Generation Flux

A few months ago Fast Company run a multipart piece on “Generation Flux”. The piece had two intertwined themes. The first is the idea that we’re living in age of constant (and perhaps accelerating) change and that to stay competitive businesses and institutes have to ride this wave of change and go with the flow. The second idea is the notion that the most successful people are those who are intimately familiar with this state of flux and can craft their lives to take advantage of it. As part of the piece they profiled several members of Generation Flux – technologists, businesspeople and researchers like danah boyd and DJ Patil.

Though the piece focused on the tech industry and business, I think the basic ideas apply to all fields including (especially?) academia. In fact I think that the best researchers and scientists have always been those who have been spread out over a number of areas. While focus and diligence are necessary for productive research, I’m starting to think that it’s important (if not fundamental) to have a wider halo of interests and knowledge surrounding your core area.

As a new graduate student this is a question of great personal interest: I have a limited amount of time and energy in grad school (and later) and it’s in my best interest to make the most of it. As with many important things there’s a dilemma: if I spend too much time and effort on one thing I’ll miss out on everything else and that can be very limiting. I already know this first hand: I know a good amount about programming languages, but I’ve been scrambling to teach myself about networks and know next to nothing about AI. But on the other hand if I don’t dig deep enough into one relatively narrow area I’ll never have the knowledge or the insight to know what the important problems and come up with appropriate solutions.

So what are the lessons of Generation Flux and how do they apply? Accepting and adapting to change is definitely a big part of it. As danah boyd tells us: “We all have to learn new skills. Being able to live on one set of skills over a career is not realistic. Change is going to happen, not all of it good, in serious ways.” But simply being able to ride the wave is not enough. And it’s certainly not advisable to jump ship to the next shiny thing at the first sign of trouble. DJ Patil has more personal advice to offer: “At the end of the day, you have two things: your energy and your intellectual curiosity. If you’re willing to apply them, try to add value to the world, the possibilities are so endless.”

Patil, boyd and the other Gen Fluxers seem to be able to strike a balance between change and constancy. In times of perpetual change the key to success seems to lie in two complementary values: first is the ability to live on the edge of chaos and move fluidly from one spot to another. But second (and just as important) seems to be the ability to be tenacious, diligent and sometimes downright stubborn. Patil for example taught himself mathematics and worked midnight to morning to get computer access. While he’s worked on amazing projects he’s also turned down lucrative offers because they didn’t fit his vision of what he wanted to do.

Viewed through the lense of graduate school the lessons become: Explore broadly and lightly across areas related to what you’re interested and then buckle down, dive deep and keep going until you get to something novel. Of course the timing is critical and to some extent they have to happen in parallel. As Matt Might puts it: going rogue too early or too late can be fatal. Luckily that’s what advisors, mentors and colleagues are for.

Personally I’m still in stage 1: I’m still taking classes and exploring the broad regions of computer science but I’m also making forays deep into some areas (particularly programming languages and datacenter networks). Looking further ahead I think it’s great that we’re going to be living in a time where being a member of Gen Flux is a good thing. Gen Flux is perhaps just a modern term for Renaissance Men (or Women) – people with a breadth of knowledge and skills but also with singular and far-reaching accomplishments in some of those fields. And that seems like a goal worthy of a lifetime worth of time and energy.

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