Bradley Voytek
Failing Into Passion
TEDxSanDiego 2014

Good afternoon, everybody. I was trying to think of how to open this talk for all of you. Really, what are we doing here? What am I doing here? There is an attempt to start a narrative. I want to give you an impression of who I am.

I could say that I am a professor of computational neuroscience and cognitive science at UC San Diego. That sets something up in your mind. Yet, in my research, I study the role that neural oscillations play in coordinating information transfer between brain regions and how disruptions to that can lead to cognitive deficits and neurological deficits.

What does that have to do with passion? It’s several layers removed. I’m here to tell the story of how I became a neuroscientist, which is an unlikely one. I can back this up with some statistics. When I was a child, I wanted to be an astrophysicist.

I remember a car ride with my father when I was eight years old, telling him when he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said, “I want to be an astrophysicist.” He laughed and said, “I don’t know what that is, but that’s fantastic.”

I don’t come from a family of doctors, lawyers, engineers and scientists. I come from a working-class family of lunch ladies and line cooks. This is the statistical part of me being unlikely to come here. My parents were not married. They were teenagers when I was born.

The National Science Foundation collects statistics on the number of post-doctoral researchers, people with PhDs, in the United States who have gone on to continue their research careers. They break that out by gender, race and ethnicity. As of 2012, when I was still a post-doctoral fellow, the number of Native American neuroscience PhDs in the United States was me.

How did I go from being a want-to-be nerdy eight year-old who wanted to go into cosmology to becoming a neuroscientist? That’s what I want to talk to you about today. Cosmology and astrophysics were my passion. The first email I ever sent was to Stephen Hawking when I was 16. I had to send it from my high school because this was before internet was ubiquitous.

I used my friend’s AOL account to send an email to Stephen Hawking, telling him that his book, A Brief History of Time, changed my life. It inspired in me a passion for cosmology. That’s what I wanted to do. I never heard back.

I have an unusual upbringing. I come from an unusual family. I had to work in high school. My first job was as a houseman at a motel cleaning soiled linens from all of the rooms, which is funny because my full-time job later after I got into neuroscience was cleaning radioactive pee. We don’t have time to go into that story. I had an unusual upbringing. My family life was not standard.

I was a great high school student. When I was given the opportunity to skip my senior year of high school and go straight into college, I leapt on the opportunity. So much so that I called up my dear friend named Curtis at 2:00 in the morning on the day that I was supposed to move in. We packed my car while my family was sleeping and we drove to LA where I could begin college. I sort of left in the middle of the night.

When I got to college, I was awful. I was a terrible student. It turns out that physics in books, as it was presented by probably one of the smartest people to have ever lived, Stephen Hawking, is really hard. When I began, I joined a research lab. It was a research lab doing ultra-low temperature physics making Bose-Einstein condensates. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what that is, because I didn’t either. I didn’t do very well at that.

Simultaneously, in moving to LA, I found a lot of friends. I found a little community for myself. One part of my life was very rewarding, the part of talking to all of these people. The other part of my life, being a failure as an undergraduate, it turns out wasn’t so rewarding. It snowballed and I stopped going to classes.

I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had that moment of, “Wow, I’m not going to be who I thought I was going to be.” I started taking some non-physics classes on the side. I started taking a psychology class with a friend of mine. My junior year of college, I came back to register for classes. I wanted to take a few more psychology classes and I found out that I couldn’t because I was no longer a student there.

My grades were so bad for so long that I had lost my scholarships and was kicked out of my undergraduate. That was kind of jarring. I went in to talk to the undergraduate counselor. I said, “Well, what do we do now?” I pleaded and begged. I got a one-semester reprieve to get my act together.

I wish there was a shortcut. I wish there was an easy thing to tell you. But the reality was that there were a lot of hard nights and a lot of work. A lot of work. It turns out, sometimes if you’re lucky, you can dig yourself out of a hole. I slowly dug my way out. I couldn’t have done it without my friends and the support of my family. They said, “We love you. Do what you’re going to do.” I started getting more into learning about people. But then I found that I really wanted to learn about the brain.

I volunteered for a research lab as an undergraduate in my junior year. My first assignment as an undergraduate was to take a couple of hundred text files of data and copy and paste that over into an Excel spreadsheet. I was given two weeks to do this. Now that I’m on the other side, you give undergraduates grunt work. I was given grunt work.

I said, “This is silly. This is ridiculous. What does this have to do with the brain? I’m not going to do it.” Instead of doing that, I wrote a computer program to do it for me. Instead of taking two weeks, it took about two hours. I came back the next day and showed the results to the people who hired me, the professors.

I may as well have performed some magic trick for all of them. They said, “How did you do that?” I said, “I just wrote this program.” I had taken a couple of programming classes when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I just did this thing automatically. I found that I had a skill set. There was a niche for me. I began doing a lot of tech work for the undergraduate lab. That led to a good letter of recommendation.

I caught a lot of lucky breaks along the way. If I hadn’t have taken this class, if I hadn’t have screwed off and, in my spare time, been screwing around with computers, maybe I wouldn’t be here. I did graduate. I’m still in debt, by the way. Losing the scholarship was pretty harsh. I managed to graduate and I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

I switched majors and that was incredibly hard for me. I had built up this identity for so long of who I was as a cosmologist. We made fun of biologists and psychologists. When you’re a physicist and mathematician, you make fun of the soft science people. Part of what kept me from going into the soft sciences was this identity issue.

It turns out, there is a psychology of passion. There is a research domain on passion. It has nothing to do with what I research, but I’m fascinated by this concept. There is an obsessive passion and a harmonious passion, broadly speaking. They break it up into two general domains. Obsessive passion is passion that is not necessarily driven by internal factors. You build up an identity about yourself, your job, family, religious beliefs and political beliefs. Your community reinforces that until you cannot disentangle this label of who you are from who you are. That’s incredibly hard to break out of. It was the hardest time of my life.

I was breaking out of this identity that I had built up since I was a child into something else, which is something I made fun of. We made fun of the soft sciences people and I became one. Ironically, now I do way more math and physics as a neuroscientist than I ever did as an undergraduate physicist. I’d like to say, “Take that, past-chauvinist me.” Soft science can be hard science.

That was incredibly difficult. I couldn’t have done it without my family, help from other people and a lot of luck. My first full-time job as a psychology major coming out of my undergraduate was to work in a lab at UCLA, running a positron emission tomography scanner, which is where the radioactive pee story comes into play. Despite having to clean up radioactive pee as part of the job, it turns out, I really enjoyed this stuff.

I applied to graduate schools. I got in nowhere, except for one place. I didn’t get into the program where I’m now a professor at USC. I did get into Berkley. I went on later to ask a mentor, “How is it that I got in here and nowhere else?” My grades were terrible. I had a sub 2.5 GPA. In a moment of blunt clarity, the mentor said, “We thought you were an F-up, but an F-up with potential.” I appreciated the candor.

Now that I’m on the other side of things, I try to figure out how I can help other people disentangle their identity from who they are and move them from obsessive passion to harmonious passion. It turns out, it’s a lot of hard work. When I first began my PhD, I remember looking at the CVs and resumes of the faculty and professors that I admired, and seeing page after page of award, accolade and amazing research paper.

I was struggling to figure out how to do anything. Success builds upon success. Success builds upon failure. It’s easy to talk about being passionate about failure when it’s something you really care about. If you’re failing at things you don’t care about, it becomes much more difficult.

I now have a whole section in my CV that lists all of my failures and rejections. Every grant I didn’t receive, every award I was nominated for and didn’t get, every paper that got rejected. My favorite paper that my wife and I wrote, which got me several jobs, was rejected from 13 journals before it was finally peer reviewed.

Part of what I try to do now is to pass that along. I try to find the F-ups with potential where I can. I also try to push myself out of my zone. I try to push myself out of the neuroscience identity that I built up for myself. I’ve done several strange things. I quit academia for a while and did my startup sabbatical.
I was one of Uber’s first employees. I built out their data science team. I moved myself away from neuroscience to see if I could be pulled back into it. Was it something that I wanted to be drawn back into? I wrote a book about the zombie brain. That was hard and weird. But I keep coming back. I think that there is a little bit of security that I’m in the right domain.

That’s what I want to leave you with. If you’re in a position to do so, try and identify the F-ups with potential, not just the high GPA students. Try and push yourself out of that identity comfort zone, that obsessive passion zone, to see if you’re truly in that circle of harmonious passion. Thank you very much.