Ansel Adams: Canyon edge, low horizon, clouded sky, "Grand Canyon National Park," Arizona., 1933 - 1942

“The useless days will add up to something”

“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”
“Dear Sugar, The Rumpus Advice Column #64: Tiny Beautiful Things”

Science is about the eternal pursuit for the truth. For centuries, we have been attempting to explain what we witness and experience in the natural world. We observe and experiment to advance our collective knowledge and figure out the directions in which we should devote our future efforts. But we do so knowing that we only ever approximate the truth. Underlying the best efforts of science: the belief that what we know is subject to change with sufficiently convincing evidence.

Research demands that we create new knowledge. We are asked to stand at the edge of the known world, look behind in appreciation of all that has gone before, then leap forth into the unknown in order to uncover new ground beneath our feet.

This is faith: to have the courage to go beyond what is known.

I’ve spent most of this afternoon with my sketchbook, trying to piece together my ideas about the last paper in my thesis. It’s the bigger picture thinking that I so enjoy, framed by questions like:

  • What is the basic concept that underpins my research question?
  • What does the current evidence have to say about how “true” that concept may be?
  • Where is my work located in this conversation, and what do these findings contribute?
  • Whose work does it agree with? And disagree with?
  • Does it tell us anything new?
  • Does it give any hints about where to go from here?

scribbles 
I answer these questions with hasty scribbles, crude flow charts, bold statements, retractions, revisions. And it comes to me that I can take a step back – zoom the lens out – and ask myself bigger questions again.  How does this concept fit within what we know about optimal athlete performance?  About the conditions necessary for humans to succeed in the pursuit of any goal?

And in a rush so electrifying that I think I can feel impulses crossing synapses, I glimpse how “the useless days” add up. I connect the dots between my research and:

  • A conference keynote that underlined the role of failure for developing self-belief.1
  • A popular TED talk that highlighted how grit is essential to success.2
  • A fortuitous catch up over coffee to chat about harmonious and obsessive passion in entrepreneurs and other high performers.3
  • A tweet about resilience as a defining characteristic of Olympic champions.4

Now I have a new perspective with which to understand how my work contributes a slice of insight not only to my discipline, but well beyond it too. I’ll write reams with this new-found fervour, knowing that only a fraction of it is likely to end up in my thesis. But today’s lesson is that faith is central to the scientific process. The conversations in the office kitchenette, the hours lost to TED videos and reading blog post after blog post, the diversions borne of wide curiosity, the projects we take on “just because”…it all adds up. We just have to have faith that the non-strategic things we do are important and meaningful too.

Days like these remind me why I love science, why I actively practice curiosity, and why I have so enjoyed the PhD experience 🙂


Footnotes

  1. David Martin‘s keynote address at ECSS 2012, “Winning the Tour De France: A sport science perspective” (video).
  2. Angela Lee Duckworth @ TED in 2013, “The key to success? Grit” (video).
  3. Rosemary Fisher’s PhD thesis (2011), “Passion, resilience, obsession and sustained entrepreneurial action: the path to entrepreneurial success”.
  4. Tweet from Mustafa Sarkar (@MusSarkar) and article on “Developing resilience – Lessons learned from Olympic champions”.
  5. Featured image: Ansel Adams – Canyon edge, low horizon, clouded sky, “Grand Canyon National Park,” Arizona. FlickrThe U.S. National Archives.
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