A couple of weeks ago, I took an older colleague to lunch. He’s in a different area so we’d never interacted too much, but to the extent we had, I’d always thought he was pretty cool. Anyway, he’s 70, retiring, and moving cross-country to take up a research-only position elsewhere. I’d missed his farewell party, which is why I took him to lunch.
The colleague is healthy, active, still believes his best work is ahead, and is quite excited about the next step — his zest for work and life is truly inspiring! But a big reason that made me wish I could’ve hung out with him more is that, as it turns out, we have similar personalities, professional values, and modus operandi. It’s been a long time since I’d felt so understood. Most of the time, I feel like a fish out of water among my colleagues, among my scheduled-to-the-gills, calendar-and-list-wielding, networking/schmoozing/grant-savant peers.
As I talked with this older colleague (who btw is very accomplished in his math-heavy field), he articulated the key elements of how he likes to work and they are exactly what I strive for. And it’s amazing that he — likely by being an old white guy — doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with working how he works or prioritizing the things he prioritizes, even though they are not the norm. In contrast, I — likely in no small part because I’m not an old white guy — keep existing in a state of mild anxiety over not fitting here, over not doing things the way they are supposed to be done, over being weird along far too many axes.
A key aspect of the professional MO that came up is leaving room for spontaneity: having enough time that isn’t blocked off by recurrent meetings that you have the flexibility in when you see grad students; being free to go grab lunch or coffee (alas, with whom, when everyone else is so busy and ruled by the calendar? I tried going to lunches and coffees with colleagues in the first year or two on the tenure track, then just gave up); being able to devote large blocks of time to projects that grab you, when they grab you.
As I wrote before, schedules and lists and detailed plans give me hives (see here and here). While it seems that schedules, lists, and detailed plans relax most people by giving them a sense of control, the likes of me (who are apparently fairly rare) find it demotivating and stifling (producing a very real impetus to flee).
We ended up having a very lively two-hour lunch and I left feeling quite cheerful. There’s nothing quite like feeling understood and making a genuine human connection to lift one’s spirits.
At the risk of being “that guy”, I do wonder how much of it is simply the “old” part, distinct from the “white guy” part. He formed his academic identity and notion of what work ought to be like in an era when funding was somewhat easier, and once he had his reputation he got to coast on it. Nowadays, young white guy scientists certainly have it easier than non-white/non-guy scientists, but they also have a mindset that the older guys don’t seem to have. The older guys could be political and game-savvy if they wanted, but there was also more room to just do their thing. Nowadays, with these funding rates, even young white guys have to play the game in ways that their elders didn’t always have to. (If anything, the additional layers of gamesmanship probably sharpen the obstacles for non-white/non-guy scientists. If there’s less room for the science itself to matter then there’s more room for the unfair social factors.)
Oh, I do feel this – I feel OLD because the younger staff we hire are SO structured and full of self-belief and aggressive pursuit of structured plans. That wasn’t “how I was raised” academically, although people like that were always around, and I did go to a relatively old fashioned university (ideas and science trumped everything – we made polite fun of more aggressive/politics-of-the-disicipline-and-system focused groups, especially those in the capital city). Missing the regular group coffee breaks and not taking at least one decent lunch break a week and going back to work instead of home or to the pub of a Friday evening or after seminar were all considered signs that you were not actually working sensibly.
I know, the world has changed. But still, I feel like this is a serious problem for academia and for science – that kind of working excludes a large tranche of humanity, people with different personalities, needs, resources – I certainly can’t do it, it literally makes me ill, and child-rearers without a spouse who can take the bulk of the running around on definitely struggle. it also assumes a huge amount of savvy of a particular, political kind – not knowledge of one’s subject alone, but knowledge of which areas might be growing, who to partner with, how to manouveur onto grants, all that stuff – which still largely belongs (even in my not-very-hard science area) to a sub-set of white men with particular cultural backgrounds and those who can convincingly mimic them. When how to get funding is more important in every dimension than doing difficult, original science (or teaching, especially at a teaching-heavy university like mine where my students will be teachers and local government workers and middle managers, exactly the kind of people who NEED to understand science because they lack the protections of family money and guaranteed jobs and all that), science is in deep, deep trouble.
Or maybe I feel like that BECAUSE I can’t make myself over into that mode, and I don’t want to?
Being heard, being understood, is such a gift. Like you, it’s rare in my life, but so precious when it comes along…
With regards to your statement: “he articulated the key elements of how he likes to work and they are exactly what I strive for”, would you be willing to elaborate a bit more on this? You mentioned leaving room for spontaneity, but what are some other key elements you and he strive for, and what were his suggestions of how to approach your work to make these happen? Your comments in this post really resonate with me (especially the descriptions of your peers and your relationship to them), and I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.
Share share more please how does he do things?
Mark, Anon, I will try to write about it later, but in the meantime, read up the two posts that were linked in the main post. He does quite a few things the way I do.
love the phrase “over being weird along far too many axes” I so feel this. I too am outside the norm along many axes.
I am also a math thinking person and when meeting new people they tend to comment on how often I describe things in terms of math. It is so fun to read someone else speak in the same way!