Covey’s 1st habit: proactivity

Happy Winter Solstice! It’s plenty cold here.

As long as I’m nesting, I’m also taking stock of my career and making development plans for the next year — trying to get a sense of where things are going and why. I find that a lot of it has to do with articulating a clear vision of where I want to be in the future — while I recognize now that this is important, often pieces of it get lost on the way to planning day-to-day activities. Even when you think you have clear goals and ambitions, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the reactivity of putting out fires day to day, rather than doing everything with the long-term goal, mission, purpose in mind, if you like. So I’m reaching out to senior mentors as well as other people who are in the same career stage or stage of life as myself, to progressively clarify next actions on various time horizons.

The next big horizon for me is a year from now — the end of my SkyMapper fellowship here in Oz. I’m not in the worst conceivable place: during my time here, we did eventually get the supernova search working and finding supernovae, and I’ve made some exciting discoveries while I’ve been here. An academic job may still be in reach, if I keep the pressure on to produce visible outputs corresponding to the effort I’ve invested. Planning effectively for the contingency, in which I can’t move up the academic food chain and have to move laterally to a different sector, is a separate challenge; I may not take any next steps out of academia until next year, but it’s important to be continually aware of that possibility while forming a coherent strategy.

During this time I’ve picked up a copy of Stephen Covey’s famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Someone I respect once told me that “people who read self-help books aren’t really trying to help themselves,” and there is some truth to that: it’s easy to read a book thinking it will solve all your problems magically for you, and then do nothing yourself and then complain about how your problems have not been solved. I’m looking at it more from the perspective of learning from a senior person with a background very different from my own, and seeing whether I can take anything from that perspective which I wouldn’t have gotten in that form from my current senior mentors. Putting my preconceptions out of the way for now, I’m finding Covey’s book a good read: his material is well-organized, very carefully thought out, and cumulative (each habit builds on the one that came before it). His suggestion is to try and teach the material to others as a way of engaging with it, so I’ll be posting about my reactions to the material and how it changes the ways I’m thinking about what I’m doing.

Being proactive

Covey’s first habit is acknowledging and accepting responsibility for your reaction to your current circumstances. This seems like common sense: whether we are blessed with multiple advantages or really have to struggle due to hard turns of luck or oppressive power structures, we each ultimately have control to how we respond to the situation in which we find ourselves. This is a deep value that cuts across cultures and belief systems, and while Covey is writing from an American, Judeo-Christian, largely business-oriented perspective, I would consider it a deeply Buddhist value as well: “one is one’s own refuge.”

What I hadn’t really appreciated until I read Covey’s first chapter is the extent to which I still allow myself to be defined by the adversity I’ve had to overcome in my career. I’ve dealt with it well in some ways; I’ve accomplished what I have by thinking strategically and doing high-value work which the rest of the community undervalued at the time: buying low, selling high. My own personal narrative is a proactive one, in which I had a lot of difficulties along the way but managed to produce some amazing results anyway.

But that’s only one half the story. In the other half, I’ve become increasingly aware of the imperfections in the world, and how the spoils frequently go to those who were in the right place at the right time, while others are left out in the cold in a zero-sum game. I heard more and more stories about how groups disempowered by gender, race, or sexual identity are marginalized, even in the supposedly meritocratic halls of academe; besides arousing outrage to injustice, this made me wonder whether I was really as good as I thought I was, and the extent to which I could really compete on a fair playing field with other excellent scientists who are currently getting little traction in their careers for no good reason. I watched over the years as science collaborations upsized, getting larger and more hierarchical, with fewer rewards available to people putting in the effort in the trenches. I myself participated in more than one collaboration in which I worked incredibly hard on path-critical things for the collaboration, and yet stalled in my career.

I started to think that making it as an academic — or as anything else in the “postmodern job market” — is as much about luck, image, and exploiting institutionalized privilege as it is about hard work. And because luck and image didn’t have a place in my value system, I was offended by that idea, started to fixate on it, and came cynically to believe it was mostly, if not all, about luck and image rather than doing good work. Fortunately I wanted to do really good work badly enough not to give up on it entirely, but the feeling that you have no leverage and that nothing you do will improve your situation is incredibly demoralizing and difficult to work with once you accept it to be the case. Part of you gives up in the face of such pressure.

Covey rejects that idea. His primary example, at the risk of tripping Godwin’s Law, was that of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who learned to remain positive and continue helping others in the face of overwhelming despair. That refugee, Viktor Frankl, was also a psychiatrist whose experiences in Auschwitz and Dachau informed his therapy practice after he survived. He was the only survivor from his immediate family besides his sister. I’ve heard similar inspiring stories about Tibetan monks and prisoners of conscience languishing in Chinese oubliettes, yet never giving up hope and belief in human dignity. But the message is of course that if even someone being persecuted by Hitler can take control of their reactions to their own circumstances, surely we can as well.

And looking at it I’ve gradually come to realize, over the years, that while luck is a component that helps cause any particular outcome to come about, “luck favors the prepared”. There are opportunity-poor and opportunity-rich environments, and learning to recognize and navigate these opportunities is a crucial component of applied luck. Similarly, it’s easy to associate the cultivation of a public image and activities like “networking” with an offensively shallow view of career, as if focusing on the way we present ourselves and our work was equivalent to selling used cars. But networking doesn’t replace hard work — rather, it is a teachable career skill, in which you train yourself because there comes a point where you can’t do everything yourself and you need to work effectively with others to realize broader goals. Good communication and working well with others are crucial skills for today’s scientist, giving the lie to the myth that seems to have grown up around figures like Einstein, of a singular, incomparable genius working alone with pen and paper to revolutionize the field. Clearly Einstein’s ideas were original and compelling, and came about due to fiercely independent thinking. But a look at Einstein’s biography shows that he wasn’t working in a complete vacuum, and in fact carefully cultivated his connections and public image to leverage his brilliant work into the impact on the world it eventually had.

Where proactivity comes into this: Hard work is essential, but as you move up the food chain you define more and more of that hard work for yourself. As you acquire more freedom, you have to take more responsibility for ensuring that concrete results come from that freedom and the work it enables you to do. It’s not enough just to follow the rules, because increasingly the world becomes less about rules and more about results and outcomes which are not deterministic. Those results and outcomes are about adding value which can be broadly recognized — within one’s field, one’s firm, one’s family. The path towards doing that has to do with recognizing universals and acting on them, even, or especially, in the midst of difficult situations.

How I can be more proactive

And to tie it back into my own situation: I note that I have some vicious mental habits which, while not stopping me dead, present a constant drag for me and sap momentum in my career. I often don’t ask questions to which I might like to know the answer, out of fear of looking bad in front of others: “haven’t you read my papers / the manual / the wiki?” Having worked in some hierarchical environments in which everything was vetted by committee, I’ve learned to distrust myself in matters of procedure, and now seek approval from superiors in many cases where my own judgment would suffice (and where they expect me to exercise that judgment). In networking situations at conferences I often let the conversation stop dead, when rehearsing a few leading questions to ask beforehand could enable some very interesting intellectual exchanges. If I don’t know what’s going on in a meeting, I’ll sometimes just melt into the background until I’m called on. The fear that my failure will be made public and that everyone will recognize I’ve just been totally winging it all the time is pervasive and enduring.

These faults are related in part to some positive traits: I see myself as a consensus-based problem solver and want to make sure everyone buys into a solution I’m involved with. But there are times when my “solution” to that is to let someone else solve the problem the way they want to. So I’m focusing on how I can present concrete solutions to problems I think are important and want to solve, sometimes in a particular way about which I have strong opinions, while still incorporating input from others in an inclusive, non-confrontational way. Similarly, I recognize the importance of being prepared when working with other people and want to be able to ask good questions. If my ignorance of the work of others in a given field is because the work is new or about a specific result not closely related to my own work, there should be no shame in asking even simple questions to get a sense of the landscape. However, if I’m concerned that my questioning makes me look unprepared, it may be worth addressing that by investing more time interacting with others, being generally curious, learning about the big questions and then reading associated papers.

One of the things that most impresses me about Brian Schmidt is that in any talk I’ve seen him attend, on practically any subject in astronomy or physics, he always has at least one question. Moreover, his questions show that he listens deeply to the material, understands it, relates it to his own general physics knowledge, and quickly places it in its context within a broad view of where astronomy is and where it is going. I admired Meg Urry while I was at Yale for much the same reasons. I have to assume that this capacity didn’t spring fully formed from the void. In particular, it seems to me to be the return on investment of thousands of questions asked fearlessly over the years, out of a deep desire to know what the important unsolved problems in our field are and how others are approaching them. They don’t always know the details, but the accumulation of time spent proactively searching for knowledge makes it easier for them to focus on the most important information.

While I can’t rewrite a past in which I was more reticent and missed opportunities to learn, the sooner I can rewrite this script for myself, the better.

The other thing I realize now, with respect to working in hierarchical environments, is that it is possible for me to “manage upwards” and help set expectations for what I’m doing, to ask and advocate for additional resources to crack tough problems, and to put boundaries around continual crisis work to enable myself to do things that are critically important for my own continued success. But I’m getting ahead of myself, those things are discussed in future chapters.

Most of all, though, the crystallized recognition that it’s up to me to seek out opportunities and make them happen, and keeping that (and the things I want to make happen) in the forefront of my mind at all times as I encounter resistance from myself, is the most valuable thing I’ve gotten out of this chapter. I can remember many times, during my Ph.D. and my postdoctorate career so far, where I was strongly proactive, where I had a vision and made it a reality. What it’s time to do now is to strengthen that capacity and make it more consistent, and the first step towards doing that is to come to rest firmly in the conviction that I’m in the driver’s seat, at all times.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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