Lesson #12 – “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf”

by | Aug 5, 2022

Can we have a chat?”

A question light on words, heavy on latency.

Is it really a question? A generous view would call it an invitation, but it is an expectation, for it is impossible to refuse. To say no, would be to adopt a position of avoidance, and even if you do, it is not going away.

Regardless, it will take you from whatever you are feeling, thinking or doing and leave you somewhere else, tinged with trepidation.

My nerves tingle just a little when I hear the words.

I’d gone straight back to a place.

A time when the question was regularly asked by me, and from time to time, asked of me, with an understanding of the weight the words carried,

I then relax, reminding myself that I am no longer a footy club CEO. In fact, I am a first-year university student, now in my 50s, studying Fine Art.

I’d also spent those 25 years as a CEO, training myself not to elevate in these moments. To stay calm, trying to control the place my mind instinctively wanted to take me but was unlikely to serve me well.

The “better than human nature” expectation that came with the territory of leadership and high-performance, as Ron Barassi once explained to me.

Over time, I built a ‘system’ for these moments.

First, I pause, then I take a breath and say two words quietly to myself.

“Easy Tiger”.

Drawing “Magic Hands” on a Wacom Tablet in my home studio

The place my subconscious took me was a life-changing event just two years earlier when I’d been sacked as CEO of the Melbourne Football Club.

The day started with those exact five words and ended with a press conference in the MFC Boardroom in the stands of the MCG.

Game changed. Game over.

My domain is no longer coaches boxes and player meeting rooms, boardrooms, corporate dinners and smart offices. It is a barebones, leaky, drafty art studio shared with twenty or so, mainly 18-year-olds straight from school at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).

We shared more than studio space. We all had something to say but were unsure how to say it. A creative itch that needed scratching, perhaps the highest of expectations as I was now learning.

Never underestimate the intimidation of a blank canvas.

When you aim high and set expectations, a weight and tension will obligingly join you on this pilgrimage, whether running a footy club or painting a picture.

This time, the man asking the weighted question is an incredible artist and teacher Raaf Ishak.

Being older than most students, I sometimes felt more like ‘tribal elder’ than peer, and I formed relationships with the teachers and tutors. They were more my vintage, so it was with Raaf, who also had a keen interest in the footy, a keen Swans man, the team he adopted having arrived from Cairo as a teenager.

About six months into my first year, Raaf walked into my studio, pulled up a chair, following up his “Can we have a chat?” question with, “I’ve been thinking about your work”.

“You do art like a CEO”, said Raaf.

I knew it wasn’t a compliment, but such was my respect for Raaf, it was never going to be a putdown, but it required me to work through its many layers.

When looking at my work, Raaf was telling me in his composed yet direct manner that my art was too obvious. I was giving the viewer no credit, no room for their own opinions, to find their own meaning. I feared my art being interpreted as something different to my intent.

But art, for all its meaning, is mostly about opening up the conversation, not closing it.

I lacked the confidence to do what art is intended to do. Hence I wasn’t being an artist.

I had to cross a new bridge of vulnerability, and Raaf was showing me the way.

I remember a Seth Godin quote “Reassurance is helpful for people who seek out certainty, but successful artists realise that certainty isn’t required. In fact, the quest for certainty undermines everything we set out to create.”

There could never be certainty in what I was trying to make, not just the work I did, but the person I was trying to be. To be an artist rather than just to do art. Make it who I was, rather than something I did.

As a CEO and leader, you often have to cross the bridge of vulnerability. Find the courage, dig out that part of yourself in the face of uncertainty, while presenting yourself as something entirely different. To create and give belief, often while struggling to believe in yourself.

I lacked this courage as an artist, and now realised my art had similar expectations of me as the leadership roles I’d played. I needed to embrace the ambiguity my art required, and had not been willing to face, as I feared going into this space. I was now learning again – this is where the good shit happens.

Leadership is never about being liked, nor is art, and failure is embedded in this pilgrimage to an outcome of sorts.

With art, as in life, our failures are our best teachers.

Not to be disheartened by failures. Begin again.

Failure is indeed a bruise, not a tattoo.

Start drawing, start writing, start leading…start something.

Make mistakes. Go again.

Make better mistakes. Go again.

Try and make the best mistakes you’ve ever made.

—————————-

I was sitting in a medical waiting room.

I am wearing a nondescript hoodie that I keep in the boot of my car.

It was my ‘disguise’, something I wore for appointments with my psychiatrist at the Albert Road Clinic. I am being treated for Clinical Depression and have been for many years.

The first time I understood Depression to be a serious medical diagnosis was when I was told I had it, and probably been the case for much of my adult life.

Until then, I had assumed my thoughts and feelings, the darkness and sadness, were something everyone experienced.

It has taken me a long time to speak openly about Depression, having been diagnosed almost twenty-five years ago.

When I was diagnosed, I initially felt a sense of relief and hope. But this was soon overtaken by a mix of shame and fear, such that my overwhelming thought was:

“How do I keep this a secret?”

I hid my depression from all but a very select few. It was a personal battle, or so I thought and justified to myself. It was my wife Cecily who saw the impact close up. I have been blessed to have her in my life.

I feel no shame now when I talk about it. In fact, I find it humbling to do so.

I now call it my ‘Gift of Depression’, as it taught me how to ‘go deep’ to enable me to ‘go forward’, and as a result, the personal resilience that has come from it. The mindset I have developed, systems and habits I have built, to enable me to understand and respond to the changes in my mood.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf”, said Jon Kabat-Zinn.

It gave me the courage to go back to school to learn art as a mid-life man, and soon art was teaching me. How to share your uncertainty with the world without expectations and let people make up their own mind.

Tell your story without fear.

I don’t need the disguise anymore.

———————————-

At the time of my diagnosis, I was an AFL Club CEO and would be for many more years.

The Albert Road Clinic waiting room, with its protocols and conventions, would become a familiar and mostly reassuring and comforting part of my life for a couple of decades. Clearly, there was a medical imperative, but soon I was enjoying the wisdom of my doctor, a wonderful human with a glint in his eye, and a generosity and purpose in his thinking, to help me find a way forward. My favourite kind of person.

CEOs are employed to show good judgement, mostly when dealing with complex, ambiguous and nuanced issues, the very reason leadership is required and a core expectation of the role. It is a role of contradictions.

The CEO spends most of their time dealing with unsolved and often unsolvable problems. Mistakes are made, and often. In the AFL, there are many postmortems by an insatiable and grabby media, making their assessment with the 20/20 wisdom of hindsight.

The idea of my medical diagnosis becoming known, fodder for the gossip and whispering campaigns that are an unsavoury, nasty and unfortunate part of the industry where I’d spent my entire working life, was simply too much to get my head around, a possible tipping point. The job was difficult enough, but I was carrying an extra weight, but at least I could put a name to it, and try and get better.

When arriving at the Albert Road clinic, if there were people in the waiting room, I’d often sit in a toilet cubicle until my appointment time. This was only a mildly successful strategy because my psychiatrist often ran behind schedule.

I recall one time, sitting in my hoodie, waiting for my appointment. It was early evening, and I’d had a long day dealing with several challenging and seemingly unresolvable issues as CEO of the Melbourne Football Club. I was soon joined by a man in the waiting area. He was about my age, well dressed and carried a high-quality but well-travelled leather briefcase. He had a strong corporate vibe and energy, immediately familiar, yet out of place in this environment.

His entrance felt more like he was arriving at an evening meeting and taking his place around the board table, ready for action and greeting me with a loud and familiar ‘G’day mate’ as I searched my mind as to whether I knew this fellow. I almost expected him to shake my hand as he sat right beside me, even though there were many empty chairs in the area.

He placed his briefcase on the coffee table and opened it with a flourish. It was empty except for a Herald-Sun newspaper, which he took out, and my heart sank. There was a photo of me on the back page, with an accompanying headline, which included my surname. The subject of the article was one of the issues I had been trying to resolve that day without success.

I tried to focus on the National Geographic I was reading, willing the door of my psychiatrist to open, but soon my waiting room colleague distracted me again. He had the newspaper on his closed briefcase, leaning forward with pen in hand. He was drawing on the newspaper, big ‘cross-eyes’ on the photo of me, the full size of my glasses. He then held it up to me, beaming. It was childlike, a six-year-old boy showing his teacher his drawing. He then started twirling his index finger around his ear and making faces and was now laughing uncontrollably, tears in his eyes. I never felt threatened, and soon I was laughing. Two midlife blokes in a psychiatric waiting room having a good old cackle.

He grabbed a tissue from one of the many boxes that sit around waiting rooms of this nature, and wiped his eyes. He was soon called into his appointment, and as he stood up, he gave me the newspaper.

“One for the scrapbook, eh Schwabby. Go Dees!” he says, then starts singing “It’s a Grand Old Flag” as he makes his way through the open door of his psychiatrist’s office.

I sat looking at his newspaper artwork and my image. I remember doing the same thing to newspaper photos when I was a kid. But part of me was now scared. Would my waiting room buddy become the radio talkback caller to reveal my secret?

My grandfather, Edgar Taplin. The man we called Puppy.

We all have a story ‘So Far’ and a story ‘Not Yet’, and there are moments that intersect the two.

I am trying to capture this intersection with this drawing, but you can interpret it any way you like, and I hope you do.

It is my ‘Not Yet’ story, me as an old man, but also the ‘So Far’ story of my grandfather, Edgar Taplin, my Mum’s dad, having just visited the RSL.

His grandchildren called him Puppy.

He and I were close. He would laugh freely at my kid jokes, and I liked it when people said we were similar, commenting on our looks and mannerisms.

My memories of Puppy are a caring, purposeful, smiling yet slightly taciturn man who taught me how to draw, mostly on big sheets of butcher paper with the thick oily tradie pencils from his outdoor workshop. He showed me how to draw horses. He was patient and generous with his praise. I felt good being with him.

He is probably the reason I studied art. I found something I enjoyed, he showed me how to do it better, and his compliments encouraged me.

He would buy Neapolitan ice cream. My older sister Jennie would get the chocolate, me the strawberry, and my younger Brendan the vanilla in order of our ages. The middle child got the middle flavour.

Puppy served in the air force, the RAAF. He wasn’t a flyer but a courier who rode a motorbike, delivering messages between the lines. We only know his function because there are photos that survive him.

Mum did not meet her dad until he returned from war, and she wondered who the strange man in the house was. The war was the backdrop to her childhood and remained an omnipresent yet unspoken part of her growing years.

I was fascinated by his RAAF cap, which I found one day when digging through some old stuff in a spare room at his home. While he would reluctantly place it on my young head when I badgered him, he refused to put it on his own, and I wondered why.

I learned later he didn’t march on ANZAC Day, but was a regular at the RSL, putting on his only suit for the occasion.

I was gifted Puppy’s RAAF cap in my teens after he died suddenly from a stroke.

It was my first real experience of death. I treasure the cap.

As I have gotten older, I see the likeness people spoke about and feel good about him and where I have come from.

A daily reminder of my grandfather.

I remember sneaking into Puppy’s bathroom in my grandparent’s suburban home when I was a kid. I am sure I did so out of curiosity, an initiation into the unseen world of old men and their intriguing and somehow mysterious ways. I had been in this bathroom before, but only by invitation. He would sometimes lather my face with his shaving brush and ‘shave’ me with his old safety razor sans razorblade.

His bathroom was a small, dark and humid space, filled with a heady mix of Brylcream, Old Spice and calamine lotion. I remember it feeling wrong that I was in his place. That I shouldn’t be there despite my curiosity and innocent intent. I turned around and quickly left.

I now wonder whether I was trying to find the part of my grandfather that no one could access, the silences that would scare me.

I can only guess what my grandfather experienced after returning from war; the distance between the private and shared personas. The damage was such that not only was he alienated from the people who cared for him, but also from himself.

I am left wondering, who was the real Edgar Taplin, my grandfather? I find it difficult to resolve the anguish I sensed with the man who would bring me close and kiss the crown of my youthful head.

Just the thought slows me, and is the inspiration for this artwork.

How well do we ever know someone? How well do we need to know someone? I know he made me feel good, that I was an important part of him.

I still draw horses.

“I still draw horses” – My drawing inspired by Degas

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