Why I wrote the Mind Manual

The Mind Manual - transparent.png

My new book, The Mind Manual, is out in the UK today. It's an illustrated guide to how your mind works, written in collaboration with Mindapples and published by Octopus Publishing.

You can buy it here.
(hint hint)

It's all new content, using the same accessible approach we took to A Mind for Business in 2015. I'm really proud of it for two reasons.

Firstly, after ten years of talking to the public about mental health and wellbeing, this book has finally given me a chance to share some of the things I've learnt from all the tens of thousands people I've spoken to. I've been sharing what I've learnt and asking people to do the same, and I've learnt a lot, not just about the mind, but about what actually helps people.

In particular, I've found that setting goals and trying to "think positive" is less important than feeling accepted, and accepting yourself. As I put it in the book, "Good mental health isn’t about constantly trying to change yourself, it’s about learning to live with yourself." What people seem to get from Mindapples is a sense that they are normal, that what they experience isn't weird or unhealthy, but part of being human. Understanding that seems to be more important than trying to change it.

The second is that the book itself has been so beautifully designed and illustrated by the team at Octopus (big love to commissioning editor Sarah Ford and all the team there), and particularly by the amazing illustrator Abigail Read. Abi did an amazing job capturing the essence of Mindapples and her work doesn't just explain the content, it illuminates it.

Some authors just focus on words and even prefer plain, classic styles of presentation, but I am the opposite: if I can use graphics, colours, layout and other visual tools to get my point across, I'm all for it. Perhaps that's because I grew up reading graphic novels and guides to visual communication, or perhaps I'm just illiterate. Either way, I'm proud that this new book isn't just informative, it's a beautiful object too. I even like the thickness of the cover, which shows you what a nerd I really am.

Most of all, though, this book is another piece of the process to make looking after our minds as natural as brushing our teeth. I started Mindapples back in 2008 (look out for our 10th anniversary celebrations later this year), and although the mental health sector has changed hugely for the better since then, there's still a long way to go.

I wrote The Mind Manual because I think understanding our minds should be a basic component of modern life, taught in schools and discussed throughout our life and work. In fact, I find it hard to imagine I could live a good life without knowing what I know now.

So I hope people find this new book as illuminating to read as I found it to write. And most of all, I hope it helps get more people talking about their minds, and looking after themselves and each other. What a nice world that would be.

Order The Mind Manual now

UK  |  US  |  Canada

For Victoria

For those of us of a certain age, and particularly certain musical tastes, 2016 has been a year of surprising deaths.

Harper Lee was the one that really hit me first. To Kill a Mockingbird changed how I saw the world, and Atticus Finch was my childhood idol. Then so many of us were sad to lose David Bowie, though I mainly felt a joy at what a splendid life he had led. And I had only just started writing this post in tribute to one of my writing heroes, Victoria Wood, when I heard of the sad death of the artist formerly known as Prince. 

Many of the people who have inspired me aren't around any more now. Bill Hicks, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Ian Dury, to name just a few who passed away in my lifetime, and many more (Nick Drake, George Orwell, Richard Feynman, Lenny Bruce) who died before I was born. A sign of age perhaps, or as a friend of mine said recently, a cue that we need to step up and be brilliant now. No more looking to our heroes to do it for us.

Victoria Wood had a special place in my heart though, and her death has continued to sit on my mind, so much so that I have a need to write some of it down, as a record of why she was so important to me and why I think her work matters. As I turn my attention more seriously towards writing as a profession, I find my admiration for other, better writers is growing. The more I grapple to find the right words in my own work, the more I find myself humbled by the words of other writers, and even more acutely aware of the hard work that goes into writing something truthful, beautiful and memorable.

Now she's gone, I realise that of all the comedy writers I've admired, Victoria Wood stands out, for reasons which I've not entirely unpacked yet.

Perhaps it was her versatility. I grew up listening to her stand up routines, and she taught me what a real variety act could be, blending characters, observations, asides, music and whimsy into a surprisingly powerful package. Her delivery was immaculate. No-one could get as many laughs as she could from a line as simple as "He's taking me to a creperie" or the word "Kimberly". Her confidence as a performer, a confidence in her words and how they should be heard, was always there from the very beginning of her career.

I think I might have a penis colada. Have you had one? They’re nice.

As a child I watched her series of short TV plays, sadly rarely shown now, over and over again, admiring the variety of settings she could master, the detail of the characters, the killer lines hiding discreetly in the scripts. The awful package holiday travellers of "We'd Quite Like to Apologise"; putting the hell in health farm in "Mens Sana in Thingummy Doodah"; flailing around in a countryside full of yuppies in "Val De Ree (Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha)". They weren't sitcoms - though she showed with Dinnerladies that she could do that too - but true comic plays in the mould of the greatest television comedy writers. They only made six though. She mastered the form, and moved on. As she put it: "I'm always trying to change what I do, and make it different." 

I’m sorry, we don’t have any milk. Can we get some faxed?

Perhaps it was her heart that I admired. Sometimes her work could stray into sentiment, but the affection was always there to see in her writing. From her first appearance on New Faces you could see the wry smile and strong sense of place and people, and a genuine, big-hearted attempt to share something and be understood. I have a lot of time for biting satire, but I admired that she didn't need to be cruel to be funny. She reminded us that comedy isn't just about mocking people; it's about understanding people. The old couple sat in their car at the seaside, suddenly transported to the Taj Mahal ("well it's quite nice but I think it would look better with a tax disc and two windscreen wipers"); the girls on their big night out; her "friend" Kimberly who's "really really tall". Real people, talking in almost real language about boring, silly, normal things.

Our next doors had sex again last night.

Her writing was grounded in the strangeness and loneliness of being a person. The hope and the pathos of time passing, people stuck in ruts, watching their lives happen to them. "My life seems completely grey, bleak and pointless," says one man. "Yes, well, sometimes that's God's way of getting you to enjoy Gardener's World," comes the reply. This is comedy about people, for people. She wasn't trying to look clever; she was trying to share what she'd noticed, in the hope we'd noticed it too. "There's no exclusivity in her humour, but it's not dumbed down either," and Johnny Vegas once put it. She listened to people, and that made her writing so much more acute and truthful. She listened to people, because she cared about people. 

I quite like women in a sad, baffled sort of way.

Perhaps it's a northern thing. I was in Huddersfield the day she died, and it was a timely reminder of her Prestwich origins, the "northernness" in her work that is hard to define and even harder to ignore. She once said that it was very important for her to be from somewhere, and her rootedness was part of what made her work so accessible. Everyone's from somewhere, after all.  It's hard to imagine now that she was criticised early in her career for being "too Northern". When her character in Pat and Margaret is described as "an overweight northern waitress with all the sophisticated allure of an airline salad," it's clear snobbery was all too familiar to her. She wasn't saccharine about her roots, but she carried them with her - and she respected her culture enough to give it a good kicking. 

We’d like to apologise to viewers in the North. It must be awful for them.

I suspect it will be her deftness with dialogue that will be remembered. So many of her lines straddled the mundane and the ridiculous. She could mock the innocent stupidity of youth ("Where are you in the menstrual cycle?" "Um, Taurus.") or equally pinpoint the detachment of the upper classes ("You see those big brown things outside..." "Trees?" "That's it."). Nobody could escape her magnificent ear. The missed meanings, the silliness, the sense that someone, somewhere, has probably said that. This is reality, ever so slightly exaggerated, and all the more unsettling for being so very nearly normal. Her lines can't be stolen because they are so completely hers. She showed that there is comedy in every detail, if you just listen properly. The one-liners and the sketches will circulate for a long time, perhaps forever. Two soups, hens in the skirting board, Mrs Overall, Kimberly - these are part of British comedy history now, and are unlikely to be forgotten.

I once went to one of those parties where everyone throws their car keys into the middle of the room. I don’t know who got my moped but I’ve been driving that Peugeot for years.

Most of all, though, it's her work rate that I admired. Many years ago, I heard Stephen Fry present a Women in Film and Television award to Emma Thompson, and I've never forgotten what he said in his introduction for her, that she had "a natural born genius for bloody hard work". Victoria Wood was a writer in that mould. Her work rate was so high that her scripts were as close to perfect as anyone could get them, every word sweated over, every moment carefully chosen. The precision of her writing, the economy of her words, the musicality of her pacing; PG Wodehouse would have been proud of many of her comic lines, and there is no higher praise than that for a comedy writer. As Andrew Dunn put it, "she crams so much into her scripts, every episode you could watch two or three times before you've realised everything that's in it." 

I haven’t got a waist. I’ve just got a sort of place, a bit like an unmarked level crossing.

This was not just about entertainment. This was about telling people's stories, about conveying important things to the people around her. It was about sweating over whether a pink wafer is funnier than a garribaldi. This, to her, was the work. As she once put it in a BBC interview:

You’re trying to deliver the best thing to the audience, so why would you not try as hard as you can? Why would you not sit and chew your pencil and look out at your bird feeder and think ‘what is the word, there is a word that will be funny’. And that’s what I’ll try to do, to try to make it good for people... I want it to be right.

So that's what I got from her. A realisation that being as good as Victoria Wood means working as bloody hard as Victoria Wood. And even then, I still won't be as good. 

She will be missed. She can still sing us a song, though, to help us cope with 2016, the year of surprising celebrity deaths. Here's to life, whatever the hell it's about.

Management Book of the Year Awards

This week I was at the British Library for the CMI's Management Book of the Year Awards

A Mind for Business was shortlisted in the 'Commuter's Read' category, for books which presented important information in easily-digestible forms. Sadly it didn't win, but I was delighted to be part of it, and particularly since the category choice reflected well on the hard work myself and illustrator Owen Tozer had put in on the illustrations and visual presentation of the book. I was also very proud to be shortlisted alongside the excellent Jo Owen, whose work has been such an inspiration to me.

The overall event was interesting. I'm not a huge fan of business academia - my encounters with business schools has mostly left me feeling they lack contact with the real world and are obsessed with making new theoretical models - but there were some intriguing books listed. The winner was Frugal Innovation, and co-author Jaideep Prabhu struck me as a very impressive man, and thorough in his approach. 

It may say something about the current state of the business world that the winning book was about doing more with less (a mantra of many of my clients these past few years), just as it may be significant that all but one of their management articles of the year were about change and uncertainty. Nevertheless, it's easy to forget just how much hard work goes into developing and informing managers in modern business - and just how many business books are written each year.

So thanks to the judges for reading my book and for granting it a lovely Management Gold five star award (and for the stickers!), and I'll get working to see if I can take home the big prize next time.