The 2015 Challenge: Entry 10 – A Lesson of Persistence

This week has been tough. I spent a lot of time trying to make progress in my research, but ended up frustrated everyday. Even worse, because my research requires working with a computer, I found myself wasting time throughout the day by surfing the web randomly. Nothing is more dangerous to productivity than a habit of using Internet at work. Maybe the solution is telling myself to stop opening a browser during research, right? Unfortunately, the issue is more complicated; it demands a serious and not-so-simple answer.

Actually I begin each research session with a good mood. I usually have several ideas of possible solutions to the problem at hand. Then I implement these the ideas and pray they would work. But most of the time they fail, and I become disappointed. I repeat the cycle over and over for another 30 minutes or so, and if I do not get a satisfactory solution, I would be deeply frustrated. You may guess what happens next. A click at the Google Chrome’s or Firefox’s icon opens an escape for me, at least temporarily. This is not a great way to do research, I suppose. Something must be changed in my routine.

Yesterday when I collected my stuffs before heading home, I recalled a blog post by Matt Might, a computer science professor at the University of Utah. He has a few articles about PhD students that I really enjoy. In one of those articles, he wrote about the qualities every successful PhD student should have. Persistence is the most important one.

Let me quote a passage from the article:

To survive this period, you have to be willing to fail from the moment you wake to the moment your head hits the pillow. You must be willing to fail for days on end, for months on end and maybe even for years on end. The skill you accrete during this trauma is the ability to imagine plausible solutions, and to estimate the likelihood that an approach will work.

If you persevere to the end of this phase, your mind will intuit solutions to problems in ways that it didn’t and couldn’t before. You won’t know how your mind does this. (I don’t know how mine does it.) It just will. [emphasis mine]

Everything Matt said about persistence rings true. It is enlightening to realize that I have the right to fail when I do research. If I know that it is okay, even normal, to fail repeatedly, then I can feel better about myself. I will be more likely to persist working on the problem, generating other ideas, implementing them, and possibly facing a lot of failures. It sounds like a huge test of character, but PhD is exactly that.

Last night I also went to a talk by Steven Squyres and Bill Nye to celebrate the 150th birthday of Cornell. They discussed the joy (and the pain) of discovery. Steven likened his work for the Opportunity mission on Mars to an adventure. He and his team, all brilliant people, most of them having PhD degrees from prestigious institutions over the world, still had to endure countless failures during the mission. Many times they even had no idea of what they were doing. Still they persisted, and eventually they successfully landed the rover on Mars. That is a spectacular feat of discovery.

Research is discovery.  You do not know what will be coming your way. You just hope somehow you will figure all out. And you need persistence, a heck lot of it.

(Photo source)


The 2015 Challenge – Entry 9: Challenges Still Ahead

Last week I met Brian for a dinner. He was my partner in a class last semester. I went fishing with him several times (actually I watched him fishing and did little else). He told me that he’s ready to quit PhD for a full-time job. I was stunned for a moment. I knew he had been struggling for a while, but still it made me realize PhD is not for everyone. PhD is not college, not even close. It is tough to do your own works and overcome your own problems most of the time. Clearly Brian was not prepared for the change, even though he got a degree from the number 1 electrical engineering program in the country.

Fortunately, I will remain to continue, at least for another year thanks to the funding I recently received from my advisor. But that does not mean much in my 2015 Challenge. I created the Challenge not with the funding, but my self-improvement as the ultimate goal. Everything was going okay until I caught a cold during my visit to Dallas, and I was in a bad physical condition for the last two weeks. My research did not go as fast as I hoped, not only because of the cold, but also because the problem was getting harder.

Today I’d like to discuss about two aspects in my life that I’m working on. I believe if I make significant improvement in these two areas, I will finish the 2015 Challenge on a high note.

The first issue is sleeping. I have not had enough hours of sleep each day. After a few years I realize that I actually need a full 8 hours of sleep a night. However, my bad time management during the evening, my habits, and some personal issue collectively prevented me from getting to bed on time. I am still too attached to the computer, and the time I spend surfing web has occupied nearly the whole evening. I have done the first step as I have opted out of Facebook. I also force myself to read and practice playing an instrument, 30 minutes of each activity per night. Of course, getting rid of a nearly 10-year-old habit will be challenging. At least I have experienced the amount of energy I should have after an eight-hour sleep last week. That will be the motivation for me in the upcoming month.

The second issue is related to the first: I need to have the energy to battle the problems in both research and books. It demoralizes me each time I read a problem and have no idea how to solve it, although I think I understand the book chapter well enough. I often worry that I will never have enough time to conquer the problems and to gain the insight of the topic in question. And that means I will fail to catch up all the smart students in my research group. Nevertheless, I know I have to keep working and make progress, step by step. I know too well that if I avoid suffering now, undoubtedly I will regret later. I determine not to repeat my mistakes in the past. Everyday I will remind myself that I need to suffer now and reap the rewards later.

(Image source)

2015 Challenge – Entry 8: Midway point

Next week will be the last one before the spring break at Cornell. I think this is a good time to reflect on what has happened during this self-project.

Good news

Last week I was offered a new computer by my advisor. The computer still belongs to the research group but I can personally use it for the next five years. I’d love a new computer, but I was even happier because my advisor seemed to officially accept me into his group. I will not need to worry about my funding during next summer. I also achieved one of the main goals of the 2015 Challenge. My effort has paid me off nicely, and thanks to the 2015 Challenge, it only took me nearly two months to persuade my advisor that I could do some research.

Other great things

The 2015 Challenge has not only allowed me to accomplish more work, but also provided me great joy in learning. Last week, while continued with my review of basic electronic circuits, I decided to re-do the projects in my Analog Integrated Circuit Design course from last semester. I did a bad job in the course, and surely I did not learn much. At the time I was even scared of doing these projects because they were difficult and time-consuming. Now it is a different story.

I made progress in the first project very quickly. I found it to be incredibly straightforward. Of course this was the second time I did it so it might be expected. However, in only four hours, I was able to surpass my work from last semester. The new amplifier design consisted of less transistors, yet had better gain and used less power. More importantly, I was having fun all along, the feeling I rarely had last semester. I can confirm now that I love electronics, and I love to be an electrical engineer.

I think I have made a huge leap during the 2015 Challenge. The effect might not be obvious at first, but I’m glad I did initiate this self-project. Unlike me from last semester, now I’m a man with a purpose. A man with a dream.

(Photo source)

The 2015 Challenge – Entry 7: The Luxury of Doing Nothing

As I said earlier in a blog entry, my schedule allows me to do nothing in the evening. I never plan to work after roughly 6pm everyday. This idea may seem absurd since graduate students, especially ones in a research program, are supposed to work until 11pm on a weekday. I heard about these schedules a lot here at Cornell. So why do I insist on doing nothing in the evening?

It’s about Deliberate Practice
For me, to concentrate on study for 6 hours per day is already an enormous challenge. If I work on logistic tasks like emails, meetings, phone calls, etc. then a 12-hour work day would be possible. But for doing creative works that require me to stretch my mind, to think hard and struggle for hours on end, I believe having a fixed schedule (9 to 5) is a good idea. With this schedule I can have time to recharge my energy and continue working hard the following day.

Again, I want to reiterate the point of deliberate practice. I’d rather push myself to exhaustion at 5pm than try to go home at midnight. I think many students just get the wrong idea. They commit to a huge number of working hours, believing more hours mean more effective. In other words, they do everything to ensure that they can leave work at 11pm. This lies the main issue: most students can stay late because they work with limited focus. I have seen many surfing webs, checking Facebook, chatting with colleagues for hours during the day. No wonder why many graduate students complain about having no work-life balance.

(I understand each research field is different. For a biology student that needs to work at the lab most of the time, it can be tough to have a fixed schedule.)

Learn to Relax
It is important to remember that even machines need periodic rest to function well. We also should relax to relieve stress, enjoy time with friends and above all, to be excited when coming to work the next morning. Unfortunately, in the current world of internet and social networks, people have both a hard time focusing and a hard time relaxing. We are overly attached to a screen these days, be it a TV, a laptop, or a smartphone. We forget about having the luxury of doing nothing. Sometimes, I just want to close my eyes, turn on some soothing music, and enjoy the moment.

During the 2015 Challenge, I found that the more time I spend without my computer, the better I feel. Next week I will share with you about my plan of learning to relax. You read it right. Let’s learn to relax.

(Photo source)

The 2015 Challenge – Entry 6: The Slower, The Better

Joy of Learning

Last week I encountered a problem about bi-polar transistors (BJTs) while reading a book,  Art of Electronics. For people not familiar with electronics, circuits made by transistors are the building blocks for the majority of electronic systems. I was frustrated because the problem was supposed to be simple. Usually when I could not think through a problem, I just move on, believing that somehow I will be able to solve it later.

I am always wrong. I would never solve the problem, and it means I never truly understand the concepts, BJT in this case. If you don’t fully understand an issue, you tend to forget it. That’s the hard truth about study. You need to put in the effort; you need to endure the difficulty; you must deal with frustration until you understand whatever you’re trying to read or to solve. It is too easy to make my mistake — afraid of spending more effort. To be fair, time was an issue as well. During college, I was forced to take 16-18 credits every semester. My bad time management did not allow me to read more slowly and solve more problems.

Back to the BJT problem, I knew I could move on as usual, pretending I could solve it. But I remembered about my past, and I realized that no one was punching a clock. I also did not do this to earn a grade. I did not need to submit anything to anyone. I had time. Then I decided to read the page again, word by word. I determined to understand each word and each statement made by the authors. It sounded painful, but actually it was not that bad. After roughly 40 minutes, I found myself understanding the issue almost completely. I finally conquered it, and that might the first time I did it without external pressures, grade for example.

I was overjoyed. For the remains of the week, I approached any reading the same way. I was amazed at my quick understanding. This development seemed ironic at first; I spent more time reading, yet it was a faster way to master the concepts. The truth is, if I spend less time, I would never get it. More importantly, without a solid understanding of the fundamentals, it is impossible to enjoy learning the more advanced topics. You will get lost in no time and blame your intelligence instead. I did.

Two Takeaways 

1. To enjoy learning a difficult subject, such as analog integrated circuits design, I have to understand the materials, in depth.

2. To accomplish the above requirement, I need a hell lot of time. Time is precious. I cannot afford to waste time. I’m thankful that the 2015 Challenge have helped me get back on track.

(Photo source)

The 2015 Challenge – Entry 5: A note about Notebooks

It is the end of February already, but the winter here seems to just get started. At least I have received some sunny days lately. The challenge is going quite well. Still several issues remain but I’m making respectable progress with the current pace.

28 hours This Week
Yesterday I ended the day with another 5 hours of study, bringing the total tally to 24 for the week. As I wrote in my last entries, my goal was initially working for 20 quality hours a week. It means I have surpassed my weekly goal in only five days. I plan to work 3-4 hours on Sunday as well, and I hope to achieve 28-hour mark for the first time. That is my ideal number of hours. I doubt I can put in more hours without compromising the quality.

It has already been a struggle to keep this pace. I find myself unable to focus numerous times during the day. So my objective now is to increase the quality in each hour, not the quantity. I know this is the first time I have done a major challenge in my life, and it is okay for my mind to wander time and again. Hopefully I will be patient and consistent.

Nice Notebooks Make a Difference
Cal Newport, one of my favorite authors, once wrote in his blog that using nice notebooks improved his productivity in research. You may think it is ridiculous. I did. It seems absurd to believe that using nice notebooks is the key to productivity. Nevertheless, I gave this idea a try at the beginning of this project – the 2015 Challenge. The result? It really made a (subtle) difference.

I began by buying two Black n’ Red notebooks, $7 each (compared to $.15 Walmart notebooks,) one as my research journal, and the other as my self-study journal. I found that each time I open the notebook, I have a desire to write down important things. The notebooks look neat, and I want to caress them, as I do with my favorite books. All of these are just psychological effects, I acknowledge, but it raises my mood each time I look at it, and that is enough for me to continue buying great notebooks.

This is nothing different from guitarists wanting nice guitars, pianists enjoying nice pianos, tennis players loving nice rackets. The tools do not make the players play better music or better tennis, but nice equipments may help people gain some extra motivation to keep practicing. If it is true, then they are worth all the money.

The 2015 Challenge – Entry 4: Progress so far

Last entries
1. Introduction
2. No Music on-the-go
3. Plan for Research Attack

My Goal of 20-hour Week

Last week I barely achieved my goal of accomplishing 20 hours of research. This week I’m on the right track to beat the 20-hour mark again. I’m pleased with my current progress because it is not easy at all. 20 hours really do not sound like much. It is only about 4 hours per day, 5 days a week. However, doing 4 quality hours of work is exhausting, especially with my current capability. Note that I do not count the total time I spend at the library or at the lab each day. Usually I arrive the library at 9.30 am and leave around 5.30 pm. It means I spend 8 hours a day in school, but quality works only account for a half of those hours.

I don’t want to increase that hour tally anyway. I opt for quality rather than quantity. I want to do 20 hours of great quality and save my time for other activities: group meetings, research talks and writing practice. I also need to improve my endurance for long, intense study sessions (as well as for better soccer playing.)

I need to remind myself this is a 5-year marathon. I would be burnt out if I make sprints early on. I want to consistently make small progresses towards my goal.

Areas for Improvement

  • Need to wake up earlier. Although it is difficult in this kind of winter. The morning is the coldest during the day.
  • Set the goal for the day and try to accomplish it as soon as possible. I should leave for home or hit the gym early. It is never helpful to force myself to stay in the library until 6pm.
  • Continue to get rid of technology. I will stop bring my tablet to school on a regular basis. My required books have arrived.
  • After one hour or two, I should change my place of study. Environment seems to affect my intensity. Also I don’t want to stay with a computer for a long time, because I tend to surf the web when I’m tired.