INTERVIEW by JESSICA PANDZIC | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of MORGWN RIMEL
Throughout our conversation, Morgwn Rimel’s positive spirit streamed out of my audio speakers. Morgwn is the second director at a unique new enterprise in Central London called The School of Life, a place to explore and discuss life’s tough issues in an inquisitive, social setting. Using culture as a resource to establish ideas to live by, The School of Life provides an open-minded environment using ideas from literature to science to the visual arts as inspiration on how to live wisely and live well.
How did you end up at The School of Life? Anything you can share with us about your religious and educational background?
Growing up in the States and having the opportunity to live all over the world, I’ve had a bit of a cultural education. As far of my schooling goes, I was very fortunate; my parents were hugely devoted to the importance of education. It is the most important gift a parent could give to a child, apart from their love and affection.
I was lucky that I went to good, progressive, and interesting schools. I was encouraged in lots of ways — creatively, academically, athletically, and spiritually. I felt like I was given the chance to become well-rounded and to be interested in lots of things. Which can be really difficult when you’re trying to figure out what you want to do and to choose one job!
I’m fully aware of that at the moment!
The School of Life has been this amazing opportunity to draw together all of my diverse experiences and interests into one place. Before The School of Life, there was not a job or a company or a set career path that would have been my ideal. When I discovered that it existed, it was a huge relief and enormously exciting. Here was something that I could really commit myself to and contribute to in what I hoped would be a meaningful way.
How did that happen? How did you come across The School of Life?
I am one of those people who is constantly following blogs, new business and entrepreneurial sites, and the latest cultural stuff. When they launched, there was a bit of a hubbub around the world about this amazing new idea. I tracked the progress from the start. Then the founding director went on maternity leave and they advertised to have someone fill in for a year. I got the position and have now stayed on. I’ve been here for over two-and-a-half years.
According to The School of Life, what does it mean to live wisely and well?
It’s hard to sum that up in a nutshell! [laughs] That really means different things to different people. We don’t see it as our place to prescribe a set way of living or viewing the world. We see it as our job to present a whole range of interesting, exciting, and useful ideas and insights that people can apply and put to use in their daily lives.
We draw our inspiration from the whole history of ideas — it’s cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary. We look to art, to literature, to philosophy, to psychology, to the sciences, and kind of cherry-pick the best thinking. Then we frame it in a way that is relevant to people’s daily concerns. We address questions that people have about their love lives, making career choices, getting on with their families, making a difference in the world, feeling good about themselves, and learning to be good friends.
We find that, typically, education and other types of institutions can either be too dogmatic in telling you how to see the world and how to live, or too abstract, esoteric, and somehow irrelevant to daily concerns. For instance, Shakespeare wrote all of these amazing love sonnets, but the question is, how can we use those insights and great thinking to improve our own relationships? That’s where we step in. Our job is to look to culture for remedies and cures for modern ailments.
Alain de Botton, a witty and charismatic speaker and the founder of The School of Life, discussed culture quite a bit in his most recent Sunday Sermon. He defines culture as a resource. Can you elaborate on that?
People think about culture as something that we produce, observe, or consume. We don’t think of it as an emotional resource or as a source for insight, consolation, or inspiration.
The idea is to learn about life from others.
Exactly! Because what is it? It’s a record of lived experience in a myriad of forms, whether it’s a book, a piece of art, a piece of music, or a ritual. It’s someone’s version of what life means to them. There are so many different lessons to draw from.
What is the agenda or program of your average Sunday Sermon?
The Sermon format is something that we’ve co-opted because we think its a brilliant format. We see a lot of value in bringing people together on a regular basis for a specific purpose, for structured talk. The guest preacher’s task is not just to get up there and tell us what they know, but to really inspire us. We also spend a lot of time developing little extras to support the sermons and make them something really unique, from music to snacks to thumb wars.
Bibliotherapy is something that is unique to The School of Life. It is a service that we offer where we essentially prescribe reading. You come to The School of Life and meet for a cup of tea with one of our bibliotherapists. They have an engaged and focused conversation with you around your reading habits, your preferences, your ambitions, the kind of stuff that’s going on with you at the moment. They put together prescriptions that are appropriate for you. You work your way through that and then have the opportunity to provide feedback on your experience and get further recommendations.
The response has been really amazing — kind of overwhelming, actually. Our bibliotherapists’ job is to help you discover new things about literature, but also about yourself.
What kind of training or qualifications do your bibliotherapists have?
Our head bibliotherapist, Ella, studied Literature and Art at Cambridge. For her, it’s very much about helping people to have more creative practices of reading. For example, she encourages people to read short stories or poems aloud with their lover, or helps people to try to get their kids excited about reading in different ways. She’s also fantastic at prescribing holiday literature; she knows exactly what you should take with you for any type of getaway!
I’ll have to give her a call! What about psychotherapy?
Psychotherapy is something that we feel really strongly about at The School of Life. There’s still a huge stigma around psychotherapy in the UK. It’s seen as something that is kind of clinical, severe, or medicalized. Our position is to present a gateway to psychotherapy that is stigma-free, trusted, and accessible. We have a group of some of the best psychotherapists in the UK that we work with on a referral basis.
With them we’ve developed a session that we call the MOT for the mind, a tune-up for you. It’s really about promoting psychotherapy as a valuable tool for self-development. Most go on to have additional sessions past the MOT.
Do you see the possibility for institutions like The School of Life to become more common and accepted by society? What is your hope for expansion of The School of Life, both long-term and short-term?
There are loads of really interesting organizations cropping up all the time all over the world that are aligned with our way of thinking.
We do have really strong ambitions to expand around the world. We have been touched by the constant inpouring of interest from Zambia to Toronto to Istanbul to Rio — it’s pretty cool.
2012 is a big year for us. We are just about to launch a new website that is much more interactive and focused on encouraging people to make the most of our archive and blog. We’re also launching our first series of books with the publisher Pan Macmillan in the UK in May. That first series will be six books that are essential guides for living. They cover everything from sex to money to work to technology and are written by our faculty. More publications are expected later in the year.
We are also working with partners around the world to start The School of Life in other countries. It might take the form of an annual festival/conference to start, and then hopefully begin setting up more permanent spaces. The cities that we’re focused on as first priority are Istanbul, Stockholm, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Los Angeles, and Rio. More info will be available in the coming months.
There are two other areas that we work in. One is retail: we’ve just started to design a whole collection of games, stationery, and other things that are meant to be thought-provoking and ideas-led. That will be coming out later in the year.
Second, we function also as a studio to work with businesses to create content and really imaginative strategic solutions to all kinds of problems. We’ve worked on some really exciting projects with business clients in the past couple of years.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to the success of The School of Life?
There are a couple of different ways. We are always looking for fantastic contributors to our blog and for new faculty members. I’ve noticed that you have a pretty amazing selection of individuals represented on your site that are doing fascinating things in so many different areas. We’d encourage them to get in touch with us with ideas that they’d like to share; we’re all about bringing more people into the fold and sharing that with our audience.
We are also looking for people who live in any of the areas where we are looking to establish a presence in: we’d really love for them to become a part of our community. The easiest way is to connect with us online in the first instance and to take it from there.
Of course, we encourage people to read our books and spread the word.