On What We Do

It always seems impossible until it is done.

Nelson Mandela

This past week was a good week. I’m in my paradise for the summer with friends and family and back at the bench, attacking a critical technical issue that is intellectually stimulating. I get to interact almost daily with my team (perhaps to their chagrin?), so our water cooler (or better yet, coffee maker) talk is now in person versus 1200 miles away over social media and Skype. This also means I have to shower and dress in more than PJs daily, but hey, I’m in Florida, at the beach, so it’s easy (no pants, Ben!). I also paid a lot of money to straighten my curly hair, so I don’t look like Bozo the clown (freaky) and frighten anyone. We had some distinguished visitors in the lab to show off our work, impressed them, and all looks rosy for the foreseeable future. All in all, one could say I’m in my groove. So I was a bit surprised I found myself on Friday not feeling happy and celebratory with all the progress, but instead pensive.

At many stages in my life, I have reached varying pinnacles or milestones, mostly on my career path, but looking back, also in personal growth. Many of these events shaped my professional reputation and made me the researcher and engineer I am today. Graduating high school with honors and riding that wave a bit too long; almost failing a too advanced calculus class my freshman year in college because I was too stubborn and prideful to ride a smaller wave (providing the motivation to kick myself in the ass for the rest of my undergraduate, where I had to work to pull up my GPA!); switching PhD advisors midstream due to personal reasons (#metoo); finishing my doctorate with a new advisor and an entirely new project (basically I had to start my PhD over) that gave me the skills to get a post doctorate position in a world renowned lab; refuting a “critical flaw” critique from Reviewer #2 in one of my publications from my dissertation, which after he understood what was done, impressed the reviewer so much he referenced said published work in international regulatory standards for medical devices (which is the industry I work in today, but was not my original intention); publishing a landmark paper during my postdoctoral training, still highly cited today, that cemented my own professional reputation; having “groupies” at conferences in one of my research fields (to this day, it amazes me..); getting my first consulting gig (How much are they paying me? To do what? Wow!); editing my first technical book; and now, this project I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into because I knew this was it, is actually looking like it is it (hey, Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul…). Before, in my life, every time I would reach another peak, I would look ahead, and I would see the next peak that there was to climb. Sometimes, there were many to choose from, and how does one choose? And sometimes, there was only one because of the peak I had climbed, and it was tempting to look back and climb down to go another way. But in all cases, it was the knowledge that I had come this far, climbed this high, and there was still more to come, that sometimes seemed daunting. For many years, I would overthink my path, to the point of sometimes being paralyzed by the decision of where to go next. I felt directionless and powerless, walking along a path I thought was made to be a certain way because of what I had done before, and what I needed to do, to be “successful.” And worst of all, I would not enjoy what I had just done because I would reflect on what all there was to still do, so far to still travel, to “success.” To the end of the journey. To fulfill my dream. To reach that goal.

When I had my children, I was freed from many of the constraints I had placed upon myself as a scientist and engineer. So much of my identity had been wrapped up in those two roles, but when I became a mother, those roles were relegated to the background. Here I had two little humans dependent upon me for their well being. Until I had to nurse my first child every 45 minutes, which was more excruciating than I had been told, realizing I was his sole source of food and he would die if I wimped out, I don’t think I understood endurance, and in some cases, sacrifice. It was one of the first times in my life I said “no” to work, because before work was my life, my passion. It was my entire being. Now, I had a new passion, being a mother. Besides keeping them healthy and thriving, I was supposed to shepard them (currently in progress) to being well rounded, well adjusted, happy, contributors to society. I had to reinvent myself, as a mother and caregiver, and also as an engineer and scientist. I had to re-prioritize my own professional, as well as personal, wants and needs. My dreams and goals. Being a mother helped me to become less selfish and self absorbed, ironically because I had to be selfish with the demands others placed on me, and taught me humility. Having less time to focus made it easier to make decisions when needed, and also helped to delineate the decisions that were unimportant from the ones that were important. I gained much of my multitasking skills that I use today during those early days as a new mother. And through it all, it crystallized that the dreams that I had once had as a young child were the ones I still wanted. I found what an idealistic, 18 year old dreamer wrote as her high school ambition, buffeted by some of her words in her speech to fulfill dreams by walking on the stepping stones of small triumphs, was just what her 44 year old self also wanted. And instead of thinking abstractly, I decided I was going to go for it. Reach for what I thought, based on where I was and what I was before that moment, was an impossible dream.

That was the moment, the one where everything gelled, and the entire path before, seemingly meandering and unguided, revealed itself in a new light. All the past hardships, challenges, triumphs, even the fear and imagined “missed opportunities” (Why didn’t I push harder for a first tier college? Why didn’t I interview for the faculty position that seemed tailor made for me? Why did I say yes, when my gut said say no?), led to this one place. And I realized there was no one success that finished the story, no one goal reached that ended it all. It was the path that I thought I was shaping, that instead shaped me, honed my talents and gave me many experiences. And in that knowledge, gave me the power to shape my path and, most importantly, to enjoy the path, revel in every minute, not just the peaks, but the valleys and dark forests, and the babbling brooks and impressive waterfalls.

And so, this past week I sat alone in my Paradise on Friday evening, waiting for sunset, deep in thought. The enormity of what had happened since that epiphany was a bit overwhelming. I needed some time to comprehend it for what it was. In that acknowledgement, I was a bit awestruck in all that had transpired in a seemingly short period of time, but saw in retrospect I had been building unwittingly my whole life for this moment in time. A dear woman, almost a mother to me, once told me that we are on the path we are meant to be. I didn’t believe her, especially in periods of darkness on my path. But I realized Friday that she was right. Just as clear, I heard the words of a dear friend saying “trust the process” with every wave crashing to the shore as sun set on the ocean. And with the last ringing of the bell echoing as the sun slipped below the horizon, I felt peace, freedom, and excitement for the next part of the journey.

Bring it on. #summer2019

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