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Missteps.

17 July 2014

I have opinions on things. They’re often not particularly well-informed. I have gut feelings that I often run with. On a regular basis I find that they lead me to cul-de-sacs where I am trying to defend a position I no longer believe in. I usually speak before thinking. I usually think before listening. I put the process of developing my opinions backwards. The result is something unformed and poorly constructed.

I get excited about things. I move too quickly and ignore reservations and bad feelings. That’s how I ended up with a house with horrible plumbing problems. I didn’t feel right but I ploughed ahead because I was excited unaccountably. It’s happened many times in my life: I decide I want something, I go forward and invest in it, and end up with something I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d studied before acting. This has cost me money and time and effort repeatedly in my life.

I like to feel important. It’s a failing of mine. I want people to admire me and my work and my efforts, and not challenge me too strenuously. Whenever I make a step forward, I want to feel like it will get me more recognition and respect. When it doesn’t, I feel sullen and ignored. I’m always excited when I publish a new paper that I’ll get lots of citations and be vaulted to a place of prominence in my field. It hasn’t happened. When I started my expressly academic blog over at Scientopia I fantasized it would lead to immediate prominence as a science blogger. Of course that’s absurd – but fantasy doesn’t respond to realism.

I’m still me. I’m still just a mediocre engineer toiling away doing useful-but-uninspiring work. And that’s fine. I’m happy to be that guy. I’m good at being that guy. What I struggle with is knowing what’s appropriate ambition and what’s stupid fantasy of personal glory. I will do better without personal glory.

Personal glory is often toxic to alcoholics. As we see ourselves profiting from our own efforts, we start to believe we control our destinies. When we feel in charge, in control, invulnerable, we start to make decisions on our own. We alcoholics are not good at making decisions. We tend to decide to do deplorable destructive things to ourselves and others. When we try to operate in the world under our own power and process, we end up drunk, and dying.

I’m grateful that I have a framework for my life now. I’m glad I don’t have to keep relying on my own wretched insight and opinion. I’m glad I don’t have to be a warrior. I’m glad I don’t have to try to insist that my opinion is the only opinion. It’s exhausting to have to be right all the time. It’s exhausting to need to have others embrace my rightness. I spent so long fighting. I’m so grateful to be done.

I still advance too many opinions. The right thing for me to do would be to simply follow the advice in the book Alcoholics Anonymous: “We have ceased fighting anyone and anything.”, and “We have no opinion on outside issues.” It would be better for me, for my serenity and my development, to simply abandon the pretense that my ideas – about anything – are important enough to try to promulgate them. That is vanity, and I am vain.

I don’t have much of relevance to say about academia. I’m not a real academic. I don’t have much of relevance to say about the culture wars. I’ve never been marginalized. I really only know three things well enough to talk about them with any kind of impact: complex systems, health care delivery, and alcoholism. Beyond that, all I can do is bray.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 July 2014 12:35

    Well that was depressing. I have to disagree with you a little bit (and here I go, charging off to express an opinion I haven’t fully thought out – I might end up in a corner). First of all – if only genuine experts are allowed to have opinions and everyone else is simply “braying,” where does that leave the rest of us? I happen to believe that valid points are often brought up by laypeople, which force the experts to re-examine their evidence. If laypeople are excluded from debate, pretty soon you have an ivory-tower society, and the subject at hand becomes less and less relevant as it is “understood” by fewer and fewer people. Secondly, who is to decide who is and is not “expert enough” to have a valid opinion? There are many subjects where there is truly objective right and wrong answers, but there are many others that are, to put it mildly, less settled. I’m not convinced, for example, than anyone in the world is much of an “expert” when it comes to, say, childrearing. Or how to have a good marriage. Or what makes good art. And lastly, some writer I can’t remember now said that thought was incomplete until it had been made incarnate through the written word. I would advance a similar theory for opinions – it is only through the crucible of debate that opinions become fully formed. This post is too self-deprecating to ring true.

  2. 18 July 2014 00:53

    Of course you are a real academic

  3. 18 July 2014 01:17

    I find this ‘real academic’ idea interesting and it has been sand in my swimsuit for awhile. I don’t like people who give advice on things they know nothing about. Whether its about being harassed or getting a grant. The example that comes to mind is that writing an Ro1 is very different than writing an inhouse or local chapter grant to pull in 20K. Just because you can do the latter does not make folks at all qualified to speak about the former.
    On Twitter there are many people who claim that they are EXCEPTIONALLY well qualified to share opinions on getting grants, managing department politicking and publishing. I find their advice exasperating because it is wrong.
    I don’t understand why ‘being a professor’ is some sort of gold standard that people confuse with ‘being an academic’. You are an academic. You are not an bench scientist who has to survive on teaching or soft money. There’s nothing wrong with your job…particularly if you are both good at it and enjoy it. You aren’t a PI, but you’re important in academics. Maybe if everyone, myself included, said what their real role were rather than falling under some umbrella that “I’m a scientist” we could find and mentor people in more meaningful ways.
    I want to see blogs from program officers, grad students, permenant staff in science labs but I also want to know who the fuckke these people are (not that they need to be de-psueded) but I am so. fucking. tired. of people who say ‘they have their own lab’ knowing full well that they are not tenure track, do not have enough independent money to support a staff of their own and are responsible to an actual head of the lab.
    Your honesty and self reflection are admirable. But know that even with ‘all your caveots’ there is an audience for your advice.

    • 18 July 2014 06:45

      Well, I am a PI. I have a signed PDF from my admin and the IRB chair that says so. I submit grants as principal investigator, and some get funded. And I’ve been in a position where I tried to soft money support myself. I failed, in part, because I was informed that I was soft money with less than a year to cover my salary.

      But I am not a bench scientist, would never need to support a large staff, etc. Even if I were a professor with an expectation of pure independence, I would not need the kind of money that a bench scientist with mice and a staff need.

  4. Syd permalink
    18 July 2014 21:25

    I think that you are much more accomplished than perhaps you give yourself credit. I get the whole point of humility, but I think of you as a scientist who works on real life issues. In fact, I think of you in much higher terms than the ivory tower academics who seldom venture into the real world with their work. I commend you for accomplishing a lot in the last few years. And I think that more will be revealed with your work and your career.

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