When Marie Curie and her husband won the Nobel Prize in Physics, they declined to get it.
Her husband Pierre wasn’t particularly fond of public ceremonies. More importantly, they still had a lot of work they needed to get done, and the ceremony would act as a distraction.
Given that all Nobel Laureates are asked to give a lecture, they did eventually make the trip in later years. The money from the prize allowed them to hire their first laboratory assistant, and their work ethic paid off, too. Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize in 1911.
She was the first person to win the Prize in two different categories, and she is still the only woman ever to have done so. There are few scientists who rival her accomplishments.
One thing, however, that very few people know about her is that she was also a prolific writer.
Not a writer in the traditional sense of an author, but a writer who meticulously journaled every part of her life. In fact, it appears that this habit played quite a large role in helping her not only with her work and her research but also with the tragedies that she dealt with.
A few years after the death of her husband, she wrote the following message to him:
“I do not conceive anything which can give me a true personal joy except the scientific work; and still not, because if I succeeded, I would be sorry that you do not know anything of it.”
The Value of Personal Reflection
Scientists have known for years about the benefits of journaling. As the research of Dr. James Pennebaker has shown, it’s a way for us to take a more intimate look at ourselves.1
In our day to day life, the thinking we do differs from the kind of thinking that occurs when we’re organizing our thoughts to write them down or when we actually pause to reflect.
The act of using your memory and formulating it into writing forces you to look at the occurrences in your life from a different vantage point. It gives you no choice but to face things that you make a subconscious effort to ignore. That often leads to personal growth.
The journal that Marie Curie used to communicate with her husband after his death shows an interesting progression. Naturally, in the beginning, she is distraught without his company, and it’s apparent in the writing. With time, however, there is evidence of her moving on.
The heavy emotions slowly get replaced with a more confident and independent voice. The journal becomes less a place of mourning and more a source of connection to his memory.
Of course, just dwelling on something alone isn’t going to solve every issue, but actually pondering personal challenges and then making an active effort to progress based on the clarity of the information you gain can lead to a valuable shift in perspective.
Even when most people are bothered, they rarely understand the meaning of their emotions. They may recognize a feeling, but they can’t always pinpoint what exactly it’s telling them.
Journaling provides a way to close the gap between feelings and the triggers behind them.
Root Cause Problem-Solving
Writing to resolve conflict or personal problems is only a specific benefit of journaling. As a habit, it’s also a great device to improve how you think about your interactions with reality.
It’s clear looking at the few records of Marie Curie’s journals that the discoveries she made grew from the deeper problem-solving that occurred when she recorded the work in the lab.
In most of our daily activities, we’re constantly being bothered by one form of mental stimuli or another, and while it may feel like we have spent enough time thinking about something that occupies our mind in the background of our routine, we’re not really taking a deep dive.
The cause and effect relationships we observe are often quite shallow and lack accuracy. It’s very easy in the daily state of mind to confuse root causes of events with proximate causes.
A proximate cause is the most visible explanation of an outcome. A root cause, on the other hand, is the underlying mechanism that is responsible for the steps leading to the outcome.
For example, at first glance, you may think that the reason somebody gets a promotion at work is because of their performance. However, if you dig a little deeper and ask a few questions, you’ll see that the cause is actually the person’s close relationship with the boss.
If you’ve worked in the place long enough, then this may be obvious to you from the start. That said, in most situations, it’s usually the proximate cause that gets our attention.
We glance at something, and we move on, and the assumption we make tends to stick.
Writing or journaling about your experiences forces you to question this initial assumption, and that leads to a better understanding of the interactions between the forces in your life.
All You Need to Know
Marie Curie never had it easy, which makes her accomplishments even more impressive.
Along with the death of her husband and the glass ceiling in the sciences during her time, she also struggled with poverty and poor working conditions for a significant part of her life.
She passed away due to her long-term exposure to radiation during her working days. Even her journals are contaminated and can only be viewed while wearing protective equipment.2
The degree to which they helped her perform at her work and get her past personal struggles is difficult to quantify, but it appears that they were quite a crucial part of her life.
Given that modern research suggests similar benefits of routinely recording personal experiences and thoughts, it makes sense that writing is a practical and accessible problem-solving tool. It lets us see beyond the surface layers of thinking that we confine ourselves to.
Of course, not everyone considers themselves a writer. It can be hard to know where to start.
Yet, writing is only as complicated as we make it. In this day and age, with email and texting, everybody writes a set amount each day anyway. All you really need to do is schedule a few extra minutes a day. There are no rules, and it doesn’t have to be overly ritualized.
A mind that engages clarity and depth provides a rare advantage. It’s only a few words away.
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