"In a way, we are all either Jedi or Sith"

Miles Thomas meets John Amaechi OBE – psychologist, organisational consultant, high-performance executive coach and former NBA basketball player.

Photo: courtesy Amaechi Performance Systems

Tell me about your time at school in Stockport.

I hated school. I hated Stockport. The school I went to had perhaps ideas above its station, in terms of the type of school it should be: a grammar school that thought that kind of emotionally illiterate, highly didactic method of teaching was righteous, because it somehow separated the wheat from the chaff. In other words, kids who could learn that way were clever and worthy, and kids that couldn’t learn that way were stupid and unworthy. I flirted with worthiness through extreme effort, but fundamentally it’s not how I learnt well.

Yet you’ve been successful in an academic sense?

When I got to take the subjects I wanted to take. I’m quite jealous when I hear of people who took psychology for A-level. That wasn’t an option. I had one option, in order to read psychology at university, and that was to do biology, chemistry and physics. I took subjects I hated… I got to America, and they believe in this breadth of education, so your first year you need to take French again… my second year at university, I’m taking abnormal psychology, experimental psychology, a statistics class… 

So what is it about psychology?

I wanted to be a psychologist since I was seven. I watched my mother as a doctor, as a GP, and I realised very quickly when I went on visits with her that the vast majority of her job didn’t seem to be anything to do with medicine. It seemed to be her ability to help people be resilient through long-term disease or illness. My mother worked a lot in palliative care, and she also worked in a psycho-geriatric hospital. My first job at 8 years old was as an occupational aide there! Typically it started off as teas and coffees, but even then they were so understaffed it was interacting with adults who weren’t quite there. As a youngster I remember being terrified. “How come I’m young, they’re old, old people are supposed to be there?” And you realise the adult is really relating to you on your own level, driven by how frightening it is… 

So you had an understanding of the fallibility of mind at quite a young age?

Yes. I mean, my body is wrecked, through years of doing too much with it and now not doing enough with it. But the only thing that really frightens me about my future is the idea that one day my mind will go. I work with a disability charity and have a number of good friends in wheelchairs. So I recognise physical disability as inconvenient. But ‘losing my marbles’ would be devastating, especially if I knew it was happening.

Which psychologists have influenced you?

The professor when I was doing my MSc on marriage and family therapy in the States was Will Stillwell. He was old enough to have been a student of Carl Rogers, so he’s been around for a while. It was the first time I’ve sat down with someone and used a therapeutic method which was open and reflective and took into account the lies of humanism, which was that you don’t interject anything of yourself. It was exactly what I had imagined psychology would be when I was seven. When I was seven I thought psychology was like being a Jedi. In a way, we are all either Jedi or Sith.

Is that a bit of a primitive split?

It might be, but – and this is why I love Star Wars - the moment you realise that how people fall into being Sith is actually not as simple as ‘are they evil or are they good?’… If you read the books, a lot of Jedi are not very nice people! And there’s Sith, the Anakin Skywalker narrative of how he transitions. It’s about watching the vigilance that you have to have over yourself. I know very well that my life could be easier, more abundant in terms of cash and many other things, if I used my skills in a slightly different way. There are regularly pieces of work where I say ‘you don’t need me for this’. I have a time limit on all my coaching: we’ll do six months, then we’ll do another six months, and then I have to be sure that I am not then becoming a consistent crutch for a person. Some of my peers are on four years of coaching. If it’s mentoring that’s a different thing. If it’s just sitting down with a glass of wine then fine, but if it’s directive… I worry about that.

So your perspective is more about activating their resources in a long-term way.

We all have those moments when we are sitting across from somebody or a couple and we think “I know exactly what the problem is with you, why don’t you just do this?” In your head you’re screaming it. But you have to stop, because it’s not about me, it’s not about us, it’s about them and what process will help them get to the best solution. You need to nudge people towards that “Eureka!” moment of their own, that gives them not just that answer, but “wow, I came up with that answer!”

You want the person to be the powerful one, to go away and do things, not to invest too much in you. I’m suspicious of the charismatic, the powerful coach… 

My son once told me a lovely thing… in basketball there’s a backboard and a hoop, and you shoot off the backboard into the hoop, and it’s just a universal truth that some backboards are soft, you hit them anywhere and it’ll go in… a ‘forgiving’ backboard. My son once told me that I was a forgiving backboard… whenever he would throw his words and ideas at me, they would go in the hoop. That’s as much credit as you can give me: you’re the one aiming, you’re the one shooting, I’m just a forgiving backboard. But sometimes you can’t control whether people find you charismatic, and for me that is not helped by the fact that I am unusual looking. The juxtaposition of that and what I do for a living is somehow odd and enticing for people. I’m fairly esoteric, so if people listen to me on the radio it’s not what they’ve normally heard before, the way I use words has an impact. These aren’t affectations I use for my work, it’s how I talk to my kids and my grandkids, everybody. I make points by telling stories. So there’s some combination of this and the weird CV that I have that makes that happen a lot of the time without me wanting it to.

Your Twitter feed says that ‘the most unlikely of people in the most improbable of circumstances can become extraordinary’…

What could be more unlikely that a 17-year-old who read Asimov and ate steak slices, in six years, playing in the best basketball league in the world, having never touched a ball before? It seems remarkably unlikely. For other people, it’s even more unlikely to them that somebody who played professional sports would end up being a psychologist.

Before the age of 17 I thought I would have a desperately lonely life. I thought I was a monster when I was 11 years old.

So 1981, in Stockport, in your bedroom. You described yourself as a ‘fat freak’. Did you have an epiphany?

I don’t know if epiphany is the right word… it’s the first time I interacted with people who didn’t treat me like a monster. I very much enjoy the idea of the looking glass self concept. I looked in people’s faces, and reflected back was that I was a monster. When I was given the Hunchback of Notre Dame to read, I thought ‘that must be what people see when they see me’. There’s a sense of fear of the monster, but also ridicule and mockery. That’s everyday. If we walk up and down this street, you watch: people will be on their phones not paying attention, and they’ll get up close and see me and they’ll freak out. Or, if you walk past, turn around and three or four steps away people will be pointing and laughing.

Because of your size?

It’s a combination of height and size, and colour. That combination to people is apparently terrifying, and mockery-worthy.

And the discrimination is overt: you were refused entry to a club for being ‘too big and too black’?

It happens all the time. The other night I was in Soho, my two friends went in first, they were wearing Chuck Taylors. I’d come from work and was wearing a suit and tie. They looked at my shoes. It really pissed me off. I’m not blind, I can see what you’re doing, it’s blatant and it’s rude. But I can’t do anything about it, because as soon as I lose my temper I ‘fit type’. So I’m mandated not to… it just cedes. I’m not allowed to lose my temper… I’ve known that since I was six. I can’t afford to lose control, because I can accidentally hurt people just by turning around, so imagine what I can do if I really intended to. It would only take a second.

Your mum was a GP, so I suppose from early on you had a model of the Hippocratic Oath, ‘do no harm’.

Yes, and the way I physically manifest on the world around me is about doing no harm. I talk a lot with senior people about their responsibility to do no harm, and part of that is about recongising your size. If you don’t realise you’re a giant, you do accidental damage all the time. The moment you accept the fact that you have power, you wield it differently. That wielding tells you something about the person. Once you realise you’re a giant and you still walk through the world knocking people left and right, then you can say something about that character.

You ‘came out’ in the NBA, where you were the first and only Briton to have his jersey hung in the US Basketball Hall of Fame. Do you feel that part of your role is to liberate people?

Oh no, that’s too much. I recognise the limits. I had meetings arranged with activists in China [when working for the BBC during the Beijing Olympics, and as a global ambassador for Amnesty International] and I cancelled them. It would have been informative and perhaps even empowering to meet them, but I couldn’t account for their safety after I left.

I get some stick from the LGBT community because I advise people that if they’re likely to get fired from their job, who am I to tell them to come out for the betterment of society? People like Peter Tatchell are right that there’s a collective responsibility, but I lived in Utah, which has a large youth culture out on the streets because they have a religious culture which says your children must live the life, and if you don’t disown them you will be disowned by the church… so what kind of person would tell a 14-year-old to come out, you’ll feel better, you’ll be a great role model… but you’ll also be trying to find somewhere to sleep tonight.

Do your beliefs as a psychologist trump your political ones, in terms of safety, where people are at…

Rather stupidly, I had not considered that. It would be nice if that was true. It’s somehow noble, and that of course appeals to me. But I’m always cautious of things that appeal to me too much.

Hmm, is compromise around political belief really noble?

People who are zealous, I am immediately fearful of them. As staunch as I am in some of my beliefs, I am not a zealot. I am not interested in sacrificial lambs, that’s so medieval. There are some people out there, John Fashanu for example [whose brother Justin killed himself after homophobic bullying as a professional footballer], some people don’t seem to care how many have to come out, be pilloried, kill themselves for their particular cause. I do: the body count matters.

You adopted two children, and now they have their own children. How does it feel to be a granddad?

I’m very comfortable with it, but it’s a strange situation, to have essentially no family and yet lots of family. I live on my own, there’s no partner with me, there’s no evidence of kids in the house, yet somehow I have this massive family that’s in another country.

Is that through circumstance, or is there an element of choice in living alone?

In a work sense, interpersonally, I am Jedi quality! But in a social sense I’m useless, I find social interactions painful. I’m an INTJ, an extreme introvert, all social interactions are painful. I notice everything. Being introvert is not about an inability to interact, it’s about how energy-expensive it is. As I walk down the street I know everyone who is looking, everyone who is pointing, and I only have a certain amount of energy for that. So I stay in my house.

I don’t live anywhere, most of the time. I have some duties in Manchester, I’m an NHS Trustee. That’s five days a month. Then I’m in New York or Conneticut, with clients, five days a month. I have a charity in Manchester as well. I built a centre in 1999 that we opened in 2000. We have about 2500 kids a week going through our doors. I’m a little disappointed in it at the moment to be honest. I’m interested in a place that helps young people become more emotionally literate, that helps them be a bit more personally insightful. When we started we used to do MBTIs for young people, not because I think it’s the most accurate, but because any tool that’s simple enough for young people to do, that allows them to gain an understanding about how they operate and how other people operate and why they might find certain types of people irritating and others not, is a really good thing. I had to fight to get that done, and now I can’t get it done, and they just want to do a high quality basketball centre and I don’t care about that.

What do you care about, in terms of pressing issues for psychologists?

In the community sense, there is a complete mismatch with how we look at psychological maladies and physical maladies. We’ve got hospitals, GPs and advice lines overrun with people with nothing wrong with them in a physical sense. And yet we have certain communities – men, minority groups - who just don’t access these services. They find themselves in a justice-system response to their situation.

One of the biggest problems is that people just don’t take these issues seriously. Ridiculous people like Katie Hopkins continue to talk about depression as if it’s just a bit of sadness, ‘why don’t you suck it up?’ This narrative resonates with too many people. There are schoolteachers you talk to who see someone coming in, they say ‘he’s just a bit sad’ – no, sadness for six months? Not sad.

What are your aspirations?

I’d like to be in the House of Lords, I’d like to be a cross-bench peer. I’ve already been rejected once. I really fit because I don’t care whose idea is a good idea, I care if it works. This is one of the things that I love about science, the idea that evidence counts. The rationality of it. What works, counts. Whether I like it or not. If something I’m doing doesn’t work, I must stop doing that. Even if I’m really attached to it.

People chase their losses though.

I don’t. The moment that somebody can supply me with evidence, I’m not precious about it, it’s gone.

Is there a ruthless aspect to you?

I ruthlessly chop away people who betray me. There’s no second chance. You’re done. But not in a really proactive sense, I can’t imagine a proactive way that I’m ruthless.

It’s a defence, isn’t it?

Accidental harm, I think people do that. Even intentional harm, out of that moment of loss of control, even that… betrayal is different, and I feel very different about betrayal.

The Lords … you’re not going to give up, are you?

No. They’re wrong. I mean objectively wrong. Stack my CV up against 90 per cent of people in the House of Lords. They don’t see me as anything but a sportsperson. That’s normal.

What should they see you as?

Who talks about themselves as what they were 10 years ago? Who does that? Let’s talk about what I do now. I work with 8 of the top 10 businesses in the world, in terms of any measure you would like to use. And I’m not cheap. They can’t all be idiots.

The annoying part is that I’m fairly sure that if I want to become a Labour or Lib Dem peer, there’s a pathway for that to happen. I just think it would be disingenuous to do that, because what I really want to do is be part of that core of backbenchers who are charged with looking at policy for unintended consequences, for rationale, for efficacy, without the lens of who comes out looking good if this policy goes through. I think this is such an important thing, especially as I lived in America and I’ve seen the Senate there… they should wear uniforms like Nascar drivers, because really they have special interests all over them. There’s no transparency with what they do. In the House of Lords, those cross-benchers are a voice of reason, rationality, and that’s a really powerful thing and I would like to be a part of that.

I think something about your story, being a big character, is ‘noisy’ for people, even for me as a psychologist. How often do people meet ‘John’?

Rarely I would imagine. I have a lot of colleagues. There’s professional distance with that. But I have a small group of friends, and we are very much ourselves together.

I’m a spiky individual. Difficult to grab hold of. I’m not warm and fuzzy, in most people’s estimation. Professionally I am direct, firm, people recognise that I am pragmatically harsh when necessary and pragmatically warm when necessary. But in my house, with a glass of red, I’m watching cartoons.

- John Amaechi OBE is a psychologist (and a Society member), organisational consultant and a high-performance executive coach. He is a New York Times best-selling author and former NBA basketball player. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of East London, where Miles Thomas works on the Doctorate in Education and Child Psychology programme.

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