When I was seven years old, my father sat me down on the lawn on a long hot summer afternoon, and he told me a secret:
‘You’re wiser than almost anyone I’ve ever met,’ he said.
I smiled. Then grinned.
Peering into the middle distance, my father nodded slowly.
‘Yes you are,’ he whispered. ‘It’s because you are how you – how we – are all supposed to be. You see, you haven’t yet been ruined.’
I blinked hard.
‘Ruined by what?’
‘Ruined by education, and by the way people expect you to think.’
My father was the author and thinker, Idries Shah. He devoted his life to observing people in a kind of Oriental way – from the inside out. He liked to consider what drove humanity – what they craved, and how they reacted to certain situations.
Much of the time he would conclude that people were driven by an innate desire for attention, or for the need to impress others for no good reason at all.
Through a magical and sometimes bizarre childhood, my sisters and I were constantly reminded of something important:
That the society in which we were growing up was desperately trying to shape us.
Like modelling clay forced into a mould, it was dead set on making little facsimiles of an approved status quo. Children who thought, dressed, and reacted, in an appropriate way.
Ours was a kind of yin-yang upbringing.
At school we were rewarded for conforming, while at home we were urged to question what was accepted in the other hemisphere of our lives. Our parents encouraged us to be noisy, to make a mess with paint, to conjure imaginary palaces in the woods – and to free ourselves from the bondage of infantile obedience.
But, most of all, they encouraged us to be original.
There was no currency in our household quite so exalted as that of the original mind. Whether it was in solving problems, telling a story, or just dancing around the house – tapping into an original and unscripted sense of behaviour was the holy grail.
Just as my father regarded children as being born with the untainted default setting of humanity, he believed that thinking in an original way was the only way to live the kind of life worth living.
As time has passed, and as I’ve grown up and had children of my own, I’ve found myself passing on the obsession with being different.
Because different is how we ought to be – not just because it’s more fun, but because it raises the stakes – in the possibilities of creation and thought.
My children, Ariane and Timur, are teens now, but when they were younger I took much delight in watching them do things in a way that seemed back to front. But, of course, it was the right way round – a kind of thinking that tapped into our birth-psyche. It’s this programming which would surely have pushed us forward as a species. I’m not saying that it was always 100% sensible, but it was inspired.
A few weeks before we moved to a haunted mansion in a Moroccan shantytown, when Ariane was two and a half, we were living in a cramped London flat. Ariane’s preoccupation then was lipstick – getting her hands on some and smearing it all over her face. One day, she grabbed an especially nice lipstick from a guest, rushed to the bathroom, and tried to get up to the mirror. But she needed something to stand on. When I found her, she was covered in cherry-pink lipstick, and was standing on my brand new Apple laptop, which she had placed over the open end of a bucket.
At first I’d been bothered that my computer would be a casualty. But, as I thought about it, I realised that Ariane was tapping into a kind of ancient thinking, an originality, that’s usually drummed out of us through life and school.
The desperate need in our society to conform, and not to stick out (except in the most obvious way) is something which fascinated my father. Pondering why most people feel the need to conform, he concluded it was because of a kind of fear – not a natural strain of fear, but a variety that’s been implanted in us as children – a fear of failure.
It’s downright bizarre.
Because, at the same time, my father often pointed out, we humans never stop lauding our heroes for their original thought – rewarding them with honours:
Leonardo Da Vinci, who was unlike anyone else who’d come before him.
Picasso, Dali or Warhol, who broke the mould.
And even James Dyson, whose bag-less vacuum cleaner was a sensation.
My father’s message to us as children was to take a big deep breath, to cast out the fear of failure, and the fear of how others will think of you. He would urge us to grab life by the horns in a way we’d not grabbed it before.
To something original – something that wasn’t the person we had become.
To reach deep down into oneself and find the real you.
It’s in there, he’d say.
Waiting for you to rewire your thinking – and be the you that you were always supposed to be.