On enjoying science, and life, each day at a time


A few years ago, I started running. I like running. It’s a good time to think, or to not think. After a run and a shower, I’m more energized.

I should run more often. Sometimes I get into periods of time when I fall out of the habit. Which is not really a good thing for me. But I’m pretty good about it, in general. If I’m traveling for more than a couple days, I make a point of bringing my running shoes.

Every time I step out, I’m ever aware that I have a benefit of safety while running that others do not have. This summer, I’ve been thinking of the tragedy of what happened to Dr. Eaton, when she went running while at a conference. This is particularly heavy on my mind, as I am trying to fit my running shoes into my carry-on for a several-day-long conference. Knowing that I can be safe, but others around me will not be.

Earlier this week, I experienced something vaguely like an epiphany, perhaps in a county of its own adjacent to Epiphany. It wasn’t a lightning bolt moment, nor a lightbulb, and didn’t involve any form of electromagnetism other than the standard movement of ions across some synapses. This nonpiphany was: “Hey, this is pleasant.” That’s all. What made it distinct was that there wasn’t anything else in the mix.

It was a nonpiphany because it’s something I think regularly.  It’s something I know. It’s something that I think about once in a while. It was mildly notable because I was feeling it as much as I was thinking it. To think that all this time, I was telling myself I was enjoying being in the moment, but really, I wasn’t so much enjoying myself in the moment.

While running makes me feel better, it also involves the same amount of fretting that comes with other things in life, too. Just one may love cooking, it still involves having to shop for ingredients. I’m not running to meet particular benchmarks, I’m not training for a race and I’m not working to beat my best time. I’m just out there to run, enjoy the fresh air, listen to some tunes or a story, and break out a sweat. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. But less than cognitively, there are things to fuss over. It’s less than 100% pleasant because there are still things to fuss over. Even though I entirely have the option of losing myself in the moment.

A couple runs ago, I got in a bit more of the groove. In that groove, my thoughts were aligned with my feelings. Huh. That run was genuinely even more pleasant. That groove wasn’t any kind of flow state, it was just a moment of greater peace than usual. I just found the capacity to not let related or unrelated things bother me at the moment. Last run was downright one of the more pleasant times I’ve had in a while. I’m not any better at running, and I’m not working any more or less at it, I’ve just found some peace in the process.

Since then, I’ve been having less luck extending this nonpiphany to science and my professional work. Which is weird, because I’m a big fan of defining personal success by metrics of our own design, and I’ll make a point to identify the many ways that our scientific culture has its priorities all messed up. I realize that many of us have passively absorbed destructively calibrated algorithms to calculate the worth of a scientist, based on perceptions of quantity, quality, venue, and audience. I often experience how fun science is, and I do the best science when I do it on my own terms, and it’s okay that my ambitions don’t match the commonly used template for an appropriately ambitious scientist. But of late, I’ve had trouble internalizing this.

I’m getting stuff done, but it’s been it’s hard to reconcile my own benchmarks with the benchmarks that people set for others. As of late, as my career has evolved, I’ve not been able to keep up the same rate of manuscript submissions. Just like I’m not running to have the fastest 5k, I’m not coding to write the fastest paper, nor am I writing currently grants to have the biggest lab. I can tell myself that doing the science is a lot of fun, but I think that fun is getting constrained by knowing that in some dimensions, I don’t have the time to invest into being The Best at every aspect.

Of course, nobody is The Best at everything. You don’t even have to do some things well, and good collaborative teams are based on the idea of complementary skills. On a day to day basis, I need to come to terms with the reality that I only have so many hours in the day, and if I use them on what I feel that matters, then I should be pleased with my work. That even if I’m not getting done everything I want to get done, that I still can enjoy what I’m doing.

I mean, if there were ten of me, I still wouldn’t be able to get done what I want to get done. Perhaps my benchmark of doing the thing that I want to do is unattainable, and I need to make better peace with my own limitations, and be pleased when I use my working time efficiently and effectively. Still, this puts me askew from the Standard Template of A Quality Tenured Scientist. Which I realize is something I have to get over. After all, I started this site to change people’s minds about the Standard Template. Maybe I still need to convince myself?

This gets even more absurd when I realize how many scientists have identities and careers that are even further off of the trajectory of what a Quality Scientist is supposed to look like. How, compared to a bunch of other folks, I and my cumulative work appears to conform to the mold.

I know the answer is just to take things one day at a time. To actually enjoy the science as I’m doing it. Of course, this involves working on big things, and planning for the future. Just that, when working, the work is the work is the work. Just like going for a run is simply a pleasant way to spend the time, it’s possible to find that same pleasantness or joy by doing an analysis, or writing a paragraph, or working at the microscope. It’s okay to take more joy in the product than the process, or more in the process than the product. But if that joy is coming from external validation, then it’s got a expiration date that comes up soon.

I also realize that, when I’m in charge of others doing science, that it’s up to me to create this atmosphere of joy. It’s my job to create an environment where others have latitude to develop and fulfill their benchmarks, while also being a valued member of the team. It’s really hard to create that environment if you don’t even have that spirit inside yourself.

6 thoughts on “On enjoying science, and life, each day at a time

  1. What a nice essay. Thanks for reminding us what is important in life. What you describe is how a frog must feel when it is just swimming through the water.

  2. Thanks for articulating something I feel all the time so well. I’m not a research biologist or in academia but the corporate environmental consulting world instills many of the same insecurities (have to work X number of billable hours to meet company expectations). I’m finally at a point where I have enough career capital to better defend my boundaries but it’s still difficult in the face of a culture that values “productivity” so much.

  3. Well stated. In many dimensions of my life, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that most conventional measures of success tend to make most people miserable. This is why our personal success is best defined on our own terms. There are ways to balance external measures of success with internal measures, but it’s not always easy.

  4. Thanks for writing about what has been in my mind for years. I am looking at self-funding my research. Thanks from Thailand

  5. Just found your blog and loving it. I’m thinking about starting my own blog and this is an inspiration. All the best to you!

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