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Researching Yourself. Article 10 in the series, The Story of… | by Jennifer Peavey | Sep, 2021


Jennifer Peavey

I was talking with a friend yesterday who was itching to make a decision and ended the discussion exasperated that it would be better if the circumstance was forced upon them, so they could just accept what happened. I know that feeling of wondering if you’ve made the right decision and sometimes that delays the ability to make any decision. Making the choice for ourselves requires courage. It is understandable then that we often wait until we are forced to make or accept it. I don’t know how many times I have had to forgive a younger version of myself for certain decisions — particularly those of not choosing. Is this not how I create more stress in my life? Is there not a better way? Here I celebrate the courage to choose my own way.

This installment continues the article series, The Story of Natural Reflectors. Article 10 is from Part 2 that contains the second set of 4 articles that explore principles of how to develop one’s own process. It begins with opening the mind to the idea that there are other ways of managing the various aspects in our lives and that nature has been managing these aspects beautifully long before we were put on this earth. This part will also explore how to glean and nurture what insights nature has to offer.

I met with Catalina during the quarantine in 2020. She, like me, had a career and then chose to pursue an advanced degree in design. I knew from my own experience in working on a Master’s in Industrial Design that going back to school later in life caused one to spend time focusing on being more efficient, and this required moments of self-observation to understand what worked and what didn’t. It had been four years since I was in the throes of it, but I was hopeful Catalina would have a fresh view since she was in the middle of a doctorate program.

She told me the first big difference between the Master’s and the PhD program is a semester-long course called Research Paradigms in Design, specifically created to help students understand what kind of researchers they were (NCSU Wolfware, 2021). Two of the approaches to research are qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative is often associated with words and would be focused on observations of feelings, experiences, and stories (Creswell, 2014). Brené Brown’s research on how the fear of being disconnected from others convinces people they are unlovable is a good example of a qualitative research (Brown, 2021). Quantitative is often associated with numbers and would be focused on what can be measured, such as force, weights, or percentages (Creswell, 2014). Marie Curie’s laboratory experiments to determine how to isolate the radioactive chemicals of polonium and radium are good examples of a quantitative research (The Nobel Prize, 2021).

These kinds of research are not distinctly separate from each other, but are opposites on a spectrum. There are many researchers who combine these approaches to explore a larger story. How one chooses where you are on the spectrum and thereby what methods you will use depends upon your worldview. Researchers can select from a number of worldviews, such as constructivism and positivism. Constructivists understand there can be multiple meanings from the data’s interpretation, and these researchers generate theories from the interpretations. Positivists already have an established theory and are conducting research to confirm or deny the theory (Creswell, 2014).

In this class, Catalina discovered she was a constructivist and described herself as one who “constructs knowledge on what she observes in the world.” This was the most interesting part of transitioning from a Master’s to a PhD for her. After going through this class, Catalina felt she had been misusing the word “research.” During her Master’s, she felt everything she did was research. If she was reading articles, it was research. Anything she did to absorb information was research. However, when she heard the definitions in class, she realized there were distinct differences between qualitative and quantitative research. While she naturally took in information like a qualitative researcher, she began to understand how the numbers and statistics would open up whole new worlds to her. She realized she had a number of new tools in her toolbox and she was excited at the possibility.

To me, this was a blending of intuition and logic, and for that matter, it was also a blending of reflection and action. I asked her how that was working for her. Catalina responded, “My initial intentions for research are always driven by emotion. When I’m the one picking the topic, I always find myself asking the question, ‘Where did I feel frustrated?’ and that drives me. Most of my research, I am always trying to improve the issues that cause these frustrations.”

She went on by telling me of a project for an anthropology class where students practice ethnographic qualitative research methods they can later use in their dissertation research. The assignment was to research a group of people who were all alike.

One of the methods they used was ‘participant observation,’ where the researcher goes into the field and immerses themselves as one of the research participants. This gave her a chance to practice switching back and forth between experiencing for herself and observing the other participants. While other students chose to study groups from their karate class to online gamers, Catalina chose something very personal. She was in the middle of her own grief process from losing her husband a couple of months back and decided to study young widows.

Catalina joined a grief support group. There she shared her grief and felt those emotions, but she could not stay there with it. As soon as another participant would start sharing, she flipped the switch from crying like a baby as a participant to taking notes as a researcher. Catalina was a very rational person and felt talking about her emotions was hard. Talking about others’ emotions was quite easy because she rationalized it, but it was a different story when she was the one experiencing the feelings.

She told of how there were times where she thought she was going crazy. There was the time she was standing at the ATM trying to remember the four-digit code she’d had her whole life. The number simply would not come forward. Then there was the time she forgot to pick up her kids. She started to tell herself she was a bad mom and was losing her mind.

“I was having a really rough time with it, but once I was able to remove myself from the situation and look at it as a researcher, I was able to figure out, ‘Oh God, I’m not crazy. This is happening to everybody.’ All of these things I am telling you saved my life, because I was able to understand the grief process as a step-by-step thing.”

She was able to see that dark cold place she found herself in was just a phase, and she could move through it to the other side. Observing others, she understood she was the only one who could get herself out of that place. One of the insights she found through this study was there was a group of women who reinvented themselves either by embracing new hobbies, starting a new business, meeting new people, or opening themselves to a new relationship. These reinvented women seemed to be happier and were able to move forward more successfully than those who didn’t. Personally, Catalina decided to give dating a chance. Although in her heart it felt as if she would never be ready, she knew if she didn’t try, she never would. So, she started meeting people and began to explore the possibility of a happy life beyond her own loss.

Catalina readily applied these tools to her dissertation. She was interested in healthcare because she had grown up in a household of doctors. The only reason she did not go into medicine herself was because the sight of blood made her faint. So instead, she became passionate about how to create better medical devices and experiences to influence medical outcomes. Being a researcher, though, she wanted to take that further and develop methods and tools for all designers.

She sat down in the spring semester of 2020 with her advisor to flesh out what part of healthcare to research, and they both realized they were looking at a once-in-a-lifetime event with the global pandemic. Prior methods and tools were going to need an enormous shift to be able to handle the new normal, and the use of telehealth would become a real option for everyone since social distancing was one of the main strategies to contain the virus.

She had started with the user experience of patients, caregivers, and doctors during the pandemic to understand what was working and where there were opportunities for improvement. With that understanding, she was then ready to engage with experts to ideate on what the future of telehealth would be after the global lockdown. Would the world go back to the first version of healthcare or would there be a more blended model? Finally, she was planning to work with that forecast in mind to hypothesize what the role of designers could be in fleshing out that new normal.

Catalina intentionally took time to look for patterns in her own life so she could understand her tendencies and in turn gained knowledge in how she processes information and emotions. She looked to others who may be like her to understand tools and tricks she may want to adopt. She was then able to take her learnings and experiences, develop a process, and apply it all to her projects.

As we develop our own processes, we can learn from Catalina in accepting our own innate nature, celebrating it, and even using it when we are not sure where we are or where we are going. Trusting who we are and developing a process based on that trust will take us out of even the darkest places, whether they be of grief or of burnout.

If this resonates with you, I hope that you will follow this weekly article series over the next couple of months as I share excerpts of my book, Natural Reflectors. The next article in the series, Becoming a Natural Reflector, can be found here. The previous article in the series, Value and Celebrate the Work in Progress, can be found here.

For more information, connect with me at @jennifer.theblacklab or my website

Natural Reflectors is published as of August 30, 2021. Here’s the link to snag your own copy!

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Brown, Brene. “The Research.” Accessed May 13, 2021.

Creswell, J.W. Research design: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2014.

NCSU WolfWare. “DDN 702 Research Paradigms in Design.” Accessed May 13, 2021.

The Nobel Prize. “Marie Curie Biographical,” Accessed May 13, 2021.

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