1st May 2018


10 people you should know in the world of wellbeing: Rubens Filho from Abracademy

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“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious”.

I know a lot of people quote Einstein, but this is particularly powerful to me. In many ways, I actually do think it takes special people to hold onto their curiosity, and courageously apply it in all aspects of their lives – being intellectually curious, being curious about other people’s behaviour, being curious about their own thoughts and feelings – and so on.

Another quote on curiosity from Ian Leslie I really like:

“Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant”.

I think in many ways this might be why we lose the sense of unbridled curiosity we have as children with a constant loop of “Why? Why? Why?” spilling out of our uncensored mouths. Education systems and universal child rearing practices steer us away from impulsivity and perceived deviance from norms to an approved pathway, which arguably dissolves curiosity if the above is true.

When I think about curiosity as a prerequisite for our happiness, a quote from Brené Brown comes to mind: “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty”.

Uncertainty – the dirty word for a recovering perfectionist like myself with an over-controller persona learning to take the backseat! But with uncertainty there is so much untapped potential for growth so if we are willing to entertain the unknown, we open ourselves up to a magical world of opportunity… And that’s where Rubens Filho comes into the picture.

I met Rubens for the first time when I found myself in front of the audience at a Minds@Work event. Rubens is the Co-Founder and CEO (aka Director of Spells – how about that for a role title?!) of a learning and development company that leverages magic to support organisations undergoing change and individuals on journeys of transformation, Abracademy.

By chance I was selected to join him in the performance of a card trick which inevitably left me stumped. In his presentation Rubens talked about how magic incites us to think outside the box – it’s not just a rabbit in a hat. Our brains search for all possible logical reasons as to why something has happened, and when there is no connection that can be concreted, we start tapping into our imagination. Having worked with teams in my current role on increasing innovation and risk taking to create continuous improvement, this resonated, and it also clicked as to why he was speaking at a wellbeing event – personal exploration and growth are at the heart of our wellbeing. So I’d like to invite you into Rubens’ world by sharing some of his insights from our chat.

This stereotype that magic is a rabbit in a hat – how do you deconstruct this and relate magic to meaningful aspects of our day-to-day lives? Then specifically, can you comment on the value you believe it adds when brought into the workplace?

“Our point of departure is that the world needs more magic. Not only rabbits in a hat but also the magic of people. Organisational life is particularly dry. It’s full of pain. People are scared of losing their jobs, of feeling inadequate, of being exposed in front of others. It’s terrible.

How do we do that?

Behind the symbol there is an extraordinary world that encompasses human behaviours, connection, the power of metaphors, storytelling, attention control, decision making, beliefs, wonder, creativity. The list is long and incredibly powerful and broad.

Magic makes tangible the beauty of being human and our surprising limitations. It also allows us to exercise our humanity. In a world of technology we need to be more human, we need to empathise more, to connect on different levels, to be more creative.

Abracademy uses all this richness as a tool for people, team and organisational development. It blends magic, facilitation and learning design to help us learn and grow deeper and better.

And why better? For learning, specifically, magic brings the element of play. And when we play our body releases dopamine making it easier for us to retain information and learn. When you blend this together with great learning design, structured content, you have a world of magical possibilities.

There is also something powerfully magical when one envisages the future of organisations. They need trusted environments and people who feel comfortable in their own shoes and can bring themselves fully to work. They need to reconsider the way they work and revisit their assumptions, like magicians do. Organisations need to dream and wonder again. Make the impossible, possible, as we often say. Organisations need magic”.

Furthermore, there is a scientific basis for the use of magic changing how we think! Rubens mentioned he has a neuroscientist in his team who connects engaging with magic with important thinking and decision-making processes. He shared what he believes to be some of the most interesting neuroscience evidence base on this linkage:

“For millennia, magicians have been studying and exploring the mechanisms of human cognition in order to make the impossible possible. By trial and error magicians have acquired an intuitive knowledge of how the human brain works. This ‘instruction manual’ that has been carefully passed from masters to apprentices constitutes, today, an endless source of unexplored theories for neuroscientists and psychologists. In fact, magicians and scientists have started to share experience and knowledge in order to design new experimental paradigms that could shed light to unknown (or not yet understood) mechanisms of cognitive processes such as perception, memory, decision making, etc.

We are currently working in partnership with Goldsmiths University and the Science of Magic Association (SOMA) to further explore this new field of research.

The most important work done in terms of decision making and magic was the one done by Peter Johansson and Lars Hall, two neuroscientists that described a phenomenon called “Choice Blindness”. They demonstrated using a clever magic trick that after we make a decision, we confabulate when trying to explain the real reasons why we made that particular choice… The funny thing is that Johansson et al. secretly swapped the chosen item, and give to the participant a totally different one. Then when participants were asked to explain why they chose that item they started giving lots of different reasons (confabulating)… Although they never chose that particular object. Surprising to say the least”.

Sitting down with Rubens it is so easy to see how passionate he is about what he does, and I can tell you it was infectious amongst the attendees at Minds@Work.

So what personal impact has magic had on Rubens as a cherished hobby in his life, as well as when he coaches others to self-discover?

“I started magic in my teenage years listening to a ‘call’ from my creative side. I was bored by that time and I felt I had to try something different. The impact of magic in my life has been multifold. First, I learned more about myself. How do I behave in front of people? What calls people’s attention when I interact with them? How do I react when things go wrong? Second, I learned how to speak in public. How to take every presentation as a little performance. When I started to perform on stage that gave me even more confidence. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone a lot and learned I could try amazing things. Magic nurtured my social skills. It is not only because you approach people anywhere, but also because it creates amazing conversations. Magic helped me connect with people from all walks of life. It is also a universal language – quite handy if you are travelling around the world.

The magic community has had a profoundly positive impact in my life too. Facilitating people to share secrets and discuss possibilities is a special bonding experience. Another powerful aspect of magic is the support it gives to you when moments are harsh. When stress takes over, your relationship goes wrong, or your mind gets stuck, magic is great medicine for anxiety, stress or panic attacks. It is an activity that you can always go back to that helps you focus and be in the moment!

All these learnings over three decades gave me great insight to coach other people, and an incredible understanding of magic as a learning tool. Magic works amazingly well to break down barriers between people. It works well to help individuals to find their voice. It supports everyone to discovers themselves so they can take responsibility for their behaviours and feelings.

It works exceptionally well as an equaliser putting a trainee and a CEO at the same level. It breaks down silos. Magic brilliantly shows that people can learn new things too – and that is quite empowering”.

So undoubtedly magic has contributed to Rubens’ happiness for some time! Off the back of this I asked him to comment on how engagement with magic allows people to have meaningful conversations around wellbeing, especially mental health:

“There is engaging with magic and there is a magical mindset. They are both game changing.

It is not easy to talk about ourselves. It is even harder to acknowledge and share vulnerabilities and emotions. For many people it is almost impossible. Magic facilitates this conversation. It starts as play and evolves as the doors open. It ends with pure discovery.

At Abracademy, we create a trusted environment so participants can be themselves and express themselves. They can say the truth because it helps to create wonder. If you are safe enough to be yourself, half of the problems are solved.

There are many other elements. Self-awareness is key. Communication skills. Learning to listen properly (‘active listening’) and speak clearly. Learning also that we are different and that we all have our greatness! We are all magicians 🙂 The amazing Claire. The fantastic Paul. The incredible, unique, mind blowing Hannah. It is our goal to support people unleashing their magic.

Another important aspect is to make people experience things beyond their brain. There is the heart, there is intuition, there is the spiritual level and energy. Magic inspires through metaphors, engages through play and it can be used as a canvas for people to say things. Also, being a hands-on activity it creates unforgettable shared experiences”.

If you are safe enough to be yourself, half of the problems are solved. Yes!

So since we were chatting so much about wellbeing, I asked Rubens what ‘wellbeing’ means to him:

“I love this question because this is quite a subjective matter. We should never forget the individual and what makes her or him feel good.

Wellbeing is when we live a well-balanced life, when our own resources are good enough to meet the challenges we face in our everyday life. It includes emotions, meaning, achieving goals, friendships and relationships in general. Wellbeing is also about care. It is about respecting ourselves and remembering that we need to take care of ourselves first so we can contribute to others and the world. It is not about being happy all the time. We can’t feel great or happy or perfect all the time. But as long as we are self-aware of our current state and act immediately if an important line is crossed, we should be able to cope. A very important skill is to be able to acknowledge our emotions, understand how we are being impacted by them and operate under more difficult situations – by doing this we will be able to deal with challenges”.

Abracademy has worked with the likes of Vodafone, HSBC, First Direct, Hearst Magazines, Latham & Watkins, Royal Museums Greenwich, Pivotal, Made by Many, Freeformers, Adaptive Lab, and Twitter. I asked Rubens to comment on what is the biggest impact he has seen in individuals and teams they have worked with regarding how engagement with magic changed people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in the midst of change management processes:

“In the last three years as we used magic in this quite innovative way, I have seen magic do more than in my whole life. I lost count of how many people came to thank Abracademy for the “magical” experience. I have seen people who were scared about a change of role after a day workshop feel like they could do the new job, or people who were struggling to work together deal with anger and lack of trust. I have seen people accept digital and feel empowered to progress in their careers. I have seen people feeling safe, building trust and showing gratitude. I have also seen people showing different hues of their personality, being more themselves at work – and more creative. What a difference this makes. When you are not working to please your boss and when you have less fear, organisations become lighter and better.

We often forget how magical it can be to work as a group. To accept and grow through diversity. We have brought together teams going through a hard time during mergers, different cultures blending and aligning. We taught them to speak powerfully, but also to listen carefully. We discuss empathy and how it is a powerful mechanism that allows us to be stronger together. On top of that, what a relief it is when you don’t have to pretend anymore. When you stop the culture of blaming and create something new, together, now you are in the same team”.

And how about projects he is most proud of?

“We had a massive project with HSBC which was all about empowering the workforce to embrace a more digital role and to support them feeling more comfortable in going through this daunting journey. Through our Magic Mindset we enabled this workforce to see they had the skills to embrace the new position. Futhermore, with belief in themselves and their team, and respect for each others’ differences and pace whilst learning, they could reshape the industry and deal with change in a quite natural, exciting way. With all the fears left on the table, they could reconnect to the magical side of themselves and of the work they do, and could step forward to create greater things.

Other projects I am proud of is what we…

…are doing at Royal Museum of Greenwich, where we are empowering female teenagers to perform at a special event at the museum. For two months we have been working with girls from two different schools in South London, many times from quite tough upbringings. We are teaching them magic and they will perform at the Queens House to a selected audience of mentors who can support these girls in shaping their future. The conversation will be activated by their magic and inspired by Queen Elizabeth I, who was a true symbol of female power and influence in the world’s history. Magic comes as a tool, but was also inspired by the relationship Elizabeth nurtured with John Dee, her advisor, alchemist, astronomer and magician.

…are doing at Gloucester House, which is part of Tavistock Portman Trust. We work with a group of kids with mental health challenges. Our approach allows kids to interact in different ways, try new things, become more confident and break out of their shells and understand that they are amazing”.

Now these are initiatives I can stand behind. I am truly so pleased I have crossed paths with Rubens and to share this with my network. I can’t wait to see where Abracademy goes. So a call to action off the back of my post: Embrace the magic that the unknown and the uncertain has to offer in your life!

About the author 

Kendelle Tekstar - Acre Framewokrs

Kendelle Tekstar is a trained psychological researcher with a Master’s degree from King’s College London and expertise in psychological diagnostics and assessment. As product manager of Acre’s bespoke HSE assessment, learning and development tool, Acre Frameworks, she supports the non-technical development and empowerment of HSE teams to become more effective.