What you really want

“I’m inventing a time machine so I’ll never have to die.”

This is Holden’s latest quest.  He’s been working on creating a sculpture of a time machine with an accompanying narrative as part of his independent work with the school librarian.  He amassed a collection of wires, circuit boards, and other scrap electronics and carried them to school in a plastic grocery bag.  Every week, he meets with the librarian 2-3 times and slowly assembles his time machine.  I can tell by the way he talks about it that it’s the most important thing he has ever done.  As he has worked on this project over the last two months and his time machine has begun to take shape, the reason for creating the time machine has emerged in its wake.  He built the thing, and then invented the reason for its existence.  Not the other way around.  He creates his world and only then tries to make sense of what he has built.  His vision is the byproduct of his creativity, not the cause.


I’ve seen Holden build elaborate structures with Legos—complete with cupolas, walkways, and secret chambers.  He spends hours building and editing what he has built, his hands deftly eliminating any design flaws.  I’ve also seen Emery walk straight into Holden’s room and efficiently destroy all of Holden’s effort within mere seconds.  First, the clatter of Legos as Holden’s work is dismembered.  Then Holden’s cry—-the kind of cry that you only hear when someone feels loss in a very visceral way.  Then the desperate scramble to re-construct what was just destroyed, before he completely loses it.  This scenario has been repeated many, many times in our house.  And *every* time it happens, I ask myself:

“Would Holden have devoted this much effort to his project if he had known in advance it would just end up being destroyed?”

I think the answer is yes.  For Holden, the process is the most important part.  Because the rationale for his effort is post hoc, and is often a consequence of the creative process itself, there is always incentive for Holden to invest in a project that has the potential to be destroyed.  Optimality theory (derived from economics and used to explain adaptation and natural selection) would predict that the modest investment Holden makes in building his structures is warranted because the payoff is sufficient—this is, the potential benefits outweigh the potential costs.

I have tried to understand all of this in relation to my own work.  In contrast to Holden, my vision always came first and my execution and methodology came second:

“I want to understand phenomenon X, so I will design this experiment with that goal in mind.”

“I want to have a career as a scientist, so I will get experience teaching/mentoring/learning new techniques.”

“I want to have bright, happy, self-sufficient children, so I will parent in ways that foster these traits.”


Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with having a vision for what you want your future to look like.  There’s no shame in having goals.  Except sometimes your execution doesn’t give you the results you were hoping for.  I started graduate school in 2002.  I finished in 2006.  I completed two postdocs and served as Department Chair over the course of 7 years, from 2006-2013, all while teaching and having my children.  I invested an enormous amount of time, energy, money, and thought into a future that will never, ever happen.  Letting this future go—knowing it will never happen and becoming OK with that—has been the most difficult challenge of my life.

Over the past few years, I have had to part with the relics of this lost future.  Going through my boxes of teaching materials, purging my perfect handwritten notes on memory retrieval, sexual selection, pharmacokinetics, and conformity.  I recently parted with graded papers that were never picked up by my students, complete with notes and feedback and advice that those students never got to see.  The most difficult material to part with included notes from my Animal Behavior course, which was the first course I taught after finishing my PhD.  I invested so much effort into making my class interesting and comprehensive.  I was proud of my accomplishments and as someone who had recently earned this degree, I felt motivated to craft the highest-quality classroom experience I could muster.  I had these perfect notes that I had created for all of the future semesters that I would be teaching the class after landing the tenure-track job that I felt sure I would eventually get.  Of course, I now know that none of that effort will ever get me to what I had envisioned for myself.  So when I hear Holden’s Legos crash to the ground, and I hear Holden cry, I wince because I feel like I understand that pain.  Knowing you’ve worked hard for something, but also knowing it’s been taken from you.

What keeps Holden going back for more?  Why does he keep creating in the face of constant potential destruction?  And how do I follow his example?  What will make me feel like I can invest myself in something again when the outcome is so uncertain?  When success is not guaranteed?

I think Holden has the answer.  Just create things.  Execute.  Take risks.  And when you are done, invent the reason.  Everyone’s life is a post hoc narrative anyway.


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