Simon Cohen’s an entrepreneur, a social commentator and something of an expert on happiness. At 24 he started a communications agency. He built it into a million pound business that represented the Dalai Lama and Gandhi’s grandson, then gave it away. He now lives in Cornwall, UK with his wife and two girls age 3 and 18 months.
To give. Giving my presence and my time. It means putting someone else in the centre of the universe, and becoming a student all over again. I'm badly paraphrasing Socrates here but he said something like ‘all I know is that I don’t know anything.’ Being a dad for me means going from master to student in a fleeting moment and being on a constant learning journey. Learning from these amazing mindfulness masters, who are completely in the moment, while they’re masquerading as dribbling fools.
It’s also the greatest gift. I feel completely blessed and slightly unworthy to have been given the opportunity to be a dad, because it doesn't happen to everyone. Part of being a dad is trying to honour that gift.
It’s certainly changed my idea of what it means to be successful and to live a life of value. Before fatherhood, I was a little bought into the idea of success being about plaudits and acclaim. As a dad, working through the ego is one of my daily challenges.
One of the things I worked on a few years ago was the Charter for Compassion with Karen Armstrong. She defines compassion as dethroning yourself from yourself and putting someone else at the centre of your universe. I've realised that, although I did all this good stuff in service of society through my work, if I'm honest with myself a lot of that was for me.
Now my kids are the centre of the universe, it’s helped me be a better person and really helped me discover what it means to live a compassionate life, to think beyond myself and my life.
It’s also helped build my empathy too. Looking at the news today, the pre-fatherhood me would have seen the images of immigration, the boy who drowned on that Turkish beach and felt something needed to be done. Now I feel a deeper connection with other parents and children involved too.
It’s also made me a better singer. If I’d known I would sing so much as a dad I would have worked on that more before I had kids!
When I found out my wife pregnant for the first time, I knew I really wanted to be present for the birth, but I was always away, flying all over the world for work. I consider myself a man of values, but that value wasn't being felt by the people I loved the most.
Over the years I've worked a lot on ‘you make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.’ Values only really matter when they are tested, so the birth of my first child was an ideal opportunity to test them.
I put the whole company on a one year sabbatical. HR nightmare, but we did it. While on sabbatical, we had our eldest daughter. During the time off I just couldn't imagine not being with them, they needed me there. But so did my business, so I knew I had a choice to make. I decided I had everything I needed, so I gave the company away through a crowd sourced competition.
Yes I have worked a lot on happiness, both professionally with the UN International Day of Happiness, and personally in my own life. The happiness question is a helpful focus, but it can be misdirected, because the science tells us that we’re happier if we focus on other people’s happiness. It’s a thing that comes and goes. I really struggle with the peaks and troughs of happiness. When I'm talking to people about happiness, I've found it helpful to ask what that word really means to them. Happiness is really an outcome of what you do, rather than a thing to pursue in the first place. I've found people’s answers to that question tend to gravitate around what they've given themselves to, rather than what they've earnt.
I like to think he’d be quite proud in a way. I think that being a parent is the greatest opportunity to apply values. In my pre-fatherhood time I was working in this field of bringing values out into the world by promoting positive stories. Now I feel like I'm actually applying them to my own life. So I hope my old self would be quite proud, but he’d take the mickey too because I was born and bred in London, more of a city boy than the country dweller living on a cliff top in Cornwall that I am now!
Quite a lot. I'm more acutely aware of my responsibility in terms of what I think, say and do. Children are mirrors to the impression you leave, so I feel an acute responsibility to be the best I can be. So I'm only now beginning to face some quite challenging things about my own past. I know first-hand how much childhood experiences and your relationships with your parents impact you. Particularly for the first 7 years. It’s tough knowing we have such a huge responsibility nurturing these human beings. It’s even tougher with lack of sleep. When I don’t have much sleep I can be a bit of an idiot, I wish I could be a better person when I'm sleep deprived.
Our youngest is now 11.5 months and we’re working on controlled crying. It’s really tough to going against millions of years of evolution, when everything is telling me to go to her, to comfort her, not to. You've got to step out of that emotional reaction and think about the bigger picture and what’s best for her in the long term and not go. That’s hard.
The other bit is our – the parents - mental health. Having two kids in a short space of time is challenging. It’s made me far more aware of how essential it is for me and my partner to care for our own mental health, so we can be the best people we can be. The challenge though is time. You don’t really have the time to deconstruct and reconstruct what’s going on as a parent. You just muddle through. It’s a bit like trying to clear up the snow while it’s still coming down.
It’s all about learning on the go. Ours is an anomalous situation. We’re both here all the time, which I don’t think is very common and so it’s hard to work out what our roles are as mum and dad, and where they differ. That said, we work really well together.
In terms of strategies, we try and find and diarise time where we can be alone as individuals and as a couple, and when we can be with each child on our own. It’s about recognising each different strands in the web of our relationships are equally important and all need nurturing. We find that things get stressful when we haven’t had time as a couple or alone as adults. So now we’re working on looking at weekly diary and try to carve the slots out. I play football in a local team, and my wife has her own things. These activities are so much more important than I ever gave them credit for until now.
I'm a big believer in wholeheartedness, giving your whole heart to everything you do. If I can look at my children and see that they've given their whole hearts to life. They've really given themselves to life, not held back and been a benefit to the people around them. If my children are giving themselves, emotionally and spiritually that will be a huge source of pride.
Being present. So that means resisting the urge to look at my mobile. It means really listening to the children. I think the best way to teach them is to model what you’re trying to teach and be really present with them.
To have the courage and conviction to really play. Part of it is stepping outside the confines of the material world. Letting their imagination flourish. Playing with them, making up games and letting imaginations, yours included, run wild.
I've done so much work in my life to cultivate the external conditions of a good life. Now the focus is on the internal conditions and getting them to flourish.
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