Surfing and drowning (find your breaking point)


Stress is a near-constant feature of life in academia, but that doesn’t mean it’s automatically a bad thing.

Benchwork. Teaching. Supervising. Administration. Seminars. Conferences. Long hours. Over-reaching. Publication pressure. Career pressure. Time pressure. And much more. The sources of stress in academia are many and varied, and operate with varying distributions but probably equal intensity throughout the career stream.

The funny thing is that that same confluence of stresses can be either exhilarating or overwhelming, depending on the outlook of the individual.

Work stress is generally caused by having more things to do than there is time available for their completion. The time pressure can be external (via a supervisor, mentor, departmental head) or internal (self-imposed), but what differentiates the good exhilarating stress from the bad crushing kind is a sense of control.

Good stress is like surfing. It’s when you’ve got more things to do than you can feasibly accomplish, but you still retain mastery over your time. You’re riding a wave, and maintaining your balance, and know that it’s only your skill and judgement that’s keeping you on the crest.

Bad stress is the same situation, but when you’ve lost that mastery over your time and no longer feel in control. It’s like drowning. You’re tumbling off the wave and are about to submerge, and like submersion in real water, that mental deluge can rob you of your bearings, your equilibrium, and almost certainly your confidence.

Operating in academia involves riding a succession of waves. Sometimes the waves die down by themselves, sometimes – very rarely – you can ride them all the way to the beach. But often their intensity will change unpredictably, and the experienced scientist has to learn to read those changes in intensity and react accordingly. He or she has to get a sense of when the wave is breaking.

Lose control, and that mental surfboard can flip over and you’ll find yourself panicking and floundering in no time. Adjust appropriately, and you’ll get the rush of staying on the crest longer than you’ve a right to.

It’s an instinct for prioritisation that’s key. When the goal is to remain afloat, that means being able to drop or downgrade responsibilities in order to maintain your mental balance. The better you get at it, the more confidence you have in yourself, and in your abilities. Clinging to all responsibilities regardless of their ultimate priority means shifting your centre of gravity farther and farther away from the centre, and that increases the risk of overbalancing.

Don’t – like Boxer in “Animal Farm” – be deluded into thinking that punishing yourself will make things better. There’s a difference between working hard and overworking, and no athlete ever goes into competition malnourished of sleep and rest. Both good stress and bad stress can be exhausting, but it’s the difference between a vigorous workout and getting beaten up.

Feeling in control of your time is empowering, losing control will bring you to breaking point.

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