Two Paths to Glory

Cordelia Fine has an article in the Australian about the thesis that self-control is the key to academic success. The article presents a way of thinking – supported by a study involving chocolate chip cookies and radishes – according to which self-control is like a muscle: it gets tired.

Moreover the “muscle” that you use to read tedious articles, write 500 words a day and refrain from telling your advisor/students what you think of them is the same muscle that helps you go for a run and reject chocolate chip cookies. (This, I suspect, explains the Princeton grad student phenomenon known as “Generals Belly”.)

Fine discusses two ways to maximise self-control for your work – both suggested by the muscle analogy. The first is to build up your self control – by exercising it. But fortunately her philosopher father has developed another way:

My father, a professional philosopher, has a job that involves thinking very hard about very difficult things. This, of course, is an activity that consumes mental resources at a terrific rate.

The secret of his success as an academic, I am now convinced, is to ensure that none of his precious brainpower is wasted on other, less important matters. He feels the urge to sample a delicious luxury chocolate? He pops one in his mouth. Pulling on yesterday’s shirt less trouble than finding a clean one? Over his head the stale garment goes. Rather fancies sitting in a comfy armchair instead of taking a brisk jog around the park? Comfy armchair it is. Thanks to its five-star treatment, my father’s willpower – rested and restored whenever possible – can take on the search for wisdom with the strength of 10 men.

Ah, it’s good to know that top philosophers are still at the forefront of psychological research.

Apparently Cordelia Fine works for Centre for Applied Philosophy Public Ethics here at the University of Melbourne (where I’m spending the summer). Maybe I can persuade her to come to Brunetti’s with me…

3 Replies to “Two Paths to Glory”

  1. The science seems to back up the writer Kingsley Amis’s well-known advice that “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair”.

    Alas, now that we have blogs this no longer suffices.

  2. I’m a little worried here. If self-discipline is a muscle, so that the same muscle is used for both reading boring articles and avoiding chocolate chip cookies, Generals Belly wouldn’t exist. If I have a strong muscle I can do what I like with it—read ten boring articles and then eat a pile of carrots and go to the gym. But as it is, I read ten boring articles and then stuff my face with cookies and loaf around—like C. Fine’s dad, it sounds like. I think that the “same muscle” view is false. Otherwise, successful academics would otherwise be more likely to be healthy, fit, svelte and attractive …

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