‘Psychology sang to me’

Ian Florance meets Jake Farr and talks music and creativity

In my mind, the area around Goodge Street – just off Tottenham Court Road in London – isn’t particularly associated with psychology, but with music and creativity. It was celebrated by the folk singer Donovan on his 1965 album ‘Fairytale’ as ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, a song which introduced many people to Charles Mingus the great jazz musician. The area still has a bohemian feel: multi-ethnic restaurants, coffee bars, street stalls and music shops.

Jake Farr – the founder of Alchemy Personal and Organisational Development (APOD) – arranged to meet me in the recording studio which features heavily on her company’s website. We grabbed sandwiches and, before the formal interview began, discussed a number of topics, including her son’s career as an actor. ‘I’ve become interested in acting and some issues it raises. Where does your sense of self come from? How do you direct your energy? The idea of the “psychological gesture” is fascinating.’ This is a technique, articulated by Michael Czechov, used by actors as varied as Jack Nicholson and Johnny Depp to get themselves instantly in character.

‘You can’t put artificial barriers between parts of a person’s life’
This placed Jake in a creative context and lessened the strangeness of meeting a psychologist who was obviously at home in a recording studio. But, what about psychology? The APOD website seems to suggest she’s an organisational or occupational psychologist. Is that how she sees herself?

‘I treat clients in a very holistic way. You can’t put artificial barriers between parts of a person’s life. I’m an example: I’m a psychologist; a mother with children ranging from 17 years to 8 months and I’m running a business. So I see myself as a chartered psychologist who most often works in a business setting.’

If you take this approach, your own life story must be important in what you bring to your work. ‘I was the eldest daughter in a hard working family. We lived just outside Leeds. My dad was a very bright “grafter” who became a very successful business man. His interest in business informs a lot of what I’ve done since.’

‘It was like a light going on’
Jake says she hated school, rebelled against just about everything and left home to live in a bedsit in Leeds. ‘My school was terrible but I made a fresh start studying psychology, sociology and communication studies at an FE college. It was like a light going on! I started getting As for essays and people seemed to view me in a completely new way. I made up with my family, moved home and then went to university. The experiences I’d had were incredibly helpful in applying technique and theory to real situations.’

So, did you consciously decide to study the subject? ‘I didn’t have to think about it. Psychology sang to me. I liked experimental work. That I did philosophy rather than biology alongside it helped: I was fascinated by ideas. Theatre work at university introduced me to lots of different people. In fact…’ Here Jake looked rather uncertain. ‘ Well, it was the first time I’d really met people from southern England which highlighted how I behaved. I’ve been described as inspiring by clients, but at that time I was pushy! In fact my first ten years in the profession involved a certain amount of toning down so I could be direct without being overbearing.’

This exactly reflects my own experience in the opposite direction: a southern boy deposited in a northern university who took some time to get used to a very different way in which some people express their opinions!

Jake became interested in the complexities of sexuality, and her involvement in women’s issues ultimately led to her Cardiff master’s in applied psychology, ‘which was actually about occupational psychology. My dissertation was on women’s identities and how they linked to their identities as leaders. It looked at real-world issues and didn’t use masses of data. This led, in the early 1990s to working with a charitable organisation, New Ways to Work, which provided advice to women and worked with women managers.’

But even before her master’s she learnt an important lesson. ‘I liked working! I worked for the student accommodation office in Leeds for a year and loved it.’

Jake explains that she really learnt her trade as a psychologist at the Post Office. ‘It gave me hands-on experience of basic techniques: team building; psychometrics; organisational development; leadership work. I also began to get a feel for what I didn’t like and how I wanted to “be” a psychologist. I learnt my craft but they didn’t give me much “air”. The measurement culture, which was very prevalent in the 90s was a bit of a shock. Measurement has its place but it doesn’t begin to exhaust psychological practice. They were trying to define what occupational psychology was, and this diminished it. I grew increasingly interested in the development features of the job. I learnt that, although I was quite young, I could win the respect and trust of senior, older leaders and that I was good on client relations. I delivered on high-level projects; and that’s critical – delivering on what you promise. By this time I’d come to two conclusions – I wanted to run my own business and I wanted to have an impact on the world in some way.’

‘The important issue is the person in front of me’
In discussing psychology with its practitioners over the past two years I’ve noticed the extent to which they define themselves, in part at least, by their theoretical approach or application area. People will often mention cognitive behaviour therapy, humanistic approaches or discriminate between counselling and clinical practice to partially define what their job involves. I pointed out to Jake that she’d almost deliberately avoided my attempts to get her to talk in this way. ‘Yes. The important issue is the person in front of me. I have a range of techniques that I can choose from: Jung, Gestalt approaches, appreciative inquiry, psychometrics are just some examples. I’m very interested in Ken Wilber’s integrative theory. So I use whatever framework seems to be most useful. I want to combine science with intuition, good research with human sensitivity.’

The Psychologist was instrumental in Jake becoming self-employed. ‘There was an advert in the magazine looking for associates, and I was taken on. I had two boys to bring up so I didn’t want full-time work. But I was convinced that I could get enough work to keep going. I finally founded APOD four or five years ago.’

‘One studio session can be equivalent to years of therapy’
While I’d interviewed Jake in the small main room of the studio someone had been working in the control room, mixing recordings. Jake now focused on this fascinating aspect of her work. ‘I met Jon Hall, a record producer who owns his own studio. It quickly became clear that we worked in similar ways. He was as concerned with what his artists wanted to say as with how they said it. Producers can be technicians and musicians, but they’re also coaches. The breakthrough experience was when he suggested I spend a session singing in the studio.

It gave a huge feeling of self-worth. One studio session can be equivalent to years of therapy. So, I thought, how can I use this? I’d come across a lot of senior managers who used to be in bands, felt they’d lost their playfulness and wanted to get back to that. So I referred someone to Jon and the process began to develop.’

From there, Jake says it was ‘a giant leap to working with groups of people who had no musical experience, but after some experimenting we came up with a process that feels safe enough and gives sufficient space for something really fabulous to happen. Over the course of a day a group of people write, play and record an original piece of music.The group start with drumming and end up walking away with a CD of the music track they’ve created with their colleagues. They work with a producer, a vocal coach, a lyric coach and, of course, a psychologist. The process can be used with individuals but it works especially well with infant teams or networks from different departments across an organisation. They work in an area where they may have little or no competence, from a vulnerable place and create something. This develops deeper connections. People learn to trust and support each other. For time-bound managers the afternoon session, where a lot of writing is done, helps them understand that you sometimes have to wait for “solutions” or lyrics to appear. The whole process removes inhibitions and shifts their view of what thy can do and what other people can do. A more conventional team development session follows this up. You can say we’re looking at the core of leadership – trust, connection, communication, working with insecurity – and the programme works well with leaders.’

People must be fearful, I say. ‘People do sometimes come with a degree of trepidation but the space is totally supportive and this is one of the learnings participants take away. People can play, suggest, create, experiment without fear of the effects, truly liberating for some. The results have been extraordinary. One delegate decided she could learn to swim and start sailing. Another decided he would get a promotion, and achieved that in three months. These are the nicest things for me.’

Jake tells me that APOD are working on a programme with Amanda Brennan, a leading trainer and coach of actors, ‘on another programme about communicating with your whole self. It’s where my interest in psychological gesture has led, as well as my journey into tantra.’

Jake had mentioned tantra before, and this led back to her earlier comments on her holistic approach. ‘I’m interested in using any technique that fits and works. I’m interested in my clients well-being and growth as well as my own. So, although I’m often working with people who are managers, I’m not treating that as their sole identity. There are some brilliant occupational psychologists out there, but the best ones are not trapped by a narrow view of their practice. My approach inevitably leads into issues of values and spirituality, and I don’t separate that off from, say, more positivist approaches such as measurement or looking at the impact of behaviour on business outcomes. They all have their place. Tantra is a discipline I got interested in and it informs my work. It addresses pleasure and happiness as much as suffering; it involves light and dark. If you’re not aware of your own identity, your own triggers and patterns you can’t do psychology properly. That’s where tantra has helped me.’

‘I’m going to do it’
Jake had to leave shortly for a coaching session with a client. Before she went, she made some important points about working for yourself. ‘It allows you time to follow your own interests. It also allows you to take risks.’ You don’t seem the sort of person who creates huge marketing plans before going with something new. ‘No. I get interested and go for it. One of my pet phrases is “I’m going to do it”. It’s a point I make to my children, to clients and to colleagues: follow where you’re interest takes you; do what you’re genuinely fascinated by. It’s risky but you can’t help clients if you’re bored or going through the motions and no one wants to grow old feeling they’ve had their life’s work imposed on them.’

But if you are going to follow your passions you need support. ‘APOD associates have different skills and interests from me and that diversity is critical to providing a service that reflects the client. I have a wonderful supervisor and belong to a CPD group made up of independents. If you work for yourself you’ll work long hours, intensely. You have to know when you’re too busy, when you need a short break or need to change how you work to reduce your responsibilities. I never intended APOD to grow to be a big corporate entity and, fairly obviously, my beliefs about psychology and approach to working with clients wouldn’t suit a big structure.’

As I left and walked into a rain-spattered Goodge Street, I asked Jake if there was anything else she’s learnt from her career to date. ‘Trust yourself and your life experience. Give yourself the space to hear it.’ I ask Jake if there is anything she regrets. ‘I wish I’d found
the spiritual playground earlier.’

 

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