The Interface of Rose Bowls and Priestly Medals

Few equate chemistry with (American) football.  You could imagine my surprise to see that this year’s chemistry SURP program featured a guest lecturer that would cover the symbiotic relationship between ethics and athletics.  My freshman year of college, I had a philosophy professor that taught Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics through a football analogy, but that’s the closest I’ve ever made a connection between scholarly aptitude and a rugged manly sport.  After getting “special permission” from the department to attend (I’m definitely not a SURP student), I got the rare opportunity to sit in the same room with a prominent sports figure—the head coach of our University’s football team.

Those who know me will probably know which coach I’m talking about, but for the sake of anonymity, I’ll simply refer to him as “Coach.”  Arriving a few minutes late, “Coach” darted through the door and up to the head of the classroom avoiding eye contact.  Truthfully, I saw no difference between his social manner and most other profs (no smiling, reasonably polite yet focused).  Rather than stand in a traditional lecturing position, Coach elected to sit at eye level with the 20 of us (some of whom were there to bombard him with football questions).  He started the discussion by saying, “I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to talk about, but this’ll be pretty informal.  I figure I’ll talk about ethics from my perspective then answer any questions you guys have, except about the football team.”  That was a pretty reasonable request because if I were hypothetically in a room with Terry Francona, he probably wouldn’t want me to ask why he hadn’t benched Manny Ramirez weeks ago.

The crux of Coach’s discussion was two-fold and actually quite simple: (a) goal setting is paramount to excellence and (b) you have to learn to overcome anything that gets in the way of preventing you from reaching your goals.  He offered up this story:

“I asked one of my wide receivers, ‘what’s your goal for the year.’  And, he says, ‘Coach, I want to catch 50 passes this season.’  That’s not a goal.  That’s an end result.  His goal should be to push himself to become a better player so that you are able to catch 50 passes…Now, if you mix distractions into the equation, you’ve introduced another hurdle to cross for you to reach your goal.”

At one point, Coach drew on King’s street sweeper quotation.  For those of you who are not familiar here it is:

“If you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

Coach’s overall message?  Give it everything you have and you can sleep easy at night knowing you did your best.  “It” in his case is defined as hard work on the football field.

That night I tried to distill away the football and civil rights references to understand how I could apply Coach’s lessons to my job/education as a chemist.  I asked myself, “should I focus on making sure I have 25 papers before I leave grad school (I know, it’s a dream) or should I spend more time on developing my skills to be the best chemist I can be so that I can give my best at trying to get 25 papers before graduate school.”  Ultimately I arrived at the later option. 

I realize that while I do give an honest effort on most days, there’s always room for improvement.  I argue that the blogging, literature searching and even podcasts I listen to are making me become a smarter scientist.  But, do I really need to be listening to the new Tantric album while I’m trying to think my way through a reaction, for example?  Should I eliminate my distractions (including occasional, social interaction) and maintain focus at all times?  When do you call it a day?  8 hours?  13?  20?  When is the job truly done?  How do you correctly balance work and family/personal time?  Perhaps I don’t have a good objective answer to any of these questions.  But I’ll tell you that my lab bench and desk are now the cleanest and distraction-free they’ve been in a while.  Let’s see how long this lasts.


P.S.  I definitely plan on seeing the new X-Files movie this weekend (I own an “Asian Collectors Edition” of seasons 1-9).  It appears to have bad reviews, but I’m a diehard fan, so I’ll go see it anyway.  How about you?


  1. I like the way you chose to look at the talk. I had a similar experience the other day when I saw some of Larry Miller’s stand up for the first time. According to him, his father had three jobs and went to school at night. I realized then that my work ethic could clearly be a little better.

    Looking at my desk, it’s littered with papers and assorted odds and ends. I find myself getting work done in the library or at coffee shops just to get away from the distraction of my desk! We all have bad habits but we have to do more than just admit to them.

    • “I find myself getting work done in the library or at coffee shops just to get away from the distraction of my desk!”

      ..or other lab/officemates…eesh…

  2. Mr. Mad Scientist says:

    My boss only cares about the # of papers because his boss only cares about the # of papers, and so on. It’s hard to be a good chemist when you’re forced to quantify work for the sake of publishing.

    The End Begins is pretty good, but Tantric’s first album was much better. After We Go was a steaming pile.

  3. Unless you are publishing in Nature or Science, your skill is judged by the number of papers.

    And yes, I am looking very much forward to the X-Files movie!

  4. Unfortunately, I have to agree. My PI says frequently that more papers will, in turn, result in more employment options.

    The new X-Files was pretty interesting. I liked the stand alone story/MotW format (when we left the movie the other day, my wife asked me, “Wasn’t it supposed to be about aliens”). Didn’t Scully look odd with really long hair?

  5. The movie sucked! Just sucked! Horrible.
    Too much crap about stem cells and god and some stupid sick kid and forgiveness and such, and not enough about investigations of wackiness!

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