The Good Life Project

Have you heard of Jonathan Fields?

Jonathan Fields & the good life projectIf not, let me give you the two second introduction – a former big firm lawyer, he is now a phenomenally successful author, entrepreneur and speaker. He’s one of the cool, popular kids in the startup world. The kind of guy you want to learn from. I had recently emailed him about getting together for coffee but our schedules had been too busy and the meet up had been put on hold indefinitely.

My weekend had slid past in a lazy summer haze of boating and beaching and seafood gluttony, when I had an email from Jonathan on Monday evening.

new york sailing

new york summer beaches

Would I like to be interviewed for his new venture, The Good Life Project. No big deal, he was just inviting 10 people he knew in the city to take part in a relaxed (his words not mine) Charlie Rose style interview where we would talk about what it means to lead a good life. The videos would be broadcast online and released to his 37, 000 fans (if we go by twitter). Oh and by the way, the interview was on Wednesday. Was I in?

Of course I was in. I was flattered, excited and ever-so-slightly terrified. Public speaking is one thing. I’m used to it. I know what I’ll say and I know I’ll have the floor. An interview is something entirely different.

But I had to do it. Because this was a chance to put my mouth where my pen had been and well and truly give in to the idea of being vulnerable.

The day rolled around. A steamy New York day, the filming was running late, 2pm had rolled into 2:30, half an hour was left on the memory card, four cameras were trained on my face and three lights were flicked on. A bead of sweat crested my ankle and fell into my sandal as Jonathan turned to ask the first question.

I would like to tell you that I was eloquent and funny and composed. I’m not sure if I was any of those things. I imagine I was rather more rattled and out of control. I know that I stuttered up a storm. The cameras cut out twice and we had to begin again, palms were raised in a 5 minute warning.

And yet I survived. I felt slightly sick afterwards but I said what I wanted, or close enough, and I got my first taster of what it might be like to start marketing this book that I’m bringing out into the world.

Not easy, not a walk in the park, but exciting and funny and awkward and well worth it. Because ultimately I think that living a good life means striving, living on the edge of uncertainty, laughing at ourselves and embracing those imperfect moments when we recklessly human.

Improving your writing & becoming a great storyteller

Most of us experience doubt at some point in our creative lives and all of us are constantly striving to improve. So, how do you make your work match your ambitions? How do you make yourself a great writer?

First, you need to love writing and you need to know what good writing is. As Ira Glass explains, most people get into creative work because they have good taste. They may not be able to create great work immediately, but they know it when they see it. You have to read enough to know what good language tastes like, what it feels like on the page. Even Hunter S. Thompson used to type out pages from “The Great Gatsby” just to feel what it was like to write like Fitzgerald.

You need to understand the rules. You need to understand structure and character development and plot and the cadence of spoken language. You can get that from reading, from asking questions, from taking lessons, from whatever source you fancy, but you need to make yourself an expert in your chosen field.  Then, once you know the rules, you can break out of the structure, or choose stay with in it. You can be as creative as your imagination will allow.

You need to see your writing as a job, a skill that you want to hone. You don’t have to write on a typewriter, or only write great work, or ask for others praise. You just have to write. You have to write every day. You have to have faith that the rubbish you are putting down on paper will gradually improve into something you can be proud of.

It may take you years but, once you have created something that you don’t hate, you should start to get feedback. Start off with your mum or your best friend if you want. Give yourself a little confidence boost. Then choose people from your field and ask them to be brutally honest. Heed their advice. Edit. Show them again. Try not to be destabilized by negative reactions. Start again if you have to. Push yourself to improve. Don’t give yourself a hard time if it takes a while. That’s normal. Keep going. Finally, be proud of yourself. Be proud that you stuck with it. Be proud that you have created a piece of work that you don’t hate, something that know is pretty great.

That’s my advice but what do you think? How do you make your work as good as your ambitions?

Check out this great video made to the words of Ira Glass:

New York Adventures: Joining the polar bears

2012 in New York started out on a good note. Or rather it started out on a very high pitched scream.

new york polar bearsMy voice roared as the cold water hit my ankles. I stopped screaming as my toes started to go numb and I lost all feeling in my arse. In mute admiration I watched Jeremy dive under the water for the third time. We had decided to kick, or rather swim, off 2012 with the Coney Island NY Polar Bears. Hangovers and sanity forgotten, hundreds of us had decided to storm the shockingly cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Polar Bear Club founderAccording to the impressively named Polar Bear Club founder, Bernarr Macfadden, a winter dip in the ocean could improve one’s stamina, virility and immunity. The club had been going strong since 1903 and, if I was to believe Bernarr, a quick dip would be a virtual all-in-one new year’s resolution.

I was keen. The weather was on our side, new year’s day was a balmy 55 degrees. We planned to go with friends, bundled up with enough warm clothes to keep us cosy after our dip and were given the incentive of a post swim cup of hot spiked cider. Jeremy and I ran into the water holding hands like kamikaze storming troops.

I would like to say that I emerged in a state of frozen nirvana from under the water. I’d like to tell you that I stayed with our friends and bantered calmly treading water for 10 minutes in the ocean. Sadly none of that is true. I’m much more of a wimp that I would like you to believe. However it is true that I ran out of the water on a high that lasted well beyond the joy of wrapping myself in my towel.

In fact I felt so good for so long afterwards that I’m tempted to give a dip in the icy water another try on a less crowded occasion. Maybe I’ll even get my head under next time. Anyone mad enough to join me is very welcome.

What are you without a voice? Story of Roger Ebert

I’m here as a man who wants to communicate” – Roger Ebert, TED, March 2011

Those words were spoken by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, in a way. Maybe you saw the TED speech. Maybe you have long known about Roger Ebert’s life story. Maybe not. If you have not, see it here now. It will brighten your Monday.

TED is full of moving speeches given by shockingly eloquent speakers. This is no different. Except that Roger Ebert can no longer speak. His words were spoken by his wife Chaz, two friends John Hunter and Dr. Dean Ornish and Roger’s favourite computer voice Alex.

roger ebert

In 2006, surgeries for cancer took away Ebert’s ability to speak, and today he is forced into a virtual world where a computer does some of the living for him. Through his MacBook Pro, Ebert has found a way to continue to communicate and has escaped the silence that would have been his only option without today’s technology.

Ebert is a prolific writer. He continues to talk passionately to the world through his keyboard. On facebook, twitter and via his blog journal his voice is ‘normal’ and far more articulate than most. Idle chatter does not exist in his world, rather every word he types or speaks has meaning. He has a greater respect for language than most of the verbose world.

“What you see is not all you get”, types Ebert. He knows that most people have little patience with his speaking difficulties and that most people look away from illness. Yet he remains committed to connecting with his audience. At the end of the talk, he tells a joke through his ‘voice’ Alex. And it works, a belly laugh rolls forward from the audience. He explains how important it was for him to find a digital voice that could muster the right timing and inflection to tell a joke. He looks proud of the reaction.

Due to the missing sections of his jaw and the lack of engineering behind his face, Ebert perpetually smiles. Only his eye’s can register the emotion he feels. Watching them closely in the talk they once flashed concern for his wife but they largely remained joyful, twinkling as he acted out the words that were being read for him. He never looks like a man who feels sorry for himself. I sense that he doesn’t want our pity. Who does?

roger ebert

Ebert, before he was diagnosed with cancer, giving his trademark two thumbs up

Towards the start of his speech he says, “The act of speaking, or not speaking, is tied so indelibly to one’s identity”. Without a voice the written word has become central to Ebert’s way of living. He has a readership of thousands and thoroughly encourages online debate. His inner monologue has become public knowledge in a way that it might not have become otherwise. He has become a product of his ‘condition’ but not a victim of it.

My admiration is boundless.

Bill Withers: Still Cool

It is one of life’s more pesky ironies that I cannot sing. My virtual tone-deafness has always seemed unfair in light of my stutter. Away from the delicate ears of others, I have been known to belt out the odd 80s classic in the shower and I have never once stuttered. In fact, of all the stutterers I have met, I have yet to hear about one person who stutters whilst singing. Grabbing on to this little factoid a surprising number of people have suggested that I turn my daily conversations into a real life musical. No doubt I would be completely fluent singing away in my padded cell.

Stuttering singers span the breath of music history from Carly Simon to Mel Tillis and Gareth Gates (for those of you Brits who were teenagers back in 2002 and remember the early novelty of Pop Idol). But there is no stuttering singer as quintessentially cool as Bill Withers. I remember thinking that when I interviewed him back in 2009 for my book on stuttering and I felt that again last night when I stumbled on the recent documentary ‘Still Bill’ in my Netflix account.

bill withers

“Some people are born cool”, he observes in his trademark rolling voice. It seems like he must be talking about himself until he cracks a smile and carries on, “I was an asthmatic stutterer from Slab Fork, West Virginia.” His playful wit establishes from the beginning that this is a rare musician’s documentary. There are no fawning crowds, no crumbling rock and roll hedonism. Rather we are given a picture of Bill’s daily life as he spends time with his family, records music with his daughter, shoots the breeze with friends and celebrates his 70th birthday.

We are shown a humble man who chose to walk away from fame for a quiet life, and is happy that he did. As he tells his kids, “It’s OK to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful you’re gonna have to pass through All Right. And when you get to All Right, take a good look round and get used to it because that maybe is as far as you’re gonna go.” Is he talking about himself? It seems hard to believe but the line reminded me of something he said when I interviewed him years ago. I had been sitting with him in his wife’s office for almost two hours when he got a call from Simply Red’s management asking him to come as a VIP to his next show. His surprise morphed into gratitude and, when I asked him if that kind of thing happened all the time, he laughed, “No sugar, most people think I’m dead these days or too old to walk over there.”

Both in the documentary and in person you can see only a hint of Bill’s lifelong stutter. It is so slight as to be barely noticeable but there is a strong feeling that this seemingly minor challenge has shaped his life. He comes across as a deeply emotional man and we see him quietly cry twice in the film. Once from fatherly pride and once as he talks to a group of children that make up Our Time’s theatre group for kids who stutter. Intimately indentifying with them, he observes that stuttering can make other people nervous and says, “We have to go just that little bit further to help them feel at ease.”

Bill seems like a man that treads softly and makes a big noise. The film is peppered with wise, unscripted words. It is about a man who knows who he is. He’s still the same guy he was growing up in Slab Fork, he is still the guy he was when he started his family and he is still a stutterer.

If you missed it, you can always catch it on Netflix here.