The School of Life ten week summer term launched in early 2013 in Collingwood, Melbourne on Australia Day. Jam-packed with powerful content, (largely coming from The School of Life, UK) the program promised to provide attendees with much food for thought and practical tools on how to live a life with authenticity and meaning. From ‘fulfilling your potential’, to ‘filling a God shaped hole’, to ‘making love last’, or ‘preparing for death’, the program did not shy away from the tough questions, instead celebrating our shared human need to engage with them.
But I’m not here to talk about what happened inside the classes (although for all intents and purposes the feedback has been great!) – I want to share what happened outside.
The space outside the classroom comprised of the Readings pop-up bookshop, the Dumbo Feather Conversation café, and a garden space filled with colourful tables, arrangements of succulents and a wall of repurposed red milk crates.
I spent one weekend managing the space and, in addition to welcoming attendees to the class and serving coffee, I found myself in a number of conversations. Now for me, this is not unusual. I am a chatty person who loves nothing more than a great conversation, but, I have to say, these conversations were different. These conversations were notably deeper, more confronting, more fulfilling and more fun than usual. With complete strangers, I found myself discussing all manner of subjects: lost love and new love, the obligation to imprint your knowledge and opinions on your children, the power of culture in shaping identity and finally, the impact of childhood on development. During these conversations I laughed and I cried and, I kid you not, this was all in a 48-hour period.
After this marathon of incredible discussions, I thought hard about what it was that had allowed these conversations with relative strangers to occur. What was different in these interactions? How was I different? How does one create a space for conversation?
This is what I came up with:
The power of context
On reflection, the context was right. With Conversation Menus on the tables, provocative workshops taking place next door and a bookshop filled with the writings of thought leaders, is it any wonder that these types of conversations took place? The fact that the wall was filled with H-artefacts of lost love – painfully documenting break ups – meant that a whispered conversation about my own heartbreak seemed fitting. There is no doubt that it is harder to engage in such discussions in the line for coffee in the morning, in the elevator on your way to work, or in the doctor’s waiting room.
Context plays a major part: the physical space is important.