – and a good reason to call a halt to my nonsensical quest.

Reverting back to the tried – and now trusted – “1 planned thing” model wasn’t as straightforward as I expected. I found that I had fallen back into the “what next?” mentality, always looking for the next thing to do.

It took until the 10th of December for me to feel like I had made it back to something like my previous state of relative tranquility.

The following day, having been added to the insurance on my wife’s car – turns out I still get credit for my previous driving experience, so not as expensive as anticipated – I made my first solo trip out in a car since my accident.

It was a deliberately inauspicious occasion – an 8 mile round trip to the dry cleaners to collect a suit. Everything went smoothly and the feelings that I had were identical to those that I had experienced whilst preparing for my assessment.

In hindsight, it is easy to see that this latest venture was doomed from the beginning. After all, it was based on a theory put forward by a US Secretary of Defence whose resignation was subsequently demanded by several retired generals on the grounds of “abysmal military planning and lack of strategic competence” – who would have thought?

But I had to give it a shot – a final roll of the dice to make sure that I wasn’t leaving any money on the table, so to speak.

Now, I can move forwards with the “1 planned thing” model in good conscience, knowing that I have given it my all to find the best possible solution.

Instead, I will be turning my attentions to proving my credentials for the potential role of designated driver for my family – in certain circumstances, at least. That’s not going to be easy to accomplish – nor should it be – but I remain determined to achieve it.

All of which brings me back to something that happened at the start of this period – an email that I had received from my dad:

“Just me again. I’ve now re-read your blog from the beginning and I’m reminded of one of the things that used to infuriate me when you were young – your refusal to accept what was said until you had proved it yourself. But this is also one of your greatest strengths – your desire, and ability, to analyse any situation and come to understand it and adapt to the conclusion you reach – thus understanding not only the what but also the how and why. It’s a great gift that you have – don’t underestimate your abilities. I love you. Dad”

At the time, it felt significant, but I couldn’t work out why.

By the end of the period, I have come to realise that, rather than just pointing out how annoying I was as a child, my dad was reminding me of something important. A quality that I possess, which although detrimental in the short term, will perhaps serve me well in the longer run.

Whilst this month I have lost many battles against the bear, by staying curious and continuing to adapt, perhaps I still have a chance of winning the war?