Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Stagnating at the familiar

The laboratory I work in is really great. We have top-notch pcs, two shiny screens each, a big white board that is always covered in scribbles (some that are useful, others for fun). Seated next to me and across from me are my two best friends, also working on research or lecturing or development. We have a really good view of Pretoria from the window and the lab is open plan, spacious, light and airy - unlike so many others. 

Outside our particular lab room is a round table, where us and a few members from the lab next door meet everyday for lunch of whatever we decided to buy or bring with. If we are bored, there is inevitably someone interesting and academic making coffee in the kitchen downstairs to chat to. 

This sounds like a fantastic space to work in... and don't get me wrong, most of the time it really is. Unfortunately, it is not conclusive to out-of-the-box research thinking! But why is that? Is it just THIS space? What is wrong with it? It certainly aids to all other types of work: preparing lectures and practicals, developing the research group's open-source AI library, and writing up papers. The lab promotes a calm, familiar, friendly and organised mindset - even if I do have my two best friends to chat to next to me.

The issue, I think, is in the fact that out of the box thinking requires a portion of slightly uncomfortable chaos - putting us in a position where we are forced out of our comfort zone into the realm of the unexplored. To really benefit from reading a paper and analysing its depths or coming up with new ideas or algorithms, I find the lab to be the WORST place to do it. It's as if the familiarity of the laboratory allows one to slip into the comfortable little box too easily and instead of thinking of broader ideas, I scramble around the bottom on the box like a hamster, searching for gourmet food on the corners of the cage. The fact is - the hamster isn't going to find it. Instead the hamster may end up on Facebook looking at funny images and commenting on unrelated posts. :P Despite the charm of the space, if I try to think critically and creatively in the lab, I CANT!

Solution I have discovered to be simple really. Get out the lab. In fact, don't only get out the lab - get out the entire goddamn building!!! Working at a University, one has the benefits of trees and grass with benches and tables. The university is big enough and I could choose a new place every day if I wanted to and it would be weeks before I would have to return to the same spot. 

I have found that once I am outside, my mind feels more open and in some ways more logical - as if I can generalize properly and thus see the bigger picture. I find that I can think more critically and new ideas come more naturally. Planning feels purposeful and progress is inevitable. 

Inside the lab, my stagnating research is a giant pressure, full of looming deadlines (that I have never realyl defined). In the lab, research is everything. Outside the lab, research is just a part of life - something that needs the inspiration from the rest of life to function - and what do you know?  the pressure dissipates, thus resulting in more creative thinking and quality ideas. 

So now everyday, I start out outside, under a tree or on a bench with paper and pen or some journal articles that need to be read and the important parts summarized. Best idea I have had yet

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