Professionalism and its discontents

By Emanuel Derman
April 10, 2012

“I must accept that my body cannot do too many things at once. I must learn to say, ‘No.’ I must take care to get sleep. I must think of myself. I must do things that are fun. I must get the ‘musts’ out of my life.”

The instructions a therapist in Sweden gave to an apparently fairly healthy
golf-playing woman who was on state-paid disability for three or more years.
2002 article in the NY Times

I recalled and then tracked down the existence of this self-indulgent-sounding paragraph in an article I read ten years ago. I was kind of struggling to do a thorough job at something I must do but didn’t feel like doing, and suddenly it popped into my head.

A good deal of the ‘musts’ I experience come from feeling that professionalism demands doing certain things thoroughly and expertly. But some part of me wants to be expert only up to a point, and then I get bored, though even admitting that makes me feel a bit guilty. Sometimes it’s more fun to live by your wits, like Mercury/Hermes, the god of people who do that.

Must one do things as well as one possibly can? If you don’t want to, is that a bug or a feature? And, beyond a certain age, does it matter?

 

4 comments

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Thomas Young (1773-1829) was addicted to doing things for fun. He was a medical doctor, but is not known for accomplishments in his
profession. He is best known for his work in physics, and in
deciphering hieroglyphics. His wife thought he should focus on his
profession and he agreed, so he wrote a book on tuberculosis. Hoping it would earn him a name in medicine, it was completely ignored. He did things very well and thoroughly, but only when it was fun. I highly recommend his biography “Thomas Young: The Man Who Knew Everything” (Andrew Robinson, 2006).

Do things well, but if it’s not fun move on.

Posted by RichardHollos | Report as abusive

I believe that being an expert up to a point might be a good thing, even better than being “THE expert”. It helps you keep a healthy perspective on things, and it also helps you maintain a certain “potential” curiosity (you might be bored now, but it might come back with a vengeance). There is such a thing, in my opinion, as healthy procrastination and hence a good reason to get bored every now and then. I particularly like this Taleb quote about it: “Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment”.
And no… it doesn’t really matter, but it’s a fun game to play sometimes anyway. I mean… we all are going to end up dead eventually, aren’t we?
BTW Loved Models Behaving Badly!
Cheers!

Posted by CarlosMedina | Report as abusive

Thanks, I like Hollos’s idea of doing things well, and then, if it’s not fun, moving on. I will keep that in mind. And I think that’s one of Taleb’s better quotes, though it’s not always true. I know some people who proscrastinate full time.

Posted by EmanuelDerman | Report as abusive

I’m one of the guilty parties i.e. A Procrastinator, well, at the present time.

Taleb’s quote is nice, but I have a feeling that Taleb doesn’t do much procrastinating, as he accomplishes quite a lot. Of course it is possible that quantitative analysis is truly a pursuit that allows his soul to fly free and unfettered… or more likely, he’s just highly self-disciplined.

My father was a cardiologist (and a physicist prior to that). He expressed some of the sentiments that are mentioned here. I don’t know how he had the patience to have an office practice for 40+ years. He even did house calls, right until he retired in 2007 (they are covered by Medicare, or were, as of 2007). At age 79, he didn’t want to be on call at the hospital, up all night taking care of a patient who had a heart attack, then have office hours all day. Unfortunately, he was very bored and depressed when he retired, because he never did much besides work and studying medical journals (and clean the swimming pool and do amateur radio which entails hanging antennas, neither of which he was up for at age 79).

Hobbies are important. Now is probably a good time to acquire some.

Posted by EllieK | Report as abusive