Words by Helen Gilchrist
Illustration by: www.peterjamesfield.co.uk
Last millennium, Tim Smit had a vision involving a disused quarry, £130 million, and some gigantic domes filled with exotic plants. At the time, a lot of people thought he was off his head. As we all know, he proved them wrong. As Eden approaches its fifth birthday, Stranger talks to ‘Britain’s motivator’ about making dreams reality, having balls, and breaking rules.
There’s a faint whiff of cigars and that rich, woody smell of carved mahogany Indian furniture. Elaborate silk prints, simple watercolours and even the odd CBE certificate adorn the walls. The desk in the corner is piled with papers and folders, while a plain black laptop sleeps in the corner. Suddenly the door bursts open and he waltzes into the room, larger than life, dishevelled curly hair, and a mouthful of something. “I’ve just stolen the last chocolate in the box!” he mumbles cheerfully, still sucking. “English people are so polite. No one would take it, so I thought, ‘why the hell not?’”
Tim Smit is a living, walking, cigarillo-smoking manifestation of what is needed to take a dream to a massive, successful reality. His own dream of Eden was born against all physical and financial odds, and has gone on to be hailed by many as the Eighth Wonder of the World. But, like so many of the best ideas, it started on the back of a napkin. He still has the very same napkin, framed on the wall outside his office in Eden’s beautiful wooden Foundation Building. A testament to tenacity if ever there was one.
But where most people might have laughed as, with a pounding head, they deciphered their plans from the wine-fuelled scrawl again in the morning, Tim was totally undaunted – even by the biggest, seemingly impossible ideas. “I like big,” he says, “always have done. Because I always think that big is the liberation of small. Very often people are scared of big because they think that it will be expensive or that it is beyond them because we are little people, you know? But I have found that when we look at big, very often it is just a whole bunch of us small people getting together, and actually it adds up to so much more because you have created a wider opportunity.” »
Eden’s construction began in 1996, and ever since then it has acted as a powerful catalyst, galvanising the economy of the whole region and encouraging in turn dozens of new ventures in what was previously an incredibly deprived area. The boost was both real and psychological. Eden insisted on sourcing as much as they could locally, from building materials to graphic design to the food in their cafés, kick-starting a number of businesses in Cornwall. It also fuelled the strong and infectious feeling of positivity and opportunity in an area that had 10 years before been in total decline, with young people leaving in droves.
“I think by far the most important thing we did was that when people got to know us, they could see that we were a bunch of ordinary people and we had done something pretty fantastic,” explains Smit. “So an awful lot of people who had ideas and were wondering whether they didn’t have the courage to take it upon themselves said, ‘Fuck it, we can do this.’ I think that kind of inspirational thing was very important. We weren’t directly responsible for all those cases, we were symbolically responsible, but it feels great.”
There’s no denying Smit is an inspiration to people everywhere who have ideas and want to make them happen (he’s lectured to 3,000 people at a Day of Inspiration at the Royal Albert Hall, and some have even talked of bottling his entrepreneurial spirit). But is he really ordinary?
Before coming to Cornwall, he was a music producer for 10 years, making a name – as well as a pretty penny – for himself working with the likes of Barry Manilow and the Nolan Sisters (he has since admitted that his greatest contribution to music was to “do a Captain Oates and leave”). He ended up moving to Cornwall to build a music studio after a chance meeting with a farmer who owned a house he had seen in an estate agent’s window the day before. “I lead my life on impulse,” he says. His hunger for life is certainly extraordinary – the fact that he nearly died in a diving accident about 20 years ago must have fuelled his vigorous ‘seize the day’ mentality.
He also has an incredibly restless mind. “I’m told that I’m quite exhausting to be with,” he says, shifting in his chair and relighting his cigarillo. “Some people go to beaches and the like, but my idea of relaxation is good conversation, and reading things and doing things and whatever. I can’t do that switching off.” Clearly. Most people who might find themselves as millionaires in their early thirties with a nice house in Cornwall might well thank their lucky stars and live a life of chilled luxury. Not Tim. He can’t sit still for five seconds. “I’m awful at vegging out. It’s a real bore. I envy people who can.”
And so it came to pass that a whole string of events and achievements – including ‘discovering’ and leading the restoration team on Britain’s favourite ‘lost garden’ at Heligan – kept Tim pretty busy, right up until he found himself reading the scribbles on a napkin and formulating his next plan; the big one. The one with the domes in the quarry. The one that would eventually, whether he liked it or not, catapult him from being a charismatic but pretty much unknown ex-record producer with a penchant for plants to becoming a national household name.
Did he know from the very outset that Eden really was going to happen? Was there any doubt in his mind? After all, it was a fantastical, futuristic and far-fetched idea (rumours abound about a certain noxious herb that may or may not have helped conceive the vision). Did he ever worry that the whole thing was going to be a massive, expensive and very public flop? “I never doubted that we’d build it, never,” he says with a conviction you can’t possibly question. “I knew there’d be things thrown in our way, but I just felt super-confident.” His philosophy seems to be that if you want something hard enough, you can do it if you just have the guts, determination, and the right group of people around you.
“Part of the art is to use the word ‘when’ as opposed to ‘if’,” he says. “I always use the word ‘when’. It’s psychological. I’m really interested in the psychology of success.” One of his lifelong mantras is his ‘Tinkerbell Theory’ – that if you can get a whole bunch of people to believe in something, it will happen. “It’s amazing the electricity you can generate in a group of people once everyone believes you. Suddenly they all start using the word ‘when’… and when you have a bunch of people saying ‘when’ then it will become a ‘when’. And unless you believe in something absolutely crack pot, that is going to be the case.” It may all sound a bit like a generous portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul, but when Tim Smit says it, sitting in his office in the heart of Eden and fixing you in the eye with his intense and piercing gaze, it is utterly compelling and you know it has to be true.
But realising a dream is not just about your choice of vocabulary; it’s also about balls. Smit is known for being a maverick. Someone who dares to break the rules and appears happy to dice with disaster and put his head – and reputation – on the line, because there’s no question in his mind that it’ll all come good in the end, even if he has to tell the odd porky to get there (when you’re trying to make something happen, “there is no such thing as lies, only future truths”). Eden’s original funding application was turned down by the Millennium Commission, but Smit went and addressed a press conference that very same day and announced that the Commission had welcomed their application and just wanted them to make a few changes. The actual truth was, the Commission didn’t want any changes; they just didn’t like the idea. End of story.
“When I got the news that we had been rejected, I thought ‘How could they do this to us?’” he remembers. “Then I started to think about all the people who were believing in the project, and I couldn’t face telling them that we weren’t going to do it because everyone had sacrificed so much.” Smit was in London when he got the news, and had to drive down to Cornwall to address the press that day. “By the time we got to Exeter, I thought ‘Fuck it. Let’s see who has got the most balls!’ I didn’t actually have to think about it for very long because I wasn’t prepared to let it drop, and the only way to do this without letting it drop was to challenge them face on.” And it worked: “Within three months, they believed that was what they had said themselves.”
He is, however, cautious about encouraging other people to tell ‘future truths’, insisting that it must not hurt anyone else and cannot be for personal gain. But when you have a vision, you have to be able to think outside the box. He quotes the Irish politician Edmund Burke: “Rules are for the guidance of the wise and the enslavement of the stupid.” This quotation is printed in the staff handbook at Eden. “If you want to be a maverick, if you want to be daring first of all, don’t be so stupid as to not look at what the rules are,” Smit insists. “If you are going to break the rules, at least understand why the rules are there.”
So, what next? The work is done, the dream a reality: Eden is here, a runaway success story that continues to inspire people from all over the world. Eden have been approached by 13 different countries wanting to build more Eden Projects, potentially making millions of pounds, but they have said no. “I want Eden to be like the Taj Mahal, the only one of its kind,” he says. “And I want to finish what we set out to do here, and make Eden an example of the most sustainable type of organisation you can have.”
But we all know Tim Smit doesn’t like to sit still. His next dream is to build a Museum of Vanity underground at Eden. “It will be about how each successive civilisation brings itself to its knees because of the vanity of thinking that it can control the environment and that technology will answer its problems, but this has never ever been found to be the case.” Smit is gesticulating all over the place now. “I want to build a fantastic place that’s underground and where you can only go from one room to another by touching every single thing in it. You won’t learn anything at all about the kings and queens, but about the trends that lead us to be vain.” Sound like a far-fetched fantasy? Watch this space…+
Eden’s fifth birthday of being fully open is on 17 March this year.