Going back to school

I’ve recently submitted my dissertation for a Masters in Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge. 15,000 words of qualitative academic research into circular business models which I have wrenched from my brain over the past year, sometimes quite easily like a flow, but most of time agonisingly pulling words and thoughts out of the fog. It marks the culmination of 2 years of study, while working full-time, which has been hard work but a wonderful experience. The week-long workshops at Cambridge spread through the course each felt like a treat – time out from the usual hamster wheel to soak in fascinating, world-changing topics. Even the dissertation was a treat in thinking. I don’t often get the opportunity to deeply think about a topic and to completely submerge my brain in it and I loved that opportunity, although it did make my brain hurt. 

On finishing, I was reflecting on I’ve learnt and whether I’ve changed as a result. I love learning, love reading and the course packed in a huge range of sustainability topics so the list of what I’ve learnt is lengthy, including: more breadth on sustainability, particularly on the social side which is not my area of expertise, loads about sustainable finance which is also not my thing, sustainable product design, systems thinking, how to write in an academic style, what research methods are all about, that research is more about coping with ambiguity than I realised, that writing is really about shaping your thinking …… 

Queens College, Cambridge and the mathematical bridge

But aside from that long list, I was thinking about what has it really all been about, and I think it comes down to this quote*: 

You will be the same person you are today in five years but for two things:  the people you meet and the books you read

Charlie ‘Tremendous’ Jones

I remember on the first day of the first workshop, going through the pre-workshop survey about the reasons we’d all given for why we wanted to do the course and one of the course directors berating us for not considering more highly the network of people we’d meet. It turns out that she was spot on. The speakers on the course were fabulous and even the sessions that at the outset I thought were going to be random were thought-provoking and I always took something from them. There were some runaway highlights: Emily Shuckburgh on analysing ice cores to show the impact of anthropologic carbon emissions on global temperatures, Tony Juniper on the state of biodiversity loss, Kresse from Elvis & Kresse talking about the company she co-founded to tackle issues with waste, Sue Garrard on Unilever’s sustainability journey, Stuart Walker on sustainable product design and course tutor Richard Burrett doing a 101 on the finance sector and why they are so critical to radical change (for those of us who needed it!). 

But as well as all these fabulous speakers, I learnt just as much from my peers. Listening to the questions they ask, being challenged by what they asked me, how they’d come at things from completely different directions from what I was thinking, their case studies of their day jobs and the support they gave when things were tough. I was in a cohort of about 40 people from around the world and a broad range of sectors including: finance, fashion, infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, transport and NGOs and so discussions were wide-ranging and sometimes pretty punchy. The course is organised so you meet the cohorts on either side of you too and the alumni network is strong so now I’m plugged into a larger network of talented sustainability professionals.   

Of course the other half of Charlie Jones’ quote is really about people too, given that books and journal articles are written by authors, but that relationship is obviously a different one. With social media though it means you can have a form of relationship with them, not something I could do first time round. I found it oddly disconcerting that academics are on twitter too and not just names at the top of an article! 

The amount of mandatory reading on the course was large and the breadth was vast – sustainability is a huge topic, with every part of it different from the next but also interlinked and leadership is a huge topic too. To manage that, an unexpected learning was about how to read; or at least how to quickly read an article or book to work out whether it’s actually useful to read and what the content covers. Once I’d decided to read it, also re-learning how to properly apply critical thinking to work out what I thought about what I’d read, not just to accept it. I heard an idea a few years ago about good listening: don’t listen like a sponge, listen like a trampoline. I think good reading is like that too – you absorb it, think about it and then it takes you onwards, exploring somewhere new. 

Then there’s the what to read. I’ve written a couple of previous posts on recommended reading about nature and environmental sustainability but that’s just the tiniest drip in the ocean. I’m a self-confessed book worm and there’s something quite magical about having access to all the world’s research: being able to search for and read any academic journal or book published, whether it’s directly relevant to your subject or not. Many bottomless pits of interesting tangents lie in that world! My dissertation was on circular business models in the solar sector and I “unnecessarily” read a lot about circular product design, biomimicry and remanufacturing techniques. I’m passionate about biodiversity loss and nature conservation and I disappeared into an interesting tangent on rewilding, the science behind rewilding and how to do biodiversity measurement to align locally with the planetary boundaries. I’m interested in how people make decisions and how you can really change an organisation and I now have a bookshelf full of sustainability change strategy books that were fascinating. Aside from my tangents, I’ve also enjoyed the mandatory reading about topics I wouldn’t naturally choose like sustainable finance or philanthropy, because it pushed me to concentrate on something I started out thinking would be dull and because you don’t grow by staying within your comfort zone. 

So am I changed by the people that I’ve met and the books that I’ve read in the past 2 years? No question about it. I’m more knowledgable about sustainability and more confident in that knowledge and how to apply it. I’ve always wanted to “save the world” but I have a much more specific view on what that could be. And I have finally found a career niche that I’m passionate about, have skills in and the world desperately needs. With huge thanks to my fabulous peers, alumni, the course staff and speakers and countless book/article authors for helping me be a different person today than the one I was 2 years ago.  

* I don’t totally agreed with this quote. What about the things that you do?! You probably learn more from those than from books but he was all about books and it works here so I’m going with it!

  1. So true Meryl – congrats on completing the course (he says enviously wishing I didn’t have another 11 months of slog ahead of me). It’s such a shame that Cohorts 9 and 10 didn’t get to mix at Cambridge in April but it was great “meeting” you and the rest of C9 virtually – you were all an inspiration to us “first years”! Love “listening as a trampoline”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such a shame we didn’t get to meet properly. I weirdly enjoyed the slog! And actually being able focus just on the dissertation in the second year rather than multiple assignments was good. Good luck!


  2. Great blog Meryl. I don’t know where you find the energy to study and work full time, but what a gift to be able to delve into the depths of sustainability. Really enjoyed reading your reflections.

    Liked by 1 person

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