Welcome to The Garden of Possibility
There have been times in my working life where I have literally jumped out of bed in the morning to grab my laptop and get to work, when I’ve worked all weekend because I’ve been so enthralled by my latest project, and when I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with ideas that I just had to scribble down before going back to sleep.
Perhaps surprisingly, I was not in this mode when I started Year Here. Instead, every day felt like an intimidatingly large mountain to climb before I was back in the comfort of my bed, embracing the security of sleep. My monkey mind was going wild shouting ‘good luck with that mate’ and ‘you do remember you’re a total loser, right?’.
Perhaps I would have ridden the wave more comfortably if I hadn’t felt like an interloper. I had always doubted whether I was someone who could actually build something, change the world around me, be an entrepreneur. It wasn’t really inculcated in us at school and I didn’t meet many people at Uni who fancied themselves as entrepreneurs either.
Before that point in my life I had a bit of an empathy malfunction when it came to mental illness. When people said they couldn’t get out of bed because of their depression or anxiety, I couldn’t get my head round it. Now I get it. It was the novelty of the feelings I felt in 2012 (which I now recognise as anxiety) that was particularly scary. A simple task became an impossible feat. Rationally I knew that I could do it but my whole body was saying I couldn’t.
This was all intimately related to my decision to launch a business. As a life experience, starting something up is pretty singular. No one has really asked for the thing that you’re foisting on the world so you find yourself in sales mode all the time — whether with investors, prospective clients or family members over Christmas dinner. If your thing fucks up, it’s on you. No one else can be to blame. Your venture is a 100% reflection of you so if people don’t like it, it logically follows that they don’t like you. None of this is good for a ‘pleaser’ like me who reliably gets motivated by people telling him he’s done a good job (give me a gold star and I’m yours!).
But it was a healthy transition to go through and I wouldn’t change it. I came to accept my new identity as a person who builds things. Founding something forces you to live more fully. If your work is not a reflection of you, are you not living less of a life? Steve Jobs put it brilliantly:
“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is — everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”
Slowly but surely my monkey mind quietened and I started to give slightly fewer fucks about what other people thought.
Over the years, my colleague and friend Cynthia Shanmugalingam and I have had many discussions about life, careers and entrepreneurship. In one such conversation, she conceived of The Garden of Possibility. In the Garden of Possibility, you don’t have to be passive subjects of society, you can be an agent of change. It’s a place where anyone can build stuff — whether it’s starting a restaurant, writing a script, standing for parliament or founding a social enterprise. Everyone in the garden is going for their dreams, full pelt. People help you out because, in their eyes, there is no doubt that you’re going to make it.
Although it might not look like it on the face of it, Cynthia and I have a few things in common. We are children of immigrants (hers Sri Lankan, mine Irish), had parochial childhoods (hers: Coventry, mine: Bath), went to schools that weren’t particularly imaginative or ambitious about our career destinations, and had terrible eyesight that led to thick plastic NHS glasses, eye patches, nerddom and academic achievement. Neither of us were born in The Garden of Possibility. Instead, by the serendipity of circumstance, we came to know of its existence and realise that the gates weren’t locked.
The more I’ve moved in circles of garden-dwellers, the more I’ve felt the need to feign that I’ve always felt comfortable as an entrepreneur. Perhaps it’s that quiet fear of being outed as an imposter that keeps me from telling the truth. But, actually, I don’t want to forget that I once felt I was not allowed in, that it wasn’t for me.
It’s no coincidence that Year Here’s mission has matured into one that see entrepreneurship as one of the most promising vehicles for social change today. I have become evangelical about facilitating the transition from “Other people define society, I just live here” to “I am entitled to shape society — and capable of doing it too.”
I think it takes a simple formula to help people realise they too are welcome in the garden: consistent encouragement and cruel to be kind compulsion.
Encouragement calms people’s monkey minds. Our inner critic is drowned out by messages that contradict it over and over again: you are good enough, you can do this. These mantras sound simple — trite, even — but, conveyed authentically, they can be incredibly powerful. After Michelle Obama struck up a relationship with students at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington and shared her belief in their potential, an economist found that the girls’ average GCSE grades jumped from a C to an A (here’s the study).
When I say compulsion, I mean a rock-solid expectation that you can and will do something brilliant. When your self-motivation fails you and you want to curl up and hide, we’ll be there to shove you forwards — even when that doesn’t feel comfortable. The metaphor that always springs to mind is a memory of my mum teaching me to swim. She would stand in the water, a couple of feet away and say “just swim to me”. I would attempt to swim and the fear of drowning would strike. As I got close to grabbing the safety of her embrace, she would step back ushering me to swim further. I would panic again and she would ignore me, just calmly saying “you’re swimming!”. It was not at all fun but she was right, I was swimming.
At Year Here we use encouragement and compulsion to help Fellows discover their own entrepreneurial potential and build social businesses that have a national impact. We want to see Fat Macy’s giving 1000s of young homeless people a realistic pathway towards employment and a home; we want to see Appt’s tech solutions to health inequality deployed from Dundee to Dover; and we want to see Chatterbox transform the way society sees refugees.
Of course, taking on the roles of entrepreneur, business builder and society changer is a big responsibility. There is too much entrepreneurial hype in the world without the counterbalance of thoughtfulness and humility. That’s why we encourage our Fellows to listen first; to seek to understand before they seek to solve; to see people as people, not as problems; to give voice and power to those who might be most affected by their endeavours; and to think critically about the system that they are trying to change.
Truth be told, the formula doesn’t always work. I’ve coached Fellows who, at the last minute, just don’t feel ready to take the leap. It doesn’t mean that they’ll never be able to jump or that entrepreneurship is the only way of embodying a bold, action-oriented spirit. It can, in fact, be applied in so many different ways for the betterment of society.
In the long run, I hope the entrepreneurial confidence of Birdsong’s Sophie Slater makes her feminist activism and writing more daring and ambitious, that Sagar Gupta of Ally will challenge the status quo in helping to build a socially-useful tech sector in India, and that Cracked It’s Josh Babarinde will one day take his vision and sense of possibility into the House of Commons. Good people believing in their potential to achieve audacious things can manifest in myriad ways — and is such a positive thing for all of us.
Too often we think we aren’t welcome in The Garden of Possibility, that it’s for other people. Inevitably this means that the same kinds of people get to shape society, often protecting their own interests and reinforcing their own privilege. But if we can get more people with self-awareness, humility and compassion to see themselves as society shapers, it benefits us all.
I want to keep showing people that entry to The Garden of Possibility is free. Everyone is welcome. Apart from that damn monkey mind.