Comparing our performance

I felt this tweet from Charlyn Partridge deep in my gut:

[TEXT] Things I’m starting to learn: People think I’m doing a better job than I think I’m doing.

Measuring up performances is an unavoidable and often odd thing among humans. Largely it comes down to what we’ve set as the benchmark.

When we’re assessing our own performance, I think many (maybe most) of us fall into one of two traps.

Option 1: We compare ourselves to others while stripping away all context.

Option 2: We compare ourselves to an impossibly flawless ideal self.

In the first, we see what others are accomplishing. How do they do it?! Why can’t I keep up? I’m just not as good as they are. We think this without considering differences in experience, skills, interests, access, and whatever else is (not) going on in their lives and ours.

I think of an author sharing the experience of being interviewed by another writer who expressed her envy of the author’s success. The author, noting that she had been at it a decade longer than the other writer, told her she hadn’t earned the right to envy. Now, I generally think that people have the right to feel whatever they feel (though not to do with that feeling whatever one wants). But it does crystallize the idea that much of what we envy, much of what we compare to, isn’t a difference in ‘natural talent’ but in time and experience (and yes, networks and privilege play roles too).

In the second, we know what the perfect version of ourselves would do under idealized circumstances if everything were to go perfectly to plan. This ignores the reality of our messy lives and messy world. In chemistry, we would do a lot of calculations assuming ‘standard temperature and pressure’—0 degrees Celsius, 1 atmosphere of pressure. But we understood it’s an approximation. Lab settings, even when pristine, are rarely perfect. We might do work to optimize reactions, but often we just needed good enough. And everyone knew at least one story of the reaction or protein crystallization or other lab protocol that only worked at a certain time of the day or year.

So how is it that others come away with such incredibly different assessments? They’re looking at the results and outcomes of our performance. They may or may not know what the intended results were. But they (usually) hold us to such impossibly high standards of process or contextless production. They have the advantage of more objective comparison and focus on what we’re accomplishing—with less interest in whether we took “the way” to get there.

There are times when how we do things does matter (e.g., getting an experiment done but in accordance the appropriate regulatory approvals). But often when we’re judging our work, we overindex on process. Sometimes we need to step outside ourselves and consider what we’re comparing our performance to.

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Funding for early-career NIH grantees experiencing critical life events

If you have (or are applying for) an NIH individual K award or your first NIH R01 (or R01-equivalent), you should know about this pair of funding opportunities!

Transitions from K to R and from first R01-equivalent to first renewal or second award are pivotal moments for NIH-funded investigators. But life events don’t take a break for academic funding timelines. NIH offers administrative supplements to help investigators at these stages maintain productivity while dealing with “critical life events” during the project period. These events include:

  • high-risk pregnancy
  • childbirth
  • adoption
  • serious personal health issues, illness, or debilitating conditions
  • primary caregiving responsibilities for an ailing spouse, child, partner, parent, or member of the immediate family

The awards provide up to $70,000 direct costs for one year. Funding cannot support salary of the parent award’s PI, but otherwise the budget offers flexibility. Funds can support supplies, equipment, additional scientific staff effort, and more.

One caveat: The parent award typically has to be active (not in no-cost extension) at the time of award.

However, because these funds are distributed as administrative supplements, the review process is much faster than the usual NIH grants process. Applications are reviewed internally by the Institute/Center (IC) rather than sent out for external peer review. Decisions are often made within 2 to 3 months.

Each IC has its own specific guidance (links to tables in the notices). Talk to your IC’s program contacts! Some ICs accept applications on a rolling basis, whereas others have 2 or 3 receipt dates per year. Note that, if a critical life event is pending, you can apply in advance.

You can find more information in the Notices of Special Interest (NOSIs) for the supplements:

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2022: A year to dare

It’s been years since I set New Year’s resolutions. But for several years now, I’ve picked a word to serve as a focal point or mantra for the year. I try to pick a word that serves many facets of my life—professional, physical, social, etc. It goes on a post-it above my desk, so I see it regularly and can keep being drawn back to it.

In 2021, the word was center. It was about establishing practices that would ground me. That would help me show up as the best version of myself I could be each day. That would help keep me from falling hard when inevitable challenges hit. In 2021, I tried some new things (some stuck, others didn’t) and re-established consistency in others. Centering work, of course, is an ongoing practice, so the focus was on taking the actions and creating the rituals that make it easier to weave these threads into my daily life.

Now it’s time for another word. I have some big personal goals for the year already—ultra-endurance events, mountain adventures with the spouse. Professionally, I’m continuing to shape the future of my team’s work. I spent some time in 2021 reflecting on core values and crafted a purpose that I’m excited to explore in the coming months and years. Thinking about a potential theme for the year ahead, I rolled around some different ideas. What do I want it to capture? What do I want to set as a guidepost for the next 12 months? How do I want to grow in the next year?

I did something in 2021 that surprised me. I was supposed to originally do a 50-mile race in September, and I was just thinking about beating cutoffs. That event was canceled due to a storm with potential wintry conditions. We made the most of the weekend anyway and had a lot of fun. I found another 50 miler a couple of months later. My strength and pace on trails has improved significantly in the past year, and as race day approached, I found myself thinking not just about finishing but actually pushing a little for a time. I set an ambitious goal. I missed it by 10 minutes. But there was no disappointment in missing the goal, because I’d just done something I hadn’t thought possible a few months before.

To imagine a stretch goal and then to really go for it… that was something powerful, even if I didn’t quite make it. I recognized the progress I’d made and allowed myself the confidence that came from the work I was doing and the results I was seeing. From some recent reading, I’ve also been thinking more about where I set the bar. Some folks think that, if you’re making every goal you set, you’re not taking enough risks. Now, I think there’s something to be said for setting realistic targets, but I’ve also started to wonder: Do I hold myself back? Could I reach another level, do something that surprises me, if allow myself to set audacious goals?

I realized that my word this year needs to be big enough not only to wrap around the goals I’ve already set for myself. It needs to be big enough to challenge me to reach further. Big enough to give me space to try and maybe fail. Big enough to explore all of who I am, what I can do, and where I want to be.

After sifting through a few options, I finally arrived at the one word for 2022:

Dare. Dare to be ambitious. Dare to set audacious goals that may or may not come to be. Dare to deepen the relationships and shape the spaces to try different ways. Dare to reframe or work through the fear and anxiety and other feelings that keep me from fully chasing some things I really want to do. Dare to find my voice and make it heard when it matters. Dare to dream big, not just for this year but for the years to come.

I know, at this point, it all likely sounds very vague. Some parts I’ve shared with others in different circles, and I expect to write more about different parts in time. To be honest, it feels a little scary put this out there for the world to see (or for the couple of dozen who will read this post). But that’s part of daring too—daring to take an idea that’s in my head and make it known to others, to put myself on the hook to show up and try. Maybe I’ll fall on my face (and that could be quite literally in some of these endeavors), but my hope—and honestly an abiding belief—is that, if I dare to put share my journey with others, my community will be there to help me tend the wounds as necessary, dust off, and get back on the path toward who I am becoming.

Past theme/word of the year posts

2021 – Center

2020 – Grow

2019 – Thrive

2018 – Build

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Time & effort & value

Recently I received a time-sensitive request. My specific role was not spelled out, but the objective was clear. I inferred what I should/could do. I spent maybe 45 minutes reviewing some data in a report and drafting a suggested plan of action.

The recipients agreed with the plan and praised the “detailed” analysis.

I felt vaguely uncomfortable. I hadn’t spent that much time on it. Yet spending hours on analysis wouldn’t have changed the recommendations, and timely response was the priority. Given the nature of the plan, small errors in precision wouldn’t be harmful.

The discomfort wasn’t about a lack of due diligence or confidence in the plan. It about being praised for work that felt easy to me.

This realization dawned as I was relaying the experience to my partner—and I recalled the times that he’s expressed to me the dissonance between his perceived effort and what he’s paid to do and lauded for. And then my mind summoned an excerpt from a podcast I’d listened several days before:

I once had a business coach who was working with women entrepreneurs and working with us on pricing. And she was looking at how we were charging for different parts of our services, and all types of entrepreneurs. And she looked at our prices, and she kept on saying, “Why is that number so low?” And different people, myself included, would say, “Well, I can do that in my sleep.” Or, “That’s really easy for me.” And she said, “If that’s really easy for you, that is your gift, and you should be charging the most for that.”

Priya Parker on the Dare to Lead podcast

The penny dropped. I’d been holding an assumption, unwittingly, that I should perceive the effort as difficult for my work to be praiseworthy, to be valuable and valued by others. I had apparently established a construct where time and perceived effort yield value. And of course, this is often true. My gains in running are dependent on consistent training (time). Major parts of my work—ideating, conceptualizing, writing, editing, integrating all the elements—also require time and often feelings of struggle. Frankly sometimes the challenge motivative me.

But I also need to understand and internalize that the level of difficulty itself doesn’t determine the value of an output. I emphasize the “my” because I was applying this model to my own work but not to that of others. I might marvel at the ease if we were talking about someone else’s work, but I would never discount the value of the work that was (or at least seemed to me) effortless. What I consider easy might be daunting to someone else, and vice versa. Value is not defined by the effort but the outcome.

Ease is a gift. Embrace it. Put it to use in the world.


June 1, 2021

The latest The Growth Equation newsletter included a short blog post by Steve Magness on the illusion of ease. He writes, “… this illusion of ease… makes us forget about all the work it takes to make that illusion come true.”

Although Magness is referring to external judgements of others’ efforts (and particularly of apparent effort to achieve objectively incredible feats), I think this may have some relevance to our internal narratives as well. What’s easy to us today was not necessarily easy for us months or years ago. We grow our skills through training and experience. When we first attempt or complete a new achievement, we are likely keenly aware of how hard it is. But our perception of effort may change as more time passes and as we do the thing again and again. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined running 13 miles on mountain trails or comfortably delivering seminars, but now mountain miles are my usual long run and public speaking is a regular part of my professional life. On good days, there is a sense of ease, but it’s taken a lot of practice to get there.

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Letting go to go forward

Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Anxious. Busy.

Each of us knows these feelings. They have become (near) constant companions. They were there before the pandemic and lockdowns, and they did not stay behind in our places of employment as work moved into our homes. Too much to do and too little time, and add figuring out new ways of doing our every day. For many the already too much expanding and the too little time compressing as their entire family’s lives converged in a confined space.

In the US, we’re rapidly approaching the 12-month mark of life disrupted by pandemic and marked with crescendos of broader recognition (if not yet reckoning) around racial injustice, white supremacy, and autocratic threats. The past year yielded countless articles about burnout, compassion, resilience, mental health; about finding grounding and direction in uncertain times; about exploring new approaches to working and being in an anxiety-provoking world. Ink spilled, pixels blazed, sound waves carried to tell employees and managers and executives that we can’t keep doing—or expect others to keep doing—all the same things in the same ways in this moment.

A glimmer of hope on the horizon grows brighter. Already some leaders are shifting their focus and mindset of planning the return to so-called normalcy, the way things were. But if the normal of the beforetimes was leaving so many stretched, should that be our goal? What practices were (or even still are) carrying that simply don’t serve us well—or maybe at all? How might the quality of our work, our experience, and even our organizations change if we shift our lens from past to progress?

I tend to say there’s no going back to work. I call it going forward to work.

Martin Lindstrom 1

I think the first step is (re-)examining purpose. We have a tendency to focus on tasks and activities. After all, it’s easier to articulate what we do, and culturally there is an emphasis on accounting for our work time in measurable ways—tangible outputs, presence in meetings, outcomes that are quantifiable (and preferably within a short period). We can fall into the trap of saying “yes” to everything—and continuing to hold fast to old ways— because we’re concerned we’ll miss something important. The trap is set in part by failing to understand or define the why, what effect we’re trying to have on our organization/community/world.

…what is important doesn’t necessarily get our attention; what gets our attention becomes important.

Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness 2

So we need to consider: What’s consuming our attention and energy, and how do those practices and activities align with our purpose? How many times do we end up in meetings questioning why we’re needed there? What tasks do we crank through while wondering how they ended up in our pile? Sometimes the answer is simply, this must get done to keep the organization running, and the job at hand most closely fits within our role and responsibilities. Sometimes we have to accept that—after all, what good is it to have a strong sense of purpose within the organization if the organization disintegrates? On the other hand, we can find ourselves holding space for work that does not serve our goals, intention, or role.

Examine assumptions. What story are you telling yourself about the work that you’re doing?

Jen Davison 3

In challenging assumptions, we force ourselves to re-examine facts, to consider how an activity links to purpose in this moment. Perhaps it made perfect sense when we started, but as the project or organization have changed, it’s filling an amorphous void rather than a need. In the wake of disruption and change, there can be a strong compulsion to reach for our old customs or to grab something new, anything to fill the silence with chatter, the stillness with motion.

Or we can stand, at least for a moment, in the stillness, breathe, and reconnect that time, attention, emotion, and thinking to our purpose. We can reclaim some space for rest, rejuvenation, creativity, creation. Letting go of those things that no longer serve us can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it makes space to explore and experiment and discover new ways of being with ourselves and our communities—and shaping a culture that invites others to do the same.

Stop focusing on what is behind you. It’s growing smaller and smaller, miniaturizing in the distance; stop squinting at it, as if it has the answers. Today, keep your eyes on where you are going, not where you have been.

Maggie Smith 4

Quote sources

  1. HBR IdeaCast Goodbye Bureaucracy, Hello Common Sense
  2. Brad Stulberg & Steve Magness – The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life (book)
  3. Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement – Community Call, Jan 2021 – (Personal) resilience and community (management)
  4. Maggie Smith – Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change (book)
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