Daniel Pink is a keen observer of the changing workplace and its implications for the way we think about, and train for, our careers. His A Whole New Mind describes the challenges and opportunities in the transition from an “information age”-based economy to a “conceptual age”-based economy.
Now, in The Adventures of Johnny Bunko Pink has created a comic full of advice for college graduates as they prepare to enter the world of business. It is a joy to read. The manga illustrations of Rob Ten Pas give one a new appreciation of this art form. It is also meant to be digested in one sitting, and there is enough good stuff that, upon completion, you feel as if you’ve just eaten a tasty bag of nacho cheese Doritos, only to discover they are 0-fat and full of protein.
Get yourself a copy and pass it among your colleagues. It ought to spur some healthy conversation. Below the fold, I translate some of Johnny Bunko’s life lessons to the world of grad school, with a wee bit of commentary.
Think strengths, not weaknesses. Money quote: “Successful people don’t try too hard to improve what they’re bad at. They capitalize on what they’re good at.” There is always the temptation, as you plan your dissertation, to see deficits that must be remedied (e.g., an ecology Ph. D. candidate that needs to make up an undergrad course in physics). Frankly, many first committee meetings, by focusing on deficits pushing more coursework toward making everybody equal. However you will excel as a scientist when you find the handful of abilities you are naturally good at and then take those abilities to the next level. In other words, Spend time making yourself exceptional at what you are already good at. Don’t spend much time filling in potholes in your education. Instead make mountains out of your molehills.
It’s not about you. Money quote: “The most successful people improve their own lives by improving the lives of others.” Academia in general, and grad school in particular, finds one spending large sweeps of time in one’s own head. This, as a friend of mine says, is dangerous territory. One danger is that you begin to see your progress–your first course taught, your first seminar given, your first (and subsequent) publications–on purely personal terms, as achievements. However, most everything you do in academia is a service to somebody else. Your students, your audience at a national meeting, your co-authors, and the much larger audience of your publications, all benefit from your careful, creative, empathetic work. So at the very least, keep them in mind as you write and speak; you will become a better writer and speaker. In the longer view, see yourself as an academic in a privileged position to touch the lives of others and shape the future; you will take yourself out of your head and into the world around you.
Persistence trumps talent. Money quote: “There are massive returns to doggedness. The people who achieve the most are often the ones who stick with it when others don’t.” I was in a smoky bar in western Nebraska, sitting across a table from an assistant professor. We were swilling Schlitz and talking about a joint research project. I was an undergraduate, perhaps a senior, and I had the biology bug bad. He was my mentor. As we talked, the tone became heated with the ambition of young scientists eyeing a future of discovery and chiggerbites. Then he said it: “You know, Mike, you get a job in this business by being brilliant or working your ass off. I’m not brilliant, and neither are you.” When I tell this story folks often say, man, that was harsh. But I understood the message–Ph. D.’s dissertations often fail, not for lack of basic brainpower (universities go out of their way to screen for smart students) but for lack of tenacity–the willingness to put in the hours, and the unwillingness to let temporary setbacks become permanent.
Make excellent mistakes. Money quote: “The most successful people make spectacular mistakes–huge honking screwups. Why? They’re trying to do something big.” The best dissertations take on important issues and unresolved controversies, then attack them creatively, using a variety of approaches. Reach high; aim to regularly perform research with results that raise the eyebrows of the entire scientific community, not just those from your corner of the universe. Now, fair warning, by doing this you are guaranteed to fail on occasion. Guaranteed. A flood will wash away your cages. You will fail to perform a subtle, but important control in an experiment. A completely new facet of the problem will reveal itself. But all these things can happen in a mediocre, safe, confirmatory study. Sure, include some fail-safe stuff. But if you want to change the world, just remember, nothing ventured…
Leave an imprint. Money quote: “Recognize that your life isn’t infinite, and that you should use your limited time here to do something that matters.” This nicely sums up Pink’s philosophy–by focusing your work on things that are important you will be motivated to do your best, you will never be bored, and your work will have lasting value.
Not bad for a comic book.