Sunday, January 27, 2008

Work/life balance

A number of separate incidents left me thinking a lot about work/life balance these last couple of weeks: research deadlines near the start of term had me working a lot on weekends, bouts of sleeplessness had me up at my desk before 5am for several days running, multiple students came by to talk about academic career issues, and I heard yet another discussion on the oft-heard wisdom that older people nearing the end of life are more reflective/proud/wistful/etc of encounters they had with people than with long hours spent at work. It was enough to induce frenzied angst about overwork even in my calmest moments.

Yet, it didn't, and not because I was too stressed to think about it. I'm actually bemused by how calm I've been these last 3 weeks, especially in contrast to how uncalm I was under similar workloads in the fall. When I consider working less, part of me stops and wonders "to replace it with what?" And this just after having one of those moments with a dear friend that I will recall for the rest of my life as one that truly mattered.

Driving to work after a wet snowfall earlier this month, I was struck by how blindingly beautiful the highway was surrounded by bare trees coated with strong clean snow as thick as the branches themselves. Immersed in that powerful image, I suddenly knew that what stays with me over the years are powerful emotional and sensory moments. If I aim to live a life that I won't regret in the end, amassing powerful moments like these seems critical. And some of my most vivid memories of being human and real have come from work. I have both emotional and muscular recall of certain seconds when I saw specific research problems in a new way. I can replay segments of lectures given ages ago that were on song. These remind me that I am human and alive as much as the analogous treasured moments with friends, family, or nature.

Of course, it's often far too easy to get lost in the aspects of work that won't lead to moments like this. There's a lot of seemingly pointless work even in the unfettered academic life. But this insight gives me a metric: if I'm going to spend hours at the desk, do it to work on something hard and interesting enough to create those moments of a lifetime. At that point, it's not work. It's living.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Punching lines: what prevents change?

Quote: "The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity." -- Bill Gates, Harvard University Commencement 2007

I came across Gates' address a couple of days ago and highly recommend it. It's forceful, and this line pulled the main punch. Gates argues that many people are concerned about global issues such as economic inequity, but the problems are so complex that we don't know what to do about it. Cutting through the complexity is one of the objectives of the Gates Foundation.

I'm often moved by a problem, only to stumble in a wave of helplessness and futility that discourages me from even trying to do something. India did this to me many times; the way it commands me to react is one of the things I find most rewarding about traveling there. Educational inequality sometimes hits me the same way: leveling the academic playing field seems daunting because disadvantaged students have to get beyond the system around them that had the same education they are trying to surpass. The latter is arguably easier to solve; I'm still tossing around whether it is any less critical.

Underneath Gates' complexity theory is an assumption that people need to feel they are having an impact, or at least being useful, to participate in a problem. Measuring impact is hard, especially for a single individual facing a global-scale task. Personally, I find micro-finance appealing because it provides some metric of utility to someone; I just have to be careful not to
think too hard about all of the people I'm not helping. Cliches about butterfly wings notwithstanding, we have a hard time believing in the impact of small acts. Most people haven't been trained to think in terms of large systems, but that's what charitable giving or community service often ask us to do.

This seems an educational challenge: we have enough people with some time or money to give to causes (my sense is that there is more of this available now as the middle class grows, but I could be wildly wrong on this). What tools do we learn for understanding and participating in complex problems though? I don't recall formally learning much along these lines aside from the importance of voting. This is a deeply social question to which computing technologies could be applied. What might we do?

As a side note, the "punching lines" tag reflects a new thread I'm trying for the blog. It'll label posts that respond to a concise quote that socked me in the gut when I first read it. Not lines I understood on re-reading, but ones that made me stop reading then and there and made my mind tingle.