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My ignite talk over at Science Online 2010

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This more or less transcript of the ignite talk I gave over at Science Online 2010. The video hasn’t been posted yet, but I will update the post, when it’s available.

It’s already a few years since I’ve implemented my Personal Virtual Advisory Board. No, it’s not another name for hanging out with friends and chatting about life universe and everything. It’s a tool for receiving systematic feedback on how you are doing concerning ongoing projects, long term goals and wild dreams.

Such board could and should be virtual. It’s not only because it’s more efficient that way to ask for and receive feedback than let’s say flying over Atlantic. It’s worth to go virtual, because people who don’t know you very well, might be not aware of your limitations. And I believe this is a good thing, at least as long as  it’s not about advising to become professional basketball player to a person being 150cm high.

This is advisory board not expert group. This is very important. The more you need precise answer, the more you need to consult… Twitter, FriendFeed or StackOverflow. It’s not really about solving problems – it’s about creating them in the first place. External review will inspire you to put yourself in uncomfortable situations, like I am here right now, to stretch you a bit. So, the next time you are less stressed and you do better.

And finally such board consists of people with very diverse background. For a biologist like me, biochemist, biophysicist and bioinformatician are not diverse enough. Preferably this should be people from different industries, for example a musician, a business person, a quantum physicist and a writers, so you get advice from significantly different perspectives.  The exact set should somehow relate to what your interests are, not to your actual job.

And how does it work? Around twice a year I sent an email around  tailored to each person?s background, explaining where I am and what priorities I have right now. I collect the feedback and then I have a brainstorm session with myself, trying to understand feedback I’ve received.

There are several reasons to implement such board in your professional life. Your career advice will match better a person who you really are – no more advises from people who assume that there’s no difference between you and list of your publications. Your horizons will greatly expand. You will get encouraged to pursue things that you assumed are the wildest dreams possible (usually they are not). But I like to think it’s not only about professional life and maybe the best reason to implement such tool was written by Robertson Davies: “If a Man wants to be of the greatest possible value to his fellow creatures, let him begin a long solitary task of perfecting himself“.

Low expectations, encouraging feedback

I’ve shared this idea for Ignite session with couple of my friends and colleagues here in Poland couple of weeks before the conference. The feedback was very discouraging. They told me the idea is obvious and not that interesting. The hidden message (not really vocalized) was “You know, you’re going to Science Online 2010. Why don’t you talk about something important?”. I had a number of fallback ideas for the session, but since you don’t learn if you don’t take risk, I’ve decided to stick with the original plan. However, my expectations went really low. When the conference started and I saw where most of the people come from intellectually, I was absolutely sure I’d get a blank stare at the session. Thanks to discussions with Bill Hooker, I’ve changed the approach a bit to more practical, but my expectations didn’t change. Surprisingly it didn’t go that bad. I’ve received encouraging feedback from Bill, but also from Mary Spiro and Aaron Rowe, for which I’m very grateful.

Dreaming about ego-less science

The reason I’ve decided to stick to talking about something so unfashionable and untraceable like “growth” is that like many other people I’m frustrated with science being driven by ego. We want metrics, we want competitions, we want prizes and recognition for the best ones. We get ivory towers, we get metrics gambling, we get echo chambers, we get science dominated and severely limited by anglosphere. And I simply don’t believe any regulations and policies will dramatically change this landscape – we might see a shift in a good direction, but no dramatic change. We went so far in preventing (by countless regulations) wrong things to happen, we lost most of our ability to move.

As far as I remember, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wasn’t the very first one to propose to rethink our roles in society – these ideas were repeated by many different people, also by other scientists (such as Buckmister Fuller). However, what Csikszentmihalyi did was to put these issues in the evolutionary context. By this move, growing became not only a choice, but a neccessary component required to advance society to a next level. We might be one of key groups being able to facilitate such move – hence my interest in talking about this in public.

What I didn’t say on the Ignite session was that Virtual Advisory Board could be one of such steps towards ego-less science. I know no better cold shower for a scientist than hearing from a successful person from other field: “Wait, wait. Scientists do WHAT?”