After three weeks in Antarctica with 80 women in STEMM, Dr Sophie Adams shares what she learnt about some of the basic principles of living and working well. Principles we can too often forget.
Sometimes we lose ourselves. In the hustle and bustle of life, we become so preoccupied with the doing that we forget the being.
In our work lives we become task-focused, oriented towards achievement but not always seeing the productivity losses that this entails. In our personal lives, we can struggle to manage the needs of family and self, and become desensitised to the wonder that is a human being. Women in particular are often socialised to subsume their own needs to help manage the needs of others. We can forget that we are each precious and enough in ourselves.
It’s easy to default to criticism and expectations of others. But in doing so we default to automatic ways of thinking and feeling that may do us a great disservice.
Assumptions are responses to the world learnt in early life that may no longer be useful. When socialised to the needs of the cultures we live in, we can forget to think for ourselves. We think: of course we must do this task this way, because that’s how it’s always been done. We can persist in these limiting beliefs, when a simple step back would enable us to see that the task is inefficient and causes needless waste or rejection. In work we have so many processes that once suited the needs of smaller groups, now upscaled without conscious thought to larger groups, and institutionalised by repetition.
We can easily forget the most important part of our work is the engagement and support of other human beings: including ourselves, our families, our employees and our clients.
Three weeks in Antarctica is an excellent period of time to clear the head and encourage a new perspective on purpose, values and self, so that we can really see what will give us meaning.
On our recent trip, Christiana Figueres, the past UN Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and widely acclaimed as the key facilitator of the 2015 Paris Climate agreement, accompanied 80 Homeward Bound women in STEMM on a voyage in the Antarctic peninsula.
Her messages, as I understood them, were both exceedingly basic and wise: Treat people well, work to their strengths, keep yourself nice and have stubborn optimism.
These principles are timeless and yet we can forget them daily, reverting to feeding our unmet needs for power and agency.
And yet a truly whole person does not aspire to power to meet their own ego needs but receives it anyway. Through giving up of control over others, others want to work with us and are free from the defensiveness that prohibits true engagement. Through compassion and self care we both model and provide the scaffolding to others that they need to feel safe enough to manage their own unmet ego needs.
If energy goes into self awareness, perspective and objectivity, then we can create spaces where the sum is greater than the parts. Insights offered in the spirit of collaboration are not subdued by the anticipation of criticism, they are freely given in the interests of mutual benefit.
These are the insights leaders need to understand in order to appreciate what motivates their staff: how hard their staff can sustainably work and where they have unused capacity and efficiency. Not every idea will be beneficial, but if you hear no ideas, there is no enhancement to the limits of a single mind.
We are social animals, in order to work at maximum productivity we need to contribute to something greater.
Only in doing so can we meet our own unmet basic needs, flourish and have shared purpose. And only in this state, can we transcend what we can do alone. It is the seeking of this unity that drives all major religions. Why then do we not pursue it in our daily lives?
So for me, the value of a leadership program for women scientists, who have traditionally faced many hurdles in work and life, is in the capacity to experience a more collective way of being.
Having this course in Antarctica adds to the sense of urgency to face the major issues of our time, such as climate change and social justice. But it also reminds us of the value of self awareness, the small things that make a worthwhile life, and the inner freedom we need to cultivate in order to truly make a difference in our inner and outer worlds.
Dr Sophie Adams is a consultation liaison psychiatrist with interests in youth mental health, neuropsychiatry, clinical governance and leadership. She is the Clinical Director of Orygen, The National Centre For Excellence in Youth Mental Health. She is a member of the leadership team for Homeward Bound, was a participant in the HB2 voyage in 2018 and acted as the well being clinician to the HB3 voyage in January 2019.