TITLE: Doing What You Love, University Edition AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 13, 2006 6:09 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Several folks have commented already on Paul Graham's How to Do What You Love. As always, this essay is chock full of quotable quotes. Ernie's 3D Pancakes highlights one paragraph on pain and graduate school. My grad school experience was mostly enjoyable, but I know for certain that I was doing part of it wrong. Again as always, Graham expresses a couple of very good ideas in an easy-going style that sometimes makes the ideas seem easier to live than they are. I am thinking about how I as a parent can help my daughters choose a path that fulfills them rather than the world's goals for them, or mine. Among the quotable quotes that hit close to home for me were these. First, on prestige as siren:
Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That's the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn't suck, they wouldn't have had to make it prestigious.
Ouch. But in my defense I can say that in the previous fourteen years my department had beaten all of the prestige out of being our head. When I came around to considering applying for the job, it looked considerably less prestigious than the ordinary headship. I applied for the job precisely because it needed to be done well, and I thought I was the right person to do it. I accepted the job on with a shorter-than-usual review window with no delusions of grandeur. Then, on prematurely settling on a career goal:
Don't decide too soon. Kids who know early what they want to do seem impressive, as if they got the answer to some math question before the other kids. They have an answer, certainly, but odds are it's wrong.
From the time I was seven years old until the time I went to college, I knew that I wanted to be an architect -- the regular kind that designs houses and other buildings, not the crazy enterprise integration kind. My premature optimization mostly didn't hurt me. When some people realize that they had been wrong all that time, they are ashamed or afraid to tell everyone and so stay on the wrong path. During my first year in architecture school, when I realized that as much as I liked architecture it probably wasn't the career for me, I was fortunate enough to be feel comfortable changing courses of study right away. It was a sea change for me mentally, but once it happened in mind I knew that I could tell folks. I somehow knew that computer science was where I should go. Again, I was fortunate not to have skewed my high school preparation in a way that made the right path hard to join; I had taken a broad set of courses that prepared me well for almost any college major, including as much math and science as I could get. One way that my fixation on architecture may have hurt me was in my choice of university. I optimized school selection locally by picking a university with a strong architecture program. When I decided to switch to a CS major, I ended up in a program not as strong. I certainly could have gone to a university that prepared me better for CS grad school. One piece of I advice that I'll give my daughters is to choose a school that gives you many options. Even if you never change majors, having plenty of strong programs will mean a richer ecosystem of ideas in which to swim. (I already give this advice to students interested in CS grad school, though there are different trade-offs to be made for graduate study.) That said, I do not regret sticking with my alma mater, which gave me a very good education and exposed me to a lot of new ideas and people. Most of undergraduate education is what the student makes of it; it's only at the boundaries of high ambition where attending a particular school matters all that much. Nor would I have traded my time in architecture school for a quicker start in CS. I learned a lot there that still affects how I thinking about systems, design, and education. More importantly, it was important for me to try the one thing I thought I would love before moving on to something else. Making such decisions on purely intellectual grounds is a recipe for regret. -----