Follow Your Passion, From A Distance

(Today my graduate research class begins; here is advice for new researchers.)

"Son, don’t marry for money; hang around rich girls and marry for love." A joke I heard years ago from Chip Morningstar

Research topics work similarly.  Don’t research a topic because it is popular; expose yourself to many popular topics and you will fall in love with a few.  Fall in love with a dozen topics; too few and you’ll linger too long after they fail.  Consider:

Fred, Ned, and Ted had never left their home town, but wanted careers as explorers.  They heard others had explored hills and caves nearby, but that seemed boring; they read of famous explorers going more interesting places.  So Fred, Ned, and Ted got out a map and chose their first places to explore: the deepest ocean, the longest cave, and the moon.   They were never heard from again.   

To learn to explore, first follow the paths of previous explorers, first on a map, then from the air, then down on the ground.   Next, try going a mile off of one of those paths.  Then ten miles, then one hundred.   Similarly the best way to start researching is to take a good research paper and really understand it.  Then make a minor change, such as an assumption or data analysis technique.  Then make bigger changes. 

Another problem with passion is bias.  Especially in social science, people pick topics in order to convince the world of their one true answer.  But it is healthier to focus on questions, not answers.  By picking an answer before you’ve really studied a topic, not only are you more likely to be wrong, but more important, you could miss interesting new angles.

My colleague Bryan Caplan is the sharpest thinker I’ve personally known.   He has a penetrating insight and willingness to embrace uncomfortable conclusions, except on a few topics, such as free will, dualism, and libertarian ethics, where he developed strong intuitions early.  Fortunately for Bryan, while these opinions may motivate his research, he had not directly worked in those areas.  Similarly, I have to admit it was good that I spent most of research time away from the topics I was the most passionate about.

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  • Carl Shulman

    Robin, you wrote:

    “I’m happy to report that I know of no one smarter than Bryan, and I thought that *before* he said he thought I was so smart. :)”

    Bryan has said that you are the smartest person he knows:

    Is there a disagreement here? What is your actual view?

    1. You are smarter than Bryan, but ‘personally know’ is intended to exclude yourself.
    2. The two of you are sufficiently similar in apparent smartness, adjusting for self-serving bias, that you do not assign a ‘high enough’ credence to your superior ability to report a difference. But in this case you should be able to assign probabilities to the possibilities that Bryan is smarter, equally smart, or less so than you.
    3. You believe that Bryan is literally smarter than you.

  • Carl, it is easier to compare other people around me than to compare others to myself. I can identify dimensions on which Bryan is better and dimensions on which I am better, but an overall evaluation is too hard. If it were not for Bryan’s claim, I’d have to go with my prior, which is that I’m unlikely to be as smart as the smartest person I know.

  • Wouldn’t a more appropriate name for Ted be “Neil”?

  • This lunch crowd of bloggers at GMU likes to pat itself on the collective back publicly a lot, :-).

  • asg

    willingness to embrace uncomfortable conclusions, except on a few topics, such as free will, dualism, and libertarian ethics, where he developed strong intuitions early.

    Clearly he has embraced conclusions that are uncomfortable to you!

  • Mjrmjr

    I’ve taken undergrad courses with both Caplan and Hanson at GMU. They’re both extremely smart. Debating who is the smarter of the two is really slicing hairs.

  • Nastunya

    Robin, does the same caution extend to a passion for a method, a process, an activity, as for an area of personal interest? What if what you truly live for is research, methodical dissection, the questioning of assumptions, careful distinction-making, self-exposition to ideas that can change your mind, etc.? Are you then safe? Or is the caution still the same?: avoid over-relying on personal favorites and expose yourself to methods other people have found useful though you haven’t. Or are the tools we develop and fall in love with exempt from such discouragements?

    Two decision-making tools, in very rough terms (do I need to further define them to set up this question?): intuition and reason. If it’s really not an exaggeration to say that I’m passionate about using my reasoning capacities for making decisions, should I be encouraged to set them aside in favor of gut feelings? Does it matter whether we mean coat-buying decisions or decisions about God’s existence?

    Or is my whole question neutralized by a badly set-up analogy: reason is that popular tool (in the relevant circles) and I’ve come to embrace it over what in my earlier life must have been a reliance on some combination of instinct and feeling and gut reaction? The problem is that I can’t say I’ve ever moved away from any real passion for intuition in favor of a passion for reason; the only real zeal I’ve ever developed is for the latter one.

    To sum up: should we be as guarded about over-reliance on our favorite tools as we should be about over-immersion in our pet topics?

  • Michael W

    Bryan Caplan may be smart but his website is so much more garish than yours.