How Peter Mandeno creates space through structure and flow
Happyplaces stories (video)
Peter is on a mission to create a better-connected world through a combination of research, writing, design and consulting. Real, meaningful, human connections. In 2017, he started a PhD in Design Engineering at Imperial College London. The focus of his research is human connectivity. He is developing a set of design principles that help the designers of services, experiences, products, and systems to achieve better human connectivity outcomes. Serendipity also forms a part of this subject, and that is how we met. Together with Kitty Leering, we organised a Chamber of Beautiful Business in Amsterdam, as a branch from the House of Beautiful Business, to further explore and investigate this subject of serendipity titled ‘The Art of the Unsought Discovery’ on how to find what you didn’t know you were looking for. Because as we race through our fast-paced lives all the time sharpening our focus to create the beautiful change we are looking for in ourselves, our ventures and the world, we are losing sight of the equally beautiful opportunities lurking in our peripheries. And rather than leaving such opportunities to chance, how might we create the space required to let these opportunities in? Or how might we derail predictability and instead engineer for serendipity? Together with 25 others, we went on a quest to together discover different ways and opportunities.
I decided to pick up Peter from the airport, so we could already share some time together before the event to get to know each other slightly better. But finding each other at the airport turned into something more like a fox hunt. Schiphol airport is undergoing massive construction, and because of that, I was not allowed to get near to the pick-up spaces. So I decided to park the car, and then meet him in the main hall. But due to the start of the holiday season, it took me a long time to finally find a spot. Meanwhile, I had a live status update with Peter, learning where he was in the process. When I had finally parked, in the most faraway place, I walked his way. Was the idea. Apparently, our paths crossed, so when I was at his last location, he was already near the parking. Long story short: my valet-service or Uber-diamond service horribly gone wrong. Or perfectly right, because at the same time it was an enjoyable way to meet.
In the car, Peter shared how he was born and grew up in beautifully sunny Northland, New Zealand. That he obtained undergraduate degrees in psychology and business strategy before departing on what has been a 20-year journey across the globe. That Peter worked in the travel industry in Minneapolis and Copenhagen for 2.5 years, traveled the Middle East and Europe on a shoestring budget for six months and talked his way into a graphic design job in London where Peter worked for two years before moving to Amsterdam to set up the Dutch office of the design agency Peter worked for. He fell in love with Amsterdam and stayed there for 8+ years, learning Dutch in the process and building boutique agencies focused on strategy, innovation, and storytelling.
How he in 2010, moved to New York, seeking a new (ad)venture. Realising the world was conspiring to connect him with people just like him — ‘Hey, you’re from New Zealand, come and meet these other New Zealanders…’ — he designed a social experience (Wok+Wine) that effectively created the conditions for serendipity (finding the people he didn’t know he was looking for). The concept took him around the world, connecting thousands of people in the process and eventually being featured in Harvard Business Review. This awoke a passion for helping people to find and form connections to others that would open doors to new opportunities, ideas, and experiences.
By the time we arrived at the NewWerkTheater in Amsterdam, we were finishing our mutual introduction while I was trying to park the car. All this took far longer as expected, and that also made it more fun. Peter repeatedly said that he still needed to do some work, and I think I did a terrific job in sabotaging him to prevent him from being able to do so.
Thanks Peter! :)
When I was first thinking about the topic, the first idea that jumped into my mind was maybe connected to what we were talking about over lunch, about this idea of negative space. Not the thing you are looking for, but the opposite of that. Or the thing that frames of makes the other possible. For me, that was really about the PhD. I have been thinking a lot about this idea of human connectivity for years. I have been working on projects that explore the domain or realm of human connectivity. Whether it was making myself think I was too busy to act on these ideas or the fact that I was simply was too busy through having kids and the other interesting adventures that life throws at us, I was never really creating the space to do the thinking, reading and writing that I wanted to do. When this opportunity came up to do the PhD, I thought at a very macro level that was the ultimate opportunity to create the space. I wasn’t thinking about space in term of a place I go to or space in terms of time, but I was thinking about space in terms of giving myself both the permission and the framework or structure in which I wanted to get done the things I had been thinking about doing for years and years.
Whether it was making myself think I was too busy to act on these ideas or the fact that I was simply was too busy through having kids and the other interesting adventures that life throws at us, I was never really creating the space to do the thinking, reading and writing that I wanted to do.
Defined space, set boundaries
The PhD is really allowing me to do that, it creates a four-year-long space. It is set in time, so I know I’m working towards a deadline, which is another thing that works really well for me in terms of getting stuff done. There is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel, something that I’m aiming for although the subject matter itself is really only starting to take shape, it’s a somewhat defined space in terms of the time I have to explore.
I’m thinking about how that works for me. The PhD is an exciting process. My supervisor described it early on as walking into a dense fog. You kind of have an idea that you are going in the right direction, but part of the process is to become uncomfortable with this degree of ambiguity. I’m not doing a directed PhD where for example a senior academic has received a massive research grant and built an army of researchers, each to figure out a piece of the problem. I went into my PhD with a bunch of questions of my own, and the work that I do is quite foundational. And although there is a lot of work been done in adjacent areas of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, sociology or psychology, this idea of really understanding human connectivity that I’m trying to understand is relatively new. And therefore, there isn’t an existing framework to follow.
I’m conscious now that I’m rambling a bit, which is something I also have a habit of doing.
On the one hand, there is this idea of not necessarily finding space but creating space, setting boundaries that give you a sense of both direction and security that you can do whatever you like within those boundaries. When I was thinking about this concept of space, there is another area that is almost the opposite of that is where there is no dimension of time and so to speak is this thing that is often described as being in a state of flow. For me, that is woodturning. Since I was a little kid, I have always very much enjoyed and been pretty good at making stuff. My grandfather had a woodworking shop in his basement and made a lot of his own tools. But the centrepiece was his lathe, so I did a lot of woodturning with him. On school holidays, which was generally only once a year, not long enough. But I did it at school as well. In New Zealand we have this, when you’re ten or eleven, you do a bunch of different subjects that are very practical like woodworking, and you just couldn’t get me out of the woodworking shop.
On the one hand, there is this idea of not necessarily finding space but creating space, setting boundaries that give you a sense of both direction and security that you can do whatever you like within those boundaries. When I was thinking about this concept of space, there is another area that is almost the opposite of that is where there is no dimension of time and so to speak is this thing that is often described as being in a state of flow.
Two or three years ago, when I was back in New Zealand visiting my family, I live in London now, I had an opportunity to work with a wood artist called Graeme Priddle who is one of New Zealand’s top wood artists. He grew up in the same town where I grew up. And every now and then when he is back in New Zealand, he runs these summer schools. I was fortunate to be back there at the same time when he was and took his class, which is a one-week woodworking class. I was, while low in my forties, by far the youngest guy in the class, it was all guys. And most of the others, they were probably pushing late sixties and seventies seem to be there more for the conversation over tea and being able to get away from their wives, I guess. To get out of their house for a week. But I just didn’t want to stop.
For me was the best or the closest experience to the purest form of flow that I can ever remember. It is not that time stood still, the concept of time completely disappeared.
Once I got on the lathe, I would work right trough, and as a result of that, I quite quickly formed a close friendship with Graeme and his partner Mel. After the course finished, I was halfway through in making my seventh bowl or whatever it was. And it was still on his lathe. And he said: ‘Look, I’m working on some other pieces in my studio next week. And my lathe is going to be standing idle. So if you want to come and hang out for a week with me, why don’t you do that.’ That let me into his studio, and we hung out. He was working on his other stuff, a big installation for a client in the States. He let me work on his lathe, and he was throwing tips and suggestions my way whenever I got stuck. At the end of that week, he and Mel had to fly out to the US and go to install this piece of work. By then, the relationship had grown to a deeper degree. He said: ‘Look, there is no one going to be here, what if I just give you the keys? Then you can come and hang out here for a few weeks, for the rest of your time in New Zealand. You would be doing me a favour because you will be looking after the studio and you can have free use of the lathe.’ That for me was the best or the closest experience to the purest form of flow that I can ever remember. It is not that time stood still, the concept of time completely disappeared. I would go into the studio, take out a rough piece of wood, attach it to the lathe and I would have no idea if it were still the morning or the afternoon. It was a very typical kind of New Zealand ironclad shed-type structure. The only real indication I had was the sweat that was running down on the inside of my goggles, So I could tell it was probably in the heat of the afternoon.
Comparing the two examples that I have been talking about, one is this idea of the PhD where you need to create, you have this thing that needs to get done. There you need to not so much a safe space, but a sense of structure with a clearly defined output that I can get on and do the work. Where with the woodturning and working in Graeme’s studio, it was precisely the opposite. And both of them are two versions of me that are two very strong parts of my character. One one hand being lost in the creativity and on the other hand working in this structure. I guess binding both of them is a sense of perfectionism. With the PhD, it can get me into trouble because I want to take on too much and solve all of the world’s connectivity challenges. With the woodturning, the interesting thing about that which I never really thought about in this sense is that you essentially start with an object, a solid piece of wood and you’re slowly taking things away. You could I guess come to the point where there is nothing left. It makes you make interesting decisions about at what point you stop. Because you can’t put the wood back on once you have taken it of spinning around at thousands of rpm’s. There the constraint is in the material opposed to the time. Yet in terms of going into a project like that without any real idea of what the result is going to be is liberating.
Kids as mentors
The third thing that I have been thinking of when I was thinking of space is… I have young kids, and I think that they are great mentors and tutors in the concept of time, thinking about the time component of space. For one of my daughters, anything that happened in the past is yesterday, anything that is going to happen in the future is tomorrow. She only has today, yesterday and tomorrow. Those are her only gauges of time. Quite often when I’m thinking about something that she says like tomorrow this will happen or ‘yesterday that happened’, my immediate response is: ‘No it didn’t.’ Or: ‘It won’t.’ Because I know that that thing is happening in three weeks, or in a month. It is quite impressive when you think about what happens when you define time like that. I guess this is how kids think, they very much live in the moment.
To really connect with kids requires letting go of a lot of things that give us this fake sense of busyness, and to try and relate to them at that sense of immediacy and the importance of that moment and that moment alone. Kids are a great way of helping you to create space simply by the fact that ignoring them or not giving them their full attention is not an option.
Both of my daughters are into dolls. And if you give one of them the wrong hairstyle because she can’t figure it out herself, it is like the world’s biggest catastrophe. Then anything like Trump or Brexit doesn’t matter. But for a kid, the thing that they’re dealing with at that moment is the most crucial thing in the world. And it is the only thing to them. To really connect with kids requires letting go of a lot of things that give us this fake sense of busyness, and to try and relate to them at that sense of immediacy and the importance of that moment and that moment alone. Kids are a great way of helping you to create space simply by the fact that ignoring them or not giving them their full attention is not an option.
The way we think about space, conceptualise space and give it a sense of dimension or make it something measurable, that doesn’t exist for kids.
Coming back to what I was talking about in the beginning, this difference between positive and negative space and generally where we are living our lives in the positive, where we think we’re’ in control of. And we think of space of being all of the other. I think often space is used synonymously with time. I have been raving about that quite a lot. This idea that ‘I don’t have the time’ what a lot of people are saying, and I’m sure I’m guilty of this as well instead of saying ‘I don’t have the space for that’, what could be mental capacity, it could be the time itself, or another kind of resource. But when you talk to a small child who doesn’t think in those ways, where the past was yesterday, anything in the future is tomorrow and right now only matters, this doesn’t matter. The way we think about space, conceptualise space and give it a sense of dimension or make it something measurable, that doesn’t exist for kids.