The value of surprise

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There are good surprises and bad surprises.

Last year, we all experienced a surprise we didn’t want, that flaming dog turd through the letterbox of humanity that needs no introduction. But what followed was not much better: a series of stay-at-home and stay-away-from-one-another orders that worked effectively at removing that one unpredictable aspect from our lives, but took all the good surprises away, too. The baby was gone, along with the bathwater. Farewell, random encounters with strangers in the park! So long, friends dropping into our home (or even inbox) with interesting updates! I’ll never forget you, spontaneous trips to big cities for a bit of window shopping. Where did all the ideas triggers go? Serendipitous chats at events? So useful, and so pre-pandemic. These days, if you want to be surprised, you’ll have to schedule it into a Zoom call.

For quite some time now, every day has started to feel a lot like the one before, and our relationship with time has taken a hit. Without punctuation and variety, we’ve lost our usual ways of measuring passing time, and without a secure ground to form plans on, we don’t know how to think about the future.

But there is still a future, and maybe all this has made us a bit more aware of what was always true – we don’t have a good steer on it. We’re a little more vulnerable, maybe a bit more medieval (in a good way). With magic on the march, ‘futurism’ is surely over. The shiny WIRED cover stars already feel dated; Elon and Jeff are straightforward jokes now, just silly ‘Space Trumps’. The idea we can, on our own, control anything significant is eye-wateringly hilarious. We now have proof that humanity’s fate is not in the hands of those who shout loudest and it’s kind of a relief to let go of some of our individualistic madness. We can be open to openings.

We’re different because everything’s changed, as you might have heard. While Sarah and I think a lot about what exactly has changed, we’ve been thinking about how to manage things that are suddenly not changing, too. We’ve discovered that it’s possible to grasp unpredictability – if not with energy, then with sanguine fascination. And when things aren’t changing in ways we expect them to, we can draw on our creativity to effect some sort of agency. Throughout January, we created a newsletter delivering cheering ideas and creative prompts every day, called January Lights. People seemed to enjoy this and we wanted to keep the spirit of it going in some way after January was over, so we started talking about producing a card deck of similar prompts.

Well, one thing led to another, and we are now selling our Creativity Tarot – a deck of creative suggestions that also works as a traditional tarot, a magic 8 ball type answering device, and an endless source of inspiration.

The Creativity Tarot is a pack of cards inspired by Jungian archetypes, branding archetypes, modern life – and of course traditional tarot decks. We hit on the idea after noticing that a lot of people (including us) have been feeling pretty stuck during the long, uncertain pandemic period. It’s harder to make decisions, harder to motivate ourselves and harder to trust our instincts when everything we thought we knew has been turned upside down.

But our instincts and intuition are still an excellent, and under-valued, starting point for decision-making. However you choose to use them, these cards supply intriguing answers to open-ended questions.

And if that sounds a bit too ‘woo’ for you, each card has a specific, enjoyable, quick challenge written on it. So if deep readings aren’t for you, just draw a card from the deck and commit to the task. Our easy, uplifting challenges are designed to help you connect with that inner child and get up to some mischief. We promise that after building a blanket fort, making a funny meal or writing a furious argument against the existence of a popular season, you’ll feel a whole lot better than you did before.

We want to put a bit of everyday magic – the good kind of surprise – back into people’s lives. We can’t promise you control over the future, but we can give you some tools to access your subconscious, let go of expectation, and hopefully surprise yourself.

Five minutes with… Jendrik Sigwart

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How do you get to the Eurovision Song Contest?

Well, yes, “practice”, probably, but being insanely creative and resourceful with a talent for unignorable earworms doesn’t hurt, either. Jendrik Sigwart wasn’t a massively well-known musician before Germany’s search for their 2021 representative began. But he managed to get himself in front of the juries by writing an insanely catchy song, roping in all his friends and family to help him make a bold music video… and documenting the whole process on social media. His antics caught the attention of a casting agent from the German broadcaster, and the rest is history.

I Don’t Feel Hate” is an aggressively nice song that advocates for kindness even in the face of adversity. It’s a song that feels ready-made for TikTok, with a built-in tap dance break, and a sly pre-empting of criticism (“I really don’t care that you want to bash me/Do it with flair and I’ll let you be/But don’t you to get angry/When you realize those words just don’t hit me”). Haters not welcome, basically.

Europe didn’t immediately warm to the song (it was only awarded three points in the end, crucially three more than the UK’s song got) but Jendrik himself has attracted an army of fans all keen to see what he does next. Since he’s currently sitting at home in COVID-quarantine following his Eurovision adventures, we decided it was a good time to slide into his DMs for a chat…

You have such an amazing, positive, sunshiney attitude – how on Earth are you keeping that up with everything that’s been going on over the past year and a bit? Do you have any tips?

Oh, I don’t! I have my moments of self-doubt and sadness, like everyone else.

But I learned to think positive. Like, the human brain somehow always wants to see the negative, so I train myself to always see the positive too. For example, I once broke my arm, and while it was broken it hurt. I thought “Oh my God, why did I never appreciate my arm when it wasn’t hurting?” And as soon as it’s healed, we forget about that. So I try to remind myself on a regular basis “heyyyy, my arm is healed and doesn’t hurt right now!”

I try to see things in perspective. Like, I should be grateful for the things I do have and everything, you know what I mean?

Your Eurovision song “I Don’t Feel Hate” was all about not giving into negative impulses, and feeling sorry for haters rather than letting them get you down. That feels like a super important message, right now but also – always! How did you get to a place where you felt like that? Do you think it’s possible to get through to trolls, or even just, you know, people who are sad and lashing out on social?

Training training training! And it is possible to get through to them! When you start talking nicely to them, they realise that what they were saying was actually rude. Most of the times when I talked to the haters they later apologised.

You’ve been documenting your entire Eurovision journey on social media. What’s the response been like? Do you look back at the early ones now, or do you think you’ll do that in the future, to have a record of what you were doing and feeling?

I have not watched any of the old ones yet. I am not sure when I will do that. But I think it is what I said it is – “a diary” – and one day I’ll watch them and I’ll have all the feelings back that I had in that moment.

What does creativity mean to you right now? How do you find inspiration, even when things might feel bleak?

Creativity is sometimes hard to find. For me, it comes in waves. Right now I can feel a next wave coming, because the more I am productive, the more I get creative. So being in quarantine for two weeks was a very uncreative time, as I did nothing. But now that it’s over, I can feel my motivation and creativity coming back.

And what’s next for you? Do you have new goals, now you’ve done Eurovision?

Haha yes I do have a few new goals! Actually three:

  • One: Show more from my music.
  • Two: Play in a series or a movie.
  • Three: Get a sixpack. One day.

I want to record a few of my songs next, but also would love to stand on the theatre stage again. We will see.

Keep an eye on this blog for more chats with the people who inspire us!

Five minutes with… Anjali Ramachandran

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Anjali Ramachandran is a storytelling pro with a background in digital media, strategy and innovation. She’s a Director at the Brighton-based agency Storythings and an advocate for diversity, equality and inclusion. Anjali is kind of everywhere: you might have come across her from her global women in tech network Ada’s List, or her newsletter, Other Valleys, which looks at creative and tech-related news from emerging markets, or followed her amazing conference tweets over the years, or run into her at an event… She’s an excellent human all round, and we’ve been lucky enough to know her for a long time, so it’s great to have an excuse to interview her! We based this little chat around our organisation’s fundamental ‘three Cs’ – creativity, clarity and clairvoyance (i.e. the future!) Hope you enjoy it.

Anjali, you are a very positive and calming influence to talk (and work!) with. How do you keep going through these tough times with such energy and enthusiasm? Do you have any practical tips that might help others?

Thanks for your kind words! Not sure I’m always positive and calming but I try! These times have been unbelievably hard for a lot of people. The pandemic and witnessing friends and family affected by it in different ways is a lot to take on. Add to that trying to work, trying to manage caring responsibilities, even doing basic tasks like figuring out meals… just existing does feel like a task. And then I am just grateful that I am OK, even if I feel like I am languishing sometimes. 

Meditation, when I can get myself to sit down for a few minutes and focus, helps. The one thing the pandemic hasn’t stopped in the UK at least is walks, and being in the fresh air is really invigorating. I also try and collect factoids and bits of information that are new to me (they may not be new to everyone). Tom Whitwell does his annual 52 Things I Learned This Year, so collecting bits of information like that is a nice way to focus on something other than all the bad news. And Spotify’s Discover Weekly is always nice to lose myself in at the end of the day. 

As a hands-on Director at Storythings, how have you found managing other people’s creativity through all this? Have you noticed clients or freelancers working differently – any different attitudes or working habits? 

First of all, the way people have adapted to Zoom is amazing and a bit scary, if I say so myself! Who would have thought that we would all spend SO MUCH time in front of a screen talking to little heads in windows?! I’ve noticed an array of backgrounds on Zoom as a way of people sometimes expressing their creativity. In terms of working habits, I’ve noticed people working at different hours of the day – I assume this is to manage around other responsibilities at home, as I do. I find many people prefer to switch video off, as constant video has proven to be a mental health hazard, unsurprisingly – and an environmental hazard

What’s the secret to clear communication? Why do so many people love talking in jargon?

The secret to clear communication is knowing your subject matter like the back of your hand. If you understand what you’re speaking about, you can explain it in simple, easy-to-understand language. Conversely, if you don’t truly understand something, you tend to waffle on a bit. The reason so many people love talking in jargon, in my opinion, is because there’s so much information flowing across our screens and not everyone has the time, energy or mental space to delve into subjects in detail. As a result, they use complicated words they might have just come across to make it sound like they know something well. There are also people who probably believe that using big words makes them seem smart?! It’s an interesting conundrum of our times, where information can be an enemy. 

Everything seems very uncertain and I know no one wants to make predictions. But if we forced you to (!) – how do you see your industry evolving in a post-covid world?

I think collaboration will become much more common and important. And the times we can meet people in person, which won’t necessarily be every day in an office anymore, will start to be more creatively, intelligently used. I think people will be more empathetic to what’s happening around the world, because if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we do not live on an island (even if we geographically do, sorry UK) because people and things move around all the time, sometimes with devastating consequences. And to end on a happier note, I think people will start seeing more of the good in others, which can make for some beautiful stories decades down the line.

Keep an eye on this blog for more chats with the people who inspire us!

What if talent doesn’t exist?

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Things have changed, and it’s not all bad. There’s no time or energy for messing around anymore. The glitz had a good run, but it’s come off the the world a bit, hasn’t it? Things that used to look cool and exciting don’t hold the promise they once did.

Many of us have stopped channelling our dreams into shopping and travel and are focussing instead on saving our money and loving our friends. And they might have designer kitchens in their Zoom backgrounds, but all the celebrities and super-successful people are stuck in their homes, struggling with video conferencing software just like the rest of us. Where does this leave the obsession with ‘talent’?

Hopefully it’ll finish it off. Some people seem to be managing better than others, sure, but pretty much everyone’s life sucks, in some way, at the moment. The pandemic has been a great leveller; we’re all being slapped in the face with our vulnerability every day, now. It’s a hard fight, but we can promise this: things aren’t tough because you’re insufficient in a thing called ‘talent’. So please don’t add imaginary “lack of talent” to your worry list! And if you’re in a competitive frame of mind, don’t peg it on others, either.

Now, you might be like: ‘Hey! I’m an enlightened 21st century earthling, I don’t judge people!’ But we all do this, subconsciously, all day long!  Especially at the moment. Criticising people for putting visible skills and experience to work only fosters a misconception about talent that harms all of us. It also penalises those who are already up against it.

The trouble is, we aren’t seeing each other in real life much at the moment – with no genuine eye contact and warm bodies in our space to keep things in check, judgements are flying around like nobody’s business. When things go wrong, or go well, we only have theories to fall back on. It’s natural, but let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine this is true:

Talent isn’t a magic thing installed in the womb by Zeus’s lightning bolt through your mother’s belly button. Talent is actually a concept invented to sustain a power structure, by making some people seem like magic wizards and causing others to look foolish and give up.

Whether or not you agree, just for now let’s review two possible consequences of insisting that talent is innate.

  • Individuals who’ve been told they have natural ability may never reach their true potential, believing the magical safety net will always catch them. As they experience their whole life through the ventriloquism on this imaginary genie, they will never understand how they think and who they really are.
  • Individuals who work hard but don’t fit the ‘talent’ model risk being dismissed as ‘poor untalented souls’. The harder they work they more they will be pitied — after all they must be compensating for their inner lack. In fact, of course, they should be praised for their dedication.

I don’t want to make this about gender, but it is relevant to this case. How many times have you heard about females of all ages, from school onwards, working ‘too hard’, over-dedicating themselves, and generally behaving neurotically as they drive themselves into the ground in their frantic, desperate, and ultimately hopeless bid to try keep up? Meanwhile, boys just have the knack, don’t they? If only they were a bit less lazy and worked as hard as their empty-headed female peers, they could really capitalise on their god-given genius! Both perceptions are equally preposterous and equally difficult to shake.

Do you know what the world ‘genius’ means?

An attendant spirit present from one’s birth, innate ability or inclination

It’s also, if memory serves, a male spirit that for some reason only works on men. Nothing particularly surprising there, virtually everything in history is mysteriously male, after all. But the idea of a ‘flash of genius’ — something spontaneous and free of any sort of labour — persistently applies to a certain kind of person, with a certain gender, colour and often background, too.

Is talent real?

It’s nice to believe we can be born with talent, though, isn’t it? If you’re about to become a parent you’d probably barely dare hope for it. It’s an unexpected bonus one wouldn’t know what to do with, like putting a 50p in the vending machine for some Quavers and a KitKat plops out, too.

When people work hard at something that we’d like to be able to work hard at, we excuse our own shortcomings by holding their hard work against them.

Well, of course they did well at that exam/career/situation. They worked every hour god sends. Me? I prefer to be Captain Cool. I only move when the Mysticc Lightbulb appears over my head. I still do alright!

Or we pretend we’re ‘worried’.

Oh she does terribly well, much better than me – but she works so hard! She’s going to make herself ill if she keeps that up.

And all the stupid nonsense people claim about having never picked up a book their entire schooling/university etc and still got 100% for everything. It’s all the same thing. We love shaming other people’s sacrifices when we’re not ready to make any of our own.

Most people (need to) believe they are above average, even if only by invoking supernatural experiences in utero, as ‘talent’ surely must. When we see people who actually are above average, it’s a bit of an affront to our self image.

We all tear down hard workers. It’s a natural way to protect ourselves from self-admonishment for laziness. But it’s also completely absurd, and yeah, pretty toxic.

Our challenge to you:

Look out for your positive and negative thoughts about others, this week. Are you making excuses for yourself by building them up, or putting them down?

The thing about focus

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Leila Johnston

I’ve been thinking about focus recently. It is extremely difficult to make plans, the way the world is at the moment. It’s also really hard for any of us to work out what’s important. Our own issues combined with the world’s can do a real number on motivation.

Think about it. You’ve got a triple whammy of an unordered ‘everything at once’ future; the complication that this future is even more holographic than usual, and the meta worry that dwelling on personal future in the throes of a global crisis is the action of a self-important git. The world hasn’t stopped because of a lack in us, but we tell ourselves we should be able to move it on, and the result is a kind of shame paralysis.

I’ve been mentoring a few people for the last three months, and I seem to be seeing more of this. Shame is the thing that keeps coming up, about current behaviour and future plans (and if you’re a professional self-flagellator, reverse engineered into one’s past, too). Call it what you like – lack of focus, lack of priorities… I like to call it the shame of not organising the information ‘correctly‘.

The right way to have fun

Years ago I worked as a primary school teaching assistant in the Reception year (4 year olds). One child, let’s call her Sally, was exceptionally good at art – especially her use of colour. She coloured in a picture of an elephant beautifully, in vibrant checks to match her favourite elephant, Elmer. When she was done, she proudly held it up to show the teacher (a difficult woman, to say the least!) And… the teacher had an absolute meltdown, bellowing in that way that slicks hair back and shatters windows:


She threw the beautiful drawing in the bin and sent the child off with another sheet to fill with grey.

That’s not what elephants look like. But that’s a connection Sally made. Rather than represent the expected, she used the tools available to her, a wide selection of colours, to share something special about the wider world. She made a link, and she had joy in her heart. And she was four years old. What lesson was she learning?

Well, a few, I suppose, but this is the one I want us to pick up on here: built into many systems, even something as innocuous as colouring in, there is an expected right way to do things. To introduce connections from outside is to break the law. Early in life, we learn to be ashamed of not organising information in the right way.

The thing about focus

I know a lot of polymaths, people so prolific and so excellent in so many areas that one would imagine they would be utterly delighted with themselves all the time. But many of them, heartbreakingly, live with shame, regret, and self-doubt. “If only I could focus on one thing I would be amazing at x by now-“. What I hear is: “If only I had organised information differently, I’d fit in better in a known category.” Or, to put it in Sally’s terms: “If only I’d coloured the elephant in grey, I could be one of the best of the regular elephant colourers.”

Now, look… there is some reasoning here. In the dull, limited, non-diverse world system that we seem to have been determined to keep ticking over, being good at grey elephants brings many advantages. But things have changed.

Being different is an advantage when everything’s changed

Sarah and I believe that being good at, or even just interested in a few things, is going to be a major benefit in the world we’re entering. It’s already happening. If you’ve got a background as colourful as Elmer, you’re probably pretty well equipped to deal with some surprises from life. You’ve probably got a robust range of skills and contacts, and the flexibility to turn on a dime. Who wouldn’t want someone like that around, right now?

Focus isn’t that great

Another brief story. Some years ago, I watched what is now a very famous tech innovation take off; I was there at the first whisper of it. Around the same time, a similar project was underway. Right from the start, the approaches taken by the very famous one and the one you’ve never heard of could not have been more different, even though the products were in some ways alike.

How did their approaches differ? The one that failed was incredibly focussed! The creator put everything he had into it. He remortgaged his home. He was determined he could run every part of the business and that it would fly. The famous one? Well, in a way, he was less emotional about it all; it was his idea, that was enough. He put together a team of the best people, early on, and the goal was always about the product… not his product. But by the usual rules of ‘focus’, the unsuccessful project was the one that played by the rules. It was an all-consuming vision, a narrow perspective with no distractions. The successful project realised that you can be focussed across a collaboration, and you always need the full spectrum of colours to make great stuff. Focussed projects are fine – just don’t put your own body and soul behind the prism. Disappointment, or a total loss of sanity, that way lies.

See the whole sky

It really breaks my heart when I hear wonderful people lament their lack of focus. Some people aren’t made for close-up detail; some people are designed to see the whole beauty of the night sky, not just one star at a time. And if you could see the whole sky, how could you tear yourself away? And why should you? We’re here for a good time, not a long time. There is no one right way to organise information. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’d do better if you were different, or that your ideas are too imaginative, or that your appetite for life is too large. The alternative is the old way. The new world needs all of us.