Gary John Bishop isn’t your typical self-help guru. He isn’t here to to analyze the minutiae of your childhood, he doesn’t think positivity is the answer to everything, and he won’t fill your head with motivational clichés.
He is a man of great empathy and integrity, who has developed an honest and straight-talking approach to improving lives based on personal responsibility and assertive action, informed by the grit and wit of his working class upbringing in Glasgow, Scotland.
“My experience of the industry was it was a little too self-indulgent,” he explains. “It’s one thing for people to hear where you’re at, but I didn’t hear enough people saying, ‘This is how you get out of that.’
“That’s my passion. How can you switch from one spot to another. It’s challenging, but also surprisingly simple. I want people to understand they have a tremendous capacity for change.”
Gary was working as a general contractor before he reevaluated his own life in the mid 2000s, and his keen interest in psychology and philosophy turned into both his career and life’s mission, when he became a full-time coach.
After rigorous training, he became a Senior Program Director at one of the world’s biggest personal and professional development companies, before going it alone and building a one-man empire that has made a powerful impact across the world. In 2017, his debut book ‘Unf*ck Yourself‘ became a New York Times bestseller, and he is now writing his sixth life manual. He also hosts a podcast, delivers in-person speeches and courses, and continues to devote himself to one-on-one personal coaching.
His refreshing, no bullshit attitude is focused on the here and now. He won’t let you take prickly comfort in your childhood trauma. It’s about identifying your current roadblocks and taking action. He encourages living with personal integrity, and treating your promises to yourself like they mean something. Something of a rock star in an industry of balladeers, his pragmatic approach has earned him a following that includes celebrities and Fortune 500 executives, but his real passion remains helping normal folks get out of tough spots in their lives.
“There’s just so much woo-woo out there,” says the dad-of-three, who now lives in Orlando, Florida. “Whatever works for you, you should do that. But that stuff never worked for me, it never gave me any insight.
“With the tens of thousands of people that I’ve now coached, the people who are drawn to me don’t want a cuddle. They want me to tell them the truth. They want some sense of somewhere to ground themselves, even if it’s a painful grounding.
“People have come to me and they’ve said, ‘I’ve been a victim of this, and a victim of that.’ I’ll say, ‘Okay. Maybe you’re not a victim of anything. Maybe the only thing you’re dealing with is yourself, and how you’ve made your way through this life, and where you’ve ended up.’
“That’s challenging for people to hear, but I don’t mind going there. I’m not about motivating people. I’m not about being positive with people. I think positivity for some people is useless and, in fact, insulting. Some people are in a spot in their life where positivity is not going to crack it.
“I have a lot of time for people. I have tremendous passion for people. But at the same time, I don’t want to dwell in people’s shit as much as they do. I’m the anti self-help guy in some ways. But at the same time, people can help themselves, they really can. But you’ve got to take the courageous route.”
A central idea in the evolving mental health discussion is that men in particular should talk more about their feelings, and while it is undoubtedly important to be able to identify our issues and feel like we can share those with others, Gary suggests we could be becoming too obsessed with how we feel over what we’re going to do about it.
“It doesn’t take much to make you feel better.” he explains. “You can literally feel better with a single martini. But we’ve become so wrapped up in that, we’re obsessed with feeling better now. Once upon a time we used to set that aside, and there was a big negative to that too, because people were ignoring things that they were dealing with and wrestling with, and traumas and all kinds of stuff. But I think in many ways we’re swinging the other way now. Now it’s like, ‘I’m offended,’ or, ‘My feelings are hurt.’
“We’re asking other people to be responsible for us, but you’ve got to really be responsible for your own emotions and your own machinery, and how all that works, and why does it do what it does. Then you’ve got to set that aside in some really testing moments, and produce the results. Because life only ever changes in a paradigm of action. Your life will not change by feeling better about it. You might start there, but where your life will actually start to change is when you do differently than you did before.”
We’re delighted to have this authentic man who was born to serve as the latest subject of our ‘Who the F*** Are You?’ profile, answering the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are. Watch the filmed conversation below, and keep scrolling for the print interview and portraits. Also check out our accompanying article here, where Gary outlines some practical guidance for making productive changes in our lives.
Who the f*** are you?
I’m Gary John Bishop. I’m a proud father and husband, and I’m someone who’s devoted the last 15 years of my life, and the rest of my life, to empowering others. I’ve got this wonky accent, so I’m originally from Glasgow, Scotland. Actually, I’m from the east end of Glasgow, which is the side of the tracks where they stole the tracks. But I’ve been in the United States now for 20-something years, and this is my life, who I am, and what I’m up to.
How are you feeling right now?
I’m feeling very relaxed and curious about your next 19 questions [Ed: It’s 18, actually!].
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
Like I said, I’m from Glasgow. Glasgow is like a little New York in many ways, it’s rough and it’s tough, but there’s a big heart in it. It used to be a very industrial city and it changed a lot. But my parents were your average Glaswegian parents. My father was a cooper, he made barrels for whiskey, and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. They divorced when I was young, and I had three older sisters.
Glasgow by its nature is a very authentic place, but it can be a very painful place if you don’t have your whits about you. I don’t just mean physically painful, I mean you’ve really got to have a thick skin to survive in that city.
I was 16 when I left home, I had my first job right out the gates and went to work in the office in the Tron Theater, which is this really old theater in Glasgow. It was in this YTS government training program, I think I made $30 a week or something. It was a challenge for me because even though I was this Glasgow boy, I was very naive as a kid. My old sisters had protected me quite a bit, but I was dying to get out there. I’d always felt like there was something else out there for me, so I just followed that. And to be fair, my mom encouraged it. She was like, ‘Do whatever you got to do, do it.” So I did, and here I am.
My dad was a very heavy drinker. He was a very loving guy, but he spent most of his time living with the effects of alcohol. But one thing that always struck me about him was, he was never far away. He always wanted to be around, wanted to be part of things. Having done a lot of work on myself, I was able to put a lot of that into perspective later, in some kind of context for myself. Because when you’re a kid and you’re growing up, you’re just in it. There’s no wisdom there, there’s no philosophy, there’s nothing. It’s just you and trying to work your way through the mess. I didn’t work on myself later to deal with my childhood, by the way. If you’d asked me that at the time, I’d have said, “I’m done with it.” But it was amazing how much of it was still reaching into my adult life, and how it shaped how I saw myself, but not only that, how I saw the world. So that work really helped to have the scales fall away from my eyes, and I got a real clarity in my late 30s, early 40s, about myself and about life, and about what I’m capable of. I’m thankful for that childhood, but I’m not one of those people to look back and say, “Well, that childhood made me.” No, it was a lot of different things, and certainly that work on myself later really helped shape who I’ve become.
What excites you?
Always the future. The future of my children, the future of people, the future of the world. The future is where it’s at. If you could create a future for yourself that’s exciting, you’ll have an exciting life now, and that’ll influence and shape everything you’re doing.
What scares you?
It’s always some sense of unexpected intrusion, something that’s going to come out of nowhere. There’s been those things in life, like in 2007, 2008, when the big bank bust happened, that came out nowhere for me. But even though I have that fear of certain elements of that, one of the things that I do know about myself is, like all human beings, I have the capacity for overcoming. It doesn’t matter how crappy it gets, I’m built for it.
What is your proudest achievement?
My three children. My sons. I just can’t get enough of them. They’re just brilliant. They’re just so good to be around, they’re funny, and a complete pain in the arse sometimes. But I just want to be around them, I want to hang out with them, I want to talk to them, I want to go to the movies with them. And I’m fortunate enough that they want to do that stuff with me, because that’s not always the case. They’re 16, 10 and seven. I’m clear that this is the good old days for them, and I’m happy to contribute to that.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
Write a book. As part of working on myself over the years, I really started to identify my own internal mechanism. My mechanism is, “I’m not smart enough.” There’s a reason why I went and took that job at 16, and college was never an option. I never really had a sense that I was going around saying to myself, “I’m not smart enough.” But if I looked at it from that perspective, I could see how the major decisions in my life were influenced by that.
So, I had a full-time private coaching business at the time, and about 30 clients, and the person who was doing some marketing for me said, “You should write a book.” I just resisted. “I’m not writing a freaking book. I’m not doing that.” Then I really started to question, “Why am I resisting this? Why don’t I write a book?”
I really confronted that notion that somewhere in here I don’t think I can, I don’t think I’ve got it. That was enough, and then I’m just like, “All right. I’m going to write this book.” I didn’t go to college. I didn’t Google, “How do you write a book?” Didn’t do anything. I just thought, “I’m going to write the book that I would want to read.” I spent a year writing that book, and six months editing it. It all just came gushing out. I actually found a real passion of mine, which is writing. And I’m writing my sixth book right now. Luckily for me, I managed to get the context right. The context is always: How can I make a difference for people? That’s what inspires me to write the next book and the next book and the next book. I don’t pursue numbers and I don’t follow the money, I don’t at all. My books are always about the guy who’s unemployed, the single mom, they’re my people and I write books for them so that they can get a sense of themselves and what life they want to live.
Who is your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
There’s been a couple actually in my lifetime. Growing up there was a teacher at my high school, Miss O’Rourke. She was my English teacher. Believe it or not, even when I was at high school, she told me that I had a talent for writing. I always did well in English at school, but not much else. Then later in life there’s been a couple of guys. There’s a guy, a friend of mine, Jeff Willmore, who really grounded me in what it is to have personal integrity, to be a man of integrity or a woman of integrity, and how to live from a space of integrity, and how to own and manage yourself in this world. Both of those were big influences on who I’ve become.
We need mentors, somebody to gauge ourself against. Sometimes, as a man, you can get a little too independent, when you don’t feel as if you need that, or you can work it out yourself, which is kind of myopic.
I think I’ve become the dad that I think my dad wanted to be. I think he wanted to be that dad, he just wasn’t equipped after whatever he went through in his life. There’s no resentment or any sense that I missed out in anything, because there was so much that I did get. The same with my mom. The resentment that I had, because very often you’ll end up with resentment towards a parent or parents, it was always aimed at her. And then I had that same kind of aha with her, like, “This woman had a past long before I ever knew her. I have no idea what she went through or how she managed it. All I’m witnessing is what came out the other side of that.” I think that’s a big barrier breaker for people, when you start to see those important figures in your life as human beings, rather than the caricature that they can become when you’re a kid.
Who are you fictional and real-life heroes?
I’m always interested in people who overcome the odds. My real-life heroes are the people who do, and they email me all the time, they direct message me, and I’ve had a number of them. There was a guy when I released my first book, ‘Unfu*k Yourself’, he emailed me and he said, “I just read your book and checked myself into rehab as soon as I finished it. Then I emailed you right away.” I mean, when you think about what somebody has to deal with to get themselves at that point, that’s a real-life, bona fide hero right there. That’s someone that stepped up in their life and stepped into the great unknown and produced a result. I get that a lot from people who have produced the most amazing results for themselves, pulled themselves back from the brink. A guy recently, he just signed a big distribution deal with a big grocery chain all over United States. When he first picked up the first book, he was living on his friend’s sofa. That stuff is captivating.
Then my heroes growing up were always football players, or soccer players as they call them, for the great uneducated. And then super heroes too. I still have the argument with my boys about Iron Man. I’m a big Iron Man guy, they’re all Captain America.
What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
It’s a black, very worn out AC/DC t-shirt. My wife hates it and it’s got a bit of a stink on it that I can’t get out of it. But I can’t get enough of it. I wear it all the time. I’ll even wear it out, and she’s like, “You are kidding me!”
What music did you love age 13, and do you still love it now?
When I was 13 electronic music was just coming out, so we were getting into that post-punk thing in the UK. Bands like Depeche Mode were a big thing for me, then a little later after that it was The Smiths and The Cure, and I used to go see those bands all the time. I loved that. That was a big part of my life growing up.
What is the most inspiring book that you’ve ever read?
‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘. I always talk about Viktor Frankl’s book, because there’s so much philosophy in that book. It’s not a big book, but it’s dense and that’s always my aim with every book that I write, to always give you a lot in a very short period of time. I guess I just keep going back to the triumph of the human spirit, that’s what I Ioved about ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Human beings can overcome, and he did it and then he talked about what allowed him to do it. Then he was someone who devoted his life to making a difference. Brilliant book.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
Oh, there’s been a few. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ just rocked me, that movie, and the book. It was such a hopeless time for folks back then, there was nothing. That left a lasting impact on me because I think I empathize with that a little. Because we didn’t have anything when I was a kid. We’d go to bed hungry. We were on welfare. I had holes in my shoes, the whole nine yards. I know what it’s like to have nothing. There’s nothing worse than having hand-me-down clothes and your older siblings are sisters! That movie really captures what it’s like to be at the bottom.
What is your favorite word or saying?
I mean, it’s pretty obvious. I love the word f***. I love it. I use it all the time. I use it in front of my children. They don’t, but I do. I think f*** is such a great word for capturing life. There’s so many different ways you can use that word. You can use it in a moment of joy, you can use it as a term of affection, you can use it as a defense mechanism. It’s just a brilliant, all-encapsulating word.
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
That he gave a f***.
Finally, a quickfire five favorites…
Land Rover Defender 110.
I’m a pie guy. Give me a freaking pie, I’m good to go.
Oh, that’s a good one. I just got this new one that I’m using on my hair and my beard simultaneously [Suavecito]. It’s not shiny and it’s not sticky. It generally keeps this mess off my face.
I’ve got a bunch of Todd Snyder stuff which I like, I just like the way the jeans fit. When you get to a certain age in life, the clothing’s got to fit right. And I do love the Deus Ex Machina t-shirts. I might have 40 of those t-shirts.
Find out more about Gary’s books, podcast and coaching on his website.