About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

Katya Melnikhova, a graduate of the HSE master’s programme in Psychology, is convinced that it is necessary to create an educational environment for children in which everyone can succeed. She and her husband head the Kavardak art residence programme that is based on the principle of democratic education. What does this mean? How does a background in psychology translate to coaching? How to raise a person to be happy? In an interview with Success Builder, Ms Melnikhova spoke about this and more.

What were your professional aspirations when you enrolled in the psychology programme?

I began focusing on career very early. At first I wanted to be an interior designer, but it was difficult to understand how this industry actually worked, so I was afraid to enter that field. Then I wanted to be a psychologist because I wanted to understand why people act one way and not another. My mom chose a university, sending me to the School of Young Psychologists at Moscow State University where I attended classes for one year. Then it became clear to my parents that the education offered at Moscow State did not have a lot of real-world application. After that, they learned of HSE and the Business Psychology programme that prepares graduates to work in HR.

Interestingly, I am still trying to understand the motives behind human behaviour, so I apparently made the right choice. When I first enrolled, I thought psychotherapy was not for me at all and thought about the HR field. But that changed during my upper division work when an HR professional spoke to our class. Everything she told us about her work was excruciatingly boring.

Attending a winter school organised by a young woman from the Russian State Humanitarian University played a major role in my understanding of the applied side of psychology. She brought together practitioners from different approaches to psychology – gestalt, psychodrama, person-centred, etc. It was the first time I saw how all of that worked in practice. In my fourth year of studies, I came up with a way to combine my main interests of design and psychology in my profession and I did my senior thesis on Interior Design and its Influence on Psychological Well-being. The hypothesis suggested that it is possible to manage one’s mood through the organisation of personal space. For example, if I hang a picture that my son drew on the wall of my room, will it affect my emotional state?

In light of events in recent years, this is an extremely important topic.

This is an important topic in principle, but when people are forced to spend all their time at home, the phenomenon of how space can influence a person becomes important not only to researchers. Almost 10 years ago, I became interested in ergonomics (an area of psychology devoted to the study of spaces – Ed.). A classmate and I conducted a study for business that looked at how office interiors can influence employee productivity. We even thought about opening an architecture bureau devoted to this. It is interesting that now, several years later, we are both still involved in this: he works as an analyst in the Centre for Urban Studies and I designed a children’s museum – that is, this knowledge has come in handy. I think that psychology is a very good basic education because it can be applied in a huge number of areas, everything from HR to urban planning. Now I am much more focused on children’s education and my degree enables me to work in schools and in the educational field in general.

After earning your bachelor’s, why did you decide to enroll in a master’s programme rather than immediately starting a job?

When I look at the School of Psychology now, I see how much it has changed since then. Now I would like to be able to study in the Applied Positive Psychology programme. But at that time, after earning my bachelor’s, I wanted to switch gears and study design, but I didn’t get in, and so I did the obvious thing and continued with the HSE master’s programme.

Even now, I would like to go back to HSE and start my studies again from scratch

I am still looking for different master’s programmes because there is no end to the knowledge in my field. Now I can say that I am a Master of Psychology.

Did you have any difficulties combining work and study?

I have worked on a wide variety of projects since I was 14, but my first serious, full-fledged job was at Nikola-Lenivets. They put a lot of trust in me, allowing me to carry out my ideas and learn from my mistakes. The first time I sent a busload of students to the summer school, I didn’t make a list of who was coming. As a result, I had no way of keeping track of who had already arrived and who was late. Also, I got an important lesson in budgeting and managing resources when I decided to do everything myself instead of hiring someone. It turned out awful. It shows that delegating is good and that sometimes you have to spend money. The people at Nikola-Lenivets didn’t get upset over this incident and, in general, the work was a good addition to the stages of professional maturation.

How did you end up at Nikola-Lenivets?

A couple of years before I started working there, I attended a lecture at Strelka Institute at which a young woman spoke about the options for volunteering and interning at the Flacon Design Factory. I signed up. I wasn’t paid anything for the first few months, but then there was a lot more administrative work and I was looking to develop professionally. Soon after, the people at Flacon won the tender for the development of Nikola-Lenivets and invited me to take part in the new project because they already knew me so well.

Why did you decide to work with children?

At first, we just held various summer schools and workshops for school students and developed curricula, weaving into them the experience of various informal creative projects from around the world. Then I picked up experience in social communication, working as a conflict resolution manager for disagreements between a developer and the residents of a local village. But my favorite was a project in which we brought two young women to serve as foreign language and art teachers in a village school. They taught several subjects and a psychologist visited them every two weeks for support.

This might have marked my transition to children’s education, but I don’t remember: it somehow happened so naturally. Nikola-Lenivets decided to do children’s projects. I was fully equipped for this due to my experience and background in psychology. We started a children’s camp. At first it was small, then grew very large – with five sessions of 100 people each. Soon after, however, our donor went bankrupt and my husband and I began conducting the camp ourselves, calling it the Kavardak art residence.

Is it generally difficult to organise something for children?

I suddenly became interested in the question of vocation, in finding oneself, and I wanted to explore this question with children, and not with adults suffering from midlife crisis.

I thought: the sooner I intervene in the child’s perception of the world, the more likely he or she is to have a full, mindful and happy life

I now have a mission to develop projects for children. I see that this intervention is working: the young people change, ask questions, learn to question and think critically. I am very unhappy with the way the modern Russian school system is organised. It is an outdated institution and as it works now, it does not develop the skills people need. I am working on an idea for a new type of school, but have not yet been able to make it happen.

Two years ago, I joined the Polytechnic Museum as the programme director of the children’s museum. I had previously worked mostly with youth, but now I had to work with children under nine. I learned a lot more about this age group and gained a wider understanding of what makes makes them tick. Now I am focused on games and want to develop this for all ages, from children to adults. I think play is an essential part of human life and is greatly underestimated.

What are the shortcomings of the public school system? Is it possible to correct them?

Everything needs to change. I dislike not only school, but basic education in general. I don’t like the assumption that everyone should start first grade in ‘Condition A’ and graduate in ‘Condition B’– that is, 11 years later, all students should have the same knowledge and skills. Obviously, though, this doesn’t happen: children don’t come out the same because, by nature, they are different from the beginning. It is necessary to create a system in which people can pursue their own interests by listening to themselves. This would make them happy and truly productive.

Another very important skill that should be developed in children is the ability to live as a part of a community, to reach agreement, make decisions and cooperate, because this is how we live in adulthood, at home and at work. Nowadays, any given team of people most often consists of people who are constantly whispering behind each other’s backs and blaming others. The Kavardak art residence is also aimed at developing the skill of living as part of a community and constant communication in which everyone has their own opinion that can be heard.

What makes the Kavardak art residence project unique?

First, it differs from other projects in that we do not evaluate the students: there are no competitions or awards and each person can choose how they will spend their two weeks of vacation time. We have almost no activities programme other than evening events and morning workshops. This makes it possible to stay flexible and not force anyone to do this or that activity. The morning workshops are designed and conducted by the teachers themselves, for whom this is also a unique experience since they also work in a team and constantly negotiate, interact and improvise.

There is no set program between lunch and dinnertime – the children themselves choose what to do from among various pop-up workshops. Of course, we don’t allow kids to just sit with their phones. Instead, you can build a tree house, draw your own ‘artist’s book’ or write a song – and somebody will always help you. This distinguishes Kavardak from other recreational spaces that work according to the principle of ‘now we’ll figure out how to make the day fun’.

Who are the parents of these children and why do they trust you?

We spent the first three years trying to find and secure our audience. Many of our parents are in the creative professions and they usually learned about our project from having often visited Nikola-Lenivets themselves. And these are not only people leading a ‘free lifestyle’; many of our children study in special preparatory schools or schools with this or that specialisation. Their mothers and fathers are generally unconventional and intelligent people who are a bit tired of school-based education.

At the same time, we do not position ourselves as an educational project – people see us as a leisure platform. I think parents consider the creative component most important and send their children primarily for this, especially if the child is creative.

What does it mean to be a ‘creative person’?

This is not a camp, but an art residence. The important words for us are ‘self-directedness’ and ‘independence’. Such formats do a good job of developing a sense of autonomy, of being able to do things on your own. The free choice of activity and having no fixed result from your work are probably what determine a person’s creative side.

Each child can propose a workshop or an event in an area of his liking. Most events are conducted as work groups. At the morning roll call, we ask, ‘Who wants to decorate the hall today? We’ll meet at 3 o’clock’.

How did you become an expert on democratic education?

I learned about democratic education from Ken Robinson’s book Creative Schools. It looks at schools that already exist and an international conference on democratic education. When I Googled it, I discovered that it would be held in Israel in one month, which was very convenient for me because I go there quite often. The conference literally changed my life. I felt like Mowgli in that cartoon who left the jungle and finally found people like himself. It turned out that what I had been doing all that time was a democratic educational project.

In Israel, I saw with my own eyes how it works by visiting democratic schools, including the legendary school of Yaacov Hecht. The moment I walked in, I realised, ‘This is Kavardak, only 10 times bigger!’ After that, I brought Henry Redhead himself – the deputy director of the legendary Summerhill school and the grandson of its founder – to lecture in Moscow. This landmark visit has greatly strengthened the community of democratic education supporters in Russia. Then Yaacov Hecht also came and held a workshop. I was popularising his work at the same time and attended several more conferences.

How is this applied in practice in Russia?

There are such schools in Russia – all small and private. So far, the democratic approach only works in the family education format. I don’t really understand how this can be applied on a large scale in our country. One of reasons that keeps me from creating such a school is the fear that someone will come and say, ‘What are you doing here, anyway?’

In one of his presentations, Yaacov has a great picture of the ‘wrong’ type of education in which all the children are shoved into identical boxes, and when that doesn’t work, they get shoved even harder.

Inside this box is a pyramid, at the top of which are the students who are good at such important subjects as math and Russian. At the bottom are the losers who carry the idea that I can’t do this’ for the rest of their lives. Of course, if we were to compare all the animals according to the principle of ‘who swims the best’, then the fish would win. But our task is to create an environment in which all children will succeed – for some, it will be in math, for others, it will be in creativity; one might study better in groups, the other alone, and so on. For democratic education to work, you need at least the trust of the parents because the learning outcome is non-linear and children differ, which is normal.

How does an education in psychology translate into coaching?

Now I am studying at a foreign institute and have a strong understanding of what professional coaching is. Over the past couple of years, I have often worked as a team leader, not only with children, but also with adults. For example, I was a department head at the Polytechnic University and, in my opinion, this occupation is closely connected with coaching in which you help people to become their best. Such work can apply to any area of life – relationships, career, studies – because it is connected with freedom of expression.

I am simply acquiring a kind of occupation that will depend on my employer. In addition, this activity is focused on working with a specific client request and a clear result that can be felt and appreciated. I seem to be good at asking people questions. In this sense, I am making full use of my education in psychology and can’t imagine how a person could cope in this area without it. I have an inner reliance on my HSE degree that helps me understand how people think and enables me to pick up on manifestations of clinical disorders in time to refer a client to a psychiatrist.

One of my goals is to become an executive coach in order to develop leadership qualities in managers. I am also studying team coaching that helps teams to become more effective, values-oriented and satisfied with life.

Can you practice coaching at home?

Such experiments should not be carried out with loved ones. I do help my friends and colleagues a little. They have all been happy with the results, so I have high hopes for working in business. Honestly, though, it’s best if the coach and client have only a working relationship, although there is no rule against working by mutual agreement with anyone.