An Accidental Entrepreneur

Something I’ve never forgotten was an interview with the incredibly prolific author Alexander McCall Smith. The interview rattled off a list of things McCall Smith had done in the recent past and asked him how he managed to do all that. His answer was simple: “I don’t let myself think about it.”

Go back another decade or so and I read an article online by Hank Pfeffer that changed my life. It was called Danger: High Voltage and described living with what Pfeffer calls the “too many aptitudes,” which not only means you find it relatively easy to be reasonably good at lots of different things, but you find lots and lots of things really interesting – which is a really dangerous combination because the world is set up for people who focus, and become really good at one thing. 

When I first read the article I finally felt like I had found someone who understood why I had been – a junior international bridge player, a hammer and discus thrower on my university athletics team, a journalist, an essayist, a slam-winning performance poet, a thriller writer, a world championship medallist at several abstract mind sports, featured in Woman’s Own for being an extreme traveller, a mental health activist who has spoken in parliament and at countless conferences, a trusted source of advice for leading flooring manufacturers, and countless other things that were just hobbies – and yet as far as a “career” was concerned remained a junior administrator. I never stayed on the same road long enough to get anywhere, because there was always a turning to somewhere more interesting.

It was, of course, great to feel understood. But not all that helpful. Then I watched a TED video of Emilie Wapnick saying pretty much exactly the same thing. She used the word multipotentialite to describe this butterfly-like existence. And she seemed to be suggesting it was a really good thing. The world needed multipotentialites, she said. 
I agree. It does. Trying to persuade the world of that is another matter, mind you. Especially when it comes to actually paying us.

But then, in the summer of 2016, I went back to one of my old stomping grounds, the Creative Thinking World Championships. And I won.

And I started to think seriously about what creativity really is. And I realised that it was precisely this intellectual, physical, and cultural inability to sit still that meant I was good at forming connections – the more things you know about the more connections you can make, but also the more intensely you study them (I would obsess about something for 6 months to a year then move on) the more you learn about its structures and deep characteristics – which are the things that make forming connections much easier.

Maybe it was true after all – maybe being a butterfly really was not just something that would hold me back forever but something that could actually be useful in finding my real calling, and maybe creativity was both the way to find that calling, and the way to offer something of it to the world that the world would actually value.

Which is how Mycelium was born, a training game in which creative thinking problems are generated and players have a limited time to come up with as many original ideas as possible. I was clearly onto something, because the idea won last year’s Humanities Innovation Challenge. 

Winning that was less like receiving a trophy (it was literally less like receiving a trophy because I didn’t receive a trophy!) and more like opening a door. Or, in Oxford, I guess you would say going down a rabbit hole.

As a result I have ended up speaking to evolutionary biologists, playing games with the public after hours in the Natural History Museum, and taking part in Started in Oxford Demo Night, a delicious blend of reality show, free for all party, and getting instant feedback from highly engaged people about your product.

One of the parts of the wonderful prize for that was taking part in the incredibly useful VIEW course run by the Entrepreneurship Centre. I have never learned so much so quickly. But in one way I found myself right back at the start. I had soon realised that Mycelium could be two things, connected but very different and for very different audiences. On the one hand there was a beautifully made, fun to play together, really addictive card game. And on the other was a training programme tailored to industries who needed to get creative quick to survive disruption. And most people on the course wanted me to hurry up and choose which of the two I wanted to pursue. I tried. I vacillated. I oscillated (I may even at times have scintillated!). And when I did things just felt wrong.

And then I remembered Hank Pfeffer and Emilie Wapnick, and Alexander McCall Smith, and I realised that working a full-time day job in the University’s administration, then trying to build two businesses, and keep up with my passion as a publishing journalist, running ultramarathons, mental health campaigning, and writing and performing poetry – was not just OK. It might actually be helpful if I was in the business of creativity and connections (what they DON’T tell you about being a butterfly that’s a really great side-effect is the sheer number of fabulous and different networks of people you become part of, almost by accident). 

 

I just had to not let myself think about it. Or, to paraphrase one of my heroes, the wire walker Philippe Petit, I just have to not look down.

The start-up world is full of books and courses that will tell you how to do things. And from lean to six sigma to any given MBA they will encourage focus. But If I’ve learned one thing it’s that the key is playing to your strengths, especially if those strengths align with something people both really need and really want. And sometimes that means doing things a little less like the MBA way. A little more…creatively.


Dan Holloway is Head of Administration and Finance at the Department of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, University of Oxford. To find out more about Dan, visit his website at: https://rogueinterrobang.com
 

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