Pick A Field That You Can Stick To


Thursday, 9.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed. – Martina Navratilova

Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do from a young age – and pursue their interests. The rest of us muddle along and try to figure out what works along the way.

An important barrier is having the freedom to do what you want – it’s much harder to pursue an interest when you’re under pressure to bring in money and meet basic needs. It’s no surprise that early modern scientists were often men of means – they had the time and space to work on what interested them, unlike the workers on their fields.

If you do have the freedom to study what you want then at some point you start being asked to choose what field you’re working in. Again, this starts early in school. Not doing biology rules out medicine. Not doing science rules out engineering. Yes you can catch up later, but it’s hard.

A sensible strategy, in the early days, is to preserve optionality – a fancy way to say keep your options open. It’s possible to study some subjects that are functional – that you may use to earn a living while keeping your interests going. Optionality, however, dilutes your chances of doing any particular thing. In essence, you sacrifice a win big/lose all bet for a set of possible outcomes having a 10-20% chance of coming off.

Making big bets may be easier when you’re young – there is less to lose, especially if you have a family safety net to fall back on. It gets harder to do later because you can’t walk away from 10-15 years of investment in a particular field.

This seems a little abstract but it does have to do with my research question. There’s a field called Systems Thinking, which has 20 or so methods and methodologies that range from quantitative, such as system dynamics, to cybernetic, such as the Viable system model. I entered the field through an exposure to Systems Thinking and then found a niche called Problem Structuring Methods, which is my area of research interest.

Now, the question that I need to answer is what field am I working in. Systems science overlaps with, but is different to problem structuring. That choice of one field or the other changes the way in which one looks at the literature – at the body of material that is considered relevant – given the conceptual ground you are ploughing.

Similar challenges will probably be found in other scientific disciplines. Arguably you have conceptual differences in the way you approach sales – from the numbers game of some proponents to the consultative approach of others. It’s like deciding which sport works for you – some like the speed of basketball, others go for the experience of cricket.

When it comes down to it there are only a few ways to decide whether one approach is going to work or not. You have to ask yourself whether you’re doing it because you’re intrinsically interested or if you’re attracted to the rewards. And then you need to look at people who are a few years or decades ahead of you and see how they live their lives and see if that’s a model that you want for yourself.

And then you make a decision – and stick to it.


Karthik Suresh

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