In a comment to a recent post of mine, Zinemin asked (and Ana seconded):
“I have a question for you. I would be really curious to read what you would say about the topic of energy, since this is something I am currently thinking about.
It is clear that you operate on a very high level of energy. Most people would be overwhelmed doing a quarter of what you do. Why do you think you have such high energy? Is this genetic? Your upbringing? Very high motivation? Your way of thinking about things?
Have you had phases with low energy? Do you feel like you are “using up” your energy over the years, or do you have some way to replenish it?
I am asking this because I feel like I have used up a lot of energy over the years I spent in science and it is only slowly coming back, and I am not sure if I will ever be at the level that I was before. You however seem like you must have only become more energetic with time…. maybe it is like in sports. Some athletes have ruined their knee at 28, others are still successful at 40, and maybe it is small differences in how they move and how they manage themselves that make all the difference….”
I don’t know how I seem to people who only know me from my writing on the blog. Sometimes, when I read some very old posts, I wonder “Who the hell wrote this? This sounds nothing like me.” To be honest, I don’t think I am particularly energetic at all; I actually think I am quite lazy. I am not a poster child for anything really. Plenty of what I talk about falls under “Do as I say, not as I do.”
The way I envision a successful and respectable academic is someone who is lean and healthy, eats organic food and is possibly vegetarian, drinks water and sometimes unsweetened tea (rarely coffee and never soda), gets plenty of sleep and gets up early to exercise (bike or run or swim for miles), comes into work and works with inspiration and creativity and 100% focus for 8-9 hours while bathing in exercise-induced endorphins, then leaves in the evening to spend time with their lovely family. This person has a great work-life balance, spending weekends on enriching activities with the kids, who also run and bike and eat their vegetables, even ask for seconds! Their house is immaculate, as is their office. Order is everywhere. They have a standing desk in the office. This person is very eloquent, even-keeled, and universally loved and respected. Their jokes are PG and don’t make anyone uncomfortable, ever. This person has a knack for politics and would make a fabulous administrator if they ever chose to go that route. Everyone asks how they do such a marvelous job of being a scientist, teacher, parent, and adventurer.
I know a few such people. They are the ones who should be dispensing advice, but I would be very surprised to find that they read blogs. They also might well be from Mars, as far as I am concerned, because how they operate is very alien to me.
I am basically the polar opposite of the ideal academic, so you don’t want to emulate me. Even I don’t want to emulate me, but I have little choice in the matter. But, hopefully, this essay helps the likes of me a little bit.
I don’t sleep enough, and I don’t exercise. I should lose weight. I don’t run, bike, or swim. I eat everything, and with great gusto. All of my family eats meat. Our younger two kids barely eat any vegetables (not for lack of trying on our part, I promise). Coffee is almost as important as air to me (I drink tea only when ill or when completely out of coffee and too lazy to go buy some). I would say that any semblance of balance I have in my life is because I have a family and kids don’t thrive on chaos: kids need regular meals and sleep and time with their parents (all our kids are healthy and smart and get lots of rest) , so I do work regular hours and I don’t work too much over the weekends, except at crunch time. When it’s crunch time, I can work like a maniac, 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week; I am fortunate to have the stamina, I love every second of it, and crave being able to do more of it. If I didn’t have a family, I would probably lead a very unbalanced and unhealthy life. My family weekends are embarrassingly low-key; we laze about in our pajamas and/or sweatpants, have kids over for playdates, and do chores (of late also chauffeur Eldest everywhere all the time; I am starting to appreciate the prospect of him driving at 16). But DH and I are spread pretty thin and do what we can to steal some time for ourselves (individually and together). I have blogging, he has video games (hence the late bedtimes). We have a lot of chores between us.
Everyone in the academic enterprise is smart, and most people are smart enough to be successful. There is a great degree of luck in success, but personality also plays a role in how things turn out. There are a few aspects of my personality that I think have been useful for me to have. I am not saying they are necessary or even anywhere near ideal in general, but I think they are strongly correlated with my professional and personal standing (I am happy with both) in the overall mishmash that is my personality.
Accepting failure, embracing imperfection. First, I accept that nothing is perfect and I accept that I am imperfect and that I will fail at stuff (perhaps I anticipate failure to a fault). I think I have had this internalized since an early age. This enables me to be resilient, i.e. I do not get completely discouraged in the face of failure, and it the basis for my pigheadedness. Alas, this also means that I am probably too focused on the possibility of failure and am probably less bold in my professional life than I would be if I thought success were a virtual guarantee (I know several people whose self-confidence I wish I had; but then, they may simply be smarter and better at their job than me). Expecting the worst all the time does tend to wear you out. This is in no small part because of my upbringing; lots of gloomy specimens where I come from. But here’s an example of how tolerance of imperfection is a good thing. I used to smoke pretty heavily, and, like many smokers, tried to quit a number of times unsuccessfully, but I always knew that sooner or later I would have to quit. I quit when I got pregnant with baby No 1, then started again about 4 years later, but then about 1.5 years thereafter I quit for good after several fits and starts. During the 1.5 years, at some point I realized something had changed in me, and that I was seriously nearing quitting. I think you really need to get sick of yourself and your habit to do it. I quit for good after having started my faculty position 10 years ago and haven’t smoked since. In contrast, the guy whom I dated for years before I met my husband (15.5 years ago) and who was my smoker-buddy for much of my early twenties, still smokes. He has always waited for some sign from the heavens that he would be ready, because he said he wanted to be sure he would quit once and it would be for good, it would stick. He is a perfectionist all over, which got tedious and is one of the reasons we broke up. After years of him wanting for the stars to align perfectly (where we lived, where we worked) so we’d get on with our lives together or consider kids, at some point I said “Screw this” and I left him and the country. I am guessing stars haven’t aligned yet regarding his smoking either.
As I said above, when it comes to research, I operate in burst of high productivity followed by periods of near uselessness; at crunch time, the high-productivity periods involve long hours with high focus and feeling high on all the adrenaline. When I am feeling useless, I do all the other stuff like teaching, writing homework solutions, various service, book hotels and flights, reimbursement. I can do all these with very little intellectual engagement or inspiration, so I do them. That way I don’t feel like a total procrastinator and the times when I am in top form are spent on the tasks that require it. A big part is also knowing when you can perform intellectually demanding tasks and when you cannot. While I can write homework solution for an undergrad class or file for trip reimbursement even after not sleeping for 2 days, I cannot write a strong rebuttal to a scathing review or a competitive white paper for a funding solicitation without having my wits about. So I believe this also falls under working around imperfection: maybe Tuesday I have no inspiration for research, but I can do all this other crap. Or maybe I have to take a short nap in my office (I cannot stress enough the importance of a chair that’s conducive to napping. Clearly, I will never have a standing desk). But on Wednesday, I might crank out 1/3 of a brand new proposal and successfully troubleshoot with a grad student who had been stuck for weeks.
Restlessness/boredom and inability to adopt traditional organization paradigms. I am not sure this is a good or a bad thing, but it is a part of my personality, and a very important one. I have accepted it and organized my life and my work around it. I get bored really, really easily, with everything. Every routine that I have ever come up with has to be rehashed frequently because I can’t take it. I can plan and pre-cook meals for a week in advance, but I will get bored with it after a few weeks, then will resort to spur-of-the-moment cooking during the week after work for a while even though it’s more tiring. There are people who are organized, make lists of everything and that works for them. Lists make me physically uncomfortable, because I have never been able to put in a list everything that goes in the crazy head, and trying to do that causes me discomfort; I use a calendar on the phone for things I will likely forget, like dentist appointments and student defenses, and set up two alerts for each, but the rest it just in my head, I can’t do lists.
I also cannot take too many standing long-term commitments (e.g. commit to a collaborative meeting every week on Thursday even though much of the time is wasted and is better spent me writing) because they cause me anguish and I bail on them (my long-term commitments begin and end with my family and my students). God knows it is unbelievably easy to get overcommited in academia because there are heaps of service to go around (some useful, much bullshit) and many people seem to feel useful when meetings happen, no matter how pointless or unproductive they are. I am a horrible meeting-avoider, so instead of bailing, I just automatically say no; indulging this aspect of my personality has done wonders for my happiness. (I also minimized seminar attendance. Sometimes, seminars are fun and useful. Often, they are not. It’s OK to miss them when they don’t seem of interest. It really is.)
Basically, I try to keep my schedule in flux as much as I can. Long term weekly commitments are: teaching, office hours (I cancel them if there’s no homework due or if we’d just had an exam), weekly faculty meeting (skipped when possible), once-a-month university meeting, and my weekly group meeting (skipped when overworked or students have exams or too many people out of town). Everything else is done via email, if possible, or scheduled on a need basis (PhD defenses) or only 0-2 days in advance (1-on-1 with students). I will absolutely not do long-term meeting commitments other than listed above. Instead of having my will to live killed by meetings, I have some big blocks of time to do writing and reading in, and am much better at keeping them uninterrupted then I was as a noob professor, even though I am much busier now.
There is an aspect that people sometimes ignore: people who have a lot of meetings or a lot of travel seem busy and very important. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about looking busy and important enough. I am mostly over it; yet, ironically, I am busier and more important than ever. But with fewer meetings.
Being in touch with what you want. This is really key for long-term sustainability of anything that you do. Being able to somehow sift though everything that you are supposed to want or be, and get to the bottom of what you really want. This can actually be very hard, and it’s not a straightforward process. And even if you know what you want, you may feel like you don’t have the right to go for it, or that it’s not the right time, or that your going for it will hurt someone (all of these have happened to me more than once). Even here it helps to take it easy on yourself and allow for imperfection; maybe you don’t know what you want today, but will in a few months. Maybe you don’t have the guts to go after what you want today, but you might later. I know that I generally always know, deep inside, what I want, but very often don’t act on it, and nearly 100% of the time I delay doing what I know is right (this is balanced by me speaking out sooner than ideal 100% of the time). But ultimately being able to take understand what you want and allow yourself to have it is critical for happiness.
OK, finally, the question of energy. As I said, I don’t think I am very energetic, maybe I just give off a different impression with my writing. I probably would have more energy with more exercise and a cleaner diet, devoid of stimulants like coffee. I have done that a few times, even lost like 30+ lbs on WW, but it was too restrictive and not a sustainable lifestyle for me. After 5 months I felt too deprived to continue and I went off the wagon, then because I’ve been-there-done-that my boredom issue kicked in, so I have never thereafter been able to get back on that same program. I will have to find a way to get more energetic and more fit without boredom or too much deprivation. At least temporarily. I will wrangle some unicorns while I am at it.
As for the energy to do work, people tell me it goes in cycles. I currently feel very good about my work (apparently, has been lasting for over a year now), after having made changes to my MO that I had long wanted to make but thought I shouldn’t. I dropped some collaborations, I dropped some research topics, and I started doing the work I was interested in with my students. Some of these collaborations used to come with meetings that I found tedious, useless, and requiring too much commitment from me. All these “droppings” had a profound effect on my motivation at work. A few years ago, I though I had completely lost my mojo and the professional future looked rather bleak, as in “Why am I doing any of this? Everything is stupid.” But then I realized I was doing way too much what I thought was expected of me and too little what I wanted. So at some point my feeling miserable overcame the anxiety about doing the wrong thing, and that finally gave me the courage to do what I wanted to do all along.
I think people often assume that there is a fault with the things that they want and they deny themselves (I am not talking about candy, although who doesn’t like candy? but things such as changing fields of research, or job, or partner). Sometimes what you want is hard to get or dangerous or imprudent, sometimes it hurts others, but if you are constantly feeling unhappy and tired, but are physically healthy, it’s worth asking whether there are things deep down that make you unhappy and that could be changed, and what the reasons are that you are not changing them.
For instance, I would like to live someplace warmer or where we have more friends. But, I like the department, I am respected, and after 10 years family and I are settled. This is the kids’ home. My husband loves his job. We have it good here. So I am ultimately OK with staying put and not acting on what I want, for now.
But chasing funding fads and not being able to catch my breath because I am constantly pursuing what others think is important as opposed to what I think is important? I have tenure now, I don’t actually have to do that. It used to make me deeply, profoundly unhappy, and it spilled into my personal relationships. So I went back to doing things my way, and even did some work where my personal style was applied to the topics others are interested in, which resulted in unexpectedly warm reception. In research, like in art, you have to be authentic: if you don’t burn with love for your work, no one else will.
So how do you replenish energy? Barring physical issues, I think the key is to understand what you really want, and identify what is stopping you from pursuing it: is the goal truly unrealistic (e.g. a 42-year-old woman playing in the NBA) or a little risky (changing jobs or careers) or at the level of disappointing someone (mom will question why you sunk all those years into a PhD or into a specific boy when nothing came of said PhD/boy)? Give yourself the permission to go after as many of the things that you really want as you can, without putting anyone in jail or needlessly endangering anyone’s life, limb, sanity, or long-term well-being.
Dear readers, what helps you replenish energy?