I’m a full-time international sales that imports industrial machines from mainly Europe and sell to Japanese companies.
Among all the tasks I have to do, there is an especially hard one; We do experiments together at the very early stage of each project to test whether our machines are capable of and efficient for realizing what the customers are aiming to do.
In most cases, they are aiming to either develop new product or optimize their existing testing line or production line, we do experiments with “scientific experts”, who is from R&D or production engineering developments from great companies in Japan.
However, I am far from scientific expert. I was always one of the worst students in chemistry and physics classes and I always hated math. I don’t know why, but looking back, I think I believed from the beginning that I would never be smart enough to understand any of these scientific things.
Ironically, in order to work internationally with communicating and cooperating together with people from different countries, which has always been my dream since when I was 12 years old, my current job seemed perfect so I wanted – which means I had to learn and deal with my fear about science. I didn’t expect this at all in all the 4 years spent in university, majoring international relations and learning English every day. I thought I will never have to study science for the rest of my life.
Now it has almost been 3 years since I started this job, and I learned about science and got used to working with scientific experts a lot more than I ever expected. Surprisingly, now experiments are one of my favorite things I do at my job.
I had not so many chances to meet scientists in my life before this job, because the university I went was only for foreign studies, so this experience of working with highly successful scientists feels really special to me.
In this a few years, I realized there are 4 things so many scientific experts I worked with have in common.
So many things happen ever day. How you see each thing and how you respond to them is completely up to you, and could be completely different from person to person.
Even among all the participants involved in one same experiment, each person could see, understand, and want to respond to each thing happen there in different ways, before we talk to each other to know other participants’ opinion. And I realized that especially between the experts and I, there are huge differences.
Before you think “Of course there must be differences, you just want them to buy your machine, but for them, the experiment with you is just one of the options and necessary steps in their long journey to achieve their final goals to develop new products or to optimize their production line.”, I know that there must be difference between sales and customers, but I believe these differences are a lot more than that.
Why? Because these 4 things the scientific experts have in common could be really important and helpful mindset, attitude, skill, and perspective for me, and for you too, whether you are a scientist or not.
1. Stay calm and positive when things don’t go as you expected or planned.
During experiments, we talk and build some hypothesis first, and actually try if it works as we expected. With the result, we discuss what worked and what didn’t, and think about what we should do next. We repeat this over and over again, until we run out of time or until we get the result we wanted.
If things worked just as we wanted, both the customer and I will be so happy. However, even though our hypothesis are not just assumptions but something we build with reasons and our experiences, so many unexpected and undesired results we can get.
“Why is this happening?” “Why is it not working as we expected?”
Even with these super intelligent scientists, we all often stumble.
In such situation, I can’t help feeling frustrated or worried so much. I think in my head “What’s wrong? What should we do?” “What if we couldn’t get any good results?”
But on the other hand, the scientists stay calm and say something like this:
“Wow is this how it works? Didn’t expect this. Interesting.”
“It’s good that it’s difficult. That means our competitors can’t copy us easily, so it will give us a huge advantage if we can figure this out.”
When I heard this, in my head I was ashamed about how impatient and narrow minded I was. And surprised and respected how calm, resilient, and positive they were. I could tell that attitude is important to stay creative even in difficult situation, because they are the ones who always come up with constructive idea of next step we should take.
It can be the same thing in our daily lives. When things didn’t work as we wanted, or when people did’t react or behave as we expected, we tend to feel upset or disappointed. But what’s really important is not crying about the negative situation, but thinking about what we can do to make it any better.
And in order to think about our next step, we need to be creative – and creativity works the best when we stay calm, resilient, and positive.
2. Don’t hesitate to ask questions when you don’t understand what other people mean.
Most of the scientific experts don’t hesitate to ask questions when they didn’t understand what other participants said until they clearly understand, or they collect all the information they needed to understand what they meant.
I knew it is important to make sure that everyone is on the same page especially when we are doing an experiment together, but even so, I was surprised when I saw they didn’t give up to understand what my colleague said when it was a little ambiguous, and keep asking questions until they understood clearly. I realized my colleague looked a little confused and I think he was thinking “I think what I’ve just said is not that big deal…” in his head.
I don’t really know about you, but since Japanese communication style is extremely high context and we tend to expect others to read between the lines, we tend to hesitate to ask questions because by asking so many questions when someone is talking, that could interrupt him or her, and we could be seen as someone disrespectful or lacking the ability to read between the lines (in other word we say “read the air” too).
With that’s said, I still think whether you are from high context or low context culture⁽*⁾, we tend to hesitate ask many questions when we don’t understand what other people said, more or less. However they don’t , and I think that is also really important. Why?
*In low context communication style, the speaker is required to tell everything what listeners need to understand, specifically and precisely, and making sure that listeners understand what they need to know is (almost) fully speaker’s responsibility. For more detailed information, I recommend you to read “Culture Map” by Erin Meyer.
Even when we are speaking in one same language with each other, sometimes we are actually speaking in slightly different languages, because we all build our own language in each community we belong to. It is not like we create our original language, we are still speaking basically in the same language, but the definitions or nuance of words and expressions we frequently use could be slightly different in each family, couple, group of friends, community, colleagues and so forth.
The difference look really really small that it’s hard to explain, but they could be very unique, and that is why we often find it difficult to fully understand each other when we talk with someone new, or someone we don’t talk so often, while we have no problem when we tell the same thing to someone who you always talk to.
Moreover, our thoughts could be highly effected by our languages we speak and conversations we often have, so even when a group of people see exact the same thing at the same time, some of them who always talk to each other could be thinking the same thing about the reason why that happened or what next step they should take, while some of them from different community is thinking completely different things.
In my case, especially in my daily life not at work place, when I realize the small differences of languages we are speaking and the “we-may-not-be-understanding-fully-each-other…” kind of feeling, I often choose to ignore unless the conversation I am having is really important, thinking:
“It’s not a big deal, so I’m gonna just enjoy this conversation and just let go the minor ambiguities.”
“I don’t want to interrupt by asking questions.”
And that also might be a necessary skill to live happily and with harmony, for example when we are just having casual, relaxing chats.
However in businesses, I think I need to learn not to hesitate to ask questions when things are not clear enough, not just for me but for everyone working together.
Not noticing that we are actually not on the same page could cost a lot more than experiencing a little awkwardness or fear of being someone asks questions.
3. Explain difficult things in the easiest way to understand.
It’s not that difficult to explain difficult things in difficult, complicated, technical terms. What’s really difficult and also really important is to explain difficult things in the easiest and simplest way so that people who listen can understand easily and smoothly.
And so many of the great scientists I worked with are great at the latter.
For example when I asked a question about a sample they brought for the experiment, in most cases explaining the details of it is too complicated for someone who’s not specialist to understand, or a secret they cannot disclose, so they start to explain like this:
- Think about what they can relate with the difficult thing they are trying to explain.
- Pick up one simple example, which most people are familiar with in their daily life.
- Explain about the example, what they are made of, how they work, what’s actually in it… etc.
- Connect that example with the difficult thing they are trying to explain, with adding a little supplementary explanation.
That always works and I can understand the idea really easily. When people explain things in this way, I always feel impressed and respectful, because only someone who really understand the basis and the essence of things – not only about their profession but also about things we can see in our daily lives – can do this.
4. Cooking and making coffee are also science.
Even though we are pretty serious during experiments, at lunch time or after the long day, we also talk about their hobbies or what they do in their day offs and so on.
It turned out that quite a few of the scientific experts love cooking, or making good coffee.
Especially for chemists, they told me that cooking or making good coffee feels very similar to what they do at their labo – mixing materials in different ways and see how different the outcome could be, heating or cooling something and see the effect, and so on.
I’ve never thought about cooking or making good coffee that way, but I think that makes sense.
As a someone who used to be terrible student in chemistry class, this idea won’t be helpful to improve my cooking skills, but I think this point of view is very interesting. If there is any of you who thinks the same way, I’d love to hear what you think.
These are the 4 life lessons I learned through working with highly successful scientific experts. If any of you reading is a scientist, please let me know in the comment section if there is anything you can relate.