Sunday, January 1, 2017

The First Day of 2017

I have been blogging, irregularly, for several years here.  Some folks read what I write, most people do not. I am grateful for the former, but understand the latter.

This post is going to be different.  The first thing I want to say at the outset is that I am very lucky, and many people have far greater difficulties than I do.  That needs emphasis.

The past several years have been challenging for me both personally and professionally.  The death of my mother.  The death of my father. A fight to earn tenure at my current institution. A lack of research progress, and grant support.  Most recently, an attempt to be promoted to full professor being tabled in a way I find, um, a bit unfair.  So I have experienced some negatives personally and professionally.

Yes, there have been many positives, too.  My wife Jenny, my sons Anson and Zachary.  The continued successes of former research students (the most important thing I have ever done professionally is identify and mentor scientific talent in others). I have received some recognition and appreciation, especially off campus (it turned into an accurate joke with a former student:  I'm popular, but not in person).  

So why cannot these positive things outweigh the bad?

I would like to write about myself and my journey in this post. More importantly, I would like to write about how we all treat each other, particularly in these odd and turbulent times.  So:  no microbiology, no education, no students.  It's okay if you don't feel like reading more.  But I wanted to say a few things to people who might be interested.

I have suffered from depression for many, many years.  I say that with the full knowledge that I have much to be happy about, and a great deal of which to be proud.  I am well aware of the stigma that is attached to any form of mental difficulty.  That said, let me repeat:  I suffer from depression.  I work hard to hide it. 

Winston Churchill used to call depression his "black dog," and there is some truth to that.  This video explains things very well, I think.  It certainly struck powerful chords in me.

Given my challenges, it is remarkable I have come as far as I have; I certainly didn't expect that I would (i) get into a PhD program, (ii) complete a postdoc, (iii) get a job, (iv) return to academia, (v) have my career survive being denied tenure, (vi) get a new academic job, (vii) earn tenure at that new job, and (most of all) (viii) have my career survive all the spectacularly dumb things I have done over the years.

And I haven't even started on my personal life.  Yet there too, I have done far better than many.  I would say "better than I deserve," but that feeds into the whole self-deprecation thing again. Sigh.

Even with depression I survived all these things, did well, and am still standing.

We all know the story of the missing sheep. In a perverse way, I (and others like me) tend to focus on the negative.  To give more impact and credence to failures than to successes.  Worst of all for me is that I am very aware that my mindset is counterproductive. It's frustrating for others, and bothers the heck out of me, too.  

As an example, I dislike compliments and will minimize or negate them. I used to joke that my late mother was "psychologically Amish," because she would deflect or negate compliments.  To my mother, arrogance was a Sin among sins.  Arrogance is indeed unpleasant, but she took it too far, and so have I.

As you can see, my odd journey has impacted me in many ways.  I tend to understate my own abilities.  I avoid fighting or disagreements as much as possible---which I have found counterproductive.  I expect the worst from others (and from myself).  I see things illuminated by what I have called for many years "dark light."

I have let this affliction own me for many years, and yet I still have accomplished more than I objectively could have predicted.  I have trouble calling myself a winner, so perhaps I can call myself a survivor.  

I don't give up, despite all my complaining and negativity.  

So in the coming year, I will work very hard indeed to make some changes:  to be more positive, productive, supportive, and energetic.  I want to create the world in which I want to live---by being that person, and rewarding/encouraging those who think the same way.

When they were little, I use to joke with my sons that we needed a family motto:  we aren't problem complainers, we are problem solvers.

I need to take that to heart. 

We all---me included---need to change our ways.  Much of this is derived from the lessons we supposedly learned in kindergarten. I have seen a lot of hurt and cruelty, even in academic environments. Perhaps especially in academic environments.  The longer I am in academia, the more I see that Sayres was right.

True enough.  I often think we academics are the ones no one wanted on that fourth grade kickball team.  It explains a lot. 

It is true I have had to deal with some, um, not-fans of yours truly. It's a challenge to me to have people think poorly of me, and see me in the worst light possible. Still, there is some use in having folks like that around, to be honest: we all have room to improve.  My late father used to remind me that everyone in San Quentin Prison maintained that they were innocent; we all must own some of our own difficulties. We just need to find proportion.  And by "we," I mean "me." 

This is amusing and also true.

So what to do?  Persevere, again.  Not give up.  Not give in.  I do have supporters who think well of me, and I need to pay more attention to them. And I need to prove my detractors wrong, and rather silly, by my actions and example.  It's easier to just let things go and feel sorry for myself; energy is required to climb upwards into the light.  

When someone says or does something I do not care for, I need to stop.  Take a breath.  And then I need to ask myself:  do I do or say things just like that?  If so, I need to change.  Because the only person I can really change is myself.

There is a great book with an amusing title.  I recommend it to anyone in academia.  If you don't have time to read it, here is a short synapsis by the author.  

You see, bullying is contagious, even in academia.  It's all about folks in one group dissing folks in another group----just like middle school.  If you and your group are smart and good, why, folks in another group must be stupid and bad.  Again, just like middle school.

Few people (and no administrator) will stand up to most bullying, except in its most extreme forms.  It's easier to allow someone to be treated badly than to induce a bully to behave decently. So all I have is to take the better path.  To show by example I am not like that; to try to create the environment in which I want to live and work.  This is important for people other than myself; allowing bullies to do their thing---even in academia---leads to more bullies and less enjoyment in life.

And it's true in other areas than academia, as we all see.

But standing up has a personal cost, to me. My father used to tell me that the measure of a person was not how they treated people they liked or who treated them well. That was easy.  No, the measure of a person was how they treated people they did not like, and who did not treat them well.  

I want to follow my father's example.  It's not easy, but I am making progress.

In a larger context, here are some guidelines that might help create a better environment for us all.  They apply to me, too.

  • Tactlessness is not honesty.
  • Being overbearing is not the same as being forthright.
  • Cruelty to others is not a type of strength.
  • Kindness is not a form of weakness.
  • If you are talking, you are not listening.
  • If you are waiting to talk, you are not listening, either.
  • Be certain that what you call snark is not cruelty.
  • Avoid hypocrisy; if it is wrong when one person does it, it is wrong when another person does it.

I cannot speak for you, but hypocrisy drives me up a wall.  We all see people who have two sets of rules:  one for people they like (or themselves) and one for others.  I certainly see a lot of it on social media.  Sigh.  

Putting the proverbial shoe on the other foot is an important skill. People who believe differently than you do are not evil or stupid. But our internet world is all about snap judgement and narrative, so it seems to me....instead of about people, and the kind of environment in which most of us want to live.  

For me, the big take home lesson brings us home to Henry James.

And even to the late, great Randy Pausch.

I would encourage everyone to be kinder and more patient, as Henry James and Randy Pausch suggest. There is evidence helping others helps both parties, as the fearless Amy Alkon champions here.

I think she has a point. I believe that we should all strive to do one kindness for a stranger each day. And two kindnesses for people we know!

So the new year begins today.  I actually do have some resolutions:

  • Be less negative.
  • Be more grateful.
  • Get more sleep.
  • Get more exercise.
  • Become more organized.
  • Make things happen.
  • Do better research.
  • Get more papers published.
  • Blog more often.

Several scientists have offered to help me with the research part; another reason to feel lucky and grateful.  I intend to take them up on it.   It's time to bring that black dog to heel.  Wish me luck?

I may not succeed.  But I will keep trying.  And that is the one thing my life objectively demonstrates:  if you don't give up, and keep trying, you will arrive somewhere very near your goals. 

I will try to live by one of my old, old mottos:  
Loquere minus
Audi plus
Cogita semper
It means:
Talk less
Listen more
Think always
There is a saying I very much like.  "The future will not be as terrible as our nightmares, or as wonderful as our daydreams."

Finally, I want to wish each of you a wonderful 2017.  And I recently found a post by the essential and uplifting author Neil Gaiman (have you read his "American Gods"?) that is hopeful, positive, and genuine.  Here it is.

Notice the importance of kindness, again?

Ray Bradbury is another literary hero of mine.  Brother Ray speaks for me here:  I am fine being the person I am.  If some people don't like it, I would rather spend time around people who don't mind my quirks and talents.

Being yourself is important.

Brother Ray is also giving me good advice about my own future here.

If you will pardon me, I have some wings to build.  And many thanks to the folks who have offered to help me build them. I'm a bit of a group project.  As I get older, I am finally understanding that we are all group projects.

I'll settle for less anger, and more positivity, from me.  What about you? 


  1. what a fab piece of writing! I also grapple with the black dog and more each day, grapple with a final year in Biomed Science that's not turning out quite the way I planned it before starting it, but I will get there. Kindness is such a fab word, and so easy to practice! All the best for your 2017, prof :), lee

    1. Very kind of you. All any of us can do is modulate our own behavior! I wish you the best in 2017.

  2. I really admire you for posting this and appreciate your thinking. I'm so honored that you included my talk. I think you will help people with this post -- at the very least, to know they are not alone and to understand that depression is not something to be ashamed of.

    1. And here was your good deed toward me, by saying nice things! It was so interesting to hear you articulate what I have thought to myself for so long. I hope your sentiment about kindness toward others spreads. I'm a big admirer of your work.

  3. Thank you for sharing your personal story, Mark. Although I am outside of academia at the moment, I can relate to many of the issues you mentioned. More than anything, I always try to critically evaluate my relationships with others, in hopes to become a better person. By the way, like you, I still struggle with accepting compliments. Working on it.

    1. All I have is thinking about how the other person feels, and how I would like to be treated. Thanks for your comment.


I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!