I have just finished reading Richard Feynman’s book “Surely you are joking Mr Feynman!”
It’s a unique book in explaining how one of the great minds in physics thought about life, and more importantly how he maintained an innate curiosity and often questioned the very basic assumptions of physics in order to better understand the field.
I have been inspired by this level of curiosity as I feel I share some of such mindset (although mind you, there are lots of people who might deem part of that curiosity not necessarily positive).
I would classify myself as a continuous learner who is also interested in other disciplines and also non-scientific areas and how people have gained insights and develop skills across different spheres in life.
In one part of the book Feynman recalls what made him to commit to staying at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) although he was getting lot of offers to teach at other institutes, with even higher salaries.
At some point at Caltech he didn’t feel quite happy and decided to go back to Cornell University so he called Cornell and told them to start making arrangements.
After the phone call, when he was crossing the Caltech campus back to his office, several people bumped into him and shared ground-breaking science from other disciplines that they had just discovered.
This was not just one person but several who had made profound discoveries, which also related to partly to Feynman’s own work.
It was there and then that Feynman decided to inform Cornell that he would never consider any other institute other than Caltech because he was in the midst of new innovation and insights.
I have since thought of this and why we stay loyal to particular institutions and disciplines.
With climate change adaptation, we have an increasing mass of people who are doing great research and innovation in both science and policy, yet most of us are dispersed across the globe.
So in this sense we wouldn’t have the luxury of staying/working at the same place.
A friend of mine who is younger and already higher up the university ranks than I am said to me that in universities, what you do is not to focus on trying to get particular people to work at the same university to achieve innovation, but you start creating your own critical mass.
That is why tenure track jobs, such as lecturing, are important because then you have the ability to start teaching your ideas but also to start supporting and guiding further research that you believe is necessary.
At the time I found this comment somewhat depressing because I would love to walk into the office on daily basis and have critical innovation to emerge from daily discussions with colleagues.
But most of us who work globally on climate adaptation are also starting to find that there is much innovation that we can contribute to also even if we are not necessarily physically in the same place via new technologies and platforms that enable closer collaboration.
Fostering leadership at work place
As a teacher and a lecturer, you do have the potential to start fostering the next generation and that, despite all the administration involved, is a noble task.
A colleague noted that we should look at each student as a potential leader where our role is to foster that leadership and enable the students to get transferable skills and contribute to sustainability in those professions that they choose and apply to afterwards.
According to my colleague, student success is really defined by what happens with their careers afterwards, whether we have managed to equip them with such knowledge and skills that they are easily employable and know how to seek and maintain employment in the field or sector of their choice.
I am constantly inspired by my friend Amy McPherson who heads the Accounting for Change company in this matter. She has a completely different way of looking at accounting that I have seen anywhere else.
For Amy, her work in accounting is about equipping people who are responsible for accounting in their organisations with knowledge, skills and mentoring so that people are able to even transition into accounting as a career.
Understanding your own personal success metrics, values and factors hence becomes invaluable as those will also determine what you do, why and how.
Fostering the next generation or transferring skills is an important journey and skill that most of us should embrace.
As Michael Bungay Stanier noted in the latest episode on Coaching for Leaders, we should all have 10 minutes each day to become more “coachlike”.
What it takes to become a leader and mentor
So part of the secret to an innovative and inspiring work environment is not only who we work with but how we see our own roles in that environment.
But being a good mentor or teacher does not fall from the sky.
It takes great amount of work and dedication and it also requires us to take on a more reflexive role as to what our real impact and our own behavior means and impacts on others.
Learning is a constant process in which we fail. And then we should look at our failures with curiosity and ask what we can learn from that and how we can do that better.
In this regard, the recent book Morten Hansen “Great at Work” is invaluable guide as to how each of us can start tracking what we are doing well and how we can potentially shift some of the less effective behaviours.
(Spoiler: this doesn’t actually mean we have to work more but learn to focus).
Although this is a pressing matter for good leadership and management, it applies to science in so many ways.
We as scientists should be looking at the new kinds of skills we need in today’s world, new methods and innovation we could learn to increase the robustness of our science, and how we communicate our research and opinions.
Also recognising where we should and can improve our skills and knowledge and then seeking opportunities to do so.
I am forever grateful I have been able to attend the Coaching for Leaders Academy for example as this has really given me a kickstart in developing my leadership skills and gaining also new friends along the way. (This is for you all Mavericks!)
But lastly, I am also aware that great leaders foster even greater ones, and this keeps me inspired to work on climate adaptation and hopefully being able to foster the next generation of thinkers in this space.