“At work we hail the person for whom science and teaching is above all else, who forgets to eat and drink while working feverously on getting the right answer, who is always there to have dinner and discussion with eager undergrads. At home we admire the parent who sacrificed everything for the sake of a better life for their children, even at great personal expense. The best scientists. The best parents. Anything less is not giving it your best. And then I had an even more depressing epiphany. That in such a world I was destined to suck at both.”
This is an excerpt from an essay Radhika Nagpal, a Harvard Professor of Computer Science, wrote for Scientific American today. I’m far from her situation — fighting for tenure in one of the most competitive academic fields and institutions around — but I really related to much of what she talks about. She shares her experience of trying to stay sane while raising two small children and trying to get tenure — here’s the distillation:
- I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
- I stopped taking advice.
- I created a “feelgood” email folder.
- I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
- I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
- I found real friends.
- I have fun “now.”
I particularly love #2, #3, #5 and #7. The excerpt above is from point #5 — the whole person theme, and I think she nails it. We are surrounded by examples of people “killing it” in one sphere or another — examples of people who are the BEST, without any backdrop about the reality of their full lives. We create magical images of what success looks like; images that only exist in our own minds. Don’t get me wrong — being the best feels amazing and I’m not trying to diminish that. But this essay is a great reminder that it’s not the only thing that feels amazing. Each of us can draw and re-draw our own picture of what success means for us throughout our lives — and for many of us, that means being the best all-around athlete we can be. If you’re interested in this point-of-view, the full essay is worth a read.