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What3words: Personal and professional development conversations with early career researchers

‘What three words would you use to describe yourself as you are right now?’  It’s not a particularly unusual question to hear at interviews and often one that causes a sigh of inner frustration and a sense of ‘here we go again, what do they want me to say?!’

Yet what if the question is asked with no agenda aside from encouraging your exploratory introspection?  Is there value in tuning in with yourself, right now, and describing yourself in just three…..separate…..words?  In my view yes there is value as one of many useful exercises in mobilising your self-awareness, that thing which we all claim to have a good amount of and yet which we often lose a grip on when the chips are down.

In that moment of searching for those three words what is going on?  It is fascinating watching a group of people doing this activity as individuals and seeing the differing ways that they behave as they approach the task.  Varying from slow to quick, reflective to spontaneous, smiling to stressed, positive to resistant.  Never mind the words that are selected these behavioural differences alone are a rich resource territory for exploration with any group.  What is happening is that each person is enagaging differently with the process of ‘zooming out’, the process of taking a big picture view of a complex system, in this case themselves.  I am borrowing the ‘zooming out’ phrase for the good people at the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, who believe that to be able to ‘zoom out, zoom in’ is one of the central abilities in navigating complexity.  

We did quite a lot of zooming out in our session together.  It was an intentional approach as I wanted to engage them in thinking about bigger picture rather than getting stuck in the detail.  The zooming in part happened in conversations I encouraged them to have in small groups, or in ideas storming where they positioned their detailed ideas on a shared (initially) blank canvas.

Just observing this going on my own reflections landed on what it is that is important as you zoom in and zoom out.  When zooming out it is uncomfortable for many to detach from their complexity and characterise themselves in just three words.  Identifying them it requires that we put aside some alternative descriptors and, in doing so, leave behind a sense of ourselves.  This sense of loss can be uncomfortable.  If we attend to that feeling it reports strongly on what is important to us.  Zooming out is a process that is not about finding the whole truth, more about finding a representative truth at a point in time. 

Zooming out effectively positions us over our landscape of complexity at a particular position related to our three chosen words, much the same as the What3Words app locates us in a 20 metre square somewhere on the planet!  Zooming in, as these participants did in their conversations, leads to all sorts connections being made, or remade, with the nature of these being subtly influenced by the experience of zooming out.  Whatever is experienced in a zoom in process will be different because of having taken the time to zoom out, and the new connections made in any detailed zoom in thinking will often highlight different priorities when zooming out.

In this relative short session I was reminded of the importance of allowing time for both in any reflection space that I (or anyone else) is curating.  Zooming out to find those three words came alongside a sense of tension, of the build up of a potential energy.  The tension is released, and the potential energy harnessed, by zooming in.  All quite subtle and experienced differently by each individual differently.  I was reminded of the importance of my own engagement in the process with a professional challenge that I am facing is being complicated by being stuck in zoom in mode.  Time to zoom out Jeremy, take a leaf out of your own book!

A slide from the What3words session raising the possible 'becoming' approach of 'first act, then think' which is also captured in the great phrase 'flirting with our possible selves'

What3words played out as a theme throughout the session, as well as being the framework for the discussion around three words that I believe are central to personal and professional development.  Just so you know those three words are ALREADY, BECOMING and CHOICE.  The first is influenced by words by Hae-Sun Moon, the second by Cathy Salit, and the third by Viktor Frankl.  A 'zoom out' description of their importance is that development is about understanding what you have already, having a sense of the direction you want to travel or the person you want to become, and an appreciation that it is your choices that will be central to your transition between the two.  Perhaps I will write a zoom in informed blog about the detail behind this but for now I’ll leave you with some reflective inquiries to play with and be curious about.

  1. What do you have already that you can use in your development journey?

  2. What thoughts do you have about what you want to become?

  3. What experiments might you carry out in your present situation (your ‘already’) that might give you greater clarity about the direction you want to take in your becoming?

  4. How might zooming out help you in exploring your thinking and feeling?

  5. How might zooming in help you explore your thinking and feeling?

  6. What can you look out for to prevent getting stuck in either of ‘zoom in’ or

If you are interested in finding out more about the content of this session, or more generally about the coaching work I do within Higher Education. please do get in touch. More information about what I do can be found here, and you can reach me using this contact form.


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