All You Were Doing Was Acting on Instinct, Weren’t You?
This morning I was getting ready for work with Radio 2 on in the background (ok, ok…I’ve still to figure out Shaun Keaveney on Radio 6). Chris Evans was interviewing David Walliams, discussing how his work as a children’s author took off. Chris remarked from his own story: “When people ask you about your success you look back and intellectualise it. But all you were doing was acting on instinct, weren’t you?”
Looking back and intellectualising what was merely instinct is exactly what I’m doing. At the time, in the early stages of both Vox Liminis and Hot Chocolate Trust, I was acting on instinct. No question. So often I knew something was right or wrong in my gut, and had no suitable words to explain my feelings, despite letting them drive my actions. I was particularly aware of how hard this was for those I was working alongside in the early days of Vox Liminis. ‘Trust me, I know my gut’ isn’t ideal team or partnership communication!
But behind what I’m calling ‘gut instinct’ there are multiple small bits of information and guiding principles informing that intuition, however subconscious this process might be.
Getting alongside the chariot
At the very beginning of what became Hot Chocolate Trust I wrote an essay based on the bible story of Phillip meeting the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, examining how Phillip’s approach to that encounter might inform my approach to the initial stages of my youth work in that context.
Phillip follows God’s leading to get alongside the chariot that the eunuch was sitting on (it feels really weird to write about someone’s identity based on their reproductive capability. Can’t we give him a name or something?). Phillip heard him reading aloud, and asked him if he understood the text. He started with a question. He started with what the guy was reading. The eunuch wanted someone to explain it to him, and invited Phillip up to sit with him. Phillip was invited into his space. He didn’t ask to enter or impose himself in any way.
Then they started with what the guy was already reading, and talked about Jesus from there. The eunuch subsequently initiates his own baptism – taking up agency - before Phillip gets whisked away. But rather than being bereft, the eunuch goes on his journey rejoicing.
I set about getting to know the young people who hung around in Dundee city centre with these principles at the front of my mind. I wanted to ask questions, and wait for invites in, and if and when that happened, to initiate encounters which began with the world that the other person was reading. And from what they were already experiencing, thinking about and taking in (long discussions on Linkin Park lyrics come to mind), find the commonality that we could grow in and learn through together… not into dependence, but into new things.
Sure, this is all easier said than done, and the reality always much more messy. But these principles informed my instinct.
Hot Chocolate didn’t start out with a project plan or a carefully thought through programme that we invited people to come to. It started with getting to know young people on the street and seeing what happened. It so happened that they were in bands with nowhere to practice, and really liked my suggestion that they might use the church building to rehearse in. And with no commitments to any stakeholders beyond The Steeple Church, who were very relaxed in allowing us to let it all evolve naturally, we were able to just keep taking the relationships and opportunities that presented themselves, and run with them.
This way of working has been maintained in Hot Chocolate despite it growing into an established organisation with a diverse set of funders and commitments. We have all developed it in a way that has protected the freedom of instinct at all costs. Though now it is collective instinct, and much more highly evolved.
Agility and Planning
The theologian David Smith engraved in my mind the question ‘what kind of day is it today?’ which became almost a mantra in Hot Chocolate. We can (and should) plan and prepare diligently for a piece of work, but know that when we open the door and young people come in, we have to ask ‘what kind of day is it today?’ and start from there. Again. And again.
Vox Liminis is a very different organisation to Hot Chocolate with a different starting point. From the outset I had to make it function in a way that I could earn a living. It has a national vision rather than local roots, within totally different fields of work, but I brought to it all that I’d learnt in growing community over 9.5 years at Hot Chocolate. So there were plans, and there were key partnerships and stakeholders with their own interests from initiation. But I worked hard to carve out enough space for instinct to reign.
So what did employing instinct look like in the early days of Vox Liminis? Finding the people who had similar vision and values. Quickly leaving behind those who drained energy, and running with those who brought it. Being unapologetic about the necessity of this in the early days, no matter how hard it felt. Ascertaining who to trust, and who not to trust. And in all of these interpersonal decisions, trying to make plans and find money that bought enough freedom to do what felt right, despite being acutely aware that we didn’t know ourselves what was right beyond the immediate!
For the first 18 months my understanding of who we were and what we were doing seemed to change at least once a fortnight! It surprises me 4 years on that when I look back to our company documents we haven’t deviated at all from the vision we set out with. But my/our understanding of what that might look like has evolved greatly.
Despite feeling sorely blind to the big picture ahead, and really only consciously joining the dots of the people and ideas right in front of my face, I clearly was somehow employing a values-informed instinct and a big picture vision, to work out ‘what kind of day is it today?’
Maybe that’s all that pioneering is?
Photo credit: Alice Myers
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