When the pilot said “I wonder what would happen if we got struck by lightning”

That is not something you want to hear as you are flying in from a 10 hour day of field research, and the sky is so dark that you think the sun has set (even though it is almost 24-hour daylight here now). However, yesterday those words came out of the pilot’s mouth as we were flying along the edge of a storm.

Other things we learned about yesterday’s pilot: he hates heights, bears, and bugs, particularly mosquitoes and spiders. He is a pilot flying researchers around in the Arctic, where he is exposed daily to most of these things, including some of the worst mosquito swarms (check it out).

This made me wonder why people get stuck in their careers. I basically lucked into mine. Not kidding. My adviser for my undergraduate degree happened to do research in Northern Alaska. I somehow got the research-tech job as a freshman, and here I am 5 years later, pursuing a Ph.D. in the Arctic. Not at all what I set out to do after high school… and I don’t think “lucking into a Ph.D.” is really a great plan.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t like my job and grad school. However, I would be lying if I said I love it. That is not okay for me, because I have always told myself that I was going to have a career that I love. I grew up watching my parents despise their jobs, and I made a promise to myself that I would never let that happen to me. Ever.

I wonder all the time what life would be like if I would have chosen differently, and why I didn’t. I love reading and writing. I think that is what really drew me into my philosophy classes as an undergrad, and part of the reason I do enjoy grad school. Here’s the problem: I only get to read and write about science for my job. Don’t get me wrong, science is awesome, but given the option I would much rather read a crime novel or write a blog post. I also love plants (hence the biology degree). But I like looking at plants and gardening… not doing intensive field studies about how climate change is impacting Arctic ecosystems. I know, it is a cool job and I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity, but it isn’t my dream career.

A career as a writer or horticulturist is difficult, and my mother would have never pushed me toward that. Granted, she still won’t tell people that my research is related to the “big, bad, climate change monster”, so I guess we have yet to make progress there (but I am working on it!). Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom and she supports me in everything that I do. She has just always had the opinion that a job is a job; it is a source of income and you don’t need to love it or even like it. She also seems to think Ph.D. = huge future salary, which is not at all true (but let’s not tell her that quite yet).

When I look into my future, I don’t see myself as a scientist. I just don’t. I see myself maybe running a greenhouse (with all my overwhelming knowledge of plants from my biology degree) and writing in my spare time. Or even writing for a newspaper or women’s magazine. I definitely do not see myself crammed in an office, applying for grants (and getting rejected), submitting papers (and getting rejected), traveling away from my family, and working obscene hours. I do not want to go prematurely gray here, folks. That is not a good look for a red-head.

… this happens more often than just on Friday night.

So now the question is, what do I do? What does anyone do? Do you get to a point where you are just stuck in this world of being content, so you just stay put? Or, do you change something to pursue the career you really want? I could tell my boss that I don’t want to pursue a Ph.D., get my master’s, and work toward something that I actually want to do. It doesn’t sound difficult, but for me it is. Even thinking about it makes my chest tighten and I feel this sense of guilt and fear. The pilot is afraid of spiders, and I am afraid of making the wrong decision. I am afraid of mistakes. That has always been true, and it has led me to be a perfectionist with a mild case of O.C.D.

I wonder if this is something that everyone in their twenties experiences. It’s a fork in the road and I can go one way or the other. Either way I will be happy, I am sure of it. I have all I need to be happy without my dream career. I still want my dream career, though. I have worked hard throughout school to be able to get whatever job I want, and somewhere along the line I got off track. Now it’s time to figure out how to get back on.

 

Finding the courage to do that is going to be a challenge, but I know that I am strong enough and brave enough to do it. I have a wonderful support system (the boyfriend and cat mentioned on the “About” page). I am smart, and I am definitely driven. So, the answer to the question “Can I do this?” is a resounding “Yes!”, as it should be for anyone who wants to change something in their life. Now it’s time to form a plan, started below.

1) Don’t do anything crazy (like quitting my Ph.D.) until I have a back-up plan. I am content for now and there is no point in throwing away a good job for no-job in this economy.

2) Find a back-up plan. Figure out what is feasible to do, how long it will take, how much it will cost, and if it will allow me to have the kind of life I desire.

3) Find the courage to talk to my boss (if I do decide to just go for a master’s degree). If there is one thing I have learned in life, it is that honesty is key to success. Honesty with everyone, including your boss.

3) Listen to my head and heart equally. I know everyone says “follow your heart”, but there is nothing wrong with also using my head when making life decisions.

4) Do what will make me happy. Not what will make me proud, or my parents proud, or my high school classmates envious (although those are all nice things too).

It’s a vague plan, but it’s a plan, and that is better than nothing.

Philosophy for everyday life

I wanted to start my blog with this post because it is this very concept that first started helping me have a much happier, more rational life. I will probably refer to this concept in several of my posts, so it’s good to have some background. As a side-note, I am such a strong believer in this idea that I have it tattooed on my arm. Several of these ideas are also used to treat depression and P.T.S.D. So, give it a chance.

In stoic philosophy, there is a concept called “apatheia”. In Greek, this comes from “a” (without) and “pathos” (passion, or suffering). The stoics thought the key to leading a happy life was to be free of the “passions”. Now, these are not the good passions, like love, that we think of in the modern world. In philosophy, passions are instinctive emotions that humans have, including things like lust, anger, and jealousy. You can see how living without these things could make you a happier, more content person, right? Seems like a no-brainer. But, how is this achieved? There are many, many ideas in philosophy that address this and I am not an expert in all or any of them. I have, however, taken the little bit that I know and found a way to apply it to everyday life, and that is what is discussed here.

1. Knowing what you can control

People have a habit of getting upset over things that we have no control over: other people’s thoughts and words, random events, the environment, and pretty much anything external to us. What do we have control over? Our opinions and actions. That’s it.

The stoics would say that you should not be upset over things that you have no control over. So, rather than spending an entire day being upset because so-and-so was mean to you or because it rained on your only day off, remember that there is nothing that you could have done to change those events. You do not control other people’s opinions and you most definitely do not control the weather. You do have control over your reactions to these issues. You can decide to let it ruin your day, or you can decide to brush it off. For stoicism, it is not what happens to you, but your reaction to it that matters. Learning how to control that reaction is the hard part, and one of the key steps to doing so is learning how to rationalize. 

2. Rationalize, rationalize, rationalize

I used to be, and still am at times, a bit of a hot-head. I now try to divide my reactions to negative situations into two parts: my initial, unavoidable reaction (this is the part where I fall to pieces and think the world is ending), and the long-term reaction (this is after I actually think about what’s going on and rationalize the situation). The first reaction is human nature that I have little control over. The second is something that I can decideWhen you are upset about something, STOP and THINK. What is actually upsetting me about this situation? Do I have control over what is happening? Is it logical for me to be this upset?

For example, as I was writing this post, my assistant broke a power cord that we need to operate one of the instruments in the lab. He has been spending most of the afternoon angrily mumbling and cursing in frustration about it. Is it bad that I sat in the office smiling because about a year ago, that would have been me? I could have easily gotten angry and told my assistant that he needed to be more careful, but I didn’t. To me, that power cord is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Yes it powers an instrument that costs several thousands of dollars and will cost us a day of data, but so what?

It is easy to get upset about small things (in this instance, a flimsy piece of wire). Now my assistant should have just taken a deep breath and said “Okay, I broke the cord. That is done. I cannot go back in time an not break the cord. It is something that can be fixed. It is nothing more than a temporary inconvenience. I should not let a temporary inconvenience ruin my afternoon.” There. The once big problem (power cord for machine that costs thousands of dollars and collects lots of data) now seems small (temporary inconvenience). Rationalizing a problem will usually make you realize that in the grand scheme of things, the issue at hand is so small, it is not worth your anger and frustration. Chill out, and do what you can. Prolonged frustration will only make the problem seem worse than it actually is.

3. Practice, practice, practice

This section is crucial for success. I am by no means perfect. I still have moments where my emotions get the best of me, and that is fine. I am only human. Each day I practice rationalizing sticky situations and over time I have become a much calmer, happier person. It is amazing what thinking can do for the soul. At the end of each day, before I go to bed, I sit and think about what happened to me that day, and how I reacted to it. I think about how I could have reacted differently, and how that may have changed the situation. Then, the next time a similar situation presents itself, I have a plan (and oh boy do I LOVE plans). I have a plan about how react to minimize negative emotions. I know it sounds like nonsense, but it is possible to train yourself to think and react in a certain way. It just takes practice. Eventually it will become natural.

 

Stoicism introduced me to the idea that happiness is a choice. Learning to rationalize situations has gotten me through the death of one of my best friends and watching my Dad go through multiple organ failure and remain in a coma for weeks, while I practically lived at the hospital taking care of him. The take-home message here is that you can wake up each morning and say to yourself “Today I choose to be happy”, and then do that.

I end with a quote from my favorite stoic philosopher:

“From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event. That is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”
— Epictetus