Monday, May 14, 2012

Which hill?

There are periods in everyone's lives, I think, where it seems that you are fighting a losing battle. And then there are periods where it seems you're fighting endless battles in an ill-advised, all-out war.

I'm going through one of those periods now. I've grown significantly over the past few years and shared some of the lessons I've learned here on this blog and incorporated countless others into my daily and no-so-daily routine. Before I started my PhD, advisers wiser than myself told me that earning a PhD is not only about gaining scientific knowledge, but also about becoming independent and gaining the experience needed to plan, finance, and execute a project. An integral part of this process that I've struggled with is making decisions. On the other hand, this is also one of the areas in which I have made the most progress, and the extent of my progress was certainly tested this week.

Previously I felt the need to gather many opinions on every option in order to make the most well-informed decision, essentially a way to hedge my bets. It's not a bad strategy for someone unfamiliar with the area in which they're making decisions, but as time went on I knew that I needed to move away from this method. While this sounds logical and to make the best decision and gain the approval of my boss, I began to realize that I was putting excessive amounts of time and energy in every decision (and probably annoying the heck out of my colleagues). What I really needed, besides experience, was a little bit of confidence. I've written before about the negative effects anxiety can have on one's life. Anxiety can prevent you from building confidence by clouding your brain with needless details and second-guessing/over-analysis. It can also wear away at the confidence you already have, with endless nagging doubts and repeated recollection of painful or embarrassing mistakes.  Having fought this anxiety through therapy, medicine, the support of friends and careful attention to the times that I may not be thinking clearly has done wonders to build my confidence. Now able to trust myself, I find decision-making much easier and can recognize mistakes not as the entrance to the path of ultimate failure but as (still sucky) learning experiences that I can overcome next time.

As a side note, I know I've mentioned before that my mother says that God makes us face the same challenges and learn the same lessons over and over again because each time they're different. I know this is one of those cases for me; I never intended to be in a position where I needed to make important financial and personnel decisions, but that's right where I'm headed as a scientist. And I've already gotten a taste of both, at least in an advisory position as a senior graduate student and in my position as an officer in various graduate student groups and planning committees. That my destiny is to learn to become an independent decision-maker is highlighted by the fact that I am more independent than most people my age; for the better part of my grad school career I've been without a romantic/life partner to discuss and share everyday and larger matters with, and as I get older my friends become immersed in their own daily lives and less accessible (though still equally, if not more, supportive and lovable!).

So I've gone from an obsessive, under-confident flip-flopper to a confident and experienced decision maker and even leader. This was definitely tested in the past few weeks, as I had to make several large decisions in a short amount of time that affected both my work and personal life. Looking back on my decisions, I feel that I made the right ones. Inspecting these experiences ever more closely, I have also realized that even when I asked others for advice, I was truly alone in the decision making. I've said (in softer wording) to friend who have to make difficult choices such as following a boyfriend's move across the country that you have to take care of yourself, because no one else will. And that is what I truly came to understand recently, not in a bitter way, but in a deeper way; I am making decisions about my life. Even if I make one that I feel is right, and which turns out to be right for me, others might not see that because they're not the ones living it. And, as Rilke says, "the point is, to live everything." These past few weeks I was tested in making decisions on everything- from sending back merchandise at work to choosing to inquire about apartments to even more difficult and interpersonal decisions. As one decision as followed, seemingly endlessly, by another, my resolve began to weary. And I did turn to my friends for advice and comfort- but I realized that it was more for comfort than advice. And having been comforted, I was able to more peacefully listen to what my heart and experiences were telling me was the right thing.

I always make graduate school and being single out to be very difficult struggles to deal with. But I know that any life is filled with struggles, and that this is my journey to growing up. It's not for me to say if it's objectively harder or easier than anyone else's. But I can say that I am enjoying it, and doing everything I can to make the most of it.

The title of this post was generated by a conversation with my father, when I was asking for advice and he advised me to decide which hill I wanted to defend. We may not choose the same hill, but we can help each other think about which ones are important and why.

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