Go With Your Gut

Think of a country.

Which one did you think of? France? Brazil? Australia?

Now ponder this; where did that answer come from? Did you sense it pop into your head?

The author Sam Harris uses this question to highlight the fact that we do not ‘choose’ many, and arguably _any _of our seemingly conscious decisions. I want to suggest that this very same subconscious decision-making process is already at work in answering the question posed in the title of this blog post.

I’m not actually a very gut-led person in general. I tend to approach both major and minor life decisions with an often overly complex degree of pondering, sometimes even scoring different options in a spreadsheet (that sounds pretty ridiculous as I type it). Sometimes, however, your gut (well, your subconscious) can come up with some pretty decent answers.

A number of years ago, I found myself working in an engineering department, doing a number of tasks related to the development of scientific equipment. I enjoyed the work, but something wasn’t right.

I’d sort of drifted into the role from my physics background, and at first, when the company was small, I was able to be an engineering generalist. I really enjoyed that period, being able to do bits of everything, but as the company matured, I became increasingly surrounded by specialists. I was suddenly working with mechanical engineers, software engineers and electrical engineers who had only ever done those things and didn’t care about anything else.

I envied them. They all seemed to have a laser-focused vision of what they wanted to do with their careers and had absolutely no interest in veering outside of their core area. I, on the other hand, started to be given more and more project management responsibilities. After all, I was in the unique position of knowing a bit about everything, whilst not knowing enough to do the serious, hands-on specialist work. It made sense for me to be the overseer.

Photo by Nicolas Thomas on Unsplash

One day, I decided that if I was going to support the engineers fully, I should increase my knowledge of their fields. I selected mechanical engineering first, and completed a basic SolidWorks qualification, and then moved on to brush up on my electronics. I signed up to a course and pledged to work through it in my spare time.

However, as the months rolled by, I often found myself coming up with excuses as to why ‘today wasn’t the day’ to work on the course. I also tried electronic projects, but again, progress was painfully slow.

The reality was that I had no passion whatsoever for engineering. And I felt incredibly lost as to what to do about it.

The Power of Data Compels Me

Then, in a meeting one afternoon, I overheard someone talking about a colleague who was working on ‘an algorithm’, but was struggling to find the time to get it finished. I had no idea what this really meant, but something about it intrigued me.

Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

I found the guy, spoke him about it, asked if I could be involved, and he happily off-loaded the whole thing to me. This was my first taste of what I later would discover was a simple machine-learning algorithm. Before I knew it, I was working my way through the Coursera Data Science Specialisation. I happily worked through the courses on my lunchtimes. Evenings were lost to it. Weekends were spent exploring dozens of new ideas in R. I found myself loving statistics, a subject I’d hated at school because it had been taught completely devoid of any sense of real-world application.

And I’m not talking about the headline-making, bleeding-edge stuff. Sure, I later did courses and projects on deep learning and big data, but I enjoyed the more mundane stuff, too. I really like running a t-test, or cleaning data, or making a really nice plot. That might sound a bit sad, but then I’ll never understand why anyone would ever watch a game of cricket. Each to their own I guess.

And that was that. I suddenly realised one day that I’d found what I wanted to do. Physics and engineering had been great, but _this _was something that felt like a hobby. And I haven’t looked back since.

#data-science #careers #statistics #engineering #editors-pick

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