What I learned from Diana Nyad, Soothsayer

– written by Axon –


photo of Diana Nyad, by Enrique de la Osa

Diana Nyad had three things that she wanted to say as she emerged, swollen, sunburned, and dehydrated from her grueling 103 mile, nearly 53 hour swim from Cuba to Key West: 1. Never give up, 2. You’re never too old to chase your dreams, and 3. It takes a team.

After 53 hours in the water.

I’ve been pondering those three statements, as some kind of important teaching; she, some kind of prophet emerging from days of self-sacrifice to re-tell hallucinations that have profound meaning. Well, Ok. I’m not really giving them that much power, but still! Those were THE 3 things she wanted to say with her swollen up tongue and fatigued body – they must be important.

What do they mean in my life or in the lives of the women closest to me?

1. Never give up

Last summer, swarms of jelly fish and fierce storms stood in Diana’s way, forcing her to quit after 42 hours of non-stop swimming. I remember watching and feeling for her (as much as I could, having only swum a few times for about a mile in open water. in a lake. with no sharks), admiring her grit, and thinking she was slightly crazy. This was not her first failure, it was her fourth attempt at that point.

But she didn’t give up. She used those experiences to make changes in her approach, to maximize her potential for success the next time. Beyond the universal truth that success is built on past failures, I think this is especially important for women/minorities/anyone in science to remember. I have watched seemingly charmed fellow grad students float through their PhDs with positive, interesting data, win early accolades by prestigious colleagues, only to flounder in the face of their first failure much later on. We should all see these failures for what they are, learn from them, regroup and move forward.

2. You’re never too old to chase your dreams

This one really hit home for me. Diana was a grand-motherly age of 64 years old when she finally reached her goal (and had been at it since she was 29). Most of my friends who have tenure-track jobs and tenure all do it by their late 30s. Horrible timing in terms of making a family, but still so young in the scheme of things!

One of the biggest obstacles for me in making in the decision to switch careers out of academia, was that I was so much OLDER than the 20-something/hipster/biotech/engineer/mathematician/recent grads on the job market. What do I wear to an interview that doesn’t broadcast that I’ve been spending my time in a lab for the past eight years, in my jeans and special “lab shoes” on the days that I wear flip-flops?

You’re never too old.

3. It takes a team

I cannot begin to tell you how much satisfaction I got by the fact that one of the KEY new team members for Diana’s successful swim was a JELLYFISH RESEARCHER!! (Yay basic science and translating into real-world problems) But she has a long list of team members, 35 to be exact, and she couldn’t have reached her goal without them.

This is particularly important for us independent scientist-types to remember. Collaborative projects can be way more productive than isolated ones. Learning to delegate is not something we learn as graduate students. As a post-doc with multiple projects running at one time, I’ve finally learned (with the help of some very capable undergrads) that I can get much more done if I spread the work around. And that I have become a much better teacher if what my student produces affects my productivity directly.

I feel lucky that I have a group of women that I work with everyday who are always up for a chat on the way to coffee, whom I trust in the lab to finish off the last step of whatever I have going as I rush out the door to pick up my kids (and who ask the same when I’m off kid picking up duty), and who I know have my back.


———————– ———— ——– —– — –  –

Job hunt update: I had my first interview! It turned out that it wasn’t a great fit, but I’m so glad to have it under my belt. I’m getting bolder in what I’m applying for and my resume and cover letter continue to evolve into something way more exciting with each new draft. Fingers crossed.

More on Axon’s journey from her previous post, Into The Ether, here…

This entry was posted in Biology, Field Biology, Industry, Leaving Academia, Mentorship, Mom in Science, Post-doc, Women in Science and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What I learned from Diana Nyad, Soothsayer

  1. mineralphys says:

    The NYTimes article about Diana Nyad was last night’s dinner table reading and conversation. I also loved her three reminders, and will hold them close

  2. scitrigrrl says:

    Great post, thank you. And congrats on the first interview! Just knowing what to expect makes the next ones so much easier.

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