The man box.

The depression box.

The academic box (aka The Ivory Tower)

And the related postdoc box  (feel particularly stuck in this one).

The perfectionist box.

The impostor box.

The introvert box.

The anxiety box.

The shy box.

The ‘I’m not and never have been good enough’ box.


That’s the list of boxes I can think that I’ve put myself into. Somehow, the human brain is capable of occupying several boxes at one time; each containing their own universe. Like the episode of “Futurama”, ‘The Farnsworth Parabox’, where the professor creates a series of boxes each containing different versions of the universe trying to replicate ‘Universe A’ (not to be confused with ‘Universe 1/Universe B’/‘The Mongooses’).

One of Walt Whitman’s lines is “I am large, I contain multitudes”.

Minds are like the TARDIS in “Doctor Who”: bigger on the inside. Plus, the TARDIS is not limited by much- it can travel in time and space. So can minds. “Reading Rainbow” taught several generations that idea.

These three cultural references evoke cosmoses, not isolated boxes that we often occupy; boxes are isolating and limiting (even when they might contain something as large as Universe A).

I’ve been thinking a lot about boxes, limits and other things that seem to have limited my life. Not least of which is my own brain putting the breaks on actually getting out and doing things.

A discussion on Twitter about the leaky pipeline metaphor being problematic and preventing women particularly from moving onto careers they want; in other words, keep the pipeline intact, we need women to stay in STEM! Leaving is betraying the cause. Of course there need to be more women in STEM fields, but if the ones who end up there don’t want to be there, that’s a problem for inspiring yet more women to enter a STEM discipline.

If a woman with a STEM background decides the traditional academic/research route isn’t for her & moves onto something she does want to do, I imagine she makes a much better case for it to someone else who’s considering the traditional academic STEM career track (that might be just right for that person). Not that there’s even a standard track anymore. Everyone in STEM has to hustle even more to just stay put it seems.

Smash the pipe and rip up the tracks. Pursue what you want because you want it, not because someone else is putting pressure on you to do it (pressure isn’t always a bad thing, just has to be applied in the right place/time/manner). I need to be reminded constantly to not feel like I’m constrained where I am. I’d like to be a good ambassador for science, but have had a hard time doing that from my current career vantage point.

I’ve mentioned Carol Dweck’s growth mindset idea before, that is a lot more flexible and allows people to learn things and grow into them rather than getting frustrated when something doesn’t just click and giving up because of it. I grew up and spent most of my adult life with that fixed mindset. Through a lot of hard work, I’m flipping my thinking to adopt a growth mindset to learn new things. It’s not just healthier in education, I think it’s healthier in life too; you are encouraging yourself to try new things more often. If you fall on your face, well, maybe that’s bad, but you tried and if you got some thrill out of it and you liked it, you’ll try again and do better the next time.

The education we get in the US too often rewards the fixed mindset it seems to me. As a result, people who tend to be perfectionist, high strung and otherwise obsessive (me!) don’t try too many new things, or give up easily when they do. Not a very resilient way being.

That can lead to boxes. So can outside cultural forces. If you were used to giving up when something is difficult, I would argue you’re more susceptible to cultural forces as opposed to standing up and being your own person more of the time. Some cultural identity is good, for sure, but if it’s put you into a restrictive box, that’s definitely a problem. After all, to be noticed is to be distinct in some way. There’s a reason we’re not all the same person.

It can be hard to let other people know that you’re unique and just how you’re unique- every geek/nerd (terms I use interchangeably) probably has experienced this first hand. We tend to be the ones who get teased for our interests, whatever those are (even from fellow geeks/nerds- it can be fine if it’s done lovingly, but often it’s not).

The last few years, I’ve been slowly unpacking the boxes I occupy and I suppose in a way, re-integrating myself into a whole person. At my most depressed- in that box- I felt like a shadow, invisible a lot of the time, barely there when I was visible and just a shift in the light away from disappearing into the dark. I felt like a lot of me was missing. It was probably there, but wasn’t visible to me because I was inside the very dark box.

Opening that box, as well as working on opening others I’ve felt myself trapped in has helped. The thing that needs to happen more now is opening the final big box of who I am and showing it to the world. I’ll do this in part by asking– still a hard thing for me to do. Talking more about those weird things I’m interested in. Letting people know that I exist and have needs, desires, ambitions, and wants, and just being fine with that.

In many ways, I’m just becoming aware of those things myself and identifying what they are.

Some boxes I’m OK being in; and they’re open ones- I’m a Whovian that still needs to try and watch the original run series episodes pre-2005, but I don’t have a strong desire to, for instance.

Have you put yourself into boxes? Have others? Has the broader culture?

Sunshine is required for life on Earth as we know it; that’s why open boxes are important- they’ll help you live more authentically and confidently.

Ever on and on.



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.

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