On Existential Crises

A few months ago I watched a lecture by famous computer scientist (among other things) Allen Newell (thanks for the prompt CMU Computer Science!). In this lecture, which is fascinating, even though I know very little about much of the content, Newell discusses his career and how he wound up where he is (or was at the time of the lecture). While fascinating and inspiring, I spent weeks after watching this video in an existential funk. What was the purpose and direction of my career? What were the important big questions in my field and who was working on them? How could I find and do interesting things and escape the day-to-day drudgery of the profession?

So what did I do? I did what any self respecting human would do - I spent a week pouting. While that might sound completely useless, I came to a number of important realizations during my pout:

  1. I have so many wonderful colleagues. Really. In my days crying into my coffee, all these great folks spent time talking with me about my crisis and their thoughts on how to approach the problem. 
  2. One way to resolve this multitude of Big Deal Crises is group therapy. So naturally, we started a club to talk about all the big idea issues we grapple with (or should). Monthly meetings. Reading and discussion and ennui. 
  3. My main takeaway from Newell's lecture is this: you will have many distractions during your career (and some distractions can last years), but you need to make sure that you learn something, that you get something out of each distraction that you can apply to those Big Deal Questions. 
  4. Existential crises are contagious, and that is a good thing. I'm happy to say I've sent (in part or in whole) no fewer than four colleagues into downward spirals since I entered my funk. Some have emerged, some are still fighting in the maelstrom. Misery loves company, but more than that, I suspect that all these spin-off crises will result in new directions and new focus for everyone involved. I must say, though, that I can't take any credit for what emerges, just for sending everyone into the darkness.

An existential crisis every now and again seems to be a good thing. Give it a whirl.