The dangers of motivational cliches

This post was sent to me by Nevin, who prefers to remain partially anonymous.

“If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything”.

“If you put your mind to it, and stick with it, you can do it”.

“Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever”.

“You cannot dig yourself out of a hole”.

The clock in the bottom right hand corner of the screen changes to show that it’s now 22:00. If it weren’t for the biscuits that you consumed with a cup of coffee earlier you’d really be dying for your dinner now. They’re not very good for you, but maybe you deserve it seeing as you’ve been in here at this desk, under these fluorescent lights, since 10am.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 7.53.00 AMThe security guard will be at the building soon, closing up and setting the alarm. You look out through the single pane window, drafty in the depths of winter, and see no sign of life in the car park that serves as a less than inspiring view for your research. It’s a far cry from the main campus but it gives you an extra bit of time before closing.

Maybe you can squeeze something tangible out of the day after all. Or will it be another night where you go home feeling down, the only light at the end of the tunnel being the light in the microwave where you finally heat your dinner and hope, and plan, for a better tomorrow? Maybe if you just work a little harder it won’t seem so impossible…

If you recognise traces of yourself in the scene above then it might be time to rethink how you consider the clichéd phrases at the head of the article.

As part of our wider collective consciousness, these phrases, and variations of them, help determine how we view our endeavours. However, despite the substantial evidence that your studies might just be taking a grave toll on your mental well-being, these clichés still indicate that “if you work harder” or “if you set your mind to it” then surely it will all work out.

I always felt that these phrases were too simple and never accounted for context – but I attempted to follow their mantra either way.

Surely there was a reason why I had been accepted to be a PhD candidate – and quitting was not one of those reasons. In an effort to bring an end to those nights where I hoped for a better tomorrow, I worked harder, using methods such as the Pomodoro Technique to focus myself on tasks. I signed up for a conference and set chapter deadlines as goals to work toward.

As the winter nights became longer I spent more hours behind the keyboard. While I realised that more hours did not necessarily mean more productivity, it seemed silly not to at least try. At least by spending the time at the desk I was giving myself the opportunity to work, I was, as one of the phrases states “sticking with it” and “persevering”.

However, there was very little to show for all of this perseverance. The end goal of finishing my dissertation seemed as far away as ever, despite a continual level of hard work. I began to question why I was putting myself through this. Perseverance is a good virtue indeed but when we are physically ill we do not simply “persevere” with it, we attempt to find the cause and fix the issue. Was it now time to do the same with this PhD?

I had read many accounts before of people becoming seriously anxious due to worry associated with their PhD project, but many of those accounts were written by people with pre-existing mental health issues. I had never had any issues like this before, but the hours that I was putting in to “stick with it” and to “persevere” were now beginning to take their toll.

My first anxiety attack, and thankfully only one so far, was a direct consequence of those long hours I put in to “stick with it”. This episode was the final straw , the culmination of months of worrying about my progress. I stepped back in order to work out whether I was really making a future for myself that I was content with.

Throughout my studies I developed a little theory that most people experience moments of great happiness from a common baseline of contentedness. However, I had yet to reach any level of contentedness and therefore a real form of happiness seemed very distant. I had “set my mind to it” but was now wondering had I set my mind to the right thing.

Having spent all of my twenties studying and researching, the opportunity cost, as economists say, had been quite large.

It was difficult not to think of the opportunities available had I stepped off of the academic train at an earlier platform to travel – worked abroad, and earned some money. Beyond this, the well-known dearth of real opportunities for PhD graduates in academia was tough to forget. While I loved my subject, was I stoking that interest in the right way anymore? Would it provide a future for me?

Although I have not found answers to those questions as of yet, stepping back from my studies has allowed me to find perspective, make other plans, and allowed me to feel happiness again.

The next time someone urges you to “keep trying” or to “stick with it” bear in mind that this advice is not always realistic. Motivational clichés do not account for the context of your own situation – particularly if you can strongly identify with the, unhealthy, but all too often regular, scene I set out at the top of the article.

If you are spending all of your days, and most of your nights, working on your PhD – with no end in sight and a constant feeling of worry underlying it all – then it might be time to investigate the possibility of pausing it, stepping back, and making sure you are on the right path in your life. At the very least pausing might just about allow you to experience what it is like to be happy again.

I know that for many even the consideration of stepping back from your PhD, temporarily or otherwise, is something that can instill fear. That same fear feeds into the circulating anxiety which can sometimes become a part of your academic, indeed your whole, life.

From the vantage point of time, it being well over a year since I paused my PhD, I can look back and see that by finally rejecting the idea that “if I worked just a little bit longer…” I stopped digging a hole which was turning into a dark well of worry and anxiety.

It has taken me a while, but I have come to terms with the idea that the academic route was proving unhealthy – my suspicions about motivational cliches were all too true. The last year has seen me move to another part of the country where I never thought I would live, find work which, while not altogether satisfying, allowed me to go home at 5pm without worry. A steady wage has been coming in and perhaps most importantly, those closest to me see a changed person.

No longer full of worry, no longer so tired and unsociable. I am back to my true self. Part of that true self is loving the subject, history, which I had allowed consume me as I studied and researched it. Now I can sit and read, and discuss, that love without the infamous monkey on my back, or worse still, without a black dog appearing anywhere near my shoulder.

Is this giving up? It might be, yes, but there are only so many hours in your day and so many years to your life. How do you want to fill them? Moving on does not mean a failure of ambition, it means a willingness to try – and the wisdom to know when to stop. By all means finish your PhD if you can, and the very best of luck to those who do, but don’t allow it to make you miserable.

Do not accept scars, and worse, to your mental health as par for the course. There is really only one cliche which should bear in mind if this article has resonated with you, and that is, “you cannot dig yourself out a hole”.

Thanks for sharing your story Nevin. I’m glad you’ve found some peace and clarity. What do you think? Have you been suspicious of these motivational cliches before? Or do you think they help PhD students to focus? Do you think they are the best way to talk to a person experiencing anxiety and doubt? Interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts

Should you quit your PhD?

Why do people quit the PhD?

4 more reasons why people quit the PhD

29 thoughts on “The dangers of motivational cliches

  1. Oh my goodness – I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry hysterically as the timing of this post is so spot on to my life. Fear of stepping away is definitely locking me to my desk, mad that my “just work harder, longer, more persistently, will it to happen” isn’t producing the outcomes that it “should”. Frustrated that “write 1st”, “write 15 min”, “make it a practice” doesn’t address the swimming vision on the screen every time I do that. But pragmatics also drive me on. I’m extremely grateful that I landed a position, but it’s conditional on finishing the PhD. And I’ve become the primary breadwinner in the household as our economy has tanked. So I must…

    • Many of us had ogone thorugh Nevin’s experience. Many of us are in your situation. You are not alone, and this is – I think – a good psychological and political reality 🙂

  2. Thanks for this post Nevin, really honest and tapping in to thoughts many of us have. I too am wondering if this PhD path is really serving my best interests. I developed a serious health concern, and co-incidentally, in a conversation with a friend about my study, I tossed in a throw away line to the effect that ‘this PhD is killing me’. My friend looked at me and said, ‘listen to what you have just said!’.
    What keeps me going? Not sure at this point, with difficult ethics application, trying to get a visa for overseas research in a difficult country, financial penury, the every present isolation of daily life as a PhD student and zero prospect of an enhanced career! I really don’t want to be a quitter, and I do actually love the core activity (as do you) of reading, thinking and writing about exhilarating ideas. It’s all the other stuff that is so difficult: the bureaucratic processes, the baffling academic culture and politics, the loneliness of the long distance runner etc. etc.
    Rather than seeing myself as the problem, I wonder if the whole structure and process of PhD’s needs re-envisioning. I don’t know much (well, anything) about the history of PhD’s, but no doubt they evolved as a kind of master-apprentice system and worked well as such. In the contemporary era of online and distance learning, shrinking academic budgets and supervisors too overloaded to provide the guidance you need, maybe the format doesn’t work!
    Good on you for having the courage to step back. And if you don’t get back to it, it’s not a failure. I figure that I’ve learnt amazing research, thinking and writing skills and lots of other stuff, hope you feel the same. All the best to you, and thanks again for your post.

  3. Not a PhD student, but I have experienced similar. I was working on my honors thesis in biochemistry and became obsessed with running the experiments. I became so frustrated that I was getting tired and needing to sleep. Really mad at myself for not being able to push through. That is when I came to a new mantra, that I still live by. You can only do what you can do. In my mind it means work to the best of your ability within a time frame of each day, then let it go and continue to live within the “normalness” of being human ie. eat, sleep, bathe, socialise…. And this is perhaps why I didn’t go on to a PhD.

  4. Oh boy. Mixed feelings about this: if you are looking for motivation to get through boredom or a temporary setback, then yes; but IMO it’s way less useful to give yourself “tough love” motivation than it is to give yourself actual motivation. “Work harder” feels good as you’re saying it to yourself (who doesn’t value hard work?) but in my experience it’s led more to burnout than to connecting to one’s values.

    I prefer other motivational phrases: about finding balance, about connecting with why the work is important to you, about taking initiative, about your worth not being tied to your work. Things that feel empowering, that promote positive mental health. Those are much better motivators in the long run, imo.

  5. I have taken 12 years on this journey, with significant periods of leave (about 4.5 years all up). While I am now almost finished, I so remember that feeling of being in a place where I didn’t belong and trying to drive myself. In the end, I got to a place, where I decided that I wanted to finish because the work was important. However, I could only continue when I realised I could stop, and still be the same worthwhile human being. I hated seeing the great comrades I had met along the way, whose life led elsewhere, saying “I didn’t make it”. Its not true- its about making your own life in the best way you can. I hate those motivational cliches, because they over-simplify complex lives. I had started two more times before I actually enrolled but on both occasions, divorce and a parents death got in the way. When I did start, it seemed like a time of clear sailing, now I was older, but in the end, again, life took over and I muddled on. I’m glad my PhD is nearly over, but I have not stopped doing the other parts of my life along the way. It helps keep the whole academic thing in perspective. And if you want to go back at a different time, you always can – just make sure you have friends or a group like PhD Owls to support you in the dark times. I was so lonely for much of my PhD journey, the life crises that interrupted it were almost blessings. They brought me back to what was important and who was important. And the experiences along the way have generally resulted in a much better PhD, as I saw things from a different perspective! Just remember, whatever you chose, there is no single path that suits everyone, and that you are still a great human being with immense potential whatever path you choose.

  6. Thanks for sharing Nevin (and Thesis Whisperer). I’d say its “horses for courses” when it comes to motivation and clichés (to use another cliché). As mentors, advisors and friends of people in tough work situations (and let’s be frank PhDs are essentially work rather than study), encouraging by use of motivational quotes is probably where we might start. But if that is not helping or changes are not evident, then you need to change your approach. It’s clear Nevin tried heaps of different things and nothing worked. Nevin’s article also suggests there was a very strong focus on the PhD to the exclusion of all else. Again, as an advisor it’s probably something we should pick up on and encourage focus across a range of interests. One of the key things about having sufficient different interests is that when one interest is “down” others can be “up”. Of course, if/when we see someone with anxiety or fear (especially if it might be clinical anxiety or fear) we need to encourage/provide appropriate treatment and support. I think we all agree that motivational quotes are not treatment or support in those cases.

    • So true! I often find when people use cliches on other people it’s because they don’t know how to sit with someone in their pain/difficulty… Or perhaps don’t have the capacity to at that point… I think you’re so spot on that saying cliches to other people is not helpful…

  7. I think motivational quotes work, but not at the expense of listening to yourself and what you need.

    I have recently learned the art of “study break” as I worked some crazy hours… It happened when i had a deadline coming and I was working 16 hour days. My friend asked me if I wanted to join her and her kids for dinner. I said I wasn’t sure, but my insides were leaping about in the excitement of the anticipation of some time with friends. I decided I would go, as a study break. I came back energised (and fed) and was able to put in several more hours. Even more so, I did not feel deprived of my relationships (3 weeks before I had said to myself “no friend time for the next 6 weeks, there’s no time). Since then I have mastered the art of study break. I catch up with friends or go to a painting class or music as a study break. For instance last night I was at my desk tired, then went to a painting class and came back later more energised. I have also learned to listen to my needs in terms of sleep and food and am starting to prioritise those where needed. Part of this process has also involved accepting what I do won’t be perfect and it’s probably impossible to meet my own extremely high standards, so to just do the best I can with the time I have (this still involves working hard, just not for impossible outcomes).
    Always in the back of my mind is Brene Brown. She wrote a book called “The gifts of imperfection” and has an amazing cd-set called “The power of vulnerability”. She has done a lot of research on what makes people feel fulfilled and provides ten guideposts to help steer people toward this. She has spoken about still needing to love when you do a Phd. tgis has helped me to learn the art of balance in my life – I’m not talking balance in time (I can’t seem to do the 9-5 phd, I need more hours than that), but certainly balancing what I need to feel happy in myself. For instance, I can feel when I’m getting itchy feet and need to have some fun, so instead of pushing through, I will find a way to do that. If I need extra sleep, I’ll make it happen. Doing these things result in bringing more energy back to my work.
    I have a motivational quote on my wall that says “be fearless”… For me that’s about a lot of things, mostly it’s about risk… Risk writing something bad, risk not being perfect, risk sending something to your supervisors that they might not like… So I think motivational quotes can be helpful, as long as you are also listening to your own needs.

  8. Thanks Nevin and Thesis Whisperer for sharing! I feel so identified with Nevin’s situation! As an international student, I finish my Masters and immediately started a PhD because it was the easiest way (lol) to stay in Australia while getting my permanent visa. I found an interesting topic (a continuation of some work I did during my Masters) wrote the research project, looked for supervisors, applied and got in! First semester I was working to narrow the topic (intersecting two disciplines) and I arrive to a nice objectives landscape I thought I could manage. After that, I started to fall, little by little in a debilitating darkness! I couldn’t cope with the dominating arguments of my senior supervisor; the loneliness; the lack of camaraderie in the PhD’s room, everyone without time to waste so focused in their own reading and writing; the university pressures to finish asap, counting your days, the “you thought you have 4 years? not really, you have 3! the constant monkey on my back… I couldn’t sleep properly, always thinking in the “burning questions”… I felt debilitated, powerless, anxious, and by the end of the second year I could not concentrate, think, create. The type of seminar “What can I do with my PhD: Jobs outside academia” wasn’t of much help, all the opposite. I couldn’t give up because then I would have had to leave Australia and at that time I had my life here. So I started to take antidepressants to recover the lost energy but it was then when I thought that was too much, just literal crazyness! And I applied for a leave of absence! It was granted for two years. Then I felt free! I travelled, socialised, I got a job in my field, I am happy! Going back to my PhD looks like a grim and very remote idea…. perhaps perhaps one day, far far far in time….

  9. I think that the oppression of unproductivity is best lifted by a break rather than greater labour. Time to rest the mind and revitalise is very beneficial at regular intervals during the PhD. You can’t write without lead in your pencil.

  10. Thanks for being brave enough to tell your story Nevin. I could relate to a lot of your experiences. At one point, whilst working full-time, commuting for at least two and a half hours a day, and rising at 5:30am to write the final drafts of my thesis, I realised that the only part of the day that I enjoyed was having a shower – it was the only activity that was for me and felt soothing! I did eventually complete after 10 years, but still wonder how I managed to push myself to the finish line. I think you made a good decision not to continue, and I’m really glad to hear that you’re a lot happier now. Best wishes for the future, whatever it might involve. I hope your focus is now on your family, friends and interests – the things in our lives that make it worth living.

  11. Wow Nevin…what can I say? A truly brave and inspirational piece. Vocalising and expressing your thoughts on this subject that haunts all doctoral students in some shape or form sounds familiar. I’m half way through a 6 yr part time PHD programme & have adjusted my response to friends,family & colleagues who say I’m amazing..don’t
    know how I do it , so clever etc… ‘Today I’m trying …Who knows I might just make it’ … but I’m consciously realistic. I’m also stubborn too if I’m honest…Life happens and sometimes life is more important ..it just depends on where you are in life and what is happening to your loved ones.
    Your article is highly interesting reading and one that I’m sure touches us all. This reflection is eloquent and accurate…I’m so pleased to see that you are truly happy…living your PhD in life 😉 Thank you so much for sharing your valuable experience. I consider your post as extremely brave… to bare your soul. Well done !!

  12. Thanks for sharing and the comments. This account and comments resonate and illuminate. Nearing the age of 60 I have just submitted my PhD after 6 years – and an earlier M.Phil. In the past I have founfd stepping away productive and was sometimes out driving a tractor, haymaking, whilst letting ideas float past for harvesting later or blowing away like chaff. However I found the last hurdle the most difficult. In the end I spent 3 days in melt down (after only 2-3 hours sleep a night). I just could not make sense of one paragraph. People were trying to help, reminding me how far I had come, through all sorts of losses (a common theme for others here too). Once I said to a friend how bad I felt, she asked to look at the paragraph. She suggested I altered the order of 2 sentences – and it was done. I guess I have learnt from this experience about the importance not only of stepping back from the work, but also turning to others. Hopefully I will be there in a similar way. My study is based on work with veterans, I still see, so when the going has seemed too tough, that obligation has steered me through. I think it must be even harder for those of you whose work is more abstract. I agree that sometimes the PhD experience is part of a process and the journey may lead you on to a different path, before the planned destination is reached. That path may prove to be the richer, more fulfilling one for some people.

  13. I can so relate to this post! I am procrastinating right now, struggling to make myself have a productive evening (10 days until final draft due with supervisors, 4 weeks from submission, viva planned for November).
    I am 6-7 years in having suspended studies 3 times for death of a parent, husband seriously unwell and a maternity leave. My ‘gap’ in the literature has seriously shrunk in that time, which has its own psychological toll. But what I really wanted to say is that I have taken the other alternative – I have downgraded to an MPhil. Too much life had happened and my priorities had changed but I wasn’t willing to give up and not make anything of the first 4 years of work. One of my supervisors suggested this option and it has been the right choice for me. I am sure there will always be some irritation that I didn’t get the full PhD but it’s time for me to make the best of it and move on. I want to enjoy finishing the project and publishing the data I have rather than worrying about the academic writing up. Perhaps in the future there will be a DPhil but for now I am dreaming of the life after the thesis.
    Thanks for your honesty, and well said.

  14. This was a very interesting and well timed post. I’m looking to start my PhD shortly and am doing as much research to really get a feel for what I’m letting myself in for. It’s refreshing to see something so honest. Thank you 🙂

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  17. It always bothers me when I see the statements “You can do anything!” or “If I did it, anyone can!” because the corollary is “If you didn’t, it must be your fault.” There are so many pressures to be a certain person, achieve a certain thing, act a certain way, but there are also many barriers to those things and the barriers are not all the domain of the individual. Not to mention that, as this blog shows, sometimes it’s not the right fit in the first place – doctoral study is not the only pathway to reading, writing and discussing with intelligence.

    I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot in past weeks as I’ve read the messages girls are being given about future achievement generally, but particularly in STEM areas, sport, and leadership. I have really mixed feelings. On the one hand, the whole community needs to hear the messages that women should be equally represented and rewarded in these areas. On the other hand, to assume that women can overcome the barriers by their own hard work and belief in themselves is a nice way of letting some significant structural and societal forces off the hook of responsibility.

    Nevin, I applaud you for your bravery and wisdom. I’m glad you’ve found the mantra that works for you, and thanks for the inspiration you’ve provided for others who are facing the same worries that you’ve come through.

  18. I cried in a corner of the library while I was reading your article. I’ve been in my PhD study for three years and 7 months. It is too late for me to step back, and “to work harder” is the only way. I feel sad.

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