The Grand Locus / Life for statistical sciences



How to stop sucking and be awesome instead

I recently gave a motivation speech at the CRG/Institut Curie international PhD retreat. There was only one slide and the content was fairly general, so I thought I could reproduce it here. My goal was to motivate people, but also to surprise them a little, especially at the end. Finally, I wish such a nice title were mine, but I have to acknowledge Jeff Atwood. I stole it from his post on Coding Horror (which I also invite you to read).

How to stop sucking and be awesome instead

Think about what we can do today. We can send people on the moon. We can talk to each other any time anywhere on the planet. We can go anywhere in about a day. We can transplant a heart. We can cure diseases that were fatal only 30 years ago. And yet, there is still one thing that we cannot do. We don’t know how to motivate people.

That’s right, we do not know how to make our colleagues enthusiastic about their work. If you watch a couple of TED videos or if you read a couple of books on management, you will see that we all agree. But if I cannot motivate you, what can I do? Well, at least I can tell you a few stories and share my experience.

I will start with a story that marked me profoundly as a child. I am from what most of you would consider a very small town. I spent 18 years in a town less than 5,000 people. Quite remote from civilization really. It turns out that one of the roads around this town was badly designed and it was quite dangerous. Actually, it was so dangerous that every year a few people died in a car crash on this road. The butcher, a neighbor, someone from another town etc. You can imagine the shock for a city of less than 5,000 people.

It so happens that in French towns, the road signs are not designed by road experts. They are designed by the city council. My father was a member of the city council and he had to discuss this issue to decide which signs to put on this road. An important detail is that my father is from Québec. For him the solution was clear: the visibility on the intersection was poor and the design was so complicated that people did not know who should yield. So if drivers simply stopped or even slowed down every time, the problem would be solved. “Why don’t we put four STOP signs”, he suggested, “one on each road of this intersection”. For him it was obvious because those four STOP intersections are very common in Québec.

What do you think happened next?

The city council decided to do nothing. And as far as I know, people keep dying on that intersection. Let’s pause for a moment and think why they chose to do nothing. What is this thing that is more important than the life of other people?

It is peer pressure. “We see your point, Mr. Filion, but in France intersections do not have four STOP signs”.

Peer pressure is the most powerful force in the universe. It is powerful enough to make a council prefer the death of their own citizens over using road signs in an unusual way.

Peer pressure is the enemy. And every time you and I suck, it is because we don’t have the guts to resist peer pressure. This was true of the council of my home town. This will be true of your PhD, your whole career and your whole life.

Talking about peer pressure, here is my little secret to suck big time and not be awesome at all during your PhD.

  1. Work hard
  2. Try to publish
  3. Be focused

This is what I did. I was focused and I worked hard in the hope that I would get a publication in Nature. What’s wrong with that? With this attitude I forgot to ask the most essential question.

Why do I want to do research?

My first steps were very lucky. One of my early experiments had worked surprisingly well and I was able to publish a paper in the first year of my PhD. But it did not bring me any real satisfaction. The real satisfaction was the moment the experiment worked. Passed that blissful minute of excitement there was nothing left. Only the impression that the party was over, and that I had to clean the place.

After that, things became more difficult. My project did not lead anywhere and I did not get along with my PhD supervisor anymore. Somewhere in the middle of the second year, a thought came to visit me... I want to quit. I am not cut for research. I had to admit to myself that I did not know why I want to do research.

I had geared my life towards this goal, and yet, I was about to give up. I had come to the conclusion that what we were doing was a lie. We claimed to do research on cancer, but we did not act like we care, we never met the patients, nor did we try to understand what cancer really means for them. I also came to the conclusion that research is alienating because of publication pressure.

A lot of people supported me at the end of my PhD, and a lot of them gave me good advice. One person did more than that. He showed me something that changed my life for ever. Here is what he showed me.

“You see this picture”, he said. “What direction does it turn? What if I told that you it does not turn at all? What if I told you that you can see it turn in the other direction?” Of course I did not believe him at first. But then I saw it!

For your brain, the lady turns in one preferential direction, but you can see her turn the other way. For some people it is easy, for some it is quite hard. The trick to see her turn in the other direction is to look at the foot. If you focus on the foot long enough while you try to force yourself to see it in the other direction, it will suddenly flip and the dancer will turn in the other direction. Most likely, once the dancer has changed direction, you won’t need any effort to keep seeing her turn that way.

“Everything is like that dancer. There is the way you see things, but there are other valid ways to see them. This is what freedom is. Seeing things the way you decide to see them.” PhD is about getting a vision. PhD is about getting your vision of research. It is about shaking off the vision that peer pressure forces on you and getting your own instead. Here is how to stop sucking and be awesome instead.

When I understood this, I found my vision. I realized that research is an amazing tool for self-development. I realized that I do not have to claim to cure cancer. I changed the way I saw things in my work. I turned every failure into a lesson. I forced myself to see every change as an opportunity. This is like watching the foot of the dancer to make it flip.

The end of the depression was still a long way ahead, but things took another turn. I dropped the main line of my project, I focused on mathematics and programming. I started to collaborate as a statistician with other teams. One of them in particular recommended me for a post-doc in Amsterdam... but this is the beginning of another story.

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