Achievement, Part 1: What are you training for?

By: Dr. Jen Heemstra

Reposted with permission from Things that change the way I think. Originally published on February 19th, 2018.


In my last post, I used the analogy of personal training to think about what motivates us and how we can harness that to consider career options and push through the rough patches that we’ll inevitably encounter in our career trajectories.  I’m going to continue with the sports analogy for a bit longer, thinking about how we can apply the training habits of athletes to our work life.

I’ve been pretty athletic throughout my life, but over the past two years, I’ve started taking my fitness much more seriously.  I have many friends who can tell you their 5k personal record or cycling watts/kg without thinking.  When I meet these people, the first question they typically ask is “What are you training for?”  When I return the question, the answer is occasionally “I’m in a rest season,” but this is almost always directly followed by “…then I’m training for…”  It has struck me that even among amateur athletes like me, almost nobody says “I’m just hoping to maintain the fitness that I have.”

So, how does this apply to our careers? It can be easy to fall into the habit of thinking that if you get your job done every day, then you’re doing well.  But, that’s just maintaining.  It’s the equivalent of saying “I’m not training for anything.  I just want to run a few miles every morning even if I never get faster.” If this sounds good, then you can still have a very happy career.  But, if you thrive on challenges and growth, then you should be thinking about your training practices.  There are several principles we can take from sports to think about our professional growth and development. In this post, I’ll explore six habits of successful athletes. Next post, I’ll wrap up with the final, and what I think is the most important, habit of athletes that we can apply to our work lives.

Goals. It’s really hard to push yourself if you don’t know what you are training for. Last post, I talked about how to envision career goals.  As a note, it’s completely fine for these to change over time.  Chances are that whatever you are doing now to move toward one career goal is developing important skills that will transfer, if and when your goals change in the future.  Training is rarely wasted – hitting the track with a 5k goal in mind will absolutely help you if you decide to do a triathlon instead.  Don’t be afraid to set big, ambitious goals.  Even if you don’t quite hit what you’re shooting for, you’ll get a lot farther than if you’re only training to achieve an easy goal.  In a practical sense, it’s important to have both short- and long-term goals.  Where do you want to be in 1 month? 1 year? 5 years? At the end of your career?  Make these goals as specific as possible.  When my athlete friends ask me “What are you training for?” and I answer, their next question is inevitably “What is your goal time?”  If you’re in grad school, your overarching goal is probably to earn a PhD, but you should have more detailed goals than that.  How many papers do you want to publish? Do you want to gain teaching experience?  It’s these specific things that will help you as you apply the next principle, which is that you need a…

Plan. “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” I love this quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  It makes so much sense, but it’s also so easy for us to get caught up in daydreaming about goals and forget to make a plan.  Just as an athlete lays out their training plan immediately after setting a goal, you should be looking at your goals, asking yourself what you need in order to get there, and planning out how and when you are going to get that done.  No matter what your career stage, find mentors who are in the place you aspire to be, and ask them what it takes to get there.  For example, to get my job, students usually know that they will need a solid publication record.  But, they may not realize that they also need to hone their ability to formulate and refine ideas or develop excellent communication skills.  You should have a plan for each of your goals, from the shortest term to the longest term.  A good check is to ask yourself whether your short-term plan and goals are helping you accomplish your long-term plan and goals.

Conditioning.  If you’re not regularly pushing outside of your comfort zone, you’re probably not growing.  Here is where the running example is especially relevant.  Think about a pace that feels difficult to maintain.  If you run at that pace frequently, you’ll find that you can maintain it for longer, and eventually it might even start to feel easy.  At that point, you’ll find there is a new, faster pace that feels difficult.  But, again, you can eventually make that feel easy if you push yourself often enough.  As you go about your work, think about how you can push yourself – what is it that you don’t know you’re capable of?  Is there a level of multi-tasking in lab that feels overwhelming?  Does writing terrify you? (It terrified me for a long time!)  Frequently push yourself beyond what you think you can do, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll look back and wonder why it ever felt difficult in the first place…then be sure to look ahead to the next level.

Have fun. This one may seem strange, and your immediate reaction may be “Jen, if you want me to have fun, then you really should stop talking about running.”  Training is hard and often painful, but it’s much less so if you can find ways to make it fun.  I joined an indoor bike training program last winter, where I showed up 2-3 times per week, got on my bike in the basement of a nondescript building, and suffered through an 80 minute workout. And I paid money for this!  Why?  It’s because there were 10 other people there with me every time, and while we did occasionally resort to our respective “pain caves” during hard intervals, we spent much of the time getting to know each other, joking around, listening to fun music, and watching cool you tube videos on a big screen tv.  Even if you take your hobbies and work seriously, you should still be having fun with both.  My research group members are amazing in many ways – they’re incredibly bright, creative, and driven, and they also know how to make the job fun.  The walls of our lab and offices are decorated with their own custom research memes, and though everyone is working very hard, there is a consistent background of joking around.  Grad school is hard, but they have the insight to realize that it can feel a little less hard with some intentional fun. Wherever you are in your career, it’s important to cultivate fun. If possible, choose groups where people take the science seriously, but don’t take themselves too seriously.  If you’re stuck in an un-fun workplace, think about ways that you can slowly change the culture, or find others in your same position outside of your group who you can joke around with.

Perseverance. One of my science heroes recently shared with me the analogy that sometimes research is like running up a hill with a bend in the road.  You’re struggling just to maintain your pace, and you don’t know what’s around the bend.  Is it more uphill?  Steeper?  Flat?  Downhill?  This is where perseverance comes in.  Even when we think we know what the immediate future holds, we really don’t.  When things feel tough, sometimes you need to just keep going.  I can think of many times that my project wasn’t working, we got scooped, I didn’t know if I’d ever get a job, I didn’t know if I’d ever get a grant funded.  The list goes on – the key in nearly all of those situations was to just keep going.  In these times, your short-term goals are your friend.  It may feel overwhelming to think about achieving your 5 year goal, but you can hopefully muster the energy to work toward a 5 hour goal.  That being said, sometimes you also need a rest, which brings us to…

Periodicity.  If you’re not into sports, periodicity is the intentional practice of alternating between pushing hard and resting.  It’s a physiological fact that you don’t get stronger while exercising; you get stronger while resting and fueling after exercise. Similarly, if all you do is push yourself professionally, eventually you will burn out.  I’ve found that it’s incredibly important to alternate between times of pushing hard and times of taking it easy.  And, this spans multiple timeframes.  Most days, I treat myself to a workout and end the day with a relaxing beer or glass of wine.  Each week, I take one day where I do essentially no work.  You may be working crazy hours in lab and at an insane intensity for several weeks to get all of the data for a manuscript, but once you do that, it’s wise to take at least a short vacation.  After both undergrad and grad school, I took about four months off and travelled the country.  While it can feel hard to take time off when there is still more work to be done, I’ve found that this is the time when I step back, put everything into perspective or see things in a new way, and the renewed energy and creativity I have upon returning more than makes up for the time lost.  As you think about your short- and long-term plans, think about the points at which you can engineer in rest hours, days, or even seasons.  Savor the rest time and enjoy it without guilt.

I know that I’ve centered this around sports, but my hope is that whatever pursuit drives you outside of work, you can see the training practices there and apply them to your work life as well. Stay tuned for my next post on what I think is the most important training practice of all.

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