Twofish's Blog

August 13, 2006

One final moment of self-centered navel gazing….

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology, personal — twofish @ 2:03 pm

Before I start to do some real work.  I’ve been looking at what needs to be done, and I’ve got enough stuff to keep me busy for the next two or three months.  One misconception that non-academics have is that doing academic work is mostly a-ha flashes of inspiration.  About 90% of academic work actually involves lots of pieces of rather boring drugery.

For example, right now I’m trying to get a rejection letter for a paper that I submitted to a conference.  Getting a rejection letter is important because you can’t resubmit a paper while it is a queue, so I need to get the rejection letter preferably with reviewer comments.  That’s only one of about twenty boring, annoying things that makes up academic work, that’s going to keep me quite busy.  Even the getting to the a-ha moment requires spending months and months reading up on papers, and one thing on my TODO list is to try to understand the variance gamma model.

So how I’m a feeling now…..

Scared out of my mind.

Curiously enough, the fear isn’t an unpleasant feeling, and it’s a lot better than the suffocating feeling that I was feeling about a month ago.  I’m doing the career equivalent of jumping out of an airplane.  What am I afraid of?  The big (rational) fear is that I’m going to do something that ends up wrecking my health or my family.  This actually shows how fear is useful, because I’m going to try to have enough safety nets so that it doesn’t do these things.  The big (irrational) fear is public humilation.  I’m being rather loud, and being loud always exposes one to the danger of public humilation at failure.  But that fear isn’t too rational.  I’m used to being laughed at, and it’s something you get used to.  Also, I’m not quite sure what “success” involves.  That’s one interesting thing about going outside a structure.  In traditional academia, “success” involves getting a tenured professorship.  Now that I’m going things on the outside, it’s not clear what “success” is.

But one thing I have learned is to be “process-centered” rather than “goal-centered.”  Doing what it is that I’m doing (and I’m not clear what it is), changes me.  Whether I achieve a goal depends on a million factors most of which are outside my control, but the process of trying to reach that goal, changes me in a lot of subtle ways.

And the fear of doing what I’m doing is nowhere near the fear of the consequences of being conventional…..

The nightmare that I have is that I’ll wake up one morning 10-15 years from now and find that the “fairy princess” has won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or has ended up president of a major research university, and I’m still stuck programming c++ in something that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.  I can’t do anything about her life.  Winning the Nobel involves a large amount of luck, but if she wants to be a president of a major research university in 10-15 years, there is really nothing stopping her.  What I can do is to arrange my life so that if she gets that stuff, I have enough stuff of my own (a few papers here and there) so that I don’t feel totally miserable about myself, and so I’m directing all of this anger and resentment toward constructive things.
So what do I really want from her……


That’s actually harder than it sounds.  Try to have lunch with the CEO of Microsoft and see how far you get.  On the other hand, if you are the CEO of Microsoft and you want to have lunch with someone, it’s actually not to hard to get them to change their schedule to accomodate yours.  One thing that people really can’t admit is despite the democratic pretensions we really live in a very hierarchical society.  If you want to have lunch with a major academic celebrity, you have to be at least a minor academic celebrity, otherwise they aren’t going to give you the time of day, and being in a situation where you aren’t important enough to be able to communicate some crucial bits of information to someone who is extremely busy is exactly the situation with her that I ended up at while I was at MIT, and I don’t like it one bit.
And so if I have to change the entire world in order to have an honest conversation with the fairy princess as an equal, then that’s just the way things have to be.  It may be that after doing all of this stuff, that she still doesn’t want to talk to me.  That’s her right.  Still, I suspect I’ll get something useful done in the process of trying to get a lunch date.

Sounds silly.  But I’ve found that driven people usually are motivated by something that seems silly, and the only difference that I have is that I’m less shy about talking about my silly motivations.

Also, I’ve gotten a lot of well-meaning advice that comes from the “standard operating manual of life.”  They basically go you are crazy, accept your lot in life, let go of all these negative feelings, you are being unrealistic.  I do want people who have an urge to give me this sort of advice to really, really look deeply at it, and ask themselves whether that advice makes sense.  If I don’t take my passions and direct them at something constructive, I don’t think good things will happen.

And I do think that everything is going to work out alright.  Anyway, I just need to get back to work and try to understand the variance gamma models.


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