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How to live the good life

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2015

Matt Might, who is a professor in computer science at the University of Utah and a professor at the Harvard Medical School, responded to a question on Quora about minimizing the chances of having a disabled child and ended up answering two seemingly unrelated questions as well: How do you get tenure? and How do you live the good life? Long story short: he got tenure and started living the good life because he had a disabled child. But you should read the long story; it’s worth it.

My son forced me to systematically examine what matters in life — what really matters — and in the end, I came to appreciate a quote from his namesake, Bertrand Russell, more than I could have ever imagined:

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

My first year as a tenure-track professor cannot be described as anything other than an abject failure. I was so desperate to publish and raise funds that I began thin-slicing my research and submitting lots of poor quality papers and grant proposals.

I must have had a dozen rejections in a row that year. It sucked.

I remember huddling on the porch at the end of that year with my wife, telling her, “Well, I’ll at least have a job for six more years.”

I looked at my young son, cuddled in her arms. I saw his very existence hung in the balance between knowledge and ignorance.

Then it hit me: Life is too precious and too fleeting to waste my time on bullshit like tenure. I didn’t become a professor to get tenure. I became a professor to make the world better through science. From this day forward, I will spend my time on problems and solutions that will matter. I will make a difference.

I stopped working on problems for the sole purpose of notching up a publication. I shifted gears to cybersecurity. I found a project on cancer in the med school. I joined a project in chemical engineering using super-computing to fight global warming.

Suddenly, my papers started getting accepted.

You may remember Might and his son from a recent New Yorker article on people with ultra-rare diseases.