Archive for the ‘Self development’ Category

Stepping into the unknown

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016


I recently gave an illustrated talk at a pop-up arts venue in York. The building they had commandeered was an old fire station complete with pole through the ceiling. To my astonishment the organiser announced that if anyone wanted to have a slide on the pole they were welcome to. I say ‘astonishment’ because as an event organiser myself, the insurance implications of such an activity sent my liability calculations zooming into orbit.

As the evening wore on, I watched lots of people take up the invitation – undeterred by any risk – and slide down the pole with joyful abandon. I said to my sister who was with me at the event that ever since I was a schoolboy and our class had visited a fire station where the use of the pole had been demonstrated by one of the firemen I’d always wanted to have a go on one.

“Well, now’s your chance” she said and rummaged in her handbag for her phone to take a video of the stunt. She held the phone and looked at me expectantly. I could see that a significant moment had arrived. I turned for the stairs.

As I climbed the echoing steps to the top floor I passed through various empty rooms that had been stripped of their furnishings. The crumbling plasterwork and general dilapidation of the building reminded me of my own advancing years and how my reflexes and suppleness weren’t as good as they used to be.

I arrived at the vestibule where you launch yourself onto the pole and I studied the scene. The pole was within easy reach but I made the mistake of looking down through the hole to where the pole was bolted to the floor of the fire station. Lord! It was a good ten metres down and I began to weigh up all the possible outcomes of the stunt. The one that loomed the largest was the one where I miscalculate the slipiness of the pole and I go whizzing uncontrollably down it to crash awkwardly onto the concrete floor and break a few bones in my feet incapacitating me for months to come. As a self-employed man the risk was simply too great and cautiously I backed away from the orifice slightly shame faced and greatly disappointed.

Back in the event room I told my sister it was higher than I had anticipated and I simply balked at the risk of something going wrong.

Later in the evening I got talking to a member of the audience and he asked me if I had been down the pole. I answered truthfully and explained to him all the reasons why I thought it was a bad idea for a man of my age.

“You’re over-thinking it,” he said. “Come on, let me show you how easy it is” and with that he encouraged me to follow him as he walked towards the staircase door. Another significant moment arrived: do I politely decline or trust this stranger with my life?

I followed him.

Once again I stood by the vestibule with the stranger in front of me. He stood poised to launch himself when he turned to me and said “Don’t look down, just grab the pole and commit fully to the slide” and then he effortlessly reached out for the pole and was gone.

I stood alone looking at the pole. I was calculating the physics of -

I jumped.

I knew if I stood there any longer I would go through the same looped thinking process that would talk me out of reaching for the pole and so before I did I launched myself.

To my astonishment I had near total control of my descent (my logical mind immediately understood why the pole was approximately 5 inches in diameter – it greatly increased the coefficient of friction) and I could have stopped mid-slide if I’d wanted to.

Safely on the floor of the fire station I turned to my mentor and we high-fived the little achievement. I was genuinely grateful to him for pushing me out of my comfort zone and then he exited out of my life, possibly for good.

As I walked back to where my sister was sitting I couldn’t help thinking of the famous quote “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

My sister missed the photo opportunity because I acted impulsively and didn’t let her know. Sometimes it’s better to trust your gut than your head.

Great lessons can be learned from small incidents; I was honest with people about my failure, they offered to help, I welcomed their help and together we achieved success.

After waiting many decades, the fire station pole is now off my list.

Three important things that final year students need to do before they leave school.

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Escape Children!

Education isn’t fully preparing students for the future. Homework is largely a waste of time and you don’t need to work hard to be a success—and that’s before I even get onto the three important things students need to learn.

I mean you can work hard to be successful if you really want to—and you will achieve success from working hard—but I didn’t want to work hard, I wanted to have fun, so I played hard instead. I’m not playing with words here – the distinction is important, someone playing hard is far more productive than someone working hard— that’s a scientifically proven fact. So the trick is to get paid for doing something that you love doing, something that you would do for free if that were the only option.

Here’s my story about how I managed to make a living from doing something that I love doing. I only wish my school had taught me this stuff before I left, I could have gone so much further, much faster if they had. Don’t get hung up on the details here, I talk about art but I could just as easily be talking about performing music or designing apps. The principles are the same. Just apply the principles …

1. Make something happen.

In my case, it was a picture. But in your case it could be a website, a film, a rap song, whatever.

I made a picture. I was very young and there was nothing special about the picture. But I liked drawing pictures so I kept producing them. Then slowly people started to like my pictures and so I made more pictures that I spent a great deal of time on. I would have made these pictures anyway, even if other people didn’t like them, because drawing was what I loved to do. I discovered that if people can see you’re passionate about something, they tend to encourage you and this makes you want to keep doing it and so inevitably, you get a lot better at it. This is why homework is generally a waste of time. If you’re passionate about something you’re already doing it at home! If you’ve no interest in a subject, why extend the misery with homework? Homework should be optional at school.

So people kept encouraging me to draw. Eventually, a school friend asked me to draw a picture of his girlfriend. This was significant. People wanted my pictures now. In order to make sure he got his picture, my friend offered to pay me for it and in an instant the future had revealed itself to me: I could get paid to draw.

Now I played much harder. I actually wanted people to like my pictures – a lot, and they did! The harder I played the more they wanted to use my skill.

You see how this works? It’s a virtuous circle: the better you become, the more they want you.

2. Establish your network.

Make contact with people who can help you. These might be people who do what you do and can offer you advice or show you new techniques or they might be people with influence – these could be mentors or connectors or administrators. When you associate with like-minded people, you tend to absorb their ideas and you become more creative as a result. When you collaborate with them you become inspired to try new things and explore new territory so always look for opportunities to do that. By the way, this works in reverse too – if you mix with negative people you’ll become more negative as a result, so pick your group carefully.

After a time, people at school started to talk about my skill. As a kid, I didn’t realise how important this was; it was good for my ego of course but more importantly, it established me as some kind of expert – I was the ‘go to’ guy for any kind of artwork. Teachers would seek me out and ask me to take on artistic projects. This is crucially important if you’re going to make a career out of something you love doing; become the expert.

And something else happened; my art teacher introduced me to other members of staff who were interested in art. I cannot tell you how important this part of the process is – you’re increasing your network with people who can help you in a much bigger way. One of the teachers at school (who I didn’t take a subject with) was particularly keen on one of my pictures that I was working on. My art teacher had shown it to him whilst it was in progress and this teacher subsequently bought it. Don’t wait for others to take the initiative, be proactive where you can.

Pretty soon I was famous as an artist inside my school and that gave me a certain amount of license regarding my behaviour and artworks.

Then one day I had a life-changing experience.

I’d been exploring the works of dissident writers and artists as part of my voluntary homework and I decided to do a ‘protest’ picture (remember what I said about getting inspired by the things that surround you?). What I came up with was a portrait of myself in school uniform being hung from the neck by my tie. This was being officiated by a teacher dressed in an elaborate gown and witnessed by an orderly faceless audience. In the audience I had hidden an oblique reference to one particular unpopular teacher. It was a ‘dangerous’ picture executed with my tongue firmly in my cheek and my art teacher (unbeknown to me) decided to frame it and hang it in the school on a stair landing that experienced a lot of footfall. As I came down the stairs to the landing during a break I could see an excited crowd of students viewing something on the wall in a gleeful way. When I realized that they were looking at my picture and I had caused their excitement I knew then what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: entertain people.

It was assumed by everyone that I would leave school and go to art college, which I did. But this was a double-edged sword because art school opened my eyes to other possibilities within the creative industries and I became fascinated with film making and acting. My picture making suddenly got a lot more ambitious.

Now, it’s generally best to stick with one thing only if you want to achieve ’success’ as defined by society. If you become the best that you can be at this one thing, your dedication and talent will impress people. However, you should always be aware of what you need as a human being rather than what you think society expects of you. In my case, I was curious about the world and I wanted to explore EVERYTHING even if that meant doing some of the activities I undertook rather badly.

As soon as you dilute your talents, the level of financial success you can expect becomes diluted too. But you can define success on your own terms, so follow your own path if that makes you happy. By the way, despite what may happen to you at school, you should always remember that your parents, guardians and teachers—generally—want more than anything for you to be happy in what you’re doing.

So in my creative career I explored writing, film making, music, performance and comedy. I always had enough money to live on and I always had fun. And I’m still having fun. And still collaborating and increasing my network – curiosity and experimentation never stops (sign up to receive my podcasts to see what I mean).

3. Learn presentation skills.

My latest creative output called Bettakultcha, is a collaboration with various people and it’s an event consisting of enthusiastic people giving five minute talks illustrated with 20 slides that last 15 seconds each. I’m the compère of the event and after five years of doing it I’ve learned to be confident and relaxed on stage. With a lot of people being terrified of public speaking, having a skill like that is a passport into a lot of jobs. Everyone has to pitch ideas to other people at some point – sometimes you’re not even aware that you’re doing it—if you’ve just discovered a new video game and you want to tell your friends about it so they’ll play it too, you’re pitching the idea to them. The same applies to a company wanting to launch a new product in the market place, someone has to pitch the idea to an audience that is usually spoilt for choice. And here’s a startling prediction: by the year 2020 – that’s like five years away – 50% of the working population of the UK will be self-employed. Think about that. 50%. That means half of you in any classroom right now will have to find your own work. Which means you’ll have to pitch for work. Now, if most of you have the same skill-set, how will a client decide on whom to give the work to? Maybe the pitch that inspired confidence, enthusiasm, efficiency, imagination, and good communication? And, right now, I don’t see these presentation skills being taught anywhere in schools, which means that if you learn them now, you’re already ahead of the game.

So to recap, these are the three things that you really need to know if you want to make a living from your skills:

1. Make something happen – when most people are passive consumers, this immediately makes you stand out from the others.

2. Build your network – find like-minded people, collaborate and share with them if you can, they’ll help you grow. Utilise your network – any chance you get for furthering your career, no matter how small, take it!

3. Learn presentation skills. Unfortunately, I learned this last crucial lesson too late to maximize on the opportunities that were presented to me earlier in life. Who is your biggest advocate throughout your life? You, of course, so it makes sense for you to be confident, articulate and concise when you want to impress someone who could be a future employer or patron of your talent. Being confident about yourself will be your biggest asset. The world is hypnotized and beguiled by confidence. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember that fact – confidence is conquest. But don’t confuse cockiness with confidence, that’s an entirely different thing.

Oh, and keep plugging away. The longer you stick at something, the luckier you will get and the breaks will fall for you. Talking of which, tell your instructors about me. Tell them you want me to speak in person at your establishment so you can learn more about making life rewarding and fun (see what I did there? Always be proactive).

Thanks for reading. Stay curious.

Temple Works, Leeds. Light Night Party.

Saturday, October 9th, 2010
First ever, Malaria Death Ring, gig

First ever, Malaria Death Ring, gig

Phil Kirby at Temple Works called me a few days ago and asked if I could come up with, “something odd” for the after show party, as he had been let down by various performers.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Can you form a band, write some stuff, rehearse it, then perform it in front of a crowd of people? You’ve got 48 hours.”

“Hmm. Leave it with me.”

A couple of  emails and a ‘phone call later, we had the nucleus of, ‘Malaria Death Ring’. Jamie Newman and Nigel Goodwin had volunteered for an insane project. The night before the party we spent twenty minutes writing a thirty minute set, then rehearsing it. Jamie had brought with him, Mark-Antoine, a couch surfer, who was over from Sweden to see a band in Leeds. He observed the creative process with interest whilst sipping his tea. When we felt the material was in a usable state of flux, he declared the alchemy, good.

And so we played at the party. This is the stuff of legend. It was all about the NOW. Something was born slippy and freakish that evening. It is fitting that the iconic Temple Works, should be the experienced midwife.

Des Troy, Jamie Newman and Nigel Goodwin.

Des Troy, Jamie Newman and Nigel Goodwin.

Everyone is stuck in a forward gear

Monday, October 6th, 2008

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has a list of human requirements usually represented as a pyramid. At the bottom is food and sleep etc., at the top is self actualisation. All the stages in the hierarchy require some kind of forward momentum to achieve the next stage in the pyramid. The need for shelter, for example, is solved through growth, enterprise, innovation, industry.

All except one.

Not many people have reached the final stage – self actualisation – because, traditionally, it was beyond the reach of all but the most talented. Today however, despite what the media exhorts, it is within the reach of most people living in the Western world. Very few individuals make the final stage however as it is unknown territory and there is little encouragement from the media to explore this part of human development. This might have something to do with the fact that not much thought had been given to the subject. But as we hit the buffers on the penultimate stage of the pyramid, we need to address the subject now. That’s because self actualisation dispenses with the apparatus for getting there.

By definition, when we reach the top of the pyramid, we have all the material and emotional things we need to live a fulfilling life. The only ‘growth’ is self development and the encouragement of development in others. So if the whole of society and your entire life is built upon the premise of growth in material goods and consuming those goods, how do you suddenly shift to a neutral or even reverse gear and adopt an entirely different world view?
I keep reminding people that, as a citizen in the western world they are already one of the richest people in the world. A person living on an average income in the UK could easily work one or two days a week and have the rest of the time to themselves if they give up the unnecessary consumerism. But because there is no alternative to consumerism, there is nowhere else to go and so people relentlessly continue forward into the trackless wastes of a materialistic desert. Even the area of self development cannot free itself of the consumerist model – ‘buy this book! Pay for this course!’ et-cetera.

For example, in our time poor society an unemployed person on benefits should, logically be the one of the happiest people in society because most of their time is their own. But if there is nothing to do with that time but watch other people chasing and ‘enjoying’ consumerism, which is inextricably linked with esteem and status, then that free time becomes jail time. The only possible escape is if you have a passion for something which requires very little money but a great deal of energy and skill.

Some people are addressing the issue of an alternative to consumerism and the nascent academic subject of happiness is touching upon it. Similarly, the environmentalist movement is making people consider indirectly, the unthinking profligacy of consumerism and forcing the question “Is that all there is?”

So what’s to do?

  • Firstly, we need an infrastructure of community. Historically, the church provided this but as the western world becomes more secular, the churches prominence is declining and nothing is taking its place.
  • Secondly we need to educate people about happiness. Make it a subject at school.
  • And thirdly, we need to encourage creativity everywhere. The days of processing children in our schools to become good workers in the factories and offices needs to be phased out and replaced with a radical programme of support and facilitation for students’ own talents and passions.

Did they get you to trade in your passion for a pension?

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

How many of you left school with a dream of doing something that you really loved to do only to find that the real world demanded that you conform and earn a living like everyone else? Maybe you kept promising yourself that one day you would make the break and live that dream but as the commitments mounted, you felt it got harder and harder to give up the monthly salary until eventually, after years of procrastination, the pension seemed like the only way out.

So they got you to trade in your passion for a pension.

But in these uncertain times nothing is guaranteed, not even a pension.

None of the old rules seem to apply anymore. A storm is coming and no one knows what to do. So what can we do? It seems are options are severely limited.

But we have always had a choice, only we didn’t dare contemplate the alternative because it always seemed so scary. And, paradoxically, as more change threatens us, the less we have to lose. So it is at times like these that some of us can summon the courage to finally go back to the counter and reclaim our passion.

Doing something you love and making a living can be done, it just needs some new thinking.

The self development myth

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

A famous writer was once visiting an American campus and he asked his eager audience, “Who wants to be a writer?’

The vast majority of the audience put their hand up.

“Why aren’t you all at home writing then?” asked the speaker.

Exactly the same question could be levelled at the people who buy self development books.

If you want to climb mountains, you practice by climbing small hills and then work upwards to your ultimate goal. The only reading involved, is usually an acquisition of knowledge to prevent yourself from committing the most common mistakes made by novice climbers, although the most powerful lessons are always learned from real mistakes (if they don’t kill you).

When I had the ambition to perform stand up comedy, I wrote my jokes, performed them endlessly in the mirror until finally I went on stage and discovered that I had learnt precisely nothing about stand up comedy. You only begin to learn when you are actually performing in front of a live audience. That’s because making people laugh requires, well.. people. And it is they who teach you. Similarly, if you want to climb mountains, it is the mountain which teaches you, not books. It is only in this true experience where the development takes place.

The experienced comedians I spoke to knew this and they would always talk about ’stage time’ – the amount of time you had actually spent in front of a live audience – in the same way that pilots would talk about ‘flying hours’. It was the only statistic which mattered. The stuff in your front room was merely preparing something to say for when you are on stage.

If you are really interested in something, you will already be doing it, not endlessly researching it.

Let’s take a fairly simple (and probably common) self development goal; losing weight. This looks simple but when you start investigating all the factors involved it becomes a morass of influences and drivers.

The truth is, a diet is for life. There is no point in your weight see-sawing wildly throughout your life. It’s not good for your health and it points to psychological issues. Overeating is caused by many factors, principally, diet and lifestyle. Being overweight then, is a complex business, simply losing weight as a goal is not enough. If you manage to lose some weight through an unpleasant process of self denial and drugs, for example, what happens once the weight is lost? If the goal was simply to lose a certain amount of weight and then put it straight back on, what has that achieved in self development terms, other than demonstrating you have a certain amount of will power?

If the goal was to achieve an ideal weight and then maintain that weight for the rest of your life, then a regime of unpleasant self denial and drugs is not going to be a pleasant prospect. The fixation with food needs to be replaced with a genuine passion for something else which forces a change in lifestyle, something like mountain climbing for instance.

But of course, genuine passions can’t be manufactured; you’re either doing it or you’re not.

The drive of your life

Friday, March 14th, 2008

The drive of your life

Here is a page from a new ‘agent of change’ publication I have created called, “The drive of your life”. It is in pdf format and takes about one minute to ‘read’. If you would like a free copy, send me an email requesting it.

A practical example of self sufficiency

Friday, August 10th, 2007

The money is in the bank. We have shown it can be done.

My mother died several months ago. She left a little house and some money. As a joint executor I was instrumental in all the financial arrangements. My brother organised the funeral and told me he had a solicitor lined up to do the probate. I told him to hang fire with any instruction as I wanted to shop around. My research revealed all the solicitors wanted to charge a percentage of the value of the estate. This irritated me as I guessed the ‘work’ would involve shuffling papers – the same amount of shuffling regardless of the value of the estate. I’ve written in detail about this here. A bit more digging revealed we could do the probate ourselves, so I convinced my brother to do this. Nothing really could go wrong, if a form was filled in incorrectly it would simply come back.

We did the probate ourselves in six weeks.

Next came the house. It was decided to sell it. We got an estate agent in who valued the house well below what we imagined it was worth. I realised the worst thing we could do was sell it in the condition it was in. It was agreed we would refurbish the property which we did ourselves.
When we had finished, the house looked pretty and desirable. We started to think maybe we could sell it ourselves. We got a sign, got a post and hammered our ‘for sale’ sign into the garden.

Considerable interest was shown in the property but the downside was we had to waste our time with the time wasters; an estate agent would have had to deal with all that.

In the end we got an acceptable offer and we sold the house.

As I had done my own conveyancing before when I purchased my first property, I was confident I could do the conveyancing for this property, especially as there was no chain involved and we were selling, not buying (a much easier process). This I did and today I was told completion had taken place and the money from the sale of the house was in our bank account.

So, we did it. We knew what was going on all the time, completed legal formalities in a fraction of the usual time and saved thousands of pounds in the process.

Being self sufficient has a snowball effect as well. I am more inclined to ask ‘can I do it myself?’ and my confidence in tackling something which previously would have appeared daunting, has increased dramatically.

And if I can do it, so can you.

Mirror man

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

On my return from the petrol station, I was waiting behind a car that was wanting to turn right. The driver’s window lowered and an empty cigarette packet was lobbed out. This immediately filled me with rage and I considered getting out of my car, walking up to his open window and lobbing some of my litter into his car so he could get an idea of how some people felt about this anti social behaviour. I didn’t fortunately as I know from experience that any act which confronts the perpetrator doesn’t give them any room to manoeuvre and they are forced to entrench into their established position, i.e. he would resolve to continue throwing litter out of his window but with more conviction.

As I drove the last couple of miles to my home I considered the issues the incident had raised.

  • why was I so enraged by his attitude?
  • What did it reflect back to me about my personality?
  • My rage stemmed from the thoughtless lack of responsibility the driver displayed. Not only was he enabling Big Tobacco to continue peddling their evil product but he was inflicting its toxins onto those people who didn’t want it; no doubt his nicotine soaked cigarette end would find its way onto the tarmac several miles down the road following its packet. He must have been aware the packet was litter, that’s why he didn’t want it in his car but there his thinking stopped. He didn’t want the litter so he makes it someone else’s problem – yours and mine. His attitude was ‘there’s only me that matters, you lot can go to hell.’ I am always intrigued as to where these sort of people draw the line; would he have thrown the packet out onto the street he lived on, or on his drive? I can only think this is a small scale example of the kind of thinking that ultimately destroys the world. Had he the ambition, this driver could easily have become George Bush.

    So what does that say about me? Am I selfish in some other way and his selfishness reminds me of my own failing? What would have been the correct way to approach it?

    I wrote a post about an SUV parked on a pavement a few days ago. After speaking to one of the builders about it in a perfectly reasonable way, no other vehicles have parked on the pavement since. Whether this was coincidence or a result of my request I am not sure because most of the builders seem to have disappeared. However, the point is, my approach could have done no harm. I was being reasonable and I didn’t give any kind of ultimatum which could have involved the ego and macho pride of the workforce.

    So with this driver, I should have got out of my car, picked up the empty cigarette packet and either found a bin or put it in my car until I could get rid of it in an appropriate manner. If I had done this cheerfully and without censure, the driver had only one way to go if he chose. He could either stay where he was on this issue (“great, somebody cleans up my mess!”) or he could reflect on why someone would want to clean up his mess voluntarily. This could alert him to the possibility that his actions had consequences and that he could modify his actions to moderate the consequences.

    If enough people voluntarily cleaned up other people’s mess it would send out the signal that dropping litter was socially unacceptable. This is slowly happening with dog owners, more and more are cleaning up their dog’s mess. A couple of decades ago, nobody would have even dreamed of doing such a thing.

    Admitting you are wrong is one of the hardest things anybody can do.