How The Whole Story came to be
Let's start somewhere near the beginning...
It's September 1991 and I’m just coming to the end of a big losing streak. In the past year and a half, I’ve achieved far worse than expected A-level results. I’ve wasted nine months at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh doing Microbiology (totally the wrong subject for me). And I’ve spent a summer at home in Hartlepool, trying to convince my parents I’m going to be a professional snooker player. No one’s happy.
But now that’s all over. I have a second chance, a clean slate. I’ve dragged myself through Clearing and bagged a place on a newly created degree course: BSc Health Studies at Leeds Beckett University. I’m officially back in the game. What did I care if I didn’t know what Health Studies was? It had to be better than Microbiology. Plus, I was going to Leeds – a great student city. There was Ricky’s on a Monday where you could get pints for 10p.
My Leeds experience did turn out to be a lot more useful than my time in Edinburgh. And the main reason for that was Steve Sayers and his Psychology class.
It became apparent that Health Studies consisted of taking an holistic approach to health. And to do that, you needed to study physical, social and mental health. Human biology. Sociology. Psychology.
Steve was one of those lecturers everyone remembers. He was truly passionate about his subject and bringing it to life for his students. He was motivated to go way beyond teaching Psychology as an academic discipline. He wanted to get us thinking about life and different ways we could live with meaning and purpose.
Steve’s psychology classes got me reading Freud, Jung, Maslow and all the other greats in the field. But even more than that they opened my eyes to new perspectives, fresh ways of seeing the world. I’m not sure he intended this, but his classes sparked my belief that I didn’t have to follow any of the traditional paths. I could create my own story.
Obviously at that age I had no idea what that might look like. You could also make the case that I didn’t have a clue for many years after that either. In fact, let’s just go the whole hog and say I spent the first 45 years of my life trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.
But don’t let me give you the impression I think I’ve wasted my time. Far from it. There’s no doubt that living the question has been a rich and rewarding experience. As we all know, it’s about the journey not the destination.
From Hartlepool to Hollywood
In my last year at Leeds, I spent some time figuring out my strengths and interests – and secretly reading books with titles like ‘Dream Big: You Can Be Anything You Want To Be’. I came to the conclusion that my ideal career could be in writing, film or psychology. After I graduated, I wasn’t ready to go down the professional psychology route. But like many graduates, I was ready to travel. So right out of the gate I studied for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification. And from there, after finding the courage to take advantage of a lucky opportunity, I ended up teaching English to overseas students in Boston.
I’d been in Boston for about six months when I realised Harvard University did night classes and summer schools in screenwriting. Oh my days. I immediately signed up and began studying screenwriting there. In those classes I made some friends – and two years later four of us decided to move to LA to become Hollywood screenwriters.
In the blink of an eye, I’d gone from having no clue what to do in Hartlepool to having a shot at creating my dream career in Hollywood.
I spent a couple of years working various day jobs in LA while writing screenplays at night. But I didn’t sell any for $1,000,000. In fact, I didn’t sell any of them for any amount of money.
Long story short, I failed.
However, I did pick up some incredibly useful skills and experience. For example, I learned how you make a TV show, working as a production assistant and researcher on such high-quality documentaries as ‘The Search for Nazi Gold’ (Think Channel 5, 1am).
I was a scriptwriter for a start-up that created an early interactive computer game called Scoop. (Take away: it’s hard to launch a successful business.)
And I worked for a week for the Coen brothers’ producer – the real-life inspiration for The Dude, from The Big Lebowski. Ftw!
From Hollywood to (Holly) Wood Green in London
I came back to the UK with my tail between my legs and spent a few more years failing to be a screenwriter. Then I decided I should probably do something with more chance of a reliable income. The closest I got in screenwriting was a sitcom I wrote called ‘8 Days a Week’ (If you were pitching it in Hollywood you’d say it was Seinfeld meets The Beatles meets Men Behaving Badly). ‘8 Days’ was shortlisted for a BBC Talent Award but got no further. The eventual winner that year was ‘Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps’.
It was a hard loss to take, but it doubled my motivation to pivot, and I soon discovered the thing I should be doing next. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. It was the obvious way to earn money for my words and bring in my interest in psychology. Advertising copywriter. Of course.
At that moment, I conveniently ignored the part of me that thought advertising was a bit evil. Come on, Andrew, I said to myself: this is no time for your morals and values. This is the chance to make a healthy monthly income. (I’m sure I didn’t really say this to myself. It’s more likely I just had a nagging doubt, a small sick feeling in my stomach that was fairly easy to suppress and ignore. Pro tip: pay attention to these feelings.)
How to get ahead in advertising
Anyway, I’m late 20s now and have managed to get on the first rung of the copywriting ladder. And to be honest, for a few years it’s great. I have some brilliant mentors who help me learn the craft. I get put on bigger and bigger projects, and start to win pitches and awards. I love that I get to spend my days working with art directors and coming up with ideas. And, even better, I’m on the recruitment side of copywriting. Basically all I’m doing is selling jobs. And people need those anyway. So I’m not even doing anything dodgy, right?
It all goes fine for a few years until that restless feeling comes back again. I know this isn’t right for me…but what is? I try to convince myself I’m lucky to be in the position I’m in. But my mind won’t stop with the seeking feeling. A few months later, I go through a bad patch. My confidence as a copywriter falls through the floor. I start comparing myself to others, thinking I’m not as creative, not as fast, not as good. Imposter Syndrome kicks in big style. I AM not good enough. Blah, blah, blah with the negative mind chatter. Every day becomes a slog.
This goes on for a while – can’t remember how long exactly – and then I manage to pull myself out of it. Not by design, but by accident, really. For some reason, the idea that I should have a crack at stand up comedy pops into my head. Maybe if I face my biggest fear, the restless feeling will go away. It becomes my new distraction.
My year in stand up comedy
So this time I don’t quit my day job. I go all in on a side hustle. Stand up comedy. My greatest fear. I remember thinking at the time ‘I’ve written a sitcom. I know how to write a witty line. How hard can it be?’ Haha.
I approached this challenge the way I often approach difficult challenges. I took a class. I’ve always been a sucker for a course. This one was called something like ‘How to be a stand up comedian’ and it ran for six weeks at the famous Amused Moose club in London. At the end of our training, there was a graduation show where we all had to do a 5-minute set of our best material. Everyone’s family and friends were invited.
Cut to 6 weeks later and it’s 20 minutes before I’m due on stage for my graduation gig. I’m in the bathroom. I’m shaking. I have blurred vision. I’m throwing up. At one point, I manage to stick my head out the bathroom door and through foggy eyes see my mates and one of them is holding his video recorder (this was pre-iPhone). He’s brought it to preserve my stunning debut for all time, so it can be watched back ad infinitum. Bastard.
I did it though. 20 minutes later I walked on stage, performed my five minutes, and even got a few laughs. (Yes, they were a generous crowd.) After I finished I felt the biggest adrenaline rush you can imagine. I’ve never done a sky dive or a bungee jump but it was probably something like that. I was floating on air, grinning like a maniac. From there, I was hooked and went on to do about 25 gigs that year (some great, some horrific). I performed on the same bills as the likes of Russell Brand, Lee Mack and Russell Kane. And the pinnacle of my stand up experience came the following summer when I reached the semis of Channel 4’s competition for new comedians and got to perform at The Edinburgh Festival.
However, it wasn’t long into the year before I realised I was never going to be a full-time stand up comedian. I didn’t like working nights. I didn’t have the tenacity. Also, I wasn’t that funny. But I’m so glad I did it. I’d faced and overcome one of my biggest fears. Before that year, I had a long-standing anxiety about making pitches and presentations at work. After doing stand up comedy, I was a lot more confident.
Is now the right time to be a clinical psychologist?
Fast forward a few more years. I’m in my late 30s now, still working as an advertising copywriter, and still feeling like I want to leave. The difference now is that I’m thinking seriously about how I can move to a career in psychology. I’ve already thought about becoming a psychotherapist and have gone as far as spending a year having my own personal therapy, which I found very helpful. But I’ve written off a career in the field mostly because of how much it costs to train.
Instead, I make the decision to go back to university to get an MSc in Psychology, while doing some freelance copywriting part-time. It’s a year-long conversion course with a 12,000 word dissertation. I know doing well in it will open up the chance to train as a clinical psychologist or maybe move into academia.
Cut to a year later: I’ve worked hard and got a Distinction in my Master’s and written a well-regarded dissertation about the stresses and strains facing Psychological Well-Being Practitioners. These are the frontline workers at the heart of the Government programme to tackle rising mental health problems in the UK.
But now turns out not to be the right time to pursue a career as a clinical psychologist. I’m living with my partner and our young daughter is just about to start school. My partner also wants to leave her full-time job to start her own market research consultancy. This means it makes sense for me to have a permanent, full-time job with a decent salary. I’m a bit gutted, but to be honest part of me is also secretly relieved. Even though I don’t love advertising, at least I know it. At least I don’t have to start from scratch again in a totally new field. Or at least that’s how I rationalised it to myself at the time.
Happy Years at Havas People
For the next few months I struggled on the freelance circuit, but then someone told me about a full-time job at an agency called Havas People. I’d already done a bit of freelance there and I was friends with some of the creative team. I jumped at the chance.
I spent the next three years at Havas and they were some of the most enjoyable and productive years of my career. I had a great boss. I got to work on some interesting projects with talented people, who also became my mates.
Yes, there were the usual downsides of being a creative in an ad agency: unrealistic client deadlines, too many pointless meeting, office politics, colleagues you don’t see eye-to-eye with, regular bouts of imposter syndrome. But all in all, for a career that my heart was never 100% in, it was great.
It was also here that I started to lead a team of writers and mentor junior creatives. This became my favourite part of the job and it gave me some clues about how I might integrate my skills and experience into a new kind of career. I didn’t know quite what that this was yet, but it became something worth thinking about.
Now or never...
I got to my mid-40s and decided it was really time for me to do something more personally meaningful. I was grateful for my time in advertising and had become a creative leader but I had no desire to move even further away from day-to-day creative work into more senior management roles.
I left Havas People and set up a business as a creative consultant. I started getting some projects and making a living. But the next 18 months or so ended up being a pretty dark and uncertain time for me. In my mind, I’d given up my identity as a copywriter. And I’d also closed off the obvious new identities of psychotherapist and clinical psychologist. I was in a transition, what William Bridges calls The Neutral Zone, and what I now call the ‘space between stories’.
I knew the right thing to do was find a way to turn my creative experience and knowledge of psychology into something of my own that directly helped people. I just had no idea what that might be yet.
After about 18 months of soul searching, I took the plunge and invested in training to be a personal and business coach. I saw this as a great way to deepen my psychological expertise while also learning practical helping skills. I chose Barefoot because of its reputation and also because it offered a post-grad qualification as part of the course.
Literally the day after I signed up for this course, I got an email from Josh, a writer I’d mentored at Havas. He was at The Guardian now and really enjoying it. He just wanted to thank me for all the help I’d given him back in the day. I took this synchronicity as a sign that I’d made the correct decision. I was definitely on the right lines with this coaching lark!
Becoming a coach
The Barefoot training was one of the most interesting and enjoyable things I’ve ever done. I learned loads. I met some great people. I started building my coaching skills from the get-go. And I was lucky enough to get some leadership and career coaching clients off the back of it.
I spent the following year developing my skills and building my coaching practice. Having already started my own creative consultancy business, I had some idea of the challenges involved in launching a new company. It wasn’t easy, and I made significantly less money in my first year as a coach than I had as an advertising copywriter, that’s for sure. But I knew it was something I wanted to do. My heart was in it. It felt congruent, like everything was coming together.
It’s 2020 now and we’re in March, when Covid hits and the country goes into lockdown. I had big plans to develop my face-to-face coaching and consultancy work, and this pandemic kills them stone dead. My goals for the year were thrown into disarray.
But the lockdown gives me time to think. I’m in a space between stories again. Just like most people in the country.
My mind goes back to my uni days and Steve Sayers’ psychology course. Those classes had such a big impact on me. What could my version of that course look like?
I know it should include lots of the most valuable things I’ve learned from my 25 years of reading Psychology. And also my recent experiences as a leadership and career coach. It should be creative and rely heavily on the storytelling skills I’ve practised as a screenwriter and copywriter. If I can get some stand up comedy in there somewhere that would be perfect, but it’s not a dealbreaker: every time I run a workshop I’m using my stand up skills.
Finally, I want to do something that does more than help people figure out their personal work stories. I want to include a discussion about what a new global story could look like. My daughter’s 11 now. She’s already aware of the huge challenges her generation faces. I want my story to inspire her to figure out the unique contribution she can make.
So I sleep on it for a couple of days and spend way more time than any human should in the bath and eventually come up with the rather amateur hand-drawn sketch you can see below.
And in quite a few more words than I originally intended, that’s how The Whole Story came to be.
My original design