Guide to Academic Life

By Bernard Wood
January 14, 2013

Never pass down an opportunity to visit the UC Irvine campus. It does not have history on its side, but it beats Oxford and Cambridge hands down for climate. As well as being an excellent university in its own right, UC Irvine is also the home of the western headquarters of the National Academies of Science and Engineering. The headquarters is housed in the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center, which is a fine venue for a meeting. The architecture is pleasing, everything about the building is high quality, and the facilities (and the food) are outstanding.

The benefactor, Arnold Beckman, who lived to be 104, is an American success story. After working for Bell Telephone he established his own firm, Beckman Instruments, to produce and sell the scientific instruments he invented. Among his inventions are the pH meter and the quartz spectrophotometer. The latter is the basis of all automated chemical and biological analysis. As if this was not enough he provided the funding for the first silicon transistor company, thus indirectly giving rise to Silicon Valley.

Tucked away at the end of a corridor on the wall is Arnold Beckman’s ‘Guide to Life’ (it is reproduced below). Arnold Beckman’s suggestions are mix of moral exhortations and practical suggestions. It is hard to argue with any of them, and I have them printed out in my office.

As we are still close to the beginning of a New Year I thought, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I would try and build on Beckman’s example and come up with some suggestions for a ‘Guide to Academic Life’.

Some of the suggestions are directed at my personal frailties, but others may strike a chord with others. So I offer the following, in no particular order:

  • ‘Always take something interesting to read in faculty meetings.’
  • ‘Go through your commitments and consider each against AB’s dictum “Never do anything half-heartedly. Either get into it, or get out of it”.’
  • ‘Try not to confuse urgency with importance.’
  • ‘Do at least one important task, no matter how small, each day.’
  • ‘Write a note, or letter, in longhand at least once a week.’
  • ‘If you find yourself looking forward to a meeting, make an appointment to go and see your doctor.’
  • ‘Try harder not to fall asleep in seminars and talks.’
  • ‘Do at least one worthwhile task, no matter how small, each day.’
  • ‘Other people probably have at least as much on their plate as you.’
  • ‘Someone, somewhere, thinks you are stupid. Try and think why that might be.’
  • ‘Remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.’
  • ‘If you have any, make sure your children know how much they mean to you.’
  • ‘Read personal emails as carefully as you would an old-fashioned letter.’
  • ‘Only read an email once; time spent in your in-box rarely makes them any easier to deal with.’
  • ‘Consider deleting some emails before reading them’.

Beckman’s Guide to Life

  • ‘Maintain absolute integrity at all times.’
  • ‘Always do your best. Never do anything half-heartedly. Either get into it, or get out of it.’
  • ‘Never do anything to harm others.’
  • ‘Never do anything you will be ashamed of later.’
  • ‘Always strive for excellence.’
  • ‘Practice moderation in all things, including moderation. Sometimes excess is what is called for!’
  • ‘Don’t take yourself too seriously.’