I remember reading a very interesting article in The New Yorker by Dr. Atul Gawande entitled “Personal Best,” in which he emphasizes that even highly skilled and trained surgeons can improve their techniques with a coach.
He asked a coach to watch him in surgery and point out potential improvements. Even when we are at our performance peak, we can always get better. Self-improvement, it seems, has even become a fad, with a plethora of executive coaching, leadership coaching, college-application coaching services.
Thus, with much anticipation, I attended a recent workshop called “Designing your career” led by Samantha Sutton, life coach from the Handel Group.
What is a life coach? Well, Samantha described it as:
If you want your body to look a certain way, you can get a personal trainer. Well, think of a life coach as a personal trainer for your life. What do you want your life to look like? A life coach will help you get that.
She started the workshop by asking us to describe our dream job. Many of us volunteered: “professor” or “public health researcher.” Most people were cautious with their dream jobs being attainable goals. Soon, it became clear that we weren’t dreaming that big, until someone said, “Dean of a top-tier public health school.” We all cheered that someone aimed high.
But then, she qualified that dream with “If I didn’t have children…”
Fellow audience members, especially women, expressed conflict between their dream of a profession and their need to be a parent. They felt that their responsibilities and desire to be present in their children’s lives were in direct conflict with dreams of scientific greatness and professional leadership.
It became very apparent that we all held beliefs and theories about how the world worked. We’d seen our own mentors and other scientists who worked “all the time” and who’d forgotten their children’s names and who didn’t get tenure even after all their sacrifice.
Samantha suggested that we often allow these examples to shape the reasons for why we couldn’t achieve and live our dream career. We are basically proving the theories and beliefs that we hold. In fact, are these just excuses?
But what if we looked for evidence for how our dream could actually be compatible with all other aspects of our lives? Do we know professors who are successful in their scientific careers and still manage to attend their children’s soccer games?
From prior limited observations, I had held the belief that all faculty positions were not family friendly and that professors were a miserable bunch. However, I recently had coffee with a tenure-track assistant professor who worked from home two days per week, spent time with her children, and seemed very happy with the responsibilities of her career and family. Of course, she did not hold a position in a top-tier research university. But at the end of the day, she was in her dream career of research and teaching that she loved.
So I found evidence that such a dream could be possible.
Samantha urged us to find the evidence that our dream really is possible. We should embrace that dream. “Don’t be afraid of getting what you want,” she said.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.
Wenny Lin, PhD, MPH, is a fellow in the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute. Prior to joining the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, Wenny earned her MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2009 and her PhD in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.