Courses, learning and training

IMG_5288In one of the creativity motivation posts I wrote for my Huffington Post blog back in late 2016, I suggested freelancers ‘give yourself a promotion in 2017‘. I recommended making yourself more valuable, add a few more strings to your bow. The situation for the self-employed isn’t going to get any easier, it’s down to us.

In my own haphazard way, I’ve tried to practice what I preach.

This year, I’ve been busy. I started a new job running monthly events for Site, wrote a bi-monthly column for Brandwatch and other articles, wrapped my installation at the Lowry, wrapped Hack Circus, started a new role on a board, applied for funding opps, attended conferences and gave a talk every couple of weeks. In between those things, I’ve been trying to work on my weak points.

I’ve been doing this by taking courses.

I’ve never really done any professional training before. Not since school, actually. Occasionally I’ve been sent on a work training day, but I’ve never done an evening class or anything like that.

But a few things have led up to my training-mania in 2017:

  1. Realising I need to be around other people (in the real world) to really learn anything properly or persevere with it.
  2. Seeing with my own eyes how the dancers progress at Rambert – regular practice is the only way to improve.
  3. Having a personal trainer at the gym last year (I was feeling temporarily rich!) I responded so well to that, it really impressed on me the amazing impact of any kind of regular training.
  4. A dawning realisation that I can do great things, but that no one is going to make anything happen for me. If I want to take things to the next level before middle age catches up with me, I really do need to take responsibility and raise my game.

At the end of 2016, I identified two weak points in my work: live presentation skills, and storytelling. This in mind, I’ve been doing a few courses in my spare time, this year. (Please bear in mind when you see this list that my work is a mixture of performance, writing, playfulness, practical making and serious thinking.)

I’m not sure that any of the courses have had a direct impact on my public speaking or storytelling, yet, but it certainly hasn’t hurt. Making information and experiences available to oneself is surely better than not, even if it doesn’t all sink in. Here are some things I noticed:

Play helps you learn how to play
I noticed games pop up as a learning tool across the board, and it was lovely to see creative ideas emerge from people who would never think themselves creative, when they’re suddenly put in the right environment to think freely. It’s been really, really interesting and I think a good investment of my time and money just to witness people open themselves up in this way. I’m still in touch with some of the people I met, so it’s been good socially, too.

Teachers teach how they learn
I noticed in most of the courses that everyone’s teaching style suits their own brain. They teach a system that works for them, whether abstract or colourful or physical or super-analytical and detail-orientated. That doesn’t mean you’ll find it useful. Especially with some of the comedy stuff, I found it very challenging seeing comedy, performance and the comedic interaction in new ways, when I was so ingrained in my own habits. It is good to be challenged. It is all good stuff! And we’re paying adults, not school kids, so we can just throw out what doesn’t work for us.

Improv made me sharper
I would highly recommend doing an intensive comedy course if you want to just prove you’ve got some material in you and get past a creative block. And if you have any interest in stand-up or comedy, it’s the loveliest thing in the world to muck around every week with similarly-minded people, just trying to make each other laugh. Improv was excellent for sharpening my wits generally in life and I was actually quite sad when that course ended (partly because Jade was such a terrific teacher).

I should say, though, that I massively overdid it, and had to drop out just before the end of the stand-up course and half-way through the story writing course. I was exhausted, trying to do them all, some of which overlapped with each other, and all the homework, and all my other work. And, fatally, I was without a really specific goal.

Courses work best with goals
Coming up in just a couple of weeks now, I have my last course for the time being – one week learning about A.I. on a sort of summer school for artists that I won a place on, in Cambridge (and it’s paid!). This one, I’m hoping, will help me over a hump of creative tech and give me some fresh ideas, both as an artist and a curator. I’ve just been commissioned to make some work for Derby’s beautiful Silk Mill museum, and it couldn’t come at a better time. A good course-goal match.

It can be a short-term fix
In general, courses are great, but they can become a bit of a short-term addiction. You can lose sight of any long-term goals quite quickly, especially when the connection is a bit woolly to start with (“maybe if I learn about stand-up it will make me better at doing serious talks”, etc.) I started to feel a bit like the guy in Fight Club, rocking up at everything looking for answers. But there’s something to be said for it. Just showing up in a different room of an evening is an interesting thing to do, almost regardless of what you’re supposed to be learning.

It’s OK to do things, then work out why
Of course it’s important to have goals and some kind of evaluation system, or how do you know what you’re doing is working? But – and I know this slightly contradicts what I wrote above, about goals – I’ve realised that we often don’t do things with a goal in mind yet. It’s an exploration, and the objective clarifies, the more time we spend on something. Then another objective appears on the horizon. I haven’t become a formulaic TED-type speaker, or found my own voice as a great comic performer, but then I wasn’t trying to. Before I did these courses, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. All I wanted to know was how I could get a bit better, and that’s less to do with content or technique than with believing yourself that you’re saying something worth listening to. Far easier said than done.

A communications toolkit is perennially useful
I have an odd collection of jobs and I could be asked to speak cogently before anyone from a really big range of backgrounds, at any time. I’m always trying to tool-up for almost any eventuality. It’s not about learning to say specific things for specific audiences, it’s about going right back to the communication fundamentals.


So… did it work?

I’ve always found stringing a story together really hard (unlike arguments, which I love) – and honestly, I don’t know whether my storytelling skills have improved. Maybe I’ve just given myself far more to consider before I take the mic and launch into it. But launching into it is at least less daunting now, having launched into so many new things this year, over the course of all these courses.


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