“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
A few weeks ago, a very wise, wonderful friend of mine sent me a link for an interview with the great Italian goalkeeper ‘Gigi’ Buffon. She told me not to worry about the interview being in Italian, or the subtitles, but to read the accompanying script. I did. Buffon is one of my football heroes. He combined fierce competitiveness with outstanding achievement, but all the while seemed to love the game and to have an effortless ‘coolness’ about him. Without peer, I thought, despite some extraordinary German and English goalkeeping talent of the same era.
In the interview, which is styled as a letter to his younger self, Buffon discloses the battles he had with depression and his mental health. I never knew. My adult life has been characterised by what I call ‘depressive episodes’, but I think I have been fortunate to avoid serious depression. I had a wobble a few years ago, and it was career and life changing for me, and so, I tend to be drawn to news coverage of mental health and depression tales, especially when they relate to sportsmen.
As an aside this is one of the best things I have yet read on ‘burnout’. https://www.1843magazine.com/features/minds-turned-to-ash? This passage is especially good…“But in our high-performance society, it’s feelings of inadequacy, not conflict, that bring on depression. The pressure to be the best workers, lovers, parents and consumers possible leaves us vulnerable to feeling empty and exhausted when we fail to live up to these ideals”.
When I wrote my own blog piece about my burnout experience, I was surprised by the reaction, especially the number of people that said it was “brave”. Revealing one’s vulnerabilities is not brave, but it is interesting as it suggests that most people are aware of, but unwilling to share their own vulnerabilities, which is why I share the author’s view that psychoanalysis may be the answer, and why it is the focus for my current work and study. Buffon is not being brave, but he is being honourable and if he helps others, he is definitely being as magnificent as at any time in his illustrious sporting career.
Sport played a huge part in my life. My brother was a talented and successful professional cricketer. He and I were always early fascinated by the very high incidence in suicides for cricketers post career, which seems to be more prevalent than in other sports. Buffon is another one of many examples that mental health is no respecter of one’s status in society, or one’s industry, and that ‘success’, however it is perceived, is no pain relief. It first hit him in his mid-twenties, and he is now in his early forties.
These words will illustrate just how serious it became for him, “In my opinion many times people are really afraid of putting themselves out there. It also means talking to someone, showing your weaknesses but knowing from that weakness you can become much stronger. What I can recommend is to show who you really are. This is the only real cure that first of all makes you accept yourself. I must prove to myself that I deserve the gift of life, because life is a gift that is granted to you and that must be deserved.” He goes on to say that the solution is in finding how to be proud “in your own little way”
I thought about his battle, and my more modest ones, and I wondered what I would say to my 18 year old self, as I left school in 1982. In the first place, I was incredibly naive. I was so green that I was sure I was going to be ‘called up’ for national service because we had gone to war earlier that year. And it frightened me. I had thrown up the chance of a sponsored Midland Bank place at Loughborough University and taken the unambitious option of dropping my third A level, thus cutting off my routes into academia. I got myself a job, and because of my unenthusiastic approach to education, knew in my mind, that I had to make a go of it.
What would I say to that green and impetuous youth? About twenty key thoughts have occurred to me, which I describe below. Some, Buffon-like, are me accepting and showing my weakness(es). Above all, I want to tell that 18 year old to worry less. It is going to be fine. In fact, you are about to have a charmed life, and so try to take time to appreciate it as it happens. The world does not revolve around you, or any individual, which is why it is a place of endless fascination and many delights. First, everyone is busy. Do not expect people to do things for you. Sometimes they will, and it is a great pleasure. Understanding that, come to appreciate the pleasure you will feel when you help someone else, especially if it is unprompted and unsought.
You are going to be blessed in a way that few people that you know are blessed. People leave education and enter the adult world with some ill-defined ambitions or some very specific goals. The majority are cursed with not achieving them. It can eat at their sense of worth. Sometimes it is because the ambition is exceptionally lofty, like a moon landing, or hitting a six at Lord’s, but mostly they are more modest. This does not mean that those people will be unhappy; many people’s goals change, ambitions alter and they find contentment from a path, a direction, a relationship or a calling that has yet to occur to them, or be introduced to them. However, fulfilling an ambition is very satisfying.
Your ambitions are straightforward. Many years later you will smile because they seem rather shallow. You aspire to marry and have a family. If you are blessed with a family you want them to be privately educated, and like so many new parents, to give them “what I did not have”. You need to think more about the many good things you did have, and how to ensure your children get that same love and attention, but you will achieve this. And you want to live in a bigger home than the ones in which you grew up. Materialism has a hold on you, but it is early Thatcherism and ‘on yer bike Tebbitism’, and you are swept up in the tides of the day, and as society becomes more focused on the individual and on consumerism, you are in the right place.
At one point you will have two Mercedes in the drive of a beautiful home with over three acres of grounds. A few years later you will be living in a rented flat with only a ten year old Polo for transport, but you will not have been any happier in the Mercedes years. In fact, it is a time when you struggle to enjoy your many blessings. However, you do have purpose and that is a good thing. Jung felt that those without purpose and meaning in their lives were apt to become neurotic. So, second, be purposeful.
Harness that energy and motivation but do not allow it to become destructive perfectionism. Alas, you will, but you will overcome that too. You think that if you meet your goals, happiness will descend. You are wrong. Happiness is a narcotic – it is a short lived hit, and cannot be truly appreciated without experiencing the down of the withdrawal symptoms. Adopt a Nietzschean stance and do not aspire to be happy, but aspire to have adventure. And that means ridding yourself of your innate conservatism. You will not be comfortable with that and will probably fail, but give it a go.
Third, you will form a quick inferiority complex as you move into the work place. At school you are top tier academically (it’s not a very academic school) and one of the strongest athletes with competence and achievement across many disciplines. You have county representation in a couple of sports. However, the workplace alters your sense of self. Most of your peers are graduates and three or four years older. They seem so smart, so intelligent, so worldly, such fun and more socially and sexually experienced. In addition, you rapidly move through the office phase of what is effectively an apprenticeship and you will have the chance to be on the floor of the stock exchange.
There, you will spot the class divide, in a way for which your Essex comprehensive school has not prepared you. You are intimidated by the public schoolboys who seem to have a presence, an authority and an air that they belong. It is why it will mean so much to offer that education to your children. You feel you do not belong, and watch the dress code and mannerisms like a hawk. Double cuff shirts, cuff links, Church’s brogues. You will be desperate to fit in. Being something of a social chameleon is no bad thing, but do not undervalue yourself. It is destructive and unhelpful.
Fourth, it will take you time to learn it, and some years of discomfort, but you are as good as these peers. You are not better, though, and you need to drop that occasional defensive arrogance towards people that do not share your views or aspirations. Know your worth, but be humble. You will regard your competitiveness as something to burnish and exercise like a muscle. It will not serve you well. Sure, you will earn good money and exciting promotions, but it is the quality of relationships that counts – the people who are friends, years after you have left the place you worked together. It is not a weakness to care about other people with whom you work.
Some time in the future the USA will be led by a black man as its President. His oratory is something you will admire. At a memorial service for a congressman, after he has left office, he will say this..“being a strong man also means being kind, that there’s nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There’s nothing weak about looking out for others. There’s nothing weak about being honorable. You’re not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect.” You need to understand and apply these sentiments.
One thing you will not understand, but you need to know, is that having and keeping one job is not what will serve you best. In your first thirty years you will have only two employers. Later in your career you will have a crisis. You maintain that you were mistreated by your employer, but you definitely did make a mistake. Yes, you had been an exemplar as an employee for three decades, but employers and institutions have no soul. They are not there to be empathetic. They are inanimate and you must not confuse an employment institution with the people that work there. They are two different things. You now believe that it was due to burnout, and the evidence is quite compelling and you subsequently suffered a bit of a breakdown. You need to listen to your body more, it had been warning you.
What you will not know until your City career is over is that it was a consequence of your inability to listen. Your wife warned you that your behaviour was manic, but you persisted. You always felt you could make it to the next period of leave, never understanding that stress is cumulative and that in your deafness you had been taking less and less care of your health. You start your adult life playing semi-professional football and plenty of squash, but your fitness goes before your thirties and you drink too much and have added two stones by your mid forties..
So, let me emphasise: Fifth, listen. More. You do not have all the answers. People are not “always telling (you) what to do”; actually, they care about you and want to help. Your brother, many years later, will tell you that you can be and have been impatient, intolerant and judgmental. It is not insulting. It is an accurate observation. You can temper all these traits. Fortunately, when he says it, you will finally have matured sufficiently to appreciate it, rather than defend yourself against it. Keep listening.
Sixth, posture. At 18 years of age you are blessed with an athletic physique and an active lifestyle. Your early career is going to be spent on the floor of the London Stock Exchange, so you will be on your feet during market hours. Later in your career though, a regulatory and financial and technological revolution is going to turn you into a desk bound, screen watching blob. You will no longer be playing much sport and your work culture will be male dominant and with a pub and bar focus. Your posture will become slovenly. Your wife will tease you about your posture occasionally. You will hate it. Don’t. Or get over it, quickly.
She has your best interests at heart, and she is right. If you do listen you may have fewer of the problems with your back that start to plague you in your late forties and early fifties. It is only when you start doing regular pilates (and I know that right now you think that that is a ‘woman’s thing’, but you are wrong) and yoga, that you will wish you had taken note of her gentle chiding. Learn more about the value of yoga, of suppleness of mind and body and of how to breathe properly.
Seventh, invest in yourself. Right now, you are pleased that you have finished with education, which you only associate with one comprehensive school and a few classrooms. Years later it will become an itch that you need to scratch. When two of your best friends cut short City careers inside two years to take up university places, think a little harder about whether they might have recognised something in themselves, that you are choosing to ignore in yourself. You will take some professional exams successfully, but will spend many years thinking about and rejecting evening study for a degree. When you finally start an undergraduate degree in your fifties, you will discover the joy of learning. And it is a joy.
Eighth, family. Most things in life you will either earn or find. Family comes to you unbidden. In it you will find true love. It will offer a host of other things too, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. Despite your sibling rivalry you will have few, probably no relationship, as lovingly intense as with your brother. You will have the love of two good parents who, mercifully, will still be alive approaching, and into their ninth decades. Not only alive but free from all but a few minor ailments and still in possession of their mental faculties. Few people are so blessed. Above all, you will have the love of three wonderful children. These are riches beyond value.
Ninth, football and cricket. Only games, but few things represent the world to you and you to the world as these sports. They teach you teamwork, respect, competition, fitness, overcoming disappointment, and celebrating highs. Many years from now sportsmen will be much better rewarded financially and will be widely quoted on things beyond the field of play. Your current heroes, Brooking and Gower, will have distinguished second careers. These sports will bring you many great friendships and your brother’s successes will make you a subject of interest that will help your stock market career.
You will play your way into MCC, and score a century for them. You will make centuries for Stock Exchange CC and your title winning Essex League club. You will score in a FA Cup tie. These sports will give you highs that only the birth of your children exceed. Value them, and the time and energy your parents gave to helping you become proficient as a player. However, although they become the sharp end of the entertainment industry, they remain ‘only sports’. When a World Cup winner like Buffon cannot escape depression, or another like Jonny Wilkinson, is plagued by dealing with perfectionism, even having won his World Cup, they need perspective.
Tenth, slow down. You are in a hurry to do everything. To grow up. To prove yourself. To leave home. To own a car, and then a property. Think about a plant. It grows when properly nurtured, but no amount of willing it to grow faster will help it. It will grow in its own sweet time to its own best advantage. Learn to think about that plant.
Eleventh, read. Read voraciously. It is lovely to share how much you have read with fellow bibliophiles. Read for pleasure, but enjoy how it educates. The great characters of good fiction all have something to teach you about the cycle of life, and how to view the world through alternative perspectives. Being able to do that is a great and valuable skill. At the moment you will not see a value in re-reading books, but that will come and you will see that it is not just the characters that offer different perspectives, but that the point of experience you have reached in your own life will affect what, and how you read.
You are about to plough through Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” as a distraction from your commute. It is tough going and at times you will wonder why you are bothering, but decades later you will still recall Raskolnikov, and his mental demons and contempt for the law, before he finds a path to redemption. Books do that to you. Read on, and love them all. Then, pass them on. You love the ownership of books, but share them. They will stimulate the best conversations, and the theory of reciprocity means you will get much more back than you give.
Twelfth, theatre. You love it. Go as often as you can. Drama holds a mirror up to society. It will always inform you, and most of the time it will entertain you. At some point in your future you will try to write plays. Your appreciation for what it takes to build dramatic tension will be defined by your own efforts, but you will always love great dialogue. None is finer than Shakespeare’s. You have studied three of his plays at school. You have many to come. Your favourites are two of those you have yet to see. That makes you lucky.
Always try to see the greatest actors. You are about to pass up the chance to see Ralph Richardson on stage. He will die before you are twenty. You will see all the theatrical knights after that including Gielgud, but you will remember missing Richardson.
A few more. Travel. You are a keen sportsman and so, you avoid winter holidays because you do not want to lose your place in the football teams you will play for. Years later you will love skiing and watch your children show great prowess and wish you had learned at an earlier age. In the summers your cricket commitments mean you avoid holidays too. It will take marriage for you to appreciate down-time, and the joys of seeing and appreciating different places and cultures. Your good financial fortunes will mean you travel well and comfortably. Try not to see the world in a ‘dressed-for-tourism’ way, but get off the beaten track when you can and get uncomfortable with having to use your awful linguistic skills. And then, think about improving those skills.
Smile. You think this is ridiculous but actually the act of smiling is good for your health. It exercises about half of the forty-plus facial muscles. A smile is something that gets returned more than it gets ignored. Sometimes that provokes a greeting and then a conversation. You tend to avoid eye contact. You are quite shy, and you tend to look down more than up. Hold your head up, engage eye contact and smile. It will make your world a better place, and it will be a better place for those around you.
Drink water. I know. You hate it. Decades later you still find it difficult to pour a glass from a tap, and you cannot conceive of people ordering water in pubs and restaurants. It will happen, though. And the water drinkers are right. You need to hydrate. You grew up with eczema, and you have a flaky scalp and ‘dry skin’. You suffer occasional headaches. Given you enjoy alcohol and you will be surprised by how much coffee you and everyone else will drink in future, you need to give your body a chance to balance its fluid intake. Drink more water.
Sleep more. I know that currently you share the view that it is somehow cool and macho to boast about how little sleep you get, and with Maggie running the country on an alleged four hour sleep per night regime it is tempting to see sleep as weak, but … wrong. It literally allows a brain to regenerate. It increases the reproduction of cells that form myelin – the insulating material found on nerve cell projections in both the brain and spinal cord. In the future you will become interested in psychoanalysis. The power and language of dreams will fascinate you. The opportunity for the unconscious to express will intrigue you. What happens when you have too little dream time? It makes it harder for repressed thoughts to be expressed and may, who knows, manifest in more destructive conscious and physical expressions. Sleep more.
Learn about nutrition. It is interesting. You will learn that there is more activity in the gut than in the brain. What you ingest will affect your health and your mood. Nobody will ever tell you what to do – you are not good at taking advice, and you need to get better, and you are stubborn, and you need to soften up – but if you learn enough of the facts and science for yourself, you are likely to do tremendous long term benefit to your health, by eating better.
Many times you will hear the expression, “its not the destination, it is the journey”. It will drive you mad. What does that really mean? To your irritation, you will later discover that it may have more than a ring of truth. It will likely take you decades and you will waste too much time focused on ‘outcomes’, but you will get there. From your late middle-aged perspective it would be great if you can get there sooner; it might allow you to be a little kinder to yourself.
Reputation. Hard won and easily lost. Your dad has given you some good advice about not being ‘pigeon-holed’ and about earning respect. Keep the advice close and repeat it to yourself regularly. Few things will please you more than the comments your peers give to your wife when you have your career crisis thirty years from now. You will see that crisis as a stain on your reputation, but will be left in tears by the compliments she is paid about your values and your integrity.
That brings me to friendships. You need them and you will discover you are extremely lucky with your’s. In your first year in the City you will become friends with a man who will be godfather to one of your children, as you will be to one of his. He will share his home with you when a house purchase falls through, and look after you when you are in a car accident. On your wedding day it is he who will know the right things to say to calm your wife’s nerves as she approaches the aisle.
Nearly forty years on, you are proud to call him a friend. Your two closest friends from your school A level studies will also extend their friendship with you to over forty years. As will your former next door neighbour, and a former Essex Schools U15 cricketer. It speaks volumes for the value of long duration friendships, but also about how people regard you, which you struggle to appreciate. Nurture friendships. Some have a natural life and die, so seek and welcome new ones, but really value people with whom you can share decades of experiences.
New skills. You are glad to be out of school and you have turned your back, for now, on education. As a sportsman you think you are pretty impressive and have little new to learn. You hate not being competent at things and until you develop some maturity it will stop you trying new things. You want to be someone in your adult life, and you will come to see that the people that most impress you are those with the deepest and broadest learning, and those sufficiently open-minded to keep absorbing new ideas, processes and skills.
With that in mind, take up a musical instrument and learn to dance. At 40 you will take up piano for a handful of years, but it is quite late. Try to pick up a guitar sooner. At parties you will notice how a guy who can turn to the piano/keyboards, or perform some magic on drums, or strum a guitar and accompany himself, will draw the attention of the prettiest girls. The man who gets most attention, though, is the one who can dance.
Like most men you avoid dancing and look suspiciously at those with some mastery. You think you have “two left feet”. Why? All small children dance when they hear music; they all have instinctive rhythm. So when and who tells them they cannot do it? When did you decide? Before your wedding you will discuss having dance lessons, but not get them booked. That is a great pity. Your first dance lesson will be in your fifties and glory be! You will enjoy it. Start now, and enjoy parties much more.
Get rid of the chip on your shoulder. Research the world. You are incredibly ignorant. Ahead lies the fall of the Berlin Wall and Mandela’s release in South Africa as the apartheid regime crumbles. You will see the legacy of the genocidal horrors in Cambodia for yourself in a few decades’ time and you will have repeat visits to India. Start researching global poverty, and the treatment of the victims of communism, genocide and apartheid, and appreciate that you have nothing to be chippy about.
Go easy on yourself. Follow Polonius’s advice. The journey, at least for the best part of the next forty years is an interesting one. You may even come to like yourself a little. You might tell Nietzschean fans that even discounting your conservatism, it has been quite a decent adventure…