Today, I thought back at my career as a biological researcher. In 1995, I started studying biochemistry. In 2000, towards the end of my studies, I went through several lab internships that aimed to prepare me for a career as an academic researcher. One of these positions was in a lab that worked in Developmental Biology – the study of how a complete organism forms from one single fertilized egg. This question was a never-ending riddle to me, an ideal playground to let my thoughts run wild, and I was enthralled ever since I discussed a related paper for a seminar. Moreover, the lab I was interning in used cool technology. They killed cells in a living organism with a laser beam to see whether these cells were important for development.
It was pretty different from the methods of yonder we were learning in biochemistry. It seemed like a revolution, and thus I was excited to have the opportunity to join the lab. I was excited. I had found my calling.
I was excited and motivated like never before. I had devoured the relevant literature months ahead. I was armed, loaded and ready to go. This was my chance. My moment. There was no way I would not work as hard and enthusiastic as I ever could.
And it started out great. The Principal Investigator (PI) greeted me, gave me a little project and introduced me to the theory behind the experiments I was supposed to do. Then I said hello to the lab members… all good.
Yet, unfortunately – what started out great soon turned sour. What happened?
1. I failed to read social signals.
After preparing really well for the job, I was brimming with self-confidence and naïveté, and unfortunately, I disregarded social signals.
For example, one time, the technician explained an experiment to me and showed me to do a simple calculation on paper – to which I simply asked why she wouldn’t crunch the numbers in her head. To me this was an innocent question, to her it was insulting and dismissive, because she used pen and paper to make absolutely sure there was no mistake. I failed to see how my behavior made an important person in the lab feel slighted.
I think everyone is proud of what he or she is doing. If you just confront them – especially if you only know them for a couple of days! and tell them you know how you can do it better, they get upset – it does not matter if your idea was good or bad. People want to be acknowledged.
2. I was overeager.
The group was still relatively small, and the PI was always accessible. Yet that does not mean it’s always a good idea to interact more often with the boss than with the lab members. I was in the very lucky position that he gave me as much attention as any other lab member, and later on made me an offer to do my Diploma Thesis in his lab. Yet… to the lab members I came across as someone who always searched for the spotlight, and they started to resent me. Once again, I was blissfully unaware of that dynamic.
I just barged in with my own ideas and paid little attention to how the people in the place were interacting with each others.
3. I was helpful.
This was something I did right, and it actually netted me my first “real” job, my PhD a couple of months later. There was an older colleague who had to take care of her child and thus could not always be there – so she asked me for small favors from time to time, and I helped her. We became friends, and she recommended me to a friend of hers, who became group leader and my PhD supervisor a year later (see also Networking Your Way To Happiness).
I had worked hard for this internship, and then I felt entitled and made some huge mistakes. I was getting enthralled by my own confidence; I was excited for the science, but I did not read the social cues, and ended up alienating several people – even though I tried to be helpful whenever I had the opportunity.
I have seen a similarly unfortunate misreading of social signals and hierarchies later from the “other side of the fence” – when I myself was one of the older guys.
For example, we once had an applicant, and she greeted me on the day of the interview with “Hi, my name is so-and-so, and if all goes well, I will be the new technician here”.
Another coworker would lecture me in a very aggressive way – after being in the lab for a couple of weeks – about the proper use of equipment that I had used years before.
People may have the best intention of being productive, but you can’t plow your way through a new environment. You will have to be humble at the beginning and listen – then, gradually, you can suggest improvements. People resent change, and if you go into a social environment with your guns blazing, it doesn’t matter how right you are because you alienate people.
So, 15 years later, how would I approach this internship if I were to do it again?
1. Do prepare yourself well and show determination.
Basically, my theoretical knowledge and motivation to work paid off. I was offered a position. If you know what you are doing and show that you will go the extra mile, people start to recognize and recommend you.
2. Observe social relations.
You may realize that people do certain things inefficiently, and you may think you can do it better than them, but especially at the beginning, people expect you to recognize “your place”. If you just run along with them for a bit, be interested and offer advice instead of being completely contrarian, they will accept you and eventually listen to you. For example, when the technician told me to do the calculations on paper, I should have done as told without questions asked. Then, a week later, I could have crunched the numbers in my head and then let her know that actually worked better.
3. Be helpful whenever you can.
This has served me well. If people see they can rely on you, you will build up trust with them – and you never know when a favor you do comes back to help you. Also here: go the extra mile. Never decline a favor you are asked, especially not in the beginning. It’s your golden opportunity to shine.
I hope these rules can prevent you from falling into the same traps that I was stepping into. Your motivation and excitement should be a glaring beacon of positivity and not end up hurting you. Listen to people, go the extra mile to be as helpful as possible and focus on doing an excellent job.
Good luck out there!
Summary of Day 18
Below you will find
(a) a quick description how I fared on my main goals – losing body fat, working on my blog, installing good habits;
(b) my thoughts for the day;
(c) how the rest of the program went and whether there were any irregularities or other noteworthy points.
Losing body fat
Body fat up to 23.1%. Cheat Day yesterday shows.
I was not particularly hungry, so I had a coffee in the morning and mozzarella with tomatoes in the evening.
39 good form push-ups + 81 in ok form (half way down). Getting to 39 was goddamn hard, but I made it (if with a few breaks where I would just hold my body in place.
120 squats in good form.
120 sit-ups in good form.
Working on my blog
I wrote this blog posts here.
(a) Emotional Health: Going to the lab in the cold, slushy rain made me proud of being home later, and I could enjoy the warmth that much more.
(b) Spiritual Health: I continued the Happiness Habit. What was I grateful for?
1. Making it to the lab despite of slushy rain.
2. Being home warm and safe afterwards.
3. Enjoying the day with its good and bad experiences.
(c) Mental Health.
10 ways to enjoy cold, icy rain.
1. Jumping into puddles.
2. Looking forward to the warm bath once you are home.
3. Knowing that what brings you out must be important.
4. Experiencing raw power of nature.
5. Knowing that any other weather must be better.
6. Understanding looks from your friends who did not have to go outside.
7. Braving hard conditions makes us stronger.
8. Imagining how life in the guard must have been for people from “Game of Thrones”.
9. The absence of ice zombies makes you appreciate our time and reality.
10. Being driven to absolutely focus on what you have to do for the day (to get through the rain fast).
Thoughts for the day
What did I do well?
I battled the slushy rain and went to the lab.
What do I want to improve?
It took me too long to get going, even though I had the visit to the lab on my daily list.
How will I improve?
Just go through the items on your list as fast as possible, so you can have more focussed time to relax afterwards – and you won’t get into any time trouble.
The rest of the “30-Days of Discipline” items went fine.
Video Summary Day 18
To check the description of the “One Year of Discipline” challenge, click here.
To see yesterday’s post, click here.
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