Your research entourage—Essential relationships you need to succeed; Week 2: The dreamer and the doer
In last week’s post, we discussed the importance of having a coach in your research entourage. Today we’ll focus on two people who you need in your group of colleagues and collaborators, even though having both of them in the same room might drive you crazy: a dreamer and a doer.
Life is naturally full of opposites and opposing viewpoints: yin and yang, hot and cold, up and down, cat and dog. Working in research is the same: there’s a crucial balance you need to find between what seem like polar opposites in how you see your work, in how you interact with other colleagues, and how you progress your science. Having opposites on your team doesn’t mean they will cancel each other out or claim superiority of one over the other, but instead they should provide external impetus to complement your own traits and personal balance, as we’ve touched on in other previous posts.
A career in research is not an easy gig: it requires that you continually think of new ideas while re-evaluating the old ones, and are always thinking one step ahead of where you’ll go next. At the same time that you are thinking big, you also need to see the real-world limitations and be aware of the detailed steps that you will need to achieve those big ideas. The people that think about those big, new ideas are the dreamers, and the ones who think about the here and now and the limitations of what you can do at this moment in time are the doers.
Everyone exists somewhere on the dreamer-to-doer spectrum, For your entourage, you will need to identify someone that dreams bigger than you and another person that notices the logical flaws more than you do. You should then strive to use their opposite perspectives to balance your own, with the dreamers showing you what you can do and the doers helping you see how to make it happen.
The dreamer vs the doer: Is one better than the other?
Who are the dreamers? Dreamers are the people who think not just about the big picture, but the big, BIG picture. They look at research and how it fits into the grand scheme of the universe, and how science is out there to save the world. Dreamers can come up with brilliant ideas and hypotheses that challenge the status quo and who push the envelope further and further. Dreamers don’t tend to focus on the details of research but rather the potential of research, and tend to have a positive outlook on the field and its ability to impact the world.
Who are the doers? If the dreamers are the ones on stage talking about how they’re going to save the world, the doers are sitting in the audience getting a headache thinking about all the work that would need to be done to achieve that vision. Doers tend to see the here and now, and focus on the challenges that lay behind every idea and what it takes to actually bring an idea to fruition. Doers want to make sure their evidence is solid before pushing the envelope or challenging the status quo. Doers like details because they helps them understand the steps it takes to get somewhere, and they may come off as pessimistic (although they are more likely realists), especially if you take the potential of an idea farther than they think it should go.
Is one of them wrong or right? Is one of them a better scientist than the other one? The answer to the both questions is no. Both the doer and the dreamer have valid points and key perspectives, which is why you need them in your entourage. As a career scientist, you need those big picture ideas and wide-eyed dreams to motivate you to keep going with your work and to keep you engaged in what you’re doing by dreaming big about what it can can impact. But you can’t just have good ideas, and those good ideas won’t come to fruition overnight. It takes time to get to a big breakthrough, and you need to learn what it takes to prove or disprove an idea and how you can do research in a targeted, logical, and realistic way. And even if you’re on one side of the doer/dreamer spectrum of one side or the other, it’s good to have an additional set of eyes from both sides, in order to have a clearer 3rd party perspective on both the big picture and the small details
The dreamer and the doer in common research scenarios
Let’s take a look at how the dreamer and the doer see things differently, and how you can learn to see from both perspectives and gain from both ways of seeing the world:
Dreamer: Wow! Your data is amazing! It’s the best data ever, and you’re going to get a Nature paper!
Doer: Um, where are your error bars? And is this a corrected p-value for multiple testing errors?
Dreamers will always get excited about new ideas and promising results. Dreamers can also help you get excited about your research again, especially if you feel like you’ve been trudging through a problem for a while. In contrast, doers tend to take everything, especially data, with a skeptical first glance, needing to be convinced of something before accepting it as truth. Feed off the optimism of the dreamers but listen to the skepticism of the doers.
Dreamer: That talk was so great! Dr. BigName is really going to change things in the field!
Doer: Dr. BigName is not interpreting the data correctly, and his/her slides are poorly done.
Dreamers love learning about new research and the potential it can have to change things, and are optimistic of real changes being made by science. The doer listens with a cautious ear, keeping in mind that even the best data from the best researcher has limitations in terms of what it can tell you and how it can be interpreted and used. Let dreamers help you get excited about what’s happening in your field, an excitement which can help you get through the duller moments of research, and let the doer be there to remind you to look closely at each new finding or idea with a fine-toothed comb.
Dreamer: Ooh, interesting side projects! You can do this experiment, or that analysis, or both, or …
Doer: What does it say in the project proposal that you should do? Also the machine you need is broken and when it’s fixed then that experiment will take 2 weeks to finish.
Dreamers are good at coming up with lot of new ideas, many of them quite good or interesting. But it may not always be the best to pursue every side project or idea, as too many offshoots won’t lead you to a cohesive project, but instead an amalgamation of interesting facts with fewer long lines of logic running through it. Doers like to stick to the plan and to think before jumping into new experiments, and also see the practicalities that lie in projects and side projects, including time and consumable costs. Recognize that the dreamers will have good ideas for other work to do and that the doers can recognize which ideas can lead you to the best end product and what it will take to get you there.
Dreamer: Hi, new collaborator best friend! Here’s 50 great ideas and things we can do with you.
Doer: Hello, potential collaborator. Let’s discuss the terms of our collaborative venture and decide who’s doing what.
Dreamers enjoy making new connections and talking to other researchers about ideas, not all of which come to fruition. Doers are more pragmatic in how they interact with and reach out to colleagues but go into working relationships with a clear understanding of what comes out of it. For meeting new people and getting excited about potential, follow the dreamer. For making things happen and keeping yourself from being stretched too thin, follow the doer.
Dreamer: Let’s have an hour-long conference call and talk about all the great things we can do!
Doer: Let’s send 2 emails and decide on a way forward.
A dreamer understands the importance of face-to-face meetings and conference calls as a source of new ideas, and is always an engaged party in the discussion. Doers may not be big talkers but they always make sure there’s a plan going forward, even after a long brainstorming session. View meetings and discussions as a positive, idea-generating activity like the dreamers, but leave the discussion with a clear plan of goals and deliverables like the doer.
Dreamer: I’m going to change the world!
Doer: I’m going to get more coffee.
Dreamers have an infectious excitement about work, their research, and what it all means in the grand scheme of the world. Dreamers are the type of people that got excited about science as kids and never turned it down a notch. Doers may have a more realistic view on the future and their place in it, which is practical but not always exciting. While you do need this pragmatic perspective, not having it balanced out with a bit of enthusiasm can lead you to feeling like you just need to churn out data in order to succeed, forgetting that it’s the ideas and the dreams that help get you to success and help keep you going.
Dreamers and doers both have a place in the world, and we need both of them in an entourage, even if their opposing viewpoints can sometimes drive you mad. They help us see the benefits of being practical versus dreaming big, of getting excited versus being skeptical, of the BIG picture versus all of its crucial details, and of talking the talk versus walking the walk. And if you’re not a particular fan of our analogy, you can try another one for size. And just think: if they made a caffeinated beer, what need would there be for a research entourage at all?
In your group of friends, there are probably quite a few personality types, and different friends that you rely upon in different situations. Some friends always have a funny story that gets you laughing no matter what else is going on. Some friends give great advice for any tricky situation you end up in. Some friends will just listen to you on the bad days when all you really need is a friendly ear. Your group of friends is a source of laughter, encouragement, distraction, or whatever else you need to keep you going.
Just as with your group of friends, you should surround yourself with colleagues and collaborators that balance your own skills and personality, ones that can help you out in the wide array of situations you’ll end up in as a researcher. Your entourage can be there to help your scientific achievements or can help you further your own career. In this series we’ll be looking at the five types of people that every career researcher needs in their entourage. Just like the moments in your life when you need a good laugh or need a shoulder to cry on, there will be times in your career when you need these different perspectives and different types of help. In this series we’ll talk about what each member of your entourage can do for you, how to identify a person who can serve in that role, and how to foster each type of relationship.
Entourage member #1: The coach
If you played sports or did any sort of competitive or organized activity (chess, dance, cheerleading, drama, etc.), you know the difference that a coach can make for both individual and team success. We can look back on moments of practices, competitions, performances, or games and see the role that a coach plays. Coaches are the ones who push us to the edge of our current abilities, who break down each part of what we do in order to improve and perfect our skills, who develop our game plans and competitive strategies, who recognize when we’re giving it our all and when we need to push a bit further.
But from the coach’s perspective, what is coaching all about? Yes, there is usually some credit, award, or recognition that coaches can gain when helping a team or an individual to a win. But in the end it’s the person or the team that does the work and gets the glory, and the coach is there to help a person or team achieve the best possible outcome. And that’s why your research entourage should include a coach: they are there to help you grow, to encourage you to foster your strengths and ameliorate your weaknesses, and in the end they are primarily after the satisfaction of seeing you succeed.
While I played some sports (rather poorly) in high school, it was only recently that I noticed the parallel between athletic coaching and academic mentoring. I spent a busy week at work re-analyzing data alongside my boss, feeling bogged down by the tedium of going through R code together in his office for an entire day and feeling like I should be able to do it on my own and figure it out along the way. After a Monday morning discussion about the importance of not editing code without knowing what that part of the code was doing because it could make the results uninterpretable (certainly a valid point!), I headed to tae kwon do class feeling a bit frustrated about how the day and previous week had gone, and ready to work off some energy.
As our warm-up for class, we started with circuit training. We do alternating exercises ranging from non-intimidating (e.g. jump rope) to pure torture (e.g. triangle press-ups). For each exercise, we first perform it for 1 minute followed 20 second break before moving on to the next exercise. At the completion of the circuit of exercises, we do them all again for a quicker 15 second time period and only a 5 second break. After the exhausting ‘sprint’ circuit, we finish with a 30 second interval with 10 second breaks. During the circuits, I consistently put my hands behind my head for sit-ups due to bad habits (and sore abs), and was corrected by our class instructor not to do the sit-ups that way because it was bad for my neck. I quickly took his suggestion, and while finishing the warm-up I began to think about the parallel between what my boss and my tae kwon do instructor had done that day. Pointing out an error, explaining why it was bad, and keeping a side eye on me to make sure I didn’t repeat the mistake again. At work, I had become frustrated, but I had taken a similar type of comment in tae kwon do class in a more open and understanding way.
I realized that the difference between work and tae kwon do was in how I was seeing the relationship. I have always looked at my tae kwon do instructor as a coach, which is easy to do since it's a sport and our classes feel like a ‘normal’ coaching situation. However, I had seen my working relationship with my boss in a different way, not as a coach but as a boss, and someone telling you what to do because it needs to be done for the company/project/task. But on reflection I could see that my boss and tae kwon do instructor are both coaches, and are both good ones at that. I know my boss wants me to succeed because it means more papers or grants for his lab, but in our conversations he’s also made it clear that he wants me to see me become the best researcher that I can possibly be, and takes the time to discuss problems and approaches with me because of that.
So what exactly makes a good coach, and how can you find one if you don’t feel you have a person filling that role already? One of the key components of a strong coach-athlete (or in this case scientist-in-training) relationship is that the coach emphasizes growth and development. A coach may tell you to do things you don’t want to do on your own, or critique your form or method or working, but the goal of what they are doing should be to make you better. A good coach is one who pushes you and works with you not just for their personal benefit but in the joy and satisfaction he or she gets from helping another person succeed. At the same time that there are strategies for good coaching, there are also ways to be a better scientist-in-training. Listen to your coach with the mindset that what they are saying is to help you, not to judge or critique harshly. If you do something wrong and they acknowledge it, take what they said and use it to improve how you're doing what you’re doing.
If you’ve identified a coach type of person for your entourage, one way you can make this relationship more concrete is to discuss the expectations and goals for you and your coach. With an athletic coaching situation, it’s usually clear what the end goal is, be it a winning season or a faster 100m sprint time. Within research, there are usually milestones within a project but not always a detailed set of expectations or goals that can help you get from start to finish. Should you report to your mentor frequently or have a one-on-one meeting on a regular basis? What format of feedback should your mentor provide to help you determine if you’re reaching a goal or not? What set of skills do you already have for the task at hand and which ones need to be further developed, and do you need formal training outside of lab for any of them? Addressing the expectations of both you and your coach, as well as recognizing that being pushed in a positive manner is essential for personal growth, can help prevent any communication break-downs that arise simply from not knowing what the other person expects.
If you don’t feel that you have a coach type of mentor in your entourage, try to identify a senior group member, a professor in your department, or even just a slightly more experience colleague as a potential coach and talk to them about their interest in being your guide and mentor as you navigate through your research. There are quite a few articles on what makes a good coach, but for the sake of brevity we’ll focus on just a few of the crucial ones:
While I already have both a PhD and a black belt in tae kwon do, I am thankful for my coaches in both the lab and in the dojo, because both are there to help me work on becoming an even better researcher and martial artist respectively. I’m still seeing R code when I close my eyes and the triangle press-ups have given me excrutiatingly sore arms, but perhaps that’s what progress is supposed to feel like, at least for a little while (or in my case until the next day of work/tae kwon do class!).
Once you’ve established the coach for your research entourage, you’ll need to identify the remaining members of your group. Your entourage should include a coach, a dreamer, a doer, an ally, and a sensei. Who are these other four people, you ask? We’ll focus on the rest of your research entourage in the rest of our series in the coming weeks. In the meantime, enjoy one of our favorite movie clips with, shall we say, a slight misstep in constructive coaching (although we do agree there’s no crying in science, there’s probably a better way to say it).
How to handle criticisms in science: Achieving a balance between confidence and modesty in the work place
Whether it was the new Star Wars movie, sparkly outfits worn by people going out on New Year’s Eve, or your aunt’s Christmas pudding, we all likely spent part of our holiday break making assessments, judgments, and the occasional criticism (especially towards puddings). We can all be very critical at times, judging the outfits worn by celebrities or passing judgement on whether a movie or song or day was good or not. But while some may pity those who live their lives in the critical limelight, scientists also find themselves the brunt end of criticisms, whether these criticisms come from peers, mentors, or colleagues.
Science progresses through a combination of new hypotheses and the constant scrutiny which is necessary to establish and validate them. Unsurprisingly, the scientific field is rife with people ready to tear down what you do and judge each individual piece of your work to make sure that what you’ve done or shown is really worth it’s weight. Those of you in graduate school or early career researchers have likely had your fair share of it already, but here are a few more examples to set the tone for the rest of the post:
The first step in handling criticism is choosing how to respond to it: Learn how to receive critique and grow from it, take the good out of comments, and forget the overly personal parts. At the end of the post there are a few short suggestions of how to do this. Before that, however, we’ll look at the extreme ends of how people can fail to deal with criticism in a positive way:
The softening response: Becoming overly sensitive and losing self-confidence
If you are naturally not a self-confident person, you may find that criticism can hit you very hard and very fast. While you can likely recover on your own with time, the pace of a career in science, especially as graduate students, does not leave you much time in the way of building yourself back up again before the next round hits or before you need to get up and going again. Without time to recover from prior wounds, your outlook can quickly become overly pessimistic. You lose the ability to benefit from criticism and assume you’re simply not cut out for research. This attitude is often self-perpetuating, which can lead to reduced motivation and increased sensitivity to additional comments.
The hardening response: Becoming overly confident and losing self-criticism
On the other side of the spectrum are those who have very high opinions of themselves. They deflect all types of criticism by having an inflated self-image, but by doing this they can lose critical insights by being too quick with their defenses and assuming the critic was wrong. While in no danger of losing self-confidence, they can easily become attached to their own ideas and may deflect valid critiques or alternatives, just because they don’t want to admit they might not be 100% right. Too much pride can lead to a stubbornness which can hinder scientific progress, and can even bring a person to a dead-end halt in the middle of their career if they do end up eventually being wrong.
The nonexistent response: Becoming apathetic
A third option is to become entirely apathetic to the stream of criticism. Instead of defending their own ideas, trying to improve their work, or trying new ideas they do none of it, an apathetic researcher carries on stuck to their plan of research and avoids deviating from it. While not at the extreme of either case, apathy generally leads to mediocre research based on questionable ideas that were never defended nor improved upon, with any chance for greater success or implementation lost in the stagnation of effort.
The balanced response: Stay true to yourself while learning what to fix
As with our rubber vs steel post, there is a balance in work and in life where we must be strong and unwavering yet flexible and adaptable. It’s working towards this same type of balance that helps you deal with and grow from criticism during your career. There are times when you need helpful criticisms to improve your work while not letting the overly negative/personal criticisms get under your skin. Tell yourself that, despite the occasional misstep, you are on the right track and are learning more every day.
For the moments of being too soft: don't take criticism directly to heart, but listen instead to what the message at the heart of the issue is. Instead of taking it personally that your committee member made an off-handed negative comment about figure legends, think less about the tone and more about the message, and work towards making clearer figures for your next committee meeting. And for the times or the people that are too hard: It’s possible that those grant reviewers were all jerks, but it’s also possible they had something valid to say. Even if it was an idea you really cared about, a fresh set of eyes provides a perspective that you wouldn’t have had if you had only looked at things your way-even if the critique itself was a bit of a blow at first.
Part of achieving a balanced response is by knowing what side of the spectrum you tend to stay on and doing exercises to keep yourself balanced Even if you already have some new year’s resolutions on your ever-growing to do list, you can start off the year by working on the following as you muse over your own personal reactions to criticism in the workplace:
With the holiday season rapidly approaching and with the stress of year-end work diminishing everyone’s immune systems, it’s time to be on the lookout for any signs of impending sickness in you and your colleagues. In addition to the cold or flu, the stress of finishing the year while reflecting on your work in the lab can bring about an ailment known as ‘imposter syndrome’, a common condition among academics and researchers ranging from graduate students to full professors. While there is no complete cure for this ailment, with this guide you can recognize the symptoms and prevent any unnecessary flare-ups that may cripple your productivity and/or your Christmas spirit.
What is Imposter syndrome?
A sufferer of imposter syndrome feels that they are unable to fulfill their career goals, that any accomplishments they have achieved are due to dumb luck and not to skill or level of expertise, and that they are simply not cut out for a career in research because they are not as smart/skilled/outgoing as their colleagues.
The holiday season offers a time to reflect on the year behind and a chance to prepare for the year ahead. It also entails finishing up lab work, writing up end-of-the-years reports for projects, and having to place orders and spend grant money before the financial office closes, which can compound the normal stresses already surrounding the holidays. Scrambling to get things done before heading home for the holidays can leave anyone with the feeling of ‘Why am I doing this all NOW?’ and ‘What exactly have I been doing all year?’. These questions then create a prime target for imposter syndrome and its counter-productive symptoms.
What are the symptoms of imposter syndrome?
In addition to the rushed and hurried lead-up to the end of the end of the year, time spent reflecting back can lead you to feeling like you didn’t do anything productive all year long. Maybe the year didn’t bring you as many results or papers as you’d hoped for. Maybe a crucial experiment for your thesis didn’t work the way you thought and you had to go back to the drawing board. Maybe you just went to a lab mate’s graduation party and realized how far away you still are from finishing your PhD project. These thoughts, coupled with the already high stresses of the holiday season, can lead to making one feel more like an imposter or a failure than during the rest of the year.
It’s easy to look back at our own year of work and compare it to the work of other students, post-docs, or professors, and see theirs as being much more worthy than our own. But the comparisons aren’t always even, and depending on the field you’re in or the type of work you’re doing, there might be a lot of depth to your year’s worth of work that can’t be seen as easily by anyone but yourself. Think of an iceberg, where the part above water may look unimpressive but the real bulk of it lies beneath the surface. When you feel stressed about what you’ve accomplished in a year and feeling like you’re not worthy of this type of career, take a closer look under the surface. Maybe you don’t have all the manuscripts done that you’d planned, but you made nice figures for a recent conference poster and can use those and a few tables as the bulk of a manuscript. Maybe a big experiment didn’t work the way you thought it would, but it led you to a new direction that no one else has been down before. Maybe this wasn’t your year to graduate, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t do meaningful things in the lab that can give you strong momentum for the next year: optimizing assays, writing code, running simulations, going to a conference and hearing great talks and getting new ideas, doing a literature review for your thesis that helped give you a bigger picture perspective on your work. Not all of these things will have a tangible, surface-level impact, but they will provide the necessary depth of knowledge and support for you to start off the next year of studies and work with the tools you need to succeed.
Graduate students and early career researchers are especially prone to getting imposter syndrome, as we’re in the point of our lives where we’re doing the day-to-day lab work required but at the same time thinking about possibilities for our future careers. When you struggle with trying to get PCR to work or spend an afternoon trying to understand one paper, it can be hard to look at a professor’s life and see yourself as able to do something similar. But take a closer look at the people we feel imposter syndrome about: They’ve spent quite a bit of time getting to where they are by doing the type of work that you’re doing right now, by running into problems and figuring out how to solve them, and now teaching you and your colleagues how to do the same (with some professors being able to pass on their lessons better than others). The work you’re doing now is not meant to tell you if you’re cut out to be an academic or a researcher or not, it’s meant to show you how the process of research works in practice and to provide you with your own depth of knowledge and support as you work and progress to the next stage of your career. You don’t have to be perfect the first time around to become a great researcher-very few of them got it right the first time, either, they just got good at not being wrong quite as often.
In academia you work with the cream of the crop, researchers on the top of their game who are pioneering work at the very edge of technology and understanding. Academics have to sell their research and to conduct themselves in a very confident way, making them attractive for collaborators and funding agencies: Anyone looking into this field without that same level of self-confidence is likely to feel like they don’t belong.
How can you treat imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome has no cure, but you can take prophylactic measures to prevent flare-up using the following measures:
Academics and researchers suffering from Imposter Syndrome tend to recover rapidly with treatment, although many will experience remission before retirement. Prognosis is generally good for those who prescribe to self-esteem building activities, personal development, peer interactions, and an optimistic outlook on the future.
Best of luck to everyone finishing out the year. We’ll have one more post to close off 2015 and are excited for what’s ahead for Science with Style in 2016!
In the summer of 2011, I went on a scientific pilgrimage to Japan as part of a quest for knowledge and self-discovery…or at least that’s the way I’ll present it in my autobiography and made-for-TV movie life story. In reality, at the end of my 2nd year of my PhD I was awarded an incredible fellowship, the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes, from the National Science Foundation. This fellowship was coordinated in Japan by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Summer Program, and the program is also available for those of you from Canada, Germany, UK, Sweden, and France. During my two month fellowship, I worked at the Center for Integrative Bioscience in Okazaki with of one of the molecular toxicology greats, Dr. Taisen Iguchi, and under the direct tutelage of Dr. Yukiko Ogino. Her papers on sonic hedgehog gene regulation in mosquitofish were some of my most-read papers in grad school and she was something of a science hero for my PhD project. Trying to finish in situ hybridizations and fish exposures in such a short window of time was exhausting, but I loved the work and the lab and the chance to spend a summer in Japan.
In between work, sightseeing, sweating, and eating copious amounts of katsudon and unagi, I spent some time getting back into martial arts, not really as a pre-planned activity but rather something that came about as a whim. I had mentioned to one of my Okazaki lab mates that I was curious if there were any karate schools in the area, and with that one brief mention she set to work and I was whisked off the next week to my first class. I didn’t have time to back out or say no thank you, so instead I went with it. It was only two days a week for an hour at a time, so I thought it wouldn’t be that much of a hindrance on the rest of my jam-packed in situ hybridization, sightseeing, and sweating schedule for that summer.
As with everyone I met in Japan, the instructors were incredibly friendly and helpful. While English didn’t come easily for some, all of the black belts tried their hardest to teach me the moves and to explain the stances and forms as best they could. I never really felt that I caught on as well as I could, likely only partially due to the language barrier and more with the fact that karate was very subtly different from tae kwon do. A bit more of a flourish to a block, a foot that was slightly at an off angle for a stance, and at the end of a long day at work it was easy for my arms to get twisted in knots instead of making smooth movements. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed my time as the class’s gaijin (foreigner) and white-belt-in-training.
As the summer progressed and I became less awkward in my movements (and better at following the commands in Japanese), I was invited to attend a class at the main dojo in the neighboring city of Aichi. I soon learned that my little Okazaki karate school was affiliated with a HUGE school, with branches and classes all over the Aichi prefecture, all coordinated by an absolutely enormous dojo at the prefecture capital where I was headed to meet with the Grandmaster himself. The instructors at my school did quite a bit to prepare me to meet with the Grandmaster. Between the small language barrier and their descriptions of how I needed to be polite and respectful at all times, I had the impression that I was meeting the Lord and Master of Karate himself. I was a bit nervous to meet him, especially as the only American in a room of Japanese karate students, and I wanted to do my best to leave a good impression. Needless to say, the train ride to Aichi for the first lesson was a bit nerve-wracking.
I soon found that Grandmaster Jun Tamegai was actually one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He was so excited to meet me and had one of those electrifying and warm smiles that made you feel completely welcome and relaxed. Then when class started, he suddenly became very intense as he instructed his students, myself included, with one of those auras that made you want to do everything he said and do it at 110%. Even after the very warm welcome, I could see why I was prepared by the black belts at my school for this meeting, and why all the other instructors both adored and respected him. He seemed like the kind of person who would invite you into his home for tea and katsudon while being ready at a moment’s notice to take someone out at the kneecaps if they snuck up behind him.
I went to the main school in Aichi for a few lessons at the main dojo, each time being given the honor of a one-on-one lesson with the Grandmaster. His English was good, although hesitant, but that seemed more from nerves at speaking with a native speaker as opposed to not being good at English, or perhaps he just wasn’t that talkative. I cherished these one-on-one lessons and was even more surprised when he invited me to a barbeque along with the other black belt instructors from my school. It was my last weekend in Okazaki and I spent the day at a lake with these wonderful people, enjoying some lakeside activities, and eating delicious teppanyaki. At one point in the day, I went on a jet ski ride with the Grandmaster, speeding around the lake at more than 90 km/h (he seemed to get a kick out of my incessant screaming as we drove around the lake at seemingly impossible speeds). At the end of the day he gave me my last lesson and I went back home to Okazaki (after even more delicious izakaya food). I was truly and deeply thankful for everyone in the school’s patience, hospitality, and guidance that summer. I was happy for that whim of mine that became a reality.
While I’ll probably never really get the hang of karate due to too many years of training for tae kwon do motions and stances, I took home several lessons from my summer karate camp, lessons that reflect back not just on martial arts but on my work as a scientist and on living a life of balance. In one of the private lessons, the Grandmaster introduced me to the concept of rubber and steel in karate. Rubber meant being flexible, relaxed, fast, and able to move freely and easily. Steel meant being strong, unwavering, persevering, and able to withstand whatever you’re put through. Grandmaster told me that both rubber and steel were important, that you couldn’t just be good at one, you needed both if you wanted to excel at martial arts. He told me this in the context of his own views of me and how I looked when going through the motions in class. He was the first person to tell me that I had so much steel, so much power and fury, but that I needed to be more rubber if I was going to improve.
I continued to think about that lesson in the rest of the summer, at the same time busy finishing up my project in the lab and trying to travel to as many places as I could get to before my flight home. I thought about Grandmaster himself, the man with a welcoming smile and a ferocious intensity, both coming from the same person. I thought about his vision of me, of all my steel. Was I just too much steel in martial arts, or was I too much steel in other parts of my life as well?
The concept of rubber and steel isn’t just about how you punch and kick, it’s about how you react to the world around you through good times and bad. Work as a scientific researcher, and as a graduate student especially, is a place where you can certainly feel like you need to punch and kick your way through, the fight for survival in academia and the cut-throat world of science. It’s here that the concept of finding the balance between rubber and steel is something that the Grandmaster can teach all of us, in order to help us find the balance between our own natural tendencies and to help us recognize when we need to be more rubber or more steel in order to improve and succeed.
As Grandmaster noticed, I was more steel, and in hindsight I probably was more steel long before starting the karate lessons. I have always been very hard-working, determined, strong of mind, and unwilling to give in. I always did well in school, from my first day in kindergarten all the way through my undergrad studies. I worked hard to get good grades and hear praise from my teachers, and after getting my bachelor’s I set out to do a PhD program and to change the world through my research. On the flip side, I would become frustrated when I ran into walls and couldn’t progress with what I was doing, feeling like I had nowhere to go. I was self-confident when doing well but would lose that confidence if I slipped even a small amount. I always worked relentlessly, coming in on weekends and after hours to try to get as much data as possible. I was set to succeed and would let nothing get in my way. The problem with being all steel is that it makes you rigid and frustrated when you can’t do something right. It can make you feel anxious and tight for no reason other than your need to succeed. Steel might not wear out easily, but being 100% steel all of the time will undoubtedly wear you out.
But if steel is where all the strength and perseverance is, then what’s so great and useful about rubber? Rubber is about relaxing in the face of stressful moments, of going with the flow of life and the problems that come at you. Rubber is about coming to a wall and bending around it instead of trying to break it down. Rubber is about not doubting yourself even when you slip and stumble because you know you can adapt and mend. Being rubber means you stay loose and free instead of tight and anxious. But as with steel, being too much rubber does not make for a balanced life. Too much rubber can mean that you’re so relaxed that you don’t do anything and don't feel an urgency to work hard at something. Too much rubber can lead to too much flexibility and wavering instead of following a plan of action. Rubber is fast and flexible and free, but if you’re 100% rubber then you won’t stand up for what you believe in or persevere when things get difficult.
When you examine your own tendencies, you’ll likely find that you tend to spend more time as one over the other. While steel people are hard-working and tough, if driven too hard they can end up defensive when challenged, short-sighted about finishing a task because it needs to get done, working long hours without having a concrete reason, and when stressed may not be as likely to ask for help or reach out to others. On the other side, rubber people are cool and calm but may find themselves being lazy or distracted during working hours, may lack of motivation in completing a task, can have a tendency to procrastinating, and can end up juggling around side projects or ideas instead of staying focused on a single project or concept.
In addition to knowing your own tendencies towards rubber versus steel, another point of the Grandmaster’s lesson is to know when to act like steel and when to act like rubber. There are times when you need to be steel, when you need to stand up for your project and your work and defend what you know to be true and right. There are times when you need to just power through something, whether it be data analysis or a day’s worth of pipetting, in order to get things done. On the flip side, there are times when you need to be flexible to changes in direction in your project, times when you need to stop doing the same assay over and over and look at what the data is telling you about where you should go instead. There are times when you will be challenged and the only way to come out ahead is to walk away or change directions instead of fighting back.
The key is to recognize the need to find the balance and to focus on embracing the good parts of rubber and the good parts of steel. Finding a balance is about knowing yourself as much as it is working towards that balance, because knowing your tendencies will help you figure out where you need to go. Steel people need to know when to relax and be flexible to challenges, rubber people need to know when to stand firm and stay focused. By recognizing if you’re more rubber or steel as well as seeing when to embrace either your rubber or steel side, you can get closer to achieving that balance between cool, calm, and collected, yet ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
While I’m still striving for finding my own balance of steel and rubber, I often think back on that summer and the tutelage of Grandmaster Tamegai. I finished my time in Japan with a 5-day excursion exploring around Hiroshima and Kyoto on my own. I found myself really relaxed, reflecting on a great and productive summer, but at the same time a deeper sort of relaxation than I’d had before. Was this what being rubber was all about? I still strive for that relaxation in my life, which is sometimes more difficult than it was during that 5-day train trip exploring oceanside shrines and eating katsudon. For me, becoming more rubber is still a work in progress, but recognizing when I become too hard or shortsighted or frustrated helps me know when I need a break or when I need to step back and take a breath. At the same time I’ve learned to embrace my steel side, knowing that it can bring me focus and determination and can help me push through difficult times that need to be pushed through. I hope someday to have that same balanced demeanor and attitude that Grandmaster had, with the warm smile that welcomes you as his friend accompanied those powerful eyes that stay focused and locked on target. Although I’ll likely refrain from driving around students on a jet ski while going 90 km/h. But maybe that’s just another lesson I didn’t learn yet.
A final note: If you are still a graduate student from the US, UK, Germany, France, Sweden, or Canada and are interested in having a rewarding research stay in Japan, check out the JSPS summer program and apply to go on your own spiritual summer science quest. やった!!
How to make a fulfilling break: Using your time away from work to achieve a better work-life balance
People like to comment to me about how much I travel, asking where I’m jet-setting off to this weekend and if I ever stay at home. I’m not sure how to respond sometimes. Most of the time I’m proud of all the places I get to see and things I get to do, but occasionally the comments make me think that I travel a bit too much. This feeling is greatly enhanced by the irony that this week’s post is currently being written from a hotel room in Dublin on a RyanAir-enabled weekend away from home (with flights so cheap, why not?). While marking off cities and countries from my massive travel to do list is something of an obsession of mine, it’s also one of the major ways I unwind. Spending an afternoon wandering the side streets of a new city on the look-out for hidden cafes and photo-worthy architecture or scarfing down a ham and cheese sandwich on the summit of a hike are things I greatly enjoy. More importantly, these adventures, both big and small, help me unwind when I’ve been twisted and my tightened by stress, responsibilities, and the daily grind. Traveling allows me to rebuild my respective, refreshes me, and leaves me feeling ready to tackle my work's problem when I get back home.
So often as PhD students, post-docs, and senior academics, we feel like we just can’t take a break, as if something just has to be done right away. While there certainly are moments when deadlines and teaching commitments and emails pile on us endlessly, a lot of the ‘academic guilt’ comes during times when our workload is at more of a steady state. We very easily let ourselves fall into this mental trap, in which we think we should be doing something at every given moment: reading/writing a paper or getting lab results analyzed or trying to find a date for that continually-rescheduled meeting with your collaborators. Academic guilt is necessary, to some extent, for academic life to function, since a full-fledged academic is essentially their own boss and has no one to tell them during the day when they need to get back to the grind. At the same time, too much urgency can be a hindrance both to our productivity and to our work-life balance. For those of us working in academia, it's crucially important to balance our work with our personal lives, using well-timed breaks coupled with periods of sustained work. Scientists seem to be pretty good at the periods of sustained work part, but can be terrible at the well-timed breaks part.
The key with taking breaks (and not feeling guilty about it) is to make each break a fulfilling one, one that leaves you energized for the rest of the day or week ahead. There are many effortless alternatives to working, as any Tumblr and Netflix binger knows all too well, but simply not working is not always a fulfilling break. In order to have a fulfilling break, one where you come back to your problem with a clear mind and a go-get-it attitude, you should use your free time to purposefuly unwind, unthink, un-everything. We all need moments to scroll through the vast wasteland of the Internet or to watch our favorite TV series with a glass (or three) of wine, but in order to come back to work the next day or after the weekend ready to tackle what you left unfinished, your free time can’t be spent with only these types of breaks.
A break can be a large one or a small one, maybe a lunch outside on a sunny day or a Saturday out with friends instead of working on that experiment that just ‘has’ to get done. Whatever your schedule and needs are, a fulfilling break should enable you to do the following things:
- Step back and see the bigger picture of what you’re doing and why you’re stressed about it. If there’s a hard deadline for a paper resubmission or grant application, it’s easy to see why getting things done for that time is stressful. But what about those moments when you feel rushed but don’t really have an explanation? A lot of the times that we feel stressed, we may not even know why and there may not be a concrete reason for it, or we might be making a mountain out of a molehill. Many people respond to stress by working, even when the stress originates from some other part of our life and issues outside the lab. Maybe your 10-year high school reunion is coming up, where you know all your classmates will ask what you’ve been up to for the past 10 years, which somehow triggers your memory into remembering that you didn’t work on that manuscript for a few weeks, and then, What have I DONE with my life, why didn't I just get a 'normal job' like all my other classmates, and also why do I have nothing to wear to the reunion? At times like this, its important to take a breath and consider whether getting more data points is really the solution for addressing what may be some bigger issue that has nothing to do with your research. At times like this, that weekend trip to the lake or an evening drink with friends instead of working nonstop can give you a better perspective on your life, your stresses, and the necessity of stepping back and taking a deep breath now and then.
- Let your mind refocus when you run into problems. Problems in science tend to require a lot of focus to figure out. Why did all my cells die? Why am I getting this error message while running the data processing script that was working perfectly 2 days ago? Staying focused is good, but if you stare at something for too long you’ll lose your sight along the periphery. You can easily end up banging your head against a problem trying to throw everything you have at it, only later to recognize the solution while walking out of the building three hours later. Taking a step back from a problem, difficult or simple, is a good strategy because it gives you a chance to think about all the components of what you’re working on instead of the one thing that’s giving you trouble. Often times the solution was a simple one, maybe you forgot to add serum to your media or you saved your data file as a different format. Taking a break at the moments when you get the most frustrated can help allow your brain to get to those ‘a-ha!’ moments of remembrance and insight that can’t come when you’re staring a problem in the face and letting it get you flustered.
- Let your brain disconnect from work, as much as it can. It’s difficult to unwire ourselves completely from our work, especially with those 11pm emails from your advisor asking what you’ve been up to in the lab for the past week. As hard as it may be, work on setting aside a part of your day and your week when you don’t check emails or work on the pile of data/papers you brought home. This gives your week more structure that you can fill with a fulfilling break, knowing that you won’t have to be bothered by some science emergency (which usually ends up not being a real emergency at all). Professors do tend to send emails at odd hours, perhaps due to their own odd life-balance, but likely it's because they just enjoy science that much and want to know what you're doing. It's both full-time work and hobby for some, but remember that you don’t have to reply to every one of their emails instantly. Most likely they’re releasing a barrage of emails to all their collaborators and students at once when they have a free moment, so don’t always feel like you’re being singled out.
- Have Internet-free moments. In the wired workplace especially, this goes hand-in-hand with disconnecting from work. Whether it’s during the work week or on the weekends, take some time to unplug from your laptop/tablet/phone/whatever. Go to a museum with a friend, take a long walk somewhere new in your town, or go out to dinner and leave your phone on airplane mode. It’s hard to unplug when you have the world in your pocket 24/7, so when you have moments where you can enjoy the moment, be sure to do so.
- Take time to focus on a different problem/idea/concept/activity. While binging on the internet and Netflix can help us disconnect, it’s not always the best way to focus away from work. We can get good at multi-tasking, watching TV at the same time as checking our phones or reading a paper. So make your brain take a break by thinking about something else. Read a Sherlock Holmes story and see if you can figure out the case before he does, dig our your oil pastels from your high school art class, learn how to say ‘the turtle drinks milk’ in a different language, or call your grandma and ask her if she has any extra knitting needles. Whatever suits your style, find something that you’ll enjoy doing that provides an external focal point for your brain, something that’s not as easy to let professor emails and thoughts of your next experiment slip in without you being ready to tackle them at your desk the next day.
To find your ideal fulfilling break, all you have to do is look for something that fits your style, something that helps building you up when you’re feeling down and that unwinds your knots when you’re twisted around. My fulfilling breaks come both from travel and from tae kwon do. Both give me a reason to not check my phone for emails for blocks of time. Both give me things to focus on, like figuring out which trail or street to follow or remembering all the moves in my pattern. Both make me feel happy when I’m done (even though I may be physically exhausted from endless walking or kicking, depending on the activity), and that good feeling reflects back on the rest of my life and my work. Both take time away from when I could be reading papers or analyzing data, but when I do come back to work I feel like I have energy and take on those tasks with more fervor than if I just trudged through them constantly. I can also enjoy both at different time scales: tae kwon do is there twice a week to finish off a day in the lab, and travel is there on the weekends to clear my mind after a busy week (or two).
There are also strategies you can use to relax during the work day to keep yourself from feeling like you’re banging your head against a problem or when you fall into a pit of unproductivity:
- Take a walk. This is especially good for those of us that spend most of our day at a computer. You’ve likely already heard the lecture on taking a break from staring at your computer monitor so you don’t go cross-eyed, but stepping away from your monitor is also good for a quick 5-10 minute mental unwinding at work. If you feel yourself being unproductive or opening a few extra tabs of buzzfeed articles, take a walk somewhere in your lab building or make an excuse for a short walk around campus. A trip to the corner store or a lap around your building gives your eyes a chance to re-focus on the world and can let your brain think about the idea or problem you’re working on when you don’t have it staring you back in the face.
- Have a fika. No, its not a new Science with Style candy bar (although that could be a good way to pay for the URL registration). ‘Fika’ is a Swedish word/concept which means ‘to have coffee’, but it’s more than just a way to get some extra caffeine. Fika is having a break with colleagues, friends, or family, and if you work in Sweden then you’ll even have a dedicated break time during your work day. It’s a time when you socialize but also to take a step away from your work for a few set moments of your day. You may not get a set time off from work (or have any fikabröds to go with your coffee) but you can start your own fika trend with office mates or lab mates and bring some of that Scandinavian culture to your own daily schedule (IKEA mugs and blåbär juice are a great fika starter kit, and tea is an appropriate substitute for those who prefer their caffeine from other sources).
The hardest part about taking a break is that there are times when we feel like we just can’t. When we feel anxious about getting something done or that something MUST be figured out right away. The thing about a career in science is that it’s not an easy job to have. A lot of the answers are unknown and won’t always come to you easily, especially if you’re in an endless staring contest with them. Recognizing where your stresses come from as well as recognizing when you’re stuck can help you not only figure out what you can do to feel better but also to move forward with a problem and be more productive with your work. Any job, and science especially, comes with a lot of external pressures and stressors, but staying focused on the bigger picture of your world can help you face the stresses that you have to face and keep at bay the ones that you make for yourself.
And now as this post is ready for some editorial wrap-ups, I can feel free to wander the streets of Dublin again before my flight back home and another week of work. Before taking my 313th flight (yes, I’ve counted the total number of flights I’ve been on in my life. Everyone needs a hobby!), I’ll pop over to the Porterhouse brewery to enjoy some Irish music and a final pint, knowing that I’ve crafted a decent post to self-validate my incessant need for travelling. But while there’s still free wi-fi, I might look into the weekend flight prices to Prague in the autumn, as I’ve heard that Czech beer (and sightseeing) is divine!