Meaningful objects

I’ve had this small cloth for over ten years. It’s a pretty unremarkable glasses cleaning cloth. I found it again recently, 11 years, 5 jobs, 3 cities after it first came into my possession.

I put it on the keyboard of my MacBook Air. The manufacturing tolerances on this computer are so small that when you carry it around in a bag the keyboard presses on the screen and often transfers the dirt from the well-used keys onto the screen. This keeps the screen a bit cleaner when it’s crammed into my rucksack for the cycle to the office.

It’s just a cloth, and yet to me it has so much more meaning than it looks, so much more than the use that I put it to.

‘Learning without frontiers’ was an education conference in London in 2011. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in my time. I’d been to quite a few by the time I headed down to London for this one. Yet it is a few days that sticks in my mind as a turning point.

I was just a couple of years into my career at the time. I’d quickly become pretty plugged in to professional networks online, but this was an early opportunity to meet many people I’d corresponded with, including some really influential people. I remember my first tentative wander around the venue on my own was interrupted by the late, great Tim Rylands greeting me like a long lost friend and catching up with me about some work I had blogged about.

I met so many people in person for the first time at that event. People who supported me in developing as a professional over the years. I met my friend and future colleague Pete Yeomans for the first time there, whose advice and support led me to a complete change in my career.

This little glasses cloth reminds me of all that, but also what came after. Nestled between my keyboard and my screen it travelled all over the place in the years after that conference. The design issues with my MacBook ensured I kept it with my at many future conferences, meeting new people and old friends, and increasingly stepping onto the stage myself to speak.

Most of the time this little cloth just subsumes into the background of my days. But occasionally I notice its significance. Taking it out from between the keys and the screen of my laptop, stopping to look at it for a moment will trigger a memory or a thought from some time years ago when I did the same.

You’d think the branding would evoke the memories of the original event, but it’s these later times that I remember first when occasionally noticing this object and thinking beyond its utilitarian purpose.

I think it’s possible to explore memories like this without using objects to evoke them. However, it takes stopping and thinking in a way I find I rarely do these days. Something about the object just makes you do that, it fires the connections off and accelerates that state of mind where you pick up on all those associations.

There’s something I find really poetic about these inconsequential objects, given deep consequence by having carried them around so much for so long. A a wallet, a glasses cloth, even that USB stick you keep using. I’ll bet most of you have objects hanging around that seem so normal, and yet when you think about it have accompanied you on some pretty interesting twists and turns of your journey.

Things I’m paying attention to this week

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