Posted 10 February 2017
Today I realised that I have been working with The School of Life for nearly seven years. And that’s longer than I ever worked anywhere.
I was never full time, of course. Even in the busiest periods, as a visiting member of the faculty, I rarely did more than three events, classes or talks a month. But still. Now I find I’m one of the people who has been there longest.
When I first met Caroline and Morgwn, around a table in the basement classroom, in 2010, I told them I had never heard of The School of Life. Morgwn was polite, but a flash in her eyes suggested I must have been hiding under a stone – because, even then, the place had built up a sizeable following of devoted fans, and won lots of media attention in the UK and abroad.
Despite my thoughtless remark, I was kindly invited to come and talk about my book, Sew Your Own. That talk evidently went OK, because they asked me back, to co-create a class about “making a difference”, which went on to become the framework for my TSOL book, How To Change The World, and a TEDx, and indeed much of the work I do today.
Other highlights of my years at TSOL included:
- running a Ruskin-themed “conversation dinner”, where (not knowing who he was) I gave rudimentary drawing instructions to a Turner Prize winner, and found myself discussing the great Victorian with the actor Greg Wise, who had come in costume, because he was playing Ruskin in a movie at the time,
- being one of a “band” of authors travelling round the country together on a kind of literary rock tour
- being MC at a TSOL business conference at London’s South Bank Centre,
- curating and co-hosting a series of events on making change happen, with guests I chose myself,
- working with a wide assortment of corporate clients, on all kinds of topics, mostly to do with making change happen, or communicating more effectively,
- seeing one of my favourite teachers, from secondary school, come into my (!) class and tell me afterwards that I had done it brilliantly,
- working with a huge group of people interested in running branches of TSOL overseas, and being lucky enough to “visit some of them”: when they had done so,
- twice hosting the TSOL Christmas event in London, once with my friend Tazeen Ahmad, and
- generally being treated like a VIP, in countries where TSOL has a big following.
Less showy, but equally exciting, was the process of learning, and then presenting TSOL classes to literally thousands of people. Being insatiably curious, I wanted to teach every class there was, and I managed to cover quite a few, each with very different atmospheres – from How To Have Better Conversations (riotous, at times) to How To Think About Death (always challenging, but never, as you might imagine, dismal).
More than this, I was given space and time to try out my own classes, on topics like How To Silence Your Inner Critic, Be Yourself In Any Language, How To Make Books, and Improvise Your Way To The Top.
I had no idea, until I came to TSOL, that I would enjoy teaching, or even just speaking to large groups of people. I certainly didn’t realise, when I started, that I would enjoy letting go of the script, and following wherever participants wanted to take the conversation, within the class’s established theme.
But I jolly well did.
In fact, I only became interested in theatrical improvisation because, while researching How To Change The World, I became obsessed with the secrets of anybody who can change themselves, quickly, and improvisers seemed to be among the most accomplished at this. So it’s down to TSOL that I read a book by Keith Johnstone, and then went on to train with him.
I feel blessed to have watched people being changed by what they learned about themselves in that gorgeous subterranean classroom. Oh boy, there were some crackers.
Perhaps the most memorable were the couple who came back again to my class on Better Conversations, to tell me that they had hit it off so well, two years previously, that they decided to leave their current partners and get together.
Or the woman who did an reflective exercise, on paper, that demonstrated to her that the most important people in her life were in Australia – and so promptly announced, right there and then, her determination to move to the antipodes herself.
Or the many people who stood up to announce their amazing, thrilling ambitions for world improvement (or “just” self-improvement) to people who had been strangers before, but now became their greatest champions.
And I’m obviously not going to forget the many who came to classes and subsequently became my friends – and the other members of the faculty I call friends too.
Thanks to The School of Life – to Caroline and Morgwn in particular, for getting me started, but also the many other great people who have worked there over the years, too many to mention without danger that I might miss one, and I wouldn’t want to do that, and of course to Alain, TSOL’s founder – I have substantially changed the way I make a living.
I have become somebody who doesn’t just write. As well as performing, I trained as a coach, and started working with some amazing individuals who really are working to change the world. And I let loose my creative side: if it wasn’t for TSOL I would never have designed a map with Tina, one of the school’s earliest supporters, or plates, mugs and tea-cloths with Sophie, its co-founder, for her next great enterprise, The Department Store For The Mind.
Blimey. So much good stuff. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Page updated in 2021, for the launch of A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech