[Continued from Career Transition Part 1]
In early March 2018, I found myself in the privileged position of weighing seemingly opposite career opportunities. I had an offer to remain at Yale as an editor of a scientific journal, an offer to leave Yale for a biotech Venture Capital (VC) firm, and an offer to help a high-visibility health and fitness blogger write his upcoming book.
I realized that there were several key assumptions that I was making about each potential path – specifically, about the stress associated and mission/values alignment. For better or worse, my analytical mind and scientific training impelled me to objectively examine each assumption.
I present my analysis in order of complexity, starting with the most straightforward assumption, in the hopes that my methodology can help others’ decision-making processes:
Assumption 4: Working remotely is a fallacy that the VC firm is using to get me to sign on
Fortunately, this assumption was fairly easy to test by speaking with several members of the company and being reassured that all of them had a home office and spent some portion of their time working remotely. Further, some people lived in rural areas and were not penalized for being out of range of a city office.
This assumption was quickly invalidated and no longer influenced my decision-making process.
Assumption 3: Life as a VC would be very stressful and intense, ultimately preventing me from being a good future wife and mother
As I’ll be marrying the best man in the world in a few months and we’d like to have children soon thereafter, I’ve been pondering the concept of work/life balance and my role as a wife and mother. (Let’s ignore the obvious question of whether work/life balance actually exists and the paternalistic implication of being a “good” wife and mother.)
To benchmark family life, I gathered datapoints by speaking to people in the arenas that I was considering, explicitly asking if they felt that they spent enough time with their spouses and kids. I was relieved that all of my prospective supervisors were married and had children, and I shared my intentions to be a mother sooner rather than later to gauge reactions of all potential colleagues.
Ultimately, it appeared that the experiences of mothers and wives relied heavily on personal intentions and choices rather than on the jobs themselves. Again, this assumption was partially invalidated, and I felt that I could be the kind of wife and mother I aspire to by pursuing either path.
Stress is a much more difficult topic to analyze, as its causes seem completely individualized, yet its effects appear harmful for everyone. Therefore, I needed to really drill down on the question of what is stress to me? Is it the barrage of emails and tasks that come with a finance-focused job, or is it the gnawing feeling that I’m playing safe and not fully using my potential?
I’ve been fortunate to have spent many, many hours exploring questions like these. As most of my thesis research was performed solo, my grad school years afforded me copious amounts of time for introspection and self-experimentation – and my meticulous journal-keeping gives me decades of data to understand what practices, people, and environments create satisfaction and which create distress. As such, I’ve tried increasing and decreasing the intensity of my life to find my optimal set-point (which is a moving target, btw!).
A consistent takeaway is that I need challenge, growth, and a higher-than-average intensity to feel content. Sure, I can overdo it and go over the edge on busyness, but I would like to think that my crashes have helped me recognize the signs of overdoing and course-correct. One could say that I’m bad at relaxing; I’m simply not wired to feel good doing nothing for extended stretches of time, and I prefer active relaxation activities like pottery and writing. Perhaps that’s why Kundalini yoga, a more dynamic form of meditation, immediately appealed to me and has become an easy-to-uphold daily practice.
Anyway, to estimate the stress associated with each job, I had to visualize what life would look like on each path. Essentially, the paths were distilled as simple or challenging; known or unknown. And that’s when I turned to the sage Ayn Rand:
That passage hit me hard. I am an ambitious person, and stymying that ambition decays my sense of self and happiness. Playing small stresses me out.
For me, satisfaction and stress are opposite sides of the same coin. By deconstructing my personal notion of stress, I inadvertently addressed:
Assumption 5: I would be intellectually satisfied taking either path
I realized that I need some stress to meet the inherent noisiness of my busy mind and feel calm. It’s the same concept as as destructive interference, which we’ve seen either as waves on the beach or on a blackboard in a physics class (or, if we’re lucky, in both scenarios!). Destructive interference means that when two waves operating in opposite phase (i.e. when one is up, the other is down, and so on) meet, they will decrease each other’s amplitude. In a perfect scenario, the waves cancel each other out:
And now we turn to the intellectual quagmire of values:
Assumption 2: Science and writing are virtuous, and I should choose this path if I wish to contribute to the greater good
According to [my oversimplified interpretation of] Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, virtue lies in the means between the extremes of excess and deficiency, and virtue is derived from the deliberate practice of the right habits. Therefore, it seems that no field of work is strictly virtuous, though certain fields lend themselves more readily to the right habits to build virtue. I believe that scientific inquiry and writing are two such fields, as one must practice habits associated with virtue to succeed. For example, a writer who practices the virtuous habit of truthfulness and the scientist who employs the virtuous habit of cleverness are more likely to be considered masterful.
Does science contribute to the greater good? I think this is a yes. It’s difficult to argue that the insights gained by exploring the natural chemical, biological, and physical processes underpinning our bodies and our environment are inconsequential. Sure, there are inefficiencies and misaligned incentives in the world of scientific research and technology development, and certain populations have been marginalized in the pursuit of knowledge, but I’d say that the benefits of science and technology outweigh the costs. Not to mention the personal fulfillment that can be gained by contemplating big ideas and systematically testing hypotheses.
I believe writing contributes to the greater good; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. In my opinion, writing enables free exchange of information and helps writers and readers better understand their own thoughts and experiences. And writing does not necessarily need to provide measurable utility; I’ve certainly savored poems and lyrical prose and consumed skillful writing for pleasure alone.
But are science and writing necessarily virtuous? Maybe so, maybe not. Perhaps virtue is created by the intentions and actions of the people working within the field, and not the field itself. I must admit that I have not arrived at a conclusion for this assumption, but I am comfortable holding it in my mind both as true and false.
Assumption 1: Venture Capital, and finance in general, is immoral and antithetical to the greater good
This assumption was the most emotionally charged and entrenched, and therefore the most difficult to evaluate. Like many people who spend years in the academic research environment, I saw finance as “selling out” or “leasing your soul.” I suspected that being motivated by a monetary bottom line would provide temporary satisfaction, at best, and destroy the lives of others by prioritizing money over doing the right thing, at worst. I worried that foraying into this world would tempt me to pursue superficial goals and chip away my empathy, desire to help people, open-mindedness, and love of science.
But where do these beliefs come from? Am I afraid of the person that I would become if I gained wealth? Do I fear that money will drive a wedge between me and those that matter the most? And really, what is venture capital, exactly, and does it do more harm than good?
My understanding is that venture capital provides funding to companies to help them bring technologies to the market in exchange for a portion of their future profits. In a capitalistic society, it is reasonable to assume that this type of funding is needed to translate concepts into things that touch people (realizing that other funding mechanisms exist). Generally, this model does not seem immoral or antithetical to the greater good, unless, of course, venture funding is being primarily used to advance technologies that hurt people, animals, or the environment.
This is where it gets tricky.
Do I personally agree that every medical technology funded by venture capital is doing more good than harm? No, I don’t.
Do I believe that most diseases are preventable through diet and lifestyle, and that certain pharmaceuticals are masking symptoms that ultimately enable worse health outcomes? Yes, I do.
Do I think that patients can be pressured into choosing medical options – perhaps by financially-incentivized physicians – that are sub-optimal? Yes, there can be problems with patients being truly informed and with incentivization systems.
I have become less naive and idealistic after spending 10 years in medical research and 2 years in the hospital system. I have had parts of my thesis research stolen by a pharmaceutical company. I have been a patient, anxiously waiting for brain scan results, and a caregiver. My years of ghostwriting for alternative health promoters has given me insights into the ‘other side’ of medicine. I recognize that there are many aspects of our medical system that can be improved. But I believe that progress in several medical arenas – especially targeted therapeutics and end-of-life care – is occurring, and the more options that exist, the more that the market can validate true value.
Therefore, while I don’t applaud every innovation that comes to market, I endorse venture capital as an effective method to create more options for consumers. Further, I have faith in myself and the people who surround me to stand in my values if I choose a path that creates wealth.
And now, assumptions examined, I can make a decision with a more clear head…
[Continued on Career Transition Part 3]