on finding a voice: solitude & creativity in the internet age


I’m supposed to be writing about nutrition, or exercise, or obesity, or some combination thereof. Yet, I every time I sit down to write, I feel this sense of futility: what’s left to be said?

Every day, there is some  New York Times article or NPR story or even a Facebook post about the latest development in the nutrition world, which inevitably spawns a million more posts, tweets, and comments in reply. Is a calorie a calorie? Is sugar the devil? What’s the deal with butter, anyway? It seems we go on and on, often without much new evidence, or barring evidence, insights.

As a novice researcher, I find that the most difficult challenge is developing creative, new ideas. No matter how hard I try, often my mind is blank. I’m overwhelmed with the clamoring of a million voices online: it seems so much has already been said or done. This dearth creates a budding anxiety, which further crowds out any useful thoughts: how will I ever finish this dissertation? Develop a research agenda? Write a (successful) grant? Should I give it all up and relinquish myself to a life of serving twist cones at the local fro-yo shop? (Not that that would be so bad: hello, free toppings.)

Back in elementary school, when a teacher posed a writing assignment or science project, I thrilled to the challenge. I relished the slow start of a new idea, followed by a gradual building of excitement as the idea took on a form and shape and life of its own, to burst forward from my pencil or typewriter in the form of an essay or report or science project. I could hardly wait to get home and begin. Sitting among a dusty pile of books, sorting through the pages and jotting down notes, the hours would fly by.

Now, posed with the same challenge, I immediately go online. I read dozens of papers, op-eds, and blogs, and usually, by the end, any glimmer of an idea that I had feels as flat as week-old soda (non sugar-sweetened, of course). It’s hard to sift through the constantly-growing pile of pre-existing opinions (some well-informed, some not), and hold on to something that is fresh, original, and somehow strikes that fine balance between building upon an existing evidence base and beating a dead horse.

I log into Twitter and watch the rapidly scrolling updates, and feel like a river is washing over me.   I struggle to see how I can contribute something new—and more importantly, meaningful—in the crowd.How do I find my own voice amongst the cacophony?

Well, the blatant truth is—I don’t know. (And if I did, I probably wouldn’t be writing this). My hope is that innovation is like a muscle, and that over time, and with enough practice, I will be able to scan the vast information universe and carefully pluck out interesting and meaningful ideas.  In the meantime, I keep coming back to this commencement address  by William Deresiewicz, which has resonated with me ever since I stumbled upon it years ago. The title is “Leadership and Solitude,” but at the end of the day, it’s essentially a guide on how to be a thinker.

To be a thinker, he says, the most important thing is to slow down and concentrate. To put down the smartphone, exit out of the 10 different browser tabs, and just wrench closed the faucet of information which inundates us constantly.

It means solitude—not cutting yourself off from the world completely, but focusing intensely on the matter at hand, for an extended period of time. It means allowing yourself the time and space to read deeply, not simply to skim the latest alerts from PubMed or ResearchGate.

It means having long, meandering conversations with friends and colleagues, conversations which don’t have an obvious agenda but from which ideas begin to coalesce and take hold. It means taking long walks in the woods or on busy cities, with the simple purpose of just thinking.

All of these are luxuries I rarely allow myself.  Like everyone else these days, I suffer from the “busy trap”: too much to do, and not enough time to do it (or so I think). Besides, these activities aren’t overtly productive in the way I have been conditioned to be productive. Yet, I know that although I am busy now, I will only become increasingly busy as time goes by, and obligations pile up. Without intentionally choosing to slow down and seek out solitude, I might forever be too busy with work to do the most important kind of work of all: nurturing ideas.

So for now, I’m trying to carve out an hour in the morning, before my day officially “starts,” to read, or write, or just go for a walk. To let my thoughts percolate along with my coffee, without pressure or direction, and see what emerges. My hope is that I’ll strike upon some creative process that will get the juices flowing, and once I find it, I’ll have a lifelong resource to tap into.

As for how well it works? Check back in five years and I’ll let you know.


on rejection: in writing, science, and life


Let’s face it, rejection stinks.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but an “experiment” I was working all summer failed on Wednesday. For my research, I write statistical software programs that sometimes take a long time to run. And sometimes, they take a loooong time to fail. You wait for weeks, only to find that you violated some statistical assumption–or more infuriatingly, that a misplaced comma or errant semi-colon blew up your entire program.

Now, I know: it’s science. (Or social science, as the case may be). Trial and error is inevitable. And I think hope that some of my work is salvageable, but still: disappointing.

Then, last night, while I was gleefully sipping Shiraz with my best childhood friend, I got an email  (damn smartphone!) that my first dissertation paper had gotten rejected by not the first but the second journal I’d submitted it to. Ouch.

Now, I’ve been around long enough to know that articles are often rejected, and that most good journals only accept a small fraction of the articles they receive. But not long enough not to be stung by the rejection. When this happens to my friends, I counsel them: don’t take it personally! But, let’s be real, it’s hard not to take it personally: this work you’ve slaved over, spent hours rewriting and revising, only to have the methods, the writing, or even worse, the idea, has been bounced back to square one? It stinks.

On my more optimistic days, I don’t mind, because I know that in the process of revising, in pushing through the mental and verbal barriers, the work will transform into something better.

But other days, I can’t help but wonder: am I cut out for this? I don’t mean this in a whiny, wah-wah-wah poor me mindset. I mean, objectively speaking: how do you know when failure (or a string of them) are simply barriers to push through? Obstacles that one day, perched upon a mountaintop of success, you will look back and scoff at? Or, when do you read the failures as signs that you should change course, redirect and refocus in a different direction?

How do you know when the data you’ve collected are conclusive, or just blips on the radar?  Continue reading