Jeremy Côté

You Are Not Your Work

“How was your day?”

“Oh, not that great. I didn’t get a lot of work done, so it was kind of disappointing.”

Be honest: How many times have you answered this question with a variation of the above answer?

If you’re anything like me, the answer is a lot. When we think about our day, we jump to the work we did. If we didn’t accomplish a ton, we call that day a waste. Even when we do get work done, our response isn’t, “Well, this was a good day.” Instead, it’s often, “I should have been able to do more.” We measure the quality of our day through the number of items we checked off a todo list or if we made a breakthrough in our research. We will acknowledge good days, but those tend to be few and far between.

Graduate studies exacerbate these thought patterns. That’s because you’re going from completing coursework and homework assignments to doing research. The former might be annoying, but there are well-defined beginnings and ends. Contrast this to research, where most of the time is spent lumbering around in the dark, unsure of what to do. This biases how we rate our days. When research is going slow (as is the norm), we will rate our days as less good. I’ve seen this in almost all of my friends studying physics at the graduate level, and I’ve noticed it in myself. I won’t think of my day as comprising a great number of things. I’ll just default to how I feel my research is going, and rate my day to reflect it.

In my eyes, this is tragic. Worse, it’s not limited to graduate students in physics. Whenever you have a pursuit that takes up a lot of your time, there’s a tendency to base your whole judgement of your day on that one thing. While this can be helpful when starting out and establishing a consistent routine, it can take over your life in an unhealthy way.

You are more than your work. I don’t care if you are studying quantum mechanics, theoretical biology, linguistics, machine learning, trying to write a book, or make art. You are more than your work. It’s a message I want to reinforce within everyone, because it’s so easy to forget.

In the context of science, it means that my day shouldn’t be judged on how well I think I did in my research. It’s a bad metric. Why? Because there are so many other aspects of my life! Even if research is the main thing I’m doing at the moment, it doesn’t define me. Likewise, it shouldn’t define you.

I’m certain that there are other things that happened in your day, and I want those to come into play when I ask you how your day went. There is more to a good day than making a breakthrough in your scientific work. Did you have a nice conversation with someone? Did you exercise? Read a book? Make something? These are all things that can be outside your main work, and still contribute to having a good day.

The way I try to combat this tendency of basing the judgement of my day on research is to do something else every day that I show up to no matter what. For me, that’s running. I go for a run each morning, and even if the rest of my day goes horribly, I can still look back on the day and at least be thankful for my run.

It might sound silly, but having something other than work to judge your day can snap you out of thinking of yourself as your work. You’re much more than what you do (even though it is an important part). Recognizing this can be a challenge, but it’s something that more of us need to do, and is doubly true for graduate students.

The next time I ask how your day went, my challenge to you is this: Answer without referencing your work.