Your research entourage—Essential relationships you need to succeed; Week 2: The dreamer and the doer
In last week’s post, we discussed the importance of having a coach in your research entourage. Today we’ll focus on two people who you need in your group of colleagues and collaborators, even though having both of them in the same room might drive you crazy: a dreamer and a doer.
Life is naturally full of opposites and opposing viewpoints: yin and yang, hot and cold, up and down, cat and dog. Working in research is the same: there’s a crucial balance you need to find between what seem like polar opposites in how you see your work, in how you interact with other colleagues, and how you progress your science. Having opposites on your team doesn’t mean they will cancel each other out or claim superiority of one over the other, but instead they should provide external impetus to complement your own traits and personal balance, as we’ve touched on in other previous posts.
A career in research is not an easy gig: it requires that you continually think of new ideas while re-evaluating the old ones, and are always thinking one step ahead of where you’ll go next. At the same time that you are thinking big, you also need to see the real-world limitations and be aware of the detailed steps that you will need to achieve those big ideas. The people that think about those big, new ideas are the dreamers, and the ones who think about the here and now and the limitations of what you can do at this moment in time are the doers.
Everyone exists somewhere on the dreamer-to-doer spectrum, For your entourage, you will need to identify someone that dreams bigger than you and another person that notices the logical flaws more than you do. You should then strive to use their opposite perspectives to balance your own, with the dreamers showing you what you can do and the doers helping you see how to make it happen.
The dreamer vs the doer: Is one better than the other?
Who are the dreamers? Dreamers are the people who think not just about the big picture, but the big, BIG picture. They look at research and how it fits into the grand scheme of the universe, and how science is out there to save the world. Dreamers can come up with brilliant ideas and hypotheses that challenge the status quo and who push the envelope further and further. Dreamers don’t tend to focus on the details of research but rather the potential of research, and tend to have a positive outlook on the field and its ability to impact the world.
Who are the doers? If the dreamers are the ones on stage talking about how they’re going to save the world, the doers are sitting in the audience getting a headache thinking about all the work that would need to be done to achieve that vision. Doers tend to see the here and now, and focus on the challenges that lay behind every idea and what it takes to actually bring an idea to fruition. Doers want to make sure their evidence is solid before pushing the envelope or challenging the status quo. Doers like details because they helps them understand the steps it takes to get somewhere, and they may come off as pessimistic (although they are more likely realists), especially if you take the potential of an idea farther than they think it should go.
Is one of them wrong or right? Is one of them a better scientist than the other one? The answer to the both questions is no. Both the doer and the dreamer have valid points and key perspectives, which is why you need them in your entourage. As a career scientist, you need those big picture ideas and wide-eyed dreams to motivate you to keep going with your work and to keep you engaged in what you’re doing by dreaming big about what it can can impact. But you can’t just have good ideas, and those good ideas won’t come to fruition overnight. It takes time to get to a big breakthrough, and you need to learn what it takes to prove or disprove an idea and how you can do research in a targeted, logical, and realistic way. And even if you’re on one side of the doer/dreamer spectrum of one side or the other, it’s good to have an additional set of eyes from both sides, in order to have a clearer 3rd party perspective on both the big picture and the small details
The dreamer and the doer in common research scenarios
Let’s take a look at how the dreamer and the doer see things differently, and how you can learn to see from both perspectives and gain from both ways of seeing the world:
Dreamer: Wow! Your data is amazing! It’s the best data ever, and you’re going to get a Nature paper!
Doer: Um, where are your error bars? And is this a corrected p-value for multiple testing errors?
Dreamers will always get excited about new ideas and promising results. Dreamers can also help you get excited about your research again, especially if you feel like you’ve been trudging through a problem for a while. In contrast, doers tend to take everything, especially data, with a skeptical first glance, needing to be convinced of something before accepting it as truth. Feed off the optimism of the dreamers but listen to the skepticism of the doers.
Dreamer: That talk was so great! Dr. BigName is really going to change things in the field!
Doer: Dr. BigName is not interpreting the data correctly, and his/her slides are poorly done.
Dreamers love learning about new research and the potential it can have to change things, and are optimistic of real changes being made by science. The doer listens with a cautious ear, keeping in mind that even the best data from the best researcher has limitations in terms of what it can tell you and how it can be interpreted and used. Let dreamers help you get excited about what’s happening in your field, an excitement which can help you get through the duller moments of research, and let the doer be there to remind you to look closely at each new finding or idea with a fine-toothed comb.
Dreamer: Ooh, interesting side projects! You can do this experiment, or that analysis, or both, or …
Doer: What does it say in the project proposal that you should do? Also the machine you need is broken and when it’s fixed then that experiment will take 2 weeks to finish.
Dreamers are good at coming up with lot of new ideas, many of them quite good or interesting. But it may not always be the best to pursue every side project or idea, as too many offshoots won’t lead you to a cohesive project, but instead an amalgamation of interesting facts with fewer long lines of logic running through it. Doers like to stick to the plan and to think before jumping into new experiments, and also see the practicalities that lie in projects and side projects, including time and consumable costs. Recognize that the dreamers will have good ideas for other work to do and that the doers can recognize which ideas can lead you to the best end product and what it will take to get you there.
Dreamer: Hi, new collaborator best friend! Here’s 50 great ideas and things we can do with you.
Doer: Hello, potential collaborator. Let’s discuss the terms of our collaborative venture and decide who’s doing what.
Dreamers enjoy making new connections and talking to other researchers about ideas, not all of which come to fruition. Doers are more pragmatic in how they interact with and reach out to colleagues but go into working relationships with a clear understanding of what comes out of it. For meeting new people and getting excited about potential, follow the dreamer. For making things happen and keeping yourself from being stretched too thin, follow the doer.
Dreamer: Let’s have an hour-long conference call and talk about all the great things we can do!
Doer: Let’s send 2 emails and decide on a way forward.
A dreamer understands the importance of face-to-face meetings and conference calls as a source of new ideas, and is always an engaged party in the discussion. Doers may not be big talkers but they always make sure there’s a plan going forward, even after a long brainstorming session. View meetings and discussions as a positive, idea-generating activity like the dreamers, but leave the discussion with a clear plan of goals and deliverables like the doer.
Dreamer: I’m going to change the world!
Doer: I’m going to get more coffee.
Dreamers have an infectious excitement about work, their research, and what it all means in the grand scheme of the world. Dreamers are the type of people that got excited about science as kids and never turned it down a notch. Doers may have a more realistic view on the future and their place in it, which is practical but not always exciting. While you do need this pragmatic perspective, not having it balanced out with a bit of enthusiasm can lead you to feeling like you just need to churn out data in order to succeed, forgetting that it’s the ideas and the dreams that help get you to success and help keep you going.
Dreamers and doers both have a place in the world, and we need both of them in an entourage, even if their opposing viewpoints can sometimes drive you mad. They help us see the benefits of being practical versus dreaming big, of getting excited versus being skeptical, of the BIG picture versus all of its crucial details, and of talking the talk versus walking the walk. And if you’re not a particular fan of our analogy, you can try another one for size. And just think: if they made a caffeinated beer, what need would there be for a research entourage at all?