Hello! I'm back from a mini-blogging break. I've had some major thinking to do and needed the time. Thanks for bearing with me.
So what's up?
For the last eight years, I've worked as a research chemist. It's been an interesting job with a lot of advantages. I'm rarely bored. I get to use my brain very analytically. I work in lab, on my feet, using my hands. I don't have to spend all my time sitting in front of a computer. In a lot of ways, it's awesome.
But there's also been a spark that's been missing for a while now. Chemistry used to make me excited and happy to go to work each day. I felt like I was studying important problems. It may sound cliche, but I thought I was on a path to make a difference. Then, I started to feel used up. My work seemed less important than I thought it should be. I wanted to help people, but my research didn't seem immediate enough to do that. Professionally, I've felt like I was stagnating. I needed a change.
If I were to continue the track of my life as it stands right now, I'd probably look for an industrial research position, or maybe a job at a national lab, but research in the United States is underfunded and under-supported. Even with increased spending on research in the new budget, it's still incredibly difficult to find funding to do work that you think is worthwhile. On top of the dearth of public funding, industrial research is on the way out, as evidenced by DuPont's recent announcement that they will be dissolving their Central Research unit. I don't mean to sound cynical, but the future of basic science and research in the U.S. doesn't look good. So why should I struggle to find a position that is no longer valued by employers...or even myself?
To be totally clear though, it has everything to do with me rather than anything specific about my current or past jobs. Everyday, I'm thankful to have my current position, it's just that I don't think I'm the right fit for it. Knowing how interested I am in stories, literature, reading, and writing (including new and better ways to teach chemistry), I just don't think I'll ever be that happy trying to shoehorn myself into a corporate or academic research position. It's just not working. I'm not happy and it's affecting both my work and personal life. (Little side note: ALL my female researcher friends are going through similar professional crises. Isn't that weird? What's behind this dissatisfaction that seems to be causing the leaky pipeline?)
This has been such a hard idea for me to accept, that it's ok to make a change in my life; that I don't have to do the same thing forever. I'm not a quitter, but I take that to an unhealthy extreme. In my entire life, I can literally point to one activity that I quit (high school lacrosse team). The outcome of that decision? A spring semester of pure happiness spent earning extra cash and hanging out with my friends prior to graduation. You'd think I'd learn from that positive experience, but nope, my impulse is always to struggle on, no matter the circumstances or my own desires. I come by this trait genetically. Both of my parents have worked at the same job for over thirty years. My Dad has been at his job for over forty (crazy!!!!). We joke in my family that our coat of arms should say , "We do things the hard way."
Despite this anti-quitting quirk of mine, lately I'm obsessed with stories about people who've taken major detours in their life. For instance, just this morning I heard an NPR feature about the news anchor, Bob Woodruff. Woodruff began his career as a corporate lawyer, but got bored with that. So in 1989, he took some time off to go teach in China. This just happened to be right around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests. During the crackdown, he ended up working as an interpreter for CBS news, which ultimately led him to his career as a respected journalist.
Isn't that cool? If Woodruff hadn't of taken that scary leap out of the security of corporate law, he'd never have been in a position to work as an interpreter, and my guess is he'd never of become a journalist as a result. He took a risk without even knowing where it would lead him.
I want that chance. I want to have the flexibility and the time to raise my hand and volunteer for things that interest me. Right now, there's no way I can do that. I work. It's hard enough just finding time for my personal projects (editing, working on my books and short stories, writing on this blog, slush reading for a short fiction magazine).
Of course, I'm sure there are plenty of people who took risks and it didn't turn out so well. We don't hear about those stories as often, although the ones I do hear tend to involve people who put all their eggs in one basket, professionally speaking. I really believe there are steps that can be taken to provide yourself with some security while you're still in that risk-taking phase, like diversifying your income sources, making a backup plan, maintaining professional mentorships; and avoiding burnt bridges. I think it can be done.
So what's my plan?
I've decided to expand my scientific editing business into a full-time job.
For almost two years now, I've been editing manuscripts on the side. I barely advertise, but I still manage to get a few jobs a month. I don't really need the extra cash (although, it's been nice to have). Mostly, I wanted to establish this business in case I ever decided I wanted to leave research. For years, I've been editing papers and manuscripts for my advisers and peers, and that was just part of my job, because in addition to my Ph.D., I have a B.A. in English, so it was natural that I would be asked to help my co-workers with their writing. I was happy to edit for them and I enjoyed doing it. Now I've taken that experience and turned it into something that makes money. Pretty cool. It has certainly helped me feel better about myself, more in control of my life, and now I'm going to use that business to help me leave my current position this summer.
I'm not going to lie. I have mixed feelings about this decision. It makes me a little sad to leave the good parts of research (the problem solving, working with my hands, getting good results). And I'll admit, I like to be able to call myself a "scientist." It feels respectable, though I know that's just my pride talking.
But overall, I feel like leaving research is the right choice for me right now. Editing is a job I consistently get great feedback on. I've already proven to myself that people are willing to pay me to do this job. And I really love the idea of working from home and getting out of the 2.5 hour daily commute I'm currently enduring. Without podcasts, I don't know how I'd survive it.
Because the whole point of this job change is to give me more time to work on my own writing. I don't have any illusions that I'll be able to support myself through writing alone. Sure, I have some practical ideas (like my chemistry book), but I know I'll have to find other streams of income to support myself and my family. Scientific editing is just the way I'm choosing to pivot my day-job so that I'll have more time to work on my number one professional goal, writing and publishing, without having to rely on my husband's income as the sole support for our family. An extra 2.5 hours a days to write would be AMAZING.
I should mention that my husband is totally on board with my plan and frankly has been encouraging me to do this for at least a year now. It's been harder to convince myself that I can do it than it's been to convince him. He's already seen the proof: I get up every morning between 4 and 5 am to work on my writing or for editing jobs before I leave for work. He knows better than anyone that I have the drive to be my own boss.
Over the next few weeks, I thought I might share some of the steps I'm taking to make this transition from researcher to editor, because let's be clear, I'm not quitting right away. I can't advocate dropping all your responsibilities and income sources to pursue your passions. It's just not practical. But I think there are steps that can be taken in the interim between the moment when you decide you're going to quit your job, and when you actually tell your boss or HR about that decision. I'm going to be prepared for the day when I receive that last "traditional" paycheck, and thought maybe some of you might be interested in how I do that.
So there it is. I'm taking a risk and I'm excited to do it. I don't know where it will lead. I don't know if I'll end up with egg on my face, but I know I have to try. That's the one thing I've never allowed myself to do, just try, but now I'm ready.
Have you ever taken a major career leap? Do you have any advice?
Over the last few years, I've been struggling with what I like to call "busy brain." My brain won't shut up. If I'm not actively working on a project (reading, writing, music, painting), or telling myself a story while I take a walk, my mind starts to obsess about chores, errands, grocery lists, job stuff, and the Future. It's not pleasant.
It's almost like I get so worried that I will forget something important that I allow my brain to review a never-ending list of things I need to do and even things that are admittedly beyond my control. It drives me crazy. It helps to write these concerns down, to purge them from my mind somehow, but it doesn't solve the underlying issue. My brain just comes up with a fresh list to natter on about.
Unfortunately, I often take out the frustration of my own "busy brain" on other people, particularly my husband. Sometimes, it feels like I unintentionally volunteered to be the person who keeps track of everything, which makes me mad and resentful. I often feel that I want him to relieve some of the mental burden from me.
Do you ever feel that way? Like, why are you the only one who is worried about whether you remembered to pay the electric bill? Or gave the cats their flea medicine? Or whether it's time to get your car's oil changed?
But if there's one piece of wisdom that I try to remind myself of daily, it's that you cannot change other people. Full stop. You can only change or control yourself, particularly your reactions to other people or events. Yelling at my husband won't solve my busy brain. I struggle to remember that, but I'm always trying.
To get a better hold of my busy brain, I've been doing several things lately:
1) I talk to a therapist regularly. I cannot recommend this step enough. It is so helpful to feel heard and to have someone help you recognize patterns of behavior that may be negatively affecting your life. A perk of working at a university is that we have accessible mental healthcare on campus. Ask around, I think you'd be surprised at some of the places you can find a therapist outside of private practices.
2) I try to exercise as regularly as possible. Right now that means a daily 15 minute walk at midday, a 1 hour walk with my dog in the afternoon, and 10-15 minutes of strength training each evening (pushups, tricep dips, bicep curls, squats, and planks). Also, after taking a long running break, I've started to squeeze in a short jog (25 minutes) maybe once or twice a week.
3) And finally, I've started meditating semi-regularly.
I've been interested in meditation for a long time. Way back in high school, I had a Chemistry teacher who believed in the positive effects of meditation and taught our class a few rudimentary basics. By the time my brother had her for a teacher, she actually started each class with five minutes of simple meditation. A very interesting woman.
Since then, I've practiced meditation very sporadically. For a while, I used these guided videos from Yoga Yak, which are excellent, but since I moved to a house in the country where we have no internet, I haven't been able to use that online resource as often.
I've tried various apps, and some were good, some were ok, and some were so obnoxious that I found it impossible to focus. None of them really became a habit for me, though, probably my phone tends to initiate busy brain tendencies anyway, which sort of defeats the purpose.
Then I read this article from The New Yorker about a former buddhist monk, named Andy Puddicombe, who has been teaching meditation and mindfulness to laypeople for years, eventually developing an iPhone app that has become extremely popular. I thought what Puddicombe had to say about meditation was interesting, but I wasn't interested in purchasing another app subscription.
I did, however, give his book, Get Some Headspace, to a family member who I thought might be interested. Do you ever give a book and then decide you want to read it too? Well I bought myself another copy, read it in just a few sittings, and absolutely loved it.
I've been looking for a resource like Get Some Headspace since I was about eighteen years old and first noticed that my obnoxious brain was getting in the way of my relationships. And until recently, I don't think I understood how much my busy brain was also getting in the way of my writing. How can I sit down to write when I'm so worried about stupid things, like filing estimated taxes and returning phone calls, that I can barely think straight. You can't.
You have to stop allowing your thoughts to control your well-being and your life. That's how I understand meditation. It's about learning how to take control of your own brain rather than the other way around.
Or as Puddicombe puts it, "The one thing that remains the same throughout the day is that your thinking dictates the way you feel."
Exactly! I don't want to feel that rush of shame whenever my brain randomly thinks of an embarrassing memory. I didn't want to think about that time I said something stupid, but my brain has those thoughts on its own, and then I feel bad about myself. I didn't want to feel that way, but my thoughts are clearly out of control.
That's busy brain. It's mindless thinking.
I want to be a mindful thinker and I believe that's what meditation helps us to do.
Puddicombe does an excellent job of explaining some of these finer points of meditation. I guess I always misunderstood meditation to mean a state of mind where there is an absence of thought. So I'd evaluate my meditation practice by how few thoughts I managed to have. Apparently, this is a common misconception. By explaining the approach, practice, and probably most importantly, the integration of meditation and mindfulness into our daily lives, I think Puddicombe's book has done a better job of helping me to retake control of my thoughts, which allows me to feel calmer and better prepared to work on my personal, professional, and creative goals.
If you're like me and have a natural tendency to get "stuck" on thoughts or trapped in your own head, I think you should read this book. Ten minutes of meditation a day, plus a more mindful awareness of what I'm doing throughout the day, really does seem to make a difference.
Do you meditate?
p.s. Puddicombe also has a book out on mindful eating, called The Headspace Diet, which looks really interesting (less about what to eat, and more about how). If your New Year's resolution includes losing a few pounds, maybe it would be a worthwhile resource.
With the new year upon us, I thought it would be fun to talk about some cliches we should avoid in our writing. Call it a writing resolution.
For instance, I think everyone's writing would improve if we avoided describing facial expressions. I fall into this trap all the time, but read some Hemingway; he rarely if ever wastes precious words on describing a character's physical reaction. And I think there's a good reason for that: there's only so many ways to explain how a character's eyebrows rise to indicate surprise, so we tend to resort to over-used expressions. Frankly, I think we should also officially ban the phrase "bit his/her lip" to show anxiety or indecision. I don't think it's even a realistic description. I've never noticed anyone biting their lip particularly often. Rather, it's a purely contrived phrase to cover unconfident writing (I'm looking at you Stephanie Meyer...).
Also, please no more sparkling or shimmering eyes. Laura Ingalls Wilder may have set a bad precedent with this one. I love the Little House on the Prairie books, but oh my god, the way every character had their own special degree of twinkle in their eyes, it just got silly. I'm tempted to start calling it the Wilder Scale, how much do your characters' eyes twinkle.
And can we stop having our characters do anything "with a smile?" Or have characters say anything "with [fill in the emotion]." (i.e. 'he said with glee.') It sounds ridiculous. Make the dialogue show us how the characters are feeling. Don't get lazy and rely on goofy dialogue tags.
Anyway, just a thought. It's a new year and a fresh chance to be more mindful of cliches in our writing.
What phrase would you ban?
Writing, editing, and doing science when I feel like it. Just a book without a genre.