Structurelessness

2015-07-26

in Daily updates, Rants

Princeton established the Institute for Advanced Study in 1930 as a place where some of the world’s greatest minds could pursue their research without distractions like teaching and administrative tasks. Richard Feynman famously criticized the idea, saying:

When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come. Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

Something a bit similar happens to me during the summers, especially when I don’t have a regular job. Whole days are open in the calendar – and there is always endless work to do on my PhD and on climate change – but it can be extremely hard to become and remain motivated. The framework of classes, teaching, and Massey College events during the year helps make the blocks of open time seem valuable, and helps force you to get specific things done in them.

PhD work needs to be pretty much wholly self-motivated, so I am definitely going to need to develop habits and a mindset to support that over the next three years.

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