John-Paul Flintoff believes we need to reframe how we think about achieving our goals and changing the world.
John-Paul Flintoff is an author, a journalist and a faculty member of The School of Life – a cultural enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life – where, “You will not be cornered by any dogma, but directed towards a variety of ideas – from philosophy to literature, psychology to the visual arts – that tickle, exercise and expand your mind. You’ll meet other curious, sociable and open-minded people in an atmosphere of exploration and enjoyment.” His book How to Change the World was recently released (see my review here) and we caught up with him for an interview. Enjoy.
Your book is titled “How to Change the World.” In your TEDx video of the same title you spoke about how history paints a picture of individuals, but that truth shows the real magic of change is in life’s minutiae – a minutiae of which we are all taking part. When did you first notice how important this shift in thinking could be? How has living it changed your own life?
Some years ago, I was sent to interview the actor Jonathan Pryce about a show he was in. He’d complained, some time before, about one of the actors he worked with not working hard enough. I asked him why that mattered – why not concentrate on being great himself. (I had no idea how much this question exposed my ignorance.)
“Because on stage,” he said, “you are only as good as the people around you.”
I asked him to elaborate. He drew a breath and said: “Imagine a powerful king on the stage. What does he look like?”
I shut my eyes and tried to picture it. “He has a huge crown,” I said. “And a huge throne. Covered in gold…?”
No, Pryce replied. “Those details only mean that he is king. What makes him powerful is the other people on stage, lying flat on their faces before him. If the same people got up and turned their backs to him, told jokes and smoked cigarettes, or had a snooze, the same king would no longer be powerful at all. In other words it’s their behaviour that makes him powerful, not his.”
In other words power is given by consent of the people over whom it’s exercised. This really blew my mind. It means that, when we grumble about “the system” or “the status quo”, we lose sight of our own complicity in the way things are. The status quo is like that powerful king. If we don’t like it, we must get up off our faces, turn our backs, and start to tell jokes. Which is to say: Do Something.
You’ve covered plenty of topics in your years as a journalist – from factories in Bangalore to the UK economy, from restorative justice models to interviews with Nobel-winning scientists. What are three stories you’ve covered but still find yourself mulling over?
I wrote about an amazing woman, Camila Batmanghelidjh, who set up a charity helping thousands of deprived and often feral London children. At one point, we visited an adult mental ward straight out of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. A girl, underage and without competent carers, had been admitted “for observation” (althought she was mentally healthy) because it was cheaper than finding her proper accommodation. I was appalled that this happened.
This girl had come to the charity’s attention because she was robbing people on public transport. I wondered what I should do if I ever met somebody like her on a bus or train, and was told, “If you are afraid, you have to hide that: Cleo told me once that what pisses her off is that people make an assumption that she is going to do something wrong.”
The idea that people can pick up on what we are (even unconsciously) projecting onto them had a massive effect on me. Ever since, I’ve tried to approach even the most menacing people as if they were not menacing at all, in fact, as if they were really lovely – and (so far) I’ve been treated well in return. Good fortune? Perhaps. Mere soft-hearted liberalism? Maybe. But if it works…
Much more lighthearted are the stories I’ve done that were inspired by the writing of George Plimpton. I have always felt that journalism can be false when it aspires to be objective – and much preferred to say, well, this is my view, based on my experience, and you are welcome to take it or leave it. So I got into the ring with a boxer, and I joined a professional theatre show, and I worked for a “green” funeral business. I have always wanted to know what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes.
But the piece of journalism I probably think about most is the first interview I ever did, with the cult performer Ivor Cutler. He’d been a teacher at my junior school (we didn’t know that he was famous, and had been in films with The Beatles). I telephoned nervously and asked if I could interview him because I wanted to be a journalist. I had no idea where I would sell the interview, or what I was doing, but he was kind, and patient, and told me afterwards that he thought I would be a good journalist because I seemed interested in his answers. These may have been merely kind words, but they made a huge difference to me and gave me the courage to stick with it. I often think about how powerful and positive that kind of encouragement can be, and hope that I manage to do something similar for others occasionally.
One of your core beliefs is that we as individuals are capable of far more than we think we are, that we are beyond our business cards. What are some things that hinder people from unlocking and/or realizing their full potential?
The main thing is fear – we have wonderful ideas about what we might like to do, but over the years we have learned to internalise the criticism we’ve received and become our own biggest critic. Since writing the book I have trained as a coach, and I’ve been amazed at the resourceful, ingenious ways in which people throw up reasons why they can’t do the thing they would really like to do – not yet, anyway. There’s always an explanation that is plausible, and rational – but it’s usually completely unnecessary. One way around that is to trick yourself into thinking that your dream is entirely achievable – ask yourself what you would do “if you knew you couldn’t fail”, as if success were magically guaranteed, and then you will hit on the mission that really means something to you. After that, there’s a danger you might be overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of it – but remember that nobody ever did anything except in small steps – and you can start doing that tomorrow.
Lastly, you speak about how enjoying the solution is just as important as obtaining the goal. Can you give some practical examples of this? Regardless of what our goals may be, how can we practice this philosophy so that it becomes a regular part of our life?
When we get carried away with the final goal, we stop enjoying the process – which is crazy because we may never reach the ultimate goal. (Somebody may invent something that renders it unnecessary, or we may find a more important mission.) If you don’t make the small steps valuable in their own right, you may become one of those people who uses the end to justify any means whatever. Gandhi talked about trying to enjoy the “blessed monotony” of, say, washing the dishes. Other traditions recommend that you do that by imagining each dish is the Buddha, or the baby Jesus. Fundamentally, enjoying the small steps is a form of meditation. And like all meditation, when it works, it can be a great relief: when I first got worried about climate change and resource shortages I started to live my life as locally as possible “in order to save the world”. But in practice I stopped worrying so much and just started to enjoy the sheer fun of growing my own food, walking around my neighbourhood and making my own clothes (yes, really!).
Follow John-Paul Flintoff on Twitter @JPFlintoff
Read more in Social Justice.