Life gets in the way

It’s one of these times again when the rest of life is holding me back from writing the next blog. I apologise for that. The delay before new content won’t be long.

Meanwhile, I looked at the list of blogs that have been written in the last 16 months, and picked out a few from the archives you may have missed.

The Tay Bridge disaster

Many liked this story when first written, but it’s also a blog piece that keeps being found now and read by new people. Perhaps it gets shared more than most. Some readers are engineers, but most will simply be interested in knowing how a major bridge over an estuary could suddenly collapse taking dozens to their death.

The Forth Bridge … beginnings

The three-part story of building the Forth Bridge – that is, the railway bridge over the Firth of Forth – has been one of the most widely read. My research took a lot of time, but that was pleasurable time because it was fascinating. The story is as much about personalities, ambition, genius, and determination as it is about engineering. But the engineering of the Forth Bridge is remarkable too, especially learning how work on the foundations was done literally under water. No diving suits. Just a seriously risky space with compressed air.

The second and third parts of the story can be found at:


Being true to your word (and suspicious of your car nav system)

The story this blog tells about going astray by following your car nav system is amusing, and likely strikes a chord with most of us. But the point of the story isn’t about navigation systems, it’s about relationships. I’ve re-read it, and I believe its message is important.

When your car number plate really matters

Another blog with an amusing story, but this posting generated two more. One of the points I made in writing the first blog was about being properly prepared, which I illustrated by describing how spectacularly unprepared I’d been when setting out to climb Lochnagar, a 1155 metres (3789 ft) mountain within driving distance of our home in Aberdeen. I had told no-one where I was going, and then climbed Lochnagar through thick mist. Only when I reached the summit did I realise I could not find the way down. With steep cliffs one side, wilderness to the other, and the temperature dropping, I was in deep trouble. And no-one was coming to save me. At that point – having illustrated the folly of poor preparation – I left the story. That generated protests from my family! It was obvious I’d survived, but how?

So I told the rest of the story, and then the story beyond the story, in two more parts:

Escape from Lochnagar


When Alistair met Eve

Lastly, here’s an early blog that hasn’t been read often.

When the right thing to do is nothing at all

I suspect this blog’s title put some people off.  Perhaps some thought reading about doing ‘nothing at all’ wasn’t the best use of their time. Of course, the blog wasn’t really about doing nothing – it was about knowing when to stand firm, not heeding every opinion, not taking every risk. There’s a lot to be said for staying steady when times are tough.

I hope you enjoy reading one or more of these, or any others from the archives. And my rudimentary website skills extended recently to adding a ‘Search’ box to the site. (Not all phones show the search feature, I’m afraid, but many do as well as larger devices.) Enter a key word or phrase, and the blogs with those words appear on your screen. Marvellous.

I’ll be back with new content soon. Best wishes.

When is enough, enough?

‘Enough’ is a difficult and almost dangerous word. It feels comforting and encouraging – who wouldn’t be helped by being told they’ve done enough or have enough?

But often it isn’t comforting because the word ‘enough’ can tyrannise us with feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

How could that happen? Here’s how. Let me retell a story from my days as a church pastor. A young man met with me to insist our church didn’t pray enough. He wasn’t referring to people’s private, personal prayers. His view was that the whole congregation needed to meet together often specifically for prayer. ‘We don’t pray enough,’ he said. We talked, didn’t agree, and finally I asked, ‘Could you imagine a time when the church did pray enough?’ He paused – for quite a long time – then replied, ‘No, I could never imagine we prayed enough’. As gently as I could, I said that if he couldn’t tell me how much ‘enough’ was, then saying ‘we don’t pray enough’ did not make easy sense.

If I won that argument I certainly didn’t win the man – he still didn’t believe we prayed enough.

I heard the concept of ‘enough’ – or, rather, ‘not enough’ – used with countless subjects. People would tell me ‘we don’t sing the old hymns enough’, or ‘we don’t care for the elderly enough’, or ‘we don’t give enough overseas aid’, or ‘we’re not friendly enough to newcomers’, and many more complaints. I had answers, but these statements hurt. When people said we (except often they meant me) were ‘not doing enough’ they meant we were falling short, not putting in sufficient effort or care. Even though I had defences, I felt attacked and guilty.

Of course there are times when we don’t do enough. We don’t reach the expected standard. People talk of doing enough but imply being perfect. We fall short. All of us do.

But there is a particular difficulty with the word ‘enough’. It’s summed up in a simple four word question. When is enough, enough?[1]

First, let’s accept we often won’t know. How could we ever be sure we’ve prayed enough, or thought enough, or been kind enough, or generous enough, or wise enough?

However, we get close to knowing when enough is enough in certain circumstances.

  • When we can define a precise goal in advance – like: ‘I need to walk 10,000 steps a day’ or ‘I must get eight hours sleep each night’ or ‘I must check my car’s tyre pressures every Saturday’. If your targets are the right ones, and you meet them, then you’ll have done enough.
  • When we have imprecise but reasonable awareness of reaching a limit. Well-disciplined people stop eating when they know they’re full (or, even better, nearly full). Confession: I’ve never that well-disciplined. But I knew when I was tired while driving, edging towards feeling sleepy, so would pull in to a service area for a nap or at least to walk in fresh air. These days I realise when my back is sending me warning signals that I’ve worked long enough at my desk and I should stretch and take a break. Speaking of which…

So, we can know when enough is enough, either by achieving precise targets or by having a good idea when we’re reaching limits.

But not everything is easily defined or deduced. Faced with a big decision – like taking up a new job offer – you could tell the prospective employer, ‘I’ll think about it for two days and then give you my answer’. That sounds reasonable, but who can guarantee that two days will be ‘enough’? Forty eight hours may be filled with thought but lacking a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. In fact, no amount of time may ever be enough for certainty about some tough decisions.

The real world is one with confusion and doubt, from which we emerge unsure whether we’ve given something enough time or attention, or been sufficiently kind or generous, and so on. Not knowing if we’ve done enough is normal and often unavoidable.

Second, you’ve reached enough when doing more means something else gets less.

Please don’t stop reading if I tell you economists would refer to this as the opportunity cost. In their words that’s defined as ‘the forgone benefit that would have been derived from an option not chosen’.[2]

Quickly let me put opportunity cost in my words: to give more to one thing is to have less for another thing.

Imagine these scenarios:

  • You want to give your four children pocket money, but the most you can afford in total is £20 a week. You could give each £5, but perhaps the older ones need more than just £5. Perhaps one needs £8 and the other £6. But that means only £3 each is left for the youngest two, and that’s too little. What would happen? By giving the older kids enough, you’d give the younger ones less than enough.
  • Since you have four children you have a very busy life. But your aged aunt is frail, and your brother is sick, so you devote one evening per week to visit your aunt and one evening per week for your brother. Then your aunt’s health deteriorates, so now you need to see her at least twice per week. There are only two ways to make that possible – you can stop visiting your brother, or you can no longer spend that other evening with your spouse and children.

Opportunity cost is all about balancing resources, which can be time, money, skills, interests, companionship. Spend it one way, and you don’t have the opportunity to spend it another way.

So, if you work ‘til you drop, there’ll be a cost in missed time with family or for leisure and fitness.

Or, spend all your money in bars or clubs, there’ll be too much month at the end of the money, so the cost will be eating badly (or hardly at all).

Or, give too much time to church, community group, or a major hobby, the cost is that needy neighbours don’t get your support.

In other words, any of the sentences above could have been phrased: ‘if you give more than enough to… then there’s less than enough for…’ There is such a thing as ‘enough’, and you will know you’ve reached it when doing more with that thing would mean doing less with another thing. Wise people realise that moment has come, and try to make wise decisions.

Finally, staying within the limits of enough takes courage and determination. It’s normal to overstretch ourselves with things we love doing. Some of my golfing friends play a round every weekday, and go on golfing holidays two or three times a year. Some of Alison’s friends are so committed to dog agility training and competitions, not only do they practise with their dogs several times a week, they own large caravans / trailers and travel hundreds of miles to dog agility events. Why? They love it. Are they doing too much? I can’t make that judgment. But if they are over-committed – giving more than enough – they’ll have to be very brave and very resolute to change.

Such courage and determination is possible. And it’s necessary. Living ‘beyond enough’ is dangerous, especially when it affects health or relationships. Some don’t realise the ‘cost’ in their own life or lives of others until it’s too late. Enough really must be enough.

[1] Or is that only three words?

[2] From Investopedia:,and%20weighed%20against%20the%20others.

How to become better

During my high school years I excelled at English and History. I was mediocre at French and German, and downright awful at Maths. Every subject mattered, so it was obvious what subject I needed to study most. But I didn’t. My effort went into what I enjoyed which was English and History, and I became even better at them. Maths? I disliked it, did as little as I could, and it never improved.

Likewise, I know golfers who are good at driving, but poor at getting their ball out of bunkers. What do they practise? They go to the range and work on their driving. What they’re already good at, they do all the more. What they’re bad at – bunker play – they neglect almost entirely.

There’s a principle at work, and it applies across a range of subjects from education to careers, and into relationships, sports, and hobbies. We practise what we like and neglect what we dislike.

Hence we don’t get better.

I believe it’s important to get better. A simple life goal is to fulfil our potential. That means being the best we can be, and never settling for mediocre or worse.

I have four steps towards that goal of being better.

1. We must want to be better

Some of my school friends had lofty ambitions, therefore they studied, and moved on into careers in medical research, teaching, management. Others – equally clever – took jobs as farm or factory workers. We need farm or factory work – we all depend on it – but these school friends drifted into those roles because they were available locally and they didn’t want to prolong their education. They chose the easy way.

I could have done the same. No-one in my family had ever gone as far as the final year of their schooling, never mind continued on into higher education. And, actually, neither did I, at least not immediately. My parents had no lofty academic expectations for me, and the local youth employment adviser recommended I start work in a department store – ‘probably sweeping the floors at first’ he said – and maybe I’d work up to being a branch manager. Happily I didn’t follow his advice, but got interviewed for journalism with a national newspaper, and left home aged 16 to start working life in Edinburgh with The Scotsman.

I learned much in just a few years, including shorthand, typing, law, as well as journalistic skills, and did well. I was a trusted reporter. Then came a complete change of direction because I made a personal Christian commitment which soon led to believing God had a different calling for me: Christian ministry.  I didn’t have the academic qualifications for admission to university, so studied at night school and then spent a year at a further education college. After that almost all my twenties were used gaining more education.

So the story could go on, but the only point I want to make is that I didn’t want to settle for what was convenient or easy, but dedicated myself to what was better for my life.

Career paths are personal, and I’m not suggesting everyone should try to reach the top rung of a corporate ladder. But I am arguing against casually settling for the bottom rung. Reaching for the best isn’t only a principle for work life – it applies in relationships, or roles in churches or community groups, or hobbies or sports. It’s good to want to be the best we can be.

2. Be aware of expectations given to you from birth

My parents never imagined that I’d go to a university, or head up large organisations. But they did believe in hard work and improving yourself. My dad wanted to be an architect. But his parents made him leave school when he was 14 because he had to bring money into the household. He started work with the Post Office. They gave him a bicycle and sent him miles each day delivering telegrams. Eventually he progressed to delivering the regular mail. Then World War II took him away for almost seven years. Post war, he went back to the Post Office, but moved to the administration side, did well, and years later finished as Post Master in Burntisland, just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh.

My dad believed you should be the best you can be, taking into account all the circumstances of your life. It was how he lived. I was given a good legacy.

I feel fortunate to have had those expectations passed on to me. From birth onwards all of us have ideas, goals, attitudes, and ethics bred into us. Parents are usually the main givers, but there are other influencers too.

Then comes a period in our lives when we mature in thought and purposes as well as our bodies. That’s a time when we consider who we are, what we believe, what we want, what we’re willing to give our lives for. We work out these things from the foundation already laid for us. I encourage people to ask, ‘What have I been brought up to think and desire and believe is right?’ And, ‘Is that what’s right for me now?’

The answers can be uncomfortable. For the first time, we may not agree with authority figures, including family. Or, for the first time, we have a different idea to others of what we should do with our lives. Discomfort easily turns into discouragement, and discouragement to settling for the easy road.

We can never make the most of our lives travelling that easy road. I advocate knowing where you’re starting from, defining where you want to go, and working hard to achieve what you believe in.

3. Get someone you trust to tell you how your life should improve

I used to ask interviewees to describe their strengths and weaknesses. The answers were rarely helpful. Then I changed the question to ‘How would someone who knows you well describe your strengths and weaknesses?’ Suddenly I got answers that meant something, including realistic admissions of shortcomings. All that had changed was getting the interviewee to think what someone else would say about them.

How much more powerful to actually ask a trusted friend to describe the areas in your life where you need to get better. They might refuse, not wishing to risk the friendship. But the best of friends will realise you want to know their answer, and they’ll care enough for you to tell the truth.

Most of my life has been lived in the UK, but eight years were spent in the USA. On the whole I found American colleagues and friends more open about their lives. They genuinely wanted to know how they could improve their work, their spiritual lives, their marriages, and so on. Perhaps Brits (like me?) are too ‘buttoned-up’, too inhibited, to expose ourselves to criticism. Or our self-confidence is so low we can’t risk hearing hard truths.

Or it may be that we’re proud. We think we’ve done well, and don’t want anyone telling us we could have done better. And that in the future we’d do better if only we worked on this or that area of weakness.

Actually, perhaps the problem is not pride but fear, fear of knowing we’re not as good as we choose to believe.

Whether it’s low self-esteem, pride or fear that stops us being honest, we need to get over it. Accepting the truth about our weaknesses is stage 1; working to overcome those weaknesses is stage 2. Put together those two stages make us stronger and better people.

4. It’s not just skills that matter; character does too

Skills matter. We should strive for excellence in everything we do.

But probably all of us have met very clever people who weren’t nice to know. They were grumpy, or bullies, or rash, or hard to please, or foul-mouthed, or impatient, or the kind who jump from one idea to the next with no perseverance or resilience in face of challenges. These folk have character issues – flaws – and those flaws need improvement because we carry these traits all through our lives.

On the whole Alison and I have had excellent neighbours. They were kind, helpful, and pleasant to be around. But there have been a few not like that. Some just unfriendly, others critical, one or two downright rude. I think that’s simply how they were; there was never a day when they were different. We did the obvious – we kept out of their way.

Good character builds good relationships, wins people over, generates trust, creates a pleasant atmosphere and makes life a good experience for us and others.

When we think about being better people, we should think about our character. Ruthless honesty, with no excuses, is the right starting point. We probably need a supportive but honest friend too, because we’re blind to many of our own failings. The Scots poet, Robert Burns, wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us

If his use of the Scots dialect needs translation for you, he’s saying:

Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us[1]

 If only, Burns writes, we could see ourselves the way others see us, we’d be freed from so many mistakes. Our characters need that level of insight and change.

In summary, we mustn’t settle for being good where we’re already good. Other parts of our lives need to be strengthened. But we must want to be better, and do whatever it takes to be better. It’s a life-long task, I’ve still some way to go.

[1] Original verse from Burns’ 1786 poem To a louse with ‘translation’ provided at

The Masters

A few blogs back[1] I admitted that years ago I rushed home from a church evening service to watch The Masters golf tournament on TV, forgetting my (then) 15-year-old daughter Rachel had come to church with me. As I settled down in front of the TV, a friend phoned from church asking if I’d forgotten something. I didn’t think so. ‘Your daughter?’ she asked. Sinking feeling. What a bad father. I invited the friend for coffee and cake if she’d bring my daughter home, which she did. And watched the golf with me.

As I write now, it’s once more The Masters weekend. After two years without large crowds (because of the Covid crisis), about 10,000 a day are filling the course.[2] There’s huge excitement, and, if you believed pundits and commentators the whole world waits to see if Tiger Woods, returning from serious injury, can win the event.[3]

Because I’ve played golf longer than I can remember (my father put a club in my hand when I was about 3), I enjoy The Masters but dislike the hype about Tiger or any other player. Despite my normal determination not to make this blog about current events, I’ll share some of what fascinates me about The Masters, including details which show the quirkiness of the event. After that I’ll pose some challenging questions.

The Masters is an invitational tournament run by Augusta National Golf Club of Augusta, Georgia, in the south east corner of the USA, just above Florida. The word ‘invitational’ matters, because those who play each year are ‘invited’ to play by the club based on their world ranking or victory in significant golf events during the preceding year. Also, past winners of The Masters have permanent invitations to return and play. They continue to be called ‘champions’ and not ‘former champions’.

The tournament was started by noted amateur champion Bobby Jones[4] along with an investment banker friend, Clifford Roberts. In 1930 Jones won the Grand Slam, which, in those days, meant victories in the same year at the U.S. AmateurBritish Amateur, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. Jones triumphed in them all in 1930, a feat no-one has equalled since, including in its modern form which involves four professional tournaments, one of which is The Masters.

Just after Jones’ Grand Slam win, he partnered with Roberts, and bought a former plant nursery. Jones and noted course architect, Alister MacKenzie, then designed Augusta National golf course.

Jones was building a course for a golf club, but always had another plan in mind – to launch a special invitational tournament.  It was first played in March, 1934, at that time called the “Augusta National Invitation Tournament”. The winner in 1934 received $1500.

In 1939 the name was changed to The Masters. Bobby Jones said later: ‘I must admit the name was born of a touch of immodesty’.

The exact amounts paid to prize winners are not disclosed, but in the early 2020s the prize fund total is reckoned to be $11.5 million, of which the tournament winner gets $2.07 million.

The Masters is always played at Augusta National Golf Club, the only ‘Major’ tournament in modern golf played each year on the same course. Familiarity with the layout is an important reason why television ratings are high. The event is viewed in dozens of countries.

No-one can apply to become a member of the super-private Augusta National Golf Club. You must be invited, and have plenty money.  You also won’t be playing much golf there, because the course closes down from May to October annually to avoid wear and tear on the grass during Georgia’s hot summers.

The first African-American member was admitted in 1990, and first women members in 2012.

At The Masters, everything is carefully controlled by the Club, and they strictly enforce their rules. For example:

  • TV commentators must never mention the prize money
  • TV commentators must always be polite about the course. One CBS commentator, trying to be humorous about the speed of the greens, said ‘they bikini wax the greens’. Augusta National took offence, and banned him from ever commentating again. Other commentators have also been discontinued, likely because their less-than-serious style was deemed unsuitable.
  • The spectators at the event must never be referred to as spectators, or as fans. They’re ‘patrons’.
  • The patrons must always walk, never run. They are not allowed to talk loudly, applaud mistakes, and never permitted even to carry cell phones.
  • No litter must be seen on the course – cups and food bags are coloured green, as are the waste bins, so they’re camouflaged against the green grass.
  • The course must always look in perfect condition:
    • No weeds can be there; the ground staff remove every weed on the course
    • The azaleas which surround many of the holes are cultivated to bloom in Masters week
    • The ponds used to have food dye in them to make the water look blue
    • Bird sounds are added artificially to TV broadcasts to give the impression of an idyllic environment
    • If there are bare patches of ground, the ground staff paint the ground green so it blends in.

Despite its quirkiness, for most of the top professionals The Masters is the tournament above all others they most want to win. It’s almost certainly the most prestigious.

The patrons – those watching the play in person – are mostly the same people year after year. Tickets are sold only to those on the ‘patrons list’ which is closed. Tickets can be bought for pre-tournament practice days, but must be applied for well in advance and are allocated after a ballot.

The Masters excites and terrifies the best players in the world.

  • Gary Player, famous S. African winner, said: ‘If there’s a golf course in heaven, I hope it’s like Augusta National. I just don’t want an early tee time.’
  • Fuzzy Zoeller, a top US golfer of a generation ago, described what hitting his opening drive did to him. The shot was ‘the greatest natural laxative in the world’.
  • Sergio Garcia, the brilliant Spanish golfer, would probably agree with that after what happened to him at the 2018 tournament. One year earlier, Garcia won The Masters. He was thrilled – at last he’d captured a ‘Major’ – so when his daughter was born soon after, he called her Azalea, the name of the flower which grows abundantly at Augusta National. Then came the 2018 tournament, and Garcia hoped to win again. He did well for 14 holes of his first round. Then he came to the 15th, a par 5. He drove his ball well, and got into a good position to pitch on to the green. His ball landed on the green, but his shot had so much backspin, the ball shot backwards and down a slope into the pond which fronted the green. With a one stroke penalty, Garcia dropped another ball, hit it onto the green. It also spun back, down the slope into the water.  Next shot – backspin, into the water. Next shot, backspin, into the water. Next shot? Backspin, into the water. Finally he got one to stay on the green, and holed the putt. But Garcia scored an octuple bogey 13, and now shares the record for the highest score on any hole at The Masters.

Since 1949 the winner of The Masters is presented with a green jacket. The jacket becomes his property, but it must remain at the club where it’s kept in a special cloakroom. The only exception is that each winner may take the jacket away for one year after his victory (presumably to wear wherever he travels in that year). After that it goes into the club’s cloakroom. Repeat winners don’t get a new jacket, unless the jacket would need major refitting. (Now, why might that be necessary…?)

On the Tuesday evening preceding the tournament, a Champions Dinner is held, attended only by Masters winners and a few officers of the club. The menu is set by the reigning champion. Scotsman Sandy Lyle had haggis served, and Englishman Nick Faldo chose fish and chips. Tiger Woods was the youngest ever winner,[5] and his choices for the Champions Dinner were cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, french fries and milkshakes, justifying the menu as typical of what he ate.

In 1986, at the age of 46, Jack Nicklaus became the oldest winner of the Masters. It was his sixth win. The youngest competitor was the Chinese amateur golfer Guan Tianlang who was aged 14 years, 168 days on day one of the 2013 tournament.

I could write much more about The Masters. It’s an event of golfing triumph and tragedy, watched not only by golfers but by people who view no other golf event.

Here, however, are my hard questions.

  1. Is it right that someone earns over $2 million for four days’ work?
  2. The Augusta National course is often described as ‘heavenly’, ‘sublime’, a ‘beautiful painting, a masterpiece’ because it looks perfectly designed, manicured and beautified with gorgeous floral displays. In a world where many starve, and great atrocities happen, is that not obscene?
  3. It’s rare for anyone other than the most elite of players to win, because only they have the skill and determination to reach the highest level. Should anyone dedicate their whole selves to such an ultimately trivial goal?

I believe these are all fair questions. I will give short defences against them, but please trust me that I’m not unsympathetic to the issues these questions raise.

Here are the kinds of answers that would be given to my questions.

1. In the world of sport, the prize money for the winner of The Masters is by no means top dollar. Staying with golf, the winner of the 2022 FedEx Cup (partly based on season performance, but also winning an end-of-season event) will take home $18 million. Also, a controversial award, recently instituted, will distribute $50 million to players who have made the most impact (not exclusively on the golf course), the winner receiving $8 million. Away from golf there are many very rich sports stars (the best rewarded, sad to report, are all male). The Formula One star Lewis Hamilton had an annual salary in 2021 of $54 million. The ten top-paid athletes (across all sports) had pretax gross earnings of $1.05 billion in a 12-month period stretching across 2020-21. There is a Forbes list of highest-paid athletes; what it shows is startling.[6]

We must remember three more things. First, just because a tournament runs for only four days, it would be ridiculous to say the golfers only work for four days, as if the months and years of practice shouldn’t be counted. Second, many others get some kind of cut or salary from the wages of sport stars. They don’t get to keep all their prizemoney. Third, many sports people make more from sponsorships or business partnerships than they do from prizemoney. Sometimes it’s hard to know which numbers reflect ‘winnings’ and which reflect ‘total income’.  Nevertheless, whatever way you consider the issue, top athletes do very well financially.

2. The Augusta National golf course is not the norm, nor does it look so pretty all year round. The tournament is held when the azaleas bloom, the grass is perfect, the weather (mostly) good, and so on. And its sublime appearance is an intentional portrait, painted by a club which wants to show off a beautiful course. It’s a private club – tax payers don’t subsidise it. Its magnificent condition is paid for by the substantial fees earned from selling television rights, and by charges made to the club’s members.

Also, the Masters week is not just a competition but a major celebration. Don’t many people have their own celebrations such as birthday parties, anniversary dinners, Thanksgiving meals, Christmas gatherings? It wouldn’t be good to live like that all the time, but most of life isn’t a banquet. One week a year isn’t overdoing things.

Also, not just Augusta National but all of us could do other things with money rather than spend it on expensive things. Instead of changing car or home, we could give those tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars away. People used to make calculations about how many of the world’s poor could be fed with the money spent sending astronauts into space. But the hard truth – whether about cars, houses, space exploration – is that if we didn’t spend it there we’d spend it elsewhere, but probably not on helping the poor. I’d like to think that, if we care enough, we can do these things and aid the poor. Mischievously I’d like to challenge the top golfers at The Masters to give a tenth (a tithe) of their winnings to help people in need, both near and far.

3. It seems that everyone who wants to reach the top must now dedicate themselves entirely to their sport. Success requires great sacrifice. The age of an Eric Liddell, a gold medal winning amateur Olympic athlete, is gone. That’s the argument for complete commitment to sport.

But how can the elite give everything to their game and also have healthy marriages, or be good parents, or sustain friendships, or maintain their health, or their emotional and spiritual balance? One of the fears for Tiger Woods is that his determination to win, or at least compete well, has driven him to play before his body is ready. And that could damage his wellbeing for months or longer. If success requires selling body, mind and soul to a sport, a career, a hobby – putting that above all else – it doesn’t sound like a good deal.

So, I’ve asked hard questions and provided answers. Are they my answers? I said they would be ‘the kinds of answers that would be given’ in response to tough challenges. So, I agree with some points but not all points. Which is not really surprising, because these things are not straightforward. Complex issues tend to remain complex.

It’s good to enjoy major events like The Masters. I will. But I do think about the other needs of this world too, and won’t be distracted from them by The Masters.

[1] Blog: Have you forgotten something? January 22, 2022

[2] The host club for the event, Augusta National Golf Club, don’t release official figures for attendance, but estimates put the total at around 40,000 for the four competitive days. (Others attend on practice days.)

[3] If you want to know about Tiger’s accident and his injuries, there’s information here:

[4] I wrote a little of Bobby Jones’ story in the blog Why quit while you’re ahead? July 10, 2021

[5] Tiger Woods won in 1997, when aged 21. In total he has won five times, most recently in 2019 after a 14-year gap.

[6] The Forbes list of Highest-paid Athletes can be found here: The details can be found in several sections.

Even more wisdom

Dictionaries struggle to define the word ‘love’. Because it’s not a ‘thing’ it’s hard to describe, so dictionaries use phrases such as ‘strongly liking another person’ and also talk about romance. Not exactly comprehensive. But, since you can’t put love under a microscope you can’t analyse its constituent elements. You can only talk about how love is felt or shown, especially when that love is between people. (Loving your job, your house, your garden, even your dog, isn’t quite the same.)

Describing wisdom is as problematic as describing love. You can’t sum up wisdom with a word or phrase; instead you give examples of wise decisions or actions. That’s what I’ve done in the last two blogs, and this one isn’t different.

I’ve listed six categories in which wisdom matters. I could have listed 16, and by next week even more. But one I’ve listed here is about knowing when to stop, and I will stop writing about wisdom (at least for a long time) after this blog.

Here goes with (hopefully) even more wisdom.


Oscar Wilde wrote that a cynic was ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.[1]

It’s a great line, and likely true concerning many people. The second half is disturbing: that, someone could know many things but know nothing about their value. Not know where worth really lies. Not know what’s truly important.

Wise people don’t make that mistake. They understand what matters, and they prioritise and pursue those things rather than the trivial and ephemeral, things that are unimportant and don’t last.

I’ve been privileged to pour myself into work that has deeply affected people’s lives, both in the UK and many other countries. I have seen some people change; others, scattered around the world, I simply knew about through friends and colleagues.

Not everyone can have jobs aimed directly at transforming and improving lives. Sadly, some have hated their jobs. Their work, it seemed to them, contributed nothing other to boost the profits of a large multinational corporation. Why did they not find other employment? They didn’t leave because they were well paid. One was so well paid he had three cars: a Jaguar, a Porsche, and a Maserati. And he bought a ranch as well. I’m not suggesting cars or a ranch are ‘sinful’ – just that directing your life towards accumulating wealth or owning ‘things’ produces no lasting worth.

Wise people know where value really lies, and set their goals accordingly.


My mother started smoking in her mid teens, a long time before the general population had any idea that cigarettes were harmful. My father probably started around then too, but never smoked heavily except perhaps during World War II when he was in the army. As my brother and I were growing up, mum and dad both discouraged us from smoking because ‘it causes shortness of breath’. But – unknown to them – smoking was much more serious than that. It was killing them. My mother’s heart was badly affected, and she died aged 55. My dad immediately stopped smoking but that couldn’t eradicate the damage already done. He had a massive heart attack when 64, and survived it, probably because he was already in hospital and got immediate attention. He reached 79, and then died of a second heart attack. Our most favourite aunt – my mum’s sister – smoked all her adult life, and she died aged 74.

You’ll gather I have strong feelings about the harm cigarettes do to the human body. Thankfully I took my parents’ advice and never smoked, not even once.

This paragraph isn’t meant to be a rant about cigarettes, but a statement that wise people take good care of their health. At a minimum that’ll involve a good diet and exercise. I married well, and Alison ensures we eat only what’s good for us. Diet: tick. And we walk our dogs up and down hills every day, and Alison is a committed gardener while I play golf two or three times a week. Exercise: tick.

I spoke at a large conference in the north of Scotland, a talk during which I said we should care for our health to avoid hastening death. One man came to me straight afterwards, anxious to persuade me that we can’t hasten our deaths. We can die only when God has ordained it. My answer was along the lines that God has ordained that we care for the bodies he’s gifted us so we can fulfil all the potential he’s invested in us. That man and I didn’t argue, but also didn’t agree. Oddly, we stayed in touch, became friends and that led to the publishing of four of my books.

Whether we believe our bodies are gifts of God, wisdom dictates we care well for them. Damage your body at your peril. You can’t trade it in for a replacement.


I have attended many retirement events, at which we celebrated people’s long service and achievements. At the end the retirees would speak. Almost always they’d say that if they had it all to do over again, they’d give less time to their work and more to their family. It seems their children had grown up strangers to them. I vowed to never have to give that speech. Certainly Alison and the family made sacrifices because of my work, but we all survived, and now our grown-up children are our best friends. We get on great. Whatever wisdom helped that happen, I’m grateful for it.


Image in public domain

In the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, there’s a short scene that influenced me significantly. Lawrence is doubting he can continue leading Arab tribes in battles against the Turks during World War I. Exhausted and emotionally troubled, Lawrence considers giving up the fight. Then the top general challenges him with words like these: ‘Many go through life with no awareness of a destiny. But it is a terrible thing to have a destiny, and not to fulfil it.’ Those words stir Lawrence, lift him from his depression and weariness, and he presses on to win significant battles.

The words in the film were probably the work of a script-writer and not original. Yet they captured Lawrence’s situation, and impacted me when I was worn down. I knew I had a calling, a destiny, and it hit me freshly that it would be terrible not to fulfil it.

My guess is that most people don’t think of having a ‘destiny’ for their lives. The word sounds grandiose. But many do have some sense of purpose or opportunity. There is something they could do and should do. It would be terrible to reach old age and suddenly realise they’ve left it too late to do what they’ve always believed they were in this world to do. A wise person thinks early on about their purpose and potential, and moves steadily towards that goal.

Starting and stopping

I’ve always been tempted to take on more things than I can handle. Giving in to that temptation inevitably leads to stress and incompetence – stress, because we’re overworked; incompetence, because there’s only so many things we can do well.

But most of us are under constant pressure: to join a committee, take on a task, support a good cause. I’ve been asked to lend a hand – it sounded so innocuous – ‘I just need a little help with a project…’ Before long I was doing the project and he’d gone fishing.

Perhaps the only way to have a quiet life is to be hopelessly incompetent, because then no-one asks you to do anything.

Incompetence, though, is a bad solution. Rather, the wise person considers whether a new thing is a right thing.

To be a right thing, three conditions have to be met, best done by asking ourselves questions:

  1.  Does this thing fit with the particular gifts or abilities I have? Most of us could do all sorts of things, but there are some things we’re particularly good at. Those things – which especially fit our skill-set – are likely to be the tasks we should take on.
  2. Should someone else be doing the new task? Many things can be done by many people, so this task doesn’t specifically require me. Just because I could do it doesn’t mean I should do it. Beware those who say, ‘You’re the only one I could ask’ because the real truth may be that ‘You’re the only one I have asked’. Some people don’t look far afield when enrolling help. Don’t be a soft touch.
  3. Can you stop doing other things in order to do the new thing? There’s a saying, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’ – because they’re the kind of person who’ll say ‘yes’ when asked to help. But that’s exploitation. They hate to say ‘no’, so soon become overloaded. Unless, that is, they let other things go. I wrote an earlier blog under the heading Necessary Endings (available in Archives, April 11, 2021). I’d been helped by a book with that title by Henry Cloud, a clinical psychologist. He sums up his message early on: ‘…the tomorrow that you desire and envision may never come to pass if you do not end some things you are doing today.’ Wise people limit their work so they can work well. And survive their workload.


One of our dog behaviour books tells us that far beyond any other kind of treat, the greatest motivator for a dog is praise. Lots of enthusiastic ‘Good boy’ ‘Good girl’ ‘Well done’ statements with gentle stroking is key to good dog behaviour. Humans need appreciation too.

I can think of a boss – not one I ever had, thankfully – who was never grateful for what any of his staff did. No recognition of excellence; no recognition of working all hours to get a project finished. Their work was taken for granted; no need for thanks. But if a project went wrong or was late, he flew into a temper and raged at his staff even if the problem had nothing to do with them. You can guess what that boss’s bullying and ungrateful behaviour did to his staff: how little they enjoyed their work; how much they dreaded what might lie ahead as they walked through the office door each morning; how demotivated they were about continuing in that employment.

A wise person is an appreciative person, someone who says ‘you did a great job’. If we can’t appreciate people we’re in the wrong job. Recognising worth and sharing praise is rarely dwelt on in management books, but, done sincerely, appreciation bonds a team and builds achievement.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs says ‘fools despise wisdom’ (ch.1:7). And the New Testament book of James says ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’ (ch.1:5). So, fools reject wisdom. But those with a little wisdom can seek more, which God will give. I agree – I’d be a fool not to.

[1] Spoken by Lord Darlington, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, a play first performed in 1892. Wilde wrote the play while living in the English Lake District, hence the source of the name Windermere.