Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

To succeed in life, you need two things:
ignorance and confidence.
- Mark Twain

I've been working hard on my own creativity this past year. Challenging myself to think of outrageous and beautiful concepts, to ask what would I could I do if I set aside what I already know.

The result has been several interesting ideas. One - my lab is currently turning into a reality. Others - we've yet to begin. Last week, I was riding in the car in silence when I had an idea so wild that I nearly pulled over to call my mom. I've excitedly told several people who have replied with various shades of

you're insane
smoke another one
let's put you away before you spend any more money. 


And in trying to find creativity, I've been thinking a lot about the process itself. I don't think it's a coincidence that most of my favorite ideas are on the fringes of my area of expertise. It's one of the only ways I don't have the voice inside my head saying no, no, no, that is ridiculous, that won't work.

Ignorance need not be negative. Not always. It need not be clueless. It need not be a put-down.

Within the word ignorance is the root ignore. And within the cacophony of thousands of published journal articles and the self-proclaimed expertise of many a conference bloviator (e.g. I've been in this field for 30 years...) comes a plea for silence. For a moment, just a moment, to ignore the weighty wisdom of our forefathers and the guy down the hall.

And suddenly, in the quiet, there is room for something new.

This week, I challenge you to spend time in a silent space and to ask yourself what may be possible.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Vulnerability and Study Section

"Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change."

These words from Brene Brown jumped out at me one day as I listened to a TED podcast (Making Mistakes) on the way to work.

"That's really it, isn't it?" I thought. "That's exactly correct."

Vulnerability is the predominant reason why we don't innovate, are not creative, and aren't inclined to change. It's because we have to open ourselves to judgment, and sometimes attack. As animals, we have been designed to avoid vulnerability.


At no point in my career have I experienced vulnerability and rejection to the same extent as I do today. It's the grant proposals, of course.

I submitted my first NIH R01 application in October, and it was reviewed by a study section that met this past week. The likelihood that my proposal will be funded is low (median age of first R01 is a sobering 41, and I am all of 34).

OK. But you can't win if you don't play, so I gathered my ammunition and I polished it until it gleamed like the light of a thousand suns. And then I rammed it into the barrel of a canon and shot it  down to Bethesda, MD where it was received by someone who told me that I need to start coming up with better analogies if I'm going to use them so frequently in my writing.

For those that don't know, NIH submissions are reviewed by three scientists who give preliminary scores. If I was lucky, the average score for my proposal fell into the top 50% of New Investigator submissions to the study section (NI submissions are reviewed separately from other apps). In which case, the reviewers would present my proposal to the rest of the study section, lively discussion would ensue, judgement would happen, and I'll receive a score and feedback at some point hopefully in the near future.

Anyway, I did my best, and there's nothing more I can do at this point. Nonetheless, I've been feeling extra vulnerable in recent weeks, knowing that other scientists out there have been actively judging my (best) efforts, potentially in less-than-flattering ways.

It's like standing naked in front of a group of your peers, wondering where you left your damn towel. They're scrutinizing your love handles (your preliminary data), the superfluous mole you recently developed on your thigh (your credentials), and the tone of your biceps (your writing ability). Very quickly, they will cast judgement upon your body (your entire application), which is a cumulative product of many years of scientific effort, mental exercise, and dietary choices.

This is vulnerability.

Some criticism is easier to handle than others. You try not to take it personally, right? But when reviewers tell you that your Winter LayerTM is overly ambitious and lacks adequate definition, it hurts. Meanwhile, you are still looking for your towel.


I can't do good science without funding. I can't help patients without funding. Every day, the ideas that swirl around my head get better and better, and I am so eager to do lots of science. But I can't do any of that without funding, without being judged, without opening up my own best efforts for others to scrutinize.

Practice helps. Deep breathing helps. But mostly, it's a desire to do something meaningful with my life. When I think about that, the hard parts of this job become easier.