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Principles of Effective Research: Part II

by Michael Nielsen on July 9, 2004

Principles of personal behaviour: proactivity, vision, and discipline

I believe that the foundation of effective research is to internalize a strong vision of what you want to achieve, to work proactively towards that vision, taking personal responsibility for successes and failures. You need to develop disciplined work habits, and to achieve balance between self-development and the actual creative research process.

Proactivity and personal responsibility

Effective people are proactive and take personal responsibility for the events in their lives. They form a vision of how they want their life to be, and work toward achieving that vision. They identify problems in their lives, and work toward solutions to those problems.

Isn’t this obvious, banal advice? I heard a story years ago in which a representative from McDonald’s was asked what gave McDonald’s the edge in the fast food industry. They replied that McDonald’s took care of the little things, like making sure that their restaurants and surrounds were always extremely clean. Representatives of other fast food companies replied incredulously that surely that was not the reason McDonald’s did so well, for “anyone could do that”. “But only McDonald’s does” was the response. The heart of personal effectiveness is not necessarily any special knowledge or secret: it is doing the basics consistently well.

When it comes to proactivity and responsibility, it seems to be incredibly difficult to internalize these principles and act on them consistently. Almost everyone says and thinks they are proactive and responsible, but how many of us truly respond to the force of external circumstance in the most proactive manner?

My belief is that the reason it is difficult to be consistently proactive and responsible is that over the short term it is often significantly easier to abdicate responsibility and behave in a reactive fashion. In my opinion, there are three basic ways this can occur.

The first way is to blame external circumstances for our problems. “We don’t have enough grant money.” “I have to teach too much.” “My supervisor is no good.” “My students are no good.” “I don’t have enough time for research.” When challenged on what actions we are taking to rectify the situation, we will claim that it’s the fault of other people, or of circumstances beyond our control, relieving ourselves of the burden of doing anything to solve the problem.

In short, we abdicate responsibility, preferring to blame others. This is easier over the short term, since it’s easier to complain than it is to take action, but is not a recipe for long-term happiness or effectiveness. Furthermore, we will usually deny that it is within our power to take actions to improve our situation. After all, if it was in our power, it would be us who is responsible, and our entire worldview is based upon blaming others for our own problems.

The second way of abdicating responsibility is to get caught up in displacement activities. These may give us a short-term fix, especially if they win us the approbation of other people, perhaps for responding to requests that they label urgent. Over the long run such displacement activities are ultimately unfulfilling, representing time lost from our lives.

The third way of abdicating responsibility is by getting down on yourself, worrying and feeling bad for not overcoming one’s difficulties. Winston Churchill spoke of the “black dog” of depression that overtook him during times when his political career was in eclipse. Personally, I sometimes get really down when things are not going well, and get caught up in a cycle of worry and analysis, without constructively addressing my problems. Of course, the right way to respond to a bad situation is not to beat yourself up, but rather to admit that, yes, things are going badly, to figure out exactly what problems you are facing, write out possible solutions, prioritize and implement them, without getting too worried or hamstrung by the whole process.

Why are these three options so attractive? Why do we so often choose to respond in this way to the challenges of life rather than taking things on with a proactive attitude that acknowledges that we’re responsible for our own life? What all three options share in common is that over the short-term abdicating responsibility for our problems is easier than taking responsibility for meeting the challenges of life.

A specific example that I believe speaks to many of us is when we’re having some sort of difficulty or conflict with another person. How many of us put off confronting the problem, preferring instead to hope that the problem will resolve itself? Yet, properly managed – a difficult thing to do, most likely requiring considerable preparation and aforethought – it’s nearly always better to talk with the person about the problem until you arrive at a mutual understanding of both your points of view, both sets of interests, and can resolve the issue on a basis of shared trust.

How can we learn to become proactive? I don’t know of any easy way. One powerful way is to be inspired by examples of proactive people. This can either be through direct personal contact, or indirectly through biographies, history, movies and so on. I like to set aside regular time for such activities. Another powerful tool for learning proactivity is to remind ourselves regularly of the costs and benefits of proactivity and responsibility versus reactivity and irresponsibility. These costs and benefits are easy to forget, unless you’re constantly being reminded that complaints, self-doubt, blame of others and of self are actually the easy short-term way out, and that chances are that you can construct a better life for yourself, at the cost of needing to do some hard work over the short term.

In the context of research, this means constantly reminding yourself that you are the person ultimately responsible for your research effectiveness. Not the institution you find yourself in. Not your colleagues, or supervisor. Not the society you are living in. All these things influence your research career, and may be either a help or a hindrance (more on that later), but in the final analysis if things are not working well it is up to you to take charge and
change them.

From → General

  1. This section should be required reading for all graduate students. The culture of displaced blame runs deep in grad student corners. Of course, I myself had to wait to become a postdoc before I learned to practice the art of displaced blame.

  2. It’s not our fault if we blame everyone else; we’re raised that way…

    Actually, I like this one because it makes me feel better about reading novels instead of spending all my time trying to learn E&M. I’m learning to be pro-active! And integrating research into my life!

    Seriously, this is all good advice, and just the sort of thing I need to hear right now.

  3. I was somewhat disappointed reading this advice. I always like reading such essays, and so settled down to read this one. The essay has really nothing to do with research. It’s a somewhat banal essay (as Michael admits) on some vague general principle of having a successful life. Which, as the McDonalds acecdote states, is not much of a secret.

    I guess other “research-oriented” parts will come later. Something along the lines of Hammings’ fantastic essay (forgot the title) would be nice.

  4. To the last commenter: Only the first 15% of the essay has been posted. If you’re looking for stuff directly related to research, it will come later. I certainly don’t guarantee it’ll be to your taste.

    As to whether the ideas here are banal, I don’t think so. I’ve only ever met a few people who I think act in a way that is consistently proactive. (Not coincidentally, that list substantially overlaps with the list of the best researchers I’ve known.) The rest of us need to keep reminding ourselves of it in various ways, and improving. One way is by reading (or writing) essays such as this one.

    Dave: Yeah, at least in the grad student cultures I’ve been part of. Admittedly, a lot of that is just blowing off steam, which I think is fine for overstressed people. But I’ve known quite a few grad students who got themselves into a victim mentality; they’d complain, but never lift a finger to help themselves. (Not my students, so far as I know, I hasten to add!)

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