Things in the zeitgeist are not the things with which you should be primarily concerned. There will always be another hot topic, another cause of public outrage, another new theory to consider. This is certainly not to say that the things in the popular discourse aren’t important. They certainly are. But, the zeitgeist is fickle and pet topics fleeting. If you have found the cause or topic you are passionate about, stick with it, while it is popular, and perhaps more importantly, even when no one else is talking about it. Be an independent thinker. Do not be bullied by the moods of the masses. The numbers take years to change whereas the twitter feed is constantly shifting. The problems and causes that were popular years ago, are often just as much a problem today as they were then. The problems today will continue to be a problem even when they are not trending on social media anymore. Pick a cause where you don’t care about the tide of popular opinion. If that is immigration, awesome. If it is healthcare reform, great. If it is a rare disease, fantastic. If it is accessible education, good. If it is addiction assistance, sweet. But if your list of causes mirrors that of the news feed or the top tweets reevaluate. Public campaigns come and go, but the real problems last much longer and the solutions require years and decades. We need reformers and advocates in each area who are dedicated to the long haul, to doing whatever it takes, with no regard to whether it is popular. This is how you win a war, change the culture, and make a difference.
We have become a culture concerned with happiness. If you are not happy with your job you are encouraged to look for a new one. If you are not happy with your relationships you are encouraged to move on. If you are not happy with your home, your car, or any number of things you are encouraged to change them in order to become more happy. Advertisements are based on the idea that some new product will make you happier, assuming of course that everyone’s goal is to be just a little bit happier.
And happiness is certainly a good thing. If you are consistently making decisions that make you less and less happy you should probably change some things. Yet the problem is that constantly checking the barometer of internal happiness is a self-defeating exercise. The more we are concerned with our happiness, the less happy we often become. “Am I unhappy?” followed by “how could I become a little more happy” becomes our obsession. And with no clear end goal, this becomes an ultramarathon we cannot win. Imagine running a marathon. Every 10 seconds or so contemplating “Are my legs tired or hurting?” Of course the answer is going to be yes at some point. And constantly thinking about that pain is going to amplify the perception of the discomfort.
One area of our lives in which this problem has become prominent is in romantic relationships. The search for a future partner has become, in many ways, like looking for a new television or car. The argument in favor being that, because we can often get a superior television or car by comparative shopping, the same should be true for a partner or spouse. On the surface this seems like a great plan. However, consider what you do with your new television or car. You’re happy with it for a bit but as you use it consistently you ask yourself if it is better and you are happier. You notice that the blue-green ratio of the screen is off, and that it doesn’t quite fill out the space that you were hoping it would. You realize the seat heaters only warm your butt and not the lower back like you were hoping they would. Worst of all you start to hear a squeak in the dashboard. Asking these questions you forget about all of the things that are great and begin making a list of things you will make sure the next television or car has. With a television or car this system is less than ideal but clearly not disastrous.
However, t is disastrous in our relationships to constantly be thinking “Is this making me happy? What do I dislike about this person?” Now occasionally sitting down and discussing your relationship is good, but constant contemplation of happiness and unhappiness is toxic. Unlike the car or the television, building something great together is the goal, not momentary happiness. Unlike a car or television you are not looking for someone to replace after a few years with a newer model. You are looking for a partner, a friend, and someone to build something great with. And incidentally, true happiness is often found in this, and not in the frenetic search for someone to please you in the moment.
Irving Weissman, a Professor at Stanford, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a prolific scientist specializing in stem cell biology, had lunch with a handful of students following one of his seminars. As we were talking, he asked what we thought the most important criteria for selecting a mentor should be. Trajectory of past trainees was the answer. This is the simple litmus test everyone should consider when looking for a mentor and is applicable across fields.
Having completed my PhD I realize how fortunate I was to have a good mentor. Yet I recognize I stumbled into that more by luck than by methodical planning. Had you asked me what the most important criteria for selecting a mentor was five years ago I probably would have replied with a non-specific combination of adjectives from Mad Libs such as “smart, well-funded, collaborative” or perhaps the worst “nice”. Not that these things are not important. You certainly do not want a mentor who is the opposite of these “dumb, unfunded, solitary, and mean”. However, these criteria do not generally differentiate between mentor. The trajectory of previous trainees tells you how invested the mentor is into propelling you into a career, how well they know how to train (teaching is as important as being a content expert in this regard), and if they have the resources to help trainees complete their training.
Let’s revisit the “nice” criteria for a moment. You are picking a mentor who will function as a coach. You want someone who invests in you, speaks truth, motivates, sees your weaknesses, and pushes you harder than you think you can be pushed. Training is precisely that. Training. If you were in boot camp you don’t want a cheerleader, you want an experienced instructor. If you hope to be an world class athlete you don’t want someone who hands out water breaks and foot rubs. You want to be made excellent. In the boxing ring or the octagon you don’t want a yes man (or woman) but someone ruthlessly pushing you to become better. Now nice people are important as well. Find faculty to meet with occasionally who are nice and who don’t always push you. Find fellow trainees who are your friends regardless of how you are performing. These are the people in the stands, those rooting you on. They are nice! Always encouraging even when you are playing the game poorly or losing. But down on the field, pick a coach who knows the stakes and makes you perform at your best. One final note, sometimes “nice” is simply a mask for indifference. If you make it through training without frustrating your mentor and without your mentor frustrating you, this is less than ideal although it may feel better. My PhD mentor and I ruined each other’s weekend or evening every few months which is part of the cost of working hard together on something you both care about. If your mentor is “nice” when you are inefficient and ineffectual and is complacent about you working towards something great, this is indifference and is one of the most toxic things in a mentor-mentee relationship.
When picking a mentor, pick one who has a proven record as an invested coach and effective instructor.