Talking happiness with The Happy Project’s Adam Simpson
Last year I watched with quiet interest as The Happy Project circulated amongst my social media friends. If you’re not familiar with the project, it basically gave a group or individual with a sassy idea to promote happiness access to $12,000, legal advice and a wider network through business associates and PR in terms of promotion.
As a person who is always looking to see what other entrepreneurs’ birth into the world and was in the early stages of Hacking Happiness, The Happy Project made a suitable impression on me. Brook and I even considered applying but thought we may be a little under-cooked.
But I watched and I waited. And I became quite enamoured with the idea that a law talking guy would be so brave and happiness minded.
So I did what all curious, happy minded hustlers would do. I took the launch of our Vivid Idea’s event ‘the myth of work-life balance in a get-ahead culture’ as an excuse to contact Adam to talk to him about his project.
And I can gladly say I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Here is a little taste of that conversation on happy projects, helping people, white collar stress and what it means to birth a cool idea.
Beyond running Simpsons Solicitors, you instantly get a deep sense that Adam is one of those people who cares. Connectivity, community, and creativity- they emanate from this guy as he talks shop and projects new and old.
We’re on Skype on a Friday morning and he’s working from home. His faithful assistance has professionally fielded my concerns of potentially screwing up the Skype call at 3 minutes past the allotted time. He calls me and I fumble for a moment as I lean from broken down office chair to hit pause on the last song on the CD.
I answer and I sound funny. Like I’ve been pouring over something childish on the internet and hit the answer button instead of closing it down.
“Sorry,” I apologise, “I was just turning off Jimi Hendrix.”
“Why would you want to do that?!” he asks with genuine surprise.
What an awesome way to start an interview.
I can’t see Adam via video because my Wollongong internet connection usually has other ideas when it comes to video. But I imagine him leaning back casually in his chair, surrounded by tasteful furniture, family reminders and with his sock covered feet propped on something wooden. Maybe it’s the timbre of his voice, but I like that image.
He tells me about his latest project where co-working studios collide with 3D printing, a cafe, gallery and generally bringing the maker field forward for freelancers with &Company.
“Do you know it?” Adam asks.
Yes, yes I do. I had loved the shit out of that project when I had seen it on one of my usual “who should I Crowdfund today for that gift” browsing sessions. I hadn’t sponsored it because I couldn’t work out who would truly appreciate the space to clatter tools and the possibility to work with their hands proactively (I can’t even get the garlic jar open, let alone build anything!).
But I sweep the admiration and wonder at raising $500K in capital and working with a switched on, charming maker studio owner in Anna Lise De Lorenzo from my voice and give the obligatory “Oh, yes, I know what coolness you are referring to” answer so common in Sydney’s entrepreneur scene.
Adam talks with enthusiasm about how &Company is designed to help people to do what they dream over the long term. This is a guy who isn’t reading from the white collar professional set crib notes when he extols the virtues of combining business with social entrepreneurship.
“I’m a big believer in enabling people to help themselves as opposed to providing one off hand outs. I think business can be a strong and self sustaining supporter of charitable ideals and that we should look towards that instead of financial giving as business’ main means of charity. Bring a fishing pole and teach people how to fish for a lifetime rather than feeding them fish for one day.
I was very impressed with Anna Lise and her ethos for &Company but she understands these principles. She’s got a unique insight into the balance between business and culture. Because of that, we’ve raised $500K in capital and are seeking the right space. We’re in the business of building a sustainable business model with a great team.”
We begin in earnest with the Happy Project, but I have a deep sense we’ll be in some very interesting terrain before too long.
I ask the standard question- what the heck was this Happy Project polava all about anyway?
“As cliché as it sounds, the Happy Project began on a napkin. My brother and I saw great events promoting community and happiness. We saw colour runs and all kinds of ideas. We liked the look of the X Box Water Balloon fights, but felt the sponsorship derailed it or diminished it somehow.
The potential was awesome, but it muddied the water. We originally wanted to run an event, and it slowly morphed into the Happy Project because we wanted to keep a certain level of purity and we thought that other people would have even better ideas than ours.
The idea was to give people the opportunity to explore and demonstrate their version of happiness. We secured judges and started to focus on a format that was about bringing other people’s ideas for happiness and of happiness, to life.”
Originally, Adam and his brother didn’t want their name associated with the project. Their desire to bring money, support and infrastructure to a band of happy project people was not tied to marketing, promotion or the cheesy form of goodwill many larger corporations and professional businesses covet.
But soon, they realised that credibility and cynicism jostle for position with new ideas. And that without a name attached, the project could not be taken seriously. In fact, some advisors and contacts worried that people may actually see the idea of receiving $12,000 to get happy in the streets of Sydney as a big fat scam.
So the boys lifted the veil, put their names and reputations behind it, and pushed the big red button marked GO.
The interesting part of the process was what happened next.
“There was great diversity in the projects submitted. We saw some really good ideas and some very out there suggestions. There was a little bit of that grossness that is inherent with the happiness or self-help industry, too. It was a minefield of ideas and the challenge quickly became finding one that was the right fit.
We had to take a look at the ideas from the perspective of how it matched what we wanted in terms of project ideals. Then we had to take a further level of cuts based on how practical and possible some of these projects were to implement. After all, some people had some fantastic ideas that honestly, we couldn’t work out how it would be physically possible for them to pull it off. This is when we soon realised that the most valuable asset the Happiness Project had going for it, beyond the willingness to engage and the enthusiasm, was the team judging, supporting and running the competition,” Adam explained.
The winning Happy Project was to place strong reminders and messages of happiness around Sydney. This proposal gave maximum exposure to the population about the idea of happiness. The proposal and the person activating it seemed capable, together and well connected. The idea came with the added bonus of having some significant discount ad placement secured by the participant who pitched it, stretching the value of the initial $12K in terms of bang for buck. Billboards arrived across the city, saw people off at the airport, and started to make a change.
“It’s impossible to measure the impact the project had. And we’re well aware that some people would have looked at them and missed the message completely. That some would have recognised the intent and dismissed them due to cynicism and anger at the day or the traffic. But just as we don’t know who may not have had a positive interaction with the messages, we’ll also never know who the winner’s project may have reached at a very critical juncture.”
The city was alight with happy messages, someone got to say it was their project and the brothers also enjoyed a renewed closeness working on the project. Working with the team and the promise of reaching others and sharing the happy message made it a rewarding experience.
Despite the Happy Project bringing Adam and his brother closer on a project level and giving them an excuse to assemble a bad-ass team or see some truly wonderful ideas float around in their competition Inbox though, The Happy Project will not be Adam’s domain in 2015 or beyond.
“I think we learnt a lot from the project and what we did was a wonderful experience. But our time is done and if anyone else would like to take over the project, raise funds and give it another go we’d be happy to pass on the infrastructure. It would be great to see it continue and the learning is there to share. But for me, the next project is ensuring &Company succeeds and becomes a sustainable part of Sydney culture.”
And who can blame a hard working lawyer who is currently heavily engaged with a maker studio, has a family and also has to consider his own sanity for wanting to gift The Happy Project to another group of people that can make it shine?
From here, we moved beyond the Happy Project into questions about the challenges lawyers face as white collar professionals. We were, after all, connected by a joint interest in creating some kind of happiness through myth busting and boosting productivity by reminding people to get their giggle on.
As one half of the Hacking Happiness team (and heard from numerous law taking friends and family just how stressful being in law can be), I wanted to know what Adam thought of the challenges facing legal professionals.
“I avoid stress by being very clear about what I am trying to do and be clear about my boundaries. And I always find time- even if it’s 5 minutes in a day – to find the beauty in the little things, to remember the truly important things in life. We can walk past so many little joys as we walk to work – a curling autumn leaf, a smile between strangers, a sunrise, birdsong. But you have to remind yourself to fight for those small observations and quiet moments. You need to look at what you have, be grateful and make it work.
A friend of mine died in the surf alongside me. I tried to resuscitate him and I couldn’t. And it really drove home the knowledge you are only here once and so much of what we worry about is actually irrelevant in the great scheme of things. So I remember him and I remember not to forget these things.”
My fingers, furiously scribbling notes and trying to capture every inked word (I don’t record interviews as some weird defiance to technology) couldn’t do such an answer justice. And I remember becoming keenly aware of not having the words to respond effectively.
It is then that I understand the genesis of all great ideas. That you take them, grab hold of the joy, and go for a run to see how far it can take you.
But I am a little too flummoxed and rather shy when it comes to those kinds of moments. So I ploughed on like a peak hour train to Central and got the rest of the questions done.
Meanwhile, Adam shared with me as a favourite Buddhist quote –“instead of repaving the stony path, you put on sandals”.
And it and his projects, past and present, together with workplace advice left a definite happy impression.
As Adam asked me post interview what I intended to do, what had inspired me and why I was looking at happiness too, I felt happy. I’d gone from being a slightly nervous fan girl with an agenda to really enjoying connecting up with another person. Sydney and working life can be a rocky, barren place at times, but these kinds of connections growing through the cracking make it all the more beautiful.
I’ve certainly started noticing 5 minute pieces of joy I usually walk past a lot more.
If you’d like 120 minutes of joy and the chance to connect with other happiness seeking Sydney siders (and Illawarra blow-ins like me), join us for ‘The myth of work-life balance in a get-ahead culture’ June 7th at the MCA as part of Vivid Ideas.
Want your brain to make the sizzling sound that only firing synapses can bring? Get more of that now by signing up for my monthly newsletter now.