Get the Powers to Act from Fresh Ideas

January 7, 2013

Dress Well and Lose Your Ego

If you are a great scientist, you can get away with a lot of flaws and defects. True, but even in their field, personality defects is a serious matter they cannot afford to ignore.  In this post, I'll discuss one such defect : "ego assertion." With a big ego, you decide to live your life your way, but at what price to your total success and satisfaction with life?

The wonderful book Team Geek: A Software Developer's Guide to Working Well with Others refers to the paper You and Your Research, Transcription of the Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar, 7 March 1986, by Richard Hamming and I quote some sections of the paper below.

John Tukey was a genius-level scientist at Bell Labs.

... John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility. It's wasted effort! I didn't say you should conform; I said ``The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.'' If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, ``I am going to do it my way,'' you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble.

... By realizing you have to use the system and studying how to get the system to do your work, you learn how to adapt the system to your desires. Or you can fight it steadily, as a small undeclared war, for the whole of your life.

And I think John Tukey paid a terrible price needlessly. He was a genius anyhow, but I think it would have been far better, and far simpler, had he been willing to conform a little bit instead of ego asserting. He is going to dress the way he wants all of the time. It applies not only to dress but to a thousand other things; people will continue to fight the system. Not that you shouldn't occasionally!

If even the great Bell Labs scientists have to conserve their energies, avoid needless battles and use their forces in well-chosen profitable battles, maybe, now is the time I restock my wardrobe ... sigh ...

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