If you’re feeling anxious, fearful, demotivated, distracted, etc then you’re not alone. Given the current state of affairs in this country and worldwide, those feelings are justified. I recently spoke with an academic scientist and mentor who said that many researchers are having so much trouble focusing in the current climate that they aren’t interested in work-related topics such as productivity and writing skills.

If you like feeling anxious and overwhelmed, then save yourself some time and stop reading right here. If not, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on. Feelings are always based on thoughts. The thought comes first, and then the feeling. Why is this important? Because if you don’t like the way you’re feeling, and you want to change it, you need to figure out why.

As a scientist during a pandemic, what are you worried about? If you work for Gilead and research is Covid-related, then maybe it’s all good. However, if you’re studying the mating rituals of Onthophagus acuminates, aka dung beetle, potentially plenty. You may be worried about losing your job, or your spouse losing his/her job, slow progress in the lab, delayed publication of papers, delayed or weakened grant submissions, lack of toilet paper and paper towels, managing remote learning for your kids, safety and health of elderly parents, an unexplainable but chronic lack of tofu at the supermarket, and the list goes on. I’m embarrassed to admit that during the peak “personal paper crisis” I bought paper towels from China. In my pursuit of disposable cleaning tools I got taken to the cleaners, so to speak, and now I’m worried that PayPal might not make things right. With all those fears, who can work, I mean really?

Actually, you can. But before I give you my take on the how, let’s “unpack” these fears. You’re not going anywhere anyway, there’s a pandemic. What is common to these fears? Each one is at least partially if not entirely out of your control. That is bad news for control freaks – not that any scientists would be control freaks…..

So, if something is out of your control, how does that make you feel? Powerless. In a career that tends to make one feel powerless anyway, this just adds to the pile. Why might science make you feel powerless? Well, as an academic scientist your career is predicated on convincing others that your work is worth publishing and funding. You aren’t able to talk to these folks in person, so there is a time lag between your efforts and their feedback. Nothing you can do about it but wait (powerless). Often the feedback seems unreasonable, misunderstood, and highly critical, but you can’t explain yourself in real time (powerless). In fact, it’s oriented to be critical because the feedback is focused on telling you what to fix or why your work won’t be funded or published (powerless plus despair). These factors make you feel that your career is out of your hands. Add Covid and now your ability to work was or still is compromised (powerless).  Even worse, perhaps you or a family member got sick and research is off the table for a while.

Why is feeling powerless such a big deal? If you’ve felt it, and most of us have, then you’ll know why. In the book “The Nature of Personal Reality”, by Jane Roberts, the channeled entity Seth (yes you read that right) states “That is the source of physical life, the sense of power and action. When a man or a woman feels powerless, as you think of it, he or she will die”.  Seth also says that violence often comes from feeling powerless, which is another reason why this idea is worth some attention. I realize this is not a new concept, but one we often forget in the heat of the moment or its aftermath.

If statements from a channeled entity don’t sit well with you, let’s look at a more traditional source of information. Mo Gawdat, former chief business officer at Google X, has a background in engineering and a career in business strategy and communications. He applied logic to the idea of maintaining happiness in his book “Solve for Happy”. In this book, he derives an equation for happiness:

Happiness ≥ Reality – Expectations.

The expectations are, of course, your expectations as to how things should be. Reality constitutes the facts of the situation. Your thoughts are part of your expectations. They contextualize reality.  Let’s look at an example. It’s Saturday, and although the original forecast was for beautiful weather, a storm moved in and now it’s going to pour, I mean cats and dogs, hellfire and brimstone kind of pour, all day long. The woman who planned the perfect outdoor wedding, with visions of standing in a beautiful garden and sun shining on her painstakingly coiffed hair, is crushed. However, the husband anticipating a day of outdoor “honey dos” generated by his wife, is grinning from ear-to-ear as he settles down in his favorite chair for an afternoon of football. The facts are the same, but the expectations, and subsequent feelings, are quite different. On a scale of 1- 10, with reality being a 5, the husband’s expectations were a 1 and the bride’s were a 10. Without managing expectations, the bride could end up being miserable on what should be a very happy day. The more inflexible your expectations, i.e. the more strongly you want to control the outcome, the more likely it is that your expectations will not meet reality. Does this mean you should only have low expectations? No. It does mean that you will be happier with flexible expectations and being open to other outcomes besides the ones you expect. More on that in Part II.

Let’s go back to the downpour for another example. It rains so hard that the area floods – big time. Noah and the ark type of flooding. A man, who unfortunately lives in the flood plain, is stranded on his roof. He prays to God to save him. People come by on a surfboard, motorboat, and finally helicopter to save him, but each time he turns them away saying “No worries, God is going to save me.” Well, the guy drowns. When he gets to heaven and asks God what happened, God says – “I sent a surfboard, motorboat, and helicopter, what more did you want?”.  In this case, the expectations were so fixed that the man could only see one solution when presented with many.

Fixed expectations are a form of control. In his recent “Talks at Google”, Mo Gawdat illustrates this idea of control. He asks listeners to hold a pen, or similar object, at one end and let it dangle. I used a hairbrush, because being the Type A crazy that I am, I tend to consume content in the shower. After letting the object dangle, he then asks us to hold it at an angle. Because I used a hairbrush, which is much heavier than a pen, it took quite a bit of force to keep the hairbrush at an angle. This force is, of course, analogous to the equilibrium/homeostasis vs tight control that we impose when it’s our way or the highway.

I think by now you get the idea. At the risk of leaving you hanging, this topic is too big for one post. Stay tuned for Part II, where I talk about my antidotes to feeling powerless, and maybe even a Part III on Pride and Powerlessness (my version of Pride and Prejudice, it’s a reach I know) with Walter White from Breaking Bad. Oops, I forgot that scientists don’t binge Netflix.

In the meantime, or for further in-depth study, I recommend the following resources.  

“The Nature of Personal Reality: Specific, Practical Techniques for Solving Everyday Problems and Enriching the Life You Know ”,  by Jane Roberts.

“Solve for Happy”, by Mo Gawdat.

“The Illusion of Control”, Mo Gawdat, Talks at Google.

More Resources

Feeling Powerless in the Age of COVID (Part II)

Just Breathe: Mindfulness Apps

Balancing on the Edge

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