Tuesday, 24 March 2015


I've really enjoyed reading the other posts on the blog, and it has given me a lot to think about. Mostly, I have been a little overwhelmed by the options. Earlier this week, however, I think my ideas began to consolidate, and today I spent several hours writing to potential collaborators. Some of them are people that I've worked with for years, and some of them will be new collaborations, opened up by the interdisciplinary remit here. It has been very exciting writing to these latter ones. Looking forward to the replies now, and hoping that they're as enthusiastic as I am!

Sunday, 22 March 2015

On Interdisciplinarity: some initial thoughts

My experience of interdisciplinary research strongly support the view that a collaborative project on success would have a transformational effect on what we do and how we do it. My research has always been interdisciplinary, in the sense that it has always been borderline between philosophy and something else (biology, psychology, anthropology, and, more recently, politics and economics). This is due partly do the fact that I personally find pure philosophy extremely boring.

In itself, this is just a biographical detail of little interest, of course. But it is interesting to note that among the great philosophers of the past, only very few were not involved in some other discipline, such as physics, physiology, economics, etc. This is something that academic philosophers nowadays often forget, as a result of the pressures towards hyper-specialisation that are becoming stronger and stronger in philosophy just like in every other field of knowledge.

These pressures towards hyper-specialisation have a reason of course, and especially so in the sciences (probably less so in the humanities, but this is a matter of controversy). Obviously, specialisation is important, and it is actually crucial for scientific progress and the accumulation of knowledge. But, as shown by the work of those great philosophers, so is the right kind of interdisciplinarity.

Spending time together in the same physical space allows for richer interactions. And this is amplified when these interactions occur on a regular basis, in a relaxed and informal way, that is, differently from what happens at an interdisciplinary conference. (Interdisciplinary conferences can be useful too, but normally not because of what one learns by listening to other people's talks, but rather as a result of the informal chats one has during coffee breaks, meals, and at the pub. This in itself says something important about what good interdisciplinarity amounts too).

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Some Thoughts on Time and Success in Elite Sport

I am writing this blog from the new Wellcome Trust Reading Room, which is truly an inspirational place. Just to give you an example, take a look at this fantastic dress called 'The closure of the neural tube'.

'Closure of the neural tube' dress,
at WT Reading Room
(The neural tube is the embryonic precursor of the nervous system, and the closure of the neural tube is a fundamental process in embryonic development in vertebrates. Defects in this process lead to malformations such as spina bifida). I found it simply brilliant, and it reminds me of the times when I was working in a development biology laboratory at IFOM (Milan, Italy) during my lab rotation for my PhD.

I am a biotechnologist by background, and I still find anything related to biology/biotechnology fascinating, even if about ten years ago I have decided not to work at the bench and pursue instead the study of the ethical and social implications of biotechnology. I am now a Lecturer in Bioethics & Society at King's College London, and I have been working at the Strand Campus for the last five years.

My interest in investigating the concept of success comes from my explorations of direct to consumer (DTC) genetic tests to scout out children's athletic potential. What do DTC-tests have to do with success, you might think? Well, to start with DTC-genetic tests are sold to parents and coaches with the claim that they are able to identify early on an athletic potential in children of three, four or five years old. In the US, summer camps for talent scouting are not a recent invention, but the incorporation of genetic tests is. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the soundness of the science (how justified is the inference that a certain genetic polymorphism can form the basis for a 'successful' future sprinter, or long-distance runner?), what I have been interested in exploring are the decisions that parents and coaches make on the basis of these tests. These decisions shape the future of their children (see vignette from the New Yorker).

Parents shaping the lives of their children.
The assumption is that in the context of sport, an early specialisation and professionalisation is a necessary condition for the development of a future successful elite athlete. On the basis of this assumption, and in hindsight on the basis of the success of the individual, many decisions made by parents to pursue an aggressive education are justified.

In a paper published in 2013 on Sport Ethics & Philosophy I investigated whether such assumption is justified. I have only tangentially explored the concept of success in elite sport, but the more I have been looking into the narrative of success of professional athletes [and this relates to Zoë's project on stories of success], the more I have started to realise that success in elite sport (but also in other contexts where we think that an early specialisation is necessary, think of music!) comes about only at the expense of trade-offs, (and often very big ones!) with other things that we value in life.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Imagery and Optimism as Ingredients of Success

Credit: Jasmine ParkerWellcome Images
In the last couple of days I further elaborated my thoughts on the success project, and on ways my research questions can be addressed in collaboration with the other potential team members.

On Monday, as part of a public engagement event I organised for the Arts & Science Festival in Birmingham, I heard a talk by Amy Hardy on imagery that touched on many aspects of my interest in success.

She talked about imagining supports both memory construction and forward planning, and she discussed several examples of the costs and benefits of imagery. Some of her examples, the use of imagery to improve academic performance or performance in elite sports, and the use of imagery in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in the context of post-traumatic stress, are cases in which the way we use imagery helps us overcome obstacles and achieve the results we want to achieve.

When I am thinking about a talk I need to deliver to a tough audience, imagining how giving the talk will be like before it takes place will make me less nervous and more confident, improving my performance. Similarly, it has been shown that elite sportspeople improve their performance in competitive events when they imagine the race or the match in advance of competing. The key is to focus on the process, not the outcome. Imagining the event is part of the preparation for it. It is conducive to success.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Successful Research

Credit: Tim Ellis, Wellcome Images
The open event at the Wellcome Trust was for me, as for Michael and for Zoë, a very powerful experience for a variety of reasons. It gave me a chance to explore the space where Hub residents research and know more about what opportunities a genuinely collaborative and interdisciplinary research group can offer.

I also got to brainstorm with people who want to reflect on the theme of success from different disciplinary backgrounds from mine, but have partially overlapping research goals.

Thinking about the theme strengthened my motivation to embark in the journey of exploring success.

Successful research

What makes an interdisciplinary research project successful? Some of the psychological research I am reading right now identifies the characteristics of successful agency with preparedness (being ready for set-backs and responding well to challenges) and with engagement (interacting with the physical and social environment in a productive and supportive way). Those also strike me as plausible criteria for the success of interdisciplinary research projects that aim at addressing (and learning from) the public.

As researchers, we need to be ready to step out of our comfort zones and learn to speak other languages (the language of other disciplines, or the language of the layperson) when we want our ideas to move beyond the constraints of our labs, offices, studios, and classrooms. We need to embrace new ideas, follow up new connections, be creative with our methods of investigation. These activities usually occupy a mental or virtual space (the space in our minds, the space of our inboxes, websites or blogs) but wouldn't it be much more exciting if they could also occupy a physical space, a space that changes together with the ideas that are being explored within it?

Striving and thriving

When the phrase "striving and thriving" was mentioned by Michael and Zoë at the meeting, it brought it all together for me. I have been interested in what success entails and in the extent to which success, intended (very roughly) as pursuing and achieving the goals we set for ourselves, contributes to wellbeing and mental health.

From personal experience and by reading psychological research, literature, and the popular press, it seems clear to me that achieving the goals we set for ourselves (as individuals and groups, or as a society) is a source of satisfaction and helps us see our lives as meaningful and coherent, as going somewhere. However, the pursuit of such goals (the striving) can carry considerable psychological costs (e.g., the yellow lady in the picture seems very happy about losing weight, but I bet all the dieting that contributed to her 'success' was not much fun).

Even the attainment of our own goals may be ultimately disappointing, as we often do not know ourselves well enough to identify goals that would lead us to genuinely thrive (see this post on unintended consequences of our actions and choices). For instance, we may underestimate the role of supporting personal relationships in enhancing our wellbeing and in enhancing the sense that our lives are meaningful. Or we may overestimate the value of those goals that are promoted in the society where we live at the expense of goals that would fulfil our less popular aspirations.

Now, the need to unpack what we take success to be and to explore the tension between wellbeing and success applies to agency in general, and this is the level at which I would like to investigate success and its limitations. But, by entering this conversation with Victoria, Michael, Zoë and Matteo, I realised that some of the most interesting aspects of success are brought into focus in specific domains, such as the capacity to bounce back after the experience of mental distress; the need to survive a goal-driven culture in the competitive environments of academia, elite sports, business, and politics; the struggle to be original, creative, and 'different' in fashion and the arts.

I am looking forward to examining the connections between these strands of research and imagining or project as the place where existing notions of success are dissected, and new notions of success are proposed and tested!

Everything Feels Possible

I really like the phrase 'learning from what works' (as Michael has called this blog). It's an idea I've heard kicking around explicitly or implicitly through the last year or so that Michael and I have been working together. Too often in psychology and psychiatry the focus is on what is not working - what is already broken - and it seems hard to learn that way. By exploring processes that work, in my case relational successes, we can see more clearly the potential for intervention and support.

When we met at Wellcome Collection last week, the phrase "striving and thriving" came to me. The striving quality is particularly interesting to me personally. My first training was as a dancer and striving was a big part of that experience. We were always pushing ourselves to be better, stronger; to jump higher but more gracefully, to spin faster but with more control and better execution, to be more responsive to the music, to be more artistic in our expressiveness, to be more sensitive in our finger tips. We strived (and strived and strived) to be aesthetically pleasing. (It feels as though there is a paradox here...?) Yet how did we know when we had succeeded in this aim? Ironically, the time I was most 'successful' as a dancer was the time I gave up striving - my very last class. Knowing that I wasn't going to be a performer, I danced completely liberated from the need to 'try'. And I flew, the teacher praised me, I felt wonderful - I had really achieved something. In my current early stages of psychotherapy training the idea of  not striving, not putting so much effort towards achievement, is proving extremely difficult. Yet it seems you achieve more by being present in the moment, rather than orienting yourself toward an achievement-laden future. Another paradox.

It seems to me that success has an interesting experiential structure. As a notion it shapes existential projects by orienting them forwards in time and towards an ultimate point. It is a notion that suggests finality and termination. It suggests endings. So what happens when things don't end? Can they still be successful? Relationships that are normatively seen as successful have the quality of duration. How, experientially, is success understood in this context? When do you feel that a relationship is successful? Does it have to achieve success - does there need to be a process of striving? If so, what does that look like? It's interesting that to 'succeed' has two meanings - to achieve success, but also to take over from - to come after. One is about termination, the other about continuation. My thoughts are very unformed at present, but there's something interesting for me in the idea of what success might look like when it's not about termination of a project, but the ongoing process of development or 'simple' duration. For artists, for people in many kinds of relationship, for people in recovery who are taking things 'one day at a time' for various reasons, the notion of achievement may be anathema. Yet success may still be possible.

From hearing from Matteo with regard to his ideas around power, I started to think about success in terms of relational dynamics, between a couple, within a family, and within an organisation. Can one person succeed (win?) without others failing/losing out? Can success really be shared, or even come into existence as a genuinely intersubjective experience? Or is it tied up with notions of independence and autonomy? What about when one person's success isn't an achievement for the whole system, but is actually damaging to the system? How do the emotional experiences associated with success and failure play out in relational dynamics - the jealousy, the pride, the resentment, the guilt? As well as joy, loss, contentment and so on. My current work on experiences of happiness is telling here - expectations about emotional experience are heavily policed by normative ideas of how we should feel and when, but actual experiences rarely seem to live up to these expectations. We don't feel happy when we think we should do. These complex socially-oriented emotional experiences (jealousy, shame, guilt, pride) shape individual and group notions of what it means to do well, to succeed. When we look at the context of adversity (mental ill health, substance abuse, deprivation, marginalisation, stigma), then the tension and strain on relationships is increased and experiences may be saturated with negative emotion, yet some relationships still endure - or even blossom. What is it that happens on the interpersonal, intrapersonal and group level that allows this to happen? And what does it feel like when it does?

I have many questions at this point. Talking with Michael, Matteo and Lisa was fantastic, if also overwhelming, and so I look forward to future discussions with our whole working group. The good thing about working towards this project is that nothing feels like it's off limits right now - everything is possible.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Some Reflections on the 'Success' Theme and Team

On the train back from London last week, I made a lot of notes in order to try to capture some of my initial thought about a collaborative project on success. Lisa, Zoë, Matteo, and myself had lunch together before an event about interdisciplinary research collaborations at the Wellcome Collection, and discussed some of our ideas. It struck us that there was a promising set of overlaps in the topics and questions which we wanted to address. After lunch, we attended the event, and heard from Wellcome Trust staff, and from Felicity Callard, leader of the current ‘Rest’ Hub residency.

In the breaks between presentations we had a lot to think about, and a lot to talk to each other about. When we had arrived, we were told that the event was being time-lapse photographed. On the train home, it occurred to me how much time we had spent together as a four, rather than dispersing ourselves around the room. We also spent that time in an unusual rhythm, alternating between periods of quiet reflection (or stunned silence - gloss as you prefer!) where we all tried to process the overwhelming surge of ideas and possibilities, and other periods of intense discussion where we worked together to give these ideas some shape. I came away convinced that Lisa’s initial idea of ‘success’ was going to work really well as a means of facilitating interdisciplinary research, and that we already had enough in common (in terms of interests in experience, ethics, 'the good, healthy life,' and 'the good society') to make that research cohere.

'Facilitated permeability'

As we listened to the presentations, I was struck by the enthusiasm of the Wellcome staff. Some of my more recent research involves understanding organisational change processes in healthcare, and particularly the psychological aspects of that (in terms of identity, status, group dynamics and processes, for example). I’m quite used to being an ‘outsider’ who is coming into an organisation for research purposes. Usually this process is a cautious negotiation; sometimes it is characterised by defensiveness and obstruction. The thing that really struck me about the attitude of the Trust staff was how open and encouraging they were. I came away with the idea of the Trust as a very permeable space. I think part of our conversations about how to proceed from here will need to be about how we can demonstrate our ‘good faith’ and trustworthy-ness (it’s good to be invited in, but it’s also right - and polite – to get a sense of the boundaries and expectations before accepting such an open invitation). I also think we need to give a lot of thought to how we use that permeability in our plans for a project on success. It’s clearly a critical feature of the concept: who will join us in the project, and in what sequence, and what will they do there?


A less positive aspect of the event was the sense of ‘ordeal’ which seemed to be associated with the application process for funding for large collaborative projects when Felicity Callard spoke about her team’s experience of that. I can’t say that this didn’t dent my enthusiasm for a time. On reflection, however, I think we can perhaps make our experience of that process a bit more positive if we take the opportunity to learn from past experience and the experience of others. We can do this partly by using this blog to ‘stay ahead of the curve,’ and to keep track of our ideas and plans. And we can align our diaries and block out some chunks of time for meetings and development work at key times. 

Interdisciplinary and Public Engagement

Here are some of the question relevant to what we want to achieve from our proposed project:

  • What kinds of events and processes can we set up during our project?

  • How can we make sure that each of these activities presents us with an opportunity to learn something about the meaning and quality of ‘success’, and for our partners and collaborators to learn something too?

  • How can make sure that we gain as many insights as possible from taking an interdisciplinary approach to these activities?

  • And finally, how can we structure this so that it combines to form a coherent programme of work, and adds to our cumulative knowledge about success and health?

The possibilities afforded by this seem very exciting, but I also feel a bit of trepidation about it. If we are successful, then we will be embracing a really new way of working for a couple of years. I can imagine that this will be transformational in terms of integrating art and performance in the project. I have begun to appreciate just how important it will be to have Victoria’s curatorial experience as part of our team!

It was really useful for four of us to all be in the same place, I thought. The link between the interdisciplinary component and the curatorial elements really started to take shape in our discussions that afternoon. On the train home, I could see that we’d had a small sample of the sort of thing that a project of this form might offer up every day. Through our conversation, we opened up some avenues for including some aspects of our research interests that we hadn’t initially considered relevant. I’m now quite keen to think about the Experience-Based Co-Design (EBCD) work as part of this scheme, for example. Partly this arose through getting a better sense of Matteo’s interests in empowerment, and in access to social and structural resources, and partly it arose from a ‘lightbulb’ moment. Bringing people together – with the purpose is to improve health – and bringing them there to engage with the idea of success is an opportunity to ‘learn from what works.’ In terms of service-user involvement and healthcare improvement, EBCD fits really with that agenda. 


As we talked, I began to visualise a structure to our theme. The project is going to be segmented (there are elements of work on success at the personal, interpersonal, social and cultural-structural) and layered (we can foresee themes on success as a response to negative feedback, costs of success, the relational context of success, the different meanings and values associated with different definitions of success, the notion of ‘succeeding against the odds,’ success in elite domains, success in the arts as a source of wellbeing - and so on). Zoe described ‘thriving and striving’ as one of our interests and this certainly seemed to capture the dynamic very well.

Spokes reach out from this hub, connecting the core members to various partners and collaborators. Each of these spokes captures a different strands of work, linking to a likely output. Our task now is to add some detail to these strands, so that we begin to see how they might fit together, and how they might best be structured. I’m really excited at the prospect of so many different levels of activity – co-produced ‘events,’ insights into processes through performances, development and delivery of some innovative research outcomes, opportunities for engaging with some new audiences,  and many of those potentially leading to co-authorship/co-presentation.