The Creative Troublemaker

Adrian Instone Sherburn Village 1980 Durham

The culprit, me aged 10, in late December 1980. Yes, it was a white Christmas that year in Durham.

I was always getting into trouble at school. I didn’t mean to, it wasn’t deliberate. I wasn’t always aware I was doing it. I just wanted to try things out and always got punished for doing so.

Here’s an example. It’s January 1981 and we’re all in assembly at Sherburn Village Infants and Juniors School near Durham in the North-East of England. If it’s your birthday you’re allowed to choose a hymn in assembly. Since my birthday is during the Christmas holidays I never get a chance to choose. If I had I might have chosen one of our favourites, To Be a Pilgrim because it has the line, ‘follow the master’ in it. Since the Master was an evil time lord in Doctor Who me and my friends belt out the amended lyric ‘Follow the Doctor’.

But for some some reason, just after my 9th birthday, they’ve given me a chance to choose a hymn.

“Adrian Instone will chose the next hymn.” says Mrs Lamb.

We’d already done To Be A Pilgrim and Lord of the Dance which would have been my second choice as it has the great bit about it being hard to dance with the devil on your back. A great image that. So I quickly come up with another idea.

“Number seventy-three miss.” I say loud and clear from the centre of the throng.

“Right children, number seventy-three says Mrs Lamb, deputy head.

Fat Mrs Middlemas on the piano flicks through the book. There was a rustling of hymn books. Mrs Middlemas indicated for Mrs Lamb to come over, then with a cross expression on her face, Mrs Lamb walks back to the centre of the front of the hall and looks me in the eyes.

“There are only seventy-two hymns in the book.” she says.

“I know miss” I say.

“You mean to say that you deliberately deceived us?” she barks.

The assembly of kids starts to snigger. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

“Yes miss” I say, without irony or facetiousness.

“How-dare-you. This-is-a-serious-religious-service” she says, staccato, like a Dalek. “Why would you do such a thing?”

“Thought it would be a laff miss” I say.

The next thing I know is that I’m being dragged by the scruff of my shoulder from the crowd, out of the hall and locked in a cupboard room for the rest of the day. I sat there, thinking, mainly about Blake’s 7 that was due to be on that night, wondering if Blake was going to come back and re-join the crew of the Liberator…

So, was I being naughty? Possibly. But wasn’t it just harmless fun? Wasn’t I just testing the boundaries a little bit? Would it have really hurt for the teachers to say, “Nice one, very funny, you had us there, now let’s have Onward Christian Soldiers

How do you react when a maverick in your organisation or team bends the rules or tests the boundaries? How do you react when your child behaves in unexpected ways? Here’s another example.

It’s late autumn 1981. The playground is covered in leaves. The three large oaks are stripped down to their bare branches as if to brace themselves against the forthcoming winter, rolling up their sleeves, ready to sit and fight it out. Some younger kids are laughing and running and kicking the unwanted leaves up. It gives me an idea. I quickly organise a bunch of younger kids to collect all the leaves together into piles. If the trees don’t want them, we don’t want them. I get my troupe to grab handfuls and throw them over the school railings onto the pavement beyond. There’s a flurry of leaves as the wind catches our autumnal plumes and whisks them into the air. In about five minutes we have the area clear. A teacher spots us and shouts from across the playground. It’s clear I’m the foreman of the operation. Instead of the praise for my enterprise that I expected, I’m grabbed by the arm and marched inside and positioned outside Mr Jackson’s office. The headmaster. I’m told that the cane was a certainty for such grave a crime as throwing stones at cars. My protest as the misunderstanding is ignored and I’m left there in at one end of the silent corridor waiting for the inevitable judgement.

As I stand there I notice the bell buzzer on the wall. It’s the button the teachers press to sound the bell ringing that calls us all from work to play and from play to work. As I look at it I wonder how much pressure would be needed for it to make contact, complete the circuit and sound the bell. A voice in my head says ‘press it and see’. There’s about fifteen minutes of lunchtime left to run. I lean back on the wall and accidentally on purpose lean onto the school bell button. Continuous loud bells ring out. People start rushing around like bees, spurred automatically into action as lunchtime is brought to a premature end. Mr Jackson comes out of his office. A get a warm whiff of decades old slate tobacco air.

“What are you doing here?” he looks at his watch and then the bell push. Pushing the button again, the ringing stops, “Well?”

“Mrs Lamb said I was throwing stones at cars but I wasn’t, I was just clearing the leaves from the playground.” I say. I get the feeling that he’d laugh at this and the bell incident if he didn’t have something else more important on his mind. He ushers me into the empty classroom opposite without bothering to turn the lights on.

“You mustn’t throw stones at cars.” he says almost absent mindedly, “Write that out ten thousand times, ‘I must not throw stones at cars’”. With that, he returns to his office. I pick up a pencil and some paper and write out ten thousand times, ‘I did not throw stones at cars’.

At this point in my life I hadn’t yet learned to ‘play it safe’ when it came to experimentation within the structure of school. A few more incidents like this (there were plenty more) and I started to keep my head down and do things to please just like everyone else.

In business (and in family life) we’re often too busy to spend time to figure out why people do what they do and reward or punish on the result. We applaud success (even if success was arrived at with no skill or effort) and we despise failure (even when failure is often a brave step in a new direction). This is an arbitrary way to behave that reduces experimentation and creativity that can lead to better ways of doing things. It’s an especially mean way to behave towards children who only learn that ‘failure is bad’ from us and then stop trying.

Keep an open mind with mavericks. They could be experimenting in ways others never could. With a child, disruptive behavior is the tip of an unknown iceberg that could be a bigger problem potential talent trying to get through. In business, the green light for innovation and the chance to try and fail could be just what you need to open your organisation to new opportunities you couldn’t have guess existed.

If you liked this theme of childhood and school memories you may like:

I own the only surviving copy of time

My headmaster still owes me £50

Why do we remember what we remember?

Everyone remembers a good teacher

Where does our ‘right and wrong’ come from?

Don’t Talk to Strangers

The End of a Friendship

The Thinking Cap Experiment(This is an adapted extract from my forthcoming book, ‘The Thinking Cap Experiment’)

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France 1982

There he is, just on the edge of the photo

Can you can admire and hate someone at the same time? Such was the case with Foxy.

I was 11 and it was my first trip abroad, a school trip to France. We set off on a coach from our school, Belmont in Durham at a quarter-to-early o’clock in the morning and headed south. Somewhere in the Midlands we stopped at a public school to pick up some older kids, presumably to share the cost of the visit. They were older than us, probably even as old as 14. One of them was a ginger curly-haired boy called Foxy.

The coach got onto the ferry at Dover. I felt queasy so couldn’t eat any breakfast. We were back on the coach in France and my travel sickness continued, fueled by the potent smell of teenage cigarettes that fumigated the coach. We stopped at some service station for lunch, but I couldn’t eat anything. Not even a salad, each of which was accompanied by a large green slug. Later we learnt it was a gherkin. We didn’t have gherkins in the North-East.

We drove on to Paris and spent a few days there in a guest house, then onto Orleans where we stayed in small chalets. Me, Richard, Steven and Ian stuck together and enjoyed our adventure. We didn’t see the older boys and girls much. We didn’t buy fireworks and throw them around or get drunk or smoke. We did drink too much hot chocolate at breakfast though.

But occasionally I’d notice Foxy. He was just a little bit cool, a little bit self-reliant and a little bit confident. He didn’t care about peer pressure or the official tours.

On the coach journey back he’d acquired a girlfriend and with his arm nonchalantly draped around her, rested his head on her chest as he defaced the white cotton head rest cover in front with her pink nail varnish. In big sparkly pink letters he wrote the word, ‘Foxy’ and underlined it.

Can you can admire and hate someone at the same time? Defacing the coach paraphernalia riled with my sense of fair play. But the guts, or arrogance to not care about what other people think and do it anyway was something I admired. I wanted to be Foxy, put my feet up on the coach seats, get the girl.

I don’t know what happened to Foxy after that. Maybe he went from strength to strength. Maybe he’s out there now, driving around in a convertible Bentley, head of investments at a large hedge fund. Maybe he’s a successful raconteur, a mover and shaker in the film business, now living in LA. Or maybe he peaked age 14 and it was downhill from there. Maybe now he’s fat and old, been made redundant from the local car dealer, just divorced from his third wife, paying what money he can to the children he had with the first.  Or maybe he’s the same old Foxy, a free spirt, no-one can tie him down, always on the go.

That was the first time I recognised self confidence in action. I knew it was something I wanted. It took me another ten years before I could claim it for myself.

When did you claim yours?

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Crossing a bridge into the past

I spoke in Durham recently at an Academy of Chief Executives event. It was quite an emotional experience in a way. I grew up in Durham, leaving there to come down south when I was thirteen. I never knew Durham as a teenager or adult so perhaps the romance of childhood clings to the place, especially as I’ve only been back a couple of times in between and then only really passing through. Now I was ‘working’ there – being paid to deliver my creativity workshop.

The place feels like home, and perhaps not just because of my own history, but of the history of the place; the quietness and calmness. Rarely do you get such lush green around a river in the centre of a city as you do in Durham. It has nearly two thousand years of very well documented history and stands grounded as a remote spiritual and intellectual island dominated by the Cathedral, surrounded by higgledy-piggledy old buildings, most defined now as World Heritage. Apart from the art deco cinema where I saw all three Star Wars films being boarded up, along with Woolworths, little seemed to have changed since the 1970s. Little seemed to have changed since the 1870s.

Durham is a tiny city (the UK’s smallest) and you can walk the length and breadth of the centre in a few minutes. In a way it’s a metaphor for me of childhood. A time that seems so very long when it’s all you have. Those formative years loom so large in making us who we are and yet it’s only 12 years. We have a working memory of only around 7 of those years, just 7 magical Christmases (if we were lucky). Many of us spend the rest of out lives trying to re-enter the Eden of those 7 years – or sometimes sadly to try to escape it.

So there I was, effectively walking through the past, my past, or so it felt. I believe it’s good to re-connect to that earlier self of ours. To remember what it was like to be you in that creative, hopeful, imaginative prime. But at the same time to realise that you can’t go back to stay, that things have changed and moved on. But joining up your past in important. It made you what you are and your memory of events and emotions form the resources that you draw upon to generate your creativity today.

What would you say to that child if you met them on that bridge? What would they think of you now?

When I was 19 I wrote and recorded a song about this feeling. You can listen to it here. Flowers and Bridges

Flowers and Bridges
by Ayd Instone ©1990

Hello, again my friend, where have you been?
It seems so long ago since we met in a dream

I was only waiting for the sunset to arrive
And then I’m home amongst the hills and sky
And earth beneath my feet and I’m home
Was only waiting for the sunset in you eyes
Then I’m home amongst the flowers and bridges
Where we used to meet.

You’ve changed, I had envisaged that.
But you’ve still got that smile
It’s nearly morning, so I can’t stay long
See you again in a little while

I was only waiting on the platform for a train
With a ticket that will take me there
And bring me back again
I was only waiting with the flowers in my hand
Upon the bridge across the worlds
And into another land.

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