I have spent a fair bit of time at various conferences in the last
three months: DEFCON, USENIX Security, and ACM CCS. A lot of
research has been presented, informal or not, all of it the result
of dozens upon dozens of person-hours on the part of the authors.
This display of newfound knowledge serves as a powerful personal
motivator, and I always return energized and ready to tackle various
challenges. I also use this opportunity to reflect on sundry topical
matters, and (possibly because I found myself surrounded by some
very smart people during these events) as of late my thoughts have
been directed at understanding what I think our resources, as
individuals, should be primarily focused on. The answer is that we
should all (researchers or not) aim to make an impact on the world,
some contribution that positively affects life in the global or
historical sense: meaningful work.
While this may seem like a straightforward observation, perhaps so
much so as to border on appearing naïve, I consider it deserves
explicit reaffirmation, insofar as the anecdotal evidence I
collected leads me to think it is an oft-forgotten principle.
Not everyone may succeed in curing a disease or engendering world
peace directly through their work, but everyone can and should
participate in a piece of something comparatively important for the
Human Race. As the discovery of penicillin teaches us, it is not
always obvious how things are intertwined, so accidental
achievements are possible. Still, the few such exemptions only
reinforce the general rule that great results come from directed
focus and concentrated efforts. It is true that significant
accomplishments may follow from unexpected work, and it is hard to
know in advance how things will play out, but reflecting on what our
intended goals are does provide the perspective needed to find the
There are many ways to connect advances in a particular field to the
more general issues we face at global scale. Maybe a curious new
encryption scheme only seems exciting to mathematicians and
cryptographers, but it may be the basis of a secure communication
protocol with strong mathematical guarantees that it cannot be
intercepted, allowing freedom fighters all over the world to succeed
in their struggles. Knowing how certain bees mate might sound silly,
until the discovery gives new insights into certain enzymes that end
up solving cancer. These examples may seen like stretches of
imagination, and an intelligent individual would be able to draw
such links between arbitrary points of the Human Knowledge Graph.
Yet, there is no real damage doing so, except for the illegitimate
ego-boosting and incidental annoyance. But when you are part of
something that you know to be, simply, of real importance, no amount
of intellectual posturing will convince otherwise. Work that falls
in this second category, whether it is something you lead or take
part in, matters. It has meaning beyond the next paycheque earned,
journal or conference willing to publish it.
Always gravitate toward Big Things.