DRAFTEpisode 35
00:00 / 25:29

Details and Transcript

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Timestamps

  • 00:00 - Introduction

  • 02:17 - Segment 1: Work-Life Balance (Communication Topic)

  • 24:36 - Segment 2: Talk With Elizabeth Walden (Guest Interview)

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my dignified family and friend. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the 35th and special mid-season episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

To show support if you like this sort of content, it’s very simple, please take 5 seconds to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or Google Podcasts or whatever platform you are listening to this on. It truly helps small, independent podcasts reach new people and grow the show with minimal effort. You can always leave a small review as well, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting all of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. As always, I will hold another draw on my 40th episode for… uhhh uhhhh a thing! I’m just not sure what yet. But stayed tuned for more information on this splendid… thing, whatever it ends up being!

 

You, are amazing. Whoever you are, wherever you are, find yourself a mirror or reflective surface and smile at the incredible person you have become. I usually take a moment during these special episodes to acknowledge how much I appreciate that you are listening to me speak about topics I find interesting, that hopefully you find interesting as well. These concepts for episodes, chosen well in advance of me procrastinating to write about them, have a unique place in my psyche as I develop into the person I myself desire to become. These episodes about science communication, about topics in science rising in popularity due to shifting the power from an elite few to a motivated many, are extremely important to discuss and be aware of. I’m glad that it vibes with you, and I’m glad to see further engagement with not just listeners of the podcast but family, friends, early career researchers and daunting professors. I appreciate your ears and brain. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, if you’re passionate about something and work hard in doing what brings you that passion, I would love to collaborate with you and discuss those topics.

 

Okay, now with that extra-large cheese pizza out of the way, we skip right into the episode for today. It’s a special one, pausing on metaphor to talk about a concept so off putting in the scientific community that I feel slight shame in even bringing it up on this podcast. Nonetheless, it is an idea that many people, not just professional scientists and graduate students, try to pin point the secret about. And that all-encompassing topic is work-life balance.

 

“Be better than you were yesterday.” Since the start of the pandemic, this statement is something I tell myself every single day. What does that mean exactly, to be better than you were yesterday? It could be a small thing, like going to bed on time, or something larger, like starting some courses to learn a new language. I believe that every single day should be an evaluation of your previous self, basically everything you’ve done up until this point. What have you learned? What do you want? And how will you get it done?

 

These questions are asked by anyone who is attempting to live a fulfilled life. The definition of a fulfilled life has been a debate going on throughout centuries. Take a second and think, what would a fulfilled life be for you? A wonderful family to pass on the baton? A professional legacy that changed the course of human history? Perhaps both? We, as people raising other people and gaining experience to obtain the career of our dreams, are inundated by responsibilities in our roles. You can imagine that a person who has a loving family and achieved success in their professional life is the archetype of a life fulfilled. Roll the credits. Begin the epilogue.

 

Sure, that’s what we think about. But is that really what we hold to such high regard? I mean, we can think about many of the all time greats who have ever lived: Norm MacDonald, Amy Winehouse, Nelson Mandela, Sylvia Plath, Martin Luther King, Marie Curie, Vincent Van Gogh, Ada Lovelace, Issac Newton, Jesus Christ. All of these people, in my view as well as probably a lot of people, led outstanding lives that impacted our collective human experience. Without them elevating their craft, life would be different. We wouldn’t have such impulse to fight for human rights, to experience life from shadowed perspectives, scientific theories to advance our understanding of the universe. Yet, those of you keen on their biographies may have noticed that what we attribute to fulfillment was not an important aspect in their lives. Most of these lives ended in tragedy, questioning whether the rising action of their life stories was individualistically worthwhile. Suicide, assassination, cancer, drug overdose, torture, even suspicion of their scientific contributions continue on long after their passing. Yes, I did talk about a fulfilled life earlier, but this does make us think about whether greatness equals fulfillment, or rather, can you even attain both?

 

I struggle with this tug of war between greatness and fulfillment. Greatness to me seems like an illogical gamble, identifying some external passion that can bring to fruition your highest potential and impact the most amount of lives, born and unborn. Fulfillment seems almost selfish and often I consider whether I even know what will bring me the most happiness internally. At least up until now, I’ve dedicated much of my time to the pursuit of both, discovering an external passion as well as what elements of life bring me satisfaction. Sadly, could you ever really know whether this passion is the one, or if there isn’t anyone or anything that could increase your happiness? I’m sure this is a debacle more people care to admit they find themselves in.

 

Perhaps there’s a middle ground, a balance if you will, between greatness and fulfillment, between work and life. It’s funny, to achieve greatness or fulfilment requires effort put into work or life, like these two terms are separate entities. Rarely do you ever hear someone include work as an element of life, like putting in effort to raising a family, or doing a hobby. No, work must be something that we put up with, some negative force, opposing what we would rather be doing. I believe this is a rather ignorant idea, no matter what career you find yourself in. You’re telling me there’s no joy in what you accomplish at work? No cause and effect that delineates meaningful purpose? And what would you rather be doing? Forever doing things that don’t contribute to society?

 

There is a major issue with the universal acceptance of today’s topic, the terminology of work-life balance. The obvious nature to this concept with zombie-like head nodding approval stops us from diving further into what exactly this defines. It’s existence means that not only are work and life different, but they should be balanced, they should be equal. Oh, you put in 8 hours of effort into work, gotta balance that out with 8 hours of effort into life (or basically everything that’s not work). Or perhaps the reverse, you just went on a vacation for two weeks, gotta balance that out with two weeks of work! You and I both know we don’t do that, yet we think like that. This terminology of work-life balance stops us from potentially increasing our capacity for effort, developed in work or life, and thus discover new efficiencies to lower the amount of effort. Motivational speaker and author of the Infinite Game Simon Sinek mentions in a group discussion that, “the more seamless we make work and life, the more we start to enjoy them more”. You want to work on your company’s project for 12 hours. Go for it. Do you want to go out and grab a Hawaiian pizza? Hell yeah. Do you want to swim for 20 minutes to stop feeling like a fatso for eating an entire pizza? No problem. So long as you have goals, decisions on where effort is put should be dictated by your current mentality.

 

Challenging the notion that work-life balance is the yellow brick road for your pursuit of happiness is becoming less taboo. In a 2019 Atlantic article titled “Give up on work life balance”, writer Olga Khazan states that, “For people who work a lot of hours, even trying to achieve work-life balance can be a source of imbalance itself. (Several years ago, I took up baking in an attempt to gain work-life balance, then realized I was usually too tired to bake after a 12-hour workday. Now I hate baking.)” In addition, mentioned in a 2019 Scientific American article titled “How Work-Family Justice Can Bring Balance to Scientist Moms”, author of Making Motherhood Work Caitlyn Collins “coins the term work-life justice, which shifts the onus of finding harmony between career and home life from the individual to society.” For not just working mothers but anyone trying to achieve this so called work-life balance, it suggests that, “stress is a result of our own shortcomings and mismanaged commitments.” It’s this disagreement I have with the terminology we use around this work culture that I want to provide a novel perspective on, and discuss openly about, particularly from the lens of the overworked and underpaid in academic environments. Towards the end, I have invited a researcher and friend who I’ve personally observed to have a strong sense of this, who’s opinions can help you and I investigate more of the nuances to something so universally accepted.

 

In essence, I believe there needs to be a cultural shift in rethinking our collective approval of this outdated term, work-life balance. It is not companies or institutions, these organizations that author Yuval Noah Harari argues are figments of our collective imagination, that dictate how much effort to spend on different elements of life. It is us, the workers, CEOs, managers, early career researchers, low-income filler positions, that need to decide together how to work and live, rather than work or live. Summed up best in his 2011 TEDx Talk, photojournalist Nigel Marsh states, “… we can change society’s definition of success, away from the moronically simplistic notion that the person with the most money when he dies wins, to a more thoughtful and balanced definition of what a life well lived looks like.”

 

Let’s further walk down this tight-rope together.

 

*Theme Music*

 

Most of this information was obtained from many articles and videos discussing work-life balance ideology. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

Let me tell you yet another story about naive Kevin, who I can’t decide whether he is the protagonist or antagonist to this hopefully long lived story. Just 2 years ago, in 2019, I was well into my Masters of Science program at the University of Ottawa, was finally living elsewhere other than under the roof of my parent’s house, and was in a fantastic relationship. I had an active social life, decent dietary regimen, and was dedicated to exercising at least 2 or 3 times a week. So this will sound so cliche, as any story that begins this way prefaced by the concept of work-life balance, as of course it undoubtedly took a turn for the worse. I struggled to complete the final experiments for my thesis, often working 10+ hours in the lab, and even on weekends. I came home, deflated of energy to a partner who had already eaten dinner and was ready for bed. I continued logging myself out to social events as a responsibility for my family, friends and extracurricular roles rather than actual interest. I ate junk, slept 5 or 6 hours if that, and morphed into this chubby ignoramus. My eyes were so swollen that my superiors thought I had gotten into fist fights somewhere. And although I was able to finalize a significant part of the thesis and present my work at an international conference, I of course lost my relationship, health and much of my savings on takeout and buying materialistic happiness.

 

Yet, despite all I’ve said, I cannot blame anything or anyone but myself. Sure, obvious conclusion there. The thing is, when you’re deep in the quicksand, the last thing you think about is to balance priorities. Call it burn out, call it tunnel vision, I was convinced that by getting these experiments done, committing to my roles as a family, friend or student representative, and temporarily sacrificing time (quality or not quality) with my partner and health was the best course of action. This balance, in my opinion, was the reason for my demise. Why didn’t I excel in all aspects of my life that I considered priorities? Or in other words, why didn’t I strive for efficiency such that I would be able to perform these roles I hold dear? Jeff Bezos, a polarizing figure in the general population, yet arguably someone whose ambition changed the course of our civilization, spoke about this in a 2017 Summit Conference session. Paraphrased, he talked about how emotions towards success or failure in work or personal life will inevitably cross over into the other. No amount of extended vacation with family will hide your dissatisfaction with work blunders, and no amount of angel investment will fill the desire for a caring and intimate relationship.

 

Through that experience, I was surprised of my lack of mental awareness, emotional intelligence and understanding of physiological manifestations caused by anxiety and stress. I blame more than anything else my peculiar value of independence, that I am capable of fulfilling all my responsibilities by myself. If that were the case, why do research labs have teams? Why does an honest relationship require an engagement and love between partners? Why does health require actions from not just you, but by doctors, nutritionists and athletes you respect to guide your diet and workout plans? More on independence in a little bit.

 

My anecdote helps me introduce the idea of identity and sacrifice in one’s personal and professional life. This notion within work-life balance contests that by taking time and effort away from some priorities and placing them in others, like a financial investment, it may pay off in the end. I mean, I did, and still do, value my relationships and health, but perhaps shifting focus to other priorities temporarily will further strengthen everything collectively. One must first believe that these sacrifices are worthwhile in the long run through examples of similar success. In a 2015 TEDx Talk by Professor at both the University of Exeter and the University of Groningen Dr. Michelle Ryan, she highlights how work-life balance initiatives focus too much on time and effort rather than identity, “We need to send a message that all types of people can make it. So that women, people of colour, people from working class backgrounds, can all imagine themselves in particular roles, that they can imagine succeeding in those roles, and that they can be confident that the sacrifices they make, and indeed we all make, will be worth it in the end.” Women and other minorities in higher level positions don’t start off with less ambition than the majority, but rather the systematic policies and workplace culture rooted in society tend to decrease this desire and encourage them to attain roles they see others like themselves in. 

 

From a general perspective, this makes sense. Many small and large scale studies have been done to assess what drives this apparent disconnect between work and life. Is it self-identity? Family? Health? One 2019 study from the University of Milano-Biccoca published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health surveyed 318 workers along a spectrum of career categories, and found that health emerged as a clear fundamental domain of a balanced life. This was complimented by another 2020 study from Bielefeld University published in the BMC Public Health Journal surveying over 32,000 workers from 30 European countries, who found a strong association between work-life conflict and poor self-reported health. These, among many other studies, stresses the fact that no matter where you place your time and effort, perceived unhealthy living will continue to exacerbate either end of this balance.

 

Now, does this knowledge translate into the highly regarded academic community? You bet your butt it does. In fact, and I’ve said this before, this might contain the greatest number of people who frequently complain about the environment they work in, outside of perhaps those shifting through government bureaucracy. Talk to your fellow researcher, look on social media, more often than not you’ll find some academic voicing disappointment against academia. In an article published on ECRLife, PhD students Feyza Arslan and Michael Bartlett speak about how, “Academic Culture has normalized overworking, sometimes at the expense of a social life, and of great concern, sometimes at the expense of researchers’ health and well-being.” It’s scarily commonplace to hear about mental health issues arising from this culture, losing performance in the work being done that graduate students, early career researchers and full professors are responsible for. At least in the corporate world, you get paid.

 

Of course, that’s not to downplay the difficulty of pursuing higher level training like a PhD or post-doctoral fellowship. These career paths are inevitably difficult, and although there are certainly systemic changes that need to occur to increase accessibility and inclusion, there are also aspects of the position that you need to be mindful of. Recalling my experience in my Masters, I am horrified by how little aware I was of the expectations set by academia and the limitations of my own physicality. In a recent 2021 article published in PLOS Computational Biology, the authors suggest through its title “Ten simple rules to improve academic work-life balance”. In summary, they are: 1) Long hours do not equal productive hours, 2) examine your options for flexible work practices, 3) Set boundaries to establish your workplace and time, 4) Commit to strategies that increase your efficiency and productivity, 5) Have a long-term strategy to help with prioritization, 6) Make your health a priority, 7) Regularly interact with family and friends, 8) Make time for volunteer work or similar commitments that are important and meaningful to you, 9) Seek out or help create peer and institutional support systems, and 10) Open a dialogue about the importance of work-life balance and advocate for system change. These 10 rules that focus on prioritizing, strategizing and communicating don’t need to just be applied to your academics, but to every aspect of your life. 

 

Again, I lament that work and life are not two different coins, or even two sides of the same coin. One is an element of the other, work is a face on the dice of life, just one of many other sides. Particularly for those in science, sometimes you just simply can’t turn off thinking scientifically. In a 2014 article published on Digital Science, Dr. Peter Stogios from the University of Toronto speaks about whether work-life balance even exists for research scientists. He speaks about 3 different types of scientists: The first “are those whose brains think of science naturally and spontaneously. They can’t control when they think about science and they like it. They don’t really care if science creeps into their ‘life’ time outside of ‘work’ time. They gain purpose, meaning and fulfillment primarily from their work. [The second] … are those that indeed enjoy science, but only at the lab and during regular hours… These people prefer not to think about work when they are spending time with friends, family or away from work. They do gain purpose from their work, but they also do from other facets of their lives. [And the third] … are those that treat research purely as work, aren?t terribly motivated, and would rather spend their time doing other things from which they gain meaning to their lives. These people typically don’t last very long as a research scientist and move to other jobs.” To my fellow peers, no matter which category you find yourself in, science is yet another element of life. Ultimately, you can’t stop thinking about concepts in a scientific way because you’re off the clock, what you do in your work is quite literally the life you live.

 

To come full circle, via much reading on this topic, particularly from the lens of academic institutes and the researchers within them, this idea of balancing work and life is preposterous and should be reevaluated. Rather, work is an element of life, like family and health and hobbies and science, that we prioritize and identify ourselves with, devoting time and effort towards. We as individuals need to be mindful of the expectations of our positions and whether this aligns with the limitations of our physical and mental self. In reality, we have for most of our life been practically forced to elevate ourselves in an independent manner, to achieve greatness and fulfillment. Maybe that is the underlying issue, this obsession with singular success in achieving those two. Perhaps academia, and all of society, can shift to a more collective mindset, one that’s less structured around independent success and more around the success of everyone through open dialogue and acknowledgement of our various priorities that provide the foundation for which we build upon.

 

In the end, and still the best advice I have ever been given in relation to anything in life: if you want to go out and pick strawberries, go out and pick strawberries. And maybe bring a family member, friend or colleague along with you.

 

*Theme Music*