Being serious.

A lot on my mind lately. Figuring out my career and life foremost among them.

I’ve been guest writing more. I had a post at the Research Whisperer a few weeks ago that seemed to do well about building a portfolio career and using that to try to transition into a new job. Partly gaining experience.

I did some guest science writing too, both for UK based websites/publications. One was a collaboration with my PI, and then other was for the UK Plant Sciences Federation on flowering time. I even emailed a flowering time scientist to get some quotes. That is pushing my comfort zone.

People have been passing job ads and opportunities along to as well, which is incredible and part of why I am so grateful to platforms like Twitter. Which brings me to the #seriousacademic hashtag after The Guardian posted a short piece from a grad student that could not see the value of social media and how it distracted from the real world in front of people as well as taking away focus from actual academic research.  

As much as I love Twitter, I never tell anyone they have to be on it. I also legitimize most uses of the platform…I suggest people start out just by listening in/following things they are interested in and checking in once in awhile. Finding things serendipitously can be great sometimes. And if you feel like responding/joining a discussion, then great.

My community is almost entirely online…I would love to have a more consistent real world community of people I see regularly, but that is part of why I need a new job in a new place, something new. I tried being a serious academic. After years of trying, I’ve concluded I’d rather be a serious something else– ideally in the writing/editing world where I can draw on my scientific skills as well.  

Twitter has been great for me to get my blog(s) out to the world…for those interested in plant science and my writing about mental health here. My goal has been to be a one person broader impact for the plant science community– Twitter is my way of giving back and it has fed back into my science in great ways too. I consider it education/outreach, though I also am writing about things I find interesting or am curious about. I’ve made genuine personal and professional connections because of Twitter. I hope I’ve contributed something and not just taken away.

I’d tell the “serious academic” grad student that building a network takes time, and if it’s all an in real life/email chain of networking and that works for them, then awesome. No social media needed. However, I think social media has made me a better scientist. It’s instilled a love of learning that I had lost. It’s opened my eyes to some things, like inclusion/diversity. I really want to learn new things and do better science, and live up to the amazing things I hear about people doing on Twitter every day.

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Something that becomes more possible when you take your ideas seriously and have a community  as a backdrop to accomplish your goal. 

I try to be a supportive ear and celebrator of successes and pitch in when opportunities arise to do something specific that I can do (organizing a conference panel for instance). Or being a digital media coordinator for the conference I attend most years. Trying to stay on top of Twitter activity at a >1,000 person conference is hard, and I do think is valuable as a record of the conference. Twitter is a good way for me to take notes and to listen to a talk as well, but there is definitely a balance to be struck with attention and tweeting– however, Twitter really shines as a 6th sense at conferences and as a networking tool. More people visit posters that presenters tweet about.

That said, lately, I’ve felt really exhausted. Everything seems to take gargantuan effort and little feels light anymore. Some of that is taking on more ambitious projects, and trying to make things better than I’ve done before. Some, though, I fear is feeling burned out with all the extracurricular things I’ve been doing to try and figure out what’s next. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong? It’s hard for me to know.

Last, Serious academic reminded me of this essay by Sarah Cooper on Medium about why taking your ideas seriously is important. Like her, I didn’t take my ideas seriously for years. Starting my blogs, engaging on Twitter, discussing real things there, has gotten me to take my ideas seriously. However, I don’t take myself too seriously and do have fun on Twitter too. Twitter is great for having fun– that is part of how serious communities are built.

Twitter has gotten me connected to people and I’m not sure that would have happened in real life in the last few years. It has, in many ways, saved my life. Are there plenty of people that can live without it? I’m sure there are. Even I need breaks sometimes. And having built my community online that has translated into the real world in many ways and I feel a lot better taking those social media breaks.

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This 21st century scientist’s life & learning.

Building on the platform. 

I’ve spent some time thinking about what I’ve built over the last few years as I have made my way out from someone that wanted to just leave the world to someone who wants to contribute in real ways, in positive ways (don’t we all?), and meaningful ways.

Coming out of the dark and into a world of wonder can be complicated. Being flat and feeling divorced from connecting to the world to being vital, more engaged, can be a scary process. I realize just how much I’ve missed out on, not going deep into any particular subject because I didn’t feel much in whatever I engaged in. I’ve written before about just what depression takes away from learning and it’s hard to describe since plenty of successful people have depression (perhaps they succeed despite it), and I can still read and write (perhaps not well, but it is something I work on) and do basic math. I feel I can learn things. But I have tended to lack an emotional connection to something that can boost learning. Depression feeds into the fixed mindset as well, rather than a growth mindset too— with constant rumination and the voice that says ‘who do you think you are? You’re nothing, no one, and don’t matter’.

Eiffel Tower under construction 1888-1889. Source: Yale Libraries.

This blog has really documented that process for me. I hope I’ve been building a platform on which to build even better and greater things. Beth Buelow an entrepreneur, coach, and introvert in her really good book talks about an image series she got of the Eiffel tower being constructed. They built the base quickly, and then progress appeared to stop for a long while before the tower was completed. During that apparently fallow time, the construction workers were doing a lot of reinforcement of the structure, adding rivets and doing the preparatory work to build the tower. Building a strong base to create what was one of the tallest structures in the world at that time that persists to this day.

I hope I’ve been building that kind of base. That I’ve gotten better in some key ways to start the next phase, to really get out into the world visibly for the world to come and see. I do need reminders of how habit change can be most effective like this from James Clear. And it helps to be reminded to surround yourself with people that help you be your best. Though I find myself overdosing on ‘Lifehacking’ lately (it can be great for ideas, but easy to overdo it or to be constantly trying new things). I’ve built up a system that kind of works, I think, that’s healthy for me. And now I need to mold it into output that helps me grow more and gets me out into the world, being mindfully productive.

And as James Clear points out, prioritizing matters, and taken further, and perhaps scarier/harder is the idea between finding the distinction between should/must and choosing the latter. And continuing to learn, grow, and retain new knowledge/experience through a system that works and is evolving. And that also means being able to make decisions more rapidly than I do now, and act on them and being guided by what is truly important to me.

What is essential? 

I’m going to write an ambition of mine: I want to be a science writer in some way, shape or form. I love transmitting knowledge between minds. It seems to drive a lot of the decisions I make. It’s something that is more important to me than the research I do now. It’s an ambition that’s scary, but also seems deep-seated. I love science. I love writing, art, and popular culture. I love learning and teaching/communicating. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to one to many podcasts and read one to many amazing writings about science that I’ve gone out of my mind, but why do I gravitate towards those things in the first place? And how to get from where I am now to a new place? That’s not easy to answer.

Being a scientist now means having to wear a lot of hats, being seen as competent and amazing at many things that Ben Lillie (partially) listed, including having a public face to engage with non-scientists. It seems like people are expected to do more and more every year, to sacrifice our lives for our work, to produce ever more value. And whatever we do has to be quantified and standardized, even if that’s not the best or is too narrow a measure.

With the digital tools most of us have access to, we are expected to do everything ourselves, to produce more, always learn things flawlessly, and basically be perfect. And yet, that is unrealistic for any individual human. Not all of us are skilled at everything, but the 21st century world seems to demand that in an era of impatient teaching and exclusion if you’re not in the ‘in’ crowd from early on. And there is infinitely more to learn. And of course, digital tools allow for tracking of productivity more than ever.

Many circumstances can keep us from trying things that we’re truly suited to do. There’s a story Mark Twain tells (attributed to him, anyhow. I can’t find a source) talking about a man seeking the world’s greatest general only to die and go to heaven to find that a cobbler would have been the greatest if given the opportunity. Did he just live at a time with no war or was it that there was a crucial moment where he didn’t take a leap into the military life? If it’s the latter, hopefully there’s still time for me to make a leap. Maybe by not having an alternative, it’s possible.

Coding is something I am just starting to dabble in…and we’re all told it is the essential skill of the 21st century. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it certainly seems handy to any citizen of the Internet where many of us spend out time. And if not having a full understanding, at least knowing some of the theory behind the gorgeous websites we see each day is important. And it’s important to know that the people who build them are not perfect either; and often have biases/problems. And I don’t think this idea applies to just coding. To be in demand seems to mean being good at all the things and not needing a learning curve. Of course, that might be my warped perfectionist perception speaking.

A lot of science news is dedicated to reporting how we might all live better, parent better, be healthier, do more for the environment, and basically be better people if only we’d all behave, spend money, or act differently. Only that is vastly unrealistic. And the recommendations often wrong because of flawed science. Science really is the last word on nothing.

What can we get wrong?

Phil Plait, in a post on his Slate blog, wrote about response to a picture he tweeted about actresses that have a passion for science (great!). The problem comes with Mayim Bialik (w/ a Ph.D. in neuroscience) and her anti-vaccination views; which are scientifically indefensible as this NPR story on a documentary about the effects of not eradicating polio demonstrates. Keith Kloor addresses this with Dr. Oz and similar and perhaps not as dangerous are Bill Nye’s anti-GMO views; if only because Nye, an engineer, does not have as informed views about biology and doesn’t seem to be strongly anti-GMO as yet, just highly skeptical. He could change his mine yet. Bialik and Dr. Oz must know better/be more familiar with life sciences and medicine.

The process of robust science dictates that any ideas or technologies supported by science (e.g. climate science, gravity, evolution, smart phones, vaccines, current GMOS) are in fact safe, work, and that is the final word (of course, each product needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis). Selective application is not acceptable. There are areas of science that are still debated and the above ideas continue to be investigated and tested by science to test new methods of delivery, to explain parts of these ideas we don’t know the answers to yet, or to improve them in some way (or create vaccines to viruses we don’t have vaccines for as yet). And of course, scientists are never absolutely certain; we’re taught to critically examine our ideas and design experiments/seek data that challenge our ideas (that may happen less in an era of hyper-competition, tight funding).

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In today’s world, it really appears unacceptable, especially as a public figure/celebrity to say ‘I don’t know’ when pressed about some question that’s out there in the world (uncertainty being a perceived sign of weakness?! I would argue that it’s the opposite). I am not a psychologist, social scientist, or neuroscientist, only a sufferer of depression and anxiety who has learned what I can about them and write about my own solutions (some scientifically grounded, others likely less so). I’ve tried to strike a voice of not barfing rainbows magical positivity, but of grounded optimism. I routinely say that I do not know, and feel uncertain about most things and this can be paralyzing. Who would do anything given the potential repercussions of getting something wrong? Phil Plait seems to have changed his mind after hearing from fellow bloggers about Bialik’s anti-vax views. I don’t even know where her anti-vax views stem from (is it a case like Dr. Oz where his spouse seems to have opened the door to pseudoscience views?).

Some of these views may be caused by hastiness and shorthand/lack of time to think. In an era where we’re awash in information, it is impossible to be informed about everything and yet we’re also too quick to be aghast when people don’t have views or don’t know something. At best, it comes off as enthusiasm you want to impart to someone about a topic. At worst, it’s used as an identity marker to exclude people, even if they’re new enthusiasts for something you’ve been into for years…and get turned out because of newness to something and simply don’t know as much. While I agree enthusiasm only takes you so far, it’s a spark that can carry you into new and unexpected places and shouldn’t be discouraged whoever has deemed themselves a gatekeeper of a community.

There is demand to specialize and yet be a generalist at the same time. And to instantly able to learn and absorb new things. I’m willing to work hard to figure things out, but if I’m given insufficient time to learn what I need to, I’m much more likely to make a mistake (and learning time seems shorter and shorter…and unexamined learning can lead to problems). We’re all encouraged to learn how to learn, and yet that seems hugely insufficient somehow. I am nearly paranoid of missing something critical or leaving some citation out. Of course, it’s not all about what we’re informed about. It’s also true that we develop identities around shared beliefs (‘people like me have this belief, I must think that too’) that can become quite entrenched in communities in which case information alone cannot change someone’s mind, as work by Brendan Nyhan and other’s has shown.

Hard at work reflecting.
Hard at work reflecting.

It may be that I’m just worried about something I feel exists but isn’t actually as bad as it seems. However, everywhere I look, there are demands to be up on the latest everything and if not, you’re falling behind the times! Keep up or go away, you can’t compete and so shouldn’t even try. The world is complex and crazy and there is likely more awareness of that than ever. Being humble in the face of that is a virtue in my book. There is likely always more to a story. And just because we’re not always completely informed does not mean we can’t act or put our voices to an idea, but we need to listen to feedback and accept evidence contrary to what we think is going on. All of these mental gymnastics should underscore just how hard it is for scientists to come to strong theories about how the world works and when a scientific consensus is reached, it’s a big deal, and more credible than an individual report alone.

I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup

Good coffee takes time.
Good coffee takes time.

I am an academic scientist right now, trying to contribute to my field in a meaningful way and not add to the noise of wrong/hasty information that’s out in the world. Patience isn’t a virtue we hear a lot about anymore. The world seems to be more about speed and getting to something first. Instant may be good for some things, but I like to think of it like sources of coffee. I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup (not always). And perhaps due to my (highly) introverted side that likes reflection, writing, and learning before speaking up. And I hope any job I do hold will allow me to do just that, within reason, of course. I am determined to add value wherever I work, and I hope that the skills I gravitate towards/have developed are valued somewhere in the world.

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I’m in Science (Careers).

I was interviewed by Carrie Arnold (@edbites) for this Science Careers (@ScienceCareers) article ‘The Stressed Out Postdoc’.

It’s a compressed version of my experiences with depression (and there are several other people quoted that have some fantastic insights; even greater than mine in the piece, in my opinion). I’m a plant biologist, not a botanist (not that there’s anything wrong with that– I would actually like to branch out and do something in another plant species), but other than that, it is representative of my experiences that I am still coming back from to this day.

I hope the article helps someone out there who might be struggling. I say on here a lot that my story is about how not to do a postdoc (and hopefully my blog is a way to help me and others do it better); and if the stress of your academic experience is negatively affecting your life, then definitely seek help. Or as the article puts it: don’t forget to dance if that’s what you love.

Surveys (yes, I know I’m being lazy by not linking to a survey; but they are all over) have shown that the mental health of grad students and postdocs, hell, probably amongst academics period is not in a great state. Most of us probably are functioning rather well, considering the pressures. That said, this is still a problem and we’re not doing our best work because of it (I know there’s a lot more to doing good science than just a healthy brain with a productive mindset towards work– necessary, but not sufficient).

The reaction I’ve had to my interview has all been positive; which is good, for sure. My fear with talking about depression is that it’s just whining and no one else actually relates. I’ve talked to enough people that I’m confident (p<.001) that this is real, that academia requires a lot of us and that in a lot of ways is a breeding ground for mental health problems.

Science is powerful. It’s incredible. It requires an engaged mind (at least while you’re actually doing science; it’s OK to not be doing it 24/7/365; brains need space to process ideas, down time and just time away to come back to things with a fresh perspective). And a stressed out, depressed, anxious mind is not engaged– it’s distracted. Scientists spend a lot of time overcoming our human cognitive biases; in a way, depression can be categorized as just that (it’s more, but it certainly is a distorted and limited perspective on the world that can be hard to break out of).

Being a scientist is quite difficult. No, we don’t work in a coal mine (maybe a little; always wear PPE & do practice lab safety protocols!) and I am very grateful that I get to use high tech equipment/techniques to explore the world, to help educate people about the things I learn, and to get to interact with really brilliant people.

I’ve been told it’s bold to just say that I suffered from depression out loud, under my own name (in fact, if you talk to me in person about this, I do have a really hard time with it still; I make a lot less eye contact). Nearly everything good that’s happened to me the last few years has been because I started talking about this out loud. The silence, the isolation was killer, nearly did, kill me. So I tried something different. I went against my depressive instinct and started talking about it.

I think I’ve learned to talk about it better over time. And of course, I’ve had many positive voices to help me along the way (but not false positivity– the well grounded kind).

Thank you for reading. I hope by being open and talking about my struggles, it will help someone else with theirs. I don’t get why it’s so hard to realize that all humans suffer and struggle (Shout out to The Buddha for popularizing this notion thousands of years ago). Productively dealing with struggles is challenging. In fact, it’s probably why the economy exists. And science.

I just hope I haven’t gotten my brain into a better mode too late to do me much good, career wise. Besides getting help/talking to someone, the best thing I think I can say is be self-aware and the sooner you can get through struggling with depression, anxiety, impostorism or perfectionism, the better.

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What depression takes from you 2.

Mild trigger warning here; I talk about depression and what it’s like to experience it (at least for me). 

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about what depression takes from you in terms of learning.

I decided to write an addendum to that post after learning about @SomberScribbler, who beautifully illustrates what it’s like to be depressed, sort of like Allie Brosh did on Hyperbole-and-a-half, but distinct from it too.

I’m sure there’s a drug commercial for an SSRI that’s done this, but here’s my version of trying to illustrate what it’s like walking around when you’re really depressed:

depressed vs non-depressed

 

That’s a picture of my desk. On the left is how the camera (and my eye perceives it when normal. I’ve darkened it on the right to demonstrate the depressive view of the world. Though it’s not literally that dark, everything really is muted. The coffee cup stands out in both pictures; I could focus on coffee when I was at my most depressed, it’s something I drink nearly every day. Things around me were dulled. I wasn’t sharp. Note, there are no people; connection is something depression really robs you of; it makes you think no one will understand or get it. There was a great twitter stream regarding mentors and their role and finding them, etc. depression can stop you at the first stage; asking someone a question, reaching out for help with something; it’s a lot harder when you’re depressed and your world is muted. And if you’re going to have a career in science, having your brain cut off from the world, from wanting to take the effort to explore, makes it difficult.

The reason you hear that people suffering from depression are extremely strong/tough is this:

Despite that dark world, despite disconnection, despite a flattened world, we persist and many days manage to get things done despite it all.

It’s like light able to escape a black hole; it happens, but it’s not always obvious. And we’re far from being the most effective. Even simple decisions can be impossible at times.

Now, I’ve been doing better for quite awhile now, but am still struggling in some ways. If I don’t get my human connection or exercise, or do other self-care/nurturing things, I can still really suffer. I’d say my world looks a bit like this:

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Some obvious blue sky visible, but clouds can still obscure my view/light from the world. I have to keep moving forward. I have to keep trying new things and continuing to build momentum from being as depressed as I was. And I’ve made very real progress the last few years. In a way, I’m more compassionate, empathetic and stronger for it. I take no one’s mental state for granted or lightly. So I guess that that is an upside of having gone through the hell that it was. Still, life is hard enough without it, so I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, either. It wouldn’t be my chosen method of building mental toughness (an important trait to develop, to be sure).

So if you’re depressed and it’s interfering with your life, get help; talk to someone, friend, family, mental-health professional. Type depression into Google; many places have the signs/symptoms listed and it is very treatable in most cases; and I think that catching it early is probably very beneficial).

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Tomorrow.

I recently re-listened to the ‘On Being’ interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht author of the book ‘Stay’ that I read about on Brain Picker. It’s all about making a non-religious based argument against suicide. And there really are reasons to stay. Be assured, your absence will be noticed. I won’t go into all the arguments why here, but it’s true.

Watching the latest episode of ‘Cosmos:ASO’ last night, Neal Tyson walks through the fact that we’re the legacy of all those organisms that struggled for survival on Earth before us. That’s one reason to stay. There are many, many others.

Last week, I casually wrote a Gchat away message talking about an important experiment I had to set up the following day. And it led to this idea for a reason to stay:

Blog Post Line.

 

It’s something I’ve told myself the last week or so and it’s good to remind myself that life, in part, is about keeping on trying. I am doing things now that I couldn’t have possibly done a few years ago and it’s because I stayed; there was a time I didn’t want to.

The future isn’t really written in stone, as much as scientists try to do predictive work; it only applies to rather narrowly defined experiments, nothing like life. So it’s not only saying ‘Stay’, but also to crib one idea from science: to try new things and find those that work; discard those that don’t, and to keep creating, tinkering, interacting, acting, thinking, insert favorite present participle here– we’re only here once.

There is problem within academia surrounding poor mental health of too many people in it– particularly amongst young Ph.D. career path people. The reasons vary, but the added pressures of the highest career uncertainty for Ph.D.s and postdocs now surely is  a contributing factor.

Tomorrow is an important experiment to do, find something new that might work for you and even if things don’t work out, you’ve at least fought in the arena,

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Switch

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). 

Scientific fact.

I was talking on the phone with a friend of mine and we were talking about the fact that she’d started her residency and how she’s really feeling like she matters to patients and just as a part of a working hospital trying to help people day in and day out (at least I sincerely hope that that’s the mission of hospitals- if ever there was an industry where people should come before profit…).

Since I compare things, I was thinking about my own career and I don’t really matter in that immediate way. And of course it brought up a lot of old thoughts from years of my life when I truly didn’t think I mattered much to anyone or myself (no that’s not an exaggeration). Now, I had more of a sense that I at least serve a function for other people (and it is important to me to feel useful). I try to help whenever I can. I suggest things to read, I supply facts, I help them find what they’re looking for. I’ll drop just about anything to give someone a hand if I can.

The problem is that it neglects someone who should also be important in my life: me. And I won’t rehash everything I’ve read about taking care of yourself, doing things for yourself, having adventures yourself that are the keys to engaging with other people and having a great life- becoming your own person, I guess is how it’s framed. I’ve intellectually internalized that message and can’t really see much wrong (I worry about being narcissistic and completely selfish, but that does seem unlikely). Getting a pet is the instant solution, I suppose.

I’ve never felt like I have a strong identity or attachment to things I like. There are things I enjoy and identify with, books I like, food preferences, coffee! None of which rise to the level of passion or love, however. I haven’t done enough to really gain those things. I’m pretty passive, not actively making decisions. I think about things before doing them, too much and then the opportunity is gone.

Science is as close as I’ve come I think; but even there, I’ve numbed myself to it (as Brene Brown would put it). I’ve conditioned the expression of joy out of my life- in that sense I’m very Spock-like. I’m not sure exactly how to re-light a fire I’m not sure was ever there, but that’s what I feel it’s going to take to actually go after things that I want (whatever those are; it’s still unclear to me much of the time).

So when my friend said that I matter to myself, I unconvincingly agreed and she instantly told me that I didn’t sound like I believe that. And I don’t. I’ve been doing new things the last few years, things that feel more aligned with what my desires are without going overboard- but maybe going overboard is exactly what I need to do, though I have no idea exactly what that would look like either. Acting on my gut instincts more often? Saying yes to everything? Saying no to more things (boundaries are important)? Jumping into something huge that I have no idea how to go about doing, but having to move forward somehow anyway (yes, this is what life is, but I’d be talking about some project of slightly smaller scope than that)?

Bringing back passion/joy/love for things is really important I think (for work, life, everything); and it has to start with me- being passionate about being me. Enjoying being me. Loving myself. As I’m sure I’ve written in the past, part of my hang up here is that as a scientist, I’m big on having evidence for things; and too often I feel like I’ve come up short in that regard- hypothesis that I matter is rejected, p < 0.05. So as I’ve done with a few other ideas I like to remind myself of, I’m posting this note to myself where I can see it every day:

2013-07-17 21.11.48

Feeling that you matter is a  message that I feel like many people don’t need to hit themselves over the head with like I do (yes, I’m sure it fluctuates and reminders now and again are important, but it’s not even a question most of the time). Being enough is one that I think a lot of people do struggle with. However, despite what my scientific brain might say,  these are facts. Our senses deceive us all the time. What is closer to us than our senses? Our brains. Don’t trust it, either. I’m actually not even sure what the experiment is to show that you matter, or that you’re enough. It’s not a DNA test. It is for things like this that I really like Adam Savage’s line ‘I reject your reality and substitute my own!’. I want to reject my present reality and substitute it with a better one.

I just finished reading Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The Power of Habit’ that I will write more about in this space, I’m sure. Maybe I can make a habit of believing that I matter and that I’m enough as is, though I will never stop learning. I think it will make a huge difference- and not being convinced of the ‘scientific’ fact that I am not enough and don’t matter, because that’s not in all likelihood real science. Anyone want to help me conduct an actual experiment?

Ever on and on.