The following interview with Morgwn Rimel of The Shool of Life is an edited (and much shortened) version, originally published in The Alpine Review and conducted by Louis-Jacques Darveau, its Publisher and Editor. It is shared here with permission.
In the centre of London, surrounded by the British Library, the British Museum, a number of diverse universities, intellectual histories and iconoclastic minds, has sprouted a new kind of space for learning. Offering everything from Socrates to stationary, ‘Sunday Sermons’ to bibliotherapy as well as a range of public programmes, The School of Life (TSOL) is finding fresh, thoughtful and accessible ways of starting discussions about life’s biggest questions. Since opening their doors in 2008 they’ve had more than 50 000 people come through and participate in their programmes, which is nothing compared to their growing international digital network.
AR — Let’s start from the beginning—what brought TSOL about?
Morgwn Rimel —Broadly, when we talk about The School of Life, it’s very much about ‘ideas for everyday life’ and our approach is a multidisciplinary one. We look across disciplines from philosophy to literature to visual arts, gardening to the latest neuroscience, everything. We look for insights from all different pockets, cherry-pick the best ideas, pull them together and try to present them in a way that feels relevant, accessible and meaningful when connected up with your everyday life. This is why we were so interested in creating a new space for ideas: particularly in the academic world, you can talk about ideas in a way that feels so removed from your daily existence. You can talk about Shakespeare and not really understand what it means to be in love, or to struggle in love. You can talk about Freud in a very intellectual way but not really understand the impact of your relationship with your mother. It seems odd that there should be that disjointed relationship but it is actually very hard to build bridges between the world of the head and your real life. We work very hard to bridge that gap. It’s about making the experience of learning very human, very intimate, very entertaining at times and engaging, which helps bring the ideas to life in a way that perhaps is difficult to do in other environments.
You’re most well known for your public programmes which remain the core of The School of Life. But they’re not typical academic courses or craft-based, DIY workshops—could you tell me about how programmes work at TSOL?
We focus on life’s big issues: love, work, play, family, community, politics, self, mind, body, etc., running regular sessions as well as all different kinds of classes in other formats around these big issues. Some of the content we develop ourselves, some of the content we curate or bring in with guest speakers and faculty. It is designed to get people thinking differently about the big questions in life and to facilitate the process of self-reflection and deeper engagement with others through conversation and other activities that help move thinking on the subject forward. It’s more than just our faculty showing up and telling people whatever they know, it’s about engaging the people who attend and the participants within a group and to draw on the life experience of the group so that people can share those experiences. It’s always really fascinating because no matter how many times we run a particular class, it’s always different depending upon who shows up and who’s in the room. What we’ve found we then extend into the shop and the cultural therapy programme and the core public curriculum. We’ve started publishing books, which are based around our public programmes curriculum. Our first series of books, a How-To series with Pan Macmillan were around life’s key issues of finding fulfilling work, reframing how we think about sex and how to thrive in a changing the world. We took the big concepts that were emerging out of our classes and turned them into guides for living. We have a second series of those books coming out next year along with another series we’re doing around life lessons from key thinkers.
It’s more than just our faculty showing up and telling people whatever they know, it’s about engaging the people who attend and the participants within a group and to draw on the life experience of the group so that people can share those experiences.
[It often seems like people are trying to cope with information over consumption or rapidly evolving technology and fast changing life by looking to the past or some curious version of it.] Like how gym equipment has become so sophisticated that people now want to flip tires and pull on ropes.
Exactly. There’s been a huge reversal, now you can run on a video-treadmill that simulates running up through a variety of courses from the mountains or along the beach or a paved urban street, rather than just going outside for a run. It’s a little crazy, this disconnect between the real world and the virtual world. That tension interests us because we work with a lot of people in the digital space, they’re quite forward-thinking and pioneers in that world. Everyone always comes back to us with this discussion of time off[line] and time on[line], knowing how your brain works in both of these states, what you do better in each of those universes, how you engage, the things that you accomplish and what you need to do with focus on your own away from other external distractions. We’re not very good about carving out space for the two to exist on their own. We tend to try to blend them, to multitask and it doesn’t really work. I think that’s part of the reason The School of Life exists, because it’s a space where people can come and set aside part of their day. Some time for yourself to think about these things and actually have a conversation with someone else—a real conversation, with a real person, and have a drink and a bite to eat. People appreciate that and they get a lot out of it because it’s a real-life human experience, and it’s hugely gratifying and interesting for people who are very busy and otherwise consumed with other things. Maybe we didn’t need that before because there wasn’t as much pressure and the pace wasn’t so accelerated.
Why do you think more schools are experimenting with entrepreneurialism, while companies are starting their own schools, events or branching out in other ways? It seems to be the time of hybrids, of moving out of your traditional sphere. Does that influence how you approach the studio and the mandates you do with companies?
There are a couple of different things at play. On the one hand, there’s this Renaissance going on in terms of learning, specifically lifelong learning and this idea that we’re on this journey and that there will always be things we need to learn and develop within ourselves. Companies have become more attuned to the fact that it’s not just about getting a degree and developing your credentials, but about emotional intelligence and your softer skills. It’s not just about the fact that you can work with X number of computer programs, or having X number of years working for these kinds of clients. It’s about personal development in the professional sphere. I think they are very interested in supporting that within the sphere because, for one, it means they will have better retention, people will want to continue to work with them because they feel like they’re realizing their potential as people, not just getting their paycheque or hitting their target. People will also be more creative, get along better with one another and their clients, and ultimately be more productive and balanced, happy, fulfilled people. They’ll be emotionally healthy and mature and able to speak up for things, acknowledge and listen to other people and read situations in a better way. That’s the way that we are working with people: inside out. Working to help improve their employees’ emotional health and develop the EQ [Emotional Quotient] skills within the organization. The other way is thinking about how we can help bring culture in a very broad sense into an organization, because sometimes hugely successful companies become inwardly focused and a bit myopic. They think that they know best, doing things because they’ve been doing it and they’ve been successful, so they should just keep doing more of that and they’ll be successful again. They can lose sight of the longer view of what the problem is, what it is that people really want and how they can better meet human desires. Another way we work with people is in this creative-philosophical consultancy capacity, trying to help people understand how their industry fits into the broader worldview, and to think creatively about how they could engage with customers in a different way.
But it is also tapping-in again to that culture of lifelong learning; people wanting to be hands-on and to acquire new skills.
To go back to what you mentioned about how other companies are now offering events or learning programmes or starting schools—that’s an interesting thing that I’ve picked up on as well. Brands, particularly media companies, like Vogue or The Guardian, might be opening up a fashion school or a journalism school. They are for consumers and presumably a way to get more people engaged with their content and what they’re producing. But it is also tapping-in again to that culture of lifelong learning; people wanting to be hands-on and to acquire new skills. And it’s not even just about skills that they can use in their own career, it doesn’t have to be about that, but perhaps purely out of personal interest or passion. It’s about acquiring lots of different skills in all different aspects of your life to feel more like a fully-realized individual. It’s a luxury in a way, and it’s fantastic that we have that at our disposal, that we can be interested in these things. I’ve noticed it, and it’s been surprising to see, in a good way.
Morgwn Rimel has designed retail products, published books, made films, produced television, run festivals and formed innovative partnerships with some of the world’s top brands. She became Director at The School of Life in 2009.