Getting good with failing and feedback


I recently, and with some anxiety, entered the ESRC writing competition.  The rules were simple: write 800 words for a lay audience about your research within the general theme of ‘Better Lives’.  Today I learned I did not make the shortlist.  I’m sharing because I am now 15 months into my PhD and possibly for the first time in my life, I am really comfortable with failures.  I’m even more comfortable with feedback, so let me know what you think!

ESRC ‘Better Lives’ Entry

Is walking the new ‘welfare’?

Everyone in my research world starts from an iconic red London bus in the fifties.  That was when Jerry Morris showed us that London bus conductors had less heart disease than London bus drivers and all because they were more physically active.  There were lots of active jobs back then. Our way of living gave us most of the physical activity we needed: carrying our shopping, washing our clothes, walking and cycling to work and school, playing outside with our friends.

Today looks different for those of us that have work. Our car waits for us at the door of our home.  We drop our children at the gate of their school and park as close as we can to the door of our office.  If we’ve managed to join the growing army of home-workers, we hang out on-line from our kitchen table.  From there, there’s no need to move at all, except for a cuppa and a biscuit.  For those who have no work, the sofa, the TV and kitchen window can often be our world.

It’s not just heart disease that concerns us now, it’s the many ways a lack of physical activity affects our lives: cancers, diabetes, osteoporosis. For most of us though, we don’t ponder so much on when and what we might die of.  We dwell more on how we feel tired so much of the time and how exhaustion grows from our enduring fatigue.  Exhaustion that can spill over into duvet days, sick leave and sadly, for too many, long-term mental health issues.

I grew up in a coal mining village in central Scotland.  My dad was an apprentice electrician in the mines, as were my both my grandads.  It was undoubtedly hard work and at times dangerous.  Lung disease was rife and minor injuries were a daily occurrence.  To me though it wasn’t just ‘The Pit’, it was an iconic building that I knew as ‘The Welfare’.  I went there with other excited children at Christmas.  We passed parcels, ate cake and met Santa in big hall which served as canteen and social centre for most of the people I knew.  Outside there was a bowling green, and in the summer the quiet chat of women in white cardigans, grey skirts and flat shoes intrigued me.

I’m no romantic about the mines though, after all I’m a social researcher and I watched my grandad shake and wheeze his way though the last two decades of his life.  But, credit to the mining companies, they knew that workers and their families needed to eat, rest and play if they were to turn up productively at work.  It generated an active community in every sense of the word, albeit an unequal one.

My mum still lives there, in the coal board house she was born in.  She watches the young ones head off in cars to big towns, out of town businesses and science parks. The bus comes rarely. No one walks, there is nothing to walk to.  The Welfare is long gone and the community activity, physical and social, seems to have gone with it. 

Like all social provision ‘The Welfare’ may not have worked in the same way for everyone, but its presence offered a resource that people could react to in ways that meant something for them.  Home to domino clubs, athletic clubs, knitting bees and silver wedding celebrations.  Could a walking group challenge offer anything like that in the warehouses and offices of today?  How could it do that? Who would it work for? What would it take? These are questions I’m trying to answer and people who walk at work are helping me.

They tell me that going for a walk is a chance to disengage from work, especially work that’s mentally straining.  Even a brief, five-minute walk lets them clear their head and helps them to concentrate again.  With a longer a walk, some can even solve problems by having space and time to think. Walking alone, brings refuge and calmness, walking with others brings company and conversation.

Even those who don’t experience mentally straining work say that a short walk builds their energy levels.  The added energy supports them to be even more absorbed in and committed to their work, helping them to achieve more.  For some, they even say they are more creative and social as a result of a brief walk, especially a brief walk alongside a canal, through a park or in a forest.

There’s nothing that will work for everyone, but anything we try is likely to work for someone.  My research looks deeply at why walking at work gives some of us a better life. 


Let Many Digital Flowers Bloom

I’m fairly sure I’m not a digi person, a data person or a tech person. I think I might be too outdoorsy, in a gardening kind of way.  However, as a 53 year old woman and a social leader, I sensed it was important for me to do more than post to Facebook.  Not that posting to Facebook is an unskilled activity, but knowing about its algorithms and learning why it sends me adverts ‘for older women’ is definitely empowering.

Learning about the digital world has also equipped me to have better conversations with my 7 year old niece.  And, not just a WhatsApp chat, an actual face-to-face chat about avatars.  She made me an avatar and was uncomfortable about it.  She’d had to give me long hair because the short hair was “just for men faces”.  She thought my avatar looked too thin “but you can’t make your shape, Aunty Mary”.  Together we learned about digital diversity and how some people’s fun could be very frustrating, sad and disrespectful for others (including Aunty Mary).  For now, we’re using Bitmoji.

I’m also learning that these kind of digital stereotypes is only scratching the surface of un/intended digital consequences.  I watched Professor Latanya Sweeney’s talk about racial stereotyping and racial discrimination in adaptive algorithms – wow, it’s clear why she’s a Harvard Professor.  If computers are smart, they learn how to reproduce our social bias perfectly.  But it doesn’t need to be that way.  If we’re smart, we can teach them to remove these, just as easy. Being a social leader today means being able to check and challenge these kinds of (digital) bias.  You don’t need to write the code, just ask the question.

And while we’re on the subject of our responsibility as social leaders, we need to challenge (in a good way!) the level of access that digital platforms provide. Why don’t you run a page from a website through some simple web accessibility assessment such as WAVE and see what you learn.

There’s so many opportunities to learn and engage in these important questions, we can’t justify being innocent bystanders.  In a couple of weeks time (March 19th-23rd), the DataFest2018 is happening in Scotland.  The ‘Let’s Talk Data‘ event hosted by The Alliance caught my eye.

For me, a combination of SCVO Digital Leaders programme and now Edinburgh University’s 23 Things is giving me the digital education I feel I need.  And as my Dad told me, more than once, in my adolescent years, “get yourself an education, ‘they’ can’t take it away from you”.

You might not be here to nag me any more Dad, but I’m still on it!




Thoughts on a legacy

Working at Breast Cancer Now was a privilege. In March last year, on my 52nd birthday,  I met up with two amazing women to take part in a radio discussion about access to medicines. Both had a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. Being alongside women pleading for the hope of more time is gut-wrenchingly emotional. It’s raw and it’s real. As one woman described it, “I felt like my face was pressed up against the window of my own mortality”.

Only a few months later, I stood outside a packed crematorium in drizzling rain listening to her friends and family talk movingly of her legacy. It was indeed something of which they could be proud. As the celebrant read her beautiful letter to her two young girls, I fixed my mind on the tall trees and a dreich sky beyond, searching for my own sense of hope.

I left the job not long afterwards. I took with me her spirit and a precious photo of us together, taken that morning of my birthday. Her feisty face still pops up to remind me that I can choose my legacy, even in difficult circumstances.

I once longed to see the vast glistening wall of El Capitan from the very place that Ansel Adams once stood. Towering above pine trees and a clear glacial river, it was a place that I imagined would be wondrous and moving. When I stood there, it wasn’t quite what I had imagined. Later the same week I stood in a dark and damp Sequoia grove. It was an unusually cold and wet June day. I picked up a cone, covered in wet leaves and needles. It was magical to be connected to one of the oldest living things on earth. Unlike the Sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum), surviving several millennia, I know that my time will be short.

As we approached the end of 2017, I focused on learning more about my digital legacy – what I put out there in the digital world and what others put out there about me. Using digital media in service of things that matter to me feels important. Getting that right is part of making active choices about my legacy.

I started reading what I had shared and what had been shared about me. I learned that googling myself isn’t narcissistic, it’s quite educational. Try searching for yourself using Duckduckgo. I’ve also tightened up what I share in social media and I found MyPermissions helpful. I’ve enrolled on a Digital Footprint MOOC (Massive Online Open Course). This TED talk ‘Your online life, permanent as a tattoo’ by Juan Enriquez, also invited reflection.

Like all good visitors, I left no trace in the National Parks. Like all great National Parks, they left their trace in me. As a new year starts, I’m pondering what small trace will I leave and how much of it will I choose to share ‘on-line’?

My Garden – where all stories begin.

I didn’t imagine my first blog would focus on path clearing.  Not a job I love, not even one I subscribed to being necessary.  All that bright moss and rambling greenery gave what I thought was a ‘natural’ softer and older look to my garden.  However, prompted by the construction of a new road along the boundary of our garden I had to clear out some of my adventurous ivy and graceful straying geraniums.

I armed and protected myself for the chore;  secateurs, loppers, daisy grubber. and leather gloves and knee pads.  It was hard work in a physical sense.  Filling tarpaulins full of my messy edges and hauling endless bundles away to a dark, damp and secret ‘drop zone’.  There was kindness and brightness in tea breaks, and lots of them. The weather was kind too with cool sunny mornings, warm lunchtimes and gently dimming evenings.  With sore forearms and bruised knees I finished the work I needed to do in a day – exhausted and ready for a long soak and an early night.  To my surprise though I awoke early the next morning keen to do more… and more … and more.  Four days more in total.

As I tidied back years of growth I discovered long lost plants still living but light starved under more confident ramblers.  There were also beautiful little gifts of self-seeded treasures shaded away in corners, out of view, but growing with youthful independence.  I found pleasure too in seeing the original structure of my garden emerge again – its solidity, angular strength and clean lines.  There had been gardeners before me that laid these paths with care.

And so the four days of all consuming path clearing gripped me by surprise.  But perhaps given time to ‘just be’ this was not so surprising at all.  Once again, as before, so many times before, nature had something to tell me and its call-out was confident and clear.  There were clear plans once, a structure that made sense as a whole.  There was a wisdom in the decisions of those before me, but did I listen carefully enough?  The ideas of new planting still made sense but needed nurturing and attention.  There are also green shoots of creative, adventurous seeds everywhere but I couldn’t see them for all the convenient overgrown rambling.

It was clear – my PhD would begin. At last.