May Scientiae: Humps and Bumps
For better or worse, this topic makes me think of a book called The Dip.
I was talking to a friend about this book recently, because she said she favors listening to motivational tapes to keep herself going. She said she especially likes advice for getting past failure, that tell you "yeah, things suck now but you'll get through it". Or something to that effect.
The Dip isn't like that. The Dip is about knowing when to quit.
The main point I got from this book is that if you quit when you're down, you'll always have some regrets. He suggests you should only quit when you're at the top of your game, because then you know you're quitting for the right reasons: because you want to do something else, not because you're just discouraged. Because everyone knows it's hard to make the right choices for the right reasons when you're upset.
What's interesting to me about dealing with setbacks is how much I've learned and yet, I still don't know anything. Sometimes I think that, the more I think about it, the worse my decisions get.
Sure, I've surprised myself over and over. The first time I had a major setback, I was fatalistic and depressed. Then I rationalized, found other things I loved to do, and rationalized some more.
I was surprised to find I could love to do so many different kinds of things.
Looking back now, I never really gave up, but I didn't really keep going, either. I just kind of held onto the dream and put it in my jewelry box. Sometimes I take it out and look at it, but mostly it's just nostalgia for something old and tarnished.
That was before I started doing science.
My first major setback in science wasn't about science so much as it was about politics. I went with my gut reaction; I put my nose to the grindstone; I got mad and used my anger.
And that more or less worked out just fine.
Not exactly ideal or a fun time, but I had a clear goal in mind, I set my sights on it, ate my power bars and worked around the clock to show that no matter what anybody said about me, they couldn't sneeze at my science.
I was surprised at how angry I could get, and how I could use that as fuel.
The next setback was harder because I felt that my life as a scientist was being shortchanged; I was being treated badly. I said Oh no, Not Again, and I left. I rationalized it as being equal parts about me and the science I was doing. I was very invested in it. I've always found it's easier to stand up for something or someone other than myself. So that helped get me out of an abusive situation, but really I was able to do it because I rationalized that I was shepherding what I thought was an important finding. I rationalized it as not really being just about me, but in reality, I was watching myself get beaten down, and I needed an excuse to get out.
Then I had really serious scientific setbacks in the sense that I had gone out on a limb with a telescope and I was trying to point and wave and say Hey, you've gotta come look at this! but everyone was too busy looking at the tree and they didn't want to see where I was pointing. They weren't mean about it, they just ignored me or said I seemed a little bit crazy.
But still, I kept on fighting. I started blogging and I was very philosophical about all of it. I focused on people I admired, both scientists and non-scientists, and how they had all gotten through setbacks and succeeded anyway.
The idea being to view every hump, no matter how tall, as just a bump in a very long road.
So I got past that bump and then there was another bump and it looked exactly the same and I felt like I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. I thought whoa, am I trapped in some kind of loop here? Didn't I just do this bump?
And then I started to realize that you can keep powering through, up and over, and you can get people to help you, etc. but it does make you tired. And it's actually kind of boring.
Persevering seems glamourous at first (Cue the Montage!). But then, it's really not. It's actually just really tedious. And unlike a montage getting ready for the big fight or the dance recital or the romantic speech in the rain, persevering is infinite. Nobody can tell you when it will be over.
Then I learned that some people will think you're lazy or pessimistic if you say "Hey, I need a rest".
But if you don't take a break when you need one, it's basically impossible to climb up anything for a while. You start looking for a way to go around the hump, and maybe it takes longer but it will eventually get you to the other side.
So now I'm on the other side of the latest big hump, but I don't really feel any better because there's no celebration ticker-tape parade. And I know there's more where humps where that came from.
What's sad to me is how our culture views setbacks: it's all about the end.
We seem to see everything through a movie lens: if it has a happy ending, then you made the right choice. But, if the ending is just "okay", then, my friend, you can expect to be second-guessed. It couldn't have been that big of a deal, they say, because you're still here! You must be exaggerating.
So here you are, panting on other side of the biggest hump in your life, and the important thing is that you're still in one piece.
But nobody cares about that. Or maybe they just can't identify? Your friends will pat you on the back and then get on with their lives.
What our culture really cares about is the photo-finish: you're supposed to die trying, or at least be wiling to die. But mostly you're supposed to grasp that trophy and hold it high! Smile pretty!
Except there's no trophy besides being able to say you survived.
What I still don't understand is that while science is all about the journey, getting a job is not about the journey. Getting a job is about the end. The end of being a postdoc. The long-awaited, much-coveted, highly unlikely victory. And if your work isn't published, if you don't get the tenure-track faculty position, it's like you never did anything. You might as well be dead.
I don't know of a way to point and wave and say, Hey! Look at what I did! See how I came, that route there? See all the cool things I learned? ... And shouldn't the journey itself count for something? Wouldn't you rather have ideas and experience than the perfect pedigree?
But everyone is too busy looking at the trees.
So am I on top of the hump, quitting for the right reasons? A month ago, I would have said yes, definitely.
But some days I wonder if I'm still in a Dip.
Then again, I read a statistic the other day that the odds of becoming tenure-track faculty in the biosciences now are pretty much on par with the odds of becoming a successful rock star. Seriously, if someone had told me it was that much of a long shot, I would never have made it this far.
There was an episode of Grey's Anatomy recently that has been haunting me. It's a cancer patient who explains how, past a certain point, hope is scary. It's so true. And ironic, because I've been accused of everything: being too pessimistic, being too naive, being too stubborn, quitting too easily.
Hope is the scariest thing, because it's very hard to learn how to let it go.