How to know when to fold ‘em
Plus references to two chart-topping hits separated by 44 years, numerous mentions of chocolate, and a shout out to the Oxford comma.
Hello and welcome to Academia Made Easier. I am so glad that you are here.
In my small circles, I am known for many things. Adoration of cats. Over-consumption of chocolate. Dated pop culture references. An abiding love of the Oxford comma.
I am not known for being a country music fan.
So it is a surprise for me that one of my two earworms of late is Kenny Roger’s classic country hit, The Gambler. The Gambler was a chart-topping crossover hit when I was a child and one of a tiny handful of country songs I can (somewhat) sing along with. While it contains some great lines (“on a train bound for nowhere”; “the boredom overtook us”), it is, of course, the chorus that sticks. You know it, I am sure:
You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the dealin's done
(Now my earworm is your earworm! Sorry.)
One thing that strikes me about the chorus is that it provides four options for action: stay in the game and keep going; stay in the game but take a break; quit the game with dignity; and get the fuck out of Dodge ASAP.
Quitting is so rarely presented as a valuable option. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! Quitters never win and winners never quit! Show grit! Show resilience! Don’t stop believin’! Never give up!
The problem with the “never quit” mentality is that it doesn’t consider the value of adapting to new information, changing circumstances, and shifting priorities. A few years ago, I co-authored Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD. (If you are interested in reading it, please see Amazon, Chapters-Indigo, or your local library.) Work Your Career is structured around a guiding question: “Given both my future goals and the information currently available to me, what is my best decision right now?” Neither future goals nor the information available to you is static.
Think about it. Past You made a choice (write a paper; run a half-marathon; renovate the kitchen) based on certain assumptions about Future You’s goals, priorities, and realities. Those assumptions may have been proven inaccurate. And Past You made that choice based on the information they had at that time. Present You has more information. This expanded information may point to a different choice.
For these reasons, sticking with Past You’s choice can be a bad choice for Present You. That old choice may have Present You investing time and energy in the wrong direction, piling up opportunity costs (and, possibly, financial costs).
As Kenny sings, “the secret to survivin' is knowin' what to throw away and knowin' what to keep”. So how do you know when to hold ‘em, and know when to run? Well, that’s what today’s small thing to try immediately is all about.
One Small Thing to Try Immediately: Revisit a Past Decision
Reassessing past decisions from time to time is valuable. Doing so can help you reaffirm your commitment to a decision, make adjustments to bring the decision into better alignment with your current realities, or allow you the opportunity to make a new decision. So when you find yourself wondering if you should change course on a past decision, try the following steps.
1. Accept that continuing, pausing, redirecting, and stopping are all viable options. Allow yourself to quit the “never quit” mindset. To be clear, I am not suggesting that quitting is always or even frequently a good option. I am not seeking to inspire yet another wave of academic quit-lit, nor to encourage abandoned graduate programs, book projects, grant applications, marathon training regimes, or kitchen renovations. (Seriously: if you have already started a kitchen renovation, get it finished as soon as possible. To quote Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”)
Simply allow yourself to be open to the possibility of revising your past decision.
2: Give continuing (“hold ‘em”) the default status.
While quitting, pausing, redirecting, stopping, and other variations of deviating from the original plan are all options, you need good reasons to change course. Past You made that decision based on good reasons at that time, and many of these good reasons may still be, in fact, good.
Some people (and by that I mean me) find their motivation flags after the start of a project. Some people (me again!) find themselves regularly tempted by shiny new ideas and invitations, to the detriment of less-new projects and scheduled commitments. Some people (sigh, still me) can be prone to restlessness, getting frustrated, and temporarily forgetting why they (read: I) started something in the first place.
None of those are good reasons for deviating from your original plan. Instead…
3. Assess if there have been significant changes to the factors that lead to your original decision. Changing course requires considerable thought. To start this assessment, consider if any of the following are true:
Your future goals have changed in ways that affect your original decision.
Your assumptions were inaccurate or the context has changed in an important way.
You have new information that may affect your original decision.
If some or all of these are true, or if you simply still just want to rethink the original decision, then move to step 4.
4. Assess the consequences of changing your original decision - and of not changing your original decision. Both sticking with your original decision and changing your decision have consequences, some short-term and some long-term. To think these through, l encourage you to apply the Work Your Career guiding question: “Given both my future goals and the information currently available to me, what is my best decision right now?” Answering this question requires you to reflect on your future goals. Answering the question requires you to get more information. And it may require you to be creative in thinking through your options.
This might make more sense by way of example. Imagine that Past You agreed to write a paper with Dr. Busy. Present You now knows that Dr. Busy fails to meet deadlines, provides half-ass work, and makes you so frustrated that you eat three chocolate bars after each meeting just to cope. (Hypothetically.)
Deciding what to do in this situation requires considering your future goals. (How important is this paper to you? How important is your relationship with Dr. Busy to you?) It requires obtaining and assessing information. (Is there something else going on in Dr. Busy’s life that you should be compassionate about, or is Dr. Busy just an asshat? Are your communications with Dr. Busy clear? Is it possible that Dr. Busy is as frustrated with you as you are with him?) Deciding can also require thinking through other options to make the situation more tenable to you. (Could the paper be downgraded to a research note or a shorter piece of some sort? Is there someone else who could be brought into your authorship team to help? Could you schedule all interactions with Dr. Busy to occur immediately before your Tuesday kickbox class to cut down on the stress chocolate consumption?)
You might decide that your original decision is still the right choice. You really want to publish this paper, and Dr. Busy is the noted expert in the field and you want your name associated with his. If so, carry on with the awareness that you have reaffirmed your choice. You might decide that your original decision is too costly. It is damaging your relationship with Dr. Busy, consuming too much time, and your monthly chocolate bar expenditures have become unsustainable. If so, you can decide how to make changes in the most positive manner possible.
In either event, Present You is exercising agency, and that is a good thing.
Note: A resource you may find helpful is How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices by Annie Duke. (See: Amazon, Chapters-Indigo, your local booksellers, or your public library). Duke talks about the limits of using pros and cons lists for decision-making due to our cognitive biases and provides a useful alternative decision-making model that I look forward to trying out.
5. Be open to revisiting your decision yet again after a period of time. In a past Academia Made Easier, I wrote about the value of using a Decide Once list to reduce decision fatigue. In discussing the Decide Once list, I suggested the following:
Revisit your Decide Once List periodically to assess if the decisions are working for you. Some decisions may need to be adapted. Some may no longer be relevant. And some may be things that you find you want more flexibility around. The point of a Decide Once List is to make your life easier. Anything that fails to do so doesn’t belong on the list.
Your decisions should be tools to move you forward toward your goals. Periodic checks allow you to confirm you are in fact moving forward.
And as a final word on hold ‘em, fold ‘em subject, I share with you this poster from a Nashville souvenir shop that made me smile:
How do you decide when to hold ‘em and when to run? And do you now have The Gambler as an earworm? Please take a minute to comment and let me know!
Chipping Away: What I Have Been Up To
A quick update on some of my own activities since my last newsletter, since I have your attention:
Talking: I had the pleasure of speaking with Heather Ross on the Better Me podcast about dumping SMART goals for EASY goals, scheduling time to think, and giving up the idea that motivation is necessary to make progress on our goals. These were all topics from my January Academia Made Easier newsletters and it was very fun to chat with Heather about them. (Thank you, Heather, for the opportunity!) If you like podcasts, please give this one a listen.
Writing: In my February Skills Agenda column, I consider the UBC Political Science department’s innovative Rich Transcripts initiative, which documents the different career skills students learn in their program. In my March Skills Agenda column, I discuss how universities can help address labour market gaps in human skills training. Please check the columns out and share them with your teaching and learning networks.
Celebrating: Last month, I received a nice surprise: my Skills Agenda column was awarded Gold in the “Best Blog Column/Videocast/Podcast” for the 2021 Canadian Online Publishing Awards! Winning a writing award is pretty exciting for me, so I celebrated with … chocolate (shocker, I know!).
Until next time…
It has been over a month since my last Academia Made Easier newsletter and I have missed writing it. While I strive to write about two newsletters per month, the last month was a bit much. It wasn’t busyness (if being busy prevented me from writing, Academia Made Easier wouldn’t exist at all!). It was … everything. Dismay about both world affairs and Canadian politics. Two-year anniversary of pandemic life. Weeks of extreme cold weather that had even us Saskatchewanians saying “holy crap”.
Writing, for me, is a source of fun and an expression of creativity and hope. But in the past weeks, I would sit down to write Academia Made Easier and get partway through, only to find myself stalled. So I decided to fold ‘em, and take a pause.
As I write this now, spring is nudging its way into Saskatchewan. Six-foot snowbanks are melting into three-foot snowbanks. The sun is bright. River pathways are full of people and dogs. The world’s challenges remain, to be sure. But I am happy to feel hope creeping back in.
Wherever you are in the world, I wish you glimmers of hope as well.
Stay well, my colleagues.
P.S. I mentioned The Gambler is one of my two current earworms. The other is We Don’t Talk About Bruno, a work of genius that captures the sense of anxiety we collectively feel and has a great running beat. I am not sure how I can twist the lyrics of that song to inspire a future newsletter topic, but rest assured I am going to try!
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Loleen Berdahl, Ph.D.: I am a twin mother, wife, runner, cat lover, and chocolate enthusiast. I spend far too much time on Twitter and binge-watching television, and my house could be a lot cleaner. During the work hours, I am the Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. I am the author of the University Affairs Skills Agenda column and my most recent books are Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science.
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