Distinguishing Yourself

Schools are increasingly looking like airport lounges, A&E departments, or conference centres. Soon nothing will look like itself. Soon you’ll mistakenly go into a pub only to find it’s a funeral parlour.

Recently I went to my God son’s school to talk to a swathe of 17 year olds about what a wonderful world faces them. And a few warnings based on the things I did wrong at their age.

I’m perfect for 17 years because I am loud. Very loud. And the young do like a good old fashioned shouter. And of course I use humour to such an extent that the uptight might well see me more as a standup comic than a true inspirator for the young.

Before I went on Charlie – my godson – and his mum checked what my message was going to be. What could I pass on? How could I help?

I did my from rats to ratatouille, from mice to meaning, from poverty to purpose routine. I performed well and loud and had them laughing and learning. And then I came to the crescendo of it all.

I said that the distinguishing thing, the lesson I grasped at 17 was the incontrovertible need, to invest an enormous lot of energy in yourself. To distinguish yourself in something. To become brilliant, formidable: to put in the 10,000 hours that Tiger Woods had talked about as his making.

You have to distinguish yourself by learning something deeply. And to some extent the most important thing is that you do that for yourself.

I rescued myself from poverty living and poverty thinking by hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours drawing painting and reading about art. I trained my hand and eye. I never became the next generations answer to Francis Bacon but I did deep work on making art.

So I told the young that unless you distinguish yourself at something you will always be held back from developing other things in your life.

The amount of time I have put into social justice issues, writing and fighting would not have been possible if I had not sharpened my mind to be sharp about art. To distinguish myself; even though I never used the art as an end in itself.

Charlie sat among his peers and his mum sat with her boyfriend Andy. I gave my three pennies worth and to a good cheer I left. And then went for a coffee with Andy and Charlies’ mother.

I didn’t really know Andy but we got on very well. He ran a auto repair shop in Brixton. One time I rang him up to explain the burning and noise that came out of one of my car wheels, with the wheel getting ferociously hot.

He listened to me, told me the problem and how to solve it. Next day I went weighed down with my knowledge and the sticking break pads were changed. End of problem.

If I had thought of it as I stood before the room full of 17 year olds I would have pulled, embarrassed, Andy onto the stage. As an example of distinguishing yourself. For Andy had spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours before he could diagnose my car at the end of the phone.

Today transferable skills are being learned by people playing with gadgets. Young people put their hundreds and hundreds of hours into social media use. Let’s hope we can find a way of turning that in ways of distinguishing yourself.

Or follow Andy and me into building mind, body and spirit by hundreds of hours in a very useful distinguishing of oneself.

One thing often denied people in poverty is the perfecting of skills. Though then Christiano Renaldo comes along to prove just a wall and a ball can get you places. If you’re determined.

We have to give our kids the chance to distinguish themselves runs my message.

First prize for someone who can take all those countless gadget hours the young use up as a way for distinguishing yourself.

I get on a train in a station that looks like a station. It takes me to London Bridge. I get out and think I’ve ended up in a shopping mall. I dare not go into the place that looks like a toilet; it might be a nail bar and bikini wax emporium. Ugh!

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