Farewell 2022: Looking back and reflecting on how we can be our own most unreliable witness

As the days grow shorter and the weather worsens reflections can turn more pensive and gloomy. At this time of year, especially this year, I’m struggling to find a sense of achievement. It feels like I’ve got nowhere fast and I can feel the self doubt crowding into the edges of my psyche. Here’s the thing though, I am my own worst critic. I remember the failures and not the successes. I remember the list of to do’s that didn’t get done. With that in mind I thought I would write a post that would remind me of the boxes ticked and movements made. I hope that if you are in the same boat you might consider doing the same, fingers crossed it might help you too.

Things that have gone well

In order to get me into a positive growth mindset, prior to tackling the things yet to do, let’s start with the good stuff. Please forgive the self indulgence whilst I build up to the learning. There have been a lot of professional successes and my students and team continue to make me prouder than I can say, but as this is about emotion for me, I’m going to talk about the personal stuff.

After being slightly lacking a visual identity for 6 years Girlymicro finally got an image to sum her up from the gifted David Sondered (his website is here). This female scientist breaking barriers and sitting out of time pleases me more than I can say. She feels like a homage to all those female scientists who went before, many of which are sadly forgotten. Also, for those who may not know, I love a steam punk or a victoriana game setting, and she definitely reflects this aspect of who I am.

I posted this year about how much this blog and you have come to mean to me. As it happens my friends have been on at me to start a podcast for almost as long as the blog has existed, and 2022 was the year it finally happened. It’s still finding its feet and is not posting as frequently as I’d like because life is busy, but it’s there. What’s feels so wonderful about this is that it’s a co project with Mr Girlymicro, so, like many things in my life, it’s a family affair. It means I still get to do the science I love without it taking time away from my loved ones. I also feel it represents a number of things that are important to me. 1) Science is a team sport and so even talking about it as a partnership feels like it represents this. 2) Science can’t live in isolation in an ivory tower, it has meaning when shared and this sharing shouldn’t just be by scientists to scientists. Mr Girlymicro keeps me honest and asks me the questions that he wants the answers to, not just what I think needs sharing.

One of the other things that really inspired me to be better this year was being asked to give my first talks and Plenary lectures linked to Girlymicro. I’m used to standing in front of people and talking science and data, there’s something different about standing in front of people and talking linked to something that is so personal, something that normally just goes out into the world on a Friday night. It took me longer than I had thought possible to write those sessions, I didn’t want the people who had put so much faith in me, or put their valuable time and energy into reading and responding to the blog down. It felt so very different to giving an academic talk but it was beyond fulfilling. It was another one of those moments that really caused me to sit down and reflect on the way I do things and the way I think. Without this blog, and you reading it, this moment would never have happened. So, thank you.

This leads me onto something that has become pretty key to my well being, as in a time of stress and exhaustion during the pandemic it has, along with the blog, continued to be a space where I’ve felt like I could still have impact and creatively explore. The Nosocomial project. I think it would be fair to say that it has developed and grown more than Nicola could have dreamt when we had tea together back in 2017. This project has continued to grow this year and the inspirational Nicola Baldwin took some of my words and turned them into a piece called ‘All Opinions In This Blog Are My Own’ which was performed by myself and some wonderful fellow Healthcare Scientists at the Bloomsbury Festival. It felt so different both speaking and hearing my words in front of an audience. It gave everything a new life and I hearing it from the lips of other people really did cause me to reflect on it in a new way. It was also so different seeing the audience, many of whom hadn’t read the blog, engage with the words for the first time. It was like, to me, what happens when you sit down and verbalise an idea that’s lived in your brain for a long time to someone else for the first time. The mere act of saying the words aloud changes them, and that was both a terrifying and amazing moment to live through. It was like building up to look in a mirror without knowing whether you’d be strong enough to stare at your reflection, and then finding you could. Thank you to Nicola for making it happen and to Sam, Claire, Ant and Ozge for standing up with me and taking a risk.

We all know how much I love a bit of tea and cake…I don’t think I’ve hidden this from you. One of the other moments that gave me real joy, as it meant I got to combine who I am as a person with who I am as a scientist, was that I got to talk about science and whole genome sequencing through the metaphor of cake. One of the core tenants of this blog is making science and scientists less ‘other’ and this was one of those moments when I really got to enjoy standing up to talk about things that I think are brilliant. Not only that, but due to the Nosocomial Project I got to do it to different audiences, scientific, clinical and public and it was lovely to see the response from those different groups.

Talking about the Nosocomial Project, it was not the only thing that started up again and enabled me to get out in person to start engaging again. Other pieces of work that have been going for some time, like the Healthcare Science Education conference #HCSEd and the Environment Network meetings got back to normal in terms of delivery. Both of these projects had been running for at least 3 years pre pandemic and although I found the break hard it was also important to me for a couple of reasons. It made me realise how much I value being engaged in them and how much value I think they bring to the communities that they support. This has enabled me to come back to them re-energised. The gap has also given me some time to ponder what the next steps might be be, which has enabled me to also come back to them with purpose – so watch this space.

One of the things I’ve also tried to prioritise this year is my post pandemic recovery. The pandemic isn’t over and it’s still taken up a lot of my bandwidth in 2022, and been a source of continuing resource drain. That said, I’ve started to remember who I was outside of Dr Cloutman-Green and began to find my smile and laugh. I tried to find some time to prioritise people like my husband and mum who have given up so much in recent years just to keep me on my feet and in the fight. I won’t ever be able to repay them, but this year has been a start. I’m not there yet, the batteries are still pretty empty but I am at least beginning to remember who I am, and finding time for some things that bring me joy.

Part of that finding time for me is that I have taken some steps linked to a blog post I wrote January 2022. In that post I wrote about a not so secret ambition I had of writing a book and some steps that I was going to achieve this year. Now, I had let fear stand in my way and periodically I’m still in this space, where I fear humiliation and failure, but I have written the submission chapters and in 2023 I’m going to take a leap and submit them. I was hoping to have done this prior to the end of the year but to be honest life has got in the way and I want to do it when I’m ready. This is obviously a delicate balance between making sure it’s right and making sure I’m not delaying through fear. It’s one of the reasons I’m including it here. Part of the fear is that people will find out and judge me if it doesn’t succeed. So now you all know I’m doing it, and if I don’t succeed I will share the learning and hope that someone else will learn from it and not make the same mistakes. Keeping it secret isn’t serving me and so now it’s out in the wild – and if you have any tips about where to submit it do let me know. It’s basically, at it’s heart, this blog in book form. If you don’t try you will always fail.

Talking about writing and stepping out of your comfort zone. The first ever text book chapter I’ve ever written comes out in the textbook below in April. This was a disastrous idea and to be honest I hated just about every moment of writing it, but mostly because I had agreed to write it before a global pandemic and then had to deliver it during the 1st year of a global pandemic. This meant that the writing was not quite the Murder She Wrote joy I’d anticipated, but more delivering exhausting word count on no sleep on the few moments of down time I could get. That said, the editors were kinder than you’d believe and did A LOT of heavy lifting on my behalf with edits, and part of me thinks that if I can get one done in that setting surely any others will be easier? Plus I learnt a lot and hopefully people will find the end result useful.

Finally, the unexpectedly wonderful continued to happen and I got to share it with Mr Girlymicro. I was fortunate enough to be able to do some amazing things in 2022, like attending the Queens Garden Party. These things are amazing in themselves, but when you can share them with people you love they are even better. It takes a village to keep this scientist in one piece and without all those who pick me up when I fall, put me back together, feed me and tell me that ‘yes, you can’ I would not manage to achieve any of the things I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve. I’m hoping that 2023 will continue to be filled with the surprisingly wonderful and that I can continue to share those moments both with you, my cheer leaders, and with the people I love,

Things that I’ve learnt

So that was all the wonderful, now we need to get to the learning. This is probably the more important part of reflecting, even if it is sometimes the more challenging part, in the end it is probably the thing that we should be most grateful for.

2022 continued to the theme of the 20’s so far by being a year of making the unpopular calls. In some ways this year was harder because there wasn’t guidance to stand behind, it was about personal advocation and decision making. I wrote a blog post that really helped me work through some of my thinking and learning on this and it did really help me with some of my processing. I don’t enjoy conflict but standing up for what you think is right is an important part of leadership. Sometimes that means making the hard calls, not just saying the easy things, or what people want to hear. It’s recognising that if you give in to easy in the moment you can end up causing harm or suffering in the long term, and so standing resolute in the moment, no matter how challenging, is necessary. It is also difficult because you have to sometimes roll the dice, we are not always right, all you can do is make the right call in the moment and be open to change and sharing learning if it doesn’t turn out to be the right call long term. As someone who struggles with self doubt and perfectionism this can feed into my inner fears but that doesn’t mean it isn’t something that needs to happen. Whatever happens, the sun will come up tomorrow and as long as I’ve learnt more than I knew the day before there will always be hope.

One of the things I’ve learnt about making the calls is that being a consultant doesn’t fix everything. Being a consultant has however made a heap of difference to the frequency and extent of challenge and how that challenge is undertaken. I became a consultant during a pandemic, and in many ways although unbelievably hard, it also made it easier. I had one real focus. Now I need to work out what kind of consultant I want to be, whilst still being stressed and exhausted by the pandemic and having very little band width to manage it. The other thing is, that although most people have responded the change, there will always be a couple who see that change as more of something to challenge than to celebrate, after all change is hard. I keep putting so much pressure on myself to be good enough, but that pressure is only coming from me. Instead I have realised that this is my job for the next 20 years, there is plenty of time time for learning and for indeed making mistakes. I do not need to be the finished product right now, in fact I’m mostly thinking I’ll probably only begin to approach it by the time I am ready to retire. So bear with me whilst I hold on in there for a while yet. I talked a bit about this and both my hopes and fears in a blog post I wrote on the retirement of my old consultant and mentor I hope it might help others.

One of the things I’m still exploring and pondering on is that both hearing and memory are more selective than I realised, as George Orwell said “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” That means that it is not just me that is an unreliable witness, there are rooms full of us. We are entering (or have always been and I was naïve to it) a period where people’s hearing and interpretation is very much coloured by what they wish we had said, not what we had actually said. I know this has always been the case to a certain extent, but it feels a particular issue at the moment both in the clinical and scientific worlds. Selective use of evidence seems to be rife and I feel more and more that things I write or say are selectively used or deliberately mis-interpreted. Now, that misinterpretation does not always come with ill intent, and for me that’s where the learning lies. How do I communicate more clearly? How do I communicate clearly, especially during periods of anxiety or conflict? How do I in the same situations clarify understanding in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s confrontational or insinuating something negative? How do I remain open to feedback on this and other things when they feed into my fear of failure or when the attacks themselves feel personal? I’ve learnt that not everyone sees through the same lens, but I’m still working on how we make those different lenses align so that we can focus on the outcome, although I posted something that contained some of my early thoughts here,

Things that are still a work in progress

This year there have been a lot of shame spiralling and although frequently linked to tiredness or stress, frankly some of it has been deserved. It’s probably no secret that I’m not a very patient person, I tend to struggle with standing still. I often therefore end up having ideas and conversations in my head and then just crack on with them, regardless of territory or hierarchy. This means, that personality wise, no matter how much I aim to provide collaborative leadership I need to work harder and do more. The other thing is that, perhaps not uniquely, I have a tendency to seek input and collaboration from those who are likely to constructively challenge or collaborate with me. This means that I may not engage as widely or with those who may have conflicting views as much as I should. Listening to fear should not stop me listening and I need to try and put more energy into reaching out to those who are reticent adopters or have territory issues or different values. That said, the reason I tend not to do this isn’t because of a lack of will, it’s more due to the number of plates being spun. This means that most things function on minimal time and so spending more time and energy means that other things suffer. It is a constant balance between what I aspire to and what I can achieve, all I can say is that I’m working on it.

This year has given me so much joy but it has had it’s odd challenges. I don’t know whether it’s due to slightly increased visibility or because it just happens that I’ve seen things or they’ve got back to me, but for the first time I’ve become aware of some of the negative press that goes around linked to me. Comments like ‘She’s only out for herself’ and ‘It’s all about self publicity’, as well as some less pleasant stuff about me as a person. I think that’s just one of the things about engaging with a wider circle, not everyone is going to love you, your message or your values. As the other half of my Lead Healthcare Scientist post described me I’m apparently Marmite, you either love me and what I have to say or you don’t. I’d heard the phrase ‘haters going to hate’ before but I think I probably don’t find it quite that simple. I think where I’m landing is that I will take the learning that I can from it and then try to let it go. Some people don’t like the fact that I share so much of myself, or find the fact that I talk about successes boastful. To me these are almost two sides of the same coin. I talk about successes as I believe that it’s good to be open about opportunities and inspire others. I talk openly about what’s happening and my challenges and failures so people see that it’s not all roses and that failures are key to finding success, in the hope that this means they will carry on when they face road blocks and not repeat some of my mistakes. All I can aim to be is consistent and I’m working on dealing with the rest.

This last one kinds of leads on. I can’t be liked by everyone.  I need to stop letting that destroy me. Frankly it’s (for the most part) not personal. I’m just not that important in most other peoples lives. People can dislike what I represent, people can dislike my choices, people can dislike the discomfort I create in them. I honestly can’t do much about that. I am also learning that I can’t and shouldn’t try to fix it. Intellectually I am completely on board with this, it just sometimes that abdominal discomfort you get which shows that you mind may be OK with it but there a whole lot of the rest of you isn’t. Yep, it’s like that. I can’t fix it and so what I’m thinking is that I need to stop running from it and run right into and embrace it. It’s finding a way to balance this and not lose the learning discussed above. I’m going to try in 2023 putting away my umbrella and just dancing in the rain and finding the joy in every moment.

Things I’m looking forward to

So, having talked about some of the learning and challenge I’m setting myself for 2023 I wanted to talk briefly about what some of things I’m really looking forward to.

I am fortunate to have amazing IPC, academic and HCS teams. They put up with my kookiness and continuous need to take on impossible challenges. They challenge and support me and I’m so lucky to be looking at another year working with them.

I wrote a little bit about what this blog has come to mean to me and how it’s become fairly core to my day today. This last year the blog has opened doors I couldn’t have imagined and I’m really crossing my fingers and toes that 2023 it will continue to surprise me. I am hoping that the book linked to this blog gets submitted and that whatever happens I learn from the experience. I’m also hoping to develop the podcast a little more, and I’m looking forward to getting to meet more of you in person now we are getting out and about. Mostly, I’m hoping that you will continue to stop by and join me on a Friday for a chat about what the weeks have had to offer.

Personally, I’m hoping that 2023 will be a year of learning and continued improvement. I want to improve and find out who I am as a Consultant as well as feeling more confident across the aspects of the role that give me self doubt. I really want to do this and manage my interactions whilst still channelling the 3P’s (passion, purpose and principles) and staying true to myself and my values, no matter what challenges are presented. Sometimes it feels like you can only get ahead by stepping on others or stabbing them in the back, and I really want to try and show that losing yourself is not what is required to make progress.

Finally, I want to continue to find joyful surprise in what the world throws at me, to embrace what comes my way and always remind myself of quite how lucky I am that I get to do a job that I love, in a profession that I’m passionate about, surrounding by people I adore. I am quite the luckiest girl in the world and in 2023 I want to remember that no matter how significant the challenges placed in front of me.

When it all comes down to it, my plan is to channel a little Spirited in 2023 and everyday try a little harder and make the active choice to try and be better, and bring a little good into the world.

All opinions in this blog are my own

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