Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Should I be a fox or a hedgehog?

Should one be a fox or a hedgehog?

I keep getting berated by senior scientists more experienced than me to become a hedgehog (in fact, I was recently summoned by the Ministry of Education in Brandenburg--my immediate employers--and sternly told to pursue depth rather than breadth). Here are my views on this:

1. Of the total number of hedgehogs out there, how many are at the same status as Einstein The Ur-Hedgehog? I would say, very close to zero.
2. Of the total number of foxes out there, how many have led others to make hedgehog-level advances? I would guess, not close to zero.

But I'm a fox because it's fun, it's what I am, and because I think I make more important discoveries that way than by being a hedgehog. Let others be hedgehogs and let others get the girl and the money. I'm here to enjoy what I do. I hope the Ministry reads my blog.


Ashleigh said...

You should go read about Richard Feynmann. He was a physicist, who did all sorts of other things. Because they were interesting.

I spent a long time with bosses telling me that I could remain technical or go into management but not do both.

I ended up being a co-manager of a group of 30 people (one of 3 joint managers of the group). I had about 17 people reporting to me with a very loose structure. I spent 50% of my time doing technical work. This all worked, we go a huge lot done. Very people resigned, it was interesting and challenging. We all had fun.

There are many people out there who are convinced that what works for a majority must therefore work for all. Ignore them.

Shravan Vasishth said...

Hey Ashleigh, good to hear from you. I am a great fan of Feynman. I watch and re-watch his video interviews with the BBC and his lectures in Cornell for inspiration. When I saw Feynman teaching his gravitation lecture in Cornell, the thing that struck me was that he was producing beautifully structured sentences without an um or a uh, and just going through it like he had a teleprompter in front of him. I have seen a similar thing in Gilbert Strang's lectures on calculus and matrix algebra (MIT Open Courseware). These people are my heroes and I aspire to their level of greatness, if only in teaching.

So, I wrote this blog entry in 2007. It is 2013 now. Five years have passed, and despite the berating of many people, I stayed on course. I kept doing different things; I was actually explicitly following Feynman's advice to hold 12 open problems in your head all the time. Every time you find a solution to one thing, try to apply it to the other 11. This method works as a random search for answers. This is probably not the only way to go, but it is one way, and it is effective.

I think my strategy has paid off so far. At least, I have maximized the likelihood of serious fun so far. Although I must say, even if it hadn't paid off, I would still do the same thing because I'm not built for narrow focus.