I often used to think of life’s progress as a parabola, with a curving trajectory rising and rising and then falling again. The rise would include learning, growing, achievement and success, and the second falling part would be – well, I didn’t quite know what, gradual decline and death I supposed. Only, now I’m definitely on that second half, I’m not so keen on the image and can’t help thinking that a different representation with more sense of the possible would be preferable.
The trouble is, the image of rise and fall is a self-fulfilling prophecy. From half-way, we look back on a set of memories – interpreted for many of us through negative internal dialogue – and then expect a future that repeats the patterns of the past with an added sense of decline. Not good!
That’s why I like the story of John McAvoy
John was born to be a criminal. His dad died when he was young; his uncle was a member of the notorious Brink’s-Mat robbery gang, his step dad was serving a life sentence for armed robbery, and the whole family was involved in serious organised crime. At 16 he owned a sawn-off shotgun and was aiming it at security vans across London. By the time he was in his early 20s he’d earned a life sentence for conspiracy to commit armed robbery and landed in Belmarsh high security prison where he shared a wing with such role models as Islamic terrorist Abu Hamza and some of the 21/7 bombers.
Reading so far, you wouldn’t guess at a happy outcome. Only you’d be wrong. Two things happened.
The first was a common one – most of us experience a version of it at some point in our lives – the rough awakening. He’d known plenty of violence in his life, but one day in prison, he saw on the TV news that his best friend had died, thrown out of a car on a roundabout in a police chase in Holland. Shut in his cell, John suddenly thought, “What the f*** have I done with my life? Nothing.”
The second was a rarer gift: another human being saw something possible in him he couldn’t see himself. What happened was this: like many another prison inmate he used to exercise hard in the gym just to get out of his cell. One day he was working away on the rowing machine and a prison officer, Darren Davies, was watching him. The next day the officer came into the gym with a series of rowing records printed out and casually suggested he look at them. John realised he could probably beat them, and for the first time for years felt a sense of excitement at what might be possible. The prison officer took steps to find out if official records could be officially broken in prison and then – with difficulty – obtained permission from the governor for John to make attempts on the records. John set to with all the focus and determination he had earlier used for crime, and broke the British record for rowing the marathon plus several other British records. He then smashed the world record for the distance rowed in 24 hours. Darren gave up his day off to sit with John for a day and a night while he cracked the record.
The happy outcome?
The records John broke while in prison coincided with raising money for charity and ultimately his sentence was reduced. He was put in touch with Putney rowing club and later, looking at what was possible for people his age in athletics, he changed discipline and opted for the Iron Man triathlon, consisting of a gruelling 3.86 km swim, a 180.25 km bicycle ride followed by the 42.2 km marathon. Previously, he couldn’t swim and hadn’t ridden a bike since he was 12, but that didn’t hold him back. He now has a personal coach and sponsors, and this year the probation service allowed him to travel to Frankfurt for his first European Iron Man Championship. He performed creditably, inching towards the European record. He’s thoroughly accepted in athletic circles and seen as a hero.
But of course, there’s another hero in his story: the prison officer, Darren Davis, the man who recognised raw talent in a hardened criminal, believed in the possibility of change, and then gave of his interest and time. He’s the man who sowed the seed of success, without whom none of this would have happened.
How to be a catalyst for change
One of the great things I learned from NLP and coaching studies was that we can all be agents of change. I found mentors who believed in me when I hardly believed in myself. Then in turn, students of mine have awakened others to possibility. One completely turned around a member of staff who was just about to be dismissed, through awakening a sense of the possible in him – the organisation had never seen anything like it. Another wrote to me after a gap of several years to say that the change process started back when she felt lost had led to an entirely new career as producer for the BBC.
Such stories are wonderful to hear, but mostly none of us get to know the results of seeds we sow – what exciting outcomes result from perhaps even a short moment of intense interest and caring for another human being. It happens in those moments when we see, not just the person before us but also the possibility within someone who doesn’t yet believe in that possibility for him or herself.
We all tend to look at other human beings and see what we already know. This other seeing views with fresh eyes, eyes that know nothing, and glimpses possibility. I say eyes; I might say heart.
Anyone who pays attention can do this. There’s an autumn story of an acorn who pays more attention than the other acorns. It notices that acorns that fall to the ground crack open and start to grow into oak trees. Most of the other acorns are appalled and disgusted with the idea that they might fall and crack open, and ridicule the acorn’s assertion. But the acorn looks up at the towering oak above them, and says to the other acorns in amazement and wonder, “Look! – We are that.”
Luckily, as John McAvoy would say with gratitude, it only takes one.
Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth. William Blake
ALSO TO SHARE
When I talk above about “the man who recognised raw talent, believed that change was possible, and then gave of his interest and time”, I am of course talking also about coaching. A few simple conversations with a coach can be life changing and worth the investment many times over. Email me or call me on 01306 886114 if you want an initial conversation about what coaching might do for you.
It’s not just what we say, it’s how we say it. Do you realise what an amazing potential resource we have in our voice? I thought you might enjoy an article I wrote about this miracle. Click the link above.
Download some of my E-courses too (I never share your email with anyone):
The Art of Conversation
Conversational skill isn’t really about being articulate and having a fund of things to talk about – though that’s what most books on the subject would suggest. It’s much more about being at ease with who you are and knowing how to connect with others. Only then do you have satisfying and buzzy conversations.
Butterflies and Sweaty Palms
Subtitle: 25 brilliant strategies for speaking and presenting with confidence. It’s about WHAT to do if you’re scared. And don’t worry – we’re ALL scared at times.
Voice and Speaking Skills for Dummies
The perfect resource to dip into to discover the power of your voice, understand how it works and use it like a professional, whether in meetings, addressing an audience, or standing in front of a classroom.
Voice of Influence
“The body language of sound”. Like body language, your voice gives you away. Find your authentic voice, speak powerfully and influentially, and reach people on a deeper level.
TEDx Dorking was a triumph last week. One of the speakers reminded us about the Ken Robinson talk on creativity in education – it really is good, have a watch … or watch it again. He tells of a six year old creating a picture in drawing class. What are you drawing?” the teacher asks. And the girl says, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” And the teacher says, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” And the girl says, “They will, in a minute.”
Oh what mighty oak trees might grow, how high would the parabola of life sweep, if children’s confidence and creativity were recognised and nurtured!