One day a man, who had spent his adult life abusing his body with alcohol, tobacco and other over-indulgences, decided to get a grip.  This wasn’t a completely solo decision; both his wife and his doctor had urged him to take steps to improve his health before, they said ominously, it was too late.

He pondered which of his many bad habits to tackle, and how.  Spoilt for choice, he decided to restrict himself to three challenges at a time and to conquer one before moving onto the next.

He wrote the first three challenges on separate pieces of cardboard, placed them face down on a table, and asked his wife to select a card.  The three cards read:

  1. Give up cigarettes.
  2. Give up alcohol.
  3. Give up jelly babies.

Much to his relief, his wife turned up the third card.  He replaced the card with, ‘Give up sugar in cups of tea’ and set to work breaking his jelly baby habit.

After a month or so, he was confident he had conquered his addiction to chewing jelly babies.  It had been relatively easy but he noticed a tendency to compensate by adding an extra spoonful of sugar to each cup of tea.

He invited his wife to choose the next card, ‘Give up cigarettes’.  He allowed himself a sigh of relief; sugar in tea could continue unabated for the time being.

Over the course of the next two years, tackling one challenge at a time, he succeeded in giving up an impressive number of life threatening habits including cigarettes, alcohol, cannabis and chips.  His health was much improved and everyone assumed that he’d discontinue setting himself challenges.  But he had become fascinated by the process and loved the smug feelings of self-satisfaction he experienced in the wake of each triumph.

He decided to continue with ‘do’ challenges rather than ‘don’t do’ challenges. Accordingly, he wrote three cards:

  1. Run a marathon.
  2. Raise £500k for a charity.
  3. Walk the Cotswold Way.

Much to his relief, his wife turned up the third card and he replaced it with, ‘Learn to speak Spanish’ and planned his proposed walk.

The Cotswold Way was duly walked (and much enjoyed).

Over the course of the next six years, again confining himself to one challenge at a time, he accomplished a great deal, including running three marathons; raising considerable sums for various charities; becoming a published poet; reading the Bible from beginning to end; being able to converse in two new languages; becoming a popular speaker on the conference circuit; and riding a Harley Davidson from the east to the west coast of America.

Unwilling to give up his addiction to challenges (not, he assured himself, unable to!) he pondered what to do next.

He decided his challenges had become a bit heavy and that it might be fun to lighten up and set himself some silly challenges without much obvious merit.  He wrote three cards:

  1. Walk, in the rush hour, in a straight-line across Waterloo Station’s main concourse without bumping into anyone or breaking step.
  2. Drive for 100 miles taking every available first left turn, never turning right.
  3. Play a game of association croquet with a toilet brush instead of a mallet.

These pointless activities, together with many more that he dreamt up, kept him amused for the best part of two years.  However, he found that the trouble with pointless challenges was that they were pointless!  Achieving them didn’t give him a real buzz; they left him feeling unfulfilled.  He hankered after something riskier, perhaps even something dangerous, that would test his courage.  Accordingly, he wrote three cards describing dangerous things that he really didn’t want to do.  They were:

  1. Hang glide off the top of The Shard.
  2. Run back and forth across the M25 three times dodging vehicles.
  3. Walk a tight rope slung between two tall buildings.

He turned the cards face down and, as usual, invited his wife to choose one. She selected the second card.  Knowing that she would attempt to dissuade him from doing anything so foolish, he was careful not to divulge its contents.

For one month he pondered the pros and cons of going ahead with such a reckless activity that would endanger, not just his own life, but that of others.  Years of undertaking challenges successfully had stood him in good stead and he liked the process he had invented for himself – indeed, it had become a way of life.  Never before had he challenged himself to do something so absurdly risky, yet he knew that not taking up the self-imposed challenge would be tantamount to admitting he was a coward; it would be a cop out.

He decided that the answer was to let the cards decide whether or not to proceed.  He wrote two cards:

  1. Do it.
  2. Don’t do it.

He invited his wife to choose a card.

‘Why only two’ she asked, ‘when before there have always been three?’

‘It’s only two this time.  Please choose.’

His wife, sensing that something was amiss, hesitated.  She knew her husband had been pensive during the last month.  She had no idea what was written on the two cards; just that there had never before been only two.

She said, ‘I’ll choose a card on condition you allow me to add a third card of my own.’

Somewhat grudgingly he agreed and she wrote a third card and placed it face down with the other two.  She said, ‘Before I pick a card, I want you to promise that you’ll carry out the selected challenge to the letter.’

‘Of course’, he replied, ‘you have no need to ask that.  I always obey the chosen challenge.’

The man mixed up the cards so that his wife would, as usual, have to pick a card at random.  She examined the blank sides of the pieces of cardboard for much longer than usual, until she felt confident that she had identified the card she wished to choose.  She picked the card and handed it, face down, to her husband.

It read, ‘Give up challenges’.

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