Saturday, March 8, 2014

Random thoughts

In the past I have consistently chosen work over most other things. I also chose to have a family to whom I have always been very close to, and I have always lived in beautiful areas - although I have never chosen a position based on location so far.  I have a reasonable level of tolerance, but I have often felt that most members of my family and I were genetically designed to get along.

 The risk I consistently take is that of doing many things. While most people dislike leaving their comfort zone unnecessarily, I repeatedly ignore my comfort zone and my fears, which are always there. I am, of course, afraid of failing, of being too superficial, of choosing the wrong paths too often, and of doing too many things that will not be worthwhile in the end. I do make an effort to finish most of the things I start even if it sometimes takes me a long time - always way longer than I think it should take. All this is against what I have been taught in school. Society wants us to be in the same box doing the same things all our lives. Change is most often seen as a failure to continue in the same direction. My colleagues who switched to industry after having a PhD (and perhaps one or two postdocs) are seen as people who failed to stay in the wonderful academic system by the people who stayed in the academia. The people who stayed in the academia are probably seen as failures by those who left because most of what we do does not have direct, immediate impact on the world. Most articles we write reach a very small community. More often than not this community is just too small to be worth the one or two or several years of work invested. Also, we are always at work, but make a lot less money.

But is it better to stay in the same field forever even after one's productivity drops or to be open to reinventing oneself and have the courage to change careers? How much does the reinventing process reduce the risk of Alzheimer and other problems later in life? Is it worth it?  Every subfield has its own jargon and its own little world, and I have tried hard to not be stuck in local minima for too long. However, it's hard to leave many little worlds behind - and in time it gets harder and more tiring to start over. How many people can start something entirely new, and finish it at a level that is worth the time and potentially the money invested? Is our society right in forcing people to be in the same box doing the same things all their lives? 

I do not have good answers to every one of these questions because the answers depend on the situations they are applied to.  I have always tried to be optimistic and to believe in the people around me. I think that, in time, the rapid transfer of information will completely reform our educational system, the way we work and the way we think. It is likely that this new system will allow change more readily, and perhaps even be able to simulate potential outcomes and come up with optimum solutions. I hope that we will not have to wait for people born before computers (at 31 I am part of the older generation) to die or retire before our educational system and the work place become more fluid because changes are exciting and I want to see them happen.

Could I work in a field that is not in the academia? I do not want to work in a bank, in programming, industry or consulting. All these jobs seems too hard, too boring, and often too far away from anything that feels real. Physics does model reality after all. However, I often wish I lived on a farm (with some help for the various responsibilities) where my children could learn more from experiencing the life around them vs. mostly from books, and that this farm was located in a warmer place than Zurich or central Pennsylvania. I could be a high-tech farmer who controls his tractors from home. But then I dislike monocultures, using insecticides, and killing animals. So, I do not think I will ever be very productive as a farmer.

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