“I decided on one particular day that I was going to lead my life in a very different way; I was going to do whatever I felt like doing.”
This might sound like a quote from a film or a novel, but for Sir Tim Smit it was the making of his dreams. “From the day I decided to trust what I felt, the dice that I’ve rolled have rolled six,” he adds.
The former archaeologist and founder of the Eden Project is as charismatic a podcast guest as you could hope for, with wisdom in abundance. Humorous, insightful, and tongue-in-cheek, we are taken on a whistle-stop tour of his major life lessons and accomplishments with hosts Alba and Daniel from NAIS Dublin.
Like other guests from Series 2 of A Little Bit Of Genius, being told ‘no’ repeatedly as he pursued big ideas like the Eden Project was a driving force, a piece of grit to tenaciously chew on; a catalyst for action. He recalls how, in trying to kick-start the Eden Project, “the more I dreamt about doing something very big, the more people said we couldn’t do it” and how “the more people tell me I can’t do it, the crosser and crosser I get”. After a “romantic” life as an archaeologist – which he describes as being a “Sherlock Holmes of the past ages” – and a decade in the music industry, Sir Tim explains how he quite literally woke up one day deciding to pursue his dreams.
This was a pivotal moment, an epiphany, because after which Tim’s happiness and luck soared. “When you actually do what really pleases you as opposed to what you think other people want you to do,” you become both happier, more ambitious and the proverbial chips fall your way. For Tim, it is also a matter of accountability and taking control over your own destiny; “you’re taking responsibility for yourself”. Indeed, he reflects on how he wishes he’d known when he was younger “not to waste a minute of my time trying to please my parents…on the grounds that when I was as old as they were, they didn’t have a clue either”. It’s the kind of comedic, yet poignant, compelling storytelling approach Tim continues throughout the podcast.
He strongly advises against people who try to limit you, later citing how he felt the media play a big role in this, explaining how he feels “they want to find that you’re a dreamer and [portray] that dreamers can never deliver things”. He surmises on this point around detractors and limiters (after telling us to cross them off our Christmas card list!), that “the real thing that most people don’t know…[is] the moment you have decided to take that risk…all the tension you felt in anticipating the risk goes, so you can put all of that energy into the action”. It is this channelling of negative energy, a skill closely linked to resilience, that propelled Tim to achieving his dreams.
Of course, there is plenty of discussion of the Eden Project itself, in a more tangible and less philosophical way. He explains how external support was crucial to getting the ball rolling on the Project, and emphasises how being able to tell a good story was the lynchpin. For Tim, the four most important words in the English language are “once upon a time”. It causes people “as old as 80” to sit up and listen, enabling them to realise that together they can achieve something great. In fact, the bigger the dream and story, the better the outcome is likely to be: Tim believes that it’s “easier to raise £5 million than £5000”. He recounts how he told the media he would build the “eighth wonder of the world in the wild wild west”. Indeed, influencing was all part of Tim’s dream: “I dreamt that I could persuade as many as 300 people that had been trained to say no, to say yes”.
He then moves onto some of the strategic realities of delivering such a big project; explaining how he budgeted for the most conservative of financiers to get them on board, and then attracted further financiers by showcasing the initial investment partner and projections. He then notes how when he opened the Project mid-build for the public to see, the visit of over 500,000 people stimulated further investment, enabling the Project to go from strength to strength. Despite difficulties caused by closure during COVID, in September the Project had more visitors than at any point in the previous 18 years.
The Project is not static either. Sir Tim explains that they are currently developing ways to use the “holy grail” of geothermal energy to help maintain the biome. It brings him swiftly onto where he sees the future, amidst increasing awareness and concerns about the impact of climate change on our environment. He feels his generation has “a lot to answer for”, having been “frightened of its own shadow”, investing in non-renewable, environment-damaging energy sources such as fossil fuels.
However, he remains optimistic that “the future still remains ours to make”, and that he has high hopes for Alba and Daniel’s generation. He predicts that “within three years there will be no factories making fossil fuel engines” and that the “race for a solar century will go bonkers”. He believes that humans “are happy in the environment…it makes us happy to see beautiful skies”.
Tim subsequently leaves us with a great rallying cry that it is "time the world wakes up" and acts fast to protect our planet.