Finding Balance: Learning to Let Go of Impossible Standards

Image with blue background and title of the blog in orange with a photo of Nichole and CCST logo.

Nichole Holm, PhD, is a 2021 CCST S&T Policy Fellow placed on the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee. Nichole’s doctoral research focused on the genetic changes in neurodegenerative disease and the use of genetics in clinical practice. She earned her PhD in Genetics from UC Davis and a BS in Biology from Eckerd College.


 

If I asked you to describe a generally successful workday, what would come to mind? Perhaps clearing off your to-do list, finally reaching inbox zero(-ish), and maybe finishing up with time to get outside before the sun sets?

For me, as I finished my PhD in genetics, I operated under a very different vision of success. I thought working hard meant sacrificing sleep and my social life for more progress at work. My experience as a Fellow has led me to reevaluate this vision of success, learning to find and embrace a work-life balance that benefits both my work and my life.

I learned the value of building relationships, networking, and mentoring as incredibly important for finding this balance. Through training, working with and learning from my colleagues, and personal reflection, I see now that working hard is not synonymous with constantly working.

In graduate school, where you’re dedicated to discovering something no one has discovered before, it’s easy to feel like the image of a hard worker working endless hours is the necessary path to success—short of hitting the experimental lottery. In my eyes at that time, the best graduate students could burn the midnight oil, work without tiring, and stay encouraged despite their 15th failed experiment.

 

Image of Nichole speaking at the CCST Science Translators Showcase.
Nichole (left) shares her research with Stanford Medicine’s Linda Dairiki Shortliffe and CCST S&T Policy Fellows Alum Julianne McCall at the 2019 CCST Science Translators Showcase.

 

Of course, there are many people who experience joy and excitement from troubleshooting their experiment and excel in this type of research or work environment, with long-term, open-ended projects and irregular work hours. For me, however, the pressure I felt on myself to constantly work was difficult to balance with taking any time off. Going more than a couple days without working left me feeling guilty. And if I didn’t get my work done, I would tell myself “a better graduate student would have gladly given up that weekend for their project.”

Even after undergoing a major surgery, I tried to power through—keeping my computer up and running so I could work. I thought the doctors might notice that I was a hard-working student. “Perhaps one day,” I thought, “if they ever meet my boss they’ll let them how hard I worked.”

(They never met my boss.)

This impossible standard of work I held myself to was not sustainable, taking a physical and mental toll on me. Attempting to work at such an intense pace inevitably led to burnout—stifling my productivity and furthering my feelings of shame and inadequacy, certain that a better employee or graduate student would have found a way to override their fatigue.

It wasn’t until I started my position as a CCST Science & Technology Policy fellow that I started to realize how deeply my perceptions of hard work shaped my wellbeing and how unhealthy it was. It was about halfway through my fellowship when I realized I needed to actively deprogram myself from my graduate school work culture.

 

Quoted text image: I’ve learned the power of compliments, not only as motivators but also a sign that I’m in the right field of work.

 

Although my background is in genetics and health, I was eager to join the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife committee, where I could learn a host of new information regarding very important issues. Within the first few weeks, I realized just how much there was to learn. Analyzing legislation and facilitating productive discussions with stakeholders requires a deep understanding and an awareness of the history of this policy area.

The other members of my committee work extremely hard. Yet, they also share stories about the social life they have outside of work, and the balance they maintain. While there are very busy seasons in the legislature where weeks fly by, there are also slower seasons where we can pace ourselves. It’s during these times when I can enjoy a real lunch break, schedule coffee meetings with colleagues, and attend more professional networking happy hours after work.

I didn’t realize it before, but these aspects of my social life—building relationships, networking, and mentoring—are actually incredibly important aspects of my professional life. I began to realize that my previous definition of “hard work” was not the only way to be a good employee. There are other, more positive motivators to work: passion, relationships, pride, teamwork, sleep, exercise, etc. Many of these ideas, which I previously thought distracted from my work, actually bring value to my work and are integral to my success as an employee.

Six months in, I’m so grateful for the many practical lessons and skills the fellowship and my placement with the Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee has taught me. I’ve learned about the depth and history of California water policy, the many passionate groups involved in wildlife legislation, and the inequities of park/green space access. I also learned how to hold a productive meeting with agencies and stakeholders, navigate difficult conversations, and write efficient, comprehensive bill analyses.

 

I am a better team member and contributor to policy through the skills I have learned.

 

But in addition to all of the hard skills I have gained, I have also experienced more positive reinforcement in the past nine months than I heard in my six years of graduate school. I’ve learned the power of compliments, not only as motivators but also a sign that I’m in the right field of work. The fellowship taught me how to work intelligently, not just to the point of exhaustion, and that taking vacation days is something I can share with others instead of hiding.

I could not be more grateful for the many lessons this fellowship has taught me. I am a better team member and contributor to policy through the skills I have learned. I am also grateful for the lessons on office culture and the balance that is possible in different working environments.

Looking forward, I’m thrilled to have already accepted a position as the Genetics and Public Policy Fellow for the American Society for Human Genetics (ASHG) and the National Human Genetics Research Institute (NHGRI), where I can bring my newfound skillset and passion to work every day.

Without the CCST fellowship, I would not have been as prepared for this next fellowship, not only with regards to the skills I have gained but also the ways in which success and hard work was modeled by the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee staff.

 

 


About the CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellowship
The CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows program trains scientific thinkers to be policy-savvy, while helping equip California’s decision makers with science-savvy staff. The program was established in 2009 with funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and other generous friends. Discover how our CCST Science Fellows make a difference in California’s policy arena at ccst.us/ccst-science-fellows-program.

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