Speech: Life is like a cup of tea (school prize-giving)

This was a speech I gave for prize-giving at St John’s College, Southsea, 12 July 2017.

“Life is Like a Cup of Tea”

[Lord Mayor], Governors, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good evening – and thank you for inviting me to be here to share this very special evening with you. I am already having a wonderful evening. We’ve had such a treat from the choir and the orchestra, and the hospitality has been very generous.

Perhaps too generous. They do say that the best audience is one that is intelligent, well-educated, and a little drunk. I’m so pleased that we’ve managed two out of three. Looking at the teachers, I’m not sure which two.

I’ve called this talk “Life is Like A Cup of Tea”. I’ll explain it at the end but I’m hoping it’s silly enough to be memorable.

Angus / Anya: thank you for your warm and generous words of welcome.

Yes, I’m a tea merchant. I can’t deny it, but “only” 24 years ago last week, I was sitting somewhere just like this, listening to speeches, just like you are now. 

I can’t remember a word the speaker said, or even who he was – which, standing here now, I find a great comfort.

I went to University and took a degree in Classics. Then I joined the Navy and spent seven very happy years looking out of various Bridge windows.

I understand and love institutions like this school – like universities – like the Armed Forces.

I also understand very well that you only have one life, and one day, like me, you might wake up and decide to do something completely idiotic, such as chuck everything in and start a tea business.

It sounds exciting, being that guy that bucks the trend and does his own thing, sets up a business in a garage.

To be honest, everyone just thinks you’re a bit of an idiot.

Imagine you have a well-paid respectable job with excellent prospects. One day you go to WH Smith, spend £4.50 on a book called “How to Build Your First Web Page” Then you spend the next three months in your spare room learning how to build a tea website whilst living off your savings.

It’s a reckless and foolish thing to do and most people will tell you so and be genuinely delighted if you appear to fail.

So try not to fail, but be ok with the idea that statistically you probably will.  96% of small businesses fail within the first 10 years. Learning to live with the uncertainty and pressure is a fascinating learning experience, but luckily I can always look back with pride on my greatest achievement.

34 years ago, at the age of 7, I won this Mr Frothy milkshake maker for drinking the most milk of anyone in the school. I really think it was my proudest moment.

It’s such a huge honour to be here tonight to celebrate with the proper prizewinners here tonight who have done so much more than drink several gallons of milk.

In every case, your achievements are truly remarkable. 

Every single prize tonight represents a story of hard work and dedication over a really long period of time.

You should take a moment to feel proud of yourself and the hard work you put in. It’s something that truly deserves recognition.  Applause

Nobody achieves anything on their own, so let’s not forget your teachers and parents who supported and inspired you too. Well done to them too.   Applause

Some of you  have won prizes. That’s great. We all want to excel. But can we ALL be above average? That’s a contradiction in terms, surely?

Well, let’s think about this school. Who runs it?

A school is like an organism consisting of lots of individuals, each with their own skills and ideas to contribute.

Life outside school is much the same. Who runs the country? Nobody does, not really. Especially this year, some of you might be thinking.

The world, like this school, is really just a bunch of people doing their thing as well as they can.

We are lucky enough to live in a world with so many jobs to choose from. You just have to pick one and be as good as you can be at it. And then try something else, perhaps. But how do you decide?

It’s tough, because “decision” literally means cutting off. To say yes to something, you have to say NO to everything else.

We tend to think more about our big decisions than about our small ones.

We think about the decision to study English A-level but not about the decision to make a cup of tea

That’s probably the wrong way round.

Small, regular decisions -like the cup of tea – have the bigger effect, because we make them many times a day, often without thinking. That’s what we call a HABIT.

For example, the decision to check our phone notifications yet again.

Many people enter the lottery and read their horoscopes every day, hoping for something to fall on their laps.

I don’t believe in horoscopes – typical Leo.

Listen: you KNOW what you need to do, and you don’t need to win the lottery.

At the very least, you know something you can do.

  • Want to lose weight? Put that pie down and go for a walk.
  • Want to learn a language? Find a French language radio station that you can listen to online.
  • Want to start a business? Ask a few of your friends if they would buy your product. Or create a product!

I’m not saying those things are enough. But I am saying, they are a very good start.

There is always something you can do, even if it seems tiny.

Start taking small practical steps and you will be quite amazed at how it snowballs.

You will start meeting people who can help you.

You will start seeing useful information wherever you look.

Why? Because your brain is the most incredible pattern-matching engine. As soon as you tell it you’ve decided to lose weight, it will start finding ways to help. But – and this is rather important – only if you are serious. Until you start taking action and putting time into it, you are not serious.

Going to the pub and chatting to your friends about your business startup does not count.

Watching YouTube videos by famous entrepreneurs does not count. It’s fun and can be useful but don’t kid yourself it’s work.

Posting photos of yourself on instagram does not count.

What does count is creating a product and putting a price on it and selling it to strangers at a profit. I don’t care what market research you have done if that doesn’t include getting strangers to give you money in exchange for your product.

So change from the passive voice to the active.

Stop reading and start writing. Stop listening to music and start making it. Stop watching videos and start recording them.

Stop asking questions and start answering them.

Stop planning and start acting.

Every yes is a no to something. Yes to television is no to your new business venture.

No to complaining makes space in your life for a Yes to something else.

Say yes more often, and say no more often. In other words, make a decision.

Normally, people don’t say yes or no. They just do stuff unthinkingly.  So let’s start thinking and here’s a suggestion that might help you.

What I’d like you to try is this:

Every time you make a cup of tea, while it brews, ask yourself “what am I actually working on right now, and why?” You might be amazed by how often the answer is “I appear to be frittering my life away on Facebook” or “I have absolutely no idea what I was working on”. That will give you the chance to change to something more valuable.

If you want to take it to the next level, here’s something to try occasionally, for a day or two. Keep a time vs activity log of everything you do. Literally everything. Make a note of how much time you spend on each activity.

I promise you, you will be amazed at the results and you might decide to change your habits afterwards.

Habits trump goals every time. Why? Because habits are actions and goals are words.

So I’d really like you to think a little less about big personal goals and a lot more about your habits.

In other words, stop talking and start doing.

You know all about hard work, from your school motto, Per Laborem ad honorem, which does not mean Vote Labour, but means if you work hard you will do well. But you need to work at the right thing.

In that spirit, I have another practical suggestion for you.

I want to give you a new superpower. Who wants a superpower?

OK, your new superpower is: you can create any new habit you want.

Disappointed? You wanted to fly or shoot spiders out of your hands?

Just think about it for a moment.

You want to be an amazing pianist? You want to lose weight? You want to speak a language? You want to be rich? You want to be able to juggle?

All those things are fun, useful, life-changing, and totally possible.

It’s free of charge, really easy and it only takes a week.

Are you ready?

Say you want to be fit and lose weight. What’s a good habit that would help you with that? How about “I want to go running every morning”?

Now choose the tiniest imaginable version of that. For example, “put your running kit on and walk once round the block”.  Yes, walk.

Next choose a trigger, something to remind you. How about, brushing your teeth?

Next, choose a reward. That could be ticking a list, entering it on your running app or just saying aloud, “Yay, well done me!”

So what happens is, every morning, you brush your teeth, put your running kit on and walk round the block, then go back up and carry on getting ready.

A cop-out, right? How does a walk round the block help you get fit?

The answer is, we are not trying to get fit but to build a solid habit. If it’s hard, you will miss a day. There has to be zero friction, even when it’s raining.

In practice, you will find yourself running further and further each morning, and you will be totally blown away by the results and by how easy it is.

So that’s my gift of super-hero-ness to you this evening: to create any habit you want, in one week, just choose the tiniest version of your desired habit and add in a trigger and a reward.

The expert on this is BJ Fogg at Stanford.

I left the Navy and started a tea business in my spare room. That’s the kind of dream a lot of people have, so they think I might be able to help them.

Most people are probably a lot better qualified than me to start and run a business. But most people haven’t started one. I only have a couple of skills that have helped me and they are as follows:

  1. Constant and relentless action. Don’t rush, just keep moving forward.  
  2. Dream small – but be one of those scary people that actually does something about their dreams. Very quickly, you will find yourself working towards very large dreams indeed.

Here’s the secret for success. Choose what you want to do, then do it consistently. Did you want something more complicated? Sorry!

That’s really it.

I was lucky, on the choosing-what-to-do side. My enthusiasm for startups began when I was four years old. I can still vividly remember the moment.

Later, my interest broadened to include anything to with business, especially finance and the stock market. I was ten years old when I made my first purchase of shares. I had earnt some money by growing geraniums from cuttings and then selling them and saved that money up.  I cycled to the building society with my log book, withdrew £100, then cycled to the Stock Broker’s offices to buy the shares. I forget what they were, possibly Turriff plc.

My vocation for the Navy came relatively late, at the age of 11.

So I am one of those annoying people who decided at an absurdly young age what he wanted to do and then did it. What if you don’t know what you want to do?

Easy! Just do something you enjoy, be consistent and you will get really good at it. It will lead you on to new things until you find your vocation, your enthusiasm.

Every time you make a cup of tea, pause and ask yourself those questions: what am I working on right now, and why?

Go even further and try the daily activity log, if you feel like it. You will quickly find ways of using your time better.

Some people have more money that us. Some people have less. But nobody has more or less time each day. We all have 36 half-hours per day, if we spend 6 hours asleep. How you spend those half hour slots will tell you exactly where your life is currently heading.

Try things out. Adopt a scientific approach to your life. Treat everything as an experiment and don’t be emotionally attached to the results. If you go for a run each morning, what is the result? Try not using social media before lunchtime. What’s the result? If you have a business, try posting on your Facebook page three times a day for a week and doing a Facebook live once a day. What happens to your engagement, likes and cost per click?

So why is life like a cup of tea? Because it’s all about how you make it.

I told you it was terrible.

Different people like different things. Some like milk, some like sugar. It doesn’t matter.

For most people, a cup of tea is a daily habit, and habits decide our success or failure.

Make your life how you like it best by creating tiny dreams and then achieving those dreams by means of solid daily habits.

Keep yourself on track by asking yourself every time you make a cup of tea, “What am I doing right now, and why?”

Then one day you’ll discover that you have amazed the world with the sheer audacity of your dreams, and terrified the world by actually achieving them.

Thank you for listening.