Where it all began

Recently back from tour and home for the holidays, we caught up with author-illustrator, motivational speaker, and creator of Drawn from Experience, Matthew Johnstone about his journey from working as a world-class advertising agency creative, to becoming an advocate for wellbeing.

Hi Matthew! Thanks for speaking with us. What inspired you to make the move from working in a mainstream, creative agency, to focusing on mental health and inspirational speaking?

My company is called Drawn from Experience. Pretty much everything I do whether it’s writing and illustrating books, public speaking, I weave my own experience and understanding through out.

I was a reasonably successful creative in advertising. My career spanned over a 15 year period, I started as a junior art director in Sydney to a creative director in New York.

It was while in that job I discovered I was a perfectionist. Advertising was really about being on and up; winning business and winning awards. There’s a saying that you’re only as good as your last ad which always kept the pressure on.

The job was interesting, always different but it was also unrelenting and because I wasn’t looking after myself, eventually I think I just burned out. I was very stressed. I think I was suffering internally. I took my job very seriously, and back in the day, there was no help, no HR to speak of. I suppose because of being a guy, and having a lot of pride and ego, I wasn’t able to seek the help that I needed to get. I wasn’t taking very good care of myself. The ongoing stress led to depression.

Illustration: What life throws at you

Own your problems. Don't let your problems own you.

Around 2001, when I was in New York as a Creative Director, I ended up about a block from the World Trade Centre when it came down, and I think that was just a wake-up call for me that life is short and that we don’t know what’s around the corner. It forced me to do a stock take on my life and re-evaluate what was important. I think it did for a lot of people. Outwardly my career was going well but internally my trajectory wasn’t looking so good and I realised I needed to pull up and to make some major changes.

How did it feel publishing your first book around mental health and wellbeing?

The funny thing was, I was really nervous about publishing I Had A Black Dog. I had more than two people say to me don’t do it, it’s a big risk. You could lose your responsibility, you might not get the jobs you want to get. Really, what I’ve realised since, is it was someone else projecting their fear onto me.

It was a revelation when that book went out. I realised I was not alone … and that there were a lot of people who were suffering in silence. I started getting lots of emails from people saying it’s as if you wrote that book about me. It was astounding. I suddenly felt very validated in telling that story.

One of your earlier books, Living With A Black Dog, was written with your wife Ainsley. What inspired you to revisit the topic of depression from a different perspective?

The publisher came to me and said well, we want you to do a sequel for carers. I came home, I spoke to Ainsley about it and we started jotting down some ideas, and suddenly we realised we had a lot more to tell.

I quite often think that carers are overlooked, not really considered, whether it’s mental health or physical, or any situation. They are the ones who are trying to keep it all together, to pick up the pieces, look after a family or run a business. It’s the person who’s suffering who gets all the attention, and it’s the carer that’s overlooked.

You’ve published a number of books over the years introducing readers to meditation, resilience, and wellbeing. Would you say positivity and positive mental health have become the main focus of your work in recent years?
Illustration: the first step

The first hurdle in overcoming adversity is admitting there's a problem in the first place. This requires honesty and authenticity with yourself and then with others.

I've really dedicated my life and my day to day to understanding wellbeing. I work with a lot of mental health professionals, I work with a lot of people in the wellbeing orbit. I love it. It's so good … it's about what's important, it's about what makes us tick, and I think quite often a lot of us don't have these conversations enough.

I saw a talk from Martin Seligman, he was the forefather of positive psychology, and he said something very interesting that really struck a chord with me. He said he didn't really believe in happiness. He said happiness is the one true core emotion that we actively chase, we seek, and he said what he believed in was wellbeing. He's a self-confessed grumpy old man. With wellbeing, you can be a grumpy old man or be depressed and have wellbeing, you can have cancer and have wellbeing, you can be in a wheelchair and have wellbeing. That really rung a bell with me, as that's how I see life.

There's no silver bullet, there's no magic pill. Life’s really a potpourri of many things that we have to do around wellbeing: it's exercise, it's diet, it's good sleep, good communication, meditation and mindfulness. When we can bring those things into our lives, that's when we start to live well and just be well.

Life’s really a potpourri of many things that we have to do around wellbeing: it's exercise, it's diet, it's good sleep, good communication, meditation and mindfulness. When we can bring those things into our lives, that's when we start to live well and just be well.

That's pretty much what I spend my day to day, trying to get people to look at their lives a little differently, to see how they can make small changes. You can't change your life overnight.

Your books and talks both convey quite complex subjects in quite a unique way with colourful, often humorous illustrations. Do you find these help engage audiences during your public speaking events?

When I do talks, they're all visual, they're all illustrations drawn by me. Through that, a lot of the stuff I talk about is evidence-based research, I've done a lot of work with The Black Dog Institute here in Sydney, with clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, and so there's a lot of evidence, a lot of stuff in there that we know works. Through it, I thread my own story.

What I've really learnt since doing talks since 2005 is that adults still love storytelling. I think when you can weave your own story through it, it takes the pressure off. People go, "Oh I see. He's told a story, and he's OK." It gives people comfort. I think if you can put humour through it, if you can be a little bit self-deprecating, I think it's really helpful.

How did you get in to public speaking?

The first talk I ever gave was for the alumni of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. I did it with Professor Gordon Parker who started The Black Dog Institute . He rang me the night before to see how I was doing, feeling, how my nerves were. He said I just thought I'd let you know we're at full capacity. I said what's full capacity? He said I think it's 120 or 140 for the room. I'm going oh man, that's a lot of people. He says yeah, we don't know what to do with the other 650 people who have RSVP'd. It ended up being in the big hall at the university, standing room only. I was so nervous I nearly vomited on the stage.

Illustration: relaxation

Stressed spelt backwards is desserts. Don't put up with it, turn stress around.

That was my first foray into public speaking, and I've got to say it's probably one of the best things that could have happened to me, because I went ‘if I can get through that, I can get through anything’. It was an amazing experience. It was terrifying, but I got through it. It was probably one of the most difficult talks I've ever done, but that's where it all started. It was a good way to start.

Your talks cover a broad variety of topics for diverse range of audiences from schools and universities to corporations, charities and local communities. Which topics do you feel are the most important to teach them about?

Well at the moment, I'm primarily focusing on two.

My 'Tough and UP' talk is about the art of resilience and it has a little bit of something in it for everyone. It’s about what challenges us, how we can grow from anything that challenges us mentally and physically and how we can learn from it and be better people. I think that's a really powerful one.

The other is Stressed Spelt Backwards Is Desserts. It's how to bring some sweet ideas of calm into your life. That's based on the book I'm currently writing with a clinical psychologist called Dr Michael Player that's coming out in 2019, based on a book on stress.

I also believe if you have ongoing, unrelenting stress in your life, you've got a much higher propensity to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.. We can't eliminate stress from our lives, but if we can understand how we can work with it, how we can realise and understand and recognise when it's there, we've got a much better chance of turning down the volume.

I'm not telling people things that they don’t know already. It's things that we constantly forget to do for ourselves. Just simple tips on how we can live a better, slightly more functional life if you like.

Can you tell us anything more about your upcoming projects?

I'm really excited about the new book. It's going to be a bit longer, will still have a lot of illustrations, but it's written by a clinical psychologist who's been doing a lot of research and study into stress for the last 5-6 years. It's not me with my opinion, it's actually coming from the clinical horse’s mouth so to speak.

Illustration: Y is for You

People often say they don't have time to exercise, eat well, meditate, relax, problem solve. All these are examples of self compassion. When we are kind to ourselves we naturally become better people to be around.
If you could share just one message about wellbeing and resilience, what would it be?

I just think life is short. We don't know what's around the corner, we should make the most of each day. We get given one opportunity with this life, and we should just try and make the most of it, whether it's helping other people or it's living well for ourselves so we can be there for others.

People often say they don't have time to exercise, don't have time to meditate or to eat well, and I think it's really about making the time, because I think when we're compassionate to ourselves, we're just better people to be around, to live with, to work with, better parents better partners, and I think at the end of the day, that's a good thing. It's not rocket science. It's quite simple. It's just about recognising that you're in difficulty, and striving towards the positive opposite. That's all we can do. It's not about hurdling mountains overnight, it's about baby steps. Understand and accept what it is you go through, and then, work towards its positive opposite.


Discover more about Matthew Johnstone and Drawn From Experience, or pick up a copies of his books now.