Courage is like a muscle. We strengthen it with use – Ruth Gordon
I think a lot of us feel insecure or intimidated from time to time. That may be completely normal, and can be helpful in a way. When I first came here to WHOI as a postdoc, I was (rightfully) worried that I didn’t know very much about molecular biology or toxicology. I thought that everyone knew more than me, maybe everyone was smarter than me, and it would be hard to catch up. It was difficult and sometimes stressful, but I worked really hard and found colleagues, friends and mentors to help me. I learned a lot and developed many new skills, maybe more than I would have done had I been feeling more confident. This is a good thing.
On the other hand, sometimes I think I miss out on opportunities because I’m intimidated*. It’s sometimes stressful to reach out to colleagues, particularly people I don’t know personally, or don’t know very well. This is a hard thing to quantify, but the following two stories are good examples of very positive interactions that I almost missed out on. These examples seem kind of ridiculous…even to me, and but they are 100% true. I’m hoping that by reading this, you might be inspired to push yourself to take a small risk or do something that seems a little “scary.”
A while back, I was coordinating a bioinformatics seminar series. I had the idea to invite a professor from a nearby university as a guest speaker. I’ve met this scientist a few times; he is about my age and career level. He is personable and friendly, not gruff or unpleasant in any way. But for some reason, I was nervous about inviting him. He’s done some really great work and produced some high-impact papers. I started thinking, “He knows so much more about this subject than I do [which obviously is the reason I wanted to invite him to speak in the first place; negative self-talk is not always logical]. Why would he want to come here?” But I pulled it together and sent him a brief email invite. He wrote back quickly, and said he would be very happy to come. Beyond that, he mentioned that he would soon be hosting a symposium at a conference and invited me to be a speaker! He came to WHOI, gave two really interesting and interactive presentations, and I had an unexpected opportunity to interact with a completely different scientific community at the conference. Initiative rewarded!
Around that time, I was working on a proposal that would involve research in a different geographic area. I felt kind of out of my league and decided that I could really use some help. I identified a scientist who was working on complementary research topics within the same geographic area. I didn’t know her at all, but after reading several of her publications, I was very impressed by her research program…and again intimidated. I started thinking, “She sure knows a lot of things I don’t know [again, that’s why I was contacting her!]. What if she thinks my ideas aren’t good, that I haven’t done enough background research, and/or that I’m wasting her time?” I contacted her first by email, and later we talked over the phone. She enthusiastically offered her assistance to my proposal, but providing samples and advice. And again there was an unexpected bonus! She later invited me to serve on an expert panel and to contribute a review article for a prominent journal.
I think about these two examples a lot. In both cases, by reaching out to a colleague, not only did I get the help I was asking for, but benefited in unpredictable ways. People are of course busy, and I think it’s important to be respectful of their time and well-prepared when making a request. But people also like to help, and it’s completely unreasonable to think we need to know everything or be able to do everything alone. So my resolution for 2018 is to take more initiative, to be more fearless. Every month I’ll take a specific step to push myself out of my professional comfort zone…and hopefully there will be some unexpected benefits. Anyone want to join me?
* p.s. If you are a student or an early career scientist, it might seem odd that I’m talking about being intimidated. I have tenure for goodness sake! Of course I have grown over the years in my skills, knowledge and confidence, but I hope it’s useful to share this ongoing struggle.