John Collee

John Collee – Find Somebody Who’s Done it Before

"Find someone who's done it before," says JOHN COLLEE, Oscar nominated writer, on this episode of 10 Lessons it Took Me 50 Years to Learn. Also, 'why we have 2 sexes" and “it’s not an education without language and music.”

About John Collee

John Collee studied Medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, and subsequently worked as a doctor in the UK, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and the Solomon Islands.

From 1991-96 he wrote a popular weekly medical column for The Observer Newspaper, UK.

Since moving to Sydney in 1998 John has written or co-written a number of feature films including the Oscar nominated “Master and Commander” and the Oscar winning “Happy Feet.” More recent work includes “Creation” – about the home life of Charles Darwin – “Walking with Dinosaurs” and “Wolf Totem”.   

John is also a novelist and published Author. His novels include “Kingsley’s Touch”, “A Paper Mask” – both medical thrillers – also “The Rig”, inspired by his work as a doctor for a Canadian drilling company in Madagascar.

John is married to his wife Deborah, a newspaper journalist, and they have three grown-up children.

​He is also the creative director of Hopscotch Features (producers of Russell Crowe’s “The Water Diviner” etc), also co-founder and board member of the climate action group 350.Org, Australia.

Episode notes

Lesson 1: It’s not an education without music and language 05m 30s.

Lesson 2: The reason we have 2 sexes 12m 02s.

Lesson 3: How to succeed before you start University 16m 01s.

Lesson 4: Find somebody who’s done it before 23m40s.

Lesson 5: Locate your limits 25m58s.

Lesson 6: Humans achieve communally 29m 31s.

Lesson 7: Output equals input 33m 45s.

Lesson 8: The hard conversations are the important conversations 37m 23s.

Lesson 9: Choose your children wisely 40m 58s.

Lesson 10: It’s not analytical or intuitive …it’s both 45m 01s.


John Collee: [00:00:00] I think in general, the art of learning to ignore stuff that’s not important is something that is really important to cultivate. Because as you know, if you’re kind of, if you’re paying attention to everything, you’re paying attention to nothing.

Duff Watkins: [00:00:15] Hello and welcome to the podcast. 10 Lessons it Took Me 50 Years to Learn wisdom for the next generation here or you’ll receive wisdom, not just information or mere fact it’s for an international audience of rising leaders. My name is Duff Watkins and I’m your host. This podcast is sponsored by the professional development forum, which helps young professionals. Of any age, accelerate their performance in the modern workplace here, you will receive practical, honest sound advice that you can’t find in a workbook because it took us half a century to learn this stuff.

Today’s guest is John Collee, author writers, screenwriter, and former doctor. John has written three novels, medical thrillers as one non-fiction I’ve counted, 19 produced screenplays, just getting one is quite an accomplishment.

For example, uh, Master and Commander was nominated for an Oscar Happy Feet, won an Oscar.

I haven’t seen Hotel Mumbai in its entirety yet, but he’s written Mad Max and everybody in the world has seen that.

John, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.

John Collee: [00:01:20] Uh, no. So, I should correct you on Mad Max. I mean, in a way I did, I did write Mad Max in the George Miller. Uh, my good pal had storyboard at the whole film and at one point just needed somebody to put it into words.

Um, but really it was written by George and his art department and his collaborators there. So, I, uh, my, my, um, my contribution to Mad Max was a completely minimal. Yeah. But, uh, yes, I’ve either kind of written or co-written quite a number of screenplays now.

Duff Watkins: [00:01:49] Well, it seems to me, you must be one of the world’s greatest collaborators from what I can tell, because that’s, we’re going to come to that I suppose, but I know you don’t know this.

I first saw you. I think it was 98, 99. I was sitting in an audience you had just. Come to Australia. You were a doctor. I know you’re educated at university of Edinburgh. You’re a doctor in the UK. Um, also in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, the Solomon Islands. It’s like, you’re on a cruise, John. You’re just going from Island to Island, practicing medicine for look, this is what it sounds like.

You did Australia.

John Collee: [00:02:24] I got into medicine because it seemed like a good way to have an adventure. So that was kind of my primary intent when I studied medicine. Yeah. Yeah. So, I immediately had headed off and started working in aid organizations and also, I’d always had an interest in writing. So, the writing and the medicine went on in parallel for some years.

And the problem with that strategy, because we were talking earlier about how we’re both quite intensive people. The problem with that strategy is that unless you kind of accumulate academic qualifications. Then you’d find yourself in this kind of weird medical back quarters. So, by the time I was 40, I was a highly experienced in dealing with Bush medicine and, you know, basically where you had a backpack instead of 30 drugs in it.

And that was about it, you know, but the sophisticated modern medicine that was being practiced, back home was kind of a foreign country to me. So it was quite easy for me then to kind of bail out in medicine and, uh, And into writing full-time cause frankly, I felt unqualified as a doctor by then, I’d kind of, I came back when our kids were born and really, you know, worked in a high tech hospital in London for six months and realized that, uh, I was kind of, sort of, um, had that style of medicine, both practically and philosophically.

I kind of parted company with that style of medicine. Yeah. Yeah.

Duff Watkins: [00:03:47] Um, what you, you said at the time, just 98, 99 that you had? Um, no. I mean, you were married, you had three kids, I believe at the time. Um, I thought you were in Singapore, but I knew it was an Island up there somewhere. And you decided to move to Australia, your wife’s Australian and reinvent yourself and you came here and.

As you say a bit lucky, but I’m sure a lot of effort went into it and wrote a little movie called master and commander, starring Russell Crowe, which was nominated for an Oscar, not bad. That’s not bad going for your first. Uh, but you had been a writer for a long time. You wrote a medical column for the UK newspaper, the observer, which is a newspaper of some renown.

So, it’s not. You weren’t a novice at this.

John Collee: [00:04:27] No I’d written novels and, uh, started off writing novels quite early. And you know, I mean, you, you always forget all the stuff that ends up in your bottom drawer, which is like your attempt, you know, I mean, one of the lights life lessons, I’m not sure if it’s on our list is you just got to keep, keep on swimming as they say in the movie, just keep on going.

And the thing that you’re passionate about and finally find some kind of breakthrough. The breakthrough might be, I’m not really supposed to be doing this. I kind of move into something else. But the breakthrough for me was I wrote these novels. I, and they did pretty well. They were published by penguin, but the loneliness of the long-distance novel writer was something I really didn’t like.

I liked being a novelist process of writing novels. Whereas writing movies, as you said at the beginning, it’s a much more collaborative, um, endeavor. Working hand in hand with directors and producers and actors. And that’s where I kind of find my comfort zone. Yeah.

Duff Watkins: [00:05:27] Let me ask you this. This is our first standard question.

Do you remember your first business or career lesson?

John Collee: [00:05:35] Well, should we go with what I’ve got on the list here? Uh, Duff cause, uh, cause this is really about children, you know? And, uh, and we’re coming at this like, um, uh, you know, I’m now 60 my kids have kind of no I’m 65, my kids have grown up. The eldest is, um, 26 and the youngest is 20.

Um, I remember. When they were young and this is not making me kind of think back to my own earliest days, you know, you see on the wall behind me, this is my COVID project is learning, learning scales on the saxophone.

What I wish I had learned when I was like a little tiny kid and I see my young friends now who’ve got new children and they’re wondering which school should I send them to? And my advice to all of them is send them to local school because. In five years’, time that you’re going to want them to be able to run around their friends’ houses and get involved in a community.

As Hillary Clinton says, it takes a village to raise a child that kind of open-door community, which actually we have in our neighborhood here has been a constant joy to us in such a, such a boon when you’re raising children, because you do need. The advice and counsel and of other parents, we all feel we’re in the trenches when you’re a young parent.

So having that kind of having children who all go to the same school, the schools just around the corner and they all get to know each other and these friendships. Like my school friendships sustain you through life. You know what I mean? My children have got friends, so they made the nursery school and I do as well, actually.

So, I think that’s an important thing. And, and again, you fret about, Oh, what should I, what do my children need to learn in order to get to a year sort of whatever it is and get into senior school and get a good step on the ladder. And actually, the only thing is I think it’s really important to learn when you’re young are music and languages and, and, uh, to that end when our kids were small, we went to live in France for a year and they’re all well, the girls are kind of bilingual and French, so that was a real boon as well.

It struck me then that children will soak up language like kids. Like you don’t actually have to teach them if they’re not. If they’re in an area where they’re exposed to language, we’ll just soak that up and weirdly the same with music. So, um, Yeah, that was my first life lesson. If you’ve got to learn anything, when you’re very small, learn, learn music and languages,

Duff Watkins: [00:07:55] This is the first Lesson It’s not an education without music and language, uh, you mentioned, you know, some things about you just keep swimming towards something and the lesson might be, you realize that it’s not your thing.

I’ve got three guitars in there, John, you know, that’s uh, that, uh, I never opened anymore. I think I have the reality. I’ve confronted the reality that music is not in my destiny, but, but appreciate our playing it, but appreciate it. He gets still there.

John Collee: [00:08:23] Well, the other thing that music teachers, I think this is really important.

Both as an adult and as a child is it’s like, you know, all we have is incremental learning and, um, I play the saxophone like every day for 20 minutes and that 20 minutes is incremental. So, I’m 20 minutes better every day. We had a guy who goes a Stonewall and a guard you here. And he was an ex-alcoholic.

Who’s whose way of staying sober was to do stone masonry. He would be out there rain and shine. I love him to death. It’s just such a great guy, but Lex would come, and he spent all day shaping a stone and put it in the wall. You’d go away and come the next morning, rain or shine, shape another stone. And over three months, this wall emerged, and you have my God Lex.

How did you make that thing of beauty? This curving wall around the clifftop. And, uh, and it was like every day showed up. You made as one brick and that’s, you know, that’s how you write a novel. That’s how you write a screenplay. You kind of use one brick at a time when you just need one.

Duff Watkins: [00:09:21] And your comment about language resonates with me too.

My wife is Brazilian, and she complains that her English has not improved since being with me because I speak it so poorly. And, um, When I try to speak Portuguese, she says, speak English to speak. You know, it’s this reveal. But however, so, but the ability to communicate in another language and that could be language, could be images through writing music, of course, but there’s just nothing quite like that.

John Collee: [00:09:50] Sure. But you and I, you and I tried to learn Chinese. Now we’d be laboring at it for years, but if you take a six-year-old to China, put him in a Chinese school. Or even give them an Australia and put them on a Chinese school. They’ll be fluent and year or two. And it’s like, it’s a miracle, you know, they just soak it up, you know?

Duff Watkins: [00:10:08] Okay. Uh, before I get to the next lesson, is there anything that you have unlearned lately? And by that, I mean, something you absolutely positively knew to be true then, but now realize not the case.

John Collee: [00:10:21] Let me think about that and come back to that because it’s a really good question. There are things, or they say as you get older that you, um, you learn to forget, but it’s actually, that’s part of, um, how you brain improves with age.

I mean, older people they say are generally happier cause they’ve decided to stop worrying about a lot of stuff. And there was a kind of magical thing that my medical consultants used to do. I remember going around the wards with these older guys, who’d seen a lot of different diseases, but could recognize patterns, you know, and make, could almost stand at the end of someone’s bed, who you spent as a young doctor to spend an hour, an hour and a half taking a detailed history and examining this person and trying to work everything out.

And they would stand at the bed and almost without any information would spot it immediately. That’s the kind of magical thing it comes with, uh, with kind of pattern recognition and the sort of algorithms that you brain starts to learn in medical diagnosis and novel writing, in constructing stories, which is what I do now.

You kind of, um, you, you spot initially the problem with something you go, it’s not that, so it must be this, but it’s not that it must be this and you go through this little branching kind of thing. Okay. That’s the kind of story it is. Or that’s the kind of patient it is. That’s the disease. It is. So, I think in general, the art of learning to ignore stuff that’s not important. It’s something that is really important to cultivate because as you know, if you’re, paying attention to everything you’re paying attention to nothing.

Duff Watkins: [00:12:01] And neuroscientifically, there was a lot of evidence to support that.

John Collee: [00:12:06] Yeah.

Duff Watkins: [00:12:07] All right. Um, lesson number two, the reason we have to sexes when we’re staying with education here for the moment.

John Collee: [00:12:13] So I went to a very traditional old boys, uh, single-sex school. And, uh, and, uh, I came out of that school, highly educated, you know, got a good final degree, went to medical school, but. Ignorant in one really important respect, which is that I knew nothing at all about women. And.

Duff Watkins: [00:12:33] As opposed to now, John is what you’re telling me.

John Collee: [00:12:36] When you have wives and daughters you kind of like get a crash course. So, um, I look at my children who went to, uh, uh, kind of co-educational schools and, uh, at least in their early years. And they grew up with friends of both sexes with whom they were completely at home. And they were completely at home more than before sex became a thing, you know, like in their pre pubertal years.

And they, they just rubbed along with boys and girls and then they, they grew up together. They changed together. So, I’m like a total believer, now in co-educational schooling. And again, this is kind of a lesson for later in life, but I think sending your kids to co-educational school,

Duff Watkins: [00:13:18] Okay. Now, now the thing is, yeah, I agree with you completely.

However, my sister does not, and she is, was, she’s retired now. She’s a teacher in North Carolina and she said to me many years ago that she wanted to send her daughter to a private or, or a women’s college. And I disagreed with this vehemently and, and I said, for the very reasons you just articulated, she said, and I don’t have a reply to this.

She said, girls self-esteem and self-image is so fragile that if you send them to that, that actually needs a place to, uh, blossom and bloom. Um, without. The pollution of boys, I guess now that’s right.

John Collee: [00:14:07] They do say that the girls learned better in single sex schools, but you know, I mean year nine girls or can be really cruel to each other.

Duff Watkins: [00:14:15] Yeah, I mean, I questioned the premise myself.

John Collee: [00:14:19] Um, I think, uh, having the other sex present works even in adulthood it kind of civilizes you.

It was striking to me coming out of this all male environment. It was a day school. So of course, we had, we knew girls outside the school, but actually we didn’t live with them in that kind of way, where you get used to them. Firstly, as people and secondly, as objects of desire, you know, like you go to an all-boys school, you come out of that, thinking of all girls as objects and desires, bizarre, you know, you kind of, it takes you.

Your university years too, to appreciate them as friends, you know, and you know, we talk about education. So, you know, you got to learn your math, you got to learn English, you got to learn, um, history, but actually learning your place in an egalitarian and multicultural society is such an important thing. And it’s a thing that we neglect when we put our children, not just in single sex schools, but also into these schools.

Private wealthy private schools tend to be very monocultural. You know, you don’t tend to get a great array of different kinds of people in them. And, um, that’s. Then, but then kind of limits you because you’re in this kind of ghetto of people like yourself for a long while afterwards there, I mean, this has been said before, but there are politicians in Britain who’ve lived in a kind of you know, they go to Eaton and then Oxford, and then, you know, White Hall, and they  kind of, they’re never outside that sort of male dominated Anglo environment, you know, and their actual experience of life is very limited.

Duff Watkins: [00:15:53] Well, certainly learning how, if you’re male learning how to relate to the other 48% of the species is pretty useful. Well, let’s stay, let’s stay with ’em. Let’s stay with education lesson number three, how to succeed before you start university.

John Collee: [00:16:09] So, uh, look, this might just be specific to my university, but I went to a rather kind of traditional medical university uh, in Edinburgh. I had actually one great advantage of that place cause I could study anything I liked. And so, I studied fine art and, um, and that was just such a, just to kind of see, because again, you get, you start off during these tramlines and in the case of medicine back then it was six years of one subject in her constants or being too heavy science drummed into too.

So, to have an art subject, um, that I could. Sort of learn about it and then refer back to, and actually a group of friends who are all in the arts faculty, it was just, that was so great, but the way medicine was taught back and it’s quite different now, by the way it was taught then was you progressed through this different faculties, you know, so you start off to do anatomy and biochemistry and pathology, and so on, you know, and finally, after three years of all these different, uh, specialties, you know, in kind of the science submits, and then finally you get to see a patient and they wrote the textbooks.

Uh, back then where all of these faculties would get to give you their version of the textbook. And of course, different bacteriologists are all about bacteriology and that the pathology it’s all about pathology. So, you’d get this massive information thrust at you. It was only by the time I got to sixth year and I discovered.

Oh, really slim volume, Oxford handbook of medicine, just being published. Then it was like kind of, you know, 500 pages long and it had, here’s everything you need to know for your final exams, you know? I’ve been learning these reams of stuff that was, you know, kind of been forced on me by these specialists in the subspecialties.

You know, if I’d had that book at the beginning of the course, I could have actually sailed through it, you know? Cause I know what the end point was, you know? So, I think, you know, this is true of my kids going into university. You go into these courses where everyone would be throwing information at you from every side and.

And you really need to look at the final exam papers and say, what is the point of this course? What is the core information that I need to know the end of it? And then you start to come, then you can kind of attach things onto it. Well, to know this, I’d be to understand that, to know that I need to understand this, but what is the end point?

And that’s actually, you know, a lot of my work as a screenwriter is rewriting other people’s scripts. And then that process of like, what is this actual story condense this. A hundred-page script down into five-page story line, right out of the beats of the story. Here’s, here’s the story that in the end, we want people to understand and to know and feel and focus on that.

And then everything that was important to that story will hang off it rather than, you know, when you’re a young screenwriter or a young novelist, you just, you imagine that you just throw everything in, and it’ll somehow shape itself. You got to start with the shape. Start with the destination.

Duff Watkins: [00:18:59] Was it you who said that in a seminar where you, if you’re writing a screenplay, write the final act or the climax first know where the destination is um, so that you’re able to plan?

John Collee: [00:19:10] Sure. I don’t always do that, but certainly knowing in a screenplay, knowing what the theme of this is, you know, so I’ll tell you a story about this night and I’ll tell you the story of Indiana Jones, you know, um, and you know, we can talk about all the detail of the adventures that he goes through, but finally, what is this story about?

And the interesting thing with films is that often the final scene of the film encapsulates what’s the story of us and a good film to go to the final scene. And this is Indiana Jones who was a tomb Raider, a non-spiritual unattached, uh, sort of casual with women. Didn’t believe in God, hands up, tied to a pole.

Seeing the reality of the spiritual world demonstrate to, to him as these ghosts come out and kill the Nazis. And he said, that is the point of Indiana Jones. Really? That’s the theme of the film when the emotion of recognition, the emotion of revelation that you get in that movie, of course, it’s an exciting thrill ride.

It’s a joy ride along the way, but the reason it’s emotionally impactful is because it reminds you that spirituality is a real thing and what you’ve watched, whether or not you recognize the time and as a guy moving from a place of completely kind of buccaneering pragmatic adventure to a place of understanding this kind of spiritual bond between him and Marianne and the spiritual bond between him and the arc.

That’s what it’s about. And, uh, and the nature of film writing is that the thematic message of the film was always buried in a really complicated plot but entertains you and absorbs you and takes you from step to step to step. But the real essence of the film is in that theme. And so that’s finally what he tried to get to when you’re telling a story, what’s the theme of that story.

Duff Watkins: [00:20:57] Does that apply to a person’s um, career?

John Collee: [00:21:00] Yeah. What is the theme of this career? I think it probably does in the, uh, you know, we’ll tell ourselves a story about our lives, which, and there’s a, there’s a whole form of psychotherapy. I don’t know if you know this Duff, but which is narrative psychotherapy, where people come to you confused and lost.

Where have I been, where am I going? I had an abused childhood. I had a this or that. I, you know, I was kind of passed from pillar to post. I never had friends. They tell you a sad story. And your job as a therapist is to say, well, here’s how that is a hopeful story, you know?

And we all do that with our own lives. You know, you kind of, you, you take out, you try to take how the stuff just noise and focus on the thing that is a continual thread that will take you somewhere, hopefully in the future. That’s what you’re trying to do when you’re writing a novel or writing a film, I think is also, we’re all trying to do when we narrate the adventure of our own lives and put it into a form that will give us somewhere to go. You know? So, um, so if I was to narrate the adventure of my life, it’s this guy who grew up, went into science whose early years were dominated by the scientific process who always had this kind of siren call of intuitive imaginative thinking. Could never quite put these things together. Finally gave up medicine to be completely in the world of imagination. Didn’t feel completely satisfied with that, but finally found that actually the structural approach that you can bring to screenwriting and the imaginative side of that, and the communal side of that old as a piece will take you forward to the next step.

So, so that’s my life story in a way, you know, so going from practical sort of left-brain scientific thinking through completely right brain imaginative thinking, run off and join the circus. And then finally discovering that this is a job it’s got a real point to it. It requires both that side of your brain and this side of your brain.

And that’s how you become. Successful at it.

Duff Watkins: [00:23:10] That’s a hero’s journey. If I ever heard one John.

John Collee: [00:23:16] Well it’s a complicated way of explaining it to you. I think we all do, you know, you have to find a way of telling your story in a hopeful way. So, it just doesn’t seem like, like a bad screenplay or a bad novel. It’s one thing after another, you know, so it’s a whole lot of meaningless events strung together, whereas we need in stories and we need them in our lives to be psychologically healthy, a census, I think, meaningful forward progression.

Duff Watkins: [00:23:38] But you’re so right about what people tell themselves. And that’s an ongoing process. Lesson number four, and this really resonates with me. Find somebody who’s done it before.

John Collee: [00:23:50] Yeah. Yeah. My children are very reluctant to seek out mentors because you teach in life often thinking if I’m any good, I need to do this myself, you know, but of course, if you find somebody who’s really good at that profession, you know, there’s no way that you would become a carpenter.

Trying to make bespoke furniture without going to see another carpenter or find out how you put a chair together. You know, so it seems like such an obvious lesson, but I think when you’re young and a, and you think I’ve got to create my own individual way of doing things, and I want to find my own individual voice.

I think the main thing is to find how this thing is done, that you want to do. You know whether as in my wife’s case is have you become a journalist in my case first, or have you become a, uh, a novelist or a film professional if you do it by speaking to somebody who’s already done the track. And so, I think seek those people out.

We generally love being asked how it’s done and they generally, as you and I, know kind of, kind of with the benefit of hindsight, even though they kind of, you know, we’re all kind of borrowing through the undergrowth in the early days, but with the benefit of time, of course, you know, how it was done and, you know, the pitfalls to avoid, which is, I guess the whole point of view podcast here.

Duff Watkins: [00:25:04] I do a lot of career advising the way, the reason this resonates many years, um, I, I run an executive search firm that’s, um, kind of high-level recruitment and years ago, a mentor of mine said, um, you ought to consider that Duff that was working as a consultant psychologist this time. He said, I think you’d be good at it.

And I really respected him, but I said, but aren’t, they all wankers? Which may be upon reflection why he thought I’d be good at it. Anyway, that aside. So, what I did, and this would, I advise people, if you, if you want to know about a career contact, people who are actually doing the job and asking two questions, only two questions. That’s all you have to ask.

These questions are, what do you like about your job? What do you dislike about your job and then take notes? And then if you do that with enough people, you’ll simply, you will have a couple of lists and then it will make sense to you. It will. That’s the process by which I suggest to people that they clarify.

Lesson number five, locate your limits.

John Collee: [00:26:05] Yeah, take risks, you know, and challenge yourself. I mean, you actually never know what you’re capable of until you do it. And I used to be kind of a nervous of public speaking and so started doing teaching screen writing as a, as an exercise and then would kind of be in a panic about, Oh, how do I write down all the anecdotes I can think of?

And how do I order all this information? And then after you’ve done it, a couple of times you’re doing it and it’s like, it just kind of flows and you’re sort of, you’re happy in that space. And then you have to find the next challenge. But I think so many of us live, we are as a species attracted to comfort, you know, and to a greater or lesser extent, we all find a comfort zone.

And then, dwell there. uh, but I think it’s important to keep on it.

Duff Watkins: [00:26:49] You sent me a note, which I, I want to repeat because I think it’s so good. It said if you never wish it weren’t happening, it’s not a proper event.

John Collee: [00:26:56] Sure that’s right. So just worth saying that again, if there’s never, if you never wish it wasn’t happening, it’s not a proper adventure.

And this was told to me by Jesse Martin was a young, single handed. Uh, yachtsman who came to me, discuss writing the film with his, uh, adventure with me. And he described to me how, when he was 17, his, uh, his single mother mortgaged her house to buy him a yacht. Cause he wanted to be a yachtsman.

He learned sail. I think it was in, uh, Melbourne Harbor from a, from an old sea dog who had PTSD and was. It turned out, terrified of going beyond the, the Harbor. So taught him how to sail, and this was preparing Jesse for sailing around the world, but his mother took all sorts of flack about allowing her son to head off on this extraordinary adventure, which that, which he succeeded.

He became the youngest guy to sail around the world, single handed. And when I spoke to him about it afterwards, I said, look, Jesse, wasn’t it just terrifying cold, lonely. Um, Jessie said, yeah. Uh, but, uh, if you didn’t wonder at some point, why am I doing this? It wouldn’t be a proper adventure that that’s really important to remember because so few of us push ourselves to that point, you know, and, and adventure is that it is, it is a crisis which draws on the best parts of you, you know?

And, uh, uh, you know, you can say you’ve had an adventure by, you know, sort of. Traveling by couch to wherever. Um, you know, we, we used to go camping and France as kids and then France staying in the south, staying in tents. That was an adventure, but it wasn’t really, it wasn’t really a proper adventure cause we never really felt that we were being pushed.

You know, one of the principles in screenwriting is when you, I mean, you, you take your characters on a journey. The journey becomes increasingly difficult. Like, you know what they’re after, whether it’s to get the girl or find the prize, etc. But they, but, but the, the stakes become higher and higher.

The risk becomes greater and greater. And one of the principles of screenwriting is that as the risks and the jeopardy to becomes great to the character of the protagonist is more. Fully revealed.

Duff Watkins: [00:29:01] Through the hardship, through the testing, the crucible of the difficulties he or she is facing.

John Collee: [00:29:08] So both, you know, if you apply that then to the narrative to your life, and we’ve all gone through bad periods where you’re, why is this happening to me?

Oh my God. You know, why, why me? Oh Lord. And, uh, and it’s happening to you because, um, in some ways it’s going to make you better or stronger. And you need it on a life without any pain or hardship or adversity, uh, would not really be a proper life. So, in a funny way, you should welcome those moments.

Duff Watkins: [00:29:32] All right, uh, proceeding to the next lesson, which we touched upon humans achieve communally.

John Collee: [00:29:38] We did touch on that. We have these fantasies as, as young men and women, that we will sort of find our way in the world and excel, and it’ll be all our doing, but actually all of the successful filmmakers that I know are team builders, you know, or team players know. And as I said, even the most solo endeavor that you can think of the kind of a novelist is actually drawing inspiration from interacting with communities around him. He’s not just he or she is not just sort of sitting there and observing them. They’re involved in them emotionally. And that emotion is what you then put on the page. Yeah. I think getting past the notion that I have to do this myself; I will get to the top of the tree.

I’ll become the CEO, whatever you’re. Kind of clients are trying to achieve, they need to get away from the idea that it’s going to happen individually and entirely because of their efforts, because every film say that I’ve made part of it has been a team effort and often in really interesting ways. And that you start off with one set of scales and you work with documentary makers, with actors, with directors, with designers, and you create something that you couldn’t have created on your own.

Um, Yeah. Yeah.

Duff Watkins: [00:30:49] That’s true in business as well. When you talk to people in business, there is no I and it’s always, we cause nothing happens without, without a team or as they say in Hollywood, nothing is written. Everything is rewritten.

John Collee: [00:31:02] Yeah. I recently got involved in a, uh, in a climate charity, and that, uh, that sense of having a common purpose so they’re scientists, there are financiers. There are kind of, um, people who understand the psychology of motivating. People to change their behavior. There are businesspeople, and you do feel part of this cohort, as you say, that wonderful feeling of actually we have a common goal. We know that it’s the right thing to do.

Let’s get there. And that is wonderful. Inspiring.

Duff Watkins: [00:31:31] Yeah. Yeah. And it’s also, I mean, I’ll give you another, a business example, you know, Silicon Valley, everyone thinks it’s two guys working in a garage discovering the next big thing like Hewlett Packard did, but in fact, Silicon Valley depends heavily, heavily on federal funding from the U S government.

Because otherwise two guys in a garage wouldn’t cut it. Wouldn’t, it wouldn’t be fast enough. Would it be a lot of guys in garages, but, and, um, the the person who told me this was Jeff Bleich from California, former ambassador to Australia. And it’s not, it’s not promoted, or it’s not really known because the two guys in the garage is a bit more romantic, but, but.

It’s having other people being able to attract investment, for example, you know.

John Collee: [00:32:12] It wasn’t the garage it was mom and the dad who let them use the garage after that his sisters would kind of give them that odd, left field kind of idea that, oh yeah, we can do that. You know, we’ll have friends who will drop in and, you know, so there’s that, you know, just welcomed that, um,

I read something by Charles Darwin who you know, when, on the kind of, uh, this great journey, the voyage of the Beagle when he was a relatively young man, came back home and lived in sort of the South of England for the rest of his life, processing all these ideas, you know, but there was a guy who drew from his colleagues, drew from his family.

He kind of from the village life, around him, that became as rich to him, but his life on board a ship. And it was this community from whom he drew ideas on the origin of species, which was his. Master work. Wasn’t just about what he’d seen on the Beagle. It was about the pigeon fanciers and the horse breeders and the observations of his own family.

They all went into it, they all became part of the larger truth, you know. So, he was a guy, he was like a genius scientist who celebrated. Uh, you know, as a genius in his own. Right. But he writes in that book, you know, this is all from my neighbors. It’s from my friends, it’s from my children. And soon they all had a part in creating this.

Duff Watkins: [00:33:26] And he thought about it 22 years before publishing it as well.

John Collee: [00:33:29] That’s right. Yeah. Yeah.

Duff Watkins: [00:33:30] When I think about Darwin the funny thing, I always think about is his dad was very worried about him when you went to university, because he is such a swell guy and thought, all he would do is play cards and fritter his time away, which pretty much what he did, I think until he had a day job.

John Collee: [00:33:44] Yeah. There’s a dropout from Edinburgh medical school. Yeah.

Duff Watkins: [00:33:49] Lesson, number seven. Output equals input.

John Collee: [00:33:53] Yeah, unless this is part of the same thing, you know, that you think of your mean, you might think of the job as a writer, sitting at a desk and having all these brilliant ideas and. And a young writer just beat themselves up.

Cause they can’t sit at the desk and have the brilliant ideas flow, you know, but uh, those ideas don’t just generate themselves inside your head. They come from what you’ve read. They come from what you’ve experienced. They come from who you spoke to. So just as a creative exercise, even if I feel really uncertain or unsure of a story that I’m trying to write, I will tell it to as many people as I can.

Who I trust. I’ll just tell them the story and see what comes out. Let’s see what comes back to me from them that reminds me of this. And that reminds me of that, you know? So don’t expect to just be able to sit at your desk and have. The brilliant original thought you actually have to go out and excavate that stuff.

You have to go on the journey as Baz Luhrmann and says, have an analogous experience. When I was, um, I was writing about ice climbing at one point for a film, but, um, it was actually touching the void, not the documentary, but I was writing it. Online. And, um, and so when ice climbing in Scotland to discover just the techniques of ice climbing, so then you can write about the, kind of the, what your mind does when you’re terrified, what your hands do when you’re cold, what the climbing equipment sounds like as it rattles around your waist, you know, uh, how your legs start to shake when you’re clinging to a rock basis, we’re, you know, your crampons and your, and your ice axes.

So, all of that stuff, then. Feeds into the story. It’s not just sitting at your desk imagining it. You’ve actually got to go out there and get it, you know, and a lot of, I think a lot of sort of superhero movies now seem to me just like sort of greatest hits from other films. There are people who’ve just sat watching movies and then, oh right, listen a bit of that.

And then not, it doesn’t actually have the feel. That’s really great movies do of lived experience, you know, so I think probably in the business world, that brilliant ideas come from active engagement with the world, not just observing the world and thinking that it can all happen on a screen in front of you.

Duff Watkins: [00:36:01] Well, yeah. And that’s your point? They don’t just come from nowhere personally. I’d go a little further and say that. We’re swimming in a sea of ideas in coet form. And I’m the writer, Richard LaGravenese, he, the way he put it is that, um, he wrote the Fisher King.

John Collee: [00:36:19] and The Bridges of Madison County and a bunch of other.

Duff Watkins: [00:36:23] He said, there’s always a better idea.

John Collee: [00:36:28] And

Duff Watkins: [00:36:28] you know, it’s true. I find that if you, if you work at it long enough, you’ll probably find a better idea.

John Collee: [00:36:34] But then if you’re the CEO sitting in a corner office, you know, the way to get that great ideas to go down and hang out on the factory floor and get your hands dirty and get in there and engage, you know, Don’t you think, I mean, in the business world, I don’t know much about the business world, but I imagine that there’s only so much you can do discussing things in the abstract around the board table. If you got to get down, there and experience what it’s like.

Duff Watkins: [00:36:56] Yeah. Well, you know, a lot about business because you’re in it. It’s just a different aspect of business. But if you know, it’s the same people just, they’re just in a different environment.

Um, But yes. I mean, there’s only so much planning you can do. And in the business world is always like to say, man, you only have 80% of the available information anyway. So, you have to make a decision. You can’t just wait around for it to be, to be correct. You know, it’s, it’s the same. So, you’re continually doing, you might say churning out rough drafts of business and you certainly make mistakes.

I mean, no doubt about that. Like any other, any other enterprise. Lesson number eight, the hard conversations are the important conversations.

John Collee: [00:37:32] Yeah, that’s very true. I was kind of a terrible conflict avoider. And so I hate having these difficult conversations, but you get to the point in any project where you have to have the difficult conversation, you know, and, uh, and this includes the project of your life, you know, and we tend to put these often, if you’re a conflict avoider, as I am, then you will avoid ringing the bank manager or the lawyer or the kind of, or the competitor or whatever it is, you know, go to do it.

And the quicker you, just, the way the better, you know, like. Just get that either to your head and into the real world, get that whatever it is, that confrontation, that argument, that plane talking, we do it in our marriages with like, areas of conflict with our spouse that you kind of skirt around because you never actually want to challenge it head on.

And then you finally get to the point where, okay, let’s have this, let’s have this out and you do it. And you discover that, you know, all the things you thought she was thinking are quite different from what she’s actually thinking. Well, that happens a lot. Doesn’t it?

Duff Watkins: [00:38:25] I hark back to the, uh, the stoic philosophers I’m, uh, uh, read Marcus Aurelius, he said something.

The truth needs no defense and, and, and yet it is amazing why we shy away from it sometimes. And so, but with the reality of the matter is psychologically. When you have that hard conversation, you usually find, and the solution is you have the hard conversation and let the chips fall where they just live with the repercussions, whatever they may be.

He just works through them.

John Collee: [00:38:55] You learn with age don’t you go to as possible to have these difficult conversations without emotion, that you can actually take emotion out of the equation, if you really think hard about it and, and, and just deal with what’s the fact of what has happened, you know? So, um, and then it becomes a philosophical argument, it becomes a stoical argument.

Doesn’t it. And it’s the best sense that you say, look. Here is why I feel kind of marginalized. I feel kind of like resentful. I feel unappreciated. This is why these are the reasons. And then yeah, it will be counter arguments as well, or you’re feeling that because of this, but yeah, what happened was that, and then you have to try and deal with that information in a grown-up way.

Um, you know, happens with conversations with the kids. School teachers when they’re young, you know, happens with, you know, as I say, a lot of conversations in business where you’ll avoid and avoid the hard conversation, but if you have it, you can learn a lot from it. And the real, the kind of the Zen sort of stage of that is learning to have those conversations without fear.

And, and to, as you say, rely on the fact that the truth is completely emotionally neutral, there is a truth of the situation. Which we might not end up agreeing with, but we can get to that truth. And we should regard this, like, I’m going to come into your office. I’m going to have a really difficult conversation with you, but we live at some version of the truth that we can both live with.

Duff Watkins: [00:40:17] You’ve mentioned a psychotherapy earlier. I used to run psychotherapy groups and Sydney psychiatric hospitals. And what, what you find is the truth emerges. In the in-between, it’s not the client and the counselor is not the, it’s the conversation in between the interaction, the, in between bit that’s where it, that’s where it is.

That’s where the, the reality is really.

John Collee: [00:40:39] Interesting. And you find that a lot in filmmaking conversations with actors, you know, this is a bad line. What did you mean by it? You’ll well, I wanted to say this at well, if I wanted to say that I would say this and I look like this, you know? Um, okay. That’s brilliant.

That’s kind of, it’s like, you know, somewhere between. Their understanding of it, your understanding of it. Here’s the perfect understanding of it.

Duff Watkins: [00:41:02] Lesson number nine, choose your children wisely. Now this is a very, this is a variation. My, my niece used to complain about her mother, my sister, and I said, you really should have chosen your family more carefully.

John Collee: [00:41:17] Look, I cut kind stupid life advice because you can’t know. Everything about your partner. And of course, I mean, Debs and I, we were both in our, by the time we decided to find a life partner. We were both in our late thirties. And so, when Debs got pregnant, which was kind of a half, intentional half by accident.

Duff Watkins: [00:41:37] Doctors never planned their pregnancy. I’ve observed this. I mean, don’t you people know how it works yet?

John Collee: [00:41:44] If you were as commitment phobic as I was. They kind of like. The idea of having children. The very idea is like, oh my God, this is going to completely change my life. I would, could I kind of. We’ll get to that in a sec. So, it’s kind of always have to have advice. I think probably Deb’s was the same.

She had a wonderful kind of solo career going there. And so, um, so anyway, we have, uh, we have Laurie and then we sort of, we formed a marriage around that. We’re still married, and I was sort of 25 years later. So, it’s, uh, it was a great success, but, you know, looking at, I mean, as you know, in a lot of marriages collapse and it all goes pear shaped and it’s just seems that.

It is such a massively important decision in your life. We were incredibly lucky in a way that, uh, it all worked out. Okay. But I do think it’s probably the most, the most important, the most consequential. Decision you will ever make. And it is kind of extraordinary how unthought out it is. I mean, we left a huge amount of chance.

We knew nothing about each other. We hadn’t thought about where we live in Britain, where we live in Australia. Um, will you carry on working? Will I carry on working? How’s that going to work? Yeah.

Duff Watkins: [00:42:52] I don’t have children and it’s clearly not a rational thing to do to have children, but from what I can tell, but, but, but, but you’re right.

I mean it’s, and this will take us up to our final 10th point. It its life is more than logic. There are simply things you cannot control. Life is much more complex than that. And so, you make a decision and there’s no guarantee of success. There never was. There never will be. And so, it goes back to the adventure that you were describing earlier.

John Collee: [00:43:21] And, and also accepting, accepting the, uh, the ups and downs of it all accepting that the bad stuff is actually the good stuff. There’s a psychologist you must know called Malcolm Gladwell, who has a whole theory built on the fact that it kind of the. The uncomfortable and unpleasant things that happen to you are all for the good that you can actually reconstruct the narrative of your life going well, I had this very difficult mother, father, sister, or whatever, but now in retrospect, I can see that they formed me, and they made me who I am, you know?

And the same is certainly true of a marriage that you go through. All these ups and downs, the best marriage advice ever got was from my Greek friend, Yanni who’s who had been married for 10 years. By the time I tied the knot and he said, look, you will discover, you know, there are times when you want to kill her there are times she love her again, you know, but just accept that you’re on this kind of this sine curve this way, you know, and that, as long as they kind of the average of all these experiences, basically positive, then you’re on a winner here, lived through the, the, uh, the bad stuff accept it. We’re really bad in the West that just accepting that things can’t be rosy and fun and correct all the time.

You know, we, we bought into this kind of idea that, uh, that we deserve a life of happiness privilege fulfillment. You know, that’s not, I mean, in peasant communities, that is certainly not the case. You know, the old teaching was that life is hard and you just have to get by. And so, we needed a little bit more of that.

I think just. Acceptance of the fact that it can’t always be perfect. The sometimes the imperfect stuff is good.

Duff Watkins: [00:44:55] Vicissitude is the word is just the normal hardships that occur in life, regardless of who you are, where you are, which takes us to our 10th Lesson. And I think you just illustrated this. It’s not analytical or intuitive. It’s both.

John Collee: [00:45:11] Yeah. So that’s this applies to life decisions, business decisions, certainly to creative writing. I find my approach to writing fiction now is I do plan out the story, but then once you put a plan for the story, you have to just kind of go to here’s my plan. This is my roadmap. I’m just going to riff on this, like a jazz musician.

You know, I’m going to, I’m going to know the chord progression, but I’m just going to, I’m just going to write it really quickly and see what comes out. And then I’m going to go back to that kind of brain dump of material analyze. What’s good. And what’s bad. Work out my story again. Where does the story get lost?

Where does it appear? What’s different from the story that I wrote from the story that I thought I was going to write, summarize that, do that analytical site again, and then do another kind of rush at it and write down whatever comes into your head and say to harness both in life and storytelling in decision-making to harness both your intuitive rash crazy, whatever happens kind of attitude to life and also to harness your analytical and to regard these elements of your thinking as being friends, as being, as being mutually supportive not as separate ways of approaching the world that are actually the vital. And, and it’s vital that we have both of them.

Duff Watkins: [00:46:30] Neuroscience bears this out, uh, because you cannot have good sound decision-making without the emotional component to it.

And if that can remind me of something I, they asked a computer years ago, would, would you rather, would the computer rather have a watch that was stopped or a watch that lost one second each hour? And the computer immediately said the watch that stopped because it was correct twice a day. Whereas the watch that last one second.

Every minute would be correct every 800 something thousand years, you know. So, um, and you know, life is more than logic just being rational the time doesn’t, cut it.

John Collee: [00:47:06] The genius of Star Trek, wasn’t it? The kind of that relationship tween Spock and captain Kirk is like, we, we all are both of these people, you know, we have our analytical side and our intuitive side and, and to embrace both of them is really, really important.

And I think that’s where, you know, most of us kind of, uh, do our best work.

Duff Watkins: [00:47:25] Mm we’ll. Finish on that note. But I do want to ask you one thing that I’ve noticed, I was looking on your website, . It appears to me, you have a, a feel for indigenous people or underdogs. You seem to write a lot about that.

I know that you have 19. Published screenplays produced screenplays, but you have a heap of others that haven’t made it to the screen yet. And I won’t even talk about the TV scripts. Is that correct? That you have this? Uh,

John Collee: [00:47:53] well look, I travelled a lot in the third world when I was, um, a doctor and, um, it does strike me now that, you know, we arrived at this kind of, um, you know, peak of Western civilization where things are as controlled as they can be.

Whereas the people who really have conflict and struggle in their lives are, uh, are people who live in the third world. And we know that, you know, like all of the shocks that happen to our world are felt far more vividly in the third world. You know, if you’re a penniless peasant in India or Africa, you know what climate change is going to have a far more life-or-death effect on you than most of the privileged Western world.

So really those, um, kind of indigenous communities where drama really resides. Now a lot of the time, you know, we don’t want to see the stories about people whose lives are relatively comfortable as, so I’m interested. Yeah. I’m really interested in the, in the stories of people who are at the. Or on the front line, you know?

Duff Watkins: [00:48:48] Well, what I like is that you, you are giving them voice in some of the screenplays that you do produced and unproduced, and, and allowing them, uh, promoting them to be heard. And, and that’s a good thing, I think.

John Collee: [00:49:00] Oh, you mentioned Hotel Mumbai, which is my most recent movie. And, uh, you know, we went into that thinking, we were going to write about the residents of a, of a Western style hotel in India, you know, who were kind of victims of this terrible terrorist attack.

And we very quickly, uh, decided that the real heroes of this story, where the Hotel staff who protected all the guests, even though. Or kind of invisible most of time as, as hotel stuff, a trained to be. But then when the shit hit the fan, they came to the rescue and, uh, and helped shepherd these people from safety often at risk to their own lives.

And so, yeah, you kind of, um, you have, you quickly get a feel writing fiction for like, where does the real drama lie and often lies with the least privileged members of the team.

Duff Watkins: [00:49:45] And we’ll finish there on that note once again, John, thank you for appearing with us very much appreciated.

John Collee: [00:49:50] Thank you.

Duff Watkins: [00:49:51] You’ve been listening the international podcast, 10 Lessons it Took Me 50 Years to Learn. This episode is produced by Robert Hossary and is sponsored by the professional development forum. PDF provides webinars, social media discussions, podcasts, parties, anything you want, everything you need, you can find it at . Best of all. It’s all free.


Oh, by the way, listener you can contact us . We’d love to hear from you. So, thank you folks for listening to us today. Please join us for the next episode of 10 Lessons it Took Me 50 Years to Learn.


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