I was always a boxing nut. A child of the 80s, I was introduced to the sport at the age of 10 by Rocky Balboa.
In 1985 a threat to Rocky’s crown emerged from the icy wastelands of Siberia, Ivan Drago, inspiring an epidemic of children’s flat-top haircuts that counted me amongst its number. Rocky’s former rival-turned-trainer-turned-friend, Apollo Creed, growing restless in retirement, made it his duty to teach the young amateur upstart a thing or two about the professional ring. It isn’t called ‘the hurt business’ for nothing and, upon the announcement of their fight, the veteran former champion told the world’s press that, “Some folks got to learn, the hard way!”
Apollo was right, except it was he that learned a hard lesson that night – that an old man has no place in the ring with a young, ambitious, steroid-fuelled bull of a fighter.
In another sense though, Apollo wasn’t completely correct in his assessment. You see, I think the most significant lessons that all of us learn are learned ‘the hard way’. Myself included.
Fast forward to 2019. My love for boxing had flourished and I was now working in the sport, in my 11th year of employment with the national governing body, England Boxing. I had always appreciated just how fortunate I was, but that was changing. Depression had closed in on me for the third time in my adult life, and from within its grip, everything looked different. I was jaded, I had fallen out of love with the sport, and I just couldn’t shake the sense that, somehow, I didn’t ‘belong’ there anymore.
As depression tightened its grip I was stripped of my abilities. I was paralysed by my mind, and every task became an almighty challenge. Tasks that had once been simple, routine, now seemed like insurmountable obstacles. I was barely functioning at work and every day was taking a toll.
I knew that I had to find an exit, but I couldn’t see a door. How long would it be before my impaired performance would cost me my job? How could my life and career be snatched away from me so cruelly by this terrible illness?
Why had this happened to me?
It was the very worst of times, but, out of the darkness, emerged the best of times. I didn’t just find a new job; life presented me with the opportunity to pursue my growing passion for improving mental health, and in June 2019 I began a new career with my local Mind.
That is why it happened, and it taught me that the very worst things that happen can lead directly to the very best.
I thought I already knew that. I’d said as much in a number of public talks that I’d given in recent years. But there is a big difference between knowing something and knowing something. I mean really knowing something. Knowing it in your gut, deep inside, and in the very marrow of your bones.
And what makes the difference?
Life. Experience. Earning your knowing not from slogans, quotes and memes, but through actually living it. Where knowing becomes knowing. Where knowledge becomes wisdom. And where wisdom becomes truth.
I’m not criticising slogans, quotes and memes, I’m actually quite a fan. But their meaning comes from the experiences from which they were born. And our interpretations of their meaning, the depth of their meaning, come from our own experience, and from what we have endured to earn that deeper knowing.
My favourite quote is by Steve Jobs, from his Stanford University Commencement Address in 2005,
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
With each year that passes this resonates more and more deeply with me, as the worst things that happen to me consistently lead to better things than I could have imagined. Reading this quote for the first time, and hearing the story used to illustrate it, I was intrigued and inspired. The quote clearly reflected the truth for Jobs, and it had a certain ring of truth for me. Perhaps, as much as anything, this was based on my wanting to believe it, wishing it to be true.
Now, years later, life – and I would like to think my responses to the adversities I have experienced in my life – have convinced me of the wisdom of his words, and this continues to deepen into a greater sense of faith; that whatever I endure in my life, somewhere along the line I will be better for it. That somewhere, sometime in the future, I will always be able to say, ‘This is why that happened, this is what I was supposed to learn from it.’
As this knowledge is further embedded within, it engenders a greater faith in life and in my ability to not only face its challenges, but to use them to learn and to thrive, to get ever closer to reaching my full potential. The route to being all that I can be lies in what it is that I choose to do with my knowledge; in how the things that I know, can be used to make a difference in the lives of others.
I discovered my route through writing, sharing my experiences of mental health, and through subsequent opportunities as a speaker, and a champion for Time to Change.
I believe that our personal stories can add further weight to life’s deeper truths, elevating quotes from the realm of platitude and cliche; our personal experiences can speak directly to others, acting as a gateway to the deeper truths that life will find a way to point them towards in their own lives.
There is very little that we can say that hasn’t been said – and most likely, said better – many times before. When I write and when I give talks I am very aware of this; I may not be able to impart anything truly original, but what I can do is share what only I can – my story, the battles that I have faced and won to earn my knowledge.
Sharing our stories can offer a window through which others can view and recognise similarities with their own stories, via personal resonance and connections based upon shared universal experiences – of love, loss, despair, hope and, ultimately, triumph. From such connections they can connect the dots in their own lives, connecting their personal experiences with the truths that lie within them.
But they will only earn their knowing by living it. Words can enter our ears and inhabit our minds, but it is the filter of our own experiences that will embed them in our hearts and our guts.
If what I have been describing could be considered ‘life knowledge’, there is another form of true knowing that it serves us well to heed: ‘self knowledge’. Knowledge of our purpose, and of what serves our own soul.
In my own life I can point to a series of occasions when I had a deep, unexplainable sense of something that I knew I had to do. Each of these were life-changing events, and each of them came apparently from nowhere, without conscious forethought. I had to act on these instincts. I just knew. Three such instances come to mind, each setting me off on a new path and changing my life for the better.
The first was waking up one morning in 1994, with the thought in my head that I was going to go to university and study sport science. At the time I was seven months into my first full-time job, and I hated it. I resigned and ultimately my decision led to an 18 year career in sport, including 11 years in the sport that I love.
The second was in December 2015, when I felt a compulsion to share my story when going through challenging times following my divorce. I’d never done anything like that before but, one night in a hotel room in Tamworth, I felt a strong impulse to write. And I knew, in that instant, that this was a significant moment in my life, a turning point. Four years on I am the author of two books, something I would never have dreamt of being possible.
Finally, there was last year’s depression and subsequent career change, which brings me to the blessed position in which I find myself today.
Each of these decisions was met with resistance from significant others in my life. But each was 100% for my greater good.
All of which leads me back to Stanford and to Steve Jobs,
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
I believe that life is one big classroom, and that each of us has lessons that we need to learn to fully become who we truly are, to fulfill the purposes for which we are each uniquely designed.
Through my life, and more than anything, through my battles with my mental health, I have learned to trust in the challenges that life places before me. To trust in the wisdom that they allow me to earn, and to trust in the knowing that speaks to me from deep inside.
Matthew Williams is an author, blogger, speaker and coach. He lives in the North East of England with his two young children. He is passionate about positive change and turning life’s challenges into lessons for creating a better future. He hopes that by writing about his own experiences he will be able to inspire others to make positive changes in their lives. His first book, Something Changed: Stumbling Through Divorce, Dating and Depression, is available now.
Image courtesy of Warren Wong.