A happy life? First, figure out what you really, really want

The key to a happy life is working out what you want and going for it, reckons Andrew Halfacre. Trouble is, most of us don’t know what we want. He tells STEVEN RUSSELL how to find out – and talks about the past year’s fight against cancer

ANDREW Halfacre has a story about a polar bear. He remembers a childhood visit to a zoo, where a polar bear was in a drab concrete enclosure. It paced back and forth, breaking the pattern only to bang its head against the wall. It obviously wasn’t happy.

In the wild, it would have been playing, hunting, running and rolling around in snow – doing all the things its polar bear DNA told it to do. In an artificial environment it wasn’t long before deviant, self-destructive behaviour developed.

The parallel Andrew draws, of course, is that people stuck in the wrong place also don’t enjoy life as much as they should.

That wrong place could be a physical environment – breathing recycled air in a drab office, for instance – or a job that really doesn’t float their boat; or simply not realising what kind of activity truly sets their soul a-singing. It might be scuba-diving or bell-ringing, but the truth hasn’t yet dawned.

Unfortunately, in Andrew’s experience, most people can’t tell you what they really want, though they’re very good at producing a list of what they don’t want.

To help break the mental impasse holding back many folk, the Essex-based coach and trainer has written a book called First, Know What You Want – a practical guide to knowing one’s own mind and following that important inner compass.

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“If your life was a bus, then who is driving?” he asks. “So many people sit in the passenger seat, letting their boss, family or friends decide what their life should be like. Once you learn how to drive your own bus, your life will never be the same again.”

Many of us sit at the back of life’s single-decker, whinging about the route. But it’s possible, he argues in his metaphor, to sit upfront – deciding where one is going and whom to pick up along the way.

“Getting a different life is easy as long as you do three things most people don’t want to do.

“First, you have to work out what you want. Most people have no idea.

“Second, be realistic about what you are prepared to give up to get it. You can watch telly all night or be a millionaire, but it’s very hard to get both.

“And the last thing: take a small step towards your new life every day. Most people talk a good game but never do anything.”

How does he respond to criticism that such self-help advice is pure mumbo jumbo?

“I genuinely don’t get that question. You’ll notice in the book there’s nothing airy-fairy – that if you write something on a piece of paper, and hide it in a cupboard, by some magic process the universe will deliver. That’s rubbish. The only way you will change the results you get in your life is to do something different.

“What I’m interested in is: how do you work out what you want? Well, here are many different ways. Find something that works. The results will show you what’s working or not.”

Andrew thinks many of us have been raised to believe it’s normal for others to run our lives.

“Everyone has an agenda: governments, companies, the media and so on. If you don’t have one, you’ll end up fulfilling their agenda” – blown about like a candle in the wind.

“Your agenda might be to build your family, or to learn the piano, or become good at knitting. But you need to have one. If you don’t, you become a passive consumer of someone else’s agenda.

“You become one of those men who ends up in a pub, saying ‘I had an idea once . . .’ How about if you ended your life saying ‘D’you know what? I had a go’, rather than ‘I could have had a go . . .’?”

There are a lot of folk happy with their lives – some even content being a passenger on someone else’s bus; and that’s fine – but he writes for those who sometimes hear their inner voice questioning the status quo.

“If that’s you – if you can hear the faint ‘scratching at the window’; if you look at the stars and think ‘There must be more . . .’ – here’s a way.”

The interesting thing is that Andrew has been down this road himself. In 1984 he got a job with Eastern Electricity – in pre-privatisation days, when it had shops and sold things like washing-machines (which he did, initially). He stayed a long time, with the company becoming part of Hanson plc, TXU Energi and latterly Powergen.

Andrew, now in his mid-40s, climbed the ladder during his career and was sponsored to study for an MBA (Master of Business Administration).

He managed complicated projects. Often it would mean working away from home: in Manchester, for instance, or London. He also found himself working at times at Wherstead, on the edge of Ipswich.

These projects might involve sorting out the integration of commercial billing operations, such as when TXU took over Norweb’s electricity customers. “Deeply fascinating,” he grins.

So was he a technical whiz? Well, the type of person “who could talk techie but also manage people and processes – the kind of strange job you only find in big companies and that doesn’t have a convenient title attached to it”.

And then things changed.

“I’d been there 18 years and it dawned on me eventually that the times when I was most excited, most interested and most engaged were when I was working with people or learning new things, or explaining things.”

Andrew had been doing a bit of coaching and training within the company “and I was forever telling people they needed to work out what they wanted and to follow their dream – because, if they didn’t, they’d end up well-off but bitter and frustrated. I think what happened is that someone called my bluff and said ‘Come on then!’”

It was about the time of the Powergen takeover and he took the chance of voluntary redundancy, leaving with a year’s salary to start his own coaching and training business.

A married man with young children (today, his daughters are aged 15, 13 and nine) Andrew admits he dithered at the prospect of a scary leap. But it was the right thing to do – what he really wanted, in fact.

Today, work as a freelance is an enjoyable mosaic. For instance, he spends part of his time as an adviser at his local enterprise agency in Braintree, helping people thinking of starting their own business. He’s also run workshops for clients such as Vodafone, Mars and GlaxoSmithKline.

Of course, the scary moments don’t go away when one follows one’s dreams (and, in his case, became his own boss).

“With a person in a [salaried] job, their emotional range usually goes from ‘OK’ to ‘not bad’. What I’ve experienced since running my own business is ecstasy – doing what you most love and making money from it is just the most superb thing in the world – and terror, when you look at your bank account and diary and both are empty.

What has happened over the years is that his ability to cope with such an emotional rollercoaster has improved. Andrew says his diary is usually fullish for eight or 10 weeks hence, and then thins out. “But it’s been like that for 10 years!” Happily, it generally fills as any fallow period draws nearer. “While it is still terrifying, I worry less about it.”

An important skill – for us all, he says – is being able to discriminate between temporary mood (in this example the fear induced by the thought of less income) and longer-term desire (the driving impetus to spend most of your time doing something you really love).

If truth be told, it’s only fairly recently that Andrew’s realised he’s a writer at heart, rather than a businessman – “which is daft, really, because I’d done a bit of freelance writing for money, online; I’ve sold e-books; I’ve professionally written stuff and sold that work . . . So it’s like ‘der!’”

He’d had an obsession with all things stationery-related since boyhood and would happily fill pages with words . . . but it took years and years and years to realise it was the very act of writing that really made his pulse beat.

“I’ve always been fascinated by this business of people not knowing what they want, and I think the reason is because I’ve struggled to work it out for myself: a long up and down struggle.”

Andrew adds: “I have this theory about people: that they build cages around themselves. And some of those cages are not helpful.

“The huge secret is that the key to the cage, you’re already holding. I get tremendous satisfaction when I help someone understand that they’re holding the key to their cage, and can unlock it.

“The more people who can go from being passive consumers to active creators, the better.”

Speaking of creativity, he recently pondered why he’d felt a bit restless during the festive break and figured it was because he was used to producing things – ideas, writing, plans and suchlike – and that drive went into limbo over Christmas and New Year.

“I’d been sitting in front of other people’s creativity and eating other people’s food, and being very passive. I did, in frustration yesterday, spend the day building Lego! I made Gringotts Bank in Harry Potter Lego. Hard, and hurt my fingers, though!”

First, Know What You Want is published by Bookshaker at �15

Web link: www.firstknowwhatyouwant.com

NOTHING sharpens the mind more than a frightening brush with mortality – and that’s something Andrew Halfacre had in 2011.

He was diagnosed early in the year with a cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had eight rounds of chemotherapy. Fortunately, things are now looking pretty good.

Andrew first thought something was wrong when his leg began to throb and ache at the top of his groin. It was painful enough to have him taking strong painkillers. A fall from his motorbike the previous year left him thinking he needed physiotherapy for an unhealed strain.

Then, a bit later, he was lying in bed and thinking “No; this is really odd.” He found a biggish lump and sought help. Early theories about a possible hernia led to an operation being scheduled – the surgeon then suspecting it was instead a problem with a lymph node. (The lymphatic system is a series of vessels and glands – lymph nodes – spread throughout the body.)

Andrew awoke pain-free after surgery. The lump had been sent for investigation and he thought it might all be over. But later, while he waited for the results to arrive, his leg started to swell.

Experts later delivered the bad news: a diffused, large, lymphoma in his left groin. “Potentially curable” was the verdict. It was, says Andrew, at a potentially life-threatening stage.

The chemotherapy sessions ran on a three-week cycle. “You’d feel revolting for a week, then slightly better, then very better, and then on a Friday it would be ‘Oh no; got to start again!’”

Andrew coped by resorting to cynicism and black humour. “I had to face up to the possibility I was going to die, and that was both ‘interesting’ and ‘funny’.”

At hospital sessions in Chelmsford he’d often wait next to other cancer patients. Inevitably, people chatted and compared notes:

And what’s your situation? ‘I’m terminal . . .’ Oh . . . right. (What do you do now? Talk about the weather?) ‘That’s . . . interesting. How long? ‘I’ve probably got a year.’ OK . . . What are your plans?

“I thought, when I was diagnosed, it would be about big meaningful things I wanted to do with my life and how things would change. But what it turned out to be was small things.

“It turned out that grass is much greener than I’d ever noticed before; it turned out that birdsong is beautiful; it turned out that I wanted to feel the sun on my face; it turned out I wanted to be much closer to my children. I almost wanted to gather them together and hold them tight. It wasn’t about ‘Ooh, I must go and visit the Grand Canyon because my time might be short.’

“When I spoke to these couple of folks who were terminal, it turned out for them that it was also about these small things. It was about the smell of flowers; it was about family.

“That was interesting for me, because it’s not at all about the clich� – that you have cancer and decide to re-evaluate your life. I’d done a lot of re-evaluation already: I’d started a business; I was in the process of doing a book. A lot of things I’d wanted to do, I’d done, so it turned out to be about a lot of small things.”

The last scan showed the nasty bits had all disappeared, though something was still going on within the bone in his hip and there is a debate about what exactly it might be. More checks are due in the next few months; but, as far as he’s concerned, it’s over.

“One of the things chemotherapy burned away was my fear. I’m much less guarded emotionally; I cry much more easily; but I also laugh more easily,” says Andrew, who lives in Braintree with his wife, three daughters, three noisy chickens and a quiet gerbil called Harry.

“Having faced the possibility I might die, I realised in actual fact there’s a lot of things I don’t need to be scared of any more, because the worse has happened.”

One of the beliefs that was reinforced along the way was that multi-tasking is a myth. Humans just can’t give proper attention to several things at the same time.

“For years I’ve been guilty of having 50 or 60 things whirring through my head, and feeling stressed. I realised, when I was ill, that you can really only do one thing at a time.”

The trick is learning to apply oneself fully over short periods of time, rather than trying to take big (and probably unachievable) single leaps. It’s less mentally daunting that way, and a series of small steps – building bricks – quickly covers a vast distance.

“If you can bring 100% to the next 10 minutes, you’ve just got to pick what the next 10 minutes is, really.”

Twelve rules for knowing what you want

Andrew Halfacre’s quick-start guide

Play with starting small – make it a daily habit to have an outcome for all the small things in your life

Watch with amusement as your moods go by, and practise asking ‘What do I want?’ instead of ‘How do I feel?’

List your bugs [annoyances] and see how many you can squash

Dwell on what you don’t want and then playfully ask ‘What do I want instead?’

Chop big wishes into chunks. Keep chopping until they are bite-size. One mouthful at a time

Notice what you are naturally good at – the things that amaze you when others can’t do them as easily as you. You might have found a talent

Score everything. Use scales. Make up an ideal wheel of life and pin it to your wall

Sweep the decks so inspiration can land. Remember she’s a flighty creature who does not want to soil the hem of her skirt. Make room for her

Learn to live now. Make the most of this weekend. Set out to play with all the things, people, places and contributions that you want

Stop thinking, and come to your senses. What do they tell you? Spend a day or two satisfying each of them with the most sensual thing you can find

Understand what drives you so that you can say ‘What’s important to me about . . . is . . .’

Play with what makes you joyful or has brought you joy in the past. The surest direction for your future is to follow your joy