5 facts about myself

I’m Irish, from a small village on the west coast called Liscannor (population 71). The village has one shop, one petrol station, one church and six pubs.

I love sports – when I was young I played Gaelic football to inter-county level. These days I enjoy long-distance swimming, rock climbing and playing tennis.

I live in Barcelona and I have a beautiful Spanish – Irish – Catalan daughter, Sofia, who says things like “tinc una pupa en my foot”.

I am a fluent Spanish Speaker, however I’ve learned nearly all my Spanish “on the street”. So sometimes I’ve been known to unwittingly say very crude things or use slang that no one understands.

I have an honours degree in Philosophy and English literature from University College Galway. At university I discovered the the magic of the stage, and later worked professionally as a theatre director and acting teacher.

3 stories about myself

For a teacher, the worst thing that can happen to you is to look at the people in your class and know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they want to be somewhere else, anywhere, except in this room with you.

This happened to me once when I first started work as an executive trainer. I had designed a workshop on Business Presentations with a friend of mine Neil, who is much more experienced than me. He facilitated the first session with the group and it had gone really well. Now it was my turn and in the space of 10 minutes I’d somehow managed to ruin the great atmosphere Neil had developed. To make matters worse, Neil was sitting at the back of the room watching me die a slow death in front of the students.

What did I do that was so bad, that turned the entire class against me?
Neil and I went for a beer to dissect what had gone wrong. I really needed a beer.

The mistake I made was to preach to the class. I had spent months preparing for the workshop. I had so many things I wanted to tell them. I wanted to show them my surefire method for designing the perfect presentation. I wanted to convince them to change their bad habits.

What I didn’t do was listen to them very much or even get them talking to me or each other. I didn’t design activities through which they could discover or practice new skills. And my “method” was not flexible or open to any changes suggested by them. I went into that workshop thinking that I had all the answers, that I was the fountain of knowledge.

Neil told me it was difficult for him not to jump in and try to save me during that class. What stopped him was his certainty that this painful experience would stand to me in the future. He was right. I’m glad it happened. Its made me a better teacher. A much better teacher.

Teaching is not about being the expert (which of course carried the implicit implication that the students are ignorant). Great teaching is about facilitating group work, to accompany people on their learning path. Its about designing great learning activities. Its about inspiring people to question themselves and the status quo and to take action.

People are fascinated with actors, and there is a common perception that famous actors are prima donnas – egotistical and difficult to deal with.
I was 25 years old when I directed my first professional play, David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, about the relationship between a young ambitious actor and an older actor who is struggling with age. Even though I had no money to pay the actors, I wrote a letter to the most famous Irish actor of his day, Des Cave, asking him to play the part of the older man. We met for coffee and to my amazement he agreed to play the part.

I was nervous as hell before rehearsals started. The other actor I cast was the same age as me. Des had 40 years more professional experience in the theatre than either of us. He’d worked with some of the best directors from all over the world. Would he take direction from me? Would he trust me?

On the first days of rehearsal I was extra careful to ask Des for his opinion on everything and to listen carefully to anything he had to say, whether he was talking about the play or the weather or the football last night. But very quickly I realised that he was also listening very carefully to everything I said. He asked questions. He sought my opinion. He followed my directions. I realised that part of what made Des such a great and respected actor was that he was brilliant in rehearsals. He was eager to learn and take risks.

I went on to work with other great actors and actresses in my career as a theatre director. And now, in my career as a teacher and coach, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with successful and gifted leaders from a wide range of organisations. And the lesson I learned with Des still holds true. Successful people, gifted people, famous people are often the opposite of what we expect them to be. They are not egotistical prima donnas, instead they are eager to learn, they want feedback and they are willing to take risks.

I’ve learned not to be overwhelmed and to give my honest feedback to the people I work with. They may be older than me, or more successful, or famous, but they probably got to this position through being like Des Cave, a great Irish actor.

“Studying philosophy is never going to get you a job”, my father said to me.

We were sitting opposite each other in the sitting room and I had just told him of my decision to drop out of my degree in Mechanical Engineering and instead study philosophy. He wasn’t pleased. Not pleased at all.

“Brian, there are basically two types of people in the world. There are people who work at something they love, but never make any money at it, have no free time and they suffer. Then there are people who work at something they don’t necessarily love but that gives them a good income and they have great holidays, lovely house and lots of free time. And who knows, with that free time you can read all the philosophy books you want”.

My father owned the only shop in the small village where I grew up in the West of Ireland. He worked hard, and he worked long hours. He was very smart, and creative, and I think he felt he could have done more with his life.

I can see now that he only wanted the best for me, to protect me from giving up a promising future as an engineer – a discipline that is admirable, practical and well-paid. And he was correct about my philosophy degree not making me very employable. I spent 10 years working at various jobs, none of which fully satisfied me. So in the end I had to invent a job, one that took full advantage of the diverse skills I’ve developed over the years. That job is the one I have now. What is that job? I still find it difficult to explain what I do, I’ve explained it to my mother a dozen times and she still doesn’t really get it.

But my father would be glad to hear that not only is it work that provides for me and my family but also one that I love doing and am proud of. And it’s a job I wouldn’t be able to do if I hadn’t studied philosophy.

The way I work – 5 principles

To do what I do it’s essential to understand the many ways people learn, interact and are motivated. People learn best when they discover knowledge and acquire skills by themselves, and when they see the results of applying these new skills to their everyday work.

Roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. Because I work with busy professionals, I focus only on those tasks and skills that contribute most to what they want to achieve.

I offer simple tools and techniques to help you break a problem down, determine the key outcomes, and think through what’s most important to get done in the limited time available—all without losing sight of your long term objectives
I don’t “sell” gimmicks or quick-fixes that are going to solve everyone’s problems. I don’t believe such things exist. Instead, I focus on simple but solid principles supported by relevant examples and real-life exercises.
My methods and approaches have “adaptability” hardwired into their entire framework, so we’ll be able to factor in and manage changes when they happen. There is just enough structure to get us going but its easy to change course as needed.