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

Guest Blog from Francis Yongblah: What does it mean to march with Pride and why is it still so important?

I count myself super fortunate to be able to share with you a guest blog this week from Francis Yongblah, Higher Specialist Scientific Trainee and Laboratory Manager at GOSH. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know how passionately I feel about being seen for our whole selves and so it is really special to me to share Francis talking about the importance of Pride in enabling individuals to feel seen and accepted. I hope by sharing this to celebrate Pride month it will help share his important message even further.

“2-4-6-8 – science doesn’t discriminate, 4-3-2-1 – Science is for everyone” – 13 years later, finally getting to be the true me.

A bit about me before…….

I had come out as gay when I was 20 years old at university when I was studying Biomedical Science. I had only at that point come out to my friends. I was terrified to come out to my family, particular coming from an Asian culture and background where being gay was not a common thing. After graduating from university I had got my first job as a trainee Biomedical Scientist.

A few months into my new role I was quite friendly with my colleagues. We all went to lunch one day, and I remember being asked “so do you have a girlfriend” I had responded “no”. The next question was “what’s your type”. At this point I felt my insides turn out as I felt so nervous and anxious to say that I was gay. I was so worried I would be judged and people would not treat me the same as before. Eventually I was able to speak and mutter the words “well I’m gay and interested in guys” at this point my colleagues said “cool, what kind of guys do you like” I felt so at ease and it was so nice to feel that I could be me. Not all experiences I have had in the work place have always been so positive. Although some of my colleagues knew about me, not everyone else did.

A few weeks later, I remember being in the lab when I heard one of the MLA’s talking with another colleague about someone in another department. She had said “hey….I did not realise that guy was a pufta” I started shaking in anger but also in fear as I didn’t want to be judged or labelled in my work place. We spend most of our lives at work and I want to feel safe and comfortable and most of all, be able to be me. I was still young and decided I’m not going to say anything. Reflecting back I regret that decision and wish now I had gone over and said something.

Another negative memory that will always be with me was when I was at a retirement meal for a colleague. Drinks were flowing and everyone was in good spirits. Everyone was free and had taken their work hats off to be themselves. It was near the end of the meal that a colleague had come over to me, put their hand on my shoulder and said “In future, you might not want to laugh like a little girl”. At first I was in complete shock about this, what were they trying to say? Don’t be me? Don’t be gay? That incident really shook me up and made me always feel that I had to have two separate hats. My work hat and my personal hat.

When I was at work I would never disclose anything to my colleagues about my personal life unless I was particularly close with people.

One question that gets asked is “Do we need Pride?” my response…..YES!

The examples I’ve given show that there needs to be support for the LGBTQ+ community so that people can be themselves.

10 years later……We grow!

Getting older you definitely learn and become wiser. I feel that reflecting back on myself I have become more confident and the experiences I have had have not only shaped my character but also given me perspective and allowed me to have that emotional intelligence that is required to understand people and be able to share the same perspective. I’ve since got involve in promoting equality by attending London Pride. I was so proud when my hospital organisation marched for the first time. I felt proud and felt I could be me. It was at this point I was thinking about my professional body “The Institute of Biomedical Science” and getting them to march. I got in contact with the Communications team who thought that this was a great idea and were so supportive. I worked hard to get the application in and low and behold we were successful and obtained a place in the Pride in London march 2021. Unfortunately this was cancelled due to COVID but we were then given the opportunity to march in July 2022.

The build up to this was exciting and heart warming. The IBMS team worked hard to help support the event by coming up with lab coats that we could wear, stickers and little fuzz bugs that we could hand out to the crowd.

It’s time for the healthcare scientists to March!

I was so excited to be marching. My fellow scientists all got ready, dawning on our white lab coats with a rainbow coloured IBMS logo. Everyone looked amazing. We all got ready to march. I remember feeling so anxious at this point. Once we had started to march the adrenaline was going and I started to feel so excited. Seeing the crowd cheer and yell. At this point I felt the need to lead the group and so took to the front of the march.

We were all working to try and come up with a phrase to yell as we marched and then our amazing IBMS communication lead – Matt, came up with the phrase

“2-4-6-8 Science doesn’t discriminate. 4-3-2-1, Science Is for everyone”

I was yelling this at the top of my lungs as it was so loud with the crowd cheering. Our amazing group echoed this. We also yelled “NHS, NHS” and “IBMS, IBMS”

Everyone participated and really integrated with the crowd. Handing out fuzzy bugs and stickers. The irony is that I was at a Pride event and I felt such pride and proud of having my profession represent myself and many other LGBTQ+ individuals and show that within our profession Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is key and that everyone needs to be represented and be proud of who they are. That they are able to be themselves in their workplace.

For the first time in my career as a Scientist, I felt that I was myself and able to be proud to say that I am a Gay healthcare scientist and I am proud of who I am. That my personal characteristics should not hold me back from reaching my full potential. This event will mean more to me as a scientist than anyone would ever know and as we got to the end of the march, I started to well up and cry. I felt amazing but for the first time ever, I really felt that I was me. As I said before, we spend most of our lives at work. I feel I’ve broken that barrier of having to be 2 separate people, the Scientist and the Gay Asian guy to now just being me. I hope that this is just the start of things to come. What has been most inspiring is to see how other IBMS branches and regions have now joined in and organising marches too. I look forward to seeing the pictures from their events and it’s such a good feeling to know that nationally, diversity, equality and inclusion is becoming a key part of being a healthcare scientist.  

All opinions on this blog are my own

You Can’t Please Everyone: Why I try to remember the rule of thirds

I don’t think that anyone enjoys being disliked, but some people are much better at dealing with it when it inevitably happens than others. That’s because trying to please everyone people is frankly exhausting and ultimately futile as people are so varied as to make it impossible. I don’t know about you but after 2 years of COVID-19 I’m too tired to do it anymore. I think having reached acceptance that I can’t and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea has come with a feeling of freedom, so I thought I’d share some thoughts of how I got here.

How do you know if you are a people pleaser?

For many years I didn’t realise that everyone wasn’t like me. It meant I also didn’t understand why some people were able to behave like they did (not always badly but with independence) without suffering the crippling shame spirals that happened to me. So how do you know if you are a people pleaser? Some great examples are below.

https://www.scienceofpeople.com/people-pleaser/

You may not be a dyed in the wool people pleaser all the time. It’s true primate behaviour to become more extreme in this behaviour during times of stress, meeting new groups or in high stakes situations. Which is why I suspect that for me it’s been made worse by COVID-19. Being aware of your tendencies so you can undertake a review of whether or not they are helping you is key. For instance I have a tendency to over compensate initially when I’m annoyed at someone whilst I process that irritation. This can lead to me having less good outcomes in the long than if I’d taken a more neutral stance, as I am guilty therefore of sending mixed signals.

Playing well with others

This pleasing people can be especially challenging when it comes to working on group projects or when running events. I’ve been running events and working in groups/teams for most of my life and for all of my NHS career. Most of you won’t know this but for many years, even in my spare time, I ran role playing conventions or live role-playing events for dozens or even hundreds of people. The main thing that I have learnt in my time doing these is that it is actually impossible to please everyone. The things that were one person’s highlight will inevitably end up on the list of another’s persons disappointments – especially when events reach a certain size. Everyone is different and therefore it is almost impossible to tick the boxes of everyone attending.

When I was putting myself through the ringer and getting upset about the not universal love for a freeform I’d spent a year and over 150,000 words writing a good friend turned round, hugged me and whispered in my ear ‘remember the rule of thirds’.

Now I had never heard about this but on follow up questioning it turns out as follows:

  • A third of the people will love it
  • A third of the people will be ambivalent or think its OK
  • A third of the people will hate it

You will hear most from the lovers and the haters but what you actually need to know is how many of the ‘good enough’ people there were. If you manage to get over over a third you are probably doing something right (unless the extras all come from the lovers category). Those are the people you won’t be able to judge the numbers of unless you specifically go out there and seek their feedback – otherwise you respond to the most vocal and may react incorrectly.

The thing is as I go through my career I think the last part is really becoming a key part of my thinking. Am I or do I respond to the things that are shouted loudest or do I take the time to actually evaluate the situation that is beyond the noise to make an action plan which may work for the quiet majority?

It isn’t just about groups

I’ve started off talking about groups but obviously people pleasing can have challenging aspects in 1:1 settings. In fact overcoming people pleasing tendencies in these 1:1 settings can be key to maximising your own effectiveness both at work and at home. I’d like to state for the record that this is very different from me advocating for selfishness. We should absolutely all be team players, but it is important to also ensure that you have the capacity and reserves left to be the best version of yourself so that you deliver as fully as possible.

Below are some of the things I’ve been thinking about/learning in order to handle some of these 1:1 settings better.

Set your success criteria without bias

When I have someone in front of me asking for something I find it incredibly challenging in the moment to say no. Especially when each individual request doesn’t feel unreasonable or large. This year though I’ve been trying to move towards not seeing these 1:1 moments in isolation, but rather to measure them against a holistic whole of what is happening in my life. One important step towards being able to judge whether taking something on is people pleasing or appropriate, is to set boundaries and measure your responses against these.

These decisions can be very challenging in the moment and so one of the things I’ve started to do is to set my own success criteria, before I start projects, but also for my year. These are not another rod for my own back but are a way of checking in with myself about whether something is going in the right direction and whether the decisions I’ve been making are actually serving me and the goal.

It’s important to do this before being in the moment. When I’m in the moment emotions and other pulls can make it difficult for me to evaluate. By having a list that is done before I get into the situation it enables me to have made an unbiased set of judgements that are more reliable for me to use as benchmarks.

One example of this happened recently. This year I had promised myself and my family that after the last 2 years of work coming first I would start to regain a balance where actually my family would be my priority for a while. In May we had some news that meant that this was even more important. In that moment I was able to go back to my list and goals and re-evaluate commitments against my stated aim for this year. Although it was sad I then stepped away from a number of things I was agreeing to that were interfering with my top goal for the year, spending time with my family.

I’m aware other people may think I’m barmy to have to do things this way, but I really easily slip into a default of yes, and in many ways that’s great and where I aspire to be. Not at the costs of my main goals however.

Communicate and manage expectations

If you are going to do this though, communication is key. One of the reasons that I can get more drawn into things than I originally intended is because either myself or the other side haven’t accurately communicated their expectations.

One of the things I dropped in the above example was being a school governor. I only started the role in September 2021 and I had been told that it involved 3 2 hour meetings a year. This I had decided I could manage even in a pandemic and that giving back to my community was sufficiently important to me that I could make it work. Then the mission creep occurred. Suddenly it was 3 meetings a year plus a governor monitoring day per term, then that plus, as Health and Safety governor, I needed to do an inspection visit per term, and finally I became governor with responsibility for science teaching review. Suddenly my 3 evening meetings a year were replaced by at least 2 day visits a term plus the other meetings. Something that was simply incompatible with my goal for this year. In previous years I would have just made it work, I’d signed up after all. This year I reviewed against my goals and found that it just didn’t fit with me achieving the things I’d prioritised for my life so I quit.

The lesson for me from this is that we have to be very clear in communicating our expectations and what the situation will actually look like. That works for both sides. I should have been clearer about the commitment I could actually make and they should have been clearer about what they needed. So many things in my career have been subject to mission creep and I’m trying to be much more aware when I take on new things what they should look like and how much variability from that I’m prepared to accept.

You can’t fix everything

One of the situations that I know is a real challenge for me and my people pleasing tendancies is when I’m presented with a situation where I feel like I should help or ‘fix’. At times like this I become a real helicopter friend/manager and I try to ride in on my white horse and make things better (mixing my metaphors all over the shop and I don’t care – see that’s what I call growth). It comes from a good place, I don’t like seeing people upset or struggling. The problem with this is that a) I often then take on unexpected extra work as part of the response and b) I actually take the learning away from the person I’m trying to help. There is a big difference between assistance/support that enables learning and development and ‘fixing’ which then takes the learning experience away, although fixes the situation in the short term. I struggle to know when in the midst of these situations when to step away or hold my ground to allow space for development to occur and how much help is too much.

This brings me onto something I’ve mentioned previously. It is sometimes just not possible to please everyone. Sometimes you have to have the courage to be disliked and honestly this is definitely harder 1:1. This can happen for a number of reasons: sometimes it’s because it’s a collective decision and not everyone in the group is going to be on board, sometimes you have to make a decision that is in the best interest long term but may not garner immediate approval or understanding, and sometimes (especially in IPC) you make difficult decisions on the basis of safety. I have found this the most challenging aspect of leadership, but I have come to one conclusion and that is I need to acknowledge the noise but not be deafened by it. I have to put it into context to be able to deal with it. If I believe that have done all I can, communicated/collaborated as well as I possibly can, then I have done the best I can in the moment and I have to put my people pleasing aside.

Remember context is key

You can only control you, your responses and what you have decided to put out there. You can’t control how it is received and you definitely can’t control the responses of others. Often these responses are not even about you or what you have put into the world. They will be intrinsically caught up in the perceptions of others, their prior experiences and their current emotional state. Fundamentally it is not all about you and you have little to no control over the people you are trying to please. The more we recognise this, the more we can put our energy into focussing on success criteria and moving forward in the wider landscape.

I’ve found the below image really useful in addition to checking against my success criteria. If my only motivation in saying yes is to please, then actually my answer is really no and the sooner I deal with that the better it will be for all involved.

People pleasing isn’t a zero sum game, by prioritising something over something else there is always a resource cost. If you like me have spent energy for years trying to please in situations where you have little or no control of the outcome my plea is to stop. Think. Why I am doing this? Is it actually helpful? Does it align with my values? Does it move things forward? If the answer is no, then the answer is no. You are allowed to decline, you are allowed to choose where to focus your energies, you are allowed to have your own goals. So say it with me now ‘No’ ‘Thank you for thinking of me, but I can’t right now’ ‘It isn’t the right time for me right now, but please do contact me again in the future in case I can help then’. Your world will be a better place for embracing the power of N O, you will succeed more, do more and in my case I will get to spend time with the people I love who are, after all my reason for being.

Responding With Grace: The art of learning to take a complement

Last month I was fortunate enough to be asked to present at the 40th anniversary celebrations for the Healthcare Infection Society, I gave a talk that was pretty OK and seemed to land with those in the room. In it I spoke about the impact that the society had made on my career with the funding they had awarded, I also spoke about the impact and learning that had happened on those occasions they hadn’t awarded me funding – my CV of failure. For the rest of the day lovely people came up and spoke to me about how much they’d enjoyed the presentation, especially the section on failure. I spent most of the day a little thrown by it, not just because I didn’t feel worthy of the response but because it dawned on me that I just don’t know how to take a compliment. Those conversations felt like a social contract I had entered into without fully understanding the requirements and I just didn’t know what to say or how to appropriately respond.

This has led me to reflect on why I was so out of my depth. Was it the setting? When I give academic presentations at conferences I am usually prepped for questions and critique as a result of what I am saying – therefore compliments are usually less on my mind. People are often very kind about this blog and other things I post on twitter and other forms of social media, but when responding to those comments a nice gif is easily available and so the terms of the social contract are more easily fulfilled. So setting certainly plays a part, but even so the fact that I have reached the ripe age of 42 and I am so unskilled in this means I need to step up my game.

Why is it hard to just say thank you

Arrogance is not a good look and vanity is a deadly sin (I’m not religious but it’s all kind of embedded in society and subconscious lessons learnt) therefore it can be really hard to judge what is required as part of the social contract when someone gives you a compliment. The obvious choices are to say thank you – but that shuts down further conversation if not done correctly, or to dismiss it as not something you are not worthy of – which is hard to do without coming off as rude. It feels like a paradox that compliments are something I want to regularly give out but I am not sure that societal rules enable me to navigate appropriately when I receive them.

You’d think that these concepts of arrogance and vanity in terms of acknowledging success were old hat and not something present in todays workplaces, but I’ll never forget being told not to put the first award I won out on my desk as ‘my success makes other people feel uncomfortable’. When responding to unexpected compliments it can almost feel like a trap, be gracious but not too responsive, accept the compliment but don’t take it to heart. I am in no way saying that any of the wonderful people who spoke to me after my session were anything other than lovely and genuine, but more reflecting on the way that society and societal rules can make it difficult to be fully present in the moment.

The horror of the compliment circle

The worst example of compliment horror I’ve ever experienced was as part of a leadership programme. We met every 3 months for 2 days, at some point during the 2 days we were all made to sit in a circle and offer a compliment to someone else in the circle, I found it tortuous. The giving out of the compliments was easy enough but the receiving them I found deeply uncomfortable. The forced nature of the setting meant there was nothing spontaneous in either the giving or the receiving. I was filled with so much horror that these moments were coming that I would do homework of prepping my list for all 29 others before I went. It was like being picked for team sports if you were selected last because no one could easily think of a compliment for you. It wasn’t really acceptable either to use a compliment that someone had already used for someone else and so you were forced to be either highly superficial or super inventive. For an exercise that was supposed to bring us together and support us getting to know one another it succeeded, but not for the reasons the instructors anticipated, it brought us together in our hatred of the activity. I’m sure this type of activity lands differently in different societal or cultural environments, but for that group of 30 women it was universally an unpleasant and challenging experience.

NB – In all honesty the compliment circle was not the most horrendous part of this course, at some point I will share the horrors of being forced to communicate my leadership challenges through the medium of interpretative dance or the dream journaling where I basically recounted plotlines from TV or the movies just so I had something to say.

Once it’s out there it’s no longer yours to control

I was speaking to the ever wise and wonderful Nicola Baldwin the other day and mentioned the fact that I was thinking about this and she said ‘what you need to understand is that once you have put it out into the world the response to (whatever it is) is no longer yours to control, you’ve given it a life of it’s own’. Nicola as a playwright obviously has a lot of experience with this and it was really interesting to hear her thoughts. Once you have written the paper, given the talk or shared the blog your duty really might lie in bearing witness to the response rather than controlling it. Fundamentally, at the point you have put it out there it is no longer about you, it is about the response of others.

The other thing that this conversation sparked in me was some thinking about how I would react if the reaction was not positive. Would I find a negative reaction difficult to deal with? Would I think about it differently? Interestingly I think that in fact negative reactions might be easier to manage as I psychologically already move to the place where it is acknowledged that it is about how the person received it not how I intended it to be received. Although I don’t enjoy criticism I suspect that I have much greater resilience in dealing with failure than I have in dealing with responses to success. Making the mental shift to knowing that neither of these situations are really about you makes it easier to have strategies to deal with both.

So how should I respond?

So having done some thinking I’ve come up what I know are some really obvious phrases that most of you already use – I acknowledge that this is not going to be news to many people but just thinking about it has helped me.

Options are to say thank you and leave it at that:

  • “Thank you! You made my day!”
  • “Thank you! It means a lot to me.”
  • “Much obliged!”
  • “That’s very kind of you.”

You can also use it (after the thank you) as an opportunity to follow up and offer more info/develop the relationship further:

  • Use it as an opportunity to acknowledge others contributions
  • Ask questions to gain insight so you can improve things further
  • Get to understand the person better – understand what resonated with them and why

Knowing that for good or ill it’s about being in the moment and having some of the pressure removed to ‘do it right’ by knowing that bearing witness to the reaction of others might be all that is required of me is a tremendous relief. As someone who, you may have noticed, has a tendency to over think, strategies are important to me. So next time someone comes up to me and says something nice, instead of responding in fear and wanting to run to the bathroom and hide, I intend to say ‘thank you that’s made my day’ and follow up with a question that builds the relationship. In the end after all it is not really about me.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Daring to Be Imperfect: Celebrating the joys of imperfection

The last few weeks have been pretty stressful, for a whole bunch of reasons. The last few years even more so. The pandemic has made me highly aware that one of my responses to stress is to jump into the rabbit of hole that is perfectionism. This is dangerous territory for me as the deeper I dive the more I feel like I don’t match up, that I’m just not doing a good enough job and that I’m letting my colleagues and patients down by not being ‘more’. I have to consciously remind myself that being good enough is not about being perfect……..its about being open to improvement and learning. I have to actively remind myself that nobodies perfect. Trite I know but its true.

The truth less told

My husband and I often sing the following lyrics to each other:
“Raggy Dolls, Raggy Dolls
Dolls like you and me
Raggy Dolls, Raggy Dolls
Made imperfectly
So if you’re not at ease with your nobbly knees
and your fingers are all thumbs
Stand on your two left feet,
and join our Raggy Doll chums
Cause Raggy Dolls, Raggy Dolls
Are happy just to be
Raggy Dolls, Raggy Dolls
Dolls like you and me!”

Video for those of you who weren’t kids in the 80s/90s

Singing this is something we do when we get carried away into a shame spiral. When our actions have demonstrated imperfection and we feel bad as a result, when we have jumped into the perfection rabbit hole and forgotten that just being normal is OK. It acts as a reality check in the standards we are setting for ourselves and for others, a tongue in cheek way of grounding each other when the stresses of life get too much.

The fact that we even need to do this has recently left me wondering……….if nobodies perfect, and we all acknowledge this to be true, why do we spend so much time trying to be? Do we think that rule doesn’t apply to us? Are we somehow better than everyone else that we could reach perfection? If the answer to that question is no (and I suspect it is) why do we constantly beat ourselves up for not reaching a target that we have pre defined as unattainable? What is it about perfection that seems to be so alluring that we will all put ourselves through so much emotional anguish to strive for?

My journey to imperfection

In some ways I completely get the striving for perfection, we’ve been told it’s a good thing all our lives. When as a child I got 96% in a history exam I still clearly remember my father asking ‘what happened to the other 4%’. Failure is uncomfortable and (because we are trained to see it this way) often humiliating. Worse than that if we fail in medicine the consequences are not just for ourselves but have significant impacts on others. It’s a reflection that we aren’t enough, haven’t tried hard enough, aren’t smart enough. The truth is however that the world isn’t split into black and white, good and bad, perfect and imperfect. There is a spectrum, a pathway and instead of obsessing about moving from one ‘category’ to the next the process should be about moving forward on the pathway. We are neither failures or successes, we are all in fact just works in progress.

Since becoming a Consultant my ‘perfection’ moments have become more frequent, partly because the shoes I’ve stepped into were considerable: I’m benchmarking against someone who was not only superb but also had 30+ years of experience. I joked with a friend the other week that what I have become best at since taking up the post is being comfortable with failure. She got really angry at this, saying that not achieving inbox zero etc wasn’t my failure but a failure of the system. I don’t feel her rage as I don’t see failure as being such an abhorrent word and so I’m happy to use it. Maybe however, what I should have said, is that I’m becoming more comfortable with imperfection, both mine and that of the system I work in. This doesn’t mean that we accept the status quo and not try to improve, but that we also shouldn’t spiral into self hatred just because of the fact that we don’t always achieve the standard we set in our minds. Perfectionism can be paralysing and mean that if perfect is the only standard we measure ourselves against we fail to grow and achieve. Instead lets aim high but know that the standard I’m actually aiming for is that in 15 years I can benchmark against my consultant who just retired, not on day 1 on the job.

There is power in being me

In many ways I’ve come to accept that it is my imperfections that lead to my strengths, they are the things that make me uniquely me. It’s my imperfections that led me to start writing this blog as an honest way of organising my thoughts and trying to be a better scientist, leader and human being. In all honesty, if I was perfect they would probably be little to write about or discuss.

One example of this is that I’m not someone who remembers and is able to quote facts, I remember events linked to stories. This means that unlike my consultant I replaced I will never be a walking encyclopaedia of microbiology and infectious disease. It does mean however that I have been able to work with Nicola Baldwin and others to set up the Nosocomial Project where we use stories in order to engage in conversations about healthcare science and infection control, in a way my consultant never would have. The impacts of these two skills are not the same but they both have impact and maybe shouldn’t be measured against each other or have value judgements attached.

One of the other things I’m learning is that I am not alone in feeling the pressures of perfection and by sharing my imperfections it not only helps me but helps others. I work every day surrounded by some of the smartest, most accomplished people on the planet, quite literally world leading experts in what they do. Sometimes it can be easy therefore to believe the hype and to judge yourself against their appearance of perfection and competence. The pressure to live up to appearances is enormous. I am not by any stretch of the imagination in their category but I feel that by being honest about who I really am gives other license to take off the mask of perfection that they wear.

Why striving for perfection could actually be a bad thing

Perfection could be described as the death of learning as once it is achieved then there is no room for progression. Instead of striving for perfection we need to be striving for learning. To take it a step at a time and do each one better than the one before, allowing us to benchmark against where we were, not where we are striving toward. I sometimes think that perfectionism also stops us from being fully self aware, from being able to fully explore where our strengths and weaknesses are to support us in making the best choices for our futures. If we place a value judgement and associated stigma on not being perfect then we may not be able to live with the self judgement required to truly evaluate our skill sets, as instead of being able to enter a growth mindset self reflection drives us into a shame spiral.

Are the dangers of perfectionism the same when we expect perfection in others? When we put leaders, friends, or partners up on a pedestal of perfection are we in fact setting them up to fail? If we place people on pedestals and they don’t achieve are we just doing it in a way that allows us to accept our own failures better? If we accept that imperfection in ourselves is a key way to enable us to truly improve should we be offering this same perspective to other key relationships in our lives? That doesn’t mean we can’t have high expectations of those we have relationships with, but those expectations should be constructive rather than destructive. Otherwise expecting perfection in others may mean we cannot demonstrate the empathy required to build relationships and therefore limit the stability and longevity of those connections.

Acknowledging imperfection is not a way to get out of doing the work we all need to do to be better, but instead a way of freeing us up to actually be fully participant in doing it. If I have freed myself of the delusion that I have to be prefect I’m less scared to take a true look at myself and work out where to begin. It’s about wasting less time in agonising over why we aren’t better and on self recrimination to spend that time on making progress and learning how to improve. So join me in the Raggy Doll army, embrace your imperfections for the learning they offer and for everything they do to make up the wonderful person who is uniquely you.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Wearing My Quitter Badge With Pride: Why FOMO can damage your health

I have written lots of posts on this blog about being brave and saying yes to opportunities. For once I’m going to write about something that for me requires even more courage, and that is saying no. It’s not that I don’t stand by those previous posts, saying yes is incredibly important. The thing is we all need to know why we are saying yes (or no) and to make sure that we are choosing our responses for the right reasons. Neither response should be driven by fear. There are times that for our own health and wellbeing we need to know when to choose our responses in a way that isn’t about career progression or opportunities, and we need to acknowledge that that saying no is also OK.

I’m a FOMO (fear of missing out) addict.  I always want to be engaged, I want to both support and be seen to do so.  I’ve worked so hard to get into the room that I live in some level of fear about not being in it. I worry that if I leave the room I fought to get in, not only will I be forgotten, but I will be barred from re-entry.

Over the last year a number of things have happened which have forced me to put this fear into context. FOMO is a fear of missing out on the possible, but by not being present for my life I’ve been missing out on the reality of my life that is happening every day. Recent events have prompted me to send emails resigning from a couple of things. I thought it would feel awful (it might still at some point in the future) but it didn’t, it felt great. Not because I am not heart broken to step away from those roles but because of the removal of the weight of those responsibilities that I had not realised I was carrying with me.

I feel like not only am I happy that I took the plunge but in fact I want to Marie Kondo my diary i.e. look at each item/commitment and say ‘does this bring me joy?’. If the answer is no then I need to follow up with asking myself honestly ‘why am I doing it?’. Obviously there are many things in our day to day working lives that just need to happen, but I think you would also be amazed at how many of those things that we feel obligated to do are actually just a routine or something that we are doing because we tell ourselves we should. It is these things we need to interrogate ourselves over and ask what it is that they are giving us: joy, experience, contacts? Are they still giving those things to us or are we attached to the memory/habit. Are we just scared to face up to what it would mean to move on?

Reasons to regularly review

What this current experience has shown me is that I don’t review my working life. The last couple of weeks have taught me that I should. I’ve spent some time thinking about it and the thought that has struck me (and you probably all knew this already – I’m often behind) is that you have to let go of the things that no longer serve you to make room for things that will let you continue to grow. I’ve not been letting go of things. Partly because I’ve finally reached the goal I was desperate to achieve in my working life and to be frank I’m so happy about that I’m still scared someone will take it away from me. I’m so used to having to tick so many boxes, often driven by the check list of others, that I’ve stopped reflecting on what was on the list for me.

If you, like me, have fallen into the habit of just taking on more, of just carrying on without reviewing your why, this is my plea for you to take a moment to see whether this is something you need to change. We should take a moment to put a review date in our diaries – I’m aiming for once every 6 months – to go through my lists of committees and responsibilities to see whether they are still a good fit for me and for those I’m working with. After all, it’s not just about my needs but also about making sure that I still offer what was required.

Carve out time to maximise impact

For me its not just a review of task, it’s also a review of mindset that is required. It’s very easy to become a human ‘doing’ and not a human ‘being’. Due to the pandemic I feel I’ve got into the habit of being in responsive mode. Constantly responding to changing information, changing guidance and the hundreds of daily emails. Don’t get me wrong, this is where I think many of us needed to be for the last couple of years, but we need to break ourselves of this habit. It’s nigh on impossible to be strategic in responsive mode. It is also not good for our own well being – at least it’s not for mine. I know get stressed and twitchy if I don’t access emails on the weekend. I worry about being judged for not immediately responding to every demand. The problem is that after the last 2 years I am broken and I can’t maintain it. Not just that but whilst I’ve been taking the time to reflect I’m pretty sure that it’s not where I do my best work. Responsive mode is fine when in crisis. Crisis is time consuming however and leads to focus on specific issues. To work on how to improve services and identify where we can do better requires us to take the time to step back, calmly reflect and then make plans. Switching from responsive to strategic mode is therefore important not just for me as an individual but is also key to doing a better job for patients.

Interrogate your reasons for saying yes

Not only am I a FOMO addict but I’m also a people pleaser. I feel the need to get feedback from others in order to feel like I succeed (I have another post coming on this). This can be an effective driver but when it takes over it can become a really destructive trait. You do not need to say yes to everything in order to ‘show up’. You don’t need to work 12 hour days ever day in order to be successful, in order to be enough. In fact by working those hours and becoming so focussed on the minutiae you may actually be performing less well than if you did your 9 – 5 and had adequate time off to reflect and recuperate.

These are my reasons for over committing but your may be very different. All of the different drivers we have are both good and bad, it all depends on how they are balanced. In times of stress it can become difficult to find that balance – and we have all been mighty stressed over the last 2 years. Now is a good time to look at ourselves and our decisions to make deliberate and mindful choices moving forward. Our judgement of worth needs to be internal not external if we’re to get out of this loop.

Know your worth

Self worth is a tricky thing. As I said above I’m a people pleaser, my self worth is often therefore derived from pleasing others. It is also linked to success, and like many in my field I define that success linked to outputs – presentations, guidelines, grant funding, papers published. Like many others I have lived, breathed, and focussed on pandemic management for the last 2 years. Therefore my sense of self has become distorted and my self worth has become even more focussed on work.

The thing is there is way more to me than my job. I have passions and interests both linked to work (like writing and The Nosocomial Project) and with my family. It is my family that have paid the price for the shift in how I behave and determine my value, and it is my family that now need to be my focus in order re-establish the balance I need to move forward. As teams, as managers and supervisors we need to support each other in shifting mindsets post this unusual period, and remind them that it’s OK to leave on time, to have weekends and eat lunch. It is OK to be the fullest version of yourself.

Give yourself permission to say no

So moving forward I am going to give myself permission to not just review options and step away from projects, but also to say no to new ones. If I lose traction, if I lose opportunities because I say no on occasion and if I’m not ‘always on’ then that is a price that I have determined I’m willing to pay. Those people who know me and have supported me will not disappear overnight just because I take more time to focus my energies on being the best person I can be.

Opening doors for others

I’m also not going to feel guilty about stepping back. This feeling of guilt has been difficult to manage but it’s not well founded. By stepping back from positions I’ve done for a while I’m opening up progression windows for others to make connections and gain experience in exactly the same that I did. By learning to say ‘no but have you thought about’ I am making opportunities for others and hopefully lifting others up by putting their names forward. Realising this has been crucial to me not feeling guilty about saying no. My saying no means that others can say yes and that is nothing to feel guilty about.

Situations change and the thing that was right for you 2 years ago may not be right thing for you now and that’s ok. Fear and guilt shouldn’t prevent us from letting go of things in order to grow and learn. So as much as I’m an advocate of yes I am also learning to become more comfortable with no. Find your joy, say yes to putting yourself first and know that by doing so you will become even better tomorrow than you are today!

All opinions on this blog are my own

If Not You Then Who? Why seizing the opportunities that come your way is so important

We’ve all had the emails arrive with requests. We are looking for a new member of X committee, a training rep for X group or would you like to give a lecture to Y. For many year when these dropped into my inbox I ignored them. They were being sent to everyone and so ‘they’ weren’t actually looking for someone like me. I wasn’t experienced enough knowledgeable enough, connected enough to ever find success in replying to something like this. Then one year I took a chance and replied. I volunteered to become the HSST lead for the Microbiology Professionals Committee of the Association of Biochemistry and Laboratory Medicine (a LOT of letters I know). They couldn’t reply fast enough with how happy they were I’d replied.

Don’t get me wrong, the ACB weren’t particularly excited that I’d replied……..more they were excited that anyone had. What I’ve learnt since from sending out these emails myself, is that hardly anyone does. The world is full of people who doubt that they would succeed and so don’t put themselves out there and give it a shot. So today I want to talk about all the reasons why, when that email arrives, you should click reply, open the next door in your career and step through it boldly.

You never know where these things will lead

When I sent that email I had no idea where it would lead. Now I know it was the first in a series of steps that took me from where I started to being considered a leader within my profession. At each step I never could have predicted what the one a couple of steps down further down the road would involve. What I do know is that each one I took, I took with purpose. Sometimes I wanted to give back, sometimes I wanted to increase my skills and sometimes I wanted to gain experience. The choices are your own but also not taking those steps and being purposeful is also a choice.

What I hadn’t realised back then is that people frequently ask people they know to get things done, not necessarily because they are the best person but because they are the person they can identify. This means that visibility and being part of networks is key to getting some of the opportunities that would benefit you and your profession.

In my case, that application to be a HSST rep emboldened me to apply for a bursary to attend my first overseas conference in Denver (see pic). After attending my first SHEA conference I was encouraged to apply to their international ambassador scheme, and became the first UK Ambassador. That then led to them paying for me to attend a conference at Disney in Florida, which was not only amazing, but meant I made the connections to sort out a 2 month sabbatical at Boston Childrens Hospital. This helped my NIHR Clinical Lectureship application. That progression helped give me the confidence and experience to apply to become Trust Lead Healthcare Scientist and to become a Clinical Academic.

Gain experience you won’t get in the day job

There are many reasons why it can be difficult to get the kind of experience that volunteering for professional bodies/guideline groups/any external responsibility can provide:

  • Sometimes its hard to be seen in a different way if we’ve been in post for a while, and therefore it can be hard to get identified for opportunities internally
  • Internal committees may find it difficult to accommodate extra people under existing terms of reference
  • Concepts linked to hierarchy may matter more for exisiting structures versus new groups/committees
  • External groups are often specifically looking to engage new people, garner new views and so it can be easier to align personal desires to be exposed to new experiences with the needs of these groups
  • Experienced provided by external groups may just not be provided internally i.e. experience of being a charity trustee

The activities linked to these groups may provide a lower stakes way to get experience. This can include chairing your first meetings, making decisions linked to the success of small pots of grant funding, inputting into a strategic plan. When doing this as part of our day jobs this can feel high stakes and be daunting. If you can gain experience of similar processes in a lower stakes environment you can participate in the learning without some of the stress and anxiety which might otherwise be present.

Often the experience isn’t limited to the activity itself but the experience of working with new people from different backgrounds. This experience helps make us more rounded professionals as well as supporting us in expanding our networks.

Progression is a series of steps

As I described in ‘not knowing where things will lead’ it is often hard to see where taking a series of these smaller steps will take you to. Frequently engaging in these activities is not about ticking off part of a big life plan but about making small progressions that support the whole. If you are a trainee it can be a really nice way of ticking off competencies, if you are already registered it can bring some variety to your CPD for the year. Meeting new people and making new friends is a benefit in itself.

One of the wonderful things about seeing these encounters as small steps is that you don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the big picture, in fact you don’t have to know what that big picture will look like. I talk a lot about having goals in mind, and I stand by that, but there is also joy in taking small steps into the unknown where you just enjoy and value the step in itself. Where you focus on the learning and the experience of that encounter for what it’s offering you in the moment. Taking multiples of these small steps combine to lead to big changes but the little steps have value in themselves and should be appreciated as such.

Don’t be afraid to be seen

I think on some level we all fear being visible, of sticking our heads above the parapet. It feeds into imposter syndrome and our fear that we aren’t ‘enough’. Fear of failure, of not getting chosen, is embedded in most of us from standing in lines to be picked at school if nothing else. I know and understand these fears. Fear is OK, it’s natural, in some cases in the right amount it can even be helpful. The problem comes when it overwhelms, or when we pay it too much heed and therefore we let it stop us from becoming all that we can. I feel this is especially true if it stops us learning, either from the experience itself or from even engaging in the opportunity to start with.

I often sit in my fear for a bit when I’m trying to move forward. This may sound like a strange phrase or a strange thing to do, but sometimes I need to experience the fear to understand it. I don’t dismiss it as I’ve never been able to make that work, instead I allow myself to feel and to ask myself ‘if this fear is real what is the worst that will happen’. What are the worst case scenarios. Then I ask myself, ‘what does this worst case scenario actually mean for me?’. Is the worst case that someone doesn’t pick me? In which case I’ll be a bit bummed out for a few days but there will be more opportunities. Is the worst case that I will make myself look like a bit of an idiot? To be honest I’ve been there before and whether its for this specific reason or not I am likely to be there again. One thing I’ve learnt it that you and your behaviour/embarrassment has way more longevity in your mind than in others. To be frank you are simply not important enough to most other people for them to remember a stupid comment in 6 months time, and those that you are important enough to probably won’t care. Most of the time when I do this I realise that even in the worst case scenarios the event would have little meaning in my life a few months down the line. Therefore the potential cost is still worth it. I don’t talk myself out of fear, I embrace it and that way it doesn’t control me.

Help your community

Finally, and I think this is so important. Our communities survive because of the fact that we engage as part of them. Guidelines don’t get written if people don’t volunteer to write them, events don’t get organised, outreach doesn’t get undertaken and manuscripts don’t get published. It really is a case of trying to make the sum greater than the parts.

As well as learning experiences in themselves, these opportunities are vital for both our profession and our patients. So much of what we do isn’t ‘paid’ as such, so much of our impact is based on the community choosing to engage and work together towards making things different, and hopefully better than they are today. We reap the benefits from the work of this community whether we volunteer or not, but we benefit so much more if we are part of the process. As each one of us steps forward to support our communities the output benefits, as the contribution comes from a more varied group of people and stands a better chance of therefore representing the society/community it is linked to. So instead of seeing your application as a way to benefit you and feeling stressed or worried about how it is received, see it for what it is, something that will benefit those receiving it and something they will be grateful to open.

Since sending that first email asking to be considered I’ve travelled the world, met amazing people and opened up a world of opportunities I just couldn’t have imagined, just because I hit reply and YES. So give yourself the gift of believing in yourself the way that you believe in others, you deserve it!

All opinions on this blog are my own

Girlymicro’s 100th Post: What I’ve learnt in my 1st year as a consultant

It has kind of snuck up on me, but this is the 100th blog post on Girlymicrobiologist.com. I’ve had such tremendous fun and learnt so much about myself writing them. Talking to people about them has also been an unanticipated joy. I don’t therefore think I’d realised how many posts had happened over the last 18 months or so. To mark the occasion I thought about writing some top tips and discussing the things I’d enjoyed most, but I cover a lot of that in my 1 year anniversary blog. Serendipitously this post coincides with me having been in a Consultant post for a year this week, so I thought instead I would share what it’s been like………….

Everything I thought and more

I’d worked with a fairly single minded focus to get here. At some points it really felt like it was never going to happen. The wonderful thing is that it has been everything I hoped for and more, something that isn’t always true for dreams and aspirations.

The interesting thing for me is that the core of my job isn’t really that different from my job before, I kept waiting for it to change but it hasn’t really. The biggest change I think is the weight of responsibility I feel for my team and that, for some of the big decisions, I end up advocating on my own. I am aware some days that I’m on a trapeze without a safety net. That said, as the Consultant Nurse for IPC/DIPC and I talk every day we always have each others back. I can’t imagine having spent the last year in a pandemic doing this solo, and so this relationship has been a god send.

I must however talk about the thing that has been strangest to me. I left work on a Friday and came back on a Monday as a Consultant. From one day to the next a lot of people changed the way they interacted with me. People who had known me in both roles. On the Friday they would challenge me routinely and call me Elaine. When I came back on the Monday, the same people called me Doctor and just agreed to things. When I sent emails that I anticipated would come back with nit picking or challenge from some medical colleagues they just responded with OK thanks. Don’t get me wrong there have been plenty of difficult conversations but far fewer than I had anticipated. Anyone who believes hierarchy doesn’t exist in the NHS should experience this transformation by just sticking Consultant into their job title. I still can’t quite get my head around it.

The other thing that I’d been really fearful of when I switched was using the Infection Control Doctor title and having people telling me I couldn’t as I wasn’t a traditional medical doctor. I agonised about having it in my signature and putting people’s backs up. You know what…..not a single person has mentioned it, let alone said anything bad. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this. It was that title more than any of the others that held real meaning for me and I was so scared of being rejected in that post. The fact that people haven’t rejected it but in fact embraced it means so much. As someone coming from a different place via a different route it is hard to quantify how much that has meant to me and given me hope for how we embrace change/difference in the future.

The whole truth and nothing but the truth

Now I’d be lying if I said the joy and acceptance described above hasn’t come with a whole of heap of challenges. I’m going to talk about the challenges of becoming an IPC Consultant in the times of COVID-19 below, and some of the bits I’m going to cover here I don’t know whether they are the same or worse because I started in a pandemic. It is worth stating that most of these existed before the big P, but that like many things in a period of change they may have been exacerbated.

I talked about about how much the IPC Doctor role has meant to me, its been the goal for 16+ years afterall. I think because I assign so much mental value to it that I doubt myself and fear that everyone is going to realise the horrible mistake they made on a pretty much daily basis. The shoes I’ve had to fill are massive ones left by such an impressive and knowledgeable individual, you can’t help but worry you will disappoint. Taking over at this point is therefore challenging when there have been big decisions and big changes every week it feels. I’ve talked before about how failure is key to learning but every action right now feels like it is too important to fail. That fuels my inner perfectionist and means I have a tenancy to spiral. Deep breaths and ‘faking it until I become it’ have definitely been my survival tools for my first year in post. I’ll let you know when the ‘become it’ happens.

The acceptance has been great, I’ve been incredibly lucky but on some level I still know I’m never going to be part of the club. My micro consultant colleagues go for coffee and lunch together but I can’t join them. I’m the person setting the guidance that says you shouldn’t mix, even after work. They will always spend more time with each other in hand overs etc which means they have enhanced relationships with each other. This isn’t a bad thing. I have relationships that they don’t have and my job role is different. I guess it’s human nature to want to be accepted and part of the group however. The strength of my position is that it is different and in many ways my strength is that I’ve always followed my own path. There have been times over the last year that I’ve needed to remind myself of that. They have been nothing but supportive and inclusive when I’ve reached out and so it has been a lesson to me that if I need help I just need to ask for it.

This leads me onto the next thing. I’m a stand alone Consultant Clinical Scientist within my department. I have nursing and medical consultants that I work with but no one like me. This has meant that sometimes it requires specific focus for both myself and others to remember the scientist part of that title. Being a scientist is a huge part of who I am and my concept of self. It’s understandable that others may not always remember that. Doing the bits that mean I am still a scientist is hugely important to me, things like undertaking research and advocating for my professional group. Some of this is tied in to re-discovering my identify full stop having focussed for so long on reaching this point. I’ve crossed the finish line and so what does the next goal look like, how does that fit in with my scientific identity. How do I ‘fit’ whilst still maintaining that of which I am proud and makes me different. This one is definitely a work in progress and as I learn more I’ll share whatever conclusions I come to.

Here’s the one that will surprise none of you = the to do list never ends. I feel like I’m constantly running to stand still, working weekends just to keep sight of what’s going on. Some of this I think is linked to me wanting to do my best and being anxious about it, some of it is because I don’t want to let go of some things I used to be involved with, but to be honest I think a LOT of it is trying to do all the pre-pandemic work on top of a pandemic work load. The ever changing guidance and the constant messaging required to keep people safe. If life is like this three years from now I will definitely need to drop things that I would love to still be engaged with, for right now I’m mostly taking each week at a time and hoping at some point to see what a consultant post in non-pandemic times might look like.

IPC doctor in the time of COVID-19

Until that day arrives when SARS CoV2 doesn’t control my every moment I continue to spin that one enormous plate on top of everything else. One of the biggest things I’ve learnt over the last year is that leadership, in all its forms, could not be more important. There have been some pretty tough lessons about seniority that I’ve had to learn as well.

I’m used to being able to make decisions, decisions based on evidence. If the data is sufficient I’m not used to people challenging or not engaging with those decisions. I’m going to post about this more in a future blog I think, but one of the lessons I’ve had to learn is that my ability to influence has limits. That the risk assessment others are making is not necessarily the same as the one that I am, and the weighting of the different factors within it are not necessarily the same as mine. Sometimes my role is to advise but if that advice is not taken up because that risk assessment is different it is not a failure of me in the role that I hold. It is the reality of advising on a single part of a much greater puzzle. Try as I may therefore I have had to acknowledge that this isn’t a battle for an outcome, but a collaboration where the outcome may or may not be the one that I would have chosen. As long as I advocate to the best of my ability, live up to my values and embody the leadership I want to see, that is all I can do. If I see it as a battle we all lose, if I see it as co-production we all win. Changing my point of view on this has been key to my surviving at certain points, especially linked to Omicron.

Talking about leadership, I don’t think embodying that leadership has ever been more important. Everyone is tired and everyone has gone through a period of extraordinary stress. I’m still asking staff to behave in ways that add to that stress i.e. by not having lunch or even drinks with their teams together outside of work. This means that a key way that we normally support each other is no longer available. We haven’t been able to celebrate or commiserate with each other for over 2 years. I’m a really strong believer in not asking others to do what I’m not prepared to do myself. Over the last year that has included me leading the way with opting in openly and discussing the pros and cons of routine asymptomatic lateral flow testing. Being open with people about my reactions to the vaccines and booster but how I went ahead and had them for the protection of myself, my colleagues and my patients anyway. It has also included me missing out on that same support I have deprived others of by reducing their contact with colleagues. To me its about fairness and showing with actions rather than words that we are all in this together.

The importance of paying it forward

There are some people in my world who went all in to get me this post, people who I will never be able to thank enough. Mentors who have been with me every step of the way and who put their names and reputations out there vocally to support me, fought battles for me that I know no detail about. Those people have changed my life. So now it’s my turn. My turn to fight for others. My turn to act as a shield and as a mega phone. I have thanked those that helped me but I don’t think they will ever really understand the difference they made, so now I honour that by vowing to make that same difference to those who follow behind.

So here I am (successfully?) having broken my way through that glass ceiling. If anything this last year has shown me that this isn’t the end of the journey but the start. If I want others to not have to have the same fights as I did, then I have to work to make sure I keep that hole open and drop a ladder through it to help those who want to follow. Those coming after me will have different challenges but it’s important to share what I’ve learnt to help them where I can along the way. It’s one of the many reasons this blog is so important to me. So as a fitting message in this 100th post I wanted to say that for as long as you guys keep reading, I will keep sharing. Sharing so we can rise up, sharing so we can make change and sharing to make sure that we are seen and to help us all work every day to leave the world a slightly better place than we found it.

All opinions on this blog are my own

Prioritising the Needs of the Many: Great communicators let the message do the talking

Let me start by saying that I am by no way a ‘great communicator’. I’m OK, I’ve never been the one who wins best presentation prizes or anything like that. I have however had the privilege of seeing some truly amazing communicators speak. I’ve also sat through more hours than I’d care to mention of bad conversations,  bad presentations and bad interviews. What these combined experiences have shown me is that truly great communicators focus on the message and not how they want you to perceive them. They let the listener feel like they own the communication and thereby feel like the message is personal to them. They make the audience feel valued and like they matter by creating a shared experience.

We can’t all be great at this, it’s not where everyones skill set aligns. The greats also seem to me to have a bit of magic that probably can’t be taught. For the rest of us mere mortals however there are things we can do, in terms of thinking and preparation, that may make us a little bit better. So what can we do differently?

It’s not about appearing to be the smartest person in the room

We’ve all been there. We’ve probably all reviewed papers or seen talks where the communicator focused on appearing smart rather than the message. They used complex sentences and words to demonstrate just how much of a scientist they are. In some ways it feels like they have done just about everything they can to make it harder to engage with their message, by making it clear that most of the audience isn’t smart enough to understand what it is they are trying to convey.

In fact the real skill with highly complex topics is being able to present them in a way where they don’t feel complex at all. Being able to break down a complex topic into pieces that when combined make the whole process understandable can only be achieved if you yourself really understand your subject. It’s why Feyman utilised trying to teach something as a way to better understand his learning gaps.

Working out what your message is

Before you start the process of breaking down what you want to teach and going into detail you really need to start with the message.  Too many of us when we are trying to plan a lesson or lecture, or even a paper, don’t put in the pre work to think about what it is that we are actually trying to communicate.  What story are we trying to tell.  We don’t often think of communicating science as telling a story but in reality we are, and there is lots to be gained from thinking of it in terms of these structures.  A story has a key theme or message that it is trying to be communicated to the audience.  Stories also build, they are comprised of sections, even if these are simply: a beginning, a middle and an end.  Before starting to communicate we should therefore think the same way about the topic we are trying to get someone to take away.  We can make sure that everything else we talk about comes back to and enforces this key message. 

The next thing is to then flesh out this message by planning learning objectives.  What are the 3 – 5 things you would hope that someone who has attended will be able to know/achieve after they leave.  These effectively are used to give you your beginning, middle and end.  Your learning objectives for sessions delivered to different audiences may be at a high level the same i.e. raise awareness of the work of a microbiologist. In order to maximise their effectiveness however you will need to tailor them for different audiences to ensure that they can be achieved i.e. talking about AMR will be different for lay pubic audiences versus researchers. This is where the specific and relevant components really come into play.  Everything you put into your session should be based around these learning outcomes in order to support the audience have a clear sense of direction with your overall message.

Remember who your audience are

If your message is going to land then designing your way of communicating it and the learning objectives with them in mind is key.  If you have an audience of 4 year olds then your method of communication is going to be very different to if you are talking to a room full of post graduate PhD students.  If you have a drop in 15 minutes with a large group at a science outreach stand you will need to have a very different method to if you have a small group for an hour as part of a workshop.  You also need to bear in mind whether these audiences are ones you have a relationship with because they’ve met you before, or are they a one off encounter.

When you are writing items like lay summaries for research grants and papers this is especially important.  Most lay summaries should be aimed at an audience with a reading age of 12.  You need to be very conscious of abbreviations and scientific terms that we may all use without even thinking about them.  There are some good websites that can be used to check wording and language, but even more simply you could ask a member of your family (or even ideally a lay focus group) to read through it and see what the message is that they take away vs the one you think they will take away. The same is true for verbal presentations as well. Think about the language you use and whether it invites the audience in or acts as a barrier for engagement.

Try out a metaphor or two

I’m presenting tonight at an AMR event and I have one slide to talk about my work.  The audience is likely to be mixed and I want to talk about the differences between phenotypic, fragment based sequencing and whole genome sequencing, and how different techniques are best in different circumstances. These are challenging concepts to describe in under 5 minutes and so I’ve picked something I think most people will be familiar with for them to hook their knowledge onto…………cake. A good metaphor puts your audience at ease as you are discussing something familiar. You are also able to take shortcuts in explaining some concepts as you are hooking new knowledge onto a pre-existing framework. Hopefully your audience will walk away with your message and if you’re really lucky as someone they will remember.

Take it one step at a time

No one wants to sit in a talk and feel lost or read an article that makes them feel stupid for not understanding it. It makes the person engaging feel bad about themselves. It also makes them disengage which can be distracting for the audience as a whole, depending on how they behave when it happens. I’ve been that person in immunology talks at conferences. I’ve been fully engaged and listening for 15 minutes and then the presenter either takes a step assuming knowledge I don’t have or I blink for a second and miss something and I spend the next 30 minutes with no idea what on earth is going on playing with my phone.

The lesson for me here is twofold. Make sure that every progression step your audience needs is present, you can rarely make assumptions about your audience. If the information is key to understanding the information to come, make sure you give it however briefly. This is where we come back to knowing your message and learning outcomes. By only having the info in your session that is essential to serve those you buy yourself time to spend on the blocks of info needed. The second lesson is to make sure you refer back to previous building blocks of info in your talk. That means that if someone misses something they are given a repeat opportunity to contextualise and understand prior to you moving on. It also means that you are embedding the previous knowledge because the next step builds upon it.

Know when to present yourself vs your CV

Connection between yourself and the audience is always key to getting your message across. There are times when, as much as I wish it wasn’t, that standing in front of an audience as a living version of your CV is required in order to be taken seriously. When establishing your credentials before you start communicating is key to your message being heard. At these moments I’m Dr Elaine Cloutman-Green who leads X and has Y amount of research funding. When you are trying to speak in a lot of other settings however it’s important to remember that credentials can in fact get in the way of the message you are trying to present. Remember it’s about the message and not about you. If I stand in front of audience to talk about science being for everyone and reel off my list of fellowships and leadership roles I have immediately moved myself into a box of ‘other’. Someone not necessarily like them, someone with different professional experience who doesn’t share their experiences and aspirations, someone that it is hard to connect with. When doing sessions like these I’m definitely not my CV, I’m Elaine or Girlymicro.

The best way to get better is to practice

As I’ve said I encounter people all the time who are so much better at all of this than I am and I’m always super attentive when I hear them speak, not just to hear their message but to also learn ways to do it better myself. There are obviously some people out there who are born great at this, but even they needed to learn and improve how they did it. The best way to do that is to practice. Write blogs and get involved in writing papers with others who you think are good at this. Try out thinking about messaging and designing learning objectives, until it becomes easier because you’re used to it. Most importantly practice talking to people, practice one on one conversations with those you supervise, with your colleagues who are in different disciplines and with your friends. See what bits interest them, which bits they respond to. Be brave and book in to do some outreach and volunteer to give that departmental seminar you’ve been dreading. Doing is in essence how we learn, you can only get so far by reading about something. Once you’ve had a go its then important to take the time to reflect in order to learn how to do it better next time.

The other key part of practicing and learning how to communicate better is to make sure that you are building evaluation into your sessions/activities. We often try to guess at what well, what audiences actually heard and what we could improve upon. Guessing is fine to a point but you will never have the backgrounds of everyone you are engaging with. The only way to really know what they are responding to, what worked well and what didn’t is to actually ask them. This is where the measurable part of your learning objectives is important. As scientists we respond well to data, it gives us concrete direction in which to improve. Lets apply that to the way we communicate so that we make the most of every opportunity, every moment, in order to succeed in getting our message across.

All opinions on this blog are my own

An Homage to Douglas Adams: Reaching 42 and therefore becoming the answer to life the universe and everything

I’ve been lucky enough to make it to the big 42 this year. 10 years more than my sister and according to the wise, funny and wonderful Douglas Adams the number which is the answer to life the universe and everything. So as an homage to this great writer and to celebrate I thought I would share the knowledge I have gained whilst turning this wonderful number.

It will never make sense, that’s part of what makes it brilliant

When I was a kid I thought that adults knew it all. When I was a teenager and in my 20s I thought I knew it all, whilst simultaneously knowing I was out of my depth and knew nothing. In my 30s I felt like I needed to know it all and put myself under all the pressure that came with that to succeed and to be seen as knowing. Now I’ve reached my 40s I’ve realised that one of the biggest joys is in the not knowing and enjoying that there is still so much more to learn, explore and achieve.

Its not about how fast you get there, its about remembering to enjoy the ride

I spent my 20s and 30s racing towards an imaginary finish line. I had a list of tick boxes and I ticked fast and I ticked hard. Having reached my imaginary line I now realise that the joy was mostly in the journey and not in the completion. I know a lot of people right now in the ticking phase and the thing I most wish they knew was the boxes WILL get ticked, but that they should get the most from ticking them. Sit back and smell the roses, feel the sun and enjoy the pleasure of each achievement for its own sake, rather than immediately looking towards the next.

In a world where you can be anything, be kind

I don’t remember the smartest people, I don’t remember the people who had the most experience or the most knowledge. The people I remember for having the most impact on me and my career are the ones who were kind. The ones who took the time, the ones who lifted me when I stumbled and the ones who had faith in me when I had none in myself. If you want to maximise the impact of your time on this planet then being kind is the way to do it. Be kind when it’s the last thing you want to be, be kind to the people who are pulling you down. People are fighting battles you know nothing about and one act of kindness can change a day or life.

Not everyone will like you and that’s OK

I find this truth hard as I am, by nature, a people pleaser but its true. No matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, not everyone is going to love or even like you. That’s ok you won’t love everyone either, the key thing is to not let that drive you. I’ve been described as ‘marmite’ and it taken me some time to grasp the fact that someone doesn’t have to like me to work with me, we just have to set differences aside and find enough common ground to focus on a shared goal for a time. Not everyone needs to be a tea and cake buddy.

Understand what aids you and let the rest of it go

Sadly I don’t think anyone gets this far in life without having some challenges and quite frankly dealing with some shit. These are the fires that forge us. The thing is knowing that those fights and struggles that have got you here have made you who you are, honour that but don’t let it define you. It’s all too easy to carry our scars with a little too much pride and to give them a little too much weight in our present. I’ve learnt to acknowledge the drive they have given me, the armour they have provided, to try and take the good but leave the bad. To let them help make me but not to let them tell me who I am.

Understand what matters to you

What matters changes over time, it isn’t always a static state of being and requires regular reflection. I’m often described as driven but I mostly think that’s a nice way of people saying I’m following my own path, all I do is put one foot in front of the other. What I do know is that there is a continuous signal amongst the noise of my life and that is that what matters most to me is my family. The people I love are my world, they are my centre and keep me grounded. They are the calm in my storm. What I want most is time with them and to live my life without drama, I did ALL the drama in my teens and early 20s and I don’t enjoy it.

My husband and I have a phrase that we use with each other ‘let me just check my bothered pocket’. When I’m getting into a shame spiral when I’m panicking about the conversation I had yesterday or the imagined upset I might have caused him or visa versa it’s a phrase we use to bring some reality back. The answer is almost always ‘its entirely empty’. Everything is almost always completely OK and there is almost always nothing to worry about. This simple phrase grounds me and enables me to focus on what matters most, the people I love.

The struggles you feel now will fade and change into new and different ones

You have probably gathered that I’m not a very chilled out person, as my husband says ‘my mind is a hell to me’. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to step back when I’m in the midst of my storm to try to get the distance to understand whether this is something that actually really matters. The ability I have to focus and be tunnel visioned is great to achieve tasks but is somewhat of a hinderance in this and it’s something that I have to practice. I sit and ask myself if the worst case is true would this matter in the way it feels now next week? next month? next year? in ten years? By asking myself these questions I give myself the structure to work out quite how important it is, or if in fact it is not important at all. This also helps me choose the battles that I want to engage in and the ones that I’m happy to walk away from.

Finding your tribe makes it all worth it

We talk a lot about making sure that you have insight from beyond your echo chamber, and this is true. Right now though I’m going to talk about the joy of finding people who just get you, people who are part of your tribe. None of us are strong all the time, none of us can always be our own advocate. Life is an exhausting merry-go-round and sometimes we all need help. Find the people that see you for who you truly are, good and bad, and who like/love you anyway. Find the people who will see your worth even when you can’t and who will lift you when you fall. Once you have them life will never be quite the same as you will be able to share the load. Once you find them never let them go.

Have the courage to choose the unconventional path

We spend a lot of time getting told what should matter to us, where we should want to be, who we should want to be with. I’ve never been very good with instructions. I’m a strong believer in ‘you do you’ as long as what you are doing isn’t hurting others or taking away their right to choose the same way. I don’t really believe in doing things the way others have done them. I’m the only one that wears this skin, I’m the only me, therefore only I can choose the right path for me. Being different, being you takes courage and self belief, but it’s worth it. Choose the right path for you, otherwise you’ll spend your whole life questioning what might have been and that’s a cage that’s hard to escape from.

Travel the road using the 3 Ps and you won’t go far wrong

The 3 Ps are my rules I set myself to live by: purpose, passion and principles. They apply across my professional and personal life. Do the things that make you wake in the morning with a smile on your face, do them consciously and in a way that doesn’t hurt others. For me, if I live by the 3 Ps I don’t question my life choices because I’m following a path, no matter how challenging, that I’ve set on because I believe in it. When life gets hard therefore, and believe me it does, I know at the core of my being why I made the decision I did and it makes it easier to carry on. These Ps are mine but you have a whole alphabet of choice to decide on what your guiding stars might be!

All opinions on this blog are my own

I’m Not Lucky, I’m a Badass: The importance of owning your success

It’s Heathcare Science Week 2022 and I wanted to start the week by posting about something very close to my heart – owning it. I believe very strongly that we should own our failures and use them as learning experiences to make us better. I also believe that we should own our successes, but this is something that I struggle more with getting comfortable with.

Like many people my first response to any form of compliment linked to my career and the success (I feel) I’ve had is to say how lucky I’ve been. This is true, I’ve been incredibly fortunate, I’ve had amazing opportunities and great success. The thing is,  I’ve been thinking recently is this luck? Is it luck or is it because of hard work, tenacity and opportunities made?

The other thing is this. Claiming success and owning it as anything other than luck is a thought process that makes me feel uncomfortable. Not just that but I’ve worked in teams with some amazing people in order to achieve it and so is it mine to own? Just privately thinking how good my success make me feel also makes me realise how much acknowledging that openly would not be a good look. It could be seen as being arrogant. Being considered arrogant we are taught is never a good thing, especially as a woman.

Then I saw the tweet below and it really made me stop and think. What is the problem with us owning our success and the work it took to get there. Is being happy with your success really arrogance? Or is it, in reality, about having the confidence to own it?

Where Does the Fear of Owning Your Success Come From?

Working in healthcare means that very little we achieve is as individuals, we work in teams and I think most of us are very aware of team dynamics. We succeed and fail within those teams and therefore I think it is often difficult to see ourselves as individuals and having individual success within those team dynamics. Now I’m not in anyway saying we shouldn’t be good team players, I’m all about collaboration but I do think it’s OK to recognise your own role in the success that your team has and to be OK with acknowledging that (with due credit given to others). It takes a lot of voices to make a chorus after all.

My evolutionary psychology days are some time ago, but when I think of how we are taught lessons linked to pride and arrogance I always think back to my days studying primate behaviour. Group behaviour, especially female group behaviour, is about co-operation and fitting into hierarchy. Essentially it’s about helping others and not sticking out. Females that stick out make themselves available for conflict and are considered to be challenging the hierarchy. Now, I haven’t studied in this area for a long time but it feels like a lot of our early behavioural lessons are still based on this structure and if, like me, you are not very comfortable with conflict then your position should be ‘to be seen and not heard’.

I was told repeatedly as a child that ‘Pride comes before a fall’. It was drummed into me from a young age that pride/arrogance was a sin and to be frank it just wasn’t a good look. This definitely plays into, or maybe is, part of the source of my imposter syndrome – where I believe that people actually believe I’m not very good at what I do and the only reason I’m here is that people are being kind to me. If you put those two things together you end up with a belief system where you know that being prideful could lead you to screwing up and embarrassing yourself AND that others may cease to like you and so you may also be called out as not being very good. The pressure we place on ourselves to be liked in order to succeed may therefore itself get in the way of us owning the very success it creates.

Confidence is a tool. Arrogance is a weapon. Confidence invites people in and arrogance pushes people away. People use arrogance as a wall to prevent others from challenging them. 

Amy Cuddy 2018

You all know I’m a bit of an Amy Cuddy fangirl and I like the quote above. We live in fear of being considered prideful or arrogance but that is different from being confident. Confidence builds trust, it enables others to feel they are in a safe pair of hands. To me the big difference between confidence and arrogance is how it deals with failure. People who are confident acknowledge their failures and failings and use them as a learning tool, whereas those who display arrogance are about denying weaknesses and failures and therefore don’t learn from encounters. I for one need to accept these differences between arrogance and confidence, acknowledge that there is a fine line to walk, but know that if I don’t display confidence I am doing myself and others a dis-service. Owning my successes is part of this.

Changing Your Mindset

There is a certain irony in trying to work on this at a time when my I’ve been feeling particularly stressed and anxious and therefore my imposter syndrome has been on over drive. I’m working on the internal validation piece in order to see my own self worth but I’m also really glad of some of the external recognition I receive which aids me in benchmarking in a more neutral way. Some of that is from twitter, awards, committee work etc. All of it is important to me as it stops me getting too much into my own head, I think this is something that people who don’t have a strong critical voice struggle to understand. At the same time as needing this validation to help me manage at the moment I struggle to respond all the nice things people say as I don’t want to come off the wrong way. It’s also hard to know how loud to shout about things like grant success as others who are struggling could be placed in a more challenging head space if this information isn’t shared in the right way.

In order to make the leap into owning my success therefore I’ve needed to work out how to change my mindset #workinprogress. Some of this is linked to being in a safe space where you can try on and practice some of the changes in order to feel comfortable. As I’ve decided that a lot of the barriers to me owning my success are linked to my imposter syndrome it’s been important to practice this within the aspects of my role where I feel more confident first. It’s also been important to look at how others are doing this in public spaces, how do they share in a way that is inspirational not challenging?

The biggest shift for me has been trying to move from a position where the best thing to do is not be seen to ‘rub others faces in it by talking about success’ to ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. As leaders if others can’t see what we are managing to achieve how are we supporting the aspirations of those following behind us? How are we supporting them to dream bigger than we ever have? I’ve given myself permission to be seen by others.

Women often suffer from being said to display arrogance when displaying confidence when if they were male this would be seen as a more positive character trait. That is something that is not going to go away and I for one am not someone who feels confident enough to challenge it on a daily basis. I am however going to be purposeful in owning things linked to me and my success, not in a way to discourage others but as a way to empower them and help us all to shine. My pledges for 2022 are therefore to:

  • Be open about my successes and not hide them from others
  • Not agonise about posting things linked to success on social media
  • Amplify others successes by sharing them, talking about them and congratulating them
  • Encourage others to challenge themselves by talking about routes that I have undertaken which have been successful (and also where I haven’t) to support those coming after me
  • Stop down playing my own successes by defaulting to luck narrative

Our success does not diminish others, it gives us all permission to shine, so pledge like me to own your success and support others in choosing paths to their own. From now on when someone congratulates me I will not respond with ‘thank you, I’ve been so very lucky’ I will respond with ‘thank you, its been a brilliant journey’ and maybe if I’m feeling strong ‘thank you, turns out I’m a bit of a badass!’

All opinions on this blog are my own

How Do We Stop, When the Person We Are Competing Against is Ourselves?

I’ve talked a lot previously about the fact that we should only really compete with ourselves. We are all different as are our lives and therefore it makes sense that all of our success criteria will be different too. It’s too tempting to bench mark against others and find yourself wanting. This can be a great driver but it is also something that I for one find difficult some days as I don’t know if it can be turned on and off.

Three years ago today I ended up in a cast from shoulder to wrist. I fell out of a lift at work and protected my work laptop and phone and failed somewhat to protect myself. I’d never broken anything before and so was convinced I’d just sprained something (despite not being able to straighten my arm). I therefore took ibuprofen and paracetamol, went to three more meetings and told everyone I’d be back on Monday – this was a Friday morning. On Saturday morning I was forced to admit that maybe there was something wrong and finally went to A & E (after checking my emails). There I was told I broken my elbow and that I’d have a fracture clinic appointment in the week. I shrugged and said well it’s only and elbow and so worked from home as that didn’t mean I couldn’t type……..right. I finally turned up at fracture clinic and I had broken not only my elbow but also my wrist and then put a full arm cast on me and signed me off sick for 6 weeks. I’d never had a sick note before, I hyperventilated in the appointment and burst into tears saying that they couldn’t do it. They pointed out they could, insisted I took codeine for the pain and put me in the hands of my friend to take me home. What’s my point? My point is that that I don’t know when to stop. I was told by multiple people I should have gone to A & E on the day. I was told by many more to go home and not go to meetings? My husband was adamant that I was in pain and shouldn’t work prior to the fracture clinic as I had a broken arm. I made my wrist much worse and heal out of alignment because I typed on it for almost a week because I couldn’t stop.

So how do we stop when the person who is driving us to continue is ourselves?

I posted last week about the fact that I am often not that well, in fact today I am writing this post in bed as I just feel pretty rough. I’m used to needing to push through because if I didn’t I wouldn’t ever achieve anything very much. What’s probably worse is that I think I’m a fundamentally lazy person. Honestly if I could I would lie on a chaise longue in a library all day reading books and drinking tea. As I’m painfully aware of this aspect of my personality I do try (although my hubby may point out not always successfully) to counter it by being pro-active about doing things. The combination of these two mean that I don’t often know when it’s OK to take my foot off the gas and rest and when I need to knuckle down and push on.

There are times when this is useful

There are times when not knowing when to stop is actually useful. Pre-pandemic I used to run, badly. I’m not good at it, I’m not fast. What I am is stubborn. I continue to put one foot in front of the other no matter what. I’ve finished marathons and half marathons with blood up to calves and enormous holes in my feet but I get into a zone where I just put one foot in front of the other and the pain doesn’t matter so much.

When it comes to working in healthcare I find the same thing happens mentally as well as physically, you just keep going. No matter what the warning signs in terms of burn out of physical health, you keep going because that’s what we do. My auto immune condition entered a whole new phase when I was doing my PhD and I’d just finished a half marathon (whilst in my 3rd year of PhD) when my husband noticed I’d lost a patch of my hair. None of it stopped me. I still submitted my PhD a year early so I could do FRCPath and complete my consultant training.

I succeeded because I just pushed on, because of the habit of putting one foot in front of another. At the time finishing was everything, now I wonder if there were more sensible ways and if I should have listened to those around me, but I was on mile 9 (which I hate) and I just wanted to get the equivalent of mile 13.

Medicine and healthcare are hard places to break the habit

I work in an amazing organisation, filled with the most amazing people. They are all also super smart and world leading experts. I’ve worked there for almost 18 years, I trained there, I’ve grown into an adult there. Being surrounded by people that smart, that successful becomes an embedded driver in itself. You want to succeed for yourself but you also want to succeed for them. As someone who thrives on doing things differently I wanted to follow my own path, break glass ceilings and set the way. To do that however you have to succeed, you have to tick the boxes that people think you can’t tick and so you have to find the drive to continue even when it feels impossible.

As a Healthcare Scientist there is track that needs completing in order to reach the consultant end point I was determined to achieve, for me it was supposed to look something like this:

  • Masters (years 1 – 3)
  • State registration (year 4)
  • Membership of the Royal College of Pathologists (year 4)
  • PhD (years 5 – 10)
  • Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (year 11)

Even though I’ve talked about not benchmarking against others the need to complete these goals become embedded in your psyche. You become very focussed on the track that you are on, in the same way that I run, you get into the zone and take one step at a time. Sometimes however when you are in that zone it’s hard to hear the voices that say you could do it differently, that you could take a break between stages, that you could take that afternoon off to refresh. In my case it was hard because I was on fixed term contracts for the first 13 years of my career, until after I had my PhD and FRCPath. There was therefore a ticking clock in my brain that if I didn’t demonstrate enough commitment, get enough done, that I would lose my job and a career I loved. Not only was I competing against myself but I was competing against time.

So how do we stop?

All of this drive has definitely had its benefits, as I said there are times when this self-competition is really helpful. I would not have managed to get a consultant post or tick all the boxes that needed ticking without it. The issue is that how do you stop when it is no longer useful or even harmful?

I’m still working on this one but here are some things that I’ve found useful. The first one being is to listen to the balancing voices. There’s a lot of good in social media but it’s sometimes easy to only hear the things that re-enforce the fact that we should be working harder and doing more. There are other voices out there however that should make you stop and think about whether you can stop and take a break or just do it in a different way altogether, try and pay as much attention to these as the ones that drive you to keep doing what you’re doing.

Think more about who you are listening to when getting face to face advice. The day I broke my arm at least 3 people told me to go to A and E. I knew something wasn’t right but I listened to others that re-enforced my inner voice to keep going. It was my friends and family who were the ones that said to stop, the ones who prioritise me over Dr Cloutman-Green. Do yourself a favour and listen to these people more. Their priority is you, not the roster, not the deadlines and not the work. Amplify their voices in your mind rather than listening to others.

Finally I’m trying to become my own critical friend. If I was giving advice to someone on the situation I find myself in, would I tell them to push on or would I tell them to stop and rest so they can come back stronger? This is definitely a skill and I am definitely at amateur level right now, but I am working on giving myself permission, permission to leave on time, permission to eat lunch and permission to do things I enjoy that have nothing to do with work. I know some of you out there are so much better than I am at this, and as I said, I am a work in progress. I’m trying to remember therefore to enjoy the learning and the journey. Life after all is just a ride.

All opinions on this blog are my own