My Why: “Yogas chitta vrtti nirodhah.” —Yoga Sutra 1.2
Academia is a wonderland. Green paths and sparkling sidewalks wend between majestic buildings. Learners and educators exchanging ideas and ideals. Exploration and expression. The promised land.
In this academic haven, I could understand and influence maternal health in a nation that has greatly devalued the outcomes, systems, and experiences from preconception to postpartum.
I was heartbroken when the yellow brick road led to power-crazed wizardry in the form of grants and misappropriated funding. Competition. Crowding. Overworking those lowest on the totem pole. Publish or perish.
It was the perfect place for someone with imposter syndrome and a lack of self-worth to continuously seek, receive, rebuff, and absorb peer review. Convinced the ideas, thoughts, products of my lab were a representation of me—as a person, as a soul walking this lifetime.
A few weeks ago, I had a breakthrough in therapy. My therapist asked, “When did you start talking so negatively to yourself?” She had me reflect:
“Did high school Samantha doubt herself?”
No—she danced, drank, played, and loved.
What about college Samantha?
No—she felt safe and seen. She danced, played, and loved.
What about PhD Samantha?
No—she was excited, excelled at behavioral psychology, met the love of her life, danced, played, and loved. She found a 12-step program for people who had alcoholic loved ones, and she was able to process her role in the family disease.
Then what? When did I start berating myself for everything I say and do, not just professionally?
It was when my first large grant was a near-miss. In the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant proposal process, there is a 9-point rating scale (1 = exceptional; 9 = poor). NIH program officers oversee the portfolio of grants while scientific review officers (SRO) oversee the reviewing process. The SRO assigns three people to review a proposal. Part of reviewer training includes asking reviewers to use the breadth of the 9-point scale, so that only the super stellar applications rise to the top. Once the grants are scored, about half get triaged and do not make it to a discussion panel. Those that are scored are then given an overall impact score (the average of the scores multiplied by 10, for the multiplication part, I have no idea why [so the perfect score is 10 and the worst is 90]).
My very first grant scored 23; landing us in the 11th percentile. People said it was as close to a sure thing as I could expect; that I was going to be someone.
Then, the grant was rejected. No problem. I’m resilient. I spent 6 months revising the proposal, painstakingly addressing every concern. The resubmission, scored in the 16th percentile. A reflection of the wasted time, energy, and effort. But more shockingly, opening up a profound sense of worthlessness. If I scored this well and didn’t get funded, what’s the point of trying again (and again) ad nauseum?
In preparation for this book, I asked a lot of academics what would define their success. I was hoping for a few core-shaking responses about the science, teaching, or outreach, but alas, most were “receiving an NIH R01 or equivalent.” I have an inner knowing though, that the money itself isn’t the signifier. People have been funding their research and labs with internal funding mechanisms, industry sponsorships, and other extramural funding from societies to industry sponsorships. While it’s manifesting as a need for big money, it really might just be a signifier of the ultimate peer review: You have been reviewed, selected, and found worthy. The acceptance isn’t about the grant, it’s about knowing you were already enough before you even pitched the idea. But in 2015, with an unfunded proposal, I was not yet there.
And in 2021, in my therapy breakthrough, I again hear the voice of my therapist:
“This is where you lost yourself?”
This cannot be it. It cannot be this simple.
But it was. How did I let a broken system—and my role in it—become a representation of who I was in my soul?
As gripping, churning, and stealing as the system is, it also has incredible assets. Academia is a haven for pontification and growth. It is access to words, thoughts, and funds to achieve our true purpose.
Janne Robinson, one of my favorite modern poets, denounces the idea of the Degree, the pursuit of the “American dream” that drips with desire for stuff and things. But that’s not the academic promise many of us were sold, or continue to buy into.
I love my work. I need to say that more often to myself and others. I love driving my own intellectual path. I love reading and writing. I love interacting with students—being a witness to and a co-traveler on their journey. I appreciate my competitive salary and the stability of my state-funded income. Most importantly, testimonials, cards, and qualitative data confirm that the work from my lab directly improves the lives of thousands of people each year.
These assets have shadow sides. If my schedule is mine, I can use it to feel needed, or important, or to avoid being alone, or to avoid other struggles or joys in my actual life. If influencing the next generation of thinkers is fuel, what happens when there’s a gas leak and a student quits, fails, or causes you personal trauma?
My answer: Go inward and connect. Over the last seven years, I’ve devoured and sampled every form of information I could find. A recent Sassy Spirituality podcast episode shares that “Going inward is a protest, too.” In Cassandra Speaks, a collection of essays about the stories we tell and how that shapes culture, Elizabeth Lesser calls this inward practice “innervism.” Glennon Doyle shares in her memoir how to be “untamed.” Alisa Vitti, who maps menstrual cycles to workflow, calls it “cycle syncing.” Twelve-step work says a “fearless moral inventory.” The bookshelf eye candy and the podcast eargasms paint a clear picture: One, I am not alone in my lack of self-worth—which I carry like baggage into my writing, grants, guest lectures, and mentoring. And two, all humans have the inherent need to belong. In other words, “relationships are the most important currency of homo sapiens.” (Ten Percent Happier Podcast, Episode 453).
Part of my journey, and I hope yours too, is about getting out of the ivory tower and on to the mat.
All of these efforts are to settle the fluctuations of the mind:
“Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.” —Yoga Sutra 1.2
Yoga could fundamentally alter academia, public health, and the healthcare system. There is an exponential increase in the number of people trying yoga for the first time and becoming yoga teachers in the United States. Related, the number of peer-reviewed journal articles about yoga has increased from 200 to 1500 in the last 15 years. There is a steep climb in the number of individuals with postgraduate education (doubling in just 14 years). Unfortunately, this also leads to increased competition and strife, particularly for women and those from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds or investigators who work in health promotion . For the latter, some of this stress stems from the invisible work that requires a heavy emotional, social, and energetic load when focusing on participatory research and creating working groups that prioritize psychological safety and health equity.
The World Health Organization recognized burnout as an organizational phenomenon before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has continued to worsen. Most people I know are looking for medication or meditation. If we do not act now, the academy may be lost.
I am homesick, to use Lesser’s phrase, for an academic institution that incorporates yoga principles off the mat and in the lab, classroom, and infrastructure.
Most people I know are looking for medication or meditation. Everyone needs an escape. I have chosen this to be one of my escapes: To write, to reach, to connect.