Surviving the s#*t storm

We’re all familiar with success. A resume composed entirely of failures doesn’t get you into a graduate degree program. We’ve been on honor rolls, dean’s lists, members of academic honor societies, and won our fair share of awards. Let’s face it, that’s the only way you get accepted to a place like OHSU; if your parents’ refrigerator had arms, it would reach out and pat you on the back. But is that still the case? Mostly, our lives are no longer dominated by consistent graded feedback. Yet, even when they are, the academic rigor has escalated exponentially. No longer does merely “showing up” guarantee a B. Instead, the quality of competition is enhanced and fewer recognitions are available. The form and frequency of performance feedback has shifted during graduate school, and how we handle this change greatly impacts our long-term motivation and thus, success.

In high school, I supplemented graded feedback with weekly successes on the ice rink, the soccer field, or the volleyball court. Then in college, I stoked the competitive fire by competing on our college hockey team and in weekly intramurals. This meant that a poor test performance, or a competitive loss could be volleyed by a decent grade in another class or a win on the ice. These multiple pathways to achieving successes were important for preventing the negative feedback loop by which a series of failures seemed to always beget another. But the greater independence inherent in obtaining a graduate degree is accompanied by infrequent and inconsistent feedback, now limited to grant and manuscript submissions, each taking weeks/months before feedback is received. While many find the greater independence refreshing, and we’re grateful to be unshackled by looming exams and persistent evaluations, we also sacrifice the opportunity to experience those mini victories to which we had become conditioned.

So, to maintain motivation, happiness, and sanity, an adjustment to our approach must be made. Part of my strategy was to pursue minor victories elsewhere. In anticipation of this impending transition to a graduate student lifestyle three and half years ago, I picked up running as a hobby (when in Rome, right?). Initially, I was motivated by the same things that dominated so much of my life, a solid performance on race day; wins and personal records dominated my thoughts and motivated me through workouts, as did publications in the lab or good grades in the classroom. But one morning, my thinking shifted that would impact my approach to science and my ability to endure the challenges inherent in graduate school.

It was a standard Thursday morning in late summer: out the door by 5:20 for a moderate 14 mile loop from Wallace Park in the NW to Sellwood in the SE. A few struggling stars were still visible despite a moon bright enough to expose the boundaries of the Springwater Corridor. With a couple of warm-up miles behind me, I dropped down closer to marathon race-pace. Fresh air filled my lungs and my legs felt fresh and springy. The sky began to turn pink, then glow orange. My pace quickened to a marathon tempo as I entered the long flat stretch just south of OMSI. Soon I embraced a half-marathon race pace and approached threshold. I knew I shouldn’t be able to maintain it too long; I welcomed the battle. Miles 7 and 8 flew by but by 9, my lungs felt deprived and my stride became labored. By mile 10, the residual effects of not eating or drinking before setting off became apparent. I stopped noticing detail in my surroundings. I caught the sun rising, but not much else. The bitter taste of a dry mouth was trumped by the sweat that stung my eyes in the 50 degree heat. At 11.5 miles, a new strategy took hold: no longer was it about completing the workout, or even the next mile, but instead, simply about making it to the next streetlight. I passed the streetlight. Then, it became about making it to the mailbox 200 yards ahead. I passed the mailbox. My body was screaming to stop and begged for oxygen. My brain reminded me that I was dehydrated and glycogen stores were running extremely thin. I kept thinking, “make it to the next bench, to the tree in the distance, up the hill, down the hill…” Einstein was right, time is relative. What felt like 30 minutes probably took no longer than 8. Finally, 14th avenue came into view, the final goal before the mile cool-down and the return from oxygen debt. My pace quickened despite the pain. There’s always more.

I pulled my foot off the gas as I crossed the far end of 14th avenue and coasted through the cool-down, reflecting on the past 13 miles and the strategies involved to get through the difficult tempo portion. I did not succeed by ruminating on a broad goal I had made prior to stepping outside my front door. But instead, success came from the creation and fulfillment of minor challenges that, on their own, meant nothing, but when strung together, enabled the completion of a much larger and demanding goal. I ran out of the dark as the sun illuminated the sky. This was to become my approach to science and surviving the metaphorical s#*t storm of failures or stagnant success that had been defining this stage of my graduate student career. Not all grants are going to be funded, not all manuscripts accepted. Instead of dwelling solely on the failure of a past grant or hoping for success on a far off one, the trick for me is to gain excitement and motivation from completing the next experiment or creating a useful figure. Of course, small goals are only engendered by clearly formulated larger ones. But when evaluating our own progress, the creation and fulfillment of more immediate checkpoints has been motivating and refreshing.

There are many lessons I have learned on the pavement or the trails that have influenced my approach to science. Likewise, science has instilled a dedication to effort and the development of a strong final product that dictates my approach to running. In both cases, it always comes down to advice a buddy once told me when my motivation was depleted: true champions battle alone. Whether it’s in science or on the road, if our pleasure is solely driven by feedback from others (such as an accepted paper, a funded grant, a victory in a race), it’s going to be a long, grueling, and possibly unsatisfying haul. We must be prepared to put in the effort, even if it means no one else is there to pat us on the back, so that when our final product is ready, we have no regrets and we can press on with vigor, regardless of the outcome.

I arrived to the lab by 8:15 with renewed motivation. It was another day of experiments amongst a seemingly endless succession that would hopefully form one of many figures for a pending manuscript submission. I cracked my neck, loosened my shoulders and got to work, focusing on one cell at a time.