I’ve mentioned this in our newsletter a few times and it’s probably apparent from the topic selection; I believe that learning has a lot of commonality and overlap with curiosity and creativity. Which is probably why, even though he rarely specifically mentions learning in his writing, I always find Ian Sanders’ articles so relevant to what we look for in both our publications. He has had an interesting career and shares a lot of his thinking on Medium, discussing curiosity, storytelling, creativity, cafés, spaces and the future of work.
Patrick Tanguay— A recurring theme in your writing is curiosity, exploration, asking questions. And not only in the abstract but also by actually doing stuff, exploring not just topics but places. Why do you find this habit of inquiry important and useful?
Ian Sanders— I guess exploring comes naturally to me, it’s part of who I am. I like to follow my curiosity, whether that’s around ideas, topics or places. This habit keeps me fresh, it keeps me interested. It ensures I don’t stand still, it helps me feel I’m always moving forward, always developing and growing. Of course as a storyteller it’s my job to ask questions, to dig deep, to shine my light into unlit corners. But if I didn’t need to work for a living, I’d still continue this habit. I love being curious—meeting new people, exploring new cities, finding stories.
You gave a very personal, emotional and inspiring talk at DO Lectures. One of the phrases that stuck with me is “We teach best what we most need to learn.” Can you tell us more about that idea?
IS— Let me use my own story as an example. I realised I needed to make sense of my life, I needed to bring clarity and a narrative structure to some difficult experiences I’d been through as a young man. I found it very cathartic to shine a light on that darkness and to stand on stage at The Do Lectures and tell my real story. Being able to tell my own story has helped me become better at my job. Today I help businesses and individuals get reconnected with the essence of who they really are; their story and their purpose. I’m only good at that because I’ve been on my own journey of self-discovery.
You’ve spoken about not fitting in, being an outsider and being different, of owning “being you.” In your work you need to understand organizations, understand people, become an insider in their company or life. Does the experience or perspective of outsider help in getting inside individual and collective heads?
IS— Good question. My value is in standing on the edges. Being an outsider doesn’t necessarily help me get inside, it helps others get on their inside. By asking the right questions it helps the individual or organisation bring out and uncover what’s already there. So I don’t try and become the insider, I just look at things differently. One of my projects this year is working with the BBC, getting journalists in newsrooms fired up about storytelling. Again my value is because I’m on the edges. I don’t work inside the BBC, I’m not even a journalist. I’m opening people’s eyes to new ways of approaching their roles.
Being an outsider doesn’t necessarily help me get inside, it helps others get on their inside.
Place plays an important role in your work life and thinking. Being in the right place for inspiration, for specific work or focus. Walking around, being outside. It’s a kind of thinking perhaps more common for freelancers but you find it’s something sorely lacking within organizations, why and what should they change?
IS— You’re right. This thinking is more common for freelancers but it will become more relevant to employees in organisations too. For me, that sense of place comes from tracking my own productivity. I know that I need journeys. I need the outdoors. I need coffee shops. I can’t work anywhere. You can’t plonk me in a busy Starbucks on London’s Oxford Street and expect me to do my best work. Why wouldn’t that be exactly the same for people in organisations? It’s that employers forget how critical it is. You can’t put an executive anywhere and expect them to do their best work. It’s crazy! Place is underrated.
I see a lot of ‘About Us’ pages out there, but I don’t see many stories. If you’re not shining a light on your story, you’re missing a trick.
Storytelling is one of those words that are powerful ideas but sometimes get overused and diluted. You still believe strongly in the value of telling a story. How do you use stories in your work and why are they important?
IS— My answer is really simple. Stories are the best vehicle for communication. If you want to explain what you’ve done in your career and how you got to here, tell a story. If you want to sell your business proposition to customers, tell a story. If you want to engage your employees and get them onside during a period of organisational transition, tell a story. Some people think ‘storytelling’ is just about marketing. But it’s bigger than that. In an organisation your story can act as a lifebelt—something to get hold of when the waters get choppy. Stories humanise a business or organisation. I see a lot of ‘About Us’ pages out there, but I don’t see many stories. If you’re not shining a light on your story, you’re missing a trick.