The humble lexicographer

I’ve previously written about my opinion on seeking work with the aim of making an impact on the world. I believe that, while considering career options, that criterion must be given weight, but not too much. This struck me when I realised that, in my own search for a career, I had been focusing on making an impact more than I should have, and it was causing me distress.

Any attempt to change one’s belief systems, even if the change is minuscule, requires a certain amount of persistence. Changing one’s perspective, although not quite as drastic as learning the rules of physics all over again, needs sustained efforts. To be able to bring about the change, as my maths teacher once said while teaching calculus, requires that the idea to be drilled into your head.

Samuel Johnson

In an attempt to do that, I am going to try and share some stories from the past about people who believed in doing the work, regardless of the impact it would eventually have on the world. The first story is that of Samuel Johnson, who produced the first reliable dictionary of the English language.

The first dictionary of the English language was written by an English schoolteacher in 1604, with 2500 words in it. But in 1741, David Hume lamented that the language has been neglected by scholars, and there is no ‘Dictionary of our Language’, probably because what was was published till then was merely a ‘word-book’, not a dictionary in the true sense of the word.

Oxford English Dictionary says a dictionary is: A book which explains or translates, usually in alphabetical order, the words of a language, giving for each word its typical spelling, an explanation of its meaning or meanings, and often other information, such as pronunciation, etymology, synonyms, equivalents in other languages, and illustrative examples.

In the early 18th century, there seemed to be a number of dictionaries, but none that could set as the ‘standard of our language‘. In 1746, Johnson was contracted to write a dictionary. Despite not having completed his formal education at Oxford (because of lack of funds), he had proved himself to be a master of the English language and to be proficient at many others. He promised to complete the project in three years, which was a promising a little too much, given that the French, who had recently completed a dictionary of their language, had forty scholars working on it for forty years.

Such was the importance of the dictionary at the time that Oxford University awarded Johnson a Master of Arts degree in anticipation of the work. He worked tirelessly with only a few assistants, who were employed for mechanical work, and completed the task in nine years to produce the Dictionary.

Although Johnson was aware of the importance of his work, in his preface to the dictionary, he wrote:

Of the event of this work, for which, having laboured it with so much application, I cannot but have some degree of parental fondness, it is natural to form conjectures. Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design , require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

He died in 1784, less than 30 years after the publication of the Dictionary, and would not have known that, for the next 150 years, his dictionary would remain the English-language standard.

Living under an illusion

Sure, I’d like to change the world. Expecting that I will is plain wrong though!

All my life I have had different things that motivated me to do what I have done. But for the past few years, a constant driving force for the choices I make and the work I do has been the impact that those choices and work have on the world. Unfortunately, I have been self-deceiving myself into believing that what I am doing has or is going to have a measurable impact on the world.

For past three years I have been working on synthesising a large chunk of an even larger molecule. The way I put it to ninth graders, recently, was that I am attempting to stitch  atoms together in a very restricted manner. I am using the technology that chemists have developed over the past two hundred years to produce something in the lab that nature took millions of years to do. Sounds cool and it is.

And yet, when I finish writing my thesis I am not sure if it will be read by more than a handful chemists in its lifetime. The paper that will eventually be published in a reputed journal may be read by a few hundred chemists around the world and a small percentage of them may even cite my work.

A total of ten man-years of work, including three years of my work, and ~£1 million of tax-payers money will have what impact on the world of chemistry or on the world in general? Maybe nothing and maybe a lot, I don’t know.

This blog is very shortly going to reach the 100,000-hits mark since it was brought back to life in June 2009. What impact my writing has had on the world? I don’t know.

Some people will bring a small stone to the building called science and some people will bring a big one, but nevertheless no one can take that stone away from you.” These words by the Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn’s, may soothe my scientist soul and may be I can find such words to do the same for my writing soul. But I cannot deny that walking into something thinking it will make a measurable impact on the world is a little foolish.

Looking back at one’s activities one may be able to understand what is the ‘impact’ those activities have had, but looking forward it is incredibly hard to do be able to predict that impact. But such is human nature that, as someone venturing in to a new area of work, I find it hard to be able to convince and motivate myself to keep working hard if I can’t see the impact of that work.

I posed this as a question to someone who has been working in sustainability for the past 10 years after having switched from a successful career as an accountant. The answer I got was an obvious one, but I think I needed to be told. He said, “The world is incredibly complex. One may never really be able to understand the impact of one’s work and, in this case, the only piece of advice I can give to you is something that won’t be satisfying. Learn to let go off the expectations and you will find it simpler to deal with the world and keeping doing the incredible work that you are doing.”

Knowing this is one thing, applying it to my life is another.

Related: It should be about choices not goals