The Importance Of Unlinking Your Identity From Your Work
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This is The Happy Scientist podcast. Each episode is designed to make you more focused, more productive, and more satisfied in the lab. You can find us online bitesizebio.com/happyscientist. Your hosts are Kenneth Vogt, founder of the executive coaching firm, Vera Claritas, and Dr. Nick Oswald, PhD bioscientist and founder Bitesize Bio.
Kenneth Vogt (00:35):
Hello, everyone. Welcome back to The Happy Scientist. And today we're giving Nick the day off cause you know, we, we have we have an operation that is just lousy with scientists. So today we're gonna be, we're gonna be having a conversation with, with Dr. Laura Grassie, who is a senior senior managing editor or you're managing editor. I don't know. What is your title here? Do you know?
Laura Grassie (01:03):
That's an interesting question. Yeah, I'm managing editor,
Kenneth Vogt (01:07):
Managing editor at Bitesize Bio, yet another and yet another scientist to to bring some perspective to this. And she's a PhD and a molecular biologist. And as you all know, I'm not a biologist. You know, my background is computer science and in, in that regard when it comes to science, it doesn't, doesn't usually go any farther than math. For me, doesn't even get to physics because I'm a software guy. Whereas I look at that title, Laura and I see, I see molecular and biologists and then molecules and biology that, well, you're gonna bring a whole new flavour to this and by the way the way this particular episode came about, Nick had suggested that we should ask some, some of our scientists topics they think should be covered. And I thought, well, that's a good idea since they have been mostly been positive by me, a few of by Nick, but mostly by me.
And I'm the, I'm the last guy you should ask, right? Well, I put together a list of things that I thought would be worth talking about and put it by some of the, some of the PhDs here at Bitesize Bio and said, what do you think about these? And mostly they said, they'll sound like good ideas. And I'm like, woo that's good. And they said, and you left a few out and one of the ones that got left out was this one. And that is how unlinking your identity from your work can make you happier and work better. Now, this was suggested by Laura. Well, and I thought, well, since Laura made the suggestion, surely I should put her on with me and we can talk about this. So here she is so I, I wanna, I wanna start off with a, kind of a smart Alec question. You know, we, we've all heard of the French philosopher, Rene Descartes and how he said, I think therefore I am. And I started wondering about that and I thought, I wonder how many, how many scientists out there believe that I work, therefore I am. And you think that's the truth? So I wanna put that question to you, Laura, what do you think? Is this, is this a common outlook?
Laura Grassie (03:25):
Yes. And it's definitely one I felt when I was in the lab as well, was that my entire identity was based on not only the fact that I worked, but what I did. Yeah, I think that a lot of people in science do ha would identify with that phrase. I work, therefore I am actually. So I think that's, quite a good, a good twist on the philosophy quote there.
Kenneth Vogt (03:49):
So why do you suppose that is what, what is it about science that causes that to be a common outlook?
Laura Grassie (03:58):
I think there's a few different things. Actually. One of them probably could be the roots of science, where it came from a hobby, it came from what people did in their free time. So in some ways did define them. But also it, it, I think there's a, a very big negative culture in science to that. It should be your life revolving around science and there's, there's a degree to that there that has to happen experiments. And depending on what you're working on on a nine to five job, it's very difficult to fit that into nine to five. So there's quite oftentimes you'll be in the lab, you know, late on weekends or things like that. And if you're not carefully, it's very easy for that to then take over and your entire life to be dictated by the, the job.
Kenneth Vogt (04:40):
Sure. And, and I imagine that's not entirely unique to science I'm I certainly know a lot of engineers that are very driven that way. I know, I know a bunch of entrepreneurs that are driven that way. And, and it's a, it's a cultural thing too, and that, and this may differ from culture to culture. You know, you, you can tell by listening to our voices that Laura, I are in slightly different cultures, but we're both in Western culture, but, you know, I wonder for those out there who are in Asian culture, you don't say you're in Chinese culture, you're in Japanese culture or you're in Indian culture. In, in America I'll say this. And I think it's probably true for the Western world. In general, if you ask somebody about themselves, the first thing they'll tell you is their name. And the next thing they'll tell you is what they do for a living, what they do for work.
And I know in other cultures it might be that you tell people the town you come from or the family you come from, but it's a big deal in, in Western culture that, that who you are, is associated with what you do for work. And that is not an automatic, cause remember there was a time before you had a job, let alone a job in a lab. You know, you just used to be Billy on the block, you know, but then one day what became more important was that, that you are a lab based scientist. And in some cases it's a matter of pride, you know, it's like, you know, and you should be proud of it. You worked very hard to get to this level. You know, I've worked very hard and yet I can't work in a lab cause I haven't done the right work to get there. Uh and there are plenty of people that have, have tried and failed to get there. So the fact that you've got there, you know, that's, that's not something to look down upon. On the other hand, it's not automatic that you are that work. And part of the question might be then is it necessary if you're gonna succeed in this work, do you have to be identified to such a degree with your work to be successful? So I'll put that question to you, Laura is identity as a scientist, a critical factor in being successful.
Laura Grassie (07:08):
No, I don't think it is actually. And you know, we've been lucky at, Bitesize Bio to talk to some really successful scientists and actually, you know, when you talk to them, they, they are so much more than just the job with outside hobbies and things like that. So I actually think that no, you absolutely do not have to be just what you do. And it, it actually to say it's detrimental in some ways I think to, to do that as well.
Kenneth Vogt (07:32):
Okay. So let's, let's widen out on that a bit because it might be, you could say, well, you don't have to, but it helps, but you just made the comment that potentially it hurts. So how might it hurt?
Laura Grassie (07:43):
I think it can cause you to become too emotionally involved in your work, which is the one thing you shouldn't be. If you're a scientist, if you, if you put your, your whole identity on what you do, then success and failure can have a very dramatic consequences for your self worth and mental health. And you can, yeah, I think that can then hamper the work you do and make it harder to, to succeed.
Kenneth Vogt (08:15):
Sure. And, and I imagine for some of you, this is gonna hit, gonna hit home hard. You're gonna hear that and go, yeah. I, I took my last failure very personally, but also understand that when you take your last success, very personally, that is also damaging and it doesn't seem that way. It seems like, well, I should, I should relish the, the glory of success. The problem is is then you become addicted to it and it becomes a necessary component. And you're in a business where success is not only not guaranteed. You need to fail at least some of the time, if you're not failing some of the time, you're not pushing the envelope apart enough. And I mean, that's really critical in what y'all do, so it's gotta be there. So this, this, this makes me think of another thing, cause you know, this is, this is the happy scientist podcast. So what does happiness have to do with the quality of your work? If I can't rely on identifying with my work, how, how am I gonna be happy with my work? So do you have any thoughts on that, Laura?
Laura Grassie (09:23):
Oh, what about happiness and
Kenneth Vogt (09:27):
Yeah. How, how happy do you have to be in your job to do a good job at it?
Laura Grassie (09:32):
I don't think you have to be happy in your job. I think you have to be happy in who you are as a person. And I think that would then naturally flow out to being happy in your job. But again, I think, or maybe rather it's about being content. I think maybe chasing the, the constant success, which is what a lot of people would equate to being happy is that feeling of success again is quite dangerous. And actually it's more about knowing that you've put in what you need to do and whether that results in success or failure then doesn't impact your mood. But you know that the effort, so it's more marking, you know, am I happy with my effort rather? Am I happy with my result?
Kenneth Vogt (10:15):
Sure. Cause part of the, part of the problem with success is it's fleeting. You're succeeding today, but tomorrow that might change. You know, there's a lot of what have you done for me lately in this? And it's not, it's not your boss. Who's doing that. Or you're, whoever's giving you the grant. That's doing that. You're doing it to yourself. You're constantly assessing yourself. Am I measuring up or not? And if your measure comes down to how well your science is succeeding or failing, that's gonna impact you personally. And ultimately that's gonna hurt you in your work because I, it, it becomes almost almost bipolar. And I, I realize that's a, an actual condition and I'm not in any way integrating anyone who's dealing with that condition. But you know, be clear here that there are ups and there are downs. And if you live for the ups, the downs will be devastating and, and that's not good for anybody.
And it's also not good for your science. How can you stay focused if you're having to deal with that kind of, of emotional pressure on doing your job? Yeah. There's, there's enough intellectual pressure on doing your job. There's enough, enough, tactile pressure, you know, things, the stuff that you have to be good at doing that many people outside of the field might not even realize, but you know, there, there are, there are just done downright physical skills that where you just good as a mechanic in the lab, which is required. And, and that goes beyond intellectual effort. That is about, about you know, just gaining skills. And it's, it's one of the things that Bitesize Bio is there to help you with is those things they don't teach in university that you have to learn in the lab. And some people have learned some things and they, they go on to talk about it and, and that's, that's very helpful.
And that will make you give you more of an opportunity to be happy in your job. And, and you, and, and I like what you said earlier, Laura, that your happiness kind of flows from are you happy as a personal already outside of the fact that you're a scientist, you know, are you happy in your life? And that, that, that all feeds back in and it goes in both directions. You know, your, your life can start to be pressured because you're not liking your job, but your job can start to be pressured cause you're not liking your life. So so here's the proposal. If you're okay, if you're not gonna be, my name is Bob and I am a molecular biologist. If you're not gonna identify that way, the question is, if you're not gonna be a PhD lab, scientist by identity, who are you gonna be? So what do you think about that? What, what, what can we offer people as things that they can identify with that will help their work and help them be happier in general?
Laura Grassie (13:24):
Yeah. So this is something I've given a lot of thought to because it was something that I've read a long time ago from actually a book by Derren Brown called 'Happy'. And he, he was one of the ones that said, you know, we have this culture of asking people, the first thing we do when we meet someone, he is asking them what they do. And it's, so I tried to stop doing that and, you know, to, to think about other ways that I could describe myself to people and to, to figure out who other people were, because also I think it's a, it's a really difficult thing to associate someone with a job because you don't, you know, scientists, aren't all the same. They have different likes and dislikes. You don't really understand what, who a person is just by their job title.
So I think actually it's more about the kind of, you know, thinking about the kind of things that you enjoy, you know, are you a runner? Are you a swimmer? Are, you know, so it could be some sort of exercise. Are you a book lover? You know, do you, what kind of movies do you like to watch? Do you like to cook? Do you like to garden? You know, what, if you didn't have to work, what would you spend your free time doing? Probably to me is the best way to think about who you are.
Kenneth Vogt (14:32):
I like it. And, and as you pointed out, some of that stuff could be measurable things causse you could be, if you're a runner, you could be a runner who runs races and, and you have, you will have the chance to, to to to win or lose. Or you could just be a runner who, who runs to be out in, out, outside and running. You know, you, you have a choice of how you wanna take that, you know, and we we've talked before how, how Nick Oswald is a, he's a rockstar on the side. You know, I mean he is, he has a legit band, you know, and, and he's good at it now. He doesn't have to do it that way. You know, I, well, I, up, up until this stroke, I enjoyed playing guitar and, and playing piano.
And for, for now that is on hold, but but because I'm not entirely identified with that, I didn't, I wasn't I'm can, and I'm a guitarist. I mean, that would've been devastating for me. I, I, I don't have to have my identity be associated with any particular thing. I, I often say I used to be a programmer it's not that I don't know how I, I did it for decades literally, and then I managed people doing it for, for a long time. So I I'm very, I'm very I'm very aware of that part of it, but it, but I'm not attached to it and things can change. That's the other thing about this is that what you're identified with today can change, you know you know, Laura, you got a, you get a, a young child at home, but at some point that young child is not gonna be so young anymore.
And not your, your association with motherhood may be different at that point. And you know, that may be true for, for everybody that's a parent or infected. It should be true. You know, my baby is 33, you know, so obviously the relationship has changed, but you know, you can keep, you can keep choosing what your identity will be. And so you know, we've talked about how this, this separation of identity can benefit your work and to a certain degree you know, things like you don't have to be associated with the failures of the job, cause there are gonna be failures. There are gonna be times when things don't go, as you wish, there are gonna be times when grants get canceled. There are gonna be times when experiments go just off the rails, there are gonna be times when equipment breaks.
There are gonna be times when, when people quit, that all kinds of stuff can go wrong. But if you, if you don't have your identity associated with that, well you'll roll with punches and you'll keep moving. And in fact, if you start, if you start to identify yourself as somebody who's a problem solver, those things not only won't be negative, they will be an opportunity. I think about the, the, the movie 'Apollo 13' and you know, they're, they're trying desperately to get them home and the conversation in the control room somebody says, you know, have you, have you thought about what the press release should look like when, you know, when they all get killed and, and the character turns to him and says, well, certain I believe this is going to be NASA's finest hour because he believed they could solve the problem.
You know? And that's, that's a, a really, really important thing when it comes to science. I wanna comment on two things, that'll be in the show notes before I forget here one is a link to, to an article that's called, 'You may not be who you think you are'. Um and it's, it's a brief read and it's worth looking at, and it, it looks at the question of identifying with your work, but some other things too. And then another one is a, a link to a Bitesize Bio article called 'The 10 lab Commandments or The Guide to a Happy Lab' that that's a worthwhile read too, a little, little bit longer, but not, it's still a Bitesize Bio, so worth, worth checking out. So here you are. You've you've decided, okay. I've I've, that's it, I'm no longer going to be Bob, the, the molecular biologist by automatic definition, I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be Bob, the runner. I'm gonna be Bob, the musician. I'm gonna be Bob, the book club member. I I'm gonna be Bob the Renaissance man. And that's that. And by the way, you can be Sarah, the Renaissance woman too. Um so having all these other interests, how can you feed that into your work? Now you've mentioned now you gotta sometimes be so dedicated to this work and it could be all hours of the day, but how do you have the rest of your life feed into this work and help your work life?
Laura Grassie (19:33):
I think having, well, first of all, I want to touch on one of the other things. I think you, you, you brought up there, which was really good, which is, it's not also about what you do. It's about who you are. So personality traits like being a problem solver. I think that looking for the kind of identity in that way is really good as well. You know, for example, myself, I would consider myself tenacious. I don't give up and thinking of myself that way helps through difficult times. Whether it be at work or not to get through them, that's who I am. I can do this, I can get through it. I think in terms of how can you help your not work life feed into your work life by having an identity outside of it is it allows you to refresh and it allows you to take a step back as well.
Because if your, if your work is your life and it defines who you are then you, like you said, you will take every failure very personally, and it'll start to feed negatively into you your negative and create a very negative mindset. And I'm saying this from someone who went through this I was very much someone during my PhD who made the job my life and had, I did have interest outside of them, but I didn't really consider that to be who I was. I felt that I was a scientist. And then when it, you know, it, for me, a career path in science just didn't seem to be the right choice. It was very difficult, even though looking back now, it was the right choice for me to leave the bench at the time, because that was my identity.
It really caused a lot of problems for me. I had a few years after I left my PhD where I just felt lost and empty. And like I had failed as a person because I hadn't followed this career path that I thought I was gonna follow. And I thought that that had made me a failure. But instead if I, if I'd spent more time, you know, I think thinking, and, and now I try and do it very much where I'm, you know, I am not what I do, but I am a person outside of that. It, again, it lets me step back and see things more objectively and put some distance between the job and me so that I don't take those failures personally. And like you said, I think it's really important. Don't take those successes personally as well, you know? Yes.
Something that you do that worked really well could be because you did an excellent job. It could also be luck. And, and riding that success and thinking that you are a wonderful person and then letting it inflate, your ego can also allow you to mess up on the job. But also, like you say create a big problem when things do go wrong again, because you've identified that as who you are. So yeah, that separate identity feeding in it rejuvenates you, it gives you meaning outside of the job so that you can be more neutral and that's what scientists should be. They shouldn't be emotional when it comes to the work, they should be neutral and be able to see, and science is somewhere where you're gonna fail a lot. That is the nature of science. So it is not like, you know, failure's gonna happen once in a blue moon, you know, for, for a lot of us, it happens, you know, daily or weekly. And it'll, it'll build resistance to that and resilience to that. And instead of going, oh, I just can't get this. Right. It'll also, I think, allow you that objectivity where a, you know, sometimes some fantastic successes in science have come from failures. And just being able to, instead of go, oh, that's not right. I've done that wrong. If something goes, not the way you expect you go, ha why did that happen? And maybe you'll be able to see the opportunity.
Kenneth Vogt (23:04):
Yeah, that's interesting. I, I love that idea. Like, well, that's not what I expected. That's, that's a, that's a fun state to be in. And, you know, I found that in the past was software development. Now software is something you really don't want it to not work, but sometimes when something fails, you go, wow, that, how did you do that? Now? Now it becomes an interesting thing to look at. And maybe something useful comes out of it. Maybe not, but, but you know, why not? Why not take a look, see what's out there.
Laura Grassie (23:39):
Kenneth Vogt (23:40):
The other side of this, this all feeds back to your life. You know, like if, if your life, if your work is going successfully and you're happy in your work, and you're learning things that are life lessons, there are things that you can teach to your children. There are things that, that you can apply in, in your relationships. There are things that you can apply to your own health and, and in your own personal growth, it it's, it, these things aren't so compartmentalized your, your life and your work are not in these silos that don't touch each other. So that is the discussion of how you can unlink the identity, your, your self identity from your work. So is there anything else Laura, that you wanna add as a wrap up?
Laura Grassie (24:33):
Just that it's not an easy process? I think something that's been ingrained into us from society, as well as science in general. So don't beat yourself up if it takes you, a while to, to start to unlink that. But just trying, I think will make a, a big difference to most people,
Kenneth Vogt (24:50):
Right? And the fact is you've already been doing hard things for a long time power to you. You can do this, you can, you can make this work. You can be happy and you don't have to tell everybody about your PhD. All right. Well, on that note, we'll we'll call it a wrap. Thank you so much, Laura, for being with us today and maybe we'll hear from her again in the future, cause she had other ideas.
Laura Grassie (25:17):
Kenneth Vogt (25:19):
All right. Thanks B.
Nick Oswald (25:22):
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