10 posts

Being least subtractive

Andrew Gillott
Oct 14, 2015

A few weeks ago, someone sent me a link to a talk by Paul Reed Smith for TEDx MidAtlantic.

Paul Reed Smith is first and foremost a luthier and he talks animatedly about building beautiful guitars and how he aspires not to create an instrument that adds something to the playing of the musician, but one that takes away as little as possible. Every component of the guitars that Reed Smith uses is chosen for its Least Subtractive™ properties.

“6 in, 5.8 out…”

A little way in to his narrative, Paul tells us about a musician who changed the way he played when he found a ‘less subtractive’ guitar to those that he had owned before.

And that made me think that this musician had previously had to adapt his playing to an instrument that reduced his efforts; diminished the emotion he put in; left some nuance go unrewarded. “6 in, 5.8 out…”.

I have just returned from working with an inspiring group of coaches and athletes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They have created a unique environment in which athletes from nine combat sports train under the same roof, five days-a-week. The project caters for athletes aged 7–29 years old, often in the same room at the same time. What binds each and every athlete to each other are their stories: they live side-by-side in a community devastated by drugs, crime and gun violence.

This project is producing some world-class fighting talent. The coaches’ aspiration is to build what they understand to be a ‘high performance’ environment to house the precocious few. They readily acknowledge that it will take a great deal of money to build an exclusive new facility, replete with the equipment and services that we expect to see in much of Western Europe and around the world.

They already have athletes that display all the characteristics we might associate with ‘high performance’. Not least, a small boy who is 10 years old but looks much younger. Let’s call him Menino Pequeno. Menino Pequeno has been doing Judo at the project for two years. During warm-up, he moved quickly, deliberately, completing more reps than his peers. He rolled from one end of the gym to the other, left and right shoulder alternately; it’s harder on the left so he challenges himself to do just as many on the hard side. His movements were, crisp, full of energy, focussing on technique, composure, speed. When paired with a much larger boy who was there for the first time, Menino Pequeno coached him through every movement, grip and throw. He missed out his own turns to allow the new boy more time to practise. And he smiles a lot. Because he’s having fun.

At some point while I was there, I saw it clearly. Or rather, I heard it… “6 in, 5.8 out…”. I didn’t just recognise this phrase that surfaced my consciousness- I understood it.

They don’t need to Add. They already have something unique and wonderful, a community of athletes working hard together under a shadow that dims every one of their otherwise brilliant, fizzing lights.

They need to Take Away. Take away the things that take away. Do the simple things, well. Build the Least Subtractive™ environment they can.

Of course, this may in time also lead them to build something bigger and better. Sure, they may bring in extra equipment and who knows, perhaps they attract some specialist staff along the way to better support…everyone. In a Least Subtractive™ environment, nobody will have to worry about what and who is Talent. Or when or why, for that matter. Instead, although there may still be roadblocks on the streets of the favela, the path will be clear for everyone to get to where they want to get to. Together.

Un éléphant blanc géant.

Andrew Gillott
Aug 9, 2015

The image shows a steam train as imagined by a 19th Century Indian artist who was yet to see such a machine. It is painted on the exterior wall of a haveli in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. When I came across this painting in 2005, it stuck in my mind. Last week as I wrote a short post on the impact of folk-culture on practitioners (or about goldfish and tigers, depending on your perspective) I realised why that was:

In 2005, I spent several weeks looking at these incredible frescos and I think this steam train may have been unique in that for the artist, it was a story of the future rather than a story of the past exploits of kings, lovers, heros, deceivers and their gods that he painted. The train was coming and it would replace the elephant. But conjuring an image from his imagination, how else was the artist to image it but as a huge, steel, mechanical beast, breathing steam from its exhaust as it pulls the great and the good in an endless parade of elegant carriages.

A crisp, elephantine boundary to his vision.

It’s a beautiful fresco but for the artist the vivid reality of the future is muted by the paradigm of the past. It’s impossible to not be reminded of Jules Verne’s La Maison à Vapeur (The Steam House). The steel giant takes on a familiar shape but contains a future in which the only certainty is change. As it lumbers across the pages of Verne’s novel, this mechanical white elephant is a powerful symbol for change and the responses and emotions tochange.

With this in my thoughts, it’s provided a lens through which I’ve viewed my interactions with others this week. I’ve worked with those who are struggling to let go of the stories they tell themselves and allow new practices to invigorate their personal and professional progress. And sometimes you need a bit of help with seeing past the boundaries, imagining a future with an entirely unfamiliar shape, seeing how much more vivid the palette could be with which we paint our own pictures of the future.

Lost in translation.

Andrew Gillott
Aug 9, 2015

When I was a child, we occasionally- rarely- had the opportunity to go to a very posh caravan site in North Wales. We packed our suitcases, waited for the bus and embarked on an odyssey of 1970s public transport, all travel sickness and roadside wee stops.

It was always worth it. A hundred tiny white jewels clinging to a cliftop above a clear blue sea. It was always sunny and you could fly a kite in acres of meadows and wild flowers. The caravans had colour telly — we didn’t have that at home. It is the most beautiful and significant place I can recall about family holidays. Romantic.

In my Twenties, I took my girlfriend- now wife- to that clifftop. I wanted to share the beauty and the romance with her. I thought it would become as significant for us as it was for me. It wasn’t as I remembered it; knackered little caravans crammed in to a field, wind-blasted and corroded by the sea. I had captured those memories when young, translated the experience with child’s eyes. The reality was somewhat different and the romantic weekend became a test of endurance. It was another 10 years before we married…

Storytelling is an essential tool in reflective learning. Reality frequently gets lost in translation. Memories get stuck in the moment. By telling stories, we have the opportunity to begin once more. Notice new things. Have another go at the translation. Find lost things; rub out some of the lines and start again.

Stories help us to imagine how the world could work better.

What the hell is water?

Andrew Gillott
Aug 1, 2015

Earlier this month, a brief tweet from Al Smith concerning David Wallace Foster’s brilliant speech “This Is Water” provided me with a simple, powerful metaphor for what David Wallace Foster describes as the situation in which “The most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

As I go about my daily business, it seems that the strongest bonds that anchor practitioners in the past are unseen. The water that surrounds them, to borrow Wallace Foster’s metaphor is so powerfully tidal that it resists all attempts to take on new ideas; practise and apply; fail and learn; synthesise and learn; develop knowledge in to practical, agile, creative understanding.

Some weeks later, I read David Didau’s “What if everything you knew about education was wrong?” Didau retells a Chinese proverb, Three Men Make a Tiger to illustrate his ideas on group bias. In the proverb, a vizier is inclined to believe an improbable tale of a tiger loose within the markets of the town when the tiger is said to have been seen by not one, not two, but three of the great unwashed. It’s reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes and an example of how our professional environments are quickly filled with water.

Capping off the week, I read an article on the Filter Bubble and how it drives Google’s personalised search engine, effectively eradicating results which are likely to challenge our personal view of the world. Now that most certainly is water.

I’ve worked with coaches from four major British sports since I saw the connection between these stories and metaphors. For each coach swimming against the tide, denying the likelihood of the tiger, retelling the story, is the biggest challenge to their development. Willingness to learn isn’t enough and culture can eat our strategies for breakfast. As a developer of coaches, I see ever more clearly how complex the system is and how coaching practice may be the symptom of any number of related- and disparate- causes.

But of course, you shouldn’t take my word for it.