Sunday, August 4, 2019

I need a coach

I’ve been ruminating over the course of the last several years on a conversation I had with Rob Phillips about coaches. He was saying (and hopefully he will forgive me if I’m mischaracterizing this) that he has had people serve the role of coach in his life before, and that that really helped push him to do better. It’s something I keep coming back to over and over, especially as I get further along in my career.

In processing what Rob was saying, one of the first questions that needed answering is exactly what is a coach? I think most of us think about formal training interactions (i.e., students, postdocs) when we think of coaching in science, and I think this ends up conflating two actually rather disparate things, which are mentoring and coaching. At least for me, mentorship is about wisdom that I have accumulated about decision making that I can hopefully pass on to others. These can be things like “Hmm, I think that experiment is unlikely to be informative” or “That area of research is pretty promising” or “I don’t think that will matter much for a job application, I would spend your time on this instead”. A coach, on the other hand, is someone who will help push you to focus and implement strategies for things you already know, but are having trouble doing. Like “I think we can get this experiment done faster” or “This code could be more cleanly written” or “This experiment is sloppy, let’s clean it up”. Basically, a mentor gives advice on what to do, a coach gives advice on how to actually do it.

Why does this decoupling matter, especially later in your career? When in a formal training situation, you will often get both of these from the same people—the same person, say, guiding your research project is the same person pushing you to get things done right. But after a few years in a faculty position, the N starts to get pretty small, and as such I think the value of mentorship per se diminishes significantly; basically, everybody gives you a bunch of conflicting advice on what to do in any given situation, which is frankly mostly just a collection of well-meaning but at best mildly useful anecdotes. But while the utility of mentorship decreases (or perhaps the availability of high quality mentorship) decreases, I have found that I still have a need for someone to hold me accountable, to help me implement the wisdom that I have accumulated but am sometimes too lazy or scared to put into practice. Like, someone to say “hey, watch a recording of your lecture finally and implement the changes” or “push yourself to think more mechanistically, your ideas are weak” or “that writing is lazy, do better” or “finish that half-written blog post”. To some extent, you can get this from various people in your life, and I desperately seek those people out, but it’s increasingly hard to find the further along you are. Moreover, even if you do find someone, they may have a different set of wisdom that they would be trying to implement for you, like, coaching you towards what they think is good, not what you yourself think is good (“Always need a hypothesis in each specific aim” whereas maybe you’ve come to the conclusion that that’s not important or whatever). If you have gotten to the point where you’ve developed your own set of models of what matters or doesn’t in the world, then you somehow need to be able to coach yourself in order to achieve those goals.

Is it possible to self-coach? I think so, but I’ve always struggled to figure out how. I guess the first step is to think about what makes a good coach. To me, the role of a good coach is to devise a concrete plan (often with some sort of measurable outcome) that promotes a desired change in default behavior. For example, when working with people in the lab in a coaching capacity, one thing I’ve tried to do is to propose concrete goals to try and help overcome barriers. If someone could be participating more in group meeting and seminars, I’ll say “try to ask at least 3 questions at group meeting and one at every seminar” and that does seem to help. Or I’ll push someone to make their figures, or write down their experiment along with results and conclusions. Or make a list of things to do in a day and then search for one more thing to add. Setting these sorts of rules can help provide the structure to achieve these goals and model new behaviors.

How do you implement these coaching strategies for yourself? I think there are a few steps, the first of which are relatively easy. Initially, the issue is to identify the issue, which is actually usually fairly clear: “I want to reduce time spent on email”, “I want to write clean code”, “I want to construct a set of alternative hypotheses every time I come up with some fun new idea”, “Push myself to really think in a model-based fashion”. Next, is reduction to a concrete set of goals, which is also usually pretty easy: “Read every email only once and batch process them for a set period of time” or “write software that follows XYZ design pattern” or “write down alternative hypotheses”. The biggest struggle is accountability, which is where having a coach would be good. How do I enforce the rules when I’m the only one following them?

I’m not really sure, but one thing that works for me (which is perhaps quite obvious) is to rely on something external for accountability. For example, I am always looking for ways to improve my talks, and value being able to do a good job. However, it was hard to get feedback, and even when I did, I often didn’t follow through to implement said feedback. So I did this thing where I show the audience a QR code which leads them to a form for feedback. Often, they pointed out things I didn’t realize were unclear, which was of course helpful. But what was also helpful was when they pointed out things that I already knew were unclear, but had been lazy about fixing. This provided me with a bit of motivation to finally fix the issue, and I think it’s improved things overall. Another externalization strategy I’ve tried is to imagine that I’m trying to model behavior for someone else. Example: I was writing some software a while back for the lab, and there were times where I could have done something in the quick, lazy, and wrong way, rather than in the right way. What helped motivate me to do it right was to say to myself, “Hey, people in the lab are going to look at this software as an example of how to do things, and I need to make sure they learn the right things, so do it right, dummy”.

Some things are really hard to externalize, like making sure you stress test your ideas with alternative hypotheses and designing the experiments that will rigorously test them. One form of externalization that works for me is to imagine former lab members who were really smart and critical and just imagine them saying to me “but what about…”. Just imagining what they might say somehow helps me push myself to think a bit harder.

Any thoughts on other ways to hold yourself accountable when nobody else is looking?

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