Stress in Research, with Charles Sutton

Guest: Charles Sutton
Hosts: Matt Gardner, Waleed Ammar

In this episode, Charles Sutton walks us through common sources of stress for researchers and suggests coping strategies to maintain your sanity. We talk about how pursuing a research career is similar to participating in a life-long international tournament, conflating research worth and self-worth, and how freedom can be both a blessing and a curse, among other stressors one may encounter in a research career. Charles Sutton's homepage: https://homepages.inf.ed.ac.uk/csutton/ A series of blog posts Charles wrote on this topic: http://www.theexclusive.org/tag/stress%20in%20research/

Matt Gardner
00:00

Hello and welcome to the NLP highlights podcast where we talk about interesting work in natural language processing.

Waleed Ammar
00:06

This is Matt Gardner and Waleed Ammar, we are research scientists at the Allen Institute for Artificial intelligence.

Waleed Ammar
00:12

So today we’ll be talking about stress and research. I had my share of stress during the Phd, so I’m all too familiar with how destructive stress can be both professionally and personally. Naively, I thought people higher up in the ranks would not experienced this as much, but then a few months ago I came across a series of blog posts about dealing with stress and research written by an accomplished researcher for whom I have a lot of respect and who kindly agreed to record this episode with us. So our guest today is Charles Sutton. Charles is a research scientist at Google brain a reader associate professor in the US in machine learning at the University of Edinburgh. His research spans a broad range of applications of probabilistic methods for machine learning, including software engineering, natural language processing, computer security, queuing theory, and sustainable energy. Charles welcome to the program.

Charles Sutton
01:03

Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

Waleed Ammar
01:05

Many researchers experience stress but, so few are willing to discuss it, let alone write about it in a blog. What’s the back story behind writing this series?

Charles Sutton
01:15

Yes. Well, the first impetus behind the series goes back to when I was a postdoc, about 10 years ago. And I distinctly remember thinking at some point maybe when I was working on my job applications that, you know, being a postdoc is the best job in the world. You get to spend almost a hundred percent of your time on research and learning and developing yourself, but there’s an ax over your head. And that’s, that’s the only thing that sucks about being a postdoc is you’re always aware of this ax. And you know, I thought that and kind of squirreled it away and then Kinda didn’t think about it for 10 years. And then maybe a year or two ago I was kind of thinking about kind of where my career was going again. I was, you know, planning a lot of international moves and things like that.

Charles Sutton
02:07

And I started to feel, and I mean there’s always been stress, no matter how high you go, no matter how far you go, it’s always a companion. It changes. I think the sources of stress do change as you become more senior, but it’s always there. So about a year or two ago I kind of started thinking about this again and it was kind of starting to get to me again. And really the blog posts kind of came up as a way for me personally to try to work through that. Maybe that’s not something I’d recommend to everyone that they write a five part series of blog posts, when they get stressed. But I thought that, maybe if I could figure out what was going on inside my head and if I could name the sources of stress that it would be a little bit easier for me to live with them. So that’s, that’s really where it came from.

Waleed Ammar
02:57

Yeah. And like from where I come, I feel like it was literally assuring to see that you, and I’m sure many others are experiencing similar stress or like even more than I have and it feels like, okay, I’m not, I’m not necessarily a complete failure. So that was good.

Charles Sutton
03:11

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the most important things is just to realize, you know, you’re not alone. The structure of the research career, and this is one of the things that I really realized when I started thinking about this more carefully, but if you think about the way that research careers are set up, it’s almost designed to bring out stress. If you have any capacity for self doubt at all, you will discover it. Um, as you do research and it doesn’t go away as you become more accomplished. It’s just the sources change. Like when you start out, you’re thinking, oh, okay, can I make it, am I good enough to do this? But as you get farther up the ladder, you still, there’s always going to be people above you, right? There’s always going to be people who are smarter than you, who have had more impact, who have helped more people, and you’re always going to look up and say, gosh, why can’t I do what they do?

Charles Sutton
04:06

Or you get farther along in your career and you’re like, gosh, maybe I’m past it. The field’s moving on, maybe I won’t be able to keep up. So no matter where you get in your career, no matter who you talk to, I mean there might be a few people who have truly excessive reservoirs of self confidence, but I think they’re in the minority. I think the vast majority of researchers who you’ll talk to, they’re going through the same kinds of stress as you are.

Matt Gardner
04:30

So we’ve been using the word stress here, but what you just described sounds a lot to me like imposter syndrome. Are these the same thing? Would you distinguish them?

Charles Sutton
04:38

That’s a good question. I think I would distinguish them, but they’re closely related. I think imposter syndrome, is a key source of stress? It’s not the only source of stress, but it’s definitely a key source of one. And I think of impostor syndrome as one way that self doubt comes, manifests and bothers you psychologically as a researcher or as a creative person more generally. But there are lots of ways that self doubt can creep in. And Imposter Syndrome is one of them, but there’s lots of other ways.

Waleed Ammar
05:12

Yeah, I like how you’re structured. You’re serious and talking about sources of stress and how you can cope with each of them. So the first one that you called, the tournament and the ax, I really like that title. Could you elaborate on this a little?

Charles Sutton
05:25

Yeah, absolutely. So that was maybe the first part where I was trying to think about what is it about research that makes it so stressful? Because you know, on the surface you would think it’s the best career in the world, which in a lot of ways it is. You never stop learning. Right? And you know what could be better than that? And how stressful can a job be when you’re not expected to roll in until 10 o’clock in the morning every day. Right? So how do these things coexist? Right? So the tournament and the ax was kind of my way of trying to think about this kind of status anxiety that we all have as researchers, and you know, where does it come from? And a lot of it comes from the structure of the research career, right? So we think of tenure track faculty in the United States as being this kind of famously brutal up and out kind of system.

Charles Sutton
06:12

And that’s true. But at every point in the research career you have similar gate posts, markers, right? Which are up or out. You know, some people get through and some people don’t. So whether it’s getting into a PhD program, whether it’s getting your first paper accepted, getting a good post doc, you know, winning an award or whatever. Every single step that you go through in the career, your pitted in a tournament against other people who are also very smart and who are also very motivated. You know, that kind of competition is something that is kind of difficult to deal with. So that’s the up. And then the other part of it is the out, you know, some of these competitions, you know, you lose them and it’s okay. Right. You know, if you don’t win a major award, well lots of people have great careers without winning that award.

Charles Sutton
06:57

So it’s so it’s okay. But a lot of things like, you know, getting into a PhD program or getting a research job, it’s kind of an explicit ax where if you don’t meet this bar, you won’t be able to continue with a career in research. Right. You might be able to continue with other careers that are really great as well, but you won’t be able to continue in research. So I think the combination of them kind of leads to a lot of anxiety. If it’s not as if, oh, if I just do things x, y, and Z, then I know I can keep going. I know I can progress. There’s a lot of points where I could only progress by competing with other people and you don’t know what’s going to happen, you know, whether you will face the ax or not.

Charles Sutton
07:34

You don’t know that until you get farther into the competition. So that I think is a kind of big source of stress. And I thought it was really interesting that there are lots of careers, you know, that are like that. Lots of creative careers. If you’re an actor or actress or you’re a sports person, I would imagine there’s a similar kind of dynamics going on. You know? So I was trying to think about, okay, I think research has to be this way. I don’t see, even if one of us had a magic wand that we could change the structure of how things worked. I don’t see how we could change it to eliminate this source of stress. But we can think about how we manage it. So when I thought about how to manage it is that there are a lot of different steps. So one is just to accept that no matter how smart you are, no matter how motivated you are, there are always going to be people out there who are smarter than you.

Charles Sutton
08:23

And they’re always going to be people out there who are better at research than you. Even if you’re Albert Einstein, you’re going to sit late at night and think about, oh, I’m not sure if I’m going to get done what Gauss got done, because you know, it’s much more open field back then. You know, whatever. Right? So no matter who you are, there’s always somebody else. And so you have to view that as an opportunity rather than as a threat, right? If you run into somebody who’s way smarter, way more accomplished than you, that’s a great person to learn from because a lot of those people are pretty nice, right? So that one type of thing is to really think more collaboration than about competition. I’m not gonna lie to you, the competition is there, but thinking too explicitly about it, it doesn’t help.

Charles Sutton
09:04

You know, you start getting angry, you start getting jealous and that kind of stuff, it never helps. It always hurts. So that’s one kind of thing. So one key thing is to accept and celebrate that there are going to be people out there who are smarter than you. Another thing is just realize it’s the game, right? There’s only so much you can do to move to the next level of the tournament. And some of it is playing the game. So one of the most important things about the tournament is doing good science. I perhaps naively believe that that is the most important thing. But I’m not gonna say it’s the only thing, right? There are other parts of putting yourself out there and becoming well known enough to have a good career. So you need to accept that it is a game and you’re playing the game, you’re trying to move up.

Charles Sutton
09:48

But if you don’t make it, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. And in fact, to have the courage to say, you know what, this game isn’t for me. I need to move into another career where I can have a better impact on the world. It’s better suited for me. That’s a really, really difficult decision to make. And I think making that decision with your eyes open is an act of courage and it’s one that we should celebrate. So that’s, so that’s one thing that I think is super important is accept that you’re playing a game. Sometimes the best move is not to play. Even if you win or lose, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It’s just how you did in the game that day.

Matt Gardner
10:27

Can I jump in here?

Charles Sutton
10:28

Please

Matt Gardner
10:29

Just to give a bit of personal experience; out of all of your blog posts on this topic. This was the one that resonated with me the most because I feel this a lot and about a year ago my sister had recently been diagnosed with cancer and my parents were getting old and uh, I decided my sister’s okay. Like it wasn’t like a super threatening cancer, but it got me thinking a lot about other things in life and I decided to move to southern California from Seattle just for a whole lot of family reasons and decided that being close to my parents was more important than staying in research and I was ready to just get a job as a software engineer. I guess part of that was also just the whole stress of this tournament. Like, I think like every month, at least for the last five years, I would very seriously consider just leaving research cause it’s so stressful.

Matt Gardner
11:18

And here I finally was ready to just do it. Long story short, things turned out well so that I was able to stay at AI2 from Irvine. And I liked my position now, but I, yeah, this whole like tournament and the ax totally, totally resonates with me. I feel this a lot. I’ve talked to some people that are surprised. I guess anyone looking up, interns that I have that I’ve told about this. Think what you feel this like? Yes. Uh, basically everyone does. Yeah, it’s really, really hard. It’s, I guess the way I put it is it feels a lot like you have the stress of being an entrepreneur, have to market yourself, you have to do all of this stuff. You don’t get the pay out of being an entrepreneur. Um, and so like it’s, it’s, it’s hard. It’s really hard.

Charles Sutton
12:02

Yeah. I think that’s, uh, you know, that’s a really common reaction is, you know, is to look up and say, wait, you feel stressed? What, you know, what, why, why do you feel threatened? What? Why? But you know, I think all of us at one point or another came to a point where we had to sit back and say, do I want to keep playing the game or not? You know, is it worth it to me in terms of my life as a whole to keep being a researcher? And you know, we all went through that, we all had to make that decision.

Waleed Ammar
12:29

Another thing that I feel like sometimes it helps me reason about this and like go to a more sane state is realizing that our results in this tournament are not the result of a controlled experiment. We all grew up in different homes, observed different values, went to different schools and also I currently have, are pursuing different goals in life that results in the tournament does not tell me how valuable I am, but maybe this is touching on the next one that you wanted to talk about.

Charles Sutton
12:57

Perhaps, yeah, yeah. I think that’s completely true. That there’s lots of things that go into being more successful or less successful as a researcher. I think some of it has to be luck. I don’t know how much, you know, you gotta be smart, you gotta work really hard, but I think there’s a lot of luck that goes into it as well. So you have to realize that your worth as a researcher is not the same thing as your worth as a person. And I think it does interrelate because in order to take this leap and say, look, this career isn’t the best for me. You have to disassociate yourself from that. I almost want to say academic brainwashing of thinking that how good you are as an academic or a researcher is a measure of self-worth because it’s not.

Waleed Ammar
13:42

Right. So that’s basically the next point that you had in your list of sources of stress conflating your worth as a person with your worth as a researcher. How would you suggest people cope with this?

Charles Sutton
13:53

Yeah, so this is really one of my favorite strategies that we’re going to get to because I think it’s just super important to be able to disassociate these things. It’s super important to be able to disassociate how you feel professionally with how you feel personally. There’s a split personality that you need to have. Maybe it’s not a source of stress, but it’s an important thing that exacerbates stress, which is this conflation that we do in academia and in research, which is about where your self worth comes from. So when things are going well for you as a researcher, you’re happy about everything. You feel like you’re a good person, but it’s also vice versa, right? When things go poorly, you get a couple of papers rejected, your experiments don’t work, and all of that, you know, you feel down in everything, right?

Charles Sutton
14:44

You feel down in your entire life. You know, we have this hero worship of the most successful researchers that we know. And you know that that’s good to some extent, but it can conflate, right? Some of them, there are people who are great researchers who are maybe not great people and there are people who are okay researchers and amazing people. So we need to realize you have to have a dissociation, right? You have to realize that I can step back. I can dispassionately look at my career and where I’m at. And that’s not the same thing, as who I am as a person. There’s different ways to get to that and I don’t think I know all of them. If any of you know other ways that can help, you know, please. One story that I really liked is there’s a story about Richard Feynman.

Charles Sutton
15:29

So we talk about this, right? We talk about how even people who are way smarter and way more accomplished than us have this kind of stress and self doubt. So in one of his books, probably it was “Surely You’re Joking.” One of these Richard Feynman talks about when he just started as a faculty member and he was going through this self doubt that okay, you know, am I past it? Maybe I can’t do research anymore. And so on. And he said for him it was about thinking about it as fun, that he would just start saying, look, you know, these people hired me. Maybe they made a mistake, maybe not, but that’s not my problem. I’m just going to do what’s fun to me. If it works out well, great. If it works out poorly, AH, who cares? It’s not my problem whether I’m doing well or not.

Charles Sutton
16:11

So he started working on problems that were fun to him, that led to some of the work that contributed to his Nobel prizes. So I think really thinking about where is the fun coming from and research, that’s one way to get you over the hump, you know, for me, what I found personally really useful is keeping this source of separation. I could step back. I’m not going to do it publicly on the podcast, but I could step back and say, well, you know, here’s the papers I’ve written in my career. I think these people from my generation, they’ve done a lot more than me like this paper they have is better than anything I’ve done or whatever, and I could do that dispassionately without getting, you know, depressed about anything because you have to compartmentalize, right? The story I tell in the blog post is about this wonderful series of novels from Patrick Rothfuss, which is called “The Kingkiller Chronicles.”

Charles Sutton
17:01

And in that book there’s a type of magic that depends on being able to split up your consciousness and believe contradictory things at the same time. And I think that’s exactly what you have to do in order to disassociate research worth from self-worth. Because I think while you’re doing research, while you’re actually working on something that really does have to be the most important thing in the world to you, right? You can’t just punch in a time clock. You have to be passionate when you get to the higher levels of a creative pursuit. But that doesn’t mean you have to be that way all of the time. So while you’re doing research, that could be the most important thing in the world to you, but then, you know, you get home and you know, play with your dog or something and then you can be more dispassionate about it and realize, okay, there’s lots of things going on in life.

Charles Sutton
17:47

So learning how to separate that thing is I think important. You know, one thing that helped with me was being able to separate professional relationships from personal relationships. So there are people who I’ve met in the course of my research career who, you know, um, uh, yeah, this is difficult thing to say. So there are people I’ve met in the course of my research career where I have a really good personal connection with them. I consider them personal friends, but you know, maybe the research isn’t to my taste, right? And so you know, being, learning how to disassociate those two things and be like, this person is a great, great person, great guy, great gal, but that’s separate from my opinion of them as a researcher. Right? Once I learned how to do that for other people, then maybe I can learn to do that for myself as well.

Waleed Ammar
18:35

Yes. Something that resonated with me also is in the early days of my PhD I felt like I was very obsessed with this idea of how my research work defines my self-worth, that it consumed almost all my waking hours, which it can be. It can happen, right? So it doesn’t naturally happen that you’d have other things going on in your life. You have to consciously decide that I’m going to make the time to do other things, to take care of my relationships and I don’t know, play sports to the things that I enjoy doing. It doesn’t always just happen.

Charles Sutton
19:04

Yeah, that’s right. I think it’s super important to have backup sources of self-worth, right? Other things you do that are also important to you and can keep you going when things aren’t going so well in your career.

Matt Gardner
19:16

Yeah, and I guess this isn’t just it, this isn’t just about research. Other jobs have this too. I just read an article recently in, from The Atlantic called “The Religion of Workism is Making Americans Miserable” is says, it’s basically a kids these days kinds of argument that, millennials are too focused on work. But I think all of us are facing this. It’s really easy to get too caught up these days in work life balance going way too far towards work. I feel that myself a lot.

Charles Sutton
19:42

Yeah, I think it’s absolutely right that there are a lot of other professions where people don’t always have the right work life balance. And in fact, I think very few, if any of the sources of stress in a research career are specific to research, I think all of them are shared by other professions. This might be a slightly controversial thing to say. One thing I’d say about work life balance is there’s time balance and there’s emotional balance. So, even if you are in a crunch time at work and you’re at a point where you know, you think it does make sense given the deadline you have coming up to spend a lot of your, you know, physical time at work, maybe for some limited period of time, there’s still a sense of emotional balance. So feeling like work isn’t the only thing that’s going on in your life, even if you do spend a lot of time.

Waleed Ammar
20:38

Totally. So the next point that you had in your list is flexibility. So “Flexibility Can Be a Double Edge Sword”. Could you tell us a little bit more about this?

Charles Sutton
20:48

Yeah. One of the things that we talked about earlier is that stress is ongoing throughout your career, but the kinds of stress that you run into can change, as you progress in your career. And I think that’s one of the things that happens with flexibility being a source of stress, which is, that as academic or as a researcher. There are lots of different sources of work that you have. Like a Philip Grohe has a great blog post on this that motivated me to think about this. So there’s your research supervisors, there’s some collaborators in your other project. There’s, you know, administrative stuff you have to do for your employer. There’s reviewing, there’s other types of service. You know, as you get more senior there becomes grant writing or other types of reports that you have to do. So there are lots of different almost mini managers or mini sources that are assigning work to you and they don’t know about each other and they don’t particularly care about each other.

Charles Sutton
21:58

So you have to be the one to prioritize. And that’s actually a key part of intellectual freedom because part of intellectual freedom is deciding what to think about, right? If you don’t have the freedom to decide what to think about, you don’t have intellectual freedom. So at that comes with two potential sources of stress. One is that it’s super important to say no to people and then that can be a source of stress because you feel like you’re letting people down because you do have to say yes some of the time, cause you know, reviewing has to get done. And if you submit papers you should review papers and so on. So you have to say yes to some things, but you also have to keep things manageable. So every time you do have to say no, you can feel a little bit guilty about it.

Charles Sutton
22:42

And that’s how prioritizing itself can become a source of guilt because even if you decide, okay, I really have to prioritize this project over this other project, you feel a little bit bad that you can’t help more with the second project even though, because it’s got this important stuff, people really need your help and so on. So there’s just a bit of detachment there that you have to realize that because you can’t get everything done, it doesn’t help anybody to say yes to too many things and then not do a good job. Right. That’s worse than saying no. So you know, if you keep that in mind that I can help assuage your guilt perhaps a little bit.

Waleed Ammar
23:17

Yeah. I managed a team for a short period of time. I was able to relate to some of the thoughts that you had about being a faculty member. I feel like it’s something that everyone who has a role that like connects multiple people in the research would have to endure.

Charles Sutton
23:33

Yeah, I mean management is a huge source of little tasks that have to be done urgently and that makes it extra hard to juggle things. So it may be difficult to have too much sympathy for your professors, but you know, have a little bit if you can.

Waleed Ammar
23:50

Alright. So do you have any thoughts on a coping, I guess saing “no” basically is the main coping strategy for this one, right?

Charles Sutton
23:55

Yeah. And this will bleed into the next one because these two are closely related. One coping strategy is that there are a lot of skills involved in being a good administrator and the more of those that you get, the easier it is to be effective and say yes to more things. One piece of advice that I remember reading that I really liked is from David Patterson. It’s in one of his talks about how to have a bad research career or how to be a bad professor or something like that. He has a number of satirical advice talks like that. One thing that I remember him saying is that saying no, now let’s you say yes later, right? You might be sad about saying no to this reviewing request, but it makes it easier for you to say yes to the next one.

Charles Sutton
24:45

That might be a lot closer to your area. Another piece of advice that I got from another blog post is if you imagine yourself having a yearly budget of these types of service activities, like, okay, I’ve got time to give so many talks I can review for so many conferences and so on. If you say yes, now that’s taking up a little bit of your budget and you know, maybe that’s okay if it’s really important for you to be doing, but it lets you think about your opportunity cost a little bit, right? If I say yes to this thing that isn’t really as important for me to do, does that make it harder for me to do something that’s more important to me later? So if you think about the cost of saying yes, you know that also makes it a lot easier.

Waleed Ammar
25:27

Yeah. Now when I look at the quality of reviews, I feel like it’s totally reasonable to have fewer reviews and a higher quality that that would be a move in the right direction.

Charles Sutton
25:36

Yeah, I should be clear. I’m not telling you to say no to reviewing assignments. Probably more often than not. If it’s one of your main conferences, you should say yes, but as you get more senior? There will be too many things. And even after you do service to help your most important activities, there will still be too much to do.

Waleed Ammar
25:54

So when you talk next about the tsunami of logistics and the dangers associated with it, I didn’t realize this as a danger before. How, how important is it to keep our unconscious mind free to do the most important kind of work? Would you like to talk a little bit about this?

Charles Sutton
26:09

Yeah. So this is another trap that comes to you as you become more senior as you become a manager or as you become a professor, is that there are so many little decisions that you have to make. Like when do you have this meeting? Who needs to be invited? What do I write in this email? How do I allocate this budget? Right? And all of those decisions have to be made. Someone in the organization has to make them. But there’s a danger of having all of these administrative assignments and the danger is that you lose your mind almost literally, not necessarily with mental health problems, but that you lose your unconscious mind. Right? Because one of the most important problem solving tools that you have is to be able to set your unconscious mind on a problem. And it’s running in the background and that informs your thinking about it.

Charles Sutton
26:58

So if your unconscious mind is thinking about what do I say in the next email to my boss, then it’s not thinking about what your next paper should be about. And you know, that’s going to be a problem longterm. All professors have and all managers spend a bunch of their time doing administration and there is a danger that administration can, you know, uh, can make you stupid, right? Not that administrators are stupid people. It’s actually a difficult thing to do. That’s why it takes over your mind. So again, you need to have strategies for compartmentalizing, right? You need to have strategies that allow you to be a person in the world and interact with people and set up meetings without taking so much of your attention that you’re not able to do deep thought. Because when it comes down to it, when you’re a researcher, it’s the deep long term thought that’s what you’re hired for.

Charles Sutton
27:47

That’s what your value add is. Not that you’re really good at setting up meetings. So here, I don’t know that there’s, in terms of how you cope with this, I think to cope with this, you’re looking at a bag of tricks. You know, it’s a lot of trying to pile up small efficiencies in a way that together makes a big difference in your effectiveness. So for example, you know, you need a to do list, you know, manage it however you like. Um, I like the kind of getting things done methodology from David Allen. A lot of people do, but you know, anyway, that lets you have a To Do list that you trust, then that’s fine, right? Whatever works for you. You need a way to get them out of your head and onto paper because you need your head to be doing other things. And a big thing about all of these things about how to deal with stress is having self knowledge, right?

Charles Sutton
28:42

You need to understand how you think and what works best for you. So in this like logistical tsunami, the thing you need to realize is what time of the day am I most creative, right? In what situation am I the most creative? Like do I like to work from home? Do I like to work from a coffee shop? Do I prefer to be in the office because it’s a separate place from my home, right? You know, you need to figure out in what environment at what time of day am I most creative and then protect that time. The tsunami can wait right at the time when you’re being creative, you be creative, you know, don’t have your alarm going off every time you get an email, whoever sent you an email, they can wait an hour until you respond. So it’s super important to realize my creative time is the most important time I need to set aside time for that.

Charles Sutton
29:30

And then the other things are just learning to be a better administrator, right? When a decision doesn’t really matter, you have to settle it quickly. You have to decide quickly, you know, if it doesn’t matter whether the meeting is 3:00 PM or 4:00 PM just pick and don’t worry about it. And you have to find a way to use odd blocks of time. You know, if there’s, if you’ve got 10 minutes before your next meeting, you’re not going to write a paper those 10 minutes. So can you use that as a way to stem the tide of the tsunami? The other thing is when good enough is good enough, stop, right? So learn to satisfies, rather than optimize. You know, in your papers you can optimize, write the best paper that you can, but when you’re writing your next email, good enough is good enough, right? You need to learn what parts of your job require your full attention and effort and what parts of your job must you spend less effort in order to make time for other things. So I think that’s what it’s about, protecting your unconscious mind is about trying to take all of these small choices that you have to make and make them as efficiently and in as little time as possible.

Waleed Ammar
30:33

Yeah. It takes some conscious effort in order to achieve this. People who tend to be a perfectionist will want to perfect every email and every, every piece of work. So you end with a personal note about how self-doubt manifest itself in your mind and how you deal with it. Would you like to share this with us?

Charles Sutton
30:49

Yeah. Yeah. I can talk a bit about this. So we talked a little bit earlier about imposter syndrome. If I think personally about myself, I don’t feel like an imposter, but I certainly feel self doubt and the self doubt that I feel is just that I’m not good enough. Right? I can look at people who are the same generation as me or younger than me, who have done way better than I’ve done, right? Or I could look at how quickly the field is moving and be like, well, am I really going to be able to keep up with that? You know, can I do that forever? So I am being modest but maybe not excessively. So when I say I just don’t think I’m good enough, I’m good enough to get the job I got I guess. But you know, I have my own standards for where I want to be in research and I haven’t gotten there yet.

Charles Sutton
31:35

And so a lot of what I did to try to manage myself doubt is is just to learn to accept that. Right? So I don’t try to get rid of my stress. I don’t try to diffuse it. I just learned to accept that it’s there. I think of my little stress ball as like an old friend that follows me around throughout my career in terms of the self doubt, I kind of liked this way of thinking from the Richard Feynman story, which is just like I’m going to do the best that I can to do the best research that I can for as long as I can. If it’s not good enough, that’s my employer’s problem, not mine. You know, I didn’t make the silly decision to hire me. As long as somebody is willing to hire me and they’re willing to pay me money to do things that I like to do, then I’m going to do it, right.

Charles Sutton
32:17

There’s a sense in which you can think that self doubt is actually a form of ego that you’re thinking, I’m not good enough. Well, it doesn’t matter how good you are, it matters what you do, right? So you could, you could be a horrible researcher and just get lucky. Come up with a great idea. Write one good paper and you know, that could make your whole career. Yeah, that’s absolutely fine. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you know, as long as you’re doing what you want to be doing. So that’s the way I try to think of it in some sense. All of us got into research because of self-delusion, right? We thought, oh I’m going to do this and I’m gonna help make AI happen or make AGI if you prefer that, or AGGI whatever the next, the next thing is going to be. And we all got excited about that. Cause if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have gotten into research. And then after a year or a couple of years, five years, the world beats you down a little bit. But that self-delusion ties in to this impostor syndrome because the researcher, you imagined when you were diluted enough to get into research, you think that’s the person you should be, and there’s no reason to compare yourself against that standard as long as you like what you’re doing, just keep doing it for as long as you can.

Waleed Ammar
33:28

Yeah. I will try to adopt this mentality going forward. Sounds Fun.

Charles Sutton
33:33

Yeah. I tried to push my thoughts away from myself, right? If I look at my career, I’m like, well, okay, there’s some people better than me. There’s some people worse than me, but if I look at the problem that’s in front of me, the research problem that I’m trying to solve, I really want to crack that thing. Right? So I think stepping back and saying, how good am I doing in my career? Really, it’s not usually a good use of your time, right? It’s usually a best use of your time to think, okay, what problem can I tackle? Right? What’s the right problem for me to be working on? Maybe you have to stop and say, what’s a problem? That’s important. Where I have an edge where it’s a good use of my talents, you know, that’s okay, but just stepping back and thinking, am I good enough? It’s not really a good use of time.

Waleed Ammar
34:15

Yeah. This is also related to something that I’ve been thinking about. AI is a crowded field machine learning and natural processing and vision and a lot of people are trying to do the same things in slightly different ways and it seems like this is not the most efficient use of our cognitive capacities. So I feel like that’s another way to think about why it’s helpful to choose carefully what you’re working on.

Charles Sutton
34:36

Yeah, I think that’s totally right.

Matt Gardner
34:37

I guess one other coping strategy that I’ve found, I feel like a lot of research is like a publicity game in order to survive and to to make it to the next step of the tournament. You need people to know who you are and all of this and it can feel really hard to like promote yourself all the time, get on social media and do all of this. The way that I’ve found to cope with that at least a little bit is I don’t try to publicize myself. I try to publicize other people’s good work. That’s what this podcast is about. Right, and I post paper commentaries on Twitter and stuff. Occasionally I indulge myself and talk about stuff that I do, but just talk about other people and have interesting conversations about other people’s work. Then you don’t have to think so much about just publicizing yourself and how awkward that can be.

Charles Sutton
35:16

Yeah, I think that’s a great point, which is that you have to do some self promotion in order to survive as a researcher and if you have a lot of self doubt that makes it a lot more difficult to do that. I think that’s a great point. I think the strategy that you said is great and I think that could even feed in to when you’re talking about your work is you’re not promoting yourself, your trying to promote this work that you’re excited about. It’s really about the ideas. It’s not about getting your name on the front page of the newspaper or something like that. And the other thing about networking with people at conferences is I think networking is super important, but if you go into it honestly, so if you go into networking thinking, I want to go into this conference to try to learn as much as I can and to help other people learn, and that’s why I’m going to do networking. People notice that. I think they can tell that you’re genuine about learning and that you know, that helps you instrumentally. It just helps you learn more and it helps people notice who you are. That’s my next series of blog posts is how to do networking, but until then, you can read Phil Agre Networking on the Network.

Waleed Ammar
36:25

Okay, perfect. Looking forward to it. All right, so any other thoughts before we conclude this episode?

Charles Sutton
36:31

No. Thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.

Waleed Ammar
36:35

Likewise. Thank you very much.