Thursday, December 29, 2011

What We Love

The cliche is that if you do what you love, you will never "work" a day in your life.  This seems unlikely to me, as jobs have this tendency to include irritating tasks as well as rewarding ones.

Still, there is certainly something to it.  I had a math/science friend from high school who majored in geology because he loved it. I believe it was paleogeology he mentioned as his specialty at Rennsalaer.  He was also fascinated by computers, and as our school was on the DTSS* system got a lot more time working with them then most highschoolers did.  He continued this is college, getting a minor in computer science - I am not sure many schools had it as a major, then; it was part of the math department - and expressed to me over Christmas break 1972, our sophomore year, that he worried whether he would be able to find work in his specialties at graduation, because a lot of the good jobs seemed to be tied up for decades.  He was considering pushing on to graduate school, even though his family couldn't afford it, really, so that an academic or research might open up.

Paleogeology is one of the foundation specialties of looking for petroleum, and that computer thing, as you know, really did take off.  In the recession of 1975, when I was glad to find a job as a part-time hotel clerk, oil companies were throwing money at him to do something quite close to what he loved. He never went on to get his PhD, and according to my online research, he is quite happy with that decision.

I have written about both natural intelligence and personal energy this fall, raising questions of what factors go into worldly success. Both have something to do with the drive to learn.  But I think there is something different about the desire to learn about "things," which I have in abundance, and a desire to learn about some particular subject.  I now think the latter is a greater contributor to doing something important in the world.  It can come from either personal energy or natural intelligence, but it is what makes the world go forward.  One can call folks like me polymaths, or Renaissance men, but the term dilettante might apply just as well. We  are deeply related to the more focused students, and we have our place in the overall system as well.  But ultimately, we are gap-fillers and they are builders.

I think I will expand on this soon.  Here is a fascinating story about Dennis Ritchie (Lucent) and Robert Morris (Dartmouth, NSA, cryptology) that illustrates the drive of love of subject.  At the time, they would have seemed like corporate tools, not cool at all, to me.  Computer geeks were button-down types who I backpedaled away from.  Yet in a few short years, they looked like this. The computer folks learned that the folks who really knew what they were doing weren't the 3-piece suit guys, but strange-looking people who had chosen this field because of fascination.

*DTSS: Dartmouth time-sharing system for computing.  NH, MA, and VT highschools (especially prep schools) were permitted on in the late 60's, but it was mostly for Dartmouth and the US Naval Academy.  Mathematician and later Dartmouth president John Kemeny had developed the computer language BASIC, which I was pretty good in in 1970.  But when I went to William & Mary, no one there had heard of it.  They taught Fortran.  It is so odd to read about these things now, to see that I was near a major development node in highschool, but moved to a backwater for computers in college. And yet.  Had I the drive or the love of subject, that would not have stopped me.  The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.  I thought being a folksinger, medievalist, and actor was cooler.  And that was likely the right decision for me.


Der Hahn said...

The great advantage to having a job that includes tasks you love is the ability to get over the irritating ones. I'd hate to be forced into a job that I felt had no redeeming qualities.

I can identify with being a dilettante :) though I think there's something to be said for knowing which end of both a hammer and a knife to grab and what to do when you get it in your hand, even if you aren't an expert with either. If the gaps in the foundation aren't filled the whole structure will crumble.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Great post, AVI. I'm definitely in the category of "doing what you love," but some of that is admittedly by accident as the field I'm in didn't really exist when I was an undergrad trying to figure a path forward: geology? sociology? journalism?

My son-in-law's father is a software programmer who started with the old Digital Equipment Company, then survived their assimilation into Compaq and survived Compaq’s demise and purchase by HP. He’s at HP today, one of the only original DEC employees left and about the only one who still knows how to program some of the firm’s older equipment. It’s fascinating talking to Mike and understanding his “career path.” I plan to post a blog on him one of these days.

Texan99 said...

Maybe dilettantes aren't as likely to make breakthroughs as their more focused colleagues, but some of them become synthesists who put together something really important from their more bird's-eye view. Watson & Crick supposedly had a hard time buckling down to anything in particular, but they were skilled at putting together puzzle pieces generated by more disciplined scientists (who also had more tunnel vision).