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Essay

The fledgling professional

A scientific career and mountaineering have a lot in common

Terry Ord 30 January 2006

www.lablit.com/article/72

A helping hand: Ord believes that standing on the shoulders of giants is hard but rewarding work

The demolition of an idea, especially for a first-timer, is a devastating experience.

Climbing – it’s a different experience for everybody. The lucky find it the most exhilarating, but for those who are not, it is the most exasperating. You should know, too, that there are casualties along the way. Indeed, there are a few who seem simply to fade off into the ether, lost, and you might never have known they had attempted the climb at all.

The direction is obvious – up, damn it! – but the path gets tricky in places. The fear of placing a foot wrong and falling into obscurity is both an encouragement and a deterrent; a sleep-stealer that drags them up the mountain in one sense and threatens to rip them off it in another.

The rations are often sparse and fights can break out between the hungry. Resources on some paths are infrequent, so candidates must choose wisely. The scenic routes may be the longer and more pauperate, yet direct and well-trodden paths can be dull through imitation.

Most young mountaineers generally have at least one sympathetic hand to help them over the boulders that inevitably loom up out of the wilderness. These teachers try to encourage candidates along productive avenues. The better guides won’t hesitate to kick fledglings forward with a stern look and wagging finger of disapproval when the path is lost through negligence or foolhardiness.

But there are unfortunate instances – more than most peak-dwellers would like to admit – when climbers are left by disinterested mentors to flounder in confusion and hurl themselves at obstacles in the hope that problems will budge under persistence. Sometimes this toughens fledglings, and on the rare occasions they make it to the summit, a titan emerges onto the professional landscape to threaten the complacency of peak-dwellers basking in their own self-importance. More often than not, however, the result of this neglect are fledglings that invariably knock themselves off the cliffs.

Then there are others who, despite diligent attention from their guides, see the road too rough or endless and voluntarily pitch themselves from the crags.

When the summit is finally reached, it can be sudden. Fledglings clamber over the rise exhausted and shell-shocked from having made it at all. But there are a few, it is true, who charge on to the scene cocksure. Rest assured, these will quickly run into an unforgiving pillar of wisdom that batters them either into humility or clear off the mountain itself, to drop back into the depths of mediocrity from which they were born.

Sometimes there will be a cynic amongst the graduates who despised every step of the journey up, yet remained on the trail out of obligation or spite to the profession itself. Those under obligation will find a way out and gladly make the jump. Others ultimately alienate themselves and prove irrelevant. However, there are a few who do neither and these prove invaluable to any respectable profession, and a welcome disaster to any that isn’t. They cause friction in the fraternity and help the profession evolve by pushing against convention. Professions that dread these shakers, by default, tumble under their onslaught.

Through the fatigue, there is also much excitement and relief among graduates, and their guides look on with their own sense of achievement. Nevertheless, the dynamic between student and teacher can be mixed. For some, the relationship is cordial, perhaps more so than when the climb began. Now, at the journey’s end, there is much shaking of hands, patting on backs, and promises of future reunions. It is also not uncommon for these mentors to feel a pang of remorse at seeing fledglings move off into independence. Other pairings, however, are more standoffish, the events of the climb having grated away any chance of a familiar bond forming. A subdued sense of camaraderie may remain from the mutual experience of the climb itself, but the relationship is strained and the expressions of congratulations, while sincere, are reserved. Here, parties are happy to see the backs of each other, and some would even prefer the whole companionship to never have happened.

With the trials of the climb beginning to settle in the fledglings’ minds, they’ll likely bask in the apparent peace of the summit, waving to their friends and family below who are looking up with admiration and pride. Once they’ve had time to become in tune with their surroundings, it will dawn on cadets that things aren’t as tranquil as they first appeared. Indeed, there is a helluva lot going on!

From the foothills, the summit can appear deceptively small. In reality, it is an immense plateau where professionals zip about every-which-way and whole groups cluster together, working and building, up and up and up. Indeed, the landscape is littered with these conglomerates. Some are huge, well established, and encompass many professionals. Others are small and ephemeral, often disbanding as quickly as they are formed. Activity surrounds the large intelligential cathedrals, but it is the early works that generate the frenetic buzz. These are usually laid by a lone professional, and frequently from the younger tail of the demographic determined to etch out a niche. Depending on the workmanship of the foundations, others may join, but only later, when much has already been laid and the structure of the notion is sound.

Fledglings will soon become caught up with the pace of their new career. They’ll move off amongst the established and erupting structures. The monoliths will be familiar from the climb, where they were silhouetted against the summit, but many of the smaller will be exciting in their novelty. With so much to look at, it is little surprise that graduates accidentally bump into other professionals. The more understanding colleagues will recognize a fresh face and offer an enthusiastic handshake in welcome. Some of the old stalwarts, however, will be annoyed by the interruption and dismiss any attempt at communication with a nonchalant fling of the hand. Not to be discouraged, the fledgling will discover soon enough that performance ultimately outshines personality.

Even before making it to the summit, the path taken will dictate a fledgling’s specialty on entrance into the profession. Those that chose the well-trodden path will probably be content to stay within the confines of familiarity and an ever-increasing crowd of congeners; against the background noise of the masses, mistakes by individuals go unnoticed.

Creative minds will have chosen scenic routes and arrive more fatigued, perhaps, but also with a broader understanding of what professional diversity can offer in maturity and opportunity. These fledglings fidget in the confines of a crowd and will soon bud off seeking more fertile notional ground. A word of warning here: progress outside the square is often slow, taking years, and even then ideas may never come to full fruition.

Being imaginative is a prerequisite for all who strive to be original thinkers. There are many professionals who never had, or ever will, an original thought in their careers. They are the crowd-makers that stick to the established wisdoms, feeding from them. Occasionally they offer an alternative perspective on an old theory, but more generally, they merely support convention through a generic presence of mind.

Novelty sprouts from observation, the desire to understand and a healthy dissatisfaction with the obvious, while nurturing it takes attention to detail and patience. Fledglings will do well to stake out their plot thoroughly, removing all the lumps that will shift under pressure later. Resources must then be mined from the plateau. An idea, a good one, is never an independent entity. It must be embedded in sound logic and, to do that, it has to evolve from what has gone before. The young professional will need to gather materials of solid standing and might even consider borrowing from established conventions nearby. Slowly, following justified deliberation, a structure will present itself.

Innovation can cause a commotion, the extent of which is determined by both the location and audacity of the construction. Even before ideas are fully formed, the attention of neighbours can be caught. Some will be enthusiastic, but more will be incredulous and throw quibbles amongst the rising infrastructure, where they threaten to billow against foundations unless addressed quickly and thoroughly.

An aspiring architect must provide better materials where the initial structure falls away, and shift from areas irreversibly damaged or revealed to be unstable. Any miscalculation and the construction will collapse. Intense professional scrutiny fills the heart with despair, yet is imperative. Criticism forces good ideas to become great and longstanding.

The demolition of an idea, especially for a first-timer, is a devastating experience. The only salvation is to begin again and learn from mistakes made. Lying amongst the ruins of their enterprise, however, the young can become jaded and disappear, broken, over the edge of the mountain.

On occasion, however, the dust settles to reveal foundations intact amongst the debris of ruined details. A new collaborator may also come along in the form of a seasoned scholar who observed the early work, even with its ultimate faults, with interest. Out of this union, a sophisticated construction is developed and there is the birth of a powerful agent that advances the profession as a whole, and inspires the army of young climbers who will always be slowly working their way up the mountain of professionalism.

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You can learn more about Ord's research by visiting his academic website