Friday, March 03, 2006

The Power of Procrastination

I usually skip the speakers invited to talk by my department. I went a couple of times at first, but didn't find it rewarding. What these speakers are usually trying to do, is impress you. This means they use a lot of jargon and complicated graphs, and try to cram every result they've ever gotten into a one hour presentation. So you, as an audience member, have little to no chance of understanding what they're talking about at all. First, because they don't leave themselves time to explain the basics of their field. Second, because if you understood, you probably wouldn't be as impressed.

But last night I made an exception. Our whole lab attended a talk by Jorge Cham, the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper. You know, that comic strip I keep linking to.

He was great. It was like stand-up comedy with Powerpoint. Why don't more stand-up comedians use Powerpoint?

It was also thereputic. The thing about these comics is, we've all had these experiences. We've all been humiliated. We've all been ignored. We've all panicked. We've all been depressed. We've all been desperate. We've all felt like imposters. We've all considered quitting. According to a study Cham cited, 10% of us have considered suicide, and 1 in 200 actually attempted it. But we never see each other. We all think we're alone. The strip is nice because it tells us we're not. This guy we've never met knows exactly what we're going through. And he has thousands of readers. And he told us to look around the room and see how many people from our own university were laughing at these painful jokes, about being ignored by your advisor. About getting nowhere on your project. About having your ego crushed. About feeling overwhelmed.

At it was really nice to see all these people, to laugh with them. (Our post-doc was laughing so hard he could hardly breathe. That was nice to see.)

The title of the talk was "The Power of Procrastination." The message was -- yes, there are more important things you should be doing right now instead of attending this talk. Or watching TV. Or hanging out with your friends. Or being outside. But there will always be more important things you should be doing. You can't ever be finished with them. So you have no real choice but to put them off, if you ever want to do anything else. Try not to feel so guilty about it.

There were also some words of warning, now that he's graduated -- writing your dissertation will nearly kill you. You will not be happy with your work. And no one will ever read it. But the tenure process makes getting your degree look easy. This is why your professor has no sympathy for you. The academic job market sucks (but you don't have to stay in academia.) Get used to being rejected.

Man, for some reason when I say it, instead of him, this stuff sounds a lot less hilarious...

Interestingly, this morning, I followed a link from Word Munger to a page postulating that the reason there aren't more women in university science departments, is that jobs in university science departments are terrible. Their only attraction is as booby prizes in a sort of pissing contest, and women don't do pissing contests. Those jobs do seem more attractive if you are from China or India, where the standard of living is lower, but immigrant work forces are usually composed mainly of men. (In case you're wondering, Americans are traditionally the minority among physics grad students at major universities.) This sounds pretty cynical, but last night when Cham said the Big Question of grad student life was "Why?!" he got one of his biggest laughs. It's funny 'cause it's true.

Sounds like a depressing talk, but really, it put us in a good mood. It's just so reassuring to be told that it's not us, it's the system. We may feel like failures, but so does everyone else. And there's nothing wrong with a little procrastination. It was exactly what we needed to hear.

Thank you, Jorge Cham.

1 comment:

varda said...

thanks for the article and the links... brought me to some new insights..

yeah, jorge cham rocks, indeed.. the comics keep me sane!