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.