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Arne Rubinstein is making men
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Arne Rubinstein is making men
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Arne Rubinstein is making men
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"Healthy adult male behaviour is: 'I’m not the centre of the universe, I’m part of the universe.'"
Conversations
2 September 2015

Arne Rubinstein is making men

Interview by Jane Nethercote
Photography by Tammie Joske

Jane Nethercote on Arne Rubinstein

If you’re lucky enough to have a child, and that child is a boy, people will start to chat to you about the books that should be on your shelf. They’ll likely include Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys, He’ll be ok by Celia Lashlie and The Making of Men by our profilee Dr Arne Rubinstein.

If you didn’t already feel daunted, now you probably do. It’s an intimidating responsibility, knowing you have to grow a boy into a man, especially when boys are more likely to commit suicide, take risks and the whole gamut of things you’d rather not think about. Knowing that men are more likely to be perpetrators of violence, including domestic violence, makes the job seem even more important to get right. And apart from that, you just wish them a beautiful, full life.

It’s something that Arne thinks about every day. While working as a GP, he started to see a trend in his young patients, especially the boys. He’d meet them as confident, excitable 11 year olds and watch them become increasingly withdrawn as they entered teenagehood. The problem, he started to believe, was that boys and girls were getting stuck in the adolescent phase of life; society simply wasn’t helping them make the transition into adulthood with all the joy and responsibility that this entails. That’s why he’s spent the past 30 years developing modern-day rites of passage—to help carry teenagers across the divide. Drawing from indigenous cultures around the world, he’s distilled these rites into their essence. Through the Pathways Foundation he established, Arne has created weeklong bush camps across Australia for young men and women to embark on their own rites of passage, supported by parents or significant mentors in their lives. The program is now international.

With two boys himself, Arne is the classic Renaissance man—part-time doctor, part-time mango farmer, part-time surfer, full-time camp captain. His work touches on something innovative and ancient at the same time—he puts a spotlight on an area of the male development journey that inspires much self and communal reflection. Our chat left me determined to put my own son through a proper rite of passage when the time comes, and give him room to become his true self in the meantime. After all, even though we may not always want our children to grow up, we need them to.

This story originally ran in issue #43 of Dumbo Feather

JANE NETHERCOTE: So where are you at the moment?

ARNE RUBINSTEIN: I’m in Byron Bay. I went surfing this morning. We have a cyclone happening off Queensland and extreme weather also means extreme surf. So that was fun.

Ha! Have you been a surfer for long?

Yeah, about 25 years. Surfing is one of my things. I feel like I’m a water man. I’m attracted to ocean swims and paddling and surfing. Being in the water opens up another side of me. When I’m in the water I’m nowhere else. I’m very passionate about it.

And surfing is communicating with nature in quite a pure form, isn’t it? You have to bring respect to nature.

You do. I’m a long boarder primarily. And the old style of surfing, which is on a long board, used to be, you go along the wave, go as far as you can and at the end say, “Thank you” [puts hands together in prayer/Namaste]. On the short boards it’s like trashy music, so you go down there and actually slash back against the wave, and if you get through it you go, “Fuck you” [does arm signal for “fuck you”]. It’s like the ocean is the mother energy. You can get out there and go with it and say “thank you” or you can try to challenge it and say “fuck you.”

“I’ve dominated.” Yep. “I won!” [Laughs].

Yeah. And that’s actually tied to what I do. A lot of my work, which is about rites of passage, asks, “Why did every indigenous community create a rite of passage?” In Australia, Papua New Guinea, Africa, New Zealand, they all created a rite of passage for their boys and girls and they were all around the same stages of life—when they reached puberty basically. And it’s not like they had a conference and decided that they all needed to do this. They had thousands of generations of people to observe. And they all worked out the same thing. You need a rite of passage when your boys and girls are ready for puberty.

There were two key reasons why every indigenous community developed rites of passage for their boys and girls. The first was to create a shift from child behaviour to healthy adult behaviour. So child behaviour in a boy is what you typically see in a six to eight year old. “I want to be the centre of attention and I need acknowledgement all the time. Look at me.” You know? They also want all the power. And they have no responsibility and take no responsibility for their actions. It’s always someone else’s fault. They’re ruled by their emotions. So if they don’t get what they want, they have a temper tantrum. They want their mother. And that’s fine in an eight-year-old. But when you get a man who still wants to be the centre of attention, still wants all the power for himself, doesn’t take responsibility for his actions, has a temper tantrum when he can’t control his emotions, becomes physically or verbally abusive and wants his mother—that’s really not okay.

This story originally ran in issue #43 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #43 of Dumbo Feather

Healthy adult male behaviour is: “I’m not the centre of the universe, I’m part of the universe. Power is actually for the good of my community. I have to be responsible and accountable for my actions.”

I have to be able to stand with my emotions. And I’m not looking for a mother, I’m looking for a relationship with the feminine.”

So when do you start talking to boys about these things?

I always say, “You can’t start raising a teenager once they become a teenager.” You actually have to catch them at the right time. And the way I break it up is that under 12, it’s actually not about the kids, it’s about the parents. And good parenting. And then somewhere between that 12- and 16-year-old stage, you need to create that shift. Coming back to this boy and man psychology, it’s clear you couldn’t have a society that was run by boys—just wanting power, not being responsible, looking for a mother.

There’s actually a big argument that we are living in a world run on boy psychology.

I was going to ask you about that. Because I feel like looking at the current political landscape and climate change, boy psychology seems to be very present. What happens if somebody hasn’t gone through this mental shift as a teenager?

It’s never too late to do it. There’s a guy from Burkina Faso who was stolen by the white people when he was six. And at 20 he ran away and went back to his tribe, and the first thing they did was put him through the rite of passage. ‘Cause they said, “We can’t have an uninitiated man living amongst us.” I wasn’t initiated. I mean I had a bar mitzvah but it didn’t change me from a boy to a man. So I actually created my own process when I was in my late twenties. You can do it. It’s about recognising what the elements of a rite of passage are, and then going through it.

So what are the elements?

Okay, there are three core elements to a rite of passage. The first is a separation from your normal community. In the second stage you go into a container and experience a transformation. You then come back and bring your new status into the community, which means you actually need a community to come back to, and your community should recognise you. So in an indigenous community when the boys were taken away to do a rite of passage, the whole community would be there to welcome them when they returned—to see them and for them to be seen. And often they would wear different clothes, have a different tattoo or scar or jewellery so that it was absolutely obvious you left as a boy and came back a young man.

So it’s internal and external.

Yeah. The rite of passage is as important for the individual as it is for the community. Because the community needs initiated young men and women. And actually there are rites of passage that occur at all stages of life— so any time we go through a change in our social status or something transformative. The classical ones are birth—that’s definitely a rite of passage—marriage, childbirth, becoming an elder, death. And we have rites of passage in our modern society like graduations, divorce, retirement. But we don’t mark them properly. We’re not actually marking and recognising the stages of life.

What’s caused this? Do you feel like this was something that did exist and now no longer exists?

I think a lot of it is the Western approach to life and its focus on money and economic growth rather than community and spiritual development. The other reason people created a rite of passage was because they had an inherent belief that every individual has unique gifts and talents, they have genius and spirit. And it’s the role of the elders to bring that out of the person and into the world. Every child is unique. And every child is amazing. Have you got children?

Yeah, I’ve got a son actually. It was probably why I was put on the case! He’s 15 months so I’m chatting to you early.

What have you already seen that’s amazing about him?

He’s incredibly curious. He’s very interested in learning how things work. He’s just got a really great, gentle spirit. And he’s really funny.

Imagine if we just went there and said, “He’s incredibly curious, loves working things out, has a beautiful spirit, is funny.” Imagine if we could bring out those innate gifts in him. ‘Cause children are so transparent, they’re not hiding it. At our age we start to hide them. If we could supercharge all the powers that our children have and really bring them out, we’d be in such a better place. We need people who are curious, funny, want to work things out, have a beautiful spirit. There’s a fantastic role for him somewhere in the world. But if he ended up in a job where he was being told what to do and he had to do the same thing every day, and there was no curiosity and no working it out, that would be a disaster for him wouldn’t it?

Definitely.

You can already see that. And if that disaster happens, he’s likely to get depressed or drink alcohol. Or because he’s not happy he may then compensate by buying more clothes or getting a more expensive car. The key is getting a person to do what really comes from within them, what their spirit guides them to do. You can call it “spirit” or you can call it “gifts” and “talents,” which is what you’re already seeing. Or “genius.” The word “genius” is connected to “genuine.” If your boy can be his genuine self, his genius will come out. That was the other reason elders performed rites of passage—to find and tell the young men and women what role they would have in the community after having observed them as children. That’s how that system worked. We don’t do that now.

Instead of recognising every child as unique and different, we try to homogenise them so they can all go to school and sit for eight hours in a class. And if they don’t, we say they’ve got ADHD and we give them Ritalin.

Or we get them all to buy the same things. The ideal marketing campaign has every kid wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, listening to the same music. Which is rubbish. ‘Cause we’ve just worked out that they’re all actually different. If your boy, when he becomes a young man, is really recognised for his gifts and talents, he will do what he’s passionate about. He will feel supported to do what he’s passionate about. And if he’s doing that, he’s going to shine. Whereas if he’s forced to do something he hates, the chances are he’s going to shut down, get depressed, be angry—all those things that we’re seeing a huge percentage of our young teenagers doing.

So do you feel optimistic? In the time that you’ve been doing this, have you observed things getting better or worse?

Well, we have a new factor that’s come in, which is the tsunami of technology. Can your kid swipe your iPhone on yet?

Ah, he can do quite a bit on my iPhone.

And he’s 15 months old?

Yep.

So already from that age technology’s present. We’re getting what I call “techno-saturation.” The thing is, if your child is happy and doing what he wants with his curiosity, he will learn about millions of things through technology. But for a child with low self-esteem or poor social networks or any issues, technology is waiting in the form of video games and repetitive things and social networking to suck them up. They are now opening digital detox clinics in Europe for teenagers. They actually exist! And they’ll be here in Australia soon. I see technology as the greatest opportunity, and also the greatest threat. It’s a big thing.

It’s very big. Do you see any positives there at all?

Absolutely! I have an online community. I have friends who I’m in touch with in England, America. Again, if we have a strong sense of self and a mission and vision in life, then technology’s a great tool, it’s a community creator. But if we don’t it’s just the ultimate time waster. You only have to look at a group of kids on computers. You get a particular expression on their faces. And one kid will be playing and another one’s looking over his shoulder watching for an hour.

Every parent I speak with tells me they’re fighting a war against technology and losing.

It’s definitely something I’m thinking about with my son. I’m a digital editor, I’m on the phone a lot, I try to not be when I’m around him. I try to not give him screen time. But it’s inevitable that he’s surrounded by technology.

Yeah. So you have to create the boundaries, the rules. I think we should be having, with kids, at least one day a week that’s totally technology-free. And I reckon if you did that in Australia now, the kids’d go nuts. ‘Cause actually with a lot of kids, when you take away their devices, they exhibit all the same symptoms as a drug addict when you take away their heroin. I’m serious.

It doesn’t surprise me. I would have that reaction too. So how do we build non-digital communities to support these kids?

Look, we’ve had a major breakdown in community because kids used to be in the same place as their parents and grandparents. That’s not happening now. If you look at your community five years ago, it’s probably quite different from the community you have now. One of the things we know is that people want to be part of a community. I mean, Dumbo Feather says in its documents that most of all it’s a community. Often communities develop through children. So schools are probably an ideal way to introduce rites of passage. When we run a program, there’s that separation, transition and return. So if we run a camp for boys and men or girls and women, when we come back, we get all the family and friends and create a community gathering and celebration. And we actually tell the community of the gifts we had seen in each of those young men and women—both so the community can experience it and the individuals know that they have been seen. Because one of the big problems is that often we create our own rites of passage which miss these important elements. A classic rite of passage in Australia is going overseas when you finish school. What happens is the person separates, they go overseas, they have a transformational experience, they come back and no one recognises that. Everybody sees them the same as before they left. So a lot of people who come back from overseas actually get depressed. And all they want to do is go away again. Because people just want you to be the old Jane! You know? “Who’s this new person? Na, na, na. [Sticks fingers in ears]. I like the old Jane.”

I went overseas for a year when I finished school. It was the best year of my life. I came back and no one was interested. The community didn’t recognise or celebrate it, didn’t hold me to any higher standards despite the fact I’d lived on my own for a year. I just wanted to go away again.

So what did you do? Did you go away?

Yeah. I did a year of medicine and went away for three months. Did a couple more years of medicine, went away for another year.

When did you recognise that you hadn’t gone through a rite of passage and you needed it?

I became a doctor. I had two young children and my marriage separated. And I had a 18 month old and a three year old. My wife went overseas, and I had them on my own for six months.

Wow.

I think that was my first real rite of passage because it was when I had to move from being a boy to a man—when I had to recognise it wasn’t just about me. I had other people I was responsible for. Before that, even though I had babies, I could still go for a surf after work. And then I actually got involved in some men’s work. I went on a program and found that so many men were dealing with the same issues. Issues around their fathers, around what they were doing with their lives, their calling. Most men will tell you what they’re doing is not what they want to do. And a lot of men have issues with how to have healthy relationships. They want to know when they’re actually going to feel like a man. At the end of this program I said, “If there’d been something for us when we were young, our lives could have looked very different.” I realised I didn’t want to just wait around, I didn’t want to stay as a boy. I just want to put in a rider that I’m not the perfect father, the perfect man. Sometimes I’m looking for attention and think I’m the centre of the universe and want to be mothered.

But the difference between being a boy and a man is that I know when I’m being a boy.

And that I actually have a choice. The ideal is to be spending more time in the man part of you, less time in the boy.

When you were looking into the rites of passage of other cultures, was there one in particular that resonated with you?

Well, it was the similarities, the elements that unified them. So in the transition stage there was the sharing of stories, the challenge, and this recognition of the spirit of the individual. Stories was their way of passing on knowledge—oration, dancing, songs, paintings. But the initiate would hear the stories of their community and that would make them realise they’re part of the story that began before them and would go after them. The second was creating a challenge. And boys need a challenge. So generally the challenges for boys involve facing their mortality. They might have to go out and kill a lion, jump off a tower with a vine tied around their ankle, survive out in the desert.

Makes me glad I’m not a boy! [Laughs].

And because we’re not creating rites of passage for them, boys are doing it themselves. They’re driving their cars as fast as they can, they’re BASE jumping, getting in fights. The question is whether we’re going to facilitate their rite of passage or let them create their own. The third commonality was that elders would actually name the gifts, talent, genius and spirit they had seen in the young man. In fact in many communities their name would be changed to represent their gifts and talents that they were going to take back. For girls it’s different. It’s more about going in and accepting themselves and their place in the sisterhood.

That’s one thing I wanted to chat about. Your work talks a lot about fathers and children, mothers and children and really specific gender traits. And I was wondering how you view gender and how you deal with the spectrum?

I’ve learned that there’s total diversity. And that’s fabulous. There are times when boys need to work with just men, and times when girls need to work with just women, and times when they need to work with each other. It doesn’t matter whether a boy who comes for a rite of passage exhibits classic masculine traits or a lot of feminine traits, whether he’s so-called “straight” or identifies as gay. The important thing is he’s a unique individual. And our role is to celebrate them and share our stories so they can work it out for themselves. The way of passing on wisdom and knowledge is through stories rather than lectures. It’s interesting. I won a scholarship to Harvard Business School. All the teaching at Harvard now, 99 percent of it, is done through case studies. So you hear a story and then you decide how you would deal with that situation. And there’s not a right or wrong, just consequences.

That’s nice. It’s about trust isn’t it? At some point you have to let go.

Absolutely. How you parent boys and girls is different for each stage of their lives. With a boy you set boundaries, you tell them what to do. The big shift for a father, once his boy has become a young man, is having to stop telling his son what to do and how to live his life. He has to be sharing stories, mentoring. And a mother has to stop smothering. Mums have to let go and not know everything, but be available. And one of the other things about the rite of passage for boys is they recognise that mothers don’t tend to let go naturally. So the boys are taken away from their mothers. And sometimes the mothers would fight, in some communities in Papua New Guinea they would actually have clubs and spears to try to stop the men taking their boys. Because they recognised that once their boy was gone and was going to transform, he would never come back again as their boy.

I already understand that. I understand that there would be some grief over them becoming an individual. Like, a completely necessary mourning.

Yeah. And in our work we have incorporated a space to allow mothers to grieve. Because there is grief. So it’s tricky and it’s incredibly messy. But the flip side is, if the mother doesn’t let go of her child and tries to keep that at 14, 15, 16, the boy actually rejects his mother.

Far more painful. And with your sons, I mean obviously you’ve been thinking about this work for a really long time. But did you struggle to let them go?

Well, both my boys have been through a rite of passage. And I think it’s an ongoing process. But when my boys want to do something, if I’m not comfortable with it, I say to them, “Look, you’re a young man, you have to make a decision.” And that’s why also, classically, the father would be removed more from the relationship and a mentor would come in. Ideally I would start mentoring my friends’ and brother’s boys, and they would be mentoring mine, because what I find is my boys who are 23 and 25 don’t want to listen to me. But they’ll listen to my mates. There’s a whole community thing in how we raise our children. And it’s the same with mothers and daughters. Many girls won’t talk to their own mums. But they’ll talk for hours to aunties or mum’s friends.

What was your relationship with your parents like?

My father never stopped telling me what to do—from about the age of 14 I stopped communicating with him. We shared information but the intimacy was never there. Because every time it got to that point, he would start telling me what to do. Which actually continues to this day. And it’s a big shame. It’s the natural tendency for men to just keep telling their sons how to live their lives. You need something to create a shift. One of the things in our program is that you’re not allowed to tell your sons what to do. Just share your stories. Because if dads try to keep that power—“Do it because I’m your father and I said to”—the boys will just leave. And many relationships actually get physical, they turn into fights.

I was incredibly close with my mother as a boy, incredibly close. But once again, it never formally finished. So at a certain point I just became uncomfortable being close to her. And I actually rejected her for a number of years. I think that would have been painful for my mother, and I feel terrible—that didn’t need to happen. In fact, I would consider my teenage years the most difficult, lost, semi-depressed years of my life. I think that’s what called me to this work. And also being a doctor and seeing such wonderful young children—curious, full of life, beautiful, funny, all of those things. And then seeing those same children as teenagers—dark, shut down, angry, depressed, looking for trouble. I was like, “Wow, how can they be so fabulous when they’re young and then in such a short period of time struggle so much?” There’s actually some research that shows subjective wellbeing and happiness at 12 is quite high, and then there’s this massive drop in the middle teenage years. It’s a very dangerous time. In some schools between 30 and 50 percent of Year 9 and 10 kids are on medication. Can you believe that? That can’t be right. We need to be doing stuff with them when they’re 12, 13, when they’re doing great—to keep them going great. Because we need them great!

We need a world of authentic, wonderful, gifted, inspired young men and women!

Not kids who are depressed and end up spending their lives trying to compensate by thinking money and possessions are actually going to bring them happiness. We know they don’t.

It’s hard ‘cause that’s what our culture seems to be telling us. So it’s having to defy a lot of the messages that are told to us from the outside.

Absolutely. But anybody who steps back from the culture for five minutes and actually looks at it objectively goes, “This is crazy.” I mean Coca Cola is the number-one selling product in our supermarkets, or has been. You don’t have to go any further to know we’ve got a problem.

And so at your camps, who gets more out of them? Is it the kids or is it the adults? ‘Cause I imagine that the adults have their own epiphanies.

It’s a good question. We run the camps for the kids. But actually in the short-term it’s the adults who get more from them. We’re always saying with the kids that the seed has been planted and they will be better men and women, better partners and better community members because of this work. For the adults, the opportunity to really share stories about their lives— honestly, openly and in a confidential space—is massive. Many of them have never done that. And to spend time thinking about what they want their future to look like is incredible. It’s very powerful for everyone. Even the community who comes to welcome everybody back finds it powerful.

You know, I love medicine, but I had great concerns with the system. It seemed to be more about making money, seeing people as quickly as possible, treating symptoms rather than the cause. So at 35 I had to honestly ask myself, “What should I be doing with my life? Where am I really going to have the most impact?” And as a result of that, I decided to sell my practice and go full-time running rites of passage programs around Australia, and now I run them in different parts of the world. I want this work in the mainstream. I want every boy and girl to go through an appropriate community-based rite of passage. I think we would have a very different world if we could do it.

How do you take it to a wider audience?

The first thing is education. So raising awareness around supporting children into adult behaviour. Then it’s about creating processes for families, communities and schools. There are lots of ways for it to happen but the first step is to go, “We need to do something for our boys and girls when they reach puberty.”

And the camp aspect of it is integral.

Well, camping is a beautiful way to do it because going into nature without any technology allows for the psyche to open. It helps create that transformation. So you go into a rite of passage believing and thinking one way, and you come out with another. Most of the time our psyche is not open for transformation—it actually has to be opened up. And when it’s opened up, we’re in a state called “liminal space.” And in liminal space our psyches are malleable. So nature is a great way of creating liminal space.

Beautiful. And so how much resistance do you meet? I imagine that at the start of a rite of passage it’s not all sunshine! [Laughs].

Yeah, it’s true. You get resistance from different places. A lot of fathers are resistant because they hadn’t gone through a rite of passage. And a lot of men question their own masculinity. And so to go on a program like this where they’re concerned that they’re going to be exposed or “my son’s going to become a man but I don’t quite feel like I’m a man,” it gets difficult. A lot of our boys are actually signed up by their mothers or their fathers’ PAs or secretaries.

Really?

Yeah! You can get resistance from the mothers too though because they often know everything that goes on. And it’s like, “What? I’m not going to know what happens? I’m not going to hear about all the stories and everything?” Other mothers are like, “Do it.” And then from the boys themselves often there can be resistance because they’re all, “Oh it’s not cool to spend time with Dad. I don’t want to go on a sucky camp with other sons and dads.” I’m finding maybe half the community are totally keen, the other half sees it as a very confronting process. But I think there is a shift happening and more and more people are realising the importance of rites of passage.

Domestic violence is a big issue in Australia. How do you see this work challenging that?

Domestic violence is almost always in the man. It’s a man not being able to stand with his emotions. He’s not getting what he wants and so he has a tantrum. You know, I saw a four-year-old kid in the supermarket about two weeks ago with his mother saying, “I hate you, I hate you!” Trying to hit her and kick her! And then I heard him say, “I want a lollipop!” You know? But that’s okay in a four-year-old. If the adult man doesn’t get his lollipop, and then thinks it’s okay to kick and hit his woman, or verbally abuse her, it’s a big problem. As men we have to be able to stand with our emotions. If I get angry I can’t go and beat up people. It’s not okay. Once a boy becomes a young man, he has to know it’s not okay. It’s not about waiting until they’re 30, 40, 50 years of age to tell them it’s not okay. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but a lot of the scenarios where you get domestic violence, those men as teenagers were on some level abusive—often towards their mothers. And that’s when the behaviour has to be recognised and stopped.

It makes me so uncomfortable though, ‘cause women are often required to be the gatekeepers of men’s emotions.

Men have to be the gatekeepers of their own emotions. And it’s the role of the whole community to demonstrate that violence—in all forms—is just not okay.

What is your relationship with your sons now?

I have a beautiful relationship with my sons, and one of the things I love the most is that we have a policy where we have an adventure together once a year. So once a year we go away, either me with one of the boys—sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s both—and we might go on a road trip, we might go surfing, we might go skiing, wherever. But we do it. Every year. And last year in the middle of the year, my 25-year-old rang me up and said, “Hey Daddy, what are we going to do for our adventure this year? We haven’t done something yet.” Firstly, I love that sometimes he still calls me “Daddy.”

“Daddy!” That’s beautiful! [Laughs].

Yeah. And he actually wants to have an adventure with me. The beautiful thing about these adventures, besides the interesting places, is the conversations that we have at night and when we’re sitting around.

And are they better men than you, your sons?

I’d say they are! I look at how they are in relationships, how responsible they are, how good their values are and I’m totally proud of them. When something good happens to them, I’m the first one they ring. I’m really proud of that. I’m not perfect. They’ll still say, “Dad, you don’t need to tell us what to do.”

[Laughs]. There was a Jean Paul Gaultier quote that you put on the Facebook page—“To conform is to give in.” I wanted to know why it appealed to you.

It comes from one of my life philosophies:

“Why be conventional when there are so many other great options?”

I don’t personally live a conventional, conforming life. But I have an amazing life. I bought a property in 2000 where we run our camps and do leadership trainings. For the first eight years I lived in a bus, and then for the next three I lived in a teepee. And then for the last two years I’ve lived in a shed. But all of those are just magnificent. They’re all five-star. And totally comfortable and beautiful, but they’re not normal. When I was CEO of The Pathways Foundation, I would get up out of my bus, walk out into the bush, have my shower, put on some nice clothes, fly down to Sydney, go to Martin Street, maybe get a $100,000 sponsorship, and be back in my bus for dinner. I never told people I sold my medical practice in 2000 or that I lived in a bus. It was the worst economic decision I could have made, and the best personal decision I could have made. So I absolutely haven’t lived a conventional life, but I’ve had an amazingly blessed, incredible life.

What about the fact that school requires conformity? How do you ensure kids can be themselves in that environment?

It’s a huge issue, especially because you’ve got programs suggesting the primary focus of education is kids learning maths and English. But I believe that when an individual is able to be their genuine genius self, that’s when they’re best for their community. So as well as schools encouraging children to learn maths and English, they really need to encourage children to find their purpose, their spirit. A number of private schools now will send their Year 9 boys and girls away for three or six months. It’s actually recognised that they should be taking some time out of school, going more into nature, and exploring their personal values and what sort of men and women they want to be.

How do you do that in a school system that doesn’t have the cash for it?

Look at the school camp. It’s the perfect opportunity—where kids are taken away to do activities in another environment. The school camp actually has most of the major elements of a rite of passage but none of the awareness. You know, they go canoeing, bike-riding, climbing, they stay up all night, they get really tired and they come home. If instead that was like, “Let’s share stories, let’s talk about how we reacted to the challenges, and at the end let’s honour each of the kids who’s been on the camp.”

I started the Pathways Foundation in 2000. We’ve now got programs running in eight places around Australia. There’s a growing interest in rites of passage globally, and I get people coming to my leadership training from all over the place. I have now set up and been involved in running programs in England, Israel, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and America. If we can continue to translate this amazing indigenous knowledge into an appropriate contemporary context, it can have a massive impact on the world.

Jane Nethercote

Jane has LOVED Dumbo Feather since she spotted it in the magazine racks at Borders. Most of the Dumbo Feather team would be too young to understand this reference. She’s worked in online publishing for a wee while at places like Crikey, Lonely Planet and World Vision.

Photography by Tammie Joske

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