Whenever people are going through changes in their lives, I tell them my favourite Chinese proverb: “in order to discover new oceans, you first need the courage to lose sight of the shore”.
It’s a proverb that has come in handy and given me strength at various times in my own life. It’s also a phrase I am clinging to a lot right now. And for the first time probably ever, I don’t have a clear idea of where this next part of the journey will take me.
I first came across this proverb shortly before opting to ditch my job at The University of Birmingham to head out to Uganda volunteering on an HIV/AIDS programme for a year, and it seemed to fit so well. I was following my heart, taking a risk and leaving behind a job that I had loved and excelled in. That job meant everything to me, but so did doing something to help in Uganda (and of course looking back, the friends and the lessons made the leap worthwhile).
And then in 2008, when I was juggling being a consultant by day and musician by night, I discovered the world of personal productivity. I became obsessed with making my work as efficient and productive as possible, creating systems and frameworks that circumvented my own weaknesses and bad habits. It felt like I was doing magic. I decided to make a business out of it, and took some calculated risks to make it happen.
Think Productive took the best part of three years to break even. I remember working the long hours, watching everyone else in the business get paid whilst I worked for free and regularly put more of my savings in to keep the thing alive and help it precariously grow. But I stuck to the vision, and slowly but surely, a successful business emerged, doing work that I am hugely proud of. It was a perilous voyage of discovery, but I loved every second of it. When you’re in the middle of the ocean and can’t see shore anywhere around you, it’s up to you to decide whether you’re completely lost or profoundly free. Those are the scariest moments of all, but also often the most important.
I felt a kind of romantic idealism towards creating something from scratch that was truly helping people, and that I was building from the very beginning to be something bigger than me. I got lost in that freedom.
Of course, I’ve been lucky along the way to meet and work with some extraordinary people with complementary skills, without whom the thing would never have floated. In the early years of the business I would talk a lot about Lee’s role as my “first follower” (the bit that takes more guts than the instigation or leadership, actually) and our conversation in a Bristol car park after a speaking event where we both realised we were going on a journey together, and Elena’s role as my number two, my sidekick and my steady but quietly brilliant hand on the tiller.
The founder myth is the idea that anyone can do these things on their own. I used to – badly – but it was only once I engaged some fellow travellers who were better than me at 98% of all things, that we started to see the real progress. These days, Elena is the leader, not me. Lee works alongside a team of highly talented people at TPHQ to make our stuff better, and we have a bunch of ninjas and international licensees out there not simply delivering the work, but chipping in ideas to help steer the ship, building an incredible community and spreading ‘brand ninja’ around the world.
Too rarely do I spend time looking back, or thinking about what my crazy little germ of an idea has become, or thanking the people who helped build it. It’s important for all of us to have those moments to celebrate successes. When I do, it fills me with awe and sometimes disbelief. Often when I do keynotes, I suggest people should write a “have done list” as well as a to-do list. I must confess I don’t follow my own rules here. To this day, I have never put myself or my business forward for an award of any kind, and we’ve only had one company birthday party in seven years, and only then because five felt like a big round milestone. I used to think this was healthy modesty (I hate all the boastfulness that business and entrepreneurship often seems to attract) or perhaps my weird introversion or worse still, an unhealthy lack of competitive drive or ego. All are true. But my new keynote line is to say that “humans are weird”, and owning my own weirdness for a moment, it’s also partly shame at what hasn’t yet matched my level of ambition, and partly fear at the idea of what the hell I would do if the thing didn’t need me anymore.
For the last two years, I have been grappling with and attempting to redefine what role I need to play in Think Productive. What I know is I am better as the firestarter than as the guy who puts out fires or manages the fire station rota. The reality as of now, much to my horror, is I’m mainly the guy who is ‘in the way’. Progress is slower because my approval is sought or my influence bears down. I am feeling the full weight of the phrase ‘founder syndrome’ and it feels unhealthy. And having set a strategic path for 2016-2019 last year, I genuinely don’t know what else I can contribute right now, aside from giving keynotes, writing more books and hopping around promoting ‘brand ninja’ (I write this floating over some mountains in New Zealand), whilst staying the hell out of the way of everything else.
Then there’s my favourite African proverb: “even the best dancers get tired”. And the truth is I am tired. Work still enthuses me, but it’s no longer the heady romance it once was. I frustrate myself (and others!) covering the same ground over and over again. It’s not the business’s fault that I am tired. My last three years have included two house moves, two books, the arrival of one very challenging toddler with chromosomal patterns no geneticist had ever seen before, and a brief cashflow crisis which meant having to make some talented and wonderful human beings redundant. I even had a period of depression, which I just continued to work through and not tell people about because, well, my boss wouldn’t give me the time off. Yep, no one tells you your boss is even weirder when you work for yourself.
When my son, Roscoe was small, I dreamed of discovering new oceans with him. Of me taking time out from the business, so that we could travel the world. The timing felt good too: I’d be at that seven-year itch moment with the business, and he’d be just in that last year before he’s legally obligated to be stuck in school for the next 13 years of his life (the seven-year itch, by the way, interests me as perhaps the best rest and renewal schedule for entrepreneurs – get inspired, get wired, get tired, rest, repeat). So, that was my plan: a nine-month sabbatical, travelling the world and seeking out new oceans.
Well, sadly the travel part of my plan is no longer possible: Roscoe is ‘in the system’ for his autism and learning difficulties and taking him out of this for six or nine months would be irresponsible parenting. I wouldn’t change him for the world, but for now he needs me and his amazing mum to be rooted. There are other reasons that are too personal to cover even in this pretty personal post. Messy, human weirdness. It all moves on and the seasons change.
But then, a few weeks ago, about five people with whom I had shared the travel sabbatical dream a long time ago all started asking me if the plan was still in my pipeline. It felt like the universe tapping me on the shoulder. In truth, for a long while I had decided to just let it go and keep busy. But each time in my life I’ve been at these points, I have either thrown myself straight into the next thing, or kept myself busy, kept it all moving. This one is going to be different.
So here goes.
In order to discover new oceans, I first need the courage to lose sight of the shore. From January to July, I am going to step away from the business, and from anything else resembling work (the only exception being parenting!), with the sole intention of rediscovering what I want my role in the world to be.
I may make short forays to interesting places, but my responsibilities as a dad mean I can’t travel too far or for too long. Most of these new oceans and discoveries will be from the comfort of home. And actually, I am glad that I don’t have the option of running away and being busy on the move. As my coach and I discussed recently, the purpose is simply to ‘let the field go fallow’. Stillness. Reset. Turn me off to turn me back on again.
I may spend time repairing the friendships that my busyness damaged in those early years of Think Productive, or reconnecting with my own sense of identity, or rekindling the fires that used to burn so brightly in me. And I can honestly say this all terrifies me more – this idea of “nothingness” – than any of the very many big “somethings” we set out to achieve (and often achieved) along the way.
I haven’t had a period in my life without work since I was 13 years old. From 13-18 I did a paper round six nights a week and that has basically set the tone for the rest of my life. And whilst I have developed a pretty healthy work-life balance in recent years (I work a 4-day week and I do keep weekends and almost every evening work-free), the business, and the busy-ness, is always there at the back of my mind: “how do we solve this issue? did we file our taxes? why is this thing stuck?”, and so on.
I am excited about what insights this workless period may bring to the long process of me writing a book about work-life balance, with the working title of “Beyond Busy”, but if I spend any of the next six months actually doing the writing for that book, then I think that probably equates to failure of the most tragic and ironic kind. And I think that to produce a book I’m proud of, with the struggle-and-redemption qualities that helped ‘Productivity Ninja’ to hit a nerve for people, then I need to truly search beyond my own sense of ‘busy’.
I hope to be back, in whatever form that takes, feeling fired up, inspired and ready for a new adventure. Six months as just a human being, not human doing. Until then, I guess I need to embrace this fallow period, the uncertainty and the moments where I won’t see any shoreline. The blank page as the ultimate expression of freedom and possibility.
Wish me luck, and if you can lend me your boat, let me know.