Artist by choice. Curious Optimist by heart. Michael Chandler requires no introduction to the South African creative sphere. We sat down with the Capetonian merchant, maker and ‘motivator of all things positive’ to chat about his curatorial practice and what it means to remain optimistic about the stories and humans of our country.
Michael’s many colourful anecdotes and vibrant ideas deserve pages in a book, but in order to rope in as much of Michael’s positivity we decided to give you the raw answers that came out during the interview.
Background, keeping your ground and trusting yourself.
I found myself to feel unfulfilled with regards to creativity. I worked for a respectable establishment, but realised that I had to start doing something to stimulate me fully. So I started taking ceramic classes in the evenings - one thing led to another and the next thing I was 25, saying that I’ve got nothing to lose. I knew that my current salary at the time would lock me down for the rest of my life and so I thought, let’s try something. At the time I was fortunate to live with my family, so the risk was quite low.
I kept pushing forward and worked harder. You work 80 hours for yourself, instead of 40 hours for someone else. I loved it! I was here all day on Saturdays - as I was yesterday - I still absolutely love it.
Eventually the hard work helped to build a little community with artists and buyers. These things start happening and you realise, ‘my life’s actually really amazing,’ I’m not going to get this if I was taking a different path. It’s always been a case of going with my heart and gut and it leads you down the most glorious paths. Of course there are still these - you know - little bumps, but as you get older and start standing your ground you also start to find your voice.
And then as with positivity it becomes a feedback loop. Wherever you go you’ll start to say ‘wow I’m so glad I did this idea that I was not quite sure of what I was doing.’ You get affirmation from the outside and that teaches you to trust that voice from within.
How to deal with bumps down the line.
I’ve carried a certain whimsey throughout my life. Finding my joy is really about feeding this youthfulness - maybe it’s a naivety. I get in a lot of trouble with seeing the best in people and then getting my fingers ‘gebrand’. You then lick your wounds, you get back up and you meet other people - positivity will attract them. I’ve just always been quite a positive person and believe that you both attract more positive people into your life and in time grow further in your shared positivity.
A friend of mine was building a hospital in Liberia. I asked him how it was going to which he responded:
“Michael, we live in Africa - we have to be positive. If we’re not, we might as well curl up and die.”
It’s so simple and can be seen as so obvious, but it really stuck with me. You have to take that attitude and make it your default setting.
SA on a positivity scale.
It really does feel like it could go anywhere, but I think that the magic is captured in that uncertainty. Because nothing is set yet - instead it’s a petri dish experiment. What is going to come out? Are we expecting a Frankenstein monster currently still in the formaldehyde? Or will it be this wonderful thing that brings positive change. I for one like to think that it’s going be a very positive thing. I really live by Mahadma Ghandi’s saying of being the change you want to see. I try to share that with people - whether it’s through picking up trash on Lion’s head or the typical ‘when they complain’ situation.
I’m personally very positive about this country. People are just holding their breath a bit. Everyone seems to have taken a step back to see what’s going to happen next. My hope is that they’ll see an opportunity where they can be the change.
Being hopeful against the feed.
There are these rare moments in sport, where we win, and hopefulness starts to shine through. That is a kind of joy that does not come out of a country that is ultimately bleak. It has to be symptomatic of the shared hope that we all have as South Africans. When there was that big march against Jacob Zuma and we had the EFF and DA coming together - the red suits and the Constantia aunties - that was symptomatic of a lot of people sharing a sense of hope. You don’t protest unless you think you can make a difference. You’ve given up otherwise and that would defeat the purpose.
There are these little slithers - you can see it, hear it and feel it, but it doesn’t happen that much. I definitely think that South Africa has become better. I’m definitely not going to take part in the ‘ugh it’s gotten worse’ sentiment. On the other hand there might simply be some people that think it’s not getting better fast enough.
The Future of SA.
I’m very excited about what the future holds and I don’t think people are going to recognize it in 20 years time. That bit really excites me. Again, it could go either way, but I feel like this country does believe it’s going in a positive direction. If you’re not blinded by headlines, you can literally see it.
It’s quite interesting for the psychology of a country to have that freshness. I suppose that freshness lends to an idea of positivity - things are changeable. We’re trying to wrestle this glacier of a culture that goes back all the way to the north pole. We’re dealing with something that can be fashioned. At least we like to think it can, maybe it’s an illusion.
“You can’t look forward if you keep on looking back”
I’m a big fan of that. A stylish person never turns back to see who’s finding them to be stylish.
Battling shyness and really connecting.
There’s a word that I love - grace. If we all exhibited grace then everything else would fit into place. It’s a very big word for me. Especially in those little moments of greeting people and simply smiling at people. Why is everyone on the back foot a bit? Like where can they attack someone or put someone down as opposed to do the opposite and build someone up instead, encourage them. All of those little moments from queing in the shopping line to waiting in the bus; instead of plugging in and pretending you’re not in a space with other people, we need to lower the walls and engage. All of this negative barking on Facebook nonsense that people think will change the world - conversations in an Echo chamber - why don’t you have these conversations with your plumber or colleague?
I’m quite a shy person. There’s something I’m aware of that I’m not quite so good at as I’d like to be - connections. Connections can use less explicit, subtle nuances and I think it’s more powerful than barking through bits on a server to bring change.
How to be successful.
Be as open to criticism as you can. It’s really hard, but at the end of the day it’s the ultimate gift you can receive. There’s a lot to be said about criticism, but if you want to avoid it I’d say follow the money. It sounds really bad, but like I am really good at doing certain things and less efficient at doing others. So I’ve invested more time to develop those things that I am good at. It greatly reduces the time your work will take and the effort it will require because it comes more easily to you.
Outsource everything that you aren’t good at doing, because you’ll soon start to lose time trying to accomplish them and time is money, so there you have it.
A personal take on positivity.
I suppose positivity is the belief that things can be even better than it is right now. Positivity is also about lifting up other people. So maybe your positivity or your quality of life stays at the same level, but you want to share that drive. If my positivity can spread to you, then there will be more of it and more positive situations can grow out of this shared sentiment.
It’s like Lucy over here, who’ll compliment people regularly and sincerely. She gets invited to every party you wish you could attend because people want to be around someone that adds to them - Lucy adds vast amounts of positivity.
Vocalise your values.
Let’s rather talk about these positive things and let’s leave the negativity behind. We’re not gonna give you airtime - so stop your nonsense and join the party, there’s lots of space for everyone. The hope is that it can take over and encroach upon more lives. People will soon start to realize that it won’t get anyone anywhere useful if they remain negative. So change your tune.
I suppose at its core positivity is about creating an abundance - you know, when you think about inviting someone ‘cause they’re positive to the table, you’re not inviting them ‘cause they’re good looking or wealthy, but they’re bringing in an abundance of more possibility.
"Positivity is almost like the incubator for opportunity."
Our personal takeaway.
Michael’s approach reminded us that you can’t count your bad mornings or blue Mondays. Once you start counting you’ll start failing, because greater numbers only make for a heavier and unnecessary load. There is no “ah, I’ve had enough of this now.” You have to wake up, get up and go at it again. If you feel like emotions and negative sentiment lives at the forefront of your attitude, then be sure to check out Adam Grant’s Worklife Podcast on Faking your emotions at work where a call centre employee will further inform your perspective on a positive approach.
Kind Regards, The JA. Team