Recently I watched the Oscar-winning movie Babe for the first time (I know. What took me so long, right!?). It is an awesomely inspiring film where a pig raised by sheep dogs resists his destiny of being humans’ dinner and is determined to become a sheep pig (a pig that herds sheep). Along the way, there is resistance and doubt from the disbelievers. But with determination and cheers from his farmer owner, piggy won the glory in a sheep dog competition. Two elements of this film resonated with my moving away from pure research – assumption and resistance.
Here is the deal. We tend to assume what we do based on who we are, and who we are based on what we do. For example, we assume one does research if he/she is a scientist. And if you are a scientist, you do research. When your action doesn’t follow this loop of assumptions, you send out a confusing signal to others. If they can’t compute it, you get an “error message” that you not doing it right, which comes across as a resistance to your action.
No doubt, making assumptions is a necessary way to survive with efficiency. But we need to be careful with assuming “you are what you do.” What if you love car racing and just happen to do science research? Are you a racer or a scientist? The truth is that we are more than what we do (in grad school and in life), and we are all multi-talented. Putting a label on yourself based on what you do limits your talents and ways to manifest them. A handful of my friends from graduate school went on to become science writers, analysts for investment banks, and management consultants for top global firms. They moved away from the bench because they love what they do right now.
All of these functions require critical thinking, problem solving, and analytical skills. Sounds familiar? If you are in academia and contemplating switching to industry and don’t know where or how to start, Toby Freedman’s book Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug by Toby Freedman gives you an overview of all the possible options in both science and non-science functions.
My point? In changing your career path and breaking away from the norm, you may encounter resistance (I hope you don’t). What can you do? Stay true to yourself and don’t let it get to you. Note that this almost automatic resistance comes from a place of caring, and understand that, to some, change equals uncertainty, which equals risk. Risk is often perceived as danger.
So this resistance is a result of fear that you are risking. Michael Michalko, a creativity expert, gives an example of how assumptions can continue long after the reasons for them have passed in his book Thinkertoys:
Imagine a cage with a banana hung inside and a staircase leading up to it. In the cage there are a group of monkeys. Whenever a monkey goes up and grabs the banana, ice-cold water is dumped on all the monkeys in the cage. The monkeys begin to associate grabbing the banana with being dumped with ice-cold water and start to prevent other monkeys from getting the banana.
One of the monkeys is then replaced with a new one that doesn’t know about the ice-water treatment and tries to reach the banana. But the other monkeys will attack him to stop him. Another one of the old monkeys is replaced with a new one who also tries to grab the banana. The previous newcomer will attack him together with the other monkeys to prevent him from getting up the stairs.
Overtime, all the original monkeys are replaced with new ones. The cage is filled with monkeys that have no knowledge about the ice-cold water. But they will all avoid getting the banana and attack other that tries to do so.
At the end, “No monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why Not? Because as far as they know, that’s the way it’s always been around here.”
Michalko’s advice, “Don’t be a monkey. Challenge all assumptions.”
In closing, I will leave you with the song “Born To Be Wild” by Ozzy Osbourne and Miss Piggy. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Until, next post, keep on being wild!