Why do we do what we do? Why do I look at flies? Why do I spend what should be my vacation time doing exactly what I do the rest of the summer — playing with insects? Why do I gleefully (well, ok, not always gleefully, sometimes bitterly and grumpily) work 60 or 70 hour weeks?
Those questions were milling around in my mind a couple of weeks ago while I was standing on a hilltop in a little patch of forest on the coast of Maine. A dozen keen undergraduate ecology students were sitting on big rocks in front of me as I crunched the drying fall leaves underfoot. I’d been talking with them about insects and plants and ecology and conservation and we had a few minutes before we had to head back to town so I could give a seminar at the college. My colleague John Anderson, who had invited me out for the trip, asked me if I had any career advice for the students. This is what started me asking myself those questions. As I tried to figure out what to say, without sounding like either a career counselor or an motivational post on their aunt’s Facebook page, I realized that I could answer all those questions in exactly the same way:
Passion. Figure out what you love to do. Do that. The end. (yeah, OK, they had some more specific questions, but it always came back to passion). Sometimes that thing will be your full-time job and you’ll be very lucky. Sometimes that thing will be a hobby or an obsession, outside your full-time. You’ll still be lucky.
Because it’s the 21st century, I have some friends I’ve never met — Facebook friends. Blogs I follow. This theme of passion has been running through some of our exchanges in recent weeks. Some of them have a consuming passion beyond the jobs they are paid to do, and their enthusiasm and love of those things shines through.
I’m in the middle of a two-week run of conferences. I’ve seen a lot of talks and I’ll see a lot more in the next few days. Some are great; some are less great. At every conference though, there is a really small set of talks that sticks in my mind, talks that I remember, often for years afterward. Sometimes those talks are about taxonomy and phylogeny, sometimes about behavior and ecology, sometimes about theory, sometimes about natural history, sometimes about very focused, applied questions, sometimes they’re not about science at all. Some are given by students, some by new professors, some by long-established researchers. But the one common element that all these great talks share is passion. In 10 or 12 or 20 minutes, that person has made it clear that they’re telling a story about a thing they they love to do.
And I choose that phrase “telling a story” very deliberately. Because when you are so wrapped up in a set of great questions and a set of intriguing answers, your research becomes a story, just as tales told by our grandparents are stories. They draw us in from the start, they unwind and flow, they take us off on tangents and bring us back, and they finish on a high note, sometimes a surprising one. They teach us something without us even realizing it. And that’s a good thing.
Now it’s not just obvious enthusiasm that makes a talk great. I’ve seen some very theatrical (some might say over-the-top) talks that were mostly content-free, or poorly organized, or replete with name-dropping references or, worse, blatant self-promotion. They are not great. On the other hand, some of the most memorable talks have not been loud or frenetic. Some people simply have a quiet, subdued, smoldering love of what they do.
It’s that combination of a great research question, a good set of organisms and interactions with which to address that question, some intriguing results that generate even more questions, the ability to weave a compelling story, and most of all, the obvious passion for the whole enterprise.
Some Terribly Objective Scientists might argue that things like passion and love and obsession have little place in scientific discourse. But they’d be wrong. And probably boring too.
And now the quest for the first great talk of this conference continues . . .