Back in 2013 I took a risk (which at the time sadly felt a bit out of character). An old colleague of mine had told me about a new project he was funding that aimed to crowd-source designers, thinkers and creative types to bring their expertise to bear on challenges faced by charities and social enterprises. Hackathons basically; though I wasn’t that au fait with this scene back then.
The project was, and still is, Good for Nothing. I’ve always liked the idea of doing my job as a hobby, and clearly lots of other people do too. I thought I’d pop down to a “gig” they were orchestrating in Lambeth in collaboration with the local authority down there to see what it was all about and primarily see if this was something that’d be worth doing in Camden. So I joined a diverse group of officers, residents, designers, thinkers and doers in a rather ramshackle room in North Lambeth to tackle three challenges (this later developed in to the Made in Lambeth brand). And at first, I hated it. You’d think being surrounded by enthusiastic innovative individuals, accompanied by beer and pizza would be my idea of heaven, however I quickly found myself isolated and neurotic. With no discernible unique skill, talent or experience to bring to the table (my local government background drowned out by all the Lambeth Council officers), I quickly felt redundant (this blogpost gives some interesting insights on how redundancy is good for systems but bad for people within systems), a passive observer with no real purpose.
And it made me feel alone.
So I decided to do something about, it. The Good for Nothing mantra is “go where you can be useful” and with that in mind I came back the next day determined to be useful. If my expertise was redundant, what other strengths could I bring? Well it turns out I can skip dive, I can make rudimentary signs, I can stand out in the middle of the street and ask complete strangers random questions (through a nervous flop sweat I might add). For an event where I expected to use my established skills, I ended up unlocking strengths I didn’t know I had. I think this added to my resilience and made me appreciate the importance of diversity of roles both within a system and personally. Had I not thought about myself differently, I would either have had a miserable time, or just not stayed for the rest of the hack. I came away thinking that I’d like to give this sort of thing another go. However, I didn’t go to the pub afterwards, and nor did a few of the people I got on with during the session…
Why does this still bug me? I’ve been to three Good for Nothing gigs (and a couple of socials) now and I’ve got better at adapting and understanding what strengths I can and should be drawing upon to add to the collective and ultimately do some good for the organisations we’re trying to help. But I couldn’t say I felt part of a Good for Nothing community. Another mantra the GfN guys profess is about there being no rules, and very little structure – you do what you want, when you want; just be useful and whatever magic happens will be completely unexpected. This is pretty exciting and the results are more often than not amazing in what short time we have. What I would say though is that at the gigs I’ve been to, quite a few people I speak to on the briefing evening are not there for the presentations at the end.
This is understandable – it is a tough experience. It highlights for me that many people who attend these things are from disparate backgrounds. We require some relationship brokering that “bridges” this divide and the act of doing good is not a sufficient bonding agent. Without this, I believe that some attendees’ resilience fails quite quickly and they decide to do something else. On reflection this has caught me off guard. Initially I would have touted Good for Nothing as a great example of fostering community resilience because it brings people together to unlock community capacity to help others. But the more I think about it, because it lacks a strong relationship building characteristic (even the socials in my opinion), it’s actually a stronger influencer of individual resilience by asking people to develop their own networking skills as well as draw upon alternative strengths in order to be a success.
I remain a big fan of Good for Nothing, and I’d highly recommend people try it out if they can, but I’d go with eyes wide open. If you’re a strong resilient sort of person you will thrive. If you’re not – well let’s just say it could go either way… Really interested in the thoughts of anyone who has been to one and whether they agree or disagree (I’d expect a bit of disagreement!)