I was not a good professor. This was not because I could not think well; it was because I did not think well. I had been an excellent student from Grade 1 up through the last year of my PhD program, earning good grades and accolades. The years of my assistant professorship were, from start to finish, a disaster. I accomplished next to nothing, and at the time I did not understand why. It is only with hindsight that I recognize the source of change in my behavior: the substitution of an elaborate system of short-term rewards and punishments for near-absolute freedom and one long-term dictate: “Be brilliant. You have seven years.”
I am prone to bouts of melancholy, periods of time during which I feel ineffective, am inclined to see problems as daunting, lack purpose, and have to struggle to take a positive perspective. I’ve learned that if I engage in physical exercise, these feelings abate. Unfortunately, when I’m mired in melancholy I’m inclined to disregard exercise as a solution, thinking to myself, “Ah, me, if I exercise now the effect will be temporary and I’ll have to exercise all over again tomorrow. Why bother?” When I’ve exercised, this fatalistic lassitude seems silly; when I haven’t exercised, it seems wise.
This afternoon, I had a wall-banger of a headache, mixing nausea, pressure and disorientation with a pain that curled my body in on itself. While I’m in these sorts of headaches, I often have a strong urge to take something sharp and stick it in my ears, my eyes or my nose. It occurs to me during these headaches that if only I puncture my head, all the pain and pressure will drain from my head and I’ll be better. Fortunately, the headaches also bring on an urge to be still, which to date has canceled out the urge to find some kind of skewer and stick it in. That’s good. Unfortunately, this overwhelming desire to be still also keeps me from taking the pain meds that will end my headaches more quickly. When these intense headaches are over and done, as mine is now, I not only have recovered but find that my senses and intellect are actually sharper than before the headache began. There’s a great pleasure in this heightened state of cognition, and since I’m no longer feeling any pain, I’m tempted to say that the agony of the preceding headache has been worth it.
Problems may have logical solutions that can be rationally articulated, but humans are not necessarily or even primarily rational. In my personal life, I find that the quality of my thought is uncomfortably dependent upon the state of my body. What seems rational to me might depend on what I’ve had for breakfast. I am most successful not when I focus solely on cogitation, but rather when I engage in habits of action most likely to produce the sort of thought that leads, in turn, to practical success. Are the people most capable of guiding themselves and others through a course from individual action to focused thought and onward to coordinated achievement the ones we recognize as leaders? Is it fair to say that an institution capable of manipulating human actions, perceptions and choices is an institution that wields power over humanity?