Coach trip

The Observer Magazine - - Contents -

Can any­one help So­phie Hea­wood con­quer the chaos of her life?

For years, So­phie Hea­wood has lived in chaos and pro­cras­ti­nated hor­ri­bly. Who can pos­si­bly help her? Here she puts her trust in two of the coun­try’s lead­ing life coaches to see if she can get back on track

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I feel quite able to judge the life coach Michael Serwa by all the books on dis­play in his liv­ing room, es­pe­cially since his May­fair pent­house ap­pears to be en­tirely empty oth­er­wise. While he makes us tea I glance at a shelf of ti­tles by beefy, am­bi­tious men such as Richard Bran­son, Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, Elon Musk and, er, Alas­tair Camp­bell. Three min­utes in the com­pany of the man who de­scribes him­self as the UK’s high­est-paid per­sonal coach, and I al­ready feel cer­tain that mil­lion­aires and mas­culin­ity are what he’s all about. Which is wor­ry­ing, be­cause I’ve come here to sort my life out, and I’m not sure that he can re­ally do it for me.

I’m a free­lance writer who has held on to a jour­nal­ism ca­reer de­spite be­ing ter­ri­ble at dead­lines. I’m some­one who started three univer­sity de­grees and only fin­ished one – and that was by the skin of my teeth – due to the ab­so­lute chaos with which I have al­ways sab­o­taged my own pro­ceed­ings. Yet I have also man­aged to work pas­sion­ately on the things I love, in my own way, and am cur­rently writ­ing a book. But the thing is, I’ve been writ­ing this book for some time now, and fin­ish­ing the man­u­script still feels as dis­tant as Mars, and the clock is tick­ing. I’m so tired of mess­ing things up. Can Michael Serwa, who tends to work with cor­po­rate CEOs, help?

Michael lis­tens, he nods. And then he gives his di­ag­no­sis: “Ta­lent, in it­self,” he an­nounces, “is com­pletely fuck­ing use­less.” Well, he has a point there. “When you add some dis­ci­pline to it, that’s when ta­lent can make you great,” he con­tin­ues. He goes on to ex­plain calmly that the dif­fer­ence be­tween ta­lent and suc­cess is sim­ply ac­count­abil­ity, and be­cause my pub­lish­ers have left me to get on with the book by my­self, I don’t have any. He adds that, given I’m also a sin­gle mother, some­thing he doesn’t have much ex­pe­ri­ence of, I might be ex­pect­ing a cer­tain level of com­pas­sion from him. But he ques­tions “whether com­pas­sion gets the job done. All that em­pa­thy: ‘Ahh don’t worry about it.’ No, I want you to worry about it, be­cause you’re wast­ing your fuck­ing time.”

So far so bru­tal, at least on pa­per. In the flesh, though, Michael is re­ally quite funny. There is a twin­kle in his eyes through­out it all, and I be­gin to feel strangely moved by his car­ing about my wasted life. He comes from a fam­ily of pro­fes­sion­als in Poland where he shocked ev­ery­one by drop­ping out of high school. Af­ter mov­ing to Lon­don he worked in high-end fash­ion re­tail for years, on the shop floor, per­fect­ing his English, be­fore be­com­ing a coach (and be­ing able to sup­port his fam­ily in Poland). He likens him­self to a Pol­ish builder who doesn’t care what day or time it is – he will sim­ply get the job done. He un­der­stands your fears then works through your doubts, writ­ing them up on a white­board as you con­fess them – be­fore turn­ing them all around and con­vinc­ing you to JFDI: Just Fuck­ing Do It. He’s a night-owl, and stays up late then rises at 9am. It works for him. There’s no set way to do any of this, he says.

The thing is, I tell him, I’ve been try­ing to JFDI for years, some­times to a heart­break­ing de­gree. I re­ally do care, deeply, and worry, deeply, about all this stuff. I stay up all night try­ing to fin­ish things. I lose sleep. I read so many other books, think­ing I should pay at­ten­tion to ev­ery­one else’s writ­ing, too, and I have ideas for films when I watch films, and I write those ideas down in de­tail and then I’m not sure what hap­pens af­ter that. And I can’t bear ru­in­ing my ed­i­tors’ days, and yet I do it re­peat­edly, dis­tract­edly. Again, Michael lis­tens pa­tiently, and then cuts through it all. There’s no drama, no blame. “You need to switch from be­ing a con­sumer,” he says, “to be­ing a pro­ducer.”

We come up with a long list of pos­i­tive rea­sons to fin­ish this book: hon­our­ing the com­mit­ment to my pub­lish­ers, be­ing able to buy a house and raise my pro­fes­sional pro­file. I ask, sheep­ishly, if it’s all right to have an un­healthy rea­son, too, such as re­ally want­ing to fuck off cer­tain peo­ple from my past. “Fuck­ing them off,” he says calmly, “is my en­tire pur­pose!”

Michael then brings out a list of about 20 as­pects of life – health, sex, friend­ships, home, leisure, etc – and says I must give each a mark out of 10. No dis­cus­sion, just a num­ber. The last ques­tion is about my over­all hap­pi­ness and off the top of my head I give it a 6. “I knew you were go­ing to say 6,” he replies. I am cu­ri­ous – how? “Be­cause that’s the av­er­age of all your other marks. Peo­ple come in here ev­ery day and ask me what the se­cret of hap­pi­ness is – well there isn’t one. It’s sim­ply the to­tal of all those other ar­eas of your life. So if you want to bring your hap­pi­ness up to, say, an 8 or 9, you do it by rais­ing all those other things up.” And with this in­for­ma­tion, I am freed. There’s no se­cret to hap­pi­ness! No uni­corns, no magic – you sim­ply re­place your wish­bone with a back­bone, bit by bit.

We agree that I will start writ­ing the book in shorter bursts, three hours per day, di­vided into two 90-minute ses­sions, start­ing at a spe­cific time. He feels I’ve been spend­ing too long on it, and my mind has wan­dered. So I go through my di­ary mark­ing these hours in as an ac­tual daily ap­point­ment, check­ing for prior en­gage­ments that might in­ter­fere. I start to feel like the Vel­veteen Rab­bit, that chil­dren’s book char­ac­ter who comes into con­scious­ness only through the at­ten­tion of oth­ers. This is real. I am real! On my way home I walk more proudly than usual. The guilt dis­si­pates. The city feels full of op­por­tu­ni­ties; the ex­pen­sive houses don’t make me feel bad. At bed­time, the gnaw­ing fear that usu­ally ac­com­pa­nies my jour­ney into sleep seems to be shift­ing.

Two weeks later

I re­turn to Michael’s flat, de­lighted to re­port that I’ve sent a chunk of new chap­ters to my agent and pub­lisher and that ev­ery­one is ex­cited. Michael has been tex­ting me ev­ery sin­gle day when my time is up to ask my word count and, even though I’ve dodged him a cou­ple of times and been dis­tracted by a friend’s fu­neral, he hasn’t given up and nei­ther have I. God, the trust you can de­velop in your­self. It’s like hav­ing a friend in­side your own head. There is one day when I re­ally feel I can’t write any­thing at all, that ev­ery­thing is point­less, that my work is a dis­gust­ing joke. A quick voice mes­sage from Michael later and I end up writ­ing for a cou­ple of hours in bed ‹

‘I want you to worry,’ says Michael, ‘be­cause you are wast­ing your time’

‹ that night, newly de­ter­mined not to go to sleep with­out pro­duc­ing. From a place of dis­gust, this chap­ter turns out to be one of my favourite things I’ve writ­ten.

An­other two weeks pass, more chap­ters, an­other meet­ing. Michael feels like a friend now. We laugh a lot. It seems I have gone from de­spis­ing a busi­ness-like, cor­po­rate vibe to ap­pre­ci­at­ing its fierce beauty. The book is more than half­way there! The thought that there will come a day, prob­a­bly soon, when it will not be Michael Serwa’s job to cheer for me on a daily ba­sis is sad. But I guess we all have to grow up at some point.

Com­ing from a back­ground of coach­ing high-fly­ing CEOs, he says he’s used to work­ing with a fear of fail­ure. “Fear of suc­cess, though,” he says, smil­ing at me as if re­gard­ing a cu­ri­ous new ex­hibit, “is a new one.” He finds it in­ter­est­ing that I have ded­i­cated so much of my jour­nal­ism ca­reer to in­ter­view­ing the fa­mous, “be­cause I don’t think you would spend so much time around wealthy celebri­ties if there wasn’t some­thing in their lives that res­onated with you per­son­ally”. Hmmm, I think. Mm­mmm, I think.

This might ex­plain why, for my other part of the sort­ing-my-life-out plan, I have cho­sen to visit Lynne Franks in her new holis­tic re­treat in the small town of Win­can­ton, Som­er­set. Lynne ran a highly suc­cess­ful PR agency in 1980s Lon­don, rep­re­sent­ing some of the big­gest names in fash­ion and en­ter­tain­ment, but has long since moved into women’s de­vel­op­ment, and con­sult­ing on sus­tain­able en­trepreneuri­al­ism. Now, she wants to use her life­long in­ter­est in heal­ing to help oth­ers re­fo­cus their lives, and is as pas­sion­ate about work­ing with school­girls and shop­keep­ers as with her fab­u­lous friends.

Be­cause, of course, she is still best-known for be­ing the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind Ab­so­lutely Fab­u­lous, and if Ed­ina Mon­soon is an im­age she wants to leave be­hind, she isn’t en­tirely manag­ing. I say this be­cause at 8am, the morn­ing af­ter my ar­rival, Lynne gets me do­ing Bud­dhist chant­ing in front of her shrine, only she has to break off from the fe­ro­cious pace of her San­skrit recital to take a call from a makeup artist who is out­side the front door try­ing to get in, but Lynne is fed up be­cause Mer­cury is ret­ro­grade and ev­ery­one’s turn­ing up at the wrong time, so she gets rid of the makeup artist and goes back to her chant­ing, and to be fair, it’s my fault she’s an­noyed, be­cause I found the al­paca du­vet she gave me so in­sanely com­fort­able that I slept right through my alarm and was late to the shrine. “I never recog­nised my­self in Ab Fab,” she will say later, as the feath­ers in her hair waft slowly in the breeze.

Still, no­body said that set­ting up a cen­tre of re­lax­ation was in it­self an act of re­lax­ation. Lynne is now 70, which I find hard to be­lieve, as she is an ab­so­lute ti­tan, con­stantly mak­ing tea, cook­ing, wash­ing up, or­gan­is­ing builders and dis­cussing the state of the world and our souls with the team of al­ter­na­tive heal­ers she has brought to­gether, for when Hub at No 3 of­fi­cially opens in Fe­bru­ary. Since sell­ing her PR agency she has worked in ru­ral African vil­lages and with women lead­ers in Kaza­khstan, and writ­ten sev­eral books about women run­ning busi­nesses. I’m in awe of her work ethic and feel slightly ridicu­lous talk­ing about my prob­lems, but that is why I am here.

She is firm but fair, and says she doesn’t be­lieve have a prob­lem not fin­ish­ing things, that this is just a story I’ve been telling my­self. As for love – we have moved on to re­la­tion­ships – she doesn’t re­ally be­lieve that I have any prob­lems there ei­ther, de­spite ev­ery sin­gle sign to the con­trary. “Your heart is open to love. You just have to choose it,” she says. Lynne is di­vorced but not with­out com­pany, and what I am think­ing of choos­ing, specif­i­cally, is to copy the lay­out of her house, where she has one bed­room for sleep­ing and one for sex. “Leave Lon­don and you could af­ford that ex­tra bed­room, too,” she points out cheer­ily. So if I ever tell you I’ve moved to the coun­try­side for my daugh­ter to get more fresh air, you’ll know ex­actly what I’m talk­ing about.

Lynne wants me to try her treat­ments, so I greed­ily take them all. First a mas­sage, with a zap­ping de­vice in­vented by the Sovi­ets to clear block­ages in their as­tro­nauts. The masseur, Gor­don John Hughes, is also a psy­chic, so takes my mind off the weird Rus­sian tin­gling by telling me all about my fam­ily’s trauma.

“Some­thing hap­pened to your fa­ther when he was three,” he in­tu­its from the knots in my back, “and he has never got over it.” I weigh this up, de­cide it could ac­tu­ally be true, and feel rather sad – but not to worry, he now wants to talk about my sis­ter, and I don’t have one, so that’s eas­ier to dis­miss. “Did your mother lose a child?” he con­tin­ues. Well, yes she did, as it goes. “So you do have a sis­ter!” he says proudly. “She’s there, in the spirit world.” Oh.

Af­ter two and a half hours of this I feel very, very awake. So I check my phone, where there is a text from Michael, whom I have for­got­ten to tell that I’m go­ing on re­treat. “Are you pro­duc­ing?” he asks. No, I want to text back, I’m com­muning with my dead sis­ter in Som­er­set, but I sus­pect he might not be the tar­get de­mo­graphic for such news.

Over the next two days I have a flower essences ses­sion with Saskia Mar­jo­ram, who holds a pendulum over ‹

‘He tends to work with cor­po­rate CEOs. Could he help me?’: So­phie Hea­wood with life coach Michael Serwa on the roof of his May­fair pent­house

‘When the glit­ter pens come out I say a firm no. But I find my­self com­pletely en­grossed in my col­lage’: So­phie with ‘heart­felt hippy’ Lynne Franks

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