My 2014 successes and failures

I have never written up a year-in-review before. But taking the time to look back has been interesting, difficult – and helpful, because it gave me a clearer sense of what I’d like in the future.

Listing the successes showed me that I’m actually getting things done – which I’m liable to overlook if I don’t list them, because I’m usually so much more aware of the things I haven’t done. And trying to be specific about “failures” (note the inverted commas) helped me to find a lot that is useful in them, too.

You could find more stunning successes elsewhere, and more painful failures. This just happens to describe my year. I encourage you, while you’re reading this, to think how the things I mention might apply to you, and yours.


1. Beat developers and got to know my neighbours better I joined forces with dozens of neighbours to stop a particularly unwelcome new building. We won – and in the process we built a stronger community. I learned to use a mailing list, which is now useful for highlighting other issues in our small part of north London – recently, we rallied support for a wildlife sanctuary in the local park, and won Lottery funding.

2.Be Yourself In Any Language An idea I had with Antony Quinn, to use impro games to give people confidence speaking foreign languages (and also their own language). After trying out elsewhere, we ran a session at The School of Life, alongside Jude Claybourne, and with support from Barbara Le Lan. We’ve now worked with people in 23 languages, and I’ve runs sessions in schools, workplaces and in prison.

3. Becoming a certified coach Since being coached myself, I’ve been gripped by the potential of coaching conversations and determined to coach others, as much as I can, in the gaps between my other projects and writing. Training as a coach, and being certified this year by the International Coach Federation, helped me to get better and better at it, while clocking up hundreds of hours of paid coaching. I have made great friends among the coaches I trained with, have worked with wonderful, talented clients, and learned a lot from them all. I feel lucky to have discovered this fulfilling new line of work.

4. Coaching meets journalism I was always interested in how coaching might fit with journalism, and managed to combine both interests in an article for the Guardian that was shared more widely than many things I’ve written.

5. Mapology Guide: What’s Bugging You? Tina Bernstein and Mike Abrahams asked me to write the words for a map on how to make change happen, using things I’d learned writing How To Change The World. I was grabbed by their determination to reach beyond the usual self-help demographic, and excited to combine my interests in writing and design. After months of work, much of it by Jenni Sparks, we launched the map, What’s Bugging You? I’ve learned so much from Tina and Mike about having a vision, sticking to your guns, and finding the right people to work with.

6. Crowdfunding my novel This year marked the 300th anniversary of Queen Anne’s death, and I used that deadline to get my book out. The process of crowdfunding itself reminded me what drew me to the story in the first place, and helped me to share my ideas and excitement. It made me feel at once both incredibly supported and horribly challenged. As a result, my vision for the book itself was significantly altered. More, the decision to crowd-fund opened up thrilling opportunities to collaborate with my publisher, Unbound, and with other authors, of which more next year.

7. Life coach to the Queen – live! To promote the novel, and to shock people into caring about Queen Anne’s life, I did the riskiest performance of my life, at the Also Festival. I was brilliantly supported by Jude Claybourne, who played (among others) Anne. An hour-long improvisation, based on just five Post-It notes, this one-off was variously described as exciting, courageous, brilliant, magic, confusing, provocative, uncomfortable, poignant, super-authentic and unique.

8. Fashion Revolution Day A campaign I joined last year, at a fairly early stage, grew bigger and bigger and eventually reached truly global proportions. I’m incredibly proud that my question, Who made your clothes? helped to raise awareness of the many people in the supply chain who are usually forgotten. The campaign continues…

9. Returned to Somerset I’ve been visiting Somerset for more than half my life, and felt miserable when my in-laws decided to move back to London. As a family, Harriet, Nancy and I were determined to keep going back, and we did that for the first time before Christmas, taking a break with Harriet’s parents at a lovely rental place near their old home.

10. Travel I travelled more than ever this year to spread ideas about Changing The World, and improvisation. I made great new friendships that I hope will endure, and improved my language skills too: in Korea, where I was given my own Korean name (Minkyu, or “clever sunflower”) I picked up a bit of Korean sign-language and I used a trip to Mexico to complete Michel Thomas’s Spanish course – something I’ve meant to do ever since I met the late, great language teacher 10 years ago.

11. The Family Project The best thing I ever did was to marry Harriet Green, and this year, amazingly, is the 25th since we met. It’s also the year we wrote a book together. Harriet edits the Guardian’s Family section, and our book The Family Project combines her expertise with my interest in storytelling, illustration and interaction: it’s very much a book for users to fill in, not just to stare at. It’s published next year by Guardian/Faber, and we plan to run workshops all over the place too.

12. Helped my daughter This year Nancy was thrown into far more work than ever before. It’s very hard, as a parent, a) to help enough without b) being pushy, and I know I often failed. But not always. We’re so proud of her – not only funny, imaginative and affectionate, as we have always known, but also (it turns out) clever and capable of hard work.


I try not to feel too bad about failures, but there have been moments when each thing on the following list felt painful. That said, I believe that one measure of a good life is to reduce as much as possible the interval between a) bad things happening and b) genuinely finding an upside, no matter how unlikely that seems at first. I’m happy to report that I’m finding the upside more quickly, these days, than ever before.

1. Dotty The most painful failure of all. Early in the year, after a lot of careful thought, we got a puppy – but I soon found that I couldn’t cope. I was so proud of Nancy, who, when she saw how much I was struggling, suggested that we take Dotty back to the breeder. We all cried, a lot. I got fantastic support from friends and family, which was lovely, and from the breeder, who said we’d done the right thing to bring Dotty back quickly rather than wait 18 months – the usual interval before people decide they can’t cope. She has a lovely new owner – we get pictures, occasionally – and we still hope to get a dog of our own some day.

2. Speeding ticket Driving Dotty back to the breeder, far across the country, was horrible. (I went alone, except for Dotty obviously.) Not concentrating properly on the road, I was caught speeding (34mph in a 30mph zone). The punishment was to go on a driver awareness course. I didn’t want to be there, but was won round by the trainers, and have not speeded since, not even by that small margin.

3. Outsourcing work I asked people to help me with a number of projects. In several instances, these arrangements also produced fantastic outcomes, but sometimes I let people down by failing to set specific goals, or deadlines, or failing to be clear about what they hoped to get out of it beforehand. I take full responsibility, and am determined to do better in future.

4. Time management and email I missed things, and paid the price by annoying people and losing work. To fix this, I started using better tools, more consistently. (These included some great apps, AND a return to the security of a paper-based Filofax.) I’m aware that I will always fail a bit in this area, and am getting better at living with that.

5. Money I’ve been working hard to get better at managing money over recent years, adopting a variety of new systems and apps, and in 2014 I finally recognised how unhappy I was with The Co-operative Bank. For a long time, I had found it painfully inconvenient, but major news stories showing the Co-op to be no better, ethically or managerially, than other banks led me to switch banks in the autumn (to Barclays). I’m much happier, and only regret that it took me so long. So that’s a success. The big failure, financially, was receiving a tax bill I couldn’t pay – not by a long way. Horrible! But by getting more focused, I discovered that I was owed many thousands of pounds, managed to reclaim most of it, and soon paid off my outstanding liability. I have learned SO much about managing money, this year, and look forward to learning still more.

6. Missed deadlines Yes, I listed my crowd-funding as a success (above), but it’s also been a kind of failure, because I lost momentum for a while and didn’t raise enough money in time to publish the book, as planned, during the 300th anniversary of Queen Anne’s death. And three other cherished projects, closely connected to the work I love best, failed to make any real progress at all. The easy explanation is that I didn’t have enough time. But the harder question is: why did I find time for other things, but not for these?

7. Health I allowed minor problems with my beloved Brompton bicycle to remain unfixed for too long, and as a result I haven’t ridden for weeks on end. I also failed to give priority to other kinds of exercise. I have a stupid tendency to think that because I’m not overweight, everything’s fine. But having severed two arteries and a vein in an accident when I was 30 – and experienced complications as a result – I’ve long known that the thing to take greatest care of is not my weight but my circulation.

8. Literally falling on my face If I don’t die of some circulatory disorder, I’m convinced it will be a result of banging my head – something I do all the time. (It’s ridiculous: I’m tall, but not that tall.) This year, at a huge public event in Mexico, with a camera on me, I confidently attempted something and literally fell on my face. Smack! On a whim, I decided to show the video footage to an audience of 5000, in hope that that might look like (and be) the “strong” thing to do – and make me feel better. It didn’t.

9. Not being, having or doing “enough” I take on too much. That’s partly because everything looks fun, I’m easily excited, and I like to say yes – but it’s also because, like many freelances, I’m afraid to say no. As a result, I worked more evenings and weekends, in 2014, than ever before, and over the year I saw less than I would wish of the people I love. And that sentence says it all.


Overall, 2014 was a great year, crammed with things to be pleased about. Perhaps a bit too crammed. Slowing down a bit, and saying no a bit more, might be a good idea.

But what about you? Can I persuade you to draw up your own list?

This month I was mentioned in O magazine (the one founded by Oprah Winfrey). The writer seemed to be particularly impressed by my insistence that exercises such as this are utterly useless if you only read about them without actually DOING anything. So please: try it! Take your time to work out what really makes a success, or a failure. I’d be glad to know how you get on (leave me a comment below, you might encourage others).

In the past, I’ve tended to write posts like this – with ideas that might inspire you to make changes – whenever I felt like it. But I’ve had some incredible feedback, and requests to do more, so I plan to share more consistently next year. I hope you will find that useful.

If you are one of the people who supported me in any way, in 2014 – THANK YOU. I really appreciate it. If not, I look forward to being better acquainted in 2015.