Success and direction

2006-07-04

in Daily updates, Oxford

Cat beside the Oxford Canal

Happy Birthday Tristan Laing

The incident of the design essay has reaffirmed for me the importance of doing something else, before really deciding to do a PhD. Terrifying as it is to leave the place where I’ve had the most and most consistent success – namely, the academy – it seems essential to establish by contrast whether it is worth all the time and devotion a doctorate would involve.

In many ways, I am not a good academic. I prefer the general to the specific, and I usually prefer the question to the answer. Great as the appeal of comprehensive knowledge in one or another area is, it is the vacuums of knowledge that my effort generally strives to fill. I feel more vulnerable for knowing nothing of opera than for knowing less than enough about environmental politics or security or American foreign policy.

The moment’s over-riding question is “What is this life to be?” I am nearing, if not over, the point where it stops being an automatic progression of school grades and experiences. It’s like climbing the ladder and walking the length of a high diving board, then being presented with the choices about how to jump that cannot be taken back and can only be half-corrected once you’ve bounded. Presented with such a choice, you can’t help realizing the limited scope of any single life: the limited number of directions it can be taken, very few indeed if the arc is to be a graceful or admirable one.

The matter then comes down to a conflict between aesthetics and hedonism: the one concerned with the appearance of the jump and the other concerned with the experience of jumping. Ambition indicates that we might be able to impress if we strive for the first – though we risk trading enjoyment for artistry. Frantic indecision serves the latter cause while undermining the former – asserting the value of originality over elegance.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous July 5, 2006 at 2:17 pm

The coolest photo you will see today

Gordon! Climb the ladder and start the rotors!

Antonia July 5, 2006 at 3:11 pm

I feel I missed the experience of jumping. I was paralysed, then I look behind me and see that I must have fallen to get here, which isn’t any of the places I’d have selected when standing on the board.

“I feel more vulnerable for knowing nothing of opera than for knowing less than enough about…”. Any path you take will leave you with areas of ignorance you will probably continue to feel vulnerable about. Some will give you an opportunity to develop a level approaching “enough”* knowledge about a specific area and I would have thought many of those are academic. Non-academic ventures are likely to broaden your knowledge so you feel you know “less than enough” but have greater breadth

(Unless you specialise in IT, as many of my friends who left before during and after degrees and postgraduate qualifications, including doctorates, have. In which case you tend to have depth in the IT specialism and sometimes breadth within IT but not extending to many other fields.)

I would have thought that for you to have any level of intellectual satisfaction or security, your path needs to involve developing further specialist knowledge in the fields you have already identified as academically interesting. Unless you go for professional photography and develop those as hobbies.

As aforementioned, many people I know leapt out of studying rather like those baby spiders trying the wind on a thread and found themselves blown into IT or businesss managment roles they only find useful in paying the mortgage and scoring social acceptability. (There is one who went into web design and then studied again and is now working in Amsterdam for Greenpeace, in IT-related project management, and loving it – he’ll be in Oxford in September for his wedding.)

I’m sure that whatever dive you attempt, it will be a high-scoring jump*.

*from your current viewpoint anyway. You are very exacting in what you expect of yourself and will always keep moving your standard ahead at least as fast as you approach it.

Milan July 5, 2006 at 3:47 pm

“to have any level of intellectual satisfaction or security, your path needs to involve developing further specialist knowledge”

This does seem obvious. It is the possibility that such development will fail, or that it will prove painful or pointless, that makes one hesitate at the thought of it. Especially when already discouraged.

Milan July 5, 2006 at 3:48 pm

PS. That photo really is cool. Along with the opening of Half Life, it reminds me of the Arcs and Sparks show that I used to see at least once a month at Vancouver’s Science World. Tesla coils and pickles expoded by throwing massive charges through wires intersecting them: wonderful stuff.

Milan July 5, 2006 at 3:51 pm

Oh, and I recognize the insanity of specializing in IT. It’s the sort of thing that, unless you are a colossal genius, you are always going to get left behind in. Someone will make a script of a program that will allow pimply teenagers to do something it took you weeks of hard work to learn. Operating systems you know will be eclipsed, as will web design standards, and the business models of whole industries.

If you want to do well for yourself, invest in something so conservative as to be almost eternal: become a priest or a lawyer.

Anonymous July 5, 2006 at 4:50 pm

Dealing with “What is this life to be?”

You need to ask:

do I want to be remembered
and
how

R.K. July 5, 2006 at 7:18 pm

Non omnia possumus omnes.

R.K. July 5, 2006 at 7:18 pm

“Not all of us are able to do all things.” (Virgil)

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