There’s an old joke about two young fish that are swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Ever since I heard that joke I’ve thought about water. What’s water? In the context of the joke, it’s part of your surroundings (internal and external) that are so pervasive you aren’t aware of them. Water can also be a teaching, tradition, etc that may be accepted by you but would be considered foreign or unacceptable in another setting. Perhaps your water is a genetic condition. For example, I have a blind and deaf dog named Leppy. Leppy is short for, and named after the rock group, Def Leppard.  The credit for this great name goes to his foster mom; we liked it so much we kept it. Leppy is a Catahoula Leopard, and is blind and deaf due to the mating of 2 dogs heterozygous for the merle gene. Merle is an autosomal dominant gene that causes mottled coloring in certain breeds such as Catahoula Leopards, Australian shepherds, shelties, and some other breeds. Some not-so-reputable breeders breed these dogs together, presumably to get more dogs with this mottled coloring. Dogs homozygous for the merle dominant gene often have hearing and eye issues. Leppy’s eyes are not developed so he is totally blind, and he’s deaf to most sounds. So, what is Leppy’s water? His water is bumping into things quite a bit, sniffing to get a sense of where he’s at, and walking like a Lipizzaner stallion so that his legs find an object before his head does. His water is also getting attacked out of the blue by our lab Big Ben because he can’t hear or see Ben telling him to back off when he gets too close to one of Ben’s chew toys. That’s why we put out lots of chew toys to minimize this happening – if you ever come to my house you’ll probably step on some.

What’s water in the world of academic science? Water is publish or perish, grant funding is scarce, and the institution you trained at or work at is very important. If you come from Poughkeepsie State (home of the Cougars from the movie Dodgeball), you might have to work a little harder to make a case for your environment for an NIH grant. Does that mean you can’t get funded? Absolutely not. Does it mean that you’ll need to be intentional about your description of the environment and collaborators? Yes, but that’s not the end of the world. I’ve reviewed great grants from small institutions and some stinkers from powerhouses of research. My point is to make sure you are aware of the water and don’t drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak. Some ideas are so pervasive that they start to sink in, like second-hand smoke at a party. Collective biases are part of every culture, but awareness of these biases is key. Just because others might dismiss your work because you are at a smaller institution, the important point is that you do not dismiss your work. The same thing goes for grant funding. If you believe the collective, that getting a grant is impossible, then it will be.

What about personal water? We all have personal water. Maybe your water is a traumatic childhood or an abusive relationship. I just finished watching a British TV series called The Split, which is about a family of female divorce lawyers set in London. In one episode the main character, Hannah Stern, is helping the wife in a celebrity couple obtain a divorce. She asked the wife to make a list of all the things her husband was doing that she didn’t like. The wife’s list involved very manipulative and controlling behavior on the part of the husband. Hannah tells the wife that based on her 20+ years as a lawyer, this behavior is not typical within the context of a marriage. In other words, the wife’s water was an abusive relationship. She had been married for 20 years, and probably didn’t realize the toxicity of the relationship until she described it to someone that was in a different pond. The problem with water is that it’s all around you, so it’s hard to get perspective without getting some distance either physically (like a trip or retreat) or getting help from someone (therapist, possibly friend) who’s not in your water. Water can also be insidious, with small imperceptible changes over time leading to some pretty dirty bathwater.

What about your internal water? No, I’m not talking about the 60% that makes up the human body. I’m talking about the things you tell yourself every day. Would you say those things to a good friend? Probably not. Internal water may be the toughest to combat because it’s hard to get out of your own head and get perspective (therapist or good life coach can help here). It’s also the hardest on your wellbeing. Why? Because “the voice” is always there. If you call yourself stupid, a loser, fat, ugly, etc., with frequency, what do you think happens?

Your internal water can also be a feeling. Maybe, like me, your internal water is guilt. Although I understand that taking responsibility for one’s actions is good, being the overachiever that I am I take responsibility for everyone else’s actions as well. Not the good ones, of course, but the negative ones. When my son falls behind in school, I blame myself for poor parenting. When someone steps on my toe, I apologize for having my foot in the way.

At the expense of sounding like I’m trying to create urgency in a grant – why water, why now? While every day is the first day of the rest of your life, as the saying goes, the end of the year is often a time we reflect on the past and plan for the future. No time like the present to think about the elements of “your water” and whether they are serving you or not. Like many things we may want to change, the first step is awareness. Awareness helps you become the observer so that you can climb out of that dirty bathwater and into the ocean.

I’ll close with an example. If you’re not big on personal examples you can stop here. For myself, I’m pretty curious about what other people are trying, what they’re reading, etc. Besides guilt, another part of my water that I am becoming increasingly aware of is the feeling of time scarcity. No doubt I’m preaching to the choir on this one. I don’t know about you, but I often become so focused on lack of time that I don’t enjoy the time I have. To help myself get out of this water, I’m going to try a few new practices. First, I’m going to try Bullet Journaling, or as the cool kids say, BuJo. I’m hoping that this will make me more aware of how I spend my time and be more intentional about the time I have. Second, I’m going to try a practice called Unified Mindfulness (see link below), which I hope will help me loosen up about the whole scarcity thing and get more enjoyment out of the time I have. Finally, I’m doing the 30 day Yoga with Adriene challenge, which will be a challenge because exercise and movement are usually the first to go when I’m stretched thin. If any of you have tried these before and had good, bad, or otherwise results feel free to share. And now, time to take a shower….


Resources mentioned and more:

Awareness by Anthony De Mello – great book on, well, awareness

The Bullet Journal Method, by Ryder Carroll

Unified Mindfulness – free training and paid courses for those who want to dive deeper

Yoga with Adriene – here’s a link to this year’s 30-day challenge.

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