Motivation. Portugal. Excellence

A fairly long interview with me was published last week in Portuguese at colisor. It talk about my upcoming book, Portugal and EMBL.

It is in Portuguese, but I translated (semi-manually: first google translate, then fixed it) some sections, which I thought could be interesting:

I discussed motivation in general:

I think that the ability to self-motivate will become an increasingly important factor for success. I speak not only of professional success, but also some personal satisfaction (how many times you hear “I always thought I would like to someday…”). With the internet and digital technology, large doors opened up for those able to work self-motivated.

We can learn a huge amount without paying anything for it, we can create music and put online, we can make a movie for little money, we can write a book with a laptop … If the aim is to become famous or get rich, it is difficult. But, if we want to do something for the small community of people who are interested in the same topic that we (either machine learning or music that fuses fado and electronic sounds) then today can reach this community with fewer barriers. But it is there work that it takes to get there.

One thing that helps me is Beeminder. Another thing that helps is social pressure. It is a powerful force: I told lot of people around me that I was writing. So when you ask “so the book?” it puts some pressure on you. It feels to to be able to say “I just finished a chapter” rather than “do not even look at it for months.”

(This is basically why I my daughter goes to a Montesorri school).

I also talked about the problems in Portugal. I also still stand behind what I previously wrote in my earlier blog:

The institutional infrastructure in Portugal is bad (the physical infrastructure is good, but I think the country has reached the limit of what is possible to do more physical infrastructure). There are many very well qualified people and they could be very capable of doing things, but without infrastructure…

At one point, in mid-November I told a student: “try to decide what you want to order as soon as possible, otherwise we will only get it by the middle of January”. This was to order a small electronic equipment that could be purchased in two hours by going to a store (and it would be so long because we would take the subway). In the U.S., we would have ordered online, with delivery within 3 days (or gone to the a store if we really needed it fast). But, because of the need to do this through a long series of intermediaries (steps were still made by fax! In 2012), and with Christmas, there was a risk it would take months. All this for a purchase of about 300 euros. I realized that being in Portugal was being damaging to me if I was starting to think like this.

Finally, a comment on that buzzword excellence:

Another difference [between research in Portugal and at EMBL] is the culture of excellence. I think this word is often used to mean certain policy choice of hiring (“excellent” people), but I’d say that’s to misunderstand the concept and try to “get excellence on the cheap” (without having to change anything). Excellence is a collective phenomenon. If a excellent person has to wait two months due to institutional impediments, the result will probably not be excellent.

Excellence is about high expectations and high support all around.

If you can read Portuguese, you should read the whole interview.


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