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The Art of Brilliance Blog

Welcome to our random musings. If Carlsberg could write blogs...


In the same way that Bono suggested ‘Sunday B***** Sunday’ was not a protest song, this is not an anti-school blog.

Schools are judged on results, right? League tables have upped the ante to the point where SATs and/or GCSEs are soooo important that teachers are whipping extra effort out of each child in the quest to attain their maximum grade. Because when we crawl (exhaustedly) over July’s finishing line, the child will be able to wave that piece of paper in their hand. ‘A *, whoo-hoo, get in. Let’s celebrate and be happy!’

Controversial, I know, but what if that’s pretty much exactly the wrong strategy?

I’m not arguing against the ‘working incredibly hard’ bit. That’s a given. But cramming every after school and lunchtime with extra revision is tough for the kids and teachers. Thinking aloud, what if there was a better way?

Rewind to when your kids were born. You held your child for the first time and came over all emotional. What was your greatest wish for your child? Was it, ‘I hope she gets a decent academic grounding and has working knowledge of at least one Shakespeare play. Oh, and I’d really like her to understand how ox-bow lakes are formed.’

I doubt it? More likely, ‘I hope my child is happy.’ That’s pretty much all you ever want for your children.

This insight is important because ‘happiness’ is the key to everything. If you’ve ever attended an ‘Art of Being Brilliant’ workshop you’ll know that we talk about happiness as the starting point rather than the end point. So, for example, what if being happy after you achieved the A* was the wrong way around – and being happy every day in school was the crucial bit. Indeed, what if it’s the happiest kids who over-perform at school?

We have a crack team of trainers who can run you some superb ‘revision’ sessions for your school or your child’s school. But we reckon you’d be much better off booking an Art of Being Brilliant session and not mentioning ‘exams’ at all.

Get them inspired to be their best selves… and amazing results will follow.

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An A* life

Most people get stuck in what I call a C+ life. In school report terms, you ‘could do better’ and, for many, life can become a bit mundane. The solution isn’t to lower your sights. In fact, I’d argue the opposite!

Too many people settle for C+ in the hope that A* will happen at the weekend or next year or when they retire. It’s almost as though we set out to expect mediocrity in the hope that something good might happen and surprise us. Accepting mediocrity is a defence mechanism because you’ll rarely be disappointed (but you’ll also rarely be genuinely happy!).

The solution is what I call ‘realistic optimism’. Not some rose-tinted Polyanna approach that annoys people and papers over the cracks of reality, but a genuine expectation that today is going to be a fab day because you’re going to choose to be upbeat, passionate and positive. In a spooky Matrix-style psychological shift of mindset, you are more likely to have a fabulous day. The downside is that, despite your best efforts, the day might still conspire against you and you might be disappointed. But, hey, tomorrow you go for it again…

You see, happiness isn’t actually real, at least not in the sense that you can cart it around in a wheelbarrow. Happiness is a mental construct that you’ve created in your head. And genuinely upbeat, happy folk have certain mental habits that allow them to create more of it.

So, the basic message in our books is to stop waiting for the right person, job or moment (yikes, they might never come!) and learn the basics of how to create more happiness from within.

And, if you’re going to have a happier life, you need to put some effort into being your best self – those A*s don’t happen by accident.

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A Christmas arms race

Ahh, Christmas. A time for relaxation and rejoicing.

Sadly, Christmas in our house has become a time of ‘stuffocation’. My kids equate ‘number of prezzies’ to ‘happiness’. Forget gratitude and quality time with the extended family, success boils down to ‘has Santa bought more presents than last year?’ It’s as though we’ve accidentally entered into an unwinnable arms race in which we have to continually buy more stuff because ‘stuff’ is what makes Christmas, right?

The result is that I feel that I’ve been badly malled. Check the clever spelling here folks, it’s not ‘mauled’ as in what tiger does to you, it’s ‘malled’ as in what Debenhams does to you. And I’ve taken a severe one.

But enough is enough. So, in true Art of Being Brilliant tradition, I’ve switched my thinking. In the battle to avoid stuffocating to death, here’s a sentence that at first blush sounds the wrong way round:

The moment we’re content, we have enough.

Read it again. And again. Until it makes sense. The problem is that our brains work the other way around. They think that when we have enough, we will be content.

Being content first is the key.

In the western world we now effectively have everything we could possibly need. Our cup of abundance really doth runneth over. There is no ‘more’ to be had. As John Naish says we have to learn to live ‘post more’ and indeed that ‘enoughness’ is the path to contentment. In a world of enoughness the rules of the game have changed – if everything is available in abundance, the challenge shifts from ‘knowing where to start’ to ‘knowing when to stop’.

I love to hold on to the traditional meaning of Christmas. Yes, Jesus did have some cracking prezzies (although he only got three and they weren’t very child friendly), but he never intended to start a tradition that would eventually result in stuffocation and bad mallings.

So, the message from ‘Brill HQ’ is to be content with what you have and hold on to the simplicity of Christmas. I mean, who’d have thought that baby Jesus would have grown into that ruddy-faced whiskery old man than comes down your chimney?

Happy holidays

The Art of Brilliance team

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Star Wars

Last night was the annual seasonal gathering of the eclectic mix that is the Art of Brill team.

[Thanks Mr C for putting on a fabulous evening and being such a generous boss!]

Like any work Christmas do, there was lots of drinking, eating and merry making.

We also made full use of the Christmas cuddle. Some hugs apparently went on suspiciously longer than seven seconds – Andy C was timing them to make sure he got his fair share.

We did a bit of ‘work’ too. The main agenda was ‘Change the world’.

As the alcohol flowed, so did the ideas, culminating in an ambitious project to build a happiness star, based on the Star Wars death star but with a more positive purpose. The plan is to spread happiness over an entire planet with one shot of its giant super laser.

In the cold light of day, this might be a step too far, even for our talented team, but you never know.

It’ll definitely be a long-term project. So in the meantime, why not help us spread the happiness, one random act of kindness at a time. And eventually, together, we’ll spread happiness over our entire planet.

May the force be with you.

Jo Armstrong

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The Christmas cuddle

I’ve always been a cuddler. I guess it stems from my mum being a cuddler? Whenever I was upset or grazed my knee, a cuddle would always do the trick.

So imagine my recent surprise when I found out that I’d been doing it wrong!

Here’s the science. The average cuddle lasts 2.4 seconds. But, for the love to properly transfer a cuddle needs to last seven seconds or longer. I’ll let you apply that simple principle and prove it for yourself. My top tip is to make sure you don’t count out loud – it spoils the romance.

A second top cuddle rule is to appreciate that not everyone is a cuddler, and this is perfectly fine. It doesn’t have to be a full-on bear hug. You can cuddle people with a handshake, tap on the shoulder, or don of the hat. The secret to a great cuddle is genuinely being pleased to see someone, taking a few moments out of your busy day to actually appreciate another human being.

So, my third top tip is to do more cuddling. Family and friends should be receiving regular seven-second hugs as a matter of course. But how about setting up a lunchtime cuddle club at work? Too far perhaps?

At Art of Brill HQ we like to adhere to standard of public safety and decency so our final top tip is that it’s always good to cuddle, except strangers in the sauna.

We wish you a very merry cuddly Christmas.

Art of Brill team x

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I love corporate language

Now I have your attention, I have a shed for sale.

Just kidding.

But I’m pretty sure that if I did a survey of who gets a kick out of corporate language, it’d be a very small group who put their hands up. It’s bizarre – everyone hates corporate speak but we all seem to do it. How many times have I listened in on a meeting and heard, ‘Hey guy’s let’s have a round robin of blue sky thinking to coax this puppy out the kennel.’ Well, to be fair, I’ve never heard that particular sentence but you get my drift. There’s an awful lot of ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘putting this one to bed’ and ‘pushing the envelope’.

At Art of Brill HQ we like to experiment so recently I’ve taken to switching my language. I now use my ‘home me’ at work and my ‘work me’ at home. And, hand on heart, the results have been amazing!

I got the idea from my 79 year old dad who is staying with me. My old approach didn’t seem to be working.

Me: “Would you like anything from the kitchen dad?”
Dad: “I’m not sure.”
Me (slightly irritated): “Are you thirsty?”
Dad: “I’m not sure.”
Me: “A biscuit?”
Dad: “I don’t know son.”

This goes on for several minutes and I end up bringing the wrong thing and he moans.

So here’s my new corporate approach. I have indeed reinvented the wheel.


“Hey dad, here’s the big picture. I want to be totally client-focused and offer you some value added. I’m going to the kitchen to be proactive and could bring you tea, coffee, sandwich, biscuit, copy of Razzle, whatever? So, to keep you in the loop I thought I’d ask which boxes you want to tick.”

I then give him 30 seconds to decide. He loves game shows so I do the Countdown noise before I hit the ground running and collect his order. On my return I say:

“Nice choice dad. Any feedback let me know. I’ll be sat next to you while we watch True Grit.”

I keep a complaint form handy.

Same with my daughter. The old approach of “Please can you tidy your room Liv?” just wasn’t cutting the mustard. So I’ve replaced it with:

“I’ve decided to touch base with you to discuss your request of…”

(I always look down at my notes at this point)

“…‘I’m not a kid anymore father’.

“We really need to put this one to bed Liv so I’ve been researching some sort of quid pro quo agreement. I’ve looked at local rentals in the area and you can get a one room bedsit in a crack house for £35 per month.”

As her bottom lip trembles, I suggest we could compromise and achieve a win:win if she agrees to stop her room smelling like someone’s died in it.

This approach has transformed my home life. However the biggest results have come from applying the ‘home’ version of me at work. I make people more drinks, I spend time chatting about their homework, I’ve even started giving work colleagues lifts to extra-curricular clubs.

On reflection, my home life runs a little better but the biggest difference is people at work seem to love me more.

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The plastic bag test

How happy are you? Andy Whittaker’s plastic bag test.

You can pay a fortune on psychological testing. But if you want a simple and free way to test your levels of happiness, do what I did and stand at the end of the isle in Sainsbury’s for half a day. All you have to do is watch how folk respond to the new 5p carrier bag levy.

I won’t bore you with the hours I spent queuing and documenting the reactions, but here are a few of my favourites:

Woman (age 46): “It’s totally disgusting, just another tax by the Tories,” and she stormed off, leaving her trolley and items. Presumably she will have gone home, collected an armful of bags and returned? Or maybe done her shopping online?

Woman (age 60): “What next?” before refusing to pay for a bag and juggling 12 items, dropping them on the way out. She was cursing loudly throughout.

Woman (age 55-60): “This wouldn’t happen anywhere else,” as she paid 10p for two bags. She told the cashier that she’d not be coming back so presumably she’ll be taking her custom to Tesco’s where the bags also cost 5p.

Are these people merely having a bad day or are they locked in a way of thinking? A debate that interested me took place between a gentlemen in his mid-60s and a young lady of teenage years. The bit that really made my ears prick up was the difference in their attitude. The older gentleman got to the front of the queue and said, “It’s disgusting this charge.”

The teenager tried to explain, “But it’s to save the planet so our kids can have a bright future. And the money collected goes to good causes.”

“I’m not bothered. I haven’t got any kids,” replied the man, saving himself 5p by stuffing two bags of Werther’s into his pockets and clasping some Rich Tea’s and a carton of milk. This guy clearly hadn’t grasped that your happiness is linked to those around you and by contributing to the greater good, you gain purpose and have a better chance of accessing great feelings.

After watching people’s responses for half a day, my time was up. I needed to do a bit of shopping so I trawled the isles and filled my basket. As I bleeped them through the self-service checkout you’ve guessed it, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t got a bag. Dilemma! I was almost enjoying the irony as I leant towards the ‘add a bag for 5p’ button and the lady behind me chirped up, “Don’t worry, I’ve brought a spare.” She opened her plastic bag and inside was another, Russian Doll style. My eyes widened at her simple act of kindness. I took it, grinning and thanking her profusely.

I left the store with a spring in my step. My experiment had taught me more than I’d ever imagined.

Thank you

Andy W

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Motivational quotes

Last week I got a call from the boss – or ‘Andy Cope’ as you may know him. He said that Radio Leicester had phoned and asked if he could do a guest slot to discuss the topic of ‘motivational quotes’ and whether they actually work. Copey wasn’t available so I stepped up. Gulp! Live radio!

The professional that I am, I spent a few hours doing some prep. I hammered Wiki and Google and collected a shed load of quotes from the greats; Mandela, Einstein, Jobs, Obama, Gates, Branson and, err, Cowell? I turned up fully armed to the show so I could at least sound like I knew what I was talking about. I mean, who can argue with Einstein’s

“The problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Boom! I was going to blow the audience away.

The moment came and the host was great. He was like a conductor who effortlessly managed to get his nervous and fidgety orchestra (me!) to talk naturally about the subject. I actually relaxed, and that’s when the penny dropped.

All my prepared quotes from famous people became irrelevant to the discussion. Listeners were getting in contact and sharing their own quotes but they weren’t sharing the sayings of Ali or Churchill, they were sharing stuff their mum told them or what grandpa said on his deathbed. And, to be fair, these quotes were a whole lot better than the ones I’d Googled – because they had an air of authenticity. That’s not to say Mandela’s quotes are rubbish, but words of wisdom from your grandma are likely to be at least as good.

Then, as the show was drawing to a conclusion, the host asked me, “Is there any motivational quote you want to leave us with?”

Without thinking about it, and having certainly not prepared it in advance, I said that my most motivational quote comes from my now nine year old son Rohan. From the age of six he has periodically said this to myself, my wife Sandra and his older brother, Ethan:

“Mum – you are the best mum in the world;
Dad – you are the best dad in the world;
Ethan – you are the best brother in the world;
and I’m the best me in the world!”

What makes it even more motivational, however, is when I think back to the times when Rohan has said it. It was never after a birthday or Christmas or when we’d bought him something – it always happens when, as a family, we are spending time together, feeling close and appreciating what we have in life.

That, for me, is the most motivational quote in the world. It’s real, it makes me feel good and (most importantly) it inspires me to want to live up to it.

Eat your heart out Branson!

Darrell x

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Making happiness ‘special’

Tony Seymour writes about our Brilliant Derbyshire workshops for schools and support centres.

“Schools should make the well-being of their children a major objective, and this should include the children’s sense of social obligation and also how they feel inside.” (World Happiness Report 2015).

Across the length and breadth of Derbyshire, we’ve delivered Being Brilliant workshops in upwards of 25 schools and support centres. The feedback has been superb. But can the initial enthusiasm be sustained? You bet! 18 months ago, after attending our workshop, a group of energised Year 7s at one north Derbyshire school created their own ‘Brilliant Club’ with lunchtime meetings. They prepare presentations about being positive for local primary schools, create ‘positive content’ for assemblies and maintain a unique ‘Art of Brilliance Noticeboard’ containing anecdotes and tips about happiness and responsibility. These noble efforts in maintaining and spreading positivity across the school and community are a great example of what results can be unleashed when the ‘penny drops’.

This year, with a moderate dose of fear and apprehension, we set about delivering uplifting messages about happiness, choice and personal responsibility to youngsters with learning needs at special schools and to students attending support centres (‘attending’ is used rather loosely). Most are there because of exclusion or bad behaviour. How did we fare? In such ‘challenging’ settings, how do you know if your lesson about happiness and making positive choices is hitting the mark? One special school head wrote:

“The facilitators were wonderful, full of energy and drive; a pleasure to work with. Even the students with challenging behaviour engaged fully and displayed the best responses.”

As the World Happiness Report states, the well-being of children should be a major objective of every school, rather than focussing on being a super- efficient ‘exam factory’. From this year, one thing stands out: When happiness, well-being and positivity are central to the school ethos, learning, growth and development often follows naturally.

For the Art of Brilliance team, spreading happiness has truly become a ‘speciality’!

Tony Seymour

Read more of our adventures at a referral unit.

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Thinking deeper

I’m of a certain age where Tarzan was a TV series and Ron Ely was the dude wearing the loincloth. And in almost every episode, someone fell in the quicksand. And they’d struggle like hell in the swampy conditions, sinking deeper and deeper.

Cheetah (who wasn’t a cat, but in fact a chimp, stay with me folks) would throw his arms about and scream his concern.

Tarzan would translate, telling the person to stop struggling. It seems that the act of struggling was actually sinking them deeper? So, now up to their necks in porridge, they’d attempt to stop struggling and Tarzan would throw them a vine that they’d grip with their teeth and our hero would haul them out. Unless they were a baddie in which case they’d keep struggling and go under. I was eight and it was thrilling stuff.

There are several messages, not least, Tarzan isn’t like Jesus, he can’t save baddies. But on a more prosaic level, perhaps we should all just stop struggling? There’s a lot of metaphorical waving our arms and bemoaning our lot and all we seem to be doing is sinking deeper and deeper in to the mire of life. So you can do one of two things. Stop falling into life’s swamps is a pretty cool starting point. Or if you do, stop struggling. It’s your thinking that’s sinking you deeper. I’m working on a new book that will explain this much better. In fact it’s refreshed my thinking and pretty much blown my mind. It’s due out next year but in the meantime, this will help you to stop flailing.

Alternatively, we have two short, sharp Art of Being Brilliant workshops scheduled for the winter. Bristol and London are both very nice places to learn some new habits of mind, or to simply refresh your perspective. Think of it as metaphorically grabbing a vine?

Thank you A x

PS. You’ve got no idea how clever the blog title is until you say it, out loud, with a lisp.

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Technology: it’s in your jeans

You can tell the age of a tree by counting the rings in its trunk. And you can tell the age of a person by the number of computers they had in their school. When I was at school we had one. That places me firmly in the 45 to 50 age bracket. We would wander past and peer through the window – there it sat – all on its own. I can’t recall anyone ever using it? I don’t think anyone in our school actually knew how?

I am writing this on my new laptop. The room I’m in has three others, and a tablet and two iPods. Ken Robinson makes the point that children born today have IT in their DNA. Welcome to the world, here’s an iPad. Get scrolling. Whereas for anyone over 40, IT is their second language. We are less fluent in ‘technology’.

For anyone over 40, their first language is ‘human’.

And the point?

If you’re 40 plus, the days of face-to-face chat really were the ‘good old days’. The world was a bit slower. You had time to go to the pub at lunch and when you got back, nothing had happened. And I mean nothing! Now you daren’t go to the pub because of the stress of all the emails piling up while you’re away from your desk.

If you’re a bit younger than 40, technology may well be in your genes (and your jeans pocket come to think of it), but spare a thought for us oldies. We love chatting. Face-to-face human connections makes us happy.


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ET (Excited & Terrified)

The chances are you are familiar with the film ET, an extra-terrestrial who is short, has big feet and you don’t understand a word it says (very similar to my first girlfriend, come to think of it?)

ET had travelled from another galaxy. And a bit like all of us who are already here, ET was here to learn a lesson. His mission was for ‘ET go home’ and he went about it by getting to know the youngsters of today (which some people still believe are from another planet?). He quickly twigged that if you focus on relationships, genuinely care and enjoy a good laugh with other ‘beings’ then you have the opportunity of feeling human. An occasional beer also helps.

And ET also got busy. It would have been an entirely different movie if, after being abandoned, ET had thought “Nightmare, this is like soooo unfair that they’ve left me behind. I’ll just sit here and wait until they come back and get me”. Even worse if he’d merely sought out the nearest human and had a right good moan (“You wouldn’t believe the kind of day I’ve had…”).

But no, our chum got his long fingers everywhere and had fun meeting people, getting drunk, going to parties, dressing up and watching TV (any parallels with young people today is purely coincidental) whilst also doing a favour for the BMX marketing board.

And ET’s main lesson? Accept the circumstances you are currently in and understand you are exactly where you need to be. At this moment in time all and you have to do is stay positive and make the right decisions. You will know when you’re there because, just like ET, you’ll get a magical glow on the inside that Excites and Terrifies you.

Andy Whittaker

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