097: Sir Tim Smit: Changing the World with No Special Skills (transcript)

October 23, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

I met Tim at least a year ago and I loved what he did and how much he loved what he did which was to turn a trashed wasteland into beautiful living space, also, a tourist destination throughout Europe, also a thriving business and now spreading around the world to become the same things in other places where industries have trashed the landscape. As a leadership and entrepreneurship teacher, it’s important for me to get across that he had no special resources, no connections, no special skills to start what he did. Anyone can do what he did and what he keeps doing. So he is yet another example of someone who instead of looking at environmental action as distraction or deprivation or sacrifice turn and face it and by meeting literally global demand brought great success to himself and to his communities.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here Tim Smit. Tim, how are you?

Tim: I am magnificent today.

Joshua: Great to hear. Wait, why magnificent as opposed… So many people would say fine. Are you especially magnificent today?

Tim: Why be so [unintelligible]? Why just be fine? I am magnificent. The reason I’m magnificent is I learned in Nigeria when I lived there for 6 years that if you start the day magnificent and all sorts of hell breaks loose around you, at least you’ll end the day fine. If you’re fine now, it’s downhill all the way, pall.

Joshua: So actually, I want to build on this magnificent. You do the Eden Project in…. It began in the south west of England. I know that behind you there’s a picture of what’s going on in China. I think you’re doing stuff in southwest of the United States. Can you describe what is the Eden Project today?

Tim: The Eden project today is several different things. It is a place here in the southwest of England, Cornwall, which is a county or province in Britain that if I was to walk to the west, I’d fall into the ocean and the next thing I would come to would be New York. It is right the far west of Britain. We took a disused cline mine that was 200 feet deep and 35 acres in depths in gusts and transformed it from a sterile poisoned place into a place that is full of plants regrading 90000 tons of soil. We built some amazing structures and we decided to open to the public to demonstrate both the optimism what humans can do when they work together on something amazing but also to inspire people to think about our dependency on the natural world because I believe that only by understanding how dependent we are on it we’ll learn to respect it and realize that our creatureness is actually part of a very intricate and beautiful web of life in which all things or to the best of our knowledge all things in one way or another intimately relate to each other which means that by damaging chunks of our environment we will ultimately be damaging ourselves.

So that’s how we began. We opened to the public in 2001. We have an average of one point one million visitors a year. We’re very political. I am a capitalist. I believe that one of the great issues in the world is not your politics. It’s actually whether you have a moral compass. And I believe in capitalism and its healing power if those who are practitioners keep a moral compass in terms of the way they do their business. So we have supported local supply, zero waste and so on. And we have actually put a spin which many people who are right wing are incredibly puzzled at our success. So we realize that if you understand businesses as a place to talk about business and you want to help small businesses you have to give them longer term contracts so that they can then go to their bank and get money to make their business grow in the security of being able to be a supplier to you.

So now we have something like 2400 suppliers most of which have got long term supplies to us and many of them have grown like [unintelligible] since we started working together and are now national brands and are available across the country and it’s created lots and lots of jobs. And Cambridge University researched the Eden project economic impact and reckon over the last 20 years we’ve put something like two point two billion pounds sterling of new wealth into the economy. On the back of that, bear in mind that where we are was considered the least economically viable province and we were situated in the least economically viable place in the least economically viable province so poor that it actually got aid and assistance from the government to compensate that.

Joshua: [unintelligible] took a lifeless poisoned plot of land.

Tim: Yeah. Give me your poison is what I always say. That is why the projects in China that we’re working on are poisoned. We’re working in the deserts for Expo 2020, for the Emirates, we’re doing the sustainability pavilion with Grimshaw, the architects, and our friends [unintelligible] incorporated the New York designers who did the 9/11 memorial. We’re working in Australia in an old mine which is very damaged. We’re working in Canada in a place that is mercury polluted. Where else are we working? We’re working in USA in a place that got damaged by a chlorine gas explosion in South Carolina. We also got Wild projects because we want to demonstrate by filming and live in these Wild projects coming back into the destinations around the world. We got project in Aldabra which is probably the most perfect island atoll in the world with the most perfect coral reef. It is actually astonishing when you dive there, you can’t believe the amount of live that actually is not just numbers. It is that the entire food chain was visible from the huge sharks through tuna and beneath and all the rest, that was the tiniest creatures because no fishing’s been allowed there since 1963. [unintelligible] Aldabra which is the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean which belongs to the Seychelles.

We have a project, rainforest project in Costa Rica in the Nicoya peninsula which again is fantastic. A philanthropist bought in 1980-1978, he bought 42 farms so denuded of fertile ground that they were just not doing anything and he said, “I’m going to let the birds crap [unintelligible] to life.” He put a fence around 10000 acres and today it is the most gorgeous, gorgeous rainforest. But more importantly a land which had been made arid and there used to be murderers amongst the people who live there because lack of water for five months now has four rivers running 365. Very inspirational. And the last project, they are all natural projects, it is in the USA where we are in the process of purchasing the last privately owned large old growth forest of giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada Mountains four hundred and seventy four acres including what we think may well be genuinely the largest tree on earth, bigger even than the General Sherman which I had the privilege to climb last year. And what’s amazing when you get to the top you look one way and you look over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Sequoia National Park and then you turn your head 180 degrees and look at death valley. It’s biblical in terms of its meaning and it’s even more biblical in the sense that under your hands, under the soft bark of this marvelous tree you realize that you’re holding something that is 4400 years old. It has actually outlived 37 complete civilizations from their burst to their peak to death. And you wonder, well, maybe nature can teach you something.

Joshua: I think a lot of people either they think, “You know the environment stuff that’s kind of interesting but you know I got to get ahead in my career and that’s a distraction for me. And so I’ll get to it when I can but I really got to stick with what I’m doing.” But I keep finding people who by turning and facing the problem, by turning and face something that people care about and acting on it and they become leaders or they… How did things begin for you? I don’t want to bore you and have you tell the same story you’ve told many times, especially if it’s already out there. But did you have vision of this?

Tim: No, I didn’t. I think those who are the most effective leaders have feats of play. The people who are the most brittle are actually those that claim perfection. I think occasionally you might have a take-away Indian meal and you might need redemption because you had something that had to be thrown away. It doesn’t matter provided your journey is on a way… It’s going in the right direction. And I think one of the problems people have is they think that things are big. The Eden Project is big. What I do is big but it’s actually comprising lots and lots of smalls holding together. And that certainly most people don’t understand that a) most people are looking for a dream, they are looking for an adventure. And if you could create a stage and a story that is big enough, it is strangely easier to do than a rather more modest story because everybody has his little grain of disappointment inside themselves. When they look at themselves in the previous year when they weren’t grown and they think, “What could I have been? What could I have done?” The people who are the best in the world to work with are the people who are already in their 50s and 60s who feel as if they betrayed their past. These are the people I [unintelligible] give me a 7-year-old and their mind forever. The people who are really, really fertile ground are the people who are as I say of a certain age and you say, “Hey, it’s not too late. There’s adventures still to be had.” And they will work and work and work. Eden was built on a mix of people over the age of 50, mentoring people who are under the age of 25. And the reason for that is that it’s a cliché but the older people know that you need the young people to be leading from the front because they don’t know it can’t be done whereas the older people as you suspect it can’t be done but if it can be done, it will be done but you really don’t know that it can’t be done because they [unintelligible] out of it.

So I’ve always known that. I’ve always known also that we are mad as humans, we talk about capital all the time, we talk about money as if having money will get in the way of doing a lot of things. I’ve made my career on… I started as an archaeologist, I’ve then joined a rock band and when I was in the rock band I had no money but I did know that the best archaeologists in the world weren’t working 24 hours a day. The best engineers weren’t working 24 hours a day. The best musicians weren’t working 24 hours a day. So I could persuade them to come and work with me and to allow me to use the studio for free and then I paid them back if it worked out. That was going to be the secret to actually having capital that wasn’t mine and I borrowed it and that’s how I worked. I mean record after record after record and I got paid for it but none of them was successful. I was a loser for a year after year but I got record deals and I paid everybody whatever their share was.

And then suddenly I had a very big hit in Europe and then I had several more and eventually I got bored and rather depressed by the music industry and decided to move down to far west Cornwall. But I did it out of random, a random thing. I’ve never ever been slave to the slates on my roof. I’ve always been slave to actually wanting to be excited by life and I ceased to be excited. So I moved to Cornwall on a whim. I had nothing. I had no job to go to, no career that I knew I wanted and as I was always thinking what I was going to do as I sat in this farmhouse which I was trying to do up and I’d spent all my money on it I was now broke, a friend gave me a pig and I liked the pig, the pig liked me and I realized eventually he was lonely so I find him a mate and they mated. I then realized that what I really wanted to do is have a rare breed park so I went to find some land on which to build a rare breed park and I went to see the man who had the land and he said, “I’m afraid I have this [unintelligible] to somebody else.” And then I realized that my lips were too sensitive and I couldn’t drink the coffee he’d given me. So either I left the coffee or I made a small talk and then I said to him, “I used to be an archaeologist [unintelligible] the immortal words. I have a need of an archaeologist.”

And that’s how my career changed. So I then went with him to discover this estate that he had inherited which is completely aggravated and had been for 17 years and I fell in love with it. It was called Heligan and I restored it and it became famous as the last [unintelligible]. It is now the most famous private garden in Britain and it was having done that and having restored it with without a lot of volunteers, borrowing, begging bits of equipment and whatever that I decided to have the idea for Eden but I knew nothing about plants at all.

Joshua: Sorry to interrupt. How old were you at this time?

Tim: When I changed my life I was 37.

Joshua: OK. So you’re of a certain age. I mean you feel…

Tim: Now I’m 63. I’m really old. I’m nearly 64.

Joshua: And no idea at the time of like you didn’t have plans for what was to come. You were just restoring this garden and it kind of like it was fun. It was a project that you enjoyed. Something like that.

Tim: No, it was more than that. It became… Have you ever seen the film Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog about the man who wants to build an opera house at the end of the Amazon?

Joshua: I haven’t.

Tim: It was a brilliant movie. You should see it. I just had this desire to put my passion and complete commitment into something and for some reason one of the things I learned when I was in music industry is if you love something and you are not afraid there will be millions and millions and millions and millions of people who feel the same way about as you do. Therefore, the only issue is marketing.


Tim: So I persuaded the BBC to come and film me doing the restoration and that went out on television and the rest as they say is history. Actually, it was a bit funnier than that because they put out this documentary which won Documentary of the Year when it came out but they forgot to mention that I wasn’t open to the public so the public came and we couldn’t stop them. So we actually ended up with 40000 people coming in our first year without intending to be open so we developed a career by accident. The thing is careers and great inventions are things that happen to you along the way if you are passionate about something. A lot of people think too much and a lot of people are bruised by failure.

I learned in the music industry what it’s like to have people look down at you and you know, God, it was a nightmare. You go to a party. “What are you? I’m a musician. Anything done I may have heard of? No, not yet.” And a little bit of you dies in terms of the way their eyes go a bit dull on you. “You’re not very interesting. Another loser pretending to be a musician.” And then you meet record company guys who say they’ll phone you back and this is pre-mobile phone days. So you wait by the phone because that’s the only way [unintelligible] so you’re in for a whole day waiting for that phone to ring to tell you whether they want you to sign or not. And then you think, “Maybe it’s tomorrow.“ So you are waiting again. And then another bit of you dies because you realize that they do not care. You are nothing. You’re like a chewing gum on their feet.

And that taught me a lot about what has made me successful. Never ever treat people like that. Never treat people like that because the person you talk to today that may be having a hard time could be brilliantly successful tomorrow doing something else. And I just say to all sorts of people, the people who are listening to this podcast if you’re having a hard time, if you have spent a lot of time trying to do something that’s failing, look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Can you kill your darlings? Can you actually look at yourself and say, “Maybe actually I’m not meant to do that? Maybe it’s something else.” And actually everyday I’m continuing to do this thing I failed at claiming that… You see, a lot of people fall in love with the thing that they are failing to do because they believe that commitment and holding onto this dream is what you’re meant to do and they see it as giving up [unintelligible]. I’ve told so many people out of being in the wrong dream and saying actually it’s like a fat blob in a drain, get rid of that and have another dream. You know turn over that car. Now you know lots of people are completely love-jammed by having formed love with the wrong dream at the wrong age and they just haven’t the courage because they think they have wasted all years before. I mean it’s like consigning your past as if I wasted it, I’ve just spent ten years trying to be a musician. No, you haven’t. You’ve had ten years of experience in which you realized how miserable it was to be a musician trying to make a career. So if you’re now not a musician but you do something else but then you’re also a musician, you’ll be amazed what happens to you.

So I went into running this garden. I knew nothing about gardens but I understood showbusiness. I understood. So did I need to tell news story about gardens and I marketed it and I gave it the name The Lost Gardens which made it really romantic but no one in the garden world have never thought of doing that. That’s how it all began. A different twist. If you see your life experience as being the sum total of lots of experiences that may one day go to making the perfect job which was the job you’re meant to have, the road you are meant to fulfil, then your life will be very, very different. Because every failure, every relationship, every book you read, a record you’ve listened to, film you’ve seen, walk you’ve made, every relationship you’ve been bad at, all that learning and suddenly comes into play from magnificent moment of theatre as you suddenly discover the thing that’s meant to actually be catching you by this mountain leading you off into your dream.

Joshua: This is such a refreshing view. Now I want to give you the… One of the purposes of this podcast is to bring leaders and ask them to do something and share their experience so that people can hear that it’s not so easy or how well it goes. Would you be up for doing something that you’re not already doing? Not to say the whole planet but to take on a challenge to live by some value of yours.

Tim: You know what? I’m not sure I am. I know that doesn’t sound very sporting. It’s just that I can’t think what it is that I would like to do. Or rather, I can’t think of something that I can in all honesty say I will stick to that would sufficiently change anything. Give me a suggestion what the sort of thing you think that I might be able to do.

Joshua: Well, what I want to point out is that it’s not the size of the thing. I’ve come to see these things more skills than of magnitude of what you do because people you know I think some of the most debilitating beliefs people have are… One of them is, “If I do this but no one else does, then what difference does it make?” And other’s, “Well, this thing is so small. It’s not worth doing. But that is so big, it’s too hard.” And you know with any skills it’s like you start with basics, you start with very simple things and then as you develop the skills then the things that seemed hard now don’t seem so hard. And the things that seemed, even small things, it becomes automatic.

Tim: That’s true. I’ve taught myself to do the yoyo once and that was difficult. But the funny thing is the moment you learn how to do it you can’t imagine not being able to do it. It’s a very old saying, “The hula hoop I never mastered I just didn’t have swinging enough hits”. But things like not using single use plastics I do occasionally use single use plastics and my partner and I try not to. It’s just that sometimes when we fly or whatever going places you have to. I don’t agree to something that I know in advance I wouldn’t do. I could be very easy. I will promise not to drink any [unintelligible]. I need [unintelligible]. Actually, what I will do I will build the most magnificent compost heap of my own having built a giant one for Eden, everybody mocks me because I’ve never bothered to do it for myself. Can I do that?

Joshua: Yeah.

Tim: I mean I will build a great…. And I will have… I will have, let me tell you, a better class of worm. Well, I didn’t like the look of that. What is going on?

Joshua: So people can’t see that. So I’ve got corncob, some onion skins. This is some [unintelligible] that my sister gave me from her garden. I mean I take the leaves off so that’s the stems of them. Anyway, so people who are listening they can’t see that I just showed him the compost that I keep in my countertop here and when that fills up I put in the freezer and when it fills up, I have to walk it down to the farmer’s market and chop off there. Although as a result of… See, someone on this podcast, Jeff Brown who’s got a podcast called The Read to Lead podcast he started working with his homeowner’s association to get curbside pickup of recycling in his neighborhood. And he kept building and building and building and I thought he kept going. He’s the only person who’s done four episodes on a podcast because he keeps doing more and I kept saying how dealing with my co-op board… I don’t like dealing with my co-op board but he kept working with his homeowners’ association and I was like, “You know what? I’m going to do it.” So I’ve proposed at our last annual meeting to form a sustainability committee and some people joined and it looks like we’re going to get compost in the building that… Now I have to walk it like a mile to drop off my compost. But now soon it’s probably going be in my building as a result of this guy who didn’t know… He was just looking into maybe some… I mean you can listen to the episode or the listeners can listen to the episodes. He was just kind of thinking about it and the more he did it, the more his neighbors liked him doing it and the more he was able to make progress.  And by the way, I can’t help but plug my book here is that he interviews hundreds of authors of leadership books and none of them led him to actually take on a leadership role himself. But then I did.

Tim: Marvelous. That’s terrific. I think you should have a chocolate medal for that. That is fantastic.

Joshua: Well, I’d give it to him because he inspired me back. There are a couple of people who inspired me back. The plogging actually emerged from John Lee Dumas because he picked up plastic from his beach and that got me thinking about picking up stuff. So you never know where these little things might lead. So if you’d make a compost heap, that sounds great. I mean it sounds like…

Tim: It’s pretty modest but I’m getting excited about it now. I needed this moment with you to actually push me over the line.

Joshua: I bet everyone who’s listening has something in the back of their head that they are like, “You know I have been meaning to do X or Y or Z.” And then when they hear that other people are doing something I think that enables them to do it because we’re, as you’ve said before, I think before we start recording, we’re herd creatures. We like to follow people as much as we say that it’s easier to do what other people are doing. But everyone’s doing these things in their own way but they’re not really out about it.

Tim: That’s right. They’re not really out about it. But I think one of the things that we need to watch in the so-called environment movement, I don’t want to be in the environment movement anymore. I want to be that because I think this is just citizenship and the moment you define it as other by being the environment movement it feels a bit weird. It feels like it’s got a bit of worthiness. I’ve never liked worthiness. I’ve always hated worthiness. I’ve always wanted to be with people who are flawed because there’s something about the high expectations of people who set themselves up to be perfect. That always makes me wonder whether in their private lives there’s something a bit perverted about them. You know what I mean. It’s a bit like Roman Catholic bishops.

Joshua: Yeah. I was once…I think I was at a date with a girl, I forget. And she said it in a way that I knew it but she said it so bluntly. I was like saying how I forget how I felt like I was a little odd compared to others. She looks me and she goes, “Josh, nobody is normal.” And it’s such a liberating realization and the whole point of meeting someone is to learn their idiosyncrasies and quirks and stuff and not… I used to look at like the Gap and Banana Republic and think, “Well, that’s so normal people shop there.” But no one’s normal. Everyone’s got their thing.

Tim: That’s exactly right. No one is normal and the only thing that gets in the way of good relations between most people is when they have this issue that they suddenly think that their normal is the normal. No. We hope and that’s a great thing. That would be a good thing for every one of your listeners to buy and to be [unintelligible] to actually get to know somebody that they would traditionally think that they wouldn’t like and see what happens.

Joshua: Yeah. It develops a whole set of skills that I am at the very beginning of learning. So after we finish recording if it’s OK with your schedule a time when we can talk about how the compost is going.

Tim: We can. We’re going to give it at least the time for the compost to start festering in a very nice way. By the way, is there a saying in America, I need to know this, “There’s no smoke without fire.”

Joshua: We say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Tim: Yeah. And when people use that? I mean in Britain there is that Shakespearean quote, “The lady doth protest too much” meaning that if we accuse you of something, there’s no smoke without fire therefore there’s bound to be some truth in it. You then defend yourself and then people say, “Ah, the lady just defends herself [unintelligible]. So it must be true.” Now I have got the ultimate defense for you. It will be worth you having spoken to me for the last half hour just for this. When someone next says, “There’s no smoke without fire” you know what the answer is? Yes, there is, in a dung heap.

Joshua: I envy you know. I look forward to hearing how it goes.


I hope you enjoyed hearing how someone who couldn’t think of anything to do environmentally. In a short period of time he found something that he took on and it sounds to me like he’s going to enjoy this compost heap with all the worms. I also hope you enjoyed hearing how Jeff Brown’s and John Lee Dumas’s progress led me back from their conversations with me on this podcast which I recommend you go back and listen to. As an aside, my building sustainability committee it formed. I suggested forming it and they said, “Go for it.” People are now stopping me in the hallway, thanking me and volunteering to work on it. Work that I would have thought I would have had to do they are doing. So that’s been successful. One of the first things we’re doing is we’re getting in building compost collection for curbside pickup by the city so we’re one of the first buildings in Manhattan to do it. We’re not the first but we’re one of the first. As far as John Lee Dumas’s stuff goes today I went plogging earlier.

Back to Tim Smit. Sir Tim Smit. I heard passion, loving what he does, global leadership and that’s from out of being a rock musician which probably was a lot of fun but didn’t prepare him for anything here. Sounds like not a bad life. And I wonder for yourself what disasters are around for you to fix, for you to achieve similar success out of disaster?


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