Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Cobwebs and Tumbleweed....and how negativity can be detrimental to awesome science

My poor little blog. Sitting neglected for almost 11 months. Nearly a year. Honestly, I can't say where that time went. It just….went.

A year in terms of the solar system is less than a blink of an eye. But to a human, the time it takes for our humble little world to make one elliptical trip around the sun, well, much can happen in that same amount of time to one little being with an average lifespan of 75 years.

So what's been happening to prevent me from revisiting my little piece of the internet? The answer is simple: Life.

The last year has been, for lack of a better world, insane.  I departed from much that I was familiar with, both in the personal and professional world. Much of 2013 was marred by that dreaded feeling that permeates us from time to time - feeling lost, feeling worthless, and falling into the black hole of being overwhelmed. My work took on a whole new dimension including many more duties and while it meant immense personal growth and generally doing kick-ass science, it also resulted in me feeling really overwhelmed. On a more personal level, well, I faced the biggest upheaval of my adult life, and realised my relationship just wasn't right.  While hard to walk away, and the following months trying to rebuild myself, it was necessary. Add the fact the PhD writeup was dragging on and on, and I really had lost my motivation.

    Science is still awesome. Thanks Jesse for the reminder. 

And for this reason, I guess blogging about all things science, and  as well as sharing the things I find interesting about the universe fell by the wayside. But there's a lesson in all of this, because let's face it, there always is. 

 We all have bad days, we all have bad weeks, we all have bad months. And sometimes when you're finding life challenging, instead of supporting you those closest to you will turn around and make you feel like your ideas, your contribution, your blood, sweat and tears is not good enough.  It felt like this is all that happened last year. Have something bad happen, dig yourself out, have someone or something pull you right back down. Rinse and repeat.

And I let this get to me in a big way. I let it affect me to the point that my entire outlook changed and not for the pbetter. But the bigger realisation I had and the thing that brought me back from quitting due feeling sheer frustration and hoplessness is that people don't set out to make  you feel worthless  because you're actually bad at your work  or your ideas are bad.

What I've learnt from all of this is that much negativity from others stems in fact, from their insecurities.  Criticism is a necessary part of life. Science is an incredibly personal thing, so harsh critiscim can be hard to swallow. But criticism is very welcome in my world. However, criticism needs to be useful and not simple degrading, it must be constructive, it must be justified and it should be explained.  Deeming something unworthy because you don't like it, because you don't understand it, because you need to feel power by demeaning someone and to feed your own ego, these are the very things that are toxic to science. Science is based on evidence, and continuous evolution - of ideas, skills and knowledge. 

ANYBODY can say someone else is bad at something. 

The true test of whether they know what they are talking about and thus worth paying attention to comes next. If someone saying the work is invalid or poor, and can back this up with direction, with guidelines on how to improve, or how they can do better than you, then they are worth listening to. If not, then they're not worth paying attention or thought to. I've found it's that simple. This conclusion has helped me get back to where I need to be, and I can effectively screen out the negativity and stop letting it get to me and having an effect on my life. 

Anybody asking questions, pitching ideas or posing solutions and fostering discussion should be encouraged, not told they are unworthy. Curiosity and a desire to know more is a wonderful thing and frankly, there's not enough of it in the world. Shooting someone's ideas down for the sake of it forces them to become quiet and to withdraw.This is absolutely detrimental to scientific advancement. It kills the motivation of new students,and breeds contempt in more established researchers. Essentially, pure negativity creates loathing, it mars the joy of discovery, it kills collaboration, and most worryingly it also passes to the next generation, resulting in a new group of researchers who think the best way is to cut others down. We are all running on incredibly finite resources, we all should cut the crap and foster good ideas, collaboration and creativity, regardless of whether it's coming from a PhD student or a Federation Fellow. 

So, the moral of the story from the last 12 months: put up or shut up. If you are going to say someone's work is invalid, or they can't write, or they are crappy at their job, then you damn better be able to explain why or point them in the direction of tools to help them improve.  Otherwise you're having a negative effect on the scientific process, and you're the one not worthy of being part of the scientific community. 

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