The course not taken

November 8, 2011

In the States, there is now a big hoop de do about the value of a college education, and, more precisely, how do we define value. Not surprisingly, a 4-year  liberal arts (humanities + science) education is less valuable to some than something that will get you a job in an engineering firm. That said, since anything of creative quality is a function of style*content, being well read, culturally aware, and deft with words and equations is a pretty fantastic tool set with which to face an uncertain future.

Still the following argument will only work on some people.

My only serious academic mistake was in learning German rather than Ancient Greek in high school. My dad was convinced we’d all be run by Germans in the future (and how right he was) but the now rusty skill hasn’t helped much at all. A Heidegger sentence makes a teensy bit more sense in the original, but that’s about it. (Yeah, I know: poseur alert material). But Greek? I could tackle the Gospels in the original! I could read Plato and Aristotle as they were meant to be read.

But the main reason for a classical education is precisely its uselessness. True learning is practically useless; and it should be. It is not about deploying knowledge to master the world, it is about the pursuit of truth for the sake of nothing else. It is about the highest things. How is a life worth living if it ignores them?

From Andrew Sullivan

Ahh, if I had only taken Spanish in high school, and not French (sorry Madame Schmelling). Then perhaps I would not have been voted “Gringo mas gringo” in my first tropical biology course in Costa Rica.


Your mission statement: a meaningful life defined

September 18, 2011

We spend a fair bit of time on this blog differentiating between strategy–delineating one’s goals–and tactics–carrying out those goals. Many of us nowadays, myself included, get so wrapped up in finding the perfect suite of technologies and habits (i.e., the optimal tactics) that we lose track of what we are actually trying to do. If we don’t review our life strategies every once in a while, we run the risk of going nowhere, but doing it very efficiently.

I came across an opinion piece by Todd May at the New York Times asking just how we identify a meaningful life. After the requisite nod to, and dismissal of, that happy go lucky man about town, Jean-Paul Sartre, May mentioned a recent book by Susan Wolf,  “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.”

A meaningful life, she claims, is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one. In her view, “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile.  The person living the life must be engaged by it.  A life of commitment to causes that are generally defined as worthy — like feeding and clothing the poor or ministering to the ill — but that do not move the person participating in them will lack meaningfulness in this sense. However, for a life to be meaningful, it must also be worthwhile. Engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game.

In the interest of brevity, this appears to boil down to the following equation:

The meaningfulness of an act = likelihood of performing an act * the social utility of the action

(and yes, for those who know me, there were units in an earlier draft, and the equation included the terms “work”, “activation energy”, and “fitness”, but hey, I’m trying to get a few hits from the philosophy blogs around here).

A perhaps more practical approach to the problem of finding meaning is to write your own mission statement–a concise outline of what is important to you. Mission statements are ultimately useful in their ability to clarify one’s own thoughts and focus the mind like a laser beam on the tasks at hand. Next, I present a five step process toward crafting your own mission statement.  Read the rest of this entry »

Work happily and productively by cultivating a sense of progress

September 10, 2011

Theresa Amabile from the Harvard Business School–a ready source of good advice on working productively–wrote an insightful  New York Times editorial  that should be useful to grad students and their professor mentors. It’s behind a pay wall, but I summarize the main points after the break. Read the rest of this entry »

An academic’s short guide to achieving balance

September 9, 2011

From the website of the amazing artist Andrew Goldsworthy

Over the coming weeks we will be covering a number of overlapping topics, all toward the goal of making graduate school more fun and useful. This week we will focus on time management, next week on how to read the literature, and the week after *that*, a bit on writing, particularly grant writing.

Luckily, as this blog has been around, off and on, for five years, we have some blogposts to mine on the way toward introducing new stuff (and updating the old). So check out these five oldies but goldies.

  1. If we want to achieve balance, we have to articulate what we are balancing. For that, see The Five Uber Skills of Academia .
  2. Every day we find ourselves encountering a long list of things we would like to do. Each has its own timeframe; each its own difficulty and reward. To get some sense of how you can begin to organize those tasks, and immediately feel better about yourself, read Getting Things Done: getting started. 
  3. How do you keep track of all the things you want to do? I am a big fan of The List–one big outline you open at the beginning of the day that remains parked on your desktop until you power down at the end of the day. We’ll have more to say about it over the week.
  4. OK, as we move from strategic (big picture) to tactical (simple tools) let’s tackle one of the biggest hurdles between you and a productive day: email. Here is a simple set of rules that allow you to master email, not the other way around.
  5. Finally, one of the single most encouraging developments in the past decade for academics is the evolution of Second Brain Software. It contains a link to James Fallow’s introduction of software that allows you to achieve a mastery of your reprint collection.  Things have come some way since this post (one of the first on the blog) Fallow’s is still one of the best introductions I know.

Because we all need a little perspective every once in a while

September 6, 2011

Had a bad day? It could be worse.

Make sure to stick around to the end for the fun fact of the day.

I always suspected Pink Floyd would provide the soundtrack to The End (to mix popular music metaphors) but I was expecting, oh, I don’t know, Comfortably Numb, not  Great Gig in the Sky.

Carpe diem, brothers and sisters.

Rules of Thumb: the 50% rule

May 31, 2008

We are often the worst judges of our own work. For manuscripts, we have a remarkably effective, if somewhat brutal, corrective called peer review.

But academics also perform live in classrooms and seminar halls where it is difficult to get a read on just “how we did”. This is partly due to the mind-clouding adrenalin that takes some time to be flushed from our blood stream. By the time we are thinking clearly, the audience has drifted away. Sure, you can somewhat plaintively corner a friend in the hallway to get the scoop, but if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of such an inquiry, you know that the critique will be, let us say, somewhat filtered.

Luckily, the problem of getting good feedback is widespread, and we can turn to the Bay Area bluegrass community for one valuable rule of thumb. This is Larry Cohea’s 50% rule. Larry is the banjo player for the long-running band High Country, and, as such, is keen judge of the human condition. Once, when a good friend of mine was complaining about her live performance, he gently lifted her spirits with an evocation of the rule:


if you think your performance was really, really, bad,

chances are it was 50% better than you think it was;

and if you think it was really, really, good,

chances are it was 50% worse.

This rule, like a nice dose of lithium, does wonders for post-performance anxiety. More to the point, it often seems to be true.

Any other RoT’s out there that guide you through the academic life?

Beware the self-created tizzy

May 23, 2008

There is a seductive quality to time management schemes, including the one upon which this blog is based. You can, in fact, find yourself getting a heckuva lot of things checked off your “to-do” list if you carefully manage your time, build a tightly organized calender, learn to say “no” to interruptions, and close your office door to work on manuscripts. There is a sort of delirious pleasure at the end of the day, seeing all those boxes checked. And to do this day after day after day.

Some psychiatrists may call this manic behavior. I call it a self-created tizzy.

Don’t forget to give yourself time to think.

By this, I mean, treat yourself to the occasional long languid walks through your favorite haunts, a couple of hours with a notebook and a pen in the corner of a coffee shop, or just stretched out in your favorite chair, feet up, staring off in the middle distance. This is time for the dust to settle, for the disparate bits of thought to organize and reorganize in a playful way. All this happens while you order that second latte or people watch on a sunny park bench.

It is possible to be so busy working on stuff that you lose grasp of why you are doing it.

Which reminds me of my quote of the month. A pal and I were discussing how another pal always seemed to be going 500 hundred miles per hour.

“Of course she doesn’t have time to think.” he said. “She’s x-ed it out of her schedule!”

The brain from the inside out

March 13, 2008


(Actually, you have to click here to go the TED site and watch this video).

Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who experienced, and recovered from, a stroke, gives an impressive talk. Her insights on right and left brain function, and their meaning to your life, are worth considering. I’m just sayin’.

The TED site is a terrific place to browse if your 1) want some fascinating talks on a variety of topics, and 2) want to learn/steal some tips and techniques on giving excellent presentations.

Two secrets to a long, healthy life: exercise and…umm…

February 21, 2008

Calvin CoolidgeA colleague of mine who knows a bit about the evolutionary biology of ethanol use, forwarded me a recent article in the European Heart Journal, entitled “The combined influence of leisure-time physical activity and weekly alcohol intake on fatal ischaemic heart disease and all-cause mortality.”

The upshot? Light to moderate physical activity (>4 h week) combined with moderate alcohol intake (4-10 drinks/week) minimized rates heart attacks and death in general in a sample of 19,329 Copenhagans. Abstention from alcohol, or 19-41 drinks/week, both tended to increase mortality in a similar fashion.

News you can use. Now it’s time for my martini.

The GTDA blogroll–43 Folders

February 21, 2008

I don’t have a huge blogroll at this site, largely because a long blogroll buries the sites that are consistently, absolutely, worth checking out on a regular basis. One such site is Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders. I like this site because Mann is tech savvy, funny, and not afraid to experiment.

The other thing I like is that 43 Folders is a wee bit agnostic about Getting Things Done, the time management system that inspired the nifty title of this blog. Ultimately, your system is your system–a series of tips and habits that accrue in your toolkit because they allow you to work effectively and increase your happiness. Toward that end, one of my goals here is to point out some promising stuff to add to your toolkit. And 43 Folders is so consistently, over the top useful, that it resides in the GTDA blogroll.

If you haven’t visited 43 Folders lately, here is a good place to start. A recent mention by NPR spurred Merlin to highlight some of the better posts on the subject of GTD. Enjoy.