Feeling out of place

I'm currently reading Keith Johnstone's book on Impro, and my friend Dougald pointed me towards this interview with him. He's written so many interesting things about creativity and spontaneity which chime greatly with my ideas on doing things badly. It's often our desire to be 'right' that self-censors all the crazy things that float into our heads and makes us deliberately dull and predictable. (Incidentally, in the book he also talks about how this process is as much about keeping up the 'pretence' of sanity by hiding all the crazy, unpredictable elements of our minds for fear of being excluded from the group - which with my Mindapples hat on I find particularly interesting.)

One quote I particularly liked was this:
"If you make a mistake in public and stay happy, they like you."
In a great deal of performance work, and therefore in many situations where we feel under pressure or required to 'perform', the worst thing we can do if we fail is to worry about it. It makes people feel uncomfortable. We condition the social space around us by our behaviour, and if we feel bad, we make others feel bad. But if we feel good (unless we've done something really bad), people will forgive us our failings. It's lovely to see people with a "total lack of self-punishment", they lighten our modd and brighten our days. In certain situations, our attitude matters more than our actions.

This might seem a minor point, but it connects to something bigger that I've noticed over the past couple of years. In the past I used to worry that I had no right to be in certain meetings or situations, because I didn't have the right kind of experience, skill or character - in effect, because I didn't fit in. But then, a friend of mine told me about a meeting of his local NHS Trust, in which a patient-representative announced that, due to his schizophrenia, in some meetings he might make no sense, or scream at them, or say something totally ridiculous - and they all had to accept it, because his perspective needed to be represented.

This was a whole new approach that I hadn't seen before. If you sense that you don't 'fit in' somewhere, the immediate reaction is to feel out of place and uncomfortable, but it can actually mean you bring a unique and valuable perspective that gives you great power and influence. If we feel ashamed of our difference because we 'shouldn't be here', then we will transmit that attitude to our neighbours and, before you know it, we are excluded from the conversation.

But if you can walk into somewhere you feel out of place and turn that into a positive, then the scope of what you can accomplish becomes vast. One of my business heroes, Tim Smit of the Eden Project, says yes to inappropriate invitations because "you can learn loads from being in the wrong place". So now when I'm in a situation where I have to perform, and I feel like I don't fit in, I think: "I don't fit in here - which is exactly why I can contribute something unique." And once I started saying that, the world got a little bit larger.

I suspect most of the worst and stupidest decisions in history have been taken in rooms where normal people weren't welcome. I'm passionate about breaking down this need for permission for us to contribute our individual perspectives. If there is a political purpose to my work, it is to put more people in the wrong places - to open up all those closed conversations to include all the relevant perspectives, to give people access to things which on paper they would be excluded from, and to help people speak from their hearts without feeling they have to "act the part". Let's all contribute our unique 'wrongness' to the world, and then maybe we will make better decisions and design a more inclusive, sociable society.

Selling what you believe in

At School of Everything lately we've been preoccupied with how to sell what we're building to teachers and learners.

Some of our more commercially-minded advisors have told us that "you can sell anything", and they're right. Why worry about how good the site is, we just need to get the word out, then we can make it better afterwards - right? But within the team we've actually been quite reluctant to go telling the world about our product until we're happy with it ourselves.

The reason for this isn't just perfectionism, or a fear of "doing it badly" - it's about relationships. Sure, you can sell anything - but if your focus is on creating an ongoing relationship with the person you're selling to, the rules about that change. You don't sell something unless you're confident the buyer will still be happy with that transaction when you next see them. Or, to express it in another way, the commercial relationships you create should translate into sustainable social relationships too.

In some product development methodologies, they talk about the first and second "moments of truth" in a product-consumer relationship. The first is the moment when you realise the role the product could play in your life ("I'd look great in those jeans..."); the second is when it actually starts to play a role in your life ("Wow, you look great in those jeans..."). All too often sales is used to force the former and disguise the latter - leading to the "Why the hell did I buy these horrible purple jeans?" factor. (Come on, we've all done it...)

If you see product development as about creating a relationship between a product and its consumers, it's very easy to "sell anything" and forget about your community. But if you see your product as a tool to create a relationship between you and your customers, then the rules change. You have to create something more worthwhile, more long-lasting.

By designing for positive relationships, we are forced to design better and sell with integrity. The point of School of Everything is to create and serve a sustainable community, and if we really stick to that, we can only sell what we believe in. To do anything else wouldn't just miss the point - it would be bad for business too.

The ABCD of Careers

My friend Dougald recently told me about "Asset Based Community Development", which put very simply means starting with the assets in a community already and assessing how it can provide for its own needs, rather than starting with what's missing and making the local community dependent on central assistance.

I really like this concept. I like local emphasis, and I like the faith in people that lies at the heart of it. And I've also realised that I've been doing my own personal version of the same philosophy for myself.

Dougald is also, in his spare time, an anti-careers advisor, and we speak from time to time about our own career paths in all their peculiar twisty-turny glory. And I've come to the conclusion that I've actually been doing Asset Based Career Development. Here's my first stab at a 3-step guide:

Rule 1:
Go with the flow. Career planning is hugely overrated: sometimes life has a way of guiding you into the right place at the right time. The trick is to do lots of different things and pay attention to what you find the most fun, the easiest to do, to what gives you energy. Soon you'll find that there are some things you can do almost effortlessly, there's just a natural "flow" to them. If people won't pay you for doing them, do them in your spare time and monetise it later. And don't do stuff you hate because it will "get you somewhere later" - only suckers do that. If you don't enjoy the process of the work you do, you're either in the wrong business or you're being exploited. Career planning is hugely overrated - just do lots of stuff and follow what works for you.

Rule 2:
"If you want an interesting life, find the thing that's growing fastest in your community and join it." When I left university, my dad told me that quote, paraphrased from George Bernard Shaw I think. So I went to work in the internet. I often wondered why the hell I was working in technology when I had a history degree and didn't really like computers, but after a few years I realised I liked learning new things, working with intelligent people, designing from scratch, overseeing projects from start to finish, and producing something of value to other people at the end. And with the internet swiftly becoming ubiquitous, suddenly I had lots and lots of options. I couldn't have found this out if I'd had a plan. In fact, how could I have had a plan for my career ten years ago? My current job didn't even exist back then.

Rule 3:
Follow the people, not the money. When I was younger I wanted to be a barrister. Then I met barristers. I wanted to be a filmmaker. Then I met filmmakers. Meanwhile, in my personal life, I did stuff I enjoyed with people I liked spending time with. I met activists and social innovators, educationalists, researchers, radicals and open source hackers. And I had a lovely time hanging out with them and having interesting conversations. Eventually, my friends and I started School of Everything, and I've become a "social technologist" working in "innovation", "changing the world". Which is lots more fun than being a management consultant, and actually turns out to be pretty well-paid too.

I'll be refining this methodology over time - Dougald, Tessy, Anthony, anyone out there have anything to add? But for now, from a more sociable angle, here's my current mantra that I think should be posted on the wall of every careers office in the land:

The most important factor when choosing a career is whether you like the people you work with.

Don't pursue some abstract career plan. Do the things you enjoy, with the people you enjoy, and then work out how to pay for it later. To live life the other way round is just plain silly.

Blogtagged, apparently

Tessy has invited me to reveal six random things about myself, so here goes:
  1. When I was very young, I wanted to be a tap dancer. Just like Fred Astaire.
  2. I have, at one time in my life, had my hand in a cheetah's mouth. No, really.
  3. Whilst looking for my friends, I once wandered through security lines at a Leicester Square premiere and accidentally met Paul McCartney, who was very confused by my presence there.
  4. I grew a beard in 2002, at the Japan World Cup, because (a) I could, and (b) most of the Japanese couldn't.
  5. I'm a West Ham fan, because Trevor Brooking is my mum's cousin.
  6. I have conducted a 30-strong Christmas choir in Trafalgar Square, in front of around a hundred people. Unprompted. Whilst drunk.
So there you go. I'd like to invite Dougald, Anthony, Paul, Mary and School of Everything to do the same, if they'd like to. (And nice one David, loving the hair...)

Crafting New Problems

I was fortunate enough to hear Richard Sennett talking about 'craft' recently, and his ideas struck a real chord with me. His basic thesis is that today we teach people how to solve problems mechanically ("operational skills"), but we don't teach them how to identify new problems, set their own standards for achievement and be creative about deciding what needs doing next ("craft skills"). And the result of this, he believes, is a massive de-skilling of society.

Looking back at the Enlightenment (a topic of great interest to me at the moment after my work with the RSA), Sennett identifies two different strands of Enlightenment thought. The "Northern European" strand, draws on Rousseau and Kant to assert the primacy of the mind over the physical world, the angel part of us to 'transcend' into pure reason and nobility. The second strand is embodied by the RSA and the pragmatists, who valued action in the world alongside intellectual endeavour - a life of the hands as well as the head. It is his belief that we have privileged the former at the expense of the latter, and turned ourselves into machines in the process.

Rousseau, for example, argued for the "ideal parent", rational and complete - but his opponent Madame d'Epiney said that this "parent machine" ensures that nothing is ever good enough. Today, we assess our children in schools for their ability to find the right answer; we ask "who is the best at closure?" We measure them against an absolute right, rather than what is good enough for them. It is an abstraction that robs them of their humanity, their sociability. Finding the "right" answer denies individual expression, turns us into robots. Training us to solve problems actually leaves us "de-skilled".

According to Sennett, the key principle of "craft" is that it doesn't seek to find the right answer. Instead, it values the process of finding and solving problems, and therefore the ongoing joy of finding new things to explore. Craft values humanity because it values doing a job well for its own sake. Skilled people value "interesting wrong answers", new hypotheses. In other words, there is value in doing something badly because it helps us learn and improve.

It feels contradictory for a blog about "doing things badly" to espouse craftsmanship, when the word implies so much about quality and doing a job well. But could it actually be that our obsession with finding the one right answer in fact deprives us of our ability to learn and improve? If we set ourselves up against abstracted and inhuman standards, we position ourselves - in Ruskin's words - between "the twin crevices of achievement and despair." It is only by pursuing our crafts for their own sake, repeating actions without concern for failure, that we will get better than before.

As Sennett says, "we need a story of how people get better, rather than an image." Right answers close subjects down. Doing something badly is the start of a conversation.

The Age of Failure

There's a lot of buzz in the social media community about Clay Shirky's new book Here Comes Everybody. (One sentence summary: collective action just got a lot easier.)

One line in his recent talk at the RSA particularly caught my attention:
"One of the things the internet does is it lowers the cost of failure, rather than the likelihood of failure. It enables us to fail more and learn more."
The 21st Century has been variously called the internet era, the computer age, the learning century, the information age, the innovation economy, even the new enlightenment. But I think this is the age of failure. It's when we learn to insulate ourselves from the consequences of failure sufficiently that the world becomes our playground.

And then, we can start breaking new ground, creating new ways of doing things, diversifying, experimenting, playing. Because we can fail as many times as we like in solving a problem, and we only need to get it right once.

So, if you want to change the world, make it easier for people to fail. Help us all to change the world badly. Because if we're all having a go, eventually some bright spark will crack it.

Good uses for e-learning, part 1

Current debates about technology and education tend to focus on how to replace face-to-face teaching with technological solutions, so a lot of my work lately has been about getting people away from screens and talking face to face. But I've just had my first experience of successful online learning, so I thought by way of balance I should share that too.

I've been learning The Entertainer for the past couple of weeks - a personal mission of mine since the age of seven, since my piano teacher refused to teach it to me because it was "too difficult". (I quit the piano some weeks later and didn't play again until I was well into my twenties.)

I don't read sheet music, so I explored YouTube and discovered Shawn Cheek's how-to videos. And, surprisingly, after watching, playing a bit, watching again, practising and so on, it's helped me learn very quickly. If he was teaching me face to face it would have taken too long (and cost me a fortune), but this way I can watch him play it as many times as I want and learn at my own pace. For a change, learning online has worked better than having the pressure of a teacher sat next to me.

So, that's my first taste of when e-learning can be better than face-to-face: when I need someone to show me how to do something over and over again until I get it. I still need a teacher to look at what I'm doing and give me feedback though, so personal connection is still really important. But still, it explains the huge popularity how-to videos on the net these days.

One thing is odd though: now Shawn keeps 'friending' me on Facebook. It feels really weird. I've never met him or even spoken to him, but he's helped me learn. So what's our relationship now? I really don't know.

If e-learning works (for some things), then my next question is how does it affect, enrich, or replace our social relationships? And how can we take this into account when we build an education system for the coming century? Or design how social technology dovetails into our lives.

A humanist ideology

Those of you who read my other blog will know I've been talking a lot about Freeschools lately.

Education is as natural a human process as laughter, and yet we've constructed an education system which is the equivalent of having thousands of highly-trained state comedians, but no-one else is allowed to tell jokes. I'm promoting the simple idea that learning is a social thing, and that everyone has something valuable they could teach the people around them. You can read about how these ideas work in practice at the School of Everything.

I've tended to see these ideas as so obvious that they fall outside "politics" entirely. But when I was speaking at a conference last week, someone asked me if I had any political motivations for doing this. It rather stopped me in my tracks: I couldn't quite say "sociablism" because I didn't really have time to explain it, so I said something like "I'm an entrepreneur, not a politician: I'm interested in what works and not abstract ideologies".

I think almost everything is political: studying social and cultural history made me realise that power, principle and vested interests dominate all our human interactions, from the playground to the office party. So why put a capital 'P' on it and pretend it's somehow different when it happens in Parliament?

Which is true. But it's also a neat way to sidestep the question. So since then I've been pondering the politics behind Freeschools, the ideas in this blog, and also the principles behind "web 2.0". And I've got it boiled down to this, so far...

Almost every repressive regime has relied on disempowering people, so I believe conversely that empowering people to do what they want will actually set us free. I believe that people are interesting and surprising, and that amateurism, play, exploration and socialising must be valued in our society because they bring us closer to our humanity. And I believe that if you give people the opportunity to connect with their humanity, it is our natural inclination to work together and protect the weak, and it's the stories we've constructed in our cultures which make us act differently from that.

Ideology is all very well though, but what matters is that with the tools now available online, it's actually possible to put these ideas into practice and see what happens. And the interesting thing is, they work.

I didn't really think of any of this as political until this week. But in fact there are many political ideologies, past and present, that would oppose me on every count. So I guess I'm Political after all. Don't ask me which party I should join though. The closest match I can find so far is the Renaissance Humanists, and they're not so active these days.

Politics is broken. Something else is growing in its place.


Not been a great deal of blogging happening in February, it's been a strange time for me. But someone sent me this quotation from Desmond Tutu today that I felt I should share with you, in these cold February days.
"In our country we talk of something called Ubuuntu. When I want to praise you, the highest praise that I can give you is to say, you have Ubuuntu - this person has what it takes to be a human being. This is a person who recognizes that he exists only because others exist: a person is a person through other persons. When we say you have ubuuntu, we mean you are gentle, you are compassionate, you are hospitable, you want to share, and you care about the welfare of others. This is because my humanity is caught up with your humanity."
Human beings are sociable creatures. We are conditioned for relationship, and our activities both require and nurture relationships with each other. We exist only because others exist, and the way we live our lives, design our institutions, run our governments and interact with our environment, should reflect this. We are defined as individuals within our social context, and the things we create should be too.

I can think of many people I know who have "ubuuntu". But I can think of few governments, few companies, few bureaucracies of which I could say the same. And that must change.

Bad pianists of the world, unite!

A quick hat-tip to self-confessed "substandard pianist" James Sherwood, for this line in an old blog post:
I can play the piano not very well. I have played the piano not very well since I was seven, and I have now reached a degree of competence in the field of playing the piano not very well.
I couldn't have put it better myself. James, I salute you!

Working for yourself

I was fortunate to meet uber-blogger Stowe Boyd a few days ago, with whom I enjoyed good food, better wine and lots of excellent conversation about almost everything except "work".

Reading Stowe's blog afterwards, my attention was drawn to this post about working as a "creative". The feeling that work is an expression of your personality (which all too few people seem to feel), is intractably linked to the feeling that it's really important to be good at it. If you're bad at your work, and your work is an expression of yourself, then it's almost as if you're a bad person. In the areas where I associate my identity with your work, I am also invariably far more upset when I get it wrong, or sense my personal limitations. In many ways, it would be a lot easier to be indifferent to the whole thing and live a "quiet life".

Mastering the fear of failure (oh dear, what an appallingly self-helpy phrase) seems to be vital if you want to pursue your passions to any professional level. And that doesn't always just mean mastering your own self-doubt, but those of others too. Stowe puts it very eloquently here:

Paderewski, the physicist, once said, "Before I was a genius, I was a drudge." There is a lot of slogging involved. And others, generally, will not understand: especially before you have invested the full ten years. "You'll never sell a book!" "You call that music?" "That's the dumbest design I have ever seen!" "Keep your day job."

Another good reason to work apart from others, so you don't have to hear all that negativity. Close the door, and sharpen your pencil.

Hmmm, so have I discovered my first tension between the title and subtitle of my blog? In order to have the courage to do things badly, is it necessary to isolate yourself in the pursuit of your passion? Well, possibly. I'm not sure if I want to close the door and pursue my solipsistic pleasures alone, I'd rather use my drudgery to bring me closer to the people around me. That, it seems to me, is surely the point of creativity? Hence my plea to my friends, to my society, is for us to celebrate the doing of things badly, so that we don't need to be bad at things in secret any more.

Because no-one, no matter how brilliant, has ever learnt anything without first being bad at it.

I had a good chat with Stowe about my attempts to learn the piano, and he has a great theory about learning a craft which he calls the "10,000 hour rule". It seems that if you want to truly master a skill, your chances are geometrically enhanced if you practice for more than 10,000 hours. Or, to put it another way, mastering a craft is basically the process of doing it badly a hell of a lot. So if you don't take pleasure in doing it badly, it's not really your passion. And if you don't like it when other people do things badly, you're probably missing something important.

I'm off to play the piano now. And I'm leaving the door open.


I had the good fortune to meet Andy Goldring from the Permaculture Association this week, who filled my head with wonderful possibilities which I look forward to exploring over 2008. He also shared with me the wonderful concept of adhocracy, which has got me thinking about all kinds of things.

The word adhocracy conjures up all kinds of fun stuff, but essentially it feels like the principle of coming together to do whatever needs doing, without reference to structures, hierarchies or individual agendas. That's not something we see happening very often, at least not in the commercial and educational worlds, but if you peek beneath the surface of things you can quickly see that it's actually how a lot of things work. Families, friendships, the best kinds of creative or commercial partnerships, all operate on the basis of shared purpose and needs. It is, in fact, the secret of getting things done.

I'm currently working intently on establishing exactly this sort of culture at my main "work" endeavour, the School of Everything, so it's a timely concept for me to explore. Thinking about how to establish that crucial sense of communal purpose here reminded me of this great post by Tim Boucher about how skills are shared and horded within organisations, and particularly how people hide their skills in order to have time to do their work. "This isn’t an effective way to operate within a shared value community though, which is what a company is. At least ideally: you are working towards one another’s mutual benefit, right? And not towards a paycheck?"

If we want to build communities and networks that are truly effective at getting things done, we need to establish two things: (1) a genuine sense of shared values and common purpose, and (2) a spirit of generosity towards supporting each other's needs and doing whatever we can to achieve our common objectives. If you have these in place, then your shared problems become much easier to solve, your ambitions quite achievable. Strange then that so many organisations talk of focus, roles and individual responsibilities, whilst our schools punish collaboration as "cheating".

Andy also told me a great line that his daughter uses: when I mentioned DIY culture he said "no no, not DIY - DIT. Do It Together!" So here's to adhocracy, to DIT culture, common purpose, and getting things done sociably. Thanks Andy!

Playing the piano badly

A very happy New Year to you all. I hope that you have all resolved to do more things badly in 2008? My resolution this year is to have more fun, which I shall begin doing badly for now and work upwards. Any suggestions for what constitutes "fun" would be very welcome. I'll keep you posted on how I get on.

My main "fun" activity so far this year has been playing the piano. I've flirted with learning the piano for many years, ever since I gave it up, aged seven, after a year of lessons. I grew up with huge admiration and quiet envy for jazz pianists, but I was always put off trying it myself: it was too technical, took too much work, and in any case I lacked any natural affinity with formal musical notation. So I didn't touch it for years, despite admiring those who did. The piano was clearly something that only very good musicians could master. I stuck to the guitar, with the other scruffs.

But a couple of years ago I realised something. The piano is basically just a big box that makes noise. Everything else is just stories we tell about it. Sure, if I want to be the next Dinu Lipatti or Keith Jarrett (and I'd love to be), knowing the theory and recommended techniques is important; but supposing I just want to play for my own amusement? Why can't I just make it up as I go along?

Each piano is a predictable system, and any predictable system can be learned by trial and error.
Since I made this realisation, two things have happened: firstly, and most importantly, I've started playing the piano. Lots. And I'm loving it. So that in itself is cause for celebration. And secondly, I've had a series of polite arguments with almost every pianist I know about why I'm not just learning to read music and do it properly. I may well do just that at some point. But the answer, for now, is this:

When I was a little younger and I wanted to be a writer, my father said something very helpfully blunt to me: "all writers have one thing in common: they write. And you don't." Wanting to do something, for me at least, isn't the same as actually doing it. If I wanted to be a writer so much, why couldn't I enjoy the simple pleasure of writing a few lines in a notebook? We should enjoy the process, not just the end result.

In the case of writing, my current strategy is to write a blog - badly - and see where that takes me. With the piano, what unstuck me was the sheer impetuous joy of refusing to learn the boring bits and focussing on what I love, which is improvising by ear. I have resolved to take as many shortcuts as possible on my way to a basic level of competance. I have chosen role models (a key component of "sociable learning") who were way beyond my capability (Keith Jarrett, Thelonius Monk, Brad Mehldau, Dr John) and I've tried to impersonate them. And not only am I learning far more quickly than I expected, but I'm also really enjoying myself.

That's more than can be said for those listening to me of course, and at some point, I hope that I will qualify to "do it properly". But I am quietly hopeful that I can get to a respectable level without forcing myself to learn like everybody else. It's all about keeping the faith. I borrowed my dad's Teach Yourself Jazz Piano book over Christmas, and found the following in the introduction: "how many times do parents tell a child: 'Stop making that noise and play something properly'? Conquering this feeling of guilt is a prerequisite of learning to play jazz: for it is only in experiment that the association between note and sound can be learned."

So on I go, but in the interests of sociablism, I have also resolved for 2008 to find myself a piano swami who can guide me in my defiant approach to the instrument. The word educate, whilst having its roots in the raising of children, is related to the Latin ducere, to lead: it is the process of drawing out what is inside, not simply of giving instruction. Too often we forget this, or else perhaps we need a new term for this process of educetion (ah, another crime against the English language - Andrew Keen would be so proud). I would like someone to help draw out my inner pianist. All applicants please write to this address, etc. and so on.

So, the next time you want to learn something, repeat after me: I already have this in me, otherwise I wouldn't feel an affinity with it. So what is the best way of drawing it out of myself? Start from there and you can't go wrong. Or rather, you can go wrong as much as you like and as long as you're happy, who cares?! So happy learning, happy noise-making, and a very happy New Year to you all.
x Andy x

How's my blogging?

Bless me father, it has been five weeks since my last confession. Having managed a fairly regular stream of posts of variable quality, I finally succumbed to the pressure of work and have neglected you, my dear reader. I am a bad blogger.

But the truth is, I've got a bit stuck. When I initially started this blog, I set out (amongst other things) to teach myself how to blog by doing it badly. Last year I'd never really blogged at all, but now I'm blogging here, Sociability, School of Everything and even Skillset. I've got so many of the damn things, it feels like a job. So I feel that now, with the year-end approaching and having got a bit stuck, the best thing I can do now is reflect on what I've learned so far.

When I started The New Sociablism, it was initially just a channel for organising my own thoughts, a way for me to get my ideas down without worrying about the overall structure of how they fit together. So I've learned that I am capable of churning out a lot of ideas if I give myself a fixed structure to work in. Mission one accomplished. But the thing that really challenged me was when I looked at the stats and realised people were actually reading it. Not just a few friends, but actual, real people around the world, deliciousing me, commenting, even subscribing. How strange, I thought. I really don't know what I'm doing. So, lesson two: if you build it, they will come, and other people's perceptions of your value may be very different your own. Which is nice to know.

But in the past month or so, something has shifted. For some reason, I got it into my head that if people value what I'm writing, somehow the quality needs to be maintained. I don't want to disappoint people by doing a crap post. Suddenly, blogging felt like work.

It's pretty ironic that I set out to write about how doing things badly can bring us closer together, and yet I'm now worrying that I need to raise and maintain 'professional' standards in order to keep people interested. The pressure of external attention has triggered all kinds of learned behaviours in my head about how I must behave. The idea that I should just carry on shambling along feels risky, now that I have something to lose.

Even now, I'm looking back at this post and thinking "is this really good enough to publish?" Am I rambling? And is it 'learned' or 'learnt'? I think of all the people who might read this through blogger, or feedburner, or blogfriends, and I find myself fearful of criticism, afraid of failure.

How fascinating!

So, lessons three and four. (3) I am quite obviously writing about 'sociablism' and doing things badly because it helps me unpick these issues in my own mind. And (4), my fear of being a bad blogger has led me to stop posting for over a month, in a perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I've turned my hobby into 'work', and stopped doing it. Good. Useful to get that learnt.

As for the quality or otherwise of my blogging over this year, well, I guess it shouldn't really matter, but I am interested. So I throw myself on the mercy of my readership. How's my blogging? Call 0800-sociablism, or just leave me a comment below. Positive or negative, it would be nice to hear from you all. And bad blogger or no, I shall keep on blogging badly next year, although with a little more regularity than recently. Happy reading!

People sat in rooms, telling stories

I spent much of last week down at Dartington Hall on a School for Social Entrepreneurs residential, visiting various interesting social and educational projects in Devon and Cornwall. It was an incredibly inspiring time for me, and has also triggered some follow-up thoughts to my recent comments on business and organisations.

Being with a group of 80 people all intent on making the world better through business is quite a rarified atmosphere, and certainly very energising and inspiring. However, in the context of my recent discussions with Anthony, I'm always cautious about organisations created for "higher purposes" - lest people should be trampled on the way to paradise. I read a blog post recently (apologies, can't find the link currently) which said "social enterprises work best when the employees are the beneficiaries." So it's been very encouraging to spend time with social entrepreneurs and observe how effectively they manage live by the principles they espouse.

One place that really stood out for me was the wonderful, beautiful Schumacher College for sustainable living, certainly one of the most gently powerful environments I've ever been in. The college was inspired by the work of the economist EF Schumacher, of "Small is Beautiful" fame, in whose obituary I came across this marvellous quote from him about dealing with large corporations:

"I never deal with corporations; I only deal with people."

The college works on these same principles, centering the learning on the individuals and their experiences rather than an abstracted system of curriculums and knowledge transfer. When people leave the college, all their knowledge leaves with them, because the college is simply the sum of the people associated with it. And all this got me thinking: what else is there to a corporation apart from the people who comprise it?

As I write this, my girlfriend is mid-way through a deeply unhelpful phonecall to Vodaphone. "Why can't people treat each other like human beings instead of systems," she just asked me? This seems to be an increasingly prevelant symptom of the modern organisation: it takes on a life of its own that makes people act in unsociable, inhuman ways towards each other. The story of the organisation ends up being more powerful than the humanity of the people who create it.

As part of my travels last week, I was very fortunate to meet Tim Smit of the Eden Project, who shared a lot of his lessons-learned with us. He came out with some classic one-liners which are still rattling around in my brain now (including evangelising about the importance of being "curious as kittens"), but one idea particularly chimed so neatly with my own thoughts that I had to share it here:

"Say good morning to at least 20 people before you start work, because work is basically sociable and you'll learn far more from talking to the people around you than you will from whatever you think is your real work."

On the bus on the way to Eden, I realised a few things about our various social enterprises. A business is a story that inspires people to collaborate, by bringing their own personal objectives together under a shared aim. And the best way to make the story work is to acknowledge this: it's just a story, and the people in the organisation are its authors. By removing the emperor's clothes, stripping away the mythologies of our organisations, we make it much harder to do inhuman things - exploit our staff, neglect our customers, pollute our world - in their names.

This feels like the core issue in any business, social or otherwise: we need to put the humanity, the sociability, back into our businesses. A business, in modern convention, is just a tool for organising money and property, not people. There is no such thing as a "business" in any physical sense: it doesn't really exist.

Businesses are just groups of people, sitting in rooms, telling each other stories. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

Getting tough

I've been thinking a lot about organisations and management lately, and the question that keeps coming up is how to get things done without upsetting people or wrecking interpersonal relationships.

There seem to be two opposing schools of management around at the moment. In the blue corner, we have the touchy-feely, "I'm here for you" approach, full of words like "empowerment", "development" and "mentoring" - creating positive spaces into which employees can reach their potential and feel valued. And in the red corner, there's Alan Sugar, swearing at fools, demanding 111% effort, results yesterday - humiliation as motivation.

Most management courses these days will not teach you the "do it or you're fired" approach. Instead, dozens of best-selling business books relate wonderful stories about how "we just let everyone do whatever they wanted, and suddenly our profits quadrupled," and the like. So it's interesting that in popular culture, business management is increasingly depicted as good ol' fashioned, ball-breaking rage. Maybe we're craving something here that touchy-feely management isn't giving us.

As an advocate of "sociablism", you'd probably expect me to be firmly in the blue corner, harnessing positive human social interactions rather than trampling people's needs in pursuit of money and standards. But much as I hate to admit it, I've always had a grudging respect for people who can "get things done". More than that, I remember a former boss of mine once saying to me, "now Andy, here's a development opportunity for you: read this document and tell me what it says." I remember wishing he'd just said "I can't be arsed to read this. I pay you, you do it." There's an insincerity about much of modern management that I find uncomfortable, just as I find Alan Sugar's approach uncomfortable too. Instead of harnessing people's personal desires to benefit our businesses, shouldn't it be the other way around?

My friend Charlie once told me that the free market is based on the rational pursuit of self-interest, but companies are based on the irrational suppression of self-interest to a made-up story. Management these days sometimes seems like a hypnotic process of convincing people that their best interests will be served by playing their part in the grand plan. It's particularly worrying in many social enterprises, where hard-working people can be ruthlessly exploited and burnt-out in pursuit of the "greater good". At least Alan Sugar is honest: he wants you to make him money, and if you do, he'll make you money too. (The rest is just showbiz.)

As someone who has worked with friends, and befriended work colleagues, for many years, my biggest challenge in business has always been how to get things done without destroying social and professional relationships. What do you do when your friend lets you down? When do you say "getting this done is more important than our friendship?" Can we be sociable and get things done at the same time?

Business traditionally tends to view itself as a special case, distinct from the social and familial interactions. It works to higher standards, in pursuit higher purposes, and follows its own rules. But in reality, business is no different to any other part of human life. Families have confrontations, and so do boards of directors. Friends argue about missed deadlines and stolen girlfriends. And just as there are times to be fierce in business, so too there are times to be fierce in other areas of your life. Take the ideology out of it, and it's all just human beings interacting, positively and negatively. We're all people, and we all deserve to be treated as such - even when we're being fired.

I think we can learn a lot from organisational theory about how we live our lives and work to make our worlds better. But work should not be the place where we learn about these things, and business goals should not be only ones we use these techniques for. I have been quietly focussing of late on cultivating fierceness in myself, finding healthy ways to get what I need from my society without recourse to bullying or manipulation. Fierceness, anger, disappointment are all essential parts of our social interaction. It's only when we dress them up in "greater good" narratives that they become dangerous.

We don't need to choose between being sociable and getting things done. Sometimes we must embrace the tougher aspects of "sociablism", to get what we need from each other.

Can't talk, blogging...

I recently told my girlfriend that I was too busy blogging to talk to her.

Sometimes I'm astonished at my capacity to miss the point of my own arguments.

Night night.

Talking to my builder about play

I've been having some building work done on my flat this past fortnight (hence the infrequency of posts recently). When not choking on dust or searching for clean socks, I've been having some very interesting conversations with my Argentinian builder, Sergio.

Every summer Sergio comes to London to build kitchens and bathrooms, and then goes back to Argentina to live like a king with his wife and kids. The first thing that surprised me about him (aside from his punctuality) is that he's actually a qualified geologist. He used to work in the oil-drilling industry, but the financial crisis of 2001/2 left him unemployed despite having "commercially valuable" skills. So, he came to visit his sister over here, did some work on a few friends' flats and houses, and hasn't looked back.

What really intrigued me about his story was how he acquired his building skills. He's never had any formal training or instruction, but his father ran a builders' supplies merchants and he grew up playing with the materials. At the age of six he build a twenty-foot racetrack for his remote control car, out of wood and concrete. As he grew up he treated his parent's house as a playground, moving walls and redecorating just to see what things would look like. (His first act on inspecting my kitchen was to tear my bedroom wall down and move it 15cm to the left.) When he came to England, all he needed to turn his skills into a career was to learn the conventions for building in the UK. For that, he needed people here to teach him the rules - but he learned much more quickly because he'd taught himself so much already.

Learning starts with curiosity. If we have that, and the space to explore it, then we can learn. Sometimes we need teachers to help us learn "the right way" of doing things, and peers to help us reflect on our experiences. But Sergio's story suggests that if you want to find your own way of doing something, self-guided play is the best place to start. And once you've got that, learning the conventions is much easier. So perhaps we should be spending more time and money encouraging curiosity in our children, and not just "teaching" them things?

Of course, if my kitchen falls apart in six months, I may revise my opinion. But I'd trust someone who loves what they do over someone qualified going through the motions any day.

When did you learn how to fail?

I've just been reading (via Nick Temple) Bill Lucas's NESTA article, Learning is a Risky Business. The line that first caught my eye was, of course, "it is smart to make mistakes", but I was also particularly interested in his discussion of risk, which was touched on in the comments on my previous post.

I agree with Bill that "without risk there can be no real learning". Risk of failure is often enough to stop people learning, experimenting, trying new things, and I think a key part of the educational process is supporting people through this. Yet sadly our current education system only seems to reinforce this fear of failure.

Seth Godin expresses the problem eloquently in his book Purple Cow:
Where did you learn how to fail? If you're like most Americans, you learned in first grade. That's when you started figuring out that the safe thing to do was to colour inside the lines, don't ask too many questions in class ...
We run our schools like factories. We line up kids in straight rows, put them in batches (called grades), and work very hard to ensure there are no defective parts. Nobody standing out, falling behind, running ahead, making a ruckus.
Playing it safe. Following the rules. Those seem like the best ways to avoid failure.
The need for risk therefore seems to me a pressing one for all of us. However, that doesn't mean risk is inherently good either. People aren't stupid: we avoid risks for perfectly good reasons.

As Anthony observed in his recent comment here, "ad hoc is fine, but not if people get harmed in the process." The need for risk is not served by recklessness. Dougald's suggestion on his blog is also a fine one: "rather than celebrating not caring, let's celebrate choosing what to care about." In this case, I submit that we can choose to value risk, and also value people's fear of it - and still try new things.

So here is my proposal: rather than managing the risk of failure, why not embrace it? When you do something, ask yourself: if I fail, will I still be glad I did this? That doesn't mean playing it safe, it means enjoying the process, regardless of the outcome. If our goal is not simply to succeed, but also to travel well, then failure becomes part of the experience rather than an unsavoury but inevitable consequence of "progress". And perhaps then we would take better risks, and give more attention to those affected by our actions.

Or to put it another way, if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly

Products that don't care if you buy them

I don't watch much telly, but I just spent a very enjoyable evening watching a cracking BBC documentary about Factory Records.

I love the Factory story. Not only did they produce some of my all-time favourite music, but I also find their anarchic approach really inspiring. It's a great example of a particular kind of story: the "we didn't care, and that's why it worked" story. There's something very empowering about people who don't have a clue, working exclusively to their own agenda, and mystifyingly making a success of it anyway. It gives hope to the rest of us, plodding around in the wings, wishing people would listen to us too.

Factory emerged (escaped?) from the punk era of the late seventies, when I was barely a foot long. Watching the old footage though reminded me just how reassuringly shoddy things were back then: bands lip-synching hopelessly on Top of the Pops, TV presenters with rubbish hair and cheap suits (gawd bless Tony Wilson). It's a long way away from the slick production values we're used to on TV today. But take a look through YouTube and you'll see the same DIY spirit poking through again. I suppose it was only a matter of time, writing about doing things badly, that I'd mention the famous Sniffin' Glue poster. But I think we should make modern equivalents for YouTube, hip hop, Scroobius Pip and reality TV. In fact, here's one I made earlier...


Factory graphic designer Peter Saville summed up the DIY approach for me when he said (and apologies if I'm misquoting): "No-one knew how to do things properly, so we'd find our own way of doing it." They ran a record label, managed bands, ran a nightclub, produced records, all without a proper template or roadmap for doing so. And so, they did it differently. Most people thought they were mad, and they probably were. But by doing things badly, they created something new.

After the Factory doc, Comics Britannia interviewed the creators of Viz, which emerged at a similar time. They said that they put things in Viz that no-one would ever have put in a mainstream comic, because they only wrote it for their mates. Peter Saville said that no-one in the early days of Factory talked about sales, because no-one ever thought anyone would buy the records. As a product, a Factory record "quite blatantly didn't care whether you bought it or not." And because they only made things for their own circle of friends, they made art that genuinely connected with the people who bought it.

Of course, punk and Viz aren't to everyone's taste, and anarchy isn't exactly popular in mainstream party politics. But Alan Moore said tonight that anarchy means taking complete responsibility for your political choices, rather than following the collective will. When looked at in this light, aren't punk, Viz, Factory, YouTube and the rest actually just about taking responsibility for our own entertainment?

Just because we're not as good at it as the professionals, that shouldn't rob us of the right to do it. After all, if we're rubbish, no-one's forcing people to watch. We can just make stuff for our mates. And shouldn't that be enough?