Choose Positive Living with Sara Troy and her guest Rob Eastaway, on air from March 21st.
I grew up in Cheshire in the North West of England in what – looking back – I realize was quite a carefree home environment where there were plenty of opportunities for imaginative play. I loved playing most ball sports. More unusually from a young age, I was also always intrigued by mathematical puzzles, an interest that was fed by my dad and later by one of my teachers who would often pose us riddles and quizzes.
In my early teens, I had a few creative hobbies, including producing simple cartoon flick books and four-minute silent movies using an old 8mm cine camera. But the innocent enthusiasm behind those and some of my other interests often set me apart from my peer group whose interests were increasingly turning towards heavy metal and parties. I spent much of my mid-teens as an observer, watching how teenagers behaved with each other. I was never bullied, but I became very sensitive to the injustice of people being laughed at just because they or their ideas were ‘different’.
Around the age of 15 I immersed myself in the solitary activity of solving puzzles, and one day on a whim I had a go at setting a puzzle myself. I submitted it to a national newspaper – The Sunday Times. To my delight and amazement, they agreed to publish it. That launched me into becoming a regular puzzle setter, first for The Sunday Times and then for New Scientist magazine. Writing a monthly puzzle gave me early exposure to the world of journalism, and also took away some of the mystery of creativity. I realized that ‘new’ ideas often come from immersing yourself in old ideas and then repackaging them. There were other important lessons, too. The second puzzle of mine that was published contained a serious error (it required April to have 31 days) and I was inundated by letters from angry readers who had been wasting time on an unsolvable challenge. It was a harsh way to learn that while ideas are important, the end product has to work too.
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My interest in ‘real world’ puzzle solving led me to do study Engineering for my degree (at Cambridge University). I then spent a few years working for Deloitte, one of the large management consultants. I was lucky that their culture turned out to be one in which encouraged eccentricity. Ideas and innovation were actively encouraged. It gave me an excellent grounding in professional creative problem solving, and it was a confirmation that ‘fun’ could have serious benefits. In 1991 I went freelance: I’d had my fill of working for big organizations and wanted the freedom to pursue my own passions in my own way. I began running creative problem-solving workshops for senior managers in government (it was a huge, untapped market!) and also for graphic designers. In my spare time, I also wrote a book about cricket. I’ve always loved cricket, as a player and as a spectator, but was aware that the arcane laws of the sport are a mystery to most people. The book (‘What is a Googly?’) is an explanation of cricket to the general public. Getting that first book published in 1992 was probably the most satisfying creative project of my life – taking a project all the way from the seed of an idea to the finished product over the course of about 18 months, after many rejections by publishers. The book did very well. Its biggest claim to fame was that in 1993, Prime Minister John Major presented a copy of it to President George Bush (Snr) at Camp David. (At the time it was an ongoing joke between the two leaders that Bush was a baseball fan, John Major a cricket fan).
BOOKS AND MATHS
In the late 1990s, an old friend Jeremy Wyndham asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book with him about the maths of everyday life. That book became the bestselling Why Do Buses Come In Threes? and it was to push my career in a different direction. I began to be invited into schools to give talks about maths for disaffected teenagers who couldn’t see the point of the subject. I also started doing talks on maths and magic for primary school children. Both of these proved to be a wonderful stimulus for generating ideas for new book material. Jeremy and I wrote a second book, ‘How Long Is a Piece of String?’, and I have since gone on to write/co-write seven more books, some but not all of them about the maths of everyday life. In 2004 I had the idea of putting on maths lecture shows for teenagers. To get away from the notion that maths only happens in schools, we decided to hold the shows in regular theaters such as the Bristol Hippodrome and London’s Gielgud Theatre. Our shows attract about 15,000 teenagers every year from across the UK. We have to come up with new material each year, so nurturing ideas is an important part of my daily life.
CREATIVE THINKING BOOK – COMING FULL CIRCLE
In the last few years, maths education has become dominated by the words ‘creativity’ and ‘problem-solving’. This has been a theme of workshops that I have run for maths teacher for several years, but until now I never formally made the link back to my previous life running workshops for civil servants. My new book ‘Any Ideas?’ has brought those two worlds together. The book is about the whole process of ideas – from having them, to implementing them. What distinguishes it from the many other books on this topic is that I differentiate between having ideas on your own, and having ideas with one or more other people. In most situations, there’s more than one person involved in the idea process, and that introduces all sorts of complications. A lot of the book is about how to overcome the natural tendency to kill ideas (either our own or other people’s). There’s also a chapter dedicated to the importance of SILLINESS: if we want to have new ideas, we have to tolerate a period of having ideas that may at first seem impractical, dangerous, crass or just silly. The other feature of the book is that it has puzzles dotted throughout. Puzzles are often a great way to illustrate the principles of creative and lateral thinking.
The book is aimed at the general public but it’s as relevant to maths teachers as it is to any other adults.
I’ve been married to Elaine, an American, for 18 years. We have three children, who help to keep me young and (most of the time) enthusiastic.
WHY WE NEED MATH