Written by Phalguni Ranjan

My journey to the field of conservation had a pretty clichéd beginning, now that I think about it. The classic Marine Biologist starter pack had some really simple components back then. Take an enthusiastic 11 year old, throw in some Animal Planet, a devout love for water and animals, the desire to do something, and blend it all together. For someone who had never seen the sea, dolphins or reef fish, the prospect of studying them was a huge deal. 

Interestingly, as I grew older and with each step I took towards my goal, I realised (almost always belatedly) that I’d thoroughly loved and enjoyed other aspects of the journey too. Aspects that weren’t limited just to the marine realm or indeed, the concept of conservation as we understood it then. That neon sign was broken (facepalm). 

I went on to complete my masters in Marine Biology, and landed an internship, and then a job. It was less than a couple of years after getting into research that I began to feel the disconnect. I was baffled – wasn’t I doing what I wanted to do? Didn’t I like my work? “Yes, but…..” was the answer my mind threw back at me every single time. One year, a breakdown, and a short career break later, the sentence started completing itself.
“Yes, but I feel I’ll make more of a difference in a different capacity.”

“Yes, but I feel I’m doing a half-assed job in research and I feel stagnant.”

“Yes, but….no!”

A year later, I had a new job handling bits of conservation communications, wildlife awareness and related content creation, and new insecurities, and I was quite adrift at sea. I asked myself the same questions again and got the same “Yes, but….”, but thankfully, it wasn’t long before the rest came through.

“Yes, but I feel like an imposter.”

“Yes, but can I even call myself a marine biologist anymore?”

“Yes, but will anyone take me seriously anymore, and will I hit a ceiling too soon?”

I was stuck in between two warring identities- who I thought I should be and who I wanted to be. I had wanted to be a marine biologist since I was 11, and I now wanted to do something more creative, and more people-connected that I felt was more in line with my skills and aptitude. 

Luckily, I had realised within just a couple of years of working that research wasn’t what I wanted to do. Despite the early switch, the identity crisis and existential crisis hit home really hard. Somehow, I felt extremely guilty and worse, that something was wrong with me. I’d worked hard to get there, studied the right courses, gotten the relevant degrees, and won a gold medal only to want to change my line of work? Who even would I be anymore? Wasn’t I letting myself down? Wait, I was letting others down – that was worse, wasn’t it? I was convinced I was letting someone down.

It took me months (and talks with many kind folks) to realise I could wear multiple hats in terms of identities, and that I would be a marine biologist irrespective of whether I was active in research or on the creative conservation or communications side of things. I do still rely heavily on my knowledge of the systems, of all the concepts I’ve learnt and implemented, and my research experience however short it may have been. My art is still inspired by marine life to a large extent, and some day, I want to carve out a niche for myself in a capacity closely connected with that world.

The portfolio I now handle is diverse and challenging, and I’m surprised (and relieved) to find that I really enjoy it and find it fulfilling. My acceptance of my change was as incomplete as saying I’m a jack of all trades, and construing it to be nothing really great. Thankfully, not anymore. Do you know the entire saying?

“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

Cue, self-image boost. A Jack (or Jill, if you will) of all trades is definitely what I am. And I’m learning to own it.

I am at my creative best at work and outside, now. As a hobby, I create art that incorporates elements of different art forms and wildlife to create fusion pieces, many of which haven’t yet seen the light of day but, oh well. At work, I’ve never been more motivated to creatively portray a conservation success story and illustrate some powerful figures that popped out at me from the data. 

I now accept I’m a package deal and not just one label or title. That I wear many hats and change them as per the requirement or occasion. 

For the longest time, I felt like an imposter and sometimes on bad days, I still do. But then again, don’t we all? Personally, I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have the same doubts or fears or insecurities, and I realised I wasn’t alone only once I started talking to others. It helped widen my horizon, and normalise the doubts and insecurities a whole lot of us deal with everyday. What was once a huge, identity-crushing thing for me, became something not unique to me and in the process of normalising it, it lost its crippling hold over me.

It is true, we care far too much about what others think, but being part of a society and for better or for worse, sort of bound to the norms of the circles we run in, it takes a lot to fight it. We get caught up in titles and labels that we take to define us with such absoluteness that we don’t leave room for ourselves to transcend boundaries and be something new. 

I have come to realise that in this fast-paced, overly competitive world, sometimes we need to hit pause, assess, and share a little positivity, and that has been the motivation behind my art. To create something beautiful and positive from the negativity and turmoil within.

Conversations, discussions, and just saying it aloud helped me so much and I want to do that for others. Down days are normal. Doubting your work at times is normal. Feeling lost is normal. Insecurities are normal. 

All of this is normal. But the key is to take time to acknowledge it, accept it, reach out, talk about it, and then bounce back to be the spectacular person you’re meant to be!

For more of Phalguni, check out @artandguni on Instagram