Keeping Up With the Joneses: The dangers of benchmarking success against social media

I posted last week about some of the reasons that I think social media can be powerful and positive. This week though I want to talk a little bit about the other side of the coin, the fact that social media can end up being a source of enormous pressure to the detriment of both our wellbeing and our career choices.

I’m a great advocate of the use of social media as scientists, I’ve even given the odd talk about it. That doesn’t make me naïve to its risks. We tend to talk about platforms as if they are formed of a cohesive community with the same rules of etiquette and values, but they aren’t. The reasons that people use social media are as variable as the number of people who have accounts. Therefore if you fall into the assumption that the posts you are reading are made using the same motivations and ethics as yours, you can end up in a position where posts and responses to them can cause upset, self recrimination or harm. So what review and thought processes do I try to undertake when I post and engage with posts by others, either emotionally or by responding?

Am I comparing like with like?

I’ve had conversations with a couple of my PhD students over the last month or so about the dangers of benchmarking against people who you don’t really know. You don’t know what their project is, you don’t know what their education and learning objectives are in comparison to yours, you don’t even know if their description of where they are at reflects the reality of what is being shared.

Even for me I can sometimes see posts on social media and when I’m having a bad day can fall into a spiral of asking myself ‘am I good enough?’ ‘do I work hard enough?” ‘do I know enough?’ ‘am I successful enough?’. The thing is that, especially on social media, posts are a projection of self but an edited one. The same thing happens when you have PhD get togethers down the pub but the reach is different and you have at least a better chance to evaluate what’s being said.

It’s easy to fall into comparison but you have to know what your comparing against. For PhDs and training programmes especially, you’ll have your own mile stones and training goals that will be personalised to you and your learning needs. It is folly therefore to compare yourself against someone else as their goals will be different. Discussing shared barriers and approaches can be helpful however but the race to compete about papers, data and presentations rarely is.

Are they only sharing the good stuff?

I personally am really wary of accounts that only share their successes. I know I go on about this a lot, but the most learning often occurs in the failures and if you’re not prepared to share the learning I’m less willing to engage with the success. Nothing is brilliant all the time, no job, no project, and so if an account only shares the hype I am less likely to use it as a benchmark. I’m also less likely to share it with the community, as I worry about the impact that amplifying those voices might have.

In a similar vein, accounts which are not about conversations and supporting the community appeal to me less. If you have an account that is only there to disseminate your success, your papers etc and you don’t also work to amplify others I am less willing to engage. To me, social media is about the opportunity to converse with a diverse group of people. Some accounts are the equivalent of standing on top of a hill with a megaphone and so I take that ethos into account when reading their posts.

Harder, faster, stronger

I see a lot of posts these days talking about how many extra hours someone works, about how many work hats they wear etc. There’s a strong push for this on some academic accounts where people make comments that if you aren’t prepared to work every weekend you can’t be an academic. I also see it more and more coming from some Healthcare Scientists and I’m not sure it’s a healthy trend. There are always times when we have to go the extra mile but wearing it as a badge of honour concerns me. I’m also aware that some of this doesn’t actually reflect the reality, it’s almost like it is what is now expected.

I’m sure that I am guilty of this one, but I hope that most people read my ‘I’m working this weekend’ as ‘my god I’m working again this weekend’. If not you have my apologies. Step up when you have to but also find the strength to have boundaries as it will make you better at all you do.

One last thing on this while I have my rant on. Discussing the ability to do long hours is a privilege, there are many people for whom is this not possible. Parents and carers are excluded from progression if this is what is required. I work hard but I physically suffer badly for it. I don’t want to have my face and hands swell for the rest of my career. I want 8 hours sleep and weekends off if its not an emergency. My mind may be willing but my body is most definitely not. So lets not imply that the only way to be successful is to get 4 hours of sleep a night and to become the job, we all owe ourselves and our families more than that. Rant over!

Whose is the driving seat?

I’m thinking I’m not alone in this one. There are times when I read something and it will send me into a proper shame spiral. Sometimes it’s something as simple as seeing a micro question and not getting the answer right, sometimes it’s seeing an opportunity that I feel like I should engage with and don’t have the energy to and sometimes quite frankly it’s seeing things like a meeting day on my specialist subject that I didn’t know about and makes me question my knowledge/impact. The thing is very few of these reactions are real. They are driven by my anxiety and 9/10 time I will have read exactly the same tweet and not raised an eyebrow. So if it’s about me and not about them what do I do?

Well to be honest I turn off Twitter, step away and have a cup of tea and check my thinking. What is it that has triggered me? Why has it led to that response? In short I make sure that I get back in the driving seat rather than being a passenger to my responses. It’s like those emails you get that you know you shouldn’t respond to right away – I always do and I always regret it, I have impulse control issues. At least on twitter if I step away immediately and don’t engage then I can do the self reflection to try to ensure I’m the best version of myself when I do. We’re all human, we all have moments of jealousy or self doubt, it’s how we respond to those moments that define us. This may be especially true on social media where your responses are out there for the world to see.

Is it helpful? Is it kind?

I definitely share my successes and challenges via both this blog and across social media. My aim in doing so is not to dwell in either but in the hope that sharing will help others, in seeing the opportunities available to them or on feeling less alone. I do have a constant conversation with myself about whether the level at which I share content from myself and other is correct. I know I’m never going to please everyone but I try to at least be honest with myself about my intent when sharing. I saw the tweet below a few weeks ago and it really enforced for me the need to continue with this evaluation. It can never be a response of ‘well I managed it so why haven’t you’. So much of social media strips away nuance and 280 characters will never tell the full story, and so we need to be clever about telling as much of the truth as we can. When people respond in a way that signals that we haven’t managed this it’s important to bear in mind not just what we believe we put out there but also what the reader received when they saw it. I’ve often found the 2 are not the same as they will be looking at it through a different lens to us. Sometimes just acknowledging this is what is needed to make the other person feel heard. I think this is worth remembering as both the maker and receiver of content.

Is seeing believing?

I am super guilty of this one. I’m nothing particularly special and so I fall into the trap of believing that because I did it anyone can do it. I think in terms of intellectual ability this is true as I’m no smarter than anyone else, but I also have a super supportive husband, no kids and research funding. Those things open doors and enable me to have the time to focus on things I want to achieve, whilst feeling supported to do so. This is not the case for everyone and so everyone’s scenario is different.

When you look every year on the day that FRCPath results come out, you see way more people posting that they have passed than those who post they have failed. People hardly ever post to say they failed their PhD viva’s or have come out with an MRes instead. It is worth therefore being wary of using the evidence before your eyes in terms of evaluating how many people actually succeed. I think when I took FRCPath the pass rate was about 40% and for my NIHR Fellowships it has been even less some years, not the 80 – 90% you’d extrapolate from what you see. Making career choices on the basis of this is pretty dangerous. It sounds easy therefore to say you should meet up and speak to people to understand what the reality is. That is sometimes easier than it sounds, not everyone will know someone who has been interviewed for an NIHR Fellowship for instance. We don’t want to limit ourselves and others by saying if you don’t have the connections you can’t strive for the opportunity. What we do need to do is make it easier to see the reality of those options and also make ourselves available for the conversation about what it felt like to attempt it. If we are going to celebrate our successes publicly we should also try to be generous with our time in order to make the same opportunities more widely accessible, with all the context specific information that entails.

You don’t have to take on board all that you hear

That said we’re scientists and healthcare professionals and should be able to look at information available and critically evaluate it. It is easy to get bogged down and not to be able to see the woods for the trees, you’ll get offered so many different opinions and perspectives that it can sometimes be hard to work out whose voice to listen to. Not all of those voices should however have equal value, some you will know more context specific information about than others. When I’m in doubt, when I start to spiral, or when people are critical I tell myself the advice below and then re-evaluate what I’m hearing in light of my relationship and the content of the advice received.

Finally, the other things are more about my own expectation setting. I try to remember why I set up my twitter account and what I was trying to achieve with it. My account is mainly professional, although I also like to share who I am a person, as I think that’s important. It is not my personal account which I maintain on Facebook for checking in on my family and use an occasional safe space to vent. If my Facebook friends have science questions I direct them to Dr Cloutman-Green on twitter because I like to have a safe space elsewhere where I’m not Dr or being reviewed or critiqued. I go back to this when I struggle with dealing with managing my posts or feeling low. I remember the lens through which I am supposed to be viewing the information. I also know that when I’m tired and in a place where my inner critic is running wild, that it is not the time to engage and to take a break, get some sleep and come back when I feel more like myself.

Social media, like most things in life, can be a double edged sword. It has the power to connect and inspire, it also has the potential to isolate and feed our inner demons. Like any adventure it’s therefore worth being prepared and ensuring that you know why you set out and what you want to get out of it. In times of stress know when to walk away and at the end of the day, know that you have friends who can act as a more rounded sounding board if they are not limited to 280 characters, they may even have gin.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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