Scientists should strive for enthusiasm

Call it excitement or passion. Whatever you want to name it, this may be the single most important trait for any scientist to cultivate. Technical skills can easily be learned with time. Knowledge can be acquired by reading papers and doing enough experiments. Writing and presentation skills can be improved with practice. Even intelligence can be strengthened over time. But enthusiasm covers all of these skills and more, as it drives the creative mind forward and provides the energy that makes practice and continuous improvement possible.

Here are some reasons why scientists should do all they can to cultivate enthusiasm for their work:

  • It fuels a joy for practicing and thereby improving all other skills
  • It activates the imagination to produce ideas
  • It makes it easier to work hard
  • It provides an easy excuse for trying risky experiments (“because they are fun and interesting”)
  • It improves resilience by facilitating recovery after failure

If enthusiasm is already there, it needs to be protected and cultivated at all costs, even if that means appearing strange and geeky. If there is little or no enthusiasm, it may be worth thinking about how to create it.

Getting Stuff Done with Mobile Technologies

At this time in history it has become possible, for the first time, to do almost everything anywhere you are. While ten minutes spent waiting at the bus stop would in the past have permitted me only to read a book or newspaper I carried with me on print, I can now use those same ten minutes to write several e-mails, buy the groceries, read the news, and play a game of solitaire. Give me a few extra minutes and I could make a few phone calls and read a paper or a a few pages in an e-book. The era of Everything Everywhere has come, and brings with it the opportunity for unprecedented productivity.

Some tasks that this applies to include:

  • communicating with friends and work colleagues, by e-mail or by phone
  • studying or reading the news
  • entertainment and games
  • shopping
  • working

The three technologies that have gotten us here are the internet, smartphones, and laptops. The challenge for us users is to master these new and powerful resources to do more and better stuff, without getting drawn away by the many opportunities for distraction that they provide.

Image credit: yupiramos / 123RF Stock Photo

Book Review: Do the Work!

The central theme of this short book is that the key towards the completion of any project is to eliminate the internal resistance that stops us from doing the work. This idea is applicable mostly to creative projects such as writing a book, drawing a painting, or decorating a house, but also finds applications outside of the creative realm. The book is also very relevant for scientific research projects, as I will explain later in this post.

Do the Work!, by Steven Pressfield, is broken into three sections:

  1. Begin: How to start a project, description of resistance
  2. Middle: How to work through a project, especially when facing “the big crash” towards the middle of the project
  3. Finish: How to complete a project

The resistance that prevents us from completing a project can come either from within, usually in the form of excessive rationalization, self-doubt, or loss of motivation, or from outside, when we are discouraged by others, or when things are simply not working out (“the big crash”). Resistance is presented as a beast that lives inside of us and must be fought and defeated without mercy: “Resistance is an active, intelligent, protean, malign force – tireless, relentless, and inextinguishable – whose sole object is to stop us from becoming our best selves and from achieving our higher goals”. It aims to kill, not just wound or disable.

We have several allies in our fight against resistance:

  1. stupidity (“don’t think, act”)
  2. stubbornness (complete the project because you decided to start it)
  3. blind faith (believe that you can do it)
  4. passion for the project
  5. friends and family who support us

The book recommends that a project is to be started as soon as possible, even before you’re fully ready to begin. The idea is that by simply starting and avoiding too much preliminary research, you generate the momentum that will help you do the preparative work, not before but after having begun. This idea certainly finds application in scientific research, where one can easily overthink every experiment and every project. On the other hand, it is also important to study the project and the experiment enough to pursue it with confidence and avoid silly mistakes. The balance between planning and doing is a significant challenge for the scientist.

After a project has been started, momentum is everything. The second chapter explains how momentum is to be maintained in the middle of the project. The proposed tips have a common “just do it” approach:

  1. suspend all self-judgement
  2. play like a child – the crazier the better
  3. don’t act and reflect at the same time, but do them separately. Recognize the difference between reflection, which is productive, and chatter, which tries to deter you from working
  4. keep working

The greatest challenge comes when you encounter “the belly of the beast” after having moved well into the project. The third chapter illustrates perfectly the analogy between the psychological resistance encountered when a project gets tough, and a battle against the dragon of resistance. It is a fight. After having made good progress, a barrier usually comes up that tries to prevent us from completing the project. It can arrive in the form of doubts, new and bigger difficulties, distractions in the form of other projects, or a first failure associated with this project (“the big crash”). In science, resistance if often encountered when experiments fail repeatedly, often resulting in major doubts about the project: “What if these experiments are impossible? What if my reagents are contaminated? What if I my competitor is faster than me?” But the big crash can also come when a paper or a grant application is rejected, a disappointment almost every scientist will face. Most of the chapter covers how to confront the big crash. As the author says:

“Crashes are hell, but in the end they’re good for us. A crash means we have failed. We gave it everything we had and we came up short. A crash does not mean we are losers. A crash means we have to grow. A crash means we’re at the threshold of learning something, which means we’re getting better, we’re acquiring the wisdom of our craft. A crash compels us to figure out what works and what doesn’t work – and to understand the difference.”

To deal with a crash, we must begin by recognizing it as real. Then the beast must be confronted head-on, as this is the time when it is the strongest. We then return to the allies mentioned earlier: stupidity, stubbornness, blind faith, passion, friends and family.

The most important part of any project is finishing, which in science primarily means submitting a paper and getting it published, but also giving a presentation or turning in a grant proposal. Without going very deep into the details on how to complete a project, the author repeatedly emphasizes the importance of finishing, or “slaying the dragon”.

Do the Work! is a book full of momentum, making you just want to get up and do everything you’ve been wanting to do (is that why I’m writing this blog post?). But how does the book apply to scientific research? The basic idea can be applied precisely. In science, the beast of resistance probably originates in the uncertainty behind most scientific projects. This makes it very easy to develop self-doubt and fear of failure. A second form of resistance is distraction by projects other than the main one, thus dissolving the momentum and impeding completion. A crucial challenge for the scientist is to preserve and build momentum, which is partly achieved by watching out for forces of resistance and slaying them before they take control over you and your project.

Two activities that can become resistance if practiced in excess, but are essential in smaller doses are (1) reading papers, and (2) discussions with colleagues. Too much of either can distract from doing experiments, but without any reading or discussing one limits the acquisition of potentially useful knowledge, which can result in the pursuit of the wrong experiments. I still regret the times that I’ve unsuccessfully tried for days or weeks to do an experiment, only to learn in a five-minute hallway chat that I had omitted a critical reagent or technical step. On the opposite extreme, I see the scientists who are always talking or reading, but never get to actually do their experiments and complete the project.

Would I recommend Do the Work! ? Given how short and easy it is to read, and given its immediate applicability, I would recommend it to anyone seeking inspiration for getting more done. Even though the book suggests few specific strategies, it provides a very useful framework for fighting internal resistance and pushing through the completion of big projects