Let it Go.

Note: Slight trigger warning here. I talk about depression and suicidal thoughts herein. For those who could care less about such things, read on! 

This post was inspired after reading Adam Rubin’s latest ‘Experimental Error’ column in Science Careers. I think it’s one of the posts that makes me nervous to post. I worry that disclosing my (largely) past issues with depression hurts me (even while feeling that literally changing my brain required enormous fortitude and determination on my part). I worry how I probably come off as a whiny and overly sensitive human in a world that does not value sensitivity in any job; I hate feeling like I’m one of those so called ‘orchid’ people…needing fairly specific conditions to thrive (The dreaded response: empathy? compassion? People first? Listening? Learning/education? HAHAHAAHAHA! Most ridiculous things we’ve ever heard of. Get out of this office, we’re about the dollars! //Note: I too, am about dollars on some level, just not to the exclusion of other things; maybe where I differ is wanting to build for the long-term, not the next quarter…something else no longer really valued it seems to me). I realize that the world is full of decent people too. I hope you enjoy this rather experimental essay 

Let it Go.

I want to let go. I want all of us to let it go.

The cold will never bother us if we do. I’m pretty convinced.

Read this and this from Sarah K. Peck and Andrew Rubin, respectively.

We exist in a state of terror as young scientists (or a lot of us do, perhaps some even unaware– the terror can be hard to distinguish from the air we breathe).

We’re frozen with fear.

With the pressure to be perfect.

With the fear of making mistakes.

With the fear that anything but the tenure-track is ‘failure’.

Fearing we’re not one of the super-humans that can ‘make it’ in science.

Vulnerability isn’t allowed (The beginnings of change, innovation, learning, and purpose– not necessarily fabulous wealth/success, but deeper satisfaction in work, definitely).

I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes scientists able to produce high quality work.

The conclusion from my anecdotal experience is a combination of effort, space/time to think, permission to make mistakes, an iterating growth mindset, some autonomy, and an open environment where learning from one another is encouraged and people aren’t afraid to ask for things they need (no, that does not mean always getting them).

And my own watchword here: Don’t become clinically depressed. Learn the signs and if it seems like your emotions have been flattened for a few weeks straight, seek help, nip it in the bud quickly. Believe me you don’t want the feeling that you & the world would be better off if you were dead (in part because you functionally don’t fully see the difference between being alive and being dead), hoping a bus will run you over. That’s not a brain space for doing good science; you can do science, but you certainly won’t be firing on all cylinders. Even now that I’m a lot less depressed, my mind still has those thoughts sometimes. It’s a mental habit I’m trying to get out of still.

Chris Hadfield talks about fear and danger and how to take risks and be prepared.

15-20 years of training in every possible scenario and then you can launch yourself into space. Get started learning the whole system you’ll be working in and you’ll be ready to take chances and put yourself out of this world.

And yet, today’s academic system doesn’t instill that very well (or doesn’t allow the time for that to happen; the long learning phase seems to get clipped off even as experiments get bigger, more technical and more complex).

The work has to get done and yet there seems to be ‘no time’ for training people to do it even though we’re labeled grad students and postdocs; both considered ‘training phases’.

Fantastic mentorship exists and there are people that thrive, but I’m sure we can do better, do better work and improve the scientific enterprise without making a sizable population of participants within it mentally ill (again that does not mean it shouldn’t be hard; science will always be hard work and take effort).

Feedback is often judgmental and harsh, instilling a fixed mindset, believing learning isn’t possible, but that our talent/intelligence is a fixed trait.

Pressure and uncertainty can be paralyzing. One misstep and we’ll be unemployable forever. Nothing but academia is acceptable. Don’t tack against the wind. If you’re not in the lab, you must be wasting time.

And if you can’t do it on your own, don’t bother. Collaborate and be a good citizen, but stand out. Work alone, but as a team.

Being able to learn, problem solve, ask good questions, and perhaps be unleashed to do grow and do great things somewhere won’t happen because you’re convinced you’re an impostor.

Never enough. Ever.

There’s a fog that settles over your mind. You have dead eyes. Helplessness sets in.

I’ve felt all of these things and I’m starting to get to a place where the cold doesn’t bother me anymore.

There’s a space for me somewhere; either in science or not, I don’t know, but it exists and I can rule there, even if it is just me writing for a small audience on my blog.

Let it Go. We’re all human. Fallible and ridiculous creatures.

Take the work, but not yourself, too seriously. Try stuff. Figure out how to do it in small scale first if it’s something new to you that will be big later. And write. Write it all down– take notes.  And don’t be afraid to get your work out there or toss out ideas (guess what, vast majority will be terrible and probably wrong, who cares?).

Always feeling like I did the rational thing hasn’t worked. So I’m trying irrational (to me; often that means leaping without 100% certainty of outcome…obviously I still try to be as informed as possible ).

I adopted a cat a month ago. That makes no logical sense for my life, but I think it was a good decision for the most part.

My joke about this blog has been that it’s about what not to do as a postdoc/academic. I hope it’s helped a few people, mainly me, of course, because I write for myself too (and it has helped me).

Success is not a straight road. It’s a maze with lots of blind turns and dead ends. We won’t all end up in academia, but I’m sure most of us will find satisfying work somewhere, some how.

Let it go. All of us. We’ll likely do better work, help each other more, give better feedback, and not always act so terrified of everything and everyone. Funding is tight, work/life balance doesn’t exist, we don’t know enough to advance to the next phase since you only get hired to do something someone needs done, who can demonstrate they’re awesome in a loud way (never mind if they’ve hastily published crap papers in high profile journals…it’s out there, so they must be good somehow).

I feel passionate enough about studying the ideal knowledge worker that I’d be willing to switch fields and make a study of just how to optimize humans to do science. It’s certainly not a one size fits all formula (e.g. it’ll likely be different for introverts and extroverts), but as with depression, there are likely hallmarks of it as well as individual level manifestations.

Keep going. Get out into the cold. It’s not as bad as you think/feel, we’re wired for survival (take that from a former near-suicidal person). Expose yourself to small ‘dangers’ at first and watch yourself grow. It won’t be pretty. Winter is always coming. Staying in a warm cocoon leads to mere survival whereas the science enterprise not only must survive, but thrive as well (advancement & knowledge is our business). I’m sick of mere survival for myself. Let it go.

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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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