Deep inside I knew the old would never do.

Local pottery studios always seem messy places. Maybe that’s the nature of it…

This story may or may not be for you. Or maybe it is. You decide, or just take from it what is important for you for today and take the rest out in a doggy bag for tomorrow.  Here it is anyway:

Ever watched a potter at work? Or had a go at spinning a pot yourself? It’s not so easy, but an expert makes it look like it is!

When I was a teenager I read a simple short story about a notoriously miserable man who was told to go down to the local potter’s house and watch him at work. As instructed the man went down and watched the village potter at his everyday activity, making vessels to sell to his community. (It was an old story, but happens every day in some parts of the world.) Imagine both of us, you and me joining him down in that pottery, watching…

The potter ‘throws’ the clay onto his wheel and centres it. The clay is soft and pliable, yet as he raises it into a vessel, something happens and it loses its shape. (No one’s fault. Its just life. It happens to the best of us.) It isn’t quite right, so he presses it back and starts over. It takes less than five minutes; using his professional skill this artisan craftsman simply makes it again at his wheel. Same clay, different vessel. All part of a normal day’s work. No big deal. No song and dance. He hardly notices. He was a lifelong expert in pot-making so he just remade it, another one. If it wasn’t going easily into one shape, well, he needed a wide selection of different pots and this one would be as unique as the others, handmade, with it’s own individual character, interest and purpose. Great. Who knows how much more useful, refined or beautiful – or all three – this one would be?

The story was beautifully told in 17th century English, and included the line “and the vessel was spoiled in the hands of the potter, so he made it again, a different vessel as it seemed good unto him.” Quaint, isn’t it?  Biblical language. I like this ancient tale because it’s message is as reassuring to me now as it was to the observer then.

Today many people are living lives they feel have been spoilt and they’re scared that “that’s it. I’m stuck here. There’s nothing I can do.” But life is actually more hopeful than that. When you feel spoilt in some way, bear this in mind: for the clay that is flexible there is always the possibility that a fresh new design is on its way. “… he made it again… different.”

In 1997 I was the clay on the wheel of life myself when I needed to resign from a job that I thought would be my life’s work. Within that context I had learned to feel secure behind a safety fence of professionalism I had carefully constructed, and I’d become snared in it.

I was good at what I did… and that was part of the problem. I was becoming imprisoned, sort of under house arrest, yet not daring to accept my position for fear that there may be no way out. In an environment of significant misunderstanding, I jumped before I was pushed and went into free fall.

Amid the shock of having three late-teens children, a lovely wife, no savings and no family income, I was to find out in practice what I knew in theory that life is about being moulded and as long as I stayed flexible there was hope for a new and better future.

Yet that wasn’t quite so easy. I didn’t realise how all-knowing and un-curious I had become. I had come to depend on my 47 years of experience and professional competence for my emotional and practical needs. I knew what I knew and that had become enough. I was about to find out how much I needed to relearn the joy of being flexible and allow myself to be “made again, a different vessel.”

That’s when I met up with a fellow coach who asked me the question that changed my life – and the question that was the beginning of me being ‘made again’:

“Andrew,” he asked, “What would it take for you to move from a position of ‘knowing‘ to a position of ‘enquiry‘?”

Naively I replied, “I am in a position of enquiry.”

He said, “that’s a position of knowing.”

After a very very long pause I quietly said, “Ok, help me”.

He said, “That’s a position of enquiry.”

In that moment of enlightenment something happened. My coach became the hands of the artisan potter for me. I’d got messed up through no fault of my own, and in that instant I started being made again.

That evening I let go of the need for me to have all the cards to play the game of power, promotion and a pension, or whatever, and began developing a more useful focus: to become truly happy and content without those things, and to let them go.

Looking back, that evening redefined my life and my definition of success, and enabled me to enjoy each day for what it is. It enabled me in fact to be far more productive, far more influential for good, and far more hopeful – and it was the beginning of me being free enough inside to help others redefine theirs. I discovered the joy of being curious, of being enquiring, playful and less afraid. I found myself evolving into a different vessel, made with the same clay. I cannot describe how utterly refreshing – and ‘nice scary’  – that was.

So here’s a thought…

Maybe like I had, you have become trapped by the belief that you’ve reached your peak and there isn’t anything more worth going for – or you wouldn’t know what was if you were staring at it.

Or maybe like I was, you’re facing the insecurity of an uncertain future and despite a brave face, are struggling under the pressure. Or are apprehensive that you won’t have the resources to handle it for very long.

Or maybe like I had, you’ve become imprisoned by the need to be right.

Perhaps like I had, you’ve decided its too late in the day for you, or that there simply is no way out.

Or maybe (unlike me!) you’re facing the prospect of a nice final salary pension and 40 years of life to fill in a worthwhile way. There are dangers there too.

For me, as I looked at the next stage of my life, I knew the old would never do. There would be no excuses good enough to have kept me where I was. I knew I wanted a different, more fulfilled and happy future. It was time to be “made again” and I was curious to know how it would happen.

It has happened, and thankfully is continuing to happen. Today I see things very differently.

“What would it take for you to move from a position of knowing to a position of enquiry?”

That question really did change my life for ever.  (Let me know what happens to you.)

As always you can contact me via the Powerchange website.  Worth exploring in any case!

The Kind Stranger Chapter 4: A trip to the pottery.

Good morning!”

I’m getting used to the Kind Stranger sneaking up on me and surprising me.  Behind his smiling face is a playful sense of humour. Here I was getting on with my life, preparing breakfast in the kitchen. In he came, looking for me. KS is always welcome in our home.

“We’re going on a short trip today,” he said. “I’ve something to show you.”

By now I have learnt that he hears the deeper thoughts I have and responds to them without me needing to verbalising anything. I suspected this was another similar moment. It was.

But of course we didn’t need to get the car out and disappear down the road.  No, the Kind Stranger invited me to sit quietly with him, rest my mind, and wait. A few minutes later, I knew we were on the move, and soon we arrived at a village square.  You’ll probably have been there yourself.  It had an array of houses gathered around a village green.

“We’re going just over there”, he pointed to an old building with a light burning inside. We wandered over, he lifted the latch and we stepped inside.

We were in a workshoppy room, with pots everywhere, in various stages of completion. This, I realised was the village potter’s house, and I was unnerved to find that the old potter, working away at her wheel in the corner was oblivious to us.  I tried to talk to the old woman, but she didn’t hear me.  It was as if I was invisible to her. I slowly realised that I was.

I turned to the Kind Stranger to ask what all this was about when he put his finger to his lips to quieten me. He smiled. “Just watch,” he whispered.

I moved over to a workbench, pulled myself up onto it so I could sit more comfortably, and watched as instructed.

The Kind Stranger came and stood by me, and put his hand on my arm.  He often did this to reassure me and help me to relax. I felt myself take in deep breath and exhale slowly, feeling my shoulders drop and my breathing slow.

The Potter got up, moved past us, and unseeing, made her way to a bin of clay. Lifting the lid, she removed a lump of pure soft clay. Cutting a small amount from the lump the potter took it over to her wheel and began to carefully press it, mould it, and shape it. She took such care, and I was intrigued to watch her skills in action. Several times she stopped the wheel, and looked contemplatively at her amazing creation. It was absolutely beautiful. She had used her lifetime of skill to form a fine elegant pot that would undoubtedly be very valuable when it was finished.

Turning it slowly, she looked at each facet, checking it on the inside, on the outside, and smiled – a bit like the Kind Stranger did. Then, all of a sudden, she stopped. She had noticed a tiny flaw, a little impurity in the clay, hidden imperceptibly on the inside of the vessel. I expected her to pass over it, or take some spare clay and fix it somehow, but she didn’t. No, she gently put her hands around it and with the wheel spinning, crushed the entire pot back into a single lump of clay, and she began to make it again, a different vessel.

It hurt me to watch. I felt sad that such a nice pot would never be used by anyone or admired. Even though it was flawed it was still beautiful, still useful, still worth something. The mark was on the inside, not really visible, what was the big deal?  But I could see that to the potter it mattered. This was about her making the very most of the clay.

Something was happening inside me as I realised that the potter was not going to settle for second best. Of course, she knew that, in her hands, there was no need for any concern at all. She knew just what to do. This was clay of the highest quality and my guess is that she had paid a high price for that raw material. She had no desire to leave the clay flawed by an impurity and had no intention of moving on until that vessel was…

Exactly. The Kind Stranger  looked over at me and winked. We made our way out of the potter’s workshop, and soon we were back in my kitchen. I knew what this was about, and he knew I knew. It was about me, the value of my ‘clay’ and what I really needed right now. If I would allow myself to be …

I caught his eye. He smiled approvingly. Great. He had heard my unspoken decision.