John Cook links to a blog by Ben Deaton arguing that people often waste time trying to set up ideal working conditions, even though (a) your working conditions will never be ideal, and (b) the sorts of constraints and distractions that one tries to avoid, can often stimulate new ideas.
Deaton seems like my kind of guy–for one thing, he works on nonlinear finite element analysis, which is one of my longstanding interests–and in many ways his points are reasonable and commonsensical (I have little doubt, for example, that Feynman made a good choice in staying clear of the Institute for Advanced Study!), but I have a couple of points of disagreement.
1. In my experience, working conditions can make a difference. And once you accept this, it could very well make sense to put some effort into improving your work environment. I like to say that I spent twenty years reconstructing what it felt like to be in grad school. My ideal working environment has lots of people coming in and out, lots of opportunities for discussion, planned and otherwise. It’s nothing like I imagine the Institute for Advanced Study (not that I’ve ever been there) but it makes me happy. So I think Deaton is wrong to generalize to “don’t spend time trying to keep a very clean work environment” to “don’t spend time trying to get a setup that works for you.”
2. Also consider effects on others. I like to feel that the efforts I put into my work environment have positive spillovers on others–the people I work with, the other people they work with, etc., also as setting an example for others in the department. In contrast, people who want super-clean work conditions (the sort of thing that Deaton, rightly, is suspicious of) can impose negative externalities on others. For example, one of the faculty in my department once removed my course listings from the department webpage. I never got a straight answer on why this happened, but I assumed it was because he didn’t like what he taught, and it offended his sensibilities to see these courses listed. Removing the listing had the advantage from his perspective of cleanliness (I assume) but negatively impacted potential students and others who might have been interested in our course offerings. That is an extreme case, but I think many of us have experienced work environments in which intellectual interactions are discouraged in some way. This is clear from Deaton’s stories as well.
3. Deaton concludes by asking his readers, “How ideal is ideal enough for you to do something great?” I agree with his point that there are diminishing returns to optimization and that you shouldn’t let difficulties with our workplace stop us from doing good work (unless, of course, you’re working somewhere where your employer gets possession of everything you do). But I am wary of his implicit statement that “you” (whoever you are) can “do something great.” I think we should all try to do our best, and I’m sure that almost all of us are capable of doing good work. But is everyone out there really situated in a place where he or she can “do something great”? I doubt it. Doing something “great” is a fine aspiration, but I wonder if some of this go-for-it advice can backfire for the people out there who really aren’t in a position to achieve greatness.