The questions we usually ask are: What activities bring purpose to my life? What do I enjoy doing? What am I passionate about? These are all good questions but they miss something important: everything sucks, some of the time.
As Mark Manson asks, “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?”
It’s about what we are willing to tolerate in order to get the part we love. I love dance, for instance, but I am not willing to endure the injuries that one gets from dancing all day. I am also not willing to deal with all the uncertainty that every artist has to put up with. Ergo, dance is not my main preoccupation.
I often wonder whether I truly enjoy research. I love asking the big questions, and it also fascinates me to find practical ways to study them. It’s beautiful to see a clever experimental design and marvel at the creativity that went into coming up it. I learn from such designs in the hope that one day I will be able to come up with experimental like that myself and study the questions I find intriguing. But there is also a lot of uninspiring work that goes into all of this. Learning the methods of analysis, sitting in front of the computer, creating excel tables or matlab matrices, creating tiny stimuli, programming behavioral tasks, applying statistical analyses to neuroimaging data… Basically sitting in front of the computer a lot and dealing with details when one actually wants to know the answers to the large-scale questions. To be fair, I find some dorky enjoyment in some of those technical tasks. But a lot of it is booooooring and tedious.
For me the question is whether it is worthwhile to spend a few months on tedious tasks in order to briefly reach some outcome that might (or might not) give me an inkling of an answer to the question I wanted to address. It really does take a lot of time and effort to make a small step forward.
But then that’s true of probably anything. I am still working towards a clearer answer to whether that’s worthwhile for me, but so far it seems like it is. I may be willing to tolerate a large amount of tedious tasks in order to, at the end of the day, know that I have made a tiny step towards understanding how we perceive and experience the world. If I had all the choice in the world, this is the question I’d be answering, and research is one way to examine it (art is another, but let’s not go there right now). So for now I’m sticking with the shit sandwich of doing many technical analyses to try to reach some answer.
It’s also liberating to realize that there isn’t one amazing option out there that you’re missing out on. No matter what you do, it will suck at least a little bit, so you don’t have to keep looking for that perfect occupation. Good enough is good enough. Now all you need to do is figure out what is good enough for you. Good luck there…