On duty and action

“How can we know ourselves? Never by reflection, but only through action. Begin at once to do your duty and immediately you will know what is inside you.”

-Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe-

I think if my graduate school career could be summed up in a quote, this would be it.

The funny thing is I have lived most of my life with the opposite philosophy – heavy on reflection and introspection, sparse on the sense of duty.  I work really hard all the time, but mostly because I am interested in learning new things and am an annoying perfectionist but never because of any sense of “duty”.

But in graduate school, sometimes the sense of “duty” is important to bridge the gap during times of lapsing interest and hope, which almost always appear when you start pondering the futility of your efforts.  For example, when you realize that your project is lacking in sophistication and robustness due to your lack of experience/intelligence. Or when you are done with the intellectually challenging part of the project and  you need to work on the documentation – so that others would be able to understand what it is you are working on**.

**I actually had this exact same conversation with Dr. Brooks where I said

“How do I ramp up my motivation to write the documentation? I feel like I’ve been dragging my feet”

He said “Duty. A sense of duty.”

I thought “Ah! But I have never had any sense of duty! I have only always been feeding on intellectual interest and curiosity”.

So I tried to develop a sense of duty to my work, and it provided a much needed motivation to continue working – it replaced the overwhelming thought that what I’m working on is an effort in futility. With a lot of work, comes progress – and progress, no matter how little, often sparks hope, excitement and the enthusiasm to charge onward (also another point Dr. Brooks made).


About Alexis Chan

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