I don’t do rollercoasters. There’s no point because they don’t excite me. Is it because I’m boring? Well, maybe. But there is a reason.
In 1992, the Chief Flying Instructor at Cornwall Flying Club was a former RAF test pilot called Dick Smerdon. He was a walking caricature of a pilot, complete with handlebar moustache sprouting from the burst blood vessels in his cheeks, caused by decades of G-force. Friendly and razor sharp he pottered around the club dressed in a khaki flying suit, making jokes and generally causing mischief.
Flying single-prop Cessnas from a field somewhere near Bodmin in South West England was clearly not as exciting as flying at Mach 2 in a metal box, so his kicks had to come from something else. What better way than by scaring the bejaysus out of unsuspecting student pilots for shits and giggles.
He did this to me twice.
On my second flight with him, wide-eyed and eager I sat in the hot seat of a Cessna 152, call-sign G-WACG ready for take-off. I was perfecting my best pilot voice (copied from my childhood holidays to Zante):
“Golf whiskey alpha charlie golf, radio check 122 decimal seven and taxi runway three, two,” I crackled, pretending to be Maverick from Top Gun.
As the propeller span and the little plane bounced along the grass, the vibrations bounced around my chest. Five thousand feet and a few sharp turns later I was smug-factor seven. I'd figured out how the thing worked and I even knew what the dials meant. Then this happened:
“ENGINE FIRE!” Dick was bellowing at me, his body jerking with excitement and his rounded face glowed crimson red. I remember staring at him:
“ENGINE FIRE!” Then he grabbed the ignition key and turned off the engine. I had no idea what to do. The propeller gradually came to a complete and eerie stop. I looked at him suddenly aware of the sound of the wind rushing around the outside of the cockpit.
“Pick a field then! Emergency landing!” He said, obviously amused.
"Brilliant. My flying instructor is a fucking lunatic," I said under my breath (which incidentally is a skill that later became hugely useful as a parent).
What kind of mad man switches off aeroplane engines mid-flight? There was no fire. It was a perfectly serviceable engine. We began to lose altitude quickly and I chose the field furthest from the power lines, cows and buildings.
We were going to land in a field. Worse, it was me that was going to land it.
To be continued.
“Do you wanna buy some pills mate?“
A man in his early twenties stared at me with the eager (wide) eyes of any young entrepreneur spotting a sales opportunity. He was wearing a slightly grubby white T-shirt covered by a baggy khaki overcoat. I found it hard to understand him at first; he had the broadest of Glaswegian accents and the bass was rebounding off the sides of a giant and sweating marquee in a field somewhere in Ayrshire, Scotland. It was the year 2000 and Moby was gyrating around the stage.
We silently leaned in together for a second go:
“Sorry mate?” I said.
“Do you want some pills mate?” Despite telling him to fuck off, there must've been something about my demeanour that inspired his persistence. “Are you sure? I’ve got loads!” He reached inside his jacket and produced a plastic Tesco shopping bag gathered at the neck, full of ecstasy pills and about the size of a bowling ball. I looked at the bag then looked at him, his face radiating with and adventure.
I looked at the bag again.
That was a lot of fucking pills - 600-700 - maybe more. I felt sorry for him; not because I wasn't buying but because at the time I was a serving police officer assigned to a special project team developing tactics on the prevention and arrest of dealers at large scale music events. I was literally his worst nightmare.
Or was I? My ego likes to think so but I wasn't really. No, his worst nightmare was the twelve undercover members of the Strathclyde Drug Squad who had just bought me a beer as their shift on the covert drugs operation finished.
The Tesco bag and the person holding it disappeared under a pile of unwashed law enforcement. He'd had better Saturdays.
Losing both of your parents must be one of the toughest hands that life could possibly deal. Some of these children go into the state care system, some have close family that bring them up which of course is not always the better option. The 'not always the better option' for this particular family was a middle aged man called Owen and his gentle but long-suffering wife, Beru.
A wiry and weathered middle-aged man, Owen made a humble living as a farmer, spending most of his life working hard graft from dawn until dusk. He had very little to show for it and then along came the infant child of his step-brother. The child's father was murdered and the mother died in childbirth and there was no other family so it was down to them to raise this child. Heartbroken at their infertility as a couple, Beru doted on the baby as if he were her own but as the child grew up, Owen felt a growing resentment to this burden.
By the time reached his teenage years, it was clear the child would not become a farmer like his uncle. Like most adolescents he was a child trapped in an adults body, obsessed with staying out with his friends and bristling with attitude rather than gratitude. His Uncle starved him of love and with aggression, bordering on abuse he bullied the boy into manual labour on the farm, driving his desire to fly from the relative safety of the nest and inadvertently into the welcoming arms of predators.
There was, of course, a predator waiting. The strange old man that lived alone on the outskirts of the city had a charisma that drew the boy in, just like the others. There were rumours that he was either dead, mad or a paedophile which worked in his favour; the perfect cover for a leading figure in a terrorist organisation.
He had no idea he was being groomed; his naivety and desperation to leave home meant he was immediately hooked on the spun yarns of the struggle against oppression and the fight for freedom. His recruitment was accelerated by the tragic death of his Aunty and Uncle, for which he was partly responsible. His brief flirtation with terrorists had attracted the attention of the authorities and in a bungled raid, a fire started by a faulty grenade burnt the family home to the ground, with Owen and Beru trapped inside.
Their nephew was distraught, picking through the ashes of his belongings his heart breaking for the unconditional love of his Aunt, shocked yet indifferent to the death of his Uncle. It was too dangerous to stay at home and rebuild, even if he had wanted to. He himself was now a terrorist and he had no choice but to follow the path that had chosen him.
All he had was the old man, who of course had orchestrated the whole thing.
There his fate was sealed. Already sold on the logic of attacking the government, he now had a powerful emotional reason too. Revenge. The old man had successfully recruited and galvanised the spirit of the organisation's newest and potentially most capable agent. The orphan boy, bullied by his uncle whose only family were murdered by the authorities. The organisation would look after him now. They would feed him, train him and unleash him on a campaign of hate, murder and political destabilisation.
The boy's name name was Luke Skywalker. My childhood hero. Perspective is everything.
Ronnie Polkingham's half sister was a woman named Debbie. As a young woman she was slim, attractive and carefree, playing in a band with her lover Bruce in Missouri, USA. But her free-spirited life took a twist when she fell pregnant at 18, gave birth to her first son and predictably, Bruce left. Her beauty and innocence began to fade behind the mask of smoke, struggles with mental health and financial hardship.
As a single mother on the poverty line, she brought her son up in a predominantly black neighbourhood as one of only three white families on their block. The threat of violence was inevitable and became more than a threat on multiple occasions, including an assault that lead to her son suffering a serious head injury.
As well as being a victim of bullying, her boy was a regular truant and often fought with Debbie in their volatile household, attracting the attention of social services. It was no surprise that he became a loner and with little interest in High School, he found comfort and ambition in the world of comic books. He escaped real life, diving into the magic of storytelling and decided to become a comic book artist.
That was until Uncle Ronnie turned up at his home holding in his hands a gift. The gift of hip hop.
Hip hop continues to be huge part of global pop culture, originating from the black ghettos of 1970s and 1980s America. Then, hip hop was a small scene, giving a voice to frustrated, angry young African Americans and Latinos living in marginalised communities and low income areas. Actually it took years of block parties in the Bronx, New York before a recording was actually made and many music critics of the early 80s predicted hip hop would fizzle out.
Hip hop did not fizzle out. Quite the opposite.
Uncle Ronnie's gift was a vinyl record; the track was called 'Reckless' by The Glove and Dave Storrs, whom most of us have never heard of. But the track also featured a rapper who was little-known at the time, called Tracy Lauren Marrow. Another forgettable name, but presumably why he chose the stage name Ice-T.
The gesture was a small one, costing a little over $2. But Ronnie could not possibly have predicted that his modest kindness would trigger the start of a musical revolution.
His nephew had never heard anything like it. He played it over and again. Maybe it was the lyrics, the rapper's attitude and what he stood for; only the boy really knows. But it opened the door to a new world of creativity and possibility.
Despite the violence, dropping out of school and being kicked out of home on multiple occasions the troubled teen found solace in the underground music scene in his new home city of Detroit, pursuing his new dream of becoming a rapper, just like Ice-T.
The boy's name was Marshall Bruce Mathers III and under the stage name Eminem, he became the biggest selling rapper of all time. Despite criticism for backing a white rapper, Dr Dre who signed him to Aftermath Records reportedly said "I don't give a fuck if you're purple; if you can kick it, I'm working with you."
Eminem certainly kicked it. Some 220 million records later, neither Kanye or Jay Z have come close to matching these sales and despite Spotify not existing at the height of his success, Eminem still boasts 36 million listeners on the platform.
Marshall Bruce Mathers III had two gifts. The first was the gift of struggle. The violence, poverty and hardships gave him the narrative, the neighbourhood a platform and his skin colour made it harder. The struggle was the fuel and it showed up as pain, distress, sadness, frustration, anger, despair, hardship, fear and no doubt much more.
The second gift was from Uncle Ronnie. The gift of inspiration from someone he trusted. Let's call this the spark.
(Struggle + Inspiration) + Environment = Superpower
Or written differently: (Fuel + Spark) + Oxygen = Fire
Heathrow Airport, London circa 1991
The British Airways 747 direct from Bombay (now Mumbai) landed a few minutes ahead of time, which was the worst of circumstances for Charlie. An extra twenty minutes to gather himself and recover from the effects would have been helpful.
Smoking had not yet been banned on all flights, but as it wasn't tobacco he was smoking, he felt it was both polite and sensible to leave the cabin and head to the toilet for a smoke in private. Chasing dragons in public is still taboo in 2020, never mind 1991.
But this was not your average, garden variety heroin of the kind sold in £20 bags under railway arches, council flats and nightclubs - I am reliably told that the price has halved. This particular heroin was 100% pure and uncut. Charlie had been sleeping with about £100K worth of this powder underneath his pillow, at his digs somewhere east of Bombay for some two weeks. Up until this trip, which was his first abroad, he had never tried the stuff and had never particularly wanted to either. He'd been smoking and selling weed since he was 12, but now five years later, his curiosity to try harder drugs had been triggered by his new employer, Mr K.
Like many curious teenagers, Charlie wanted to find out what all the fuss was about for himself.
Five grand in cash is a lot of money to anybody. But if you are sixteen year old Sikh boy living in a council estate in White City, London in 1991 having been kicked out shortly before your 15th birthday with no qualifications, you have no job, no plans and a violent alcoholic father, the idea of smuggling a small package of innocent looking powder into the UK was not only an adventure, it was a no-brainer.
In fact it was for these reasons that Mr K recruited him. He would have done it for half the price of course, but didn't mention that to Mr K. Anyway back to Heathrow, specifically the green channel at terminal 2.
What you are about to read will sound like stupidity but trust me Charlie is no fool. He is very smart. Street smart. He was just a kid, on his trafficking apprenticeship and on a very steep learning curve at the school of survival. But he made two key mistakes. The first was not anticipating the significant weight loss caused by two weeks of daily heroin use. It meant that his clothing didn't fit him particularly well and even with his belt on the tightest notch, they kept falling down to his knees as he walked. Anyone behind him would have enjoyed a clear view of his pants (they were brown, he told me) as he shuffled his way to the entrance to the green channel. He drew attention to himself, albeit comically, but of course not ideal while smuggling class A drugs into a country.
His second mistake was a little worse. Charlie had smoked so much pure heroin on the flight he was still high by the time he reached Customs. Yes, smoking pure heroin had relieved the boredom of a long flight and the anxiety of approaching the finish line but unfortunately he now, not just a little stoned, but REALLY high; the falling asleep kind of really high.
Halfway along the green channel corridor, some 8 or 9 metres from the door to the arrivals hall, Charlie stopped innocently for a rest. He leaned against the wall and with a wave of tiredness, melted into the plasterboard and slid slowly to the floor. At the same time, so did his jeans. You would not need to be customs officer of the year to spot that a young man with the physique of an addict, his waistband at his knees and fading in and out of consciousness may be worth of further investigation. Charlie told me the only thing he really remembers was the Customs Officer summoning him in slow motion with blurred movements of his index finger.
I first met Charlie in 2008. After spending most of his adult life involved in crime, and having lost at least ten years of it to heroin addiction it was fascinating to learn from him how he got himself clean of all drugs and alcohol, attended the gym regularly and managed to get a BA in fine art (2:1 with honours). Pretty impressive for a dyslexic addict ex-con with no qualifications. His life was fully back on track.
Also, his art was outstanding. Challenging, but outstanding. He had a unique view of the world and a real talent for expression. He offered an insight into the darkest parts of humanity. This man really has been to hell and back several times, but had begun to see that his extraordinary life and adversity could be his superpower.
Through his art he was able to he was able to tell people the truth about what he'd seen. His passion was for taboo subjects of abuse, addiction and the reality of growing up surrounded by drugs and violence out in the open to start conversations, rather than be hidden behind closed doors and whispers.
He's not answering my messages but we will make a cracking movie when he does.
When Nduno was a child, every time an aircraft flew over her village in a rural part of Namibia, Africa she ran out of the house calling to it and begging for it to land. She would plead for the aircrew to throw sweets or to do something exciting. She was so mesmerised by these flying machines that these early experiences began to feed a dream and an ambition. Nduno wanted to become a military pilot and eventually Nambia's first astronaut.
Bad luck showed up, not only because Namibia of course is not known for space exploration, but the roles that are made available to young women tend be nursing or teaching careers and certainly not military pilots. But as every year of her childhood went by, the dream of becoming not just a pilot but an astronaut grew ever stronger.
Nduno was inspired by her mother who was the driving force in her life, nurturing her to become the best she could be. Good luck showed up. Reaching for the stars and landing on the moon was not a cliche for Nduno because she had the belief that anything was possible. She worked hard at her studies, became a high achiever and edged closer and closer to her dream.
But then, bad luck showed up. Someone she trusted deeply and admired in her family took her confidence. It showed up in the form of her uncle - and - probably without him knowing, he destroyed her confidence because he told her:
"You can't do this. Who are you to be a soldier? You are not strong enough. Look at the size of you!" He lifted her arms and dropped them." You are not strong enough to be a soldier and be an pilot."
The words cut deep. She was so wounded by his words that she cried like any of us would, hearing from someone we love and trust that we are 'not enough' to pursue our dreams. But now she had a decision to make. Would she allow his comments to define the rest of her life? Should she give up on her unrealistic dreams and become a nurse or a teacher as per society's blueprint?
Last summer in Windhoek, Namibia at the 13th Namibian Women Summit, I met Nduno, now in her twenties and a young, intelligent and incredibly engaging military pilot, flying helicopters for the Namibian Air Force and travelling to schools across the country to inspire other young women.
Her Uncle's comments lit a fire inside her to prove him wrong. Without this fire she would've struggled to muster the resilience to withstand the physical, emotional and social barriers she had to overcome throughout her army training, her pilot training and through to collecting her wings - not least as the only female in her regiment.
When bad luck shows up it appears very much as it seems, but perhaps is masquerading as good luck after all.
There's a lot of bad luck at the moment, but perhaps a little of it may just seem that way. Good times are coming. Hang in there.
First this: I have no ulterior motive. It matters not to me nor the PopUp Business School if you are successful with your business or not. There is no quota to fill, no target to hit and no incentive to get you into business. All that matters to me is I do my absolute best to help you to create and live your best life, because that's what we are here to do.
You've probably already discovered that entrepreneurship and starting small businesses is not a linear process. I can't remember meeting anyone who went from zero business experience to successful idea launched, making money quickly and with maximum enjoyment and satisfaction in one move! If you have, then congratulations, incredible effort and I’m really pissed off because it’s taken YEARS to create this monster.
Secondly I have no answers for you; you're the only person who really knows. I do have a a few important questions and one or two clues to help you decide you next move. My best advice is to answer the questions and write your answers down magic happens when you write things down)
Thirdly I am not a natural entrepreneur; my feeling is they are unicorns. Which is a pain because that means each of us has within us the capability to become one.
If you’re thinking of quitting then it’s probably because you’re not enjoying the experience, either because you're overwhelmed with too much work (put up your prices and outsource the bits you don't enjoy) or you’re not making enough money (if it's the latter read on).
1. You've become disconnected from your reason why
So if you’re thinking of quitting, I’d probably go back to the reason why you wanted to try out this business stuff in the first place. Here are mine:
Has anything changed for you from your reason why. If the answer is yes, cool. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate how you pay the bills. But if things are STILL true then will quitting really help you get closer to you what you want. Maybe by fully committing will actually get you closer, faster.
Entrepreneurship doesn't solve any problems - it just means you swap the problems of working for someone else with the problem of where the next buck is coming from. Or the problem of having an annoying boss with the problem of the buck stopping with you. Which problems would you rather live with?
2. You’ve not fully committed
Have you FULLY committed and taken responsibility to make this business happen? This has regularly been my problem. Unfinished projects that in themselves are great ideas that have really been half-arsed attempt will accompany me to the grave. Here are a three of those juicy questions I promised:
3. You’re not looking after yourself
Sometimes we're just plain exhausted and (from personal experience I don't tend to stop until I drop). Then from my pile of exhaustion on the sofa I feel like I can't do this any more. What do you need to do to look after yourself?
4. You’re not investing in your learning and development
Starting and growing a business doesn't really solve any problems it just presents different ones (that sometimes feel tougher than the ones you originally had). How to defeat this you have three main things:
1. Learn new things
2. Learn new things
3. Learn new things
5. You've stopped having fun
This is a tricky one. It's closely linked to point three but something I only realised recently was that I had a tendency to spend too much time in discomfort. Whenever there is growth there is stress but you can’t operate in uncertainty 24/7 without losing your marbles. Stop worrying. Be grateful for what you have got rather than anxious about what you haven't. And look how far you've come and how much you've learned.
6. You haven't got the right to say it’s not working?
If you’ve happened across a business idea that works 100% first time, it plays out exactly how you planned it AND you LOVE every second of it then know this:
I’ll be very happy for you and extremely pissed off in equal measure. It's taken me years of failing, learning, adjusting, regurgitating, failing some more and dealing with unexpected opportunities and problems daily before even getting close to the results I want.
These are the questions I would ask you:
Have you focused on one idea?
Have you niched down properly?
Have you taken huge proactive action to promote your business?
Have you taken a critical look at HOW you've executed, learned and adjusted?
Have you taken the trouble to learn more?
If the answer is no, you don't have the right to say it's not working yet.
I didn't sell sweets to my friends, I didn't print t-shirts and I didn't sell tickets to club nights. I started learning at 30. And if I can learn it, so can you. But you don't need to make the same mistake I made - you can make new ones.
I scrapped the piano. It took me over two hours to undo the bolts and screws and remove the different sections piece by piece (eventually resorting to a crowbar) and I later learned there are over TWELVE THOUSAND parts to a piano.
The piano is so complex. There must be very few people on this planet who understand not only the component parts but also how to create masterpieces.
Of course no one is born with the skill to master EVERY aspect of the piano; it takes hours of practice. But how do we know the habits we practice are the right things? To master the piano and accelerate to the very top of masterpiece creation it would be necessary to invest maximum focus, energy, time and money into:
You're only as good as the questions you ask.
This was Steve Jobs famous question:
"'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' If the Answer is 'no' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."
Back in the early days of coaching I was too ready to give people the answers they were looking for. Now I spend more time crafting and searching for the right question.
If I ask the right question, the answer is more beautiful and more perfect than than best of the answers I could've come up with. Why? Because if you ask the right questions you get to the truth. Sometimes we don't know our own truths. That's one of the reasons why coaching can be so powerful.
The questions I ask my people are usually the things that trigger BREAKTHROUGH thinking. I wanted to share some of them with you. Don't just read them. Answer them.
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CEO & Co-founder of the PopUp Business School.