I'm somewhat hostile to the concept of a new year's resolution. A resolution is some sort of fragile promise that can be broken instantly- how stressful! How depressing! In lieu of resolutions, this year I am making aspirations. Aspirations, unlike resolutions, can't ever be 'broken'. They can only be realized. And if at any point, be it January 2013 or 2030 they still haven't really happened, well, there's always more room to try.
So here they are:
- Do startlingly ambitious research
- Teach something people want to learn
- Inhabit my body
I've made a little poster type thingy that I'll hang up in my office to remind myself of these goals and hopefully keep on track. Check it out:
For the curious, I'll give a little background on each and how my reflections on 2012 let me to choose it.
Startlingly Ambitious Research
I'm continually inspired by the writings of start-up guru Paul Graham. His post on Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas is, of course, the model for this aspiration. He points out that Facebook started out as a site for Harvard undergrads to share photos and 'stalk' each other. From that seed, and a lot of iteration, it grew to essentially found an industry and very deeply change the way (a large portion of) the world works. If you want to tackle a huge problem, you have to approach obliquely and be perceptive. I think a very similiar approach applies to research. Often, great works grow from seeminly trivial or banal germs. In my work on data, this inspires me to start small and simple, letting the larger import unfold slowly. But my ambition is to fundementally change the conversation we have about what data is and what we can know from it.
Teach Something People Want to Learn
I've had a sense for a long time now that many courses taught in universities are unloved by their students or, for that matter, their professors. A dictum I've kept in mind while designing my courses and workshops is to teach something worth learning. i.e. worth me learning. Too often courses become stale and uninteresting not because of any inherent property of the subject but because the professor is unmotivaed to learn the subject as he or she teaches it. My best teaching is a shared learning experience with the students: even if I'm an expert in the subject matter I re-discover it as we go. If I'm not excited, why would they be?
This also sometimes requires a professor teaching themselves something in order to be able to teach it to their students. In my Raspberry Pi course, for instance, I know that students will need to understand what's going on in a computer at its most basic level. This requires that I learn the basics of machine code and processor architecture so that I can work this material into a palatable schematic for my students (because I haven't been able to find this material already created). Neither I nor my students will ever likely be electrical engineers, but if it's worth learning for my students, it's doubly worth learning for me.
Inhabit My Body (a.k.a. No Krang)
As an academic it's super easy to spend most of my day minimally conscious of everything below my chin. This can lead to poor health, poor eating habits, and just all around blahness. I'm going to actively combat this temptation this year by remembering that my physical self extends all the way out to my hands and all the way down to my toes. This physical self needs excercise, nutrition, rest, and relaxation. It's easy to neglect each of these when I'm in Krang mode. This past semester was rough on my body and rough on my relationships with my wife and close friends (especially those not in my PhD program). By staying conscious of my physical needs and building time for them into my busy schedule I'm aiming for a more balanced life.
This isn't just a because-I-should ambition, either. I know that by keeping my body healthy and having better more fulfilling relationships with the people around me I love I'll have more resources in general to do the things like teaching, research, advising and mentoring that are so important to my overall hapiness.
Aspirations and Hapiness
So there you have it. My three aspirations for this year. Are they worth it?
I think of these aspirations as part of designing happiness into my life. By reflecting on what I liked and disliked about 2012 and choosing what I'm going to spend mental and physical energy on I think I've set myself on a course for a better, happier 2013. But, like all designs, this one will need some iteration. Unlike brittle resolutions, each of these aspirations has a built-in flexibility and adaptation to it. And, if I see there's something missing or off, I can always modify them.
Do you have any aspirations for this year? I'd love to hear about them in the comments. Or, if you like mine, print out the images above (they should print out nice and big). Also, the Omnigraffle files of the images on this site are here if you have aspirations of your own to put up.