Most of you are probably too young to have heard of the TV show called Dragnet. Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter in MASH) played a no nonsense detective who was famous for saying, as he was interviewing people, “Just the facts, ma’am”. Inevitably, Officer Gannon would question a potential witness who wanted to take a few detours into irrelevant details such as something cute that their cat did, how bad that particular day was because their washing machine broke, etc. Why do people have this tendency? Humans are wired for story. We’ve been telling stories for over 100,000 years, whereas the written word has only been around since about 3200 BC. In Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong, she cites work from Robert Burton, a neurologist and author, about our need to finish stories. According to Burton, our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. We get a dopamine reward whether the story is accurate or not, and therefore in the face of incomplete data we will finish the story anyway, based on past experiences.
Let’s take the idea of blame and how that can influence our stories. Several years ago I was sitting in the office of my son’s middle school principal discussing an “issue” that had arisen between him and another student. She said that in her experience there are two kinds of parents, ones that always assume their kid was at fault, and ones that assume the other kid was at fault. I fall into the first category. This is not surprising, as I tend to find myself at fault as well. I’m the person who says “I’m sorry” when someone bumps into me or steps on my toe, apologizing for having my foot in their way. No matter how this response originates (do I look like Freud?), it becomes hard-wired, a habit. Our mental stories are habits just like smoking or brushing your teeth before bedtime. This is great if you like how your stories end. However, many of us are striving to change our stories. Mine, for example, often end up in some way with me falling short – grant not funded, not enough papers published, or being the only parent that forgot to send their kid to school in pajamas for Pajama Day. I always thought that blaming myself was good, because at least I’m taking responsibility for my actions. To some extent that's true, as taking responsibility is empowering. Like hot fudge sundaes, much of a good thing can be bad, though, and taken to the extreme "taking responsibility" can lead to chronic self judgment, self blame, and finishing our stories before they even get off the ground. At the least, you write a grant or go to the job interview with the attitude "why bother?". At worst, you stop trying altogether.
Now that I’ve pointed out the problem, what’s the solution? If the solution was easy, I’d be writing this post from the 12 floor of a beautiful research building with windows overlooking the ocean, putting Bill Gates on hold while I finish up this last bit. A big part of the solution is recognition. Pay attention to your thoughts. Be aware of the stories you tell yourself and whether you’re finishing them before they even get started. If you catch your self enough times, you’ll form a new habit where you don’t always assume the worst. The great thing about paying attention to our stories is that, with practice, we get to choose the ending. Now, excuse me, I have a call waiting….
For more information see:
Rising Strong, by Brene Brown, available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller
Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, by Joe Dispenza
Story Smart: Using the Science of Story to Persuade, Influence, Inspire and Teach, by Kendall Haven
Yesterday my 12 year old son Christian approached me with a theory about emotions. His theory is that emotions are energy, and sometimes this energy is translated into physical form. For example, when you are angry and hit someone that is a translation of emotional energy into a physical form. He also said that whether the emotion/energy is “good” or “bad” depends or can be changed by your perspective. Stunned, I asked him where this theory came from. He said he it came from thinking about Star Wars and The Force.
When you think about it, we are constantly translating our emotions into physical form. For example, how do you get out of bed in the morning? Do you wake up without an alarm, happy to “seize the day” or do you hit snooze three times and grumpily get out of bed? That feeling ripples into how you greet your family in the morning, how you interact with your co-workers/friends, and the effort you put into your job/studies. It also influences the type of people you hang out with. Do you spend time with people that make you laugh and feel good, or people that gossip and complain?
Emotion can set the tone for the day, as well as influence events that occur throughout the day. Our perspective is the lens through which we each experience the “realities” of the day. For example, let’s say there’s a snowstorm, which brings an unexpected “snow day” and the kids have the day off. You’ve got an important presentation at work and your babysitter is snowed in too. Your kids are elated, but you’re stressed and upset all as a consequence of the same event. While this may sound obvious, many of us don’t take the time to think about how our perspective influences our emotions, which in turn creates our physical responses. Why does this matter? Well, awareness of this idea of perspective gives us pause, and the opportunity to change our emotions or at least lessen their impact.
Back to the snow day, you call work and tell them you have to postpone the presentation, accepting that your boss might be furious. You let go of the anxiety, accepting “what is”. Rather than calling work with the emotions of fear and anxiety you pause, let go, and call in with trust that it will all work out. You call work and surprisingly your boss answers - you explain the situation and it turns out that he’s one of the few that made it in. The presentation is postponed until next week. However, let’s say you call with fear, anxiety, and defensiveness, causing you to make up a not so plausible story about being suddenly sick and, by the way, the dog vomited on your computer killed your hard drive – the presentation will need to be redone. Your boss says no problem, but he’s wondering about your honesty. This creates a seed of doubt, which influences your relationship from that point onward.
We all have, by the nature of our existence, a perspective about the events of our lives. The great thing is that we have the power to change our perspective and our response. The Force is with you (for better or worse) – will you be Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker?
What is excellence? For some reason, I’ve been pondering this question lately. I checked Webster’s, and found that excellence is the “quality of being excellent”. Wow – that’s disappointing. I think most of us have a sense of excellence, and maybe that’s the point. For me, excellence is a knowing more than anything else. I know it when I see (feel) it. I have observed what I have perceived as excellence a few times in my life. Because I was the observer, this also makes me wonder whether it is harder to perceive excellence if you’re actually in the middle of it rather than in a position of observation. Let me explain. One of my perceptions of excellence came through observation of a band that my son participated in at a preparatory school in Omaha. Every aspect of the performance was considered, from how they entered the room with precision, sitting down at the exact same time, and then proceeding to play wonderfully. This example of excellence was due, in small part to the reputation of the school, and in large part to their terrific band director. A second example comes from Interlochen Arts Academy, which is a boarding school for fine arts in upper Michigan that also provides camps over the summer. Because my son attended Interlochen his senior year, and my daughter attended a camp there last summer, I have visited several times. Interlochen is a very special place that also emanates excellence, from the performances, to the teachers, to the classes, to the guest artists. I think the only place they miss the mark is the cafeteria, but maybe those are only great in cooking schools. Interlochen is a place that takes kids of mixed abilities and turns them into self confident artists, writers, and musicians who leave with a belief in their abilities as an artist and as a person ready for their next stage in life. The fact that many graduates return to Interlochen to work during the summer makes me think that that the students feel the excellence of this special place as well.
Have I ever experienced excellence? I trained as a fellow in transplantation at the University of Minnesota during its peak, and worked with many truly great surgeons and founders of transplantation. I look back at that period fondly, but at the time I was mostly stressed and tired. I think it is not uncommon to realize “after the fact” the excellence of a program or specific teacher. For more on this, I recommend the book “Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations” by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, these authors spoke at Interlochen.
What is the common ground between these examples that gives me this perception of excellence? I think in large part it is the gift of high expectations. Expecting great things from students tends to yield great things, and not expecting great things will yield less than great, or even worse mediocre. Of course, we all need a kick in the gluteus maximus sometimes to make this happen. The trick for those doing the kicking - coaches, band directors, business leaders, principal investigators, parents, etc is when and how hard to kick – to motivate and push without creating resentment, discouragement, or self doubt in the receiver; to help them see the greatness in themselves that they can’t yet see. I guess this is the gift of those that create excellence, and something I am certainly trying to develop as a parent, lab leader, and physician. What is the result? Huggy Rao, Profesor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at Stanford, says that excellence is “when people do the right thing, even when no one is watching.” As a PI, business leader, teacher, and especially as a parent, what could be better?
For more information see:
Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky (available at Amazon or your favorite bookseller)
Scaling up Excellence: Huggy Rao at Tedx University of Nevada.
Theoretically, this should have been my first blog post, but hey, I’m not perfect. A mindset for science is really a mindset for life, but the science field is taking a hit these days and I think those either in the field or thinking about joining the field need a “mind pep talk”. Science is tough these days, primarily due to tight funding, which is not going to change anytime soon. This puts the onus on us as scientists or scientist-wannabes to (1) do the best science possible with the money we have (which we should do anyway), (2) educate the public about the importance of science, (3) understand that scientists are getting funded, and that going back to #1 will promote #3. When funding was more abundant, scientists could hide out in their offices and think sciency-thoughts all day long. Now, however, the public is less inclined to fund the esoteric stuff and demands a return on their dollar. We, as scientists, know the esoteric stuff can lead to some major breakthroughs for both mice and men, and it’s our job to educate Joe the plumber on how this works. At the same time, if Joe educates me on how to unclog my sink, that would be great, but I digress.
How do the little people, like me, at Wright State University in Dayton, OH, educate Joe Q Public? Baby steps. Get students excited about science by exposing them to what you do and how you do it – they might consider science as a career, and they’ll tell their parents how much fun they’re having. Maybe their parents will elect congressmen who also think science is important, or maybe even better mom or dad is a senator, or even president! One bonus – even if a student doesn’t go into science, you’ve helped them learn how to think and problem solve, a win either way.
So, back to the question – what is a mindset for science? You were just about to give up on me, weren’t you? Curiosity is key. You’ve need a passion for “knowing” that will carry you through all the boring times when experiments don’t work. Dr. Uri Alon, a professor at the Weizman Institute in Jerusalem who has an interest in mindset and science, calls these times being “in the cloud”. Second, you need a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, a psychologist from Stanford, coined this term and has done a significant amount of research in this area. A growth mindset is one where you believe that you can learn something, rather than believing you can do something because you’re “smart”. The idea that you can do something because you’re smart, or even worse that you can’t do something because you’re stupid, is a very limiting belief and restricts your ability to learn and grow. The good news is that anyone can have a growth mindset – you just need a nudge from some good teachers, mentors, or even Carol’s book (see below). The growth mindset is extremely helpful in empowering scientists not only to learn how to “do science” but how to get funding. Like most things, grant writing is a skill that can be taught – however, many universities are so busy teaching science that they don’t teach the grant-writing part (or the mindset part). For universities that do both, this is a powerful combination that will generate terrific scientists and educators, who will “pay it forward” to future generations. Are you excited? I am! As the folks at Home Depot say, let’s do this thing!
For additional information:
Being “in the cloud”
Uri Alon, “Why Truly Innovative Science Demands a Leap into the Unknown”, TedGlobal, 2013. http://www.ted.com/talks/uri_alon_why_truly_innovative_science_demands_a_leap_into_the_unknown?language=en
Carol Dweck, “The Power of Believing that You Can Improve”, TedxNorrkoping, 2014.
Mindset, the New Psychology of Success (book) – available on Amazon
For information and instruction on grant writing, I recommend Dr. Morgan Giddings’ website Morgan on Science. She offers live grant writing courses 3-4 times/year that will teach you about both grant writing and mindset. In the meantime, she offers a book and other materials available through her website.
Four Steps to Funding (book) – available on Amazon
In thinking about my expertise, I realized I am an expert procrastinator. Why write a grant in three months when you can have the joy of stress and anxiety and write it in three weeks? Although I am an expert procrastinator, I would prefer not to be, so I am on a self -guided quest of discovery and cure.
Probably the biggest question to start with is why do we procrastinate? For me, I procrastinate when I have to write. The barrier of the empty white page is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure exactly how to introduce my topic of choice, so rather than just “start”, I think of something else to do. I know I’m not alone – Spongebob had the same problem. He sharpened his pencil, talked to Patrick, got something to eat, cleaned his kitchen, etc before eventually leaving himself 5 minutes to write an 800-word essay. My “something else” is more research. This is ideal because I can justify my procrastinating by the feeling that I am doing something worthwhile. I did say I was an expert, right? Of course, particularly now in the age of the internet, one can always find more material and research indefinitely. Besides promoting putting off the need to actually write your paper, thesis, or grant, the other downside of perpetual research is that sometimes too much knowledge is overwhelming and can cause “analysis paralysis” (another area where I excel, but I’ll save this topic for another day).
Another reason I procrastinate is size of the task. Writing a grant, including the research, plus all the associated paperwork, is a big task – especially to the DOD (those guys love paperwork). The size of the task induces fear at some level, and then we procrastinate. One way to reduce that fear is to break the task into chunks, aptly called “chunking”. You might feel paralyzed about writing your thesis, but you can write an introduction, or get your figures together and write up figure legends. Breaking a bit task into smaller chunks decreases the fear and makes things much more manageable. While this sounds obvious, many people don’t implement this idea. The other benefits of chunking are: (1) you feel better because you’re making progress even if only a little every day, and (2) you keep your head in the game by working more consistently. Of course, if you are one of those folks that likes being anxious, then procrastinate away! According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal, a little stress can be helpful, but this is highly dependent on your mindset, so be careful.
A final reason I procrastinate is concern about the outcome. Given the challenges of maintaining grant funding, the pressure to write the best grant possible is high. However, if you focus on the difficulties of funding and worry about writing the “best grant ever”, not surprisingly this creates fear rather than confidence, leading to block and more procrastination. The same concept applies to getting an A on a paper or passing your thesis. Focusing on getting the intro done, explaining a method, making a figure, etc rather than on what you hope to achieve with your project will decrease the fear and help you move forward. For more on this topic, I highly recommend a book called “The Practicing Mind”, by Thomas Sterner.
In summary, (1) write something, anything - first drafts are always crap anyway, (2) break your task into smaller parts, and (3) focus more on the process and less on the outcome.
Hey, aren’t you supposed to be writing? Short breaks are good for you, but now it’s back to work!
For more info see:
The Practicing Mind, by Thomas Sterner
"Procrastination" - Spongebob Squarepants, Season 2, Episode 35
Kelly McGonigal: How to Make Stress your Friend (Ted Talk)
When I say passion, do you think of Albert Einstein, or do you think of the steamed up car in Titanic? My apologies for those not familiar with the movie (are you living in a cave btw?) but you get the picture. Being a scientist is a tough row to hoe these days. Funding is tight, fear is rampant, and many students are heading to industry rather than academics because of these fears. I’ll talk about fear later, so back to passion. Are you a budding or scientist because: (a) you like the idea of appearing to be smart (well yes as a matter of fact it is rocket science), (b) you like figuring things out, or (c) your parents always wanted a scientist in the family. Hopefully you picked “b” or something along those lines. I am a big believer in passion – doing things for the love of the game (another great movie), not because of external pressures. There is no magic bullet for success in science, but if you are passionate about science, then you are much more likely to succeed. Why? Because most of the hours spent in this direction will be fun, not painful. I use the word direction rather than goal very specifically, because when you are passionate about something you are never done – always striving to be better.
So how do you know you’re passionate about something? Here are a couple ways to tell. First, look back at your life to date and get some clues as to what you spent your time doing. When I was young, I was pretty curious. I dug up my dead turtle to see what he looked like, and I set up an experiment giving plants coke vs water. Of course, I forgot to consistently give them either one, so that experiment didn’t work too well. The Nancy Drew series (she was a detective) was one of my favorites. These are some clues from my life that I was (and still am) very curious – a nice trait to have for a scientist. Here’s another way to tell. If you were on a desert island, which happened to have an awesome lab with all the most expensive equipment, kits from ThermoFisher, and a robot assistant to help you out, would you still do science? If yes – awesome! You’re on the right track. If no, then maybe time to do some serious thinking.
For more on this subject:
The Art of Work, by Jeff Goins – it’s never to late to find work consistent with your passion. Jeff goes through several different examples of people doing this in many different situations and at different ages.
How to Find and Do Work you Love, Scott Dinsmore. TedxGoldenGatePark. – finding your passion by figuring out what you can’t give up.
What do you want to hear about? Leave a comment or contact me.