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Fulfillment and Flow through MarioKart

Submitted by Lori Conlan January 18, 2022

While the past two years mark a time of profound loss, they also mark a time of extraordinary social transformation, particularly in the virtual realms. After the initial shock and grief that the world felt in lockdown, we collectively experienced the widespread rekindling of old hobbies, mass Twitter activism, many failed attempts to make Dalgona coffee, and a near-universal feeling of meh. To describe this feeling, we were (re)gifted the word ‘languishing’ by Adam Grant in his viral 2021 New York Times article “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing”. Grant joked that he had “…never seen people so excited to talk about their utter lack of excitement” and explained that giving a name to this feeling helped many people take the first step in processing the unprecedented events of this pandemic.

A few months after this article’s release, Grant shared his MarioKart theory of peak flow in a TEDMonterey talk titled “How to stop languishing and start finding flow”. Through this talk, he brilliantly tells a highly relatable story about how his family creatively connected despite not being able to travel to see each other.” Over videocall, his family played MarioKart together and became closer than ever. Now, some might initially wince at the idea of spending even more time in the virtual world, but Grant expertly breaks down the three conditions that separated this experience from forms of escapism like doomscrolling or binging Netflix:

  1. Mastery is progressing as the result of effort. The satisfaction we get from a task of “just-manageable difficulty” is motivating, whether it be finally getting your sourdough to rise, learning a complex laboratory technique, or figuring out a difficult level in your favorite game.
  2. Mindfulness is paying full attention to something, and dedicating time to focus on something is at the core of flow.
  3. Mattering is knowing that what you are doing is making a difference to other people. Flow is experienced at its peak when we know the names, faces, and/or stories of the people who benefit from what we are doing.

For Grant, the mattering in MarioKart was connecting with his family. He cheerfully reminds the audience that we can overcome languishing through activities that are not traditionally considered productive. We have a tendency to equate our worth with our productivity, which implies that fulfillment comes solely from purpose, especially in our work. You can hear more about focusing on wellness rather than purpose in Chloe Hakim Moore’s excellent TEDx talk. This is not to say that fulfillment at work and career satisfaction are not important, but rather to say that they are not the only way to feel fulfilled in one’s life. To embrace the full spectrum of our mental health and well-being, we may need to first ask where we each experience flow. The next step then, may be to connect with others. If we can experience languishing as a collective, we can work toward sharing the experience of flow as well.

Guest Blogger: Charlesice Hawkins
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.

Do Time Management Skills Exist? Yes!

Submitted by Lori Conlan January 20, 2022

We often wonder to ourselves, “Where has the time gone?” or find ourselves wishing that there were more hours in the day. As we continue to ponder that question or wait for that wish to come true, let’s consider our perspective on time!

Whether it is reflective of our to-do list, competing priorities, or fatigue, we often start with the feeling that there is a time deficit. When we start in a place of feeling that we are at a deficit, it can be difficult to rebound from this feeling. Instead of engaging in this deficit mindset, it is more strategic to consider how you can work with time rather than thinking that time is working against you.

Ineffective and inconsistent time management skills can minimize our capacity to harness time, add to feelings of tiredness and fatigue, impair memory and sleep, and cause mood symptoms. Effective time management habits help reduce long-term stress, provide direction, and increase our control of productivity. Below are a few tips to help assist in effectively managing time.

  1. Get to know your time wasters. There are many internal and external factors that can cause us to lose time. This can include time spent numbing out on our phone, lack of strategy to attend to our to do list, or being over committed. By being aware of your time wasters, you can work to minimize engaging in those behaviors.
  2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. There are often competing interests and priorities in our lives which can be challenging to juggle. Being able to prioritize, delegate and eliminate the unnecessary tasks are important time management skills. When prioritizing, you want to start by distinguishing among tasks that are urgent, important, both, or neither. Once this is determined, identify and track the time necessary to complete a task. Then, strategically decide where to schedule these tasks into your day. You may want to start with the largest task, go in sequence of priority level, or even work in chunks of time. It is important to find a method or methods that work for you.
  3. Control your procrastination tendencies. We are all guilty of procrastinating at some point in our lives. Two ways that we can control our procrastination tendencies are to avoid perfectionism and structure our time. Perfectionism can be a roadblock and does not allow us to be flexible when faced with stress. Be supportive to yourself and find ways to counter the unrealistic perfectionist cognitions. Structure can be difficult to create for ourselves. Collect data on your use of time and create realistic expectations based upon that information.
  4. Manage your commitments. Whether it is within our personal or professional lives, it can be very easy to be overcommitted. Signing on to exciting new projects, saying yes to social plans, or wanting to be a team player can lead us to a longer to-do list than is manageable. Remember that it is okay to say no or reevaluate a commitment that we previously said yes to. By managing our commitments, we are able to be more consistent in our efforts, provide better quality work, and manage our overall stress.
  5. Avoid sleep stealers. Lack of adequate sleep has a trickle-down effect for our overall health and productivity. An effective time management skill is to develop a consistent sleep regimen that promotes a restful sleep with minimal stimuli that deter us from rest.

Guest Blogger: Jenn Wiggins, MA, LPC: Wellness Advisor, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.

Growing Beyond Imposter Fears: It’s a Journey, Not a Destination

Submitted by Lori Conlan January 26, 2022

“Be okay with being uncomfortable.”  This is a quote that I read every day to remind myself that there may be days when I feel that I am not qualified enough to accomplish my goals.  In my younger days, I was never afraid to experience things for the first time that were out of my comfort zone.  Through life’s experiences, I saw self-doubt and imposter fears encroach on my fearlessness, and I had to develop strategies to work through these emotions.

I attended a Historically Black College/University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.  As an undergraduate, I was an average student and didn’t know much about research.  I wasn’t amongst the top tier students, but I had a genuine interest in science and wanted to apply to a summer program.  I recall walking into my professor’s office and asking for a recommendation.  She proceeded to look over her glasses and respond, “Really?”  My feelings were hurt, and I walked out feeling disappointed, insecure, and full of doubt.  That was the beginning of my journey of dealing with self-doubt and insecurities regarding my abilities (what I now know as “imposter fears”).  For the next few years, I worked hard to prove to that professor and myself that I was more than just an average student.  I developed relationships with mentors and supporters who believed in my abilities.  I depended greatly on my friends, family, and faith to get me through the rough times.  I went on to become a 6th grade science teacher, co-direct a Math and Science Program, and obtain my master’s degree and PhD in Biology.  After receiving my PhD, I left the U.S for a fellowship at the Medical Research Council in The Gambia, West Africa.  

I came to the NIH as a postdoc in 2008.  During my postdoc, I became a mother and decided to pursue a career in science education.  In 2010, I was hired as the Director of the NIH Community College Program in the Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE).  I was challenged with the overwhelming task of starting the program, and although those imposter fears crept in, I was up for the challenge.  Now, after the success of the program, I have opportunities to publish and work on new projects.  Honestly, I can feel those imposter fears reemerging once again.  I’ve come to realize is that these feelings will never go away permanently.  Therefore, I have established some coping strategies to deal with these fears. 

  1. Seek Support: It is imperative to have supporters around to encourage you to accomplish your goals, especially during those moments of doubt.  For some, it may be family, a mentor, community, or a religious/spiritual practice; for me, I have an amazing support system from family and friends.  Talking to a mental health professional and seeking support from other resources (at a university or institution) can also be very helpful.  The OITE has an amazing series on Becoming a Resilient Scientist on the OITE YouTube channel.
  2. Reflect on my goals and passions: Taking some time to reflect on my personal “why” usually helps me focus on accomplishing my goals and get past my insecurities or imposter fears.  I have a sincere passion for the success of students from underrepresented/disadvantaged backgrounds in STEM.  As a past “average” student, I am usually attracted to other “average” students and enjoy exposing them to opportunities and resources that their “star student” counterparts may access easily.  Thinking about this passion encourages me to put my fears aside and search for opportunities to accomplish my goals.
  3. Be okay with being uncomfortable: I remind myself that when I’m uncomfortable there is growth taking place.  Putting myself in uncomfortable positions forces me to overcome my fears of “not knowing everything”.  When I’m in a vulnerable position, I’m forced to ask for help, and to go beyond my comfort level.  I usually remind myself that to build muscle, one must go for the heavy weights.  And although there may be some pain and discomfort, the results far outweigh the costs. 
  4. Move Forward and Stop Looking Back: This is a major strategy for me.  I am very thankful for my accomplishments and challenges that I’ve experienced over the past years; they have made me into the person I am today.  But those past accomplishments and challenges are in the past.  Focusing on those things which are behind me prevents me from focusing on where I’m going and adds no value.  It is easy to look back at past experiences because they are familiar, and it feels good to experience those good emotions.  Moving forward nudges me to walk into the “unknown”, which can be scary for those of us who are planners, but it is necessary for growth and opportunities. 

These strategies have been very helpful throughout the years when I confront feelings of self-doubt and imposter fears.  I hope that you will take some time to reflect on your own experiences with imposter fears and identify some strategies that could work for you.  Please remember that overcoming your imposter fears is a journey, not a destination.  Be patient with yourself and trust the process!

By the way, years later, the same professor who denied my recommendation request invited me to the biology department to speak to her students about being successful in STEM. 😊

The journey continues…

Guest Blogger: Erika Barr, PhD: Director, Community College Programs, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.

Finding Courage Through Vulnerability

Submitted by Lori Conlan January 31, 2022

The pandemic has brought with it numerous hours to fill with some otherwise atypical activities. Admittedly, I’ve found myself turning to streaming series/shows far too often. It has certainly served as distraction and respite from other challenges, but it also allowed me time to catch up on desired viewing. Brené Brown’s The Call to Courage video on Netflix was at the top of my list. (Full disclosure, the video has lots of storytelling at the beginning and research findings shared near the end). Dr. Brown is a social work researcher focusing on topics of courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame from the University of Houston. I was familiar with her work and had heard her speak on a podcast previously, which I found helpful. In this video, Dr. Brown speaks about vulnerability and suggests that without this we cannot be authentic to ourselves or others. Is it possible that avoiding vulnerability limits our personal and professional growth?

Perhaps you can think of a time when you felt vulnerable - applying for jobs, interviewing for positions, starting in a new lab, applying to graduate programs, submitting grants or manuscripts for review, or sharing your research at a science meeting or departmental event. Scary, isn’t it?

I often hear from trainees making decisions that are consistent with familiar and comfortable paths in their lives. I wonder if doing so sometimes limits creativity, opportunity, and even joy. By necessity, we have distanced and isolated to limit exposure and remain safe over the past two years, but the downside, at least for me, is that my world has gotten significantly smaller. I haven’t traveled beyond a neighboring state. There are many friends and work colleagues who I have not seen (certainly not in person) or talked to in nearly two years, and social activities have dwindled. Like many of you, I focused on the people and tasks that were easy to identify and most important to me. Not a bad strategy, especially given the circumstances. Reflecting further on Dr. Brown’s talk, it occurred to me that there may be ways to be courageous amid ongoing challenges we face in the pandemic.

For example, I could show courage and vulnerability in:

  • Learning new skills
  • Connecting with friends and family in different but meaningful ways
  • Finding excitement and adventure closer to home
  • Adopting an openness to altered dreams of what the future looks like
  • Accepting loss in a variety of forms

Consider how you, too, will draw on courage in the coming year. Challenge yourself to step outside the familiar and comfortable aspects of your life to embrace what may come.

Choose courage over comfort when:

  • Developing new relationships
  • Pursuing your dream job or fellowship
  • Interviewing for programs or positions
  • Communicating in the lab with your PI and other lab staff
  • Trying new food, hobbies, and activities

Dr. Brown would argue that we can’t be courageous without showing some vulnerability. I’m committed to finding ways to be more courageous day to day. I hope you will join me in doing the same.

For more information on Brené’ Brown’s work, check out

OITE Wellness Programs

OITE Becoming a Resilient Scientist Series

Guest Blogger: Denise Saunders, PhD: Career Counselor, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.