Starting up Without Breaking Down – Part 3
I was a young child in the 1970s, and in 1980, when I was 8, my life, like many others was changed forever by a television programme, Cosmos.
At the time I would have said simply I want to be Carl Sagan. It didn’t take me long put it, in my head, that I wanted to inspire people to make the world better by filling them with wonder. Although I was never consciously systematic, from that moment I devoted myself, by accident, to the three things that would enable me to do that.
- I learned everything I could possibly learn about every subject I could find.
- I learned how to tell stories by writing constantly.
- And at 10 I snuck into the local secondary school debating club, and after that I took every opportunity to stand up and speak, very quickly learning, as Sagan demonstrated so perfectly in “The Pale Blue Dot”, that the most powerful stories are often not works of fiction.
Each of these things also made childhood very difficult. I was not only the school swat. I was also outspoken. And I talked in what also must have seemed like riddles to those around me as I wove fact and fiction endlessly together in highly imaginative but even more highly strange strands.
As a result, I was bullied almost constantly. And by my mid teens it was clear, looking back, that I had a large dose of depression to add into the mix. I would go long periods of time speaking to no one in a social setting, talking only in class, where I had an audience, however unwilling, for my rhetorical flights.
I’ll probably say more later but this is an overview so let’s keep the narrative moving. I applied to Oxford, against the advice of teachers who thought I didn’t stand a chance – not only was I too weird, but my exam results were hardly stellar, largely down to the fact that I was doing no work at all. My time, for several years, was split between living in terror while at school, and out of school sitting somewhere rocking and trying to will my life to be over so the pain would go away, and in the moments between imagining myself as a famous novelist, adored and revered for telling the truths and recounting the narratives of the dispossessed that no one else dared.
At interview, a bemused professor who would later teach me, or try to teach me (this isn’t a story where bemusement disappeared as my genius was revealed and recognised – it’s more a story of “oh dear, we should have known better!”), Aeschylus, asked why I wanted to study Classics when I had put on my application that I wanted to breed racehorses (the mathematics both of racing form and of breeding lines always fascinated me). My answer was that Sir Humphrey Appleby (from the TV series Yes, Minister) had studied Classics. I think they offered me a place because I was so unfathomable they were convinced they must have missed something.
My first two years were something of a slow-motion crash involving my first episode of mania. The whole sorry thing ended with me deciding Classics had been the wrong choice and that I was more suited to the more essay-based subject Theology and Philosophy. Looking back it was an obvious choice for me from the start. A blend of pretty much every single Humanities subject that actively encouraged critical thinking and flights of as much fancy as you can conceive. It was a subject I didn’t know existed when I was applying. Beside which I had just failed my O-level in Religious Studies (something I omitted from my application form – oops).
I finished last in my year in my first exams in Classics. By the time of my finals the better fit was clear and I finished top of my year.
By my late 20s, I was finishing my doctorate. On paper the title was unpromising – “The Erotic In Thomas Gataker’s Marriage Sermons, 1620-1624”. In practice I was looking at one of the world’s most fundamental wicked problems – the extent of human agency and freedom.
One of the things that involved was looking at the way people in early modern Europe stored, and then employed, knowledge using images. And the backlash against that which came in the 1500s, in a society that was deeply suspicious of the imagination. It was this suspicion of the image that in many ways shaped our current way of thinking about the world – the way we categorise, the way we analyse, the way we divide and sub-divide the world according to one giant list.
And then, about a year before I was ready to submit, I had a really big bipolar breakdown. When I came down, in the massive depressive slump that followed I hid from the world for 6 months, not leaving my room by daylight, unplugging my phone and leaving my post unopened, creating a heap of debt that it has been impossible to claw my way fully out of even now, two decades on. I dropped out of study, and the debt meant that once I had recovered, it was impossible financially to return to study.
As a disabled person in financial difficulty, I had to take a job the moment I could work again, any job I could get, but of course by that point “any job I could get” meant a job that didn’t use my skills – because the way recruitment tends to work, unless you have a bit of paper in an officially approved format, whatever skills you have are invisible. So I became a warehouse hand for a carpet company. After a few years I had enough logistics experience to get a premises job back at Oxford University.
I had gone from being told I was brilliant, that no stage in the world was unsuitable for my ideas, to being told I was pathetic for making mistakes booking rooms and being slow with data entry. As a member of support staff we are, as a group, institutionally considered not to have an academic idea worth considering.
I felt I should be empowering people to change the world. I had exactly the same skills I always had – since that breakdown, I have performed poetry at the Royal Albert Hall, I won the World Intelligence Championship, I have spoken about debt and mental health on national stages for a decade, and I have been, for the past two years, the Creative Thinking World Champion.
But instead I was failing at a job that was a total mismatch for my skills.
That shift probably shaped me more than anything.
- I was flummoxed. It was simply illogical. I am the same person, with the same potential for shaping the world through my ideas. Either you were wrong then or you are wrong now yet you (“The Academy”) seem convinced you were always right.
- The only way I can resolve this cognitive dissonance is to assume that academia is fundamentally broken.
- If academia is broken, that creates an imperative for me – to work on fixing it. Because academia should be shaping the future. It has unique access to the means of nurturing brilliant minds. And it is squandering so many.
- Mix this obvious mission – to unlock the potential of people being overlooked – with my desire to create wonder at the extraordinariness of the mind, and a world full of problems we that talent could be unleashed on, and the stirrings of what I am doing now are clearly there.
All that remained was to find a way to convince people to give me a platform.
Which brings me back to the problems of trying to do all this with a mental illness and debt that is a result of mental illness. Most people in this situation would be expected to “bootstrap” – to fund themselves through training; to fund their proof of concept. I had no funds. All I had was my ability. Which was sucked out of me on a daily basis by my job.
I spent a decade alternately hammering and probing, trying to find any way to create a platform for myself with no energy and no funds. The result was a string of failed blogs, a handful of novels, a mini career as an impresario and performance poet, a decade of mental health activism. Lots of people have told me all of these things have lots of value. Sadly, none of that value seemed to be monetary.
Then, in 2016, I won the Creative Thinking World Championship. It was the moment of the biggest cognitive dissonance of all.
I knew that 46% of CEOs of the world’s biggest companies thought creativity was the most essential skill for the 21st century. And I knew I understood something about how creativity worked that could provide what they were looking for …something all the experts I’d come across seemed to have missed. I had a title to prove it. Everyone else was offering people tools to find creative solutions to this problem or that problem. I knew I could offer them the 3D printer to print whatever tool the situation they were in required. And I knew that doing it involved my own research into mediaeval memory systems, and research by neuroscientists into the brains of rappers.
But I had no way to get that nascent idea in front of people who could make it happen.
In May 2017 came a chance encounter.
I had been sent an email by our Divisional Assistant Registrar for Research to forward to my academics about the Humanities Innovation Challenge. It looked fascinating I thought as I pasted it into an email. So I looked more closely, and to my astonishment I couldn’t see anything that actually forbade me from entering. So I scribbled some random thoughts on a Word document and posted them off, prepared some really bad slides, and the rest is history.
The first, and probably the most valuable thing of all, that experience gave me was having someone whose job it is to know these things tell me there was some value in that mess of an idea, however hidden! I’ve always had a strange relationship with confidence in my ideas. On the one hand, creativity was something people claimed to want, and I’d figured out enough to become a World Champion. So I must know something (and I couldn’t help thinking that if I was that creative I should be able to figure out a way to make a living from it). On the other hand, for two decades no one with recruiting power had ever shown the vaguest bit of interest in my creativity, and I had spent well over a decade working for an organization whose official position was that I had nothing of real value to offer at all. Every story we read about great successes has, at some point, the inspirational paragraph with the strings playing where the person perseveres because they believed in themselves. It’s hard to find that persevering belief when year after year you are institutionally told you are wrong.
But that one tiny thing – it felt almost like a wink, a nod and a whispered, “go on, you’re onto something there, let’s see what you’ve got” was all it took.
The practical support from Oxford University Innovation was even more important. I have had access to courses through the Oxford entrepreneurship centre, which provided not just intensive teaching but mentoring and, most of all, intensive pushing to think.
Most important of all I was given the funding to produce a product, a beautifully produced pack of cards professionally illustrated. I had the funds and support to turn an idea into a business. I had spent a decade saying all I needed was a chance and I would do the rest. Finally, exhausted and, it turns out, about to enter into another fairly major episode of poor mental health, I was given a chance.
Let’s see what I can make of it.