Be brave in front of the Universe, its grandeur and magnificence. Paraphrased from Carl Sagan
My recent post for The Grad School Series got me thinking about the intellectual benefits of science PhD training. I no longer work full-time in a lab, but I feel I’ll always be a scientist at heart. My training shaped me as a person, and I know I’m a better human for having survived that experience. Here are five ways in which I think we should all strive to be more like scientists.
* Be willing and able to admit when you are wrong.
THIS! This. My goodness, we could use more willingness to be wrong. I’m not saying that you have to like being wrong, but the faster you can admit you are wrong, the faster you can get back on track. Experiments do not move forward if you can’t admit your hypothesis was wrong or your methodology was flawed. Life often follows the same rules. (And it’s okay to make mistakes. Really. In my experience, people are far more forgiving of mistakes when you come forward and tell the truth.)
* Be open-minded and skeptical.
Many people underestimate how open-minded scientists have to be about their work. Science is a strange profession, full of unexplained data and experimental backfires. We become more effective at this work by embracing that possibility that we are wrong. Being a scientist has made it easier for me to listen to criticism and to see things from another person’s perspective. It has softened my hard edges. I’ve learned that there is often more than one side to a story, so I am slower to judge.
* Be meticulous when it counts most.
I have my flaky moments, as most of us do. But science has honed my ability to focus when it really matters. In an world filled with distractions, I think this skill is invaluable; it’s one that has pulled me through tough spots again and again.
What does being meticulous outside of the lab look like? For me, it’s a way of defining short-term goals. Some tasks require intense focus, like driving in bad weather. Other tasks ask us for some grace, like supporting a friend who just needs some love, not advice.
I try to make sure that my meticulousness is balanced with the understanding that we all make mistakes. I’m not a religious person, but I need grace in my life, for me and for those around me.
* Learn to live with doubt.
Who wants to live with doubt? No one, that’s who. And yet, that is what we have in this world. There will always be uncertainties, and I think it behooves us spiritually to learn how to make peace with our doubts. I am all about making plans for an uncertain future, but I recognize that life is what happens when you are busy making plans**.
Scientists who are working at the edge of our knowledge, as I did for ten years, are working on the cliff’s edge of doubt. It provokes intense anxiety. Paradoxically, I think that working for so many years under those conditions has made me less anxious. Because I realized that in the face of the unknown, I would still find my way forward. I believe the same is true for most of us. But denying our doubt is not the answer: I say embrace it and move forward as best you can.
* Approach problems with a collaborative spirit.
Science taught me how to troubleshoot with the best of ‘em. Shit would go wrong, and it was my job to figure out how to get things back on track. Now I apply this strategy to my life outside the lab. My general MO is to assume that there is a mutually agreeable solution. I am more open to collaborative problem-solving and more willing to listen. I’m able to prioritize problem-solving, and guess what? That means it’s easier to solve problems.
Science is so much more than the scientific method. It’s an approach to life that transcends lab work and scientific articles. And because we do science in pursuit of the truth, a scientific worldview is a toolkit that we can employ whenever truth is the highest priority.
** RIP, John Lennon.