Most of the time, research (and life!) can feel like a struggle. Constant deadlines, incessant demands, pressure to get results, grants, job, publications – and dealing with irritating colleagues and bosses. You know what I mean.
The struggle saps your energy, and removes the color from your life. It reduces your capacity to focus on your science – and everything else you care about. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just stop struggling being a scientist, and focus on the stuff that matters to you; doing great science, and enjoying your life?
If you agree, then here’s some good news: You can!
My Life so Far
(Probably much like you,) I have pushed myself hard throughout my life. I’ve driven with my foot to the floor to accelerate through whatever got in my way. My feeling was that accelerating – pushing hard – smashed me through whatever external factors, or internal feelings, were getting in the way. But lately, I’ve been lucky enough to realise that this is all in the mind. All I have been pushing against is my own imagination. Which means that, if I choose to, I can stop pushing. And if I do that, I can save my energy for things that matter more.
It’s Just like Swimming
Recently I had an experience that put this idea into sharp focus. I can run reasonably far and at a reasonable pace. But put me in a swimming pool and it all goes wrong: My swimming technique itself is functional. But swimming even 500–1000m was disproportionately energy-sapping.
So for the first 38 years of my life, I was someone who swam for the fitness benefits but, despite knowing that swimming should be a serene and enjoyable experience, emerged exhausted from each 1km swim and glad to get out of the pool. My problems in the water were because I was trying to make progress by pushing harder. More force, than flow. I was working against the water rather than with it and creating all sorts of additional work for myself.
Underneath all of that thrashing was a deep seated fear of drowning. In my mind there was always a trace of the fear that if I slowed down too much I would sink and drown. So my solution was to swim harder, push myself more, build bigger muscles that could power through and erase any chance of me drowning. My fear was all in my imagination of course. And although it was very, very real at the time, it was causing me all sorts of extra effort and reduced enjoyment. And meant I never improved as a swimmer.
Then a Kid Taught Me a Lesson
Then my 8 year-old daughter became good enough at swimming to be able to swim laps at me. She was slower than me of course, so it meant I had to slow down to stay with her. And guess what? I didn’t drown. I discovered that it took much less effort than I thought to move through the water, and while my swim was much slower, it was serene, enjoyable and allowed me to look at my technique to see how I could swim more efficiently.
So What Does That Have to Do with Being a Scientist?
If your approach to your work as a scientist involves constantly pushing harder, you are making life more difficult, and your work less productive, than it has to be. Pushing harder seems like the right thing to do. You need to get results, to get that paper, to get that funding, to get the tenure, to be able to keep your career, to be able to feed yourself and not tumble into a professional and financial downward spiral that leaves you destitute and lying in the gutter thinking “if only I had squeezed in ONE MORE western blot”.
Yes, pushing ever harder seems like the right thing to do. But it is most certainly not because the drive that is pushing you ever harder is not based on anything in reality. It is straight from your imagination. Just like I was highly unlikely to drown if I swam slower. You are highly, highly, unlikely to be pitched into professional oblivion if you slow down a bit.
Really Cool Things Start to Happen When You Slow Down
If you consciously slow down everything about the way you work and allow yourself to find your natural pace in the lab, some very cool things will start to happen. You will enjoy your work more. You will pay attention to the details more. You will have more time to think, more time to relax away from the lab. As a result your work will be of a much higher quality than when you were thrashing through a fear-driven career.
Slowing down doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get the results you were looking for. But, pushing harder doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the results you’re looking for either. But by taking your foot off the accelerator you increase the chances of getting a result if there is one to be had because you will be more aware, more inspired and more yourself. You’ll be more equipped to make that result happen.
Where the Real Battle Is
“But everyone else is rushing about like crazy, working insane hours and trying to pack in as many experiments as possible” I hear you say. That is because they are allowing their imagination to be in control. The imagination is a powerful thing and it can be very difficult to see past it. Overcoming it and taming it takes focus and dedication. But realising that it is imagination and not reality that is driving the behaviour is the first step. Then making a conscious effort to stop believing and acting on it is the next.
Try this experiment: Next time you are feeling stressed in the lab try making a very conscious effort to slow right down, pay close attention to what you are doing. Find pleasure in what you are doing, rather than just focusing on getting it done.
Then see what happens.