Justin Li

Generative Protection (aka. Graduate School in Midsight)


I feel like I should talk about grad school and how my fourth year has somehow crept up on me, but really what interests me is the idea of generative protection, so I'll talk about that and use examples from grad school to illustrate it.

I first came across the idea of generative protection - or more generally, generativity - while I was working in Web Communications back at Northwestern, in 2006. We handled the website redesign for Northwestern Magazine, and one article I had to check was Elizabeth Blackwell's Redemption. The article was about Dan McAdams, a Northwestern psychology professor doing research on how people tell their life stories. One trait he points out is generativity, which is a measure of how much people want to leave a legacy. At the time, the only thing I noticed was that generative people also tend to be narcissistic. About a year later, I came across an article in the New York Times, This is Your Life (and How You Tell It). That article focused more on telling life stories and how it is healthy, but one quote about generativity stuck with me: "Often, too, [generative adults] say they felt singled out from very early in life - protected, even as others nearby suffered."

That sentence put words to an idea I've had since high school. An episode from 2004-01-16 in my journal, when someone asked me how I did in my chemistry exam and it was better than the scores they've heard so far, I wrote, "I knew, and I kind of felt sorry, like survivor's guilt, since every did so poorly but I was unscathed." This feeling was touched on in an earlier blog post about grad school. A month later, a friend asked me why I think I'm not good at taking compliments, and I replied:

I think my reaction to compliments comes from not being able to return the compliment. This happened a lot in high school and early in college, when I would get really good grades without really trying. Inevitably someone would ask me what I got, and after telling them they would say good job or something similar. But I know intuitively that they didn't do as well, so I feel guilty about it. Kinda like survivor's guilt, I guess. I've gotten better at just saying thankyou though.

I used the word "guilt", but the feeling was never explicitly negative. If I had to explain it, I would say that it's a sort of puzzlement - about why other people didn't do as well as I did, about why people find things so difficult while I have barely exerted myself. It was only recently that the phrase "generative protection" came to mind, but it conveys how I feel very well. It was as though I am detached from the situation in some way, so hardships that affect other people only pass through me.

The idea of generative protection came back to me at the end of last year, after I worked to pass my prelim that summer. The previous post on grad school might suggest that this feeling of easy accomplishment would have completely disappeared by then (and more so now, another year of the PhD grind later); this is true with research, but not with grad school in general.

In research, even by the first semester, I was feeling the full force of the impostor syndrome. So named because people feel like they're merely faking it, grad school is an environment that pumps out these kinds of people. As a result, every grad student thinks everyone else is doing better than they are, and no one feels like they know what they're doing. In a lab with three senior students, who seem to talk knowledgeably about their research areas, I was understandably intimidated. The funny thing was, after knowing them a little better, I learned that they were also intimidated by me, as I was quiet and always seemed to be working. It took me another long while before I understood that I was as smart as other people in the lab, that we were good at different things, and that we all tend to only notice the times when other people were smarter than us but not vice versa. This depression and later rebound in confidence fixed my feeling of generative protection. I now have a healthy, and hopefully relatively objective, view of my abilities and my own research.

But being a grad student is more than about research; it is also about being able to strike that balance between work and everything else. There are, I think, three reasons why this balance comes easily to me. The first is that I'm not afraid to take time off. I spent three of the last four weekends away from Ann Arbor: the first was part of a week-long bouldering trip to Georgia, while two more weekends were spent in Kentucky. I do feel slightly ashamed that I'm not working, but not enough to stop me from going. I am, of course, writing this post when I could be reading papers. The second reason is that I find other non-research grad school activities to busy myself with. I am the secretary for the computer science graduate students group (CSEG), so I have a non-passive role organizing events for the department. This semester I'm also an engineering teaching consultant (ETC), so I spend time observing and giving suggestions to teaching assistants. Doing "work" for these roles gives me a break from research without inflicting too heavy a sense of guilt. The final reason work-life balance is easy is that, to be honest, work is fun. I enjoy separating theoretical confounds and laying down theory for my research, and to some extent am willing to spend "play" time doing so. I've previously mentioned the spars with my dad about the work-play distinction; my relative lack of such distinction greatly reduces how stressful I feel. Plus, as Larry Birnbaum said, one doesn't have to be brilliant all the time; if one is brilliant ten minutes a day, that's already pretty good.

In truth, the work-life balance issue isn't what makes me feel protected. I have yet to talk to a grad student who truly feels that their work is destroying their non-work life. I wrote the previous paragraph because I felt like humblebragging, but also because I promised I would talk about grad school. What makes me feel protected is that I am still in grad school at all. In the past year and a half, I know four people who left grad school without their (PhD) degrees. I only know two of them with any depth, but both of their reasons for leaving are the same: they are not sure whether grad school is right for them. Keep in mind that this is after three years into the program, after what most people consider the horrible second year; they have both passed their prelims (and will therefore likely get a Master's), and are capable of conducting independent research. For them, it wasn't a matter of ability, but a matter of desire. Neither of them have found a topic they are willing to invest time in, and they are not sure it's worth the time to continue banging their heads against the wall to figure it out. At least one of them is not sure whether it's the research topic (or lack thereof) or the research process that is putting them off, and feels it's better to try something new. Their stories made me realize how easily I have taken on the role of a grad student and how I feel grad school is, if not the right choice, at least not the wrong choice for me.

The descriptions I have given so far of why I might feel I am protected have been about events in my life. One could ask what it was that led me to excel in school and to be so sure that I want to teach at the university level. The only answers I have for these two questions are that "I am good at recognizing patterns" (which is something someone else said of me) and that "I am introspective". These answers do not provide any insight, at least not at this level, and I am not prepared to explore them at this time. Another path of questioning, one I am more interested in, is why I perceive myself as being protected. Equivalently, one might ask why I don't feel as though I have tried very hard in my accomplishments. After all, generative protection is a subjective feeling, not an objective fact; the same event of remaining in grad school could be interpreted as the result of hard work and perseverance. I spend a lot of weekends coding or writing papers, and evenings are often spent sitting at coffee shops exploring the theoretical foundations of my work. Given that I do invest time in research (or climbing), why do I still feel shielded from the difficulties of life - that, to quote from Atlas Shrugged, I've "never suffered"?

I don't have a clear answer to that question, but I do have two related hypotheses. The first is that, once I have accomplished something difficult, that task seems much easier in hindsight. The closest approximation to this idea is what education psychologists call the curse of knowledge. It describes the phenomenon where experts - people who are good at a particular task - find it difficult to explain how to perform that task to novices. The underlying reason for this curse is that expertise changes the neural pathways in the brain, making what previously required conscious thought into something that is automatic and instinctive. For me, the same mechanism may lead to a strong myopic bias, leading me think that the task was never difficult, despite the memory of how I struggled to accomplish it in the first place. I had tweeted this idea some months ago: "It turns out that - for someone with a pretty huge ego - I tend to trivialize my accomplishments."

The second theory is encapsulated by this quote from the climber Adam Ondra in the film Progression, when he compared himself to Chris Sharma: "I think I'm basically weak." Ondra was comparing their ability to do strength-based climbing moves, in which there might be a legitimate difference in their ability. Objectively, however, Ondra remains one of the strongest (if not the strongest) climber in the world; his accomplishments alone is strong evidence that he is not a weak climber. I have come to call this the weakness mindset: the idea that there is nothing special about our ability despite being extremely competent. The perception of weakness, together with my continued survival despite that weakness, leads to the conclusion that I am protected. A second implication of this belief is that I must not have worked very hard or trained very long, as otherwise I would not be weak. This elegantly explains both the feeling of protection and the feeling that no effort was exerted.

My suspicion is both the hindsight explanation and the weakness mindset are expressions of something deeper, a get-it-done-at-all-cost mentality that makes any effort worthwhile. That, however, is the subject of another post.

Postscript: There are at least two omissions in this essay, which were realized only in the process of writing (hence, an essay). First, I realized that there are two ways to define the lack of suffering: that of not having worked hard, and that of not having encountered difficult external circumstances. This ambiguity in the meaning of "suffer" is important, as it is the quote from Atlas Shrugged that first inspired this subject. Second, I acknowledge that there is no immediate connection between not exerting oneself and feeling protected. Their relationship will have to be cleared up at a later date.