Sh*t happens, a letter to my kids.

Dear Anne, Kathryn, Grace, and William,

There have been times in my life when I felt that I couldn’t catch a break. Things were not going my way, and sometimes it believed that I had no way out. These dark times could last anywhere from a few hours to longer than a few months. Some of these traumas were due to my actions, and others felt like they were random acts. During these later experiences, I often felt like I was being punished for some unknown offense. Being a problem solver, I would do my best to come up with solutions, and sometimes I succeeded. However, there were other situations where the right answer could not be found. Although I couldn’t always find answers, I could still learn from my experiences. 

I thought I would share with you some of the lessons that I learned from hard times.

If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger (most of the time)

My graduate school days were a time of growth. The main project of my thesis was to purify and characterize an enzyme found in bacteria. To do this, I initially relied on conventional procedures and the advice of my graduate advisor. Despite trying many different variables, I could not successfully isolate my enzyme from all of the rest of the bacteria’s cellular proteins. When I returned to my advisor for help, she would tell me to try again, but the results were always the same. I knew that I was doing my procedures correctly, and so finding a solution seemed hopeless.

I was in the university’s science library late one night reading journal articles. I hoped that I would locate a new technique that would solve my problem. All of the articles seemed useless, and I found my thoughts wandering. I decided to clear my mind from everything I had read. Once I freed myself from those limitations, I started to have other opinions. Those thoughts cascaded into an avalanche of ideas. Eventually, I came up with a novel way to approach the problem that was the opposite of what I had been told to do. That opposite way worked and was a crucial step in the purification of the enzyme that I was isolating. The trauma and frustration of my failures forced me to think outside of the box, and in the process, I became a better scientist.

Sh*t Happens

The purification of the above bacterial protein was a long and tedious process. After working for almost a year, I was ready to scale up production so I could obtain enough protein to run my characterization experiments. The build-up to the final step of the purification took weeks. I had to grow massive amounts of bacteria, lyse the bacterial cells, and go through many steps to remove impurities from the lysate. At times I was sleeping at my office desk as I had to run some of the procedures overnight. The final step of my purification involved a technique called chromatography. The chromatography needed to be run in the lab’s walk-in cooler. I set up the purification on Friday afternoon with the expectation that the process would run through the weekend. 

Finally, I would have enough of the enzyme to start the second phase of my research! I rushed back to campus on Monday morning and immediately went to the cold room. When I opened the door, I was met with a blast of hot air! The cold room had malfunctioned, and it was a balmy 90 degrees inside. The enzyme was destroyed.  

Naturally, I felt sorry for myself, and it took me a few hours to re-face the problem. Since I had to redo the entire experiment, I decided to streamline some of the steps that I developed, which turned out to be a good thing. A few weeks later, I once again faced the cold room, but this time I achieved my goal.  

Sometimes you do everything right, but things still go wrong. Your only choice is to pull yourself off the floor, re-evaluate the situation, and, if warranted,  start over again.

Turn a disadvantage into an advantage

As humans, we love to put things into categories, and one of our favorites is whether something is good or bad. I would like to challenge this categorization. 

As you know, I have brain processing issues that I describe to others as dyslexia. This definition only loosely defines what happens in my head, but it is understandable to others, which is why I use that term.

The reality is that (at least by my observation), my brain works differently than most “normal” people. I get confused by letters (an h looks like a b, and so on), I have difficulty seeing the space between words, and the lines between sentences in a paragraph. I have trouble memorizing random strings of numbers or remembering definers, like a person’s name. 

My processing issues don’t stop there. It has become clear to me that the way that I think is different from the way that most people think. My natural way of thinking is not linear (although I have taught myself how to think in a sequential pattern). I see aggregates of ideas that connect with other aggregates of ideas. I tend to see connecting points between things that on the surface seem to have no connecting points. In my way of thinking, everything is joined to everything else. The way that I process information is hardly efficient in a 2019 “cause and effect” world. Most people would think that my brain (your mom has called it autistic-like) would be a significant disadvantage to me. It certainly has made some parts of normal life more challenging. However, my unusual thinking has advantages. Since I see connections and patterns everywhere, it is often easy for me to understand concepts that others may find challenging. Chemistry is no different to me than cooking. Immersing myself in learning web design is no different than immersing myself in a novel, and so on. By embracing my brain, I have been able to take a potential disadvantage and turn it into a definite advantage. There is bad in good things and good in bad things. How you view something can make a difference. 

We all make stupid mistakes

A few years ago, I was in our basement, and I noticed that one of the air returns ducts was disconnected. I reached up to reattach the duct, but it was just out of my reach. I needed to be a foot higher, and I looked around the basement to find something to stand on. An old kitchen chair caught my eye. The chair had found its way to the basement as one of the legs was partially detached. I thought that I could carefully balance myself on the broken chair and fix the errant air duct. For some reason, this seemed like a brilliant idea, even though a step ladder was only 20 feet away. I carefully positioned the broken leg and climbed on the top of the chair’s seat. I extended my arm, and just as I reached my most vulnerable position, the chair collapsed, causing me to hit the hard concrete floor with great force. The wind was knocked out of me, and I felt dazed. My foolish actions resulted in having a sore back for weeks and an ability to predict changes in the weather for months. I would like to say that that was the last stupid thing that I have done, but that would be a lie. However, I am now much more careful when it comes to choosing something to climb on. I did learn from my wrong actions.

You will do stupid things in your life. Learn from them and don’t repeat them. 

Relationships don’t always work out, and that’s OK.

It is hard for me to give you a specific example here as I don’t want to tell a tale that involves another person. However, I can tell you that I have made mistakes with relationships in the past. When I was younger, I tended to find people who needed me to take care of them. In my mind, I felt that I was a good person and a true friend. However, I now believe that there was a more sinister side to my actions as I think that low self-esteem was at play. I was finding people who needed me as this made me feel worthy. Unfortunately, these relationships were one-sided and not equal partnerships. Besides, once a dependent person realized that their needs were not being utterly met by me, they became angry and resentful. Over time I came to understand that these types of connections were not good for me, and I now form bonds with healthy peers instead of needy dependents. Although I have been hurt, I now know that I don’t have to stay in bad relationships. Recognizing what a bad relationship is has shown me what to look for in a good relationship.

Keep your eyes and ears open

My medical school class had over 140 students, each one selected for being at the top of their respective classes. We had some students who viewed their success in terms of their performance compared to their classmates. These kids always sought to get the highest scores on every exam. In one particular case, the student’s efforts were so stressful to her that she had to drop out of med school. 

I saw med school as a tool to achieve a goal. That goal was to become a physician. If I got a 95% on an exam and someone else got a 98% it made little difference to me. We were both going to be MDs at the end of 4 years. My more balanced approached paid off, and in the end, I got the degree that the poor super-achiever did not. You can learn from an observed trauma just as much as one that you personally experience. Keep your eyes and ears open and let others teach you not only by their successes but also by their failures.

Many things happen in our lives, and some of those things may upset or hurt us. However, every event can be a learning experience that you can use to become a better and stronger person.

I love you!


2 thoughts on “Sh*t happens, a letter to my kids.”

  1. I am glad that I can call you my friend. Mike do you recognize that only a small percentage of the population even comes close to contemplating life like you do. I am glad I know someone who does.

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