Tag Archives: Flow

Why do I not celebrate my own successes?

“Do you know there are rumours about you at work?” Chills down my spine: what is this about? Then I spot the look in his eyes and understand he is kidding me. Well, he is and he isn’t.

“Rumour says you won a research award of the year in the county? What the f… were you thinking not telling us all about it? How bad can you get at promoting yourself?” He laughs and shakes his head in disbelief. “Seriously, this is big, isn’t it? Like, you make a huge fuss about someone in the group winning an award for best poster at a national conference, but you don’t think this is even worth mentioning?”

Well, to be truthful, I did mention it to the two PhD students who were still at work when I got the message about the award. A couple of others had seen the press release the day after and there was some talk about it during coffee, especially since my husband sent me flowers to work! He clearly knows more about celebrating success…

But then I never really thought to bring it up at the team meeting, maybe because the official prize ceremony will not take place until another month. And there were lots to do and all that. But maybe considering my PhD student’s question is worth the while. Just because he is American doesn’t mean he cannot have a point…

I often tell my PhD students how important it is to always celebrate small successes and it’s true, I am quick to celebrate theirs. So why don’t I follow my own advice?

The standard joke in my family of origin is that when someone gets an award – and my parents often do – the question asked is: Is it just the humiliation or is there some cash involved? This irony does not mean we are not proud, but it is kind of part of the expectation to excel. There is no fanfare and certainly no bragging about that prize or award. And to distance oneself and show humility is more important than anything else. But I am afraid we might be missing an important point here.

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Only judging people on what they achieve is of course very dangerous and no child in the world should have to feel that not succeeding with something takes away their worth as a person. Nevertheless, an important driver for people is mastery and achieving something in the face of effort is truly rewarding per se.

Think of the child who finally succeeds going up the steps, finishing a puzzle, solving a maths problem or getting a 100 likes on Instagram for a photo they have worked on! Achieving results through effort is good for children’s self-esteem and builds resilience. So we should probably not shy away from expecting both effort and certain results from our children.

But even if there is an intrinsic reward of flow there, is it wrong to celebrate when an effort is successful? I think I could do more of that. Even if the phrase “promoting yourself” still makes me genuinely uncomfortable.

But there is change about to happen! Today I got an e-mail summarising the evaluation of a seminar I have participated in at the national meeting of our governing political party. We got 3.91 on a 4-point scale as presenters (with a high response rate) and the seminar as a whole got 3.85. Someone even wrote that my presentation was best. So I bought an ice cream and gave myself two extra minutes in the sunshine. And I will probably tell my colleagues about it at the next team meeting.

In fact, I will post those results right here, right now, as a later e-mail I just received put us as the top-ranked seminar of the 28 that whole day, in front of seminars with ministers and other high-profile politicians. The average score for the day was 3.34 so the general quality was pretty good, as well! I am not sure if this is bragging, self-promotion, or celebration, but here I go:

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The “two coffee problem”

The well-known professor I was advised to meet turned out to be a very nice, ordinary guy; neither fussy, nor self-centred. You find that often – truly talented, original, and intelligent researchers will be polite, humble, answer you e-mails kindly and promptly and will be generous in sharing their knowledge. They are also typically introverts :). It’s the ones in the division after them who need bloating and manures to emphasise their significance.

So the professor and I set off to a café nearby the conference site. I was going to buy him coffee as the least thing I could do, but I forgot that all my cash had gone to the school’s fathers’ day present bazaar and cards were not accepted. So – embarrassing as it was – he had to buy me coffee, but he was (of course) very nice about it.

It took him 30 seconds to grasp the problem I presented and he dove right into it. The code of conduct in research is that you show your interest in other people’s work by ferociously dissecting it, looking for major flaws of theory or method. The reason is that in medicine we all are aiming to approach “truth”, as defined by positivistic science: if it cannot be proved that the results are false there is a 95% chance that they are actually “true”.

Proper positivists do not use the quotation marks, those are the influence of my interest and respect for the humanities. The professor – who actually did use quotation marks when referring to the truth – wrote on a paper, gestured, and argued. He refuted himself, discussed alternatives, listened to my arguments, the few times I had any he thought worthy commenting, and dissolved them in seconds.

Somewhere in the middle he got up and said: I need another coffee, this is a two-coffee problem! An hour flew away in what seemed like a few minutes. In fact, the professor said this had been the most enjoyable thing he had done in days.

The reason is the phenomenon that Mihály Csikszentmihályi, who is of Hungarian origin of course, has coined “flow” (1975, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety). It occurs when you immerse in a problem or activity that needs all your capacity to engage in, but that you have sufficient resources to deal with, or just about. It is, in other words, the moments we spend “living on the edge”, experiencing the joy of being capably alive. The experience of flow is precious and extremely rewarding, also in a neurobiological sense. It basically makes you high.

Although my proposed idea seemed to have some important flaws, the fact that I could create a “two coffee problem” made my day.

A much simpler problem was to be solved at home. The Australian lice have seemed to find their way to our family. So off I went with the local bus to Acland street, one of Melbourne’s most famous streets, just five minutes away from us, to get anti-lice ointment. For the city girl in me it was a delight to see the liveliness of the street at 9 pm. There was a Spanish live band playing at one of the bars and people were sitting outside sipping their drinks.

In the pharmacy the woman at the counter asked which school my kids went to, turned a bit pale and muttered: Oh, oh, I better get some of that myself then. Apparently, they had a terrible lice season last winter so we probably have more nights to look forward to with plastic bags on our heads. Given the effort it takes to peal the lice eggs off one by one from the long hair of the girls, I might have some flow to look forward to tonight. If they let me start, that is…

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