Showing up

This month I’m doing a 30-day guided yoga “journey”, trying to establish a daily practice. At one point, the instructor stated, “Showing up is the hardest part.” For this process, showing up is the linchpin. Once you’ve stepped on the mat, you’ve made your commitment for the day. The practice will be different each day, but showing up is the singular requirement for establishing the practice.

I know, this feels obvious. Of course we have to show up to participate. It’s step zero. It’s often been so routine that the process barely enters our consciousness. The past year has forced many to rethink and reconfigure. As I reflect on this idea that showing up is the hard part, one question stands out:

What do we do to make it easier for people to show up?

We could ask this question for friends, family, fitness, any number of things. Here I want to talk about what we do to make it easier for people to show up for work.

Some things are very personal, decisions or rituals that help get ourselves out the door—or these days, for many of us, to the table or desk in our home. For me, adjusting to work from home involved creating a specific space for work and rituals to get my brain into the work frame of mind.

But showing up isn’t just a matter of personal responsibility and ritual. It’s intertwined with what we do, or perhaps more accurately the alignment between expectations and reality of what we do. Have we found the job and organization that meets our needs and interests? Do we have the skills and experience we need to get the work done? If not, are we getting support to get there or to move certain responsibilities off our plate? Are we even doing the work we expected to be doing, that was written into our job description? These are not things employees can or should necessarily sort out on their own. These are issues that supervisors and colleagues have a role in as well.

Work environment and culture come into play as well. Do we have a space that’s amenable to our activities? Do we have the resources we need or feel we can ask for them? How do the people work together? Are norms and expectations needlessly rigid or flexible? Does the group value autonomy or indulge in micromanaging? Does the mission and leadership inspire? Is there accountability and compassion, clarity and care? For many of these things, there’s no single right or wrong way, but again it’s a question of whether they’re aligned with our expectations. Are we managing others based on our assumptions and preferences, or can we adapt our approach to their style and needs?

This extends beyond general team dynamics though. We also need to look at the structural issues within our organizations. This is the work of creating an inclusive environment, with varying degrees of commitment and results. What can we do within our own spheres of influence to create a more welcoming place for those from marginalized backgrounds? What can we do to push our organizations towards critical systemic change?

Between a global pandemic, lockdowns disrupting work and education, amplified disparities in who’s bearing the brunt of health and economic impacts, a renewed focus on racism and white supremacy, an attempted coup in US… this is a moment when we’ve ceased taking things for granted. This is a moment, more than ever, when those of us in the position to help should be asking what we can do to make it easier for people to show up. And I deeply hope that we won’t stop asking.

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A word for 2021: Center

This blog has been drifting a while, but now it’s been a year since I last posted—to share my theme for 2020. The absence here was reflective of the intensity in (work) life, which was only amplified by working from home during global crises. But I’m not really here to rehash the year that was, rather to set the touchstone for the year ahead, carrying forward an approach I picked up a few years back. Instead of setting resolutions—which seem even more elusive than ever with all the unpredictability—I’ve settled into picking a word or theme for the year:

For 2018 it was build. In 2019 it was thrive. Last year it was grow.

In 2020, we certainly achieved the stress part of growth. For me, the rest was harder to come by as the year dragged on and the intensity of my work built. Once the massive grant I was coordinating was submitted, I checked out and leaned into the rest. I stopped checking work email, took Outlook off my phone, and have spent the last almost 3 weeks just doing… whatever, within the confines of staying close to home and COVID safe. It’s involved a lot of cooking and reading, some running and hiking, streaming shows and TV.

Now as my break approaches its close, I find my thoughts turning to what my focus will be for 2021.

What do we do after a year that brought so stress, confusion, upheaval, uncertainty, disruption? What do we do when realize how fragile our plans are, how much is beyond our control? What do we do as we see some hope on the horizon but remain unsure of how long it will take to get there and what things may change along the way?

Heading into 2020, I took on a new role at work, became a manager, (remotely) hired and onboarded my first direct report. We had a clear and enormous project that easily filled the time for the year. Now that it’s done, it’s time to translate our broader roles on paper into practice.

Last year, I also took on a big running goal. I ticked off 50 miles (and 16,000 ft of elevation gain) on a local mountain. I lost some momentum late in the year as stress mounted, but I’m building back. I’ve shown myself I’m capable of something huge, and now I get to think about how I push my boundaries from here.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of building something, in the expectation (even of my own making) to prove my skill or worth. What I take on in the midst of that excitement and expectation can create imbalance, if I’m not mindful. Intense focus on one thing while another also needs care and attention. Picking up too much of the work myself. Tending to issues that could be returned others. Losing the intention or purpose. Ignoring the signs of fatigue, injury, stress.

I’m terribly inconsistent in maintaining a yoga practice, but a concept that strikes me is finding the center. There’s nothing passive about it. Even as I am by outward appearances (mostly) still, I’m grounding the corners of your feet or drawing your spine long or tightening core muscles. Poses start with one of a few foundations, and I can add features to increase the complexity or difficulty depending on where I am physically and mentally that day. When I begin to feel the imbalance, to tip out of the pose, I adjust those small tensions—and if I can’t recover, I just return to the center, ground myself, and try again, perhaps with a different modification.

And so, I will try to carry this word with me through 2021: Center. I will seek out those core ideas and practices that serve as the foundation for my work, my relationships, my health. I will learn better and commit to those things that ground me. And as strain and tension builds, threatening to topple me, I will strive to bring myself back to that center and make adjustments to strengthen my approach going forward.

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A theme for 2020: grow

Society nudges (or shoves) us to reflect on the past at this time of year. And then we are to turn our attention to the future, to set goals for the year ahead. Of course this transition has been even more profound, prompting recollections of the last 10 years of life and, no doubt for many, pondering of the next decade of life.

I have vague recollections of setting resolutions at points in my life. But it’s not something I’ve really done for at least a few years. Problems/opportunities/goals often emerge out of sync with the 12-month cycle we focus on. Nonetheless I do find myself meditating on the past and future at this time of year. Two years ago, I tried an approach of selecting a theme or a word for the year. In 2018, the word was build. For 2019, I decided on thrive

For 2020: grow.

Stress

2020 is bringing some big projects, professionally and personally. I’m taking on additional responsibilities at work and moving deeper into management (of the project and people varieties). I’m finishing a project management certificate program and maybe (probably) sitting for the exam to qualify for professional accreditation.

Oh and I’m training for a 50 mile foot race in June. Maybe you wonder, Why the heck would should sign up for an event that demands so much time and energy training when there’s so much else going on?!

I started 2019 with a mantra to “progress from striving to thriving.” It’s challenging to achieve that transition when the environment around you is changing. It doesn’t have to be bad to be different and require adjustments. Several months ago, this quote arrived in a newsletter (The Morning Shakeout) in my inbox:

Shit does not get less complicated. (Mike Wolfe)

I wrote it on a Post-It that went under my computer monitor. And on another that I stuck to my big whiteboard. It’s easy to get caught up in things, to become overwhelmed by how things are changing, especially when there’s some lack of communication. It’s easy to delay activities or decisions until “things settle down”, to wait for some sort of clarity. And there are reasons, often very valid ones, to do that.

But I also can’t let the storm of ambiguity, complexity, and anxiety keep me from moving forward and taking opportunities to (im)prove myself.

Rest

Stress carries a very negative connotation in our culture, but achievement and improvement often comes from going outside our comfort zone. But we can (and do frequently) overdo it. It may come from a sense of pressure or responsibility (I think especially prevalent in work and relationships). “This must be done. Now. And only I can do it.” Other times we slip easily into the more-must-be-better mindset. “If <x> hours of exercise is good, then <xy> must be better.” “I’ve been so productive today! If I stay just another hour or two..”

Go down that road far enough and stress becomes unproductive, recovery inadequate. Keep going and it can lead to burnout, injury, illness, etc. Been there, done that—and would prefer not to visit again.

This “formula” has popped in a few places (I think it may have originated with Peak Performance), and it’s stuck with me.

stress + rest = growth

Rest and recovery are key to keeping stress productive. I see some incredible opportunities for personal and professional growth in the next year.

But I have to be intentional about making time and space for rest. Running and exercise are a big part of how I manage stress, and training for a race helps encourage commitment. I’ll plan to keep one day a week free of work and classwork, as I’ve done the last few months. I’ll take time to go into the mountains with Gene. I’ll take vacation. I’ll keep my morning time for reading and coffee. To reach key goals this year, I need to recharge regularly, and that won’t by accident.

Grow

I’m both excited and terrified by the things that 2020 has in store for me. There will be some long hours in the office and on the trails. There will be stress and anxiety and frustration. There’s a lot of work to get done. But there will also be fun and relief and celebration. Setting “grow” as my theme for the year will, I hope, help me remember to rest, with intention, so that I can continue forward and achieve my goals.

Happiness is the joy you experience while pursuing your potential. (Neil Pasricha)

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W2FA?! Two-factor authentication on the way to eRA Common

Earlier this month I attended the NIH Regional Seminar, a meeting focused on grants administration and related policy. As I usually do at meetings, I tweeted—and a short tweet prompted an immediate and frustrated response:

A little background for the uninitiated: “electronic research administration” or eRA Commons is a portal that supports several aspects of NIH grants adminstration. Principal investigators (PIs), grants administrators, and others need accounts to enter profile information, enter data for NIH grant applications and reporting, and track status of applications.

It’s been around a while and comes with a particular set of quirks and bugs/features. You have to reset your password every 120 days. The password has atypical restrictions, like you can’t end with numbers. You can’t recycle a password for 8 years. When you’re updating your personal profile, you can’t save and leave the page until all the required fields are filled and errors have been resolved.

During an eRA Commons workshop, staff revealed that, in the not too distant future, eRA Commons login will go through two-factor authentication (2FA). 2FA adds in another layer of security to establish that you are indeed the user whose name and password you entered.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. PIs were resoundingly against 2FA. Great, one more thing to make the login process harder. Isn’t resetting their password every login enough? 2FA is such a pain. Who really wants to hack into their account and view their grant scores/statements? It’s going to create problems for sponsored programs helping with submissions. And more generalized, Aaaargh whyyyyyyyy?

Why 2FA?

First we need to recall that NIH is a federal agency and thus subject to a whole lot of federal regulations, rules, plans, and guidances.  Maybe protestations are right; maybe no one cares to hack into eRA Commons and 2FA is overkill. Nonetheless NIH has to address priorities and requirements to modernize systems and enhance cybersecurity. So on the surface, this is about NIH complying with federal requirements.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Why might external stakeholders want a little more security on eRA Commons? That portal provides access to several different NIH systems: ASSIST (creating, editing, and submitting applications), RPPR (progress reporting), xTrain (managing training grant appointments and terminations), Internet Assisted Review (critiquing and scoring applications as a reviewer)… In short, eRA Commons provides access to a lot of confidential information.

Of course that’s for just a select few applications and awards, right? People were primarily thinking of eRA Commons through their lens, what they see in a scientific role (e.g., as a PI). But other people are engaged in grant applications. Most critically, PIs can’t just submit an application on their own. An authorized organizational respresentative (AOR)/signing official (SO) “has institutional authority to legally bind the institution in grants administration matters.” They are cleared to provide signatory approval of submissions, and you can’t submit a grant without them. The SO is typically in the sponsored programs office (and there should be more than one). Within eRA Commons, an SO has access to every NIH grant application across the organization. The SO can not only submit but also reject grant applications. They can create, updated, and delete eRA Commons accounts for almost every individual at their institution and manage other people’s eRA Commons access. Maybe hacking a PI’s eRA Commons account provides a low return, but the implications of accessing an SO’s account carry much more weight.

What about implementation?

Some pushback in my stream was about how 2FA would be done and how administrative support would access applications to input information for PIs.

NIH isn’t building a new system for 2FA from scratch. It will leverage the existing login.gov system, which is already in use for Trusted Traveler Programs, USAJOBS, and SAM. Folks at eRA Commons will begin piloting with a subset of users next year and develop the interface with user input.

login.gov enables multiple methods for 2FA—text, phone, authentication app, security key, backup codes. One concern that popped up in my feed was access while traveling abroad, and a pre-generated list of backup codes could address cases where text or phone aren’t readily available.

Some people raised the issue of how 2FA would interfere with enabling others to access someone’s eRA Commons account. Indeed it will. And frankly I think that’s part of the point. As far as NIH is concerned, you shouldn’t be sharing your login credentials with others, even trusted individuals you want working on your application or reports. User credentials are assumed to represent accountability to said user for actions. “I didn’t do <x>!” isn’t a defense when you contact the helpdesk and they see that your account did indeed do <x>.

That doesn’t mean that PIs are left to handle grants administration activities on their own. The PI and/or SO can delegate other eRA Commons roles  to individuals within your organization, granting them access to edit RPPRs, initiate applications, administer training grants, etc. There are certain activities that can only be executed by specified roles. Only the SO or an ASSIST Access Manager (designated by the SO) can manage access to applications, which means contacting your sponsored programs office to add anyone other than PI and the person who initiated the application. Only the PI can route RPPRs to the SO, creating a stage of accountability for the PI in the reporting process. The advantage of delegations is that you can manage the level of access. It’s not all or nothing. Plus you don’t have to worry about one person changing your password and disrupting your (and maybe others’) access.

I’m not expecting people to embrace 2FA lovingly. I’ve dealt with it on different systems and experienced hassles and headaches it can produce. But perhaps a little context and knowledge about eRA Commons can promote some understanding, and maybe even grudging acceptance, of what’s to come. Either way, 2FA is on its way.

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Valuation of Personal Lives

Postdoc pay is a perennial discussion. Last week, the topic popped into my Twitter feed once again with a question related to using family costs to justify a higher stipend.

It should be noted that there were a couple of bad (and IMO bad faith) takes in replies to this and/or an earlier related tweet. (PSA: If you find yourself about to dictate the incompatibility of being a good postdoc and a good parent, you should probably step away from Twitter.)

There’s a clear point about the tension between postdoc pay standards and what it costs to raise a family, especially in high cost-of-living locales. This is a longstanding discussion in the research community. This was emphasized in many of the replies. Even those who suggested that a one-off salary bump wasn’t the way to solve the issue acknowledged the very real challenges that postdocs with families face.

I am not faculty and have no plans to be, but from my perspective, the precedent is problematic. First it could disrupt trust and satisfaction among other didn’t try to negotiate a higher salary or did but with no effect. Second it creates an environment where, maybe even subconsciously, a PI is factoring in a postdoc’s family status into costs when they hire in the future.

But there was another thing simmering in the back of my mind, which someone else brought up:

Pay should be based on the job you’re hired to do and (at least to a degree) prior experience and qualifications. (At least that’s the aim, even though that’s not how it plays out entirely today.)

But the issue for me isn’t just about establishing different pay scales for different work. It’s about the reason for doing so.

There’s this embedded expectation that single or married but childless postdocs can “get by” on less than those with kids. Perhaps for the majorities in each category that’s true. But as Liz Wayne pointed out, postdocs can have significant care/family or related costs beyond kids. Some may have chronic illnesses with associated healthcare costs. They might be helping to care for a spouse or parent with an illness or disability. They might be trying to provide financial support for other family members. And circumstances change over time too.

I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone should have to disclose information from their personal lives to justify their pay. (Note: No one suggested this specifically, but in my view, it’s an extension of the premise. Also this is not a criticism of the hypothetical candidate.)

Can you imagine needing to tell a prospective boss, “Sorry, I’m going to need a higher stipend I can afford medical care for <condition x>”? Or going to a current boss and saying, “Um I need a raise so I can afford to leave my abusive partner”? First of all, no one should have to disclose that sort of information to their supervisor unless they want to. Second, who wants to be making those valuations of what life events and circumstances “justify” more money—and which don’t?

No doubt the struggle for postdocs with children is real. But they’re not the only ones facing financial challenges. Creating a two-tiered system based on familial status isn’t the way to solve those issues though.

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