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[EA#3] No Lanes, Just Learning


Never let others choose your lane.

Two years ago I was invited to present my ongoing work to a scientific advisory panel. The panel consisted of three senior professors so it was, in all honesty, a great opportunity to get feedback and guidance.

Anyway, I was unable to be there in person. So I shot a short video about what I’m doing. And as I thought I was doing quite ok, so I wasn’t expecting anything but “awesome good boy Simo” as a result.

Without overthinking it too much, I shot the video, highlighting my group’s work on three different fronts.

And as a result… I got butchered.

“This guy has no research field.”

“There is no way Simo can make an impact on many different fronts.”

“I have just one thing to say: You need to focus more.”

This story came to my mind some days ago. In an online discussion, I was told not so gently to “stay in your lane.” Apparently, a computer scientist simply cannot and should not take part in discussions about wellbeing recommendations. You know, because there are people with better background for that.

People with a degree in something related.


Screw the lanes.

A Brief History of Not Staying in Your Lane

Leonardo da Vinci made great contributions to art, science, engineering, anatomy, and architecture. Benjamin Franklin excelled in politics, science, writing, invention, and diplomacy. Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in chemistry AND physics. Richard Feynman who we all love dabbled (read: was great at) physics, education, and computing.

They loved learning and refused the idea about lanes.

No, I’m not comparing myself to them.

Yes, I am saying lanes are a construct that people sometimes use just to silence you. It’s a faulty argument to not have to address your points.

And you can certainly stray away from your lane if you want.

But an attack against lanes would not be fair without considering the positive aspects too. Because, in the name of honesty, in academia lanes can be good. Usually, a narrow focus does lead to a tangible result faster.

In Defence of Lanes

I think there are four different aspects that get better when you stay in one lane for long.

  • Expertise: you’ll just have an easier time mastering a given topic if you stay on it longer. This is the obvious one.
  • Efficiency: work happens faster when you already know what you’re doing due to familiarity.
  • Funding: let’s face it – it’s easier to win funding when you have old well-prepared text bits to recycle in a given topic.
  • Networking: when you are known as the go-to expert of a given topic, people come to you.

If you have a tunnel-focus in one area, your life can be pretty sweet.

A Multi-Lane Life is Fun

Okay so back to the story. First, I don’t afford to stay in one lane. I have to get funding from whatever lane I find it. So, a practical reality for Simo is that I have to work in different fields.

But more important than that is just the fact that I get bored very easily. My brains don’t want to write paper and grant proposals in one topic only, year after year.

I want my academic existence to be fun.

So what am I to do? Take advice from, yes, without a question, an advisory panel smarter than I am and become miserable?

The reason why I like my work is because I do it my way. Remember academic freedom?

As with anything, you should always be able to see both sides of the coin. Not obeying the law of lanes will help you:

  • Interdisciplinary work produces way more creative results
  • The academic landscape is changing so fast that it’s good to have flexibility with your lanes
  • Complex real-world problems demand multiple lenses from different fields
  • Personal fulfilment is easier to find when you’re not bound by some imaginary “lane” but can explore the world freely

That’s the whole point. You don’t have to do what THEY tell you to do.

You can do you.

Sometimes I feel like all thinking about advice and life lessons regress to “you do you.”

It’s a good heuristic, I feel.

Besides, Range is Good

I’m going to leave you with a reading suggestion. The book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by Daniel Epstein is a good one.

Obviously, for me it’s just a case of justifying my own thoughts as I was never really a fan of narrowly focused work, but nonetheless it offers a fresh perspective over the usual “just go ultra deep in one topic” advice.

I find three ideas in the book as particularly relevant in academic life:

  1. Diverse experiences, coupled with a later specialization, can lead to greater creativity and innovation. You can sample different ideas and fields to find what feels right for you.
  2. Diverse experiences promote “analogical thinking”, i.e. your ability to apply knowledge and methods from one field or domain in another domain.
  3. By lane-hopping you can explore a variety of different possible “selves” and paths rather than committing to a single trajectory where you are essentially locked in and forced to use the same methods and adopt the same way of working forever.

For me, it all comes down to:

No lanes, just learning.

Alright, hope you’re doing well and see you back here next week!


About the author 

Simo Hosio  -  Simo is an award-winning scientist, Academy Research Fellow, research group leader, professor, and digital builder. This site exists to empower people to build passion projects that support professional growth and make money.

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