My work for the last 40 years has involved asking questions.
It seems appropriate therefore that my parents named me Michael. I don’t suppose they knew this either, but apparently the name derives from the Hebrew name Mikha’el meaning “who is like God?”. This is a rhetorical question, implying no person is like God.
When I discovered this it struck me as very apt.
I studied law at university. Well, when I say studied I mean that I was there. Subsequently I worked in corporate affairs, political campaigning, and then back to corporate communications.
The law, politics and PR are all big on asking questions. They are also three disciplines which require rhetorical skill – the ability to argue a case.
My parents didn’t know that I was destined for this path of study or work. And neither did I. But it turned out that they had given me a very appropriate name.
If I think back to my first days at secondary modern school, what I remember most was the sheer fear and terror of being beaten up by bigger boys, having made the mistake of asking too many questions of the teachers in class.
My older brother was and is a genius. I don’t use the word lightly. He has excelled at everything he has done and been a masterly scholar. He succeeded through hard work.
My only real memories of him from childhood (he is six years my senior) were of him shut away in his room studying morning, noon and night. He would emerge at ungodly hours in the middle of the night to make himself doorstep sandwiches and then return to his room to read.
I did not do this. Then or since.
One of his primary school teachers had told him, and he had told me, that “all knowledge is to be found in books.” We never played together. I don’t think he ever played. But from the earliest age I can remember him setting me tests and marking my work.
He was determined that his lazy and considerably less bright brother should at least do his best. He never thought I tried hard enough. He was right. I never have!
But one thing he told me always stuck in my mind, and that was if you don’t know something or you can’t understand it, ask questions. He used to say, actually still does, “you can never ask too many questions.”
Unfortunately the thugs at my new school hadn’t benefited from my grammar school educated brother’s words of wisdom. Just as well really as I hate to think what they would have done to him. Unlike at my brother’s school, at mine a thirst for knowledge was not often rewarded. At least not in the way you might hope.
On my first day at the school my lovely school-mates dumped me headfirst into a water butt and tried to drown me.
My crime was to be seen sucking up to the teachers. The teaching staff, unused to any pupil actually showing an interest, responded enthusiastically to my questioning during class. This just compounded my offence in the eyes of my class-mates.
Despite my brother’s wise counse, at my school I learned to keep quiet.
Although safely quiet, I developed a passion for words, language, and stories. The careers teacher told me this meant I’d make a good clerk.
I fancied being a journalist and used to make up all kinds of little newspapers having ‘interviewed’ people to ‘publish’ my own stories, first with a John Bull Printing Set, and later with a very old Remington manual typewriter. My first experience of the one-finer typing that has been my style ever since.
I can’t recall exactly where the idea came from except that my next door neighbour was a master typesetter on the local newspaper and he once took me into the printing works where I was transfixed by the sight of the ink wet sheets of newspaper coming off the huge printing machines.
If I think hard now I can still remember the smell of the ink, the noise of the machines and the exccitement of journalists riunning back and forth from the newsroom.
I’m not sure what happened to the ambition to be a journalist, but ironically Iended up dealing with, and getting extraordinarily drunk, over the years with many of them.
I continued to be a questioner. Although depending on the subject my interest varied. Two snatches from my old school reports read:
English: “Michael is creative, imaginative, inquisitive, and a pleasure to teach. Keep at it!”
Religious Education: “Michael gives me the impression that it is beneath his dignity to take part in the lesson.”
I love that second one, but the first probably confirmed that love of words.
Having escaped from Sec Mod, I arrived at a College of Further Education.
I was fortunate enough to take all of the “O” levels in a crash one year course to make up for not having taken them at secondary school where we sat something called CSEs instead, not worth the paper they were printed on unless you fancied being a typist, hairdresser, machine minder or shop assistant.
Being at FE college was almost like being at a university. Although only studying GCE “O” and then “A” levels we were treated as grown-ups, encouraged to indulge ourselves in private study in the well-stocked libraries, and were engaged with rhetorical skill by dedicated and interested lecturers.
We were also free of school uniform and being teenagers smoked everything freely everywhere before getting drunk and pretending we were much older. We had a student’s union and charity “rags.”
We grew up quickly and many of us including a number of friends I’ve retained for life and others I’ve met again on social media, were lucky enough to have a thirst for knowledge planted (or in my case re-planted), nurtured, and grown.
I’ve written before of my British Constitution lecturer Bill Stephenson at Kingston College of FE. Bill was an old socialist product of the LSE and as well as teaching us Brit Con, taught us to think and to argue with aid of a wonderful slim volume called “Thinking with Concepts” by John Wilson, a copy of which to this day always sits on my desk.
Bill (and Dr Wilson) encouraged us to ask questions and to debate. It was that introduction to rhetoric that decided me to aim for a law degree at university. I fancied myself as a defence barrister in criminal law.
I managed a 2.1 in the Criminal Law module and a 1st in Constitutional Law. Unfortunately I hadn’t twigged that to achieve such lofty heights actually requires one to turn up and study the parts of law like English Land Law that I couldn’t attack with natural flair and rhetoric, whilst enjoying the distractions and freedoms of university life. Only doing the bits you can excel in without doing any work isn’t really the idea. I was thrown out.
But the appetite for asking questions remained and in a totally unplanned way later resurfaced in my work as a communications director. it turned out that knowing the right questions to ask of the right people at the right time and in the right way is a core skill for anybody in my business. In many a corporate crisis situation I have found this is the most important skill, as inevitably these crises are caused by people having not asked those questions in the first place.
My advice, and pompous morals for life, taken from this snapshot of recollection is –
- Read a lot
- Never be discouraged by failure
- Learn how to ask the right questions
- Don’t think you can get by without working
- Don’t be a lazy bastard.