Last week I attended the inaugural lecture of my boss. This was a milestone for him, marking his promotion to full professorship. The first part of the lecture was a surprisingly personal account of who he was and where he’d come from. Academic, leader, introvert, bibliophile, son, husband, gadget geek, who has, over a relatively short period of time, collected an impressive array of higher degrees. The highlight of the lecture for me, though, came in the acknowledgments bit, when he thanked his cat for the joy she brought into his life. It was a very human account of a very impressive road to this achievement. And it gave me pause. My boss is only a few years older than I am. Like me, he loves his cat. Unlike me, he has reached what some might argue to be the pinnacle of his academic career, on top of being in leadership in our faculty and embarking on his nth (8th? 10th? 11th?) degree this year. And here I am, struggling through what seems to be a futile effort to get my PhD, starting out in a new direction in academia, with less than 5 publications to my name.
In my last post I wrote about the instant gratification monkey, a constant companion of mine. I also mentioned but focused less on the mean voices in my head, and before that wrote about the dark and twisty places I too often fall into. Since attending the lecture, I have been thinking a lot about what combination of characteristics – personality, intellect, upbringing, habits, learned behaviours, life experiences – make it possible for a person to take the opportunities available to them and achieve great things. In both my professional and personal environments, I am surrounded by remarkable people – remarkable in all sorts of wonderful, funny, kind, brilliant and quirky ways. Some of these remarkable people also have PhDs, and long lists of publications, and impressive teaching and research portfolios, and successful grant applications, and world renowned reputations. This is typical of my place of work and in many cases is the benchmark for professional promotion and, inevitably, self comparison. While I recognise that probably all of these people experience or have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers, their CVs speak for themselves. So, have they just mastered their instant gratification monkeys, or learnt to temper their mean voices and stay out of their dark and twisty places? Or did they never have them? Or, is the answer something in between, where the relationship between mental resilience and success is more of a squiggle than a straight line? (I would really like to ask them these questions but doing so would be tantamount to confessing that I have dark and twisty monkeys that keep me from doing the Impressive Academic Work that I’ve been employed to do).
I’m guessing it’s probably naive to imagine that there is some formula to all of this that, if correctly applied, you could find your full potential at the end of the rainbow. Then again, I find myself oscillating between wanting to find a way to reach this so-called potential, and being tired of trying to be Clever, or Amazing, or Impressive (I’m fairly certain that wanting to spend 80% of one’s time lying in bed with one’s cats and a binge session of series did not make it into the Habits of Highly Successful People). And yet…with all the things wrong in our world right now, I feel I have a moral obligation both to make the most of the opportunities I’ve been privileged enough to be given, and to use those to contribute something back to the world in a very real and pragmatic way. But here I am, still trying to decide who I’m supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing with my life.
In Grade 2 of primary school, some people came to our school and asked us to take some tests. On the basis of these test results, they invited me to attend an after school programme for gifted children at a local university. I have some serious doubts about the accuracy of those assessments. Nonetheless, a little later in my school career, I started to realise that it was relatively easy for me to get good results if I put in the effort and, inadvertently, I took on a strongly academic identity. Academia became the one space in my life where I could mostly feel, in quite a measurable way, that I was doing something right. And, if I could it do it well, I decided I should do it the best. Because maybe then I could make A Difference in the world. I became top of my class. I graduated from high school as Dux Scholarum. I graduated, with each degree, with some form of Cum- or Summa Cum Laude. And then I moved into a high level, permanent position, in a very different field, at a new university, and realised that the odds of being The Best here are strongly stacked against me (refer to aforementioned remarkable people). I am also, simultaneously, trying to navigate my way through a PhD. In my experience, there is nothing that makes you question the value of your existence every day quite like working on a PhD does. I have already spent more than the allowable amount of time on my PhD, so I am not going to be that wunderkind who completes in record breaking time. And with each month that passes, the inverse relationship between quality and make-it-stop-I’m-so-over-it-now desperation to get it done increases. So it’s becoming increasingly evident that my PhD is going to be Done. Not The Best. Not Prize Winning. Not Keynote Speaker Worthy. Just, Done. Maybe. Which is really great and everything, having a PhD. But, I’m not sure it’s going to graduate me into being a better person, capable of doing that real, tangible good in the world. (And I don’t live in Finland, so I’m also not going to get the cool PhD sword at graduation).
Perhaps, then, I’m starting to let go a little (with some relief) of aiming to be The Cleverest. I thought I could maybe try to be The Most Balanced instead. While I can’t speak for all of the impressive academics at my university, the ones I know also happen to be genuinely nice people. And they’ve managed somehow to achieve something of a balance between work and home life, between the personal and the professional, in a way that belies that all-or-nothing approach that I can’t seem to escape from in my life. I’m guessing, though, that trying to be the best balanced person might be a bit of an oxymoron. It is also never going to happen. The idea of it is appealing: future me is a hard working kind generous fun-loving outdoorsy healthy meals sunshine and exercise sort of person. The execution of it is more challenging: present me prefers days filled with closed curtains, bed, pyjamas, books and series. I’ve briefly considered trying to be the best at other things. I tried being The Thinnest for a while, but being the best at that sort of thing typically ends in intravenous drips, and I managed to stop short of that. I suspect the dark and twistiness rules me out of consistently being the greatest friend or family member or partner. And I’m certainly never going to be the Fastest in the running category (or even merely the Runniest). I think I could probably audition for role of Best Cat-Owning Person in Pyjamas who Writes Witty-but-Self-Indulgent Blogs. But I already know way too many fabulous bloggers (who also sit at home in their pyjamas with their cats) to feel like that could be my niche. Plus my boss has proved that you can actually be brilliant and cat-lovingly human. So I am back at square one.
Apparently the in vogue thing right now is to be Human. You know, the sort of life philosophy that goes something along the lines of, you are enough just by being. Firstly, I’m pretty sure I have no idea what that means. And secondly, if you don’t have a point, and if your goal isn’t to win at that point, then what is the point, exactly? Perhaps the point is just to get through it all intact. I suspect we’re mostly all just trying to make it through intact. And when one’s thinking typically leads to somewhat unkind places, doing less of it through doing more seems like an obvious remedy. I think part of the answer might be in there somewhere. Less thinking. More doing. (Yes, if you’ve read the last few blog posts, there seems to be a theme to the moral-of-the-stories here. You’d think I’d have got it by now). Although it goes against every natural instinct I have, I am trying to not get caught up in analysing all this stuff so much (and then subjecting my tiny but loyal blog readership to it). I think this means waking up every day and, instead of trying to figure out who I am supposed to be, just getting out of bed, putting on pants, driving to work, doing the stuff, celebrating a colleague’s birthday, going for a run, eating supper with my partner, snuggling with my cats. If life is a picture but is lived in the pixels, these daily things are perhaps the things that define who we are, or at least what life is. I am not sure I can quite get my head around that yet, and may still be chasing The Best Grand Identity for a while. But it would be really nice, one day, to feel like who I am right now, in this and most other moments, is really enough. So I am experimenting with being compassionate…about who I am and who I might aim to be, and being okay enough.