Running and Tumbling
Running and Tumbling
The natural world is full of inspirational ideas. Just consider how a bacterium uses two modes of movement to navigate its world. In “run” mode, it moves toward a goal (the promise of food) or away from trouble. In “tumble” mode, it spins about looking for a good direction to go next. Chemotaxis, the formal name for this strategy, is evolutionarily ancient, reflexive and effective.

We humans have come a long way from these humble beginnings. We can endure some pain for the promise of better times, we can reflect on experiences and learn from them, and we can adapt our actions based on advice and observing others. But we still run when we are certain and tumble when faced with uncertainty.

Run mode is measurable and observable by others. We get rewarded for running. Set a goal, take actions, show off your results and move on to the next goal. In my case, being a professor has been all about run mode — long term to get to this point in my career, and short term as I switch between the various roles I play. But there’s a catch to living in run mode — it is all too easy to become blinded by our goals, or even worse, accept someone else’s goals as our own. Sometimes sorting all of this out seems hopeless.

Orange and purple Illustration of a man tumbling upside down
Tumble mode can provide a way forward. It invites us to question our goals, explore new opportunities and rediscover purpose. Choosing to tumble is often frowned upon, however. Tumblers are considered “lost” or “in transition.” If tumbling is triggered by something outside our control, for example a health crisis, we are expected to quickly find our way back to run mode. Yet, it is in these moments of tumbling that we often make our greatest developmental advances and find our way to a hopeful future direction.

As I look toward my own future, this feels like a good time for a planned tumble. In a short span of time, I was promoted to full professor, became director of Bucknell’s Teaching & Learning Center and began my current spring semester sabbatical in the United Kingdom. To be honest, I don’t know my next direction. I’ve experienced these disorienting moments before and treated them as frivolous luxuries or annoyances. This time I’m going to try something different — I’m going to pay closer attention, tumble a bit longer and resist the urge to run. For someone who has fallen into the habit of running, I don’t expect this prolonged tumble to be easy! But I have seen others master the art of tumbling, and I will try to follow their advice. I will sketch ideas in my notebook but not act on them. I will meet new people and reconnect with trusted mentors. I will read far outside my usual domains of interest. Maybe I will learn to play the guitar. Above all, I want to learn to savor the hopefulness of tumbling.

Professor Joe Tranquillo, biomedical and electrical engineering, and director of the Teaching & Learning Center