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Answering some of life’s questions

A little while ago my father-in-law gave us Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss. He’d flicked through it himself and was passing it on.

Ferris had just turned 40 and was wanting to answer some fundamental questions about life. Not knowing what his own answers would be to these questions, he asked over 100 people how they would answer them. The book is their answers to the same basic 11 questions, and is full of amazing life advice from amazing people. It’s split into bite-sized chunks and is easy to dip into. Some of it felt quite wise, some of it felt clichéd. [1]

And so that was that. The book sat around our house, destined to be picked up and flicked through every now and again, and then put back on a shelf.

But then one evening I read a post by @jukesie on the book and, not for the first time, I was inspired by what @jukesie had written. Jukesie had answered Ferriss’s set of 11 questions for himself. I’d never thought of asking myself the questions, and I had no idea what my answers would be. But, I’m doing the rolfing series and so I’m more open to exploring these things.

And given the original idea behind the book was to try and answer some life’s big questions, and Ferris describes the book as “call to action”, I thought I’d give it a go.

I answered the questions quickly, instinctively, in the most truthful way I knew. Where I didn’t have an easy answer that felt truthful, I moved over that question. (In sending out the questions, Ferris invited people to “answer your favourite 3 to 5 questions… or more, if the spirit moves you.”) And in writing up my answers, I haven’t changed any of them or sought to answer any of the questions I didn’t answer first time around.

Here’s what I came up with:

What are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

Writing my answer now, I realise that it’s as much about the people as about the books.

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I studied this book as part of doing A-level French at school. My teacher was Mr Byrne, who made his own violins. Occasionally in class, when we were fooling around too much, he would get one out of the cupboard in class and start playing it. I think it calmed him down, and it shut us up.

The book opened my mind in many ways and led on to so many different things for me. It sparked my passion and fascination for literature. It showed me some of what is possible with a first person narration. It introduced me to existentialism and to philosophy more generally.

I went on to study French and philosophy at university. In many ways, I was only studying French so I could continue to study literature. (Not having studied English at A-level, the option of studying English literature wasn’t open to me at university.)

When I was 20, I spent a year studying French and teaching English in Paris. It was an amazing experience, but I was living alone and, at times, the teaching was really challenging and I was quite lonely. At the start of my time there, The Times published one of those ‘100 best books’ lists. My godfather sent me a book from that list every month. It was an incredible gift.

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I spent 3 years of my life studying this book — 3 great years, doing a PhD in Sheffield with David Walker, who guided me, supported me, pushed me and showed me what excellent looked like. [2]

Moreover, during that time, I taught French to undergraduates to earn a bit of money. To help me with that, I did a PCHE — a post-graduate certificate in higher education (like a PGCE, but for teaching in higher education rather than school). Studying education and how people learn with Tony Harland turned out to be even more fundamental for me in my life. It blew my mind, and it’s only years later, now I have children and manage and coach people at work, that I realise how truly transformational that course was for me.

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I read this book, found by my wife, just before we had our first child. It was instrumental in how we cared for our young children, and it continues to resonate with us.

“touch is a basic behavioural need, much as breathing is a basic physical need”

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?

Just over a year ago, my wife gave me Robin Wood’s spoon carving tools starter kit.

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A couple of months later, I went on a spoon-carving course with Robin’s daughter JoJo Wood in the beautiful village of Edale in the Peak District. JoJo was a great teacher. Some teachers just want you to go home at the end of the course with a nice-looking spoon. JoJo’s main aim was that after 2 1/2 days we’d leave with the skills to be able to continue carving. And that’s what she gave me.

In fact, it feels like she gave me more than that. For the first time since being a kid, I’ve got a hobby. As someone who works with people and spends a lot of time on calls and in front of a computer, I’ve now got a creative activity where I use my hands. Using Robin’s beautiful tools, I can turn a log or a branch into a spoon. I can get lost in chopping/carving for hours. I go into ‘the zone’ and sometimes need to remind myself to stop or have a break.

Here’s my latest offering:

As Dan has said, making stuff is great — it ain’t magic, and it’s underappreciated.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?

I’ve failed a bunch of interviews, and each time I’ve felt sad and like I’ve missed an opportunity and failed to progress. But when I look back I realise that each time I’ve ended up doing something else that I’ve enjoyed and that has helped me to grow.

I failed an interview to get into the civil service, and I did my PhD.

I failed to get a job in the House of Lords, and I got more experience with technology and project delivery.

I failed to get a promotion in Parliament, and I joined the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and had three great years there.

I failed another interview at the FSA, which led me to leaving the civil service and start off on a new adventure.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

This is easy, the billboard would have six words on it:

Be here now. Breathe and relax.

This is a piece of advice from a TED talk Dan Millman gave. Watching his talk again now, I don’t find it brilliant like I remember it, but the advice is priceless. It’s easy to remember, and so I’ve remembered it, and I try to put into practice.

These six words have helped me in so many situations, in so many moments. Just remembering to do those things more often, remembering where we are, remembering to breath. As he says at the end of his talk:

We can always handle this moment, and the quality of our moments becomes the quality of our lives.”

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

Investing in my marriage. Investing in my life with my children.

The ROI — if we’re talking in that language — is endless, infinite.

In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?


A few years ago (about December 2013), I damaged a disc in my back. I’d been running for a few years — 5k, 10k, a couple of half marathons — but I stopped because of the pain. I felt I had to rest. The pain got worse, and I developed sciatica.

After a few months, I realised that I hadn’t done any exercise. All I’d done was get up, go to work, come home and sit on the couch. I went and got some acupuncture, had some massage. But at the same time, the pain was still pretty bad, so I went and saw a doctor and he referred me to a hospital for an MRI.

I went and had the scan, but I never collected the results.

I knew that the results couldn’t tell me anything. I already knew that I’d damaged a disc — I had had two people give me exactly the same diagnosis — and I knew that I didn’t want surgery on my back. So what was I going to do with the information from the scan?

Around the same time, I had come across Ido Portal, who has a particularly fitness philosophy based around natural movement and is one of the most beautiful movers I’ve ever seen.

I started to move again. I did qigong, I walked to work, we went to a family martial arts class, I went to the park in the evening with a friend to mess around and explore natural movement, we experimented with some of Ido’s movement patterns, we practised towards some natural movement goals.

My back healed and has been fine ever since.

I try to keep moving. I try to hang and squat every day.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

I say to myself: “Make the next 5 minutes excellent.”

This is a piece of advice from Tom Peters in Tim Ferris’s book.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?

Do the things you enjoy, the things you’re good at. Don’t worry about the rest. People will always want good people.

I was told this when I was at school by a friend’s dad. It’s stuck with me and has often helped me, when I’m questioning what I should do or doubting myself.

[1] Ferris himself acknowledges this point but says that over time what’s in the two categories might be inter-changeable for you: “As time passes and life unfolds, things you initially swatted away like a distraction can reveal depth and become unimaginably important. That cliché you ignored like a throwaway fortune cookie? Suddenly it makes sense and moves mountains. Conversely, thing you initially found enlightening might run their course”.

[2] During my PhD studies, I was supported and encouraged by Pascal Mercier. We spent hours together in his office, reading manuscripts of Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican and checking their transcription for a digital version of the novel that he was producing on CD-Rom. It’s only in writing this post that I’ve discovered he died several years ago in a tragic accident. As well as being an amazing scholar, Pascal was kind, generous, and fun. I remember him with a magnifying glass, studying a page as we questioned how many dots Gide had put at the end of a sentence (“ces trois petits points”), I remember his jokes, and I remember the kind notes he would occasionally send me years after I’d finished my studies. Also, as the internal examiner for my thesis, I know that I wouldn’t have got my PhD were it not for him.

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Senior Director @ElsevierConnect doing product strategy implementation & performance. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, & digital stuff. Personal acc’t.

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