Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pondering our Kochlab graduate student about "Always Contribute?"

Last weekend, my friend Richard Yeh posted a couple essays by Paul Graham onto Facebook. I loved the essays and linked to one of them on friendfeed. Michael Nielsen, in turn pointed me to another essay by Graham that he thought I'd like, "How to Do What You Love." Michael was completely right, I loved the essay. If you have not read that essay, I command you to stop reading my blog and to go read that article! You'll get much more out of his essay than this blog.

OK, now that I have you defiantly reading my blog, intent on garnering something useful from it, to spite me, let me continue. The "Do What You Love" essay resonated with me very strongly. It reminded me of the discussion of talents in "First Break All the Rules" by Buckingham and Coffman. I think Graham and Buckingham and Coffman are talking about the same thing: that finding work you love is a key to happiness (and productivity), but that finding out what you love is a very difficult task worth working very hard on. The language of Buckingham and Coffman is to talk about finding one's "talents." I've been talking with my graduate students about this a lot for the past six months. (In fact, it's time for me to have another awkward talent-finding session with them, I do believe!) I also preach to all of my undergraduate students about the importance of finding their talents and I give them an end-of-semester assignment to think about their talents. I'm delighted to have been shown the Graham essay, because I think it is yet another way of presenting this argument to students, and a very eloquent one.

Since I loved the essay so much, I sent it to the person who gave me the First Break All the Rules book. He wrote back to me and keyed in on the "always produce" part of the Graham essay:

"Always produce" is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you're supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. "Always produce" will discover your life's work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.

While reading the note, the Do What You Love essay finally clicked with another I read by Graham last weekend, "How to Make Wealth."[1] It's another fantastic essay that I feel like commanding you to read. One premise in that essay is that people in start-up companies can be 20-30 times more productive than they can in an ordinary 9 to 5 job. Thus, a small group of people can create a tremendous amount of wealth by working really hard for a few years. They can also get financially rich as a reward for their production of wealth for the world. The thing that clicked for me is that you cannot make the world a better place without producing. Most people are producing at a rate at least 20 times less than they could be producing, if they found what they loved and were able to do it all the time. I garner great optimism from this fact that we're on average so incredibly inefficient. It means most people are not even close to any absolute point of diminishing returns, and with the right kinds of changes, they could easily multiply their productivity and impact on the world by manyfold.

So, then I started thinking about our research lab and the students in our lab. I thought over things that each student has done in the past year that made me profoundly happy. As I thought over all these things, I realized they had a common theme: I was recalling instances of those students being unusually productive. Furthermore, my favorite recollections involved those where the students had shared their work on our public wiki, or our blog, or in some other fashion open to the world. This made me think that it is now very easy for me to summarize my main expectation and goal for my students: "always produce," borrowed from Paul Graham, of course. My students like to make Kochlab slogans, so I thought of "Kochlab: Produce" or "Kochlab: Always Produce," but if you pronounce the "Koch" correctly ("Cook"), then it has the problem of making one think of produce the noun, e.g. apples and bananas. Thus, I am thinking something like "Kochlab: Contribute" or "Kochlab: Always Contribute."

In some sense, "always contribute" means the same thing as "always produce." The point of the producing, in regards to Graham's essays is that you're creating wealth, and therefore contributing something to society. However, I like "contribute" much better, because it has much more clarity in the science world. "Contribute" automatically points the way towards open science (aka Science 2.0). Whereas, production in the traditional scientific world ("closed science") can be done with a very limited amount of contribution.

I have mulled it over for a couple days now, and I think I really like this as the main piece of advice and constant guidance to give to our students: "always contribute." Does this work? Let me try it out in a few ways:

1. By the time the students get their Ph.D.s, I want them to have learned a tremendous amount about what their talents are. I want them to clearly see what the next step in their career should be in order to leverage those talents and help them be successful and happy. A compass of "always contribute" will lead the students towards finding ways of being productive instead of spinning their wheels. These activities will be the means by which the students and I discover what their talents are. This is the point of Graham's "always produce" advice. Check.

2. By the time the students get their Ph.D.s, I want them to have a strong and large professional network of people that know them and the work they have done. "Always contribute" tells them that Open Notebook Science is a good thing to do. Sharing code, design drawings, personal summaries of research papers, tips and tricks on protocols -- these are all ways to contribute. In our limited experience in our lab, we have received validation after validation after validation that open contributions get attention. We can see this vaguely via page views or Google search rank or quite vividly via positive feedback from people that we admire and people whom we've helped. Combined with traditional publishing (also a contribution) and attending scientific meetings (contributing), I think "always contribute" will make building a powerful professional network almost automatic. Check.

3. I want our lab to produce innovative, exciting, and high-impact scientific results. Will "always contribute" point us in the right direction for this goal? Does it point in any direction? I need to think about this one some more. I feel like it must point in the right direction--for example, innovations are contributions. But there's some risk that focusing on contributing could lead towards a lack in overall production. Basically I am thinking of the standard arguments against open science -- increased likelihood of scooping, which in turn reduces chances of funding and publishing. I fundamentally believe that those arguments are strong enough to tip the balance, but I don't think they've been proven yet. Another example of how "always contribute" may be counter to our lab's scientific productivity: some students may discover that they are wickedly talented at contributing in ways that do not advance their research projects. That's a great thing to discover! An example that hasn't happened in our lab yet would be for a student to discover that they're fantastically talented at writing popular science articles and want to do so at the expense of doing any research. I want students to discover something like this. It fits perfectly with items 1 and 2 above. However, it is clearly a problem in regards to item 3. This is not a new problem, though. My job as a research professor is to both mentor students as well as ensure production of research results. The way the system is set up those goals are not always aligned, and sometimes in conflict. It's possible to be rewarded with research grants, even by abandoning the best interests of your graduate students. Most people in the system know this and have seen the devastating results it has for too many Ph.D. students. I am absolutely against doing that and despise many people who have chosen that route. On the other hand, I don't have a good idea about what do do if "always contribute" turns into "I can't do my research." That's definitely going to happen eventually. In many cases, it will be possible for the student to discover their true calling in life, but then re-focus on making the research contributions necessary to finish the Ph.D. that they've invested so much time in. Will there come a time when the student should rightly choose abandoning the Ph.D.? Ugh, this is a tough one: Item #3 gets an: almost check / need more thinking.

I've painted myself into a corner now. If I were Paul Graham, I would figure out a way to backtrack. But I'm not, and I don't really know how to end this blog post, so I think I'm going to end it by linking to another Graham essay about writing essays. This one was linked to me by Kartik Agaram on friendfeed. It's an essay that explains why high school and college writing assignments sucked so badly. If you hated those assignments but never quite knew why, you'll love this story. Plus, you'll feel vindicated and it will give you one more reason to trust your gut in the future. For example, if your gut were telling you that "always contribute" is a fantastic compass to present your graduate student mentees.

[1] I'm taking a bunch of liberty here with my own story. It wasn't until I started writing this blog that I realized the two essays had clicked. But I think subconsciously this is what was happening. Also, I probably had the Gin, Television, and Social Surplus essay by Clay Shirky in my head, as Joelle Nebbe had linked to it recently.


  1. I am defiantly reading your blog.It reminded me of the discussion of talents. I think it is yet another way of presenting this argument to students, and a very eloquent one. I will be make building a powerful professional network almost automatic.


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