Scientific Obsessives - Mary Roach - Gulp - Malcolm Gladwell - The Bomber Mafia

Scientific Obsessives

In the author’s note for his book The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell writes about people with obsessions. He writes, “I realize when I look at the things I have written about or explored over the years, I’m drawn again and again to obsessives. I like them. I like the idea that someone could push away all the concerns and details that make up every day life and just zero in on one thing. … I don’t think we get progress, or innovation, or joy, or beauty without obsessives.”
Obsessives, Gladwell argues, are neither good nor bad, but often play crucial roles in the advancement of technology, the winning of historical wars, and in the development of society. Making scientific breakthroughs, convincing large numbers of people to live their lives a certain way, and pushing through failure until one finds a new way to do something often requires an obsessive quality in order to persevere, connect minuscule dots along the way, and stay interested in something that others barely care about.  Mary Roach would agree.
In her book Gulp, Raoch writes, “Dr. Silletti was delighted to hear that  I wanted to visit the saliva lab. People rarely ask to visit Erika Silletti’s lab. I am honestly curious about saliva, but I am also curious about obsession and its role in scientific inquiry. I think it’s fair to say that some degree of obsession is a requisite for good science, and certainly for scientific breakthrough.”
Studying something as off-putting and seemingly boring as human saliva requires an obsessive quality about science, research, inquiry, and the human systems that form the first part of our digestive system. I can’t imagine lots of people are eager to listen to Dr. Silletti talk about her research, it probably isn’t fun dinner or cocktail party talk, but Dr. Silletti continues on with her lab. Her discoveries, and the discoveries of everyone working in rather gross areas of science, are dependent on a level of obsession. Without such obsession, the scientists and researchers would not carry on studying their particular fields, and we wouldn’t get the breakthroughs and discoveries that come from their science. This is the argument that Roach makes in Gulp, and it is part of her explanation for why she has written so many books that focus on the relatively gross side of scientific inquiry.
In the end, Roach and Gladwell reach the same conclusion. Technological and scientific advances require obsessives. Progress is not linear, science is not clear cut, and new discoveries and breakthroughs require patience and a willingness to believe that something is crucially important, even when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care. Obsessives are the ones who will spend every minute of the day thinking about the tiniest new discovery and trying to apply that to their specific obsession, ultimately paving the way for breakthroughs. We owe a lot to obsessives, and we should thank the obsessive researchers and the obsessive journalists for the breakthroughs and stories about how those breakthroughs came to be.

Praising Effort

In the book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, the author looks into the role that motivation and positive reinforcement play on children and their development. One area that Wiseman focuses on is academic performance and praise.  He reviews the work by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck and sums up their findings with the following quote, “The results clearly showed that being praised for effort was very different from being praised for ability. …children praised for effort were encouraged to try regardless of the consequences, therefore sidestepping any fear of failure.” Mueller and Dweck studied over 400 children and their performance on tests and puzzles. The researchers administered tests to all of their participants, and collected and scored the results.  Half of the students were told they did very well and must be very intelligent, while the other half had their tests collected without being told anything.  After tests had been collected and graded the students were given similar tests with similar problems and the students who had been praised actually performed worse than the students met with silence.

I think about this study frequently, both with how I would approach young kids (I don’t have children and don’t interact with kids too often) and with how I approach myself. What Wiseman suggested from the research is that children who were told they were smart ended up being afraid to truly apply themselves. If they put in a full effort and failed, they would risk losing the praise of being smart. The identity label we attached to them would fizzle away and they would lose the praise they received.

On the other hand, children praised for being hard-working, for studying hard, and for working well with others have a reason to continue to apply themselves. Being hard working is not the same as just being talented or naturally smart. It is a mindset and a disposition that can be cultivated over time and developed, even if we don’t seem to have some natural special something to make us smart, creative, or exceptionally insightful.

The way I think about this research in my own life is in thinking about praising effort over praising identity. In myself, when I think about what I want to do, what I could do moving forward, and about the things I should be proud of myself for doing, I try to think about the habits, focus, learning, and hard work that I put forward. I don’t judge my blog by the number of viewers, I don’t just myself by my bank account, and I don’t judge my fitness by how many people I beat in a half marathon. Instead, I ask if I truly worked hard, if I was consistent and applied myself to the best of my ability, and if I am using my resources in a responsible way to help others. We should all try to avoid judging ourselves and others based on fleeting identity cues, and instead we should judge ourselves and praise ourselves and others based on the level of hard work, engagement with others and the community, and the efforts we put forward to make the world a great place.

Continual Effort

At the moment I am recovering from an ankle injury from a few weeks back. I was out for a run one morning and was not looking very closely at where I was going, and there was a rock on the sidewalk that I did not see and I sprained my ankle when I stepped on it. This last weekend was the first time I had run in two weeks. I am slowly getting back to 100%, but it has required each day that I do a lot of small things that all build up to improve the physical fitness and strength of my ankle. I would prefer only needing to ice one time and I would love if the one trip to a physical therapist’s office had solved all my problems, but as anyone who has had an injury knows, the body needs time to heal and continual effort, thought, and care are required to make sure injuries recover and the body is as strong as before.

 

It is a frustrating inconvenience to slowly recover from a physical injury, but we all know it will take time and understand that we won’t be back to full health overnight or with the snap of a finger. But for some reason, this understanding is hard to extend beyond physical recovery from an injury to other areas of our life. Somewhere deep down we recognize that becoming really great at something is going to require a lot of work over a long period of time, but we often don’t have the patience to put forth the effort to truly become a master. We want an instant success, just like I want an instantly healed ankle.

 

Whether it is getting in shape, becoming a good chess player, becoming a good writer, or excelling in our career, there is only one answer: continual focused effort. Author Ryan Holiday writes about it in his book The Ego is the Enemy, “to get where we want to go isn’t about brilliance, but continual effort.” It is not one shining moment that will bring us success, but rather a thousand small moments of effort and preparation that will bring about our one shining moment. The brilliance and the flash are ultimately less important and less valuable than the work and the habits we build that make the impressive moments possible.

 

This feels like a real drag and it feels terrible to be working hard at something and then see another person apparently achieve the success we want out of no-where, but if we can control our own ego we can control the way these moments make us feel. In his book, Holiday continues, “While that’s not a terribly sexy idea, it should be an encouraging one. Because it means it’s all within reach-for all of us, provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work.” Winning a body building competition, having an exciting career opportunity, or cultivating a beautiful garden is something that is possible for all of us, but we must recognize it is not something we will achieve in just one day, one week, or even in one year. Through continual effort and focused application of our time and energy we can get to where we want to be, but we must recognize when we are hoping for a brilliant ego-boosting flash, and instead channel our attention back to the effort and habits that will sustain us for success in the long run. Just as I can’t push my ankle to suddenly be healthy (or I’ll fall in disastrous ruin), we can’t push our goals to suddenly be achieved. We must put forward the continual effort to prepare for the moment we seek.