How to adult, from The Little Prince

Despite my training in French and penchant for reading, I had somehow missed The Little Prince until last week. It’s not a very long book, and I read most of it while enjoying a sandwich rather than dealing with rush-hour traffic in Madison, TN. I found it whimsical and even a bit fey.  When I read the sections detailing the Little Prince’s journey to earth, though, I felt sure I should write about it here.  The Little Prince has quite a lot to teach new professors, and I’m sure the message would be adaptable for anyone else taking a position of responsibility!

The Little Prince starts on his own little asteroid and visits six other asteroids before making his way to Earth.  On each of the other asteroids, he meets an adult who befuddles him (see the official page for delightful images).  Let’s look at each one to see what we can learn about “adulting.”

The King
Upon sighting the Little Prince, The King immediately greets him as his subject. The King makes every act of the Little Prince one that The King has ordered or forbidden, and his robes cover almost every bit of terrain on the asteroid, leaving little room for anyone else. New professors can fall in the same trap. A friend once advised me that I should stop introducing a programmer with my research team as “my programmer.” I’ve tried hard to follow that advice. Certainly a professor will have opinions on how a task should be carried out by a post-doc or graduate student, but if he or she persists in micro-managing every act by people in the group, he or she will have little time for anything else! Every professor needs to find the right balance between independence and prescription for the members of his or her team.
The Conceited Man
The Conceited Man has only one kind of interaction with the Little Prince; when the Little Prince applauds, the Conceited Man briefly salutes with his hat. When the Little Prince questions this relationship, the Conceited Man ignores the question. Few people become faculty members without winning considerable praise along the way, whether that comes in the form of grants, trophies, or just lots of papers. Sadly, we can become dependent upon receiving that praise; a large part of my struggle in graduate school was emerging into an environment where excellence was expected and was not considered comment-worthy. We must always remember to empathize with others, and that goes double for those whom we supervise.
The Tippler
The Tippler was a prime example of a self-defeating cycle (a leitmotif in The Little Prince). A tippler is a habitual drinker of alcohol. When questioned about his behavior, he responds that he drinks because he wants to forget. He wants to forget that he is ashamed. He is ashamed because he drinks. Plenty of people, of course, have gone through phases where this is literally true for them. Not every self-defeating cycle involves alcohol, though. In the latter stages of my faculty position in Nashville, I felt depressed about research funding. Because I was depressed, I could not write grants with the same sense of excitement that I once felt. Because I was less excited, I wrote grants that were less engaging. As a result, I did not do well with study sections. The first step to breaking out of such a cycle is to recognize that we are in one!
The Businessman
I think I enjoyed the Businessman more than any of the others. The Businessman persists in speaking of numbers, computing literally astronomical sums. The Little Prince discovers that he is attempting to enumerate the stars so that he can claim ownership of them. The Businessman can also clearly enumerate the number of times he has suffered an interruption in his task. I particularly appreciated this claim: “Then they belong to me, because I was the first person to think of it!” Being the first person to learn something new can confer real prestige in science. Our grants, for example, are reviewed to determine the degree of novelty that they incorporate. A scientist can get downright tetchy if someone fails to recognize that he or she was the originator of some knowledge. A great many of us feel quite swamped with work, and interruptions (even pleasant ones) can really grate on a full day. It was nice to have a laugh at the Businessman’s expense, knowing that I was laughing at myself.
The Lamplighter
In times before we had electronics to detect the light levels of the sky, cities would employ lamplighters to light the streets at nightfall and douse the flames at sunrise. Unfortunately for the Lamplighter, the asteroid on which he works is rotating more quickly with time, so that he must continuously light and douse the flames of his lamp. When the Little Prince tries to give him an alternative path (walking along the asteroid surface so that he is always in light), the Lamplighter refuses. Again we see the self-defeating cycle, but the Little Prince at least admires him for his devotion to his duty. Most adults encounter periods where they are “stuck in a rut.” It sometimes happens that we resist alternative paths that others lay out for us. I am sure that my path out of my own personal rut is a bit more extreme than many would take!
The Geographer
The Geographer sits as his desk waiting for an explorer to serve as a source of information for his big book. He has clear notions about what merits inclusion in the book; mountains and oceans are fine, but flowers are ephemeral, a word that dismays the Little Prince, remembering his favorite flower. The Geographer also displays his skepticism, noting that the moral character of the explorer must bear investigation and expecting explorers to provide proofs of their claims. In reading of the Geographer, I was reminded of scientists who become so encumbered with grant writing and academic visits that they have little time to conduct research with their own hands. More directly, I am reminded of how long it has been since I last wrote software in something other than a statistical environment! Professors must remember to engage our own hands in the lab from time to time, if only to be able to understand the data that our teams produce more completely.

If you have not read The Little Prince, I hope you will be able to give it a try. It’s a sweet and imaginative look at friendships and responsibility. I think you will be glad you gave it a look!

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