I would like to tell you a story about my life, if you’ll give me a minute or two?
I grew up in a council house in a small village in Northamptonshire, England, in the 1970s. I had a very happy childhood that was mainly spent building tree-houses, damns in the local brooke and trying to kiss girls (I’m still doing at least one of those activities).
My school was a few hundred yards over a field at the end of our road. I walked there and back every day and I was constantly red-faced due to always running around having fun.
My parents got married because my Mum was pregnant with me at the age of 17. They worked really hard to bring me and my little brother up. Dad worked in a factory, Mum worked as the village postwoman and as a cleaner to the local “Lady of the Manor”, Mrs Heygate.
I was extremely happy, but I made a decision very early on that I was going to escape and see the world – something no-one in my extended family had ever done, or apparently wanted to do.
One day, in a Maths class with Miss Denny – a dusty old woman from the 1800s who liked to throw blackboard rubbers at 7 years old heads – I saw a Harrier jump jet roar passed the window.
It struck my imagination like a firestorm and would not let go. I was going to be an RAF pilot, see the world and save everyone.
Flying became my passion. I watched every Battle of Britain film there was, I read every aeroplane book I could get my hands on, I joined the local Air Cadets because I heard they gave free flying to kids (in fact I tried to join at the age of 11, but they wouldn’t let me in until I was 13).
I shared my ambition to derision…
“You can’t be a pilot. You live in a council house!”
Even my careers teacher could barely contain his laughter when I told him I was going to be a pilot, before pointing me to all the great employment opportunities at the local factories.
Except one person: my Mum. She said, like she always said, “You can do anything Mark”
And like a doting son I believed her.
It was whilst pursuing this dream that I experienced my first “stepping into the void” moment.
As a kid, I had screamed the place down when we went on a rollercoaster in Blackpool. It was the Big Dipper and it scared the shit out of me. But, here I was , at the age of 13, sat in the back of a 1940s de Havilland Chipmunk about 5000 feet above the Cambridgeshire countryside about to answer the old pilot’s question through my headset:
“Do you fancy doing a loop the loop on the way down through those clouds, Mark?”
I was so short, I could hardly see out of the window. My stomach was churning like crazy and my mind was racing as fast as my pulse.
I don’t know how long it took me to answer him, but I closed my eyes, gripped hard on the cockpit until my knuckles were white and said:
“Yes please, sir”
By the time I got down on the ground I was as high as a kite. As one of my old Mancunian mates would say, it put ten inches on my knob.
I had stepped into the void.
And I’ve been doing it ever since.
To me, stepping into the void is another way of saying, feel the fear and do it anyway.
But there’s a bit more to it than that.
I achieved my dream. I got into the RAF as a trainee pilot and I was one of a handful accepted on their University Cadet Scheme (no-one in my family had ever been to University) out of tens of thousands of applications.
How did I do this seemingly impossible task?
Well, I believe it’s down to the Universal Law of Attraction (more on that in another blog), but also it’s because I took MASSIVE action.
I looked at what it would take to become a pilot. There was a short, but important, list:
1. Good hand eye coordination
2. Great physical fitness
3. At least five “O” Levels (they’re a bit like GCSEs for the younger viewers, but much, much harder) including Maths, Physics and English
So, I reversed engineered what I needed to do. I needed to get fitter than school was allowing me, so I went running at 6am to the next village every day and started a daily regime of press-ups, sit ups and other stuff I got from the Canadian Air Force fitness book.
I hated Maths, but I forced myself to do extra hours homework until I got moved from the CSE bottom class to the second class and ended up doing an O Level, and AS Level and an A Level.
I loved Physics and English, so that was easy.
To give myself an even better chance of getting in, I took night classes at the local flying school at Sywell and did ‘O’ Levels in Air Navigation and Meteorology on the side.
I pushed hard as an Air Cadet, flew up the ranks, got a massive list of badges, won Best Cadet twice, became captain of the regional football team, wrote for the national magazine, got offered the prestigious role as Lord Lieutenant’s Cadet but had to turn it down (which was a dodged bullet, but that story is not for here) because, by that time, I had got in.
I’d already won a Sixth Form Scholarship where the RAF paid me money to do my ‘A’ Levels and had given me 30 hours flying training at Denham in North London.
Me with my Slingsby Firefly in 1986
In fact, I could fly before I could drive.
I know, it sounds like I was a proper swot, and I was. I was also completely brainwashed. There’s one moment I remember when based in Cyprus when a beautiful young Swedish woman was crying on the Nissi beach because I was leaving her.
“I’m sorry darling, I’m married to the RAF”
And off I went. Cold as ice.
Me in the RAF in 1988
As it turned out, I ended up resigning from the RAF. Once I discovered the truly brutal nature of death and war and my potential role in it, I woke up and got the hell out of dodge, which is another story entirely.
But I continued stepping into the void. I was addicted. It seemed like there was so much life to live, I should just go and live it.
So, I became a journalist and edited the student magazine in Manchester. I got head-hunted by the Daily Telegraph and went and worked in Canary Wharf for a while.
That put me off journalism for life. I was writing a lot of poetry but could not find an outlet for it, so I set up the Live Poets Society, telling others to come out of the closet and share their work. That led to a published collection, thanks to Henry Normal (now an award winning TV and film producer).
This also led to me performing stand up comedy with the likes of Frank Skinner, Alan Davies, Peter Kay, and many others. I did not have a clue what I was doing, but managed to scrape a living out of it somehow. That led to two TV pilots that were broadcast on ITV and Paramount, the offer of a TV series (that didn’t happen) and a part in Phoenix Nights.
It also led to me producing and directing a Doctor Who stand up show written by my friend Toby Hadoke which went on to tour for 7 years, played in the West End and got turned into a BBC radio play that got nominated for a Sony Award.
I also set up a publishing company to produce a magazine for the courier industry (don’t ask me why) and set up the UK’s first National Courier Industry Exhibition at the NEC at the age of 23.
I sold that magazine and went to Florida to stay with the only millionaire I knew to see if he could help me raise money for a film about a serial tattooist. Turned out, he’d lost all his money and needed to borrow money from me to keep his restaurant in Sarasota open over Christmas.
I had a theatre company that sold out lots of theatres across the UK, but never made any money. It did lead to me reviving the play Rita, Sue and Bob Too, which involved me playing a man who seduced his two 15 year old babysitters in Bradford. It was a serious slice of social drama from Thatcher’s Britain, but also meant 10,000 people paid to see my arse humping up and down 5 nights a week to uproarious laughter.
Then, at the age of 30 I decided to stop being poor and set up a marketing agency in a tiny office in Stockport with little more than a tin pot of coppers. Literally.
My first order for £20k from The Derbyshire Building Society involved me closing my eyes like I did in that cockpit years ago and splurt out:
“And our terms are that 60% is paid with order, and 40% on delivery”
If they hadn’t agreed, I’d have been out of business very quickly indeed.
I’d already had a crack at the internet with a website called Whoopydo.com, which got lost in the mayhem of the dotcom bubble. My business partner said the internet was dead, so I proceeded to ignore him and set up the world’s first online skip hire service from scratch, which involved making videos like this on a Saturday morning with a hangover:
That went on to turn over £40 million (and counting) and employed over 300 people. If you want to know how I did it, get my free video training here.
The biggest leap into the void was getting married. We went on to produce 5 children, all of which are now living with us in Morocco, a place where they speak French and Arabic, two languages I have yet to come to grips with.
Now, we’re trying to build a school here that is eco-friendly, encourages creativity and individuality. I’m truly stepping into the void with that project. You can keep up with our progress here.
I’ve made many mistakes along the way, and my journey is far from finished.
What I do know is this: success is relative and life is short. Living in fear of success or fear of failure is still living in fear and it will get you nowhere.
It doesn’t matter if you fail – it’s just a notch on the bed post that will serve you the next time you step into the void, and step into the void you must if you are to experience the magnificence of your own existence on the incredible place we call Earth.