Since the very first whisperings of recession began to circulate, I’ve been hearing about a growing number of people for whom economic downturn has led not depression and worry but rather to a surprising upturn in personal creativity, resourcefulness and growth. Refusing to be beaten down by gloomy predictions, these resilient individuals are choosing to invest in the one thing they know they can trust: themselves.
American Express, which has recently carried out in-depth research on the subject, has a name for this group of people: Potentialists. Potentialists are rejecting the idea that happiness and fulfilment is based solely on financial or work-related success and are instead focusing on the more long-lasting goals of self-improvement and personal fulfilment. And they’re no small minority: the research has found that 53% of us intend to plough resources into learning new skills and knowledge in this tough economic climate.
I wanted to know who these people were, and where they went to realise their goals and dreams. Over the next few weeks I’m going to be trying stepping out of my own hectic and results-driven comfort zone to see if I can discover for myself why so many people are becoming potentialists. This journey began at iKnit London, a small knitting shop in Waterloo. My challenge: to learn a new skill – knitting – in just a couple of hours.
Potentialist Challenge no.1: learn a new skill
It may surprise readers of my craft blog to learn that this knitting class was the biggest challenge for me in the entire Potentialist experiment. I was somewhat afraid of having to admit that despite an avid interest in the subject, making things with my hands is just not something that comes naturally to me. I’m very much not a ‘hobbies’ person; never leaving myself time to engage my brain in the short slots between work assignments — and one too many bad experiences with unsympathetic and inpatient knitting teachers had left me considerably reluctant to try again…
But try I did, under the very patient tuition of I Knit’s Gerard Allt. At first, my fears were only confirmed as I fumbled and struggled to perform the most basic of knitting manoeuvres, convinced that my fellow learners (all male – not significant here but it raised my competitive heckles at the time) were picking it up far quicker than I was. ‘Here we go again’, I thought, before starting my usual spiel about how I have no hand-eye coordination and am probably missing a gene somewhere that means I’ll never be able to master knitting.
But even as I said these things I knew that this was not the case: the truth is that like many work-obsessed adrenaline addicts I have no patience whatsoever and an attention span so short I often find it hard to complete sentences. Far from being a clumsy worker I was great at art in my schooldays, and have only let creative pursuits fall by the wayside as money-making concerns have taken their place.
So taking inspiration from the amazing garments and other knitted bits and bobs in the I Knit shop (and helped more than a little by my competitive spirit) I forced myself to focus on the task as hard as I could and eventually found that I was getting into a rhythm. After a few false starts that included a snapped needle, I soon had to admit that not only was I getting it, my work was coming out incredibly neatly. I did have the knitting gene after all!
Seeing this change in myself was almost like watching the effect of the recession in microcosm: here I was being forced to slow down, to focus my attention on one thing at a time and to banish my worries about how long it was taking to ‘get it right’ and what else I should be doing. Instead, I was benefiting from the calming and therapeutic aspects of this gently repetitive craft, my mind free of all concerns other than not dropping my next stitch. I wasn’t in any hurry to make up the baby booties pattern that Gerard had optimistically chosen for us, but neither were any of the other beginners, all of whom seemed as happy as I was to have got the hang of basic knitting.
In a fast-paced world of goals-driven behaviour and working practices that intrude on every part of life, sitting down and making things the old-fashioned way just isn’t on the agenda. But my experience at iknit taught me a lot about why so many people are picking up new hobbies and skills. Either through necessity or choice, people are adopting a slower and more relaxed pace of life and this grants them the focus and dedication needed for learning. The shift could come about through redundancy or decreased working hours, but equally I think that people are tired of the throwaway consumer culture that’s built up around us in recent years, and want to devote their time to enriching their lives in ways that will stay with them forever.
I feel far more confident about learning new skills already and can’t wait to share the next challenge with you!