Grand challenge: from Staff to Visitor and other stories

What are the grand challenges in our lives? For some it is the immediate future: get through this week, this cold or until next payroll. Or maybe until  the next holiday.. The list goes on. However, I was never that sort of a person.  I have always been a conscientious planner. My mother tells me I even did homework in junior high (who else would?). I chose my discipline of study (theoretical physics) because I thought it was most intriguing and challenging. And offered the fastest way to fundamental research (at least compared with med school).

When I finished my PhD and started looking for new opportunities my father once called me “ambivalent” and recommended some measure of calming down (I was pursuing a couple of rather, let’s say complementary strands). At the time I had a small child, chaired a volunteer group, danced ballet and looked for jobs. I took the message with me to career counseling and left with heightened self-confidence: I know what I want, I am an articulate person and have managed a lot in the past, so what’s the problem? (My father would probably deny ever saying such things, at least he wouldn’t remember, which is quite intrinsic of the nature of the relationship between parent and child, one that I try to remember when speaking with my own children..). So I continued until I received an offer: a generous research mobility grant that would take me & my family to Austria.

For me the grand challenge was always living up to potential. What potential? Defined by whom? True, no good definitions exist, and all measures were developed by yours truly, however these were important guidelines for the future, or so I felt. If you aim high,  you will get somewhere. Maybe not quite there, but at least you are open to new paths and challenges, and will hopefully have a good journey.

After turning 30 (no one stays 28 forever..) I started to see my pace slowing down. Or perhaps it wasn’t my pace, but the way I viewed things around me and the pace at which I made note of changes (or more precisely, I only noticed the ‘important’ changes). I suddenly started to realize that in my father’s eyes, I must have been quite the eager beaver earlier on. When my new family faced yet another international move (my third one inside 4 years), I felt fatigued and resisted. It was almost as if my body was shouting: Not so fast, I can’t keep up with the changes! But move we did, and now, after 9 months in one place, I am again more or less at ease and able to plan ahead effectively.

At the same time I faced negotiations for my position and a prospective job hunt. After having one position in two countries for three years, the term is soon coming to a close and it was time to start the academic runaround for new funding and potentially other opportunities. Again I decided to split my brain (cf. ambivalence in the beginning) and in order to hedge, look for both funding and new opportunities. My status at the university became “Fellow” instead of “Affiliate”, however suddenly I find my new staff badge saying “Visitor” instead of “Staff”. What a blow.. where is the prestige in being a Visitor? Putting prestige aside, I decided to try to ignore the fact and only politely enquire after it, if it turns out to be a problem.

At this point in time, the Grand Challenge of aiming high and achieving through always looking well ahead, studying hard and long to achieve goals and so forth, seems to have given way to the following that I have happened upon in several forms recently: What distinguishes the people who do well from those who settle for less is not their infallibility but their ability to get back up. So what I did after the “trillionth” move,  “trillionth” new research institute and “trillionth” rejection of funding or applied position was to GET BACK ON THE SADDLE. Still, I look as far ahead as possible and have not lost my ambition nor enthusiasm (well, maybe some due to loss of naivete with age). I believe that one just needs to get up every day to search for and grab the opportunities out there, and make the most of every single day. Or at least make the most of the days in between the more stressful periods.. ;)

[At the time of writing, I am starting to collaborate on a new research project with a famous senior colleague, plan on a return to ballet classes after 5 years, have still not heard back from several job opportunities, read economics news every day, do yoga at home, and finally, recently submitted a new grant proposal.]

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