Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Thoughts on "Capacity" 1

I've been thinking about "capacity" for a long time now. What is my capacity, what limits it? Can I change it? Can I come to peace with a certain limitation or constraint or is that copping out and settling for status quo?

What about others? My students?

Here are the limitations on my ability to succeed I think about regularly...

Time. Of course for everyone, one of the most important limiters of capacity is time. And we all have the exact same limitation. For some who are efficient, bright, able to focus for long periods, this can be maximized. But in the end, we all have the same hours in a day.

Physiology. Of course we need to eat and sleep, at minimum, and practice hygiene. This requires time. This is more variable among people. I'm not going down the road of skipping hygiene, BUT some people have different physiological requirements which may improve their ability to achieve. Our dept. chair in grad school claimed to only sleep 4 hours per night. He said that's how he was able to manage a huge lab and be the head of a PhD farm, er, I mean very large highly ranked graduate program. My advisor in grad school used to accuse me of not thinking enough about my project. He said he laid in bed awake thinking about my project, implying that is what it takes to be successful. I later learned that he suffered from insomnia, and THAT is why he was thinking of my project late into the night... because he was denied the opportunity to sleep, not because he was so motivated to come up with the perfect experiment that he forewent sleep.

I personally seem to need a lot of sleep, and when its time to go to sleep, all systems shut down. I can't stay up all night unless there's some adrenaline involved. And then rarely. I don't feel like I have the capacity to live on four hours of sleep, like our dept chair.

Focus. Here's what separates me from some of my most successful peers and mentors. I worked with an amazing scientist on a project recently. Let's call him Co-author. He would wake up early, be in lab early, and work with intense focus until very late into the night. He didn't even seem to slow down for mealtimes. He had the ability to either be doing exactly the right thing at the right time in the right order or thinking about the next step and the experimental design while waiting for something to happen. He was highly successful in his career and could really make things happen in a short amount of time.

I haven't found myself able to focus intensely on anything for an extended period of time. I'm not ADD (I believe), but I'll NEVER be like Co-author. I noticed this way back in college trying to study for exams and have not seemed to be able to shake it. I can only read about 2 papers before I have to switch tasks. Then it seems to be over for good info retention.

I have the same problem at tasks that require sitting and waiting for something to happen (like some experiments). In this case, what really helps me focus is to listen to podcasts. I can sit down for a long time at an experimental set up, but only if I have spoken word in my ears. I've been trying to learn what is going on cognitively so perhaps I can improve my non-podcast sit-still time, but no success yet...

I need to wrap this up for tonight (getting antsy, perhaps?) but the purpose of this series is to try to work out for myself what is a trait- what my TRUE hard limitations are- and come to peace with that. But I want to find where I can continue to improve my capacity and strive for better performance below my true ceiling.

Implicit in this is finding peace with how much I can hope for in change in my students. They think their ability to change their capacity is unlimited. I don't.


  1. PUI, a very nice and thoughful post.
    I have a couple of comments.

    Co-Author you mention seems not to have family obligations (can stay at work every day for 12+ hours), which means he either has no family or someone else is holding the fort. I would say he has a privilege that few other have, and certainly not someone like you who has a small child and a husband away.

    I am positive different people have different capacity, but I am also completely sure that parents of young children, who are actually involved in childrearing, are not working at their full potential. And I think that is OK, at least from the standpoint of family.

    I know I am probably working at ~50% intellectual capacity; my most productive times used to be early mornings and evenings, but now I am up to my elbows in diapers and dishes at those times. I have *almost* made my peace with the fact that this is how it has to be... Sometimes I really wish I didn't have to leave at 5:30 when I am in the middle of something exciting, but that's not an option...

    What I am trying to say is that the ability to focus may be inherent only in part; the other, very large part is a societal gift -- no obligations requiring you to break the focus.

    Now, regarding the necessity of focus in success I recommend "You and Your Research," by Richard Hamming (a big name in computer science). If you google it there are a bunch of links to the same transcript of his famous 1986 colloquium, most html, the link I provided is to a pdf.

    Hamming does provide a fairly extreme view of the balance between work and life (hint: it's all work) but the read is provocative and invites us all to work on problems of great importance.

  2. Thanks, GMP!

    Its true Co-author had adult children and an independent wife.

    From Hamming;
    "I don't like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There's no question about this."


    I am also reading the same thing from Eric Kandel in his memoir "In Search of Memory"

    Yes, it does seem like a luxury the old guys had.

    Even when I was free of family obligations- in grad school, post-doc- there seemed to be a timer that would go off in which my focus, and therefore productivity would shut down. So while being a Mom does, like you say, often put the kibosh on the most productive morsels of the day, my problem is not solely relegated to parenting.