While I, like most, spend the majority of my time working on building a wholesome career, I’m inclined to believe that every activity that a person does has some influence on the lifestyle that he or she will lead. With that in mind, I tend to sway towards hobbies that can provide me with some philosophical gratification. Maybe it is a rationalization for spending so much time doing things that won’t directly improve my H-index on google scholar, but the satisfaction from hiking five miles to find a productive fishing hole, hand-crafting a leather notebook, or programming a dancing LED matrix is immeasurable.
Outside of my scientific pursuits, I try to employ a more idealistically simple approach to life. Ironically, this has led me down several esoteric rabbit-holes that. One example is my seasonal obsession with fishing. I started bass fishing at a pond at the local city park while I was an undergrad. Just like a adolescent kid from a rural community, it was a classical story of starting with a worm and bobber using $20 walmart pole and evolved into a small tackle box loaded discount-bin crankbaits and wacky rigged senkos. I’d spend hours testing them and trying to figure out the right occasion to use each one.
The evolution didn’t stop there, my decision to go to grad school landed me in an institution that is smack-dab in the middle of an island where the saltwater gamefish are plentiful and the residents own almost 100,000 vessels to to fish from. Some people keep their fishing simple; they toss out a chunks of squid with a few pieces of inexpensive gear and sit on a pier in a lawn chair until they run out of beer or until they can no longer tolerate the mosquitoes. Although there is nothing wrong with an approach like this, I had already chosen a different path. My mind was already looking for things like spawning seasons, feeding habits, migration patterns, population dynamics, bait densities, lunar calendars and tide charts for most of the major game species. Even after a few years of learning, I often end up in a situation where I come home from a day of fishing without seeing a single fish. Sometimes, it is discouraging, but the joy of catching a fish because I adjusted a single aspect of my strategy supersedes any frustration that I may have had before. Systematically adjusting my strategy allows me to obtain a slightly better understanding of fish behavior.
Even though my allocated fishing time is strictly on the weekends or during the occasional weekday evening, the learning process is wholly analogous to my professional life. This was a realization that I made during my first year of grad school. Spring coursework had just come to a close and I was able to focus on my research full time. I chose to work with a faculty whose research focus was in photonics, where I had never done any work before. The first thing that my PI did was give me a stack of papers and a textbook on the applications of Terahertz Spectroscopy. As any grad student would understand, I hardly understood a thing and I felt like I was in way over my head. But then I’d actually understand out how one thing worked. One example was the Lorentz Dispersion Model, which is a model of how matter interacts with electromagnetic radiation. It treats an electron like a damped oscillator (spring+dashpot) by taking the Newtonian equation for a damped oscillator and applying it to Maxwell’s equations. Regardless of the details, a sudden understanding of this fundamental concept after struggling for a couple of weeks opened up a new set of floodgates. New concepts were given clarity, but diving deeper into those would just layer on more confusion. It is a little like finding a piece to a ceaseless puzzle.
This all sounds extremely daunting, especially in the moments of confusion. It is as if there is no such thing as comprehensive understanding of a subject matter because things seem to become more complex as they are more deeply understood. I can easily come to terms with this in the context of fishing or other hobbies. With science, on the other hand, I catch myself becoming uncomfortable when I am struggling to solve a problem. Maybe it is because the stakes are higher and screwing up a publication can be more catastrophic than getting skunked on a fishing day.
Despite my discomfort, the analogy still holds true. Whether it is catching striped bass on the surf or understanding electron mobility in a gallium arsenide crystal, the brief moment of pleasure comes from a single successful event that is a result of my slightly better understanding of a subject. Nevertheless, this is why I avoid treating my extra-curricular activities to be extension of my career. Rather, I treat my career more like a hobby (with a MUCH larger time commitment), where I spend most of my time figuring out how to solve relevant smaller problems that will, in turn, push towards understanding a larger issue.