About a year ago when I was doing research toward my honours thesis in math, I was having lunch with a professor in the lounge in the math department at the university. We were discussing the academic life and the kind of lives that professors lead. More specifically, the number of hours that professors, especially mathematicians, work. The professor looked at me and said that there were professors out there who get so obsessed with the pursuit of their subjects that they literally make it their life.
“This is your life,” he said.
Now in saying this I understood that he wasn’t stating a fact about me, but just an attitude that a large number of professors have about their work, especially at the larger universities such as MIT and Oxford. The truth is that there are a lot of professors who become completely obsessed about their work, trying come up with cutting-edge original research. And isn’t just because of reputation (although reputation, like in any workforce, can and does play quite a role). Professors who make it their life to pursue the great unsolved problems in research do so also because they enjoy it to a great extent. Nothing else gives them pleasure that even comes close to the pleasure they get from their work.
And in saying they make it their life to pursue such questions and research, I’m not just talking about eighty hour work weeks. Plain and simple the only time they aren’t doing work is when they’re asleep. Yes, they do have to feed themselves and make sure their house doesn’t cave in, but even if they’re shopping at the grocery store, their minds are focusing on their research problems. When I first heard the professor I was having lunch with talk about such a lifestyle, I was almost horrified. Professors who make it their life to pursue their work cast everything else to the side. They may go through multiple marriages simply because their spouses get fed up with them since they do not spend any “quality time” with them. The thing is, however, is that these kinds of professors are the ones who gain the best reputation in the academic circle, the ones who are most admired, and the ones that make the most significant contributions to research.
I sometimes wonder just how much I could contribute if I decided to go by this kind of lifestyle.
Forget my fiction writing hobby. Forget any successful marriage. Forget about trying to make friends, despite being autistic. Forget my family. Forget everything. I know what it feels like too. The pleasure that comes from trying to work out mathematical problems, regardless if they’re for school or leisure. I’ve felt the itch to climb the academic scale. For example, when I was in first year university, I studies 75-80 hours/week, which included 15-20 hours/week of class times. I know I have the potential.
Yet I know that I will never follow through with it. I choose to live more moderately. My own research will probably never reach the level that these professors who make it their ‘life’ to pursue these problems. I’m sure I’ll have fun when I do pursue research, but I wouldn’t count on discovering something that would give me a lot of academic fame.
This isn’t a lack of self-esteem. I’m just stating the facts and being realistic. And besides, I have so many other interests that I’d hate to give them up simply to become some famous professor. Life has too many good things to offer. And at the end of the day, just as long as I can have fun with my passions and can pay all my bills, that’s all that’s important to me.
My passion for writing fiction, which increased a lot about a year ago, could pull me in the other direction. Only it would end up getting me into a situation that’s even worse because the chances of making it as a full-time fiction writer are pretty low! I can just picture myself as some homeless guy (or someone running off on welfare and unemployment cheques) with nothing more than a stack of papers and a ball-point pen in my hand. While I wasn’t tempted this far, I actually did consider abandoning academia and getting some low-paying 35 hour/week job to make more time for writing. While I’ve decided to continue with an academic career, my passion for fiction writing remains at least equally as strong and I plan to keep it as a hobby. And if I do have a stroke of luck say 12 years down the line and actually start turning out bestsellers, then I may decide to become a full-time writer, while doing a little bit of math and/or philosophy on the side.
No matter how my academic and writing goals sort themselves out in the future, however, I have to realise that both, especially writing, are very solitary activities and if you’ve been reading my blog you know that having a social life is important to me. It can be a struggle trying to balance these rather contradictory activities in my life, but I think I’m improving at it. Sometimes I feel like I’m making no progress on my social life and that I actually would be happier in just making some pure combination of academia and fiction writing ‘my life’. After all, I could much easier get the attention I sometimes crave if I did put in more hours of academia. I would get more attention in academia. It’s a much easier way to gain attention.
But the easiest solution isn’t always the right one. I no longer rely on the method of gaining attention by trying to impress others with my talents (I’ve tried this several times in the past. It doesn’t work.). If I persevere with trying to find the perfect balance, I think eventually things will have to calm down. I will get a better social life. And regardless of how successful I am with my writing, I should be able to fit that in too. And as for academia, it is something I’ll have fun at and will pay my bills. These are all stuff I do. They are not ‘my life’. Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets said that it’s our choices that determine who we are and not our abilities.
What choices have you made?