Alexander Hamilton (*see “Hamilton poses” from Hanny and me…yes, I know this is a little kooky)
The spectacular success of the Broadway musical Hamilton provides
insight into our societal values. It’s impressive that a story about the Revolutionary War and subsequent establishment of American democracy has been made accessible and relevant to a modern audience. To me, the most amazing part comes as a part of the song “Non-Stop”:
“Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays
Defending the new United States Constitution
Entitled The Federalist Papers.
The plan was to write a total of twenty-five essays
The work divided evenly among the three men
In the end, they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months
John Jay got sick after writing five
James Madison wrote twenty-nine
Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one”
That last line, “Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one” [!!] is a staggering, jaw-dropping moment in the show. You can almost feel the shock among the audience, as in [audible gasp] “omg! 51 essays” [stunned silence]. It’s incredible that a diverse group of Americans can get excited about some guy who wrote a lot of essays. There’s hope for scholars everywhere!
I also loved that line because in the moment, I knew that Hamilton was a kindred spirit.
I have wonderful colleagues and collaborators, but sometimes I feel like I’m carrying a disproportionate burden. During the show, I wanted to say, “I know how you feel Alexander, I’ve been there!” Sometimes it’s easier to do things myself, sometimes a job is especially important to me, and sometimes I need to cover for someone experiencing unexpected difficulties. Doing the lion’s share of the work on a project isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just important to consciously choose where to spend that effort, and identify jobs that are truly important. I imagined Hamilton completely immersed in his work, buried under the load but churning through it, thriving even while feeling a little beaten down. I’ll confess, sometimes I play the song before digging into a writing project.
While surfing the web, I stumbled on a different perspective on the quote. Someone speculated that James Madison could rightfully have been very annoyed by the whole situation. The guy committed to write ~8 essays and produced twenty-nine. That’s pretty awesome performance, right? And then he gets completely upstaged by this Hamilton guy cranking out fifty-one! Sometimes that happens too. Hopefully Madison could be satisfied with his own achievement. And presumably he spent all that extra time doing other productive or enjoyable things.
Another of my favorite quotes comse as an unusual piece of advice to students. Following the Challenger Oceanographic Expedition of the 1870’s, Alexander Agassiz wrote the monograph on echinoderms, about which he said:
“I felt when I got through that I never wanted to see another sea urchin and hoped they would gradually go extinct” (Quoted in Lalli & Parsons, Biological Oceanography: An Introduction, Chapter 1).
The quote makes me laugh because it’s so true. To be successful as a scientist, you have to love your work. But you also have to immerse yourself in it so completely and so deeply that sometimes you hate it a little bit. There is excitement and euphoria, but there is also struggle and tedium. And that’s all part of the process. I imagine that even while Agassiz was complaining about those urchins, he was itching to look at a couple more specimens or improve his descriptions of sclerite morphology. I bet he took pride in completing even the most tedious parts of the job. The idea is encompassed by “embrace the suck,” originally a bit of military slang that’s been more widely adopted. It means to accept and even appreciate the unpleasant but necessary aspects of a situation. I don’t think anyone specifically told me this, but “embracing the suck” is a key to successful research and a highly transferable life skill.