Mentoring is a big part of the conversation in this second half of our interview with Thomas Seager. The conversation also spanned scales from the day to day practical to broad visions of defining personal metrics for success and the fundamental purpose of research, engineering, and the personal growth and mentoring needed to reach our potential.
Dr. Seager’s Mentoring Approach
2:35 – [Thomas] talks about his mentoring approach. Uses the example of his own thesis and experience with Thomas Theis. Anxiety at graduation is indicative of grappling with topics that you don’t feel comfortable with.
4:59 – [Thomas] Your success will be capped by the ability to regulate your negative emotions. Fear and anxiety. When we are aspiring to do things that have never been done before. It makes us anxious and we become vulnerable to criticisms of which we are legitimately afraid. Students who get close to graduation often need to limit their negative emotions.
5:30 – [Thomas] To whom will students turn to? Naturally, their doctoral advisors. Advisors need to support this directly and not refer them out to a Counseling Center. He can understand the temptation to duck out of dealing with these emotions, but if they are incapable of transforming those negative emotions into creativity then the intellectual side of their career is going to suffer.
6:30 – [Thomas] There is no checklist for regulating your negative emotions. But he can use his own experiences to help his graduate students. He can say to his graduate students, you feeling these feeling that you are having right now that is consistent with past experiences of other students. He can validate that imposter syndrome is a normal part of becoming a PhD. He can also connect them to other students who are a little further down the road.
7:33 – His approach to mentoring is that it is a personal relationship. Distinguish between what it means to be a mentor and what it means to be an advisor. The difference between an advisor and a mentor. An advisor is a role you have to play because of an organizational chart.
A mentor takes on a lot more responsibility.
Where There Aha Moments in His Mentoring?
9:00 – [Matt] talks about when we interviewed early career researchers before the podcast started mentoring was one of the most frequently mentioned topics. Generally academic do want to develop good mentoring but they get distracted. Are there particular moments in time where you’ve had breakthrough moments as a mentor?
10:00 – [Thomas] greatest growth experiences as a mentor have come in response to criticisms his mentees have leveled at him. Mentees don’t always know what is going to fix the problem, but they are pretty good at identifying things that are not working.
10:50 – [Thomas] He discusses a book called The secret of our success. The book is about how Homo sapiens came to be so dominant. Humans have modes of cultural learning where we identify people as prestigious models. Kids as young as 2 do this. When we get to grad school the same kind of learning applies. Who are the prestigious models that we are going to imitate to see what works? There are other ways of learning… aka science. But this did not show up until relatively recently in human history.
On picking mentors that you admire and trying rather than taking advice
13:15 – [Thomas] You need to pick mentors you admire who are further along on analogous road. Ask them what is working? And then trying it as an experiment. Thomas’ rule with his current most important mentor is that every word of advice that he hears from him he tries. If it does not work he discards the advice. This is different from taking advice, meaning that you do it no matter if it is working or not.
14:35 – [Thomas] The idea that we learn from prestigious models is that we need to pick the models whom we admire. But we don’t want to give up on this layer form of learning. You should blend the prestigious model method of learning with the experimental method of learning.
What does it mean to be authentic?
15:10 – [Christine] Connects to the concept of how we need to understand what resonates with us authentically and how to find our own compass. This has been a theme in other podcasts such as episode 2.
15:53 – [Thomas] On authenticity. Thomas had an authenticity crisis a few years ago. What is authenticity? It is not being who you are. “Authenticity is having the courage to show the world who you wish you were.” You open yourself up to the criticism of the rest of the world. This is a scary thing to do. I am going to do the things that the person who I wish I was would do. In a way it feels like you are lying, but the authenticity is showing your wishes.
Structuring your life around verbs
18:17 – [Matt] The structure of Be → Do → Have (Matt messed up the order in the audio:) ). People often flip this around and look at what people have and focus on that part of the process. You end up chasing what they have not who they are being.
19:05 – [Thomas] There is a really good reason that people get this backwards. We get a bunch of color glossy magazines about goals. Bill Walsh book The Score Takes Care of Itself, “Nothing is less important than the score at halftime.” You don’t achieve your goal by watching your scoreboard (e.g., citations on google scholar). You achieve your goal by doing the things that what someone who has those things does (e.g., sharpen your message, giving great talks, writing excellent articles). Tt’s the verbs that require our attention not the nouns we want to accumulate.
20:45 – [Christine] Love the idea of making things into a verb. And thinking about what are you actually going to do?
Light Speed Round
21:30 – What is your favorite part of your job?
[Thomas] The people that I get to help. He gets a thrill from watching people grow. Seth Godin has a video on leadership versus management. What gives Seth joy is watching people grow in a quantum way. What gets Thomas up in the morning is watching people grow. Teaching is not something that I do, it is something that I am. His job gives him a stream of people that say to him, “I am hear to learn.”
22:57 – What is a common mistake you see that limits research career potential?
[Thomas]Most people doing research don’t understand the problem they are trying to solve. Instead they focused on the solution. Scientists get to do that, but engineers need to ask questions like problem solvers.
24:50 – Where would you most like to move the needle in your career?
[Thomas] Change the way that people make sense of the world. Move them from simplistic to complex. Thomas tells a story about his daughter starting to understand a more complex way of understanding the world through studying Game of Thrones versus a teenage romance novels.