You Spin Me Right Round Baby, Right Round: Getting through the day when it’s all a bit too much

I had great plans about what I was going to post today, but to be honest, it hasn’t quite worked out. It hasn’t worked out because I can’t focus on the post I had drafted because I am currently feeling so overwhelmed by the day job. I’ve been prepping and then running a course for three weeks, and the emails have mounted up to a point where I can’t see a way forward. I have lectures coming up that aren’t written. I feel run down and grotty because I pushed myself too hard physically, and to top it all off, yesterday was filled with frustrating politics. So, instead of posting about Infection Control, today’s post will be about reminding myself of some of the tools I use to re-centre myself when I feel like I’m spinning out of control.

Know tomorrow is another day

I am sadly not one of those people who always look like a graceful swan, working frantically under the water but appearing calm and graceful to all observers. I am the person who wears her heart on her sleeve and quite frankly gets stuff done but looks like a cartoon Tasmanian Devil in the process. I ride the emotional roller coaster and just try not to scream too loudly. Sometimes, I just need to take a step back from the chaos and try to realise a) what’s real, b) what is just because of tiredness, c) what really matters. Some things that feel so challenging in the moment feel so different once they are resolved, like the sun coming out. Therefore, getting worked up about them hardly seems worth it. When things feel like they currently do, I try to remind myself that everything will feel different tomorrow, or when I start to feel more like myself. This means that I also need to try to remind myself not to react so much in the moment. I find that taking a brief moment to focus on a point in the future that feels removed from where I’m at can really help me reset my thinking, be that planning for a future holiday, focussing on sorting a future talk etc, focussing on the future whilst also not losing time I don’t have to fix the present.

Just like any roller coaster, this too will end

When everything is coming at you, it can feel like the end of a game of Tetris, when everything is coming at you so fast you don’t have a moment to even recognise what pieces you are juggling, let alone how to fit them in. The thing is, even this is a state of mind, if I was in a different place I would be excited by the challenge rather than feeling a rising state of panic. The key thing, for me, is that I recognise when I am entering a mental space where I am losing perspective. I have two approaches to this:

Step one (a) is to make a total list that will enable me to get a better idea of where I’m at with things. Step one (b) happens when I’m too far into my stressing, in this case making a complete list actually freaks me out even more, and so I make a next day list. I list enough that I feel like I have identified the urgent things, but make sure not to be so extensive that I worry about how I’m going to get the entire list done.

The second approach is that I go through my diary and try to gain some time I can block out as ‘task time’, so I actually have some time to make the things on my list happen. I may not have solved the issues but at least I know what it will take to make me feel like I’m back in control enough to get off the roller coaster.

Focus on one thing, directly in front of you

If it all else fails, and I can’t even cope with ‘The List’ I pick one thing. The biggest, most urgent, most panic inducing thing and just give that 100% of my focus. I split it down into pieces that are easier to mentally digest and just start at the very beginning. I’ve said there are times when looking to the future helps me, there are also times when I just need to look at my feet and take one step at a time. I also find that, to stop the prevaricator in me, I need to put the ‘Do not disturb’ sign on my door to buy me not just the physical time, but the undisrupted mental time to get into the task and enable me to find a rhythm. Sometimes, I need to pick at a couple of easy things to lead into the big thing, but often, for me, it’s better to just pull off that band aid and get to it.

Even if it’s as bad as you think, how bad is that really?

All of this is about process managing my way out of where I’m at, but there is also recognising what are the real consequences of where I am. I’ve previously written a blog post about the reality of deadlines, but there is also the aspect that we feel these things so keenly because we are the centre of our worlds, therefore when we feel things aren’t correct we assume that everyone else clearly sees the same. The reality is that most of the people we interact with aren’t all that focussed on us. If there are deadlines that are real, then we manage them, but just like others aren’t fully aware of our individual workloads, they are also not as aware of our weaknesses and failures as we perceive them to be. This can be especially true if you’re a perfectionist, and you feel that if something is delivered and it is not as you envisioned that it is a massive reflection of your failure. As far as I’m aware, I have yet to meet a mind reader and so the only person who is benchmarking against the vision in your mind is you, therefore cut yourself a break. When it comes to outputs on days like today I tell myself ‘done is better than good’ and that my benchmark for done is usually pretty damn high. Therefore, just get it done!

Plan your way out

When I have given myself a good talking to, and dealt with the immediate panic in front of me, it’s time to work out how I’m going to tackle the rest. I’ve already talked about blocking out some task time and moving towards making a list, but for me, this part is also about being able to visualise my progress. What are my quick wins, so I feel like I’m getting somewhere. What if any bits can I seek help with, we are not one women armies after all. Are there any bits in hindsight I can drop, or are no longer needed, to buy me some extra time? Any deadlines I can move? Once I’ve got myself to a space where I feel brave enough to look at the entire list and see the big picture, I can be proactive about moving forward. Or the BIG question…… I just feel this way because I’m feeling run down and ill, in which case I need to stop worrying about it and get some rest.

Sometimes, you just have to get a little distance

If the answer to the question ‘do I just feel this way because I’m feeling run down and ill?’ is ‘yes’ then the answer is to down tools and get some space. I started this post on Friday but just couldn’t manage it and so took Friday night and Saturday off. I’m finishing it on Sunday so as not to put extra pressure on myself to finish it on my Monday morning tube journey in. I have a tendency to work harder when I feel out of control, and that is fine, to a point. The issue with pushing harder when the tank is already empty is, as my husband regularly says to me, ‘ease down you’re only grinding metal’ (it’s an Aliens quote). You have to know when you are in a space where it’s productive to work, versus when you are in a space where it’s more productive to rest. If you step away you will come back refreshed, with a new perspective, and sometimes the challenges are either just not as great any more, or you can see solutions you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I have a great team around me, who really help flag to me when I’m just doubling down when I should step away, them and my husband are absolute lifesavers in terms of reminding me that I’m more productive long term if I rest. Be aware however, that resting is different to ostriching, so being honest with yourself is key.

Anyway I’m still pretty tired but I’m better for the rest. Hopefully you all won’t judge me too harshly for my honesty and that by sharing how I feel we can all support each other a little bit better when the deadlines are looming and the sky feels like it might come crashing down. Here are the tips I’ve been channelling this weekend to help get me through:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Work out whether you actually have an issue or whether what you really need is rest
  • Decide whether to look to the future (to gain perspective) or to identify a single task to work on (to support focus)
  • Use the resources you have available to you, you are not in this on your own

If all else fails, phone a friend, we are after all here to help.

All opinions in this blog are my own

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Why decision-making linked to projects and roles requires us to flex as we grow

Let me start by saying that I am not for one second thinking about moving on from my job, I love it, even on the hard days. It’s not just jobs that we need to think about however, the same review process is true of positions (like committees) and also things like projects. Sometimes, when you are in all of these things, it can be hard to have the distance to reflect on whether carrying on is the right choice, not only for us but also for others. As I get older and slightly more established as a Consultant, I’ve been doing some thinking about which things to maintain and which it’s time to move on from to enable the development of others. I thought therefore that now is as good a time as any to talk about what that review process looks like.

Know what you are trying to achieve

I’m a default to yes kind of girl, unless I have a clear reason to decline I will always agree to give advice, help your project, join your committee, become a Governor etc. There are so many reasons why this is actually great. It opens doors to opportunities, experiences, and networks I just wouldn’t have otherwise. The problem with it is that in the moment you might not truly consider the purpose of the request, and whether it aligns with your values and aspirations.

Now, I’m not saying that everything has to have a why. What I am saying is that if you don’t take the time to think about the purpose and what added value you bring to the role, it can be difficult to judge further down the line whether those things have changed and whether you want to continue.

There are times when this is easier than others. If you are in a position where you are no longer being heard and you question what you are bringing to the table because it is not being considered, you have the choice to step away or rectify the situation, as others may be feeling the same.

Things like mission creep can be harder to manage. When you gradually find yourself taking on more and more, beyond the original terms of your commitment. The key word here is creep. It happens gradually, and you may take some time to realise it. If you don’t have regular points where you review your commitments, you may not even know that it’s happening. This is often a mark that you are valued, but it can also be a marker that others aren’t respecting your time and boundaries. If you don’t have clarity about what it is you wanted to achieve by saying yes, it can be hard to determine whether this enhanced role is still fulfilling your objectives, or whether you need to cut back or walk away.

Even if you are also a default to yes person, doing it with clarity of purpose enables you to review along the way. Also, know that if you say yes to everything, you will by default say no to other things, even if not actively. If you don’t know what your aspirations and objectives are, you can end up signing up to many things that actually draw your focus from the place you wanted to end up.

Know when something still serves you

If there is one thing in life that is inescapable, it is that we live in flux, everything changes, some things for the good, and some less so. Work based commitments are no different. Sometimes, scenarios change, or your end point changes and the current project/post/role no longer provides what you require. For instance, the terms of reference on a committee may change and no longer reflect the purpose for which you joined it, or you have started a research project but the findings suggest you should focus on a new area of research that does not really appeal. There is little to no point in getting upset about this. It happens, and sometimes you have to acknowledge that you can’t change the situation to serve you. At the point that you recognise this, you may need to make some decisions about your future or the future of a project, no matter what the prior investment may have been.

Awareness of both yourself and your situation is key when changes are happening or projects are evolving, so you can actively engage in decision-making linked to those changes, rather than getting swept up as a passenger in events. This has happened to me at numerous points in my career, and it is especially likely at transition points. The shift from trainee to qualified, qualified to senior, senior to consultant, but also at points where you are deciding what that individual career route looks like. Within projects, you can become so focussed on the original goal that some of the surrounding details pass you by. If you are not actively engaging with the hard conversations with yourself, you may find you end up in a career/project cul de sac that leaves you unhappy or requires you to make a horizontal move to get you back on the right track.

Once you are in the cul de sac it can be may be possible to change where you are at, but not always – a training post for example cannot always become a registered post as there are so many external factors involved. It is much better to avoid the cul de sac if you can, by being open and honest with yourself early on, but also working to be aware of those external factors to better understand where they are leading you and if you can influence them. Sadly, if you find yourself in one, there’s nothing to be done but to plan your exit strategy.

It is possible that if this happens and you haven’t seen it coming, the first response is to feel trapped and to experience all the emotions that come with that. Sometimes, those emotions can make it tempting to double down and try to force change rather than to step back and take a rationale look at both the external situation and why you feel the way you do. Both of these are required, however, for you to find your way out. Flogging a dead horse is not going to get it to win the race. Your only choice at that point is to find a new horse. Sometimes, work based choices can be the same, and it requires you to have the reflective insight to understand when to step away.

Know when you are still serving the purpose

I’m in my 40s and fortunate enough to be fairly well established in my career. I’m super happy with where I’m at, but in recent years I’ve had to sit myself down and have a serious talk with myself about whether I am still the right person to undertake some of the things that give me quite a lot of joy. I’m talking about some of the school outreach I do and even some of the committees I’ve been on for years. Just because I still enjoy something doesn’t mean that I am the best person to do it. In fact, if the project is good and matters to you, it is even more important to be aware of whether you are serving it or if it is now only serving you.

Some forms of outreach are a perfect example of this. I really enjoy going into schools and speaking to students. There are still occasions where I think I am the best person to do this, when showing can raise awareness of roles etc, but there are plenty of occasions when I would not be the right person any more. I am probably not the best person to go in and talk about university choices or to talk about A-levels. I’ve been out of the system for waaaaaaay too long. I am also, probably, not the best person to do a standard career visit. For one, I am now probably too old for the students to connect who I am with their life choices, for another I am showing a career after 20 years in the job and what they most want is someone whose recently graduated and moved into the role. Someone who resonates with them and shows where they could be in 5 years rather than 20. This was a really hard discussion to have with myself, but this kind of activity isn’t about me, it’s about the individuals whom I’m there to serve, therefore being open about the fact that what I bring to the table has changed is important. Knowing this and taking the opportunity to pay it forward to someone who can do it better can improve the experience of all those involved.

The other part of this self dialogue is about whether I am being selfish. I’ve reached a point in my career where I am privileged to be offered all kinds of opportunities rather than having to go looking for them. This is, let me be honest, amazing, and a real confidence boost. It does however mean that I have to have some conversations with myself questioning whether it is always appropriate for me to take them, or keep them, or whether the time has come to pay it forward and hand over some of those opportunities to others. One example of this is that I have now stepped down from a number of committees that I used to sit on. I really enjoyed sitting on them, personally I got a lot out of it. At the same point however, I would never have had the opportunity to gain the skills and build the networks I have, if someone hadn’t stepped aside in order for me to be able to join. These conversations generally involve me asking myself: Am I still learning? Am I still being challenged? If the answer is no, I’m just enjoying it, then I’m probably blocking a learning experience that could be beneficial to others and I should consider stepping aside for them to benefit.

I also have to be honest with myself that as I progress I gain new commitments, if I don’t let some of the previous commitments go I am actually not serving anyone well. I have to ask myself: Do I have the time/resources/interest in order to continue? Time is my most limited resource, and if I can’t give something the time it requires it is better that I let someone else take over who can.

So here are my two questions I regularly ask myself in order to help support decision making:

What is my motivation for being involved/continuing (guilt or obligation is not a reason to stay)?

Would passing on this opportunity to others benefit them and the objective, or would walking away cause actual harm?

If you can honestly ask these questions of yourself and reflect on the results it can really help guide your thinking of whether you should stay or go for any project or role/position.

All opinions in this blog are my own

Developing the Courage to Stand Tall: Time to ignore the fear and realise it’s OK to stand out

January so far, although always hard as it’s so dark, has held some really good news, and February has knocked it out of the park in terms of nice events, with celebrating both a Professorship and Freedom of the City of London. One of the interesting things that has struck me about both of these though, is how reticent I’ve been feeling about shouting about them, especially in the lead up. Almost as if I fear that once I talk about them, they could be taken away.  This is slightly ridiculous as they aren’t the kind of things that will disappear. They are however the kinds of things that feel really important to me and I don’t want to risk them being tarnished or diminished by others. We all know the people out there who will be: ‘well, you only got X because of Y’ or ‘that kind of thing isn’t really that important these days, is it?’ or even ‘I would have gone for that too, but we both know it’s just playing into the system, and I’m not about that’. The kinds of things that get said to your face, let alone the kinds of things that get said behind your back.

Now, I’m a grown-up (most of the time), and I tend to let these things wash over me, but it can certainly take the shine off things. Worst than that, sometimes I allow it to take the shine off things merely because I predict it will happen rather than waiting for the reality. Sometimes, I am my own worst enemy.

After all of these years, I’ve just accepted the reality of this, but I didn’t realise until very recently that in Australia and New Zealand they have a term for it = To Cut Down Tall Poppies. I think I’m probably late to the table, but in case anyone else is in the same boat (to mix metaphors), the term refers to:

People who criticise others who stand out from the crowd


The idea is that we, as human beings, do not like outliers. We do not like different or people who stick their head above the parapet and dare to be seen. This really hit a cord with me. There have been numerous times over the last few years where, as I’ve been fortunate enough to succeed, the reaction has not been particularly positive. Even from some colleagues that I trusted to support me, especially as I started to forge my own path, which was different to the one they perhaps expected.

The end result has been that sometimes, instead of embracing the joy of the moment, I’ve spent too much time worrying about others’ reactions. Sometimes, I haven’t even mentioned to colleagues and others the end results of things I’ve worked long and hard for, as I’ve been too concerned about making situations harder for myself. I’m super fortunate now to have a great team that always exhibit genuine joy or amusement for some of these moments, but it’s taken me time to get here, and habits can be difficult to unlearn.

So how do we move from a space where we feel like we need to limit ourselves, limit our futures, in order to feel safe in the space we occupy. How do we move from the person who cowers to the person who has the courage to stand tall and occupy the space they rightfully possess. The below are a few lessons I’ve learnt, sometimes the hard way, and some things I’m trying to embody in order to be a bit braver every day, especially when it comes to owning my success and supporting that of others.

Know when and how to apply your boundaries

I once was awarded a grant for over £600,000.00. When I mentioned it to my colleagues at the time I was made to stand up in a meeting and apologise for not including any medical colleagues on my application, to explain why I had not reached out to add them to my grant. I patiently explained it was a Healthcare Science fellowship, that I was on supporting another Healthcare Scientist. I was thrown by the reaction. I apologised before I had time to think whether I should. My immediate reaction was to say sorry for overstepping my bounds, for being outside of my box.

In reality, the opposite was true. It was them who were breaching my boundaries. I was just so taken aback by it that I was unprepared. I’m still a natural apologiser. My default is still to say sorry and run from the situation. I don’t like conflict. What I try to remember now, though, is this. Every time I am in that situation and I take the easy route out, I make it harder for the person that follows. I reinforce the thinking that asking me ‘why’ and forcing me into a scenario where I needed to say ‘sorry’ was the right response, instead of simply saying ‘congratulations’. I also make it OK for them to do it to me again in the future.

Sure enough, I don’t discuss my grant funding very often in-house anymore. I don’t tell people when I succeed. I’ve even gone so far as not to host most of my research in my department. It’s been shown too many times to me how it could be weaponised against me on a whim when I stepped out of my box too much or when I didn’t play the game. As something that is super important to me, I removed the risk by removing the opportunity for it to be limited. I’m aware that hasn’t helped break down those very silo’s I’ve avoided, though.  All I’ve done is leave the same traps for others. So now my job is to be braver and to try and change things rather than hide from them. Now, I need to not only know my boundaries but stand by them to support others.

Know how we impact others by our choices

The problem with being too set in these boundaries however, is that you may not allow room for growth and change. We can get so caught up in protecting ourselves that we go too far the other way and isolate ourselves, closing off both ourselves and the setting. This is the difficult balancing act. The thing is, nothing stays the same. People change, both in how they interact and whether they are still decision makers. Personnel in general change, so we also need to be aware that boundaries may need to shift and flex rather than staying the same. In the example used about boundaries above, many of those people don’t work with me anymore, and so imposing the same rules now as then, may no longer serve the same purpose. We do ourselves and others no favours in being immovable in our responses. Instead we need to try to remain agile enough that we are aware of potential challenges without losing opportunities.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that to remain open requires you to be brave enough to be vulnerable and to potentially face disappointment. If we don’t and just assume others won’t have your back, you have thereby remove their opportunity to support you and therefore you won’t ever have their support. In addition, let’s be honest here, some of the fear of telling others is definitely linked to imposter syndrome and the fear of being ‘found out’. In the end I think it comes down to being aware enough to set boundaries when they need to be set, but also spending enough time reflecting and trying to live your values. That despite the risks, you decide to be seen anyway, because that is what will help and support others. It is what will ultimately lead to change for all.

Own your own path

During the first workshop for the Nosocomial Project, a mentor who I admired greatly said to me, ‘Don’t you understand that you are taking an enormous risk? What if it goes wrong?’ The thing is, by avoiding risk and listening to people who, often kindly, warn us about the possibility of failure, we ensure that the best we will ever be is average. We will never truly reach our potential if we fear what it is to be seen or to fail. You won’t always succeed. It won’t always work out. You will however always learn and it will bring you one step closer to succeeding next time.

In moments like the one above, you have to be able to look inside yourself and have the strength and the determination to carry on seeing the vision or the end point. I’m not saying you won’t have self doubt, I’m not saying to not have fear. I have all of those things in spades. What I’m saying is that you need to make the conscious decision not to let them stop you. Have fear, but do it anyway. Don’t let others make you listen to those inner voices more than they deserve to be heard.

Often, we say to ourselves in these moments, ‘Who am I to…….’. The way I respond in these moments to myself (and don’t laugh – or do because it sounds ridiculous) is by saying ‘I am Dream Fucking Cloutman-Green and I am because I can’. It’s my mantra and combined with my ‘Get Psyched’ mix it has got me through a LOT of days and moments of self doubt. Find the thing that works for you, and don’t let others pressure you to be less, and sure as hell don’t pressure yourself to be average.

Let’s change the conversation

The change starts with us, every interaction we have, every moment when we choose jealously or fear of failure over joy for someone else. I am not a saint, I sometimes have that moment when someone declares great news where my brain flashes the ‘what about me’ message to my eyes.  The things is that response isn’t based upon reality because a) there are more than enough opportunities for everyone to succeed, therefore someone else’s success doesn’t come at a cost to you and b) even if it did cost you just because we are trained into thinking everything is a competition does not make it so. Therefore, I hope that despite what my initial reaction in my head might be, I would know that it was built on false thinking and that joy was always the correct response. This isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one (lovely 80s reference for those of you who are old like me – to the rest of you, YouTube it).

We change the conversation by being aware of the way we have been trained to think and behave towards each other. Not by denying that that taught behaviour exists, but by acknowledging it and actively dealing with it each time it rears its ugly head. Every time we respond initially in the moment, in our minds, with less than joy we need to course correct. Ensure that words out of our mouths and our body language demonstrate that joy, but also take some time afterwards to understand why it triggered us in the way it did. Being open with ourselves opens the door to reflection and learning in order to improve who we are. Nothing changes by accident, each and every one of us needs to put in the work.

So my final thoughts are:

  • Let’s actively welcome in the good rather than looking for the bad
  • Let’s choose to celebrate with the four people that see us and raise us up rather than focus on the one person who can’t
  • Let’s acknowledge our journey, our progress and not get distracted by the stumbles along the way
  • Let’s fertilise the soil rather than beheading the outliers so we all grow healthier and better to achieve our potential

All opinions in this blog are my own

I Keep Running Up That Hill: Why is it that the email mountain never gets any smaller?

I’m just back from a week on leave and I have returned to the inevitable email mountain. Last time I took 2 weeks leave, I came back to over 7500 emails and it has taken me to about now, 3 months later, to even vaguely catch up with myself – if you’re one of the 87 who have not yet been dealt with, I apologise.

At the height of the pandemic I was getting more than 600 emails a day. One thing struck me then, and has stayed with me, it’s impossible to deal with them all. Trying was just a state of denial that was not in fact helping the situation. I needed to face up to the reality and know that if the email avalanche was never going to stop, I needed to dig in and find another way. Here are a few things I’ve come up with that enable me to keep running up the email mountain when the peak always remains out of sight.

Expectation management

Like many of the challenges in our day to day working lives, this one can be helped by a little expectation management. This applies to you as much as to everyone else. You are not Superwoman. You will not manage to get through all of the things that are thrown at you every day. The best you are likely to manage is to develop systems that enable you to identify key and urgent tasks. The rest you will need to have other strategies to help you pick at the edges of over time. I think a lot of us fall into the trap of thinking we can do it all, as we remember the days when we got a handful of emails a day and believe that we can handle our current work in the same way. We can’t. This is not our failure. This is merely the reality we now live in. Life has changed, and we need to change with it. So, put your guilt aside and take a step into managing what’s in front of you.

If you email me, and it lands in one of those brief and glorious moments when I am not in a meeting or multi-tasking, you are likely to get an immediate response. Sadly, most emails do not arrive in this sweet spot. They therefore arrive and fall into, what I refer to as, the email black hole. Once you are in the black hole, time has little meaning, it could be 2 minutes until release, it could be 2 months, occasionally it could be 2 years. Being upfront with people about this possible outcome is important as it then enables others, especially your students or direct reports, to have ways of managing you based on urgency or need. I try, therefore, to sign post to others the best ways to deal with both me and the email black hole ahead of time.

Know the rules of the game

I’ve accepted the realities of how I work, and in order to avoid stressing myself and/or disappointing others, it’s necessary to share that knowledge in order to help everyone involved know what to expect. I know that I’m pretty well trained to respond to anything that comes in with big bold red text. I am programmed to be slightly panicked into opening it and for it to therefore stand out against the rest of the list. I am also aware of how poor I am generally at responding to things, and so if I receive multiple emails from the same person, about the same thing, guilt will also cause it to climb higher up my list of priorities. Now, please don’t use this to play the system, but I therefore tell students and people who need to be in the know, that if they need a definite response they need to email me 3 times, in red, with a deadline date in the title. This then triggers all of my mental anxieties and is ‘likely’ to lead to a response.

Outside of psychological strategies you can also consider setting your own rules for your level of engagement, in order to help you prioritise when you have a lot coming in. For me, I’m trying to be more conscious of the whole cc issue. If you email me, if I am the receiver, rather than the cc, I assume you need me to be an active participant. If you cc me in, I will assume it’s a nice to know, an FYI. I will never, therefore, consider an email where I am only cc’d in as urgent. I will get to it when I get to it, which could be in 12 months time. I will also only scan it for context and likely then just file it. I try to make others aware of this and also to be consistent about it myself when I send out emails, although I know it’s a challenge. I am also aware there are some people who set auto file on any emails they are just cc’d in and so it is important to be aware of the rules of others when considering communication. I think I would never read anything I was cc’d on if I set up a filing system that just filed them and I’m not that brave, but this is my middle road.

The last thing I’m trying to be clearer on to others, in terms of rules of response, is that if you email me for a decision/opinion, a none response does not indicate agreement. There are certain people, or groups, that have a tendency to email for an opinion and assume that a none response means I am in agreement. A none response, however, merely means I haven’t seen or had time to respond to your email. Only a response is actually a response. The assumption that a none response is an agreement is probably understandable to some extent, but in this particular case it could lead to incorrect decision making, and so I am trying to define what an interaction with these groups looks like and be better about communicating it and not assuming everyone understands the rules.

Manage your high-risk moments

For me, there are a few high-risk moments when dealing with email mountain. The first is people who send emails and assume that I will be able to see and respond immediately. This is one of those things where I try to be clear about the fact that if something needs an immediate acknowledgement you need to pick up the phone and call me, or better yet call the team phone and they can either action it immediately for you or escalate to me in multiple ways, even if I’m in a meeting. Sending an email in no way ensures I will see it, let alone that I will be able to respond in the moment. If it is urgent, then it needs to be treated as such.

The second is kind of linked. It’s the assumption that I monitor my inbox 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that my inbox and I are somehow linked, like in the matrix, so I will always be in responsive mode. I’ve lost tract of the number of times this has caused issues, especially when I have an out of office on, as people assume I will still be checking my inbox. For the sake of my own health and wellbeing, I no longer do this, I do not access anything to do with work whilst I am on leave. My teams know I am always available to them on WhatsApp for a quick check-in or escalation, but I am not generally available. They are also great at only getting in contact unless they have need. I am now very clear with my out of office messages and explicitly state that I will not be accessing email or contactable via work phone. I am also clear that I may never get to anything you send during my annual leave period, volumes being what they are. They are then directed to various key contacts, or they can re-send their query when I return. That way, no one can claim they were unaware and I can remove some of the stress of the unknown.

Establish ways to see the woods for the trees

One of the things I particularly struggle with is the panic that sets in when I don’t think I even know whether there are high priority or key things to action in my inbox, just because there is so much in there and most of it is unread. This, for me, can lead to a kind of decision paralysis, and then I just feel completely overwhelmed. BTW, this is definitely where I am now, sitting here writing this blog. I’ve tried a couple of approaches to remove at least some of the detritus that mean I feel out of control and unaware of what’s key.

Firstly, I try to clear my diary, both before and after leave, for a day in order to feel like I’m going away calmer knowing I haven’t left anything urgent, and to help identify important items when I return. This is not always working, this Monday for instance I ended up being on service and a bunch of meetings had dropped in whilst I was away, hence the panic as I still have over 1000 unread, but at least I am making active decisions to try and improve my management.

The second thing I’ve set up are a whole load of rules for auto filing things that I need to have but don’t need to review. This means that emails get moved into folders, and whenever I have time I can open and review them later. These rules need constant review and updating to make sure they are still capturing some of the email senders that fall into this category, but it means there is one less thing to think about and several hundred fewer emails per week in my inbox. The last thing I have set up is a filing system where I can manually move things for different types of action, to try to remove some of my being overwhelmed. I have folders that say: action, read, waiting for response. Emails that go into the action folder are ones that will take more than 5 minutes to do and aren’t urgent, so that I can work my way through them when I have made diary time. Warning – I am sometimes aware that my action folder is where my emails go to die, so if you’re going to have one, might I suggest, you actively manage it rather than risk it just being another form of denial about how much there is to do.

If all else fails say NO

One of my biggest challenges with managing emails, which I alluded to above, is the NHS tendency to have back to back meetings. I can’t read, action and move things forward when I’m in back to back meetings for 8 hours a day. Not just that, but when you already have an email backlog already this just makes it worst, as you end the day with all the emails you started with PLUS all the emails that you haven’t managed to respond to that day. Sometimes, it just feels like quick sand. I’ve started trying to book out time in my diary to support keeping on top of things, trying to keep some meeting free time, but it really is a constant struggle. You may have other issues that compound your struggle, you may not be able to address them all, but at least by reflecting and being aware of them you can be conscious of what is making your workflow harder.

There is always a final option, one to be used in rare and extreme circumstances when it all become too much. You can declare email bankruptcy. You can, if you’ve managed to action the urgent, put out a message that says that you will not be acting on any emails sent before a certain date and that if they are important please re-send or get in touch. Then you file everything away in a folder that’s clearly labelled, so you still have it, but are honest with yourself about the fact that you are not actively working on it’s contents. That way if something comes through and the information in that folder is required you can search for it, but you have effectively cleared your desk to focus on present/future. It’s the nuclear option but it is sometimes psychologically useful to know that it is there.

So there you have it, some of the ways I’m trying to manage the never ending inbox. Email is not going away and working practices mean that we are likely to receive more and more of it not less. Finding ways to manage what’s in front of you without losing your health and well being is key. There are only so many hours in the day and, I speak from experience, just trying to work every weekend to compensate does not make it better, nor is it sustainable. We therefore need to change both our attitudes to email and how we define rules for ourselves and others around it. For a tool that is about supporting communication, communication is key to managing it. When it gets too much, managing the email mountain , like all forms of challenge, is about taking it one day at a time and being kind to ourselves as the only route forward.

All opinions in this blog are my own

The Sound of Deadlines Rushing Past: Surviving in a world where deadlines are constant and there’s never enough time

I was fairly unwell before Christmas and was off sick and then struggling for a while. This was particularly traumatic as there were all the inevitable end of year deadlines that just wouldn’t stop coming, and frankly, I was in no position to be able to meet them. The thing is, it is now January, and I didn’t meet those deadlines, many of them I still haven’t delivered on. The other thing to note is that I am both a) still alive, and b) still employed. As someone who has a fairly visceral fear of the deadline, this is pretty shocking to me. So I wanted to kick off the year with what this experience has taught me and what I’m taking from this moving forward. Many of these things the rest of the universe probably already know, but sometimes I take a while to catch up.

Know when a deadline is a deadline and when it is more of a suggestion

The first thing to say is that I have never really taken the time to explore whether the dates or other information given to me are even true deadlines. Give me a date and a time and I will agonise and feel guilt if I fail to deliver.  I work on the assumption that if you give me a cut-off then it really is a task that has one. Reflecting on my Christmas experience however, I have learnt there are probably three scenarios where I will be given deadlines:

  • True deadlines – papers for committee meetings, grant deadlines etc. This is where a number of subsequent actions are riding on yours and if you don’t deliver, the domino effect is both real and important in the wider scheme of things
  • Gate keeping deadlines – manuscript review deadlines for other authors, 1st draft deadlines for policies, etc. This is where the task needs to happen, and in a timely fashion. The exact date itself, however, is arbitrary and so as long as communication is good and the time period doesn’t substantially extend the process itself is unharmed
  • Courtesy deadlines – submitting a conference presentation 3 days ahead (normally), arranging planning meetings etc. These often get given dates to ensure that they happen, but in reality as long as they get done before they evolve into a true deadline i.e. before presenting at the conference, then the timescale is actually flexible

It is really important to understand what kind of deadline you’re dealing with, otherwise you will treat everything as a true deadline (exhibit no. 1 = me) and that means you may deliver on a courtesy deadline over a true deadline, with the associated consequences. Without understanding what type of deadline you have you can also not really be truly aware of all of the possible options you can take when you are truly over whelmed and unable to deliver on everything.

Did you know you can just ask for an extension?

I’m just throwing this out there because it’s something I’ve only recently discovered. Did you know you can ask for an extension? This seems like a really bizarre statement I know, but I knew this was a theoretical possibility when a student but I had no idea it translated to real life. I really didn’t.  When I talk about understanding what your options might be if you can’t manage all of your deadlines, this is what I’m talking about. I didn’t even know this was an option that I could action.

During the pandemic I was forced to write to people on a number of occasions as I kept getting pulled into various last minute urgent events, and thus had no choice. The first few times I emailed to say I wouldn’t make X deadline but I can get it to you at Y, I came close to panic. Every single time I got an email back saying ‘thanks for letting us know, we’re looking forward to getting it on Y’. Not a single angry response. Not a single ‘we’ll find someone better/more available’. Nope. Every time, a chilled out ‘that’s fine’. Now this is just me being me, but why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t someone tell me years ago? All those nights working till midnight as I promised something that day!

The other thing that my husband has been telling me for years and I didn’t believe. Friday deadlines aren’t real (unless it’s an automatic form that could close or a grant deadline where they really mean it). Again, this is something I just didn’t believe, but I now realise. No one is going to go into their inbox to check at 8am on a Saturday morning. The number of midnight’s when I could have been sat on the sofa doing it on Saturday afternoon instead. Friday deadlines, I now realise, are purely there so the info is in someone’s inbox at 9am on Monday morning. Unless the situation is one of the exceptions, no one is impacted. This has even led to a few occasions recently where, because I’m trying not to work on weekends, I’ve just done something at 8am on Monday morning and sent before 9. Shocker, no one has cared.

Prioritise, and sometimes that includes your wellbeing

The other aspect of this is being aware of when sometimes the deadlines are for other people not for you. Courtesy deadlines are often there to make other peoples lives or processes run more smoothly, and I would always support being a good colleague. That said if meeting a courtesy deadline means that you will incur a substantial personal cost, then this is a time to put your communication skills to the test and think about re-framing the deadline.

Once you know which deadlines are really deadlines and which are deadlines can be negotiated, you are then in a position to be able to prioritise. Now, this isn’t just about juggling all those deadline balls, it’s also about when you have to prioritise yourself. It’s important to take ownership, it’s important to be accountable, but not at the expense of your health and mental well being. This can often be challenging, as working out where we are on the list of prioritise is frequently hard to determine when you are in it. This is why checking in with others, and finding helpful critical friends who can give context and perspective may help. I’m reading this out whilst my husband looks at me and roll his eyes – apparently you must also listen to the advice not just seek it.

Failing to meet deadlines is not the end of the world

I don’t really think of myself as being senior, it’s just not really important to me or part of my identity as long as I have a voice. That means it has only been a recent thing that I’ve reflected on my experience over the years with the mentors, Consultants, professors etc in my life. None of them every managed to turn the things I needed around to any deadline I ever set. I sat there and reminded them, sent diary invites to discuss and frequently in the end wrote things for them or submitted anyway. This wasn’t because they didn’t care, it’s just they had so much on their plate and they couldn’t manage it all. Now I don’t want to be that person but we don’t get everything we want in this life, there are only so many hours in a day. Sometimes, therefore, I feel like I am this girl. Why did I think I was special enough to be able to achieve what all those ahead of me could not. Context is key and denial is not always helpful. I can only aim to do better but beating myself up if I fail is not helpful. As my wise DIPC says to me ‘did anyone die?’ If the answer is no, if what actually happened was I disappointed myself, then I have to have perspective and we have to be kinder to ourselves.

There were a few times over the past three years when I had to unexpectedly put my work laptop and phone in a cupboard and step away completely to deal with other life stuff. I missed deadlines, I missed emails, but nothing that I missed still haunts me. Things just didn’t get done. People weren’t angry, people were super understanding, and my teams were wonderful and helped so much. The world continued to turn. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget, as humans are so ego centric, that the world does not stop if we are not in it, the void gets filled. I failed, I survived and so will you.

Tips that I’ve learnt to manage a world filled with deadline pot holes

  • Share the load – be clear that you will need email or calendar reminders – if it is important others will help you get there
  • Aim for clear communication to support prioritisation – if they only email you about it once it probably isn’t that key. Be clear about the fact that you will need prompts or chasers
  • Clear diary time and include it as a specific hold to do the task, rather than just having it on a to do list
  • Ask about deadlines up front before you take on something and be prepared to negotiate your involvement.  Do you still want to be involved? Can you meet their deadlines? Can you adjust their deadlines so they work for you too?
  • Know when deadlines are part of your agenda or part of someone else’s 

All opinions in this blog are my own

Welcome to 2023: Here’s a toast to being open to the unexpected in the 12 months ahead

I don’t know about you, but I feel like the 20s have shown their fair share of surprises in the last three years, and let’s be honest, most of them haven’t been pleasant. I think, therefore, the need to get back to normal, to find our centre again, can be overwhelming. I also think many of us feel the need to somehow ‘get back on track with our lives’. I completely feel this too. However, I also feel like the rules of the game have changed a little and that perhaps we need to change too. The unexpected is scary and frequently unsettling, especially if you are someone like me who has always had a five and ten year plan. Even I have been thinking, however, that it is in that unease and unknown that some of the real opportunities for us all lie. So, below is my plea for why, in 2023, we should try a few off piste manoeuvres and be prepared to follow where they lead.

The girl with a plan

I always have a plan, I think it’s the gamer in me, or maybe it’s the reason why I found gaming attractive, but I need to know what I’m heading towards and why I’m going that way. I tend not to be able to play around the edges of things, and so if I’m going to do something, then I am going to put a heap of energy/time into it. I need, therefore, to understand the payoff and if it aligns with my values before I get too involved.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think this has some positive aspects. For example, it enabled me to submit my PhD a year early so I could have a clear year to study for FRCPath. The problem with this approach is that you can be so focussed on the end game that you don’t get to fully experience the journey or spend time just being present enough to really grasp the opportunities that come your way, that are not necessarily badged as such. I think the big things still stand out, the emails to contribute that are explicit, but by not taking the time to have the chats or low key communications you may miss out on things that might have developed into the truly wonderful. Having a plan (I believe) is a necessary way to attain clarity and purpose, but if it becomes too defined it can become a limitation rather than a support.

The joy of serendipity

This blog is one great example for me of something that just wasn’t part of the plan. It was an idea linked to something that I am passionate about and believe in, science communication and engagement, but the plan was about working towards a consultant post and this didn’t really tie in with that. In fact one of the things that I frequently got told was blocking my progress to a consultant post was that I spent too much time on ‘stuff’, that my interest in education and communication was a distraction and that I needed to be more focussed, not less. It is therefore a difficult line to walk, as in moments of stress or lack of self belief, it can be tempting to double down on the plan.

For this reason I think it’s so important to hear the thoughts of people outside of your work bubble and occasionally throw some feelers out to see whether it’s worth following through. One Christmas I just sat and talked to friends and this blog is the result. The very act of just having relaxed conversations with people who are less aware of or focussed on your plan can lead to space for creative thought. It can free your mind to hear new ideas that you just wouldn’t have considered on your own. They can stop you staring at your feet and lift your eyes back up to the horizon.

Sometimes it’s important to start something without knowing where it will lead to, without knowing how it will contribute. Taking risks sometimes on things that just speak to your values, or just stand out as important, can sometimes lead to places you’d never have imagined. This blog, although I’d not predicted or had specific plans linked to it, has grown to a place where it directly supports where I want to be. It’s not just the blog however, other things like my NIHR doctoral fellowship were the same. I started it believing it would be another step on the journey, whereas it gave me access and took me places I hadn’t even been able to envision from where I started. Even those things that you start thinking out are linked to a grand plan require being open to fresh possibilities along the way.

The limitation of blinkers

Change and opportunities come in all kinds of different forms. I’ve been thinking that the pandemic caused my plans to be on pause, as it was impossible to plan, there was no structure, every day was just some new form of change and chaos. I found this incredibly challenging but I wonder if it also opened up a new pathway, it made space for change. It presented a way for me to still feel like I was moving forward by allowing me to have a creative outlet, rather than an academic or professional one. I was searching for a way to centre myself and to support others, whilst at the same time also needing to have something that enabled me to process everything that was happening, and find some dedicated time for myself. It forced me to remove my blinkers and to use my expanded vision to find a new way forward.

Everything that has an upside has its downsides. I wonder therefore if it hadn’t been for the pandemic raising the blog up the priority list would I ever have made a second post? Would I have made it happen after becoming a consultant, and would it, therefore, have been a very different animal? Did the pandemic therefore create the level of disruption in my world that was required for me to be able to step away from the plan for a while and see the wide world of opportunities, rather than just the path I had laid ahead for myself?

Letting go of the map

This is one the key lessons that I’m trying to cling onto now that we are moving forward in the pandemic, it would be all too easy to revert to previous habits and put my blinkers back on. I had a coach who encouraged me to live in the now, to embrace living in the chaos and the unknown. That was in 2013 and I think that’s its only now, 10 years later, that I can really begin to understand what she meant. Sometimes I’m a slow learner. The thing is that the intention is not always as easy as the implementation. It requires bravery to move to living in chaos, not because that is the way the whole world is living but because you choose to. To still be comfortable living with some of that uncertainty, not because you have to, but because you see the possibilities that lie within that discomfort. I will never be the kind of person who can live moment to moment and just go with the flow, but I believe I can move to being the kind of person who is open to opportunities that don’t come fully formulated, or that let me develop in ways that are not just tied to professional me. I also think it’s important to be open to the mistakes and learning that might come from this unexpected pathway.

Being tied to the past you

One of my biggest challenges in all of this is the need to make sure not just that I don’t just revert to old habits, but also that I don’t let the other things linked with the job shut down routes to engaging with the unexpected. It’s far too easy to easy to get sucked into the inbox or the paper that hasn’t been written on a weekend, rather than using that time to develop and expand other aspects of myself. Sometimes the weight of the to do list means that looking at my feet feels like the only way forward. This is why taking time to actively reflect and be aware of my tendencies to manage both my workload and stress this way is key. I’ve not worked this one out yet but I’ve thought about working on things like putting in diary reminders, or trying to ring fence my weekends so as not to be tempted to fall into old habits. I think the fact that I am actively continuing to write every week will also help to ensure that I have dedicated time to ensure space for creative thought.

I’m hoping that you, like me, will try and find the courage we need to enter 2023 bravely, open to wonder and not let our conservative instincts overtake and limit us.

All opinions in this blog are my own

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

Merry Christmas, One and All

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

(A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

Merry Christmas everyone, wishing you all love and laughter and excessive amounts of good cheer

All opinions on this blog are my own

It’s Not All Bad in the World of Infection Prevention and Control: The most wonderful time of the year is approaching!

NB this article was originally written for the Association of Clinical Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine and published December 2021

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s been a tough couple of years in the world of Microbiology, Virology and Infection Prevention and Control (IPC), but at this time of year its worth reviewing the bits of our jobs that are to be honest pretty awesome.  The bits that energise rather than drain us and remind us of why we love our work. 

Before I go any further, I should probably make a confession and declare that I am a bit of Christmas fanatic.  I’m the person who goes to Christmas shops when on holiday in June and thinks that as soon as November hits Christmas films and music are go!  So it’s probably of no surprise that my favourite IPC event occurs in December as part of the build up to Christmas.  Hopefully, you will also appreciate how great it is even if you don’t love Christmas as much as I do. 

I work in a paediatric hospital and every year the patients are lucky enough to be visited by not only Santa, but also his reindeer.  What does this have to do with IPC I hear you ask?  Well any animals brought onto site need to have an IPC risk assessment as they can be linked to zoonotic transmission of infection and thus pose a risk to patients.  My colleagues’ favourite time of the year is when she gets to do this for the rabbits and ducklings at Easter, but for me the reindeer assessment is very much my favourite.

Reindeer can be a source of ticks, which can harbour organisms that lead to Lyme disease and other tick borne infections, as well as being a source of more exotic bacterial infections (List of zoonotic diseases – GOV.UK (  The reindeer that come to us are captive rather than wild, but even so they are still coming onto healthcare premises and need a review. The task therefore, although a joy, does have a serious aspect in terms of ensuring that the area is properly set up in order to permit the patients to visit, whilst ensuring that they are kept safe and not exposed to any risk.

We work with both the school and Santa to ensure that:

  • All animals are established in an environment that supports safe handling of the reindeer to avoid injury for them and anyone interacting with them.
  • Signage and other provision is made to ensure that there is no eating or drinking near to the animals or their enclosure, to reduce any infection transmission risk.
  • Hand hygiene facilities are available for hand hygiene after contact, especially as the patients will feed the reindeer.
  • Decontamination equipment is available to ensure the area can be adequately cleaned after Santa and his reindeer leave to visit other children.

Last year when we inspected we also had the added aspect of ensuring that Santa was SARS CoV2 free and was protected from any exposures whilst on-site.  This included having Santa complete a health screening questionnaire, including questions like whether he had any symptoms or SARS CoV2 household contacts, such as Mrs Claus, in order to assess his SARS CoV2 transmission risk.  He also needed to wear personal protective equipment i.e. fluid repellent surgical masks, to protect him and the children and young people.

This was a new aspect to the visit that made it more challenging and certainly inspired the patients to be differently engaged and ask questions such as: how does Santa manage to avoid the quarantine restrictions linked to visiting red countries?  and if Santa was vaccinated?  We responded that Santa was of course vaccinated as he had been part of the SARS CoV2 vaccine clinical trials and was therefore an early adopter of the vaccine.  We also talked about the fact that because he could manipulate time, he and the reindeer had plans about how they were still going to be able to safely visit all households and quarantine as necessary.  We also discussed that whilst he was with us we would provide him with personal protective equipment training, in the same way their clinical teams have, to ensure that he is kept safe and also protects the children he encounters along the way.  It turned into a really good way to talk to families about how we use a variety of measures in hospitals and healthcare to keep people safe, and to emphasise that although masks look scary they are actually a really good way of protecting everyone.

This experience brings me joy every year but last year in particular it reminded me that keeping people safe and raising awareness of what we do, does not have to exist in isolation from activities that are fun and engaging.  I love visiting the reindeer, however seeing patients be inspired to ask questions and explore IPC in a way they may not feel confident to do normally, also made me aware that it may be not only a joyous experience but a useful one.  It turned something fun for all involved into something that was also educational and supportive of good practice.  So this year as well as making sure I have enough carrots I will be ensuring that I’ve thought about how to make the most of this unique encounter to make a difference for everyone involved.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Mouth Open Should Be Shut: My challenges with openly contributing to meetings and the fear of oversharing

It’s 7:30 on a Tuesday night, and I’ve just come off a Clinical Senate meeting. It’s late and I’m tired and I’m having quite the shame spiral. Let me explain why. I talked. Sounds a bit silly when you write it down, but it’s the truth. The problem is that no one else did very much, and I’m never sure that I either have the right to speak or that I make any sense when I do. This means whenever I go to these things and contribute, I never really know whether my actual job in the room is really to be seen and not heard. As a person, I know I should talk less and listen more, and so when I do speak I have a tendency to destroy myself with guilt when it’s over. So, as I sit here writing this on the tube on the way home it seems to be a good time to work through some of these processes ahead of a week full of, what will likely be, situations that could result in the same self recrimination.

Trained into a way of thinking

I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up the ‘be seen and not heard’ response was pretty much embedded. Good girls, good children do not make waves or draw attention to themselves. We are often trained into a certain way of thinking about how our presence in those rooms should be. As we become more senior or spend increasing amounts of time in meeting rooms, especially in meeting rooms where we don’t really have relationships with people, this can cause a certain amount of cognitive conflict. Our presence in the room is to contribute, but we don’t necessarily understand the unwritten rules associated with that contribution. How will we be judged? What measures will be used to benchmark our contribution? Will we be judged if we speak too much or too little? Who are the key decision makers in the room? In the absence of this knowledge, at least in my case, I default back to those childhood rules. Thus uncertainty of the rules can lead to me starting to shame spiral when the meeting is over. I don’t find this such an issue when I’ve developed relationships with the people in the meeting, or when I better understand the relationships and my role. I also find it less of an issue during in person meetings, it may just be that it’s easier to read some of the body language in the space when face to face. When I leave the room, and I feel like I do tonight, I try to tell myself to focus on looking forward to what I can contribute rather than looking back to behaviours of the past, but sometimes that is harder than it should be.

My mind is always so full of stuff

Where do some of these insecurities come from? I am horribly aware of the fact that I talk too much, that I talk over people and can be seen to not be paying attention or really listening. There are a couple of underlying reasons for this. The first is that my hearing isn’t that great, as I spend about 6 months of the year with varying levels of ear infection. This means that I spend quite a lot of the time completing sections of dialogue based on social cues, lip reading or extrapolation. The downside to this is that I often finish off sections of dialogue or meaning from other people before they finish fully articulating, or I think they have finished when they have only actually paused for emphasis or breath. This can mean that I end up responding before other peoples thoughts are truly finished. I really don’t mean it as rude, it drives my husband crazy, and most of the time I don’t even realise I’ve done it. Because I have an awareness of how rude this is, even if without intent, I therefore feel a lot of guilt in response – especially if it’s pointed out to me.

The second thing is that I’m not very good at doing one thing at a time, even in my head. I tend to have a LOT of thoughts flying around my mind at any one time. Sometimes that means I feel the need to get thoughts out of brain before I lose track and move onto the next thing. There are lots of things that I’m trying to do to get better about this, active note taking for example so that I don’t fear losing my train of thought. I do find that this is even harder these days though as I’m not only having multiple trains of thought at the same time, but I’m also trying to manage multiple work demands at the same time. This means my focus on being a good listening is often split between other tasks which I know is none ideal. I’m a work in progress. One of the things that enables me to be a success is that I can manage to spin a lot of plates, the down side to that is that I’m actually very poor at doing one thing at a time, and sometimes that makes me a less good listener than I’d like. Knowing these things about myself means that I tend to run action replays of all of the moments in meetings when I have succeeded less well and struggle, initially at least, to take the learning from the moments rather than the guilt.

Owning the invite

One of the things I try to remember when I feel like this is that I was invited into the room. For the Clinical Senate I had to go through an application and interview process to even be there. I was invited into the room because, no matter how I feel in the moment, someone felt like I had something to contribute otherwise I wouldn’t have been asked. The thing I have to remind myself is that there is no point in being in the room if you don’t participate, otherwise your chair could be better used by someone else. In many ways it’s not for you (or in this case me) to question your purpose. If I am no longer required, if I don’t perform up to expectations, if I don’t adhere to those unwritten rules, then there are people who can rescind that invite and mean I’m no longer included. This may be something that subconsciously adds to my fear, as the humiliation would sting, but it also something that has never (knowingly) happened to me and so I need to put it into that context.

Part of the other scenario where I really feel the pressure is when I’m in a multidisciplinary space, especially one that is not frequently occupied by Healthcare Scientists/women/Clinical Academics. I feel the pressure to represent all of those groups well and to not let others down. What I don’t want is for the others around the table to engage less with these super important groups because they’ve extrapolated from any failures of mine in the room, and thus impact wider engagement. At the same point I am a proud member of all those those less prominent groups and I have the opportunity to raise awareness and have been given a voice. It would therefore be a waste to get in my own way and not use it. This is the part where, if you put your rationale brain on, you realise that no one is likely to discredit a whole group because you talk over someone or asked a stupid question in a meeting, perspective and understanding that you are probably just not that important can sometimes help.

Who the hell am I

My imposter syndrome tends to kick in prior to me being in the room, I’m frequently to be found hiding in toilets ahead of face to face meetings psyching myself up. I tend to hit the shame spiral hard after I leave the room. When I’m in the room however I tend to be OK and pretty task focussed. Sometimes I’m so focussed on the intellectual question or balancing the evidence that I have been called ‘The Destroyer’ by a dear academic colleague – I’m hoping in jest, but from the look of my PhD students faces perhaps not entirely. I think this means that in the moment I can mostly hold my own, whoever else is the room. Once I’m in the room I worry less about how I got there, than what the discussion is before me. It also means that I sometimes ask the questions that people may not want me to ask, because I’m interested in understanding more and getting the answers. Most of the time I hope my curiosity comes across as just that, I am aware that when I’m puzzling over thoughts in my mind or putting pieces together I can have a face that looks intimidating rather than welcoming. Perhaps the scientific version of resting bitch face? I can therefore come over as an interrogator rather than a supportive enquirer which may impact how people respond to the query.

One of the other reasons I ask a lot of questions is that I spend a lot of time in mixed discipline, mixed professional rooms. I therefore have to be OK with asking the stupid question as I may not have the understanding of the others around the table. In these meetings people often use the same words. but in different contexts. I’ve learnt therefore that I have to be brave and ask the questions so that I understand enough to be able to contribute. I also sometimes feel that I have to contribute in order to justify the fact that I’m there, something that I know is not necessarily needed and may be driven by a need to prove that I should be there. Contributions however shouldn’t be driven by uncertainty about worth but linked to gaining clarity around task, in order to move things forward. Again, I’m working on it.

The importance of connection

The other thing, for me, about feeling uncertain and off kilter is that I will often try to deal with this by forming connections. As I said earlier, feeling more connected with the others in the room can reduce feelings of risk as you can get feedback and will be better placed to understand the unwritten rules. The problem with this is that I have a habit of oversharing when trying to connect. This probably surprises none of you, I’ve been writing a blog that lays bare my soul for over 2 years now after all. The other times that I tend to over share is when I read cues that make me think that the other person is not gelling with me, be that a different value set or just not pleased with what I have to say. This is a dangerous game, in searching for that connection, that shared experience, or shared journey, you can open yourself up to all kinds of responses and take a big risk in terms of your emotional wellbeing. Interestingly, when I’m in the moment and responding to the body language, or signals, of others I often feel comfortable. Again, it’s when I walk away from the moment and lose that reinforcement of connection that the self doubt creeps in and the action replays start.

Always the weird one

Let’s be honest. On top of everything else, my brain is a bit weird. I’ve gradually become aware over the years that I just see the world in a slightly odd way and therefore have a tendency to think a bit differently. This means that the comments and questions that strike me listening to a room full of people can come off as a little strange or out there when I vocalise them. It feels like there are two main responses to this, depending on the room. You have rooms where those who hear my oddness respond with equal curiosity and I get to walk out of the room feeling like I’ve made a difference. There are other rooms are not always so receptive to being engaged in what can be seen as a distracting train of thought. In these rooms it means I have a tendency to ask questions and see a sea of slightly baffled faces and then feel bad for asking the question or making the point. The response to such a moments is often to dismiss the comment actively by minimising it, or passively by just not acknowledging it happened. These are the meetings that I struggle most with. I feel like I’m there because I can contribute, because I think differently or have a different set of experiences, but that contribution is unacknowledged. I also think that despite this I need to continue to input and find my voice, even if it is hard, as if I’m not going to I should give up my space to someone else who might be braver in the moment. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I find it hard however.

Putting it out there

The long and short of these reflections is that, like so many things, you have to take a risk in order to achieve. You have to be in the room and take the risk of being seen in order to create change. Putting yourself out there by being in spaces that you feel less comfortable in, where you may not know the people or the rules well, opens you up to conflict and criticism. It also means that you have to face the fact that you are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, rather than living in the fluffy land of denial (I rather like it there BTW). You have to have strategies that will allow you to deal with the consequences of that risk, or to allow you to come to terms with that the fact that some people will just not like/gel with you. We have to walk the walk, and know that sometimes disagreements and being in rooms with people who are not like us is required for us to get the best outcomes. Sometimes, it is only by being uncomfortable that we can find clarity of thought and/or purpose.

If life becomes too much it is always possible to remove yourself from the space, from the place, people or meeting that you are struggling to deal with. The thing is that by doing that you may not achieve all you could achieve, you may not grow and learn the most you can as a person. It’s always worth coming back to why you are in the room to start with. I’m not saying you can never walk away, just that walking away from something purely because it feels uncomfortable may not always be serving you or the room in the best way. I’m sure there are healthier ways of doing this than shame spiralling and writing a blog to process the thoughts that it triggers, but I don’t have any easy answers. What I do have is the faith that if you are invited into the room it’s because you have something to offer that room which is needed, and that by being honest about the challenges that we sometimes face maybe we can remove some of that uncertainty/risk that makes the room feel like it’s not for people like us.

All opinions on this blog are my own

IPC on Tour: Reflections from the big apple

This is a slightly odd blog post as it’s mostly linked to a podcast (included below) that Mr Girlymicro and I did whilst on holiday in New York last month.

As we still top over 50000 cases of SARS CoV2 per 7 day period and face increasing numbers of hospitalisations due to Influenza and RSV, it seemed timely to post some of the things that struck me from visiting elsewhere. This doesn’t mean that I think we are anywhere in the same situation we were in at this time last year, but it’s tough out there, and respiratory viruses are back with a vengeance.

There was still an encouragement to test

When we arrived at JFK we were greeted by a CDC sign that encouraged us to pick up 2 free tests so we could test on days 3 and 5 post arrival. There were also free testing booths on every other street. I’m no claiming this is perfect, universal across the states, or anything other than driven by the way their health service is set up. It was nice to know that after a higher risk of exposure process (breathing recirculated air for 7 hours) we were supported in our choice to test. The signage around all of these opportunities emphasised just that, testing is a choice. They then went on to have quite a useful education campaign to support that so it was an informed choice. Sometimes, I think that is what we have missed since the dictates went away, which said you just test. If you want continued engagement with the process you then have to also talk about the why.

Certain events continued to SARS CoV2 precautions seriously

I enjoyed the Late Show with Stephen Colbert before I went to New York, but now I LOVE the Late Show. Is it because of the great guests and the fact that he makes me laugh, well yes, but mostly it’s because I adored both his SARS CoV2 policy, and the fact that it was actually enforced. This is a show where people come from all over the states, as well as other part of the world to see it being filmed. It’s filmed in an old off Broadway theatre, with exactly the ventilation you would expect from an old building that is underground and enclosed. You then throw into the mix that this population will sit in there laughing for 4 hours, and you can see why you might be at high risk of a transmission event occurring. Now, I’m sure most of this is set up to protect the team running the show and to minimise reputational and financial risk, but it doesn’t change the fact that I loved it.

Everyone had to sign up to a set of behaviours before you got issued your ticket, which included that you would wear a mask throughout. You also had to declare whether you were vaccinated. On the day, unlike when we have been to other places in the UK or New York, you were actually followed up on your pre-submission information. If you did not have a mask you were issued one, it had to be a mask and not a face covering. You had to show your vaccination records and ensure that you were symptom free, anyone who couldn’t was given a lateral flow test and observed whilst it was undertaken. Once inside the venue and seated mask wearing was monitored throughout. Production assistants kept an eye on the rows and anyone removing their mask or wearing it incorrectly (i.e. not covering mouth and nose) was asked to correct. From a compliance point of view, it was a thing to behold.

There was also a surprising amount of nonsense

The flip side of the coin is that there was a lot of nonsense that was still being sold/communicated in relation to transmission risk. Everything from supplements and using ‘energy therapy’ to prevent infection, to this TV remote that was in my hotel room and has an antimicrobial coating. You can easily see why some of these things feel like a sensible approach……..what’s wrong with an antimicrobial remote? Well, any coating is only going to impact (even if it’s great) the organisms in direct contact with it, so in a monolayer. Sadly, in the real world, bacteria don’t get inoculated into lovely monolayers, they get deposited in clumps, often at high loads. The only way to manage these therefore is via removal, which requires cleaning. It requires an action not a passive approach. It is easy to sell the idea that you can maintain the equivalent risk control by having something that does not require an actual response, but sadly it just isn’t the case. If it’s too good to be true, it usually is. (I’m not even going to comment on what I think about ‘energy therapy’)

Sometimes places making individual risk assessment can work

I therefore saw both good and bad on my travels. The key take home message for me though, was that individual risk assessment at scale can work, but only if you put the continuous resources into the conversation to make it work. Single interventions, single conversations don’t work. This was about having stands on every street corner, stands that are accessible and meet the needs of diverse populations. Testing that is free and accessible to support informed decision making. In the UK we are in the middle of a winter where SARS CoV2 rates are again up, with little community testing available, with many co-circulating viruses that cause similar symptoms. This is in the context of vaccine and SARS CoV2 fatigue where having the conversation is becoming increasingly challenging. The step away from a national response without sufficient embedding to support individual risk assessment makes these conversations even more challenging. The constant discussion about resource allocation is however important and ongoing. With the ITU admissions linked to SARS CoV2 still low, how much resource do we allocate to this? The thing that saddens me most however, is this was a real opportunity to evaluate and establish ways to embed scientific conversations and how we have them, both nationally and within communities. What has actually happened is that we’ve told people to make their own choices and their own risk assessments without continuing to support the conversations and build the structures to enable this to happen well. As always, there’s so much learning yet to do.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Am I a Writer Yet? Two years in, over 100 posts and finally finding my feet

October marked 2 years of the Girlymicrobiologist blog, and this post will be the 135th published. I started writing this post as I prepared to go and give my first ever conference speech linked to a blog post rather than a scientific publication (thanks IPS). This has gotten me thinking about how much writing this blog has changed both me and my life. It’s a weird thing to say, I know, but it has become so embedded in who I am and is now such a mainstay in my weekly life that I think I would really struggle to stop. That said, I still struggle sometimes with both the kind comments I receive and when people refer to me as a writer, as I’m still learning so much, and still feel so new to this. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve earned that kindness. Anyway, I thought I would take this moment to share some of what I’ve learned about both myself and the blog 2 years on, including the things that have surprised me.

A question of identity

Identity is such a weird thing. For instance, it took me years to be able to say I was a scientist when people asked me what I did for a living. I was surrounded by these amazing people doing this amazing job and I didn’t really feel I stacked up enough to count myself as one of them. I kind of feel the same way about calling myself a writer, I’m someone who writes, but at what point do you qualify as something other than that?

I asked the wonderful Nicola Baldwin (playwright) who obviously writes for a living what her thoughts were on what makes someone a writer and she said:

A writer is someone for whom writing has become their primary mode of thought

Nicola Baldwin

This was so interesting to me as writing the blog has definitely changed me and the way I think. I think one of the reasons I feel a bit guilty when people say they like it is because it is actually a somewhat selfish endeavour, in that the writing of it benefits me. I don’t know about anyone else, but life is so busy that I often don’t prioritise reflective time to understand why I feel the way I do, why I handle scenarios the way I do or how I could do it better? Although I didn’t realise it when I started, the blog has allowed me to do all of these things. It gives me permission to spend an hour on a Friday evening writing about something that sparked a thought during the week. Without even realising it, that time has become a time where I reflect, just in real time via words on a page. It’s enabled me to learn so much more about myself, my values, and beliefs that it has very literally changed the way I think and see the world. The blog was started with the aim of helping others, but I never realised how much it would also help me.

I don’t think I would have understood Nicolas’ comment a year ago but now I completely get it. Writing has become part of who I am and how I think and a tool for processing how I feel about the world.

My grammar still sucks

I don’t write well. I don’t know how to use a comma, and my grammar is apparently horrendous. I thought all of these things would stop me. What the last 2 years have in fact shown me, is that if you write from the heart, if you put your soul out there on a plate for consumption, people will be kinder than you could have believed possible. No one has come back and attacked the message because they didn’t like the way it was delivered. The flaws in that delivery have been overlooked as long as the message was true.

This in itself has taught me a lot. I think if you can find the courage to stand up and be yourself, no matter what the medium, people respond to that. You may not always succeed, you may not always do it well, but people respond to your intent. Writing this blog has really helped me realise that, and it has therefore enabled me to become braver. I feel stronger in sharing the hard stuff, in sharing the truth as I see it and in trying to give a voice to others when I can. Before this experience I would have been held back by trying to make the communication in itself as perfect as I could. Now I realise the power is in what you are trying to communicate, not the perfection of how you achieve it. I could do less writing and take myself off to spend time perfecting my underlying knowledge, but for right now my passion lies in the communication and not in the tool. So, you may have to put up with my poor grammar for a while yet, after all I’m a work in progress.

Vulnerability is where it’s at

You have all given me the courage to face things, write about things, and confront things that I never knew I would be able to. At a conference recently, someone gave me a hug and thanked me for writing this blog and talking about the things we talk about. In reality, though, the thanks should definitely be from me to you. As I’ve said, the kind words and support from everyone who reads this, and the patience with which you have stuck with it, have given me the courage to share who I really am, warts and all. I hope that I can, and do, use this blog to share the failures as well as the successes, as there is learning in both.

When I started writing this blog, I genuinely thought I would pick up a few readers from family. Now, with over 1000 readers a month, I realise that it isn’t about how important or qualified you are. It’s about how much of you you’re willing to share. When I started, I thought that getting people to read a blog would be linked with how professional I was perceived to be, how worthy, how senior. Now I realise it’s about how much of a risk you are prepared to take in bringing your whole self to the table and knowing that you have no way to control over how that will be received or the response you will get.

We too often let ourselves get in our own why by asking ‘why’ we should be the ones to do something, when in fact the question we should really be asking is ‘why not’. If we wait for someone else to give us permission, if we make ourselves small in order to not be noticed in the hope that we will fit in, in those moments, more than any others, we need to find our courage to stand up and be seen.

Done is better than good

Sometimes, when I meet people, they comment on how I get things done. This is always slightly amusing to me as I have to admit to being, probably, one of the laziest people I know. If I could recline on a chaise lounge all day with a book and a cup of tea, I would be in heaven. As I know this about myself, I suspect that I therefore push myself quite hard to deliver. If I don’t get blog posts out on time, it eats at me, much to Mr Girlymicro’s irritation. He believes that, as this something done for pleasure, it shouldn’t need to be on a schedule. I know however that like exercise, if I don’t do it for a while it becomes easier to just ‘skip a week or two’. Plus, as I’ve said earlier, it’s become such a key part of who I am I would struggle without it.

I’ve also talked earlier about letting go of perfection, and therefore knowing that getting something out that has meaning is better than trying for something really polished. One of the other things that I’ve learnt is to have a goal and just keep at it. I’ve posted before about never being the smartest or best person in the room, what I do have is tenacity. I know that for me to achieve something, to get somewhere, it requires me to just keep at it. This blog is no different. Everything I post I learn something, be that about me or how I’d like the post to be. If you look back to the posts from 2020 they are different to the ones in 2022, although they have the same core identity. Some of that is me changing and growing as a person, and some of that is me developing a better idea of how I want this blog to be. These are things I have only learnt by doing, they are not things I could have perfected before I’d started. Sometimes you can’t jump in fully developed, there are some things you just have to learn as you go. Frankly, that’s part of the joy of it, you are an explorer in your own mind, and you develop as you go.

What is it that I have to say?

It took me a loooooooong time to get from my first ever blog post to here, after all there was a 5 year gap between posts one and two. When I started out I felt like I needed to be like other blogs written by other people. There are so many great blogs out there that summarise research or talk science/leadership, mostly they have 101 references, and are aimed at specialists. I discovered pretty early on, after writing post number one, that that wasn’t the blog I wanted to write. It then took me quite a while to decide on not what I wanted to write about, but what I wanted to say. I think in the end, this blog is about everyday challenges and everyday scenarios. It’s about the things that I think most of us face in one way or another, and it’s about the good, the bad and the ugly. At the end of the day, I hope those of you reading it feel just a little less alone in the challenges we face and that as a community we become better able to have conversations about these challenges, as well as celebrating our successes.

In the last 2 years of regularly posting I’ve learnt a lot, but one of the main things I’ve decided is that I’m happy just ignoring the rules. I no longer write 900 words with three pictures, which is what all the guides said I should when I started. As this blog has grown I’ve developed the confidence to just write what I want to say, no matter how long or how short. I’ve decided that the message and our conversation is what matters, not limitations placed on the structure by convention. Sometimes things will be 500 words, sometimes they will be 2000, it will be what it will be.

The other thing I’ve realised is that I never know which posts will take off and have thousands of reads and which ones will just be a few dozen. In some ways, every time I post is like Christmas, the outcome is always a surprise. There are ones (like 50 shades of Grey) that took off and got 1000s of reads when I thought it would appeal to a very small and specific group. These surprises are a real treat for me as I suddenly discover that thoughts that are whirling in my head are actually not just in my brain alone. Suddenly, you realise a challenge or problem you’re working through, thinking it was just you, is something that lots of people are getting to grips with. Suddenly, I’m much less alone.

Ideas are not the problem

When I first conceived of writing a blog I was worried about whether I would have enough things to write about. I have to tell the opposite is true. I started with 40 seeds of ideas written on a piece of paper and hoped that would see me through. These days I usually have somewhere between 120 and 190 posts in draft. Some are just titles, some are mostly written and for some reason haven’t quite gotten finished. Often the reason for that is that I write what speaks to me when I sit down to write. I can plan for something to be the topic that week and then something happens, I have a conversation or am part of an event, and suddenly different words than expected pour out onto the page.

One of the other things I’ve learnt is that sometimes I have to step away from a thought for a bit to let it percolate a bit. I will have ideas or even start to write something, and it will just feel like hard work. I’ve discovered that when I’m writing the right thing, the right thing for me at the right time, words will flow and I’ll sit and write 1000 words without a pause. I should have realised this sooner as a similar thing happens to me when I try to write grants and papers when I haven’t finished my thinking. I think the difference with the blog is that sometimes I also have to be ready to put something out there. I can also only write something if it’s true. So, I can have planned to write something really uplifting but if I’ve had a really bad week or faced something tricky that is what I write about instead, as it’s the thing I need to process that before moving onto other things. I always want to be honest in what I write, and so I’m never going to sit and sell things as sunshine and roses when it doesn’t actually feel that way in the moment. Feel for those poor drafts who’ve languished unfinished for over a year. Their time will come.

As I sit here on a Friday night 2 years on I still don’t know if I’m a writer, but I do know that writing this blog has become part of me. This blog wouldn’t exist without you though, without you being prepared to sit and read my rambling on a Friday night, without you being prepared to share some of you valuable time with me and my ever so weird brain. I am more grateful than I can express for that and the generosity you have all shown me on this journey. Few things have brought me so much joy in recent years than the interactions that I would never have had if it wasn’t for this blog, and it has given me opportunities I would never have imagined. Every interaction has taught me so much about me and connecting with you all has meant so very much, you all have my thanks. When we meet face to face I definitely owe you all a cup of tea and a piece of cake.

All opinions on this blog are my own.

Changing of the Guard: When your mentor leaves and you have very large shoes to fill

This week is pretty momentous for me.  My boss and mentor of over 18 years officially retires.  His name is Dr John Hartley and to be honest he’s a bit of a microbiology legend, so much so we are talking about having a sign up in the IPC office that says ‘what would John do?’.  He is a completely different personality type to me, he’s an efficient, detail orientated perfectionist and most of all completely calm.  When John is in a meeting he sits there in calm contemplation and then swoops in to ask the one question that cuts right through all the noise, right to the heart of the matter.

John has been my boss from my first day as a trainee Clinical Scientist 18 years ago, when i didn’t even know what S. aureus was, right through till last year when I got my Consultant post and became his replacement as Infection Control Doctor.  He has been with me through marriage, deaths, PhD, FRCPath and every other significant career moment and so to say that I’m affected by his going is somewhat of an understatement.  So how do we cope when these moments of big change come around and we have to find a new way forward?

Trying to remember I am enough

John is loved by so many people and I have looked up to him for most of my adult life. It is normal therefore that everyone is mourning his moving on, it is almost like we are all grieving the loss of the familiar.  I definitely feel this.  I also find it hard in another regard, as we all grieve as part of the change there is a lot of understandable discussion about how amazing he is both as a person and in his job.  I feel this keenly.  I also feel very exposed by it as the person who is stepping into the space he occupied. It plays into all of those aspects of imposter syndrome where you ask ‘am I good enough?’.  As I said, we are very different people, John has an eye for details that I just don’t, he is calm and measured whilst I have a tendency to jump first and process everything of the fly.  This means that I will never live up to ‘what would John do?’ and still be authentically me.  There is therefore the inevitable chain of thought that if John is amazing at his job and I can’t be like John, does that mean that I will never be able to be equally amazing at that job?  Am I doomed to mediocrity before I even start?  It’s not like I’m a little bit ‘not like John’, the way we interact with the world is quite obviously different and so I’m very obviously not like him in every meeting I have and every interaction I’m involved with.  It’s easy therefore to let the self doubt and panic set in.

So how am I managing it?  I’m trying to not get too sucked into the John conversations. Not because I don’t think he is truly one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met, but because for the sake of my sanity I can’t get drawn into comparisons.   I’m trying to remember that despite the fact that he has occupied that role for my entire career that his way isn’t the only way of doing things, and that I have to try and play to my own strengths rather than attempting to imitate someone elses.  I am also trying to hold onto the fact that at no point in the last year where I have had the role instead of him has anyone questioned my right to be in it, or has he disagreed with any of my decisions when I’ve sat down and chatted them through with him.  He has been nothing but supportive of me being in post, and therefore if I’m going to emulate anything it should be the faith that he has in me that I struggle to have in myself.

I don’t have to have all the answers…….yet

John was Infection Control Doctor at my Trust for over 20 years, I have been ICD for 18 months, so what I need to ask myself is ‘am I comparing like with like?’.  It’s tempting to benchmark in the moment, it’s tempting to compare how well respected and how established he is against how I feel I’m perceived.  The thing is I’m benchmarking in completely the wrong way, I need to be benchmarking against how he was 20+ years ago.  Otherwise I’m setting myself an impossible task; I can’t benchmark against him now as I’m setting myself up to fail, and I can’t benchmark against him all that time ago as I don’t have the data.  That said, I suspect that Dr Hartley was probably born amazing and so it would be a challenging thing either way.  So, should I be benchmarking against him at all?  Should I instead be taking the time to reach out to my contemporaries to see how they are feeling and how they are dealing with similar changes?

The other thing that occurs to me whilst I write this post is whether anything has in fact changed, and whether benchmarking is actually the way to go at all.  You see, the thing is, I’m not really comparing like with like. John is a Consultant Microbiologist from a traditional medical background, I’m a Healthcare Scientist.  I’ve spent my entire career being the only person who was doing quite what I was doing and carving my own path.  Why suddenly now that John is leaving am I abandoning the approach that has stood me in good stead and trying to be the same as everyone else, instead of embracing that difference in a way I always have?  Why am I so tempting to discard everything that has previously made me, me?  The more I question, the more I doubt and so I need to return to embracing my gut and knowing that I am exactly where I always wanted to end up, and stop being so scared that it will all be somehow taken away from me.

Take a leaf out of his book

If I’m not going to benchmark against him, what am I going to do?  Well, first things first I’m going to reflect on what it is about him as a boss, a clinician and a leader that makes me and others respect him so much.  I want to do this not in order to copy him or compare myself to him, but in order to be inspired by him to be better. 

One of the things that John has done for me be, ever since I joined, is that he has championed me in rooms where I wasn’t present or wasn’t invited into.  He has never let our difference in professional backgrounds stand as an obstacle to what he thought I could achieve and, when I’ve needed him, he’s fought tooth and nail to guard my corner.  He has also sometimes been more honest with me than I could handle in the moment, and never stopped pushing and challenging me to be better than I believed I could be.

No matter what room he has been in John has always been his honest and authentic self, he’s not tried to curry favours, he’s not tried to manipulate or play power games.  He has always gone into every room with both his staff and his patients at the centre of his decision making.  The ability he has therefore demonstrated to handle conflict and disagreement is something that I can but admire.  He’s not scared of being the lone voice in a room if he believes that he is doing it to give a voice to others.

All of these things are things that I want to do, want to be better at and strive towards every day.  There will be times when I don’t achieve them, but by using him as a continued source of inspiration, rather than a benchmarking tool I use to beat myself up, I hope to become a better version of myself rather than a shadow of John.

Find my new allies

One of the other actions I’ve realised will be important for me in moving forward is be proactive in identifying new mentors and allies. People who will push and support me in being brave, and in standing up for both myself and others.  Losing a keystone of your network and support mechanisms is always jarring, but it is also an opportunity to evaluate what your needs are now, and where you need to develop your networks further for the fresh challenges ahead of you.  Finding mentors is often a fortunate accident, but there are also times when you need to actively seek out those people who will be able to help in any new phase of your career.

I’m also beginning to realise that I need to maximise my horizontal networks as well as looking upward for improved learning and guidance from those ahead of me.  I’ve always found peer support like this organically, but I think the time has come to undertake deliberate action and to actively invest resources into it.  This has been of great benefit in my role as Lead Healthcare Scientist but isn’t something I’ve attempted so much in my clinical role, partly because I suspect I’ve been too comfortable and had such great existing support.  I have plenty of connections in this area, but turning those connections into something more requires time and the building up of trust and shared experiences.

I will have different battles and different challenges

Firming up networks and identifying new sources of support is important as well because I think the challenges ahead of me are going to be different to the challenges I’ve already faced.  John has done an amazing job of leading the way and has built excellent foundations for me to stand upon, but the world of healthcare has changed so much in the 20+ years he’s been in post, and it would be naive of me to think it won’t continue to fluctuate.  All of this means that if I am going to be able to tackle these new challenges and prepare for a dynamic future, I can’t just rely on what has been before.  I need to have my toolbox ready to enable me to deal with what lies ahead, and a really important part of that is making sure that I have people around me who will challenge my thinking and inspire new ideas.  If we want to create real change and improvement we have to be prepared to take a leap into the unknown.  Sometimes this is helped if you have people around you who are both supportive but who can als give you a little push to get over any hesitancy. Although, in my case, it’s more likely they may need to stop me gambolling down the road with too much alacrity.   Finding your tribe has always and will continue to be important to me.

Perhaps one of the reasons I find this all so hard is that the reality is hitting me that I’m no longer the new kid on the block. I’m no longer the young whippersnapper who is coming in and seeing the world in a completely different way.  I myself am becoming the old guard, I’m becoming the person who has been somewhere long enough to harken back to different times when things weren’t the same.  This presents a lot of cognitive dissonance when at the same point you still feel like you are new and haven’t quite got a handle on things.  Just merely realising this helps, it helps to see the strength in where I’m at.  I am still young, I am still new, and the position is novel enough to me that I can see 101 ways where I would like to grow it and me for (fingers crossed) the better.  I have also been in the Trust for long enough that I know how things work, I know who to speak to, I know where the barriers and opportunities might be.  If you look at it in this light, I am in the best possible position to embrace what is to come.  So, although I am still grieving the loss of the past, I am beginning to be excited about the future.

All opinions in this blog are my own

You Can’t Be Liked by Everyone: Embracing the inevitability of not being everyone’s cup of tea

I’m going to tell you a truth that might shock you……..I don’t like Yorkshire Tea (my family may disown me as Bolton Upon Dearne is in my blood). I don’t even really like fruit tea. I have a tea ranking system:

  • Darjeeling
  • Lady Grey
  • Earl Grey
  • Jasmine (preferably flowering)

You’ll probably be looking at this and thinking why on earth is she telling me this. Well, the reason is if I am this picky about my tea is it any surprise that I am not everyone’s favourite person. If I’m this picky about tea, other people are bound to be this picky about other things, including people.

You are not going to be able to convince me to take my tea strong and with milk instead of weak, black, and with lemon at a push. I’m equally unlikely to convince you that I am someone who fits into your world view if you’ve decided that I don’t.

So why do we fight against this simple truth so hard?

For a very long time, I’m talking decades of my life here, I thought if I tried hard enough, I could be liked. If I tried to reign in parts of myself with different people, if I tried harder to fit the mould, I would be able to win people over. Now I’m into my 4th decade I realise there are some fundamental flaws to this way of thinking:

  • It assumes you have to be liked to suceed or to work with someone on a project
  • It diminshes the strength of difference
  • It assumes being a lesser version of you will be better, without acknowledging that being inauthentic has other downsides
  • It only works if you can do something to control the behavioural response of another person, in all likelihood a flawed concept
  • It starts out from a point of thinking there is something wrong with me

Winning personality

So where does this flawed thinking come from? I think we are told as children, whether explicitly or not, that if we behave well enough and fit into societal expectations then we will be liked, we will be popular as a reward and we will succeed. The reality is that it doesn’t matter how much you smile, how much effort you make, sometimes you will encounter people whose world view is just different to yours. That doesn’t make that person bad, it doesn’t make you wrong or right, just different.

I’ve had professional relationships where it took me years to realise this. Professional relationships where I tied myself in knots trying to make a break through where the other person would suddenly see the value of me. I tried to be less me in order to meet some undefined standard, I tried to hold the line in case they respected strength, I tried praise and engaging in discussion in their topics of choice in order to bond us. It failed, sometimes it failed horribly, because none of those things ‘fixed’ the fact that our fundamental world views, value and beliefs were just never going to reconcile.

Two things about this approach. First, even if it had worked it would only have worked short time, that kind of lack of authenticity to who you are is too difficult to maintain over time and actively harms the way you feel about yourself. Secondly, it was a massive waste of energy and effort. In hindsight I understand now that I would have been better served by understanding that I was never going to be liked, I was never going to have the break through I craved, but instead invest all of that energy and time into learning to find areas where we could work together irrespective of the way we saw the world.

If only I could explain it better

Everyone loves a trier…….err no, no they don’t. One of the things that people like least about me is the fact that I pick up ideas and run with them. I have an idea, become enthusiastic and just crack on with it failing to consider that a) some people are less comfortable with change than I am or b) other people care much more about territories and boundaries than I do, and so me running with my great idea may result in me breaking through other people’s fences.

I used to think that if only I could explain my concept or my idea better then everyone would just get on-board. This just isn’t the reality of the situation. It doesn’t matter how great my plans are, they alone are not going to change how others receive or are impacted by them. Explaining them better isn’t enough. Instead of sulking about the fact that others ‘don’t get it’ I need to work harder to see the whole landscape from the angle of those impacted by my plans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not great at this one but I’m at least I’m aware and working on it.

Secretly everyone is like me…..right?

Humans are by their very nature ego centric, as no matter how hard we try we can only truly hear our own thoughts and voices. This can present some really true communication issues where we can come to believe that everyone is like us. I often see my vision of the world so clearly that it can be hard to adjust or even truly realise that others see the world in a completely different way. Your personality, your experiences and your surroundings all work together as a jigsaw puzzle to create the picture you see. The flaw in the thinking is to think that those things all combine in a way that means others will have the same image when they come together as you.

I’ve been slow to realise the truth of this. The things that are fundamental truths in my world are not the same in other people’s. You can’t make the assumption that deep down we are all the same and care about the same things, because we don’t. As healthcare professionals I think I’d always assumed that there were things that we could extrapolate about each other because of our chosen profession, things like patient centred care being at the top of all of our list of drivers. This isn’t true. It took me years to figure it out, but that’s the reality. You can’t shortcut this stuff on the basis of labels, such as job title. This doesn’t mean these other people are bad at their jobs, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about patients, it’s just not necessarily the thing that gets them out of bed every morning. Some of them are there for the intellectual challenge, some are there because they like to lead, and some are there because they enjoy the fulfilment of papers being published etc.

All of this means that if you enter a scenario making assumptions that the drivers are the same and therefore base your success criteria on those assumptions, one or both of you are likely to finish the interaction believing it to be a failure. You also won’t get the most out of those involved, in terms of either engagement or ideas. The power therefore is not in being liked or being the same, the power lies in learning to both identify and work with difference. This means finding areas of overlap where different people can contribute differently, reflecting who they are as people.

You can’t always be what people need you to be

As a leader one of the things I’ve become aware of over recent years in that sometimes you can be disliked because you can’t be the person someone needs in the moment. Leadership is about balancing the needs of everyone, your team, your patients, your service. It’s about being open to opportunities for everyone and ensuring that doors are kept open. Sometimes that means that you have to say ‘not now’ to some people in order to maintain parity of access, as not everyone is able to ask for support in the same way.

I found this to be one of the biggest burdens of being a leader. I like to be liked and I just failed to keep everyone happy. Understanding that sometimes to be fair you have to also be OK with being disliked was a turning point for me. By seeking to be liked I could actually be disadvantaging others and that is a price that is too high to pay, just to make me feel better.

Understanding what is and what is not within your remit of control has really helped me with managing my emotional response to some of these situations. My remit is to try and make transparent decisions which are articulated in terms of both thought process and outcomes. I need to take ownership of that process and ensure that I engage with learning about how to do it better. This involves acknowledging responses to it. What I can’t do it take on board everything that happens emotionally linked to it. I can’t ‘fix’ everything and others are entitled to disagree. I need to take on feedback and turn it into something productive rather than trying to White Knight everything in the hope of changing minds, as in the long term that doesn’t help anyone.

The sooner we realise the truth the better. The sooner we realise the truth then we can understand that working together doesn’t need us to be soul mates or best friends. Our differences will (if we can get over ourselves) likely make our processes better. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we can have open non judgemental discussions about areas of over lap and shared drivers in order to work out where energy and resources will be best place. The sooner we realise this the sooner we will stop putting energy into diminishing who we are to fit some non existent ideal and open the door to liking ourselves that little bit more.

I’m off to have a super weak cup of darjeeling…………please don’t judge me for it

All opinions on this blog are my own

Speaking Truth to Power: Learning the hard truth of when science and politics collide

Over the last few years there have been a number of, well let’s be kind and call them learning moments, for me about how life works. I guess I’ve spent my life being pretty naive and thinking that if my evidence was good that was all that was needed to win people over or for my version of ‘good decisions’ to be made. The transition from that to knowing that a lot of decisions are not made due to evidence but due to scenario, relationships and people has been harder than I can properly describe before cocktails. Recent events, including some of the Infection Prevention kickback on social media, has led me to take this post out of my drafts section and forced me to finish it.

My hope is that by putting this out there others will be more prepared than I was for some of the conversations they will inevitably have as leaders down the line.

Know your remit

Just before Christmas last year I walked into a room as ‘the expert’ thinking that my expertise would lead to the outcome which I had deemed to be the most sensible. Worse than that, I hadn’t considered my role in that room before I stepped into it. Usually when I’m in a room I’m there to make decisions, it’s what I spend most of my day doing. My upset therefore when the information I presented was heard but my recommendation was not acted upon was pretty visceral, this was high stakes stuff after all. I hadn’t spent enough time considering my remit before I went in. My remit in that room was as an advisor, it wasn’t as a decision maker. Therefore I had set myself up to fail. I needed to set my success criteria (more on this later) linked to my presentation of information, not about the decision itself.

That day was an object lesson in being an expert in one piece of the puzzle, but not being able to access the whole picture. Not because I hadn’t done my research but because often as advisors and not decision makers in a space we are not given the full picture to understand how the decision is actually being made. This can leave someone, like me, who works based on evidence base and data, feeling lost when a decision is made that appears to contraindicate what we’ve put forward. I find it especially challenging as often I am in the room as a decision maker, and the switch in remit from one to another is not always well defined. Trying to understand what role you are occupying before you enter a space is therefore key to both the outcome and your mental wellbeing.

Sometimes you also need to understand where your remit of influence lies. Something may be happening you don’t agree with but it is not within your remit of influence to change. Knowing when this is the case and acknowledging it means that you are more likely to be able to find a way forward. Can you offer a support role? Is it something that is right for you to be involved with, or do you not have insight or expertise in that area? In which case do you need to upskill or acknowledge your involvement might be unhelpful? If we wade in without being prepared we can make situations worse for those that are actually impacted.

Collect your evidence

Having said that having evidence and information will not always change the outcome it must be acknowledged that without it you have probably lost the battle before even entering the room.

Why is this? Well without information what you are doing is appealing to emotion. This may be a good thing in politics but is unlikely to be a successful approach when you are in a position to influence due to your expertise. Hearts and minds is an important moto for change but the foundation needs to be solid. It could just be the scientist in me, but I want to enter a situation with as much information as I can access to hand so I can flex my argument and respond to challenge and come back with data.

Another thing is that by going in with information you set the expectation that you anticipate data and evidence in response. This can help in situations where you expect to be fobbed off. It can also help in emotive situations, where instead of adding fuel to the fire you are removing the judgement/emotion and presenting just the information to respond to. It can also give a way out to both sides in terms of changing their position. It is a sign of good leadership to acknowledge new information and react to it. Remember this goes both ways however, and so we should also not use evidence that is sub-selected to maintain a dogmatic argument.

Talk to your stakeholders

A key part of gathering your evidence and sense checking your argument is talking to people who are involved. This is important for a number if reasons:

  • Understand the landscape the decision is being made within
  • Understand the drivers of the key decision makers, this will help you understand whether the decision is within your sphere of influence
  • Understand the impacts of the decision, particularly on those you are engaging with
  • Help you to identify evidence gaps or other holes in your thinking
  • Help you to identify the potential consequences of speaking up for you and others

Its important when speaking to stakeholders that you speak not just to people who are likely to think the same way as you, this way leads to group think. You need to try and speak to people who are likely to disagree with your position, people who have a more strategic view of the landscape who may be able to tell you what you’re missing, and people who are likely to have influence in the room. The last are particularly key in terms of preparation as you are removing some of the unknowns. Best case, you may win over a decision maker so you know that they will support you, worst case you’ll be able to prepare for what streams of thought they might introduce during discussions.

The most important thing here is that if you are representing others as a leader, that you have spoken to those you represent enough to make sure that you are genuinely reflecting their position and thoughts within the room, not just your own.

Practice your argument

I can’t emphaise this one enough. If you are going into a high stakes meeting you need to practice your argument, preferably with others beforehand. To me there are a few reasons for this:

  • Identify flaws in your chain of thoughts, or weaknesses that you can address
  • Work through any emotion linked to what is about to happen before you get into the space
  • Find the rhythm of what you are going to say, who you will look at when, how you will evaluate how your argument is landing and flex if necessary

These situations are often emotionally charged and for the sake of the outcomes you can rarely let that emotion, be it fear or upset, show. These need to be adult – adult conversations, as the situations are often complex. I found the infographic below, which is aimed at having difficult situations with family, but I think a lot of the questions can help formulate thinking around any difficult/high stakes conversation. Things like starting out by finding common ground are so important, people are much more likely to negotiate once you’ve established similarity. Therefore, practicing structure and order, as well as content, can make all the difference.

Pick the right when and why

No one wants to be the girl who cries wolf, who constantly involves themselves in issues that don’t involve them and become perceived as a meddler, or worse than that…..a drama queen *gasp*. At the same time there are things that you do have to stand up and speak up for, be that for your team, your patients or yourself. Knowing when and why to speak up is therefore key.

Let’s start with the why. Well firstly we’ve covered remit, is it something you have the facts and information about in order to appropriately escalate? Ideally, is this somewhere within your sphere of influence? If not you may be better placed in a support role whilst someone who fulfils the above does the speaking out. There’s also something here about authentic leadership and living your values. It’s not enough to say what your values are but you have to live them and follow through. When these three things align then it is definitely time to act.

The when can be more challenging as there are multiple ways this can play out:

  • Formal meetings
  • Informal meetings
  • 1:1 discussions
  • Email
  • Public vs private

The right when/where can depend. Challenging bullying behaviour for instance may be best done in the moment but there are times when it might be better to pull the individual to one side to have a private 1:1 first. Some of this depends on what your success criteria look like and so you may not know initially until you’ve decide what it is you are trying to achieve.

Know your success criteria

This is one of those things I should have thought about more before going into the meeting discussed at the start of this post. Success criteria have to somewhat depend on your level of influence and decision making in any situation. In that case I had some influence and no decision making remit, the best I could hope for was to influence the discussion. Therefore basing my mental wellbeing on the outcome was foolish, as I had limited capacity to change the outcome. My success criteria should have been to go in and clearly define the scenario and give my recommendations as eloquently as possible. Then I would have left the room less disillusioned and questioning my role.

Success criteria can look like all kinds of things, depending on the situation:

  • Influence the decision
  • Achieve an outcome
  • Shine a light
  • Escalate to a more appropriate/different group
  • Demonstrate support
  • Achieve a change
  • Identify support/supporters

Knowing what you are trying to achieve is a key part of developing a strategy and being able to prepare properly. Sometimes we can only achieve a statement of ‘this is not right’, other times you may be able to change an outcome. It is best to be realistic about what the best case scenario actually looks like and aim for that, rather than aiming for something unrealistic and achieving nothing.

Be prepared to pay the piper

#realtalk all of this comes will come with a cost. No one likes the person who is disruptive and speaks out, at least not in my experience. They may respect you for it, but they won’t like you. There have been times when I have sat down and had serious conversations with myself about whether I am prepared to live with the consequences. I’m usually more sure of myself when I’m advocating for others rather than for myself, as that usually aligns so strongly with my values. The times I’ve had to step up and advocate for myself have been both hard and terrifying. When I have conversations with people about advocating for others, I tell them I see it as part of the job. I am here as a leader, I am here to represent my workforce, I am paid to quite literally ‘take one for the team’ on occasion. If I then have to manage the fact that I am not always well liked for giving a voice to others that is a price I decided I was willing to pay before I took the job. If I ever feel like I don’t have it in me to pay that price then that is the time I need to reconsider whether I can fulfil the job role that I am in. The role is too important to not do it well, to not step up and advocate for others. If you can’t stand the heat then it’s time to get out of the kitchen.

Be bold, be brave

So here is the truth of the matter, speaking up requires you to be brave and be bold. It requires you to put your head above the parapet for the benefit of others, even if it comes at a personal cost to you. It’s worth it because you are living your values, it’s worth it because you are advocating for change and for the benefit of others. No matter the cost to you the impact you will have will out way it. It’s in these moments we know who we really are, especially when we fail. That said, all of it can be easier if you do the work beforehand to understand what you advocating for, so you have the data to back your arguments and to ensure that you are the right person to be in the room waving the flag. We are all much braver than we think and we are many, so reach out to those who will you hold you up and support you in speaking out for those that don’t have a voice without you.

All opinions in this blog are my own

Clothes Maketh the Man or Do They? Why I want my clothes to show me, not some version of who I should be

Shortly after I was 14 I went for tea with my Great Aunt. I had long black hair (I was a goth for over a decade) and when I went into her house and we were away from the street she started to berate me: my hair was down, it wasn’t up, it wasn’t dressed. I was 14 now, I was a woman, what would people think if I wore my hair down. People would question what kind of woman I was, how would I get a husband? who would look after me? If I didn’t dress properly, learn to cook and clean and behave properly no one would want me.

Needless to say, this probably had the opposite of any intended effect  I pointed out that I would wear my hair how I wished and that I didn’t ‘need a man to take care of me’ and that I ‘was jolly well able to take care of myself’. Thus was my first introduction to how the way I dressed would be used to judge both me, and my current and future potential for success. This was only emphasised further at my girls school, where being a goth was treated as a one way street to failure at life, rather than a means of self expression. Like applying black lipstick or having black hair would immediately consign me to the rubbish heap of life. I continued to wear black lipstick and have black hair far into my 20’s in part to prove that their expectations were nonsense. 

Imagine my surprise then to find, when working at a council as my first job post university, to hear one of the inspiring female leaders there spending her time preaching a similar message. I remember her so clearly 20 years later, even though I don’t remember her name. She was very senior in the council and was on her way to Westminster to speak. I noticed that she always wore trouser suits with small shoulder pads and so I asked her whether she wore them as she felt more comfortable or empowered in them. She replied she didn’t even like them, but she’d long ago learnt that she had to dress like the men in order to succeed or be taken seriously. No long hair, no skirts, you must have makeup but it must be natural etc.

That’s politics you say, in healthcare we meet patients from all walks of life and therefore we should be able to represent ourselves and reflect back at them that same sense of diversity………….Well that is what I’ve always thought too. Until I went on my first senior leadership course run by the King’s Fund. Now this course was so hilarious in so many ways that at some point I will write a separate blog entitled ‘Taking a walk with the wheel of my life’ but for now let me share that it was the worst £9000 I have ever spent.

The course was called the Athena programme and was specifically aimed at women in senior leadership positions in healthcare. The first three day retreat involved many horrors that occurred within a monastery with no phone reception or Internet access. On the second evening there there was a three hour session on dressing for success. As part of this I was made to endure an extensive slide presentation showing that successful female leaders all wear ‘a uniform’. The uniform being a box jacket, skirt suit, chunky statement necklace and a broach. They included a picture of Margaret Thatcher and the epitome of ‘the uniform’. At this point I should have collected my things and left but as £9000 is a lot of money and I have a thing for certificates, so I stuck it out for the whole 4 modules over a year.

Why am I so offended by this?

The fact that I go by Girlymicro has probably not passed you by. In 2012 when I setting up my twitter account the name was fairly deliberately chosen. I was surrounded by successful men but I hadn’t really met any senior women that I could access for mentorship (thankfully that has now changed and I know loads). I was saddened by the continuous messaging that I needed to be someone other than who I was if I ever wanted to succeed. It wasn’t good enough to be smart, it wasn’t good enough to be driven, it wasn’t good enough to succeed at the tick boxes, instead I had to look the right way to have doors opened for me. This went one of two ways, I could be ‘the pretty one’ where doors could be opened as I was appealing to men, or I could be ‘one of the guys’ where I was accepted because I tried to be one of them, look like one of them, behave or talk like one of them.

Well sadly most days you’re lucky if I get out of bed and brush my hair, so I was never going to be one of the pretty ones. That said I don’t wear trousers, I like kooky shoes and maxi dresses, I’m not being caught dead wearing a statement necklace and you don’t have enough money to make me cut my hair.  I am not therefore ever going to be one of the guys. So where did that leave someone like me? Destined to be pretty much invisible as I didn’t fit the mould? Screw that, it left me making a deliberate decision to try to break that mould by just being me, as publicly as possible. Choosing Girlymicro as my twitter handle was the first step in this journey.

Does this mean I’m saying wear what you want?

Let’s get this one out of the way, I’m not advocating you turn up to clinic naked or in a bikini.  What I am saying is that you can be both respectful and wear clothes that represent who you are as a person rather than being forced to conform to a standard set by ‘others’.

I really believe that dress is one of those things where we use it judge whether people fit our cultural norms. If someone doesn’t fit then no matter how good they are at the role it will always be a challenge. I’ve lost count of the number of times it’s been made clear to me that if I only fit in more, played the game more that I would go further. Dress is just one example of how this is acted out in a way that it easy to assess.

Why is all of this important?

All of this matters because we don’t sit in isolation from our patients, or from our students.  We are the people that stand in front of them. This may be why you tell me that I need to dress a certain way, but is it really?

Is dressing a certain way actually only a reflection of an older version of healthcare where it was about clinician authority? If we are moving towards a model of healthcare that is more based in co-creation isn’t it actually more important that our patients and trainees see diversity and representation in us that reflects them?

I think this is also especially important when we’re talking about progression and recruitment. If people can’t see themselves in a position they will often discount the fact that it is for them. Dressing in ‘the uniform’ isn’t just exclusive in terms of making in and out crowds visible. It also requires privilege.  None of those clothing items are cheap, most of them would have been incredibly inaccessible to me until I was on a consultant salary. To be honest even now I’m on a consultant salary there are things I would rather spend my money on. Why are we making a job that is already difficult to access and viewed as inaccessible even harder, by requiring you have have money to merely fit in.

My other question is whether this reflects our diversity and inclusion aspirations? Where do braids fit into this or choosing to wear a hijab? What about those people who have alopecia or are allergic to make up? If we are serious about representation and moving towards a more inclusive working environment should we be setting implicit standards which require others to change who they are in order to conform if they wish to succeed? What kind of message are we sending about what we require to work with us, if we are saying you have to leave who you are at the entry of where you work.

Wear what empowers you!

I am always going to be the kind of person who looks like they’ve walked through a hedge on the way to work and if I manage 3 hours without dropping food or drink down myself it’s probably because I haven’t found time to have either. This is what I’ve landed on however. I will wear things that empower me. Some days that means I may wear a jacket, sometimes that means I will wear an inspirational slogan and sometimes it just means that I will wear something comfortable that will get me through the day.

I will also not judge the clothing of those who work around or for me. If you are wearing jeans in the lab I do not care. The only place you will receive judgement from me on the matter of dress is if you are working on a clinical unit and are covered with bangles and other things that mean you are increasing transmission risk to others. Even my ‘you do you’ attitude has limits when it comes to patient safety.

I want to finish however with a story that shows that you don’t need to conform to be a success. Many of you will know Dr Kerrie Davies. If you don’t she’s a truly inspirational woman, and don’t just believe me, she won last years Healthcare Scientist of the year award from the CSO, so people who are waaaaaay more senior and brighter than me agree.

I met Kerrie when we were both trainee Clinical Scientists over 10 years ago. Since then she’s won million pound grants, been a Lead Scientific Advisor for the UKHSA during the COVID-19 pandemic and been awarded a PhD. All with blue hair! Kerrie expresses who she is and is unapologetic about it, whilst simultaneously being both a super bright and empathetic leader. All I can say is that we should all ‘be more Kerrie’ and the world would be a better place.

Whilst you think about your outfit for tomorrow and how you are going to start wearing something that will help you be just a little bit more you, I’m off to have a serious think about whether I could pull off blue hair.

All opinions in this blog are my own.

More Than the Sum of Our Grades: Why academic success only tells part of the story

I thought I should start with an apology, this one is all about me. There is a point to it but you may have to get through a chunk of stuff about me first. If you don’t fancy that there are links to some of my other posts at the bottom that you may fancy more.

Everyone tells you that academic qualifications aren’t everything and they really are not, depending on the path you want to take. In many ways the more qualifications I have the more I question their validity, but I get to do that now from a position of privilege where I no longer really have any skin in that particular game. That said A-level and GCSE results have come out in recent weeks and it got me remembering the day I received mine, more than that it made me think about every time I stood there waiting for a sheet of paper to be put up on a wall or to open an envelope (yes I am that old 😉).

If you look at my CV now you’d see a pretty good list of academic achievements but there are things that you don’t see. Past a certain point no one lists their GCSE or A-level grades. You also don’t see the fact that I have never been the smartest person in the room, I’ve never been the top. The reason you don’t see it is because none of that actually matters, it’s about the body of work rather than a single point in time. When you get those results however no one tells you that or even if they did you probably wouldn’t believe them. Those results are your whole future, they feel like your whole world. I wanted to just write something to put out there that shows that no matter what you received it doesn’t have to define either who you are or your future, it’s just one step on the way.

GCSE horror show

Frankly my GCSE years were a bit of a horror show. Not because I didn’t want to study or engage but health wise it was basically a disaster. I caught glandular fever (Epstein Barr virus) and ended up with such bad swollen lymph glands under my arms I couldn’t lower them for days at a time and turned yellow due to the hepatitis. On top of this I slept 23 hours a day and it just didn’t get better. I ended up with post viral fatigue and for my 5th year at school managed an hour a day, on a good day. I was withdrawn from all but the basics (maths, english and double science) and told I should plan for failure.

I sat no mocks and frankly had no idea what day it was let alone feeling on top of anything. School became a terrifying place where I could see everyone else moving on rather than a place where I fit in, as I had loved to study. I never really had a lot of school friends but all but one basically forgot I existed (cheers to Heather who always stood by my side). I missed all the big occasions, no last day of school with signatures for me, no last school disco. I was just left behind and I really started to believe the tale that I was being told that my aspirations were over.

Things got worse when I sat the exams. I managed a weekend of revision pre the written papers, although it really blew me out. I did that awful thing of not really reading the instructions as I was so nervous. My english literature exam was up first and instead of answering 2 of 5 essays, I answered them all. I couldn’t understand why I was furiously writing whilst everyone else looked so calm or had finished with loads of time. It just fed into my panic. With 5 minutes to go I finally finished and went back to the start to see the words 2/5 glaring at me from the front page. I felt like I’d screwed it on day 1.

Come results day I just didn’t even want to go. I was so convinced of my failure and that I had sealed my fate. I had no plans for next steps, I had no college or A-level plans. I picked up my envelope and I suspect other people’s tears were for very different reasons. My 2 A’s (english lit and language) BB (duel science) and C in maths were so far from what I had hoped for at the start but were so unexpected on the day. Everyone stood around me with 11 and 12 passes but my 5 meant that I was still in the running. I still had a chance. I went back home and went to bed for a week, there was no energy for celebrations and dreamt of what next.

A-level winging it

As I said I’d made no plans for A-levels as no one thought they were an option. My mum (who is loyal, devoted, loving and probably a genius) swung into action in a way that I will be forever grateful for and don’t deserve. She got me a last minute place organised to do A-levels at the secondary school less than 5 minutes from my home. My original school were so focused on grades and success that it wasn’t even discussed as an option. So 3 weeks later I’m due to start at mixed sixth form, having only studied in a single sex environment since 11, with no one I knew, having never even visited the school. Nervous was not the word. The school knew about my health issues and to be honest the word university was not being mentioned. So that I could manage health wise I started A-level biology, which happened in normal school hours, and A-level drama that had some evening classes so I could rest during the day. That was it. 2 A-levels. Only 1 of which was considered serious. I set to it.

In what will become a theme for my life I felt so far behind. For my GCSE exams I studied the minimum possible to be able to pass for a weekend, that did not enable me to keep up with my peers during A-level biology classes. I was the idiot who knew nothing, understood nothing. If I had had friends I probably would have understood earlier that most of my class mates felt the same way but I didn’t, the switch from GCSEs to A-levels is hard but I thought it was just me.

Drama on the otherhand was a revelation. For someone who was struggling to find a refreshed version of her identity and new place in the world as the plan she’d had was falling by the wayside, drama was my safe space. You could choose to be loud or quiet. You could often choose to watch or engage. I was in a place where my choices were given life. Not just that but I didn’t feel behind, the texts were new to everyone, it was a very different space. I still didn’t fit, on the first day they thought I was their teacher not a student, but being able to academically engage in a place I didn’t feel like a failure was something that gave me hope, it kept me going. It’s partly why I’m still so passionate about the use of STEAM now. When I had no other way of being me it helped me find myself.

By the end of my 1st year of A-levels I was beginning to feel a bit more like me, a bit more able to think about the future. I still wasn’t physically right but my mind was a bit more back on track and I wanted to be able to plan again. I knew that if I wanted to even apply for uni that I would need 3 A-levels plus general studies and I only had 2. Let’s put to one side that I had no idea what I would apply to study I just knew that 3 A-levels was the first step. As I’ve said the school where I was doing my A-levels did evening classes that were open to everyone. I can’t even remember how it happened but I found an amazing psychology teacher who I spent some time talking to and who said she would help me. We came up with a plan. There was no way I could cover 2 years of psychology in 1 but I didn’t need to. The course was split into core and optional modules. If I took some of the evening classes and some of the day classes across years I could still cover all the core components. I then just had to cover 1 optional and make sure that I knew it super well as I’d have no essay options – I’d have to be able to answer the one that came up. I also registered on general studies knowing I would just have to turn up to the exam and hope as I wouldn’t be able to physically manage any more classes.

I also knew that despite ‘the plan’ I wasn’t going to be well enough to manage full time uni the next year and so I would give it everything I had and then defer my place for a year.

I basically spent that year working and sleeping. I didn’t have much left in the tank for anything else, but I had a plan. I also had an amazing cheer leader in my mum who repeatedly let me know that her love was unconditional and that she had my back, but I could also stop at any point if I wanted to. The choice was my mine. That word choice is so important when you feel like your options are taken from you. I chose to go for it. At the end of that year I got my envelop. The uni’s I’d applied to required ABB or 3 BBB with the A or B in biology. I got 2 As a B and a C. The C was in biology. The A’s were in psychology and drama. I didn’t get in. I can sit here and say that the fact that I managed to get passing grades was amazing, that to come from nothing to a C in biology was such an achievement, but none of that is true. I felt crushed. I felt that the people who told me I couldn’t make it were right and what was I thinking. Then someone stuck me a room and handed me a phone and told me to call clearing. I had no idea what clearing was or what I even want to study, but somehow an hour later I’m going to a city I’ve never even visited (Liverpool) to study a course (general science) which I didn’t even know anything about – apart from the fact that it would enable me to choose my science speciality later on which at that moment felt sooooooooo important.

Everyone moved past me once again as I deferred for a year and focussed on getting well. I also took a part time job, not only to help me earn some money for uni (we weren’t rich and I’d need it) but also so I could see how I managed to see if I was OK to go.

University catch up

I turned up for my first week at uni and if A-levels had been a shock they were nothing on this. EVERYONE and I mean EVERYONE seemed to be more prepared, understood more and frankly knew more than I did. I had been so relieved to just arrive I hadn’t planned for what would happen next. As it turned out 3 main things occurred:

  • One – I learnt the importance of finding my tribe
  • Two – I learnt to hide my fear and insecurities
  • Three – I found ways around things so that I could hide my knowledge gaps

Now, some of these I’ve written about separately on this blog, like finding your tribe, and as a life lesson it has stood me in so much good. I found a small group of people who I could learn with, who didn’t make me feel foolish and behind, even if I didn’t ever really share with them how I felt. One person in particular, Diane, became my study buddy and we would have late night chinese, work out pass margin requirements and all in all keep each other going. She was a bridesmaid at my wedding and I was maid of honour at hers, if it wasn’t for Diane I wouldn’t have made it through. She’s northern, straight forward and stopped me listening to the voices of doubt and fear that troubled me in the middle of the night.

As for the other two things I learnt they have their pros and cons. I’ve reached a point in my life now where I’m pretty open about my fears and insecurities, I write this blog after all. The thing is fear festers because we don’t talk about it and one of my motivations in writing this blog is so that others don’t feel alone in their self doubt and their challenges. I can do that now though as someone who has worked through a lot of them and who has (thankfully) gotten to a place in her life where I’m less bothered by what people think of me than I am in trying to help others find their way. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was a 19 year old who was still struggling to feel like she belonged. This is an after uni story, but I still remember my first week as a trainee Clinical Scientist and having people stare at me as I tried to pipette into an agarose gel, and having people comment on whether I was back pipetting and how interesting my style was. I had no style. No one had ever taught me how to pipette, I had never run a molecular test, I was a Zoologist who ended up in microbiology after all. I therefore had to learn, especially in the competitive environment I was in at uni, where the bottom 50% got booted every year, and as a trainee to cover and not let my lack of skills be seen for fear of what that might mean for me.

I spent my entire time at uni volunteering to do the drawing or take other roles because no one had ever shown me how to focus a microscope and I was terrified that I would be found out. This haunted me enough that when I sat FRCPath I actually had close friends run trials for me on different types because even the memory of it gives me panic attacks to this day. No one ever showed me how to do dissection and so again for my first 2 years at uni I covered and did the best I could. It was assumed that everyone had gone to schools that had access to equipment, that had run these types of classes and then to add onto to that my lack of experience due to illness, it all just meant I felt at sea. In my third year I faced an eight hour dissection exam and I knew it was going to be a disaster. After three years of uni though I had finally found a lecturer I trusted and a couple of friends who I felt would stand by me, and so we approached as a collective and asked to be allowed to have specimens and practice on weekends. Me and my dogfish George got an A in that exam and I cried in a way that is only rivalled by passing FRCPath. It took me three years to have enough trust in other people and myself to ask for help, not because I was afraid to do the work, but because I was afraid of what it would mean if they rejected my request.

So what does all of this mean and why have I written it. Firstly, I’ve written it because I want anyone out there to know that if things didn’t go well for you there are still pathways ahead. We may not take the most straight forward path but we end up in similar places and sometimes the learning that will give us will be invaluable for the rest of our lives.

Secondly, I want those of us who are now acting as educators, leaders and supervisors to bear in mind that not everyone is joining you at the same point. There will be smart people out there who are turning up at day one who will not necessarily have had access to the resources or opportunities you think they have. Making assumptions that everyone is started from the same place sometimes puts people back even further. This is especially pertinent as we have trainees about to start with us. Taking the time to have a non judgement based conversation about prior experience can make all the difference to those who feel lost in our world where we take so much for granted.

Believe it or not there are so many things I’ve learnt about myself that I see the way I got here as a strength and not a weakness. I’ve never been the one at the head of the class, and the route that I’ve taken, although circuitous, now pays real dividends as I understand so much more than if I’d taken the direct route. It’s also taught me valuable lessons about myself, what I value and what I can achieve if I can get over my fears of how people see me. I’m used to hearing no, I’m used to hearing that’s not how it’s done and that it won’t work for someone like me. All of those things felt horrible but now I’m so thankful. Those no’s have taught me to be strong and to break down barriers. Those no’s have in the end enabled me to truly be the person I wanted to become.

Finally, and I can’t say this enough, find the person who sees your value even when you can’t. Find the people like my mum, my husband, like Heather and Diane. Find them and even when you haven’t got the strength to articulate what you are truly afraid of they will still be the people who stand by your side and guide you. Find your tribe and you will never truly be alone again.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Stepping Up and Stepping Out: Making the shift into a senior role

It feels like the time of year when people start new things in their lives, new jobs, new courses, new career paths. So many people I’ve been speaking to lately are moving onto bigger and better things, with many of them starting their journeys as senior leaders both within academia and the NHS. I’ve spent some time talking to them about what I found might be different and some of the challenges about stepping up into a leadership role. Now, my journey to consultant and Lead Healthcare Scientist was not particularly linear so I may have some thoughts about this that aren’t universal, but after doing some thinking the below are what I’ve come up with in terms of how I think senior leadership roles are different and how my thinking has changed whilst in post.

It’s no longer all about you

First and foremost this is the most important thing that I feel is at the heart of what I try to make my leadership decisions based on. I’m now out there representing more than myself, I’m representing a team or even a whole workforce and sometimes therefore my wants and needs will have to take a back seat. I’ve been in meetings where I have given up something I want because actually it enabled something to happen for the wider good of my workforce. I personally don’t think there’s a place for selfishness once you are in a band 8 + position, although I’m also sure that I’m not perfect and probably don’t always make the best calls, it just means I make a conscious effort to keep it in mind. That doesn’t mean that sometimes things don’t work out so you get the best of both worlds, but when you are representing more than yourself you have to do exactly that, represent.

It’s no longer all about doing

One of the things that I think can be especially challenging when stepping up into a senior role, when you are more used to an operational or service provision role, is making the switch from being the person who does to being the person who sees. What I mean by that is that a lot if my job is about constantly having one eye to the future. Where are we going next? What are our current strengths and weaknesses and how do we manage them moving forward? What are the challenges coming down the road and what can we do now to prepare as much as possible? Not only that but once I have a path in mind I have to develop how we are going to get there and communicate that vision as broadly as possible. Obviously this isn’t done in isolation, it needs to always be an inclusive process, but a lot of the thinking sits with me. If you continue to only have an operational view, it can rabbit hole you into the present, it can then be a struggle to emerge for long enough to do that vision piece. So, although it may be comforting to get back to the bed side or to the bench, you have to make sure you’re doing it to maintain skills when needed rather than avoiding seeing the landscape laid out in front of you.

It’s no longer about picking and choosing who you work with

We all have people we love working with and some people where, because we don’t necessarily share the same vision, it is more challenging. As you become more senior you have less and less choice about who you work/collaborate with, those decisions are made due to the work and not due to personal preferences. This may sound odd but I genuinely believe that this is not only right but a good thing. If you only work with people who are easy, who see the world the same way you do, are you really working to reflect the wider attitudes of your staff? Although not easy some of the best project outcomes I’ve had have come from working with people who have very different attitudes, values and objectives. If done well and professionally these relationships enable you to have constructive challenge and see work or scenarios in a way you never would alone. They may not lead you to change your direction but they will always help your thinking as to why, and often help you to develop and articulate your arguments in a way you may have not gotten to on your own. Best case, you’ll get an outcome you couldn’t have achieved on your own, worst case you’ll have clarified your thinking. This doesn’t mean that I don’t (as someone who likes to be liked) find this a particularly challenging aspect of leadership, it’s just that I also really see the value in it. Hiding is no longer an option.

All those people you thought were on top of it probably weren’t

If you are like me you probably spent a lot of time in previous roles being amazed at how productive your seniors were and at how much they achieved. Now I’m probably biased here, but rather than judge myself harshly I’m going to extrapolate instead that all those people I looked up to just covered up their failures better than I do. My experience of stepping up to leadership is that you will have more work than you can manage at any one time, you will never clear the decks and you probably won’t ever ‘finish’ anything. That’s because you will move from a task based role to one that is much more far reaching and often conceptual. Some days I really miss just being able to spend a Friday doing 16S rDNA sequencing, unless I screwed it up I knew that at the end of the day I knew that I would have achieved something and that I would then action a patient result. Now most of my days are moving things forward by inches, or if I get to the point where I get a task off my list it is so rapidly replaced by something else I barely notice it, let alone have satisfaction as a result. This isn’t to bemoan this way of working, it’s just different and if you come from a very task orientated role it can be a little demoralising at the start as it can be hard to see progress. It’s really worth therefore finding other ways to track your progress so that you can still find a way to visualise it. I sometimes try an annual wish list for instance where I check in over a period of months rather than days to see how things are coming together.

You will spend more time than you thought possible on emails and calls

It’s currently 6pm and I’m just trying to get some words down here before I leave work. I have spent since 8am this morning trying to recover from the email backlog from 3 days off work last week, I’m proudly down to 283 which need actioning. Email is the quicksand of my working life, when combined with days that often have meetings back to back from 8 – 6, they are almost impossible to keep on top of. The main thing I’ve tried to develop are some tools to try to ensure that I don’t miss anything devastating and urgent. That said if it is devastating and urgent you should probably be calling rather than sending me an email. I’m quite up front with people. If your email comes in whilst I happen to have a window and I’m staring at an inbox you will probably get a response within 5 minutes, if not it could be 5 months. If you need a response send it at least 3 times, preferably with a red flag and then at least it will get to the top of my to do list. At the height of SARS CoV2 I was getting upwards of 600 emails a day, thank god that’s reduced, I just couldn’t keep up. Over time I’ve also tried some strategies to protect my diary where I can. My fab IPC team suggested a 1.5 hold in my diary every day for urgent meetings so that they should (almost) always have a slot which they know is theirs to put it meetings when needed. I also try to go to less meetings that are just for information and not for action, otherwise to be honest I would never manage to eat or go to the bathroom. Feeling out of control is therefore pretty normal and it’s about strategising so you keep on top of the key things. You will also develop language that will help you cope and politely deflect some of the things that could be handled by someone else. I used to feel bad about delegating, but actually a lot of the time it offers development and learning opportunities for others. If done appropriately it will not only buy you a little breathing space but it will enable others to continue their own career journeys.

Sometimes it’s your job to be the shield

One of the things that comes with being the one to develop the vision is that you also (often) are the one that can see the storm approaching. This one for me goes hand in hand about the role no longer being all about you. Sometimes it’s my job to stand in the front and take the hit, sometimes that’s being shouted at by a family for the tough call, sometimes it’s dealing with the response of other senior leaders. This is why it is sometimes lonely being in a senior role and you will need support for you as an individual. Senior roles are often not that linked up and so you won’t necessarily have someone who is doing the same post as you, you will therefore need to be pro active in building your own support networks. These will also help with the visioning piece as the more connected you are the more pieces of the jigsaw you will see. The more you understand the drivers of what is going on in any particular situation the more you will be able to respond with understanding, and the greater the chance of improving a situation rather than making it worse. There is no getting away from the fact however that sometimes you just have to don your big person pants, stand your ground and deal with whatever has come your way with as much integrity and grace as you can muster.

There are weights you don’t see

I recently took hubby away for his big birthday to Disneyland Paris. Towards the end of the holiday I looked at him and I suddenly realised how different I felt. For 6 days I had not been Dr Cloutman-Green, I’d just been Dream. I’d made no decision bigger than what I wanted to eat/drink or what ride I wanted to go on next. I felt stones lighter and so much freer. I hadn’t realised the weights I’d been carrying with me. I don’t know how much of this is COVID but I find there is an unseen, and some days unbearable, weight that I carry with me and that I don’t even realise it’s there until I put it down for a while and take off my healthcare hat. This may just be a me thing, it may be a pandemic thing, but if you get afflicted you have to make sure you that you put the weights down from time to time and do whatever it takes to make you feel free again, for me it was going to a mad hatters tea party!

You will always be more than your job, you will have other roles (mother, wife, carer, sister, father, son, brother etc) and we can’t always sacrifice these for a job that can become all encompassing if we let it. In the long term it will make us poorer both at the job and as human beings. Some of these weights we will put upon ourselves and so need to work on ourselves to resolve. You will not have all the answers on day one in your new role, you are constantly going to learn and develop, in fact I hate to break it to you but you will never have all of the answers. You will fail at things more than you’d like. This is part of life, it’s part of leadership and it’s part of learning. It’s OK. The sooner you come to terms with that the sooner you can remove an unnecessary thing that might weigh you down.

I for one didn’t realise any of the above, in fact I didn’t even really realise I was a senior leader, it kind of just snuck up on me. I think the capacity to influence and lead change is worth so much more than the challenges that come with it. For me as a Trust Lead Healthcare Scientist I get the immense privilege of seeing so many people develop and flourish, who will hopefully one day give me a job, I wouldn’t change it for the world. If you have just stepped into a senior post or are thinking about it I hope the above helps and makes your realise you are not alone in the challenges you face and that overcoming them makes us better, even if the path is sometimes bumpy. For those of you not yet at that point I give you the advice that I wish someone had given me, enjoy the freedom, enjoy focussing on you and your career pathway, enjoy making choices that are your own and don’t be in too much of a rush to get to the top of the mountain.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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

The Power of Winning: Why I think the reason you are playing the game is as important as the outcome

Many of us spent a glorious evening last weekend watching the Lionesses (England Woman’s Football team) finally ‘bring football home’ by winning the European Championship. If you don’t watch or have no interest in football this is significant as it’s the first Championship win for any English football squad in my lifetime and something that the male side failed to replicate last year. Listening to some of the commentary made me reflect on the power of winning to support change and why outside of sport sometimes winning can make some of us feel so uncomfortable.

I’m going to put this out there. I get called competitive A LOT. If I’m in, I’m all in. Not for the winning but for the being part of the process. For me it’s all about the learning and the growth. I’m not therefore so competitive with other people but I have a tendancy to, perhaps, push myself a little hard. I come from a family of super competitive siblings, my brother cannot stand to lose and my sister was a superwoman,  she was going to start a PhD with a newborn afterall. So I suppose I grade on a curve and when compared to them I was always the one who was happy to lose at cards/games. Still, I was raised in an environment where every dinner discussion was basically debate club and so I carry that with me.

Growing up in this environment means that being competitive is a trait in myself that I’m not particularly comfortable with. Frankly I don’t think it’s a very attractive part of my personality. It does mean that I can single mindedly focus on task though, which has advantages for exams etc. It was interesting therefore for me to see the winning of something being talked about as a really positive thing, not just for the winners, but to enable and support change. Change not just in attitudes but in the way things actually work. I’ve always told myself it’s the taking part that counts (and I stand by this) but is winning something that does enables us to achieve change beyond ourselves? If it does, is this something we should think differently about and actively use more if we are fortunate enough to have it happen to us?

Winning can be seen as superficial achievement, but is it?

Winning something, especially on a large scale, has the capacity to change us. I’ve been thinking about the difference that change makes in us that might enable us to then support the wider change we want to see elsewhere.

There are some people who have an innate confidence that they are where they need to be, there are others who are over confident and come off as arrogant. For the vast majority of people I speak to however, we spend a lot of time striving and reaching to feel like we deserve to be where we are and to belong. It struck me whilst I was watching how much these girls are likely to be the same as me. There’s been a lot of ‘well they are only girls’ and ‘when it comes to it they’ll crumble’. When you’ve spent year after year hearing words like that, I’m not sure that winning is superficial.  I know that for me having concrete markers of achievement, especially when given by or measured against my peers, really helps me feel like im doing something right and increases my sense of purpose and belonging. We shouldn’t need external reinforcement but when you have worked so hard having that acknowledged by those you benchmark against matters. It can change the way you feel about yourself and quieten some of those inner voices of doubt, at least for a while. That change in ourselves can embolden us to action,  to feel more able to make the change for others, to feel worthy enough to enter the fight. So maybe winning isn’t as superficial for some of us than I had previously thought.

Why does visibility matter?

‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ (or become aware of to be less ableist)…….for me one of the amazing bi-products of this game is that I am writing this blog or more widely that people are talking about it. I’m a Aston Villa fan so I am used to supporting teams that win little and I am certainly not the kind of girl who switches her loyalties in order to follow success. I do get however that winning draws people in. There will be a lot of people who have never watched women’s football who watched that game. There will be a lot of people who don’t normally watch football, or maybe sport at all, who watched that game. Those people who aren’t normally reached, who aren’t normally impacted are now part of a conversation that might have happened anyway but with much smaller numbers. Winning may not just have changed the conversation but also changed the reach of that conversation. Girls who may not have thought that sport was a career option for them will now know that it is something that could be on the list. Wider than that though, girls who have heard that they will never be able to compete on the same stage as men in general will now have evidence that is just not true. The change that can be born out of that one moment in history has the capacity to impact beyond sport and that really matters.

Why am I sometimes ashamed of winning?

Worse than being seen as superficial, winning can actually be seen as an act of selfishness. I’m sure that this is true for a lot of men too but growing up in a competitive household it was still not seen as a particularly gracious trait to talk about winning, you won and you moved on to the next thing. I think on a wider level there has always been that thing that good girls are seen and not heard, you don’t rock the boat, talking too much about success is seen as rubbing others nose in if rather than a way to inspire others. This hit home for me as last week when the Lionesses won I was in a bit of a quandary about whether to share my own success. I was lucky enough to be on The Pathologist magazines 2022 Power List. This is really nice but also as there aren’t that many Clinical Scientists on it I wanted to share it so that more people are aware of it, so next year when nominations open we can work to get more of us nominated.

It came up on my LinkedIn and I stared at it for ages trying to decide whether resharing it was an act of indulgent arrogance or not. Then I went on the twitter and I saw the joy with which other were sharing their listings.  So I decided the right route was to share and congratulate everyone I saw who was posting as well as my own. That felt right to me as it was about joining in the celebration of others and working together to try and raise awareness of the wonderful scope of our profession and the list itself.

Like all things the why is important

The why, therefore, to me is as important as the winning. Why was I involved to begin with? What were my motivations? Why am I choosing to share or not what the result was? I think one of the things I often challenge myself to do is share as many of those things I fail at as I succeed at. To remind myself that failure is not shameful as it is often where I get my best learning. I have to challenge myself that if failure is not shameful than succeeding should also not be shameful. As long as I’m being equally visible with both then I’m not doing it for the wrong reasons. My reasons for sharing winning and success should never be to stand on a pedestal and go ‘didn’t I do well’ but to stand where I can be seen in order to offer a hand up to others. Sharing success is not an intrinsically selfish act or an act of arrogance that should elicit eye rolling.

The other way that I reflect on whether success is something to be shared is to challenge myself about how I would respond to it if that post was coming from someone else. I love seeing and resharing the success of others on Twitter and other platforms. I get joy from seeing others succeed. If I get to the point where I am not amplifying others, hopefully more than myself, then I would need to really start questioning why I am putting info out into the world. At that point I feel I would have slipped into self congratulation rather than doing it for the right reasons and I hope I would stop and give myself a talking to.

Haters gonna hate

Having said all of the above let’s just get a reality check. Someone is going to hate whatever you do. That’s just the way of the world, especially as you work to raise the visibility of yourselves and others. The Lionesses are already getting grief and are being told that their success is worth less as they are women. In my opinion this is just more reason to celebrate and push for change. I have been told that my success makes others feel uncomfortable and that I’m only a Lead Healthcare Scientist in order to laud my success over others, that I’m all about winning. The thing is that all of that only matters if its true. If it is true then it gives you the opportunity to reflect, to change and grow. If it’s not true then no one else knows your motivations and so they don’t know your why, they therefore can’t really judge the results.

So my thoughts are that winning can be just as important to others as it is for you. Sometimes the winning itself can empower you to make a change happen far more widely than you would have been able to do otherwise, either due to increased visibility or just feeling worthy to have a voice. We will always be judged but that isn’t the reason to not play the game. Just make sure that you take the time to check in with yourself to know that whatever the outcome you’re doing things for the right reason. If you are lucky enough to win, shout about it, celebrate it, just make sure you celebrate others with the same energy and enthusiasm that you use to celebrate yourself.  Winner is not a dirty word.

Anyway, I’m off to the Commonwealth Games this weekend to see more amazing individuals push themselves, break records and win. I may reflect a little more as I admire everything they’ve given to get to this point and you can be sure I will be celebrating them, win or lose, with every step they take.

All opinions on this blog are my own