There are certain activities at work that tend to appear over and over again, no matter the specifics of the project you are currently working on. In my academic context, these are writing, statistics and reading peer-reviewed papers published in my field. Others include general knowledge work activities like meetings and email, but these three are more closely connected to producing the manuscripts, analyses and grant proposals that generate value in an academic career. This is why I think investing time and effort to develop competence in these core activities and cultivating an appreciation for the processes involved is one of the most valuable ways to spend my time at this stage of my career.
Competence and appreciation reinforce each other; activities you are skilled at are more enjoyable, and activities that intrigue you will motivate you to become better. I don’t see myself as particularly skilled in doing either of the academic core activities yet, but I find the processes involved interesting enough to keep trying and developing my skills.
In his recent essay How To Do Great Work, Paul Graham reflects on this connection:
One sign that you’re suited for some kind of work is when you like even the parts that other people find tedious or frightening.
Like scales in music, the core activities at work appear in most projects. Scales are never the “end product” of a musical piece, but they are helpful to practice because they appear in one shape or another in all songs. Those who cultivate an appreciation for practicing scales will find themselves developing their skills playing an instrument. Most core activities in knowledge work are done ad-hoc, so imagine the value gain of investing time to practice them.
However, lean too far into this and you might end up producing niche things that nobody outside your small field finds valuable, as discussed here:
Graduate programs select for intensely competitive individuals with highly specific skills, often with negligible market value outside of universities. A strong desire for publications on esoteric topics is inherited from senior postdocs and professors, making tunnel vision especially acute. The activation energy required for quitting is famously high, in part because the glow from the genuine intellectual lights in any field make outside jobs seem (unfairly) pale and shallow in comparison.
Striking a balance between different pursuits and interests will help in preventing this type of tunnel vision, and I think the basic premise of finding joy in the core activities and processes holds promise. Focusing on the work itself rather than external goals outside my control will also be a much more sustainable approach in the long term.