Michael Neill is one of the world’s top life coaches, whose books sell worldwide and whose radio broadcasts are massively popular. Bernardo Moya interviews Michael Neill to find out how he came to be one of the most popular figures in the world of Personal Development – and what really makes people happy.
Michael Neill’s likeable smile, his easy charm and wit shine at his trainings, book signings and on the radio. Confident in front of an audience, filled with a calm wisdom and playfulness, he also emanates sincerity when he works closely with people. Michael is the consummate coach with a brilliant insight into people. Yet it was far from obvious that he would become a change-worker when he was younger. His father was an engineer who helped design the legs for the lunar modules, his mother was an organic chemistry professor and his brother and sister went to MIT and Harvard respectively.
In contrast, Michael wanted to be an actor, but the thing that brought him to the world of mind was his own struggle.
“I grew up suicidally depressed from about the age of 13,” he remembers. “It got worse and worse… so I was forced to deal with psychology, which wasn’t part of my family’s make-up.”
“I was incredibly loved,” he says, remembering his early years growing up near Boston, Massachusetts, and knowing this made him realise his depression wasn’t anything to do with his family, but came from within. It was a theme he would return to years later in his book The Inside Out Revolution.
At school he found an escape in the theatre, where he “got to be someone else” and since acting was his natural talent he pursued it, eventually at the age of 19 getting a scholarship and moving to London at the age of 20. It was not the most auspicious of starts, he recalls, since he landed just as the Great Storm of 1987 hit these shores.
“I was in a little bedsit where you put the 50p piece in to get the electricity working and I saw this storm outside and I didn’t have a radio or anything. I thought it was the beginning of the British winter. I’m looking outside at this hurricane thinking ‘this is like October and it’s going to get bad in December! …I’m not going to make it!’ I was probably the only person in London relieved when I found out it was a hurricane!”
Michael became a professional actor in the UK, immersing himself in the British culture and learning what were universals among people, and what were just idiosyncracies of culture. Something of an Anglophile, he loved The Clash, Black Adder, The Young Ones. “I was into British culture. I already drank tea!” he recalls.
One day after living in the UK for 5 years he received a letter that really made him think. “It was a vaguely familiar handwriting and I opened it and it said, ‘Dear Michael, you’re probably living in London, you’re probably married (which I was), you probably don’t have kids yet, you’re probably doing a lot of work at the BBC (which I was). It was a letter from me aged 15, that I’d done for a high school English class, and the teacher had kept it and 10 years later had mailed it out.”
Perhaps at some unconscious level Michael was responding to the right choices, even then.
While in London he learned about Tony Robbins and NLP – and since the techniques he learned from books worked for him – he tried them on others, finding that they really helped them. It was a revelation to him when he learned a simple technique from Tony Robbins’ Unlimited Power that told him to “turn down the volume knob on the voice inside your head”. Michael recalls: “It got quiet. And the inside of my head hadn’t been quiet since I was 17 years old, and that was shocking to me!” Impressed by this “beautiful feeling” he remembers going on every course he could, borrowing money if he needed to, just to make it work.
Michael was clearly driven by his instincts over what to do next. As he puts it: “When the inner voice wanted me to go left, I did.”
This was just the case as his career in acting and in coaching developed side by side. He read up on Richard Bandler’s work and had a great realisation – “You can actually just talk to somebody and their life gets better.” That was when he trained fully as an NLP Practitioner, Master Practitioner, Trainer – and eventually became a master trainer, “totally hooked” on helping people.
As for how this success came to him, he says he certainly set goals, but “I really did have the goal life and then the real life was much, much better. And if I have a regret, it’s that I didn’t give up on the goals earlier because the real life was so organic. I never had to try, I never tried to succeed at NLP.” He explains: “It was just ‘Oh, here’s a person, can I help them? Oh, that didn’t work, where can I learn what might?'”
Luck played a part in Michael’s path, too. Paul McKenna used to come into a bookshop where Michael worked and they just got on. He sometimes asked Michael to come in and teach with him and Michael Breen. Later still Paul asked Michael to train alongside him and Richard Bandler. Michael speaks of Richard “the Godfather” of Self Help as somewhat daunting. But when he saw him signing the NLP certificates he was to hand out at his training, he came to really appreciate him: “I said to him: ‘You sign your own certificates?’ He looked at me… and said: ‘I don’t just sign them, I love them.’ He literally put energy into each signature.”
Michael also kept evolving, and eventually moved on from NLP as he learned new things.
Learning has been central to his life. He has also responded to his inner needs instinctively. So when he saw a BBC documentary about a dysfunctional autistic child whose family saved for two years to take him to the Option Institute in the US. “About a week into the documentary you see him get up in the middle of the night and make himself a bowl of scrambled eggs…” It was a transformation of a boy who couldn’t even tie his own shoelaces. Michael called Institute after the show aired and arranged a visit. Not long after he was learning from them. Their approach influenced his first two books.
Another great influence was the Scottish thinker Sid Banks, Michael recalls. “He just said something so simple… he said: ‘Every human being has innate mental health.'” For Michael it just hit the spot. He’d spent so much time trying not to be depressed working out how to handle depression – and now he realised: “I was born happy… Babies don’t need therapy.”
He explains: “We learn to be unhappy. And the truth is the second we stop thinking the way we’ve learnt to think, we’re right back to the default.”
This is the central point to his book: The Inside Out Revolution, in which he shows people how to change what’s going on in their minds rather than changing what’s going on “out there”. It sounds familiar, similar to the early realisation Michael had as a suicidal teenager that something was going on “up there” in his head to make him unhappy, since his life was fine.
Michael speaks fondly of his great relationship with his wife and kids. He talks of clients who come to him having not found that balance yet. One client realised there was something out of balance when her five-year-old daughter said: “Let’s play mummies and daughters.” After announcing she would be the mummy, she picked up her mummy’s purse and said: “I’ve got to go now honey, bye.”
For others, the source of their happiness and inspiration is the thing they are so far removed from.
These days, he says that his role as a coach is to wake his clients to their soul, “to wake them up to the power inside them, to that intelligence and energy and life that we’re all a part of.” He contrasts this with the more standard approach to happiness: “…We try and find this power, this willpower and make ourselves succeed and be happy and do things, when actually we’re hooked up to this much, much greater power that everyone has access to.” He compares trying to do things “the empowered way” as being like blowing to try to move a sailboat. Sometimes when it catches a current it moves quickly and you think you’ve made it happen. “But sailboats aren’t designed to run that way; sailboats are designed to catch… that creative force, that wind, that power of mind that all of us have, if we let it. If we get that it’s there… it will take us places.”
It’s an approach that has certainly worked for Michael. Throughout his life he has followed the inner voice that has instinctively told him what to do and which path to follow. Life has worked better when he hasn’t set specific goals, it is more that he has a mindset open to opportunity and a deep driving curiosity. His own view seems to be that you don’t give people the seven effective habits of success or similar, but that you wake people up to the genius inside. So perhaps there is no secret to success, except for authenticity and happiness.
This central part of The Inside Out Revolution is also what guides his views on people trying to make their ways in the world. Asked what young people leaving school nowadays need to know, his answer is simple: “Recognise, a) there is an absolute fool-proof way to navigate through life; that if you learn that inner guidance system it will take you places way beyond what you could create with a goal list… The other is recognising that the next great idea isn’t out there… it’s going to come into your head when there is nothing much else on your mind…” It’s a straightforward message – having these two pieces of insight means you’ll be able to go out and enjoy your life. “Then you might wind up having a wonderful life and driving a Porsche, you might wind up having a wonderful life driving a bicycle… either way, you get to have a wonderful life.”