Tagged: time management

Daniel Clausen

Finding Creativity

..
Isaac Asimov (1965), via Wikimedia Commons

The subject of creativity has been on my mind lately. As part of my dissertation research, I had to look at theories of policy entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are said to be many things — risk-takers, charismatic, disruptive.

But they are also said to be creative. They have insights on resources and constraints that lead them to act differently than their peers.

Diligence Contra Creativity?

We could say the same about scholars. Some scholars are like entrepreneurs, trying to revolutionize their discipline with bold new approaches. Some of these insights work, while others flare out.

Other scholars are less adventurous. They prefer to work within well-defined research traditions and grind out modest contributions. Even within this group of scholars, however, I often find that — at least in their own minds — they see themselves as creative.

But all researchers, no matter what field, soon find that diligence is the key to success. Without it, you get nowhere. Coding data, writing and rewriting, formatting bibliographies — without the ability to handle the minutiae of research and scholarship, you are nowhere. You have nothing.

And perhaps all this diligence does something to your creativity. Perhaps it makes you more guarded, less bold. You learn to write and think defensively. And perhaps these habits of mind inhibit your ability to make new breakthroughs.

Finding Creativity

I’ve been trying to rediscover my creative self. I’ve also been trying to write something meaningful on creativity. It’s hard. And perhaps it’s something I haven’t been attacking creatively enough (or shouldn’t be attacking at all).

Many things have been written on creativity (some of them not all that creative). But my favorite quotes on creativity come from an Isaac Asimov essay I was recently introduced to. The origin of the article itself is fairly interesting. It was the result of an official, government-sponsored project to think creatively about a very difficult problem. I encourage anyone reading this to check it out.

What’s interesting about the 1959 essay is its cynicism toward government-sponsored creativity sessions. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, there were all sorts of reports and media condemnations of the intelligence community’s failure to connect the dots — in a broad sense its failure to be creative. It’s bizarre to charge a government bureaucracy with a failure to be creative — as if creativity can be produced through a bureaucratic process. And in the aftermath of the attacks, the government sponsored a slew of workshops with “creative types” (novelist, actors, directors, and other eccentrics) in order to “red team” more possible scenarios.

Thinking about these sessions in light of the Asimov article is interesting because Asimov is skeptical that creativity can ever be the product of a governmental process. But he does have a few key sections where he suggests some ways that creative outputs may occur through government funding. Again, I encourage you to go right to the source material.

Eccentricity and its Limits

Here is one quote from the article that got me thinking:

“A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.”

My first thoughts on this quote have to do not with creativity but with the limits of rational judgment. Let’s say we are able to get a bunch of eccentric/genius types together. And let’s say one out of twelve has a very useful idea. Would we be able to pick out the one good idea successfully?

My answer: I don’t think so.

This is based on observation. We frequently see someone who is right about the next big event or who was warning us about some danger that was about to occur. They are usually columnists, commentators, think tank scholars, or something of the like. But typically we only find out who is right after the event has occurred.

So, not only can we not know which eccentric is the right eccentric, but we (or they) only benefit from their eccentricity if they are willing to put their ideas into practice or risk something they have to make their eccentric ideas work or to get noticed — as entrepreneurs do.

Since entrepreneurs often fail, they need to have either extraordinary insight or they need to be people of “considerable self-assurance” who take risks in spite of the consequences of being wrong.

Isolation and Unconscious Thought

Here is another quote that got me thinking:

“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekulé working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)”

Isolation? I’m not sure isolation is necessary. Especially in my research on political entrepreneurship, the eccentric types need lots of exposure to their natural environment. Insights come from “continually working at it,” but usually in a social context. For some types of breakthroughs, isolation might be necessary, but for myself I prefer to work with others, especially when I’m stuck on a problem. Isolation might make people weird, but not necessarily in a way that provides useful insights about things in the world.

The part that rang most true for me was the idea of the mind shuffling information, even when “not conscious of it.” I’ve become a true believer in defocused concentration. N.N. Taleb, the famous thinker on antifragility, has talked about the benefits of walks. I find that menial tasks often have the same effect. When I am doing something that requires little thought, but involves lots of motion, I can often have a mental breakthrough. (There is actually an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon put this theory to work by trying to come up with a breakthrough by working as a busboy at Penny’s restaurant.)

For some reason, I get insights right before I go to sleep. Actually, I get them at the very moment where my mind begins to relax and slip into unconsciousness. This has become so annoying that I’ve just left a notebook by my bed so I don’t have to get up again and walk to my laptop.

Brainstorming Sessions — Real and Fake

A while ago, (I can’t say particularly where or when) I read about a certain government department holding brainstorming sessions. I tried to picture what this must have been like. My mental image was not of a real brainstorming session, but of a bunch of government bureaucrats sitting around, floating mildly interesting ideas with little risk, moments of uncomfortable silence, some obligatory back-slapping, and then calling it a day.

Again, I don’t think a real brainstorming session can occur in a place like a government bureaucracy, or even a large corporation for that matter. Eccentricity in those kinds of contexts can be dangerous. (Maybe if it was a corporate advertising agency. Maybe.)

So here is my last quote:

“But how to persuade creative people to do so [get together for a creativity session]? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.”

This is where academia often fails. Conferences, peer review, and other such academic conventions work against creativity. Usually, the only way around these inhibitors is to avoid them for a while. You have to find a context where genuine creativity is rewarded, and that can be difficult. An academic conference of like-minded individuals looking for a breakthrough might work better than some of the conferences I’ve been to (where scholars spend more time avoiding being wrong).

Like-minded scholarly communities help. Parties help. Talking with sympathetic friends helps. I’m also encouraged by the number of forums that have opened up for scholars to do “official bull-shitting” like blogs and web journals that have more flexible editorial requirements and allow speculative essays.

Another idea, keep a journal with ideas only you’ll ever read. (I guess isolation can be productive!) Then when something is ready to come out of the journal, let it out.

Creativity Finds You

Here is my simple definition of creativity: the mental state of childlike wonder.

If that is the case, then you need to find ways to put yourself in mental states where it’s okay to be odd, unique, experimental — and just plain wrong. It’s difficult to find those spaces as an adult, but not impossible. The problem is that many places within the university are not such spaces. Many places in public life are not such places. They are places of adulthood and consequences. They are places of diligence.

Creativity is what happens when you stop trying so hard.

Daniel Clausen

Some Advice on Writing Your Dissertation

Dan Drezner has written a compelling article on the reasons why and why not to pursue a graduate degree in IR. This article is a must read for anyone considering a PhD in the social sciences. Perhaps it’s sufficient for me to say that I didn’t know much about the completion rates of PhD students in the social sciences (about 41 percent finish within 7 years) when I decided to enter my program.

There are many “facts of (IR) life” that need to be explained to beginning graduate students–those regarding professional development, comprehensive exams, publishing, etc. But I don’t think I’m alone when I write that the biggest hurdle to finishing the degree is the dissertation.

What (meaningful) advice can I give graduate students about the dissertation stage? By no means am I an expert on the dissertation process, but listed here are a few things I wish I could have told myself early on.

Continue reading

Mathis Lohaus

Impostor Syndrome as a PhD Student

When I talk to fellow PhD students, many express a rather negative outlook on their own work and/or future perspectives. Of course this is not the case for all people, and there’s a huge continuum between self-deprecatory humor and existential crisis. But still, I see a lot of self-criticism and skepticism, and it doesn’t necessarily get more light-hearted over the course of a night at the bar. (And of course I am writing about myself here, too. Who am I kidding.)

The reason, I think, might be that academics are particularly prone to the impostor syndrome. In case you haven’t heard of it, let me quote Wikipedia:

The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

Here is a great link list on dealing with the phenomenon in the context of grad school and academia. Again, I want to reiterate that not all PhD students show this behavior, and that I am not trying to make light of a serious psychological problem. So what I should probably say is this: I have the feeling that young academics, including my circle of friends, have a tendency to be very self-critical and at the same time easily impressed by others. Based on my own experience, that mindset is neither very productive nor good for your mood.

So, here’s my unsolicited piece of advice in case you, too, feel like a fraud from time to time (to some degree, and more or less self-ironically).

  1. Be arrogant. You’re pretty awesome! There is a reason you got into grad school while many others were rejected. And keep in mind, between what the top people in your field are doing and your work there is a difference of degree, not kind. (In fact, I bet that most aren’t doing much better than you are, at least not all of the time.)
  2. Be grateful. Maybe the last two days, weeks or months weren’t the most straightforward, successful ones on your way to the PhD. But you still got to be in grad school, which is a far to cool to take it for granted. Probably you get to be around interesting people  and are at least approximately doing what you like …  that’s more than many other people can say about their line of work.

I just stumbled upon this great blog post on “levels of excellence”. The author uses material on mathematicians and professional swimmers, but there are many interesting thoughts in that piece on reaching different levels of excellence at what you do. So, let me close my little advice column with the idea of the “mundanity of excellence”:

[A] dissertation is a mundane piece of work, nothing more than some words which one person writes and a few other people read. (…) [T]he real exams, the true tests (such as the dissertation requirement) in graduate school are really designed to discover whether at some point one is willing just to turn the damn thing in.

Mathis Lohaus

Links: NSA, Brazil, Tenure, MOOCs

Plötzensee, Berlin (Wikipedia)
Plötzensee, Berlin (Public Domain, Wikipedia)

Over at Bretterblog, a colleague has noted (in German) that many IR blogs seem to take a summer break. Might that have been directed at us? Well, here are some links to prove that not all of us are swimming in a lake right now… (I wish!)

PRISM / NSA surveillance, even though you’re sick and tired of it:

In other news:

  • Nauro F. Campos analyzes why people are protesting in Brazil, using a dataset from 1870 to 2003. The list of factors he and his colleagues have identified for the current wave of protest doesn’t sound too surprising: “corruption and inefficiency in public services delivery, political ineptitude and the electoral cycle.” Another interesting finding: The number of riots is decreasing over time, but there are more peaceful protests.
  • There’s a great post at Scientific American by computer scientist Radhika Nagpal, who decided not to stress too much about tenure and instead treat her job as a “seven-year postdoc”. This means: don’t spend all your energy networking and sucking up to important people, but rather enjoy life and get good work done. Probably works best if you’re very smart and hard-working anyway; she’s now a professor at Harvard. Steven Saideman offers his comments at the Duck of Minerva.
  • Are MOOCs (massive open online courses) a game-changer, or are we just being fooled by the “hype cycle”? Dan Drezner contrasts the two perspectives and ends up in the skeptical camp [Foreign Policy account needed].
Mathis Lohaus

Paper Stacks vs. Android Apps

copy paper
According to Wikimedia, this is what a typical stack of paper looks like… (CC-BY-SA) Jonathan Joseph Bondhus

A couple of weeks ago, I got frustrated by the various stacks of papers in my apartment and on my desk in the office. That’s when I decided to give the “paperless office” a new shot. This post is a progress report on my revival of that early 2000’s buzz word. Apologies for the nerdy technical details …

Discovering & filing

When new information enters my “academic workflow”, it is often in the form of digital journal articles. Avoiding paper is obviously easy in this case: just don’t print that stuff! The same goes for working papers sent to me by email.

But what about books? My solution so far is to scan the relevant sections and then run a simple OCR software (in my case: ABBYY PDF Transformer). This way, I end up with PDFs that allow for full-text search. Archive material? Don’t bother with making hard copies to carry home. Instead, I take pictures with my smartphone, which I can later run through the same PDF routine. From my limited experience, it seems that specialized apps for your phone (to help with contrast and straighten the image) are unnecessary, but ask me again after 1,000 pages…

No matter what files we’re talking about, they all go to my Dropbox folder – but you could of course use any of the many competitors. The crucial things is to have all data synchronized on all devices, so I never need to think about how to access it. For sensitive information and for my Citavi database (which according to the publisher might get corrupted if put directly in a shared folder), I use an encrypted virtual device that is also located in the sync folder. This means that on every computer with Citavi, I also have Truecrypt (For some people, a web-based citation management might be better, and I plan to transition to that eventually).

Reading & annotating

Continue reading

Mathis Lohaus

Links: Climate Chaos; MOOCs; Advice for Young Researchers

MOOC
Screenshot: MOOC Production Fellowship website
  • Martin Wolf has a piece in the Financial Times listing seven reasons “why the world faces climate chaos”: path dependency, the power of free-market ideas, salience of other issues, naive optimism, coordination problems and complexity, discounting the future, and the problematic burden-sharing between rich and poor countries. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t really offer a quick fix.
  • “Massive Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) are getting a lot of attention, and Germany is no exception. Currently there’s a competition for 10 x 25,000 EUR of funding to produce an web-based course, and I encourage you to check out the submissions from social sciences. Everyone has ten votes.
  • Over at the Duck, Dan Nexon reminds us that the idea is not really new – technology has certainly improved, but talk of a “MOOC moment” might be overblown.
  • Economist Andrew Oswald shares some advice about things he would have found useful to know as a young researcher (via MR).
  • While we’re at it, check out Farnam Street. I’d call it a self-help blog for knowledge workers – and honestly, the advice seems a bit over the top at times. But in case you’re unhappy with your reading habits, consult the “Buffett Formula” for motivation…
Mathis Lohaus

Links: On Tomatoes and Careful Phrasing

1024px-Bright_red_tomato_and_cross_section02
(Image CC BY-NC by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Today I overheard colleague A explaining the “Pomodoro” technique of time management to colleague B. In case you’re not familiar with it, please take a minute to enjoy the official website.* Although A claimed that the technique had helped him a lot during the “particularly terrible phases of writing the thesis”, B remained unimpressed. But maybe I should by a kitchen timer…
  • Speaking of time: PHD Comics has an, uhm, improved version of what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us university students are doing…
  • I know it’s not exactly International Relations, but I have been following the Reinhart & Rogoff vs. Herndon et al. skirmish over the weekend (and covered it earlier). Today, Herndon (a PhD student) replied to the last round of replies by R&R (famous economic historians). His wording in response to one of their statements struck me as great example of … being very careful:

This is not our interpretation of our work

* Aforementioned website also tells me that I “may not write an article about the ‘Pomodoro Technique®’ without quoting the author. This may lead the reader to attribute the origin in a misleading way. Obviously, the worst case is an explicit attribution of the technique to someone else other than Francesco Cirillo.” So let me, at this point, state very clearly that Francesco Cirillo has invented this mind-blowing and totally not trivial way of conditioning oneself to get work done with short breaks in between. (Is that even legal?)

Mathis Lohaus

Varieties of Powerpoint

Apart from teaching me a lot of interesting things, last week’s conference showcased the whole range of academic presenting. Now that I have witnessed some U.S. variants of familiar European patterns, I feel confident enough to attempt a typology of what could be called the Varieties of Powerpoint.

-1- The Wall-of-Text Orthodox

Varieties of Powerpoint 1Unfortunately, this is the bread-and-butter type of presentation, at least in European settings. Usually it involves slides using the respective institution’s (slightly old-fashioned) corporate design, very few images in a comically low resolution, and lots of text. If you’re particularly unlucky, this text will then be read out loud by the presenter.

In any case, he or she will have a hard time getting through all of the 23 full-text slides, leading to a dizzying whirl of words when skipping through “the less important points here”. The good thing here is that, if you were to miss the talk (e.g. because you were sleeping) but could then acquire a copy of the slides, you would still know more or less everything of importance in the paper. Of course, the downside of this style of presenting is that you actually might doze off…

Pros: If you don’t want to read the paper, you’ll find the money quotes here
Cons: Boring; no added value of having slides; you either fall asleep or get angry
Bonus point: If there’s a single “funny” thank-you image on the last slide
Who does it? Mostly the Germans

Continue reading

Patrick Gilroy

Nap your way to a PhD!

the author at work
The author & his Ostrich pillow

As PhD students, we’re knowledge workers in the business of intellectual production. The self-determined quest for truth or knowledge is a huge privilege. Yet it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task at hand: to successfully manage a several-year project and, crucially, yourself. Given the nature of the research process, fatigue or drowsiness may soon become a troubling issue.

Thinking and writing can be tiresome – literally. We usually expect the magic to happen while gazing at a screen, sitting up and fully conscious. Now of course intellectual production and mental alertness is a very personal thing. You may be an early bird or a late riser, plan things step-by-step or prefer to muddle through, work better from your office space or in a café. But isn’t that typical midday dip from about 1 to 3 p.m. – post-cafeteria fatigue – something that unites us all? Next to PhD candidates’ archenemies of distraction and procrastination, don’t we all share those foggy-brained states of sliding into lazy thinking or fighting to stay awake?

Turns out that forcing your tired memory neurons to unduly fire during the siesta hours is simply not an effective strategy for surviving the cognitive slump: as sleep experts – and common sense – will tell you, simply hanging in there usually results in downslope concentration and recollection or, worse, bad decision-making and outright sloppy work. Finding a balance between immersion and relaxation that works for you is probably the key to successful brooding and typing about your topic of inquiry. And just like regular exercise and eating healthy are often recommended, sufficient sleep matters! So why not try napping your way to the PhD? Continue reading

Maurits Meijers

The Toddler-Thesis Nexus

Often when people hear I am father of a three-year-old and doing my PhD they seem very surprised.  It’s true, I was very young when our son was born (21 years old) – very out of the ordinary to today’s standards. A common question I get is, ‘Isn’t it hard to combine a PhD with being a father?’ The truth is, not really, and here’s why.

ParenthooDNewFigure

First of all, as a parent you follow the rhythm of your child. My son wakes up every morning around 7.30 a.m.  By 9.00 a.m. he has to be at his nursery. This cancels all possibility of sleeping late. By 9.15 I am on my way to the university.
Continue reading