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IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, OVERWRITE IT

Often, when I'm meeting someone for the first time, I'll say that I took early retirement at 25. It's a harmless and supposedly amusing way to avoid talking about something bigger that happened half a life ago, when I and about a third of the staff at an ad agency were made redundant.

I suspect I was the only one who left something like happily and willingly. And that's down to something that had happened a few months earlier.

This night wounds time. The expression has haunted me since I encountered it on the cover of Starless And Bible Black, a King Crimson album. It was there thanks to Tom Phillips, an artist most known for his work A Humument, where he took a Victorian book - A Human Document by W.H. Mallock - and created his own text from it by highlighting and connecting some words and phrases, and painting over the remainder.

Now, nobody much talks about Mallock's book. But what Phillips did with it lives on as a significant alteration of something that was already there. I wish the same could be said for the town centres I see across Britain, and sometimes elsewhere when I have been abroad. Centuries of urban development and complex local histories and understandings have been overwritten by the same few shops that can be seen again and again as you travel about, square footage consumed by voracious multinational businesses that populate their space with goods aimed at whatever demographic they've opted to feed on. Their logos are seared into our consciousness, because isn't that what brands do?

As space is corrupted, so is time. Retailers are seeking to co-opt the calendar with events like Black Friday, and National Pastie Week, but corporations haven't yet succeeded in redefining the way we structure time with the success that the Gregorian calendar had when it replaced the Julian one. Besides, raw human experience can still overpower prepackaged options. 

February 28th was my dad's birthday.

But the year I was made redundant it was overwritten by my brother Nigel's death.

He was at the wheel of a car he and some friends had stolen.

Dad had to identify his charred corpse.

 

This night wounds time.

 

And wounds can heal.

 

When we buried my brother, the route taken by the hearse took us past the homes we shared with Nigel as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. That wasn't planned by either of my parents. It happened to be the route that made most sense given where the journey started, and where it ended, chosen by the driver of the hearse. But that particular shape, recapitulating the years we lived and grew and changed together, inevitably felt significant. Well, it was significant - just unplanned. There's a reason Jung called synchronicity meaningful coincidence.

That journey was a condensed version of our lives with Nigel, much of the time spent travelling down roads we'd played, fought, laughed, argued. It's how they'd do it in a film, so is it any wonder I ended up writing scripts when life itself seemed to be overdoing the job on this and so many occasions?

And now it's a New Year, according to the calendar I favour. A blank page. And one which we don't have to write on at all, let alone with resolutions. But have a think, about the extent to which your choices are shaped by organisations that are only interested in you as a source of revenue. If there are people who treat you similarly, then pay them some attention too. Thing being, it doesn't have to be like that. You get to choose a lot more about your life than you might imagine, and it's worth doing if the result is trading a way of living primarily experienced through your economic value to others for one where you get to determine what's significant, and how you allocate your time as a consequence.

This needn't involved giving up a job and becoming a hermit or self-employed. There are plenty of people I know who find their jobs rewarding and worthwhile. And there are more I know who trade hours put into organisations that mean nothing to them for cash allowing them to enjoy their time outside of it. If that's a transaction that works, then good luck. It's best to be in charge of making the big choices in your life, than be forced into a major reassessment of how you live because of the death of someone you love.

After my brother's death, I moved to Nottingham. Yesterday, I took a walk through Beeston, the area I first lived when I came here. And part of what made that experience good is the choices I've made since have overwritten whatever I may have formerly felt about the place, let alone what created those feelings. Wandering through the place ('a seaside town without the sea', a much-missed friend put it once) and beyond, I walked through the university grounds, and spent time at a couple of arts centres there. You could say that a university is a brand, but even if that's the case I'm much happier with brands that decorate their space with opportunities to occupy time in nature, and with paintings, and the company of people out for a show or a walk with their children, than I am in a city where I could be anywhere judging by the familiarity of the names on the shopfronts.

Capitalism has imprinted its offerings on us in part through using what makes art work, and it's easy to mistake its products for our desires. Given that I'm writing this in a house full of books, DVDs, comics, CDs, and other paraphernalia of consumer society, that may be hypocritical to some extent. So be it. And I know that much of what I enjoy and pay money for goes on to shape my own creativity, and the stories I offer the world, and the forms in which I offer those stories. Maybe stories isn't your thing, but we've all got something to offer that you can't get by wandering around town and finding it for the best price. Whatever that something is, do more of it this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHY SHOULD YOU LISTEN TO ME?

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.