Last weekend I went back to the Woods for the annual Escape to the City, Escape to the Woods microfestival. I wasn’t planning to go; I was already double booked with a good friend’s engagement drinks and a big family event and so I put it in the too-hard basket.
A quick read of my blog about the inaugral event last year, and a well-timed chat with the man with the woodland plan himself, Ben Keene, and I was in. Ticket bought, camping stuff borrowed, thermals packed and within hours I was on my way to Tunbridge Wells. It wasn’t quite an adventure in the faraway tree but here are my reflections from the Woods.
1. Even dull stuff can be sexy
In a moment of sheer genius, Ben Keene (the man with the plan) had arranged for the infamous, hilarious and frankly Irish Adam Conlon to co-compere the event. Adam did a super memorable ‘open mic’ last year which had the whole audience in side-splitting laughter, and some of us in tears. Drawing on his experiences in the forces and working at Buckingham Palace a few years before, he brought a unique blend of humour and career coaching to the Woods.
This year, Adam made quite an entrance – to the ‘Full Monty’ theme tune wearing an impressive dayglo vest; and this was just the beginning. Not only did Adam put the sexy into a health and safety briefing, he also covered the delicate topic of portaloo etiquette and brought his best Michael Flatly impression to a Saturday night dance off. I guess you had to be there. He’s my tip for stardom – watch this space.
On the Saturday morning, I made a last minute pitch for our session on ‘Open Data and how it’s changing 21 century careers’. Yes, this year I brought my work to the woods – what was I thinking? Gifted the tiny ‘Plato’s cave’ as a venue, we anticipated an audience of about 20. But it didn’t quite work out like that – the promise of data driving culture change and a €100,000 fund for open data innovations and we had about a hundred people ready and raring for Open Data 101.
It just proves, it’s all about how you sell something, whether it’s a totally made up phrase like my old favourite ‘job shopping,’ an unknown entity with a pretty poor reputation (in this crowd anyway) like open data or a (slightly) dull topic like health and safety.
2. I love exercise
For avid Nurturing Happiness fans(!), you’ll know that exercise is not my friend. It hasn’t been since a run in with a games teacher at school – and has all gone downhill since the marvellous month of exercise last August (yes, more than 12months ago). When I saw Project Awesomeadvertised at Escape to the Woods, I wasn’t too phased – I figured I’d opt out and choose yoga; I didn’t even take my trainers.
But then this man happened.
This man is Danny Bent, a modern day Mr Motivator (as someone said on social media) and I’m not the only one who thinks so. He’s one of the Independent’s top 100 happiest people and can currently be found bringing a much needed injection of humour to BBC2’s Ultimate Hell Week(I’m not sure how long that will last for though!). Such is his power of persuasion that my conversation with him on Friday night led to an 0830 bum-slapping, wheel-barrow-racing, expletive-yelling, high-fiving exercise session on Saturday and Sunday mornings in wellies and yoga kit. Non-judgemental, all inclusive, fun, light-hearted, unpredicatable and messy. Now that’s my kind of exercise – sprinkled with a little bit of stardust. (See below if it sounds like your kind of exercise too).
3. Death should inspire, not scare me
On Sunday morning, the humble, inspiring and hugely knowledgable Eiji Han Shimizu (who’d been with us all weekend) delivered a Sunday Sermon. He’s the producer of the fantastic ‘Happy‘ movie – and a real life example of a man with happiness high on his agenda.
But he talked about death. To give you some context, we’d had the most memorable and fantastically-late night of dancing, singing, limboing and sharing on Saturday, a few of us had survived a second Project Awesome session, some had 90mins yoga and meditation under their Sunday-morning-belt and the energy at breakfast around the campfire was palpable.
Palpable that is until we discovered that we would be experiencing a traditional Tibetan Deathbed Meditation. The man who is renowned for happiness brought death. But he did it in such a way that it felt right – he shared his aspiration to die like a swan, not like a duck (with sound effects) and he told us that ‘no one can escape from death, it is the only thing that is certain,’ that it is a preoccupation in many cultures and religions and that to die gracefully, we should start to consider right now – ‘how are we going to live?’
It was an incredibly powerful experience; you could hear a pin drop – and the only things moving were tears rolling down my (and many others’) cheeks. The moment when we opened our eyes and felt the bright life-giving light again and the shift in perspective as we considered what we can achieve in the days we have left (however many there may be) was so powerful. And then, just as our commitment to life and joy couldn’t be any greater and our hearts more receptive, he shared tips for living a happy life. From meditation to gratitude, purpose to resilience and compassion to ‘f**k it, just do it’ attitude, Eiji’s anecdotes landed on our open ears and shaped many of my post woods commitments.
“There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” Dalai Lama XIV
4. Time is short
Wow – it’s been 12 months since Escape to the Woods version one and I feel like I’ve achieved nothing. My panic at the prospect of doing an open mic proved that without question. For some unknown reason, I don’t count my achievements as real ones. Perhaps because they’re mine, I just see them as incremental and not news-worthy. But over the weekend I slowly realised that I might be underselling myself – I had some useful advice and ideas, lots of stories (of successand failure) to share, and a new-found ability to make data awesome – or at least palatable. There were a few others at the woods who’d been there a year earlier too – Sophie and her chocolate business, her yoga fitness retreat and her aspirations for even more ethical and international etsy (I’m paraphrasing), Henry who now runs the Uganda Marathon annually – and a couple of other businesses to boot and Ian who has launched an awesome ethically grown subscription based coffee business (and is highly knowledgable about stars) to name but a few. This time next year, I’ll be ready to tell my story – if people want to hear it anyway.
5. Your tribe matters
People matter. When you’re making a choice to laugh in the face of the mainstream and step away from the societal norm to do something bold, it helps enormously to have people around you who believe in you and will champion (not challenge) your dreams. My favourite memories from the weekend are of those personal connections – moments in the never-ending food queue when your eyes light up and sparks fly. Perhaps it’s because you share a dream, a philosophy or a challenge but regardless, the people I met this weekend are my newest tribe members and our shared experience makes us even closer.
The Escape the City crew are attracting an incredible tribe of energetic, committed and largely socially motivated people; a weekend in their company gave me the greatest boost of energy, laughter and confidence. Ask yourself, are you surrounded by go-getters who share your values and ambitions for the world? If not, book the next woodland adventure in your diary now – 2-4 September 2016.
Now is the time to make stuff happen – I’ve already written my open mic talk for next year (a tip from another woodlander) – it’s just down to me to make it a reality.
And last but not least, some of my favourite quotes from the weekend:
“If you don’t go to Vegas, you’re never going to get lucky in Vegas.” Emily Penn, Skipper and Director Pangaea Explorations
“Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” Dalai Lama XIV (he wasn’t there, I just paraphased this quote a lot!)
“Everything is in our control – it’s just about having the mindset to achieve it.” Emily Penn, Skipper and Director Pangaea Explorations
“Create a project-based existence rather than an income-based one.” Dave Cornthwaite, Adventurer
“Never listen to advice unless you’ve asked for it.” Dave Cornthwaite, Adventurer
And one of my all time favourites…
“Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
So what now?
Next time you see someone feeling a bit down, ask if they’re ok, offer them a smile or even go in for a high five – we are all human, even if we live in London.
Join Danny and his neon lycra clad peeps for Project Awesome on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 0630 in various central London locations – http://projectawesomelondon.com/
Apply for ODINE funding if you’re running a startup which uses open data to make social change. Win €100,000 for your core development costs – https://opendataincubator.eu/
Find out more about Open Data – like what it actually is – by coming along to a free lunch time lecture – http://theodi.org/lunchtime-lectures