When I speak to Tom, he is nothing if not energetic. More than happy to take the time to chat about his work and his route into hacking and magic, Tom had a lot to say about how education has shaped him both personally and professionally.
Starting his academic career somewhat unsteadily, Tom explained that he was smart enough, but never good in class: “I was a very capable child but just very poorly managed, and I struggled to learn from people.” Despite this perceived setback, Tom flourished in the subject areas that interested him, especially through projects he took on in his own time. “One of the first things I learned to do when I was about 13 or 14 was teach myself to make simple games and animations using Flash,” he told me.
At the age of 15, Tom really got into magic. This insatiable pursuit of extra-curricular interests and the desire to consistently learn new skills meant that although Tom didn’t particularly enjoy school, he always had one project or another on the go. Far from the stereotypical ‘dropout’ archetype, Tom was, and is, determined and ambitious. It’s just that this drive has not manifested itself in a way that was previously supported by the education system.
Luckily, this hasn’t held Tom back at all. Speaking to him about university, Tom found similar struggles there. He was intelligent enough for a degree in finance, but by the time he reached his third year, he had gone through similar processes to his school career: failing classes because he wasn’t interested in their content, and spending more time on his own projects instead. Describing how he felt about the whole process, Tom said: “I’d get the highest marks for some things, like we had debates and I got 98%, the highest mark in the year. But if I wasn’t interested I’d just do the bare minimum.” Finally, Tom realised that he didn’t want to pursue a career in finance, and that he was having much more fun perfecting his magic rather than attending lectures.
However, the pressures of the education system did have its influence on Tom, as he recalls sitting in his graduation ceremony having passed his degree, but not obtained honours: “I sat there in graduation, really upset, and really disappointed. I felt like a failure,” he remembered. Luckily, as with all of the setbacks before him, Tom managed to overcome it thanks to his drive in extracurricular activities, such as magic and coding. During the fateful graduation ceremony, Tom actually received the email that was to change his life forever. “I’m sat there thinking about what a failure I am, wearing a lovely suit that I’d worked so hard to pay for, and then as everyone gets up to celebrate, an email comes through on my phone, saying ‘you’re flying to Egypt tomorrow to do a [magic] show’! It was honestly the most fun I ever had.”
Despite some of his trickier experiences with school and university, Tom does not dismiss its importance: “I think school is this really great place to facilitate your own learning, [but] you have to put [energy] into it,” he said. However, it’s the parts of formal education that allow for and facilitate creativity that Tom really values: “It’s hard, because when you start out at school, it’s all ‘sit here, do this’, and you get into this rut, where it’s ‘my way or the highway’, until you’re 13 or 14 when you start your GCSEs and start to break out a little bit. I think it’s so important when you hit A-levels that you realise not to pick [subjects] because you want to get a good job, but to pick those three things that you love most.”
In order to change the way education works, to embrace this creativity and exploration, Tom thinks that schools need to be able to harness the tech at their disposal to really make the most of its educational capabilities. Of course, one of the problems here is that teachers are nervous about implementing tech they’re unfamiliar with, and often don’t have the training to do so. This is where free online tools come in handy, said Tom: “[Teachers can] go online, get the tutorial; there’s no shame in that.”
In terms of advice for students that are interested in getting into hacking, coding, and magic, Tom says that magic is “a good thing to get into, because it requires ultimate failure; the first time you do a trick, everyone’s going to see how it’s done. So you’re going to have to take that [experience] and learn [from it].” This resilience is a skill that has been much touted as essential by educators all over the world, not least by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology who is best known for her research on and advocacy of the ‘growth mindset’; in short, learning from failure. Tom has certainly had experiences with failure, not just in things he wasn’t interested in, but inevitably in his magic too. In 2017, Tom appeared on America’s Got Talent and despite being well-received by judges, was aware that he wasn’t going to win: “Of course I wasn’t going to win that show, but it’s about being able to take a thousand hits and saying, ‘up we get, let’s do it again’. I wish that’s something that kids learned from a young age, that it’s OK to make a mistake.”
On the topic of hacking, Tom described it as “taking something and breaking it apart”, and that looking at the tech in your house, and thinking “what do I have that I want to be able to do something cool with?” is a great jumping-off point. Even better than this, said Tom, is to invest in a small codable computer which is reasonably priced, and can introduce you to the rudiments of coding: “Buy a cheap piece of kit, write five lines of code and learn how to turn an LED on and off, and then before you know it you’ll be like “OK, cool, I’ve built a gesture-sensitive light show, and it’s only taken a few days.” But, said Tom, although practice and perseverance are important, it is the knowledge that you’re doing what you love that is the most meaningful: “Know deep down that you are special because you’re building things and you’re doing something that you love, and it’s really going to pay off in the long run, it always will.”
For more information on Tom, and how he uses hacking in his magic shows, head to tomlondonmagic.com.