So it’s been a crazy month at work, and the first in which I’ll fail to get a new project off the ground or completed. Which, naturally, means I’ll have to complete two projects in June in order to stay on course.
But more important than that, I really, really enjoyed April’s project, a series of short interviews with friends. It made me think about a lot of things, but I haven’t really articulated that to myself in any concrete way yet. So what did I learn from this thing?
1. Get away from everything.
Something that emerged as an unexpected theme was the importance of being ‘away’ in some form. Mainly from the city, and so in this case mainly from London. Leila isn’t so much anti-London as she is incredibly passionate about the creative energy you can feel in Sheffield. Leticia is an Italian-Japanese-Brazilian who gets away a lot and shows her work internationally. Even though she didn’t really commit to this in so many words, it feels like something similar for Vic. Dan‘s moved down to Bath for space, nature and family. Hell, even Ted lives on a house-boat, living off-grid as much as he can.
Sometimes it’s about being free of this London gravity, and sometimes it’s just about having a different perspective on it. I can definitely identify with the oppressive quality Leila talks about. It’s so true that people are used to thinking of London as the epicentre of All Interesting Things, when looking or living a bit further afield would change our perspectives for the better.
2. Challenging is the best form of control.
Everyone I spoke to has some kind of challenge to some kind of status quo. Whether it’s Dan’s hacking-prototyping network taking on the big problems or Vic’s take on a style magazine’s tightly defined idea of ‘beauty’.
3. But also challenge yourself.
I know it’s kind of a cliche. But the real act of pushing yourself to do something new is hard, so it doesn’t happen that often. I can’t imagine many other friends doing what Ted did and seeing what they could learn from interpretive dance. And equally, taking on a big, wide open initiative like Happenstance must have been pretty scary in a way for Leila.
4. I’m really lucky to count these people as friends.
I started thinking about how I haven’t really ‘worked’ with most of these people. I may have been on a hack weekend, or we may have been in the same office near to each other, or our paths may have crossed some other way. But in most cases it’s been by some kind of extended coincidence that I started talking to them in the first place. The odds are so high that I wouldn’t have even met them in the first place. So I feel really lucky to have met them, and lucky to count them as friends.
5. So I might keep doing this.
I had a lot of fun interviewing Ted, Leila, Leticia, Vic and Dan. And there are plenty of other people I find interesting. Maybe the format would change a bit. Maybe it would stay the same. But I’m thinking about what I could learn from talking to other friends in a similar way.
[Photo of Ted courtesy of good for nothing.]
So here’s my first short interview with a friend, as part of April’s personal project.
Ted Hunt runs this is helpful, which in his words is a ‘creative strategy focused digital, marketing and engagement consultancy’. He also creates regular personal projects, ranging from playful web apps like Wisdom Tooth and Now & Then to micro-art exhibitions and new essay formats. I first met Ted in person when he was in charge of social and emerging media for innocent, and we were both presenting at an IAB event. Our paths crossed again in the good for nothing hacking-for-good community. We’ve stayed in touch and I regularly bother him for his opinion on my own personal projects and many other things. Lately, he’s also been one of my beard inspirations. Thanks, Ted!
What is this is helpful, and how did it come about?
this is helpful was born from my desire to move into consultancy, but having a severe dislike for the title/term ‘consultant’. I wanted to strip it back to something more meaningful and timeless, and figured there has always been a need to helpfulness, and helpful people, even before the whole consultancy phenomena. So that was going to be ‘my thing’.
On top of that I realised the people I’ve worked with in the past and would want to work with again/recommend to others are always the most helpful ones. They don’t look at projects and see potential for money, awards, personal kudos, or networking opportunities, they just try and help out and add some value. So I figured that would be a good strategy for my venture into independent business, if I go home at night and have been helpful in the day the rest (hopefully) will look after itself.
Do clients still think of you as ‘Ted who used to do social for innocent’? …and is that a good/bad thing?
Less so now. I try to play it down, rather than up, as much as I can these days. People like to know other people’s story and innocent is a good story so it was a good association in that regard. In other regards it can lead to some distinct pigeonholing which isn’t so good. A lot of businesses would love to harness the ‘innocent effect’ so can be a good door opener.
You also do a lot of personal projects (or contributions as you call them)…why? Do you have a particular favourite?
I think I got started with them while being involved with good for nothing. I started to re-address the way I worked on personal stuff, mainly doing shorter, sharper projects. Most of them were done in a day in reality. The I saw Stef give a talk at another good for nothing-esque thing called ‘find better problems’ where he talked about his own website being a long list of personal projects, some worked, some didn’t, some became businesses. So the next day I replaced my old website with a list of personal projects, and kept trying to build them up whenever I had an idea for one.
I’m not sure I have a particular favourite. The most recent one, attending a Wayne McGregor dance workshop, was one of the most enlightening, as it was the further stretch outside of my comfort zone. And I suppose a big part of the reason I do the projects is to get enlightened about stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have.
It seems like your personal projects fall into a few different categories: the playful ones, the craft ones, and the ones that set out to fix a problem or improve things. Do you see them that way, as separate types of activity? or is there some kind of interconnectedness?
I don’t set out to have any rhyme or reason to them to be honest, they’re pretty much all ideas that come into my head that I then set out to make tangible in some kind of way. The ‘tangibleness’ is probably the key thing really, I used to have ideas and do nothing about them whatsoever, which never got me anywhere. So committed myself to actually realising some of them about a year ago. I suppose they all help to solve a problem, even if that problem is just how I personally understand something. There’s a huge amount of interconnectedness in all of them, but that’s probably only apparent in the wires in my head most of the time. The Pilgrim’s Way one for example was about concentrating on something that’s normally mundane (walking), this led to more thinking on the theme of concentration, which I’m now drawing upon for a bit of client work I’m doing at the minute.
Lastly, as a one-man lean/agile consultancy, you’ve probably got quite a unique perspective on brands and business in general. what’s the biggest thing that businesses could be doing better? is it even possible to generalise?
Probably to start solving the right problems/better problems rather than the most urgent ones, or the ones that will return the quickest immediate results. And to get their heads around the E. F. Schumacher thing of “Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.” But that’s a boat with a bloody big hole in it that we’re all in together, and we will all need to start doing better at.
I met Ted recently at an IAB thing where we both happened to be speaking. He's an interesting fellow. And ever since I read his post about informal economies I've been thinking about how that idea could be put into practice.
Charities have depended on informal economies forever, being as so many of them depend on volunteers to deliver different bits of their business. But I think there's a growing disconnect there. It's like the idea of the Big Society (if you buy the propaganda version of what that's about) in reverse.
So I was delighted to hear about the Good Gym. It's about giving you a proper motivation (ie, the desire to good) for getting fit. You are paired with an isolated older person, run to theirs, bring them a newspaper or buy them lunch, have a chat and do the same again later in the week. Everyone gets something out of it, with no extra energy or willpower being expended.