Friday, 25 September 2015

Workshop on Success: A Brief Report

On 18th September at Senate House in London we met some of our collaborators for our proposed research project. It was a great day in which we explored ideas and experiences.

What is success?
We started discussing the meaning of the word "success" (etymologically linked to the Latin word for succession, and thus a term with a strong temporal and causal component) and how the residency would serve as to critically analyse everyday conceptions of success as tied to individual achievement, fame, power and competition. Success demands not just competition but cooperation, and changes our perception of ourselves and the way other perceive us. Any meaningful examination of success requires also a reflection on failure. Our own interest in success comes from its relationship with health: how does doing well relate to being well?

Apart from success and failure, we are interested in character and context, practices and structures, individuals and communities/organisations, internal and external, public and private. How do we achieve success, and what does it do to us once we have it? Several themes emerged from the discussion, including snatching success from the jaws of defeat; experiencing failure after being a success; failing in one domain while succeeding in another; performance anxiety and corporate psychopathy; and failure as necessary, as a useful and important aspect of growth, creativity and innovation.

What is the difference between ‘learning from what works’ in the context of life after prison (and the gap between the minority of narratives which illustrate success, and the wider aspirations and experiences of people in this situation) and doing the same sort of thing in the context of a successful performance? Similarly, what success means in corporations is different from what it means for healthcare providers – organisational cultures (and their relationship to evidence, and their commitment to staff wellbeing) are often conflicted. Structural inequalities and cultural differences emerge as important themes cutting across various workstreams.

Another context of success that was talked about was success in elite sportspeople, and we discussed what it takes to be "in the zone", whether anxiety has a negative or positive role, whether success depends on the capacity to bounce back and be mentally tough (these capacities seem to be ingredients of success in other contexts too). We also reflected on the relationship between body image and success, remarking on the high incidence of eating disorders in sportswomen.

A further context is art. Is progress in art similar to progress in science – where success of one theory or movement depends on overthrowing a previous dominant one and changing how things are done? We spent some time talking about outsider art and what makes it “outsider", whether lack of external recognition in the establishment or lack of training in the artist. Certainly making art can contribute to small successes, as in dementia where the visual vocabulary of images allows even people who are cognitively impaired to communicate.

Finally, stories of success are key to our project. Stories of success may be aspirational, but may also be harmful. Some stories for some people will represent unrealistic expectations, or put people under pressure. They may be perfectionistic – such as stories of successful recovery, or post-traumatic growth (growth occurs in only around 30% of people experiencing trauma). However, we also talked about how redemption and quest stories can act as role models for individuals who are hungry for change. But are quest stories helpful?

The rest of the day was spent focusing on the audiences we aim to engage and the activities we aim to plan.

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