One of the biggest challenges to one’s mental health and wellbeing is the opinion and emotions of “I’m behind in life”. Most people, including myself, have compared ourselves and our journey to the next guy at one point or another. This doesn’t only leave you feeling small and insignificant but will often have you battling with extreme anxiety feeling “you need to catch up”, or severe depression feeling “you’ll never catch”.
Recent events in my academic life highlighted two very cliché proverbs I believe are often overlooked:
You are not behind in life. 7 billion people can’t do everything in the same order. What’s early? What’s late? Compared to who?– Emily Maroutian
Focus on yourself. Don’t get lost in other people– Unknown
So how in the world was grad school the one place to instil and engrave this wisdom in me? Let me provide more some context.
You are not behind in life.
Studying in a foreign country, the beginning of my curriculum was different from that of my peers who are native. While I spent most of my first semester on what I deem an absolute waste of time, like learning a language (that I already knew) and basic statistics (which I now believe theoretically has nothing to do with real-world application). My peers were already set up in their different respective departments to get the introduction to the essential skills of clinical or laboratory medicine necessary. By the time I was done with my basic classes and was about to start my skills training, guess what happened to good-ol-lucky me?! ..CORONAVIRUS!!!!!!!! After just a week of learning what a pipette is, BAM, lockdown for a good half a year.
By the time we returned to work, time was limited, and I couldn’t return to any introductory learning. I was literally thrown into the pack with the wolves to immediately get started with my research project. Granted, I’ve never conducted any research before or had any prior laboratory skills training. I DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO DO ANYTHING! My peers who were next to me were already up and running, performing various kinds of tests. As for me, I barely even knew what a PCR machine looked like, let alone be able to analyse the RNA of a sample. Much of my time was spent performing failed experiments, wasting A LOT of money, and feeling small and incompetent. And because most days I couldn’t do much, I spent much of my time sitting on my laptop learning. From trying to understand the set up of a laboratory to the use of various software systems (shout out to Harvard Uni’s online classes. Your girl’s coding skills went from 0 to 2.. We celebrate every achievement here!).
As my peers were clearly ahead of me, already having obtained their preliminary results, I was sitting on the computer learning software programming because that is all I could do/control.
Eventually, from failing at EVERYTHING, I finally understood what NOT to do. And I gradually started picking up pace in my work. Although with extreme anxiety that everyone was going to graduate before me because I was “behind”. However, one day, as I was busy working on analyzing and editing the very few results I’m now obtaining, my colleagues came up to my work station in awe. I didn’t quite understand the fascination with my results because even though I don’t know exactly what they obtained, indeed, it’s more than what I have. So what was the fascination about? They had stacks of data and results that they didn’t know how to analyse or compute with any software!
So there I was, every other day sitting with envy looking at other people’s achievements and feeling insignificant. And every day, battling emotions of anxiety, wondering how I will ever catch up. All along, what I was learning and deeming small, is something very essential that everyone else would eventually have to sit and learn as well.
Now when I’m trying to pick up pace and momentum with my experiments, however, effortlessly analysing any data I obtain; my peers are hard at work sitting at their desks trying to learn just the basic skills of photoshop.
So at the end of the day, who is really behind here? I have learned all the necessary programming skills and will eventually obtain all my results. My peers have obtained their results and will eventually learn the programming skills. There is no a-z map of doing one thing. Even people who work in the same field have various times and pathways of reaching a goal. Therefore, why do we treat life, with all its complexities, as a one-size for all?!
Where you are right now is where you are meant to be. Don’t take for granted the “basic lessons” you feel you are learning. You will need to know all that you are learning now at some point, right?! So why not learn them now? You will eventually get to the next chapter, but for now, take pride in yourself that you get up every day to learn, to live, to grow.
Focus on your own self!
Because of the language barrier, I don’t usually sit with my peers to compare and contrast my results. I’m around for a good time when we fool around, make dinner plans, or discuss our different cultural backgrounds. But when it comes to medical and scientific discussions, I would only sit with the senior doctors and scientists for constructive criticism and guidance. So every day, my goal was to get better from my previous results rather than from someone else’s.
With that said, I found a colleague of mine on the verge of tears recently. I tried calming her down and encouraging her that her progress was good (which really was compared to what she showed me in the past). However, her concern wasn’t that she wasn’t getting better; it was that this progress was very little compared to her friend. She explained to me how every night they get together to study. But at the same time, they would compare their data and results. In comparison to her friend, she was not anywhere in life.
I couldn’t help but be grateful that I don’t have a study mate, and I don’t discuss my work with anyone who is not in authority to help me. My focus has only to get obtain better results than I did the last time, and not in comparison to anyone else’s.
I understand that it’s easier to talk to our peers. But this is a classic example of losing focus on yourself and your goals and focusing on someone else. The two of them aren’t even working on the same project, yet, the results of another completely eliminated all the hard work and progress she made.
Learn to focus on your own goals and your progress. It’s great to have a picture of the stunning Serena Williams on your wall as motivation to work out. But if you ran for 10minutes yesterday, and today you stretched it out to 15minutes, then damn the world and celebrate that growth.
I hope you will learn to celebrate and take pride in where you are today. I hope you will learn to find value in who you are today, and how significant you are to the world. I hope you learn to focus on your vision. And I hope that vision remains the determining factor in all your actions. I hope you learn to draw inspiration from others rather than to dream a life of others. I hope you learn to love you and be proud of all that you have done, continue to do and inspire to do!
Until the next time, I’m leaving you with some of those good good mental health vibes:)