Every Wednesday during the semester my department has Research Round Table, or RRT. Research Round Table is a great name to describe the weekly meeting; RRT is a horrible acronym. It may not look like a horrible acronym, but try saying it out loud. Quickly. You sounded like a hungry gawking seal, didn’t you? So when I am in my lab and someone asks if I can meet with them or go for lunch on Wednesday at noon, I almost always blush when I say, “No, I’m sorry I can’t, I have RRT,” because I know the person listening to me cocks their head a little and crosses their fingers hoping that I don’t grow a flipper and slither onto the floor like Daryl Hannah did in Splash.
Last Wednesday at RRT we had a different format than the typical journal club or think-a-loud or research presentation. Instead the graduate students threw out questions for faculty about the writing process, the publication process, and managing professorial responsibilities in academia. The meeting was enlightening and inspiring and daunting and discouraging.
At one point, the conversation tail-spinned into a discussion on the peer review process. When a manuscript is submitted for publication to a scientific journal, if it is deemed worthy by the editor it is sent to other scientists for peer review. The reviewers have at the manuscript like hungry paper-eating wolves, critiquing everything that is weak and wrong in the writing, and then deciding whether or not the study is worthy of publication. All this goes on while it is thundering and lightning outside with ominous music playing in the background, and the reviewers are throwing their heads back in uproarious, evil laughter.
In rare circumstances a manuscript is accepted with no modifications. Although I can’t say that it isn’t a good goal to aim for “accepted with no modifications,” my sense is that the result of having such a lofty goal would be similar in result to getting on the Tilt-A-Whirl ride at a carnival, leaving your wallet on the seat next to you as you spin and twirl madly, and then expecting your wallet to be there on the seat at the end of the ride – in either case you will be let down. Also your hair will be ridiculously disheveled. More likely when submitting a manuscript one can expect to see “accept with modifications,” “modify and resubmit,” or “reject.”
The purpose of the peer review system admirably is to improve the quality of published articles, and likewise comments are meant to improve the conceptual and technical aspects of these manuscripts. Perhaps on occasion this process unfolds beautifully as intended, like a budding flower opening to the warmth of the sun. On the other hand, my beloved faculty shared one woeful experience after another about frustrating reviewers and outrageous comments. All this from a group who I admire, who are profoundly intelligent, and who are well veteraned in writing and publishing. They continued to explain that no one in academia has time to dwell on the strengths of a manuscript; if a paragraph or concept is not red-marked so to speak, then it is considered to be good, or at least good enough. It’s the epitome of “no news is good news.”
I floated out of the circle of conversation for a moment to reflect on this. There really are few moments in this profession where someone comes along, pats you on the back and says good job. The positive feedback is not extinct, but certainly endangered. This predicament trickles down into advisor-graduate student interactions as well. Compliments can take on strange forms.
Not far off from this satirical comic is a particular instance where I had emailed a paper to my advisor. In her return email she said that I really did do a great job on the paper…and then I opened the attached document and saw an obscene amount of comments and changes. Hard to believe the “great job” in the body of the email was written in reference to the very file that had been subjected to the dreaded advisor review. Of course in this case many of her comments substantially improved the paper, but that doesn’t mean that the imbalance of feedback wasn’t difficult for me. In my thirst for affirmation, I read the “great job” at least fifty times so that it felt more like fifty compliments instead of just one. It helped to offset the three thousand comments in the paper.
So during this RRT discussion the overall message was that the critics can be harsh. The advice on how to deal with this stark reality was 1) to allow yourself time to cool off before responding and 2) to grow thicker skin. For a person that craves positive feedback and approval, these were grim coping strategies. I left the meeting with angst over my future. If I continue in this profession, who’s going to tell me “nice job,” or “well written,” or “great idea”? With constant focus on what is wrong with my work, how am I going to feel any sense of worth?
Well, I went home that night and God decided to use my procrastination for good as I read the following post from Stuff Christians Like (a funny, inspirational, well-written blog that I stumbled upon while doing the ever popular Facebook stalking):
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Wondering if we’re worth anything.
I interpret any two people closing any door in the entire office at work as a private meeting that is being held to discuss my imminent termination.
When I hear the sliding door sound that our cool offices make when we seal them shut, that little panicked voice inside me says, “You’re going to get fired.” When I am left off a meeting invite, I automatically think, “Why did that guy leave me off the meeting? Does he know I’m a dead man walking? Is he thinking ‘what’s the use of inviting Acuff to this meeting, he’ll be fired soon?” And I start to worry that I might be turning invisible. Like that photograph of Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, I’m disappearing and unless someone plays “Earth Angel” and two people make out, I’m gone.
That’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing that the running dialog in my head gallops to that so quickly like a drunken gazelle. (See, even that analogy was lacking because I’m stressed.)
But as dumb as that is, as complicated and tangled as the thoughts in my head feel, I think they come back to something I’ve written about on this site before, something that is impossibly simple …
I want someone to tell me that I am enough.
I want someone to validate that I matter. That I am valuable and important. Like Thom Yorke said in the song “Creep,” “I want you to notice when I’m not around.”
And it turns out I’m not the only one.
Two weeks ago news broke that Alex Rodriguez, arguably one of the greatest baseball players of our generation, took steroids in 2003. If you don’t follow sports, this was a huge deal. It’s the equivalent of say, Samson using performance enhancements or finding out that David had used a pistol on Goliath instead of a sling.
That a professional athlete used steroids isn’t that interesting to me, but in his confession interview with Peter Gammons, Rodriguez said something really revealing. When asked why he did it, when asked why after signing the biggest, most lucrative contract in baseball history for $252 million, he risked it all by taking steroids, he replied:
“When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me, and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day. Back then, it was a different culture. It was very loose. I was young. I was stupid. I was naive. And I wanted to prove to everyone that, you know, I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time.”
He wanted to prove to everyone that he was worth being one of the greatest players of all time. That when the Texas Rangers signed that $252 million contract, Alex Rodriguez was worth it. He wanted the fans and the owners of the ball club and people that watch him on television and journalists and anyone that ever came in contact with him to believe he was worth it.
He wanted to know that he was enough.
The unfortunate thing for me and Rodriguez is that no one on the planet is going to be able to tell us that to our satisfaction. Not a stadium full of fans, not every coworker I’ve ever had. Not a sports journalist. Not my web traffic or technorati ranking or eventual book sales.
That’s the problem with asking other people to tell us we’re enough. They can’t. They didn’t make us. They didn’t knit us in the womb or imagine us thousands of years before our parents danced at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. (That’s Back to the Future reference number two for those playing along at home.)
Even our friends and family members, the people that know and love us best can’t satisfy the deep desires of our heart because they didn’t put them there. They don’t know where they’re hidden or even know what this crazy work of art called “our lives” is supposed to look like.
And when we ask other people to tell us we’re worth enough we end up doing crazy things. Like taking steroids or lying in bed awake at night wondering why your name wasn’t on a Microsoft Outlook Meeting Invite.
Fortunately for you and me and Alex Rodriguez I went ahead and asked God if we were all worth it. He said “yes.” He said He sent His Son because He wanted us to know how very “enough” we all were. He said to feel free to ask Him that same question yourself. Go on, I dare you to. I promise that regardless of whether you’re one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived or a stay at home mom that feels invisible sometimes, the answer is going to be yes.
Duh. In my graduate student haze I momentarily lost sight of this truth. I have tried to feel worthy by absorbing the words of others. I have tried to feel worthy by puffing myself up with positive self talk. But there is nothing that has ever made me feel so worthy and satisfied as the fulfilling love and promises of God. What a timely intervention.