“A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking because its trust is not in the branch, but in its own wings.” Unknown
One of my favourite movies is Yes Man! It stars Jim Carrey as a man who, after struggling with depression since his divorce and always saying No to invites from friends, decides that he will say Yes to everything from now on.
No matter what!
It’s hilarious and inspiring in equal measure.
I re-watched it recently and it inspired the subject of this blog. A common theme in life is that we resist things at first before we finally give in. Then it turns out that the thing is really good for us and we’re really grateful we did it.
We’ve stretched ourselves. We’ve learned something new. We’ve gained confidence. We’ve become more than we were before. Sometimes, we’ve gained new friends.
Here are a few examples from my life, where I resisted at first before saying Yes, that I’m sharing in the hope that my experience might prompt you to take the occasional leap of faith, stretch your wings a bit, and say Yes some more to what life offers.
In 1993, while studying for my PhD in chemistry, some senior members of the committee of the Andersonian Chemical Society asked me to run for President of the society. It’s one of the oldest societies at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
My first response was a big, No! I’d never even been on the committee before and I had no desire to be on it now.
“Why me?” I asked.
They said that the society had been declining over the past few years and with its rich history they didn’t want to see that happen anymore. They believed my personality might lift things a little. It was a flattering notion, but I certainly didn’t see myself in that way.
It’s funny how people sometimes see different things in us from what we see in ourselves. I’d never considered myself a leader, nor someone who could turn around an organisation, albeit a small one. They also saw me as a confident person, but that’s absolutely not how I often felt inside.
To be honest, I had always lacked confidence. It’s always been a big challenge for me. Even today! Confidence sort of comes and goes in my life. I feel like I push out into life and then I shrink back in a sort of rhythmic fashion.
Having to lead a team was certainly not something I wanted to do. But the previous committee members were relentless. After a few beers one night (on them) I gave in and said, Yes.
Despite initially feeling somewhat inadequate and not knowing what I was doing – I was even taken aside privately by a straight talking committee member and told, quite frankly, that I needed to get a grip and be a better leader – I learned fast.
We turned the society around. Among a number of successes, two stood out. We created a whole new thriving guest lecture programme, and we started a new student magazine that had a mix of comedy as well as being informative. It was free and we called it The Free Radical. Well, we were chemistry students, after all.
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was my first taste of leadership and recognising what a team can achieve together. It was a richly fulfilling experience.
The Jumps Coach
I was working full time as an R&D scientist in 1997. I kept fit by training locally with an athletics club called Sale Harriers. They’re based in Manchester in the UK and their track was only a 20-minute drive from my house. I practiced the long jump.
After a year of training there, the club manager, Terry Davidson, asked me if I’d take on two roles. The first as coach of the jumps squad; the other, as manager of the under 20-year-olds Men’s team.
Me? I had zero desire to be an athletics coach or a team manager. It wasn’t because I wasn’t drawn to the idea of helping people, but because I didn’t know how to be a coach or manager, and I didn’t think I could be one even if I did know how.
Terry’s real passion was as a throws coach – hammer, discus, shot put. He’d been coaching jumps because the club already had a throws coach, but that coach was now retiring. Terry had seized on the opportunity to take the job, leaving the jumps coach role open.
He was quite convincing and said I could lean on him for advice whenever I needed it. I really didn’t want to do it. On reflection, I said yes not because I wanted to, but because I didn’t feel I could say no to Terry. He was such a good guy.
After a slow and very reluctant start, I acclimatised quite well to both roles.
I helped develop a squad of young long jumpers and triple jumpers. Most took medals over the next few years at the National Junior League championships. And the overall Under 20’s Men’s team that I managed reached three successive UK championship finals.
It turned out to be a truly rewarding experience and the achievements are things I’m still proud of to this day. It developed me both as a leader and a coach.
It also helped build my confidence. But the most important thing I learned was what is possible when you help people to believe in themselves.
I didn’t have the experience to coach technically to refine technique. What I worked on instead was helping the athletes to believe in themselves. That, it turned out, was what they needed most. It’s what propelled them to the heights they reached. In life in general, it’s also what most people need most.
Had I said No to Terry, I’d have missed out on learning this.
In 1998, I accidentally became lead singer in a soul band.
Let me explain!
I was on the committee of a graduate socialisation programme with the company I worked for. Its purpose was to organise social events for new graduates across the organisation so they could mix and get to know each other. It was led by, Kate Walkden, a young, talented, and dedicated HR manager.
We had organised a ‘Stars in their Eyes’ fun night under Kate’s direction. Stars in their Eyes was a highly popular 90s UK TV show where members of the public would impersonate singers.
Hosted for a period of time by Matthew Kelly, the catchphrase became, “Tonight Matthew I’m going to be ……” The person would then state which singer they were impersonating. The camera then panned onto them as they strutted onto the stage dressed to the nines and launched into one of that singer’s famous songs.
Ten acts were scheduled for our fun night, but the final act didn’t show up. Kate thought it would be a hilarious idea if I took their place. Hilarious for everyone else, maybe! Not for me.
Absolutely no way!!! I protested.
I’d sung in the shower and that’s about it. But the other committee members joined in the chorus of chants for me to do it.
So, I had to be Elvis and I had to sing, Suspicious Minds.
And I won the competition.
Kate was not pleased!
She hadn’t intended for someone from the committee to actually win. Having me sing was just supposed to be a laugh – albeit at my expense (I was a good sport and Kate knew that). But the winner was chosen by the audience, so we had to accept it.
I received a visit to my office the following day by a few musicians in the company who had recently started a new soul band. They had been at the Stars in their Eyes night. The newly formed band planned to do cover versions of songs from the popular movie, The Commitments, plus some others of the same genre. They wanted me to be their lead singer.
Absolutely no way!
I think that was now becoming my mantra.
It’s not something I’d ever wished for nor aspired to be in my entire life
They seemed to accept my decision, but they asked if I’d at least help them out during a rehearsal because the band needed someone to sing the songs while they played, and it was clear I could ‘hold a tune’.
I agreed to help … just this one time.
It was a Tuesday night at a local recording studio. They’d printed out the words to the songs for me: Mustang Sally, In the Midnight Hour, Try a Little Tenderness, Soul Man, and many others.
They were all such talented musicians. I was out of my depth. That’s how I felt. But once we got going, we had so much fun. There were serious moments. There were laughs. I could tell these people were going to become my friends.
I agreed to ‘help’ them again the following Tuesday, which ran into another Tuesday, and another. Before I knew it, I had become lead singer in a soul band.
I still struggled with confidence, though. I almost wet myself with nerves before we went on stage for our first gig. I also forgot the words to the very first song at that first gig and somehow moved onto the second verse while half way through the first verse. But the band just followed me, seamlessly, and no one in the audience noticed. That’s how talented they were.
We started gigging regularly and even headlined the Christmas party at the company a few months later, which was attended by about 500 people.
We rehearsed and gigged for about a year or so until I made the huge decision to resign from the company and set off on a new career as a writer and speaker. That decision also resulted in me moving back near my family in Scotland, so I had to quit the band.
I still fondly reflect on the whole experience. My time with the band taught me that even when I’m scared, if I ‘just do it anyway’, there’s usually something special to be gained from it.
I learned that wings grow stronger when you at least try to fly.
I became comfortable with being in front of people and it was from here that the seed of the idea of speaking in front of people as a career began to grow.
Being a singer, albeit for a relatively short time, also gave me the courage to take the leap of faith I needed to resign from a successful career as a scientist into the complete unknown of writing and speaking.
I took a job as a chemistry lecturer in 2004.
I was writing my first book at the time and needed money. I was broke after a few friends and I, which included the Scottish actor, David Hayman, had founded and run an international relief charity called, Spirit Aid Foundation.
I met my partner Elizabeth there as she was in between acting jobs. She had acted alongside David in a popular ITV drama and heard about the charity and offered to volunteer. David and I had put all we had into the charity and now that it was afloat and doing well, I felt I could move on.
I had taken two teaching jobs, one at Glasgow University tutoring chemistry in the Department of Adult and Continuing Education, and another teaching chemistry at James Watt College, in Greenock, near Glasgow, which is now part of West College Scotland.
I’d never formally taught before and, being honest, I struggled with the workload and with my self-confidence. As I wrote earlier, confidence has often been a challenge for me.
In fact, the combination or workload and the stress of struggling with confidence was almost overwhelming and was beginning to take its toll on my mental health. I frequently found myself teary. I didn’t know what to do.
One day, while on the early morning bus (I had to catch a bus at 5.50am followed by a train at 7am), I remember feeling that I couldn’t cope anymore. I put my head in my hands and said a prayer, asking for help.
When I arrived at the college, my head of department asked if I’d teach a maths course. It was basic math and off-site. It was part of a local initiative to give career opportunities to youths in deprived areas.
I really didn’t want to do it. My workload was large enough and I didn’t need any more stress. I had even been contemplating leaving the job altogether because I didn’t feel that I was coping too well. But the head of department was convincing and assured me that it would be easy money.
The money was indeed good and it would help me with the cost of self-publishing my book. It had been rejected my every publisher I sent it to so I was going down the self-publishing route, which meant I needed money. So I (very) reluctantly said, Yes.
My first day was a shock. I walked into the class and the sound was deafening. I tried to get the class’s attention, but other than one or two boys, most had little desire to be there and even less desire to listen to me.
I later learned that some of the boys had behavioural difficulties, some were in trouble with the police. Some were genuinely interested in getting an apprenticeship, which this course formed part of. It was a real mixed bag of personalities.
The class was compulsory and if they didn’t attend then their benefits would be stopped.
After what felt like the longest few minutes of my life, I decided to start speaking over the noise. I indicated that we would be doing decimals today.
The first words that anyone in that class spoke to me were the following:
“You can f**k your decimals!”
It was from a youth in the front row who only had one visible tooth and sported a large scar down the side of his face. He said it with a hint of a menacing tone. I immediately felt intimidated.
The rest of that lesson is a bit of a blur. It was supposed to be a 3-hour lesson, with a 20-minute break in the middle, but I let them away 45 minutes early because I couldn’t cope any longer. It hadn’t improved all that much following the introductory remark.
I quickly got in my car and started to drive. Soon, I pulled into a layby on the outskirts of town and burst into tears.
This wasn’t the answer to the prayer I was looking for. In fact, this was the opposite!
On the way home, I decided that I was going to resign. My mental health was more important than the job. But over the weekend I did a lot of soul searching and visualisation practices that I hoped would build my confidence somewhat. I thought I’d maybe give it one more go. I needed the money.
The class was once a week. Week 2 was much better because I knew what to expect and was prepared. They didn’t have much interest in math, but fired me all sorts of questions about my life and my previous work.
One turned to the class and laughed aloud as he proudly declared that my previous job in R&D – making drugs – meant that I was a drug dealer. But I laughed along with him and we began to build some rapport.
I made a deal with them. If they paid attention to me and did the math we needed to do, then I’d give them 20 minutes each lesson where we could talk about anything and they could ask me anything.
And that’s what we did!
One boy asked what PhD means. I explained that it means Doctor of Philosophy in a particular subject. For me, that subject was chemistry. So over the next 9 weeks they fielded me all sorts of questions that they thought someone in science might know the answer to.
“This is mad shit!” is how one boy described it after another had asked if Star Trek was based on real science. So I explained the theory behind the warp drive, how energy could ‘warp’ space and create a connection (wormhole) between two points that are a vast distance apart.
I took a piece of paper and pierced a hole at either end, drew the ends together and pushed a pen through.
“It’s called an Einstein-Rosen bridge,” I said. Space is invisible but two distant points can be made to bend towards each other. When you go through one end, you pop out the other, is roughly how I explained it.
I also got questions about aliens and how drugs are made. We talked about how psychedelics work and I showed them the similarity in chemical structure between LSD, DMT, and serotonin. I drew each molecule on the board and circled the bit that’s more or less the same in all three molecules.
They asked about the mind, reality, you name it. Every fascinating subject that curious boys have.
And we did math.
They paid attention. And they thrived.
I fondly recall one boy, Kevin, welling up when he got an ‘A’ for a class test. He actually said, “You’ve given me the wrong paper” after I laid his marked test on his desk. He just assumed, when he saw the visible red “A”, that it wasn’t his paper. He’d never passed a test before in his life.
At the end of the very last class, as I said goodbye to the boys and wished them well in their futures, a queue formed as many of them asked to shake my hand. One said that he’d learned more in that 10 weeks than in all his school years.
Now, I say this not to try to impress you as a reader of these words, but to make the point that you never know what can be achieved unless you try!
Teaching that class helped me develop skills that have since served me well as a public and corporate speaker. If I hadn’t said Yes, I’d have missed out. And I also was able to have a positive impact on some boys that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
Several years later, I was running a weekend workshop and a woman said she had a message from a young man that she knew who had been in that class. She had been speaking with some friends about my books and he’d recognised my name in the conversation. He asked her to pass on a message from him.
He’d recently graduated from university with a first-class honours degree in Engineering. He wanted her to pass on his thanks to me for having taught that class because it had had such a big impression on him.
Believe in Yourself
There’s been other examples where I’ve reluctantly said Yes to life in the years between then and now, but I won’t go into details lest this blog becomes a book.
On that note, to end this blog with another story or sorts, my most successful book is the only one of my 11 books that it wasn’t my idea to write. I approached Michelle Pilley, MD of Hay House, in November 2021 and asked her advice on the next book I should write.
For the first time ever, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to write about. I recognised that Michelle’s position in publishing gives her a clear sense of the types of questions people have and what they want to know. So I asked her, “Given my skillset, what questions do people have that I could best answer?”
Her response became the book, ‘Why Woo-Woo Works’. The title was her idea too.
It’s a book I’m very proud of. It argues that a healthy way forward for healthcare is a blend of mainstream and alternative practices. Sometimes, depending on the person or condition, more of mainstream and less of the alternative, but for others, more of the alternative and less of the mainstream.
I used science to make the case for this, presenting data and explanations for how placebos work, why visualisation can assist healing, how your mind can impact your immune system, even evidence in support of Reiki and other ‘hands on’ therapies.
I also presented different ideas on how crystals can be beneficial in some ways, like as an aid to meditation, for example. Yes, really! There are some surprising scientific reasons if you wish to read about them. And I even showed how and why prayer can be beneficial some of the time.
This book was quite a departure from the last half dozen or so of my books, which have focused on kindness, self-esteem, and the mind-body connection. It’s not a book I’d ever have chosen to write on my own.
But it’s another example of saying Yes to opportunities that life presents and allowing yourself to stretch and grow within that opportunity.
A lot of the successes and some of the really significant experiences in my life have come from things that weren’t my idea, things that I resisted at first before finally giving in and saying Yes.
You needn’t say Yes all the time as Jim Carrey’s character did, but maybe some of the time. Especially if the reason you’re saying no is that you’re scared or because you don’t think you’re good enough, or something else along those lines.
You never know what you might be capable of unless you give some things a try.
It’s times in life when you have to fly that you realise just how strong your wings are.