Compromises in Pursuing Passion

(9th Post on GRIT)

Healthy memory (HM) has had a longstanding passion in human memory and cognition that began in high school.  He earned a Bachelor’s degree with Distinction in Psychology from Ohio State University and a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D in Psychology from the University of Utah.  Past blogs have indicated his frustration when psychologists were debating whether humans could control their autonomic nervous systems.  HM argued that Buddhist monks and priests were able to do this, so why was this an open question?  He was informed that some trick was employed by these Buddhists, and that this had to be proven within the constraints of an experimental laboratory.  As college students could not be trained to control their autonomic nervous systems in the limited hours of training on the tasks, the conclusion was that it could not be done.  The “trick” that these Buddhists were using was thousands of hours of meditation.  Had HM tried to enlist my passion in insisting on studying this problem, he would have been forced out of graduate school.  In graduate school the student needs to seek out an advisor with compatible interests and propose and work on a project agreed to by the advisor and committees for Master’s Degrees and Doctoral Dissertations.

Faculty positions were difficulty to find, particularly faculty positions at research universities where research could be pursued.  HM was unable to find one.  He could have looked for a postdoctoral research position, but postdocs can sometimes become migratory labor for scholars with no tenure track positions ever materializing.  If someone is fortunate enough to become an assistant professor with a track to earning tenure, one then has about six years to produce enough published research to earn tenor and be promoted to an associate professor.

HM found a  civil service job with the Army Research Institute (ARI) foe the social and behavioral sciences.  Here the work was related to his passion, but had to, appropriately enough, address the needs of the U.S. Army.  While at ARI HM later found new hires who had not achieved tenure and had been forced to leave their colleges or universities.  So by going directly into ARI, HM had several years seniority over these new hires.  ARI was staffed by both government and contractor psychologists.  The contractor psychologists were managed by government psychologists.  The commander of ARI was a full colonel along with his staff officers.

HM left ARI and became a contractor working for defense and intelligence agencies.  The work here was close to, but not directly on, his passion.  The research is in the general area of applied experimental and engineering psychology.  This is Division 21 in the American Psychological Association and HM was honored to serve as president of this division.  HM has also done a substantial amount of work in statistics and experimental design.

One of the advantages of this work was that HM had the privilege of working with brilliant individuals in other disciplines, something that was highly unlikely to happen in academe.  HM encountered individuals like himself, who were not able to fully exercise their passions.  This is a serious problem that is unrecognized.  There is an amazing amount of intellectual capital that is wasted or misused.  I have a colleague who is a Ph.D. physicist with a specialty in subatomic physics.  He is one of the most brilliant individuals HM has had the privilege to meet.  He had become part of a highly educated migratory work force moving from post doc to post doc.  When he decided that the research he was doing had come to a dead end, it was questionable whether he could get a post doc in a different area.  In any case, he had become tired of migratory work and decided to become a contractor like myself.  He has amazing talents not just in physics, but also in mathematics and computer science, but he is still frustrated in finding projects that fully use his considerable talents.

Why this intellectual talent is wasted is an interesting question that should be addressed.  Problems stem from bureaucratic structures that are slow, ponderous, and work from the top down so that the brains at the bottom of the organization, and that is where the brains are typically found, have no input.

Another problem involves managers who do not have the background to understand the skills of the personnel they are managing.  Typically these are conscientious people who work hard.  Unfortunately the government, and much too much of private industry, believe that management is a general skill that transfers to any endeavor.  This is mistaken.  To manage properly, the manager must understand what skills he is managing.  There are other skills that managers need to know to effectively manage.  In the last place HM worked, managers needed to have a basic understanding of statistics and experimental design to manage many of the projects for which they were responsible.  Unfortunately, this was not recognized by the government, and they were given responsibility for projects without the skills needed to manage them.  Worse yet, they were unaware that they needed these skills.  HM could have briefed statistical nonsense to these managers and they would have never been the wiser.  HM recommended that he accompany them to meetings where statistics were going to be presented, but his offers were declined.  And these statistical decisions involved important projects.

HM retired.   Fortunately, his jobs paid well, he had good 401K plans, and he saved and invested wisely.  Consequently, he is now in a position to pursue his passions.  This blog is just one of those manifestations.  Some books and speaking engagements are anticipated for the future.  Basically he has been able to award himself the personal equivalent of MacArthur “genius” fellowships.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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