Monday, July 26, 2010

Stress in academia

This week a message not about some scientific findings but rather
about what it's like to be a scientist, which is ... stressful
sometimes. I was talking about the upcoming grant deadline and he
remarked that I was not stressed at all, hence today's topic. It was
actually true that I wasn't very stressed, and it's an interesting
question to consider why. I think two things that help with stress are
(1) regular exercise and (2) having a bigger perspective. For number
1, I do ballet, which is a great source of joy as well as
exercise-induced endorphins. During ballet class, the only thing I can
focus on is the dance, the music and the expression, because otherwise
I will lose the plot and mess up the exercise. I think it's really
good to have such mental breaks, because they allow you to reorganize
your thoughts, and you'll get back to work with a lot of new ideas and
insights. Recently I read an interesting interview with the Dutch
philosopher Joke Hermsen, who complained about the hurried culture,
and the importance of simply wasting your time so you could get ideas
and reorganize your thought. I think it is a similar idea.

In addition to dancing I have my Buddhist practice, in which I
contemplate life and death every day. In the perspective of life and
death, a simple grant deadline is not such a big deal. In the end,
that is not what life is about. What life is about is more the
intention than the goal--simply because we cannot really control the
results of our actions which are dependent upon so many other
factors. Realizing this, we can take a step back and just say "I put
all my effort in it, now let's just see what happens. Irrespective of
the outcome, may this be of benefit to the world." When we take the I
out in this way, the stress is largely gone.

Disclaimer: This is of course all theory, and in practice I do get
stressed as well, but at least a whole lot less than without these tools!
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