Inspiration — My Athlete’s Cut

Author: Skylar Bayer

On Wednesday, while working on a talk and desperately seeking inspiration, I checked my e-mail (like I do, at least once every three minutes) and clicked on a new message from PHDComics informing me of the day’s comic.

After viewing the comic I chuckled, stared at my bored dog, sat up and took her out for a 40-minute walk in the woods.

For those of you that cannot or will not click on the link above, the comic shows a grad student staring at a computer screen. Next to this all too familiar image is a figure with “The time spent staring at your computer” plotted against “Probability you’ll come up with a brilliant idea.” The trendline is a flat, horizontal line with the caption, “does not increase,” plus a little arrow to emphasize the point.

I used to spend a lot of time feeling guilty that I did not sit for hours and hours staring at my computer screen everyday of graduate school. Usually, when I do stare at a computer screen for hours, I get far more distracted (see: chatting, Facebook pictures, Youtube, New Yorker cartoons, The Daily Show, internet memes on reddit, pictures of dogs underwater, etc., etc.) and am far less productive than if I’d just walked away from the computer and done something else. And usually, when I do this something else, I find inspiration for my science.

So, how does one find inspiration?

On occasion I am inspired by the lab, classes, e-mailing with fellow scientists, chatting over beers with colleagues and friends, staring at something that is not a computer for a long time. But usually this is after I have a few ideas knocking around the old noggin for a day or two. But where do I find the original ideas, the novel solutions to my experimental design problems and rocky transitions? Where, oh where, do I find my brilliant ideas?!

In a very Henry David Thoreau, I-write-poetry-at-Walden-Pond kind of way, I am sometimes struck (quite literally on occasion, by pine tree branches) with brilliance on long walks in the woods or on the beach. And like Thoreau, I usually go home to a warm (-ish) house at the end of the day (Note: Thoreau often went home to his mom’s for dinner after playing Mr. thoughtful man in his wooden playhouse all day).

When I travel, in a very Tony Horwitz, I-travel-the-world-in-awe kind of way, I ruminate on the beauty of the world, what it all means, and people in general (as well as my own personal problems). People-watching in coffee shops can sometimes be inspiring, but rarely for my science.  I usually end up writing down new characters and scenarios for the short fiction series I’ve been developing (link) that at this point, is mostly a stack of notes next to my bed.

So where is my real go-to for coming up with my new brilliant ideas? Exercise. Now, walking the dog doesn’t really count (only some days). I might get my heart rate up watching my dog bound like a deer through the trees, but it’s not what I would call a full aerobic work out. I used to run a lot (on occasion I still do), and ideas always came along during my runs, but I realized something – I detest running.

Swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, sailing (not really exercise) are fun but are not year round activities for me (yet…). The returns of brilliance on these activities are pretty high, but not as frequent as I would like.

Rowing practice was a place that I found ideas right and left, up and down, under the water, in the sky, on the end of my oar, in my teammates’ enthusiasm — everywhere. That was the time when I was so focused on a sport I loved so much and somehow all those awesome endorphins I got from practice would flood my brain with organic brilliance that foddered new ideas to manage or solve my problems.

Sadly, in college, I permanently injured my back from the sport I loved and I quit halfway through college. It wasn’t a very large injury, but one that no one seemed to be able to fix (unless I went to the chiropractor several times a week) without breaking the bank. It wasn’t worth the frustration and I decided it was time to move on to a new sport. It wasn’t until five years later that I discovered a new goldmine of endorphins.

Martial arts sounded like such a nerdy thing when I was young and my parents never encouraged us to pursue it. They were the sports that kids with glasses picked up to prevent their glasses from getting smashed into their faces. My brother and I were soccer ball kicking, hockey pad wearing, basketball hoop throwing suburban kids. We were put on ice skates as soon as we could walk and I became a soccer referee for most of middle and high school. Why? Because as far back as I could remember, soccer was the way of life for almost every kid in our town.

But now I’d say martial arts are some of the coolest sports I know. (Well, I don’t even think of them as just sports, they’re arts, strategy games, brain and muscle development, but we’ll call them a set of sports for the sake of this post). I credit my best friend for introducing me to these sports because I would never have found it on my own. I always thought it was cool that people could do all this crazy awesome movement with their body, but it never occurred to me I could learn any of those skills at the age of 23.

I started with Muay Thai kickboxing and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I had a pretty good rear left kick from day one (needed some work, though). Maybe it was all those years of playing soccer that helped or maybe not (I never was good at soccer, I was told by my gym teacher at the age of six that I was terribly uncoordinated). I went to more and more classes and spent most of my free time at Sityodtong in Somerville, MA (but did get my start at Nexus in Wareham, MA) for a good chunk of 2010.

I was immediately hooked. I was hooked on the fact that hour long classes flew by, that I could jump rope and shadow box instead of running to get a similar work out, that yoga helped me become more flexible and fit in kickboxing and brazillian jiu jitsu, that the sports worked out my whole body, that I was always learning, that I always seemed to improve somehow, that I was developing my mind as a fighter and a thinker, and that the gym had awesome students and teachers. There was something about the workouts that made me think clearer afterward, that made doing my work and thinking outside the box that much easier than before. Even thinking about moves and strategy in kickboxing and jiu jitsu helps me cook up other ideas for my research (odd, I know).

The point is this – when I started training again this year after a six or seven month leave from it (argh), my work came together better and I had more ideas than before (although, sometimes too many ideas…).

I get the most inspired when I have a good sport in my life to keep the blood flowing to my brain.  I will not deny that I procrastinate (like everyone else) but when I go run off to train for a few hours, I don’t really feel that bad about neglecting my computer screen. It will still be there when I get back…. Waiting for me.

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