The three pillars

I was asked by a friend the other day what qualities I consider when I look for people to join our work at our lab. And I found myself giving a very specific answer. It wasn’t an answer I had consciously thought through before, but I realized as I said it that I had been using these criteria for a long time.

Essentially I think in terms of three pillars. I say “pillars” because all three are necessary. If any one is missing, things get unstable very quickly.

The three pillars are: Conceptual, Practical and Personal. “Conceptual” refers to the ability to understand the underlying meaning of what we are doing. In other words, why are we doing this research? What are our real goals? Without that understanding, it’s hard for any member of the team to make an independent decision about that is important for them to work on.

The second pillar (which is somewhat useless without the first), is practical ability. People need to be able to learn and master tools, to have the chops to work on their own without somebody else needing to hold their hand. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a virtuoso, just good enough to be self-sufficient when needed.

Finally, there is the personal. I look for people who can play well with others. This means a fundamental attitude of kindness, as well as a real respect for the importance of everyone else. Without those qualities, even the most brilliant and talented person is actually a danger to the group effort, rather than an asset.

I suspect everyone responsible for a group of people working together goes through something similar. If you find yourself in the position of leading such a group, it’s probably one of the most important things you do.

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