by Brian Tomasik
First written: 11 Dec. 2016; last update: 11 Dec. 2016
This page discusses my personal enjoyment of writing research papers. I often worry that my own direct research may be less optimal than outreach or supervising others to do research, but one can also make the argument that I'm more productive doing what I enjoy most.
Inspiration by Ralph Nader
In Nov. 2000, when I was in 8th grade, I heard a lecture by Ralph Nader at a local college.a Nader's speech reoriented my life's priorities, away from selfish enjoyment and video games, and towards politics and activism. As I learned more about Nader, I was inspired not only by his message but by his personal life. I read several short biographies of Nader, which explained how he worked almost nonstop at his projects.b The following anecdote sounds a bit harsh, but it gives some idea of what I mean:
One night a law school student who was working on a project involving energy companies and federal lands fell asleep at his desk at 2:00 am. Nader, who maintained erratic hours, was passing through the office. He saw the student, shook him awake, and asked, in all earnestness, "Do you think Mobil Oil ever goes to sleep?"
So I asked him if he had ever considered getting married. He said that at a certain point he had to decide whether to have a family or to have a career, that he couldn't have both. That's the kind of person he is. He couldn't have a wife -- he's up all night reading the Congressional Record.
Nader began reading the Congressional Record as a kid: "At 14, he was carrying home armfuls of the Congressional Record, which he read from start to finish."
In 2000-2001, I began reading Nader's books and articles, as well as material written by many related authors.
School research reports
In spring 2001, my English teacher required the students in his class to write research reports on topics of their choosing. I think the length requirement was probably something like 3-5 pages(?), but I was obsessed with my topic and wrote ~16 pages. This pattern continued in high school, where most of the research papers I wrote were 2-3 times as long as they needed to be, because I was so obsessed with learning about my topics and including all the relevant information I could.
In 2002, one teacher asked me near the end of school if I had summer plans. I said I didn't, and she replied, "I'm sure you'll find something good to do." I ended up spending part of my summer writing an independent research paper on industrial hemp. The next summer, I wrote a research paper on recycling paper.
Hoarding reading materials
During high school, I spent almost all my waking hours on school work, but within the few hours per week that I had left over, I mostly read about politics and activist issues (or occasionally worked on math puzzles). My family initially had a single shared computer, and I wasn't used to reading things on the screen, so I printed out news articles, research reports, and sometimes (inspired by Nader), transcripts of Congressional testimony from the US Government Publishing Office. I collected these printed papers in a stack on the floor of my room. When I finished an article, I moved it to a second stack. The stack of finished papers grew, but the stack of "papers to read" grew even faster, because I couldn't stop collecting reading materials that looked interesting. One day, an adult I knew walked into my room and saw my stack of reading material on the floor. He said something like, "You should consider becoming a policy analyst, given that you like to read large volumes of information."
Eventually I stopped printing articles out and instead read things on the computer. (This was aided when I finally got my own laptop around 2003.) Now I didn't need to collect reading materials, but my implicit (and sometimes explicit) list of "things I'd like to read" continues to grow unchecked even to this day. I identify with Henry Bemis from "Time Enough at Last" who finds that "all the books he could ever hope for are his for the reading" and who "has all the time in the world to read them without interruption."
When I walk into a library or bookstore, I sometimes feel an almost sexual excitement at seeing all the pleasure-inducing items on the shelves. Sadly, I'm only able to consummate this pleasure with a tiny fraction of the items.
Research as a career
My love of reading and writing research papers continues to the present and partly explains my career trajectory as someone who investigates altruistically important intellectual topics. I often worry that I'm biased in my judgment that foundational research is very important to altruism on the margin, because that's also what I most enjoy. Still, I also think it makes sense to pursue your interests to a reasonable degree because you'll often be more motivated and productive doing what you like to do. I think many other career paths (especially earning to give or fundraising) can have comparable or, probably, higher impact than altruism-relevant research for those who are more inclined in those directions.
As of the time of writing this piece (late 2016), I find that I'm at my happiest when I'm writing my own research articles, unfettered by stylistic or content constraints imposed by others. I'm often viscerally excited to wake up and return to my research, while that's less often true for other things. (Creating my own programming projects is something else that can evoke similar enthusiasm in me.) Part of the reason I have an erratic sleep schedule is that I sometimes get so excited about what I'm working on that I stay up too late and thereby disrupt my rhythm. (But doing this is often rational, since I want to milk my enthusiasm for all it's worth while I have it.)
A friend of mine inquired in early 2016 how I was doing. He asked: "Living the dream?" I replied: "Yep!" This is true, because I can't think of something I'd rather do with my life than what I'm doing now.
I sympathize with Luke Muehlhauser: "When doing research I very easily get into a flow state". Luke adds: "I basically never get into a flow state doing management." I actually can enjoy managing and administrivia, although I'm less likely to become obsessed with it than with research. I enjoy management tasks more when I'm in a more social mood and less when I'm in a more introverted mood.
Communicating with other people generally involves shorter attention spans, so I try to save it up for times when I'm less in the mood for extended focus. For the same reason, I don't enjoy instant-messaging chats, since there's usually a delay in getting a reply, which means I either wait for the reply and waste time or switch to something else for a few seconds and accomplish very little of that other task. I find context-switching and multitasking unpleasant, because they interfere with the kind of absorbed focus that I feel is necessary to produce a high-quality output product.
- The lecture was similar to this one. I now disagree with Nader on several policy issues, but I still find him inspiring and extremely smart. (back)
- I may have had Nader-level assiduity in high school, but I eventually learned that moderation is better for the long term. I now think it's generally unwise to adopt extreme lifestyles. (back)