Badasses are built not born

Before COVID, I did weekly weights training with the incomparable Sarah Florence. The workouts were hard, the conversations were fun, and I loved the way the physical strength crossed over into mental strength. In one memorable session, I was tired, and asked ‘is half-arsed sometimes good enough?’ I’ll never forget her response, ‘Hell no, on the platform we’re all full-arsed’! For the last 12 months, I’ve been doing online yoga but that’s full-arsed too. If anything, I’m stronger now than I was while doing weights (1). What I love about both the weight training and the yoga practice though, is the obvious connection between effort and results.

The other thing I like about physical training is the amount of ‘sports psychology that goes along with it. One of several books I’d listened to, on Sarah’s recommendation, was “Chasing Excellence: A Story About Building the World's Fittest Athletes” Its basic premise is that the result (in this case winning in cross-fit competitions) is just the top of a pyramid of foundational strengths, the bottom and most important of which is the athlete's character (grit, determination, perseverance etc…). Without a no-complaining, all-in, never-give-up attitude, all strategy falls short. The next layer is fuel, training, and recovery. Only once those bottom layers are solid is there any point talking about performance strategy. Reading about this ~three years ago felt like we in STEM were pretty far behind. My friends and family in classical music spend more time on the mental-game than we do. We often tell students how important it is to publish, but we don’t spend much time teaching them how to become the sort of person who can. The character strengths that it takes to keep going when every fibre of your being wants to give up.

We sometimes liken the competition in our careers to elite sport. Just like sport, there’s attrition at each stage. Although in STEM, the attrition-rates for minorities are biased in depressingly predictable ways... By the time most of us are ~10 years in, arguably at the height of our expertise –if we take the whole 10,000 hours of deliberate practice idea seriously– the options get tight. We all know, but don’t plan for the fact, that at each stage we need to be in the top ~20% or higher to keep playing. This is a pretty depressing thought; so all power to those who think other career options are more appealing, or that these odds are too precarious for civilised adult life. Unlike in elite sport, however, most of us don’t spend time on strengthening our character, mental or physical fitness or anything much outside of our specific discipline to support ourselves. I suspect we skip most of the next layer (training, recovery & fuel) too. But to focus only on strategy and result is a recipe for a wobbly career foundation and burnout.

I’ve been blessed with many career-doors opening for me. None were the product of a strategic decision, and most felt like a fluke at the time. In fact, as a teen, my sister said ‘Traude, you’re not actually good at anything, you’re just lucky.' I held this thought, with full-arsed resentment, for at least 30 years before I was able to rejoice in the luck and forgive her. It was, after all, only said about a card game that she'd overcomplicated with strategy. There will be a survivor-bias in everything I say, but there are two things I did do from early on that are worth sharing. They didn’t come from particularly great motivations but seem to have worked anyway.

Asking for help: Because of a deep-seated belief in my own stupidity (see high school report below, the irony of the comment!), from undergrad onward I spent a lot of time chatting to peers and senior people alike, trying to make sure I was understanding things properly, that my results meant what I thought they meant etc... A friend who knew me as a PhD student recently told me that I’d apparently said to her at a meeting that I was sorry but I’d have to ditch her ‘to work the room’… ~20 years on, I was a bit mortified to hear that, but it came from the idea I’ve always had, that a network is like the safety-net circus artists use to cushion inevitable falls. I didn’t give it the negative overlay of network marketing (although, marketing seems like solid career advice now too). This approach has served me well, it meant for example, that I didn’t ever really seek a mentor, I just asked anyone I thought could help. Of course, doing so often felt awful. But it means I now have lots of people I call mentors.

Paying for help: Two years after I'd started my lab and had failed in every grant/fellowship I’d applied for; I was pretty desperate. I’d sought help from some senior people in my institution only to be told that the grants were nice science but unfundable with me as the lead… that sent me into a spin for quite a long time, but ultimately meant I looked externally for help. I have no idea if I chose the ‘best’ online grant writing course, but the one I did chose worked for me and was the best ~$800 I’ve ever spent (2). I made the money back (in many fold excess) within the first year and it's continued paying dividend ever since. The same with all the self-help books and most recently the investment in coaching. When you pay for help, the skin in the game and the ambition of levelling up, means you always get a return on investment.

I’m writing this blog in the week that started with Australia-wide march4justice rallies protesting gendered violence. At the Melbourne rally every woman who spoke was passionate, vulnerable, brave and a badass! Each was an impressive example of what is possible. The speaker that stood out for me the most and whose image kept coming back was Wurundjeri woman Sue-Anne Hunter (@SueAnneHunter2). Her speech was electrifying. But neither she nor any of the other women who spoke were likely to have been born the badasses they now seem. They grew into the role based on the random circumstances of their past and how they channelled those circumstances to shape their future. And they are fabulous for it! In my own way, I live to be a badass too; to play my best game, to keep levelling up and where I can, to help others do the same (3). So whether you call it post-traumatic growth, what-doesn't-kill-you-makes-you-stronger, or just full-arsed character building, those badasses we admire are built not born.


  1. Amy Carmody Yoga is the toughest yoga I’ve done in my life, all about hips and glutes and core strength. No passive poses, much more about joint mobility, facia and functional fitness. As her online platform has grown, she’s also included other functional bodyweight training and kettle-bell classes. I don’t think I’ll be going back to the gym any time soon.

  2. The program was the GRANT Dynamo 2.0 0 by Morgan Giddings. The grant included many things that are probably obvious, but having paid the money (having buy-in) meant that I took it all very seriously and did all the homework and got the benefit.

  3. I’m also at the stage in my coach training where I’m seeking volunteers to practice on. If you’re a woman working in STEM and are curious about what happens in a coaching conversation, please sign up to my email list for more details.

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