Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Of Two Minds

One of the fun little aliens-related details in Constellation Games was the idea of the Farang (all of the alien names are taken from various languages' words for "alien). These aliens literally have two minds in one body- one is male, and one is female. They alternate periods of wakefulness, so that the Farang never actually sleeps. Usually, the two minds are in agreement, but the story includes a description of a Farang video game in which this is not the case, and the two halves of the one character compete with each other to determine what product a factory will make.

I'm feeling a bit like that hapless Farang factory-owner right now, and just like in the game, nothing much is getting built.

Where should I steer the boat?
One half of me is feeling really ambitious, and has big ideas about my career and how to have an impact on the world. In fact, this half of me is itself conflicted and has several competing ideas about my career, but it has actually worked out a few not entirely implausible plans to handle that.

The other half of me just wants to enjoy life, maybe travel more often, definitely read more.

I have two competing guiding principles: that the purpose of life is to enjoy and appreciate it, so I should go out and do that, and that the purpose of life is to enjoy and appreciate it, so I should work to make that possible for more people.

The solution to this conundrum is of course simple to conceive but difficult to execute: find some meaningful work (which for me is work that improves other people's lives) that I enjoy doing. That used to be an accurate description of my day job- but that hasn't been the case for long enough that I suspect I have lost my way. Or that the ankle weights have tired me out.... The ambitious half of me has ideas about how to fix this, and maybe I should just let it be in charge.

Of course, the ambitious half of me isn't content with meaningful. It wants big and important, too.

Luckily, I also strongly believe that a person can do big and important things without working insane hours and while taking reasonable vacations, which should keep the itchy-footed bookworm half of me happy. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn't so sure about that. The rest of the world seems reasonably sure that achieving big and important things requires a selfless devotion to those things, and not only will I not get to take four week vacations ever, let alone once a year, but I'll have to ditch family dinners, too. As much as I think that the rest of the world is wrong, wrong, wrong on this point, dealing with that dissonance can get tiresome, and the less ambitious half of me points out that I could just stop aiming so high and go read some nice books, already.

But sometimes, when I'm dreaming really big, I think that maybe the important thing I am meant to do is to get out there and show that a person can do big things while also working reasonable hours and taking real vacations. That ambition might be too big for even my ambitious half, though.

So here I am, of two perfectly good minds. No wonder I'm feeling a bit paralyzed on the grand plan for life front these days.


  1. Anonymous4:44 AM

    I can totally relate. http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/what-would-you-do-if-you-didnt-have-to-have-a-job/ Fortunately I recently had a second kid, so I'm too tired to go in any direction other than the path I'm currently on.

    I think, though, that we're in the fortunate 1% of intelligence that means we can truly work smarter, not harder, to get to the same place that it takes many other folks to get to. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about that, or that I should be doing more, but what can you do. (And I can say this anonymously on a blog, but not out loud. Deep down I suspect it is true.) Our children may not sleep, but a lot of other stuff just comes easier.

    If I had to give any advice, it would be that, despite Laura V's new ebook... having a grand master plan isn't the only way to go. It's ok to try something and go down a path whether it works out or not. You're a scanner-- you need change from time to time anyway. In many ways it doesn't matter which path you choose, you're going to be awesome no matter what you do. If you haven't read The Paradox of Choice yet, you might find it helpful for re-framing these decisions that can lead to analysis paralysis.

  2. Anonymous4:47 AM

    Also: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/ambition/



    We may slam introspection in a post next week, but only the meaningless kind. This kind of stuff might be more important. Or at least, we do a lot of it, and it doesn't seem to itself lead to misery, so it must be ok.

  3. Thank you for the post, Cloud. It really got me thinking. I haven't been ambitious in years - graduate school zapped it out of me. I am all in favor of travel, reading and enjoying life one day at a time. I want to show my kids: this is what life is about. Look at the stars. Look at the ocean. Climb that tree.

    Is it possible to have an ambitious career but not let it take over your entire life? I have seen the extremes: people who are all about work and are horrified at the very idea of a vacation, and those (myself included) who get their work done but don't go the extra mile to advance the career and don't want their profession (science, in my case) to BECOME their life.

    All the ambitious academic scientists I have met share one thing in common: they talk, read, sleep, breath science. Oh, they might have a family or a hobby, but science absolutely dominates.

    Perhaps I better get out of academia and re-think my concept of ambition. What do you think? Perhaps if you start on your ambitious journey while maintaining family-friendly hours and taking 4-week (really? wow, I want to do that, too!) the rest of us will follow.


    1. Anonymous6:36 AM

      "All the ambitious academic scientists I have met share one thing in common: they talk, read, sleep, breath science"

      Oh, I dunno. Most of the famous professors in my field that I know have a hobby. The president of the AEA does show dogs, for example.

      Not to say that we don't view the world through the lens of our training, but looking at the world like an economist (or "rationally," as we call it) doesn't preclude having hobbies or enjoying family.

      Sort of like looking at cooking through the lens of science. ;)

    2. Nicoleandmaggie,
      "Looking at cooking through the lens of science" - you got me :)

      Just wondering: famous professors with hobbies - did they get the hobbies before or after becoming famous?

    3. Anonymous6:59 AM

      I dunno, I'm still relatively young! This may be an example of leaning in early so you can lean out later. Or it may just be that some people can balance it all all the time (and most of us have limits to how much we can work). And there's a few gentlemen who seem to be very good at politics and don't need to actually produce anything of quality (or be responsible) to get ahead. There are a lot of paths to fame. (Most of them do involve luck, though.)

      The professors I can think of who are crazy busy all the time do a lot of work with policy-makers, so that's almost like a hobby-- volunteering to help the government.

      The people at the truly top places (Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc.) have lower teaching loads, better research assistants, personal administrative assistants, and so on. They spend their time differently than I do. And folks at R3s spend their time differently than I do, because they have so much more scut work and so much less help. There's a lot that goes into productivity and ambition in academia.

    4. Anonymous7:15 AM

      And... speaking of teaching and service... it is time for my non-stop day of teaching and meetings to begin. I look forward to seeing how this thread unfolds today. :)

    5. The people at the truly top places (Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc.) have lower teaching loads, better research assistants, personal administrative assistants, and so on.

      This is very, very true. There are three big differences between a top private place and a top public place: one is obviouisly salary, but most academic aren't in it for the salary alone. The other two are quality of students and postdocs you can attract, and staff support. Without the latter two you cannot grow -- if you can't attract enough good-quality postdocs you can't hire more students, and if you have no staff support then you are screwed with the administrivia of taking care of your own grants, travel for you and students, reimbursements, etc.

  4. I find this a fascinating topic -- I really don't think that ambition and smelling the roses are at odds. You can be very efficient and very smart (see N&M's comment) and get a lot done in normal hours. Add a few extra career building hours and you can soar... while working <50 hours per week. With 168 hours per week that does leave some rose-smelling and reading time. Obviously many of us reading this have small kids at the moment, which consumes most of the other 118 (168-50) hours, but as they grow, there is time for reading and such. I'm working on a post addressing Kristen van Ogtrop (Real Simple editor-in-chief)'s editor's letter this month on how she was bothered by Sheryl Sandberg's book because she likes to take time to smell and appreciate clementines. I really don't see this as an either/or proposition. After all, van Ogtrop is leading a major magazine (and climbing the mag world requires some serious leaning in) and smelling clementines. Why is she presenting this to readers as a dichotomy?

  5. I feel paralyzed in a similar way myself. I know my current role is not my be-all-and-end-all, and there are 3-4 career ideas floating around...all of which are VERY different from one another. I'm not exactly sure where to go next, so I'm just letting myself float until I go on maternity leave in the fall. Surely, something will happen to make the decision obvious sometime between now and when I run of out maternity benefits next summer (YAY Canada!)...right?

  6. Anonymous9:57 AM

    My life has a definite push-pull associated with it that your post really resonated with. I graduated as valedictorian of my class, with big plans to become a scientist, even getting my Master's degree, but then I got married and had kids, and decided I didn't want to spend all day at work. I was an adjunct for 10 years, but just quit that job so I could homeschool my kids. In one respect, I feel like I'm wasting my potential, but in another, I want to be the one to teach my kids about the world. On one side, I love being able to offer great experiences to my kids, but on the other, I feel bad that most kids don't get those experiences. I'm still trying to come up with a way to balance those two sides of the coin.

  7. I hear ya. I got into a little discussion over at a finance blog that basically said you don't deserve a promotion UNLESS you put in 60+ hours. At the end, the author did concede that much of the 60 hours is taken up my mindless work for appearance's sake, NOT for achieving valuable work for your company. Unfortunately most companies do reward the person who puts in the face-time rather than quality work. I have a post in my head that I hope to write/post someday..

  8. Anonymous10:30 AM

    I am at a similar crossroads. I had some disappointments last year (faculty interviews that didn't work out, a $8M project that wasn't selected) and I'm feeling burned out. I have a colleague who is about the same level of talent as me but who works twice as hard and I am struggling to accept that he will get more funding and papers published than I will -- I am not willing to change my working structure. So I am trying to decide how to go forward with the best balance of my career and personal goals and be content with the result.

  9. Anonymous11:32 AM

    definitely relate. just got tenure at r1 and thinking about whether I want to be a good faculty member with hobbies/family time. or really work hard to be GREAT without the other stuff.

  10. Thank you for this post, which definitely resonates with me. No answers here--only that I've also always juggled multiple roles--researcher, teacher, writer, mom, daughter, sister, wife, friend, reader, player, adventurer, snoozer, cook, etc. My interest and investment into each of these roles does evolve and/or cycle with time, at may scales. There is no best way to live a life. Just your way. Enjoy the ride!

  11. I hear ya... As an academic with tenure, it would be so easy to just start phoning it in. Just show up for classes and then go home, enjoy the extacurriculars. Become one of the deadwood. As an ambitious person, I never thought it would even occur to me that slowing down was a possibility. But now, I see the appeal of just taking it easy.

    For me, the ambitious side always wins, and I keep going. But as you say, the ankle weight do tire you out, and I keep asking myself -- WTF? Why exactly am I doing this? Even when at home, I am absentminded and guilty that I don't work more.

    I must say that I don't know anyone who is truly accomplished in my field who is not deeply devoted to their work. This includes men with hobbies, but with wives who take care of all the mundane things that make the life go on. I cannot say that I know a single highly accomplished woman in my field (not that there are many) who has a family and seems relaxed. I don't know any who say they have hobbies, but I am presuming because they too take care of the mundane in their families. I don't know anyone who is highly accomplished in my field and who does not work upward of 50-60 hours per week. Sure, you can be productive in 40-45, but I think the truly great are completely immersed in their work, and have the support system that enables them to pull it off (i.e they are not the ones picking up from daycare or cooking dinner every night). But I digress.

    I hear ya. At some point in your life (perhaps that's what the midlife crisis is all about) you start asking yourself why you are doing the things you are doing and if there are better ways to spend the limited time you have left on this earth. It's an ongoing dilemma for me. So far, I have managed to convince myself that I am not getting the Nobel prize so I might as well enjoy the kids while they are little. If only I could stop feeling bad about the Nobel prize thing! :)


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