State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Triaging the Behindedness

Last fall, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, honored my former advisor and boss, Bill Ryan. As my small contribution, I offered this essay that ends with a story about Bill.

Bill Ryan
Bill Ryan

“Triage” is a term originating with medical personnel in the military. Its original meaning was the process of dividing wounded on the battlefield into three groups: those who will probably die no matter what you do for them, those who will probably survive even in the absence of medical care, and those who need immediate attention in order to survive. In a crisis situation, with limited available resources, medical attention is directed towards those in the third category.

“Behindedness” refers to the situation where you are, or feel like you are, behind on everything and getting further behind with every passing week. So “triaging the behindedness” means sorting your behindedness into things that don’t have to be done because they will go away or get better anyway if you ignore them, things that aren’t worth doing because they are metaphorically dead or hopeless no matter what you do, and things that are worth spending your limited time and resources on.

Behindedness was a critical issue for me in the early years of my career. In fact I came very close to leaving Lamont over this exact issue. I had been here four or five years, and was feeling more and more overwhelmed. I went to my supervisor in tears, saying, “I can’t do this job. I keep getting more and more behind. With every passing month, I get a week further behind. With every passing year, I get a few months further behind.” Vacillating between thinking there was something wrong with me or something wrong with Lamont, I applied for jobs elsewhere, was offered two, nearly left but stayed in the end.

In retrospect, I believe that I misdiagnosed the situation. There was nothing wrong with me, and there was nothing wrong with Lamont that could have been cured by going to another research university.

I’m here to tell you that this behindedness problem is not your fault, or my fault, or the fault of any individual or institution. It is systemic.

Why is this? I see several reasons.

#1 and most important. The unknown is infinite. Your job is unbounded. Most people in this room don’t have an actual written job description, but if you did it would say, in effect, “figure out something important and interesting about how the universe works, and then tell other people about it.” What is not known about the universe is infinite. No matter how clever you are and how hard you work, it will still be just as infinite at the end of the week as it was at the beginning. Science, research, is a black hole which can absorb every minute of every day of every week of every year for the rest of your life–if you let it.

#2: Competence at one task attracts more tasks. If you work hard and provide insightful input on a panel one year, next year they will ask you to Chair the panel, and that will take ten times as much time.

#3: Distributed decision-making is extremely time-inefficient. For various reasons, good and bad, science is set up with a system of widely-distributed decision-making: Our community decides what gets funded and what gets published through peer-review of manuscripts and proposals. We decide who gets hired and promoted through search committees and promotion committees and departmental-wide discussions and votes. We plan tomorrow’s science through workshops, panels, committees and white-papers. All of this requires huge investments of scientist-time. These thinking/planning/deciding/recommending tasks are generally not delegatable.

#4: Education, especially as practiced at elite universities, is extremely labor-intensive. And furthermore, education doesn’t stay done; it needs to be done all over again every year. Joni Mitchell, on her Miles of Aisles album, pointed out the difference between performing and painting: “Nobody ever said to Van Gogh ‘Hey man, paint A Starry Night again’.” Education is like singing; you have to paint A Starry Night, or A Dynamic Earth, or A Changing Climate again and again and again for new audiences.

So the bottom line is, this Behindedness issue is bigger than you and it isn’t going to go away. You need strategies, deliberate strategies, to decide what not to do, with any given hour, day, week, year of your life. You may not choose the same strategies as I’ve been using, but to need to find some strategies. Here are 10 suggestions. (And by the way my strategy collection is still a work in progress, and I don’t even manage to follow all of my own strategies all of the time.)

#1. As with any chronic lifestyle problem, the path out of the pit begins by acknowledging the problem. Look this fact in the face: you can not do everything that people ask you to do or expect you to do. This is not elementary school any more where a hardworking smart girl can do all the assigned homework every night.

#2 Consciously decide what you, yourself, want out of this career.And then use that decision as your basis to prioritize what not to do.

Here are some possible answers:

* I really really really want to understand _____(fill in the blank)_____ about how the Earth works.

* It is important to me to have a sense that I am making upward progress through the hierarchy of my organization; I want to be promoted to ____(fill in the blank) ____.

* I just want to be able to mess around with interesting data and think interesting thoughts and discuss ideas with interesting people.

* I need to make X dollars per year to support _______(fill in the blank)____.

* I love to explore. I love the adventure of going to new places, and having new experiences, meeting new people, and seeing what no one has ever seen before.

* I like to be in charge; I like things to be done my way.

* I need to have X amount of time per week of non-work time to devote to my ____(fill in the blank)_____.

* I love learning new things.

* Through my work, I want to make the world a better place for humanity or for future generations.

* I love to help young people learn and grow.

There is no single right answer. The answer is different for different people. There is a generic one-size-fits-all conventional answer for scientists at universities. But that answer was formulated at a time when approximately all scientists were men, and it doesn’t have to be your answer; you have the option to decide on a different set of trade-offs.

The answer may evolve over time within a single lifetime. The adventure/exploration component used to be very important to me. In recent years, the part about making the world a better place for future generations has grown stronger for me.

#3. Recognize that if you fail to do something or neglect to do something that you are quote “supposed” to do, that doesn’t make you a bad person. There may be consequences, maybe even bad consequences. You might get a ticket for having an outdated automobile inspection, or a decision that you disagree with might be made at the meeting you didn’t go to, or you might miss out on a funding opportunity. You can deal with any of those external consequences. You can pay the fine on the ticket, or find another avenue to get your preferences into the decision-making process, or wait for the next proposal deadline. What you cannot deal with, on a sustainable basis, is the internal voice in your head that tells you “bad girl, bad girl, bad girl.”

#4. Listen to your heart and do the things that you find really interesting. Science is a creative endeavor, you can only be sustainably creative about things that you find profoundly interesting. Say no to things that you don’t find interesting.

Now the next part is harder. Stop doing things that you no longer find interesting. I lost my passionate interest in the bottom of the ocean somewhere along the line, so I don’t do marine geology any more. It seems much easier, on the face of it, to keep on doing what you already are good at, what you already have a reputation for. And it seems so hard to seek out a new passion, to climb a new learning curve, find new collaborators, build a new reputation. But if you aren’t interested any more, that old path is a sure dead end. Extract yourself.

#5: Don’t get sidetracked onto blame, revenge or regrets. Life is too short. Paraphrasing Marcia McNutt in a room full of people trying to figure out who to blame: “Let’s not worry about all that. How can we move forward from here?”

#6: It’s better to say “no” up front than to say “yes” and not deliver. If you find it really hard to say “no”, practice on telemarketers. It’s ok to say “no” honestly, I’m too busy, or I’m not really interested in that, or that doesn’t fit with what I’m trying to accomplish this year. It’s a bit easier to say no if you can suggest some other person who would be well-qualified and might find the request flattering or interesting.

#7: An ounce of creativity is worth a pound of slogging. A good idea goes a long way in this business. Be self-aware and introspective about the circumstances under which your good ideas occur. Is it while you are walking or swimming? While you are doing routine labwork? At 2am? While writing? Don’t inadvertently squeeze this thinking time out of your schedule. Some people, including me, think there is a special creative state of mind, sometimes called “flow” where your experience of the passage of time slows down and you can focus very intently and be unusually creative (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). See if you can find ways to get into this mindset.

#8: When you need to know about something outside your expertise, don’t read the literature. Find an expert and pick his or her brain. Progress in our field right now often happens at the interfaces between areas of expertise. To make such progress you need to learn very quickly about topics or fields you weren’t trained in, and often the information or insight you need from this other field is very specific or obscure. You could search for weeks in the library. As I’ve learned from my journalist colleagues, intensively asking questions of an expert is an incredibly efficient way of finding what you need from a field you know little about. One of the wonders of Lamont is how many different kinds of experts there are here, and almost all of them are willing to answer your questions and share their knowledge. Only read the literature on topics you already know about.

#9: Hire other people to do some of your work for you.I learned this by watching Robin Bell. Many women tend to say or think, Oh I don’t have much money and it’s free if I do it myself. This rationale only holds up if you consider your own time to be low in value and infinitely expandable. But your time is not low in value; it is your most precious commodity, your most non-renewable resource.

This strategy comes in two parts.

First, hire people to do things you know how to do.

Women in my generation spent a huge amount of energy and time proving that we could do everything the guys could do. We could do math; we could spend weeks or months away from home; we could run big, expensive projects; we could hang out on the rig floor with the drillers and the roughnecks; we could write computer programs; we could pee in Alvin.But here’s an important secret: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it. Someone else can do it for you!

The easy part about hiring someone to do things you know how to do is that you can tell if they are doing a good job and you know you’ll be able to guide them if they are not. A hard part is accepting the fact that they may not do it exactly the way you would have done it. That doesn’t matter. The work got done. And you didn’t have to do it. Another hard part is that you have to be more organized farther in advance to set the wheels in motion to have the task done by someone else; when it needs to be done at midnight on the night before the deadline, generally the only workforce available are you, yourself and you.

Hire people to do things that you don’t know how to do. This came harder to me and I think to most women. All I can offer by way of suggestion is to set very clear goals about what you want to accomplish and communicate incessantly.

And now I’d like to end on a positive note. The strategies I have offered up until now have mostly been damage-control strategies. But here is a positive strategy, a strategy that can truly make the world a better a place.

#10: Turn your inability to do everything into an opportunity for a young person (maybe even a young woman.)

I will illustrate this with a story, a parable, a story with a moral. When I first came to Lamont, I worked in a group that operated an instrument called SeaMARC I, an instrument that made high resolution images of the seafloor more revealing than anything that academic scientists had ever had access to. We were like kids in a candy shop. We zoomed all over the world trying to image every kind of environment and tectonic setting in the world’s oceans, seeing things that no human eye had ever seen before. Funding flowed from many directions, and collaborators clamored to work with us. We were off-the-scale on the exploration/adventure reward dimension. We had a wonderful time, but we also spent many months a year at sea, year after year.

Finally, the wife of my supervisor, left ashore through all this excitement, put her foot down. A perceptive and insightful woman, and a counselor by profession, she said: You cannot go to sea so much next year; your son needs his father, he’s beginning to go astray, you must be here. So my supervisor stayed ashore for one of our major cruises that year, and I sailed as Chief Scientist. I didn’t understand the reason for his decision, but I didn’t question it.

Was this a good decision? Well, it depends on how large a perspective you take on the question. From the perspective of that particular cruise, it was probably not a good decision. Although I know that I did a satisfactory job of running that cruise, in all honesty I am pretty sure that more insights about that particular patch of the Mediterranean seafloor would have been extracted had the more experienced senior scientist been there.

But if you take a larger perspective, I think there is a different answer. For me, that cruise was pivotal in my career. Having been Chief Scientist of that Mediterranean cruise made me a viable candidate to be Co-Chief Scientist on the Ocean Drilling Leg in the Mediterranean two years later, the first woman Co-Chief on the Joides Resolution. Having been Co-Chief of the drilling leg gave me dynamite material for my Sr Staff promotion talk, and gave me credibility with funders and European collaborators when I set out to organize a GPS project in the Aegean. Opportunity springs from opportunity.

And about that young man, my supervisor’s son. He didn’t go astray after all. In fact he grew up to be a son that any parent would be proud of, insightful, generous, curious, in harmony with Nature. And then, he died. At the heartbreaking age of 23, he died a hero, working as a park ranger on Mt Ranier, attempting a rescue of an injured, stranded mountain climber.

So did Bill Ryan make the right decision to skip cruise Robert Conrad 25-06, spend extra time with his son, give up the chance to find answers about a part of the world that had puzzled him since graduate school, and entrust hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding, a month of shiptime, and his treasured SeaMARC I instrument into my inexperienced hands?

Twenty years later, the answer seems clear: yes, it was the right decision. So now, I’m trying to learn how to pass this trust on, to turn my inability to do everything into opportunities for young people.

Thank you and Good luck.

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