Comment on 9 February 2018 at Why Helicopter Parenting Can Set Kids Up For a Crash:
Thanks for sharing that very thought-provoking article, Roger.
“He believes many of us get deluded by a phenomenon known as survivorship bias, where we only see the winners … and do not properly observe the losers.”
That is precisely the point I made to my son’s teachers when I accompanied their class to the Queensland primary school leadership forum two years ago. (Now being a stay at home dad, I am fortunate to have these wonderful opportunities to help out teachers, the children and my sons.)
An amazing assemblage of “winners” was put together to inspire the children – including the young scientist that was in the running to go to Mars – and they were all keen to share the secrets of their “success”, many even having the humility to admit that fortune was indeed a factor. But it was clear that none truly understood just how big a factor it was (perhaps it is only natural to focus on what we actually contributed to our “success”).
I suggested to the teachers that we only heard from the “winners”, and while their messages were very worthwhile, the children would also do well from hearing from some of the many equally talented and equally resilient people that for any number of reasons did not quite “make it”. The teachers gave polite affirmation to the comment, but it’s probably something that one can not fully appreciate unless you can truly understand it from personal experience or from observing it at close hand.
Here I am going to share something deeply personal, where these reflections formed the basis of the first point I made in a letter that I wrote a year ago to be held for my sons in the event of my early passing (I recall reading, not long after I wrote this, a letter by a female corporate high-flyer in the US to her children which received enormous publicity at the time – as I read it I could not help but smile at the extreme contrast in our parenting – but it is this variability that makes the world an interesting place!):
“Enjoy the ride”
Now I realise that you have sat down to read this important letter – probably with a range of emotions – and after just one page I am going to ask you to do something which requires you to stop reading for a bit. I want you to watch one of my favourite movies – “Along Came Polly” – at first writing you have both watched the very start of it where Claude was naked on the beach trying to find customers to come scuba diving with him. So go and watch the whole movie (again?) and take in especially what Mr. Pfeffer says to Sandy. Then continue reading.
Hope you enjoyed the movie and be sure to use the word “shart” in your everyday life as often as possible 🙂 … Also frequently quote “as long as you are for scuba Lubaan I am a pea” (I love that one)… Now back to the serious stuff…
As we are growing up we are bombarded with all of these positive messages that we can do anything! “You can achieve any dream!” Popular culture – through TV, etc, and the education system – is strongly based on this. It’s part of the incentive system for capitalist societies (along with one of my pet hates that greed, if not completely good, is natural). Most often the inspiring people that you see and listen to, like at leadership days and so on, are from the small proportion who actually get to where they set out a long time ago.
While the “you can achieve any dream!” message is worthwhile, nobody tells you that lots and lots of people don’t end up achieving the dreams that they set out to achieve – I would be certain it is lots more than do. However, if they have the right mindset they usually realise that the goals that they do actually achieve are much better for them anyhow!
The inspirational speakers usually glance over luck and circumstance, and instead focus on their resilience and goal-setting, both important characteristics to develop.
The danger in taking the “you can achieve any dream!” message literally is that you can trap yourself into trying to achieve something which only had real relevance and meaning for a short time in your life, when in fact you have changed and you might just be better off considering other new dreams.
Take me for instance – I would, and could, never have imagined even when I was 30 where I would be at 40! I left Australia just after I turned 31 with my beautiful wife on an adventure that was going to be exciting and, through working in the top labs in the world in my field, together with my hard work up to that point, I was going to cement my place as the world’s expert in freshwater crayfish disease. Many already considered me to be Australia’s leading scientist in the field – in fact I was introduced as such before my talk at the World Aquaculture Society meeting in Sydney in 2000. And even though I had mixed (at best) relationships with Australian colleagues – in a dog-eat-dog world nobody wants young, enthusiastic competition! – I was going to develop such a strong position that not even my strongest detractors could deny me a future in Australia when I was ready to return.
A lot of people who are focused on a goal forget about enjoying what happens along the way, and the truth is for all of us this is where real life is lived. As Mr Pfeffer says, “it’s not worth it if you don’t enjoy the ride”. For some that is a hard thing to achieve, but I am convinced that learning to “enjoy the ride” is the most important skill in life. And being open-minded on where that ride takes you will get you a long way towards enjoying that ride.
I can’t take credit for choosing the right path for me when I retired from science at 34 years of age. At the time it felt like I had little choice, and the extreme stress of what had occurred over the 3.5 years since we had left Australia to go to France – together with what had occurred before that – had robbed me of most of my perspective on life.
I was just extremely lucky that the path that I ended up on turned out to be the right one for me. I have told you both several times, but you need to know that I would not change a thing – and if I knew how much I would love being a stay-at-home dad to you both then I would never have struggled so much with my ending my scientific career. You both, together with your mother, are the best things that ever happened to me and I will be forever proud that I had the opportunity and privilege to take such a strong role in helping you to become the wonderful people you are.
The ride was so much better – and infinitely more fulfilling – than my dreams of what it would be like to achieve my earlier goal!
Again, not long after writing this to my boys I was interested to watch a 4 Corners episode on how hard it was for sports stars to deal with the ending of their careers, especially when it was an abrupt end through injury. Many spoke of their struggles with depression and anxiety.
I reflected on how ironic it is that it is that we only hear about these challenges because they were “winners” – that people might actually be interested in Lauren Jackson, for example, as she is known to many Australians because she was once a sports star.
I related very much to the challenges those sports people faced, as I think very many others would, and so I am pleased that the story aired. It’s just unfortunate that there is not a lot of awareness that very many every-day people have had to face similar challenges – you don’t need to have been a household name to have suffered the loss of what you perceived to be almost your very purpose for being, even one that you believed whole-heartedly was making a difference for society and mankind in general regardless of whether it was widely recognised or not.
When I returned from overseas without a job, but hoping to continue my research by attracting funding, I was manically driven to turn something up for myself. On one occasion I recall driving the car with my wife and realising just how much I was taxing my brain – I was driving while talking to my wife, and all along my mind was spinning with ideas for research proposals. I spent 18 months unemployed in Australia – but working every day writing research papers and grant applications, reviewing journal papers and research grants, and generally trying to prove myself useful to the university that was providing a desk for me – before reality caught up. In my case it was the joyous news that I was going to be a father – that my partner of 14 years, with whom I had dreamed for a decade of starting a family as soon as possible once we had some financial security and stability, was pregnant.
Having received notification that all of my grant proposal were unsuccessful, with nothing else on the horizon, and with a perhaps old fashioned view that it is best if one parent devotes themselves to raising children, it was clear that my career in science was over. And when I sent an email notifying my field of my retirement, including pulling research papers that were in various stages of review, and sending papers back to editors that I had received to review, suddenly a hole opened up in front of me that I could not avoid falling in. How on Earth can I occupy my thoughts when the thing that had consumed 90% of my cognisance was gone with the click of a mouse button!
I now realise that my nervous breakdown was inevitable… (That is something I probably would never have admitted to publically before, and only do so now as I am now fairly sure that I will never have another career, and I am not sure that society’s understanding of mental health is strong enough to see past that for an ex-scientist – though possibly for an ex-sports star!)
I tend not to enjoy speaking about my past and until recently I had been able to totally avoid it. But recently I joined a men’s group for company (while the kids are at school) and rather ironically after a few months a speaker was invited to discuss the white spot virus outbreak in Queensland prawn farms. I had never taken the step of standing in front of the guys and explaining my background – as most newcomers had done – though I realised I probably should as many would have wondered what this “young” fella was doing among them (I am 20 years younger than the average). When I reflected on what I would say I realised that at the time when I quit science most likely I was the only Australian who had ever worked with white spot virus. Even if there was another Australian who had worked on the virus in another foreign lab, I was certainly the only Australian who had exposed native Australian species to the virus.
It was hard to listen to the speaker – full of the political baloney that had frustrated me so greatly when I worked in Biosecurity policy in Canberra for a few years before we went to Europe – but ultimately it was very cathartic for me.
Finally, after 14 years, I can say in total honesty that I am free of the pain and disappointment, and am actually very grateful for the way things happened because as a young adult I got to experience the world through my career, by my early-30s I had established a formidable legacy that can never be taken from me, and best of all I have had the opportunity to be there for my sons in a way that very few modern parents – and especially fathers – do. I have come a long way from the 17 year-old who begged his parents to let him drop out of university to return to the family sugar cane farm in northern Queensland.
When I tell people that I am a stay at home dad, a lot of people respond that I am so lucky “to be able to do that”. Absolutely I am lucky. But not only because I am “able” to be a stay at home dad. Because through circumstances it was me that got to stay at home with the kids after my wife and I had chosen that was right for our family.
These decisions are intensely personal for Australian families. However, without seeking to diminish in any way the struggles that many Australians face in making rental payments, I have to admit that I agree with the authors of “Affluenza” where they suggest that there are also many Australians who are working more to earn more to buy more things to impress people that they like less. (Unfortunately a lot of those depreciating status symbols have now been bought by increasing leverage against appreciating home values which will prove ephemeral, certainly in inflation-adjusted terms.)
I can’t help but think that the issues raised in the above article are a reflection of growing anxiety in society, expressed especially in our children, and exacerbated by the perceived acceleration in the rate of change such that children have no idea of what “success” looks like in the future anyhow. For instance, they are told that they will have many more jobs than their parents had and most of these have not even been created. What’s more, perhaps they will only need to work 15 hours a week and be paid a basic universal income. In stark contrast, an alternative future might see Australia continue to follow the US and we could experience growing inequality and may have the entrenchment of a working class poor (who occasionally sell their plasma to help make ends meet).
The point is, I personally think that active and thoughtful parenting has never been more crucial for Australian children, and that is why I feel incredibly proud that we have put a lot of effort into making well-informed decisions, thankful to my Accountant wife for working hard and smart, and grateful for living in a society that allows people to choose what works for them.
Sadly, in my opinion, in Australia a career in science is probably a worse choice than sports person – instead of very low probability/high reward it is a low probability/low reward proposition (I studied till 26 and earned above a subsistence income for just 4 years) and I think “Park Ranger” is probably out of place on that list… I encourage my naturally STEM-talented sons to not listen to the business leaders that encourage increased enrolments in these fields and instead think about paths that what let them have their jobs if that’s what they end up deciding they would like to do…
Then again, I also note that Malcolm Turnbull said at the weekend that nobody should study law unless they intend to be a lawyer. My father always said to me, looking down as his muddied cane farmer hands and torn work clothes, “you don’t want to be like this, do you?”… Lately I have been reflecting on whether, just like it is natural for children to want to emulate especially their same sex parent, perhaps it is equally natural for us to want to discourage our children from following in our paths (even if somewhere deep down there is immense pride if they ultimately choose to)?
Additional comments on same thread on 13 February 2018
Since I wrote that passage on Friday, I have to admit that my past has been ruminating in my thoughts. Partly it is the reality that (when something happens to bring these memories and emotions back into the fore) I have to acknowledge that probably I will never truly be completely free from the disappointment and sadness (anybody who went recently to see Yusuf Cat Stevens in concert where he explained how difficult it was for him to “make up” with music after such a long time might begin to understand.)
However, there is also an element of guilt – and of concern that I might be seen to be a “Negative Nellie” by others – and worse still, one who would seek to take away the dreams of his children. In this day and age we are told that we should spend time only with “positive people”, and that “negative people” are just a drain on our energy. So speaking about negative issues – that are not graphically shocking and immediately anxiety-raising – is not exactly something that is “encouraged”.
This testing of myself is my nature that I cannot escape – a person who naturally asks “why” also is prone to repeatedly asking that question to test whether that opinion holds true to that moment in time.
Once again questioning my views that it is best to discourage my sons from following my path into science has brought a lot of those points back into my mind, and perhaps sharing them is a useful contribution on what needs to be addressed for scientific research to be a viable career for more young Australians.
Firstly, I will make 3 points:
1. Queensland called itself “The Smart State” over 20 years ago. In the intervening period we have had a massive resources boom, and somewhere along the way “The Smart State” was dropped from our car number plates.
2. Remember that huge issue in the early years of the new Millennium – the “Brain Drain”? – in Government reports in my field and reports to Government from Industry my name was included in discussions surrounding the affects of the Brain Drain.
3. When I held a Humboldt Fellowship in Germany in 2003 I met 7 other young Australian scientists holding the same fellowship. Only one of us had a job to return to – for young Australians the utility of the fellowship was to provide another year “in the game”. Fellows from most other countries – both developed and developing – typically were using the fellowship as a sabbatical. In that year Australians had one of the highest success rates of all countries – I think around 40% of applicants were successful. In other words, compared to the pool of Humboldt applicants, a better level of researcher was applying from Australia, and we were comparatively more insecure than even those coming from developing countries.
The takeaway from these points is that this issue has been around a very long time. But the reality is that, even if Governments decide that politically it might play well to talk about technology and innovation, there is a long history of these initiatives being dropped at the first sign of the easy gains from another resources boom.
The ambivalence surrounding this was clearly on display when I saw Paul Bloxham speak last week on television. This investment bank senior economist – who was said to be a loss to the Reserve Bank of Australia – when asked if he was concerned about the loss of advanced manufacturing and the lower levels of innovation in Australia, responded that he was not because we have no natural advantage in these areas and that we are better off focusing on those which we do – resources, tourism and education (of course, not research, but graduate factories).
For me nothing has changed, and the probability that anything will change in Australia on this front is very low.
With these thoughts fresh in my mind, at the weekend I was talking with a German research scientist currently working in an Australian university and another German-born visitor – a general practitioner living in the UK. The research scientist told me how he had to write his NH&MRC application that afternoon. He was looking forward to it because during the week he gets precious little time to actually “do any science”, and this for him was a rare opportunity. It was a common complaint that I heard many years ago.
It seems that most of those that actually gain security as a research scientist actually do very little of it – and those that actually do carry out the research generally have very, very little security.
We spoke about just how difficult it is to live a life in research science, and he was clear that he knew that he had been extremely fortunate to have survived. However, unsurprisingly, he was pointing out the things that he had done to survive – like being flexible and moving around.
When I told him about my experiences shifting around he had to concede that he also realised that flexibility was far from a guarantee, either (and he actually apologised when I told him what had occurred during my stint in German university – but that is another story). We also found common ground in acknowledging that it is very, very difficult to have what many would consider a “normal life”, such as putting/finding yourself in a position which you feel secure enough to have a child.
(In fact, I have come to realise that most of the people that I know of my age that have survived the academic or scientific research fields into their 40s in fact were unmarried. And one ex-scientist that I have gotten to know in recent years – a woman who ironically worked in the lab of one of the best-known Australian scientists working on a women’s health issue – was told that she had “clearly decided on an alternate path” when she notified her boss that she was pregnant!)
But I took the last bit of wind out of his sails when I asked whether he had unemployed researchers in his institute at a desk writing research proposals and generally trying to prove useful to find a way to stay in the game just a little longer.
His tone dropped as he confirmed there were several. I turned to our GP friend and rhetorically asked whether he had any unemployed GPs in their late 20s or 30s voluntarily turning up to work at the clinic just hoping that they might prove their worth and ultimately be rewarded with perhaps a 12 month contract, or get really lucky and be offered a 3 year contract!
You can be assured that most science departments in all Australian universities have these people desperately hoping to make something happen for themselves – not wanting to give up on their dreams, or lose all of what they have been working towards, and proving their resilience to someone… anyone… Many will not survive, and, besides the personal costs to those people, that is a serious waste of human capital and a significant loss to Australia.
What’s more, compared to contemporary science postgraduates I was fortunate because monetarily I only paid for this lesson in foregone income. HECS only came in towards the end of my undergraduate degree and it was standard to receive waivers on HECS when conducting postgraduate research.
Imagine coming out into this environment with a full HECS debt from undergraduate studies and postgraduate qualifications for the privilege of conducting research that you hoped might help mankind in some way.
Why do so many people do it? Probably in part because it’s easiest to keep “doubling down” in the hope that black might finally be spun on the roulette wheel rather than realistically reconsidering the probabilities of the range of “successful” outcomes (from single to multi-year contracts through to more secure employment).
More important, I suspect, is that monetary reward is not a high priority for budding researchers, while intellectual and self-esteem rewards are more important. My second job after completing my PhD was a well-paid Government policy position, but I only ever saw the extra income as a resource to be saved to ultimately help me to get where I wanted to go – to be a word-class research scientist.
When I moved to France my personal income dropped by over half, and because my wife could not work, our household income dropped by over 80%. The following year over 40% of my Humboldt fellowship went to paying rent in Munich, and the remainder went on other living costs. And on returning to Australia I was unemployed for 18 months while I worked every day (towards the end I had a 3 month contract based in Thailand at a local rate of pay).
Even at that point, it did not really concern me EXCEPT for the fact that in the two years we were in Europe Brisbane house prices had doubled. By the time we had settled in Brisbane, with my wife in a full-time job, and then pregnant with our first child, house prices were well on their way to tripling!
As I said to the Senate Select Committee on Housing Affordability at its Brisbane hearing, deteriorating housing affordability in Brisbane during this period was a deciding factor in our decision to end my career.
Effectively, the political system is choosing a structure for our economy that disadvantages and thus dis-incentivises a huge swathe of people who, under a different structure, might choose to stay on in roles which “give back” to society.
With the prospect of growing inequality, it is completely rational that those with flexible innate and learned abilities will choose “safer” career options which are more likely to provide the opportunities afforded to previous generations of Australians, such as the possibility to have children and own a home.
To take this the full circle, I see no evidence from policy-makers that they even understand the short-comings in our economy and society, let alone have any desire to genuinely tackle these issues in sustainable long-term strategy.
While that remains the case, when I hear a business leader encouraging young Australians to increase enrolments in STEM I will continue to re-interpret the acronym as follows: STEM = smarties to exploit monetarily!
Instead, to young Australians I would suggest that, as well as climbing trees and enjoying your sports for the fun of it, get a subscription to National Geographic and American Scientist and let that satisfy your interest in science.
I have the Sky Business Channel, Bloomberg or CNBC running continuously at home outside of the kids’ electronic time. It is on not only for my interest, but so that my sons passively take it in. My 12 year old knows who are Mario Draghi, Janette Yellen, and Glen Stevens and now Phil Lowe; he understands (roughly) what is quantitative easing; and he understands more about markets than I understood in my early 20s. A week ago my 9 year old acknowledged that I was right about bitcoin, that when something seems too good to be true in finance it nearly always is.
A while back my eldest son challenged me suggesting that I have these channels running all of the time because I want him to work in “business”. I simply said that I will be proud of him no matter what he chooses as his first career or job. But I stressed the importance of understanding that what happens in these markets has a huge effect on what happens in the world and affects the way people can live their lives. (That lesson was seared into me watching what happened to my parents and family when the world sugar price collapsed in the early 80s – and that was followed by a sharp lesson in politics when Sir Joh told a hall full of desperate cane farmers that he would not do anything to help them because he had not had a member in parliament from the area for several years!)
The one thing that I do stress to my children, however, is the importance of not getting hung up on what will be their first job. After all, if they are going to have several different careers, and more jobs than the previous generation, which are yet to even exist, then why get stressed about choosing the first one! We also talk about the importance of flexible thinking and of strong emotional intelligence – thank fully they get that modelled to them in spades by their mother!
To those who have waded through these thoughts, sincere thanks… I hope they are of some use…
© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2019