Event summary - Reframing Failure

by Hannah Gilbert (1993, Arabic and Islamic Studies) – 27 May 2022
As Chair of the St John's Women's Network it was a great pleasure to introduce Belinda Kirk and Dr Severine Toussaert to discuss reframing failure, adventure, innovation and resilience. After the constraints of the pandemic, this exchange on the role of challenge and uncertainty in breaking new ground - personal, academic and professional - felt timely.

Dr Severine Toussaert

Dr Severine Toussaert is a Tutorial Fellow in Economics at St John's College. Her work lies at the intersection of behavioural decision science and experimental methods. Severine is particularly interested in understanding the mechanisms by which behaviour change can be not only triggered, but also sustained in the long run. Working with an interdisciplinary team of researchers, Severine is developing a gamified smoking cessation app that will help smokers quit their bad habit for good. Her research agenda looks at "commitment strategies" and pride as a motivational force.

Belinda Kirk

Belinda Kirk's (1994, Biological Sciences) is an author, explorer and entrepreneur and St John's alumna. For the past twenty-five years, Belinda has led dozens of international expeditions and remote filming trips: walking through Nicaragua, sailing across the Atlantic, searching for camels in China's Desert of Death, and gaining a Guinness World Record for rowing unsupported around Britain. In addition to this formidable set of achievements Belinda has led numerous youth development challenges, pioneered inclusive expeditions for people with disabilities and managed scientific research missions in the Amazon, Sinai and Alaska. In 2009, Belinda established Explorers Connect, a non-profit organisation connecting and encouraging people to engage in outdoor challenges. In 2020 she launched the first conference to explore the positive impact that adventurous activity has on wellbeing, and her first book Adventure Revolution: The life-changing power of choosing challenge (and is available from Blackwell's with 15% off for all alumni) was published last year. Having read Belinda's book, I enjoyed her personal reflections on the role that challenge, adversity and uncertainty have played in her career choices, and through her leadership and work with disadvantaged groups building resilience and ultimately wellbeing.

Belinda and Severine each gave a presentation of their work that these themes also occur in the academic research environment. As Severine reflected on the courage needed to explore new horizons and seek fresh insights through trials and studies. The thoughtful consideration of research methodologies, framing of hypotheses and sample selection shares a rigour and focus with Belinda's careful preparation and planning for an expedition. The discussion touched on the distinction between risk and uncertainty whether planning an expedition or new project, professionally or personally. We can exert some control over the inputs and need to recognise we have less control of the outputs. We can plan to reduce risk to ensure teams are safe, however, we need to recognise that adventures necessarily involve uncertainty.

From my professional experience, I can see the parallels with the process of innovation with organisations. Leaders in teams and organisations can create a sense of psychological safety for groups and individuals to test and try new ways of working, new products and technological innovation. Many of the challenges we face in life are complex and messy. We may be comforted by clear, confident conclusions though in reality we are often presented with unforeseen obstacles or a change in the weather, literal or political, which requires adaptation. For individuals, and organisations innovation and growth from a place of relative comfort, status or safety, requires a deliberate choice. Belinda quotes Maslow, "One can choose to go back towards safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again".

Given that the audience of St John's alumni was likely to include an over-representation of high performance and high-commitment profiles, it was not surprising that the discussion moved to how to get comfortable with discomfort, particularly to those with a self-described pre-disposition for control! However, as with many adventures, the discussion revealed many other paths for rich conversations in future.

A recording of the event is available here.


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