7,420 miles

My trusty shoes

I have a lot of science-focused posts writing themselves in my brain (the push for open data, science you can do with a smartphone, the “should I join a startup” series…. they sound pretty interesting, right?) I haven’t had much time to put pen to paper these last few weeks. But in a lot of ways, this post is about science. You’ll see.

Not unlike a lot of other driven, hard-working, slightly Type-A people, I have a pretty intense hobby: Barefoot running.

I began running during my second year of grad school as a stress-management technique (thanks to some encouragement from a very dear friend). He actually baited me by promising a big slice of cheesecake when I was able to hit 4 miles, aka, the “campus drive loop” around Stanford. So really, this obsession began with cheesecake.

Initially, running was our excuse to get out of lab so we could actually enjoy some California weather. We were in the habit of getting in early and leaving late, so we were a bit vitamin-D deprived. There was a functional (albeit slightly scary) shower in our building, so I’d get in around 9 or 10 a.m., go out for a run around 4 or 5 p.m., take a quick shower, eat dinner, then go back work for another few hours. Rinse, repeat.

I started running in normal shoes (arch support, higher padded heel, etc). I enjoyed my little afternoon excursion, but I could never quite get past that 4-mile mark and got tired of “having” to buy new kicks every 6 months (the arch would fall, the padding would wear, etc). I found an old pair of track-style shoes in my closet (thin tread, no heel, no arch support, bonus: bright pink and blue 80s colors) and started running in those. It took a few weeks, but I remember for the first time getting that feeling of “I’m not ready to stop” when I saw my finish line. That, my friends, was the beginning of a deep dive into long distance running. And what a glorious ride it has been.

Around that time, I switched running partners for another grad school buddy of mine. We would hit the pavement and talk about our research, mostly venting frustrations about difficult minutia we were troubleshooting, the concerning habits of our labmates, and how little impact our work would have in the long term. It was as much physical therapy as it was mental. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, expressing opinions on my work in a “judgement-free zone” built the framework of my worldview on research. Its values, its pitfalls, and where and how I fit into its structure. Ultimately, this worldview led to me leave grad school to join a startup created by that same running buddy.

Those little track shoes got me through my first half-marathon. (As you can see, I kind of destroyed them).

Track shoes

A few months later, I switched into Vibrams (this would be about 2 and a half years ago now), and I’m still wearing the same pair. Those shoes took me so many places. I ran up mountains, to the ocean, through redwoods, around islands, in the desert, through wine country (multiple times), and even recently through some snow and ice (thanks, winter).

They helped me through a major life transition from grad school to a startup, a shoulder surgery, 80-hour workweeks, an almost-completed marathon training, and a full running-form rebuild when my marathon training failed. Then they saw me through a cross-country move and an intense job hunt. Now they are seeing me through my next professional step with a digital health startup.

I guess what I’m trying to say today (which happens to be International Barefoot Running Day) is that this hobby made me a better person and a better scientist. I hope you’ve got something that provides as much physical and mental benefit to you as well.

And with that (you guessed it) I’m going out for a run.



Dan's cake

In marriage, I’ve found I use the “royal we” for things, even when the experience falls primarily on the other person. “We’re” job-searching. “We” just defended our thesis. “We” are low-carb. You can’t help but be affected by the spouse – it could be a small habit (“I don’t like regular milk any more” turned into “we drink almond milk”) to a huge life decision. For example, when my husband defended his Ph.D. I truly felt like it was a “we” process. I had stopped working at that point, so I was the audience for every practice talk, the sounding board for every graphic, the therapist for every anxiety, and the sharer in every celebration.

So even though it’s weird, when my husband turned 30 this week, I feel like “we” turned 30. In truth I have 6 more months to go, but I’ve already switched from “twenty-somethings” to “thirty-somethings” in normal conversation. Pretty strange, right? Why am I so willing to throw myself into the 30s bucket when I have friends who will be celebrating 28 for at least another few years?

Your twenties are hard – much harder than you ever expect. You begin an independent life away from your parents and lingering high school habits. You do some really stupid stuff that you regret as you realize that you aren’t the center of the universe. Your personality grows, develops, and changes. If you are like me, you fail at something – really, adult fail – for the first time in your life.

But – all of these difficult things lead to incredible personal development. If you’ve accomplished so much, why would you want to stay in a decade with so much turmoil? I’m actually excited to be 30. I feel that I’ve earned it. I think 30 is an exciting phase – the perfect balance of centered open-ness. I’m still energetic, hopeful, and open to learning new things, but I don’t have the same nagging naiveté of inexperience. I know more about myself, so my deviations and explorations are more focused and (hopefully) productive.

I’m sorry to fly in the face of all those birthday-haters out there, but cheers, 30 – here I come.

“Fun-gineering” gone wrong

Silicon valley tech is likely patient zero of the “fun” workplace. Google and Facebook openly publicize offices with bright colors, bean bag chairs, and (according to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In), large LEGO collections.

I won’t deny that my tiny sector of silicon valley biotech embraced this model as well.

And yes – this is me:

I just read the NY Times OpEd “Who goes to work to have fun” and was horrified to hear that this workplace model has been co-opted (and even commercialized?) by “happiness consultants” or “fungineers”. Oliver Burkeman is spot on – putting up silly movie posters with your coworkers faces instead of the actors is a la The Office cringeworthy. Forced fun is just that – forced.

In graduate school, my coworkers were generally unhappy. It was a high stress environment where group-wide whisperings about our PI’s mood before meetings was normal. Yet every year, he insisted on a full-participation beach day and christmas party. We had no control over this mandatory fun – there was a highly regimented and scheduled series of events we were expected to maintain. Prior mishaps, like the time the appointed organizers chose a beach site too close to the bathrooms, lived in infamy.

When I joined a biotech start-up, there were no forced team-building exercises or trust falls. Instead, there were subtle gestures that my CEOs cared. Free coffee and tea of our choice. An endless supply of soda. A genuine appreciation of good work over face time. Relatively frequent lunches with the bosses to check in.

True to Burkeman’s OpEd, if workers in an environment feel they are not being treated fairly, no amount of mandatory fun is going to change their happiness levels. I think the Silicon Valley (SV) casual workplace idea is less about creating ‘fun’ and more about incorporating work into a larger lifestyle. Speaking from experience, the people in these SV companies are not 9-to-5 ‘ers. They don’t come in to clock hours and take home a paycheck. These are passionate people who are willing to put in lots of time because they feel they are enabling change.

I think SV realizes that managing that time investment requires some workplace accommodation. If many of your employees bike to work, make the office bike friendly. If the normal employee works 60+ hours a week, provide a gym (or a gym membership) as a healthy way to deal with stress. Set up a virtual private network (VPN) so workers can access the network or their work computer from home or a coffee shop. Don’t be afraid to push hard, but recognize when your employees need a break. Reward good work when reward is due, and provide honest feedback when improvements need to be made.

If you are in control of a work environment and want to make it more fun, just be observant, communicate authentically, and show that you care. Making an effort to make work more convenient or comfortable can go much farther in the happiness regime than a hawaiian shirt friday.