A Personal Board of Directors

Warm-up exercise from Making Comics by Linda Barry, a temporary ‘Member of the Board’.

Every summer we go up to the mountains for a few weeks. It’s idyllic. Everything about it is perfect for de-stressing and relaxing. For several summers in a row I accompanied my time there with great books and podcasts. Three years ago it was Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, two years ago it was many episodes of the Adam Buxton podcast (he’s a comedian who interviews interesting people) – I’d listen happily to carefully selected episodes while drawing the view from the window. We had wonderful holidays.

Then, last summer, things took an unfortunate turn. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, I watched hours of videos from an online Ecommerce course run by a hyper-productive mega-marketer who admitted he worked fastest with a combination of several expressos and a couple of nicotine patches.

I finished just before we packed the car to head to the mountains, and decided that this year I couldn’t afford to take so many weeks off, instead I needed to carry on with the Ecommerce guru’s advice and dive into learning Facebook Ads for our Spanish-teaching business.

So while my wife went on a beautiful walk in the woods every morning, I ignored the mountains out of the window and stuffed myself with Facebook Ads tutorials, then spent hours trying to implement everything while the rest of the family had a siesta. I was often grumpy and unresponsive as a husband and dad and had Facebook Ads whirling around in my head all day long. It did not make for one of our best holiday experiences.

It took months for me to work out what had happened: I’d taken the wrong guy on holiday with me. Take Thomas Merton the trappist monk with me, happy holidays. Take the fired-up Ecommerce ‘guru’, unhappy holidays. (And ironically, by the start of autumn I’d ditched Facebook Ads completely, they were totally inappropriate for our business).

All this brought me round to the concept of the Personal Board of Directors, which I heard about from writer Jim Collins. He describes this as:

‘…seven people you deeply respect and would not want to let down. A group like a set of tribal elders that you turn to for guidance at times of ethical dilemma, life transitions, and difficult choices, people who embody the core values and standards you aspire to live up to.’

People whose wisdom we can turn to again and again, to keep us on the healthiest, sanest path. Jim Collins referred to living people, but for me that isn’t necessary. If they are no longer with us or available, we can turn to their books, audio, or video, or consult with them within ourselves.

Some of mine have a permanent seat on the board, like Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, master of compassion and happiness in the present moment, who I’ve mentioned many times in my writing. I also have Thoreau, whose book Walden sent me so happily onto a course of simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Thomas Merton, who first held up the mirror to the ridiculousness of a life chasing ‘success’, and the value of going in the opposite direction. David Hockney for his contagious laughter, unerring love of nature, and endless, joyous creative output and ability.

And many women too – a nun named Sister Chan Khong, Thich Nhat Hanh’s right hand, who works tirelessly for the improvement of other people’s lives, one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met – read her autobiography. A no-nonsense straight-talking lady named Pilar who lives in Madrid and teaches us non-violent communication, and helps us out with difficult emotional situations.

Then there are others who come and go from the list – sub-members – like Lynda Barry – whose book Making Comics is giving me marvellous artistic fun and inspiration at the moment. But the core Board has been pretty strong for many years now. I think they should be responsible for deciding who else I let into my life. The wired Ecommerce guy? Just before the summer holidays? I think the board would vote a resounding ‘NO!’

So this year I’ve got a calendar reminder set up for about a month before our summer trip. It tells me to go and read a letter I wrote to myself and have stored in Google Docs. The letter tells me to be careful who I take on holiday this year, to start right then and there, a month out, by turning to creative or spiritual books, biographies and podcasts. Nothing that’s going to wind me up into a business-frenzy just before I get into the car with my wife and kids and head into the purest nature we see all year. I don’t have to read and listen exclusively to the founding members of the board if I don’t want to, but I have to be damn sure they’d approve of who I’m taking with me!