I asked Ian whose story inspires him. He looks and thinks, with the kind of excited energy I’m usually still conserving on the sofa at this time on a Friday morning.
‘Do you know what I’m going to say?’ he asks with a knowing look. I really don’t. Perhaps his Dad? The late grandfather we share as cousins? The rather handsome duo who run Barlow and Fields, the coffee shop we’re in?
‘The story that really fires me up is my own story. It’s a story of growth, survival, renewal. Our stories define us and learning from my own story has given me tremendous strength.’ Ian acknowledges at first it might sound a narcissistic response, but it’s one that’s heartfelt. He has something to share and a story I wanted to know more about.
“It’s like turning thin air into invoices.” Just had lunch with my old dad. Telling him what it’s like to be self-employed… pic.twitter.com/lwco0D1V6B
— IanSanders (@IanSanders) November 18, 2016
Ian Sanders spent his early career working in broadcast media, quickly rising from a teenage volunteer at BBC Essex to working in music television and managing a radio studio. In 2000, he became a freelancer years before wi-fi and meet-ups made it normal and less isolating. He’s written books about the transition, but when we chatted in October he told me a different story: a tale of stress, depression and a breakdown that prompted this huge change in his working life.
‘At the end of 1990s I had – on the face of it – made it. I was managing director of a media company, I was out for lunch and dinner in Soho all the time, I was earning good money, I was living the dream!’, he says, describing a world where they’d all be in the Marylebone office at 11.30pm on a Friday, drinking M&S wine while playing Beat the Intro. But as more and more work built up on his desk, the culture at work became toxic where ‘no-one was looking after Ian’, he says conscious of the lump in his throat. He was meeting people like Tony Blair, Take That and the other pop stars who came through the radio studio, but cracks were starting to show.
Back home Ian was suffering from months and months of sleepless nights, as London Underground rebuilt the tube station platform next to his bedroom wall. On top of his workplace stress, he had major sleep disruption from the nocturnal construction works. ‘I didn’t have a hard hat on’, he says, suggesting that pun might be too corny to use.
Ian hit breaking point. When his GP suggested a course of antidepressants, he decided instead to change his life and quit his job, although continued working for the company as a consultant. It adds a fuller truth to his first book Leap!, published in 2007, that presented freelancing as an exciting, proactive escape from a corporate world. Today he’s comfortable sharing the real reason. Ian’s job had been making him ill – that’s why he quit to go freelance. ‘Sometimes it takes time. I don’t want to pin it all on age. In my 20s I had my success, in my 30s my struggles and in my 40s the dots have joined together.’
Now his own job description is just three words: storyteller, explorer and pathfinder. He’s spoken at the Do Lectures, takes clients on fuel safaris around Soho to help their career and leads storytelling workshops at the BBC. Recently he found those threads bound together in his attic, more specifically the 1980s inter-railing scrapbook he made as a student.
‘This scrapbook is the articulation of me, and my creative streak. I look back at this photo of me camping in Venice, and have no memory of seeing it before. And the blister I had removed in Munich, there’s a funny story there’. Alongside the physical pathfinding and fun of growing up in the 80s was some darkness; starting university on antidepressants, doing too much, struggling to cope with the effects of his Mum’s poor health. ‘Stories make you who you are. We share them and shine a light on the outside world. We’re defined by them, the shadows and shade as well as the light.’ Just then, the shop’s awning comes down and shades over our table, giving me another corny pun to use.
Today Ian is rooted in his stories, enjoying life with his wife and two sons in our beautiful hometown Leigh-on-Sea, where he helped launch community newspaper Trawler. ‘A sense of place is really important in my life, to find me.’ That’s why he chose Barlow and Fields to meet in, a coffee shop ‘a bit like Cheers’, instead of the 20 other cafés he walked past to get here. Without trying, he proves it is the coffee shop where everyone knows your name. He says hello to Kevin, recommends an iPlayer show to the owner and instantly reacts when a child falls off the bench, eager to help.
There’s two ideas our chat left me with to be rooted in myself. Ian keeps a ‘Good Times’ list in his notebook, and reads it out: the feeling he gets after going for a run, listening to Morrissey, going to the beach, making his wife laugh. The Good Times list reminds him that success isn’t financial or about status but living the life you want to live. ‘One year I came home from my accountants, it had been a disappointing year commercially. But then my wife reminded me, ‘you said it was one of the best years of your life!’ I‘ve come to learn that sometimes it’s about celebrating those little things in life that give you so much pleasure.’
And in his Do Lecture, Ian suggested ‘ask your eight year old you for advice.’ I’m currently looking for a new job, but I’m not sure the eight year old me who wanted to be a vet and run a sweet shop on Sundays would be much help for career advice. ‘That’s just a number,’ Ian reassures me. ‘Ask your eight year old self. Ask your eighteen year old self,’ as he proved with his scrapbook. Very often our passions and desires are there in our childhood ready to uncover and reinstall. For Ian, that was moving away from media management back to being creative every working day. It’s refreshing to realise it doesn’t always have to be our older, presumed wiser-selves wistfully talking to our past. Younger-selves are great at advice too.
As we leave and I take a photo, Ian’s innate creative eye is wide open. ‘Where do you want me, by the blue door? Good job it’s a day I’m feeling happy!’ And I remember it’s World Smile Day which, like the blister in Munich, is one story we’ll have to share another day.