I'm ambivalent about being a trainer and coach. While I'm happy - and continuing to learn - about what I do with clients, and the ripples that creates, I'm largely unimpressed by the field I find myself in. The death today of David Bowie has brought that into focus, and helped me realise why I feel as I do.
Bowie's achievements were characterised by an ability to be inventive in any context he was placed. He wasn't just a singer and musician, he was an artist conscious about how he did what he did, always looking for ways to surprise himself. That famous capacity for reinvention is his true legacy, and along the way he created a series of remarkable recordings that will remain memorable for as long as humans listen to music.
I'm willing to bet he did all that without the aid of someone hired to tell him to take massive action, believe in himself, confront his innermost fears, or step into the unknown. And though he did walk into the fire, it was in the context of a collaboration with David Lynch and not the cheesy highlight of a personal development training.
Now, you could argue that the Twin Peaks spin-off where Bowie and Lynch collaborated was not a highlight of either man's CV. But if you're going to work with anyone in the realm of personal development, you absolutely should be asking about their accomplishments. The tragic reality is that the great majority of those encouraging others to take bold steps and achieve great things have done very little of either themselves.
One of the characteristics of my mentors in the training world is that they have made notable accomplishments outside the narrow confines of that scene. Michael Breen was already a well-regarded actor and successful business consultant running trainings internationally before he had anything to do with NLP. He was asked to look at some previously unseen papers of W.B. Yeats because of his appreciation of the poet's work by people who had precisely zero interest in his association with Paul McKenna. Eric Robbie similarly did advertising work that I was aware of when I was growing up, edited publications including Radio Times, published the UK's first newsstand magazine about personal computing, and was active in the NUJ. And way before NLP he was already exploring leading edge psychology with people who came up with it. Those were the qualities that led both to stand out in the domain of training - each had experiences to draw on outside the limited confines of a workshop.
My issue then, is of people claiming that they can help others to put something new into the world without having experience of doing so themselves. And that's why I continue to identify primarily as a writer rather than a trainer or coach. The work I do in the latter contexts is shaped in major ways by my ongoing experiences creating or co-creating work that's so far got out into the world through the BBC, film festivals, live performance, and digital distribution, and is set to scale up this year with the print publication of my first graphic novel, interest in making a feature film I scripted, and with a project I can't yet discuss about to get very interesting.
If you don't know what it's like to live with the consequences of taking big risks, you have no business telling others to do the same. I'm very aware of the ripple effects of taking a high-risk approach to making my way in the world - how that affects relationships, shapes choices I make every day, what it makes possible or impossible at a given moment. And I'm very aware of the skills I have that go into it all, and which of them are explicitly a consequence of my own training, which come from other parts of my life, and just how useless some of the knowledge I've acquired at great expense is in practice.
This matters. And it matters in particular given some of the fakes and flakes you can run into if you have much to do with the world of personal development workshops. For the most part, what's offered is watered down from someone else's work in ways that would make a homeopath blush. Result is that when a trainer offers something of substance - as NLP trainer James Tsakalos does for instance - people who've done previous classes elsewhere realise to their dismay that instead of expertise they paid someone to make them feel good. And there's a big difference between supposed skills acquired at a seminar, and the reality of working with people outside of that cosy bubble...my skills sharpened through being a support worker at a hostel for homeless people with mental health and substance issues.
The decades-long experience of being a creator comes first for me. I'm able to work with others in putting their work into the world because it's something I live the reality of for long hours every day. I love what I do, and that love and experience allows me to work with individuals and groups in ways that create difference for them. And sure, I have a bunch of impressive certificates about my own training - but so have any number of people. I might not be the right person to work with you, but please do ask any coach or trainer who you're considering working with just what qualifies them to be in the business of affecting the lives of others.
Only someone as devoted to artifice as Bowie could have achieved such a sincere impact with his death. The nature of his final work, and the timing of its release, showed just what's possible if you really are prepared to take things further than whatever ledge you're perched on. The announcement of his passing acts as a kaleidoscope through which it's possible to perceive the lyrics and videos of his new music afresh. Daring not just to the end, but beyond it, revealing as some old paintings did a skull concealed by perspective.