Courtesy of GreenNeticen
What does it mean to live a good life? Philosophers have written about this questions for thousands of years, and very often we find surprisingly up-to-date answers and suggestions in texts as old as 2000 years. Sadly, most of the people in our hectic western societies (and the more and more hectic eastern societies and ….) feel that their life is getting out of hand and they grave for answers but ironically feel that they have no time to retreat and read those timeless pieces of advice. On the other hand, there is a rich corpus of new literature and online media dealing with these questions.
I have spent countless hours in the past 15 years thinking and reading and acting about this problem of what it means to live a good life. I’m certainly influenced by humanist ideas and some eastern philosophical streams. I feel that “Mens sana in corpora sana” is a good starting point for thinking about good life. Then, everybody has to define for him or herself, what that exactly translates into.
In this and a couple of following blog items I will try to report on my portfolio of thoughts, sources and solutions
As scientist, we can’t help but being a scientist 24/7. Simply by definition. We are driven by curiosity and encapsulated in an incredibly dynamically moving field. The scientific endeavour doesn’t start at 9 am and ends at 5pm. No way we could stop thinking and working after and before the end or start of a regular work day. That makes is even more important to create islands of leisure and to indulge in good reading, arts, music, physical practice, being with loved ones and friends.
And the good news is: All of this will make us better at our core profession. We all know that many of our best ideas come at unexpected times and at unexpected places. My wife, a psychiatrist, likes to say: “Don’t disturb your brain while it is doing its job”.
In the September 1st issue of NATURE, you can find two articles that very nicely layout the problem: On page 20, Heidi Ledford writes about “The 24/7 Lab”, subtitle “Working weekends, leaving at midnight, Friday evening meetings, does science come out the winner?”. She describes one of those restless 24/7 labs led by a scientist who demands late night hours and working over christmas from his staff and who sometimes regrets a bit that he sees his children so rarely. But he drives them to swimming lessons (while he does that, he is efficient by having phone calls with lab members). I have met a number of colleagues over the years who work like this and who were quite intolerant against other scientific lifestyles. An obvious thing to observe is that at least in earlier days, these people lived those demanding lifes on the back of others, such as their partners who stay at home, look after the children and do the household. Now, don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that everybody should live the life of their choice, as long as it is concious and doesn’t hurt anyone.
Then again, on page 27, Julie Overbaugh, a team leader in the Division of Human Biology, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, thinks that ’24/7 isn’t the only way: A healthy work–life balance can enhance research’, and I couldn’t agree more. She delivers an extremely well-balanced opinion, including a paragraph where she says: “To be a successful scientist there are times when it is important to pull out all the stops — when a big grant deadline is looming or a high-impact paper is wrapping up. Sometimes, when we are competing with other labs on an exciting story, I briefly imagine locking everyone in the lab to try to push for results more quickly.” And this is actually very fulfilling, if you know that times of retreat and re-energizing will follow. The most enlightening exercise here is indeed to look back at the life of many successful scientists in the past (just think ‘pre-internet times’), who where not constantly connected, burdened by administration, applying for research money and frantically jetting around the world. There it turns out that more time to think, less communication and long stretches of isolation are very beneficial for fostering intellectual achievements. As a starting point you might watch David Levy’s talk entitled ‘No time to think’ at Google. It is worth-it just for Meng’s introduction
I’m going to stop here. This post was mainly to alert you of these two articles. I had it sitting on my hard disks and now my phd student John May put the article on the table again.
But let me say one last thing: Do not let others dictate how you live your life. Very often they are completely disqualified to do that. An old bon mot says that, on their death bed, very few people regret that they didn’t spend enough time in the office.