Sunday, January 6, 2013

The importance of asking for help

The moment will be burned in my brain forever. It was like an anxiety dream come true. I was in third grade, my teacher just handed out an exam, and I was lost. I didn't understand the directions or how to even begin to answer. All the kids around me were working away, writing down answers while I just sat there staring at the blank page, completely frozen. I felt so helpless. I even whispered to the kid next to me if I could see his answers to which he hissed: "NO! THAT'S CHEATING!"  I started to cry.

Desperate, I stood up in the middle of the exam, tears still streaming down my face, and walked up to my teacher sitting quietly at her desk and asked for her help. She was actually very receptive to this and kindly reminded me what the exam was about and how I might answer. Whatever she said made it click. By the time I got to my desk, my tears had stopped. Perhaps I was even smiling. I had this under control. I GOT THIS.

There's value in admitting you don't know something. I think back over my grad school career and some of my biggest regrets are not asking for help sooner because I didn't want to let on that I was struggling or incapable. I wasted a lot of time being afraid of looking stupid and then feeling guilty about it. Is it arrogance? Impostor syndrome? Either way, it's so self-defeating.

Some of my tips for grad school include things like "prepare to feel stupid (again)" and fostering an environment that allows you to be productive as possible. Sometimes your ego is the only thing holding you back from being productive. 

The thing about scientific research is it will always seem full of more questions than answers. At the PhD level, everyone is so specialized that there's bound to be someone who knows more than you do about some particular aspect of your research project. Being a productive researcher involves knowing who to talk to in order to make progress. Don't think of it as an admission of personal failure, think of it as a collaboration. Often others are more than happy to help, and in fact, studies have even shown that most people underestimate how many people are willing to help even a perfect stranger.

It's a lesson I keep reminding myself. This past year, I kept putting off some measurements because it required being trained on an intimidating piece of lab equipment. It came down to me being afraid of asking for help from the tool manager who has a reputation of not returning emails or being particularly friendly. I finally got fed up with myself, asked for his help in person, and found he was more than willing to do so. Once I got through that first measurement I felt comfortable using the equipment on my own. Then I wondered, what on earth took me so long?

1 comment:

  1. yeah, that's so much me as well. Putting stuff off because I'm standing very solid in my own way. And after kicking my own butt wondering why on earth I made such a fuss about it.


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