4 Time-Tested Ideas To Stay Focused In The Game

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What does it mean to be someone who lasts in a field for a long while, without ever reaching its greatest heights?

In September 2017, Daniel Nettle, a Professor of Behavioural Science and Co-Director of the Centre for Behaviour & Evolution at Newcastle University, wrote an insightful essay — Hanging On To The Edges: Staying in the Game— where he put down a brief 4-point formula to live a life that’s important and meaningful even when you couldn’t bag any of the highest prizes.

Nettle is also the author of the 2005 book on happiness: Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile.

When he was asked by one of his students what he saw himself doing in 10 years’ time, Nettle replied he hoped to stay alive and do his research — essentially continuing what he is doing at the time.

This reply seemed to cause a small surprise in the student, as she expected Dr Nettle to have an elaborate nine-point plan for his next ten years.

Nettle justified his answer:

Science (and other creative endeavours) are rather like animal life in a Darwinian world. There are many more ways to be dead than alive, and the vast majority of all lineages die out. To succeed—more exactly, to not yet have failed—is to still be in the game; to flourish is simply to not yet to be extinct.

Was Nettle the right person to illuminate her with his scintillating wisdom on how to stay in top shape while in the research game?

Perhaps not. Nettle wonders, perhaps he is the last person that she can follow in life as a researcher. Because he does not consider himself a superstar, but rather one of those who narrowly hang on.

But, on a second take, he says it’s these guys who have narrowly hung on are the ones whose lives are most informative.

People find interest in the surfeit of books about the practices of the most successful people, because they talk of people who have won the hard-to-achieve big prizes. So, people want to know how did they do it.

But what about the lives of those who do not win the big prizes, but still stay in the game?

He lets us in on a career information booklet that floats around at the Newcastle University summarizing the academic life of a researcher:

Starting PhD ⇒ Post-doctoral student ⇒ Independent research fellow ⇒ A tenured professor.

Beyond that, the only way to go is to Exit Academia.

It’s a predictably limited, though busy, shelf life that a typical academic gets to live. In such a life, he warns, the research longevity of even the tenured professors is limited. They have to take up positions of administration and teaching. And research — the very purpose they went into the field for — often slinks into the back seat.

So, Nettle asks,

How do you stay in the game without winning them? How can you live a worthwhile and satisfactory life if you are a competent businessman but not a Bill Gates; a competent actor who is not a Marlon Brando; or a useful scientist who never garners the accolades of a Stephen Hawking?

To stay there living a life of usefulness and purposefulness in what you set your hearts to do, without achieving any remarkable trophies, takes grit, wisdom and humanity.

What people see on the outside of a successful researcher who has stayed on in the game for two decades, completely masks the ubiquitous hardships of the failures, the false starts, the wasted time that Nettle lived through. And not to talk of uncertainties, demoralization, delayed rewards, frequent rejections, unfavorable social comparisons, and an officially deniable but still palpable sense of threat.

I suppose, then, I am well qualified to say something about staying in the game. - Daniel Nettle Click To Tweet

To do it, and to keep doing it, you have to find a way that keeps your spirits up through most of the times. And these are the lessons Nettle gives out to us from the place he has reached by ‘hanging on’:

  1. Do Deep Work Every Day
  2. Cultivate Modest Expectations
  3. Put Out Your Work Into The World
  4. Get Your Hands Dirty

Lesson 1. Do Deep Work Every Day

Begin your workday with some deep work — set a few uninterrupted hours at the start of the day to work with mental focus and emotional commitment.

Nettle warns about those things that do not count as work — background reading, literature searches, answering correspondence, marking students’ assignments, peer-reviewing a paper, sorting out my website, correcting proofs, filling in forms, tidying datasheets, having meetings.

Of course, during these hours, keep your phones and emails off the limits. And put a Do Not Disturb sign on your door if it’s not obvious to others.

And do it everyday, almost as an unchangeable rule. Make yourself unavailable for anything or anyone else during those hours. If you’re going to have a day chockfull of meetings, then get up an hour earlier.

A day without useful work soon turns into more days, and even into a week. Because humans are lazy creatures. That’s why the every-day rule is crucial. Whatever you do, spend that hour trying to do only deep work.

Even one hour of good work a day will add up to at least 200 hours in one year, which are the usual working days in an year. He points out a fine example for inspiration: an amateur writer writes when he feels inspired, but a professional writer writes everyday.

Daily deep work also keeps your mood high, as you live with a sense that you are progressing.

However, you should take your time off too, as weekends and annual holidays. Even more; once you’re done with 3-5 hours of work, you can spend the rest of your day without any hurry or worry — talking to people or walking your evenings; or whatever.

Then, once work is done, I can be more relaxed and expansive.

And practice saying ‘no’ to those invitations that you know will surge over and overwhelm you. By saying ‘no’, you’re not offending them or risking social consequences. In all probability, neither are you going to miss out on something extremely important.

Nettle uses this to tackle the unwanted demands on his time: “I would love to, but I do not have the capacity.”

Lesson 2. Cultivate Modest Expectations

When you’re working at something, keep your expectations modest about how will people receive it. Keep your focus on the work without bothering about the audience or accolade at the end of it. When you work with a free mind, you make work that often exceeds your expectations.

That doesn’t mean you will be perfect at it right off the bat. Often, you’ll feel bad that you’re just a mediocre who never hits the heights. Honestly, these feelings of failures will rankle you far longer than you guess. But you will have to learn to deal with them in productive ways. To move ahead of those uncomfortable feelings, you can hinge on one of these two philosophies:

  1. Keep on trying, winners never give up.
  2. Find an inner sense of value in your work, rather than relying on glittering prizes.

All Olympic athletes can get gold medals, but all of them don’t. This is because there is a gap between their best ability and their actual position at finishing line that day. The same goes for academics. Most of them will get rejected by the topmost journals of the world, as Nature or Science, even if they were all doing high quality science.

The highest prizes are kept deliberately scarce by bureaucratic or commercial interests.

If you have a habit of comparing yourself against your peers and rivals on external yardsticks, then you’ll mostly feel like a failure. Because the external measures have inbuilt ‘winner take all’ distributions.

So most people look worse than average, and all but one person can find someone who is doing a lot better than them.

And the solution to save yourself from such self-defeating comparisons is simply not to think about it. Because once you stop comparing yourself based on established indicators of prestige, you use that mental energy to focus on your real work.

Nettle thinks the best achievements of his career came out of his fringe efforts. He did those in playful spirit, and without funding. This allowed him to focus on work that he found interesting, even when the big journals gave them a miss.

He stands proud of these works, even when those researches are judged pretty much worthless in terms of the metrics like journal impact factor.

Because, he knows, there is a small band of people around the world who think Nettle’s work is useful, and he influences their lives and their work. To them, he raises his glass.

I try to pay my way in the world through a very steady flow of openly shared, thoughtful, workman-like science, even if most of it is not deemed stellar; trying to be a public communicator; being a good-enough teacher; and contributing my fair share to the common weal of university life.

Nettle suggests, rather than setting your sights on glittering prizes, focus more on creativity, integrity and openness.

Lesson 3. Put Out Your Work Into The World Steadily

Academics often put inordinate focus on getting that single career-defining paper out in a top journal. This is often a mistake. Because in doing so, they miss out on building up a solid body of work. The idea that you might only do big ideas pieces seems like an athlete choosing only to run track finals, and never training runs.

Every year, Nettle makes it a point to put out at least one peer-reviwed, empirical paper. He does it whether or not he is busy with books, theater production, reviews, idea pieces, or any other writing. Over the years, thus he has contructed a progressive portfolio of sound work. This, he says, is like trying to keep your head above water by throwing a small kick every few seconds without a single miss. As long as you keep those kicks going out, you can keep your smiling face out of water.

This helps him stay in the game without being nudged to exit academia, as well as keep the Black Dog of Depression at bay.

I think my great strength is that I have always continued to produce something moderately useful, even when things weren’t going well, and even when the big, bold, transformative ideas I so hanker for have eluded me.

So, he advises, if you’re losing your head over staying in the game, you should put your efforts into putting out 1-2 solid pieces of work each year. You should not let go of a single year without putting out anything, as one year becomes two, and then three.

As with your day, so with your year: Solid work every day, and solid work every year.

Lesson 4: Get Your Hands Dirty

Get your facts straight from the horse’s mouth. Examine the ground you are about to walk on. Mix with real people and learn from them.

Getting your hands dirty with primary research is difficult, but far more satisfying in the long run. This is important because if you aren’t taking inputs from the real world, you’re running the risk of becoming biased and partisan in your outputs.

Only through a practice of repetitive confrontation with the real phenomena we are allegedly talking about is it honed, and its confirmation biases challenged.

For example, if you are working on social research, then the time you spend talking to real people keeps you a sharp curve ahead. And if you are working on animal behaviour, then the hours you pass watching your animals gives you data that you wouldn’t get otherwise. Your animals or your people have a way of doing something you didn’t expect: this is the source of a new idea or interest.

Nettle observed when many of his eminent colleagues shifted their focus away from primary research, their thought became vaguer, flabbier, more programmatic, and more self-referential. They took to cherry-picking their examples. And their ability to see a problem from both sides declined.

So force yourself to spend, Nettle suggests, roughly two-thirds of your time gathering and analysing primary data.

Keeping your hands dirty also means learning new things. When you learn to do novel things, it pays back over time. Just think back of your early education days: Do you still sustain yourself today by practicing only those skills that you learnt back then? No. What makes you a better ‘stayer in the game’ are the new skills you picked up on the way.

So, keep learning new things.

Final Words

[Life] is an endless, truly endless struggle. There’s no time when we are going to arrive at a plateau where the whole thing gets sorted. It’s a struggle in the way every plant has to find its own way to stand up straight. A lot of the time it’s a failure. And yet it’s not a failure if some enlightenment comes from it. — Arthur Miller