Interview 29. – Duncan Yellowlees


Specialist in presentation skills and people to people communication. He’s worked in science communication, engineering, history and theatre and increasingly finds the world a wonderful place. As down time from training presenters he hand makes kitchen knives and drinks beer with friends.

Twitter:  D_yellowlees
LinkedIn:  Duncan Yellowlees

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

Recently I found out that different colours of sea glass come from different times in history. So green is more modern, brown is from the 50’s I think and rare colours like blue, purple, and pink can be traced to specific decades or types of bottle that were common place. This may seem like a small thing but it amazed me. Finding out something I didn’t know before always leaves me feeling content. The idea that a small piece of glass from the beach could link you right back to a particular medicine bottle 200 years ago I find staggering. I love these connections to other people or events in the past. You can imagine the stories that bit of beautiful glass could tell and know that the people of the past had much in common with us now. – I’ll stop before I get all poetic on you!


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

Wonder – has a sense of excitement, and energy to it. It’s a childlike glee at finding something marvellous. Perhaps a new find or perhaps a rediscovery of something.

Awe – is bigger. Awe takes your breath away, it imposes a sense of perspective and respect. Like watching waves crash on the beach and watching the sea go on forever, or taking a moment to really see how much your friends/loved ones mean to you. There is a peace in awe, a contentment, it makes you think and reflect in a way that wonder doesn’t.

Curiosity – is one of my favourite things. The need to know what’s next, to peer around the next corner. I think it is a deep human trait and one that motivates a lot of our best moments. Following it can result in experiences of wonder or awe, but being curious for a more mundane pay off is sometimes just as satisfying.


What inspires you to be creative?

For me there is a restlessness and a drive to improve. I’m rarely happy with the status quo (particularly if I don’t think its that good) and seek to make it better. If there are problems to be solved, better to solve them well, then leave them alone. But I also like to make things that are mine…things that have me in them. Seeing your ideas become reality is a powerful thing.


Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

I’m a firm believer in thinking without purpose. My best ideas and most exciting thoughts happen when I’m thinking about something totally different. So no specific rituals, but to be creative in all areas I try to make sure I have different area’s to be in. For example, knife making  lets my work brain drift and I’ll think of new ways to frame things, or focus an audience. Conversely my best knife designs evolve over time…often in the shower or while drifting of to sleep.


Tell me more about the knife making. (I’m a little worried about your comment that your brain sometimes drifts whilst making sharp objects!) How did you get started, what’s the appeal and how do you physically make a knife?

Right, well I got started in a state of wonder I guess. There is a master artist knife maker called Will Ferraby and I ended up following him on Twitter. His knives really are extraordinary and they very much inspired me to have a go. That coupled with a love of cooking. Trying to cook with rubbish knives is one of the most annoying things and so I was drawn to the idea of creating a beautiful yet very practical tool.

There is a bunch of stuff to learn first and I spent a lot of time on YouTube (which is a fantastic learning resource), I made a bevelling jig and a forge for heat treating, I learnt about different steel types and ways to fix handle materials on. I think my ability to get obsessed about things helped! For the first few I bought finished blades and simply put handles on them, but now I make them from scratch. In terms of letting my mind drift, its more that there are no short cuts, you have to do everything the long way. It’s hours and hours of filing, sanding and finishing – I like that. The world is increasingly fast paced and I like that I have to do it slowly to get a decent result, I have to take the time, but it’s not mentally particularly difficult, meaning I can find a calm almost meditative state (many of these ideas come from Will Ferraby – the way he talks about the craft is what interested me). The base process is remarkably simple. You cut and grind the shape you want from steel bar (you can forge the shape with a hammer and anvil, but I don’t have the space). Then you sand and file the blade profile, the bevel – this is what takes ages. Pick your handle materials and fixing system and then sand smooth, finish and sharpen. The whole thing started as a hobby, but I’ve now made some for sale as well. I’ve made many theatre sets and props in my life and its really rewarding to build something for someone that will last for decades rather than just a few weeks.


What do you love about magic?

Whats not to love!? I love what it can create in an audience. Joy, wonder, awe, curiosity, laughter, connection in a shared puzzlement – these are, I think, good things. I also get a bit geeky about learning how the tricks work – that satisfies the bit of me that needs to solve the problem. I also enjoy watching someone skilled at what they do. All skilled artists are a joy to watch simply because experiencing that kind of accomplishment is wonderful – I have the same response to presenters, or blacksmiths.


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

I think people can get too caught up in wanting to know how stuff happens. There is a joy in just letting the world be a magical place without needing to poke it too hard. Some people I suspect find if difficult to let go of the idea that they are being tricked and that is a negative thing, I wonder if they feel threatened in some way by not understanding the stuff in front of them?


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

I think it comes from childhood. Children have to learn as much as they can as fast as they can and almost all of it is new and exciting, its a big world with lots of stuff in it. We tend to retain some of that as adults, in the area’s we get excited about be it gadgets or the latest celeb news. I certainly think you can cultivate it, by seeking out new things or perspectives and by being open to them. Wonder is the ability to experience something and not project the cynicism and grumpiness of adulthood onto it. You can find positivity and wonder in most places if you look hard enough.


Do you think wonder and positivity are linked?

Absolutely, for me wonder is almost always positive. Its exciting and energising. Awe has the capacity to freeze us in place to make us feel small or overwhelmed not wonder. Most often I would say happiness and joy spread from moments of wonder. Positive memories are made that will last a lifetime. It’s very much a good thing to find wonder in the world.


Is it possible to transfer a sense of wonder from one person to the next? What field has the best “wondersmiths”?

I’d say you can certainly prepare someone for wonder, but they have to take the final step on their own. Its like when a friend gets really excited about something they’ve seen which is truly spectacular. They can make you excited about the prospect of seeing it, but until you do its not really wonder. I suspect wonder is a deeply personal experience and although somethings (like a sunset, or magic trick) resonate with many people, other wondrous things have a more limited audience.

Ahh “wondersmiths” – one of my all time favourite words! I think if we’re looking for the field which can cause wonder in most people it would be storytellers. And in there I include authors, theatre makers, dancers, film makers etc. The best of them take us to new worlds where anything is possible. Wonder isn’t always their aim, but when it is they have the power to really influence people. Within that field circus has the most consistent focus on combining wonder and deep storytelling.  However, I think the power of wonder is almost on a case by case bases. Where one person is amazed by death defying feats of acrobatics, another only sees an unnecessary waste of time. I’m fascinated by watching master crafts people do their thing…other folk couldn’t care less. Each of us is unique, we have commonalities but you can’t please all the people all the time.

What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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