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What My Headmaster Told Me That Changed My Life

It was snowing as I walked towards The Reverend’s study that night in Sussex in 1978. As headmaster of our 700 pupil, all border private school, he was deciding who would be the next ‘School Captain’, a prestigious, powerful position. I was a rank outsider. What happened next shocked me, stays with me till this day, and is a lesson in life. Read on…

There was no way I was going to be made School Captain. I smoked, regularly got caught smuggling duty free alcohol into the school whenever  I returned from holiday in South Africa, got busted one night playing strip poker at the local girls boarding school, and generally broke rules.

So the odds were against me to get the gig- a highly sought after role usually awarded to the squeaky clean toff who ticked all the right boxes. My ‘class’ had reached the stage where one of us would be leader for the coming year. I was stunned when the headmaster told me he’d chosen me for School Captain. “Why me?” I asked, bewildered. His answer is burnt into my memory. This is what he said:

Savage- you are a rough diamond. And I know enough about you that I’d rather have you on my side than against me.”

Actually, that’s not really the point of this post. It’s the set up. The point is that the Reverend had a deep ability to understand the essence of a person. And in telling me I was a ‘rough diamond’, he told me a truth that I have reflected upon and worked with ever since. I had potential, but was maverick. And that’s the point of my story. To realize your potential as your life develops, we have to work constantly to do this one thing:

Understand Yourself

The first step to change is to understand yourself: being self aware.

“An unexamined life is not worth living,” wrote Socrates. Then again: “The unlived life is not worth examining.” (Not sure who wrote that- but I like it).

I have learnt to work on myself as a project; to work harder on myself than I do on my job. To give myself constant feedback, and to put pressure on myself. I have really focused on getting to understand my nature- what drives me and why I do the things I do. Through this I can change. And it is a constant challenge and battle to keep learning when my nature often resists it.

There are big parts of me I struggle to change. For example, I have never respected rank, only ability. And this got me into trouble in my jobs, particularly with some bosses of old (not all of them).  Even today I will get impertinent, dismissive and emotional when confronted by judgment from sources whose ability and expertise on the matter I do not respect. I have to work hard to control myself, and usually fail. By the way, this does not refer to my relationship with CEO Mike (unless he is criticizing my 10 Pin Bowling technique), but he knows what I am talking about- he’s seen me react this way with others.

Robin Sharma puts it well:

“Lead yourself first. You can’t help others reach their highest potential until you’re in the process of reaching for yours.”

And reaching your highest potential starts with understanding yourself. Even if, as in my case, it’s not always pretty!

Postcript 1

My colleague Dave is a great presenter. One of the very best. But he gets carried away occasionally, and bangs on too long. We had a big conference that Dave was coordinating. One of Dave’s many roles, which included making a 10 minute talk himself, was to rehearse all the speakers to ensure they did not go over time. This he did perfectly. On the day, all stuck to their timings, to the minute. Except Dave. As soon as the audience laughed at his first gag, Dave got into a roll, and spent 19 minutes on his 10 minute section. I was going spare backstage. “Dave! What the hell happened?” I implored when he came off stage. “I just could not help myself,” smiled Dave. And he was right. He could not help himself. We’ve talked about it since. Now, before Dave gives a talk and there’s a time limit, he always reminds himself that he WILL get carried away, and so he forces himself to stop himself from doing it. He knows himself. That’s the key.

Postcript 2

An old story, but a goodie. A frog and a scorpion needed to cross a river. “Carry me on your back,” said the scorpion to the frog. “No way,” replied the frog.” You’ll sting me.” “Are you crazy?” replied the scorpion. “If I did that you would die and I would drown.” So the frog let the scorpion climb on its back, and swam out into the river. Half way across, and the scorpion stings him. “Why did you do that,” cried the dying frog, as they both slipped under the water to their deaths. “It’s in my nature,” replied the scorpion. So… know yourself. Know your nature. The good. The great. And the really bad.

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6 Responses to What My Headmaster Told Me That Changed My Life

  1. Paul Yole July 18, 2012 at 10:45 am #

    Once I got past the vision of you playing strip poker I realised that you could be describing me. Nice work Chris.

    • Chris Savage July 20, 2012 at 10:42 am #

      Thanks Paul!!

  2. Jen July 18, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    Must have been quite edgy living in an all “border” school

  3. Ella July 18, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Perhaps as important as knowing thyself is knowing other people’s natures and what can be expected from them. I don’t know if I’m missing out on surprising experiences but I do a quick character analysis of each person I meet and can be wary of those that I get along too well with, as they may amplify some of my worst tendencies. My theory of teams is that the vibes and frequencies should work to cancel out the negative.

  4. Tom Davidson July 19, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    Chris, your headmaster was on to it, rare wisdom. Mine would have suspended me.

  5. Justin Di Lollo July 21, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Socrates also said “Know Thyself” (was carved into the limestone walls of the UWA Arts building – so it’s hard for me to forget). He was a clever dude!

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