Don’t Get Discouraged! It Happens to Everyone

Once in a while, I feel a bit tired and discouraged, especially when I find myself stuck while trying to solve a particular problem. I attack it from different angles, try special cases, write down thousands of lines of code, and the little brat doesn’t give in. Sometimes, the best conclusion I am able to obtain is “none of these methods work”. Frustration sets in and, many years ago, I used to think to myself: “I wish I were as smart as person X; they never run into trouble like this.” But guess what? They do! An extremely successful researcher, whom I greatly respect and admire, once told me this:

At least half of my research has been unsuccessful.

Here’s another quote that I enjoy very much. It’s by Egon Balas and it appears in the epilogue of his book Will to Freedom:

…This is the flavor of mathematical discovery. It is an uneven process that often becomes hectic, with periods of sleepless of half-sleepless nights. It requires the kind of passionate concentration in the grip of which you forget about everything else for a while. To be successful at it, you must have “fire in your belly.” And it certainly helps if your basic inclination is to persist and not give up in the face of difficulties, not to become dejected in case of setbacks, but to try again and again until you manage to find the right way.

In the same book, Balas refers to a former colleague and collaborator of his, Grigore Moisil (a famous Romanian algebraist), who had some interesting views on how to do mathematics:

Mathematics is not necessarily done at your desk. Mathematics is done when you wake up in the morning and do not immediately get out of bed; it’s done in the bathtub; it’s done while sitting on the toilet; it’s done while you are dressing; and it’s done while you are taking a walk.

I agree with Moisil. That’s part of the fun with math; you can work on it just about anywhere. (I’m particularly fond of all kinds of waiting rooms: doctor’s/dentist’s office, airport gates, nail salon while waiting for wifey, etc.) In fact, changing your work environment may actually help. I’ve had many good ideas away from my desk.

Do you have a motivational quote or text to which you refer when feeling a bit discouraged? I’d love to read about them in the comments.

6 Comments

Filed under Motivation, Research

6 responses to “Don’t Get Discouraged! It Happens to Everyone

  1. Eric Godat

    Thanks for the Blog! How true of having the mind “run time” environment place the thoughts in a queue for later solving.

    I have a simple question, Which site do you recommend that has the best Master’s level OR jobs?

    I am looking to switch back into the field directly rather than use it in limited circumstances.

  2. orbythebeach

    Eric, thank you for your comment. Indeed, our brains are also very good at processing things in the background. As for Master’s level jobs, I don’t know of any particular site that focuses on that. I believe you’d have to look at sites with OR-related jobs and filter out the ones that require a PhD. There’s a nice thread about OR jobs on OR-Exchange. Take a look at this link and the resources suggested therein.

  3. former student

    Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

  4. Max Marty

    Hey Dr. Yunes! I’m not sure this would help you as it has me, but I’m about halfway through “Generative social science”. It’s a book on “Agent based computational modeling”. Basically the guy generates computer simulated environments programmed with agents that have various properties, then lets the system run however many iterations before analyzing the results within some designated computational “play zone”. It is somewhat similar to game theory but played among many players simultaneously.

    It has opened my eyes to new and fascinating possibilities within the realm of math and computer modeling (including demonstrating the limits of O.R.!).

    Perhaps it will help you find a new way to tackle the problem. Or, if not, help you understand why the problem cannot be solved with conventional O.R. mechanisms. Either way, happiness is sure to ensue.

    http://www.amazon.com/Generative-Social-Science-Agent-Based-Computational/dp/0691125473

  5. orbythebeach

    That’s a good one, thanks former student!

  6. orbythebeach

    Thank you for the suggestion, Max. I hope everything is well with you. I’ve never studied agent-based modeling seriously for lack of time, but I agree it is a very powerful computational framework. I definitely want to look into it in the near future. As for the persistent little brat I was referring to, I managed to defeat it about a month ago. Nevertheless, tough problems will always be waiting for us just around the corner.

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