Thursday, November 29, 2012

Happiness is not the absence of problems

The full quote from which I've taken the title of this posting is "Happiness is not the absence of problems, but the ability to deal with them", attributed to Charles Louis de Montesquieu. Hopefully its relevance will emerge below.

It's nearly a month since I moved to the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) here in Pune. Changing jobs and cities at the age of 56 is not totally trivial, in particular much of the effort (unpacking boxes and figuring out what to do with the contents) proved rather exhausting and left me with a dust allergy and consequent sore throat. Now that this phase is over I'm able to ask how I feel about the move. The answer in one word is: happy! I like IISER and I like Pune.

To briefly sum up the latter: the roads are good, the traffic where I live is far lighter than that in the area of Bombay where I used to live, my new apartment has a spectacular view of hills and little else, and the mutton in this town is particularly tasty. As for the weather, a winter made up of mild sunny days and cool nights (13-15 degrees C) makes for an idyllic existence and a sound sleep at night. I am now a concrete example of the well-known aphorism that "the climate of Bombay is such that its inhabitants have to live elsewhere"!

To be sure there are negatives about Pune and I'm sure I will discover more. For the moment I'd highlight the conspicuous `discouraging notices' one sees everywhere: "no couples allowed" (on a park bench), "no bachelors, no alcohol, vegetarian only" (pasted all over a modern block of luxury apartments) and "please don't ask for directions" (at the vegetable market). But I think people here are nicer and more liberal than they would like to pretend to be.

Back to IISER. It's a relatively young institution (currently in its 7th year) in a growth phase. And I can readily identify what I like about it: there is a very concrete and widespread understanding that we have a mission to build a high-quality science university and that we cannot fail. The philosophy is essentially forward-looking and almost everything I hear is based on a win-win ideal. This ideal appears to trickle down from the very top but also has strong roots and therefore diffuses upwards from the base as well, causing an even distribution across all levels. Long may it last.

Of course it would be naive and foolish (I confess to being both on occasion) to pretend that IISER is not going to have problems. In fact one already hears of a few. But I don't worry too much because IISER appears to be a healthy institution, which means we can try our best to deal with the problems.

I've thought a fair amount about the health of institutions (and even blogged about this matter here and here) and come out with the following universal - though maybe over-simplified - observation. In any organisation, there is a goal to be achieved and this goal necessarily brings with it a lot of "external" problems. But these problems do not normally cause unhappiness. Indeed, scientific research itself is nothing but the attempt to solve external problems ("what's going on in the mind of Nature?"). But even less lofty problems ("what is the best design for a new campus?", "will the students like the cafeteria food?" etc) are inevitable and tend to at worst cause some irritation rather than any genuine despondency.

But there is a second category of problems which I will call, for lack of a better word, "unnecessary" problems. These are caused by human beings who are either immature or incompetent or crooked or corrupt or perverse or plain stupid, who have somehow got themselves into powerful positions and are creating difficulties for others. In such an institution, not only does one still have to solve the external problems, but the very attempt to solve them is stifled by human-created internal roadblocks. The frustration caused by this second-order type of problem is potentially infinite, precisely because it is so "unnecessary". In an institution where the leaders are problem-creators rather than problem-solvers, the question is no longer "what's going on in the mind of Nature?" but rather, "what's going on in the mind of the Dean?" (or Director, or Registrar, or whoever). As Montesquieu would astutely point out, this situation pretty much blocks one's ability to deal with the genuine problems and leads to gross unhappiness.

Note that corruption (financial or academic) is not necessarily the motivation of these problem-creators, as I've discussed previously here. The other adjectives I've used above all correspond to different people I've encountered in positions of power for which they were entirely unsuitable.

So if I have to sum up what is healthy about IISER, it's the fact that everyone I've met here seems to be actively trying to solve problems. There don't seem to be problem-creating officials around every corner so the problems here end up being of the genuine, "external", kind. It's not always easy to solve these external problems, but at least in this ecosystem one can give them one's best.

My wish for IISER Pune is that it should forever remain an exciting battleground to deal with the real problems, those associated with doing high-level research and teaching and administration anywhere in the world. May it never stoop low enough to create its own unnecessary problems.

This is also my wish for all other institutions.