Who’s the toughest?

Coco Gauff, after losing the 2022 French Open final.

Scientists like to think of themselves as tough…but is it emotional toughness rather than mental toughness that’s being selected for?

Strength comes in different forms. It isn’t just physical – it can be mental and moral too. And toughness, the ability to withstand hardship, is definitely not just physical. Any scientist is as mentally tough as they come. Most scientists will have experienced extreme emotional ups and downs, definitely euphoria, and maybe also actual depression too. There will have been tears, and doubt, and self-loathing. This is toughness. To endure all that, and carry on.

But when you look at it closely, is it really mental toughness? Isn’t mental toughness – being able to withstand mental hardship – the ability to deal with negative results with equanimity, to not be discouraged, to keep chipping away at a problem until it’s solved? It means being challenged to defend the quality of your data and the acuity of your interpretation. It’s analytical rigour, dispassionate critique, creativity, diligence, determination, and a strong and focused work ethic. It’s why we celebrate long-term problem solvers like Fred Sanger.

And is that really what we’re selecting for? However much we may prize the attributes above, the first rule of genetic screens is that you don’t get what you want or what you like, you get what you select for. Might it actually be the case that in today’s research environment, we are primarily selecting not for mental toughness, but for emotional toughness? Withstanding mental hardship is secondary to withstanding emotional hardship. 

What then are the attributes most needed to survive in today’s research environment? The ability to shrug off criticism (sometimes outright abuse) is one. The ability to put up with chronic career insecurity. The ability – exemplified in some of the horrendous details of the David Sabatini case – to put up with grotesque power imbalances and the preening behaviour of entitled alpha males. The ability to watch your work be rejected over and over again (sometimes each rejection hurting as much as a breakup) and picked apart over and over again until all the joy you took in producing it has been lost and you can barely stand to look at it.

This ability – the strength to simply carry on in the face of this onslaught of negativity – is something more like modern celebrity culture, when a person’s every action can be dissected and mocked and held up for public vilification. Mental toughness won’t get you through that. Doggedly keeping your head down and trying to do good work won’t get you through that.

What you need is a thick skin. 

Rhino skin. Emotional toughness, bloody mindedness, and – in its best manifestations, perhaps – an almost saintly ability to rise above the fury. It’s ironic that while mental toughness selects for heightened mental ability, the most profound kind of emotional endurance requires people to strip all emotion away. 

That’s hard though, and rare. The way to impregnable emotional toughness is to not let criticism hurt you, but the easiest way to achieve that is to have ironclad self-confidence. Total conviction. To be immune from doubt. And no good scientist should be immune from doubt. To be sure, any scientist requires a degree of confidence, but they need to be able to be able to doubt themselves too – to be capable of introspection.

So what happens? What happens if you’re not blessed with the kind of confidence that can brazen out any amount of criticism? How do you survive?

Well, the simple answer is that you don’t. You get damaged. You either break slowly, pummelled under the barrage, or you incubate the pain inside you until it turns to bitterness, vindictiveness, and callousness. 

In boxing it’s understood that you have to protect new talent. You have to choose their opponents carefully early on to ensure that they’re tested but do not – barring accidents or mishaps – lose. It’s recognised that you want to avoid risking defeat too soon, that it’s productive to learn how to solve problems in the ring (mental toughness) but dangerous to have to deal with defeat (emotional toughness). You need to be tested, but not tested to destruction – if so, you’re good for nothing afterwards. 

It’s ironic then that the people who are most adamant that a thick skin is required in science often have thinner skins than the recipients of these sermons. Anybody who goes around counselling young scientists that they have to toughen up or deal with whatever situation is at hand probably haven’t had to endure similar punishment. If they did, they’d be howling at the indignity of it. Telling someone that they need to toughen up – especially a subordinate – is abrogating any responsibility for that person’t predicament. It is passing the responsibility onto the person hurting the most.

People who say that science is tough generally haven’t been through the worst. Those who have been don’t counsel toughness – they deplore the system for exposing young people to such humiliation. It’s a thought neatly encapsulated by the late Paul Farmer, who wrote recently (in the context of the American coronavirus response) “Those whose lives are rarely touched by structural violence are uniquely prone to recommend resignation as a response to it.

Related postings:

True courage” – how we too easily conflate bravery with fearlessness.

Doubtful confidence” – how the most important equilibrium in science is psychological rather than chemical.

Professional masochists” – on the importance of seeking out feedback.

Live and let die” – why we shouldn’t be afraid of openly debating research data.

Manners and mentorship” – why good mentoring requires good manners.

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