Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Who moved my cheese?" - from a leftish point of view

We've been circulating this book at work last couple of weeks, "Who moved my cheese?", and it tied into the subject of a work conference I attended last week as well.

The book is a short, fairly simple, book about four mice&'littlepeople' and their approach to the cheese they eat and live by and what happens when the cheese disappear. I wasn't particularly impressed with it when I started reading it. And after an hour when I finished it, I can't say that it was a huge impact either (told you, a short simple book). However, going to the "team discussion" afterwards made me realize that maybe it was a good book/segway for people who haven't encountered/attended "change in the workplace workshops" or "managing people" or even "grief support". There were quite a few people with whom I work, who had never heard about these different approaches to change* and wanted to hear what other people thought and who of the characters they identified with.

In the book there are four characters; Sniff & Scurry (the two mice) and Hem & Haw (the littlepeople). They each are used to describe the different approach to change and living (my comment). How to adapt to new situations, but also how you should act in your present situation. This is illustrated among other things that the mice "keep their running shoes tied around their necks 'to always be ready to run to look for new cheese'" whereas the littlepeople keep their shoes on the hook on the wall and become complacent, thinking "this stash of cheese will never disappear, we don't need the shoes/running anymore".

Full disclosure; I think my main scepticism and disagreement with all these management books and ideas on how to teach your coworkers how to think like this comes from my Swedish (OK, leftish) view on work and society. I have an innate aversion to teach people(workers) that "the normal is that you need to be flexible person who lives by the mission of your job" and "that it is completely fine not to have any job security, no one would ask for that" since I know that there are plenty of places/countries (hello Europe) where this is not normal, nor accepted. (I currently live in a right to work state in the USA - we can leave on the day, company can tell us to leave that day.) The more realistic and utilitarian part of my brain is simply telling me "this is the new normal, you might not like it but you have to know it and work with it since that's the way the world works right now". In a world of contract working (grants and soft money), where you are hired for a specific time/project this is reality for a lot of people. Just because I don't fancy it, doesn't make it less real and affecting me.

Anyway, reading this book and discussing CHANGE at the conference made me think about the similarities between the "stages of change" and the "stages of grief", which makes sense since grief indicates change** Both include anger & acceptance bridged by denial/resistance. With anger being a lot of focus of the fear of what will happen now that it changes. My personal experience is that facing that fear is the fastest/only? way through the stages and helping the move to acceptance.

I would recommend the short book for reading at work for anyone who is in a "movable/flexible/contract" job. Not because I think it is great, true & something to aspire to, but because it is good to get reminded that this is something many management people have as a base for thinking. Also, it is very good not to get too complacent and too secure in thinking "I have my job and it will last forever" since we live in a changing work environment. And finally, it's a good ice breaker for you to talk about this with your coworkers, who may or may not have thought about change/security like this, you can start the conversation with "which character did you identify most with?"

(I'm between Sniff and Haw. I don't love change, I love stability and routine with a spice, but I keep my CV updated and do read job adverts every week, even if I like my job and only have been in this position about a year. If we were down sizing tomorrow and I found out that there was no more job for me, I'd have some options to at least apply for right then and there. This makes me, the planner and over-thinker, feel more secure even though nothing is certain in life.)

*I would say that this book is very much written as a "you as a worker have a responsibility to be adaptive to change since when the job changes it is just normal and you shouldn't be the stick in the mud". Not as coming from a perspective where the job has a responsibility to the worker. I elaborate on my criticism further down in the blog post

**I wrote a section on this but erased it since it was a side-bar discussion that wouldn't move this blog post forward. I'm remembering the rules better, keep to one point per blog post! :)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

in defence of the over thinker

I'm known to be a slight over thinker by some of my friends. I'm also known to be a good problem identifier and to a fair extent problem solver. To me, it's not far fetched to think that they are linked.

Anyway, I'm also known to be somewhat of a slight realist (some would call it pessimist) with a taste of cynicism. Even though my interaction with people have a good portion of unrealistic optimism involved with it, and hope - lots of hope. (For the Xth time I'm asking the faculty member to send me the things we're waiting for since it's crucial.... and others don't think they will do it, but I prevail and lo and behold - sometimes it works.)  It's quite possibly most obvious in my inability to discard re-evaluate some of my friends/acquaintances when they disappoint, not just me, but themselves over and over again and I still think that "it can be different this next time". I guess I might be a sucker for "hope that people will change".

Well, my point today was to mention that there is something to be understood about certain of us "over thinkers". Maybe we have experienced a few things more than "the average person" and these experiences make us ponder and wonder a wee bit extra at the time when a more complex situation comes around and makes us less likely to jump on the band wagon and go "yey, happy happy times, lets go".

You see, it's like that time when you hear people proclaim "we will be forever, nothing can tear us apart". Yes, and then one of them loses their job and economic hardship ensues and all of a sudden things aren't as easy anymore.
Or the new graduate student proclaims "I would never write the paper without knowing that I will be the first author" and you think 'well, it's not that clear cut and have you really talked to your PI about it?'.
Or the post doc who starts their position but haven't asked for "how long they are guaranteed a place in the lab (how much money/what kind of grant) and they presume that the PI will float them for at least another year after that".

These three examples aren't great, and they are fairly different, but they do point to something that the over thinker will do - mull over various outcomes, potential problems and (hopefully) possible solutions and then move into the situation better prepared than the "non-thinker".

My main issue with it? (being the over thinker) That I wonder if there isn't times when the over-thinker creates the problems that doesn't have to happen and when introducing these problems/solutions make them more likely to occur.... That things would've been perfectly good if the over thinker had been exchanged to a "happy go lucky person" who might not know about the potential disaster but then again, maybe the disaster wouldn't happen because they wouldn't even steer the boat that way? (There is also the whole discussion about "letting people make their own mistakes and learn from them", which is a tangent discussion to this over-thinking-one.)

Then I rethink (ha) and look at a lot of situations that have happened around me last couple of years an think that maybe that is just my own cynical hope to motivate why I don't want to be cast in the problem/solution finder role for both work and life. (this 'role' and being expected to be the person that pulls the emergency break when others would've happily toted along even when they should've seen the cliff coming up). The "what ifs" are getting fairly complicated and I would like to just step away from the whole thing and just "let it sort out on its own". Alas, I know that it's not working like that so I need to be a grown up and take responsibility for situations, regardless of how inadequately I feel I know the answers to all the "maybe" and "what ifs". After all, it's in my nature as the over thinker to do this. As long as I keep remembering "there are no certainties in life, just a lot of opportunities and choices".

(I'm starting to realise why I stopped writing blogposts earlier this year, it's probably obvious to you too dear reader?! The language is boxy, the sentences chopped off and the point lost in translation. Alas, the only way forward is through - as in "practice more and write", right?!)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

abusive relationships - football and science combined

I'm been thinking about this for a bit, especially since the NFL "issue" came up a few weeks back with certain players being investigated/charged with domestic violence an abuse and the subsequent punishment (or not) by said organization. Not so much discussion about the punishment by law as I would've thought. More about the comparison between "how harsh a punishment for smoking pot vs hitting a significant other". I have a lot of feelings about this, both the dual punishment system and the "how many games is it worth" as well as the law investigations and media hype where everyone seems to oscillate between "do nothing" and "off with their heads".

However, last week the discussion at the lab took another turn since we talked more about abuse in a general context and then it spread into talking about lab culture and abuse by or with PI permission..... A lot of it was between some of us older* in the game compared to the graduates/MD fellows/other ppl who might not have seen and experienced as much. I recalled talking to a few of them earlier this year when a technician left their job and ended it on a bad note by lying about "what really had happened" and me explaining that you can't always presume that people tell the truth (especially not when the person in question has been breaking regulations, being warned, helped etc for many months) and that there is always more beneath the surface and what people let on. Ah well, I digress.

About the idea of abuse, that it is by a person you are depending on (or love) that makes it difficult to act on. That you aren't just "leaving because they are passing a line" but staying around "so how bad can it really be"? It's a fairly common** thing after all, I would say that the difference is in the severity (and possibly if it is physical or not). After all, it surely seems like the physical abuse is something that make people take it more serious, not to mention actually seeing the physical (point in case; when the first video surfaced people seemed upset that a man dragged his unconscious girlfriend out of an elevator. He admitted to hitting her, thus rendering her unconscious. However, it was only after people SAW him hitting that they really claimed outrageous upset and said "it's horrible". I could mention similar things about the movie of the school bus incidents ("Bully") and what people really feel after they HEAR all the degrading comments to one person on the bus although "it's just words so it's not that bad"..... but after hearing it in context something might click?)

A person piped up the other day that they are not allowed to wear t-shirts in the lab ("it's not professional clothing") but are encouraged to wear nice looking open toe shoes (hello regulations?). Same person tells the technicians how useless they are and not as great as the former tech in a place far-far away, they see if as "encouragement"... Another person wrote on their blog about a PI who required their post-docs to wear frames (glasses without glasses) for presentations (only the female ones though). Another example would be the post-doc who worked in the lab where the PI slept with another post-doc but people thought post-doc A rather than B and started acting on it. The list goes on....

Again, a lot of it is probably not technically*** abuse but I would think it falls under bullying or more likely unprofessional conduct. It also links these things together since there seems to be a few assumptions and correlations without explicitly stating them. One such thing would be "a great athlete is also a great person" or "great at their sports=good person" and the whole "role model spiel" (for the kids! always for the kids to look up to). Similar thing with highly successful scientists, "they are successful = surely their lab is a great place to work" and "strive to become as great as them". Or "surely they wouldn't do anything like that, they are successful so there is no need to act petty/mean/etc".

I personally would really love if it could be ok to state "they are great at what they do" and keep it separate from "they are great as a person/role model overall" or implying that if you are great at what you work with, you somehow have been a great person to become that good working person. I mean, John McEnroe was a great tennis player but maybe not a "super-nice-and-wonderful-person-all-the-time" and back in the day I don't remember anyone saying that it was a problem distinguishing between them.

I honestly don't remember where I was going with this, it's been a while since I wrote blog posts so I would need to get back on track with "point to make". Maybe I just wanted to rant a little about the annoyment I feel when people state "they should just leave their partner" without seemingly understand that it is not as easy as just getting up and leaving. Nor is it to leave a lab when things are bad since "you need their recommendation for future jobs". And most of all, people are great at denial. "It's probably me, I shouldn't take it like that. After all, they are probably trying to help me realize that I really need to change".

I'm hoping that we can move the discussion back to more reasonable grounds and avoid the black-white ("never play/do science again" vs "snow white and a perfect person"). After all, we are all humans with more or less flaws and the likelihood that new problem situations will be discovered increases if the discussion is more levelheaded than chopping the head off, and also that there will be help to give and awareness for new people.

*being a post-doc or technician for more than 5 years, in more than one lab/institute
** my own definition of common... "not that unheard of"or there is at least one lab in a department that people tend to avoid due to issues in the lab
***technically=punishable by law