The Loneliness of the Long Distance Researcher

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.

He said:

“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:

•   connect
•   collaborate
•   create
•   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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

I passed

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…

Thank you.

 

What are you good at?

FullSizeRenderIt’s an exercise I attempted a while back. Probably six months ago. I sat with a blank piece of paper and set out to write a list of 100 things that I am good at. It was hard, really difficult. Modesty kept kicking in. A voice inside me kept saying, well yes you’re quite good at that but not as good as (insert any name). And then I wrestled with the whole concept of good – well, what does good mean? How do I decide whether I am good at something or just average?
In the end, after the list had reached 10 things I decided it was time to cut loose and come back to it. I scheduled to return to this list every week at the same time and add to it until it reached 100 things. No excuses – each time I wrote on the list I had to add 10 things.
It was gruelling! Difficult to find new things each time I sat down. But over time as I worked away at the list adding things that I knew something about, hobbies, ways in which I approached the world, types of food and drink that I had made an effort to find out about. Well, the list just grew.
Each time I sat down again with that list, I would begin by reading through what was there. It was encouraging to revisit it and notice that I had put down what I had.
The list wasn’t for anyone else. It was just for me – to look at what I think I am good at (not better than or the best, just good at) and use that list to focus myself into things that I want to spend time on.
Why don’t you try it too?

The Talk of My Life

ConcertHall1-640x360It began with sharing TED Talks with the team. We all watched Brene Brown and Benjamin Zander. It was inspiring. Then there was Susan Cain – on introversion, and it made the team think differently about how we spend time together.
Then we began to explore the ideas in the Academy of Creative Minds – this was a concept developed late last year where we commissioned a team of creatives to work with us on a programme that would introduce creative techniques to researchers and other healthcare workers. Three reasons – to look at ways that creative techniques can improve communication of evidence, to look for ways that creative techniques can be incorporated into research methods, and to pursue a personal journey of transformation.
What does all this have to do with the talk of my life? As the journey through the Academy programme continued, I found myself working on the talk that I would give at the conference in September where all of the various creative projects would be presented.
Typically, when I speak to large groups I have a hastily written note and a rough idea of what I need to cover, and then I improvise. It sort of works!
For this situation that has all changed. It’s a case of unlearning and relearning. Stripping a whole talk back down to the basics, putting it together line by line like one would a play. And then rehearsing it to death – until I have memorised it.
Now, I have always told myself that I don’t have the sort of brain that can memorise large amounts of information – especially lines to be recited. I have always been hugely impressed with actors, with people who speak without notes and are clearly working on lines they have learnt. It’s all very impressive.
The flaw in my thinking was to assume that this is an innate skill that some have and others don’t. True, it’s not easy for me – but it is something that I can master with hours of gruelling practise.
By the time I get onto the platform in front of the conference audience in September I will have learnt the whole thing by repeating in some 50 or 60 times. I will have honed the words for maximum effect. With the support of the Creative Team at the Academy of Creative Minds I will have work out how to emphasise specific words and get the tone right. It’s a huge amount of work. Especially massive, compared to the improvisation I usually apply.
The whole process has shown me how much I can achieve when I put my mind to it. It has demonstrated to me that there are all sorts of assumptions about what we can and can’t do, about raw natural talent – many of which are just myths. It’s about hard work, focus and having skilled people around to push me when I am faltering and not sure what works and what doesn’t.
I may be getting a bit tired of the talk itself. But as it slowly improves it does also feel like I am finding my way back into it again. By the time I present it I will be alive with the talk again. And I do plan to drop a new section into it to make it more alive on the day.
Am I looking forward to delivering the talk of my life? In a strange sort of way, I think I am. It will be the talk of my life – until the next time I use these techniques on another talk. And onwards.

A Paper Thread

There’s a paper thread, a trail, a trace
that leads all the way back to the government

We wondered why we had not been called upon
felt slightly queasy, a little on edge

Then realised that it was all up for grabs –
specious, she said, a waste of voice

And there were protestors too, thousands and thousands
making their voices heard in the frozen city air

Nowhere to be seen in the newspapers, they were busy
photographing the heir to the throne sitting on a chair

We get the media we deserve, so the wealthy owners tell us
and the misgivings of governments are washed away by distraction

Nothing to see here, pass along now, look at that bright shiny story
and as if we were goldfish, we swim off, mouths open in disbelief.

Rough music cuts – a 30 day exercise

#WorkingOutLoud

… a note taken from Evernote, which I produced recently. This is one of a series of ideas for developing new material over a 30 day period. This is the note without edit:


Take 15 minutes each day, make it a repeating task in Remember the Milk for those 30 days (weekdays only? so will take 6 weeks to complete) In the 15 minutes I open Garageband and work with sounds, develop some sound files. The aim would be to develop a minimum of 10 sound pieces in the time available. Work swiftly, honour mistakes – perhaps look for inspiration from Oblique Strategies. When possible, ensure the music is hugely experimental. Look at the software that Mark Rushton uses. Record voice – spoken and singing. Over the 7 1/2 hours devoted to this I should be able to build up some interesting ideas – and above all else, develop some confidence in working with sound.

This was the process which I used to create the ‘Blue‘ album. I am about to embark on it again for the “Difficult Second Album”. Wish me luck!

A Body of Work for the Bin?

Henri MATISSE, Jazz, Paris, 1947
Henri MATISSE, Jazz, Paris, 1947

The concept of creating a body of work was a concept I had heard of before, but when I came across the book by Pamela Slim, that was where I found the idea expanded upon. This wasn’t just about books or paintings or films or whatever creative venture we turn our attention to. She describes our body of work as how we bring ourselves into the world.

It was a really good read! Then a couple of weeks ago I had a chat on Skype with Doug Shaw who I had met on the Social Age Safari in Bristol. He shared with me his thoughts about creating / painting for the bin. We had begun by talking about our common interest in Impermanence. For Doug, this was at the heart of his ideas of creating for the bin. The concept was very much about seeing creativity as a process that has taken from it all of the preciousness that we can so easily apply to it. If we are not careful we restrict ourselves by seeing ‘creativity’ as a high level action that requires great skill and genius to achieve. This is the basis of a view that helps the Inner Critic and the Procrastinator-in-Residence to grow and flourish. Using Doug’s idea we can let go of this and see creation as something we do without any thought to an end point, an audience waiting with expectation or a ‘career’ in the arts. Instead we work from a space where the child can play, where there are no judgements.

After the conversation I was struck by the way that this idea is at odds with the concept of building a body of work.

Could I bring these two seemingly conflicting ideas into alignment? I think this is possible. Regarding the creative process as disposable is a way of freeing ourselves up to be playful and experimental. We can try things out and not worry about what the end result looks like. Above all, we can be ready to throw things away if they don’t work.

Generating volume, being prolific in the generation stage without worrying about quality is a way to open ourselves up. At a later stage in the process we can go through the work that we have created and decide what is ready for the bin and what we will keep. This is the stage where we are forming defined ideas about the body of work that we are building.

So, they are different stages in the overall process.

Doug referred to the prolific output of Matisse as we spoke – a big influence on his own art work. Matisse’s jazz prints are a stunning example of experimenting, taking things back to simple ideas and creating something that has endured and can be found in many forms, on T-shirts, mugs, prints, postcards etc etc. So many ways to share these images – and all of them impermanent, disposable. Another example of impermanence.

HT to Doug for inspiring these ramblings!

Safari Reflections

The Health & Safety song sung by Selby and Catherine Burke
The Health & Safety song sung by Selby and Catherine Burke

So… a couple of weeks has passed since I returned from the Social Age Safari in Bristol. The last three posts have some details about the three day event and if you want to see more you can look at the website and the twitter feed at #socialagesafari.

I thought I would wait a little before posting reflections on the event.  In this post I will give a short description of the third day, followed by my own reflections on the event, divided into what worked, what didn’t work and what I learnt. This will be a slightly longer post than usual.

The third day of the Social Age Safari began early again at 8.0 and had a seamless agenda running through to the close which was scheduled for 16.00.

Like the previous days, there were no breaks in the agenda. Something was scheduled for every moment of the day. It was up to us as delegates to decide what to dip into and out of. Being excited and curious about the whole process I was probably a little over-enthusiastic and dipped into too many things, which meant that my input dipped on the third day as I went into a more passive mode.

Julian takes us down into the engine room to show how the safari was planned

We had a couple of really useful talks from Julian Stodd to frame the learning that we were absorbing, we did a further hack, and there were creative sessions too. These were hugely inspiring and consisted of a session on a magazine launched by the Sea Salt team called =Q@l (pronounced equal) it has brilliant ideas behind it. Limited to 100 copies, full of provocative articles aimed at generating debate and argument.

Kris Halpin demonstrates how to use Mi.Mu Gloves
Kris Halpin demonstrates how to use Mi.Mu Gloves

The other creative session featured a music charity called Drake Music and a musician called Kris Halpin. The charity works with the tech community to create free or very cheap solutions to technical problems that enable disabled musicians to play music. Kris demonstrated a fantastic technique using motion sensitive gloves and a MacBook. The technology was developed for Imogen Heap and is being used by Kris to enable him to make music. It was a brilliant session.

The day ended really skilfully with a well thought through leaving ceremony. This included making a note of the key things we were going to take away and who we were going to link with. This message was copied with carbon paper (remember carbon paper from the days of typewriters?) and then one copy was to take away and the other we put into a bottle and closed the lid. These bottles were then all dropped into a barrel as we shook hands with and hugged crew members as we passed off the “ship” and left the event.

It was beautifully choreographed.

bristolThen on the train back I slowly wound down and absorbed what I had experienced.

There was lots of talk about technology throughout the event. But I can’t help thinking that it is the connections between people through whatever medium that really matters. Whilst I love using apps and tech, social is more about the conversation. About curiosity and a passion to find out about others. To weave together the tapestry of stories so that they make sense in my own little space in the world. And to process three days of learning and connecting until they make sense and I can integrate some of the key ideas into what I do, how I do it and who I do it with.

The following week, I began to curate a Storify of the tweets that took place during the event. I thought it would be useful to gather them all into one place and dip back into the whole event through so many different perspectives. This proved more difficult than I thought it would as there were so many tweets. Storify has a limit of 1000 tweets – I got to 1500 and hadn’t captured them all. So many ideas, so much capture, so much sharing and so much energy.

The learning for me is still slowly sinking in. Often it is said, that when we experience any sort of training event, the initial learning at the end of the event is really high and that it tails off as we get back into the familiarity of our lives.

In this case, it felt as though the learning continued after the event finished. I kept up tweeting and connecting with people who I had met. Reading blog posts and emails too, the whole process continued to social learning that had begun in Bristol. This looks like a set of techniques that make learning much more “sticky” and dynamic.

Julian introduced the event on the Wednesday evening saying that it was highly experimental and that he expected only 50% of what we did to work, and 50% to fail.

Reflecting with a couple of weeks having passed, I suspect the success rate was higher than 50% and like all good experimental processes, where there was failure it was a great learning experience.

For example, on the second day and into the third day, the relentless agenda was causing many people to lose the ability to think clearly. I suspect there was just too much to take in. It would be helpful to build in passive, reflective time into the agenda. This would particularly help the more introverted participants who would have found the structure overwhelming at times.

The visual elements of the event, together with the overall rehearsed structure worked really well. This helped to set a prevailing culture for us to work within. I felt very connected into the wider community from the outset. The use of wrist bands and passports helped to build a strong sense of community. The newspaper that was created and went live during the event helped to build shared ownership of process. The use of hackathon methods helped us to connect and work together, although at times I think the groups foundered with the topics they were given and the feedback process didn’t really work, as these things often don’t!

The whole event has left a real mark on me. It felt like one of the most significant learning opportunities I have experienced and will be something that I will talk about for years to come. I was inspired with new ideas, new people to connect with, and new projects to start.

A window on the world

Day Two of the Social Age Safari took place yesterday. 40 people in the room and over 100 people online. Using iPhones and iPads, the wider community had the opportunity to listen in to sessions and also to have their say through video links and Twitter.

The connectivity, curation and hosting has been incredibly well managed by Julian Stodd’s team at Sea Salt Learning.

It has been the opportunity for me to connect with so many new people from around the world. The conversations have been lively and punctuated with new information, new ideas and thought provoking challenge. It has been the biggest opportunity to engage with people from different sectors to my own.

During the break at 17.0 I went to meet Phillip Kingsbury and Laura Williams who were working on the event newspaper which was issued at regular intervals throughout the event. I really enjoyed learning about the geeky processes behind this and the backup in place in case no-one made contributions. It is a sign of the levels of engagement at this event that Laura and Phillip have been inundated with contributions.

Through the long long day (began at 8.0 and finished at 23.0) we took part in two hacks to unpack what we mean by social learning, social leadership and the social age. The conversations in these hacks were fabulous. Groups of 8-12 people working together on three key questions to develop responses. There were also breakout sessions on blogging and graffiti at lunchtime, and further breakouts on approaches to large scale social learning in the evening. We had further contributions from Poet Selby and Folk Musician Catherine Burke with her band.

The journey has been a long one – still the whole of Friday to go – but so far, it has been both stimulating and awe-inspiring. To be in a room with so much talent, learning from everyone is a valuable process.

I am hoping that this is the beginning of some great new connections that will further enhance the work that I lead.

I will post once more about the event once it has closed and will talk about my reflections on the whole process together with my take-aways and fundamental learning. Thanks for reading.

Generosity and Curiosity in Bristol

“Can’t help pinching myself and wondering how I got so lucky to be here edge walking at the #socialagesafari”

IMG_1324That was one of the tweets I posted last night during the opening of the Social Age Safari.

Yesterday’s train journey to the Social Age Safari event here in Bristol was an extended time on the laptop, headphones in listening to the ambient sounds of Darkroom whilst catching up with emails and doing some thinking about a new project.

The Safari started at 18.30 with a Passport Ceremony. The team at SeaSalt Learning have put so much  effort into the creation and design of this three day immersive event. We each had our own passports with an instant polaroid photo to personalise it. After an initial talk from Julian Stodd, we then spent an hour meeting people and working our way around five zones to get stamps in our passports.

This is a unique event, a space in which to engage with people who have generous spirits and a strong sense of curiosity. Nobody was hiding by the coffee, everyone was out to find out about the people around them. In the space of an hour I had the most fascinating conversations with people I had not met before.

The evening then comprised a talk from Julian to set the scene about the Social Age, and a performance from Catherine Burke, a folk singer, and Joseph Selby, a performance poet. Both were inspiring. They opened up the heart and brought courage into the space.

And that was just the first evening…

I am about to have breakfast and embark on Day Two of this voyage with excitement and wonder.

Going on Safari – in Bristol?

GiraffeTomorrow I am going to the Paintworks in Bristol for the Social Age Safari which is being run by Sea Salt Learning. It’s a 3 day event with people coming from around the globe. There will be loads of opportunities to build networks and to learn more about learning in the social age. Julian Stodd worked with my team last year, running a workshop for us which inspired new thinking for the team about the ways in which we work, and the focus for our work going forwards.

Since that workshop, we have continued to connect with Julian and his team, finding a lot of inspiration in the work that he is developing.

I will write more about the Safari over the next few days. Already, we have connections to other attendees though LinkedIn, Twitter and a new platform for me, Slack. Throughout the event there will be loads of creative processes, a daily newspaper, and I will be blogging about the process here.

Three of us from the team will be there – looking for connections, looking for techniques and methods to incorporate into our work, and also the opportunity to share our work with others.

This is very timely as I was talking last week about the desire to form a network of like-minded organisations across the globe to share and develop ideas with. Hopefully we can start to build that network later this week.

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