Let's say you are passionate, I mean really passionate, about your field. However, whenever you try to share the pleasure induced by your findings or further understanding or even acknowledged works with those you love and who love you, could be your family members or lover or spouse, you always get a response such as "Oh yeah, that might make a lot of money."

What do you do if you are uncomfortable with such a response but do not know how to properly express yourself in this context without hurting them? What would you do to make yourself more comfortable?

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    I think this may be off-topic because it is about personal relations outside academia. – silvado Jan 16 '15 at 15:27
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    One way to think about it is that they aren't trying to disparage your passion, but rather are approaching things from another perspective. In a way, it's a positive message: they are agreeing that they value your field, and adding an additional reason to do so (beyond what matters most to you). It would be nice if they could understand/appreciate your passion more directly, and perhaps they will start to do so over time, but at least you all have a positive view. Their perspective is complementary to yours, rather than in opposition. – Anonymous Mathematician Jan 16 '15 at 15:34
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    @silvado I think that it is on topic, because it is a challenge that many in academia face, not unlike imposter syndrome. – jakebeal Jan 16 '15 at 16:50
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    If you are really that passionate about your work, why do you need others' approval or praise about it? – Alexandros Jan 17 '15 at 9:56
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    @Alexandros: I am afraid your comment assumes that I SIMPLY need others' praise. But this is not the case. :) I was annoyed NOT because I depend my self-value on others' approv or derog, but mainly because, perhaps, I implicitly subconsciously respectfully require their minds to concern more than money. Of course, we are currently not lacking in money. – Megadeth Jan 18 '15 at 5:01

Let's pretend that it's not an academic field that you are passionate about, but instead something like train spotting or fantasy football or competitive button collecting. Seriously, pretend that when you are talking with non-practitioners, that every technical word that comes out of your mouth is replaced with something like "'Jaques Israel' Pink Latticino Swirl" or "1820 Georgian British Livery button."

Would you feel upset by their disinterest then? Depending on the answer to this question, I think that there are two ways to approach the issue:

  • If you would still feel upset, then it's not so much that you want the people close to you to be button enthusiasts too, but that you want them to be excited for you and supportive of your enthusiasm. A way that you can address this in your relationships is by talking less about the subject that you care about, and more about your little triumphs and setbacks in pursuing it. For example, if you are elated because you have just figured out a difficult problem, tell about your struggle and your joy, or about how it can affect your relationship with your fellow button collectors, but don't try to explain the problem or the solution.

  • If you would not still feel upset, then it seems that you feel there is something important about your field that means that non-practitioners should care about what is going on in it. In this case, you again need to drop the technical vocabulary, but instead talk about how the ideas that you encounter may come to affect the world that we all live in or our understanding of it. A personal example: some of my synthetic biology work focuses on the study of translational regulation of Sindbis replicons via calibrated flow cytometry ("1851 Goodyear Patriotic Lady Liberty Button"), but I talk about it with non-practitioners in terms of the ways it could make vaccination easier, safer, and more accessible.

I either case, in my personal experience, the core of the solution is to drop the technical language and talk about whichever human dimensions it is that you really want the other person to engage with.

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How about this - taken from Donald Schön (.. on top of the o) Reflective Practitioner

The response you are getting surprises you. It is often in the nature of skilled professional work that circumstances surprise us. And at that moment, we begin to work.

Stop yourself. Brake. And ask yourself, "What surprises me? and what would I like to know more about?"

If you can understand and articulate what surprises you in their response and how you can learn more, then you move from being irritated (and closing down) to being curious and opening out.

Does this help?

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  • Thanks very much for answering and introducing the book; I have never heard of the book. Yes, I think to brake is a good idea, after all being irritated is (to me) a waste of time :) – Megadeth Jan 16 '15 at 15:13

Some things you could try:

  1. Get really good at selling your work, and develop an elevator pitch that most laymen would find interesting and relevant.
  2. If your topic is very esoteric, you could try selling your field as a whole before moving to your specific research topic (answering the question "what is math?" rather than "what is algebraic number theory?"). This will generally be easier for laymen to relate to, and if you give them a good introduction, you may be able to steer the conversation towards the specific things that you find interesting about your field (rather than "it could make money"). As a bonus, this will remind you of the broader impact of your work, and the things that make your problems fundamentally interesting to other people.
  3. If that fails, you can find different people to talk to about your research.
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