On creating your own path through life


This weekend, I took my kid to a Mythbusters live show. When I left, I was inspired.

The source of inspiration wasn’t the world’s most impressive paintball gun, modified from an anti-aircraft machine gun. Though that was pretty cool.

I was inspired by learning about the wandering path taken by Jamie Hyneman. He’s the quieter Mythbuster that always wears a beret and has walrus-y facial hair. A one-page bio of Hyneman was in the big glossy program connected to the show.

As long as it’s all true, it seems that Jamie Hyneman has led one hell of a life. I’ll try to capture his trajectory, based on what I learned from his bio as well as his Q&A session during the show. The timing of all these things is rather vague to me, but here are highlights:

  • He grew up in a small Midwestern town. When he was 14, at his request, his parents sent him to a hardcore wilderness survival training school in Wyoming.
  • When he graduated from high school he bought a pet shop, and then sold it after a few years.
  • He went to college and got a degree in Russian. At one point along the line, he worked as a librarian for the United Nations in Geneva.
  • He worked as crew on sailing vessels in the Caribbean. He eventually bought his own ship, and got all the certifications to be a captain, and sailed around for a living.
  • He was interested in the various creative challenges with movie effects, so he left for New York City, where he started working in entry-level jobs in movie production, working to gain new skills.
  • He moved to San Francisco to access more exciting movie production work, and when his company folded he bought up the shop and went into business for himself. One of the guys he hired along the line was Adam Savage. At some point he asked Adam to join him in a pilot for Mythbusters, and you can figure out the trajectory for the following ten years up to the present.

I hear far too often, “What can I do with a degree in X?” This question comes with a false assumption: what you do after college must directly follow from the undergraduate degree. When a premed asks me what’s a good major, I say: “What do you find interesting? Since you’re going to be a doctor for your whole life, then what do you want to do before you get trained as a doctor? Art? Philosophy? Economics? Cell Biology? Music?”

Jamie Hyneman became a Mythbuster, with a degree in Russian. One of my siblings became a financial manager with a degree in Art. Another became a middle school special education teacher with a degree in Theater. A friend of mine became an FBI agent with a degree in Biology.

We chart our own paths in life. Far too often, we let our past decisions dictate our future directions far more than necessary.

The way that academics discuss their jobs in the university, they make it sound like we are captive to our disciplines. Tenure has been called the golden handcuffs. That’s pretty much the silliest notion ever. You can study — and do — whatever you want with tenure.

Linus Pauling, a tenured protein chemist, won a goddamn Nobel Peace Prize because of his social activism. This didn’t happen because he was handcuffed to the laboratory. Then again, nobody ever used the term “golden handcuffs” in the day of Linus Pauling. Nobody told him he couldn’t be both a scientist and social activist.

Jamie Hyneman could have made a go at his Indiana pet shop until retirement, or he could have stayed on as a Russian librarian, or he could have been running a sailing business in the Caribbean for his career. Or he could have kept to movie effects and never made a TV pilot. Mythbusters isn’t the culmination of his life. It’s just one chapter, albeit a very public one. He’s chosen an exciting and rewarding route.

All of our lives are short, and from the looks of it, Jamie Hyneman is making the most of his.

My trajectory is as linear as Hyneman’s has been circuitous. I went to high school, then college. Then I farted around for a year before grad school. Then I did a postdoc, visiting faculty, assistant professor, associate professor. I’ve lived in different places but I have been a scientist since the age of 20, and I enjoy science so much, that I’ll just keep doing it.

I have a very rare gift – tenure – and I don’t want to waste it. I have the opportunity to attempt the extraordinary, and am able to keep my stable job and pension in my back pocket the whole time. I’d like to think that what I am doing, on a day-to-day basis, is a part of this attempt. This blog is part of the attempt, and the continued effort to provide opportunities to my students is part of that attempt. This attempt at the extraordinary means that I will continue to pursue high-risk experiments that might not work but could turn out to be exciting. I’d like to think that with less personal security, I’d be just as inclined to take chances. I don’t know how true that would be.

The most extraordinary endeavors can also appear, on the outside, to be the most mundane. Being a parent, and spouse, is a special responsibility and joy. Sometimes the most extraordinary thing is making waffles for my family on a weekend morning. That might seem like an odd take-home message from a night out with the Mythbusters. But if Jamie can give up his gig as a Russian librarian to become a movie special effects wiz, then I can be, and do, far more than the stereotyped professor, husband and father.

This purposefulness about living an intentional life did not emerge in isolation. Overwhelming anything related to Mythbusters, this weekend my family experienced a loss that was was simultaneously sudden and gradual. I’ve been freshly reminded of the brevity and preciousness of life.

Perhaps the best way to honor those that have given us life is to make utility of this life as much as possible. It can be entirely workable that inspiration for our own utility can come from unconventional sources.

18 thoughts on “On creating your own path through life

  1. Brilliant essay!
    Stepping outside our field or discipline, or simply being aware enough mentally to envision a ‘bigger picture’ is fundamental to success, IMO. Having read several bios of people who lacked formal education, or, as in the case of Steve Jobs, lacked completing formal education, I was left with a thought, which you specifically address: purposefulness. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and others, may not have completed university, but they used the energy of being surrounded by educated people to provide impetus to their purposefulness, towards their own success.

    When I go on one of my “pro-education” tirades, students will often use Jobs as a counter-argument, i.e. “he didn’t finish college.” Very true, he didn’t, I reply. But he lead a purpose-filled life. He surrounded himself with other like-minded people (mostly), and he hired a bunch of people who were formally educated. He also traveled extensively and exposed himself to lots of different influences. In other words, he didn’t sit around playing video games or get caught up in mundane diversions (though he got stoned a lot.) I tell my students, “If you can do something that provides you the income and comfort in your life and it doesn’t require college, by all means do that, but do it with purpose. And, if you become the next Zuckerberg, send my department a big check.”

    Great, great essay.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post. First of all, I am sorry for your family’s loss. Far too often, I think that we feel pigeonholed into continuing to do the same things that we’ve done previously. I’m trying very hard to figure out what I want to do for a career, and I must keep reminding myself that even though my degrees will be in ecology and entomology, I can change paths completely if I want. Doing so will just require that I work hard and get whatever experiences I need to in order to be successful. Having a nonlinear career trajectory is a bit frightening, but also liberating and exciting. I don’t see myself having a traditional, easily described job, so I think that I will be taking a circuitous route to whatever I end up doing. That’s pretty awesome though. I have a wide range of interests and skills, and I hope that I get to explore them all at some point. Again, thank you.

  3. A really nice post, Terry – thanks for sharing your experiences. Your post reminds me of how great this world is, and it gives me great optimism in a (sometimes) grim and depressing world. You are so right on so many points. Tenure is a rare gift, and I think, probably ever day, about what an amazing gift it is – and I too hope to do *some* things that brush up against the extraordinary. At the very least, I hope I can work on creating an environment where my kids and students (readers of my blog, my extended family, friends etc etc) can feel good about thinking creatively, being curious, and being welcomed for expressing themselves.

  4. Oh, and I also wanted to extend my deepest condolences for your family’s loss. (Meant to state that, above).

  5. Very sorry for your loss Terry, wish you and your family all the best.

    The post is really lovely, and I think it’s absolutely right.

    In a different context, I’ve noted Steve Jobs’ own circuitous route to success, about which he was quite eloquent: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/steve-jobs-on-the-value-of-fundamental-research/

    You say your own path was quite linear. Mine was too–I’ve known I wanted to be a prof since I was about 16. In retrospect I think part of what I liked about the path was that it was straight and well-defined, and led to tenure. I’m risk-averse (or maybe change-averse) in many ways, I doubt I’d have been happy living Jamie’s life. Although I’m sure that walking the path I chose to walk (and being lucky enough to have had it work out for me) probably also changed me as a person, perhaps making me more change-averse than I otherwise might’ve turned out to be. (Although I do think that even the most linear-appearing life is actually just one realization of a stochastic process that might’ve turned out differently: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-road-not-taken-for-me-and-for-ecology/)

    Like you, now that I do have the security of tenure, I’m quite self-conscious of whether I’m using that rare privilege to the best of my ability, taking the intellectual risks I should be taking given that I’m not risking my career. And like you, I’ve decided that, for me, blogging is one good way to use that privilege.

  6. Shameless plug (but on behalf of a guest poster, not me): one of my favorite posts ever (not just on our blog, on any blog on anything) is Carla Davidson talking about how the best thing that ever happened to her was failing to become the academic she thought she wanted to be. She subsequently became a reality tv star (!), and is now an independent consultant:


  7. Thanks, Terry, for an important message, stated eloquently. I’m sorry for your loss.
    PS. Hi, Emilio!
    PPS. The photo at the top of this Web page looks suspiciously like the view from the top of the Carbono tower at La Selva Biological Station. Is it?

  8. I’m sorry for your loss.

    I appreciate the reminder about Linus Pauling. One thing that scares me about my chosen career is the fear that I won’t be able to do the kind of activism I do now when I’m a full-fledged professor (assuming that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets a TT professorship), if only because my future colleagues/department chair/tenure committee will decide that I’m putting too much effort into something that is alien to them and not science. I’m used to being a token STEM person in activism (the exception here is the climate movement, which is full of scientists and aspiring scientists).

    I often feel like there’s pressure toward depoliticization in STEM, both in the sense of people not getting involved in outside political activities and in the sense of people not thinking about connections between politics and their science. I’m fortunate to be somewhat insulated from that at a university that has social justice explicitly baked into its mission, but I still feel it a bit.

    There was a welcome exception to this last week in my advisor’s seminar, when my advisor, who is among other things a roboticist, brought up the implications of automation for low- and middle-skill workers. It was the first time I ever heard someone in computer science suggest that this was a concern that scientists in the field should be thinking about, and that was cool. But I was the only one in the class whose response didn’t boil down to “This always happens with technological advancement, it’s just how progress works, and the market will eventually deal, so why should we care?”

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