“Tomas pulled me out of a creative rut… and then some”

Case study: Joel Golby

Author, Screenwriter, and Freelance Writer for The Guardian and Vice

About me:

I’m Joel Golby, a freelance writer who lives in London. If you’ve ever got angry in the Guardian comments section that was probably because of me.

THE CHALLENGE:

I was commissioned to write about Tomas for a Saturday Magazine feature about life coaching, which was immediately one of his red flags: because my editor got in touch with him instead of myself, our Discovery Session was as much about making sure I was serious about the process as it was us getting to know each other and see if we could work together.

Going in to the article, I thought it would be fairly straightforward – experience life coaching for myself first hand, write about it in a cool detached Louis Theroux-type way, get out and never think about it again – but after my first session together we identified that, actually, I was treading water in my career and feeling deeply unfulfilled as a result, and coaching could help me more profoundly than I thought.

By the end of that opening hour we’d identified a number of goals I wanted to achieve before the six-week blitz period was up, and broken each one up into achievable sub-targets. I was expecting to feel overwhelmed by the hard work ahead of me, but instead I was excited to get cracking (arguably the first time I’ve felt motivated about anything in, well, at least two years).

 

Joel Golby life coaching case study

THE GOAL:

The first goal was to pitch my second book: I’d had the idea a couple of years beforehand but never put aside the time to actually write it up and make my ideas feel more concrete.

The second goal was to run 100km in one month, because I’d recently completed Couch to 5k and wanted to keep up the momentum: this wasn’t necessarily a creative goal but it did help me get my head around the ‘small steps lead to a large result’ concept that underpins a lot of what we did together.

And the third target was to figure out a tricky decision I had to make about a TV project I was working on – I’d been mulling it over personally for a while but getting nowhere with it, and having Tomas there as a soundboard really gave me a lot of clarity.

You can read the article here, but, spoiler: I achieved all my goals and then some.

So when the pitch for my second book was accepted and I put aside a month to write the first draft, I knew I wanted to work with Tomas again.

It was interesting to work with him in a slightly different way this time: my major goal was to write a substantial amount of the first draft of my book, but also figure out a lot of the gestative ideas in the writing of them, and talking to Tomas every week I found he was an incredible creative sounding board. When you’re writing a book a lot of people who see you, ashen-faced and devastated-looking at the pub, ask you the question, “How’s the book going?”, and the real answer is: it’s an immovable object that lives in the centre of my brain and threatens to strangle out all non-book thought in the immeasurable size of it. They don’t really want to hear that, though, because it’s weird, so what you learn to say it, “Yeah… good”.

For five weeks Tomas gave me an honest hour of every Wednesday afternoon to freely talk out a lot of the ideas and half-ideas that were occupying my brain while I was undertaking this project, offering valuable feedback (and ideas of his own!), ways of coping on days when the words just weren’t dropping (his ‘First Aid Kit’ of non-activities to do when I couldn’t write was genuinely game-changing) as well as watching patiently when I figured out a lot of the structure on my own. Very often he has to watch me gasp to myself then sprint (fine, jog) out-of-shot to go and write something urgently on a whiteboard.

He was just as adept at going along with the weird, feral side of a creative journey as he was the ‘run 5km and download a focus app’ side.

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THE JOURNEY:

What I enjoyed most about coaching was it was not just a case of Tomas telling me what to do and then me doing it and then him telling me ‘good boy’ – a lot of issues we worked and talked together to figure out the best solution, which maybe I could have got to on my own (eventually) but Tomas teased out of me.

So one example: I wanted to get away from my desk more, and try and write in more exciting locations or at least be flexible about working on the move, but I had an old creaking laptop that could only hold about 45 minutes’ of battery and was genuinely quite heavy to have to take out with me.

Tomas watched with a knowing smile on his face while I talked this problem out, figured out the solution (you’ve probably figured this one out already, but the solution was: buy a new laptop), and then encouraged me to do exactly that.

I know how my mind works and I know how tight I am, so: that laptop would not have been replaced until it caught fire in front of me, and even then I might have tried to get it repaired. The new machine means I can work in more places and for longer without having to linger near a plug socket. It has genuinely made a difference to how and where I work. It was a very simple change, but I was never going to get there under my own steam.

Or: I was struggling to sit down and make the time to focus on the project of my second book because I found it difficult to switch from my day-to-day writing to the more piecemeal work of a longer term project. Tomas and I were talking through some possible solutions: a friend of mine had recently written an amazing piece of work and they’d done it by booking into a hotel for a week and just focussing on it without any distractions. “That’d probably work for me,” I explained, “because I’m really cheap and I’d want to make sure I got my money’s worth out of the hotel. The sheer act of booking myself into a hotel would make me do it.” Tomas waited a few seconds to let me realise what I’d just said. Then I booked the hotel. I spent the first few hours there setting up a new laptop, and the rest of the week writing about 20,000 words.

This is what surprised me most about working with Tomas: as someone who has worked in the creative industry for the best part of ten years, I thought a certain amount of scattergun chaos was ‘part of my process’, because I was such a rare and exotic creative hothouse flower and I needed to indulge myself as such. But actually what I found was the exact opposite: if I started my day on a solid foundation of good working practices (Tomas and I developed a ‘morning routine’ together; I bought a pomodoro timer and have convinced everyone I have been to the pub with since to do the same; he encouraged me to try and cultivate Inbox Zero, and use apps to block distracting websites, and go for lunch with creative people who might inspire me) and time-honoured methods of maximising focus, the inspiration is actually more likely to strike you, because you’re going to be in better shape to sit at your desk and receive it.

So having a really messy office and having a load of half-ideas written down on Post-Its wasn’t, as it turns out, the nurturing creative system I thought it was. Finding a newer, smarter way to work has in turn altered my output for the better.

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The Result:

The results of our first period of working together was: a lauded article, the rest of my work was starting to come out at a higher standard, and I had a safety net of methods and plans-of-attack to try when I wasn’t feeling so inspired (and a new laptop to do them on).

The results the second time we worked together were more direct: in the five weeks I spent working with Tomas while I was writing the first draft of my book, I wrote just short of 70,000 words, which is basically an entire book. I know a lot of writers and all of them agree that that is a fairly insane figure to manage in a single month. There is no way I would’ve gotten near that without him.

I think there’s been a more permanent mental shift now, though: I feel more ambitious, I have started thinking more in terms of long-term projects and how I can work up small ideas to make them bigger, and I’m excited about the next couple of years of my career when previously I’d been standing in place for a while.

When Tomas met me I was writing a few articles every week and was quite thankful for it. Now I’m working on a new book, a new TV show, and bigger budget work has been coming to me in both of those industries.

I can almost run a half-marathon and I’ve specified in my will that I want to be buried with my pomodoro timer. In less than a year, he’s really spun how I think and work dramatically around, and all of that has led to a boost in confidence.

But another thing he helped me with was a clump of ambient stress I didn’t really know I had. As a freelancer, part of you always feels a little guilty when you’re not working – it’s very hard to unlearn the idea of a 9 to 5 – and that weirdly made me glued to my desk even when I wasn’t actively working at it, and made me feel angsty and guilty when I wasn’t at me desk, thinking I should be at work.

He helped me unknot a lot of that feeling, and helped me with a weird communication issue I had with an editor I worked with a lot, and now when I sit down in my office every day I feel more ready to work (and more ready to walk away when I’m not working). I have a lot less day-to-day dread, basically, which was an unexpected but welcomed side effect.

 

The Experience:

The first thing was the results: my work was less stressful, better organised, and just overall better.

But weirdly what I enjoyed most about working with Tomas was his light-but-firm tone and his sense of humour.

Going into life coaching – especially something more career-focussed like the service Tomas was tailoring to me – I was expecting it to be a dry process of doing things and getting up early and hustling and networking and, eventually, becoming a contestant on The Apprentice and then a robotic tech CEO.

I don’t think this option is off the table, but that’s not the experience I had: talking to Tomas was fun, and while he can always turn the ‘right, down to business now’ mood on when necessary, it’s actually fun to spend time with him either in real-life or on call.

He helps you raise your own standards without being the person telling you off – he holds you accountable, but he doesn’t make you feel terribly bad for not meeting your week-to-week targets – and during the process of writing my book, talking to him was like suddenly having a second brain (one your trust far more than your first one) that I could interrogate ideas with and get straight answers from.

Also, he literally always has a surprising story up his sleeve to catch you off-guard with: when you’re done with self-improving, ask him how long his hair used to be, or how taking singing lessons the next village over nearly ruined his life, or what new tricks his dog can do.

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