"It's like that circle thing!"

When I think about why I do what I do, I can go on a wild ride around various philosophical perspectives, the global purpose of my work, the mission. When asked I could bang on for hours about the need to reshape the world to make it a place fit for humans where flourishing is more important than producing. But I could just as easily quote one little girl.

Getting on for two years ago now I ran a workshop for a group of children in collaboration with my good friend Shayla Maddox and Trestle, an educational theatre company (with whom I offer some rather challenging products, if you're on the lookout for a way to freak out the executives). We did something called Perfect Circles which draws on, literally and figuratively, the ancient Buddhist practice of drawing Ensō.

An Ensō is a circle drawn in a single, unbroken stroke. The idea, and this is a gross oversimplification I'm sure, is to capture a moment in time in the form of this circle. How the brush and ink and paper interact, the steadiness, smoothness, stiffness, or shakiness of the arm and hand; this Ensō will be unique. A self portrait of a kind.

To Western sensibilities these circles will be pretty but, at the same time, imperfect. Which is, of course, part of the point.

We asked the children to draw their Ensō and then to talk about them. What did they think of their imperfect circles? Predictably everyone focused on the bits where the crayon went wobbly, how the ends didn't quite meet up, how one part or other was too flat or too round.

Then we asked the children to forget about these being circles and instead just look at them as shapes. What do they make you think of? What do those so called imperfections call to mind? What do they inspire?

After some time reflecting, as we watched the children begin to shift from disappointment at their imperfect Ensō, to curiosity and finally to the point that they could see something in their circle calling to them, we asked them to pick up their crayons and markers and draw what their circle was showing them. Inside it. Around it. To use those imperfections as inspirations.

By the end we had a dozen or so wonderful, expressive pictures such that only children seem capable of. And then we talked a little about how those imperfections turned out to be something great. All of this, from start to finish, was simply a way to reframe imperfections, to cast them not as something to avoid, a hopeless task, but something to embrace and build on.

This all took place a few days before the children were to take part in a day of theatrical performances. We wanted them to take this learning with them so that they might not fear mistakes and, when mistakes happened, they might not feel bad about them. I can't say for certain how much they remembered or internalised, but I can say this. One little girl got it.

I know because I heard from one of the teachers who worked with them on their performances about how one child failed to turn up! Suddenly the remaining children had to think how they could go ahead without a principal cast member. And, in that moment, from the mouths of babes as they say, one little girl said "it's like that circle thing!".

Five little words that I'll always remember. So small but so significant. My why.

Why we cheat and the Performance Paradigm


This week I played a simple improvisational game with two separate groups. The game is called Disassociations and the rules are simple; one player says a word and the other player has to say a word that is entirely unconnected with the first word.

For example, I might say clock and then you might say sandwich.

If the first player thinks he or she can see a strong connection between the two words then they can challenge and win a point. The challenge is judged by a third party. If no connection is seen or no challenge is made then it is now back to player one who must think of an unconnected word, and so on.

But the specifics of the game aren’t important. What I want to talk about today is how, on both occasions, players cheated. Or, more to the point, why they cheated.

This game is pretty easy to cheat. In this instance cheating is more akin to hacking the game than doing anything more active. It’s the improvisational equivalent of sticking the egg to your spoon. If you do it right, the only person who can tell you’re doing it is you. What happened, fairly quickly, was that players started thinking of words ahead of time, not waiting for the word they had to respond to. This trick would mean that it would take a great coincidence for the word to be connected in some strong way.

I noticed this cheating on both occasions in part because I had done the exact same thing when I first played the game with my wife. I cheated even though, at that moment, the entire point was to test out the game!

So the first thing I should point out is that I am in no way judging the players who cheated. In fact, cheating in this game displays both creative thinking and a strong desire to win, neither of which are essentially bad.

But, of course, as a training exercise this game loses all its value when you cheat in this way. So why did so many people do it?

I run training courses for various companies and one strong theme I have noticed is the desire to incorporate competitive elements into the training. Competitions, prizes, and ranking of teams and individuals based on how they performed during the course seem to be very popular. I have always felt an instinctive dislike for this idea and pushed back against it with various levels of success. But until now I haven’t been able to properly put my finger on exactly why I don’t like this competitive element.

I’ve pointed out that it can lead to negative feelings among those who are seen to have performed less well than others, that the stress and tension of competition can make it harder to learn, and so on. But now I see that the problem is the concept of performance itself, what I call the Performance Paradigm.

The Performance Paradigm is a concept of how the world is, how we are expected to behave, and how we are being viewed. If we relate to life as a performance then some behaviours naturally flow from that relationship. If life is a performance then:

- I am being judged

- If it cannot be seen and measured then it doesn’t matter

- If someone else is doing better than me then I am failing

- Failure of any kind of bad

- Sharing incomplete ideas is giving away competitive advantage

- Personal insights and growth have no direct value

There are many more ideas that flow from the Performance Paradigm but I would like to focus on that last one because, for me, its the most important.

If we see training as existing within the Performance Paradigm then we are focused externally, looking outwards at how our actions are perceived by others, prioritising what is visible over what is invisible. If this is the case we cannot be focused internally, seeking deeper insights into ourselves.

My method, using play, coaching, and mindfulness to drive self directed change is dependent on shifting people away from this external view and towards the internal. In my way of working what is visible on the outside is not important in the slightest. What matters is your internal process, your personal insights and the growth that can arise from them. So it follows that I have to do everything I can to remove this Performance Paradigm from my training courses and replace it with a paradigm based on exploration, practice, experimentation, and self knowledge.

We live in a culture that cares deeply about performance. We learn from an early age that doing it right gets rewarded while mistakes get punished. And this may be why we quickly drop things we believe ourselves to not be “good at”. All toddlers paint, sculpt, act, dance, sing, play whatever sport appeals to them, and very few consider their performance in any given activity before they choose to partake. I think that’s because they haven’t yet learned to value their experience only in terms of some quasi-objective external judgement of quality.

How many useful practices have you withdrawn from because you have decided you aren’t good at them? If you used to paint but stopped because your paintings weren’t good, have you stopped to think about how that practice of painting may have been massively useful to you in ways that had nothing to do with the quality of the resultant image?

On the other side, how often have you judged someone else for doing something that they aren’t good at? I offer this question without meaning to attack you because I do this myself - and I have less excuse than anyone considering what I do for a living. Have you ever laughed at someone’s armature poetry or mocked someone for their mediocre dancing? If so, this is the Performance Paradigm at work, limiting others just as it limits you.

The Performance Paradigm is so overwhelmingly powerful that it causes us to avoid activities that may be good for us in order to not be seen to do anything we aren’t good at, and to cheat in training because we have learned to value the appearance of high performance over real learning. It’s obvious that this is not a state of affairs we can allow to continue.

Whether at work or in your personal life I would urge you to look at and consider your language and your actions and ask if you are applying the Performance Paradigm inappropriately, and in ways that may be limiting to yourself and to others. As they say in improv - everything is an offer. Be open to them.


Grrrr. Talent.

OK, so this is going to be one of those nitpicking ones that maybe you won't think is that big of a deal but, damnit, language matters.

I'm about 20 weeks away from becoming a farther and one of the things I have promised myself I will never do to my child is call him or her "talented". Why? Well, think about what talent is.

Definitions of talent vary but pretty much all of them come down to this: a natural ability or aptitude, especially without being taught. A synonym for talented is gifted.

Now, I don't have any problem with accepting that a large part of what makes a person successful is down to luck. In fact I think the world would be a better place if we accepted this and acted with a little more humility. But that isn't what we think when we call someone talented. When we call someone talented we are praising them for what they are, not what they choose or how they act. We are valuing people for their luck rather than their judgement.

Talent is what you get for free. It's the hand you're dealt. But how you play the game is up to you. Yet we insist on focusing on the part that's just dumb luck. In fact, this goes along with our obsession with naturally talented types and child prodigies. The heroic narrative of the man (usually it's a man) born to greatness, chosen by fate.

Fuck fate.

And I say this as a man who was once a child whom many would call talented. I was a smart kid. And, honestly, I don't think it did me much good. Had I been a less smart kid I might have learned a little more grittiness, maybe I'd have more of it now. If I had to choose between having a super smart kid who glides through school and a kid who has to struggle a bit to get the grades, I'd choose the latter. Because learning how to struggle and choosing to do so is part of what makes someone capable of great things.

Many of my clients work in Talent Development and I have puzzled for a while about what we should call this instead. English doesn't seem to have a word that means earned abilities that would fit into this phrase. Skill Development seems to specific; most would read it as developing a specific skill rather than developing skill in general. Capacity Development? Sounds like you're building an extension on the office.

If you can think of a word, then I would love to hear it. But in the meantime, when you find yourself wanting to talk about talent, pause and instead talk about what you're really talking about. Talk about the struggle, the thousands of hours of work, the gritty, never say die attitude that matters way more than talent.

And praise your kids for what they do, not just for what they happen to be good at.

Design Thinking with Snakes and Ladders

There's a proper case study in the works for this and a couple of my other TCS workshops so I won't go on too long about it, but I just couldn't wait to share my thoughts on Design Thinking with Snakes and Ladders. 

Snakes and Ladders designed for someone who's all about the aesthetics. 

Snakes and Ladders designed for someone who's all about the aesthetics. 

I love play and games. They form the centre of all of my best work. And there are many reasons why this is so. But one of the elements of what makes up a game is the relative simplicity of it. You can analyse and break down a game easily and then muck about with it to see what changes. Above we have a game of Snakes and Ladders wherein the fundamental play elements have remained the same but the board has been reimagined to appeal to someone who wishes to own a beautiful object. 


Snakes and Ladders for brainiacs. 

Snakes and Ladders for brainiacs. 

Alternatively we can alter some of the operational rules of the game to make it appeal to people who want a mental challenge. 

What matters here is not the game itself but understanding two things: 

  1. Design has to speak about intention - who you are serving is key.
  2. You can alter some elements of a design without needing to alter them all. 

Consider this one. 

Bigger isn't just bigger. It's a different play experience. 

Bigger isn't just bigger. It's a different play experience. 

In this version, while there are added elements of the physical challenges on the Do or Die squares, the biggest change to the experience doesn't require any fundamentally new ideas - it's just doing the same thing but larger. 

From this we can see that we can keep the fundamental elements of a game the same and just alter the operational and cultural rules and in doing we change the play experience without having to change the logic of the activity. 

If all this seems a little esoteric then consider this: it isn't only play and games which we can do this to. We just have to see that in life everything is made up of constitutive or fundamental rules, operational or interactive rules, and cultural or explicit rules. 

Once you're thinking this way you can start to redesign anything with a discreet focus on different parts of the system. This is especially useful when thinking about digital experiences where you can really package up and separate out the different layers. 

Plans are in place to recreate this workshop with TCS with some tasty little upgrades along the way. If you're interested to know more, pop me over an email to aran@sabretoothpanda.com. 

Through the Crappy Valley: Doubling Down on Dumb

Consider this little factoid.

@qikipedia: After WWII, the US thought about dropping enormous condoms labelled ‘Medium’ onto the Soviet Union.

It seems that after WWII the USA believed, if only briefly, that we could demoralise the Soviets by making them believe that American men were hung like donkeys. A fascinating thought. But maybe your reaction to this idea is more derision than delight.

The usual reactions to this kind of thing will range from chuckling at the boys club nonsense to perhaps some irritation that the serious world of combat and war was sullied by such silliness. But what I see is one of the best tactics for navigating the Crappy Valley.


The Crappy Valley is that place just after you run out of ordinary, obvious ideas. You've plateaued and no new ideas are coming. And then you begin the descent. Inexperienced idea explorers will turn back, seeing only a barren land ahead. But those who've travelled this path before will tell you that beyond the Crappy Valley lies the Peak of Awesome; the place of truly great ideas.

The problem is the Crappy Valley. You can't just stroll through it. It's a place that tests us all and many of us become so lost that turning back is our only hope. But not the chaps (it must have been chaps) who came up with the massive johnnies.

There are a number of techniques for getting through the Crappy Valley but one of the most fun is simply having fun or Doubling Down on Dumb as I like to call it. The Crappy Valley messes with your sense of direction, making it hard to know where good ideas are hiding. So why worry about having good ideas?

Dumb ideas are, in the Crappy Valley, like flares that illuminate the path ahead. Celebrate them. Revel in them. Be silly. Be funny. Be dumb.

For more on how to navigate the Crappy Valley, get in touch.

Don't make it about you

I could do an entire seminar on this, a whole day even. But for this medium I'll simply say this; when you're trying to make things, you have to remember that it isn't about you. Critique is hard to take when you imagine it is a critique of you. But when you remember that you have a higher purpose, a shared goal, you can let go of that personal stuff. 

You are not the product. You serve the product. When you make criticism of the product into an attack on you then you do three things: 

  1. You become inflexible; if you've attached your sense of self to the product then you can hardly alter the product without having to alter who you are. 
  2. You lose sight of possibilities; becoming attached to one thing is the best way to blind yourself to other things. Let go of attachment and be more creative. 
  3. You make it impossible for others to share their honest thoughts; people don't want to upset you and if they fear that they will they will withhold the truth. 

Be a more creative team by making sure it isn't about you. 

Stop worrying about being creative and be creative

You know, when people ask me how I come up with ideas it's a tricky conversation because, honestly, it's more about what I don't do than what I do. That isn't to say that a deep dive into the problem followed by some playful noodling with silly associations, and then letting go and allowing new ideas to bubble up isn't something that I do but rather I do those things in the same way that a river flows when you remove whatever is obstructing it. People flow with ideas and insights when they stop doing the things that are blocking them up. 

Creativity is the art of solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. Uncertainty is something that most people find scary so it follows that managing fear and the closing down, avoiding behaviours that it engenders, is a big part of creativity.

Play is a big part of my work. Play is many things but supreme amongst them play is freedom. Yes, play is bound by rules but within those rules we feel a great sense of freedom. In a sense, creativity is finding freedom within constraints. In that way creativity is play. Freedom is the first thing to go when we feel fear, when we feel stress. 

Fear, stress, anger, irritation, a desire to impress people, feeling under pressure, these things cause us to close up and play with less freedom. So when I come up with ideas, when I solve problems, if I'm doing it right if feels like play. It feels like freedom. 

And to round out this little circle of narrative, play and freedom, creativity itself, emerges when we remove the fear and pressure, the anger and stress, that so many of us feel every day, especially at work. This is not easy. It's actually pretty hard. But it's also not complicated. In fact, making it complicated is precisely why most creativity training doesn't work. If you're feeling under pressure to learn loads of tools and techniques and to "get them right" you're not playing with freedom, you're just exchanging one set of stressors for another. 

You might never hire me and that's OK. Obviously I'd love it if you did hire me but even if you don't you can do this; you can try to make work more like play. Let yourself become aware of the parts of your work that make you stress, that causes you to close down, and find ways to remove them or counteract them. Be free in your work, take joy in it, and you'll find your creativity waiting for you.