Kids and Kardashians

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Starting a family is something that’s often presented as a risk in career terms. In fact, it may actually turn you into a better risk-taker.

It’s pretty normal to feel jealous of rich people. Probably the greatest asset a wealthy upbringing provides though is not the affluence itself, but the assurance that comes with it. The knowledge that almost no matter what happens in life, you’re not going to be destitute. And in many cases, it also means having rich friends and family to support you – a goldmine of social capital that can be used to invest in your successes, and write off your mistakes.

This high-carat support network is exactly why we flinch at stories like Kylie Jenner, a scion of the Kardashian clan, being classified as a “self-made” billionaire. Even if every cent of her fortune was earned independently, her starting point was very different from that of, say, a blue-collar worker trying to persuade a bank that they’re not a credit risk in order to get a loan to start their own business. 

Jenner had a circle of family, friends, and associates who were able to provide advice, promotion, and support. It’s always easier to take a risk when you have less to lose, and those from a wealthy background know that they can afford it. People who are rich are good risk-takers because they fear the consequences of failure less. 

It’s often said that running a lab is like starting your own small business, and the comparison is apt in a lot of ways. Getting the chance to start a lab depends on making yourself look like a good credit risk during your postdoc period, by generating research capital in the form of publications and professional activities. That capital is then leveraged to get sufficient investment to start a group, in the form of a research grant. 

Just as in business though, the attrition rate in academia is high and only a very small number of PhDs end up as tenured academics. Many don’t manage to convince the backers that they should be given a chance to start a group; plenty of those that do find that things don’t work out. Success in science is in many ways similar to being successful in business, and as in business, science obsesses with the notion of risk. Both professions realise that the greatest rewards can come from being willing to gamble.

In science, however, risk-averse behaviour is overwhelmingly the norm. Unlike in business (especially in America), where there is an acceptance that failing in the form of bankruptcy can sometimes be an essential part of the learning process, science tends not to offer second chances to serial chancers. Once the funding runs out, the game is over and nobody gets to pass “Go” again. By sticking with the low-risk option, scientists minimise the chance of crashing and burning, but this inevitably also lowers the chance of standing out form the crowd. The kind of assurance that can catalyse a big win is a rare quality, precisely because the penalty for failure is extremely high.

Something else that’s usually characterised as a risk is the decision to start a family, as doing so necessitates at least a partial withdrawal from the all-or-nothing culture of academic success-seeking. Starting a family is seen as gambling your career by reducing the time available to spend in the lab, and the right time for making such a step is frequently debated. If having a family means a higher risk of failure in academia, and failure in academia means being ejected from academia, when is the risk an acceptable one?

Or does such an attitude actually overlook an incredible advantage that scientist-parents gain?

It is of course normal to worry about not being able to provide for your kids. But for scientists – highly-educated, highly driven, possessed of a far greater, unusual, and valuable skill set than many of them realise – this is insecurity taken to the level of narcissism. Even if a scientist has to leave academia, for any one of a large number of reasons, there are still a wealth of things that she or he can do in industry, publishing, communication, teaching, administration, policy – and this is still within the larger world of science! 

Leaving academia is often presented as a kind of existential failure or catastrophe, when in fact it’s nothing of the kind. There are tons of interesting scientific careers out there, and letting go of the obsessive need to succeed – or rather, to be seen as a success – in academia is arguably a very healthy thing to do from a psychological perspective.

And it’s this letting go that parents achieve. The earliest and hardest lessons for any parent are those that illustrate that you are no longer the most important thing in your own life. It’s learning that no matter how much you were looking forward to something – a party, a cultural trip, even relaxing and watching something on TV – you have to be able to cancel it at short notice.

At the same time, having kids provides emotional security, and a sense of perspective. Ultimately, nothing will supersede the importance of ensuring they are healthy and happy, and the apparently life-or-death situations at work can be placed in their proper context. Leaving academia no longer has to be the end of the world, it can just be a change of direction.

And that realisation, that acceptance, that perspective – no matter how hard, and however grudging – can be harnessed in an extremely empowering and liberating way.

Once you have kids, you are free to become an inveterate risk-taker, because you can transcend the mantra that nothing is more important to your life than your career. Letting go of an absolute need to achieve success in academia may paradoxically make you more likely to be successful, precisely because you no longer fear the consequences of failure to the same degree. By giving away your exceptionalism, you gain release from care – and in so doing can acquire exactly the insouciance, the assurance, that characterises the Kardashians, the Jenners, and the other rich kids out there. 

The psychological dividends that come from embracing the change in circumstances that parenting demands are a jackpot. For all the stress they cause, kids make you rich. And wealth enables greater risk, and greater reward.

This posting dedicated to EJM and OGM.

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