Inflated achievements: How informal learning took me from YouTube to live TV

Experiential learning or learning-by-doing – the 70% of the 70:20:10 framework – surprises and engages us. Enhanced by today’s social learning technologies it can turn a novice into a genius, seemingly overnight.
Many tennis aces practice a whole lifetime and never get there, but Brightwave’s Senior PM Dan Jones – aka Balloon-man Dan – tells us how informal learning took him all the way to Centre Court at Wimbledon 2015 in just a few weeks.

The journey to my five minutes of fame began just a few weeks back, while chatting to a friend about her daughter’s imminent birthday party. She was at a loss to entertain the handful of sweet little mites they’d invited, so I offered to come along and do some balloon sculptures to pass a few minutes of the inevitable, sugar-crazed chaos. No problem.

‘Do you know how to do balloon sculptures?’ she asked.

‘Yeah, sure I do!’ I replied. This was entirely untrue of course, but how hard could it be? They’d probably forget anyway.

I thought no more of the conversation until a while later, when the phone rang. The party was happening the following weekend.

‘Hi Dan – so are you coming to do those balloon sculptures at the weekend? Like you promised?’

‘Yeah, sure! Of course. Absolutely. No problem…’

‘Great! Thanks so much, you’ll be really helping us out. Oh, and the party’s grown in scope a bit – there’ll be about fifty kids there, so make sure you bring plenty of balloons!’

The phone went dead, and so, very nearly, did my heart.

The learning need
Faced with an impossible task and limited time, I did what today’s smart professional always does. I asked the world’s second most popular search engine what the heck I should do. That’s right: straight to YouTube.

It didn’t take long to find exactly what I was after. I studied a few of the many, many balloon sculpturing How-To videos, and pretty soon I decided this wasn’t as hopeless as I thought. I dipped out of YouTube for a few minutes and used Google (search engine no.1) to research what balloons I needed. Turns out anybody who’s anybody in the balloon modelling world uses the professional Qualatex pump and 260Q modelling balloons. So I bought four hundred.

Practise – practise – practise
They arrived the next day – this was Wednesday, with the party due on the Saturday afternoon. I managed to carve out four hours in the evening (I’ve got a young child to look after too y’know!) to get back in front of my laptop and go through the videos again, this time with all the necessary kit.

Cue much twisting, squeaking, swearing, many popped balloons – and increasingly sore fingers. What I lacked in technique I made up for in speed. I figured that I’d have an attention span window of about a minute to make a model for a four-year-old child. I would soon learn this calculation had been surprisingly underestimated.

After a couple of hours, something strange started to happen. Less swearing. Fewer lost balloons. A happier, more peaceful house generally. And then eventually, miracle of miracles, balloon sculptures that actually looked how they were meant to!

Cementing the learning
As soon some real progress was being made, it was time for bed. I didn’t have another chance to practise except for a few minutes on the morning of the party in a panicked attempt to commit the complex series of sequential twists to memory.

And then it was time to pack my pump, grab my balloons and head off to help out my friend.

To be honest, that afternoon is a bit of a blur. I arrived, set up, and didn’t stop making balloons for the next four hours straight. The kids loved it and were the perfect audience to test my new skills: appreciative, honest, challenging, direct and totally unpredictable, their sometimes bizarre requests forcing me to improvise and push the limits of what I could do.

After that party I was Dan Jones no longer. As far as these fifty children were concerned at least, I was Balloon-man Dan.

I was also just relieved to get out of there alive, and I thought about what I could do with my new skills. Would balloon sculpting turn into a fun hobby, an interesting side-line, maybe even a potential fall-back career (!)?

Eventually I did what any sensible person would do.

Nothing at all, other than add it to my expanding list of ‘potentially useless skills’ (of which there’s a worryingly large number).

Reinforce the learning need
Then, the following week, me and a few friends were due to go off to Wimbledon 2015 to camp for two days to bag Centre Court tickets. We were looking forward to a fantastic day of tennis, strawberries and prosecco, but we knew there was going to be A LOT of queuing involved with A LOT of bored people, and I started to think about ways to pass the time.

I wasn’t sure what to do…

But Balloon-man Dan was.

Don’t forget social learning
Back onto eBay. Minutes later I was the proud owner of 400 purple, white, green and yellow Wimbledon themed 260Qs. Express delivery.

Back onto YouTube to message the author of the How To posts I’d learned so much from and ask if he had any tips for making a tennis racket. I practised once more to refresh my skills (quite difficult, seeing as my left hand still ached from the mammoth modelling-session the previous Saturday), and resolved to make anything the people of SW19 cared to ask for – or at least give it a damn good try.

I realised that almost entirely by accident, with a few hours of solid graft – and, crucially I think, a few hours of solid play – I could do it! Not least, I was good at it, I liked doing it, and I loved the reactions of people when I handed them a balloon sculpture, too. The most important thing I learned was that apparently everybody absolutely loves them, not least Wimbledon-themed balloons at Wimbledon!

And what happened on the day? Was Balloon-man Dan reborn at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club?

Well I’m not one to drop names, so I won’t mention my appearance on Sky News or my interview with the Wall Street Journal, but you can see how the days unfolded here in the short film I made about the whole experience:

And if you’re ever in urgent need of a famous balloon-sculptor… just ask in the comments below the video, and maybe Balloon-man Dan will come to your aid!

Check out Dan’s photos of his learning journey on Pinterest.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @danjones82
All images © Dan Jones.

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