The greatest discovery of our generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind. As you think, so shall you be.
I keep returning to a recent post of MsPhD's over at Young Female Scientist with confusion, wonder, disappointment, awe, curiosity, hypotheses, pondering and sadness. These thoughts are engaged from the start:
I think my problem stems from this idea I had that scientists would be somehow better people, more objective- even to the point of admitting their own biases- than most. That these people were my people.
But most of us are not objective. Not even trying to see our own biases, most of the time.
I'm having trouble finding my people among these people.
This bit I've emphasized is very unfortunate and it bears a little examination for ourselves and for our interactions with trainees and others whom we might mentor.
Okay, back to the indictment:
And my impressions of most successful scientists: deeply insecure human beings with low EQs, who are trying to make up for being socially stigmatized as children by being bullies on the scientist playground as adults.
And this is kind of how I feel about science in general lately. That there are so many bullies around, we can't get any real science done.
Yeah. First a little clarification. Are "most" successful scientists in this mold? Heck no. That is patently absurd. If we add a little punctuation, MsPhD might possible have a bit of a point. Are "most-successful" scientists bullies with low EQ? In otherwords, a bit out there on the sociopath scale?
On this I might credit the charge. But so what? Science is a human endeavor like any other. Populated by real humans. Yeah, it's nice to think that we in the Tribe of Science are somehow different and better. And maybe we are...in some ways. But we are talking about basic principles of human societal interaction and behavior that have been refined for millennia! So...the past 50 years or so of the modern academic / scientist culture is going to magically dissipate social truths? Right.
And here is a social truth. You get to the pinnacle in most walks of human achievement by deploying others to your own ends. By ruthlessly promoting your agenda ahead of those of others. And yup, in many cases a highly distasteful excess of these traits brings a person to the very highest pinnacles of accomplishment. Business. Politics, Arts (Camille Claudel anyone?). Science.
So if your vision of what is a successful scientist is dominated by the very pinnacles of the competitive, high-profile, high-budget science game....it does not surprise me in the least if your view is enriched in asshats. What does surprise me is that anyone is genuinely surprised to discover this fact.
My advice is that if this bothers you, get out of this particular game. Seriously. The key is returning to the punctuation. Most successful scientists do not play in these GlamourMag games. If by successful we mean people who have careers, doing the science they enjoy and answering the questions that are interesting to them. As I state repeatedly for an audience seemingly dominated by those dazzled by GlamourMagScience this is not the only way to have a science career. There are many ways and in fact the majority of successful scientists measured by this criterion are not in the most-successful category.
In thinking about this, one of my memories of elementary school came back to me with visceral clarity.
I always hated recess, because as a kid I wasn't very athletic at all. I was always bored at recess. I would probably have been happier to sit outside and read a book, but for some reason I think they wouldn't let us take books outside. I remember watching the other kids chasing each other around, throwing balls, hanging off the monkey bars.
And I was just waiting for it to end, so we could go back inside. Probably backwards from how kids are supposed to be, but I was much happier sitting in class.
I kept watching the other kids, trying to figure out what I could learn from them. I couldn't figure out what I was missing, since I couldn't do what they did. Maybe if I could have run around in circles, I would have gotten the data I was missing.
This makes me a bit sad but is frankly the part that holds my interest. It strikes at what to me is the fundamental problem of someone who really, really, really wants the world to be just as they want it to be. Instead of figuring out how to fit into the world as it is. Every time I say stuff like this, of course, the idealists come out of the woodwork to accuse me of being an apologist for status quo. My defense is my usual one. I am reasonably satisfied with the balances I've struck so far in terms of existing within the system as I found it and yet trying to nudge it into what I see as a better way. Naturally, I find my compromises (if they exist) to be minor accommodations in my greater goals. The question for the purists is to ask if they are really happy with their progress toward their greater goals? If you are a disgruntled postdoc, I assume the answer to this question is no. So what are you going to do about it? Continue to wait for the bell to ring? Or realize that you might as well find a game and peer group that suits you?
The fact of the matter is that recess interactions are as much a part of education as are lectures and problem sets. Education is about learning to live life. To opt out of the playground is, to me, just as dumb as opting out of art class or math class. In a science career learning to at least understand the basic functions and skills of the various games is necessary. You don't have to love them and you don't have to be an expert or naturally talented. But you do have to engage.
If you can't do this, I just don't see how you can expect to be a PI. For realz.
And here's a little secret for those of you who really did sit out all social parts of your early education. A friend of mine from the college days put it this way:
I return to the nebulous, albeit salient to self, concept of "my people". I get it, I think. I'm not exactly an in-crowd kinda guy. Never have been. Far from it. And yet.
I found a sufficient number of my people in the ranks of those who managed to deal with the playground. Smart, decent folks who at our current age I can say are strong contributors to their respective communities. They are not sociopaths who exploit others, they seem to have retained values and commitments to community, family, country and the world. Smart, yes. Geeky, in many cases. Quirky.
But they each made their peace with the playground, learned to deal with the bullies and advance their own agendas. These are my people.