A guest article by Bryan Mathers, visual thinker, learning technologist and entrepreneur @bryanMMathers
The thought trickling its way through the lobes of my 10-year old son’s brain, coincided with him getting his hands on a new set of Sharpies (permanent markers) and some very thick white paper. Tools that demand you to create — that feel so good to create with. You can’t go back to blunt pencils and off-white paper now…
My son is very talented at drawing. Of course, I would say that – I’m his dad. And when I say talented, what I actually mean is that he’s worked very hard at drawing (not that he would see it that way — he just thinks it’s fun). He persists with an idea until he’s happy with it.
I love encouragement. It’s verbal sunshine. In teams I’ve run, companies I’ve created and friendships I’ve fostered, I see myself as someone who encourages; an encourager. And, of course, my wife and I (and his two younger brothers) encourage my son, and praise his hard work and creative effort.
And so, one funny visual story soon becomes two — and before too long, there are new characters, including “Mr Stoopid” and my personal favourite “The Spider who farts a lot”.
So I do the things any father would do and say: “if you make a whole comic, I’ll scan them in and I’ll run off a few copies.” My son thinks about this proposition for a nanosecond, and realising this could fund his chewing-gum habit for quite some time, immediately gets busy creating what he calls “The Monthly Meep”. The title page (with a £0.50 price tag), a puzzle page and a competition page are added, and before long it is complete — all 14 pages of it.
At the time of writing we have sold 10 digital copies and five hard copies to uncles, aunties, grandparents, next door neighbours, kids at school and friends with kids of a similar age; and my 10-year-old son is roughly £10 richer.
But, more importantly, what before was just a funny thought somehow has turned into a thing. A real thing. And as a result of some sales, he also has the self-confidence to build upon it. Who knows where this might go?
…meanwhile, back at the ranch…
So why am I telling you all this? Well, as this comic adventure unfolded, I couldn’t help but wonder about the parallel ingredients in my son’s creative journey and my own fairly recent experience of learning some new skills.
I began to draw a few years ago, mostly out of idea articulation, frustration and also because I was curious. Someone exposed me to the iPad + Paper 53 combo, and I thought “That’s amazing…! Now what can I do with that?”
But curiosity on its own isn’t enough.
I needed a purpose to start creating in a certain direction. At first, there was just one purpose — a presentation about the principles of corporate software development (I’m getting sleepy just thinking about it…) Later the purpose was articulating my idea for a youth centred social business. Now the purpose changes every day.
In the early days of my drawing, I found Twitter really helpful as a feedback channel. I realised that people (if they actually came across your creation) would either resonate and retweet, or simply ignore.
There’s a tipping point somewhere in a skills journey where you’ve mastered enough technique to be able to actually achieve something — and this somehow makes going further with the skill become more enjoyable. Let’s call it the “Look mom — no hands!” moment.
- In learning to play tennis, it’s regularly being able to get the ball back over the net.
- In learning to play the piano, it’s being able to play chopsticks (or in my family, being able to play “Oh when the saints”)
- In learning to code it’s the getting your first decent program to run (or inflexion point)
Yes, the creative journey certainly requires curiosity, purpose, encouraging feedback, and perseverance to get to the “look mom, no hands” tipping point. But in a creative journey you don’t know where the rabbit hole is going to take you, or where you’re going to end up — and you‘ve got to be comfortable with that. In fact, when you have enough confidence you learn to revel in not knowing where an idea might end up.
In my own journey of setting up wapisasa – a non-profit focused on developing creative but credential-poor young people into digital jobs – I was struck by how important self-confidence was for a young person to be able to pick up new skills. Indeed, over the course of our first intake, our whole focus shifted from the skills our young people were learning to their self-confidence and the barriers and baggage that stood in their way. If I think back to school and the teachers I considered inspirational, I think each one understood this.
The way I work now is completely different to how I worked when I sold my last company almost five years ago. At the heart of my work now is what I call Visual Thinkery. And whether I’m thinking about technology in education for the Think Out Loud club, or apprenticeships or social startups, I’ll be having a silent conversation with a sketchbook. I’m often trying to listen out for metaphors that will form the concept development or message articulation or indeed sum up the live keynote.
The reality is that without these same ingredients, my own journey in visual thinkery – which has given me so much fulfilment – would have petered out a long time ago, and not given a second thought. I am a Software Engineer after all, and we all know Software Engineers don’t really draw…
After taking my kids swimming last night, I asked my son if he was planning to do a second issue. He thought for a moment and replied: “I think so… I think we might need a website. Dad — how do you make a website?”