Friday, March 22, 2013

When a Strength Becomes a Weakness

I come across a lot of bright people doing research, be they graduate students, scientists, technicians, or project managers.  One strength common to all these people is that they're able to learn new things, usually very quickly.

I usually pin this ability down to people having an innate desire to experience the "Wow, that's cool!" moments that come with gaining knowledge of something that's not known to you.  After many years, it's a character trait that can't be quashed very easily and so it permeates many things you do.  These people are drawn to learn about new and unknown things which is why they ended up in a research career. 

Learning new things is a great strength when you're trying to discover a scientific story that's completely new to the world.

Sometimes, however, this strength becomes a huge weakness.

A lot of work that goes into scientific discovery isn't glamorous, breathtaking, or interesting (even to people doing the work).  Stocking labs, doing inventory, managing software, documentation, and many other tasks are neccessary but not central to discovering new science, but there's always something to learn within each of these activities. 

Here's where the skill of recognizing when 'good enough is good enough' comes in handy.  The desire to learn about any of these task in great detail leads people down roads with little payoff, compared to becoming the expert in the one thing you're actually trying to accomplish.