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How do ordinary people do extraordinary things?

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

I’ve spent 18 years in academia, more than half of it in Cambridge, where I worked as curator, a role that suited me perfectly. It was behind-the-scenes work, but crucial - playing a part in scientific discoveries and breakthroughs by helping other scientists make better sense of their own data.

A few years ago, sensing a career impasse ahead, I began talking to friends and colleagues about their experiences in academia and beyond, in the three different countries I had worked in, and now around the world. I recorded these stories - first hand accounts of both the highs and lows, with the conversation inevitably turning to the uncertainties and challenges unique to the post-doctoral journey.

And then during the pandemic, with the end of my work contract looming - the institute has a ten year policy to make room for fresh talent - I decided to take some time out and explore a shared predicament: Why do undeniably smart people fall short when trying to manage their own careers?

Lessons from the world of sport

That’s when I stumbled upon Atul Gawande, surgeon, author, founder of Ariadne Labs and a public health advocate. Professor Gawande was in his mid-forties when his career reached a plateau. An overachiever by most standards, he was still troubled by the fact that he was unable to improve, to make progress at a similar rate to the preceding years. After years of sustained innovativeness and steady progress, was he to conclude that a slowing down, even a periodic halt in progress was inevitable? Had he reached his ‘personal best’?

A brief tryst with a tennis coach while on a break at a medical conference got him thinking about career growth and the contrasting views from the world of academia and world of sport. Why was it that virtually all professionals in sporting disciplines hire coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be but doctors, lawyers and scientists don’t? Surely, it is not that we care less about outcomes in science, medicine and education than we do sports. The answer, it turns out, is culture. Coaching is an essentially entrepreneurial attitude to improvement almost alien in some disciplines and well-established in others.

Gawande's research into the culture of coaching (or the lack of it) in diverse disciplines led him to contrast the pedagogical approach to the coaching model almost universally adopted by sports pros. Much like education in the performing arts that Gawande describes, doctoral training focuses on discipline, the development of a broad repertoire of techniques, and on honing the ability to think for oneself and to do so effectively. The best kind of training also fosters a sense of possibility and an attitude of fearlessness when facing unchartered territory. Even so, I could not help but wonder what a strong coaching culture might bring to the doctoral thesis experience and the impact it might have on the trajectory of our careers.

Training in pro sports considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared we are in our formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own. We learn that this competitive approach to sport began in America in stark contrast to the amateur ethos in aristocratic Britain within games like golf, cricket and soccer.

A formula for expertise

I was particularly intrigued by the development of expertise, or going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence on to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence - and the role a coach plays at each of these stages. I decided to find out what was key at each step.

Step 1 demands awareness, or the ability to shine light on the blindspots in our professional lives. Like Gawande, I found this curious: After a point in our careers, our work goes largely unobserved by anyone who could raise one’s game. Good coaches are unjudging observers with your best interests at heart - an external set of eyes and ears making us aware of which areas we might want to focus on.

Step 2 requires the kind of expertise that coaches excel at. A passionate interest in behaviour design, a broad repertoire of tools and strategies for self discovery and behaviour change and crucially, the insight to know what is appropriate in each situation. Equally important to step two is a growth mindset and the desire to improve at all costs on the part of the coachee.

Step 3 calls for conscientious practice — conscious and persistent efforts to develop the range of capabilities that leads to effortless competence. Here, again, a coach can provide the much needed accountability and encouragement - small acts of attention that can make all the difference.

I realised that coaching is a true partnership with each step requiring the full buy-in and commitment of both the coach and the coachee.

And how do we go about finding such a coach? A friend of mine, a senior leader at a top software firm, responsible for several hundred employees, took it upon himself to find out. Equally passionate about employee well-being and company outcomes, he was determined to put together the best possible coaches for his team. So he interviewed and worked in turn with more than 40 different coaches over the course of a year. Shared values are obviously key to a successful coaching relationship, he told me, but equally important was a shared background - a sense that the coach understood your world.

Paying the price

And what does coaching cost, you might wonder. I find a better question to ask usually is: What is it worth to me? The average research budget is spent on everything ranging from software to laboratory equipment with a relatively modest sum usually set aside for professional development. What might ultimately make the difference is how well scientists are able to use the resources at their disposal. Are we doing everything we can to ensure that the amount set aside for professional development is being used optimally?

Coaching might well be the most cost-effective intervention you can arrange for your career. But let's not forget, it comes at another price: exposure. It’s a price I was more than willing to pay as I signed up for a year-long coaching program - suffice to say, it changed my life. Inspired by this journey, I decided to spend the next year training as a coach and discovered that this too suited me perfectly. It is behind-the-scenes work, but crucial, and I am grateful for the opportunity to play a part in other people’s discoveries and breakthroughs - this time at a far more personal level.

In the end, the success of coaching comes down to the willingness to accept this partnership both on the part of the individual, especially those that are well along in their careers, and by the profession as a whole. If you are a scientist at any stage ready to re-imagine your career, I hope you will give coaching a try.

Watch Atul Gawande’s eye-opening TED talk here.

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