Monday, August 28, 2006

Doctor Vector's Existential Funk

Normally I'm not a fan of the "here's whatever boring shit I'm dealing with this week" blog post. Cuz...vomit. But here comes one.

One of the best teachers I ever had in my life used to work in a school for the mentally handicapped. One of the best things about her was that she had zero tolerance for bullshit, and she spoke very openly and frankly about...everything. Especially the un-PC stuff that goes on everywhere, including the "special school". The people who taught at the school were forbidden to call someone a "biter". He or she was an "individual who bites". And so on. A couple of behind-the-scenes acronyms that the teachers used to describe their students when they (the teachers) were having a smoke break, far from the ears of the administrtion, were OTL and DAP. OTL is Out To Lunch and DAP is Dumb As Post.

I've been OTL lately, and I don't mind telling you about it. In fact, I've been telling you about it all along, just not identifying it as a problem.

I'm also lazy, so the rest of this post is just copied and pasted from an e-mail I sent Mike a week or two ago.

...It's not that I don't want to do useful dinosaur work; it's that I can't get myself to do any.

On July 20, I had my first really productive day since moving to Berkeley. I was poring through refs all day, figuring things out, building momentum on a problem. By sundown I was feeling pretty good, partly because I had learned some things and gotten some work done, and partly because I felt like I was tipping into being On. Which I really needed, and still need, to be.

Then that night I got the invitation to the rocket launch. The lightning bolt that should have fired me into paleo-mania shot me into rocket-mania instead. It's not just that I didn't fight it. I felt powerless to fight it. So I spent the last month doing the minimum amount of work possible for the UCMP and geeking out on rocket stuff the rest of the time.

I know the rocket mania won't last forever. It will sputter out and something else will take its place. I dearly hope that it's paleo-mania, because I need to get some work done. One of the reasons that I set up the rocket blog is so that when I go "off" rockets I won't lose all the information I've dug up over the past month. Hopefully it is something I can come back to in six months and pick up where I left off.

The launch was Saturday. Everything worked out perfectly. I got my rockets built, and I flew them successfully. Then I shelved them. Vicki got me a nice big toolbox to serve as my rocket toolkit and range box, and I got all my rocket stuff off the table. The lab, such as it was, is no longer in existence--everything is packed away. Yesterday I forced myself to sit down and work, and I did.

But it was robot work, and I can't stop thinking about rockets.

I am honestly starting to think that I might be slightly bipolar, or obsessive/compulsive, or whatever the term is these days for someone who flipflops between crazy mongoose energy and utter apathy and sloth. Intellectually, I know that it is time--well past time, in fact--to put the rockets away and get back to paleontology. But I can't seem to convince my subconscious of that. Thinking about rockets is like scratching an itch, like finally finding a comfortable position when you've been tossing and turning all night. Speaking of, I've been dreaming about rockets. Designing them, building them, and launching them in my dreams.

The other thing is, matters paleontological interest me not at all right now. Sauropods, pneumaticity, body size...bleh. I just don't care. I can't muster up any feeling one way or the other. All of those things that I love thinking about all the time when I'm On have no more fascination for me right now than the fine points of corporate tax law. And when things do eventually flip, I will feel about those things the way I feel about rockets now, and rockets will be completely off my mind for a few months. But I don't know how to force the flip, or whether it can be forced at all.

I don't know what to do.

I am going to leave the rockets in the closet. I am going to get back to paleontology and just work until I fall in love with it again. If you have any comments or suggestions, I'd love to hear them.


So. Mike responded that I'm not nuts, I'm just undisciplined. Well, who can argue with that. But the undisciplined guy who has a hard time concentrating on work during the day is sharing a head with the nut who dreams about rockets at night, who can't stop thinking about rockets even though he wants to.


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Anonymous Jerry D. Harris said...

Sounds like your problem is much the same as mine -- not a matter of doing anything, but a matter of starting something...once I get started on something, and have momentum, it's easy to keep going. But starting something (this is especially true for things that are either difficult or distasteful) is hard. I tend to think of it like a roller-coaster: getting up the first, tallest incline is the hardest part. It will always be easier to think about and/or do those things that are fun and/or simple -- the natural tendency of the mind to want to avoid stress whenever possible. Overcoming the problem is, as much as I hate to say it (and, of course, barring any actual physical/mental issues), a matter of disciplining oneself and learning to force distracting, albeit pleasing, thoughts out of one's head. Knowing that things will be easier once you build up some momentum seems to help me a lot, personally. Starting new things hasn't necessarily gotten easier with time, but getting myself to start them anything else, practice makes...well, not perfect, but a heckuva lot easier! Dunno if any of that helps, but there it is.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Yes, you're right, of course. I am so used to having my "work" be fun that I have never had to develop much in the way of self-discipline; most of the time paleontology is honestly the most interesting thing that I can think about, so I think about it all the time. And I know that once I build some momentum I'll be fine. But I've been stuck for a few months--months that encompassed my wife's graduation, moving residences, a job for me that required a lot of writing, our son adopting full-on two-year-old behavior (and all that that implies), and most recently my wife's gallbladder being removed. To some extent, these events have prevented me from doing work, but to an equal or greater extent, I have used them to rationalize my own lack of productivity. I have legitimate excuses, but they're still excuses. If someone else complained to me the way I'm complaining to the world here, I would tell them to sack up and do some work. So, that's what I'll do.

At least from the outside, you seem to be one of those people who is capable of superhuman feats of productivity, so if you feel this way now and then, maybe there's hope for me yet.

Thanks for the good words.


(Five minutes later)

Oh shit, SVP is about eight weeks away!

3:40 PM  
Anonymous KT said...

I've been a closet slacker all my life. I mean, champion loafer. I can stare at walls, day or night, and be utterly satisfied.

But... I love work. And I'm never higher than when I'm full-blown ON about my work. It's one of a very, very few epitomes of existence. I just have trouble tapping into that. And saying "I oughta..." just makes me feel guilty and squashes any nascent motivation. Guilt is evil.

I've decided much of my floundering stems from a lack of multi-dimensional life-purpose. The kind of uber-perspective that makes all the details of one's life appear as each necessary pebble comprising the mountain of living you stand on top of. I've been, essentially, purposeless for most of my life, though I'm stubborn, good at guessing, and turn a lucky hand every now and then.

In the last month or so I've decided to fix this. For my particular set of quirky reasons, this led me to pick up Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. I'm not done yet, but it has made a distinct difference. Writing also helps. And making myself put my thoughts into spoken words. I won't say I've got a clear sense of purpose yet, but I'm closer. And it's only been a month. I'm pretty ok with that.

For what it's worth, of course. Purpose is a kind of gold that never runs out or loses value. Like air.

11:52 PM  
Anonymous KT said...

PS: Perhaps I should also have said that the harping on purpose is my response to maxims about self-discipline, avoiding the pleasant distractions, forcing thoughts, etc. Although perhaps good advice for someone who can already do it, for me I've never, EVER been able to "just do" something. Hence my alternate route. I want to be able to look at things so that I can't tear myself away from the work I want to do. I really do think it'll all click into place with the right mental structure. I think this because that structure seems quite self-evident when things are already working. It's that the structure falls apart, somehow, and then I can't work. So, instead of forcing myself to work without structure, I figure I'll build the structure, keep the blueprints handy, and then I'll work like a maniac till my brain falls out or I keel over from malnutrition. heh. Least that's the plan. If I get just 70% of the way to this goal, it will have made my efforts more than worthwhile.

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Jerry D. Harris said...

Quoth Dr. V
"To some extent, these events have prevented me from doing work, but to an equal or greater extent, I have used them to rationalize my own lack of productivity. I have legitimate excuses, but they're still excuses."

I'm not a fan of the "no excuses are legitimate" philosophy -- of COURSE some excuses are legitimate, and frankly, family needs to come before everything else (or else why ever bother having the concepts of love & family anyway?!?). Moving sucks great heaping buttloads of ass, and until physicists get off their duffs and invent transporters, it will continue to be impossible to get anything else done amidst packing, moving, and unpacking -- it's incredibly stressful, and quite naturally tends to occupy the fullness of one's thoughts. (Like George Carlin once said, "If you didn't have so much shit, you wouldn't need a could just walk around all the time!" But we're a stuff-oriented society.) And what with being a student and all (with its vast pay), taking other jobs to pay for things (including surgery!) is of course gonna mean you can't do anything else. None of this may be an excuse for not thinking about paleo, but it's sure a good bunch o' reasons not to do any paleo. As for your using these to rationalize not getting anything done: (a) as above, I don't know that you have to rationalize anything -- I think you're creating some false dichotomies where no such dichotomies actually exist! There are 24 hours in a day; 6-8 are spent sleeping, eating has to happen in there somewhere, and there has to be some down-time or else you'll go insane (and, in your instance, you've got family time to add in!), so what little time is left can either be occupied with work or the stuff that makes life worth living, like your wife and ain't goin' nowhere, but your wife and kid might (!), so either take it up with the imbecile who decided "Hey, 24 hours in a day is more than enough!" or the dimwit who decided for all Americans "Your value will be judged based on your productivity (= number of papers, amount of income, etc.), not on who you are as a person." But more importantly, (b) we all know that you're thinking paleo stuff, which is Step 1 in getting anything done to begin with...time thinking about it is time organizing priorities, deciding what needs to be tackled first, etc., which will make starting any actual work's a step you'd have to do anyway, and look: you're doing it! So I don't see that you are doing nothing.

"If someone else complained to me the way I'm complaining to the world here, I would tell them to sack up and do some work. So, that's what I'll do."

I don't think you're the kind of person who, if your student's wife was in a hospital, would say "So what? Go get some work done." There are undeniably people like that out there, but woe be unto anyone who has to work for such Scrooges. We're never gonna get beyond valuing people by their productivity until we realize that work is NOT everything.

"At least from the outside, you seem to be one of those people who is capable of superhuman feats of productivity, so if you feel this way now and then, maybe there's hope for me yet."

You give me far too much credit; I have my own bugbears. If I've seemed especially productive this year, it's pure coincedence: a function of serendipitous publications of papers in journals with widely varying turnaround times, many of which just coincidentally happen to have emerged simultaneously. Two others still in press, one of which will be out next month (the one that will interest you the most); dunno anything about the other one. But aside from a little work on our China stuff, I've really not done any research in a while: I spent my summer indoors editing papers for a book that hopefully will be out in a few months (I'm just editor; I'm not an author of any papers in the volume). And now I'm in charge of getting a regional GSA meeting set up to run here next May, and I'm doing three or four chairperson's worth of work there, so I don't plan on doing much research for about the next 9-10 months. Excuse? Sure. But I'm the idiot who said "yes" when they asked me to do that, not fully understanding what it entailed, and I'm not about to let the meeting be crappy because I jumped in without looking first. If it means sacrificing some research, so be it -- I'm only human, and I have a wife who deserves attention, and I deserve down time, too. (Plus, I teach two classes each semester -- that's where the fundage comes from, so it can't be ignored, either.) Don't convince yourself that you have to be some kind of automaton -- you work when you work, you don't when you can't, period, end of story. That's part of what it means to be human, regardless of what the capitalist machine will tell you.

Quoth kt:

"Perhaps I should also have said that the harping on purpose is my response to maxims about self-discipline, avoiding the pleasant distractions, forcing thoughts, etc. Although perhaps good advice for someone who can already do it, for me I've never, EVER been able to "just do" something."

Perhaps. Certainly, if productivity falls to dangerously low levels (meaning "you're about to be fired" kind of low) for too-long periods of time, despite all attempts to "self-discipline," then maybe some further investigation of causes is in order. There are undeniably physical causes of inability to concentrate -- depression (= neurochemical imbalance), learning disorders, etc., and these can be diagnosed and treated. Any stigma associated with those things, or with seeing a trained professional to have them treated, is wholly artificial -- as artificial as seeing someone to deal with cancer, for example, so unless you're Tom Cruise, get checked if you are concerned about physical issues. No one -- at least, no one worth their salt -- will think any less of you. Besides, if you do have such a disorder, it's not anything you have to advertise, anyway.

That aside, I agree that telling someone "Buck up, little bear!" isn't going to make them buck up, and saying "Just make yourself do it" isn't going to give anyone the ability to make them do it. But I can say this: if you can make yourself do something, even just once, it will demonstrate to yourself that you are, in fact, capable of (a) doing something, and, more importantly, (b) motivating yourself to do something. And once you've done it once, it becomes easier the next time, and easier still the time after that. That's all I meant. And it seems that Dr. V is already capable of self-motivation, since he's clearly been thinking paleo thoughts, as evidenced from his papers and some of his earlier blog entries. Plus, he's going to SVP (and giving a talk or poster, if his panic is any indication), which means he's about to be productive.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Two comments.

First: deadlines! Nothing but nothing motivates me like a deadline, and I bet the same is true of most people. (That's why I never go to a conference that I'm not presenting at: I know the deadline by which I need to get my talk together will force me to get work done.) Matt needs someone to impose some deadlines on him. Hey, fatso, you want me to get onto Padian?

Second, Jerry, I'm interested that you've got suckered into all this editing and meeting organisation. It reminds me very much of what Paul Graham has to say about such work in a typically insightful essay at

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That's the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn't suck, they wouldn't have had to make it prestigious.

What do you think?

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

I agree with Mike. I have to set deadlines I can't miss, to ensure that I make any progress on anything.

But perhaps we can get the mental wheels up to speed with beer? It makes me happy and excited about many things.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Fortunately, I now have a couple of deadlines looming like the headsman's axe. Three, actually, if you count SVP.

Another guy in my cohort, Eric Harris, once said something to the effect that when you're in grad school, it's always oh-my-god o'clock. He also said that he was thinking of nominating Heineken to be the outside member on his committee.


Things are picking up. The night before last I dreamed that I spent all night in the library, working on my SVP abstract, which for some reason wasn't done (and which for some reason took me more than an hour to write). Then last night I dreamed that I was visiting museums in Europe and left my luggage at the airport. So my subconscious is obsessing about paleo now, at least obliquely.

Brains sure are weird.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

Can I just mention here the ultimate deadline that is looming oh-so-few decades ahead ..... death.

Pull your finger out Wedel, you have just a few short tens of years to satisfy yourself with all things rocket, sauropod, turtle, sea monster, and whatever else. I personally am FURIOUS about how little time there is ahead.

Sorry if that seemed a bit random. It was inspired by the discovery of Sumatran rhinos on Borneo.

12:59 PM  

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