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Engaged Detachment

“You perceived it [the wall], so it was there. But now you have accepted the unacceptable, and the wall no longer blocks your path.”

— the Ancient One, in “Doctor Strange” (2007)

Workplace Enlightenment

A few years ago, I had a bad boss, a boss so bad that people with decades of experience said that this was the worst boss they ever had, someone who consistently and continuously drove the best talent out of the organization. My point in bringing this up is not to complain but rather to explain how I achieved a certain type of workplace enlightenment that I call “Engaged Detachment”.

When you go into work, you want to do a good job. If you are an individual contributor, then doing a good job is in your best interests. If you are a manager, then sometimes doing a good job means doing things that are not in your best interests, or even your manager’s, but is in the best interests of the organization as an enterprise. I touched upon this in an earlier post. This is a tough spot to be in. It’s tough because most managers (and people) do things for selfish reasons (I suppose that’s what “rational behavior” is, after all). Such managers will never do anything that doesn’t benefit themselves. If you suggest that a typical manager do anything that limits their power or influence, even if it benefits the organization as a whole, odds are that you will be shot down. It’s a shame because in the long run, doing things in the interests of the enterprise will ultimately benefit everyone.

In such a situation, you have two main strategies:

  1. Salute your boss, request direction, and carry out your instructions.
  2. Fight with your boss, reject direction, and ignore your instructions.

While it may be fun to pick the second strategy, this is the surest way to burn through all of your political capital and then be fired. Even if you do things for the benefit of the organization and others see that, a bad boss can subtly ruin your reputation and take you down. There is no way to make the second strategy work. An organization cannot function if everyone (or even a few people) worked this way. The fundamental problem is that an organization with bad managers and bad leaders will be a bad organization. There isn’t anything you can do about this — unless you’re a stellar leader coming in as the next CEO (or if you start your own company 🙂 ).

The first strategy is hard to swallow because it can destroy your soul. It can lead to frustration, unhappiness, and stress. It can spill over into the rest of your life and impact your family, your friends, and your children. It can ruin your life. It can tempt you to complain to your co-workers, or talk behind your manager’s back, or complain to your staff. This is not productive. This creates a vicious cycle of negativity. At some point this will probably lead to the second strategy. So what should you do?

Engaged Detachment

Being stuck in this predicament, and being, I think, a thoughtful person :-), I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I should do. After a few weeks, the phrase “engaged detachment” popped into my mind. At first, I dismissed this as a nonsense phrase like “dry water” or “popular engineer”, but the more I thought about it, the more it began to make sense. In order to properly function in an organization that doesn’t make sense, you have to be engaged in your work, but you must also be detached from it; if you get too wrapped up in your work, you’ll go nuts. You have to somehow detach yourself from your job in order maintain your self. I touched upon this briefly in “You aren’t what you do (for a paycheck)“. If you can do this, you will have reached some kind of workplace enlightenment.

The first rule of Fight Club is…

I recently watched “Fight Club” for the first time. Not sure how I missed it in ’99, but I watched it now because Chris Brogan posted that it was his favorite movie — and because he had a picture of his DVD shelf that included “Iron Man”, “Gotham Knight” (I’m sure “Doctor Strange” was somewhere to the left). Anyways, in the middle of “Fight Club”, Brad Pitt’s character proclaims “You are not your job!”. That’s a good mantra.

Moment of Enlightenment

For me, realizing “engaged detachment” was really just a moment in time. I could see how I could do my job without destroying my self, and I began to practice this but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do forever. This momentary enlightenment — a flash of insight into the world — offers you something of enormous value. It lets you make sense of where you are so you can take another step on your life’s road. For me, that step was engineering an exit plan so I could start a company that would fix a big, deep problem that every organization faces but which no one knew how to fix, the problem that led me to “engaged detachment” in the first place.

My company has a solution to this problem that I’m getting ready to take out to the world. I’ll keep you posted.


If anyone has any thoughts on any of this, please share!


Advice for Prospective Grad Students

In 1993 (wow, has it been 16 years?), I was working at a startup called Synthetica Technologies just outside Berkeley. It was a fun job, but it wasn’t going to be my career — I wanted to get a Ph.D (I wasn’t entirely sure why, it just seemed like the next step). Looking back, I have no regrets, but what I got out of grad school was certainly different than what I expected.

Getting in to Grad School

Before you can experience grad school, you have to get in. Whether you get in or not is result of several factors: your GPA, the school you went to, your GRE scores, your essay, and your letters of recommendation. If all of these are stellar, you’ll most likely get an offer. If any of these things is a bit off, you’re on shakier ground and might not. But there’s something you can do to help tip the scales…

The one thing that, in my experience, can outweigh any of the factors above (and maybe all of them combined) is convincing a professor with funding to express an interest in you. When my wife and I were applying to grad school we sketched out a plan to visit a number of schools across the country. We started in Boston (since I was there for a business trip for Synthetica) and went down the East Coast and then across the country. On Amtrak. In winter. During the Blizzard of ’93. In our California wardrobe. I’ve never been so cold in my life. It turns out, the timing of our trip was opportune. When someone from California has taken Amtrak across country and is hoofing it across town in a windbreaker in a blizzard just to see you, you tend to remember them. The professors were welcoming and I had some good conversations. In the end, we got offers from every school we applied to.

Making the Cut

As soon as you accept the offer to become a doctoral student, you begin a competition for spots on a roster. I wasn’t aware of this. I thought that once you were accepted, it was kind of like college: you don’t screw up too badly, you graduate. Not so.

The first two years of a doctoral program involve the same coursework you’d do for a Masters degree. The department professors will teach a range of courses in your field. You will demonstrate your mastery of the subject matter, but you will also be observed in other ways. How well do you interact with others? What is your style? How insightful are you? What do you bring to the conversation? Would you make a good peer?

At the end of the two years, you take a Qualifying Exam, an all-day test spanning the breadth of your field. It’s the Mother of all Finals. This, combined with your coursework and what professors have observed about you, determines whether you stay or hit the job market with a Master’s.

The Next 3 Years

If you make it through the Qualifying Exam, you’ll typically need another 2 to 3 years to get your doctorate (although there’s no specified time). This is when you’ll do your research, when you’ll go deeper into a subject than anyone has gone before. After you figure out what topic you intend to research, you propose this to your dissertation committee. Because you’ll eventually become the expert in this area, your committee won’t really know what will come of your work. Their goal is to make sure you’ve done due diligence in selecting your topic, that you’ve done enough preliminary research to justify more extensive work. After you successfully defend your proposal, you’ll do more research. Write more papers. Present at conferences. Publish in journals. And, in the meantime, write your dissertation.

An interesting thing happens during this time. Doctoral candidates self-select into two groups. One group figures out (or is told) the rules of the game. The other group never figures out the rules (or is told but ignores them).

The Game

I’d always been idealistic, and so the biggest revelation to me about grad school (and academia in general) was that there were politics involved. I’d imagined academia as a pure pursuit — people working together to better understand the world. It’s not like that, or at least not entirely. The ivory tower is guarded. Every discipline has a political terrain.. The game is figuring out how to navigate it. This isn’t about understanding ideas; it’s about understanding people and their motivations. You need to do more than study articles, you have to study the authors as well. You have to meet the right people and figure out how to collaborate with them to carry out research, write articles, and present at conferences. This requires an entirely different skillset than what you’ve developed to this point. You probably don’t have time to learn this and write your dissertation at the same time. That’s where your advisor comes in.

Your advisor knows how to play the game. Your advisor may give you general advice like “try to get two papers published this year” or more specific advice like “go to the conference in Utah this summer and meet Professor X” (not the Professor X, of course, though how cool would that be? 🙂 ). Your advisor may even flat out tell you what to do: “Look, if you want a teaching job, you need to co-write a paper with these three guys because a position is opening up at University X and the chair of the search committee will ask at least one of them for their opinions on candidates”. Your advisor is the person who’ll have the biggest impact on your academic career (other than yourself, of course). Heed their advice and if they don’t offer it, ask..or ask elsewhere.

More Advice

If you do find yourself in grad school, take advantage of it. This is a special time. Although you’re working hard, you get to set your schedule and how you work (it’s like bootstrapping a company). If you want to read articles at Longwood Gardens, go right ahead. If you want to tour the East Coast in between conferences, no problem. I’ve often observed that it’s kind of like living some of your retirement years when you’re still young — you get discounts everywhere, the only catch is your fixed income (stipend).

The one thing you should absolutely do in grad school is this: network. Attend events for grad students. There’s great food (at Penn, some of the best food in the country). There are well-connected people. And your peers will eventually go on to do great things. I should have done this more. It would have been more valuable than studying fluid mechanics or reactor design (especially given that I’m writing web apps now). If you have the choice between coursework or attending a networking event, please network — it’s a great way to learn the game, get a good meal, and meet people you’ll one day read about. The doctoral students that want to play the game and learn to play it well move on to teaching positions. The ones that choose not to play the game or who don’t play it well enough will have to find jobs. Or start companies :-).


Note that everything in this post is based on my particular perspective and experience. If any of this sounds wrong to you, please feel free to comment…

Oh, and thanks, Lyle — you were a great advisor!