Sunday, October 30, 2011

They Took My Joy__I Want It Back

Those of you familiar with rhythm and blues singer, Bettye LaVette, will recognize the title of this post as the lyrics from the song, "Joy", written for her by Lucinda Williams. I was sitting in the audience listening to LaVette singing this song when it hit me that these lyrics described something I've been feeling lately....about science.

It may sound strange that I had this reaction to this song, which reflects LaVette's early career struggles in Detroit, New York, and Memphis. LaVette has been singing for a long time now (she's in her 60s), but only recently has been "discovered", earning a Grammy nomination for "Best Contemporary Blues Album" and and an award for "Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist".  But there are many parallels between the competitive worlds of music and science in finding success and simultaneously keeping one's "joy".

LaVette has been in the music business for over forty years, much of it struggling to gain respect and recognition for her work. If you listen to her perform today, you see why critics call her "the greatest soul singer in American music". LaVette is a consummate performer. She's not just technically good; she reaches out and grabs the audience emotionally. Her voice literally oozes raw emotion, gritty and defiant.  The video link above does not do justice to the actual, live experience, but gives some idea about her style.  As I listened to her performance, I recognized (without knowing anything about her history) the years of practice and focused effort required to attain the level of expertise I was witnessing.  I knew I was in the presence of someone unique, someone who had struggled to become the best.  She made it seem effortless, of course. That's the hallmark of an artist at the top of her profession.

Many talented women working in competitive fields are often overlooked. As we all know, this is the story for women in science. Actually, more than overlooked. Many of us struggled to even be allowed to practice science. Even without the early discrimination, however, women would have had a difficult time (and still do).  Science is a hard profession.  It's especially hard when our work goes unrecognized, and the joy we once felt at doing science is slowly, inexorably ground out of us.  The things that attracted us to it in the first place (curiosity, passion, concern for the environment, a desire to help others) are gradually bled out of us in the struggle to find research funds, to publish, to fit into a male-dominated world, and to gain a modicum of respect.

This is what LaVette sings about in "Joy". Of her early years trying to make it in a hard industry. First in Detroit, then New York, and later in West Memphis and Muscle Shoals (Alabama). The song's lyrics describe how she lost her joy and looked for it in different places; in the end, she sings that "I don't want you anymore...cause you took my joy" and finally "you took my joy...I want it back".  The song describes the loss of joy, the subsequent search for it, the despair at ever finding it, the dismissal of what led to the loss of joy, and then the angry demand for getting her joy back.

I can only imagine the struggles a young, black woman went through during the early 60s in America and in the highly competitive world of music.  She put out her first single in 1962, but did not cut her first album until 1982--twenty years later.  And twenty more years went by before she began to receive major awards and recognition commensurate with her talent.  How many of you could continue in this way, for so long, for so little?  But she clearly kept at it, honing her craft.  During the performance I saw, LaVette talked ironically about her recent "discovery" by the music industry and the awards and nominations that are now being showered on her.  I think there are a number of women, in many laboratories and offices around the world, who are shaking their heads at similar ironies.

How can such obvious talent be overlooked for so long?  I've talked about "talent" in previous blog posts and how it is not something one is necessarily born with, but instead is the result of "deliberate practice" conducted over thousands of hours. Perhaps a person is borne with a suite of physical, intellectual, and emotional attributes that predisposes them to be musicians, artists, or scientists.  But it still takes enormous amounts of time and focused energy to acquire the necessary technical skills and confidence to outperform everyone else with those inherent attributes.  To observers, their performance seems effortless; hence, the perception that it did not require much effort or practice to achieve.  We may intellectually recognize that a famous musician or athlete has to spend a lot of time practicing her craft, but emotionally we believe that they must have a special talent that no one else has.

I think people believe in "natural talent" because they don't want to consider having to invest all that time and effort on something and then fail to succeed at it.  It's easier to say, "Well, I tried, but I just wasn't as talented as Bob or Sue (who outperformed us)." Unfortunately for these people, the belief that talent, not hard work and practice, is all that is required to succeed will doom them to mediocrity, if not outright failure. Many other people, especially young people, want success and fame now, in their twenties, certainly by their thirties. Why should it wait until they are old and can't enjoy it? It's much easier to watch someone like LaVette perform and think, "I could do that, only if I had the talent." Or luck.  That's the other belief about "sudden" success.  One only has to watch the early tryouts for American Idol to see that hundreds of thousands of young people believe they have the talent to be performers, yet have exerted little effort at developing their skills. The naivete is simply breathtaking.

The truth is that to become really good at something, even if you have some basic "talent" for it, requires a lot of work, sacrifice, and time.  My guess is that even for the best, it is about ten percent talent and ninety percent drive, hard work, and endless (deliberate) practice.  Maybe a few, exceedingly lucky people hit it big early in their career, but if you look at the history of most early achievers or so-called prodigies, you find that they have spent at least ten years at hard practice before they were "discovered".

If so much time and effort are required to attain a high level of skill, how can one possibly keep going without reward or acknowledgment for so long? That has been the lot of LaVette in the music field and is also the story of many women in science.  We plug along while watching less talented men sail past us.  But we are catching up. A few women are getting the recognition they deserve.  And the struggle has given us something that those, who have not had to work hard, lack. We have put more effort into developing our talents, creating our unique voices, and learning to persevere.  We've had to, to survive. LaVette's style, for example, would not be so emotionally charged, so compelling, or so distinctive without that long, hard experience getting to where she is today.  I think the same is true for women in science. We've had to work harder and smarter than male colleagues, but it has made us unique.

There is a message here for women in science, which is why I'm describing Bettye LaVette's story. It's not that we should keep struggling because success will eventually come. That might be one eventuality of perseverance at a career and a welcome reward at the end.  It might be one lesson to learn from her story.  No, the message is about not losing one's joy in the pursuit of one's dream.  From the moment we make the decision to embark on a science career (or any career), we begin to give up some of those early ideals, passions, dreams, and other emotions that attracted us in the first place. We begin to compromise as we encounter the realities in the process of training, getting a job, and keeping that job.  Some of us manage to hang on to a few of our early dreams and passions, but I doubt that there are many mature scientists out there who are completely satisfied with their scientific emotional well-being.  All one has to do is ask, "Do you still feel the same joy and excitement (about your work) as you did when you first dreamed about being a scientist?"

In the beginning, many of us are simply driven by the need to know and are completely satisfied with finding the answer (as well as the process of looking for it).  We don't need an award to feel good about figuring something out. But somehow, we gradually move away from that simple satisfaction to wanting more as we advance through school and into the working world. For some, it's to beat the competition to publication, or to gain international standing in the scientific community, or to win prestigious awards or positions on panels, or all of these. These achievements are all false goals that bring only temporary satisfaction and, worse, feed the desire for bigger and better accolades.  We get focused on numbers of publications and citations, our H-index, landing a big grant, or getting our next paper published in a Glamor Science Mag. These are the measures of "success" by which others judge us and may be important for us to advance in a science career, but we should take care that the pursuit of such things does not take over our emotional well-being. If we do, we risk losing that original joy of seeking knowledge and making discoveries.

When I was a child, I experienced the simple pleasures of discovery and learning. I saw that scientists could continue seeking knowledge and experiencing that joy of discovery...and make a career of it.  What a deal!  I recognized that this aspect set a science career apart from many other types of careers one might choose from.  I could actually do work that I loved to do and be paid for it.  Interestingly, this emotional reward that scientists enjoy is the same for musicians and artists.  Their work is their passion; their passion is their work. This is another interesting parallel that the Bettye LaVette story has reminded me of: how closely related science and art are from an emotional (and creative) standpoint.

What I did not realize, when starting out, was how difficult it would be to sustain that original joy; how career setbacks, professional jealousies, work-life pressures, struggle for respect and recognition, and other factors could dampen and bury my joy.  I imagine that that is what LaVette is singing about. In the process of doing what she loves (singing), she lost her joy. The business (and politics) of music must interfere greatly with the sheer joy of performing music.  And the same is true of science.  Women in science may find themselves singing the same song...if they are not careful.

So after almost forty years in science, I can relate to the refrain, "they took my joy....I want it back".  I don't just want it back; like Bettye LeVette, I'm demanding it back.


Priscila Ueno said...

Hey, i was just looking for some stuff about Bettye Lavette and i found this blog..
I got what you mean, and thanks for remind me how important is keep passionate and strong about our dreams.

FutureNerd said...

Thanks for the information about Bettye LaVette, the video link, and the overall post. I'm a software guy, also trying to find where those thieves took my joy to.

I got here by... well I have copies of both Bettye LaVette and Lucinda Williams performances of "Joy." They list different cities! Today I saw a preview for the movie Muscle Shoals which is about the period when it was a sort of Paris of music-making. I wondered which version of the song mentions that town. But each time I listened I got too into it and forgot to hear the city names!

LaVette sings about joy in a hard way, which is incongruous (though riveting, obviously). She goes from city to city looking for joy as if it's literally hiding in a place, as in the "geographical cure," which sounds naive, but doggedly, which isn't. The sound of the song reinforces the humor, too.

The thing is, joy is naive and nonsensical and has no time to sweat that! Damn straight, Bettye! Chase the bastards down and wring it out of them! And then wail on Joy! And she literally did spend her career chasing, and then evidently has found joy, despite it not making sense.

So this is the moral I would like the story to have: if you have learned to be dogged, and if joy was your reason, then if you remember that, and maybe if you're willing for it to seem kinda funny and not make sense, it's possible to reclaim joy doggedly.