I get my piece of clay that I have prepared in advance to remove the extra moisture and I slap it down on the wheel, I slap it down on the wheel because it needs force, it needs determination for me centre it.
I’m starting the wheel, the wheel is going fast and as I attempt to get some kind control over this clay I rise it up, and I bring it down. And I know I’m centred when it has stopped wobbling, and that, I have learned, is the time to stop trying.
I slow my wheel down, I put my thumb inside the clay and I start to pull it out to create a base for a bowl. I am pretty focussed now, I’m in the zone, mostly… and I gradually start to pull up the sides, three times, no more I’ve learned, three times is it.
I shape my bowl and all going well, it will be a bowl! It’s not always a bowl. Sometimes I stop my wheel and I accept that the wobbly bit of clay on my wheel, or the bit of clay that has landed off in the corner is going to go into the next bowl.
This is what I shared in a speech delivered at Wye Knot Speakers Club in Chepstow recently…
If you had asked me a number of years ago would I be standing
here at a Toastmasters meeting talking about how to put anything onto a potters
wheel I would have laughed. I was way too busy with work. I do change consulting and coaching – sounds
all very high faluting, it really involves dealing with chaos and stopping
And a few years ago I was doing lots of “leadershipey” stuff
in Toastmasters and that pretty much took up all my time. And when all the
“leadershipey” stuff was done I felt the need to do something and I decided to
do a PhD, which again sounds very high faluting, but I picked the best one,
because my PhD involves me playing with clay.
It involves me storytelling, it involves me doing the kind of art that I
stopped doing when I was eleven as soon as I was allowed to stop. It’s coo, because in order for me to
understand what happening in the organisation where I’m trying to deliver
change, I need to work out what is going on in my subconscious mind, I need
sideways views and metaphors and alternative ways of exploring what’s going on
in my mind… And so I came to do pottery,
I did a course at the beginning of the year.
I thought I’ll do a bit of pottery, I’ll learn some stuff and I’ll move
on, but I was totally captivated by this thing.
And what I would like to share with you are some lessons on change that
I have learned at the potters wheel.
The first thing is centring
– it is a bit like when you start a change.
You have to set your intention.
You don’t necessarily know how it’s going to go or how it’s going to be
but you need intention, you need to know what it is that you want to happen, in
some way, here. Even though you may
adapt. So, centring I’ve learned is key,
and it’s really made me think about how I start off change, being the kind of
impulsive “Artemis” like girl who likes to climb up buildings that don’t have
The second thing that I have discovered is the power of attention. If I don’t pay attention at that wheel then that clay falls apart or the top comes off. So a complete focus, complete absorption, what’s going on in my change, who is doing what, how are they doing it, how can I nudge, how can I help, no false moves, no sudden moves, calm, focused, attention.
The third thing I have come to learn is that the perfectionist’s approach isn’t going to be your friend. Because if you have a meltdown every time your bowl has a meltdown, then frankly you’re going to be a bit wet. Because it just doesn’t work every time, and if you can come at this, not with an attitude of performance, but an attitude of what is my process here, what am I doing that is different from the last time, how can I adapt it, how can I make it just a little bit taller, a little bit wider, a little bit thinner, a little bit “whatever-er” might be better this time, then gradually, over time, change after change, something great might happen. And the next time, it may fail again, and that’s OK because you’re constantly learning, and even in a very short time, learning to be philosophical about being a beginner about producing something that looks a little bit like this masterpiece (I held up a bowl that was anything but a masterpiece**). It has undulating sides when surely it was not intended, it’s somewhat lopsided and what they call the feet is not quite the circle I meant. None the less, it is a bowl that is the mother of other bowls that are soon to come.
So, I never thought I would never be telling about lessons from any kind of potter’s wheel, never thought I would be informed as much as I have been about change after a career of many years doing change, but I have found so much power and flow and fun in the act of slapping down a bit of clay, centring, focusing on it, sometimes making mistakes and sometimes, you know what, it just works…
* The reference to Athena came from an impromptu speech I gave
earlier in the evening. I was asked to
describe how I matched the archetype of the adventurous Greek goddess Artemis
and told stories from my childhood of running off on beaches, going down hills
hands free on my bike and climbing up walls and the rafters of half built
** The club liked my unmasterful bowl so much that they
asked to keep it as their receptacle for when people vote for their favourite
speaker or evaluator on the night. A
kind of metaphor for the development that happens in a Toastmasters speech too.
Jean is a change and communications specialist, helping organisations create a culture of change.
She delivers culture, business and technology transformation programmes and leads teams through interim management.
She provides troubleshooting, advisory and strategy development services.
She works with organisations to get their leadership aligned and their people engaged in delivering their vision together.