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  • In the middle of my Ph.D.,

  • I was hopelessly stuck.

  • Every research direction that I tried

  • led to a dead end.

  • It seemed like my basic assumptions

  • just stopped working.

  • I felt like a pilot flying through the mist,

  • and I lost all sense of direction.

  • I stopped shaving.

  • I couldn't get out of bed in the morning.

  • I felt unworthy

  • of stepping across the gates of the university,

  • because I wasn't like Einstein or Newton

  • or any other scientist whose results

  • I had learned about, because in science,

  • we just learn about the results, not the process.

  • And so obviously, I couldn't be a scientist.

  • But I had enough support

  • and I made it through

  • and discovered something new about nature.

  • This is an amazing feeling of calmness,

  • being the only person in the world

  • who knows a new law of nature.

  • And I started the second project in my Ph.D,

  • and it happened again.

  • I got stuck and I made it through.

  • And I started thinking,

  • maybe there's a pattern here.

  • I asked the other graduate students, and they said,

  • "Yeah, that's exactly what happened to us,

  • except nobody told us about it."

  • We'd all studied science as if it's a series

  • of logical steps between question and answer,

  • but doing research is nothing like that.

  • At the same time, I was also studying

  • to be an improvisation theater actor.

  • So physics by day,

  • and by night, laughing, jumping, singing,

  • playing my guitar.

  • Improvisation theater,

  • just like science, goes into the unknown,

  • because you have to make a scene onstage

  • without a director, without a script,

  • without having any idea what you'll portray

  • or what the other characters will do.

  • But unlike science,

  • in improvisation theater, they tell you from day one

  • what's going to happen to you when you get onstage.

  • You're going to fail miserably.

  • You're going to get stuck.

  • And we would practice staying creative

  • inside that stuck place.

  • For example, we had an exercise

  • where we all stood in a circle,

  • and each person had to do the world's worst tap dance,

  • and everybody else applauded

  • and cheered you on,

  • supporting you onstage.

  • When I became a professor

  • and had to guide my own students

  • through their research projects,

  • I realized again,

  • I don't know what to do.

  • I'd studied thousands of hours of physics,

  • biology, chemistry,

  • but not one hour, not one concept

  • on how to mentor, how to guide someone

  • to go together into the unknown,

  • about motivation.

  • So I turned to improvisation theater,

  • and I told my students from day one

  • what's going to happen when you start research,

  • and this has to do with our mental schema

  • of what research will be like.

  • Because you see, whenever people do anything,

  • for example if I want to touch this blackboard,

  • my brain first builds up a schema,

  • a prediction of exactly what my muscles will do

  • before I even start moving my hand,

  • and if I get blocked,

  • if my schema doesn't match reality,

  • that causes extra stress called cognitive dissonance.

  • That's why your schemas had better match reality.

  • But if you believe the way science is taught,

  • and if you believe textbooks, you're liable

  • to have the following schema of research.

  • If A is the question,

  • and B is the answer,

  • then research is a direct path.

  • The problem is that if an experiment doesn't work,

  • or a student gets depressed,

  • it's perceived as something utterly wrong

  • and causes tremendous stress.

  • And that's why I teach my students

  • a more realistic schema.

  • Here's an example

  • where things don't match your schema.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • So I teach my students a different schema.

  • If A is the question,

  • B is the answer,

  • stay creative in the cloud,

  • and you start going,

  • and experiments don't work, experiments don't work,

  • experiments don't work, experiments don't work,

  • until you reach a place linked with negative emotions

  • where it seems like your basic assumptions

  • have stopped making sense,

  • like somebody yanked the carpet beneath your feet.

  • And I call this place the cloud.

  • Now you can be lost in the cloud

  • for a day, a week, a month, a year,

  • a whole career,

  • but sometimes, if you're lucky enough

  • and you have enough support,

  • you can see in the materials at hand,

  • or perhaps meditating on the shape of the cloud,

  • a new answer,

  • C, and you decide to go for it.

  • And experiments don't work, experiments don't work,

  • but you get there,

  • and then you tell everyone about it

  • by publishing a paper that reads A arrow C,

  • which is a great way to communicate,

  • but as long as you don't forget the path

  • that brought you there.

  • Now this cloud is an inherent part

  • of research, an inherent part of our craft,

  • because the cloud stands guard at the boundary.

  • It stands guard at the boundary

  • between the known

  • and the unknown,

  • because in order to discover something truly new,

  • at least one of your basic assumptions has to change,

  • and that means that in science,

  • we do something quite heroic.

  • Every day, we try to bring ourselves

  • to the boundary between the known and the unknown

  • and face the cloud.

  • Now notice that I put B

  • in the land of the known,

  • because we knew about it in the beginning,

  • but C is always more interesting

  • and more important than B.

  • So B is essential in order to get going,

  • but C is much more profound,

  • and that's the amazing thing about resesarch.

  • Now just knowing that word, the cloud,

  • has been transformational in my research group,

  • because students come to me and say,

  • "Uri, I'm in the cloud,"

  • and I say, "Great, you must be feeling miserable."

  • (Laughter)

  • But I'm kind of happy,

  • because we might be close to the boundary

  • between the known and the unknown,

  • and we stand a chance of discovering

  • something truly new,

  • since the way our mind works,

  • it's just knowing that the cloud

  • is normal, it's essential,

  • and in fact beautiful,

  • we can join the Cloud Appreciation Society,

  • and it detoxifies the feeling that something

  • is deeply wrong with me.

  • And as a mentor, I know what to do,

  • which is to step up my support for the student,

  • because research in psychology shows

  • that if you're feeling fear and despair,

  • your mind narrows down

  • to very safe and conservative ways of thinking.

  • If you'd like to explore the risky paths

  • needed to get out of the cloud,

  • you need other emotions --

  • solidarity, support, hope

  • that come with your connection from somebody else,

  • so like in improvisation theater,

  • in science, it's best to walk into the unknown

  • together.

  • So knowing about the cloud,

  • you also learn from improvisation theater

  • a very effective way to have conversations

  • inside the cloud.

  • It's based on the central principle

  • of improvisation theater,

  • so here improvisation theater

  • came to my help again.

  • It's called saying "Yes, and"

  • to the offers made by other actors.

  • That means accepting the offers

  • and building on them, saying, "Yes, and."

  • For example, if one actor says,

  • "Here is a pool of water,"

  • and the other actor says,

  • "No, that's just a stage,"

  • the improvisation is over.

  • It's dead, and everybody feels frustrated.

  • That's called blocking.

  • If you're not mindful of communications,

  • scientific conversations can have a lot of blocking.

  • Saying "Yes, and" sounds like this.

  • "Here is a pool of water." "Yeah, let's jump in."

  • "Look, there's a whale! Let's grab it by its tail.

  • It's pulling us to the moon!"

  • So saying "Yes, and" bypasses our inner critic.

  • We all have an inner critic

  • that kind of guards what we say,

  • so people don't think that we're obscene

  • or crazy or unoriginal,

  • and science is full of the fear

  • of appearing unoriginal.

  • Saying "Yes, and" bypasses the critic

  • and unlocks hidden voices of creativity

  • you didn't even know that you had,

  • and they often carry the answer

  • about the cloud.

  • So you see, knowing about the cloud

  • and about saying "Yes, and"

  • made my lab very creative.

  • Students started playing off of each others' ideas,

  • and we made surprising discoveries

  • in the interface between physics and biology.

  • For example, we were stuck for a year

  • trying to understand the intricate

  • biochemical networks inside our cells,

  • and we said, "We are deeply in the cloud,"

  • and we had a playful conversation

  • where my student Shai Shen Orr said,

  • "Let's just draw this on a piece of paper, this network,"

  • and instead of saying,

  • "But we've done that so many times

  • and it doesn't work,"

  • I said, "Yes, and

  • let's use a very big piece of paper,"

  • and then Ron Milo said,

  • "Let's use a gigantic architect's

  • blueprint kind of paper, and I know where to print it,"

  • and we printed out the network and looked at it,

  • and that's where we made our most important discovery,

  • that this complicated network is just made

  • of a handful of simple, repeating interaction patterns

  • like motifs in a stained glass window.

  • We call them network motifs,

  • and they're the elementary circuits

  • that help us understand

  • the logic of the way cells make decisions

  • in all organisms, including our body.

  • Soon enough, after this,

  • I started being invited to give talks

  • to thousands of scientists across the world,

  • but the knowledge about the cloud

  • and saying "Yes, and"

  • just stayed within my own lab,

  • because you see, in science, we don't talk about the process,

  • anything subjective or emotional.

  • We talk about the results.

  • So there was no way to talk about it in conferences.

  • That was unthinkable.

  • And I saw scientists in other groups get stuck

  • without even having a word to describe

  • what they're seeing,

  • and their ways of thinking

  • narrowed down to very safe paths,