A colleague and I chatted today, and it seems we each have a student with the following characteristics: very talented, very hard working — to the exclusion of all else, very sensitive to criticism, and extremely anxious about the external recognition of their work (e.g., constantly comparing self to peers in terms of the number of publications or frequently checking citation numbers and obsessing why the citations aren’t picking up even though the paper just came out).
I think every successful scientist has all of these traits to some degree, especially the first two. The question is whether too much work or too much reliance on external recognition make you so miserable that you can no longer do science or simply enjoy life.
The answer is to find a way to get out of your own head. With experience, people find ways to balance the crazy aspects of the career that can be all-consuming with being a whole human being with a complex web of dreams, needs, and desires.
How can you help someone who relies on you for advice to find a good outlet, a good way to relieve the pressure inside their own mind?
Most people will recommend exercise. I agree that exercise can be an excellent outlet, but not all exercise is for everyone; even activities that seem to be hailed as panacea, like running, are really not. People need to find something they really like to do, and I am not surprised that many people cannot. I, for example, really dislike running. Going to the gym to lift weights, run on the treadmill, or use the elliptical are not my cup of tea — I am going to cheat if I am left to my own devices, because I am actually lazy and don’t want to do the hard work and sweat. I would love to play volleyball, which is what I used to do when I was young, but given my age and the size of my posterior, I think that me playing volleyball right now would be a recipe for a serious injury. That’s an issue with many types of really fun exercise — you actually have to be in a pretty good shape to do it without hurting yourself. I am fortunate to have found kickboxing, which provides the social component that makes it fun, a coach to keep us all on track, and a glorious de-stressing aspect that comes from punching and kicking that bag. But I understand very well that it can be exceedingly hard to find a type of exercise that is both safe to do while you’re still out of shape and engrossing enough to provide a real outlet.
I have been blogging for years now, and it’s a valuable release valve for me, but I know it’s not for everyone. I also like to draw, but I am not good enough, nor do I have the command of various media that might make art a better outlet. Perhaps I should explore further.
I binge-watch TV and movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime, and it takes 2-3 days of binging to realize that my brain is completely blissfully empty of whatever was bothering me.
I love driving and do sometimes just drive around, but doing so for 5 hours would likely lead to my family worrying about what had happened to me, so I don’t really do it to the extent to which I think I would need to in order to make driving an effective de-stressor.
When I talked with my student last about how stressed out he was, I tried to probe what he liked to do when he was young in order to encourage him to take up those activities again. It turned out he had been in the programs for talented kids in his home country since such an early age that he’d basically had no free time or hobbies. He had played an instrument for years, which I suggested he pick up again. We also talked about sailing and fishing, which seemed appealing to him. Various additional recommendations of sports or art forms didn’t seem to click, and neither did suggestions of hanging out more with friends.
Dear readers, how do you get out of your own head? What would you suggest to someone who is clearly suffering both personally and professionally from a lack of an effective or enjoyable outlet?