Why keeping your word is more valuable than any talent, and how removing fear helped me keep mine.
Promises get broken, it happens, but there’s nothing more frustrating for a child.
I told myself at the age of around 8 or so that I would never forget what it’s like to have a promise broken. In retrospect, this promise to myself has shaped my life thus far, and is probably at the heart of any success I might have created over the last few years.
I’ve never been particularly great at anything. I was third in the class at drawing in junior school. Nick Smith was No. 1, Ben Fletcher was No. 2 (no idea what Ben’s doing now), and then there was a relative cliff drop before stooping down to my ability. Drawing was actually the only thing I was any good at, and compared to these two, I was nothing special.
Still, I continued to draw cartoons for a while and managed to get a drawing included in Rolf Harris’ Cartoon Club newsletter. A single childhood success that I’m still sorta proud of!
I enjoyed music too, playing around on a toy keyboard making up songs and performing them for my parents. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a loving family and very supportive parents, so those days – before the competitive forces of the world dawned on me – were pretty blissful. Then I started secondary school, and learned very quickly again that my abilities were nothing special.
It was tough not being particularly good at anything at school because there was no area of my life to build confidence from. I wasn’t particularly bright (never been in the top set for anything), I was shockingly poor at sport (still am), and even more shocking with girls. Secondary school gradually eroded any confidence I once had.
However, I was blessed with a good memory, and armed with my promise never to forget what it’s like to break a promise, I began to define myself as the boy who doesn’t let other people down.
When I was in sixth form, I was told by a friend’s dad that if he knew anyone that would be successful, it would be me. When I asked what he meant he said: “You do what you say you’re going to do.”
I was totally surprised because I had no concept of what successful might mean for me. As far as I was concerned, success was a result of being great at something, and the only thing I was great at was playing Street Fighter II, which at that age had no real world value. I’d completely given up on my creative pursuits by that time, but I took it as a compliment and plodded on.
When it came time to leave school, I realised that I had never considered what I might do after leaving, and when I was put on the spot by a friend, I just replied: “Make games?” To which I was dealt the crushing blow: “You’d need to be good at Maths for that, so I don’t think you’ll be able to do it.”
I was no good at Maths, and who was I to question my more intelligent, more popular friend? I was average-boy with little self-esteem.
I was wholly prepared to stack shelves at the supermarket, because I didn’t fancy being a painter and decorator; the career’s advice suggestion as a result of my interests in art.
Fortunately a friend wanted to learn how to make props for films and so declared that he would go to Art College to learn how to do it.
Art College? I’d never heard of such a thing. “Well that sounds better than Somerfield,” I said, “I’ll come too.”
Free from the deeply flawed education system that was (still is?) the scourge of creative development, I was able to prosper. Being able to set my own goals – which at that point were minuscule blips – and deliver on them was a revelation, and thus incredibly exciting.
What’s more, it seemed that I was one of a handful of people in the entire building who was capable of actually doing what I said I would do. I kept my goals small, and I kept my word. It seemed so easy, but suddenly I was at the top of a class.
This self-image of being ‘the guy who does what he says he’s going to do’ strengthened rapidly whilst at college, and for the first time since starting secondary school, I built a shred of confidence.
The momentum I built during those two years at Art College propelled me through University and into the first few years running FuturLab. I was the guy who got things done; I made things happen. I was going to be successful whatever it took!
Unfortunately, I still had severe confidence issues, and whilst I was desperate to achieve greatness, I simply lacked the confidence to go for it. I’m sure there are many people reading this now who know exactly how I felt.
It’s shit isn’t it?
When a colleague and friend pulled me aside and very tactfully informed me that I was ‘directing’ FuturLab into an early grave, I suddenly realised that so far I’d spent three years not doing what I said I was going to do.
This was no less than a full and wholly terrifying identity crisis. All the confidence I had built was based on keeping my word, and I wasn’t keeping my word.
I knew that if I was going to take FuturLab into the games industry, something I desperately wanted, I would need to be able to talk confidently to large groups of people, and what I really wanted to do – something that filled me with dread – was pitch to PlayStation. I needed to fix my lack of confidence, and fast.
Fear of failure
There’s a few approaches to conquering fear, and with hindsight I realise that the surefire way to build confidence is to fail early and often; learning from a young age that failing is nothing to be ashamed of. But in 2007 I needed a quick fix, and so I looked into hypnotherapy. It turned my life around in a single session.
Hypnotherapy took away the physical sickness I’d feel when contemplating doing something scary, like giving a presentation or public speaking. People who have deep fears like this know exactly what I mean – your mouth goes dry, you feel sick to your stomach, and your heart races. It’s what is known as the Fight or Flight response. Under threat of danger, your mind prepares your body to run or to fight. Both benefit from having no food in your gut, so it prepares to eject it on your behalf.
Hypnotherapy doesn’t care why you feel and act the way you do – the hypnotherapist didn’t spend any time discussing why I was scared of public speaking – it only cares about removing unhelpful physiological associations. I wanted the sick feeling gone, and confidence in its place.
The physiological association my brain had established between the thought of public speaking and threat of attack (the result of countless negative experiences at school no doubt) was completely removed in a single session of hypnotherapy. In its place, a comfortable and slightly exciting feeling whenever I think about doing something challenging.
We’re all born with a natural confidence and curiosity to explore what is exciting to us – it’s what makes us start crawling, walking and running enthusiastically around the world well before we have any concept of being ready for it (read: having enough work in our portfolio). We just do it without a single moment of worry about the outcome. Note that worry is not the same thing as consideration. As we get older we learn how to consider our actions before doing them, but too many people confuse the two, believing that worrying about things is somehow more responsible and adult-like behaviour. It’s not, it’s a waste of time.
The issue is that before we can crawl we’re at the mercy of our environment, and for countless reasons our natural confidence can be blocked by tangled layers of negative association. Hypnotherapy removed these tangled layers for me, and now I have the natural confidence to do what I’m doing.
It began with our role-playing pitch to Sony, and it’s been behind every ballsy move I’ve made ever since. Hypnotherapy radically changed my life for the better, and it cost me £60.
Of course, hypnotherapy didn’t do the pitch to PlayStation for me, I still had to pluck up the courage to face the thing that challenged me, but it completely removed any fear of failure. It removed the debilitating sickness that stopped me from ever thinking a challenge through with clarity, and that makes all the difference.
I am now able to commit to something challenging without worry, and that means I can focus on succeeding. It means I can think clearly about what will make the most successful result of effort, and then I can put the hard work in to make sure what I create delivers against that goal.
To summarise, I am now able to keep my word, because fear of failure doesn’t get in the way.
The best way to build trust is by keeping your word. What’s more, you’ll stand out from the crowd, because so few people manage to do it.
It’s through gaining trust by keeping my word that I’m able to do what I love. It’s holding doors of opportunity open whilst I excitedly run through them with childlike enthusiasm.
If you want my advice, the next time you decide to state your intentions – whether grand or trivial – keep your mouth shut until you’re absolutely certain you will follow through.
Do what you say you’re going to do.