Know Your Domain

Been thinking lately I read too much. It leaves me little to no time to write. When I was really interested in writing well, especially fiction, instead of working hard at it, coming to the keyboard every day for several hours to write the bones down – a habit all real writers agree is a must to get good – I read. For sure, if you want to be a good writer you do need to read, and read a lot, but it’s not sufficient. It would be like thinking you could learn to play guitar well simply by listening to a lot of guitar music. You need to practice too. A lot. Maybe not 10,000 hours, though in some cases it may take more, depending on the amount of native talent one has.

When I’m honest with myself I don’t think I was ever really talented at any one thing, and average at most. Math came easy but I was never going to set the world on fire. Likewise computers. Funny, the only reason I ever enrolled in a Fortran course — way back when —  was because it was a prerequisite for numerical analysis, a 400-level math course I dared take as an undergraduate, which made me feel a little superior at the time, especially around fellow classmates (would-be geologists), many who dreaded having to take even two semesters of calculus required for their degree. By then I’d already passed three, plus Diff-Eq, with relative ease. Physics and chemistry? Average. Geology, my major? Lackluster. Humanities, so-so (though I do recall getting a shout-out for one or two of my term papers). But then came the computer programming course, Fortran, I breezed through it. It was like English for me, an innate language, one I mastered quickly with little to no effort. This was about 12 years before Jeff Bezos arrived in Seattle to start a business in his garage selling books on the World Wide Web.

Oh, what futures pass us when we are blind to our own boon.

By which I do not mean I think I could have started Amazon. Unlike Jeff I was never a national merit scholar. I did not graduate Phi Kappa Beta from Princeton with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. I knew next to nothing about starting a business, and even if I had, probably lacked the guts to try. I only mean that when you find something you’re good at, consider sticking with it. Strive for expertise. Don’t spread your interests too thin. Avoid becoming a dilettante, a master of none.

Example: I once applied for a job at Amazon. Back in 2014 I think it was. I don’t recall the job title, but it was a technical, senior-level position involving the development of novel algorithms to maximize online ad revenue. The only reason the job popped on my radar was because it invited a wide variety of specialists to apply, including Computational Biologists, which by that time is what I was calling myself. I passed the initial phone interview okay, but stumbled on the second one, enough that I was not invited for an in-person interview. The interviewer was very generous, said something like, “I think you understand the technical stuff okay, this just isn’t your particular domain is it?” I had to concede he was right. Ask me about genes, proteins, biochemistry and such, and I’d have been all over it.

When I returned to school in 2002 my grades did improve, though by the time I finished the academic portion of my PhD I had to concede academic excellence would never be mine. By all other measures of success, though, I did quite well.

Fast-forward to now. I’ve been invited to teach genetics at the university. I’m excited about this. I expect the class will be mostly biology majors being it’s required, but also pre-med students and others pursuing degrees in health-related fields.

As I look out over the lectern on day one, gazing at all the expectant faces, it will be humbling for sure; but also, I hope, rewarding, to be back in my domain of academic expertise.