Careers are linear for some. For others, the road can be more winding. The latter is certainly true for motivational speaker Gavin Oattes. With a career that’s taken him from primary school teaching to stand-up comedy, today Gavin has found his feet in motivational speaking.
Now one of the world’s most prolific motivational speakers, Gavin is also a best-selling author and founder of his business, Tree of Knowledge. The business model delivers inspirational training programmes, keynotes and coaching for schools and businesses around the globe.
In this brand new series, White Light Insight, we speak to Gavin about his career journey, the barriers he’s come up against and what keeps him focussed on success.
Igot into motivational speaking purely by accident. In fact, you could argue that primary school teaching and motivational speaking are much the same thing. As a primary school teacher, my job was to stand up from nine o’clock in the morning to half past three in the afternoon every day and take 30 kids on a wonderful journey of learning, engagement and inspiration.
When I was about 17, I found myself heading off to university to do my primary teaching degree. But I also found myself dipping my toe in the water of stand up comedy. All through my four years at uni, I was in the classroom during the day, and then on the road in the comedy clubs at night.
For me, again, the two of them were very similar – albeit one was full of swearing and had an adult audience and one had no swearing and had a young audience. I think what I do now is basically a combination of the two.
The turning point
While working as a primary school teacher, I went to a workshop one day called “putting the fun back in the staff room.” I thought: ‘This is going to be dreadful.’ I thought it was going to be cheesy and patronising, hosted by somebody who’s never even been a teacher, who was going to tell us how to do our jobs, and that we all need to have fun.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was absolutely sensational. That’s a big word to use. But it was sensational. And it was hilarious. It was moving. It was uplifting. It was raw, it was real. I’d never seen anything like it in a work setting.
It made me think of a party or a good movie that takes you on that emotional journey, and you just get in and go: ‘Wow, that was brilliant.’ I remember walking away on the day thinking, ‘That’s the greatest workshop I’ve ever been on in my life.’ One of the things he said was: ‘If you hate your job, leave.’
“I didn’t hate my job. I genuinely loved being a primary school teacher. But I was one of these people who had spent their short career thinking, ‘What else is out there?’”
The first big gig
The first gig I had that felt like a big room full of people, when it was just me up there on my own doing an out and out motivational talk, was at an event at the EICC in Edinburgh. I think there were about 1100 or 1200 people in the audience. For me, at that time, I just thought: ‘Oh my God, that’s an unbelievable amount of people.’ I think it was the most people I’d ever stood in front of at that point.
I had about 30 minutes. And I remember pacing up and down behind the scenes, thinking: ‘I could have a normal job. Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this?’. But that is something I’ve dealt with forever. When I was doing stand up, I would be pacing up and down backstage, thinking: ‘You could be at home, you could be watching the telly, why are you doing this?’. That sticks with me even now, all these years later and at nearly 43 years old I still pace up and down every day, thinking: ‘What am I doing?’
I remember walking on stage that day and having a genuinely phenomenal experience, where you got that laugh early on and that first bit of engagement. It felt like my first stand up gig, at 17 years of age going onstage for only five minutes and not knowing if people will like it. And then coming off the stage thinking: ‘I want more of that. I want to do this again.’
Getting out of your head
One of the biggest barriers to success for me was definitely my own head. It’s caused me a lot of trouble over the years. I am a hugely anxious person, which people are quite often surprised about when they get to know me, because of what I do for a living.
Mindset anxiety – or good old imposter syndrome – can really come into play for me. At the start of my speaking career, I very quickly realised I was surrounded by high-achieving people. Those who had won a medal at the Commonwealth Games, or been an Olympian or climbed Mount Everest or suffered unbelievable tragedy and had managed to overcome it. And then there was wee me, who used to be a primary school teacher.
It was that constant battle in my head, thinking: ‘Why am I here? Why have they booked me?’. I’ve never achieved greatness, or won a medal. It caused a lot of self doubt and made me think perhaps I shouldn’t be doing this.
“I think there’s something to be said for genuine passion and storytelling. If you can do that reasonably well, then people will come on that journey with you”
But I still fight against those feelings of doubt to this day. I’m still working to better myself and believe in myself. However, I came to the conclusion – probably a long time ago, but have only recently been prepared to admit to it – that I’m going to live with anxiety for my whole life.
There are things I do to make it better, and what I do now is use it to my advantage. I take all that nervous energy and when I get onstage, it all comes out in a much nicer and more positive, impactful kind of way.
Onstage I am at my most comfortable, which again, seems to confuse people. But when you’re in front of a live audience, there’s an immediacy to it. Your brain doesn’t have the space or time to be worrying about everyday stuff and you can kind of switch off from the real world.
I think it’s amazing how many people in performing arts – specifically comedy – struggle with things like anxiety and lack of confidence, yet going on stage seems to give them some solace, some sense of being and value. It definitely worked for me.
‘The joy of no’
Over the last couple of years, adding a pandemic into the mix, I’ve learned what I’m calling ‘the joy of no’. If I look at certain gigs or events that I just know are going to cause me huge stress, I’ve learned to be able to turn around and say, actually, I’m sorry, I’m not available.
It feels great. I used to just say yes to everything, and I’d be away four or five nights a week travelling. And then of course, the pandemic came along and I learned that there’s another way.
Fire Up Scotland
In 2018 I decided to book the Hydro in Glasgow for an event called Fire Up Scotland. It was a free event for secondary schools, and the goal was to fill it with 12,000 teenagers and pull off the biggest event of inspiration for teenagers there has ever been in Scotland, with an amazing array of speakers and performers. It was like a rock and roll version of Ted and just edgier, cooler, different.
It took about two years to plan and cost me all sorts of stress and grief along the way, but we pulled it off. And we filled the hydro and walking on that stage that morning to nearly 12,000 people was actually mind blowing. It’s just such a huge space.
Standing in the wings as the introduction was happening. It was honestly mind blowing. I’ve done all sorts of amazing gigs, working with some incredible clients ranging from Nike, to Chanel, to Jaguar Land Rover, to the NHS. But 12,000 teenagers in a room who are excited and engaged was just absolutely amazing.
Tree of Knowledge
Tree of Knowledge was actually my first venture into being a motivational speaker, by developing inspirational workshops for children that worked on the mindset and the motivation and this idea of encouraging young people to have a brilliant positive learning experience, to be the best version of themselves and to believe that they can achieve great things. And that’s where it all kind of started.
Originally, Tree of Knowledge involved writing and delivering workshops for children. These would be around mindset, motivation, creativity, leadership and communication, but it was all done in a way that was fun and entertaining. We would usually do two a day in a school, with 50 to 60 teenagers in the room. Over time, teachers started asking if there were any programmes available for them, to essentially support the work we were doing with their young people. So we started to build a programme for the teachers.
Soon, parents then began getting in touch about the fact that their 15 year old was coming home excited about school. They would get in touch with us and ask, ‘What have you done? How did you do that?’. So we started creating workshops for parents.
Ultimately, we appeared on Dragon’s Den and were offered a huge sum of money. We turned it down, which could potentially be the best thing we ever did. It launched us on this new journey.
Tree of Knowledge gained recognition through, for example, partners of a headteacher, or a parent who’d been in the audience who ran a business or a team and got in touch and said: “You did this thing for my other half and they raved about it. Could you come in and do something for my business?”.
“It was amazing how quickly I realised that businesses are looking for new, creative ways to engage the people to give them a really positive, uplifting team learning experience that’s not cheesy, corny or patronising”
It was amazing how quickly I realised that businesses are looking for new, creative ways to engage the people to give them a really positive, uplifting team learning experience that’s not cheesy, corny or patronising. It aims to genuinely teach you stuff, but makes you laugh, and think and feel, and just have this incredibly moving experience.
Building out a business
We started to write all sorts of weird and wonderful workshops for businesses, and it just started to take off. So all of a sudden, we had these two parts to our business. We had education and business, and then my profile started to grow organically. I think it was Richard Branson who said: ‘Say yes and learn how to do it later.’ It was very much one of those moments.
Fast forward several years and most of my time is spent delivering keynote speeches at events all over the world, hosting events, conferences for people, facilitating big two-day exhibitions for other people. Alongside the work we do in schools for Tree of Knowledge, we deliver programmes to businesses and, because of the pandemic, we also created something called Treehouse, which is an online health and wellbeing platform for schools.
Early on, we realised that schools are going to close, and we realised we were going to have to create a platform that can be used at home, in school, or both. Building on that realisation, we now have over 400 schools subscribed to Treehouse using this resource every day.
Treehouse is used in schools across the UK, as well as in the US, Prague and Germany. We now have a fourth branch (pardon the pun) which is this online, subscription-based model that we’d never have thought of. I’m now wondering, ‘Why did we not do this years ago?’. But of course it was one of the silver linings of the pandemic.
Years ago, I remember somebody saying to me: ‘If your business ever falls off the edge of a cliff, make sure you build a plane before you hit the ground.’ And it was very much that moment of: ‘OK, we need to build a plane here.’ Learning to fly the plane took a bit longer because again, the online world wasn’t a space we’d ever been in before. Learning to present live online to businesses and people all over the world took a few weeks to grasp, but once we got it we got it.
“Our goal is to inspire the world. I don’t care if that sounds cheesy or dramatic. The goal is to get up every day and do our bit”
But the whole thing comes back to where we started. Our goal is to inspire the world. I don’t care if that sounds cheesy or dramatic. The goal is to get up every day and do our bit, to make some difference or positivity in the world because we need it now more than ever.
Embracing your inner child
When someone read and reviewed my book, ‘Life Will See You Now’, and said it feels like it’s been written by an over enthusiastic teenager, it was the best feedback I could ever get.
So of course, I took that review, and actually used it as the main promotion for the book. Imagine criticising somebody for having an energy about them that is similar to an enthusiastic teenager! It supports everything that the book stood for, that I stood for. I’m very aware that it was meant as a criticism, but I thought: ‘I’m running with that’.
Soon, the five star reviews began pouring in and the response was incredible. As our business, we’re often reminding people – whether it’s in a workshop or a leadership programme, or in a keynote speech – that this inner child is really important.
The world seems so serious at the moment, it always does. But right now, it’s quite something. And I go back to my time as a primary school teacher, and I often say to people that I learned more about life working with children under the age of ten than I ever did with adults.
Children’s ability to adapt to new moments of change, or moments of conflict amongst their peers is so amazing. They just deal with it, and they do it in the most wonderful way. And the way they turn up on a Monday morning, the way they walk into a room, that mindset, that attitude is just inspiring.
“I want to remind people that just because you’re now considered an adult, you’re still allowed to have fun. You’re still allowed to be creative, you’re still allowed to be curious. You can be brave, you’re allowed to make mistakes”
You go into a lot of workplaces and people come in, and it’s Monday, they’re tired. Your Mondays are a seventh of your life. There are literally people spending a seventh of their life less happy because of Mondays, and then there’s the people who spend two sevenths of their life less happy because of Sundays. Kids, on the other hand, they just rock up buzzing and demanding to know what they’re doing at school that day.
I want to remind people that just because you’re now considered an adult, you’re still allowed to have fun. You’re still allowed to be creative, you’re still allowed to be curious. You can be brave, you’re allowed to make mistakes. But we get one go at this thing called life. So come on, let’s do it better than we have to.
Defining ‘making it’
I was a teenager in the ’90s. Everybody wanted to be in a band. Everybody wanted to be Oasis. I didn’t, I wanted to be Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, but I knew I wanted to make it. Of course when you’re that age, fame and fortune is what ‘making it’ means. My two attempts in the stand up world were in many ways both hugely successful and an absolute disaster.
It took me many years to look back on and think: ‘I totally made it’. I had the most fun I could ever imagine. I met the best people possible. It took me all over the world. I was creative. I wrote my own stuff. I shared it with the world, and I had a blast with my best friends. How was that not making it? Did I have a private jet? No. Did I make millions? No. Did I get the movie rights to my life? No.
But it was that idea of shifting that mindset to what’s actually important. My book I released recently, ‘A Head Full of Everything’ is for teenagers and addresses how social media has changed our expectations of ‘making it’. The idea with social media today, for example, is that you just need a phone, and your bedroom, and you can make it, you just get that one viral video and off you go.
But actually, the reality is that you have to work hard, you have to be kind to yourself, you have to get out there and interact with other people, we need to be able to communicate, and we have to have the right mindset. And there’s such a drive to have the perfect Instagram life, that I think we’ve kind of got it all wrong.
CHANGING PEOPLE’S PERCEPTIONS
I don’t tell people that they need to rethink their life, but I do use a lot of stories and anecdotes from my own experiences that plant seeds as I go. I think a lot of the time, my words probably hit people on the drive home. During the event, they’ll be laughing as I take them on a bit of a journey. After the event, what I’ve said will smack them in the face as they realise; “It was me. I am one of them. I need to sort that out.”
I had to accept quite early on that there are some people who do not want to change, either. There are some people who love being negative, cynical, and even miserable. They love being the person in the office that stands at the water cooler and bitches about everything.
“We don’t chuck up a bunch of bullet points on our big screen behind us and just read them. It’s more like a stand up performance, with just these beautiful messages in there somewhere that sneak up and bite them on the bum a bit later on”
I address that kind of person straight away in my talks, I’ll talk about the fact that there’ll be people in the room who don’t want to be here, who are thinking: ‘This guy’s a bit too much for me’. But it’s interesting, at the end of quite a lot of events, there’ll be people who come up to me and say: ‘I was one of those people this morning, I didn’t want to be there. I was told I had to come to this. But actually, I’m glad I did.’
I think the way we put things over to people is really different. It’s a bit quirky and a bit unique. We don’t chuck up a bunch of bullet points on our big screen behind us and just read them. It’s more like a stand up performance, with just these beautiful messages in there somewhere that, like I say, sneak up and bite them on the bum a bit later on.
‘WEE PIECE OF MAGIC’
I talk about people’s wee pieces of magic a lot. I share all these stories about my own kids, and what I mean by a wee piece of magic, and it’s those little beautiful moments of discovery.
You’ll know if the fire in your belly is burning bright, if it’s dwindling slightly and definitely if it’s gone. You’ll know if you need to do something about it, and it all links back to this idea of mindset.
When you’re five, you just want things to always be more fun and more exciting. You believe things are possible. And you know that things are worth the effort in the long run. For example, you’ll build Lego for four hours, knock it down and start again. It’s why you’ll go outside to build a den in the garden even though somebody has said it’s going to rain in an hour.
That for me sums up an awful lot of adults in the world right now. We’ve moved from being the type of person that thinks and says, ‘I’m going to go build a den in the garden’, to being the type of person that thinks, says and feels: ‘But it’s going to rain in an hour.’ And that is the mindset there.
Your wee piece of magic is how you choose to think, and how to see life. And the beautiful thing about mindset is that it is a free choice. I’m not one of these happy clappy sorts that says, ‘There’s no such thing as a bad day.’ There absolutely is such a thing as a bad day.
You need to let those moments in and show them around, but make sure you show them the door. You know, don’t let them stay on the holidays. But what I’m saying is that being hopeful and optimistic is a conscious decision we can choose to make every day.
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
Nobody has it all figured out. Nobody actually really knows what they’re doing. I think early on, I spent too much time looking at other companies and comparing myself to them. I thought they all had it sussed and it must be really easy for them. Whereas in reality, we’re all just making it up.
If there was one other thing, it would be to tell myself – and others – to stop worrying. I was so worried about everything, and I still worry to some extent, but it’s good to remind yourself that nobody’s got it all figured out.
GAVIN’S PUBLISHED BOOKS
Gavin’s penned a series of books aimed at children, teenagers and adults. Best-sellers include:
A HEAD FULL OF EVERYTHING
Helping teenagers to embrace some of life’s most awkward years, embrace their “inner weird” and to, quite literally, act their age.
The self-acclaimed “literary equivalent of ‘ctrl/alt/delete”, ‘Shine’ gives no-nonsense but humour-filled advice on how to ace life.
LIFE WILL SEE YOU NOW
A guide to rediscovering what truly matters, and rethinking what ‘making it’ in life actually means.
“The ‘tweenager’s’ atlas for navigating life”, Brill Kid is an interactive collection of stories, quotes, theories and science to guide 8-12 year-olds through an ever-changing world