“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.”
More and more these days, we seem to spend our time rushing around, heads down immersed in work, going from one deadline to another. Stress is a fundamental cause of ill-health, so it’s important to stop sometimes, have a breather and take some time to reflect. Call it what you will - mindfulness, meditation, self-awareness, active consciousness - I do believe there is substance to this philosophy of life and that it also underpins effective personal career management and planning.
This was confirmed to me in a pilot workshop on leadership, which I attended at the start of the year. It was an intensive two days, aimed at postdoctoral researchers, and delivered by Steve Hutchinson and Paul Toombs on behalf of the researcher support organisation, Vitae. One of the major take-home messages from the event was that self-awareness is the most important quality of good leaders and superior performers. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, being aware of your preferred way of doing things, your values, your priorities and those of your organisation, as well as the political landscape within which you operate are the ‘keys’ to unlocking success and enhancing performance. Furthermore, self-awareness and being mindful of your interests, skills and personality can help you to make informed choices about your career, making the transition to your next post less stressful.
You can by more mindful in no time at all. Ask yourself some of the following questions:
Ø What am I enjoying at the moment and why?
Ø What’s been my best idea lately?
Ø What do I find difficult and challenging at the moment?
Ø What could I do to immediately improve my present situation?
Ø What are my medium- and long-term term goals?
Ø How can I strengthen my career as it stands currently and in the future?
Ø Who could help me with that (internal/external)?
Ø How do I relax my brain and body and what can I do to improve this area of my life?
If you’re currently feeling stressed about something - maybe you’re stuck on a problem, your experiments aren’t working, you’re having difficulty with your supervisor, you’re anxious about giving a talk, writing your thesis or thinking about your next career move - rather than expending lots of negative energy worrying about your situation or procrastinating, why not do something positive? Step outside yourself and take an objective perspective. This is what Deepak Chopra talks about in his recent book “Self power”. He says there are three levels of awareness (I have added in his words in quotations):
1. "Contracted awareness" – this is where many of us find ourselves: we become “defensive, wary and fearful” in the face of our problems.
2. "Expanded awareness "– this is when our “vision extends beyond the conflict, giving more clarity”, so that we start to look at our problems objectively and approach them with confidence.
3. "Pure awareness" – “this is the level where no problems exist. Every challenge is a creative opportunity….. All that matters is how open we are to the answers being presented.”
Essentially, expanding awareness is about self-coaching, where you try to find solutions through reflection and mindfulness. It’s not always easy to do this and, as with trying to improve your physical well-being such as posture, weight and fitness, your mind-set quickly slumps back to its old ways. There are books which can help to keep you on track and professional careers advisers and coaches can also support you in the process. Another way is to find a mentor or a supportive friend or colleague with whom to share your thoughts and find ways forward. Whatever you think will work best for you, why not give it a go? It could be the most productive experiment you ever tried.