The way to get moving is to quit talking and start doing.Walt Disney
Lately, things on multiple fronts in my life have been folding unto themselves. Usually, my life is a fine balancing act between all of my roles and responsibilities, and when I can sneak it in, my own personal wants and needs. Luckily, a lot of what I do lends itself to overlapping between professional and personal satisfaction, so I can juggle most of my time effectively between “have to dos”(work) and “want to dos” (sit on the beach) and still keep my equilibrium. But sometimes, I get a curve ball (or two, or three….) tossed to me, and I find myself teetering on the edge of a high-wire desperately trying to keep balance. And in high risk, high reward environments, that means working mostly without a safety net below. Falling from this height is a doozy I’d rather not experience. But right now, I find myself floundering as I flail my arms in a bid to keep on the tight rope and all the balls in motion without dropping any.
Many days, it’s easy to get out and get to it. Concrete tasks and routine help to provide structure to an otherwise lackadaisical existence. That first cup of coffee, greeting the man working in the toll booth who always has a cheery smile and hello, parking in the same spot at work, the third (or more) cup of coffee made in “your” cup, banging out data and analyses, getting home to watch sunset on the beach, chores, even the occasional much needed margarita that is made by the friendly bartenders you greet at the local hangout, all give a feeling of comfort to the day. The moments of each day are filled with both small and large meaning and lend a sense of forward motion as things are completed (laundry clean, another milestone reached at work, another dinner enjoyed with family). But when things upset the routine, the disruption of forward motion can lead to disarray, and even the simplest task becomes ten times harder to do than normal.
When I was a graduate student, my focus was deceptively narrow. I had a thesis topic, a set of classes to take, and a general rule that students finished a PhD in about 5 years. Other than that, I had a somewhat absentee advisor and advisory committee to guide me from point A (a novice researcher) to point B (an “expert” in my field of study). All this seemed to be straightforward from 35,000 feet, but as I started down this path, I quickly realized the enormity of the road before me. The phrase “I didn’t think this through” became a daily mantra, and as I moved from first year to the second and the third and beyond, what seemed to be a “no brainer” quickly became a “will I finish?”. Sleepless nights spent gathering and analyzing data in the lab, red herrings leading down the rabbit hole of wasted time and effort, the constant inundation of external research findings and endless information to gather, assimilate and leverage on the project, the sense of urgency and competition (will someone else scoop me?), and the overall anxiety of “what will I do next” were all a constant barrage that toyed with the psyche during the march to the final goal, graduation. Never mind trying to have a semblance of a social life. Normalcy was a term that was stretched to encompass a daily routine that bore little semblance to that of my friends and family outside of the academic waters I was swimming in during those years.
Those graduate years were marked by seasons, which in the North East were miserably grey and cold winters, fervent bright springs, hot and long summer nights, and the beauty of the sunset and sunrises captured in the glorious colored leaf display of the trees before the long dark days of winter returned. But in retrospect, the more important demarcations were the small events that led to massive personal growth. One of the most important lessons my advisor taught me was to jump without a safety net, that any motion was better than no motion at all. I was working on designing a synthesis method to create a non fouling surface and was researching ways to modify that surface chemically to influence biological interactions. I spent six weeks diligently reading papers on the available reaction pathways, and mapped out several possibilities that might work with my materials. I tossed back and forth the ones that seemed the most likely to produce the best results based on others’ experiences. I was sitting with my advisor at our bimonthly update meeting, eagerly conveying all these possibilities, and my usual somewhat goofy advisor’s eyes turned a bit sharp as he said to me “Vickie, you’ve had more than a month to produce results and you haven’t done anything yet!” I was a bit taken aback and hurt as I started to recap my research once again. “No,” he stopped me with a wave of his hand “This is not research. You need to get started! All this is someone else’s work, and you have to get in there and figure out what works for your system. You need to get your feet wet and your hands dirty. You can’t think your way into a result. You have to figure it out on the fly, with actual results in hand. You’ve overthought the problem so much, with information that may not even be useful once you start your synthesis method, that you haven’t made any progress!” Too much freedom can be both a blessing and a curse, and for me, as I left the meeting chastised and feeling deflated, I understood that the endless possibilities I could try to make my material became my nemesis. I had been so focused on making sure I did it right the first time, that I wasn’t doing anything! At some point, I had to commit to a way, even if it wasn’t the best or final way. Because until this particular ball was in motion, there wasn’t any way to know what the best or final way would actually be. I had to pick a colored ball, toss it in the air, and learn to juggle it.
Today, years of choosing what to add to my suite of balls has given me both the experience to say “yay” or “nay” to certain ones, and in this case, when I don’t get to choose if I have to pick it up, some skill in handling it before I can toss it back. For the one thing that I have learned is that there are the balls you keep, and there are the temporary ones that come in and out of your act. You don’t let the temporary ones stop the motion or interfere with the ones you keep. You don’t become better by thinking about juggling, you get better by juggling everything that life offers or tosses you. You juggle them all with as much grace as possible, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, learn a new pattern of juggling that adds entertainment and finesse to your show. That’s where true freedom and success lie: making and keeping your choices while being the master of your act.