Allan Sparkes – Speaker & Author

Allan Sparkes is one of only five Australians in the past 37 years who have been awarded the Cross of Valour, Australia’s highest bravery decoration and Australia’s highest civilian award.  The Cross of Valour is the civilian equivalent to the Victoria Cross.  Allan has also been awarded the Royal Humane Society Galleghan Award for the most significant Act of Bravery in NSW and the highest bravery decoration in the NSW Police Force, the NSW Police Commissioners Valour Award.

Getting married in Paris and taking off on a wild adventure with his wife, riding 6,000 kilometres on their pushbikes around Europe, Allan Sparkes’ life couldn’t really have been much better. Then it all started to turn into a living hell. Two of Allan’s Police colleagues, one of whom was a personal friend were ambushed and shot dead.  Allan and his specialist squad teammates were tasked with hunting for the gunman and recovering the bodies of his colleagues.  Just a short time later, Allan was involved in one of the most decorated successful rescues in Australia’s history, saving the life of a young child who had been swept 600 metres down a flooded storm water pipe.  20 years of front line Police work finally took its toll. Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Chronic Depression turned his life into a living hell and suicide seemed the only option.

Allan spent the next 15 years rebuilding his life, his relationships and creating different careers.  His greatest achievement and life-long goal was sailing 16,000 nautical miles in his yacht with his wife and 2 young daughters from England back to Australia. After returning to Australia and deciding to embark on a new direction in life, Allan took up writing and joined the speakers circuit.  Allan has just completed his biography which is being edited by Mark Whittaker, Walkely award winning journalist, award winning author and current freelance writer for the New York Times.

Allan’s story provides an inspirational message to individuals and business teams and focuses on how to rebuild your life after a traumatic period of personal and business/career lows.  Visit www.allansparkes.com for his incredible story in detail.

Allan now lives in Sydney with his wife and daughters, Alayni and Nikki.

Describe yourself in 3 words: Optimistic, determined, compassionate.

What is your life motto?  ‘If you believe it you can achieve it’

When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful?   In real terms I could go way back to 1996 when I lost my sanity and had to rebuild my life.  By the time we sailed into Australia in late 2010, I had achieved so much.  I really had re-built my life.  I made up my mind to ‘wipe the slate clean’ so to speak and set out to find something that I really wanted to do, now that I was back to being a ‘landlubber’.

A friend of ours, Rhonda Bowen and her partner Michael Campbell were launching a new website called ‘Echos of Life’, and they asked me to be an ambassador for the site, writing a part of my life story so people could see how the site worked and encourage new entries to be made.  I thought I would just write a few lines about significant events that had occurred in my life, however I was putting ‘pen to paper’ so to speak about traumatic events in my life and I started to retrieve very painful memories that had once damaged my life.  The wonderful thing was that the more I wrote about them, the less impact they had on me and my inner strength seemed to grow and grow as each sentence was completed.

After I had completed my echos story, Rhonda read it and her words of encouragement spurred me on even further and posed the question to me ‘ Have you ever thought about taking your story to the speakers circuit?’

It wasn’t all that long after the Echos site went live that Rhonda rang me, she was very excited. ‘Al, would you like to speak at a pretty major event in Sydney?’  Her excitement was infectious and it was not all that long after, I had my first speaking gig, speaking to over 300 members of the Liquor Merchants Association of Australia.  It was their annual luncheon at the prestigious Doltone House in Sydney.  The minute I stepped off that stage to the huge applause of the crowd, I knew I had been blessed with an opportunity to do something so powerful and so rewarding.

How much time and effort did you dedicate to pursuing your dream? Losing my career in the Police back in 1998 was like half of my life was ripped away from me.  From that time I spent the next 15 or so years, not pursuing a dream but pursuing goals, finding things that would allow me to fill the void and give me back the sense of worth I once had.  I do not like the word dream.  To me a dream is a fantasy and it just wafts around in your mind, maybe one day you will get to do what you ‘dream’ about, maybe you won’t.  If you set yourself a goal, it is something to strive for, it is real and it is tangible and it is achievable.

I become very focused when I have a goal and I give it 150% or even more if that is possible.  Some may jokingly say it is obsessive – compulsive but nothing gives me greater satisfaction than achieving something I set out to do.  On reflection I would say that writing my book took up more time than anything.  I would spend hours writing.  It then became a bit of a two horse race – writing the book and becoming a speaker.

I had completed the first draft of my book, it was nearly 130,000 words long.  I sent the draft off to a dear friend, Jenny Varley who had offered to read it and give her unbiased opinion of it.  Well, true to her word, Jen did eventually plough through it and she very kindly pointed out that there was just too much material in it, the combination of the events of my life as well as the whole story of our big sailing adventure were just too much.

I have to say another twist of fate worked in my favour.  Mark Whittaker, Walkely Award winning journalist and award winning author, and I had known each other since he wrote a story for the Weekend Australian Magazine some years ago about the five recipients of the Cross of Valour.  Mark and I had always been in contact and after I started my book he later offered to take on the role as my mentor and editor, but only if I was prepared to dig far deeper than I had ever thought possible.  It was then that I started to completely focus on what I needed to do as far as my book was concerned.

So off to the line editor it has gone and my focus shifted back to my speaking. I set goals to be included on professional speakers sites, video presentations had to be prepared, biographies written and application forms completed.   With the support of colleagues in my network including Andrew Newell, the Group Manager of Fairfax Media and Michelle Aubert, the conference manager from the Coffs Harbour City Council, I was successful in my applications to Claxtons Speakers International and ICMI Speakers Bureau, both highly respected and recognised bureaus.

What are the challenges in your line of work? In regard to speaking, the challenges are getting sufficiently identified in the industry to create that demand. The basics of economics comes into effect.  There is a very limited demand for speakers but an abundance of them.  A strong, credible profile is essential.  It is a bit like the old cliché of the chicken and the egg.  Without having the industry experience you will find it very difficult to get the industry experience.  As far as the actual speaking is concerned, I relish in the challenge of engaging an audience and getting them to think about where their life is at present, where they would like it to go to and giving them the inspiration to take on challenges they never thought they could overcome.

As far as my book is concerned, the challenge was to take it from being a documented sequence of events to become a powerful and compelling story.  The major challenge of course is to have the book published.  In the current economic and industry climate, dramatic changes are taking place, entrenched publishing methods are being scrutinised more than ever before.  Fewer books are being published by traditional publishing houses and more and more people are turning to self publishing methods.  My goal is to have my book published and well received.  I have been able to take great encouragement from the reviews I have had so far.

What is the mistake that taught you an extremely valuable lesson? The biggest mistake I ever made in my life was not getting professional help when my life and my mental health started to go pear-shaped.  I think for most people, the fear of making the admission that you need help is just as bad, if not worse, than the illness or illnesses you are suffering from.  The fact is, once your mental health starts to suffer, the best, most effective and quickest way to recovery is to get professional help.  Not only will it lessen the impact on your life, it will also lessen the impact on the ones who matter most in your life. 

What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? I think that came from Mark Whittaker when he spoke to me about what I needed to do to write my book.  His words were ‘Dig deep.’  I did dig deep and I went so far into my mind and opened up these steel boxes where I had so many traumatic and horrific memories locked away.  By getting those memories out, thinking about them, analysing them like I have never done before, empowered me in a way that I never thought possible.  It was the greatest form of rehabilitation I ever experienced.

In your mind, is formal training essential? It goes without saying, that of course depends on what you want to do and how successful you want to be.  In everything I have done, I have wanted to be the best I could and I have, where possible, undertaken relevant formal training to achieve that.  Other things, like when we opened a little bed and breakfast, I just let my passion for food and cooking run amok and a creative side of me that I never knew existed came bubbling to the surface.

Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry?  I believe that wise men learn from wise men who have learnt from wise men.  I am a believer in Karma and Karma brought two amazing mentors into my life.  Firstly, world champion speaker Brett Rutledge was a friend of Jenny Varley, who read my original draft.  When Jen heard about my first foray into the speaking world, she asked Brett if he could offer me some advice.  Well Brett did far more than that and the help he gave me and continues to give me is invaluable.

I could not have had a better mentor than Mark Whittaker for my book.  His deep understanding of why I wanted to write a book coupled with his exceptional skills and abilities allowed me to produce something that literally changed my life.

So while Karma brought those men into the mix in a ’round about’ way, nothing can detract from the value they have added to what I have set out to achieve.

How would you go about getting a mentor?  Identify those who you respect and who you would like to emulate and have the courage to approach them.  Who knows what it may lead to!

What are some steps those starting out can take to start/further their career?  Like the old adage in real estate, those three important words… position, position, position, I would suggest three different words, research, research, research.  An idea may have formulated in your mind about your first or perhaps a change in career but unless you know as much as you can about what you want to do, I do not think you can properly apply the next essential ingredient – Passion for what you do.  If you haven’t got that fire in the belly passion you are wasting your time.

What kept you going when you weren’t at your best?  I think most of us have experienced the hollowness of failure and the exultation of achievement.  I hate that hollow feeling more than anything I know.  I also know that if you keep fighting, remain determined, continue to believe then the hollowness is replaced with exquisite emotions and they are the ones I love the best.

Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time?  No I don’t believe it is about luck at all.  You reap what you sow.

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