Humans in my life are fond of analogies. I think it’s true of many humans in general. We try to take big, complex events and systems and shoehorn them into a model that seems less abstract to our minds.
Sometimes it works. More often, it breaks down very quickly.
My boss periodically comments, “This business isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.” He’s never run a marathon. I’ve run one in my life (so far). A marathon is in turn exciting, tedious, awesome, and grueling. You have to pace yourself early, so that there are reserves at the end. You have to take care of yourself and fuel along the way.
A marathon has a much more tangible outcome. You’re there to finish the race. Maybe you have a goal time. Maybe you’re trying to top your age category. But at the end of the day, you will know whether you achieved that goal or not. And all along the way, you will have people cheering you on. And on that day, you have one thing to focus on: running your race. It will be an intense day, but by the time you get there, you’ve been working at it for months, training for hours a week and (maybe) carefully attending to your health and nutrition. And for most people, all of the training goes on in the context of real life – jobs, families, friends.
When I first started to write this post, I immediately started thinking of analogies – running, equilibrium, thermodynamics… Then I realized none of the analogies really work. In this instance, they only allow me to distance myself from that about which I write, to talk about things without being specific. But I think it’s time to come clean.
This time last year, there were trepidations but also high hopes for the year to come; anxious optimism might be a good term. But time, as it is wont to do, scattered intentions and plans into the wind. A new year brought massive change that left me operating in survival mode for the first 6 months of the year – the end of my marriage.
As you might imagine (or have experienced), even without the whys and wherefores, it is a grueling process on many levels. I started out the year living with my spouse in a suburb, commuting an hour to and from work each day. Then I was living there alone. Now I live in a flat that’s walking distance to work – with housemates. Not where I expected to be as I wrapped up my 30th year on Earth.
There’s so much that has been hard, things I may or may not write about one day. For today, I’ll go back to the context of the earlier analogy. I’ve been far, far from peak production in the lab. The mental energy and physical time committed to dealing with logistics and the emotions of the process tore my focus elsewhere. On one occasion, my boss was checking in, asking if things had settled down. I was on edge already. No, I explained. They hadn’t settled down, and they wouldn’t for a while. I knew I had not been very productive or focused in the lab. And that really bothered me. But at the moment, I was just trying to get through. My boss pulled back. This wasn’t a push. Things had to be taken care of, he understood that. I voiced my own frustrations at my time and focus, and it was then he made the marathon analogy. He then told me he was invested in me as a scientist, and he would do what he could to support and advance me. He told me, as he had many times before, that he supported whatever I needed to do outside the lab. Because if things weren’t working outside the lab, it would be really difficult for things to work in the lab.
I have many flaws. But one is particularly relevant to these ramblings, and one that I suspect is shared by more than a few of you. I am a driven individual, and typically I will expect more of myself than anyone else does. I think it’s a useful trait in science, but the other edge of the sword is that I have trouble cutting myself slack. I find it difficult to accept less than my best without descending into a spiral of doubt. I find it difficult to ask for help with things that I think I should be able to do on my own, that I probably would be able to do on my own in the absence of the added mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting processes I’m going through. To me, this felt like admitting weakness.
But as much as this phase of my life has sucked, it’s deepened relationships and forged new ones. And, with no small amount of help from those people, it’s teaching me important lessons.
There is strength in admitting when you need help and asking for it.
There is courage is doing what needs to be done, even when it hurts like hell or is inexorably daunting.
And there is joy and happiness to be found even in dark times of life, and you have every right to embrace it – unapologetically.
Hope things settle down and you can get back to normal levels of focus at work. Glad to hear your mentor is supportive of letting you take care of life stuff – unfortunately not all are that way.
It takes enormous courage to move forward in the middle of everything. And great insight to recognize that that’s what we do, in that moment. Everything about this is deeply admirable.
oh yes… that feeling of things falling apart and you need to fix them and the lab productivity declining. I hope you are feeling better now, and that things sorted out. It sounds like a good place to live and that things got better. The lab productivity gets better too.
Your last 5 paragraphs are so on point! The thing about asking for help and leaning on others, and that it’s not a weakness but a strenght rather.
(I could’ve just said, yes I recognize the divorce & working in a lab trying to figure it all out and most of all not feeling drained all the time. It gets better, and things sort out. And like you write, in the end you find new relationships and help from people you maybe didn’t even know to start with.) Best wishes for your life!!!
“Productivity” is not just about advancing your research project.
Well put. Hang in there!
Forging a career in science is tough in the best of times. You have my utmost respect.
I am really very touched by the comments here & via Twitter. It’s a beautiful reminder of how wonderful this community can be.
Some days are tough, but on the whole, they’re brighter than they were – which is why I can finally begin to write about it.
Thank you for all your support.
Oh man, that’s rough! I totally empathize. Hang in there. You have every right to feel sad and distracted so definitely do not get down on yourself for that. It WILL get easier and it WILL get better. Take care of yourself first. Science will always be there.
Hang in there BB. And we should be like your boss.
We should ALL be like your boss….
Not enough coffee…
Yes! It’s great to have someone as a boss who says supportive things like that to you! Take care lady!
The same exact thing is happening to me now (at 31), and fortunately I also have a remarkably understanding boss (thanks Dmitri ;)). Getting back to doing great science and amazing parents, friends ands colleagues are what prevented from completely breaking down the past month. My thoughts are with you, I know first hand how incrediblely difficult this is, the emotional pain, the feeling of failure, etc…
I’m sorry you have to go through this. Take your time, you shouldnt feel guilty about anything. Big hugs!
Cool post. I have a manager like yours. Riley retires at the end of November. He’s way supportive. I’ve been asking for help one, mostly via twitter and LinkedIn. It seems as though my senseis the last decade or so have mostly been much younger than me. Diversity, sharing and critical thinking are cool. Anyway.. cool thoughts, thank you for sharing.
Biochembelle, so sorry you’re going through this. And the last part of your post really resonates with me – I find it so hard to cope when life influences my productivity in the lab.
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