February 2015 (assistant professor)
Learning to filter incoming stimulation is essential for becoming an effective professional. Here I tell a quick story about my failure to filter early on in my career.
Learning to filter incoming stimulation is essential for becoming an effective professional. (So is learning to make blatant generalizations.)
I'll illustrate with an anecdote from my first summer internship at Google, way back in 2007 after my first year of grad school. I was put on a quasi-researchy project to tune C and C++ memory allocators, which involved lots of code tweaks followed by firing off overnight benchmark runs on the compute cluster. Every morning I'd inspect the graphs from the previous night's run, reflect with my boss, and then iterate from there. My boss was pretty enthused, since this was his pet project that he got funding for an intern to work on. He had tons of ideas for what I could try.
Every single day I frantically scribbled down notes on his various suggestions that came at breakneck speeds – try this setting, tweak this other option, check out that toolkit, talk to this person, show that person, re-run that benchmark with this setting. Sometimes he would even walk over to my desk and strike up an impromptu conversation, then fire off more enthusiastic suggestions, interrupting whatever I was doing at the time.
Knowing what I know today, I would've written down his suggestions in my notebook, reflected on how much sense they made at the time, and then prioritized my next action based on my own best judgement. In short, I would aggressively filter the incoming stimulation (my boss's enthusiastic suggestions) into a manageable work load. However, as a 23-year-old first-time Google intern, I basically flipped out. I worked my butt off trying to implement every single suggestion he made, showing him the results, only to be met with even more suggestions. My todo list grew without bound.
After almost two months at this pace, I finally reached my limits and told him about how I felt incredibly overwhelmed. He seemed genuinely surprised by my reaction and reassured me that his suggestions were just that – suggestions – and not commands. He didn't apply an output filter to his own thoughts and dumped every single idea he had on me; and it was up to me to filter appropriately. However, I was not savvy enough to do so, which made me feel crazily overwhelmed. I didn't have to do every single thing he suggested; in fact, he didn't even expect me to. He just liked bouncing ideas off of me about the project. I bet he probably forgot most of what he said to me in our impromptu meetings.
OK, one can argue that a good boss would apply a judicious output filter to their own thoughts so as not to overwhelm their employees. However, I don't blame my old boss at all – he was genuinely excited about what I was working on and not trying to be a brutal slave-driver. But it sure appeared that way to my naive younger self, since all I heard was command after command being thrown my way, when in fact it was just the ramblings of an overly excitable and sincere researcher who was sharing ideas, not commands.
What I took away from that summer internship was that it's ultimately up to me to filter the inputs I receive from others. I can't control what other people spew out, but I can control how I react to what I hear. (Yes, the oldest cliche in the book.)
Without a proper filter installed and tuned in your brain, it's impossible to make forward progress on anything since you'll just get sidetracked or overwhelmed by everything you hear.
Last modified: 2015-02-19