I wrote this piece for a mailing list I’m on, and thought it was interesting enough to share. For privacy reasons, I’ve removed the original poster’s comments, which may make things a little more disjointed – my apologies.
By way of background, the original poster was asking about how one recovers from burnout in the sciences, and how one returns to having science as a Muse once again.
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Well, first, it is not necessary to a happy life to have science as a muse. Been there, done that, burned out, lamented the loss of what had been the main focus of my life, eventually realized that science was NOT my muse and definitely not the end-all and be-all of life. Since then I have realized that my Muse is a creative one, centered around textiles/fiber arts, and have been much happier ever since.
So my first question to you is whether science is truly your Muse or whether it’s something else, and you’re simply not aware of it yet. Towards this, I offer an excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”, Stephen Mitchell translation:
You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself, in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if the answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple, “I must“, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
In my experience, a calling is not the same as an attraction to a specific subject. For lack of a better description, it is a personality trait, and some habits established to support that trait (“building your life in accordance with this necessity”). When you “burned out” on science, did you lose the spirit of inquisition, or did you simply move it elsewhere in your life than the particular subject you were studying? If you just moved it elsewhere, seems like you’re still a scientist to me.
I also think the best way to come back to what is alive in you, is simply never to leave it. This means walking away from things you are burned out on, mentally if not physically – you do not have to be 100%, passionately invested in what you do for a living in order to earn money. (I haven’t been focused on corporate success for years, after realizing that my passion is textiles – I do what I need to do in order to earn the living that I want, but I don’t focus my life around it.) A passion for life and a passion for X subject are not at all the same, and as I said, if that inquisitive and analytical bent that is the Muse of science is still yours, you’ve never lost that connection to science whether or not you are currently working as a scientist. My mom stayed home and took care of the kids for 15+ years, during which time she also organized political campaigns (advocating for gifted education), wrote columns for the Chinese newspaper, taught me a great deal about the textile arts, and had a swing through as a high school science teacher before returning to her previous love, biochemistry/X-ray crystallography. (She has a PhD in biochemistry.) I can pretty safely say that my mom was still a scientist through most of that, even though she wasn’t earning her living through science, because her bent was always analyzing and explaining.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that science is an attitude, a perspective, not a profession necessarily. I wouldn’t worry about burning out on a particular subject so long as the spirit of inquisition remains. (As you say, it is natural for intense people – and people in general, for that matter – to go through periods of burnout on a subject.) It may cause you some discomfort to discover that you’re no longer attracted to the subject that is your profession, but in that case I would examine what the root causes are, and see whether this is the profession or simply the job you’re in. Would you be interested in other problems in the field? Are you tired of the political intrigue at your current location? If so, seems it’s the job and not the Muse that troubles you.