No Excuse

I just got back from a conference where, as usual, I had a lot of fun. It was tiring, both mentally and physically, but at the end of each day I was sure that I’d learned something new. This is the environment that makes me love doing research: being surrounded by people who are all passionate about the same issues, discussing all of the problems and solutions that we’ve found. At its best, a conference is an in-depth conversation with people who know your research. At its worst, though, a conference can make you feel that you are utterly unprepared; that everyone around you knows more than you ever will; that you’ve just been wasting your time so far, while everyone else has been sprinting ahead.

This is a problem for me: I tend to slip into the latter experience, even though I also tend to believe that I know what I’m doing. Fundamentally, this variant of the impostor syndrome comes from the fact that there is an infinite amount of knowledge to be gained. People study their whole lives to understand minutiae of the life cycles of bees, or the fundamental nature of physics, or a particular mathematical object. Thus I find myself in an intractable problem: I know that I have learned a finite number of things, and the number of things left to learn appears to be infinite. I must be behind, right?

In research, you can never really know if you’re behind. Or at least, I haven’t found a way yet. It’s more that you gradually relax into your role in the community, and as you keep talking about your research without being interrupted by cries of “You charlatan!”, you come to understand that you probably know what you’re doing. This is also why it’s so important to not compare yourself to other people when doing research. The metrics of publication and media coverage are easy to game, and regardless it’s truly impossible to know where your true peers in understanding are in their careers. It’s as if everyone started at different points along the racetrack of graduate school, and you have no way of judging how fast everyone is running. That person who seems really far ahead of you could be a genius, or they may have started further down the track.

I don’t think that these problems are restricted to research. For anyone doing any sort of learning today, there is unprecedented pressure. From the moment you begin to try to understand something, you are behind the huge, intractable monster in your own personal race. This monster is the Internet, and the sum total of human knowledge that it contains. Want to understand multi-variable calculus? Your first Google on the subject will pull up almost 2 million results. Which of these is the best? Can you afford to waste time when you have 2 million results to choose from? Is it better to use multiple free resources or to pay for a service like Khan Academy? And no matter how you answer these questions, a friend or online commentator can immediately criticize your choice and suggest some alternative method.

So the problem isn’t necessarily one of doing the research, but of deciding which research to do.1 Of course, this in itself is an opportunity for critique. Did you spend too much time deciding on the best resource for learning multi-variable calculus? Your friend will make the point that any of the results handed to you by Google are likely to be equally good. The fact that this is the same friend who would have criticized you for choosing the “wrong” resource should bother you. It does me.

At the end of the day, all of this crystallizes for me into something that my friend, a math major, said to me at the end of a long homework session. “You know, this really sucks. All this information is online, we’re just incapable of finding it. We’ve been trying this problem for hours, we’re still stuck, and we have no excuse.” At the time, we were working on an “open notes, open Internet” problem set for an advanced abstract algebra class. You might think that access to the Internet would trivialize any problem set, but we found exactly the opposite. Because we had the Internet, because we knew that the answer had to be on there somewhere, we wasted time trawling for various terms d’art. We would spend an hour searching for help, conclude that there was nothing to be found, and then return to working on the math directly. After a while, though, the paranoia that the answer might still be sitting uncloaked in some Internet backway would become too much, and we would restart the cycle.

Now, part of this is my own damn fault for studying math, and I completely accept that. But I believe that the same phenomenon afflicts most of us now. Any new thing you might want to learn, any new skill, opens the doorway to this sort of intractable pressure. Because all information exists on the Internet (and has for a while), you have no excuse if it takes you longer to learn than someone else. In fact, you have no excuse for not already knowing it, since you were wasting your time if you weren’t spending it learning all of the things that you need to know for your {job, life, interests}.

That’s a harsh takeaway, and I want to be clear that the final sentence of the previous paragraph is an unhealthy way to think about things. Nonetheless, it’s the way that I often find myself feeling when I’m learning something new. I would wager that I’m not alone in this, too. I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is, but recognizing the trend and stating explicitly that it’s neither helpful nor healthy seems like a good step. There is certainly enough evidence that learning takes time and effort, and your time on Earth is definitely finite. I would suggest that we all endeavor to criticize others’ knowledge less, and share ours more. Maybe it’s impossible for me to stop self-recriminating in the way that I’ve described above, but we can certainly take the pressure off of one another.

  1. Research in the general sense here, meaning just learning about anything new. 

Published by Cannon Lewis on January 02, 2019