Robert Frank wrote a book many years ago (1987 or so) entitled “Choosing the right pond: Human behavior and the quest for status.” He argues that people control their happiness by selecting the “pond” that is right for them and working at the level that gets them to a an appropriate fish size for the pond. Unhappiness comes from choosing (or desiring) to be in one “pond” but wanting to live like one is in another.
We encounter this issue in academia, especially with younger academics. I did a session with doctoral students a few weeks ago and I posed the question – define your ideal mentor. many of them had mentors that they believed exhibited “work-life balance.” These mentors, many of whom I knew, were current high performers being well compensated for doing what they enjoyed at top research universities while also taking the time to live life! They were big fish in big ponds for the most part!
But what these young doctoral students did not think about is that their mentors had gained the privilege by working their way up from being a small but growing fat to bring a big fish in this big pond, they did not just get that status by turning up. These folks has got to a point where they were big fish having passed the tests, met numerous challenges, contributing greatly and showing strong evidence of a future of continuing to be a big fish. In other words, they had grown up to be big fish to be in the big pond.
The key to note is they did not arrive at the big pond as a big fish. They spent years of totally out of balance life growing into being a big fish that permitted them flexibility and exhibit work life balance today! Why could they not have had balance from the start? Because no one who wants to be considered among the best can fast track or take short cuts through the 10000 to 15000 hours it takes to have a chance of becoming a big fish (and note this is a ” chance” not a guarantee).
The moral of the story, if young researchers want the types of rewards given at top research schools recognize that lack of balance goes with the territory, especially in the first decade! Just as sports greats stay on the field longer, chess grandmasters play more games and study them carefully, and as great ballet dancers practice long hours, if you want to be a big fish in a big pond, there is a price to pay. Second, even if you want to be in that big pond and are willing to live that unbalanced life when you are a little fish, just as every athlete, chess master and performer knows, you still might not make it due to talent and/ or luck.
Or maybe I am just all wet!!!!