A photomontage of Sam Conniff and logos and images of some of the projects he's worked on.

Interview with Sam Conniff, author of Be More Pirate and founder of Uncertainty Experts

I first met Sam Conniff on board a pirate ship – an event on the Golden Hinde, organised for people to connect around the ideas in Sam’s book, Be More Pirate.  A great friend and I had gone to talk about making health & social care more pirate, i.e. more human, inclusive and democratic, like the kind of ‘good piracy’ Sam’s book draws inspiration from. I was very nervous and drank a few too many free drinks, as well as hearing some fantastic other people speak, who were more sober than me. We had some brilliant conversations, it felt like anything was possible.

There was something about Be More Pirate and the people we met that gave us hope. We stayed connected with this movement, and kept seeking out other fellow pirates – like The Meteor crew.

More recently I joined in with Sam’s latest work around uncertainty, taking part in an experiment to increase my tolerance for uncertainty.

We spoke with Sam about the different generations of his career so far, his motivators, and what happens if you forget to play (spoiler: you’re fucked).

How did you find your way to uncertainty? 

Well, there’s two answers and one is the truth. My desire has always been to try and be useful… and my instinct over the last couple of years has been in this direction.

There’s this kind of dangerous tendency towards simplification. My frustration came from looking at leadership as we tipped into the pandemic, and wondering why on earth I couldn’t see anyone being what I would class as being really honest.

I think so much at the moment, one of the few honest answers anyone could ever give is, “I don’t really know”. And then the best answer you can give is, “I don’t know. But together we’ll work it out”. That feels like a very good way of bringing us together in times of uncertainty and discovering something new. But that’s not the lexicon of leadership or the lexicon of debate at the moment. So that was how I got pulled towards it and why I thought it might be useful. 

But then the truth is, it’s something inside me. And I think I needed it. Like I needed Be More Pirate, before then I needed Livity.

Livity was me putting right some of my own challenges of childhood by trying to fix the challenges facing these young people out there…to try and help others, to avoid helping myself. And then Be More Pirate was definitely a moment of remembering my identity, and the spirit of change and rebellion. 

This has been a really, profoundly uncertain time for me and so I think, by trying to do something useful in the world, now I’m kind of towards the end of that journey, I certainly feel like I’ve evolved as a human in response to it, I can look back and think once again, probably subconsciously, this was what I needed more than anything else.

You’re almost talking about this journey as being like going through childhood, adolescence and adulthood, it’s really fascinating.

I hadn’t seen it quite in those generational stages… I was really looking forward to having a conversation with you because I knew we’d just have a good honest chat – there’s no patter!

But yeah, I think generationally, there is something there, isn’t there. Doing the work in these last few years has forced me to accept some aspects of that. I was trying to get my head more around the psychology of it, and I can’t remember the exact quote, but it’s Jung – and he says something along the lines of, the job is basically to understand your unconscious mind, because otherwise, your behaviour will be informed by it and you’ll just call it fate. And I thought that was so interesting. So, yeah, it pulls me in that direction. And I can’t deny my own inner drivers to want to do this kind of work.

And the fact that you’ve created very young mentors now in your kids, who can help you look at your own subconscious, is absolutely wonderful. 

Yeah, they do that, don’t they? And I think one of the things that they really do is remind you to play. I think my feeling when I was young – and part of the schism that I’ve been trying to work out since then – was that you can’t really trust the grown-ups. I lost my dad [when I was five] and then my mum had to go to work a lot. And so I was left alone quite a lot. 

It’s very easy to get this negative association with growing up being a bit of a trap. What my kids have taught me is that being a grown-up is necessary, there’s a lot of responsibility in this life, and we have to be accountable for the world that we’re in, and our part in all that – but if you forget to play, then you’re fucked. 

Looping back to Livity, can you tell us more about that and how it came about?

Livity is where it all really starts for me. Well, it doesn’t – before then there were a few misspent years where I tried to be a chef and ran dubious nightclubs and was a terrible band manager. And all of that kind of turned into this company called Don’t Panic. We didn’t really know what Don’t Panic was, we did flyers and put on raves and did promotions and got in a lot of trouble, a lot of trouble…

And when we found ourselves in debt, and we did get a couple of death threats (we’d done some work for the wrong people and fucked it up), trading back into profit forced me to graft, and realise that what started as a hobby and friends was actually a business.

That pushed me into discovering the world of marketing, and all these agencies who were selling youth culture, the world that I was interested in, nightclubs and music, and flogging it to brands. I wasn’t sure about this, but I could really see the power and the influence that brands have. 

I felt there’s a lot of irresponsibility with brands who didn’t necessarily see young people as their responsibility, just as their opportunity.

I was struck by this notion and wondered if you could turn this around, a marketing agency that did good, used the levers of influence and the power of cultural influence that marketing does so impeccably, but could we do it for something more useful than Chicken Tonight or a price comparison website?

By the time we got quite large, we were one of the biggest youth provisions in Brixton. We had hundreds of young people come through this massive warehouse every single day. 

They would sit alongside our clients – we’d have Playstation and Nike, Google, all these brands trying to get to young people. Unlike any other agency, the brands would come into the room and they’d have to meet young people, and they’d be scared, because they didn’t often come face-to-face with a couple of hooded-up lads. 

And so this amazing alchemy happened of naivety and wisdom, and experience and enthusiasm. And it just became this incredible breeding ground of young raw talent. 

The bit that I really fell for was the hands-on work, working with those young people specifically. They were my original pirates. It was that crew that taught me that innovation happens at the edges, that the people who get written off or overlooked are often where the real talent can be.

And then also, that’s probably where I realised that so much of what we’re told, or sold, or buy into doesn’t really stack up. Because the truth reveals itself when you’re out in the shadows a little bit, and you start to realise this system is so rigged.

I love Livity, I really did, but then it was full of oxymorons. It was Livity that I got nominated for an MBE for and it was so weird.

I was so proud of everything that we’d done. I’m so proud of the young people. But at the end of my journey at Livity, it was very clear to me that those kids had taught me more than I’d ever given them. 

And then I got this letter from Boris Johnson… in the middle of Black Lives Matter. And there’s me, a middle class, middle aged white guy being offered a medal of Empire in the middle of the biggest movement around social justice, on behalf of the young, predominantly Black kids that I’d worked with. You couldn’t more closely and acutely point a finger at exactly why the system always feels so upside-down. 

After Livity, you wrote Be More Pirate. Can you tell us about that?

I’ve always believed in that line, if you want to know what to do next you need to know what scares you most. I was scared of writing, so I thought I’d try and write a book. 

I wanted to write a book that captured all these different things about business and purpose. I got offered a book deal… and wrote the most boring book on Earth. It was called ‘Purpose First’.

I started workshopping it… And the first group just stared at me and they were like, ‘What’s happened to you, grandad? Where’s all your usual stories? Where’s all the pirates?’ 

I wrote that down on a post-it note and went back to my desk and was thinking it all over. And I thought, why do I always use the metaphor of pirates? That’s what took me to the British Library and then to the Greenwich Maritime Museum

And then this true story of pirates started to uncover itself. I couldn’t believe how clear the metaphor was, between this generation that I felt was being locked out of its future and was going to have to do something pretty rebellious to have the impact that it’s going to need, and exactly what happened with the Golden Age of Pirates 300 years ago. 

The reason I and others that I know have been attracted to it is because it utterly gave me permission to be more of the rebellious person that I felt inside, that was being hampered and stopped.

Yeah, it was the same thing for me. I think it was Alex Barker who took over who said that “rule breaking feels like a risky thing to do, but it’s actually the responsible thing to do”. I think that really summed it up for me.

Parenthood really threw me into a place of trying to be a grown-up because I was so keen to be a good dad and be responsible. But I wasn’t sure what I was looking up to. 

My stepdad often says, “everyone only has one mistake, they just keep making it in different ways”. I thought that felt quite true. And my mistake was that I was trying to conform, and that’s not how I work.

It honestly gave a lot of people a lot of hope. And still does I think. It’s a fantastic thing to hold on to when conformity seems to rear its head as being the most important thing in the world. …Or maths lessons. 

I agree with that. Creativity was defined as the most important skill of the 21st Century again and again and again. And yet everywhere you go, conformity is the thing that’s demonstrated that you’ll be rewarded for. And that, in itself, is what we need to fight. I think the word you just said there, hope, is really necessary. Because I hear that phrase, people use it against me all the time, ‘hope isn’t a strategy’. Fuck off. The future is under no obligation whatsoever to conform to your plan, just ‘cause it’s in a spreadsheet. The truth is that nobody knows, and that’s fucking scary. Hope is an antidote to fear. And that is a strategy I’ll buy.

I want to return to uncertainty at the end, but before we do, I just wanted to find out, any lessons for, or thoughts about us in Manchester? 

Firstly, from what I do know, I think Manchester’s got lessons for other people.

I think the importance of community is stronger than ever. A community of individuals, a community of citizens. A community of challenge, that’s able to tolerate division and difference amongst it and get stronger because of it. 

Every now and then you come across a place where there is a sense of community, and it is a sense. Brixton is one of those places, and Manchester strikes me as one of those places. It’s a place that will fight. Sometimes it’s willing to have a bit of a row. 

In the places that I choose to live now and bring up my kids, the number one thing I think we have to all look for is community. And we have to be very careful about that, because we build cities and towns for transport and cars, and we organise our societies around the ways that we make money and so it gets harder and harder as people get more lonely and isolated, but you need to get out and get amongst it. 

That’s what I learned of Brixton, and it’s what I see when I come to Manchester.

Yeah. I’m very critical of Manchester, I think we’ve got a lot of issues and problems and challenges, but at the same time, I think we will have a debate and I think we will have a conversation and that’s why things like The Meteor can actually manage to keep existing, just about, because there’s a space for that. 

Just before we finish, what’s next for uncertainty? 

Uncertainty Experts really did come out of that exploration for myself and the world that I was entering into, not knowing what to do about it all. And then it’s proved itself to be quite useful. 

I met a scientist, Katherine Templar Lewis, who educated me on why these remarkable individuals that I’d found had become so tolerant of uncertainty. And she told me what the psychological-neurological backbone was of that. 

We’ve built a psychological intervention that’s now been peer reviewed and published. 95% of people who go through it have a statistically significant increase in their uncertainty tolerance.  What we’ve got to is a way of trying to get people to see uncertainty as opportunity. 

Communities with a lower uncertainty tolerance will become more divisive, they become more susceptible to conspiracy theories, extreme ideologies. If we’re gonna have a sense of community, we need to be able to sit with people we disagree with or don’t recognise and the high uncertainty tolerance is proven to do that. We become more collaborative, we’re better at problem-solving, we’re better at decision-making. 

In June, we’re beginning a cohort for public sector workers. Then the plan is to turn it into a business. It’d be a kind of buy-one-give-one model so then we’ll be able to start rolling out across public services. And then I’d be very interested to see if we can get it out from there – what would happen to Manchester if we increase its uncertainty tolerance?

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Feature Image: Alice Toomer-McAlpine

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  • Naomi Davies

    Naomi is a Meteor board member, who works in local government, and for a CIC creating change in the community.

  • Alice Toomer-McAlpine

    Co-founder and Co-editor of The Meteor, Alice is a community worker and journalist from Manchester who works across a range of roles including youth work, community organising, video production and creative documentation of non-profit projects. Alice is interested in how the stories we create and share shape the world we live in, and how communities can take ownership of their stories and build trust with local independent media to build collective power.


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