Welcome to 2018! I wish you all the best in achieving your PhD goals this year and commit to continuing to support you in my own, small way.
The New Year (whenever that happens for you culturally) is the time many set aside for reflection and goal setting. For some reason, people like to change things up in the new year. The gym I go to is always full of ‘January joiners’ – the people who sign up after new year hoping to improve their health (and maybe lose the holiday flab).
Sadly, most January joiners don’t tend to last much beyond January. Self imposed rules are prone to failure – perhaps because we immediately feel restricted by all those ‘must’ and ‘should’ declarations. This is why I use keywords instead of resolutions – I find they are a productive guide for action and making real change.
Last year’s keyword was ‘Less’, to quote myself in my opening post for 2017:
I’m going to aim to have less stress and worry. I would like to buy less, so I can have less of a mortgage at the end of the year. I want to eat less so I can lose this last 5 kgs of my post-pregnancy weight (when your teenager is nearly a head taller, it’s time). I want to be less lazy about exercise. I’d like to work less hours, but I don’t want to achieve less, so I’ll need to look for ways to be more efficient. I want to do fewer projects, so I can spend more quality time on the ones that are important to me…
In the spirit of this season of self reflection, I should report back on whether I lived by my keyword… and the answer is: nope.
Nope nopetty nope.
I totally and utterly failed at ‘Less’. In fact, when the team analysed my diary they told me we all worked the equivalent of 70 weeks instead of 48 last year (I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I’ll take their word for it). So I failed at spending less hours at work. We did save some money, so that’s a win, but I still bought stuff I didn’t really need. I certainly threw out food (usually salad, but it still counts). Did I lose 5kgs? No – I just weighed myself and I managed to gain 4.2. Crap!
In my defence, ‘Less’ is a very hard principle to follow in the competitive, under-resourced and over-stretched world that is contemporary academia. If your years as a high performing undergraduate haven’t instilled a ridiculous work ethic, the PhD certainly will. I often hear PhD students talking about themselves as failures for all manner of reasons, such as:
- Not publishing any papers / ‘enough’ papers / the same or more papers than other people in your lab/office
- Not finishing that chapter in the week / month / semester deadline you arbitarily set yourself
- Not writing enough / everyday / the ‘right thing’
- Throwing a lot of your writing out
- Not reading enough
- Reading stuff you later realise you don’t need to read and then dwelling on all the time you ‘wasted’ going up the wrong path.
- Reading ‘too much’ and not writing ‘enough’
- Not being as relaxed about your PhD as everyone else is
- Being much more stressed about your PhD than everyone else seems to be
- Being a terrible partner / friend / pet owner
- Spending too much time being a good partner / friend / pet owner and not enough time on your PhD
- Not standing up to your supervisor enough
- Not pleasing your supervisor enough
- Not seeing your supervisor enough
- Stuffing up experiments / analysis / data gathering
- Never finishing your ‘to do’ list
- An overflowing email box
I am sure you can relate to at least one of the things on this list – if not, please tell me what university you work in so I can move there immediately. I could tell you that none of these things really count as failure, but that wont really help if you genuinely feel like they are. When your standards are ludicrously high, living up to them is probably impossible. Feeling like a failure seems to be the default setting for many academics, and it’s a worrying tendency. I want to start critiquing this narrative because it’s part of the problem.
Objectively, I failed spectacularly at ‘Less’. But failing is less important than how I acknowledge and respond to this perceived failure. One thing that helped me was listening to Kameron Hurley’s ‘Get to work Hurley!’ podcast over the holidays. She’s a fiction writer that Mr Thesis Whisperer is into and her podcast is aimed at helping professional fiction writers. I don’t really dig her fiction, though I did love her book Geek Feminist Revolution. The podcast is worth a listen though, because what she has to say is helpful for writers of any stripe.
In her ‘Home for the Holidays’ podcast, Hurley points out the tendency to think of creative work in terms of a linear progression. Not only do we think will we get better and better at something if we do it longer, we assume the rewards for hard work will be greater too. While there is some truth in time spent = better performance part, Hurley points out that linear thinking is a trap. It’s easy to suddenly fail and start to think you are on an inevitable slide downwards. Hurley then shared an insight the actor Neil Patrick Harris shared on Twitter:
Surfing, Hurley argues, is a more helpful and realistic analogy for creative work. Surfing involves paddling out to where the good waves are, attempting to catch one, then riding it as long as you can. As Hurley points out, the paddling out part is a giant pain in the ass. Writing involves a lot of research, preparation – and false starts. Making creative ideas happen is anxiety provoking – it’s very hard to force your brain to spit out the answers.
Once you have paddled out, the next problem is to catch a wave. You can think about the wave like a flow state in writing – where the work becomes less effortful and words are stacking up. It might take a long time for the wave to come by, or it might be there immediately – you can never know. Once you are on the wave, your problems don’t stop. As Hurley points out, you might fall off the wave early, and have to paddle out again, or you might ride it all the way to the shore. Riding the wave into the beach is one form of success, but if you are a professional writer, or academic for that matter, you are never ‘finished’ writing. Eventually you have to start the process over and paddle out again.
Once you know what a pain the paddling out bit is, it’s easy to delay or avoid paddling altogether and merely sit on the beach. It takes an effort of will to pick yourself up from failure. So admitting I failed at Less is a good first step. Clearly I need to do more of Less, at least until I get the hang of how Less looks for me. I think I know where I went wrong, so I have some ideas about how to start. Part of it certainly involves looking for the really good waves, not just jumping on the ones that roll in first.
What about you? Which items on my PhD perceived failure list do you relate to? Do you think these are reasonable grounds for declaring yourself a failure? If so, what do you think you can do about it?