I’m currently in a tiny village in the south of France, not far from the Spanish border. I’m here on maternity leave, which has morphed into a whole family sabbatical. My husband is here to write before he cracks on with training to teach, our four year-old is here to spend a term at the local school, and our baby and dogs are just here to soak it all in and stay warm for a while longer than they would back in Brighton.
Spark+Mettle has been on a roll since I’ve been on maternity leave. Thanks to Kazvare Knox and her whipsmart team, it has been developing and running a series of programmes to develop character strengths and soft skills awareness to other youth groups. It’s moved into wonderful offices in north London. And, as recently announced, it’s set up an extraordinary partnership with the British Council and HSBC to deliver skills training to schools in nine countries across the Middle East and North Africa. That’s right, it is going global.
I’ve chosen to step down as CEO for a number of reasons. First, I’ve always been aware of the dreaded “founders’ syndrome” and so had only planned to stay at the helm for just 3–5 years. Second, my delight and my strengths lie in getting things off the ground; Spark+Mettle is now moving into a phase where it needs to level off and with that comes a different leadership style. Finally, my work over the last five years has taken me to London a lot. But Brighton is home and it is where I want to be based. I love a full working day but I have a young family; time with them is precious, not to be truncated by trains. At the same time, Spark+Mettle needs someone at the helm who is a lot more present than I can be.
I am thrilled that I will be able to take on the role of Chair and support the strategic direction and growth of Spark+Mettle moving forward, while giving space for Kazvare—someone extraordinarily dedicated, talented and focused—to be in charge. It’s been wonderful over the last few months to watch the organisation flourish and demonstrate its independence. It fills me with huge pride and pleasure to see others achieve so much and evolve what was once a teeny tiny kernel of an idea that I had into something that is so much bigger and better than I could have achieved myself.
This is not the end. Far from it. It really is only just the beginning.
Last year I tried out this idea for a little project. I called it #Flourish40, tried to do too much, and failed. This year, I’m going to try again. The idea is pretty simple, and fundamentally unoriginal: to do things differently for forty days and forty nights. It’s Lent, but as I’m not Christian, I feel weird calling it that. And although I appreciate that the emphasis of Lent, typically, is of abstaining or demonstrating self-control for a period of time, I’m actually more excited about focusing on trying to be a better version of myself for six weeks. Then I can go back to being a bit shitty for the next ten and a bit months, and feel contentedly smug along with it.
Also, six weeks is supposedly a great amount of time to make or break habits. Which is neat. Hashtag yay for behavioural science insights that I proclaim without any actual reference to any actual study.
This year then, I’m thinking of restricting myself to doing three things:
giving something up that inhibits my flourishing
doing something new, or more of something old, that boosts it
taking a different approach to my normal one.
The problem is, I’ve got a lot to choose from. And another problem is that I’m really bad at choosing. And ANOTHER problem is YAWN I am boring MYSELF with my self-improvement load of CACKALACKY.
giving something up that inhibits my flourishing
eating chocolate every day
eating sugar every day
watching House of Cards and True Detective and all other possible box-sets every day
doing something new, or more of something old, that boosts it
seeing friends more
keeping track of my receipts so that I don’t have minor panic attacks on a regular basis
being more tidy in general—this is more to boost my husband’s flourishing than mine, but we all know that doing things for other people does stuff for us
possibly saying cackalacky actually
taking a different approach to my normal one:
when making a decision, ask myself “What is the KINDEST way?”
in the improv spirit, try to always say “Yes, and…” rather than “Yes, but…” or “No…”
actually factor in how much time it will take me to get somewhere, so that I get there on time
I like that whole “new approach” idea. I like all of them. But blah blah BLAH and also all this is cheating. Too many things. I won’t remember them. I’ll fail. I am encroaching on Holier Than Thou territory which is my non-Christian IDEA OF HELL. I don’t want to be that person. I am that person. A little bit. But no. NO. I don’t want to be. Take me away. Away.
I’ve realised over the last few weeks that I’ve been poddling along these three or four years with a lot of support but not much guidance. This is a genuine realisation. I’m done with Striking Out. I want some guidance! I want to raise my game! To feel admiring of someone, awestruck, desperate to impress them. Is this what happens to the irreligious in their thirties, do we all suddenly start yearning for a mortal to idolise?
Well, here it is. And it so happens I’ve come across a fair few extraordinarily brilliant women in the past few months (here’s where I get to name check Dame Mary Marsh and Charmaine Eggberry, and I even got to meet Stella Creasy MP recently too, who was so un-grip-and-grin-y that she nearly almost had me contemplating a career in politics). But, if I set one of THEM as my idols, I’m a bit of a nutter. A creep.
So actually, here is what I’ll do. I’m going to give myself one task for the next 40 days. And I’m going to assign myself one idol. That idol, after much reflection [two minutes], is going to be [DRUM ROLLLLLLL] the awe-inspiring Michelle Obama. Relatable, but far away enough from my league and location for me not to feel like a creep; suitably fallible but also fierce and strong AND funny. Boom.
Whenever I’m stuck on a choice, I’m going to ask myself: What Would Michelle Do?
“Do I buy this Double Decker for the train ride home?”
“NOT buy this Double Decker. Instead, buy a banana. And possibly tell some kids about it.”
I think I can remember that. So here’s to #Flourish40, Take Two. If I can get to being a teenytiny-eth of the greatness that is Michelle O, with less of the wankiness that filled my first #Flourish40 attempt, I will have flourished and then some. Goodbye mediocrity, hello michellety.
I did just write that.
If you’ve got thoughts on how YOU can boost your levels of flourishing over the next forty days, or on whether you think I’ve just hit another personal record low, please post comments below or tweet me (@eugenieee). I’d love to know.
I have no idea what your own cultural connotation of the blog post title might be, but on the Noah—Josh Hartnett spectrum, I’m veering a bit closer to the ark. Just a little expectation-management, on my part, for yous.
Hi! What’s up? How you doing? I’ve feeling pretty good. Yup. I’ve just had a brainwave. Not a momentous one. It’s more moment-ful. Oh man, I hate me. The point is: it’s pretty ordinary. It’s hard to unpick the order of events that led up to the ‘Ting!’ moment in my head, but I’m an historian‘s daughter so I still feel as though I should try.
I can’t do chronological, so I am just going to list various things that have happened in the last few days that all led into the Ting. I might ambitiously refer to it as a Causal List:
William P. Teasley, III (aka Bud, aka my husband) does a lot of reading and thinking about what we should do with uncomfortable knowledge we acquire, and writes a brilliant and funny blog post about vegan shoes.
I drum up a list of things in my head that I do that I probably shouldn’t and make excuses about why I do them. I also think about No Impact Man and how earnest he seemed and I worry that I won’t ever be allowed to buy a dress from Primark again.
I read a Guardian article about the Sunday Assembly in London, and get totally inspired by the idea of an event that lifts all the good, community, uplifting bits of church and religion, and leaves out all of the dogma. A “godless congregation”. Awesome.
I remember that next Tuesday is pancake day and I get excited. A while later I realise that pancake day is not just about batter, but also about Lent.
I go to my first ever Zumba class at my gym. We warm up in silence. The instructor sips coffee in between fervently shaking his ass at a motley group of women. The group’s response is lacklustre, coordination abominable. I wonder if I have ever felt so depressed in my life. Then I remember the strip club I visited in Sydney on my 19th birthday, and I get some perspective. As I shuffle-shuffle-cha-cha-cha, I keep thinking about Good Gym, and the value of expending my energy in productive, life-affirming ways. I slip out of the class after 35 cold, dispassionate minutes. I run a fast 5k on the treadmill, go to the front desk and cancel my gym subscription.
At home, I leave my kid upstairs while I go downstairs to make a sandwich. He turns on the TV using the remote control and watches Cbeebies. He’s two.
I speak to one of my best friends whom I haven’t spoken to in two months, and haven’t seen in three. I joke to her about only reading two books in the last twelve months and she jokes to me about books being more decorative than devoured. As we talk, I realise that I have read no novels since the summer of 2011, but I have colour-coded them on our bookshelves. And they really bring such brightness and pep into the living room.
I buy a copy of Grazia. I hide it in the laundry room out of shame, but then decide to sod it and read it in full view at breakfast the following morning.
I give some money to The Women’s Room on a crowdfunding platform, and it reminds me of what good can be done in a short, pre-determined amount of time.
I remember that I once read somewhere that it’s meant to take six weeks to make or break a habit. I google it but to no avail, then I come across Charles Duhigg again, the habit maestro, and am happy.
So here’s the brainwave:
For 40 days and 40 nights, I’m going to greenhouse/road-test/hot-box a number of things with the aim of bringing out the best version of me, while also having a positive impact on the people and the world around me. The sorts of things that I might be terrified to say that I am going to do forever—such as not eat steak or watch any more television—but that for 40 days seem manageable. I’m going to come up with a manifesto that is based on the nine flourishing features we use within Spark+Mettle, and create opportunities both to act and reflect on them all. I’m hoping it might mean that I kick some bad habits and kickstart some good ones in the process. The only rule I have so far is: I don’t want to end up being earnest, or smug, or preachy, or boring—if that’s what the best version of me entails then I’ll be pegging it back to mediocre, quick sharp.
I’ve got a week to get it all figured out. Bud is up for the experiment, and the kid will be a part of it too, whether he likes it or not. So now we’ve just got to figure out what it’s going to be, what it’s going to look like. I’m excited. It’s going to make me look at my values in a way that I haven’t done since my teenager years and all their D’n’M conversations. In between now and then, there’s a lot of meat in the fridge that needs to be eaten, and the end of Breaking Bad Series 5 to be watched.
I had the honour of speaking at A Good Week launch on Monday. The last time I gave a big talk on flourishing when I was teaching in Elephant and Caste—that Year 9 assembly was not quite such a captive audience as the one I faced this Monday.
Here’s what I said at A Good Week’s launch event:
Out of all the statements I made in my Manifesto, Nat and the Good Week crew decided to emphasise one in really big letters: TALK LOTS OF NONSENSE. I guess I’m grateful, as it has set the bar fairly low for my talk. And it’s actually pretty useful, because although I’m going to be talking about the link between education and flourishing, right now I am just going to ask you to think about a horse.
Got a horse in your head? Good.
An ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, also thought a lot about horses. He had a theory of Ideal Forms, and he used a horse as an example. According to him, reality consists of two realms. First, there is the physical world, the world that we can observe with our five senses. And second, there is a world made of eternal “forms” or “ideas”: perfect templates of things we actually observe. All the horses we see in the world or imagine in our heads are imperfect representations of the Ideal Horse, but they all have elements of ‘horseness’ that allow us to recognise them as horses.
I don’t entirely agree with Plato and where he takes his argument. But I do like thinking about the ‘horseness’ of horses, or the ‘chairness’ of chairs, the ‘houseness’ of houses—the attributes that make us recognise and categorise things around us. So makes the ‘humanness’ of humans? Or the ‘Eugenieness’ of me?
I think that we are each able to hold in our heads and hearts an ideal version of ourselves. I think that flourishing is all about discovering and then bringing to life these ideal versions. And I think that we can all do that for ourselves, and for other people—and to me, that is what education is all about.
Spark+Mettle is an aspirations agency that likes to help people flourish. I founded it a year ago, hoping it would be one small way of enabling the marginalised young to follow their passion, fulfil their potential, find a job they love and feel good about what they do. It’s still small, but it’s the melting pot of things I think are vital in life. Today I’m going to talk about the ‘sparkandmettleness’ of Spark+Mettle: flourishing and education. What’s the link between the two? And what can we do to enable ourselves and others to flourish?
1. But first, what is flourishing?
There are hundreds of definitions. And here I’ve selected just three. I wonder which strikes you most forcibly? The first is by a contemporary psychologist called Fredrickson. The second is Aristotle’s working definition. For me, the third is the most compelling—written by a historian, called Coco Corr, who is 19 years old and one of the co-creators on Spark+Mettle’s Star Track programme. And yes, I am slightly biased.
It’s all very well to have a general idea of flourishing, but it’s useless and inapplicable if you don’t know what it might actually entail.
Thankfully Cambridge researchers have discovered nine features needed to flourish – three core (the must-haves), and then six additional—the more of which you have, the better. What depresses me even more than the fact that only 11% of the UK population have all nine, is that the wealthiest are twice as likely to flourish in this country as the poorest.
One thing I feel strongly is that flourishing is as personal as we are different, and it’s okay to adapt ideas to what fits your ‘youness’. And that’s what we’ve done over the past year at Spark+Mettle. We’ve morphed Cambridge’s nine flourishing features into our own nine flourishing creatures.
We’ve kept purpose in as one of the ‘must-haves’, and we’ve renamed engagement ‘spark’. We’ve pulled out positive emotions and relegated them to the additional pool. And we’ve thrown mettle or resilience in there instead. We bundled optimism into positive emotions, and made space for creativity—something we’ve found is vital to flourishing.
So there’s our recipe for flourishing, which may or may not resonate with youBut how do we go about teaching it? We have been running our pilot programme, Star Track, since September 2011. It’s a personal and professional development programme for aspiring young people, that blends online and offline reflection and interaction. Here’s a short video, with a very loaded question at the start:
2. What is education?
Flourishing is a concept I’ve been fascinated by for a decade since studying Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia as an undergraduate. But education is something I’ve been fascinated by for as long as I can remember. I was given an expensive but in many ways crappy education: always working to the test, never being asked to think for myself. I’ve always been curious and eager to learn: and that is nothing unique to me, far from it—it’s a natural human tendency. It’s something I see, relish and nurture in my own 20-month old son.
I’ve come to realise that the tendency in each of us to inquire is matched by the tendency to encourage, and that if we are given the opportunity to do both: to find things out for ourselves, and also to encourage others to do the same, we are in a good, ideal-formy, humanness sort of place.
I’ve been a classroom teacher, in Elephant and Castle. I’ve stepped back from the chalkface to do a Master’s in Education out in Berkeley, and I’ve worked for educational organisations both here and in the States, including the brilliant 826 Valencia. And after all these years of looking at education from different sides, hammering out lesson plans and essays, I’ve remembered something very simple. To ‘educate’ doesn’t mean to ‘indoctrinate’, to ‘stuff full of other people’s ideas’, or to ‘prep for the test’. No. To ‘educate’ just means ‘to bring out’.
Star Track—Spark+Mettle’s flagship programme—is trying to do just that. We wrap it in fancy language. We call it an incubator programme that shapes, supports and accelerates the emerging talent in marginalised young people. That’s a nice, meaty sentence, but all we should really need to say is that it is an education programme. Because really, that’s all we are trying to do, to bring out the best in the young people with whom we work.
How do we do that? Well, our approach is a little unusual because we do a lot of our communication online. But the three core elements that, to my mind, are vital to a successful education programme are there. Firstly, we encourage our young people to reflect and think for themselves through our Socratic-like discussions that we run through Google+. Secondly, we encourage them to interact with others—both their peers and professionals. And thirdly, we encourage them to create something new: whether that’s a blog or brain balm…
3. What can you think and do to flourish?
Underpinning every conversation we have is this idea of flourishing and its nine features or creatures. By now, eight months into the programme, our co-creators have all got a strong sense of how they can change their thinking in order to flourish and fulfil their potential. These are some great examples of how to change our thought processes and link them to actions, all suggested by them.
The problem for the rest of us is that sometimes it’s hard to get our thinking and aspirations off the ground. That’s where another Spark+Mettle project comes in: the Dreamers’ Supply Company.
In this project, young people and professional volunteers are co-creating dream-realising products, such as this brain balm that will, um, ‘salve’ all your problems—albeit in a whimsical, imaginary sort of way. So far, so awesome. The process is allowing young people to develop their creative, collaborative and enterprising skills, while connecting with inspiring professionals.
And the final products will enable others to set about realising their dreams too. In fact YOU are able to decide which of our prototype products should be made and sold through the Design Museum shop this September, by voting on A Good Week’s website all this week.
We’re lucky to have friends like A Good Week and the Design Museum shop to help us out. But the essence of the project is something that’s simple to replicate. And, ultimately, pretty unoriginal. We reckon that it is easy, and fun, and ideal-form-y, to repurpose or repackage something inconsequential into something aspirational. We just happen to be doing with tiger balm what Blue Peter did with toilet rolls.
We can alter the way we think and we can alter what we do to improve our own levels of flourishing. In fact, there are an infinite number of recipes for flourishing, and these are changeable and complex, they adapt with you along the tracks of your life. So if you were hoping for me to give an infallible three-step route from who you are to your ideal form, I’m afraid I can’t.
But I can do something. I can distill the essence of flourishing into three things we can do to help us to be real-world educators, and to begin to bring out the best in others.
Encourage others to reflect, not ruminate. Ask them to tell you one good thing that’s happened. There’s always something.
Encourage others to interact—in a fair and equal way. Get them to swap what they know with you.
Encourage others to create things. Whether it’s bangers and mash or brain balm, get them to make stuff, preferably with you.
Ask good questions, trade skills and ideas, set up make days and craft nights—these are simple ways to bring out the best in others and in ourselves.
A Good Week is chocabloc with just such opportunities. So I hope we all get involved with some of what’s being celebrated, because it’s good stuff like this that can help us to step closer to our ideal form, to flourish and to enable others to do so too.
And if you’ve got this far, you’re a hero. As a prize, here’s my Good Manifesto, framed, with my prop horse, on a train.
The following blog post originally appeared on the Social Reporters site. It’s reproduced here with the kind permission of David Wilcox.
One of the people we really wanted to come to our DTYE event – on how digital technologies can support young people to engage socially and economically with their communities – was Eugenie Teasley, who set up Spark+Mettle. It is a highly innovative aspirations agency focussed on “preparing young people who do not have the connections or the resources themselves to map and launch a career that they will love”. The young people aren’t participants – they are co-creators of the programme.
Unfortunately for us Eugenie was in South Carolina at the time, so on her return we invited her to review the top ten messages from the event in the light of her experience.
Here’s a video in which Eugenie explains how the Spark+Mettle Star Track programme blends Benjamin Franklin’s self-improvement programme with an understanding of flourishing as determined by Cambridge University’s Institute of Wellbeing … and then her reflections.
I’m really energised by the messages that have emerged from the Young People and Digital Technology exploration project so far. Too often online interaction for young people is either narrowly social or unengagingly pragmatic; I’m thinking Facebook and Blackboard. The digital space is a thriving one—in fact one of the only bustling, growing ecosystems during these economic doldrums. So to encourage fresh approaches to connect young people and technology is something I value and champion.
It was in the Young Foundation’s report Plugged in, untapped (2010) that I first came across the phrase ‘digital homophily’—something I’d seen time and time again but not named. There’s this tension about the internet: although it has the capability of being a democratising tool, it is currently not bridging many socio-cultural chasms. In fact—for the most part unwittingly—it has a tendency to widen them. Those who’ve learned how to develop broad networks, to research thoroughly and to engage meaningfully online are in a happy place. But for young people who don’t have extensive networks, the internet is a place to reinforce their offline peer community, and to engage with the brands that influence them.
I launched Spark+Mettle a year ago to explore ways to turn this tendency on its head. My aim was to work with young people from tough backgrounds to help them flourish and fulfil their potential. Star Track is a year-long incubator programme that shapes, supports and accelerates the emerging talent in young people. Unlike many similar programmes, the method for the pilot has been to harness digital technology and, working collaboratively with young people, to understand how it can enable them to fulfil their potential.
I confess this method came out of practical, personal considerations: I had just had a baby and was ensconced in Brighton, not much able to trundle around the country. But I desperately didn’t wanted the programme to be confined to where I was—the need in Brighton for this sort of programme is considerable, but still considerably less than elsewhere. Going a digital route then seemed to be a wholly practical one—a risk, but one that’s paid off. It’s been great for co-creators: one pair “hangout” each week (as above) when one’s in Essex and the other Edinburgh; we’ve teamed young people in York and Bristol with London counterparts. That’s pretty liberating. The fact that it is not location-based has been a huge plus for our team and volunteers too—people are able to commit to us and to the other logistics of their lives. We’ve had team members dial into their sessions from Singapore and New Zealand.
Out of the ten messages that have emerged from the DTYE conversations, there are three that resonate particularly strongly with what we’ve been doing over the last few months.
The first is around the concept of blending online and offline. All our co-creators and team members met, in person, during an assessment day in October. That formed a strong basis for the developing online relationships. We have quarterly lunch parlays during which we all meet, and bring in a number of volunteers to connect with our young people on a variety of projects. The most recent one we held was a huge success. The online/offline blend is mutually reinforcing. And in fact, although I appreciate the benefits of game-based approaches, for the group of young people we target (those who have spark and some degree of mettle but lack the connections and resources to get to where they deserve to go) it is the human-to-human interaction (online or offline) that is key.
I’m also borderline fanatical about co-design – whether it’s with the users or other providers, a multi-brain mash-up is surely an intuitive approach for generating successful online content and design. We were looking for a title for the young people on our Star Track programme: ‘participants’ was too passive for us. The title ‘co-creators‘ came from them. “As we learn from it, we are also shaping it,” said Suraj Rai. I can’t say it any better. For each session I provide a learning aim, a flourishing theme and a suggested list of questions, discussion points and (online) sources of information. I share these with the agents and co-creators and they are left to adapt the discussion to their particular needs, interests, experiences or aspirations. Beyond the session, there are suggested research and reflective activities, but again these are highly adaptive. They blog their responses which we aggregate on our Tumblr. At every stage the co-creators are feeding back to us about the programme design—what’s working and what isn’t. We adapt accordingly. If it doesn’t work for them, then it doesn’t work. We’re excited to be in a state of flux, and to keep that flexibility integral to our structure, however we grow.
The final message that I connect with is around network literacy. It comes back to my earlier point on digital homophily. We shared the Young Foundation’s finding with our co-creators. They agreed with it. Now they’re conscious of it. And our programme deliberately strives not only to reinforce the strong, beneficial peer-to-peer connections but also to help our young people develop the means of connecting with a much wider group, including people from different generations, backgrounds and places. It’s one of the elements of the programme that they enjoy the most and get the most from. What’s key, for me and for the organisation, is that the benefit goes two ways. The UK is shamefully silo-ed. I don’t aim to improve social mobility—not because I like class schisms, quite the opposite. Improved social mobility, to me, means allowing a small number of people to climb the ladder. I’d like to get rid of the ladder.
The digital space seems to be the perfect environment to foster a new, non-hierarchical, complex and interwoven society. But it’s not there yet. Getting young people involved in harnessing technology to fulfil their potential is vital to breaking down the hidden social, cultural and economic barriers that prevent them from doing so offline. Spark+Mettle is a small potato, but we’re excited about what we’ve achieved so far, and we’re keen to engage with anyone who has similar aspirations. Together maybe we can really do something.