I love what I do. But sometimes inspiration is hard.
Another long day in the field without seeing dolphins. Another never-ending report that stubbornly clings to draft form. Another day of battling off emails from supervisors wanting results, students needing help, randoms requiring your time, and family / friends wondering why they haven’t heard from you for weeks. It can wear down even the most dedicated of scientists.
This has been particularly hard for me over the last couple of months. My Grandad passed away in January, and for the first time I’ve been faced with a “writers block”, finding it hard to draft blog posts, work on manuscripts, or prepare talks. Ironically, he placed great emphasis on writing and public-speaking skills, and would no doubt of had some words of wisdom on the topic of writers block. But it has been hard to focus through the grief and guilt – is it worth chasing dreams when they take you so far from your family?
Even more ironically, it was during this period that I was asked to give the occasional address at the Curtin University Science Students Awards ceremony. For some unknown reason I said yes (saying “no” has been a long-running issue, which I’m unsuccessfully working on). So I was then confronted with the task of writing a motivational speech when I was feeling the least motivated I’ve ever been.
Luckily, I had some old favourites to turn to. I am a creature of habit. When I am unwell, I read Terry Pratchett – I escape from my world to a world of magic. When I worry about the purpose of my research, I read Gerald Durrell – his beautiful descriptions of all the places and creatures he encountered feed my imagination, and his passion for conserving them motivates me. When I am stressed, I save it up for the weekly phone call home to my Mum – a remnant of our late-night cup of tea chat sessions from whenever I am home. And when I am angry at the world I go to the gym and run – I used to save it for martial arts, but too expensive in Perth.
So perhaps it is not surprising that all these things contributed in some way to giving me the motivation for a motivational speech. I agonised over it for weeks, starting and re-starting, discarding drafts, knowing it was not sincere and not quite right. They wanted me to speak for 6 – 10mins on my work-life balance, my tips for success, and what adventures I’ve had along the way. The first was obviously nonsense – if I wanted a 9 – 5 job with good pay and weekends off, I wouldn’t be a scientist. Tips for success was a tricky issue. I don’t feel particularly successful, and like all PhD students I have a strong sense of Imposter Syndrome – if anything I am generally the one in need of tips for success. The last part was easiest. My Master’s supervisor Paddy used to groan whenever I entered his office, bracing himself for whatever tale of mis-adventure had befallen me in the field that week. But perhaps mis-adventures weren’t best for a motivational speech…
But the week before the ceremony, I was thumbing through a collection of Gerald Durrell stories and found a perfect quote which summed up my approach to life decisions. Typically, after spending so long worrying about it, I then wrote the speech in about 20mins. The fact that this was on the weekend further illustrates my lack of a typical work-life balance.
There is one particular idea from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld that stays with me: “Million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten”. The fact that no matter how low the probability, how much the odds are against you, there is still a chance that this might work. So don’t be afraid to take a chance. And have faith in the strength of the narrative.
- Make a Mix of Logical and Illogical Choices
The Gerald Durrell quote that caught my attention was: “I have rarely, if ever, achieved anything I wanted by tackling it in a logical fashion … now I am speechless at my audacity“. I never planned to be a scientist; I didn’t dream of being a marine biologist as a child. Through a mix of seemingly random events that centred on my naturalist nature, I found myself on this path. I’ve bounced from one decision to another with sometimes worryingly little thought, but a vague belief that things will work out for the best.
I’ve done my share of newspaper rounds, check-out tills, and shelf-stacking type jobs, and I’m pretty happy where I am. My Mum always says “You either do the work you love, or work to afford the things you love“. I’d rather be enjoying my work throughout the year with a few bad weeks than be hating my job throughout the year and saving up for a few good weeks of holiday. Everyone is different, but for me I choose to do what I love (even when I sometimes feel it doesn’t love me back).
Our local gym has inspirational quotes scattered around the walls. Whilst I was suffering through a set of lunges one day, this one caught my eye: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit“. The gym attributed this to Shaquille O’Neal, who Google tells me is a retired basketball player and rapper. But Google also tells me that the original sayer of this phrase was Aristotle. Which is concerning for the gym but a win for me because it makes me sound a bit smarter in my speech, whilst also giving encouragement to students to look beyond what they are wining today and start thinking about what they can do tomorrow.
The Final Speech
If you are interested in reading the final product, you can download my motivational speech by clicking here. I think it went well – there were good questions and follow-up conversations at the drinks and nibbles afterwards, even though I had to refer to my notes more often than I would have liked.
But I think the person most motivated by my motivational speech was me. Explaining your life story and personal philosophy to a large room of people gives you a new perspective on what you do. It reminds you of all the things you have achieved, are still to complete, and why you are doing them. So I hope the students and their families had fun hearing about my adventures. And I also hope that Grandad was watching from a corner of the room, enjoying hearing once more about his grand-daughter’s adventures, just like he used to.