Learning & reflecting – An interview with life-coach Tony Phillips

By: Emily Maybanks

It’s all too easy to become very caught up in everyday life and let the stress of life take over our minds and our bodies. University – particularly at this time of year – is hectic and full of deadlines and the looming final exams, and sometimes, it is easy to forget to practice the much needed art of self-care.

Learning is something we all do daily – in our courses and outside, in our daily lives and there’s that very famous quote that goes “you learn something new every day”. An article in Breathe magazine (a fantastic magazine that focuses on well-being, mindfulness, escaping and creativity) entitled: The Art of Learning, written by life coach Tony Phillips explored the importance of spending a quiet hour to reflect on what we’ve learnt whether it be over the past week, or month, or year. It’s a “valuable exercise that allows you to see how far you’ve come and how much further you would like to go.” In this article, there is some quite important and valuable advice and tips about learning, based on what Tony Phillips has learnt.

Firstly, he talks about the most important people in our own lives are ourselves; he writes “the best and most important things in life aren’t things, they’re people and experiences. And one of the most important people is you.” He then explores the idea of everyone needing time and space to “remove the mind’s chatter” and to “access what’s below the cluttered, cloudy surface.” To do this, he suggests journalling and meditating as examples (both are effective ways of focussing on the ‘here and now’). Later on in the art of learning, Tony Phillips says that each one of us has “a most magnificent self that lies beneath the ‘I’m-not-good-enough’ version.” This is a great confidence boost especially if we’re feeling the strain from University work. He also explains the importance of having a passion and following it, as well as opportunities being there to be taken. The final two points made in the art of learning are, firstly, “rather than turning life into a never-ending string of goals that must be achieved, decide who you want to be, understand your core values and then make choices. All of life is an experiment – some things will work, others won’t. Failure doesn’t make you a failure. Learn the lessons and carry on experimenting because it brings less pressure and more enjoyment.” The final lesson is that “a smile is the simplest and quickest way to connect with another human being.”

Admittedly, some of the points made in the article do seem a little deep, however, they’re important. Practicing these points and spending time focussing on ourselves leads to improved mental, and indeed physical well-being and it will mean that we can concentrate better, as well as begin to gain a clearer view on life. Furthermore, living in the moment rather than looking back or fretting about the future will almost certainly lead to increased happiness.

I caught up with Tony to discuss his personal perspective, as well as what he’s learnt from his life experiences.

For some University students about to graduate this summer, they may be feeling apprehensive about their future (particularly if they are still uncertain about what they want to do) – what advice would you give to these students? With my own daughter about to graduate from university in Leicester this summer, I have some insight into the uncertainty felt by students. I believe that the biggest cause of apprehension and uncertainty on students is the thought that they have to get it right first time. We no longer live in a world where people start one career and stay in that career for the rest of their working lives. Life is an experiment; failing is an integral and critically important part of achieving success in experiments. As Winston Churchill said, “the definition of success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” The self-help industry often gives out the advice to “follow your passion”. Rather than help us, this only serves to make the majority of us who haven’t found our passion feel inadequate, as if there’s something wrong with us. I believe that young people who know what their passion is and have a sense of how to make a living from it are the lucky minority. I believe in the alternative approach of following your curiosity. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, put it very eloquently in his 2005 commencement address to the students of Stanford University when he said that “you can only connect the dots looking backwards”. If I hadn’t followed my curiosity, most of the transformative experiences of my life would never have happened.

In ‘The Art of Learning’, you mention listening and advise on how to be a better listener. Listening is definitely such an important skill to behold, but what do you think the value of listening to others is? Nancy Kline, the author of the brilliant Time to Think says that “everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first. Our thinking depends on the quality of our attention for each other”. Being better listeners deepens our connection with each other, and not only improves the quality of our relationships but helps others to more easily come up with their own answers to their biggest problems and challenges. I did a 13-minute talk at a mental health conference in 2015 called Discovering Your Magnificent Self, where I talk about the power and importance of listening. You can watch this talk here.

How important do you believe it is to take time away from social media each day/week, and how would you advise to do so? I do believe it is important to take time away from social media, but have to admit that it is an area I’m still exploring and trying to find the answers. I do make it a rule not to look at social media when I get up in the morning until I’ve run my daily mile, done a short meditation, and written in my daily journal. Social media is one of our newest addictions. If you wake up in the morning and the first thing you crave is a drink, you might be an alcoholic. If the first thing you crave in the morning is to check your phone for social media notifications you are actually craving the injection of the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical associated with the feeling of achievement, so what we’re actually after is the feeling of being acknowledged by others, but even though we’re being acknowledged by social media ‘friends’ it is a million miles away from the authentic connection that comes from being with family and close friends. So my advice I’d give at the moment is to put off social media interaction until you’ve taken time to connect with yourself in whatever way it works for you each morning, and then to limit your social media activity to certain times of the day, for example after self-connection time, then early afternoon and then early evening, or whatever’s realistic for you. They key is to check – are you’re controlling it, or is it controlling you?

It can be very easy to get caught up in the negative, and the setbacks of life. What do you think is the best way to be more positive and to focus on victories even if they may seem small and insignificant? For me there are a few things that help me stay positive. The first is on my daily morning mile run I list in my head the key things that I feel most grateful for, for example, my father died when he was almost ten years younger than I am. I also know people who are younger than me who are physically unable to run now, even if they wanted to. Each morning run I consider is a gift so I catch myself when I’m trying to get it over with as quickly as possible, and think that this run is unique, and I look for what’s there right in that moment. Another thing I do is rather than look ahead and focus on how far I’ve still got to go, I’ll often look back to acknowledge how far I’ve come. I collect any praise I get from others; whether they’re testimonials, written or verbal thanks or acknowledgements, and use these to go to if I’m ever feeling a bit hopeless or useless. Another thing is to try and surround yourself with people who lift you up and energise you and limit the time you spend with people who are negative and suck the energy from you. Find out what you do that energises you and make sure you make time to do those things. When we’re under pressure and stress the first things we sacrifice are those times that allow us to re-create, to recharge our personal low batteries. These times are the most important times that we should be doing these things. They should be your top priority. Finally, trust yourself. Your most magnificent self is unique and there is a spark of greatness in you, even if you don’t yet know what it is. Follow your curiosity, and as Frederic Laloux says in his wonderful book Reinventing organisations, “we are not problems waiting to be solved, but potential waiting to unfold.”

One of the things I’ve learnt from several people a little or a lot older than me is that you never stop learning. Life would be extremely boring if we ever ran out of new things to learn, and reflecting on what we’ve learnt is a useful skill to develop.


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