Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Get a Life!

Get a Life!
The importance of having some interests besides work, even in grad school

When I meet with students for their mandatory undergraduate advisor meeting or with prospective graduate students, I like to ask the question: “What do you do for fun?”  Partly, the question helps students to relax and talk about something that they enjoy and know a lot about.  The question also gives me some insight into someone’s personality.  Are you a bungie-jumper, a novel-reader, a pianist, a soccer player, a nature-lover, or something else entirely?  Are you as passionate about your pastime as you are about your career?  Are you trying to find a way to get your engineering interests and hobby interests to intersect?  What I have found by asking about people’s interests outside the context of school is that a great many talented people are multi-faceted.  They can be great at more than one thing, should they choose to put their energies in a particular direction.  I’ve also found that all people need an escape from the work of their official career, no matter how much they might enjoy their career interests.  Even people who I thought were complete workaholics turn out to have some activities that they enjoy immensely, even if they try to keep them secret to maintain the illusion that all they do is work. 

The challenge in life is to work hard at what you are working at, but to understand that when you have too much of a good thing, the enjoyment of it diminishes.  For research, engineering, and teaching activities, you will actually be better at what you are doing when you can have a positive attitude about it, and not be exhausted.  Even if work is your highest priority, it still makes sense to take some time away from it to do something else you enjoy.

I will use myself as an example.  My students sometimes tell me that they do not want to be a professor, because they look at me and think I work too hard.  Truthfully, most any job with some level of responsibility is going to demand that you work hard, and sometimes put in some periods of long hours, so that’s not a great excuse for not being a professor!  Early in my career, I was afraid of becoming a one-dimensional person who only worked, so I have always put some emphasis on doing things outside of work.  There are not too many things on TV that I like to watch, so I have always looked for something more enjoyable to do.

First, I have a lovely wife and two great daughters, so I have been especially fortunate in life.  Together with my wife, raising children through their stages of infant, baby, toddler, kid, tween, and teenager is not really a hobby, but it has been an endless source of joy, frustration, silliness, seriousness, free entertainment, and expensive expenses.  While it was not easy to have many hobbies while our children were very young, I always made a point of getting some exercise every day (usually at my lunch hour), and I never, ever gave up my love of video games.  My wife was nice enough to let me take time to train for long-distance cycling on weekend mornings, and to put up with many evenings when I was saving the universe from some form of evil via video games.

If video games are not geeky enough for you (as an electrical engineer, I feel it is important to enjoy the fruits of the profession!), I am also a fan of science fiction books.  I usually only get a chance to read entire novels during semester breaks or vacation, but I usually have anthologies of short stories to read when I just have a few minutes.  I have enjoyed photography since I was a photographer for my high school newspaper, where I got to learn how to develop film and to make prints in a darkroom.   I combine my cycling hobby and work travel with photography by bringing my nice camera along on trips where I’m going somewhere cool, and taking city or nature photos.  I print and frame some of the best ones to decorate our house. 

Several years ago, when I started having so many management responsibilities that I could not get into the lab to build things with my own hands, I took up woodworking.  I taught myself how to use a table saw, a band saw, a router, a drill press, … with the purpose of making furniture for my house.  Although it would have been WAY cheaper to just buy furniture, I love making things out of solid wood that will last for generations (hopefully)!  It’s also fun to make a huge amount of noise and big piles of sawdust in the process of turning a pile of wood into a beautiful desk.  I like it because it is the exact opposite of nanotechnology.

Two years ago, during a sabbatical, I decided to take up piano (after having taken lessons in high school, and then quit when I got to college).  Piano is the hardest hobby of all, since my progress is SO SLOW.  However, when I am practicing piano, I cannot really think about anything else, and I like it when eventually a song starts to sound halfway decent.  I do not think I have ever played any song from start to finish without making a mistake, and I know that I drive my family crazy with my repetitive practicing.  I practice nearly every day that I am not traveling, and have a lesson every week to keep me motivated.

So, if you look at me as an example of someone who has been steadily been working pretty hard and having a successful career, you can see that I do a lot of stuff besides work.  Your own interests will be different, but it is important to make the time.  Sometimes some good research ideas occur to me while I am out in the middle of nowhere on my bike, but sometimes I do not think about anything at all.  Maybe the piano playing helps my brain somehow, but all I am really hoping for is to be halfway decent by the time I turn 70. The video games have absolutely no redeeming social value, but I really enjoy the graphics, sounds, and plots of games – especially compared to the old Atari and Nintendo that I had as a kid.  My Xbox Live name is Professor BC and I’ll kick your butt at Halo!