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From the Lab to Life: Implementing and Adjusting Plans to Meet Goals
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Volume 15, Issue 3 (March 2017)

Harini S. Aiyer


Last month, I wrote about my approach to setting goals and laying the groundwork for achieving them. Recognizing obstacles and my own traits that help me succeed or hold me back are important for creating a plan to work towards those goals. Of course, that is only the beginning of the process. Over the years, I have found some strategies that help me develop and adjust my plans and see me through to meeting goals.


Small parts make a big whole. Trained PhDs deconstruct a big problem into its smaller components, solve each of these small pieces, then put them back together to see if the big problem is fixed. I have come to believe that the solution to big problems begins with small actions. The act of running three miles every other day by itself is not a big deal, but doing so for a whole year means that I have achieved a running base upon which I can build. This is the easiest way to tackle big goals. Do one small thing every day toward the big goal. If you miss one, restart. Keep going until it becomes a habit.


Credit support from others. The exercise of gratitude gave me the most mental strength to face hurdles with resilience. There are many people who, by simply being themselves, have helped me be a better me. Without these people, I wouldn’t be a tenth as successful as I am today. Externalizing this gratitude allows me to identify those who are most likely to help me realize my aspirations and to draw from their experience, expertise, wisdom, friendship, and positivity.


Accept that sometimes you will drop the ball. Life in the 21st century is a constant juggling act. A given person might juggle being a teammate, parent, spouse, volunteer, worker, and friend. Each of us is given only 24 hours a day. There are likely to be times when you want to just come home and watch TV, when there are papers to grade or garages to fix. In fact, I dropped the ball on this very article. I couldn’t get it done by the deadline for last month. I felt terrible about it and scolded myself for spending my few spare hours watching YouTube videos about Mega Cakes, rather than buckling down and writing this piece. But if I were honest with myself, I was working 15-18 hour days in December, and watching those stupid videos relaxed me. Also, had I forced myself to write when my mind was anxious, I would probably churn out something that needed even more work. So, I took a deep breath, accepted that I dropped the ball, vowed to do better next time, and went back to watching more cake videos.


Learn to say no. This has been the hardest lesson for me. Like Tina Fey, I am of the improv school of life philosophy where I have always said, “Yes, and...” This has provided some rich adventures in my life. However, as I grow older, I am learning that saying “no” at the right time is the best way to create space for more adventure. To put it another way, saying “yes” to the wrong person may end up costing you more.


Discriminating between the right people to say “yes” and “no” to is an art worth learning. Recently, I had to say a very strong "no" to a person I had known for nearly ten years and had considered a friend, which ultimately led to ending the friendship. The irony is this happened because I had said “yes” at the wrong time. Unfortunately, this life lesson cost me a friend.


Keep an open mind. As you go about setting and reaching targets, it is easy to be so focused that you miss an even better opportunity. Never close your mind to possibilities that may not look like what you sought but may end up taking you to an even better place. When I graduated, I was focused on being a professor. I let many opportunities that may have better suited me slip by. It wasn’t until the universe slapped my face and made me look that I saw the beauty of what I can be when I keep an open mind. Sure, it wasn’t the destination I planned for myself, but when one is happy inside, anywhere one goes is home.


Believe in your own free will. When I was 18, I was sure I would do everything my mother did: get married at the right age, have children, and basically live her life over again. However, the direction of my life changed radically. I am now an unmarried, childless, 38-year-old scientist and business owner, because I made choices that brought me here. The very first goal I set was to lose weight. I was 18 and being called Ms. Fatty by my peers. I worked toward it, achieved it, and moved on to the next. I have been doing this for the last two decades—setting goals, succeeding in some, failing in others, but with each exercising my free will.


Perhaps goal-setting is merely an actionable way to practice free will—a way to swim against the current even as the events around us threaten to sweep us in their wake and carry us to a distant shore. Whatever it is, my life is a work of art that I have created with my own hands, slowly chiseling away the excess, and becoming the person I want to be.


I write from a privileged position, whether it be physical, personal, or professional. I understand that the challenges I face are nothing compared to many. My concerns are trivial compared to others and knowing this keeps me from taking myself too seriously. If I fail, I get up, dust off, and get going again. I hope you will too. Good luck to all of you in the coming year!


Harini Aiyer, PhD, spearheads product development for the biotech startup HDL Diagnostics. You can find her practicing science, community organizing, or watching YouTube videos about Mega Cakes in the Greater Milwaukee Area.


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