The Extraordinary People in Our Own Lives

In my last article, I wrote about the people who have had a huge  impact on our species that many don’t know about. Most of these were extraordinary people who positively impacted the world. And if we zoom into our own lives, I am sure many people have had an enormous effect on all of us that altered the course of our lives, and that were, to us, great people. Perhaps they were also great people who, if things were different, could also have also made a massive difference  to vast numbers of others. Or maybe they simply embodied values that, if many others did, the world would be a better place. Just over a year ago, a very good friend of mine, Matt Hoyles, passed away. He was one of these people.

There was a quiet, humble brilliance about Matt. He was the barman at my university halls, and as I was, it's fair to say, a regular at the bar, I saw a lot of Matt. The bar opened at 7 pm, and I would always be one of the first people in. Matt would be sitting behind the bar, reading a book on science, with a pen in hand, making notes as he went. I always enjoyed getting there early as we sat and spoke about many interesting topics. When I think about all the things I learned at university, a significant part of that learning was in those conversations at the bar.  

Matt had a profound impact on my life. He introduced me to an essay, Lying, by Sam Harris, which inspired me to make a commitment to always being honest. Matt also lent me Doing Good Better by Will MacAskill, which was instrumental in prompting me to join the Effective Altruism Movement and pledge to give 10% of my income to the day I die to the most effective causes. He was a quiet, intelligent, thoughtful man and deserves to be remembered.  

Matt was writing a book entitled Human Wellbeing: An Evolutionary Approach to Physical and Psychological Health. I read sections of it, provided feedback, and encouraged him to write more, giving him advice on things like structure and building a writing habit. He would go through periods of frustration and doubt, familiar to many writers, and I would always try to help him navigate those periods. They were, and are for most writers, part of the journey. From the sections I read, I do not doubt that Matt’s book would have been a valuable resource of knowledge that many would have benefitted from.

Matt told me he wrote his book for his daughter Naomi, whom he was incredibly proud of. He would constantly express how he couldn’t quite believe that she was his, that he could create someone so brilliant. But having known Matt and having met Naomi, I can very much believe it. I was proud to know Matt, and I know she was incredibly proud and inspired by her father.

But tragically, Matt passed away before completing his book. This saddens me to this day. How many great writers and thinkers died before their time? Or before they could achieve something brilliant? All the people in my last article, had things been different, could have passed well before any of their achievements, good or bad, came to pass.  

I remember being at a talk at the excellent Bradford Literature Festival last year about the life of J.R.R Tolkien. The panellists discussed his early life and his time serving in the First World War. Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme, participating in multiple assaults before being sent home after contracting trench fever from lice. Whilst at school, Tolkien and his three closest friends formed a Tea Club. Two of them died at the Somme. Tolkien could easily have been a third and would never have gone on to write The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings or any of his famed stories set around Middle Earth. The landscape of literature today would be vastly different.

This has stayed with me since. How many exceptional people and great things never came to pass? Matt's book will never be finished. But I will publish in subsequent posts the sections that he did complete. I hope anyone who reads them can reflect on some of the incredible achievements that never came to be and perhaps use that as fuel to do the things we desire to achieve. Matt deserved to give so much more to the world, but sadly that is not how things work. If there is something you really want to do with your life, then I recommend creating a structure to achieve that. Build positive habits, focus on the journey and systems to help you achieve it and make small, manageable steps towards your goal. Time and life are very precious resources – we should never take them for granted. Be present in them, cherish them, and use them wisely.

I am very grateful for the time I had with Matt. I honestly wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for him, and I feel a profound sadness when I realise I haven’t thought about him in a while. I have always found grief a very personal and private emotion and in all honesty I am very wary about expressing it online as I fear that the online world is designed to promote attention-seeking and narcissistic tendencies in us all. However, my intentions are to remember someone who deserves to have had more of an impact, to publish the writing he did complete and to make us think about the great people in all our lives. And to consider specifically those who perhaps get overlooked in a world which often remembers those who shout the loudest. Matt would read and give feedback on all my articles before I published them, so I think of him whenever I write these now. I hope that never changes.

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