What You Look for Is What You Find: Look for Strengths

Not so long ago a friend and I were discussing our workplace culture, the individuals in it, and how the people scheduled to work on a particular day determined how hard the day will be (because some people work more than others). It was a discussion after too many hard hours; we were tired and burnt out. We started spiraling down the path of complaining about everything. Halfway down the trail, I paused to remember that all things are a matter of perspective.

It is easy to complain about coworkers. To gripe how so-and-so doesn’t do or know enough or how they make our work lives harder. Sometimes all we need to do before we can move on is vent, which is productive, while other times we get caught fixating on what makes a particular person terrible, which solves nothing.

I believe anyone can change, and everyone does, but only when they want to change and only when they’re ready. As such, we each can defend ourselves and what we believe in, but expecting others to bend to our will is futile for enacting change in my view. I have NEVER seen anyone work harder after I wished they did. On the flip side, I have seen people work harder when complimented on what they do well and asked to join in the fray when they were surrounded by good examples. This is where perspective comes in. Before you can complement a peer or ask them to do something you know they’ll do well, you must know their strengths. The only way to notice strengths is to look for them, which requires quite the opposite type of astuteness used to identify weaknesses. 

We can’t avoid noticing when others seem to be slacking while we are working too hard. But, as we muddle along, we can also strive to notice if those same slackers do a particular thing well. Once you notice a strength in a peer, you can look to and rely on that person to step up in situations where their strength is vital. This is particularly helpful if their strength is a weakness of yours or if they like tasks you dislike because it transforms a colleague that you found difficult into a resource. We are stronger when we play off each other’s strengths, rather than focus on each other’s weaknesses. Of course, noticing strengths doesn’t negate the wearisomeness of having to pick up another person’s slack or negate a personality clash, but it does lighten the burden and give us an avenue to find common ground. You will see what you look for, so I strive to look for the good. When I get derailed, I vent and, then, try again. Usually, I can find something wonderful within any human. I bet we all can if we try.  

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Below the Surface

A pre-holiday Paraguay visit is to blame for the blogging hiatus this December. It had been 2 years since I last visited Paraguay, the country where I lived for 27 months while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. My Paraguayan friends were amazingly generous. They fed and housed me. They brought me on adventures around their lovely country. We spent hours chatting and eating—recalling old times, catching up on times spent separately, and dreaming about the future. I was reminded of how easily Paraguayans show affection—through food and time given to others. I was reminded, as I’ve been hundreds of times, of how lucky I am to have stumbled upon my Paraguayan community and how spoiled I feel to enjoy the company of my Paraguayan friends.

During this visit as I walked back from church one evening, after attending the celebration that marked the closure of the Christmas in Families (which is where people go to family homes to share passages from the Bible and prayer for 9 days in the month leading up to Christmas), I was reminded of a story shared at my favorite Paraguayan mass years ago. I don’t remember the occasion for the mass or who gave the sermon, but I remember the story the priest shared. I think, regardless of religious beliefs, it reminds us that we must look carefully and patiently to see what’s hidden below other’s facades. It’s what was hidden below the surface that made me fall in love with Paraguay. It was the journey of looking deeper at the land of Guarani that taught me resilience and showed me how to find hope no matter the circumstances. Here’s the story from that mass:

A Ride in a Car

There once was a young man whose rich brother gave him a fancy new car. The young man was so proud of his car, he loved to drive it all around town. One day, the young man had to park his car in a poor neighborhood while he was running an errand.

As the young man walked back to his car after finishing his errand, he noticed a boy circling his car. The young man worried that the boy was trying to find a way to enter or damage the car. The young man hurried to his car and asked the boy what he was doing by the car.

“I’m just looking at your car! It’s so nice. I’ve never seen one like it. I hope one day I will have a car like this one!” the boy said.

The young man explained that his brother had given him the car. “Wow!” the boy said. The boy and the young man talked about the car at length. The young man scolded himself for thinking the boy had been up to no good.

“Since you don’t have a wealthy brother to give you a car, would you like to take a ride in my car with me?” the young man asked the boy after they had talked for some time.

The boy jumped with excitement and jumped into the car. They drove a little way, then the boy asked if the young man could pause in an alleyway because the boy had to deliver a message to someone. Once they stopped, the boy asked the young man to wait for him to return, promising to be right back. The young man agreed to wait for the boy, but again had doubts. He wondered if the boy was getting someone to help him steal the car. The young man waited nervously, thinking of all the bad things that could happen. He thought about leaving before the boy returned, but something made him wait.

After several long minutes, the boy appeared in the doorway of a building in the alley. The young man squinted, the boy had something in his arms. The boy approached the car. Once the boy was close to the car, the young man noticed that the boy had a sickly, disabled child in his arms. “Sir, this is my brother! Can he take a ride in the car too? I want to show him the car. I have just promised him that one day when I am rich, I will buy him a nice car just like yours.”

The young man agreed to take both boys for a ride. The young man scolded himself not only for distrusting the boy, but for thinking the boy was envious of his car.

Countdown to Visiting Paraguay

It’s been 2 years since I last stepped foot in Paraguay, that little country at the heart of South America where I lived for 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer. But, I’m going there for 2 weeks this December. It’ll be the second time I’ve gone back to visit since returning to the US.

I find myself falling into a reflective mood as I think about the long journey south. My trip comes at the best time, when snow and cold have descended on Vermont. I need a break from winter even though it’s only just arrived. I’m reflective because I’m a very different person than the one who left Paraguay almost 3 years ago. I won’t bore you with the details of thrusting myself into pre-medicine and the whirlwind of building a new life in Vermont, both adventures that have consumed my time since I moved back to the States. What I will say, however, is that I’m excited to see the red dirt of Paraguay again. I look forward to their fatty foods. And most of all, I can’t wait to sit with the Paraguayans I call my family and friends and discuss the weather and life…and crack jokes. Often, the jokes are about my singleness or professional focus (aspects of my being that are particularly distinct from the Paraguayan way of life) but not always.

Many of the kids I taught in Paraguay have graduated or are soon to graduate high school. I see their Facebook photos of college study and adult life. Many of them have lost parents to illness. Some of those parents I knew and spoke to on my almost daily walks to the school. Many of my students have their own babies now. Few are married yet.

Some of the elderly women I used to spend the afternoons with have passed away since I last visited. Others, I’m not sure if they’re alive because they don’t have cell phones. What I know is that the señoras in my Paraguayan community will welcome me into their homes with just as many smiles and just as much generosity as they did when I was their neighbor. Those women took me in as their daughter. I think they were always torn about what kind of daughter was. On one hand, I didn’t know anything about the right way to navigate life in Paraguay, but, on the other hand, I knew how to travel from my country to theirs and I have so many dreams and goals.

In many ways life in Paraguay is the same as here. But, as I think about going back I’m also reminded by just how difference it is. The food and smells—meat and real animal fat mix with the smell of live chickens, pigs, and cows who idle close to the houses. The topics of conversation vary, but there is something unique about the gossip of families who have lived by one another for so many generations no one remembers any other place they called home. They speak in a mix of Spanish and Guarani (the indigenous language); the sounds of those languages together bring back many memories of the best two, but also the hardest two, years of my life so far. The soundtrack of Paraguay is different—the rhythms of bachata, polka, cumbia, and reggaeton fill the air on hazy, hot weekend days and weekday nights.

In many ways, Paraguay has the indomitable nature of never outwardly changing in any significant way, just like my home state of Vermont. But, just as Vermont, there are the subtle differences of life moving forward. One of my dearest friends has returned to law school (she’s already a lawyer) for a specialty degree and she is now a mother—both new accomplishments since I last saw her. Another friend finished his military training and now works for the Paraguayan Navy—he still visits his family’s home whenever he gets a stretch of days free from duty. Another friend started a local clothing store. All of us are older than we once were. The babies I knew when I lived in Paraguay are now children. The children are almost adults.

As I drink my daily mate alone in Vermont, I often think about my Paraguayan friends. I miss them every day. I miss them because no other people I’ve encountered is so good at sharing time with each other. So good at making you feel welcomed and loved. Their culture has built in values and rituals that allow friends and family to sit together and share a drink or a meal without any other obligation. I miss my Paraguayan families because they are so good at seeing the bright side of everything. So good at ignoring the bad things that happen, almost to a fault.

The nostalgia I feel for Paraguay is one where all the bad aspects of living there are forgotten and I remember only the good. Of course, both the light and dark sides of Paraguayan life will confront me when I land again in that country…but somehow that doesn’t bother me.

I remember the first time I flew to Paraguay, not knowing what awaited me there. It was exciting and petrifying. This time when I go back, I know the communities and families who will greet me again with open arms. I can’t wait to see them. I can’t wait to eat chipa and sip terere in the shade of tropical trees because it is absolutely too hot to do anything else. I can’t wait to walk around my old community and say “hi” to every human I pass because that’s the Paraguayan way. I can’t wait to be reminded there is more than one way to live life, none better or worse than the other, just different.

English Social Vocabulary Cramps My Style

While I can bore you with a VERY long laundry list of why I love speaking Spanish more than English—especially the Guaraní-Spanish mix (called “jopara”) spoken in Paraguay—I won’t. There’s one term, however, above all the other turns of phrase that I still (years after returning to the US) struggle without. The term is “guapa” (“guapo” for males).

In the Paraguayan context, “guapa” means hardworking. It’s a compliment that’s dished out like gravy at Thanksgiving—in copious amounts and without restraint. If you show up at a friend’s house, you’re “guapa.” If you do the dishes, clear the dishes, or help in any minor way, you’re guapa. If you study like crazy, you’re guapa. If you work long hours, you’re guapa. If you remember someone’s birthday, you’re guapa. If you take two seconds do to anything for anyone else, you’re guapa.

Despite its prevalence and low-barrier for use, I think “guapa” is the most wonderful term. Why? Because it promotes a spirit of teamwork. The word builds into social culture an easy way to constantly appreciate others for their contributions to the wellbeing of the whole. Anyone can be guapa and multiple people can be guapa at once because the more guapa-ness there is the better off everyone ends up.

In my workplace and social spaces, I’ve tried to substitute in English words for “guapa.” “Rocks star,” “champion,” and “genius” are among my favorites, but none of these words hold the shared meaning that “guapa” does in Paraguay. In Paraguay, when you call someone “guapa” it as if you’re saying, “Not only do I notice that thing you’re doing, but also I appreciate both the outcome of your action and you for making it happen.”

In the US, we are busy. In the US, we have high standards. Why the heck don’t we have a word whose sole purpose is to cheer on our colleagues, friends, and family as they undertake their daily adventures? Sometimes I wonder if it comes down to our emphasis on individualism. But, in my mind, even the strongest individual required a village to reach their full potential. I believe we (American English speakers) do more harm than good not having a term to thank folks for all their small acts that make our lives a tad bit brighter each day. “Guapa” makes appreciation a natural part of interaction, not something done out of obligation or because it improves outcomes. I miss being able to use “guapa.” I miss the community feeling words like “guapa” create.

What Is a Hero?

Quandary and Claim

Recently, the discussion as to whether the football players who took a knee during the national anthem were heroes has been zooming across my social media feeds. Often those who do not believe they were heroes show a side-by-side of a sportsman next to a soldier and proclaim that the soldier is the real hero. The first time I saw the comparison it irked me because it is an-apples-to-oranges argument. Further, I think the logic is founded on false pretenses because it says that what title you have determines your hero status. History has shown us many times that title and profession have little to do with heroism. Think of any recent disaster you’d like, you’ll find a story of some common human stepping up to be a hero. Further, being a hero is not exclusive, which is to say that just because one human is a hero does not mean another cannot also be a hero.

Being anything, even a soldier, does not automatically make you a hero. Many soldiers grow to become heroes, their line of work can be a selfless one, but not all. It is unwise to overlook the crimes specific, individual soldiers have committed—the pain they caused soundly rules them out as hero candidates. It would also be foolish to say that any highly-paid athlete is a hero—providing entertainment and winning games does not a hero make.

Some Incomplete Definitions

Google defines hero as, “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”

My Merriam-Webster dictionary ap defines hero as, “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.”

These definitions leave a bit to be desired because they do not define what exactly an “outstanding achievement” or “brave act” is nor do they define what “noble” or “fine” qualities are. So, let’s explore those concepts.

Outstanding Achievements and Brave Acts

I do not believe that just any outstanding achievement or brave act makes you a hero.

For example…

Getting into medical school is an outstanding achievement, but all medical students are not heroes. It is brave to ride a motorcycle down a curvy, highly-trafficked highway (if you worked in the emergency room you’d think that too), but not all folks who ride motorcycles in dangerous places are heroes.

Selfless acts make heroes.

The acts and achievements that bring “hero” into the dialogue are those where an individual does something that will help another person or group (family, peers, race, gender, nationality…etc.) even though the cost of that act for the individual outweighs any potential personal gain.

For example…

The firefighter who rescues a kid from a burning building. A bystander who helps an old lady cross the street even though he is then late for work. MLK who scarified his freedom and life to fight for equality. The soldier who threw himself on a grenade to protect his comrades. The teacher who stayed after school every day to help a struggling student grasp the material. Malala Yousafzai who spoke up for women’s rights even though it put her in harm’s way. The list goes on…and on…

Noble and Fine Qualities

Similarly, not all qualities that are noble and fine are heroic qualities. Being kind is a noble quality. But kindness alone doesn’t make you a hero, it just makes you a decent human.

Qualities that heroes often embody are selflessness and a fierce definition of right and wrong. I would argue, however, that a hero need not exhibit these qualities every moment of their life.

So, what is a hero?

A hero is someone who changed the course of another’s life (or many others) in such a way as to reduce their suffering, increase their happiness, or protect their individual freedom to reach their full potential (I’ll leave you to define “full potential”) without directly benefiting themselves. Heroes can be local, national, or global. The scale does not detract from the heroism, it simply describes how widely known the hero’s story is. I believe a child who stands up and stops other students from bullying a classmate on her playground is as much a hero as Nelson Mandela, even if the impact is smaller. It is not easy to act selflessly. It is true, however, that some professions and circumstances provide more opportunities to be a hero. I would also argue that “hero” is not inherently a permanent title. It is fleeting and describes a specific act during a specific time. However, some people are so often heroic that they earn the description again and again.

Conclusion

It is not productive to nitpick whether Colin Kaepernick is more of a hero than a soldier. It is worth acknowledging that Kaepernick did something that many football players have not. He brought race discussions to the forefront of entertainment. He forced us to examine if our country is living up to what we claim our guiding principles are in a time when public figures have attacked just about every minority and women. In making us question if our country is truly fighting to give ALL its citizens the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness Kaepernick made me wonder if we are giving our soldiers the chance to be national heroes or if we are putting them in impossible situations where they can only be heroes within their unit because their country is sending them into battles that cause more harm than good. I think it is important to remember that even if not every soldier is a hero their profession is asking them to put country before their own life. That is a big request; it would be worth reminding our leaders that such a request should weigh heavily on every decision they make.

Work-Life Balance

Why do some people always seem to have time for vacation, camping trips, and concerts while others always seem to be working? How do some people function on what seems to be no sleep? What exactly is work-life balance? Is being a workaholic a problem or just one way of giving life meaning?

Some Case Studies

Hospitals

Health care is full of people who work almost around the clock—nights, weekends, and holidays are fair game. But, for example, the shift work of nursing can allow for many days off every 2 weeks. Plenty of nurses I know take advantage of 36-hour, full-time work weeks (broken into 3, 12-hour shifts). A sample biweekly work week is 3 days working, 1 day sleeping, 3 days working and 7 days off. Despite the exhaustingly long shifts, these nurses enjoy 4 more days off every 2 weeks than a person who works a job Monday through Friday.

My American Family

In my immediate family, there are many models of work. Several of my family members are self-employed. They may work every day but they might also take long stretches off. Some days are long; some days are short. My sister is a trainer and fitness queen. While she often works fewer than 40 hours per week, her hours are spread out across every day of the week and at different times of day such that taking even one day off requires scheduling magic. There’s my step-mom who has the stereotypical workaholic, business schedule which is based on an 8-hour slot Monday through Friday. Of course, a few hours are tacked onto each day and she works additional hours over the weekend. In the end, she works something like 80 hours a week even though she’s on paper for 40—and, stepping away for any stretch of time seems impossible.

Paraguay

In Paraguay, holidays are sacred, summers are lazy, and commutes are so long they seem unreal. Except for the man I knew in the Navy and some small business owners, no Paraguayan I met while living there worked during a national holiday. Perhaps that’s different in Asunción (the capital) and in major hospitals (of which there are few) but generally Paraguayans don’t work holidays. Additionally, few people work on Sundays. Almost nobody works past midnight. While many Paraguayans have long commutes to work and work long hours, the number of days off they have in a year dwarfs the number of days off many Americans choose to take.

Paraguay vs US

In Paraguay, family comes first for most people. Most people work to support their family and buy nice things. Most Paraguayans prioritize time off visiting, eating, celebrating, and watching soccer over working endless hours. Most Americans prioritize working. Many Americans bank hundreds of vacation hours that they cash out or lose entirely. Of course, these are stereotypes…but, during my experience living in both countries, the stereotypes of family-first for Paraguay and work-first for the US seemed justified. I’ve often asked myself, “Who has it right?”

The Perfect Balance

The balance between work and other activities isn’t static. The perfect balance, the one that yields the greatest happiness, is unique for each human. Neither the Paraguayan approach nor the American life approach is better, they are just different. Paraguay taught me the importance of downtime while the US emphasizes overtime and constant production. Regardless of who you are, there are times when work should come first and times when family, vacation, rest, or anything else must come first.

Winning the balance comes down to being willing to reflect on your life and to make changes. For example, when one of my friends frequently complains about working too much or is always exhausted, I often ask if it’s time to scale-back or change their work schedule, job, or approach to working. When another friend often talks about being bored at work or not making enough money, my thought is that it’s time for them to invest more effort in professional growth. Is it easy to change things up and move toward something different? No.

It’s hard to reflect on your life and make meaningful changes. What I do to face the challenge is break my life into chapters and then identify what made me happiest and saddest during each chapter. I use what I identified to inform my guesses about what I need to do today to tip the scale more towards happy going forward. I tend to be work-centered (mostly because I love learning and feeling productive). As a result, the life side of my balance always requires more attention and energy than the work side. Knowing this, I put extra effort into “life” to keep my scale level. My scale often dips one way or the other, but I try not to let the off-kilter stretches jar me. Rather, I make small adjustments until I waver around a mix of experience that feels right for the time.

Mansplaining Women’s Empowerment

I went to a training on managing aggressive patient behavior, mostly via verbal de-escalation. The class included a section on basic physical defense—such as getting out of a chokehold and escaping when someone grabs your arm. The skills were useful, but I found myself more frustrated than fulfilled by the class. What ruined the class was that one of the instructors preached for 20 minutes about how the young women in the class should feel empowered by the self-defense skills he just taught us. He told us some stories about women who were raped and killed because “they didn’t put up a fight.” He explained how we should be careful, avoid bad situations, and if attacked fight back.

Mansplaining: definition from the wiki article, “(of a man) to comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner.”

I was insulted by the lecture because as a woman I’ve been told countless times to be careful. When I told my family I was joining a night crew on an ambulance squad, almost before I was congratulated on finally starting as an EMT, I was asked if it would be safe for me to sleep at the station with my male crew members. Throughout my Peace Corps training, we had sessions on gender relations and how to avoid getting raped in our host country. In college, our advisers used to give us party-going strategies to avoid getting drugged. The list goes on.

It is NOT empowering to be told that you’re a victim and will always be a target. It is NOT empowering when people create boundaries (perceived or real) for you. It is empowering when others complement you on your success, offer intelligent advice as you work through challenges, and lend their support as you strive to reach lofty goals. Let me offer an example of what disempowering and empowering look like:

Disempowering: In a recent conversation with a male nurse, both the fact that I’m applying to medical school and my age (I’m almost 30) came up. The nurse didn’t comment on my age until I mentioned I’d applied to medical school. Upon hearing about my professional ambition, he “jokingly” asked why I wasn’t married and pregnant at my age. That is such a classic example of sexism it could be in a textbook. He never would have asked any man that question, even in jest, about applying to medical school.

Empowering: Upon telling one of my mentors about a test score I wished was higher, he said that he was sure I’d be just fine and turned to the other person with us to explain that “good” by my standards was quite different than “good” by most standards because I have high expectations.

Being an adventurous, single woman does clash with society’s view of women. How can I travel to foreign countries alone? It’s so dangerous. How can I go hiking or camping alone? It’s so dangerous. I’m not going to argue that those activities are safe. What I wish to suggest is that I have the intelligence to decide for myself what is safe and not safe, worth the risk and not worth it, and how to avoid unnecessary danger. I don’t need people to remind me how awful the world is. I need people to help me figure out how to overcome the challenges between me and reaching my goals.

What I wish that the instructor of the class about managing aggressive behavior knew is how many creepy men I’ve avoided in my life already, long before his class. I wish he understood that I don’t need him to tell me I should be careful and fight back. It is not empowering to be viewed as a potential victim of aggression, especially sexual aggression, even if you know how to fight back. It is empowering to be seen as a peer and fellow human with dreams, strengths, and weaknesses that transcend sex and gender. That is what women’s empowerment is all about; being viewed as an intelligent being and not an object or target or static lump.

Prayers

Trying to get into medical school is a bit of a slog at times. I’ve been lucky to have people support me during each leap through the hoops of fire. Recently, I’ve had a few folks tell me they’re praying for me, and then qualify their statement by saying they know not everyone believes in God. I was surprised that they felt the need to acknowledge I may not believe in their God.

In Paraguay, my adopted mothers prayed for me almost every time I left their house for mine (so almost daily). I am and was always thankful because of the sentiment. I believe it’s tremendously generous and kind when a person cares enough to think of me, to support me, and then to ask for help on my behalf—whether they communicate with their God or simply wish me luck.

In America, I think we publicize the extremes. I see politics radically divided. Political opinions are often based on extreme visions of how things should be or a rebellion against others’ interpretations of right and wrong. These hardline stances don’t allow for more than one opinion to thrive. To me, holding an unweaving “I’m right and they’re wrong” stance is limiting because it creates rigid definitions of aspects of life that neither the State nor another individual can interpret for me or you.

I attended church often in Paraguay because the church was the center of everything in my Paraguay community. I did not and still do not believe in the God of that church. But, I could feel how strongly my Paraguayan friends and family believed in their God. To them, their God was not only the source of life and reason for living but also the definition of love. Going to church allowed me to better understand how they saw the world. The Paraguayans who welcomed me into their lives knew our views of God were different, and they still embraced me as a dear friend. They included me in their secular and religious activities, answered my millions of questions that began with “Why?”, and they accepted it when I sat out from certain rituals because they were “too much for me.” What these shared experiences taught me was that we do not need to have the same definition of life and love to build friendships. We just need to be comfortable knowing that even though we see eye-to-eye on some things and share some history, we also hold very different views of certain aspects of life.

My hope is that someday the US won’t just be tolerant, but that each of us will be comfortable standing side-by-side with folks who are different from us, be strong enough to ask questions to learn more about how those different people see the world, and be proud enough of our belief system to follow it without expecting others to pledge allegiance to our view.

When I think of those who prayed for me before I took the MCAT, I’m thankful. Perhaps their prayers didn’t mean to me what they meant to them, but I think we share the knowledge that what I was doing was hard and whatever assistance they gave would be part of my success.

Christof

There’s a guy, Christof, in my neighborhood who collects returnable bottles from the recycling we put out on the corner for the city each Friday. One day when my father was visiting me, he struck up a conversation with Christof. One of Christof’s daughters went to college and the other didn’t–Christof joked that the daughter who finished college doesn’t have a job while the other one does. He collects bottles to help both of them.

I don’t often drink anything that comes in a redeemable bottle, but since chatting with Christof, my father started saving his seltzer bottles…he drinks a lot of seltzer. My father brings the bottles to my house (even though I live about 2 hours away) when he visits so I can give them to Christof.

I work nights, so it’s challenging to put out the recycling before Christof passes. One morning I saw him, though, collecting from the neighbors. As he walked by, I ran out and asked him to wait a moment. He paused, a smile lighting his face. I handed him 2 huge trash bags of bottles I’d squirreled in the garage for a few weeks. He thanked me a million times, wished me a blessed day, and was on his way.

At first, I thought my father was ridiculous for saving bottles for Christof. But, that morning when I saw Christof’s face after I handed him our bags of bottles, I realized that my father was right. We can get so caught up in all the big things we should do that we do nothing. Christof reminded me that it’s the small things that add up in the end. And, luckily, life is full of small things.

Framing: Beautiful Microbe, Beautiful Molecule

Before I started down the health science path I studied communications. In communications, there’s an idea called “framing.” Framing is a theory that’s often applied to the media and how it shapes public opinion about certain topics. The concept is that how you talk about a specific topic (ex. healthcare)—such as the tone you use and the details you include (or leave out)—can shape other people’s perceptions of the topic.

I’ve noticed that several of my science professors use framing as a teaching tactic. And, despite knowing exactly what they’re doing, I still fall for it.

I’m currently studying microbiology and organic chemistry. There’s a lot of new information to learn and for organic chemistry there are a few new thinking skills I’ve been practicing—such as being able to think about molecules in 3D. It’s an interesting challenge to train your brain to be able to rotate different molecular structures using only your imagination. I’m lucky enough to find microbiology and organic chemistry fascinating, but still it’s hard work. That’s where the framing comes in.

My organic chemistry professor introduces particularly complex or tricky molecules as “beautiful molecules.” “This is a beauuuutiful molecule,” he’ll say. He’ll also start a new chapter by saying “This is an important chapter. This is very cool…let me tell you why.” And, somewhere in that explanation of how awesome the challenging topic is, he’ll make a few comments about needing to practice the skills he’s about to show us. “But I will teach you how to…” he will conclude.

My microbiology professor does the same thing. I always know when he’s preparing to introduce a particularly complex metabolism, process, or cycle used by bacteria because he’ll pull up a picture of a microbe and say “This beautiful microbe…”

Those are current examples, but my general chemistry professor did the same thing. His word for hard concepts to learn was “interesting” rather than “beautiful.”

So what’s going on with this inappropriate use of descriptive words? Framing. Why? Because it works. As absurd as it sounds, it’s way easier to fight with a beautiful molecule than a molecule that’s “annoying” or “difficult” or “challenging” from the very start. I don’t think microbes are necessarily beautiful, but I approach them with much more interest and forgiveness when they are presented to me as “beautiful” rather than “ugly” or “evil” or “bad.” And, when trying to complete long chemical equations, it is a lot easier to complete the “interesting” problem than it is the “hard”, “tricky”, or “terrible” problem.

What’s my long-winded point? Before I dove into science I heard that it was “hard” and “confusing” and “dry” and “boring” and many other potentially negative adjectives. Sometimes I completely agree. But, most of the time, I do think it’s amazingly interesting. I think we’d do a lot of young people thinking about their future (and older people looking for something new) a service if we framed science as something wonderful. Sure, there is plenty about it that’s hard, and even monotonous, but most of it (all of it maybe) is not beyond most people’s reach. We’ve just conditioned our population to think science is either too complicated for them or not something they’d find interesting by describing it as scary, trying, and a thing that only geeks and brilliant people do. It’s worth a frame-shift around science. Why? What better way to find answers to medical questions, renewable energy questions, etc. than having more people researching and exploring those topics?