"Hard" profession, and long-term survival

Mauri Favaron
Posted March 28, 2010 from Italy

"I'm so satisfied!"

And meanwhile, I'd like doing anything else.

No, not really "anything". I've quite clear ideas, of a job more in contact with people, where my "real me" could really shine.

But in the moment, as my boss kindly advised me, I'd better shine in applied mathematics (my more-or-less field).

He was very -ehm- convincing. And so, my dream of devoting myself to marketing, or something very "communicative", will stay in my shelf for some five years more. (No problem: it stays there, well disciplined, since two decades, with no serious sign of suffering, or starvation).

Meanwhile, I have to survive the Terminal.

                • *

I'm in love with my field, and find many ways to extend, to apply it.

Yet there are times, in which I acutely sense the job I'm doing was not designed with me in mind.

I'm a very "relational" person. One of those getting a very high "empathetic coefficient" in Simon Baron Cohen's scale, and a shamefully low "systemizing score". Sure my center is not in cold intellectual achievement: it may momentarily amuse me, but in the end it tastes irrelevant.

I strive for contact. I'm thirsty of human connection, literally. There are days in which a missing "Hello!" may turn me crazy the whole day.

But my professional role doesn't help. As an "applied mathematician", I'm supposed to deal with problems other find very difficult, try solving, and presenting them in a useful way they can understand. I didn't realize in the beginning of my career, but this creates distance.

Of course it isn't because of my special merit. There are well known and trusted techniques, sometimes coming from ancient Greeks or even before, which can be applied to solve real world problems. Some of them are really simple, as for example "linear programming". All what you are really demanded to do is remembering they exist somewhere, identify which one may apply to your case, and use.

Really nothing special.

But to most your colleagues, this all seems magics.

No wonder: they too are specialists, but in other fields. An engineer knows tons of things I'm barely aware of (and can assure fully: it took me three years to realize my Diesel car has a Diesel engine - I was so uninterested that I never opened myself the car hood; all I knew were: 1) I had to supply diesel fuel when the tank needle reached position 1 ("And pay attention! Diesel fuel!" as the salesman told staring at me with a doubtful expression); 2) Every 15000 km I had to carry the car to the garage; 3) In case of any trouble, go the garage or phone; 4) Pray never to need replacing a tyre) (according to a colleague of mine, this attitude is typical of mathematician drivers). What I don't know is someone else reason of life, and I blindly trust it, thanking goodness all works.

The feeling of "magics" makes you, invariably, a sort of token.

Nothing openly bad, in these days (some years ago the story was different: witches were routinely burned).

But still, it creates distance.

And the interaction! In the very technical, systemizing place where I happen to work, top people is accustomed to test others' ideas aggressively, using a confrontational style, as if assuming you are trying to dupe them. They will trust you, only after you have defended your idea strongly (judging more from their perception of your confidence, than from the technicalities themselves).

This is unnerving to me. Many interactions are these low-quality transactional exchanges, and they leave on me an enduring wound. I feel difficult to interact with those people friendly just after ten minutes, something which apparently does not happen to them.

With time, I realized most of these "troubles" are just consequence of different communication styles, and implicit expectations. They have very little to do with actual intentions, and trust. You "just" have to learn "their" language, without being conditioned excessively. But OK, this type of jobs is by definition always "minority", and always happens minorities have to learn mainstream languages.

I "discovered" another, possibly deeper, need: specific mentoring!

This may be difficult to find in-house, at least in Italy. But, it can be found outside.

In my case, developing an acceptable reciprocal help net, aimed at mentoring and reciprocal support, tool many years, a plain 15. Now it works quite well.

Its development was very random, however.

I'm wondering how helpful would it be, to have some systematic initiative here. May we develop some idea and build something new?

                • *

No support net, no mentor will save you from the Terminal.

(Sorry, I use this very old-fashioned term, and guess very few today name a computer "Terminal". I do, as the first computers I've used were huge, warm, noisy (and ridiculously simple) machines no more communicative than a whizzing cube, to which many "terminals" were connected. People did their work at the terminal consoles, more or less as we do with our computers screen, keyboard and mouse - but in an incredibly more "primitive", difficult, text-based way. Guess this description reveals a lot of my age...)

My job may, in fact, be highly "solitary". You sit in front of your computer screen, completely absorbed in your work. Maybe, even in a state of flow (it happens, from time to time). And meanwhile you're there, alone.

This isn't the same as wandering in some place, listening to its natural inhabitants meanwhile.

In front to a terminal you feel really "alone" in the nasty way. And in some cases, this sense is even more then real: no one else than you may do "that", and you can count of the help from no one.

Sooner or later, people (like me, "mostly relational") develop their own survival strategies. Mine is, imagining a specific (fictive!) person, or group, to whom my work is addressed. Picturing in my mind their state, feelings, passions. And performing my work as a "talk" to them.

Sometimes, this even produces positive results. The group / person I've imagined materializes (of course this is not magic: before letting my imagination run, I try to clarify as much as possible the use cases and context, so that the imagined people is often close to the real clients, or users, or maintainers.

But as helpful as it may be, this is a side-effect. To put it simply: I can't literally do anything productive, if I don't "get people into the equation". I see this is very different in many of my colleagues (and often source of intense discussions): they "do", with no explicit consideration of users. The product, first. Users will realize it's great, and learn to use.

Their product-only-focus works to them, as my people-first approach works to me. Maybe theirs too is a survival strategy.

Another survival strategy I often use is, systematically try to figure out the benefit for all parts involved (not only clients but salespeople, maintainers, installers, the general public, the environment, future people, and the like. And then find a design / implementation way which "maximizes" (or gives you the impression of) this overall benefit.

I "can" do, as I've considerable freedom in my company (being in the Board counts, after all). But I realize, this may not be so common.

It's essential, however, at east to develop an impression your work, although solitary, is worth, and useful. It really would be horrible, any other way.

My end-article question is: which others? Are there other survival strategies? I know they are, and they will tend to be very personal. But strongly feel and hope they, shared, may inspire and help.

I close here, in the moment.

Waiting for comments, if any. And tests (including my own), to be published as available.

And very very last, a hug to you, who had the patience to arrive until this point. Thank you!

Comments 1

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  • Jensine Larsen
    Mar 28, 2010
    Mar 28, 2010

    Thank you for taking us into this world. A captivating piece. You have named something so key in the scientific, mathematical status quo -- it creates distance. When more often we are actually seeking connection, meaning and trust, not cold hard logic. A toast to you, a brave soul naming the un-named pressures and being a confident voice for a new way to have passion in the field of mathematics. Or whatever new field you journey into - for in that you will certainly shine as well. A hug to you,