— Cultural Sources of Newness

(Cultural) sources of researchers’ energies

What do we researchers do to overcome the frustrations that affect us at work, after a bad meeting or a negative review, for example? A mini-survey conducted among colleagues reveals a range of strategies: 

  • I talk about it with people, over and over again, and get it out of my system
  • I replay the situation in my mind, try to see it in new ways
  • I exercise physically, really hard, mindlessly
  • I get back to work, focus on what I am doing
  • I listen to music, really loud
  • I engage with the respondents in my interviews
  • I watch films, get away from it all for a while
  • I read an article that captivates my mind
  • I play with my kids, put work back in perspective.

There is a saying that after a fall from a horse the best thing is to get right back on again. Does that apply not only to equestrians but also to researchers? It can be daunting to give a lecture immediately after a harsh disappointment when our confidence that we have something of interest and value to say has been undermined. The mini-survey suggests that going right back out to share our knowledge with students and other stakeholders can indeed be a powerful source of renewal of energy, ideas, and confidence.

It is good to have coping strategies to draw on, but it is also useful to ask whether frustrations are a necessary part of the research process. Of course there are different kinds of frustrations, and some are surely unproductive and we would do well to improve our academic procedures and systems to avoid them. For example, a physicist recently told me that the lab had suddenly reassigned special equipment to another project, thereby breaking off experiments on which doctoral students were working—surely better planning and budgeting could avoid such problems.

What can we learn from other fields? In my research on artistic interventions in organizations employees and artists tell me that one of the topics that sometimes comes up between them is frustration and even failure in projects. I emphasize “even” because failure appears to be a taboo topic in many organizations, while artists believe that potential failure is an inherent feature of their creative processes of testing, pushing back or crossing boundaries.  For example, conceptual artists who choose to create their art in organizations (in what I call “artistic intervention residencies”) often agonize during a project: Will it work? Will the employees understand? And what will the art critics say? The artists tell me that they see criticism as a response, therefore also a source of energy for them. One of my respondents from the art world used the image of a ball that bounces back to convey the image of energy. There is a potential playfulness that intrigues me in this image of a bouncing ball, whether the ball is bouncing off the wall or between people.

Which reminds me: one of my colleagues finds playing volleyball the best way to balance life as a researcher.

I welcome further inputs to my mini-survey on how researchers re-energize themselves, as well as suggestions about how to reduce the incidence of unproductive frustrations in our academic system. Lessons from other fields such as the arts are most welcome as well.  We are currently trying to resolve a technical problem with the comment function on this blogsite. Do use my email address if you cannot post a comment: ABAntal (at) wzb.eu