Intellectual Curiosity, Passion, Downtime and Compartmentalisation

The first season of House, M.D. is, hands down, the best season. The writers are still exploring the possibilities of toxic brilliance and medical problem-solving, and it’s significantly less ridiculous than the subsequent seasons. Besides, Hugh Laurie is a gem, and we all know it.

In the episode “DNR”, a famous jazz musician with ALS (John Henry Giles) has trouble breathing, and because it’s House, wackiness ensues. There’s an exchange between John Henry and House that has always stayed with me. He commiserates with House – or celebrates; it’s not entirely clear – that they’ve sacrificed the other priorities in their lives (family, friends, other interests) for “that one thing.” That one thing that holds their interest, their passion, their furious commitment. They think about it constantly. It’s all they do and all they want to do.

That was a scene that really stuck with me. I know people like that. In writing. In science. I know people who are committed to that one thing. People who never switch off, not really.

It’s a bit of a trope, and it’s become something of an expectation.

I don’t have that. I don’t have one thing. I have numerous things, and they are all vitally, terrifyingly important to me. It’s true that I love science. I also love writing fiction. I love singing. I love music. I love narratives of all kinds. I prioritise my relationships and my friendships very highly. I prioritise my health (and let’s be clear, my health is an ongoing project. It’s not just “eat healthy and exercise.” It’s a ridiculous, time-consuming gauntlet of physiotherapy, weight training, running, gastro-intestinal specialists, diagnostic procedures, complicated recipes to stick with my complicated diet, and maths. There’s actual maths).

Most of the scientists I know are actually fairly well-rounded people. They have families and hobbies and social commitments – but they are also very committed to their work. Many of them don’t seem to have a strict demarcation between work and not-work time.

“Sometimes,” said my colleague, a friendly young post-doc, “reading papers is fun, though.”

“Noooo,” I said flatly. “Reading papers is work. It is always work.” I mean, of course, that it is always work for me, because I see it as work. I have to engage “science self” to read papers, and that in itself is work. It’s not that I don’t have that passion, or that intellectual curiosity, it’s just that if I’m trying to have downtime, I need it to be actual downtime. I need to be reading fiction, or playing games, or something like that.

If I have time when I’m not running analyses, working in the lab, writing to deadlines, writing on my own projects, working on my own health in some way, running basic household errands, or catching up with my friends (a hugely important priority but a very different kind of down time as far as my brain is concerned), I need it to be actual nothing time.

I think I learned this in my PhD. It’s possible, with a PhD, to be always working. There are always more papers you could read, or more analyses you could run, even if you’re not in the lab. Unless you set very strict rules for yourself, you could be working all your waking hours.

You’ll burn out. Most people will burn out. I burned out, for a very long time, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so wary about reading papers for “fun”, or about using my cherished spare time for anything but easy, cruisy fun activities. It took – actually, it’s a work in progress. Let’s employ the present tense. It is taking a very long time to recover from burnout. I am still burnt out. I still have panic attacks (bonus: nausea) when trying to work on data from my PhD. When I open up those documents on my laptop, I find myself trying not to cry. Burnout is a very, very bad thing. I did something to my amygdala, and whatever I did, it hasn’t healed yet.

So I need to compartmentalise. Even if I like what I’m doing, I need to stop, and do something else. I need to watch movies and drink whiskey with my husband, or cross-stitch while watching Daredevil, or play Pillars of Eternity while patting the cat. I need to spend a ludicrous amount of time working out. I need to write stories.

It sometimes makes me feel out of place. I’m here among people who are working constantly, who are driven by their projects and their work and excited by the possibilities. I’m excited by the possibilities, but PhD burnout has left me with a giant bleeding wound in my sense of intellectual curiosity. I’m wary of getting involved, emotionally, in a project. I’m wary of dropping everything else I love and throwing myself into a problem.

It definitely fuels the imposter syndrome. Because I switch off, and play games and read novels (and those novels are not literary canon, or non-fiction analyses of ecological disasters, or biographies of great political figures), I feel like I don’t deserve a place at the table.

I’m coming to terms with this. I resent the trope, and the expectation, that everyone should experience their enthusiasm in the same way. When I am switched on, when I am on shift, when I am meant to be present, then I am present. I work hard. I do good work. I contribute. I ask questions. I solve problems. But when I am off shift, I am damn well off shift, mentally as well as physically. I am not “doing science” any more (except in the very basic way that, when you’re a scientist, you have a tendency to question processes you encounter in every day life out of curiosity. That just sticks around, much in the way that, as an English major, I can’t help analysing pop culture. That mostly doesn’t have an off button either).

When I am off shift as a scientist, I become something else. I’m a writer. I’m a gamer. I’m a singer. I’m a friend and a partner and a person managing two chronic health conditions. I can’t spend the rest of my life feeling guilty for not working all the time. I am not interested in using my social media accounts to promote scientific discoveries – I use them for being my off shift self, not my on shift self.

I’m finding it hard to articulate this problem, and I’m not sure if I have succeeded. Let me put it another way.

Life is short. We don’t have much time. We have the hours that we put into our work. If we’re lucky, it’s work that you’re passionate about. Also, because we’re mammals, we need to sleep. Between sleep, and work, you have to fit everything else that you love into the other hours of the day and night. Everything else.

So even though I love what I do – and I do, I love all my jobs, and they are numerous – when I switch off, I switch off. I deal with the surprised looks when I explain that I’m writing a blog post or a story, not a paper; that I’m reading a fantasy novel, not a biography of a famous scientist (side note: again, having a major in English literature, I’m relatively secure in my reading habits. I might read several hundred trashy novels a year, but I’ve done my dash); that I’m not concentrating on some difficult analysis on my laptop – I’m actually watching old episodes of Daria (or, possibly, the Flash).

This mental screed has been brought to you by shift work and too much coffee.


One thought on “Intellectual Curiosity, Passion, Downtime and Compartmentalisation

  1. I so totally relate to this. The burnout, the damage to the amygdala, the long healing process, the need for downtime… I never got back my ability to completely focus, to shut out absolutely everything not relevant to my pursuit. My memory didn’t fully recover either.

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