The Space Within: Finding your way back home is a very different type of business book. And to be fair, Michael Neill – transformative coach and mentor to CEOs and ‘creative spark plug’ to celebrities, CEOs and royalty – is no ordinary writer. If you’re getting tired of chasing after the next ‘how to do’, if you’re finding that no matter how many books you read or courses you take or videos you consume you’re still restless and uncertain, this is probably the book for you. As you read it, you’ll probably have the sensation that it’s not so much telling you something new as reminding your of something you already knew, but had somehow lost or forgotten.
If you’re struggling with ways to express your thinking, this will be a particularly helpful episode. We talk a lot about metaphor and the role of writing in relation to what it is you do without necessarily articulating it: ‘putting words to the music’, as Michael so beautifully puts it.
I don’t have favourite episodes, obviously. But if I did, this might be it.
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Michael Neill, transformative coach, author of The Inside-Out Revolution, which is one of my favourite books. I find myself recommending it to people all the time. I reviewed it back in October for my World-Changing Book series, and found it was probably the hardest review I’ve ever written just trying to do justice to this book in my own prose. His new book is The Space Within, which is maybe even more powerful, and even more difficult to describe. Luckily, this time I don’t have to describe it because Michael himself is here with me. Hello, Michael.
Michael Neill: Hello. Thank you for having me back.
Alison Jones: Oh, it’s wonderful to be talking to you again. I know you’re having a really busy UK visit, so I appreciate you taking the time out for the Extraordinary Business Book Club.
Michael Neill: Pleasure.
Alison Jones: Tell me, what is The Space Within actually about?
Michael Neill: It’s not going to do any of us any favours if I say it’s about The Space Within, and yet that’s true. In other words, what it’s about is that there’s a space within all of us that is the space through which our creativity flows. It’s the space through which our best ideas come. It’s the space in which we fall in love. It’s the space in which we feel most at home, most at peace within ourselves, most like we’re really who we are meant to be and doing what we are meant to be. In that space, what comes through that space is different for every human being on the planet. The space itself is the same for every human being on the planet, which is why everybody can be creative. Everybody can have fresh thinking. Everybody can get new ideas. It’s just that we’re so used to defining ourselves by what has come through this space that we lose sight of the infinite creative potential of the space itself.
Alison Jones: I love that point that you made about your wife asking when you get back, have they popped yet? Have they seen this? Is there for you, a difference between the pre and post, the people who really don’t get what you’re talking about and the people who have got it? Even if it’s only a fragmentary perception and they lose it again but come back to it? You’ve really got two sets of readers. One just don’t really know quite what you’re on about, and the other are trying to understand it better and deepen their awareness of having seen already what it is you’re saying.
Michael Neill: I would add one more category in the middle, which are the ones who don’t know what I’m talking about, but they can sense that there’s something there. There are people who just will look at it and maybe even go all the way through because a friend told them to read it. They’ll be like, “I thought it was crap.” Or, “Oh yeah, that’s just like …” then they’ll list some other book that in my mind it’s nothing like. The people that it’s exciting for me when I hear from them and when I hear them tell their stories are the ones who don’t know what I’m talking about, but at the same time they somehow know that there’s something important there for them.
Alison Jones: I think that’s exactly me when I started reading the book, actually. It was a sense of there’s something here, but I’m quite irritated at how hard it is to grasp.
Michael Neill: That was me. When I first started seeing this, I was that category. I didn’t understand why it was different to what I’d been doing. I didn’t understand how it was different to other things I’d read. Yet, I knew there was something there for me. I knew there was something there that wasn’t what everybody else was saying, and it wasn’t what I had been doing. When it did pop, and pop means a few different things. There’s pop like popcorn where popcorn, you know if you heat it up, it will pop, but you have no way of predicting which kernel will pop, when.
That’s part of the metaphor, but the other part of the metaphor is there’s a moment where you pop out of your head. You pop out of the thoughts that you think are your life and you pop into this present moment space where you have everything you need, but you don’t really have anything you don’t need. You don’t know what’s coming next. You don’t know where it’s going, but you might intuit it. You really are on the spot, but it turns out that when we’re on the spot without a lot of thinking about how scary it is to be on the spot. We outperform ourselves 1,000 to 1. We are able to access this innate wisdom, is what I call it. Whatever this infinite creative potential as it comes through us is, in a way that we come away and we go, “What did I say? Where did that come from?” If I’m writing, it’s like you look back and you read it and you go, “I wish I could write like that.”
Alison Jones: I think even the most hardened cynic recognizes those moments. They recognize that sense of being in flow and it all just lining up and not over-thinking it. Maybe that’s where we all get that sense of “if only I understood that better”.
Michael Neill: Right, because we think if I understood it better, I could control it. If I could control it, I could do it whenever I wanted. If I could do it whenever I wanted, I would take over the world.
Alison Jones: Yeah, that’s probably not the best place to be coming from, I’m guessing.
Michael Neill: It turns out that really gets in the way.
Alison Jones: Weird.
Michael Neill: Yeah, huh. Go figure.
Alison Jones: When you mentioned the thing about the popcorn, that just reminded me that one thing that I love about this book – and whenever I read a book now, I read it as a reader getting what’s in it, but also there’s a little bit of me that’s observing it as a writer and a publisher as well – I love the way you do metaphor. I love that little thing that proceeds it: ‘Like this, but not like this’, because metaphor can be a real false friend can’t it? It can make you think you understand something, but actually only show you a part of it, or take you to an implication that isn’t there.
Michael Neill: I had a huge insight a few years back, because I use metaphor in my work continually, and I love metaphor, just generally. Somebody had booked some time with me and they wanted to go through my metaphors and went, “Yes, but if it’s a pot of tea, what does it mean when it gets too stewed?” And, “If it’s like riding a bicycle, what if the front wheel is wonky? What does that relate to?” To be fair, I spent a fair amount of time answering the questions until I realized that the best answer was, “It’s a metaphor.” Not every element has to map across to your life. There’s a core point being made. That’s why with this book my daughter, and it’s funny, my daughters have fought over this, because I write in the book that it was my daughter Maisy’s t-shirt, but apparently she got it off her older sister, Clara. Clara wanted me to clarify that point in interviews. My older daughter Clara had a t-shirt that was then inherited by my younger daughter Maisy that said something like this, but not this.
Alison Jones: I’m very glad we got that point cleared up.
Michael Neill: It is actually the most important part. I know you might want to talk about writing and creativity, but I’ve got kids to go home to.
Alison Jones: Clara and Maisy, we’ve got it really clear now. Thank you.
Michael Neill: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I thought that was such a beautiful way of talking about metaphor, because it is something like popcorn, but it’s not popcorn.
Alison Jones: It’s just that flash of insight, isn’t it? It just gives you this, “Oh, I see.” It takes you from where you are and what you know, to apprehend a little bit about what you don’t know. You’re right. There’s a whole strand of biblical exegesis that’s been written on people taking metaphors too far, isn’t there?
Michael Neill: Yeah, but that’s… first off, first person to use the word exegesis correctly in a sentence since I’ve been interviewed about this book, so well done, you.
Alison Jones: You’re welcome.
Michael Neill: Secondly, it’s about that moment about that recognition, but then we usually follow that moment of recognition up by trying to work it out.
Alison Jones: Yeah, and we ruin it.
Michael Neill: Then we’ve lost it.
Alison Jones: It’s about taking the insight and letting it go?
Michael Neill: It’s about taking the insight and letting it do its thing with you. Let the insight have its way with you. That’s really the best way I can say it is, don’t try to work it out, because that actually clogs up the very thing that’s opened up.
Alison Jones: It just gets trapped in a new strand of thinking, doesn’t it?
Michael Neill: Yeah, you’ve got a prettier box for it, but you don’t have it. It’s something like that, but not that.
Alison Jones: But not that. Yeah, don’t get caught up in it. I think the metaphors are great. I love the way also that they’re not too precious. You use some, just being plugged in to the mains. That’s a really simple metaphor, but it immediately illuminates something about what you’re talking about.
Michael Neill: Magical cows that produce milk that’s healthy for lactose intolerant people isn’t precious?
Alison Jones: Yeah. I struggled a bit with the cow.
Michael Neill: I just used the cow in a lecture this morning. It was great.
Alison Jones: When you offer a whole range of metaphors, you reduce your dependence on any one of them. You also increase the chance of one of them landing with somebody who’s reading, don’t you?
Michael Neill: That’s exactly it, because it’s something like that, but not that, you can have 1,000 metaphors and there isn’t a more right one. It’s whatever gives somebody a glimpse of what you’re pointing to. In this case what I’m pointing to is ever present, but invisible.
I think of the metaphor, I think of the writing really almost like, I don’t know if you ever saw The Invisible Man movies, but the way that they catch him out is they always either corner him in a steam room or a rainstorm. You can just see the outline of him long enough to shoot at him. It’s like that with God, but without the shooting. It’s like that with this creative space, because you can’t really give it form without limiting what it is. When you shine a light on it, when you rain on it, when you put a steam room of a metaphor around it, you can glimpse the outline of it and you can start to know it’s there. Then you start to intuit its presence. Then you start to feel its presence more of the time. The fact that you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there to you anymore. That’s just how it works.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant and I love that we now have a meta-metaphor, because we’ve been talking about metaphors through a metaphor, which is great.
Michael Neill: Well done. Well done us.
Alison Jones: Well done us. That’s got to be a first. One of the wonderful things of course is that what you’re talking about, and the reason that I’m saying that it’s so hard to pin down and we have to look at it through a metaphor and so on, is that it’s not instructional. You do not have Michael Neill’s seven step process for inner enlightenment. It’s much more nuanced and fluid and personalized than that. I think this is something that a lot of people that I work with struggle with. They see writers putting informational books out there. Then they’ve got process envy. What do you do if you’re the kind of person that works in a more, I don’t know, fluid responsive way that maybe you’re doing some magic with the people you’re working with, but it’s hard to put it exactly into words. What does it mean to be a writer of that kind of book?
Michael Neill: For me the writing process is no different to the creative process in anything else. In other words, if you’re very fluid and in the moment in your work, then that should be what informs your writing. If you’re very systematic and step by step in your work, then you’ll probably be very systematic and step by step in your writing. Being step by step doesn’t excuse you from there being a richer substance underneath the structure and being formless don’t really excuse you from putting it in to some form that people can grasp it. That’s our job as writers is to find a way to eff the ineffable, to put form on the formless, to create a shape that we can pour the water of life into so that people can drink from it. It’s impossible. I say in the book, I use the metaphor of it’s like pointing to fire with ice. The closer you get to the truth, the less you have to point with. That’s the gig. Complaining about that is like a busboy complaining about too many dishes. That’s your job.
Alison Jones: Yeah, if you don’t want to do that, don’t write the book.
Michael Neill: Yeah, exactly, which is cool. There’s plenty of them out there. For those of us who love to write or are called to write, or even just want to give it a go, if you know going in that you’re not going to pull it off, it’s much easier.
Alison Jones: Yes, if you know that almost when the ice is melting, that’s because you’re getting near the fire.
Michael Neill: Right.
Alison Jones: That is the deal. That’s interesting isn’t it, because you’re not failing. You’re succeeding, it’s just it feels different to what you thought it was going to be.
Michael Neill: Yeah, the truth cannot be encapsulated in words. Our job is to encapsulate the truth in words if we write these kinds of books. Of course we’re going to struggle. Of course we’re up against it. Of course we’re never going to quite feel like we nailed it, or we’ll feel like we nailed and then read it back the next day and go, “Ooh, no it’s not quite that.”
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s such a common experience. I’ve done that so many times, written and I’ve thought oh my God, I’ve got it. It’s brilliant. I’m so proud of it, and you read it the next day and you’re like, no, this is not at all what I meant to say.
Michael Neill: You have to learn to declare completion somewhere along the line. You have to in someway, in whatever is right for you, there’s a point at which you have to publish or you’ll never publish.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Tips on knowing when that point is?
Michael Neill: No, because we make it up. For me, I love deadlines because otherwise I would write forever. The very first book that I did, when the publisher offered to move the deadline because I was up against it, I almost screamed at them that they weren’t allowed to give me more time, because I knew if they gave me more time I would just take it. That’s my process. There are other writers who, they have a different way of getting there. I love the Douglas Adams line about, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound that they make when they pass me by.”
Alison Jones: I was just thinking of that one.
Michael Neill: There are other writers who are very disciplined and just write their hours or their pages or their number of words each day, and they do that everyday and at a certain point they’ve got enough for a book. It’s not that there’s a right way to do it. It’s that however you do it, however it unfolds through you, at some point, you have to publish, or in a way you didn’t write.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s powerful, isn’t it? It’s so easy to be permanently writing your book.
Michael Neill: Yeah, that’s journaling. I don’t mean that badly, and journaling is lovely, but journaling is not authoring.
Alison Jones: One thing, just going back to that point about the instruction and the difference between something that’s your process and then showing somebody something. One of your models that really struck home for me was when you were talking about high performance, and you were saying that in most coaching, and most common assumptions really, there’s that sense that performance equals capacity plus information, which we know isn’t true even while we believe it at the same time. You reinterpret it as performance equals capacity minus interference. It struck me that that summed up the difference between your book and most business books; most business books are all about giving you information so that you can improve your performance. Whereas this one completely flips it and it doesn’t really give you information as such. It simply tries to give you tools to lessen the interference.
Michael Neill: Yeah, that model comes out of the ‘inner game’ books that Timothy Gallwey wrote. I don’t remember which was first. Inner Game of Golf, Inner Game of Tennis. I think he ultimately did an Inner Game of Business, but it was what he noticed working with athletes. What led to their high performance was not that they learned more about the game, it was they got out of their way more of the time. That let their natural talent come through and develop. As writers, when we go for the “we’re going to write better when we learn more about writing”, that’s usually not true, because in fact it creates a new set of rules in our head that we have to live to. That’s why I don’t think it would be useful for me to give a formula for how do you know when you’re done.
What is true in my experience, is that when we get out of our own way, when we write and the quality be damned and then go back and edit for quality, when we write and the truth be damned, but we go back and edit for truth, when we write and enjoying the process be damned, but then we go back and let ourselves enjoy what we’ve written. That’s when we’re at our best.
Alison Jones: What does writing mean to you, Michael? Who are you when you write?
Michael Neill: According to my wife, a pain in the ass because I get obsessive. It’s like I’m thinking about it when I’m eating. I’m thinking about it when I’m out. I’m thinking about it. Ideas are coming through my head and I am very much a deadline writer. That’s just how I have always written. The writing, the bulk of the writing happens towards the deadline. I have a long history of moving into hotels the final week before a deadline so that my marriage survives. That’s probably not quite what you meant.
Alison Jones: It’s very, very interesting though.
Michael Neill: It is, because I want to be obsessed. I want to be imbalanced. I like being taken over by it. If I was doing that all the time, I couldn’t have a life. I spend a lot of time reflecting. I’ve learned that … There was a wonderful quote I remember from a physicist and I’m sorry, he was a composer. He was asked in an interview, “Are you working on anything at the moment?” I said, “I’m spending a lot of time fishing, so probably.
Alison Jones: Isn’t that a lovely example of trusting the process?
Michael Neill: That’s who I am as a writer. I have a deep faith that once it’s decided, once there is a deadline in place, once there is an agreement in place that there will be a book on such and such a date, that I will deliver. I know that everything from that moment forward is part of the creation of that book, even if it seems completely irrelevant to it.
Alison Jones: How does being a writer balance with being a coach and all the other activities that you do in MichaelNeill.org?
Michael Neill: There’s a couple of different ways and it’s funny, because you warned me you were going to ask me that question and I went, “Oh no, I don’t know the answer to it. I’ll just waffle a little and we’ll see what comes out.” It seems to me that what writing does for me is two things. It forces me to give form to the formless. I could just bliss out a lot. I could just hang out and connect and listen to people and be a space in which they get more creative and perform better and do better in their lives. There’s something about writing that it makes me put words to the music. Then you’ve got a song. Yeah, see I must be getting close, because I have no idea how to say it. There’s something for me where I can live it and then when I put words to it I can see it and then as quickly as possible I want to forget the words and go back to living it. It’s richer on the other side for having written it.
Alison Jones: That articulates beautifully what I’ve always known about writing, but never expressed so beautifully.
Michael Neill: I’ll listen back to it and then give you my comments.
Alison Jones: There is something about that process of articulating an insight that changes that nature of the insight and changes its impact on you.
Michael Neill: Yeah, and I think one of the things that writers suffer from at times, and all of us suffer from at times … This was just a joke that came up in the seminar yesterday, we suffer from premature articulation. We try and put words to it before we’ve really felt it. We try and put words to it before we’ve really heard it. There is a time to write. I know for me, the timing of my books is tied into some movement in me. It’s happened a few times where I’ve called my agent and I said, “Something’s brewing.” He’ll see if he can tease it out of me.
Then there’s just a certain point, like with this book, The Space Within, and the next book that I’m contracted for, which is called Creating The Impossible and will come out September 2017. I’ve been thinking about them. I chatted to my agent about them, and then I was sitting down with my publisher by happenstance. I was at a writers event where I was talking to a group about the process of writing. I suddenly found myself having lunch with them and telling them about the books. In my head I went, “Oh, I guess now.” That was how I knew that I was ready to write them, because I was talking about them.
Alison Jones: Yes. Yes, I absolutely see that. This is something that brews in you, and then it gains something else from being spoken out loud.
Michael Neill: Yeah.
Alison Jones: Then it’s embodied further by the writing.
Michael Neill: Yeah, and then I can put it down. It’s not that move on to something else necessarily, but that’s been put into words now. I can make space for something new.
Alison Jones: Yeah, beautiful. When you say it sounds so effortless, does it feel like that at this end?
Michael Neill: Again, if you videoed me, there were would be times where it wouldn’t look effortless, like around 3:00 in the morning when I was coming up against an 8:00 AM deadline wondering. With Space Within, literally at 3:00 in the morning with an 8:00 AM deadline, I didn’t think I was going to pull it off. Now I had a lot of words on paper. It wasn’t like I wrote like the dickens for five hours, but I couldn’t quite see it. There was something off, and I couldn’t find it. Then all of a sudden, I went for a walk at 3:00 in the morning and I saw it. Then I came back and I wrote and I cut and I pasted and I wrote and at 7:54 AM I thought it was beautiful. To be fair, I didn’t think it was beautiful. I thought, “I better hit send.”
Alison Jones: “I think it’s done.”
Michael Neill: I sent it and I went home and slept. I then was flying off to Hong Kong the next day for work and I didn’t reread it. I didn’t look at it. I was embarrassed. In my mind I had copped out. I’d left it too late. I had a whole story about things. Sorry, there’s a background noise, and I don’t even know what’s making it, so hopefully it’ll stop on its own. Then I was in the airport in Hong Kong on the way home, so about a week later, and I got a letter from the publisher saying “This is your best book yet. It’s very rare that we get a manuscript that we could publish as is without any rewrites, but this is one.” That was when I let myself reread it. I did rewrite it. I didn’t submit it as is. I actually spent a month and a half battling line by line with my editor, which I enjoyed doing, because I wanted to make it better, but it’s also useful to know when you’re a good judge of your writing and when you’re not.
Alison Jones: I love that at 3:00 in the morning up against it, when most people would be making another cup of coffee, you went for a walk. That speaks volumes I think.
Michael Neill: It didn’t feel like at 3:00 in the morning, but I appreciate that.
Alison Jones: Generally that’s the better decision, isn’t it?
Michael Neill: Yeah.
Alison Jones: Yeah, something happens when your legs start moving. Things shift and rearrange in your brain.
Michael Neill: Yeah, and I think there’s a wisdom to us about that. I think it would be easy for somebody to hear that and go, “Right, okay, must go for walks.” No, it occurred to me to go for a walk, in the same way as that at a different time it might have occurred to me to make a cup of coffee, or it might have occurred to me to curl up under my desk and cry. It’s legitimate. You can go with the flow of that, and then the next thing will occur to you.
Alison Jones: Wonderful. I could talk to you all day. This is so brilliant and so inspiring. I’m going to just ask you one quick question that I forget to warn you about, sorry. I hope you’re okay thinking on your feet here. One thing that I do with all my podcast guests is invite them to suggest someone that that they think would make a really good guest on the podcast. Someone who has something interesting to say about the writing of books, particularly business books or the way that they are used within the business, somebody that you just think would be a really good guest for people who are writing and reading extraordinary business books. Who would that be?
Michael Neill: Have you ever spoken with Steve Chandler?
Alison Jones: I haven’t.
Michael Neill: Ah ha. Steve is a very good friend of mine. He’s written, I think about 30 books. His very first book, 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself was a, I think it sold over half a million copies. It’s been out for a number of years. He’s somebody who just has documented his journey. He also works with a number of businesses and works with coaches. Most of his books, not all of them, but most of his books are very relevant to business owners. I admire him as a writer as much as I do as a coach.
Alison Jones: That’s a good enough recommendation for me. Thank you. I’ll be in touch with him directly. If anybody wants to find out more about you, Michael, and more about the book, and what it is that you do, where should they go?
Michael Neill: MichaelNeill.org is my sandbox on the web and that’s where I’ve got a newsletter where I write a new piece each week called Caffeine For The Soul. That would be the place to go, and you’ll see the book and you can read excerpts from the book and reviews of the book and you can find all that on this thing.
Alison Jones: I do thoroughly recommend the book. I hugely enjoyed it. It’s great, and if you are in that position of being intrigued, but not quite knowing, then this is a really, really great place to start. Wonderful. Thank you so much Michael. It’s been an absolute joy speaking to you. Thank you for taking the time out.
Michael Neill: Thank you for having me back.
Alison Jones: Take care. Goodbye.
Michael Neill: Bye.