You can’t have exciting without terrifying: John-Paul Flintoff on purposeful work
Revelations are a frequent occurrence for John-Paul Flintoff. When you understand the span of his current ventures, this maybe isn’t surprising. He’s a journalist, a public speaker, a business coach, an improv performer, a designer of crockery, and the author of several books, including “How to Change the World”.
Elizabeth Gilbert describes him as “Brené Brown, but with more physical comedy…”. He is extremely animated and inventive, gesturing wildly while maintaining total sincerity. He launches into our conversation with gusto.
“One of the most exciting times in my career was being hired by the Financial Times to be there at the launch of a new magazine and to be the only feature writer”, he recalls. “I thought: ‘I’m in heaven. I’m not even thirty and I cannot imagine a better job than this’.”
John-Paul was fortunate enough to live through the last gleam of traditional journalism. He was working for an editor who was ready to send him on engaging assignments, to challenge and encourage him. He recalls finding everything sensationally interesting.
Part of his satisfaction came from the feeling of being part of a lineage in journalism, passed down from his editor, Michael Watts, of whom John-Paul speaks highly: “This guy went head to head with John Lennon, he’d learnt from the great Hunter Davies, and so I felt like I’d belonged to that line of succession.”
The sense of belonging contributed greatly to his happiness at the FT, feeling that he was contributing to something greater, something deeply worthwhile.
It was later on, while working as feature writer at the Sunday Times, that he had one of his revelations. His research had led him to the peak oil theory and a sub-world of survivalists who predicted environmental doom. He became terrified that the world’s supply of oil was about to run out and that life, as he knew it, might come to an end. He went to extremes: avoiding electricity use, handing in only typewritten articles to his editor and trying to convince everyone he knew of the threat at hand.
“I was coming at this from a position of fear. I was really panicking, and I was no fun to be around. I wound my wife up and I got to the point where I couldn’t talk to her about it, but I was obsessed. I couldn’t think of anything else.”
The fear eventually spurred John-Paul to action. He started investigating ways to make change happen and discovered the Transition Town Movement, which aims at self-sufficiency through community projects. This shifted his focus from fear to solutions.
“So from then on, instead of having a bad time trying desperately to persuade everyone, I was having a good time doing my own thing trying to be more sustainable.”
An allotment was the first and more obvious move, but next came sustainable fabrics: “I made an entire outfit, right down to the underpants, which I crocheted out of nettles. It doesn’t sting.”
At this point in the interview I try to hide a laugh. John-Paul catches me: “I love that you’re smiling while I’m saying this, because it’s meant to be amusing. It started out of desperation and upset, and then people were asking: ‘Can I join you? What is this fun that you’re having?’ It totally shifted everything.”
I ask him whether this particular revelation affected his sense of what he should be doing with his life and he admits he’s pretty much turned it into his career. “How do you overcome a feeling of powerlessness? How do you overcome the feeling of being a victim, because some bastards have done something you didn’t want? I know that if you focus on the dark thoughts they get even darker, because it spirals and becomes a habit. So I’ve now learned that you can reverse it, you can unpick that.”
He has turned this understanding into a pivotal part of his career as a coach, helping others to unravel their thoughts and find a way forward: “I think one of the measures of being a really fulfilled and happy person is getting faster at spotting the opportunity in what appears to be a disaster. So what I’ve become keen on is to help people move more quickly through that process.”
John-Paul went through this process again after his own career came to an abrupt halt. He was working as a journalist at the height of the Dot Com boom. When it collapsed and the advertising money dried up, so did the contracts:
“And I thought: ‘I am totally screwed’.
My working business model was over. So I had to reinvent myself. It was terrifying. And exciting. The thing is, you can’t have exciting without terrifying.”
Since this point John-Paul has reinvented himself not just once but several times. From nettle underwear to Ted talks on how to change the world, becoming a leadership coach and a novelist. Each stage marks an evolution in his thinking, a product of his curiosity. It’s sometimes hard to keep up with it all: on a regular basis he pops up on my newsfeed with a new venture or a fresh angle on something.
John-Paul understands how strong feelings can drive change if given focus and direction. He has created an environment for himself where he can channel his curiosity into new ventures that help others. One good example is The Family Project, which helps families compile their own stories as a live creative project. The idea came from a holiday with his wife (the journalist Harriet Green) and his daughter, where the three of them interviewed each other to create a shared record of their trip.
When I ask what gives him a sense of purpose in his work he comes back to the idea of impact on others. “The best thing is when I see someone being affected by what I’ve done. I see it or I hear it. When I know I’ve had an impact and I’ve helped someone else, that’s a good day.”
To anyone struggling to find purpose in life, his advice is as follows:
“Find out: ‘what is your impact on the world?’ Allow yourself this, which might seem incredibly indulgent at first. Notice the impact you have. God gave you these talents, share them with people”.
You can find out about the many pursuits of John-Paul Flintoff at flintoff.org