Apothecary for the Mind

Where do you go when you’re haunted by a big question? Enter The School of Life, a 21st century forum that is part university, part library and even part church.

In the centre of London, surrounded by the British Library, the British Museum, a number of diverse universities, intellectual histories and iconoclastic minds, has sprouted a new space for learning. Offering everything from Socrates to stationary, ‘Sunday Sermons’ to bibliotherapy as well as a range of public programmes, The School of Life (TSOL) is finding fresh, thoughtful and accessible ways of starting discussions about life’s biggest questions. Since opening their doors in 2008 they’ve had more than 50 000 people come through and participate in their programmes, which is nothing compared to their growing international digital network. Getting requests from Wisconsin to Zambia, Paris to Melbourne, it may not be long before a School of Life opens up in your city, offering a place for real conversation with real people searching for and sharing ideas with regards to ways of living well and living wisely.

Directing The School of Life is Morgwn Rimel, a multidisciplinary creative thinker and doer who embodies everything that the School stands for. She provided us with not only answers, but a scintillating conversation as we discussed TSOL and the difference between sharing wisdom rather than consuming information.

AR — Let’s start from the beginning—what brought TSOL about?

Morgwn Rimel —The inspiration is very clear in the sense that bringing ideas from everyday life and exploring questions on how to live a good life is something that we all just instantly ‘get’ and are interested in as human beings. When the School was set up in late 2008, it was with an idea of creating a new kind of university or new kind of learning institution, or a new way for people to engage with ideas over the course of their lifetime outside of other traditional forms of learning and academic institutions. It was about taking ideas out of the ivory tower, out of an abstract space and taking them to the high street.

The idea of presenting ideas in the retail context, where you could come in and sort of ‘shop around’ for prescriptions for common ailments. We have talked about it like ‘an apothecary for the mind,’ or a ‘cultural corner shop,’ where you can browse various cultural solutions to common personal problems. It’s a fun and exciting way to present some of the ideas that we are working with, and it’s proven to be very popular because it’s captured people’s imaginations and helped them respond really well to the school environment concept that is our brand. It seems like an odd word to use in the context of what we do, but it is relevant because that’s how people engage often with organizations: with their forward-facing profiles, with their identity. We’ve been successful on that front because the design, the aesthetic and the architecture of what we use is very carefully considered and then presented in a way, and with language, that people can identify with and find really appealing. It’s not ‘New Age-y,’ it’s not ‘Self-Help-y,’ though we often grapple with some of the same questions, but Self Help books do what the Self Help market does, whereas we package them up and frame them and present them in a much different way. In a way it is higher-minded, I suppose, it’s also beautiful and it’s about drawing on the wisdom of the ages rather than a one-size-fits-all band-aid solution for people’s problems.

How do you do that exactly? What is your approach to packaging wisdom?

Broadly, when we talk about The School of Life, it’s very much about ‘ideas for everyday life’ and our approach is a multidisciplinary one. We look across disciplines from philosophy to literature to visual arts, gardening to the latest neuroscience, everything. We look for insights from all different pockets, cherry-pick the best ideas, pull them together and try to present them in a way that feels relevant, accessible and meaningful when connected up with your everyday life. This is why we were so interested in creating a new space for ideas: particularly in the academic world, you can talk about ideas in a way that feel so removed from your daily existence. You can talk about Shakespeare and not really understand what it means to be in love, or to struggle in love. You can talk about Freud in a very intellectual way but not really understand the impact of your relationship with your mother. It seems odd that there should be that disjointed relationship but it is actually very hard to build bridges between the world of the head and your real life. We work very hard to bridge that gap. It’s about making the experience of learning very human, very intimate, very entertaining at times and engaging, which helps bring the ideas to life in a way that perhaps is difficult to do in other environments.

Could you tell me more about the shop? Why and how have you used retail to connect with people?

People here are very comfortable shopping, they’ve come up the high street, they’ve come into our shop where there is a very carefully curated collection of titles and objects which we think are essential and have the power to deliver some deeper meaning and inspiration to our participants on a range of different subjects. It’s not jam-packed with every single title on relationships or ‘how to be successful’ that we could find, rather the 10 or 12 things that we think are really essential and have the power to transform your life. We’ve thought long and hard about what they should be. They’re not just the newest thing. It could be classic texts or poetry and/or a limited edition print from an artist; those are things that for whatever reason hold a lot of importance and are ascribed of a meaning that could be very useful to you for reframing your thinking on a particular issue. I think that people really appreciate that when they come in it’s carefully edited and not an overload of information. It’s a carefully selected and filtered experience. They trust that the selection has been made with their well-being in mind. We get really good feedback and bear in mind people’s recommendations when we’re changing the shop, though primarily it often draws on the work of our faculty, experts, as well as people whom we’ve connected with through our program. It’s now starting to include our own books and published material as well.

In addition to the retail element you offer a more customized and guided experience, can you tell me more about that?

In addition to the shop, we have a kind of therapy room in the back of that space where we offer bibliotherapy, art therapy and other forms of cultural therapy. The idea with these cultural therapies is that we believe that culture can be the source of much wisdom and knowledge if you know how to use it and how to frame it. Many people interact with culture in a way that is about consumption or entertainment or just about beauty, for example, in the context of art. They don’t necessarily think of a painting or a work of art as something that has therapeutic value when actually, some of these great works were borne out of an emotional response to something. It was meant to have a power to influence you or to impact you on an emotional level, which I think can be lost in the context of a gallery exhibition. We have a book called Art as Therapy with Alain de Botton coming out this fall, which will help reframe cultural objects and see them as a source of wisdom and insight. For example, taking a painting and thinking about what that has to teach you about loneliness and what questions it could raise to you about loneliness and your relationship with yourself and other people. With literature in our bibliotherapy circuits it’s very much about identifying which works of literature have the power to speak to you about a particular personal issue that you’re going through. Our bibliotherapists recommend specific works that they want you to read that are designed to help guide your intellectual and emotional life.

Of course, you’re most well known for your public programmes which remain the core of The School of Life. But they’re not typical academic courses or craft-based, DIY workshops—could you tell me about how programmes work at TSOL?

We focus on life’s big issues: love, work, play, family, community, politics, self, mind, body, etc., running regular sessions as well as all different kinds of classes in other formats around these big issues. Some of the content we develop ourselves, some of the content we curate or bring in with guest speakers and faculty. It is designed to get people thinking differently about the big questions in life and to facilitate the process of self-reflection and deeper engagement with others through conversation and other activities that help move thinking on the subject forward. It’s more than just our faculty showing up and telling people whatever they know, it’s about engaging the people who attend and the participants within a group and to draw on the life experience of the group so that people can share those experiences. It’s always really fascinating because no matter how many times we run a particular class, it’s always different depending upon who shows up and who’s in the room. What we’ve found we then extend into the shop and the cultural therapy programme and the core public curriculum. We’ve started publishing books, which are based around our public programmes curriculum. Our first series of books, a How-To series with Pan Macmillan were around life’s key issues of finding fulfilling work, reframing how we think about sex and how to thrive in a changing the world. We took the big concepts that were emerging out of our classes and turned them into guides for living. We have a second series of those books coming out next year along with another series we’re doing around life lessons from key thinkers.

What new products have you been working on as of late?

Recently we’ve been working on creating a range of what we’re calling ‘virtue dolls’ (which I’m pretty excited about, they’re really cool). Freud was known to have totem objects on his desk that reminded him of death, his own memento mori, and in the Catholic tradition there are saint figurines that perhaps remind you to be grateful or kind. We’re doing more of a Kidrobot version of that, little figurines that represent virtues that you want to cultivate in yourself, characteristics that you want to remember and to remind yourself that they’re important. In the modern day we are thinking less of boring, conservative and stuffy virtues, and more dynamic and interesting virtues.

It’s so easy for our heads to fill up with all the things we have to do, where we have to be in five minutes, what we have to do in an hour and how to be productive. The really big things get completely forgotten about, or come to mind just as you’re falling asleep, when you can’t be bothered to have the conversation.

We are thinking about wonder, bravery and calm, for example. We wanted to think more about these things and thought that it would be great to have a little figurine that you could put on your desk to remind you about it every day. I think these habits of mind are of interest to us at the School, and as we start creating more products and content that can be shared and distributed widely. We want to explore this idea of daily ritual and improving habits of mind. It’s our way of looking at creative and regular interventions in a person’s life, where you can help to remind them of important things. It’s so easy for our heads to fill up with all the things we have to do, where we have to be in five minutes, what we have to do in an hour and how to be productive. The really big things get completely forgotten about, or come to mind just as you’re falling asleep, when you can’t be bothered to have the conversation. It sits underneath stuff but isn’t necessarily given private place in a very busy day. We’re looking for small ways that we can make little interventions that remind you that it’s important to take time once in a while to take a longer view on your life. To remember that you’ll die. It’s actually good to consider that in a creative and deeper way and then do something about that now. Is your relationship with a friend or family member strained? Rather than just deny that it is happening, maybe there is something you can do to be a little kinder or be more compassionate or to practice more empathy. We’re trying to find ways to bring people’s consciousness to the foreground, but not in preachy or boring ways, rather in playful and imaginative ways that have seriousness as well. We’re excited about the things we can do in the retail space in our own way.

My dad is 85 years old and I think he would find it very surprising that there is a school ‘of life’ teaching things like compassion, relationships, moral standards, virtues, ethics, love, happiness—all things that were part of the standard ‘human abilities tool kit’ that people needed to be equipped with early on in life. Love, for example, most people, if not all, experience—you’d think would be so basic and instinctive that it wouldn’t need a class. Why do we feel it is necessary today?

There’s no simple answer to that question, but I can speak from my own experiences and what I’ve seen with people who have come through the School. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or if it’s just part of the time that we live in, which of course has been radically transformed by technology, but it feels as though the time I have is so compressed and so full with things to do and ways I need to be productive that I feel (particularly when it comes to my relationships with my friends, family and husband) that intimacy and time for intimacy (which can simply be in asking someone more than one question and listening to what they have to say in a conversation, or even picking up the phone in the first place and not just texting them) is very challenging because there is so much else going on. There is this increased drive and need to be productive, to be successful, to be making stuff, to be doing things, combined with the fact that we can be always on, always working now with the technology we have. It has been so neatly integrated into our lives that it has an impact on the things that past generations have taken for granted, like having conversations with people, working through your issues, actually being present with people and not being on your phone at dinner. How often do you go to a restaurant and see 1 in every 10 people on their phone and not having a conversation with the person across the table. These little things actually have a big impact on how we are in our love life or with our families or understanding ourselves.

Do you think that there is too much present, so we can easily lose touch with the past and where we’re going? Perhaps it’s a case of ‘information over consumption’ (which I prefer to ‘information overload’).

Yes, I think information over consumption is the better way of describing it than ‘information overload,’ which implies a crisis point, whereas ‘over consumption’ implies a call for balance— which I think is what most people relate to. I need a little more balance. It’s easy for me to just be consumed by my email or my social media or whatever it is, or just by being always on. I think most people can relate to that and this idea that it’s okay to have time off from things, to step back from things and to rest and to let yourself be bored and not speak to anyone, is a radical notion these days. This idea of ‘slow’ being a radical notion, to me, is quite funny. My partner and I joke because in London there’s a big trend now called ‘wild swimming,’ and we jokingly say “Wild Swimming, formerly known as … Swimming,” because it used to be normal that you would jump in a lake or jump in a river and go swimming, and now that’s considered out-there and adventurous. It’s a little bit weird.

Like how gym equipment has become so sophisticated that people now want to flip tires and pull on ropes.

Exactly. There’s been a huge reversal, now you can run on a video-treadmill that simulates running up through a variety of courses from the mountains or along the beach or a paved urban street, rather than just going outside for a run. It’s a little crazy, this disconnect between the real world and the virtual world. That tension interests us because we work with a lot of people in the digital space, they’re quite forward-thinking and pioneers in that world. Everyone always comes back to us with this discussion of time off[line] and time on[line], knowing how your brain works in both of these states, what you do better in each of those universes, how you engage, the things that you accomplish and what you need to do with focus on your own away from other external distractions. We're not very good about carving out space for the two to exist on their own. We tend to try to blend them, to multitask and it doesn’t really work. I think that’s part of the reason The School of Life exists, because it’s a space where people can come and set aside part of their day. Some time for yourself to think about these things and actually have a conversation with someone else—a real conversation, with a real person, and have a drink and a bite to eat. People appreciate that and they get a lot out of it because it’s a real-life human experience, and it’s hugely gratifying and interesting for people who are very busy and otherwise consumed with other things. Maybe we didn’t need that before because there wasn’t as much pressure and the pace wasn’t so accelerated. Do people need The School of Life in the country? I’m not sure. Is it something that’s really very appropriate for people with a certain kind of lifestyle? I don’t know. I can see why it meets a particular need in a city, and I think that the subject matter hits on things that any human can connect with. They’re very common and universal concerns—questions about love, family, money and all those sorts of things always sit there and pop up for everyone. We’ve been grappling with these ideas for thousands of years, what’s different now is perhaps how we’ve brought people together to talk about them. Though, if you look back there was Plato’s Academy, Epicurus had The Garden; there were sites of learning and conversation where these issues were explored throughout history. So perhaps it’s not new, but just this format that has been adapted to modern circumstances.

I suppose it’s a question of acquiring wisdom rather than (trying to stay on top of) sterile information. Not just cutting through massive amounts of information to gain knowledge, but something above and beyond that...

I think that’s an interesting idea, of more information but less wise. It’s a surface knowledge of a much broader set of variables, but what is lacking is often the deep insight into specific areas. That’s what The School of Life tries to offer, we say, ‘Here is a deeper insight into this particular subject.’ We still pull from different perspectives, and there are really interesting insights from lots of different areas, but it’s all brought to bear on one particular question in one particular subject which adds dimension to that particular issue. People have that constant-partial-attention disorder, where everyone is not really paying total attention to anything but they’re trying to do lots of different things. It’s true that we do have access to loads of information at a surface level on loads of things that are changing and being updated all the time. But, how much of it is really important? How much of it will matter in two weeks let alone twenty years. I think that’s where we go back to basics, why it’s interesting to look at the ancients, combining the really enduring insights from these disciplines. Things that have persisted and lasted and stood the test of time, and then combining that with some of the newer trends and thoughts that are emerging. Our job is to filter and curate, in some cases it could be that this one book contains all of the insights of 4 000 books combined. We’re starting a project called Library For Life, where we’ll pick 100 books and republish them in collaboration with different artists and designers so that they are books you’ll keep for a lifetime because they’re beautiful to look at, as much works of art as they are texts. Trying to choose and filter it down to 100 texts that really kept up the best meaning and taught you all you need to know about living a good life, is very challenging but a really interesting exercise. You realize that there’s so much out there, and if it came down to it, there’s a lot you just don’t need to know, and that there are a few things that can teach you an awful lot. It’s okay to reread things and sit with things and learn things by heart and to go back over the same things to get the nuances and the details the depth, rather than accumulating more and more. It’s the idea of concentration amongst so much distraction. That’s what we’re trying to facilitate.

Some of the language you use, for example, ‘Sermons’—is that simply for flavour or do you see knowledge and self-betterment as a form of spirituality you’d like to foster or be a part of?

Absolutely, some of our programmes deal with spirituality head-on. We’re a neutral platform in that we’ve got people who are believers, we’ve got people who are atheists, it doesn’t really matter. What we’re interested in is learning how to live a life that is multidimensional, full, balanced and whole. Spirituality can be a part of that, and whether you believe in God or don’t believe in God, there are still useful aspects in terms of what religious practices can teach us. Although we’re not a religious organization, we’re absolutely a secular organization, the sermon is an amazing way to deliver a compelling piece of communication. Some of those most brilliant oratories would have been delivered in churches by preachers in the sermon context. Also, we felt that the Sunday morning spot would be a great spot to have, because most people aren’t in church in London anymore, they’re not going to church. We can earn that time and talk about things, like the church would have done, that are really important. We work with groups of about 500 people, once a month, and we invite leading cultural figures, thought leaders, artists, writers, whatever, to come and deliver a passionate plan. We’ve co-opted the sermon format and we put them up in front of the audience and they deliver their ‘sermon.’ We provide a parishly letter, we sing hymns—usually covers of rock or pop songs—and it’s very much about cultivating friends and fellowship and community, having tea and weird artsy biscuits after the talk. It’s about making big important ideas relevant again and putting them on the agenda. Looking at it in the context of a TEDTalk or at work it just doesn’t seem important in your daily life. It used to be that going to church on a Sunday morning reminded you that being kind was an important thing, or that being generous was something that we should try to do more of. Without that, where else would you talk about that? It wouldn’t come up. We thought it was interesting to bring it back and make it about putting ideas and modern virtues at the foreground again and they’ve been really popular. We just started a series in Melbourne, and hopefully in Sydney later this year, it seems that this sermon format is something we might be able to roll out internationally, which is quite exciting. The people we invite to deliver them are enthusiastic about the opportunity to do something off-piece. It’s not the normal book tour thing with the talk they always give, but a chance to speak from a more personal space about something they really care about, to convince people that they should care too, which I think is a great thing. They have a fantastic atmosphere and they’re really creative and fun.

So you’re almost one-third 21st century library, one-third 21st century university and one-third 21st century church…that’s a pretty powerful combination.

What’s really exciting is that we’re starting to work with businesses. We have this thing called Studio, which is the part of the School that makes stuff with other organizations and businesses. It’s a really neat way for us to take this idea of beauty and wisdom and emotional health onto a new plane. With other institutions like universities or churches, their relevance is shifting and fading. The corporations wield less power, and there’s been this interesting shift in corporate power and thinking where one should take care of ones employees and be interested in their emotional intelligence amongst other types of intelligence. Organizations are still struggling to find ways to do that that are meaningful and imaginative and that still deliver value to them as a business. This is an interesting way for us to reach whole new groups of people that we wouldn’t be able to engage with any other way, to actually influence the thinking of business in a really broad sense and help companies think more deeply about what their purpose is. Why are they there, what is their impact on the world and how can we do this in a better and more creative, responsible and meaningful way? That’s something new for us and it’s opening up new possibilities that are very interesting.


Why do you think more schools are experimenting with entrepreneurialism, while companies are starting their own schools, events or branching out in other ways? It seems to be the time of hybrids, of moving out of your traditional sphere. Does that influence how you approach the studio and the mandates you do with companies?

There are a couple of different things at play. On the one hand, there’s this Renaissance going on in terms of learning, specifically lifelong learning and this idea that we’re on this journey and that there will always be things we need to learn and develop within ourselves. Companies have become more attuned to the fact that it’s not just about getting a degree and developing your credentials, but about emotional intelligence and your softer skills. It’s not just about the fact that you can work with X number of computer programs, or having X number of years working for these kinds of clients. It’s about personal development in the professional sphere. I think they are very interested in supporting that within the sphere because, for one, it means they will have better retention, people will want to continue to work with them because they feel like they’re realizing their potential as people, not just getting their paycheque or hitting their target. People will also be more creative, get along better with one another and their clients, and ultimately be more productive and balanced, happy, fulfilled people. They’ll be emotionally healthy and mature and able to speak up for things, acknowledge and listen to other people and read situations in a better way. That’s the way that we are working with people: inside out. Working to help improve their employees’ emotional health and develop the EQ [Emotional Quotient] skills within the organization. The other way is thinking about how we can help bring culture in a very broad sense into an organization, because sometimes hugely successful companies become inwardly focused and a bit myopic. They think that they know best, doing things because they’ve been doing it and they’ve been successful, so they should just keep doing more of that and they’ll be successful again. They can lose sight of the longer view of what the problem is, what it is that people really want and how they can better meet human desires. Another way we work with people is in this creative-philosophical consultancy capacity, trying to help people understand how their industry fits into the broader worldview, and to think creatively about how they could engage with customers in a different way.

Companies have become more attuned to the fact that it’s not just about getting a degree and developing your credentials, but about emotional intelligence and your softer skills.

To go back to what you mentioned about how other companies are now offering events or learning programmes or starting schools—that’s an interesting thing that I’ve picked up on as well. Brands, particularly media companies, like Vogue or The Guardian, might be opening up a fashion school or a journalism school. They are for consumers and presumably a way to get more people engaged with their content and what they’re producing. But it is also tapping-in again to that culture of lifelong learning; people wanting to be hands-on and to acquire new skills. And it’s not even just about skills that they can use in their own career, it doesn’t have to be about that, but perhaps purely out of personal interest or passion. It’s about acquiring lots of different skills in all different aspects of your life to feel more like a fully-realized individual. It’s a luxury in a way, and it’s fantastic that we have that at our disposal, that we can be interested in these things. I’ve noticed it, and it’s been surprising to see, in a good way.

What do the next 10 years look like in terms of growth of TSOL?

We’ve tried a lot of different things and we’re trying to crack the model that lets us take The School of Life to other countries. We’ve found that it’s difficult to replicate exactly what we do here because the cost of creating and running the programmes and our office is quite high, but what we are starting to do is to work with partners, like Small Giants in Australia, where they’ve got some internal capabilities of their own, particularly in terms of producing a venue and that kind of thing, where we can collaborate and work together to produce a summer term or programming. Perhaps not full time like we have in the UK, where it’s every day, all year-round, but that’s periodic. That has been successful and a more reasonable way for us to test the waters in other markets. The ambition in 10 years would be to have a presence in key territories: North America, South America, Southeast Asia, India would be interesting for us, and Australia. We’d love people to take the concept and run with it. It’s a big commitment, financially and in terms of the time and resources it takes to do what we do, so we’ve always been very open minded about people who might come to us with a proposal or a way that they think that they could make that work. It’s challenging to find the right partners, so for us we’ve been focused, head-down, doing what we do, building up the other parts of the business, so that if they really take off the way they have been, it will give us more flexibility to do some of the things we want to do internationally without needing them to kickback as much revenue. That’s why things like the studio, the publishing and the retail are so important for us in terms of the longer-term growth and sustainability of the business for us while the programming remains the heart of what we do. The trick is finding smart ways to make that possible, and smart ways to roll the programming out. Working with businesses allows us to reach more people and we are thinking more about that with international territories. Perhaps there are organizations we could go in and do some work with and then offer back summer schools or programmes for the public alongside that, or satellite events with faculty in the country. There are other ways to kickstart the presence and connect with the community on the ground in the short-term that will lead to a more permanent presence in the long-term.

Are the course fees the main source of revenue to fuel the financial engine of The School of Life?

It had been, but that’s starting to shift now. Now that we’ve got Studio and these other things coming online, the makeup of the business will probably change. It [the programming] is still the heart and soul of everything we do because so much of the content comes from the ideas and people that we work with. It’s very much about testing things and drawing on the experience of working first hand with people in our classroom to see what drives them, what motivates them, how we can connect with them in a meaningful way. It has informed so much of the strategy in other ways, it’s nice to see how other parts of the business feed back into one another now that they’ve started to mature and grow. Even designing the virtue dolls gives you ideas for programming or other extensions; it’s fun for us. The central mission has been and always will be about lifelong learning and this concept of good ideas for everyday life and how we can change the world, one person at a time.

The School of Life might be both an antidote and a symptom for modern life. For its fans it seems to be a cure, or at least a balm, helping them deal with a world in constant flux, where everything from one’s career path to one’s relationships is forced to constantly mutate and be redefined in order to adapt. How do you deal with all that is new? How do you find what is relevant? Most importantly, what is your role in this new world? Perhaps due to our current educational system, that churns out Industrial Revolution-style workers rather than cultivating citizens, it isn’t all that surprising that there is an abundance of skills and a scarcity of meaning — AR

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