Life in the Academic Slow Lane

Looking back at nearly a half century, a lifetime really, spent in academic chemistry (I started my first college chemistry course in 1972 and decided that this was “it” for me), I can see plenty of choices that I made over the years that were guided by the need that I felt to do things faster, to do things bigger, and to just do more. Perform my experiments more quickly. Write a paper that will make a bigger impact. Do three projects instead of one.

Only rarely did I ever stop to consider whether this orientation was in keeping with my natural tendencies or would create a satisfying life for me, a life well-lived. Instead, I labored under the assumption that I needed to set my objectives and perform my work in ways that would please others and the only way to do that was to consistently exceed their expectations.

I was inspired to reflect on all this recently when I read an essay by Dr. Irene Nobeli, “In praise of slow,” that appeared on the back page of Science magazine (Working Life, 2 Feb 2018). In her essay Dr. Nobeli draws several parallels between her plodding running pace, a natural tendency that she attributes to the paltry number of fast-twitch muscles in her legs, to her approach to tenure and job satisfaction:

“Lesson four: There really is no race. For me, running isn’t about being faster than the other runners. Likewise, my goal in research is not to “beat” my colleagues … I don’t run just to eat more peanut butter or to save money on psychotherapy (although these are strong motivating factors in my case). I run because doing so offers a glimpse of life’s real value. I now think this is the secret to being happy in research, too. I don’t do research only to get invited to conferences, see my name in print, or be promoted. Like running, research is a game with its own intrinsic value. Playing this game of discovery gives me enough joy to keep me going.”

Her pointers remind us how important it is that we take care of ourselves, that we look for what adds value to our lives, and what drains it away. To this I would add only that care begins with paying attention to the things that really matter to us.