Two-year Anniversary: On Minding the Gap

Student: "Master, what signal? where is the signal? There is no signal.
Master: "The signal is the noise. The noise is the signal."


What will I learn?
What can I learn?
What have I learnt?



I haven't kept my promise to self to be more diligent about posting on this blog. The Life of a 2nd year Assistant Prof. happened, again! I have just celebrated 2 years on the job. I just finished writing two papers with my grad student, a visiting student and a few collaborators. I have been reading a couple of great books in parallel: "Man's search for meaning" by Viktor Frankel, and "Braiding sweet grass" by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I just finished writing a big grant. All of these things have got me thinking about something I have meant to write about for a long time. The things we do, the goals we set for ourselves, they have to mean something more than whatever outcome, whatever crispy carrot lies at the end and that we may or not be able to bite into; the paper/grant rejection, the lukewarm course reviews; the paper/grant acceptance, the great course reviews. The fullfilment we obtain from our craft, particularly in competitive fields such as academics, those fullfilments must be derived from the process of carrying out our craft, rather than on outcomes that, more oftent than not, have little to do with objective evaluations. As one of my colleagues put it, "I don't look for the signal in the rejections, because there often is no signal". This may sound like a cynical view, and I don't mean to imply that peer-review is not useful: I am grateful for feedback on a few of my papers that I think made them tremendously better. What he meant is that, often, you can't do anything about a reviewer who woke up on the wrong foot and decided to trash your grant or paper. That's why, I never submit the first review I write. But I digress.

About writing the two journal papers: seeing how engaged and enthusiastic my students were, seeing them struggle with organizing a paper and compassionately coaching them through the process, guiding them through a git-based reproducibility workflow for automatically generating professional-looking figures, teaching them to scrutinize their own work and execrice healthly skepticism, these things are the Win, irrespective of whether the papers are accepted or not, because these are things that no one can take a way from them (learning) and from me (giving).

About the grant: ogranizing my ideas in a coherent and logical fashion, under space constraints, putting together a budget, integrating various collaborators into my ideas, putting together an awesome education plan. These are things no one can take away from me, whether my proposal is accepted, or nah. Let's make one thing clear: there will still be some discomfort at the potential for rejections/failure, and some excitement at the possibility of a successful outcome. The rejections/failures will cease, however, to be interpreted or seen as an attack on one's worthiness. Also, one will be less tempted to look at success as a validation of one's worthiness. The very act of going through the process, the vulnerability required demonstrates one's worthiness. I encourage you to read the following post by G. T. Marx on academic success and failure. It has inspired me, along with some of my recent reading, to write this post.

Reflections on academic success and failure.


I want to spend the rest of this post talking about the Art of being comfortable with discomfort, and ways in which I trick my brain into learning to become comfortable with discomfort and into focusing on process, whenever it starts to want to make movies about potential outcomes. Make no mistake, it is an Art that even the greats (whoever they are in your mind) struggle with in silence. Where does the discomfort come from? The gap between where you are going (the goal: paper, grant, mastering a new topic) and your current state (writing the paper, grant, learning the new topic et...). Ira Glass (This American Life podcast) has a great video about this for people in the Arts (no pun intended), but I think this applies to any creative field.


Let's start with a few observations about the nature/the essence of the discomfort, the nature of The Gap.

1. It's natural: the gap is the default mode

Even the greats struggle with this (Michael Jordan, Lebron James before and after winning NBA) titles. Our culture has turned this feeling of discomfort, The Gap, into something most of us perceive as a handicap. Rather than seeing it as a handicap, the analogy I like is to interpret the discomfort engendered by The Gap as the equivalent of the sonar in bats: it is a tool to orient ourself and to help us become better versions of ourselves, however you interpret that in a given context.

2. It doesn't go away

If The Gap is a tool to orient ourself, then without it, we would become lost! In fact, I've found that the lack of a slight amount of discomfort in my creative endeavors is a sign that I am not pushing myself enough out of my comfort zone.

What do you do about it? This is where choice comes in. While the discomfort is natural and always there, we can choose how we react to it and practice ways to embrace it and lean into it. There is no better way to summarize this than this quote from Viktor Frankl's "Man search for meaning"

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.


Here are a few suggestions as to develop a good relationship with the discomfort engendered by The Gap.

1. Adopt a growth mindset

Carol Dweck at Stanford is a pioneer in the psychology of how we learn. Loosely, people can be divided between those that have a fixed mindset to learning and those that have a growth mindset. Do you believe you are either good at something or not? that whatever skill you are trying to acquire is innate? If so, then you may have a fixed mindset. A person with a growth mindset believes that, while they may not be good at the skill right now, they can, through pratice and perseverance, become better. I encourage you to check out some of Carol's books and her Ted talk. At the risk of sounding woo woo, let's be clear: adopting a growth mindset doesn't mean that anybody can become LeBron James, or Einstein. It means that there is a level of expertise, beyond one's current level, that can be reached. That will depend on the individual, field etc...

2. Formulate a plan (with a time line)

Sit down with yourself, figure out where YOU are now (avoid comparisons), what your level is, and develop a plan of action. This is very important. You must be taking consitent action, however small, towards your goal. The point of the plan is not to have it be rigid: it will change. The plan will help to keep the discomfort at bay. Having a plan helps you to contextualize the discomfort and to truly use it as a compass: coupled with the plan, the discomfort becomes a sign that you are hitting the edge of YOUR current sate, and that there is an opportunity for a breakthrough, a leap in udnerstanding.

3. Trust the process, not the outcome

The outcome is capricious, you cannot predict how it is going to act. The process, i.e. your plan, your mindset, are things you have a far better chance of influencing. I always ask myself these questions before, during and after I embark on a project/experience

What will I learn? What will I teach/give?
What am I learning? What am I teaching/giving?
What have I learned? What have I taught/giving?

These things have to do with service, to yourself, and to others. Things that cannot be taken away no matter the outcome.

4. Find a supportive group of people

It's very important to have people around you that will support you unconditionally and that will help to keep you accountable. These people will provide a tremendous amount of moral support. Very important are the people that will provide technical support, people you can bounce ideas off of, and that can help you course correct and keep the discomfort in check.

I have basically described part of my philosophy on what it means to be a great coach to yourself, to be your own champion. In the academic context, you can think of the above as what I think it means to earn a Ph.D.. As a novcie (e.g. beginning grad student), your mentor (advisor) will coach you through this process. As you progress, a great mentor will help you to develop this mindset for yourself. You become proficient at your craft, in my opinion, when you are able to not only coach yourself in this manner, but others as well. That's what it means to earn a Ph.D. It's not having the answers to all of the questions ready at hand, it's formulating a plan for finding answers, holding yourself accountable, and being able to sit with discomfort of not knowing, and trusting your process.


A mistake I made through my graduate studies, a mistake young people in all of their energy make, was thinking that I could go a full steam for years, without giving myself time to recharge. A lot of things in life are cyclic: tides, the earth's rotation around itself, around the sun. Similarly, the primeness of our brains to absorb new information or create is goes through cycles. The best analogy I can find for this is that of fallow periods in farming. There are times when the land is primed to replenish itself and times when it is primed to produce and be sowed. Similarly, there are times when our brains are primed to learn new things that can be used when it is primied to create. A perfect recipe to accentuate the discomfort is to try and create during a phase in which your brain is primed for learning, and vice versa. It's easier, in my opinion, to learn during the creation phase than to create when you are learning. This is where knowing yourself and avoiding comparisons becomes so important. My cycles are different from yours. Things become uncomfortable when we try to mix and mash the learning and creation phases: it's uncomfortable because we are addicted to creating. That's why we do what we do. The key is to learn to surrender and sit through the discomfort of not being able to create during a learning phase (when you fight water currents, you run the risk of drowning!), and trust the process, the cycles.

Last but not least, remember to play and be playful! In Viktor Frankl's account of his time in Nazi concentration camps, he mentions that one of the salient features of detainees who were able to make it through the experience is the ability they had to remain playful during the difficult process. It was, for most of us, an unimaginably tough experience. Still, some people still made jokes and laughed at themselves. This is huge, and has also been reported by veterans of WWI and WWII, as one reason they were able to make it through their experience. Playing is something we do naturally as kids, but somewhere along the line, due to society and conditioning, we lose it. Don't take it too seriously. Play!