How Paul Hughes creates space by paths, patterns and the creation of knowledge

Happyplaces Story (video)

Paul was already on my list for a long time. Not specifically to film him, but for a coffee. Not living in Amsterdam, made that I have developed ways over time to keep track of people, what they do, projects they’re involved in, etc. Paul was one of them. But I simply did not have a reason to just reach out for a coffee. Then a camera, and an open question comes in handy. We met in one of his favourite ‘offices’ in Amsterdam, a hotel lobby on one of the Amsterdam canals. We should have met way earlier, as it turned out: a lot of things in common, a lot of things to share.

Paul, amongst other things, talks along ten meters of paper. When he speaks, he draws, clarifies and puts his knowledge into action. As he is a voracious reader, he takes in large quantities of knowledge to then summarise them into visual aphorisms — short, sharp shocks of knowledge which he can apply into context. No, a lot of this I didn’t yet know then, but this was carefully engraved into my brain when we recorded a short film later, explaining his work:

He is one of those people you can ask any question, to get a well-argued, well-informed answer from. Everyone needs his own Paul. So you can tackle any question, with timeless knowledge in that timely context.

‘Let’s begin with happiness. A friend of mine told me a long time ago his definition of happiness. And he said that happiness is: being in an environment where you can use your capacities and develop your capacities. So, creating happy spaces is really about finding that environment. Using capacities, developing capacities. We could be in an environment where we’re using them and yet not developing them. Or vice versa. So what I find interesting is, asking myself ‘how can I help others create that environment.’ That environment that leads to happiness.

Sweet spot

One of the things that greatly inspires me is nature. And most of my reading and inspiration comes from stories of aspects of nature. And when I look at nature, I try to look for patterns in nature. And one of the overarching patterns in nature is a concept around ecology. Ecology is about relationships between organisms and their environment. And one of the things that you realise when you start studying ecology and nature, is that everything is connected to everything. And, in a sense, it’s a very simple concept. And at the same time, it is a very complex reality. So when we operate as an individual, we’re operating in a larger context or larger ecology. And ecology works best when organisms work in a form that is about mutual aid; it’s about helping each other. And what happens when an ecology works best, something forms that scientists call sweet spot. A sweet spot is when the right dynamics between the organisms and their environment has evolved. And then you have what we would call a mature ecology. Now I would like to translate that into organisations. And ask ourselves: ‘How do we create sweets spots in organisations?’


I’ve got some principles that I have translated from nature into that. One of them being: the necessity for cooperation. Now in today’s world, we’re realising more and more that the skills we need today, have moved from being a dictator to being a facilitator. A facilitator can lead processes, work collaboratively, and engage other into those processes. And if we look into organisations, then an organisation needs to be one that is led by facilitators. This changes many of the paradigms that we worked with traditionally, over what it means to be a leader. And interesting dynamic that I feel that could come from this also are the qualities that you need therefore to be a collaborative, facilitator leader. A lot of those qualities would be what you could consider traditionally, feminine qualities.

I believe this world needs more feminine leaders. That does not necessarily mean more women leaders and I do believe we need more women as leaders, once they remain women, rather than become men than men. The feminine qualities of leadership have to do with sensitivity, empathy, cooperation. And these qualities of leadership lead towards, what I would believe, facilitating processes of change. So happiness being in an environment, using your capacities and developing your capacities. Inspiration is coming from nature, specifically ecology. The rules around ecology being very much about cooperation, mutual aid. That in a sense than changing and redefining what leadership is and how organisations are structured and defined. And therefore, what new leadership would be, and that being the feminine qualities, embracing people in a sense, as opposed to dictating becoming facilitators.


Really what I’m interested in, is processes of transformation. And I think this could be something we could explore space. And how space for me is very much also in motion. When I deal with an organisation, I make a clear distinction in what is change and what is transformation.

We change repeatedly. And we transform rarely.

Organisations regularly go through moments of change. And yet, only a few times I see them transform. The caterpillar changes in its lifetime, but it is only when it goes into that catalyst, and that catalyst becomes then the butterfly, this transformation takes place. There are some concepts which I think, are important around transformation, when we think about space. And that is, allowing people space to change. And from the right moment of change, to transform. One of the themes that come back again and again in the work that I do is this concept of a path. When we talk about success, often it might be defined as a point. When you reach that, you are successful, when you’ve done that, you are successful. Where I believe that success is really not a point, but a path. When success is a path, again it is this transformation that we’re going through, phases of change that become moments of transformation. And I like to think, that when we think about happy spaces, those spaces allow us the room, the opportunity, and the occasion to have those changes that become transformations.


There is a starting point, I suppose, behind all of this, that is good to recap. One of the stories that I begin with when I work with an organisation is about a group of traditional fishermen in the South Pacific islands. This particular village comes together once every period when they feel that the village needs to be bounded together. To reconnect and reunite. What would happen is that they all collectively are going to build a boat. Everybody in the community comes together to build that boat. So, the children are doing a particular task. The women are doing a specific task. And the men are doing a specific task. All in unity. Most interestingly, however, is that the oldest persons of the village have a particular task. That is, they need to build a fire, in the centre of the village. And then they need to keep that fire burning for the process of the shipbuilding. The whole process. And their task, the oldest persons in the village, their task is to sit by the fire and remember why they’re building the boat. So, if there is a dispute, people come back, and they will consult with them over why they’re building the boat. If they have a difficulty, and they come back, and they consult them why they’re building the boat. At the heart of every organisation, there needs to be a fire that is kept alive to help people remind, be inspired, come back and be re-centered why they’re doing what they’re doing. We could call that sacred space. We could call that a protected space. We could call that the heart of the organisation. We could call that the soul of the organisation. Whatever it is, I believe that all change and transformation will be born from that space.


Being Irish has influenced me greatly. Growing up in Ireland with a culture that has deep in its roots, storytelling. Storytelling for me has always, I suppose, been around me. And in what I do in ten meters of thinking, it comes through me these days in a sense. And more and more where I’m moving towards, is using my storytelling to help other tell their story. If we go back to ‘spaces,’ one of the spaces I try to help organisations with, is the space of conversation. A space to tell their stories. Storytelling is very simple. A story has a beginning, it has a middle, and it has an end. Once upon a time. Something happened. And they lived all happily ever after. When I think about the stories that we tell in organisations, or stories that we tell in our life, the majority of the stories that we tell are already pre-scripted. And perhaps it takes some time, particularly when I’m working with corporate leadership, it takes some occasions for me to get them to tell a story before they tell the moral of the story — the real story. And I think that’s something that you feel. So, speaking from the moral of the story is about really speaking from the heart or speaking from the soul. I suppose, in the work that I do, repeatedly, I try to bring complex scenarios down to very simple points. And often, I’m not interested in true stories. I’m interested in stories that have a truth. And what I offer, in my presentations and my interventions with individuals and organisations, is a collection os stories. A collection of points. That I offer in a particular manner. That allows them to fill in space between the points. The result being, they become the hero of their journey.


There is a big drive behind why I do what I do. Knowledge is a human right. When I say that to most people, most people will agree with it. They will say yes, yes, yes: access to knowledge is a human right. And yet I believe that access to knowledge is only one component of what it means to have knowledge as a human right. The second component, and for me more important right now, is that the creation of knowledge is a human right. There are many things in our world today that have helped with the access to knowledge. And I’m interested in what the developments are, the actions, the skills that we can help individuals within the process of the creation of knowledge as a human right. This redefines what it means to be an expert. This redefines what it means to be the doctor. This redefines who are the experts in our environment. The experts in our environment are the people who are using the knowledge, who are living the knowledge, who have been part od that knowledge. So, when I think what drives em in the work that I do, part of it has to do with this concept of access to knowledge, the creation of knowledge. I’m sharing knowledge. Access. But more importantly, whenever possible I’m giving people tools to create knowledge. When I present information, I draw as I speak. There are many reasons why I draw as I speak. Most of it is because there is a sense of revealing. Revealing content that enables the viewer and listener to form their meaning to it. And hence, create knowledge.


There is something else that I do, and that is looking for patterns. I get my inspiration from reading. I read voraciously, and I’m oldskool, I read books. And most of the books that I read are books that are 50 years or older. The books that I’m reading are books in which I search for timeless knowledge. Not timely knowledge. For example, the amazing phenomenon of Twitter today is timely, not timeless. It’s on the surface. And what’s going to happen a few years from now, is that there will be another development. Very timely. What I’m interested in, is the timeless qualities of these things. Twitter is about storytelling. It’s about communication and having a presence to express your story. That is timeless. The current content of Twitter is timely. The work that I do is often to tell timeless content to enable the listener to apply it in a timely manner. Going back to patterns. I read. And my library at home and my interests are as broad as possible. I’ve recently finished a book on the structure of cities. And just before that, I finished a book on ants. Ants and the structure of cities. There is a clear relationship here. So, the work that I’m doing in my reading and my self-development is that I look for patterns where it is sometimes evident. But where I get most of my inspiration from is, is from areas that are not obviously overlapping, and I look for patterns within them. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I draw on a wallpaper. Wallpaper is a pattern. A visual pattern. When I speak in ten meters of thinking, I draw on the back of a roll of wallpaper. The wallpaper represents a visual pattern. The work that I do is to present patterns. The reason why it is called ten meters of thinking, is because each roll of wallpaper is 10 meters long. It has a beginning, it has a middle, and it has an end.’