What would I change? Nothing.

Over at The Molecular Ecologist blog, Jeremy Yoder is organising a blog carnival about “Knowing what I know now”. Essentially, the question at hand is: what would I do differently in the previous stage of my academic career (my Ph.D., for me) to help me in the current one (my postdoc). When I read this, I thought that it would make a great blog post here, but then the question sank into the back of my mind and I struggled to put anything down on the screen. I fought with it for a few days, until I finally realised why.

I wouldn’t change anything about my graduate career. But I would tell myself something.

Two years into my Ph.D., I was living in Montréal while my wife was living in Edmonton, 3500 kilometers away. It certainly wasn’t an easy life: I spent a fair bit of my time on airplanes, returning to Edmonton at least once every month or every two months, and let me tell you that the novelty of both the Edmonton and Montréal airports wears off quickly. It was stressful financially and emotionally; my wife was working two, sometimes three jobs, and I was putting every waking moment into my Ph.D. research to try and get finished. My sleep cycle was so screwed up that I often went to bed when the sun came up and woke up a few hours later to stumble back over to my computer. I put on a fair bit of weight, I was unhealthy, and I was a mess. There were also a few times – I’m told – when my mother-in-law, Dawn, was the only thing keeping my wife from divorcing me. I’ll owe her forever for that.

Which is one of the reasons that the news of her diagnosis with cancer that summer came as such a blow. The day I received the call, I was on a plane back to Edmonton, and we soon learned that the situation was bad: Dawn had a late-stage gallbladder cancer. Treatment options were limited, and we were faced the prospect of caring for her as she died in an extended and unpleasant fashion. My heart broke for my wife, who was as close to her mother as a human being could be; her father had been out of the picture since she was a child, and so the two of them had faced the world together as an unbreakable unit. Being allowed into that small but powerful family was one of the greatest honours of my life, and watching it go through this darkness was one of the greatest pains.

But here’s what I would tell myself.

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert presents a compelling case that one of the things that trips us up so badly when it comes to happiness is that we’re terrible at predicting it. In his now well-known TED talk, he discusses the phenomenon of the lottery winners and the amputees; measured at the time of the occurrence, people in the former group would predict their happiness to be much higher than that of the latter one year on, but when actually measured a year later, their happiness comes out to be the same. The lesson of this is not to give up striving for situations that make us happy. Rather, the lesson I take from this is that when life hands you a truckload of lemons, rest assured that you’re probably going to enjoy the lemonade more than you think.

Why would I remind myself of this? Because the truth is that the things didn’t get better, at least not right away. I had to watch Dawn die painfully over the next eight months, and I had to hold my wife’s hand while she underwent the most difficult period of her life, utterly powerless to help. I lost one of the most important people in my life, closer to me than my own parents1. After Dawn died, I had to deal with my own grief while helping my wife do the same. And while all of this was going on, I had to push forward with my Ph.D. research.

When it comes to my Ph.D., I was lucky. I was doing theoretical work, so I could be away from my lab without being entirely crippled. Was that optimal? Hell, no. I went to Montréal in the first place to work with a really smart guy, and I spent most of the last half of my Ph.D. talking to him occasionally on Skype. His patience with me went above and beyond the call of duty, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully express how much I appreciate it, nor will he ever really know how much he taught me despite all of this. I also lost time with my lab mates, from whom I could have learned a lot. The research I did probably wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I might still be paying for that today2.

So, barrels and barrels of lemonade. Yet despite all of that, I’m happy now with how it all came out. As Gilbert would say, I’ve synthesised my own happiness, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s made the scientist that I am now, and even if that’s not as good as I could have been, I can live with that. This all drives down to the core of what I would tell myself at that moment, when I was flying home to Edmonton and facing down the prospect of watching someone I loved die, thinking that my life had gone completely off the rails:

Look, this sucks. I’ll grant you that. But insomuch as you can, try to let go of your predictions and worries for the future, because you’re definitely wrong.

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Okay, I’m lying a little. I would change one thing. In the first summer of my Ph.D., my wife was teaching in Edmonton so she was able to come down to Montréal for the summer holiday. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have signed up for the ISBE conference in New York so that I wouldn’t have found myself leaving my wife in Montréal to go to New York a week after she came from Edmonton to see me. It seemed like such a good idea at the time and it actually had beneficial outcomes for my career, but it was – by far – one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.

  1. A story for another day, but my adopted parents and I did not have what I would call a close relationship.
  2. Not an excuse for anything, mind you, just a recounting of the facts. I’m happy to take responsibility for the successes and failures of my work.