Earlier today, I gave a talk at the annual conference which my team holds each September. It’s a two-day conference called “Let’s Talk Research“, and this year the theme was “Edge Walking”. This talk is my contribution to the conference:
In the film, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” from 1962 based on a short story by Allan Sillitoe , a teenage boy, Colin Smith, is in a borstal (what we would now call a Young Offenders Institute, I think). The Governor realises that he is a good runner and gets him to compete against boys from the local public school – he wants to prove something!
And for me there are 3 key themes in that film that relate to research, to the loneliness of the long distance researcher:
• first, the importance of the Quest, the challenges we set ourselves
• second, the film is about class struggle in early 1960s Britain – so, there is something about pushing the boundaries or edge walking
• third, we must have trust from someone in authority to walk that edge
But first, I want to tell you about my own personal journey. The Academy of Creative Minds has really helped me with this. I don’t normally talk on such a personal level – usually it’s all objective and professional, this will be different.
Becoming a researcher is like running a marathon, or climbing a mountain. It’s lonely at times, exhausting, frustrating and exhilarating at others!Like running it’s so often about the mind believing that we can do it.Like climbing a mountain – you think you are nearly at the top – but it’s just another false summit!
Here’s a quick story to illustrate:
I was 36 years old. 15 years of asking the same question and always the same answer – NO – until 1997.
That was the year that I had my annual review with Peter, Peter Rowe. Peter was my boss – Head of Performance Management in the Region.
“Stuart, this re-organisation is getting messy. I need to look after my team. Is there anything in your personal development that I could help you with?”
And I said “Peter, I have wanted to do a PhD since I graduated from Liverpool back in 1982. Can I do it?”
He said yes!
At last the journey could begin…
It’s a long distance run, a PhD.
Mine took 7 years – my third child, Theo, was born, my mother became ill and died. Life events happen.
It was a real slog.Confusing at the start, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end when you reach the finish line!
And it’s lonely…
That’s why I have been leading the work with the R&D Team that I have for the last 11 years.
• It was never about the top of the tree for me
• Never just about ambition … job titles
• It was about changing things for the better
When we connect with the still and quiet voice within us… that voice brings passion and commitments to do something, to make a change
Doing anything out of the ordinary is TRICKY, being a researcher is SCARY as well as EXCITING.
That’s why the work I lead creates chance to:
• build communities
• and above all be curious
What would the world be like if we were all full of curiosity, always wanting to do things better
…we live in a world where it is possible to find the answer to questions immediately. We have smart phones in our pockets that give us access to enormous resources of information, to answers and yet more questions.
…and Research is all about questions:
I worked through many questions as I prepared to do a PhD:
For me the questions were about change:
Why do we change organisations, to solve problems that aren’t solved and just create more problems?
I guess, at least everyone ends up with a new job title.
How can we reframe change to make it possible for people to thrive in organisations and do what they came into the NHS to do – to improve the health and healthcare of patients?
Why do people do PhDs? There are many reasons…
For me? I wanted to prove something to myself.
I was born curious. We all are. I wanted somewhere to play with that curiosity.
The journey – the run – it’s a long distance run, a challenge to be taken seriously
We need preparation for that run…
For me there were 4 main issues:
- Isolation – I found other part-time students and met them regularly, I found a few mentors to talk my ideas through with, I set up a learning set, and I kept a learning journal
- Lack of Confidence – it’s a battle with the inner critic to get to the final thesis, the dissertation or whatever. A struggle for self belief – to think that you are good enough to do a doctorate
- Originality – research contributes something new to the knowledge. That’s why it’s so exciting. You don’t know you are THERE until you are THERE.
- Focus – getting things done. It’s so easy to avoid writing up! Especially when you walk through the kitchen and the fridge calls you, daytime TV is on, and the dog needs a walk. And I don’t even have a dog!
It really is like running a race and not being sure where the finish line is until you suddenly realise you have passed it…
… And the day arrived
I was waiting outside the room for my viva – the time you have to defend your thesis.
Three people took 2 hours to go through my thesis and take it apart.
Was it scary?
Only until the start of the conversation.
Then I had 2 glorious hours to talk about 7 years of work – and in that moment I am the expert on my own little bit of the universe of knowledge.
It’s the only time in your whole life when 3 people show that level of interest – and have actually read it! It was exhilarating!
And the next journey began…
In the film, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, Colin Smith doesn’t win the big race. He runs on well ahead of all the others – but he stops just before the line and lets the other boys beat him. An act of defiance, an act of free spirit and independence. Something we all need to become researchers and free thinkers!
So you see, it’s a personal journey that drives the work, the work that I now lead…
NHS R&D North West exists to support people as they embark on THEIR big QUEST, which could be a research career or a journey in research.
We exist to help researchers as they deal with the sense of being different, of not fitting in.
That is why we called this conference Edge Walking –
we are all edge walkers in some sense
we all need people to support us
as we walk the edges of organisations
and challenge the status quo.
You are amongst friends…