Jeremy Yoder at The Molecular Ecologist
blog asks a good question of academics: Knowing what you know now, what career advice would you give your former self? Ever the contrarian bastage, I'm not going to answer this question. Instead, I'll answer this one:
Knowing what you know now about your career, what advice would you give your former self about your personal life? To me, they're very similar questions, because your career (or your pursuit of one) helps to define you as person while threatening to absorb all the time you'd otherwise spend with your friends, your spouse, your children, or your cats or whatever.
For the last eleven months, I've lived in a small rural village on the island of Dominica. Not only does everyone in this village know one another by name. They know a good deal of people in all five of the hamlets along this mountain road. Social connections are pervasive, even in the face of rapid social change.
My research here concerns a relatively new form of social support, migrants' remittances. Specifically, I ask how remittances are influenced by some of the same psychological mechanisms and social norms that have influenced human sharing behavior in this and other parts of the world since time immemorial.
The data I'm collecting on migrants' remittance behavior is mainly quantitative. Yet to provide context to this quantitative analysis, I've also just talked to a bunch of people openly. All of these conversations took place either after someone would ask me what I was doing in Dominica, or while I was conducting a survey questionnaire, during which I always accept questions from my interviewees.
I vividly recall one of these conversations. I stopped in a rum shop for, I admit, some rum. As often happens, the shop owner asked me what I was doing in Dominica. When I told him I was studying the connection between migrants' remittances and local social norms of sharing, he launched into a virtual eulogy of the sense of community that he felt was on the decline. He held up his hand, his index and middle finger together. "Before, it was like this," he said, and then pulled his fingers apart, "Now it's like this."
It's a common theme that comes up in these conversations: the cash economy has encroached on traditions of mutual aid. As I downed my shot of powerful cask rum, I felt like the shop owner had also eulogized my own social life. By that time, I'd spent five successful years in graduate school. I'd been funded by prestigious fellowships for four years. Been awarded a Fulbright scholarship.
Yet in those five years, I didn't make a single new friend. And it wasn't for other people's lack of trying. My ambitious pace in graduate school also caused me to neglect many of the friends I already had. I also neglected my own wife, who I'm lucky I can still call my wife. My only social success was that I hadn't allowed my ambition to get in the way of being a Dad. But being a Dad isn't enough.
By November's end, I will return to my home in Seattle, and to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. My primary goal isn't to finish my dissertation. Obviously I will. Instead, my main goal is to make friends
. To be present
. It's not enough anymore to neurotically read the academic works of John Cacioppo
(although I highly recommend that you do if you want to learn more about chronic loneliness and its self-perpetuation).
I recall an interview that Robert Wright did with Freeman Dyson. Wright asked Dyson why his current research group (I forget which one) was so successful. Dyson said it was because his colleagues not only engaged academically, but socially, as well. They played foosball. They drank beer. For Dyson, personal and professional relationships can and should go hand in hand.
So that's what my advice to my junior self would be if I could cause my voice to travel back in time, five years against the grain of entropy. Twenty-three-year-old Benjamin, you lonely, cantankerous sonofabitch, listen to me! Keep friends. Make friends. And while you're at it, make love to your wife.