metal teapot on a table next to two matching round teacups

Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

A quiet sip of tea. Warmth and sweetness. Tang of raspberries. Familiar scrape, chink of ceramic mug lifted, returned to the tabletop.

A reminder to pause. Absorb this moment, this breath, this sip of tea.

A reminder to take time.

Your work may be your life, but your life is more than just your work. Sometimes, in the midst of paper revisions, running studies, writing code, it's easy to forget. But your life is more than your studies. It's more than your art, your hobbies, your sports, your relationships. Your life is all of these. Sometimes, you have to take time away from one facet to tend another. And that's okay.

Some of the best advice I've gotten about balancing my life came from a fencing coach, when I was a teenager. He'd say, come to practice. Train hard. Care about the sport. But he'd also say, "at the end of the day, it's just fencing." At the end of the day, it's only one piece of your life, even if it's a really important one right now. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

That always holds true. Sometimes, other stuff takes precedence.

The hard part is knowing what should take precedence, now or in the long-term. The hard part is taking time when you need it. The hard part is not just taking time once, but continuing to take time. After all, time taken for one part of your life is time lost in another. Right?

Yes and no. I find I'm more myself when I take time for hobbies and relationships. I find I'm more productive in my work when work is not the only thing I do all day, every day. So I use little things to remind myself to take time. I use little things to take time.

A mug of tea becomes a reminder to stay present. I take that moment to pause, relax, re-focus.

A commute on Boston's subway, the T, becomes a reminder to take time for things I enjoy, like reading. I bring a book, fiction or otherwise unrelated to my usual research-related reading, to pass the time.

A walk across campus becomes a reminder to spend more time outdoors or exercising. I remember to relish the mile walk from my apartment to the T every day -- a walk I could easily dread, especially in January. But it's a reminder to see the world. In walking through the city every day, I see its small changes. I notice the first buds in spring. I see the snow fall, stick, and melt away. Sometimes, I use the walk as time to call family or keep in touch with friends. A reminder that relationships matter.

Find small moments to take time. Be present in your life. We all know how easy it would be to spend all day and all night in our labs and offices.

But sometimes, other stuff take precedence. Other stuff matters too.

I use little things to remind me of that.

What are your reminders?


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Me on the strip at a fencing competition.

Me, fencing in a competition at Vassar College in 2010.

Fencing: More than parries and ripostes.

I used a fence a lot. For ten years, I picked up a foil and went on guard on the strip two, three, sometimes five days a week. Or more, with tournaments on weekends. I was not alone: my teammates did the same. Yet despite the dedication so many of us gave to the sport, the first coach I had, George Platt, used to say that when it came to life versus fencing, "It's just fencing!"

However important the sport is, in the end, "it's just fencing!"

It's as important as you make it to you. The rest of your life, well, that matters too.

I was thinking about this recently in relation to other life decisions, balancing time and energy. And I realized: I really did learn a lot, being a fencer.

Priorities, commitment, and time management

I learned how to make something a priority. How to commit to something.

I was never late to practice, and only missed a day if I was coughing and running a fever. I gave up other clubs, movie nights, Halloween parties, and much more because I had practice, or I had to sleep, we were leaving at 4am for a competition tomorrow.

But remember, it's just fencing.

My coaches in college always stressed that academics came first. If you had a huge test that day, or if you had to a class that happen to clash with practice times, well, there was no help for it; academics came first.

But being busy was no excuse to skip practice. After all, we were all college students; we all had homework and tests and classes. By joining the fencing team, I was saying, this is a priority for me. I'm going to put time and energy into this. Joining the team meant that other things that could have been priorities -- other clubs, social events -- were not so high on my personal list. Fencing was. So I made time for it.

Sometime later, I was working on a academic project. My professor told me, "It's your project; if it matters to you, it can happen, it can be good. But it's your project. If you don't care about it, if you don't make it happen, well, it won't happen. And since it's your project, no one else will care."

Fencing was like that. If you didn't care how many bouts you won, if you didn't care how well you fenced, well, guess what, no one else would really care, either. Your teammates or your coach might be disappointed. But you're the one most invested in what you're doing.

Waiting by the strip for a bout to start

Waiting for a bout to start at the Denver North America Cup event in 2005.

Related to that: When I was fifteen or so, I was fencing in a local competition, a direct elimination bout against a woman of about the same skill level as me. We kept tying the score: 4-5, 10-9. The last round, I won. My dad said it was because I cared. It was partly endurance, too. But if you want to win, you'll put in more effort and go farther. You have to enjoy it. You have to be a good athlete. And you have to be competitive. I remember George saying once that if you don't care when you lose -- if you aren't upset that you lost -- then you didn't care about winning, either.

Failure, adaptation, and emotion regulation

When you fence, you make a lot of mistakes. You get hit, over and over, in the same way, by the same opponent, because you keep making the same mistake. It's frustrating. You lose a bout 0-5 because you kept making the same stupid mistake. Sometimes to a girl you used to beat 5-0. And the thing about fencing is that it's such an individual sport. If you lose, it's all on you. Sure, sometimes the referee makes bad calls. Sometimes the other girl just is a better fencer than you. But not always.

There are two parts to dealing with this. First, the practical side: You lost this touch. Or you lost this bout. What did you do and why didn't it work? Critically evaluate your actions. See the mistakes, or the places where someone out-fenced you. Try to improve. Adapt.

Me lunging on the strip, foil bent as I hit my opponent.

Me, fencing at a Bay Cup event in 2004.

George always taught that if what you're doing isn't working, do something else. Change something. Change anything. Sometimes, if you find yourself doing the same wrong thing over and over, it doesn't matter what else, so long as it's different: a different parry or attack, different timing or distance. Don't get stuck. Don't let your opponent score the same way twice. If what you're doing isn't working, change what you are doing.

The second part is emotional and mental. In a pool round in a tournament, you only have 5 or 6 bouts. You just lost one 0-5. You can't let that negatively affect the next bout. You have to move past it. Re-focus. You can't be flustered and upset when you step back on the strip.

I learned to consciously regulate my emotions and mental state, using combinations of music on my ipod, self-talk, and habits before and during competitions to reinforce states and moods that I empirically found to lead to me fencing better. You can't lose your cool. For me, I fenced best when balanced: Not too excited. Not too calm. Not too upset. Focused. Edged. Finding that state, keeping it, and regaining it was as critical to my performance as good hydration.

Practice and preparation

George also used to say that it was the practice you did six months ago that matters most in your competition today. And day of, I had my routines. You warm up before a competition. That isn't just to prepare your muscles - it was also part of getting ready mentally. Getting your mind in the right space. It was about eating well, and sleeping well -- not sacrificing an upcoming tournament to one evening off. If that meant missing parties, other events, whatever -- well, preparation was key. That was what commitment was. Sleeping was part of that. Eating, hydrating, training.

When taking a ballroom dance class two years ago, I realized I'd learned something else from all that practice: How to practice. You learn it slow, practice it perfectly, under control, slowly, until eventually, at top speed during a bout, you do okay. You can't practice sloppy and expect that when it matters you'll be any less sloppy. Practice perfect.

A group of fencers in white gear standing around.

A group of fencers at George Platt's Swordplay Fencing club in 2006.

Lessons learned

My senior year at Vassar, there was controversy over whether varsity sports should count for academic credit. Suffice to say, one piece of the argument was that yes, you learn a lot doing a sport. If credits equate to learning, you learn as much -- if not more! -- in a sport as you do in other classes. You may learn different things. But you do learn.

(As a side note, the divisions between disciplines, quantifying or categorizing learning, and deciding what "counts" as an academic class don't always make sense to me.)

I learned to prioritize. To commit. To fail. To persevere. To adapt. To prepare.

I learned about the difference between achieving success and achieving excellence. I learned about confidence.

Ten years of competitive fencing. Wonderful coaches, great teammates, and a lot of things learned. Time well spent, I'd say.


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What are you doing?

A feeling common among senior undergraduates (and senior high school students, and junior undergrads, etc) is the your-life's-about-to-start-what-are-you-going-to-do pressure. The common questions one faces include but are not limited to: What are you doing post-college? Are you getting a job? Where are you going to live? What about grad school? Will you stay in academia? What about high-paying tech/business/etc jobs?

pairs of question marks on a purple background

Surprise: That feeling of uncertainty doesn't always go away after graduation, or even after a year. Probably not even after five, but I haven't gotten that far yet. I may be more on track than some. I've set my sights on a career in science and research, the next step of which will, for me, be grad school. But I'm sure I'm more uncertain than others.

So, from a student who's been there, here are some thoughts on...

College, Internships, and Figuring Out What the **** You Want To Do With Your Life

You already know that there are a lot of questions to answer.

For example:

four computers in a row on a table

If you're considering a STEM career, like me, then a lot of people will say you have two options -- academia or industry. Even before you try to tackle which of these you might like, though, you may need to figure out what specific area you want to enter -- if you're a computer scientist, would you want to develop algorithms? Would you rather work on security applications, or distributed networks, or use your CS knowledge to program laser space robots, or any of thousands of other options?

Some programs of study prepare you for specific careers; others leave you with a remarkably open-ended future.

So... how might you even start figuring out your life?

The most important thing to know

You do not have to do the same thing forever.

That's important, so I'll say it again:

You do not have to do the same thing forever.

If you pick a career direction now, you aren't stuck with it for the next forty years. People change jobs. People change careers. I had a particularly good role model in this regard: my father has owned a sailing school, consulted for small businesses, recorded punk bands, and then there was this thing in Africa... Point is, you can do whatever cool things you want. You don't have to do the same thing forever.

Granted, knowing that you can do something else later doesn't necessarily help at all with figuring out what to do now. On to the next section:

wood bridge with rope railing stretched over a green ravine

The "Figure My Life Out" Toolkit

Your two best resources are

  1. yourself
  2. other people

By this, I mean that you should (1) try new things as a way of figuring out what kinds of things you like doing, and you should (2) talk to other people about their experiences in doing different kinds of things. Gather information about what makes you happy, what kind of work you find worthwhile, what kind of jobs sound just plain cool, and so on.

Try new things

There are several ways to proceed.

Three of my favorites:

1. Classes.

The reason I took my first computer science class was because one day, I looked at my laptop and thought to myself, I don't know how you work at all. I signed up for CS101, vaguely hoping that I'd learn something about the Magical Innards of Computers. I didn't -- instead, I learned some Magical Incantations and Rituals for making little Java applications. I also learned that programming was fun, and that I'd probably enjoy further classes in that area. Now? The graduate program I'm entering has a heavy CS component, and most of the other programs I'd applied to were CS programs.

The point of this story: Take classes in novel areas. Either in person, at school, or via one of the increasing number of free online courses. It's one of the best ways to explore new subjects. If, after the first couple class sessions, you really hate it? Drop the class. It's worthwhile to remember that you may love a subject but dislike a professor, or love a professor enough to make any subject taught interesting. Regardless, it's a nice, easy, safe way to explore new stuff. You never know what you might find.

2. Independent learning.

My personal favorite here is reading books on all sorts of cool non-fiction topics. Pick up a book at the library on a topic you know nothing about, read it, see if it interests you. Other options include taking free online courses (see point 1), joining clubs to try out new activities, volunteering for new programs, ... lots of potential here. Spend time thinking about what activities you find worthwhile and important -- helping people or animals in need? Engineering solutions to problems in the world? Making a lot of money so you can live the life you want?

3. Internships etc.

The best time for this, if you're in school, is those warm summer months between semesters. Summer internships. Summer research programs. If you're interested in cognitive science or computer science, I have a fantastic list of resources for you. A lot of Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs exist across the sciences; lots of government agencies and national labs have programs as well, not to mention a myriad of companies!

Semesters are good, too: A relative of mine took a semester off for the NASA USRP program; friends have spent semesters interning at or just plain working for software companies. You don't have to leave school, though -- while studying abroad, I nabbed an internship in a psychology research lab as a part of Sydney Uni's Study Abroad Internship Program. Many schools have field work programs or internship programs -- does yours?

Two pieces of Important Advice:

Don't do the same thing every summer

and

It's okay if you don't like your internship/job/field work/etc.

Spend a summer or two doing research on a university campus. See what it's like working in at a government facility. Try out an internship with a company. Test out different environments and see what you like. See what you don't like. Discovering that you don't like some particular kind of work is as helpful -- if not more so! -- than finding that you do like something. You'll be able to rule out jobs that make you do that.

I admit, I didn't strictly follow this advice. I spent two summers on a research project at my home college, then two summers at different NASA facilities -- again, research projects, not with a company. I dabbled in research during semesters as well.

What I did do, however, was vary the kind of research I was exposed to. Working on autonomous learning in robots at Vassar was science; the laser space robots at NASA last summer and the Autonomous Vehicle Lab the summer prior were very much engineering projects. The emotions group I work with now, among others, exposed me to psychology and cognitive science research methods.

... okay, so that's all well and good. How do you actually find a good internship opportunity?

Google is your best friend. So are people you know -- see the following section. I've been invited to apply, but I've also spent weeks or months searching online for intriguing opportunities. Search for lists of internships (e.g., in cognitive science and computer science) or lists of databases of internships, and search all these. If your university has a Career Development Office or the like, go talk to them; they have even more resources.

My advice: Start early. Deadlines for summer internship applications tend to be in January and February; sometimes, they may be as late as March or as early as October. You'll need time to find the opportunities to apply for, and you'll need time to collect the materials (such as an updated resume) for your application.

a group of people around computers

Talk to people

This point sounds relatively straightfoward. Okay, have conversations with people. But there are several ways to get the most out of those conversations...

1. Listen to advice.

You know all those other people who want to give you advice? Let them. These people may be your grandparents, your professors, other relatives, older students, current professionals ... anyone, really. Let them talk. Listen to what they all have to say. You don't have to take their advice -- not a word of it -- but now and then, they say useful things. And you won't hear those useful things unless you're listening.

2. Use your resources wisely.

You probably know a lot of people. These people probably know a lot of people. Some of those people might be working jobs you're interested in. Some of those people might know people who are looking for people to work for them. Get the gist?

A further couple points:

Tell people what you're looking for. If they don't know, they can't help you or hook you up with opportunities they find.

If you're in school, your school probably has a Career Development Office or the like. Talk to the people there. Tell them what you're hoping to find -- whether it's a specific internship, information about a particular field, or just that you're hopelessly confused and would like their help. They have resources for you. It's their job to have resources for you.

See if you can set up informational interviews with people in fields you might be interested in, to get the scoop on what it's like to work that kind of job.

Attend job fairs -- a lot of schools host them; does yours? -- and even if you're not looking for any particular job yet, it's a great opportunity to talk to recruiters about the kinds of jobs out there.

3. Ask a whole bunch of questions.

The best thing to remember is that, in general, people really like talking about themselves. Use this to your advantage. Even simple questions like "So, what's your job like?" and "Can you tell me more about what it's like to do X?" can lead to worthwhile information.

pastel beach and ocean with the glowing morning sun

Then what?

The next step is pretty simple. (Do recall, simple does not necessarily mean easy.)

You've learned about your options. You've learned about what you like doing. You've learned about what you find worthwhile. It's time to stop evaluating possible directions to go in and actually go in a direction.

Maybe now, you know exactly what you want to do with your life. Great -- do that! Or maybe now you've concluded that no job will ever make you content. That one's a bit tougher. Try to find something at least tolerable, or, like some people joke, marry rich? Or maybe you like everything, and the sheer number of options is still overwhelming. Your best option here: find a reasonable job in a reasonable location near people you like. Go in some direction, at least for a while. If you love it, great. If you don't, move on.

Still have questions? Post a comment below! Maybe I, or someone else, will have helpful advice for you specifically.

And no matter what, remember: You don't have to do the same thing forever.


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Why did you pick cog sci?

When I can tell a ten-second answer is all that's wanted, I say, "because I took an intro cognitive science class in my first semester of college and loved it."

_yellow-orange gradient background with word cloud showing fields influencing cognitive science: education computer science artificial intelligence neuroscience philosophy anthropology linguistics psychology_

Some people realize I must've had some reason for signing up for an intro cog sci class in the first place. They tend to be satisfied with an answer like "because I read a book on consciousness before college, and wanted to know more."

The real answer, the one that's actually about why, is this:

No one knows yet how or why I'm a self-aware person. And I'd really, really like to find out.

Mysteries and mysteries

A couple years before I ventured across the country to begin my Vassar education, I started reading books about mysteries. Not fiction mystery novels -- actual mysteries, in which no one knows whodunnit yet, though a whole lot of people have theories. Things that are hard to think about, or crazy difficult to conceptualize. The nature of space-time. Infinity. Perception. (My favorite my favorite exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco was always the optical illusions.)

_optical illusion of several rings of color that appear to move when you look at them_

First, it was books like Richard Wolfson's Relativity Demystified, Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds, Mario Livio's The Golden Ratio. All the grand mysteries of the universe, its structure, and the math and physics underlying it. I didn't completely grasp the details of the theories, but it was sure fun to try!

Then I decided to read about people. I honestly don't remember why I picked up Susan Blackmore's Consciousness: An Introduction -- was I just browsing the generic non-fiction science books section? I remember the library. I remember kneeling on the carpet, pulling the book off one of the lower shelves.

This book opened my eyes.

At first, I was a little disappointed. Why couldn't Susan tell me how people worked? How I worked? I wanted answers! How am I a person? Why am I a person? Why can I think about myself thinking? Perhaps I'd assumed, up until that point, that scientists had all the hard problems figured out and now were just filling in the details.

My dismay was swiftly and thoroughly overridden by the realization that here was one of the Big Questions in the universe. Still so much left to discover. The twinkling thought: could I help discover it? And utter fascination. I distinctly remember standing on the local community college campus before a class, staring wonderingly at the landscaping, thinking, what is it like to be a tree?

_xray-like image of the human head from profile view_

So I read more. I read what I could find in my local public library system. (I wonder what I would have read and learned had I instead had a proper university library at my fingertips.) I also bought a copy of Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, which intrigued and confused me. I was severely disappointed by Andrea Rock's The Mind at Night, because I'd naively assumed that I could read one book and then understand why people sleep and how dreaming works.

I read William Calvin's How Brains Think, which didn't actually tell me how brains think but did introduce me to some relevant terminology. I learned how complicated memory is and how to pronounce aplesia from Eric Kandel's memoir In Search Of Memory. Judith Rich Harris's No Two Alike was part of my introduction to the nature-nurture debates, a lot of twin studies, and just how important the environment and an organism's interactions with it are in determining what the organism is like.

I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, Stanislas Dehaene's The Number Sense, and some others, too. As before, I'm quite sure that I did not fully understand any of the theories presented, not having a background in cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, or neuroscience at that point.

Basically, I discovered the mind sciences at an opportune moment, in time to sign up for an introductory cognitive science course my freshman year.

And now?

I still don't know why or how I'm a self-aware person. No one does. I do, however, have a much better idea of the theories other folks have, the problems being tackled, and some of the methodologies being used in the quest. Maybe, now, I'll be able to help solve the mystery myself.


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