Monday, December 12, 2016

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes

Well, it has been quite a year.

Semesters and quarters are winding down around the globe. Students and teachers alike are stumbling towards a tired finish line, and we have all settled into the short days that tell our brains and bodies that maybe now would be a great time to hunker down for a break. 

I’m trying to make this a period of contemplation. Although I am often the happiest when things are overwhelmingly busy (who doesn’t love falling into bed physically exhausted with a quiet mind?), my best thinking often happens when I find that quiet place where my brain can drift haphazardly. Unsolved problems get solved, weird ideas get spawned, and crushed, and made anew. The heavy lifting often happens in these quiet times when I can’t distract myself with busy work. 

A lot of things matter a lot, but time keeps passing too. For me it is hard not to just stagger to the end of the term and the year. Here are a few things I'm focusing on as we come to the end of another trip around the sun.

Reflection: This is the end of my first quarter as a tenure-track faculty member, which is still even a weird thing to write. It has been a great big adjustment - figuring out managing my time, recruiting, managing people, and planning for the longer term (is what I’m doing today going to help me tomorrow? In two years? In ten years? OH GOD WHAT AM I DOING??) I’m trying to take some time to both plan and reflect both weekly and quarterly. Getting swept up in the passing of time is too easy, and I want to at least steer the boat some of the time. 

Data: I’m working on being an honest tracker of activities and time. Sure, I’m not a lawyer, and no one cares what I’m doing with my time except me. But hey, we’re scientists. I want to know if I’m spending my time the way I think I am. The human brain is a beautiful disaster, and we operate in stories more often than we’d like to admit. Pushing back with data when appropriate is useful for me to keep myself accountable. I think this also helps me to be reasonable when thinking about my expectations for others. 

Rest: I suck at this. I should have learned this lesson a long time ago. I am resistant to this lesson. But joking aside, our brains and our bodies need rest. Some people don’t need a ton, some people need a bunch, but we have signed on to a career where some amount of “suffering for your science” is seen as a badge of honor. You should do what feels right for you, but as someone who now supervises people - it is important for me to model living in a way that isn’t destructive. And it is important for my students and staff to know that I value not just their contribution to our science, but them as people. 

Risk: I’m better at this, but am working on my intentionality here. We didn’t become scientists to check boxes or march through our days like zombies. I can definitely get worn down by the repetition. How is it December, for example? I want to make sure that I’m not just choosing the easy path, but something that feels like a meaningful contribution. I want to take enough intellectual risks that I flirt with failure. Especially with the pressures of narrowing funding opportunities it can seem wise to try for “sure things”, or make choices that we justify with being pragmatic. I tend to be a pretty pragmatic person so have to resist the urge. I don’t want my group to exist to keep existing. I want us to push into new understanding of the universe.

Forgiveness: I did not finish everything I hoped to finish. I did not meet all the goals I set. I could have handled some situations better than I did. I am working a lot on learning the lessons I can learn, finding space for forgiving myself, and moving forward. I am definitely guilty of being locked in past mistakes or patterns in an indulgent way sometimes. The excuses are familiar and comfortable. Forgiveness involves facing things head on and owning them, rather than glancing at them out of the corner of my eye and avoiding them. 

I hope you all can take a moment between finishing classes, and wrapping presents, and laying on the floor to mark the passing of time, and all the successes you’ve had this year. It is human nature to minimize our triumphs as we push forward. Take a moment to enjoy even the small moments of growth and victory. See you all on the flip side. 


  1. 365.2422 days = 525,948.77 minutes, dear Sarah... 348.77 minutes can be the difference between a discovery or nothing. ;-)

  2. Too true. Unfortunately, much less conducive to musical verse.