I was listening to the Lifehacker podcast this week. Lifehacker, the site, has changed my life even though it can get a little overwhelming. It’s not possible to do everything they post, obviously, but there are a lot of solid ideas there. Around minute 28, they answer a question from someone who was going to study computer science (smart decision, that) but he was saying it wasn’t really what he wanted to do for a living/career and was wondering about how to figure out what he wanted to pursue.

The answer kind of took me aback even though I pretty much knew what they would say: Try new things, formally or informally. See what makes you excited to be doing (also known as the ‘would you do this for free’ test). Second, meet people (which often happens when you’re trying new things). The part that really got to me (again, predictably- not the first time something like this triggered a gut reaction) was when they all concurred that starting to explore as soon as possible was a good idea as it’s harder to change the longer you wait.

Yes. It is.

They then went through their own stories about how they’d ended up at Lifehacker and all three of them (Adam Dachis, Thorin Koslowski, Alan Henry) have fairly round about stories where they were doing very different things before landing their jobs at Lifehacker, writing tech oriented life tips. They’ve changed careers multiple times and via sometimes serendipitous circumstances came together and they landed where they are now.

Their stories hit me in the gut for a few reasons.

I’m 35- nearly 36. I have not tried many new things until recently. I have not networked with others very well (shy introvert…deadly combo for doing that). Other than surviving, I have not accomplished much in my opinion (Fine, I shouldn’t discount making it through grad school, but plenty of my friends have done that, gotten married, gotten new jobs, and basically out-hustled me). And until possibly recently (thanks to Twitter!), I have not been connected enough to have serendipitous things happen to me and would be oblivious to them if they came along. Being open has not come naturally to me- which probably doesn’t make for the best scientists, and certainly doesn’t favor being prepared to embrace luck (Look at the ‘count the number of ads in this newspaper’ experiment).

I’ve made running a big hobby of mine even though I don’t really like it that much (great accessible exercise, for sure & I’ll be running a half marathon in October). I’ve started brewing my own beer at home (IPA turned out pretty well, I think). I started a blog. I’m trying to learn new things & read a lot more than I used to- including reading more fiction rather than the non-fiction I usually go for.

I forget who gave it, but there’s a TED talk about someone talking about how the 20’s is a key period in anyone’s life and taking it seriously is important (I’m not linking to it intentionally- I’d prefer to forget it exists). Exploring, dating, setting yourself up for the rest of your life, basically (with the sort of implication that if you don’t do it then, you’re kind of done, game over, screwed for the rest of your life. Obviously I can’t believe that or I’ll quickly return to very depressive thinking).

In college (even before that) and in my 20’s I didn’t exactly do much actively (Again, shy & introverted- both making me think something was fundamentally wrong with me). I fell into some great friendships. I didn’t really date until I turned 30. I was rigid. Closed off. I was decidedly a homebody- even still, I rarely go out (I’m writing this on a Saturday night). I spent most of my time trying to work. What else was there? Of course, that burned me out, kept me pretty depressed and is something I’m still recovering from (it’s still a good sign that I’m fairly comfortable relating this story to people on the internet- hopefully to help them not go through the same thing).

I recently started in on two new books (making for a total of 3 I’m reading at once): Aisha Tyler’s “Self-inflicted Wounds” and Richie & Natalie Norton’s “The Power of Starting Something Stupid”.

I just started both, but in Aisha Tyler’s book, the idea of a self-inflicted wound is that it’s something that transpired that you clearly did to yourself. It’s something that you can’t blame anyone else for (on her podcast, guests often tell ridiculous drinking stories for this segment). The other idea in a self-inflicted wound is that these are stories that you learn something from too, even if it’s as simple as “I’ll never drink like that again.”

A self-inflicted wound is failing up, failing to success by f$%@ing up, learning and not quitting. And there lies one of my problems. I’ve always feared screwing up and so avoid it as much as possible. It’s probably the worst thing about being a perfectionist (perfectionist, shy, introvert…I’ve been doing something about the first two, the latter I’ve embraced thanks to “Quiet”).

My own self-inflicted wound story would involve the feeling of having no agency to do much of anything, feeling like I was waiting for permission to do things or waiting for things to be perfect. These seem to be chronic self-inflicted wounds that lasted for decades. Is this a self-inflicted wound resulting from low self-compassion? Depression? Not getting it into my head that taking chances and trying things is the way to get ahead in life- and even if you fail, you learn and move on?

The Norton’s book is more business oriented and is about how most of the successful businesses we hear about actually started as “stupid” ideas; ideas that won’t go away, that you want to pursue, but hesitate because of time/money/education (experience) constraints you feel are preventing you from proceeding, that you hesitate to take the leap on, that others tell you is crazy to go after sometimes. Guess what? Those kinds of “Stupid” ideas are where innovation comes from. And hesitating is deadly. We’re only hear once and deferring life/dreams until conditions are ‘ideal’ means you’ll be waiting for a long time.

I had the deferment mentality for years and am now trying to shed it (too late?). I’m trying not to be discouraged by the fact that I’ve wasted a lot of time in just figuring out what means enough to me to pursue as a “Stupid” idea- I’m still not really sure what lights me up like a Christmas tree (beyond the frivolous- talking about certain pop-culture franchises, e.g.).

As a postdoc in academia, it seems that we are often actively discouraged form pursuing ideas that we feel might be fruitful because current funding is rather conservative (you often have 2/3 of the data for a given grant done before you actually get the funding for it….). In some labs, you just do what the PI tells you without question (not my situation, thank goodness, though I definitely have guidelines that I do think are important). And of course, does any new ground we break have a big impact? Most of the time, it doesn’t (I feel this can cause disconnection/feelings of pointlessness about our work). It’s a basic contribution to what will yield practical results 50 years hence. It’s hard to be that patient and it’s well beyond any conceivable business cycle.

There’s little thought put into attaining a satisfying life in science (maybe this occurs more when you talk to individuals, but as a whole culture, it seems to be a discussion that’s only starting to be had). It’s about the research. The humans doing the science are secondary.

I do love science and what it can do (it does light me up), but I also struggle to see what my place is in it anymore (I do like communicating it to others as evidenced by my tweeting the recent conference I attended). I don’t know what to switch to (the Tenure Track faculty thing still seems like a very remote possibility). And any steps I do take towards exploring seem very small (I know, any steps are good, but patience is wearing thin in me). So I’m still waiting for a stupid idea to strike me- possibly that will be the real launch of Ian3.0 (currently, my stupid idea is to blog about how I’m trying to adopt much better mental habits and otherwise take care of my mental health- which I hope will help others, though it often seems to me that most people have this sorted out better than I do).

I’m trying to get to the bottom of why I haven’t been fully engaged/disconnected from life. What has been my hesitation with diving in? Perfectionism is one big reason. I am shedding that and just move forward when things are ‘good enough’ (I started this blog in part to write things fairly quickly and post them- and even if my mind is telling me ‘this could be so much better’, it’s going to have to be good enough for the time I’ve given myself to write a post about once/week).

The #sciconfessions on Twitter this last week has been great at bursting the bubble that other scientists are perfect. We are human and we mess up. A lot. In part that’s because we’re trying to do brand new things, testing new hypotheses. Trouble-shooting is hard and we’re trying to be creative, innovative, and explore All of which involve trial and error. We’re doing our best, just like everyone else. You don’t have to look hard to find out that the process of science works at making progress.

However, it never seemed to me that fellow scientists weren’t perfect (or at least vastly more competent than me) until recently. It seems to me that my colleagues are all really solid, intelligent and more knowledgeable than I am. However, I now pretty plainly see that that’s not the case (don’t get me wrong, I’m still a complete dumb ass in many situations). I still need to upgrade my skills (who doesn’t?), but only just well enough to get what I need to do done before moving onto the next thing.

As Norton says: Live to start. Start to live.

I’m still fumbling about for that “Stupid” idea to devote my time to/start. However, I do feel like I’m moving again, as I’m sure I’ve said multiple times. I am largely sick of being a postdoc (probably not uncommon these days & may be by design) and if your first dream gets deep-sixed, what do you do next? How do you take your scientific CV and translate it to a whole other endeavor? Why can’t I just break through that mental barrier to see possibility, to start living in the present and not defer life any more than I have? Most of us postdoc types will not end up in our first choice positions (i.e. TT faculty), so hustling, finding a new niche to occupy in another place or self-starting something on your own is going to be where we find careers- I’m just not sure where that is, but I’m trying to cultivate an exploratory and entrepreneurial spirit.

I come back to Conan O’Brien’s 2011 Dartmouth Commencement Speech often. He talks about shooting for one dream (that for him was hosting “The Tonight Show”, which he did, briefly, but then had to make a turn into something else). He talks about how dreams can morph over time and that that’s OK.

So here’s to living now. Doing something now. Start something.

Something I’ve had knocking around my head the last few weeks (and been trying to figure out the right punctuation for it) is this from comedian Tig Notaro:

“How about now? How about right now.

The End (of 2012). 


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

2 thoughts on “Switch”

  1. Ian, I am always amazed at how raw and honest your posts are. It takes tremendous bravery to be this insightful and even more so to share your reflections with others. Someone with that kind of fearlessness and drive can channel it anything, including the next step in their lives. When that moment comes, and it will, remember this post.. And jump! I really feel like its just around the corner for you, hang in there!

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