This is Part 2 of a description of a talk I was invited to give to staff at the legal firm of Lima and Falcao by the owner Tiago Lima. It took place in Recife, northeast Brazil in November 2018.
In a previous post I discussed some of the attributes for a successful career and the tricky art of learning from mistakes. The rest of the talk focused on the role of taking and giving strategic advice and the importance of listening skills.
The Benefits of Taking Advice
To illustrate this I gave an example from my own career, when I was doing my PhD in particle physics at Imperial College, London (it’s to be found embedded in a much longer article entitled The Higgs Effect).
On one occasion word went out that he (Prof Abdus Salam, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979) wanted to interview each of the particle physics PhD students. There was a handful of us and no reason was given. This was quite unusual as we interacted with all the other staff on a regular and easy basis and communication was excellent.
In my interview somehow or other I started going on about the low public profile of particle physics even though some amazing advances were being made and they weren’t being well communicated to the public. He agreed with me, said it was an important topic and suggested I seize the opportunity and do it myself! This totally shocked me as this wasn’t the sort of career or activity I had in mind, although with hindsight it might have been excellent advice.
I’ve often thought about this and how best to benefit when being in the (rare) situation of talking to someone who can give advice from a genuinely big picture. My guess is that they’ll always say something you don’t expect and you might even find a bit odd! That’s because they see things completely differently (years of experience, wider network, deeper insights).
However I think the smart thing to do is to write the idea or suggestion down, leave it a while (let it incubate) and then just openly think about it even if it contradicts practically everything else you’re doing. I’m not saying I would have been good at popular science or that I would (in reality) have enjoyed it but I did lose an opportunity by not giving it the attention it deserved.
As we’re often told, chance favours the prepared mind. In this case, being prepared for the unexpected!
The general point is to listen carefully to the advice given and not be judgemental. If the suggestions are not what you were expecting (as in the example above), let the ideas incubate slowly and try to keep an open mind on new possibilities. There may even be connections or opportunities that are relatively easy to develop and try out. In the example above, I could have written a short article for a popular magazine to see what was involved (namely the time and effort required). It would have been a diversion from my main research but a low cost and low risk ‘experiment’.
Nowadays, writing articles and books popularising modern science is fairly common and whole areas of bookshops are devoted to this area.
Whilst involved in technology transfer projects in a very large science and technology company, QinetiQ, I became interested in the topic of corporate knowledge management. This covers the different ways people create and share knowledge (as opposed to information). One important way is through conversations, where explaining something to someone else can let you see something in a new light or perhaps a question might spark a new idea. A fascinating topic is ‘how do we listen’. Listening to what someone says is actually quite hard as explained in the quote below:
“Very few people are good listeners. A good listener listens slowly to what is being said. He does not jump ahead nor does he rush to judge nor does he sit there formulating his own reply. He focuses directly on what is being said. He listens to more than is being said. He extracts the maximum information from what he hears by looking between the words used and wondering why something has been expressed in a particular way. It is active listening because the listener’s imagination is full of ‘could be’ and ‘may be’ elaborations.” – Edward de Bono
Just try it, it really is hard although presumably gets easier with practice.
The table below indicates the common way we converse (discussion) and an improved way (dialogue). If you’re not convinced, just eaves-drop on most conversations, you’ll see that they are usually very one-sided and limited.
The differences between dialogue and discussion
As a practical tip, you could experiment with inserting some dialogue in place of discussion and see what results. This may be especially useful in situations where there is a conflict or established set views or the matter is very important.
In fact this slide created the most interest which is revealing as energetic conversation is a strong feature of Brazilian culture!
The pdf of the slides of my talk can be downloaded here: Career Insights
Many thanks to Tiago Lima for the invitation to give a talk and Artur Pimentel and Kathiana da Silva for organisation and questions.