Jeremy Côté

Resolution of Care

When working on a project or crafting a scientific presentation, there are so many areas where you can cut corners. These can be easy to justify in the moment as aspects that the audience won’t notice. I’ve worked so hard. I deserve some slack!

While that may be true to some extent, the reality is that some people will notice. This could be in the laziness required to match all of the fonts in your presentation, or lack of editing on a confusing sentence in your article. When I see these crop up (and they do all the time), my reaction is simple: the person didn’t care enough.

“Care” is a word that here means doing the work necessary to ensure a pleasant experience for all. In practice, it means making sure that any corners you cut (we all have to decide where that threshold is) are beyond the resolution of your audience.

There’s always a point where you have to say, “This is enough, I’m not working on it anymore.” Good work pushes this point out of sight. Mediocre work lets it appear in broad daylight.

I’m reminded of a story I read about a designer of cabinets (unfortunately, I don’t have the source. If someone knows it, please let me know and I will update this!). The designer was building cabinets for a project, and took the time to make sure everything inside was perfect. A friend asked the designer why they were spending so much time perfecting the inside, which is an area that most people won’t focus on or even notice. Why spend all this effort getting that part perfect?

The designer replied, “Because I know it’s there.”

This is the nature of care.

When you care about your work, you won’t stop when it’s “okay” you will push for better until any lack of care is beyond the resolution of anyone else (perhaps even yourself). Note here how this is different from being “perfect”, since you don’t have to labour over the work forever. In the story above, the designer did more than was seemed necessary, but they knew that anyone like themselves would notice these details. As such, more care was put into the cabinets.

Let’s talk about science. Despite the general notion that scientists care about the details, I’ve found that as soon as you get away from the actual science, the attention to detail and care crumbles away. I’m thinking of several examples: papers, presentations, and lectures for students. These often appear as afterthoughts to the main work, and it’s clear there’s a lack of relative care.

If you’re writing a paper, care comes in the way you cite sources (do you just dump a bunch of references onto the reader, or do you point to specific areas that are important?), the use of consistent language which can be clearly followed, and the figures and diagrams present (are they informative and designed well?).

If you’re preparing a presentation, care comes from using lots of diagrams and images that are well designed, not relying on oodles of formulas that will make the audience lost, crafting a story to take people through, and knowing your material by heart.

If you’re getting a lecture ready, care comes from taking the perspective of the student and addressing them at their point of the journey, giving plenty of examples to illustrate the ideas, and being meticulous with equations written down (devoid of typos and notational nightmares).

The problem is that ignoring these won’t destroy your work. People will still read your papers, or attend your presentations or lectures. On the surface, seems like you’re doing fine. But in reality, there’s a lack of care that manifests in the fact that people won’t enjoy your work as much. Lacking care results in less enthusiasm from your audience.

If you want to do good scientific work (or heck, good work in general), focus on cutting corners below the resolution that your audience can see. That doesn’t mean hiding it away from them. Rather, it means acknowledging that you could always do more, but that this is great for the level of your audience.