Leila Johnston is among those people I don’t personally know, but I find her terribly interesting and inspiring. The first time I discovered her was through Hack Circus, a peculiar and mesmerizing magazine, in the sense that I haven’t read something like it before and I was completely hooked from the first pages. In her own words, Hack Circus is “a magazine about fantasy technology and everyday magic”. Sadly, the project is now coming to an end, but you can still read the issues in an electronic format.

Leila at TEDxBrighton © Toby Lewis Thomas

Besides her Ringmaster role at Hack Circus, Leila is also a writer, an artist and a performer. She works with art and technology and the dazzling ideas that emerge from their intersection. She hosts an insightful podcast where she talks to other creative people, with unique and divergent perspectives on the world, to inspire herself and anyone else looking for new perspectives and ideas.

How does she have time and energy to do all these things? You’ll see below that she’s fuelled by a deep need and desire to help others. In this interview she talked about her motivation and what drives her to keep going, her work experiences and the things she has learnt by now.


Why do you do the things you do?

I get a great deal of satisfaction from improving people’s situations, even if that’s just improving their day with a funny talk or supplying some new clarity on a subject. A lot of it is probably to do with how I grew up, too. My dad was an engineer and my mum was an English teacher. They were both out of work for substantial periods of my childhood, we moved house very frequently, and they separated when I was 14. My mum died a few years later. I didn’t have a great sense of security growing up, so had to find my own centre of gravity. I think that drives me to help others to find their internal stability, and I think creativity can help tremendously with this.

What sort of things and people inspire you?

I am inspired by people who can conquer their natural selfish urges in order to do what they know is right, whether that’s in humour (doing the joke you know is funniest rather than the one that everyone will get), in relationships, in work situations; it’s always about acknowledging there is a force bigger than you. Paradoxically, it requires ‘size’ of character to get to the point where you can do the right thing, rather than the defensive thing or the reassuring thing – because doing the right thing often makes you realise just how small you are.

How do you overcome self doubt?

I don’t know whether we ever do, but we can learn to listen to it less, by focussing on the big picture. Self-doubts are small, localised thoughts, that chain together. On stage, it can express as terrible anxiety – confronted with a sea of faces who we feel will judge us. Here, and elsewhere, the answer is to stop thinking about yourself, and start thinking about your job. You’re up there to serve – to deliver a message or play a role. Whether you’re teaching, writing essays, taking exams or whatever it is, just think about the task in hand, get into character, and you’ll relax a thousand percent. Remember: there’s never a good time for self-obsession, there’s always a better use for that time that will bring you and those around you far more pleasure. Self-doubt tries to stick around in our heads like a bad smell, but don’t take it seriously – it has nothing to offer. Happiness and confidence radiates.

What do you do to keep yourself motivated?

I think about who or what I’m accountable to, and try to focus on the benefits to future-me. The best way, I’ve found, is to remember how it felt when whatever-I’m-working-on went well, in the past. When something goes well, bank that good feeling. Draw it up whenever you need a boost to finish a similar piece of work in the future. That helps me a lot. I also like looking to the people who are further down the line than I am in their plans, seeing where they are and thinking about how they got there. They all did this work, too, and now they have what I want. It’s very inspiring.

Do you find boredom important in your work?

Certainly, I need to allow space for ideas and inspiration to arise. Boredom isn’t quite it, though. It’s about managing energy and relaxing. I can go into spirals of panic that only result in poorer quality work and emergency decisions – so it’s important for me to schedule downtime and lots of ‘gaps’ and practice mental relaxation where nothing is forced. For really good stuff to happen, one needs a sense that whatever happens, including nothing, is fine.

Tell me about your first job.

I worked in the back room of a vet’s surgery doing the filing when I was 17. Jobs included rinsing the syringes in the sink! It was an eye-opener at times, but mostly just really boring. I used to read the tabloid papers in the back room without realising they were ‘bad’; they were so much more exciting than the papers we got at home! I got addicted to the Daily Express. Always loved publishing, in all its forms. (And animals, of course.)

What other jobs did you have before your career took off and how did they help you?

I’ve had loads of jobs: copywriting, editing magazines and websites. I’ve worked everywhere from primary schools to art galleries. The best thing office jobs teach you is the ability to work with other people. For a while I worked in buddhist communities around the UK and met all sorts of people, from monks and nuns to ex-cons and white witches. If you want to get anywhere in life, you need to be personable and open to as many people as possible. Meet as many people as you can, as early as you can.

Don’t stay in things that aren’t getting you up! When you suspect you have more to give than your current work situation allows, when you glimpse your own extraordinary potential, don’t sweep it under the carpet – seize it – and seize it early.

What are some of your current daily working disciplines? Do you do anything quirky?

I don’t have a practice, but I’ve started trying to get out of bed as soon as I wake up. I read about that recently, and it’s surprisingly useful for those of who keep terrible hours and feel crushing shame the longer we stay in bed. I don’t have an office in town anymore so I work in cafes and on the kitchen table.

Some of the things you do require working alone and others working with other people. Do you prefer one over the other and how are they different for you?

I prefer to work with other people. I always imagine I like working alone, but I think that’s cowardice. It’s important to interrogate these things – are you really a loner or are you just frightened of speaking up in a group? I’m only now realising how important it is for me to have people around me, and to feel like we are united in contributing to something important. Everything I’ve done on my own has been far more draining to me – the rewards, when they come, are less for being unable to share them… and the criticisms sting more than ever! I love having people around me.

What kind of people do you mostly enjoy working with?

People who are pleasant and relaxed enough to give freely and take personal responsibility for what they will get out of the project. Fortunately this describes everyone I’m working with these days, and one learns a great deal from the anomalies in any case.

What was the best work-related advice you received and what would be one you’d give?

Best advice: If you don’t need the money, you don’t need the hassle. Don’t stay in jobs that are getting you down.

Tip I’d share: I’d add to that – don’t stay in things that aren’t getting you up! When you suspect you have more to give than your current work situation allows, when you glimpse your own extraordinary potential, don’t sweep it under the carpet – seize it – and seize it early.

What have you learnt about yourself, people and work during your journey so far?

I’ve learned there are no benefits to not being yourself, but that you should always keep a bit back for learning and growth. Don’t fill up all your space – the mind is like one of those sliding puzzle games, it has to have a space in it in order to work. So, be confident about the things you know, but keep some room to have your mind changed and have new ideas brought in. I think a lot of anxiety and panic is about the mind trying to close this gap – but this gap is the most important thing! We all need a bit of space. Once we realise that, we can relax tremendously, and become so much more approachable, likeable and successful as a result.

Find out more about Leila and her work on her website and on Hack Circus and get in touch with her on Twitter.

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