Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Motivation: Why am I here and not elsewhere?

2017 was a big year!  Our group had the opportunity to move from Utah to Emory, and we were also fortunate to be able to start a number of new projects, including adding a branch of education research.  Given the title of this blog post, you might be tempted to think I’m going to discuss why we moved, but that’s not what this is about.  That topic could in fact be addressed with a post titled “why you shouldn’t get your news from chemistry blogs.”

What I really want to talk about involves a much bigger version of the question “why am I here and not elsewhere?”  I want to talk about the process of thinking through why I’m in this career and not a different one.  I’ll admit that this was in part precipitated by our move, as making such a large decision involves some deep thinking about what you really value and what you want from your career.  But, this also came about as our group dove into the topic of motivation for our group retreat last summer.

My main hobbies are all athletic, so I was intrigued by an article I saw last year written by a personal trainer.  They described the first conversation they have with potential clients who are thinking of signing up for coaching, and how they ask the seemingly simple question of “why do you want to do this?”  The author described how nearly all people answer in one of two categories: (1) I want to lose weight/feel more attractive, or (2) I want to be healthier.  We might be tempted to consider answer 1 to be incorrect and answer 2 to be correct.  But, that’s not the case – turns out neither is a good answer, as the real reason is usually much more specific, and finding that real answer is the key to their client finding the motivation to get out of bed before dawn and do hard workouts week after week.  The author then went on to describe how they probe with questions until they get to that real answer, which is often along the lines of “My dad had a heart attack at age 42 and I’m about to turn 40.  I don’t want my kids to go through the pain and worry that I did.” or “I know that the reason I’m still single is because I don’t have enough confidence to meet new people.  If I start working out, that will give me the confidence I need.”

We can apply this very same process to asking ourselves why we’ve chosen the career that we did, and similarly, can then use this answer to maintain our motivation through the tough days.  The answer to this question can also be very powerful in guiding future career choices – once you know what you really love about your current job, you can look at the options and ask “will this new opportunity give me more or less of that?”

So, how do you find this answer?  Similar to the personal coaching example, you have to keep asking questions. If you ask me why I love what I do, my gut reaction is to say “because I love science.”  That’s not incorrect, but it’s the equivalent of saying “I want to exercise to be healthier.”  There are tons of jobs that involve science, and just “loving science” probably won’t get me out of bed in the morning and motivate me to work at my top capacity.  When I pushed further, I came up with “I love the autonomy and creativity of academic research.”  That’s a bit better, but still isn’t specific enough to explain the career choices I’ve made (and why I’m spending an hour writing a blog post instead of working on a grant application!).  Pushed further, I will say “I thrive on building relationships.”  This is yet another step closer, as it gets to a specific part of my job that really drives me, but again, there are a lot of jobs that involve science, independent research, and building relationships.  My final answer (for now) is “I love working with an ever evolving group of energetic, driven, and creative students and postdocs, getting to see them grow their knowledge and independence during their time in our group, and having the privilege of being a part of their life as they move on and navigate their own future career.” Now that is getting somewhere!

Now that I have this answer, what do I do with it?  Going back again to the personal coaching example, there are days when motivation is high and others when it is low.  Knowing why you love your job is something you can leverage powerfully to get you through those tougher days or less pleasant tasks. For example, one of the things that needed to be done for our move was reviewing quotes for small pieces of lab equipment.  As enthralling as it is to stare at two pdfs each having a hundred line items, and try to figure out which vendor will give us a better deal on refrigerators, pipettors, heating blocks, etc, this is just not fun for me.  But, knowing what motivates me, I could frame it as “I need to get this done because the people on our research team are counting on me to get our orders in on time and to choose options that will best suit our research.”  It really helped!

This technique can also apply to much bigger decisions.  If you are a grad student or postdoc thinking about your future career, ask yourself what you love about your current job and what you don’t love.  Dive deep to find the question of what really motivates you.  Enlist a close friend or mentor to push you until you find a good answer.  If people know you well, then when you do hit that answer, they’ll say “yup, that totally makes sense.”  Then, as you survey the landscape of career options before you, think about the extent to which each one will provide you with opportunities that tap into the source of your motivation.

An important caveat in all of this is that there’s many ways to be very successful in a given career.  I can almost guarantee that my answer to why I love my job is not the most common one you would get from faculty.  I would guess it’s more common for faculty to arrive at something along the lines of “I love the rush of sifting through data to learn something new about how the world works, and realizing that we were the first people to ever have that knowledge.”  That's a great reason to go into academia! Having a different motivational structure means that you might tackle a job in slightly different ways, but doesn’t necessarily determine your success in a given career.  Rather, knowing your real source of motivation can guide you to the place where you’re most likely to find fulfillment, and will give you the best shot at success by helping you to give your best on both fun and not fun tasks, and to drive hard through all of the ups and downs.