Obstacles and Increments

This article is about the frustrations of life, big and small. It is also about our goals in life, and how those goals can seem unattainable, due to frustrations and obstacles that appear to form blockades. And it is about an approach to these issues – taking small, incremental but positive steps – that I have found extremely useful in overcoming even major barriers in life.

As my dear colleagues here at #WomenRising have discussed, in previous posts and along multiple lines, the obstacles of life are very systematic and daunting, especially for women. They are also systemic and societal, supported as they are by multiple layers of patriarchy and bias. The effect is to hinder all efforts by women, as they strive to make use of their manifest abilities, in so many of their pursuits.

Here, I will cite examples, and a sample scenario, to illustrate how I believe that anyone – but especially talented women, who are held back by obstacles – can take incremental steps and make progress toward their goals, in spite of all.

Let’s say that a woman has obvious talent, and a clear vision, for developing a system that has definite societal and commercial value. But the men who control the conventional sources of funding, support and implementation for such systems believe that women have no business pursuing such ideas. They tell her that women are simply not capable of such things.

But this woman takes a step back, after trying the usual routes to build her system and to get it off the ground as a commercial enterprise. The patriarchal system has failed her, and made it clear to her that she is not worthy and should not continue in this pursuit.

This woman sits and thinks, carefully, then starts making notes about what she wants to accomplish, on her own, and how. The notes belong to her, and to no one else. And the contents of her brain, and her thought process belong to her. And on her own, she takes the first small steps – one baby step at a time – to build her system from scratch, with no help from, and no obligation to anyone else.

It may seem impossible at first. It is such a big mountain to climb, and there is no one else to understand her, or support her work. But she starts writing, or drawing, or coding, or simply building the system that she envisions. Her vision, and her talents, are the true driving force. Each step forward gives her positive feedback, and encouragement, and tangible evidence of progress. And she gradually finds that it is easier to take the next step, and the next.

When she gets tired, or hits a roadblock, she takes a break. Now, here is a bit of neuroscience on what happens during such breaks. Whether short or longer, the time away from task allows thoughts, ideas and memories to consolidate. Systems in the brain, including cerebral cortex and structures such as the hippocampus and overlying temporal lobe, shuttle signals back and forth. And the seeming magic of neuroplasticity takes place as she rests, strengthening synaptic connections and reinforcing positive feedback. All of this happens in the background, below the level of consciousness. But the result is one of extreme power, and it can be magical in its effect on the incremental, stepwise approach outlined above.

Here is an everyday example of the combination of processes I have described above. I am writing this article. I have a set of ideas, and I sit down and type them. As I type one idea, I think about the next and then type it as a sequence, paragraphing as I go. These are incremental steps, taken with no clear knowledge of how the final article will appear.

At some point, the well of ideas runs dry. I sit and think, but have no clear focus for what comes next. And that is the time to take a break. Go and do something else, and if necessary (as on a bigger project), take the rest of the day for other things, and sleep on it.

Now, this is important. When I come back to the draft article, I start reading it, and look at where I got stuck the day before. And wow! Miracle of miracles, the thing is a mess, and in very obvious ways! I see fixes that need to be made, new ideas that I should have included (but didn’t come to me before). And in most cases, I can now sit and quickly type the remainder of the draft article.

I take another break, usually a short one, and then make a careful edit of the entire draft. And again, there are obvious mistakes of omission and commission, and those are easily fixed. Neuroplasticity and consolidation have done much of the heavy lifting for me, automatically and free of charge. And all of the content is now there, without regard for any obstacles that were put up by intervening life or other issues.

In my life and career, these simple ideas, implemented by an iterative process, have been the way forward in a world full of obstacles. I say this as a privileged white male, who has not been subject to the blockades that women face every day – from the patriarchy and male domination of much of the world around us. That is an important caveat, and I want to state it clearly.

But with that said, I trained four female PhD students in my neuroscience research lab, and a big part of that training was in the use of the incremental approach I have described above. All of them faced major obstacles as women, and so did all of the female medical students that I taught in neuroanatomy lab. All of my graduate students – and many of the medical students that I followed in subsequent years – have gone on to very productive and successful careers. They have done so with a strong inner confidence, based in large part on knowing the incremental path to success.

Inspiration comes to us in many forms. In this dark time, we can be overwhelmed into thinking that all is arrayed against us, and no effort can overcome that dark power. I understand those feelings very well. But I live and move forward with an optimism, based on inner strength and incremental progress, and largely independent of the darkness outside. I believe this inner strength is in all of us, and that #WomenRising can use it to fulfill their chosen missions in life.


Rise above in Love,

Dr.J.McCasland 🌎


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