Sottaku Doji in Science

The other day I was chatting over lunch with a visiting colleague who told me the following story, not uncommon in our field: Several years ago, as they were just starting their independent career, they approached a senior PI with a proposal for what they thought would be a great research project involving technology development in their lab. The senior PI shrugged them off. A few year later, the same PI met my colleague and told them: “Hey, maybe you can do X, that would be exciting” (where X is exactly what my friend proposed before). But now it was too late as similar tech already came out and my friend was invested in newer directions.

Well, you can sum the above story as “timing is everything”, but it reminded me a more nuanced version of it, used in Martial Arts, but applicable in Science (and everyday life) as well. It’s called Sottaku Doji.

Sottaku means “a pecking noise.” Doji means “simultaneously” [1]. It refers to the critical time when a chick hatches. The mother hears the delicate sound of the chick pecking against the shell and then, and only then, helps it break the shell. Too early – and the chick will die as it’s underdeveloped. Too late, they may not be able to break free and die. I find it marvelous that Japanese actually has a term for this. Even more, it was borrowed into Martial Arts to refer to the need to have a willing trainee, a tentative teacher, and to give the mentoring just at the right time. Clearly you can see the relevance for Science, especially as advisors/mentors working with trainees. Sure, it’s not a life/death situation as for the bird (or possibly in old school kenjustsu), but we too need to make the observation/comment at the right time so that is sinks in (or, admittedly, sometimes we need to hear things ourselves at the right time, as in the story above).

I first learned about Sottaku Doji when I read Davee Lowry’s book Moving Towards Stillness [1]. I highly recommend it for those interested in inspiring stories about the connections between Martial Arts and the everyday life. In the book, Dave recounts how he failed to do a certain kenjutsu kata for many months. One day, while observing him fail again his (very traditional Japanese) Sensei told him “just shift your weight at this point” – and everything worked. Frustrated and angry, Dave told the sensei’s wife “couldn’t he have told me this before?” to which she replied: “And if he did, would you have listened??”.

We live in a fast paced world, with so much information that can be gained from online courses, tutorials, and how-to videos. Yet, in Scientific research, as in the Martial Arts, there is no replacement to individualized, attentive training. The term for that already exists. All we need to do as mentors is to, well, pay attention. Sottaku Doji.

[1] Lowry, Dave. Moving Toward Stillness (p. 47). Tuttle Publishing.