How to pick a direction and stay on - oh, look at that cute squirrel - course
Plus references to a cult book. Not a cult-classic book, but a book from an actual cult member. Garage sale find!
Hello and welcome to Academia Made Easier. I am so glad that you are here.
Many years ago, I picked up a book at a garage sale called Do It! Let’s Get Off Our Buts. The title alone was worth the loonie I spent on it. The book was odd, with a handful of helpful ideas, a generous number of inspirational quotes, and a giant heaping of woo-woo weirdness. As someone born without a single woo-woo gene (I am woo-less), the book fascinated me more than anything - even more so when my online search revealed the author was a member of a cult when he wrote it, as outlined in his follow-up book, Life 102: What to Do When Your Guru Sues You.
Do It! contains a metaphor about life purpose that resonated with me - so much so that I kept the book. (Actual reason: a complete inability to get rid of books.) The author equates life purpose with direction. As Peter McWilliams writes:
If the purpose were “West”, for example, the goals while heading West (from New York, say) might include Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, China, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Boston and New York. Many goals, same purpose. From there, although we have already traveled 25,000 miles, we would still have as much “West” to go (as much as our purpose to fulfill) as when we began.
This metaphor resonates with me for a few reasons. At a motivational level, it reminds me that, in the words of my old Nike running poster (yes, I kept that, too!), there is no finish line. There is still the opportunity to keep moving forward, no matter where you are at, no matter your pace, no matter how much road is in front of or behind you.
More practically, I find it helpful to think of decisions as either moving me forward (using his example, all westward movement) or pulling me off course (anything that takes me north, south, or east). Today’s small thing to try immediately puts this idea into action.
One Small Thing to Try Immediately: Commit (temporarily) to a direction
I am terrible at writing purpose statements. If you locked me in a room with four bags of Oreos and instructions to write a purpose statement, you would find me there hours later, with no Oreos and no purpose statement. (Also: a smile and a stomach ache.) So – good news – I am not going to suggest you write a purpose statement or identify your purpose. (The Oreos are up to you.)
What I am going to suggest is that make a temporary commitment to a direction.
Let’s break this down and consider the keywords in reverse order.
Direction. This is what you are moving toward. Some ideas to spur your thinking: Research impact. Teaching excellence. Community contribution. Creative expression. Personal wellness. Professional development. Extreme wealth. (Just kidding on the last one. This newsletter is for academics!)
A. “A” direction is singular. This means you are going to pick one direction, and just one. And none of that “combining ideas to avoid choosing” bullshit. You can go west or east, but not west and east. You can go southwest, but not south and west. (Insert your own Southwest Airlines joke here!)
Commitment. You are going to decide once and lock in. Don’t worry - it is not forever! It is, instead…
Temporary. Pick a timeframe that is long enough to try the direction out, but not so long that you feel trapped. If you discover west sucks, after the timeframe is done you can choose to switch to north.
Let’s imagine you are playing along here. You have chosen to make commit to the direction “research impact” until the end of the semester (specifically, April 30). What does this mean in practice?
It means that you will evaluate your choices from now until April 30 against your chosen direction, “research impact”, and consider if your decisions keep you on track or move you off track. Some examples: You can choose to devote an hour of found time to writing a journal article (on track) or to getting to Inbox Zero (off track). You can choose to talk to a random reporter about a generic topic in your broad area of expertise (off track; common challenge for Canadian political scientists!) or to use that same time to pitch a piece to The Conversation about your specific area of expertise (on track). You can choose to procrastinate on submitting your ethics application (off track) or just suck it up and get it done, for God’s sake already (on track).
The whole point is to be more conscious of your choices and where they lead. It requires you to be thoughtful about the tradeoffs inherent in choices and to see that the hour (ahem, two hours) devoted to finding those oh-so-perfect images for your lecture slides is an hour (again: two hours) not devoted to moving forward on research impact (or whatever your committed direction is). And this is hard, because having those perfect images feels pretty awesome, even if they don’t move you forward. But you are a Grown Up and you do hard things all the time. So suck it up, buttercup. You can do it!
And here is the good news: after the temporary commitment period is over, you can reevaluate. Once May 1 comes around (May Day! May Day!), you can reflect on what you learned. Was committing to a single direction helpful to you, and why or why not? Did the direction you temporarily committed to feel authentic to you and your values, and why or why not?
You can do it!
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:
In “Skills training in the age of rapid technological change”, I argue that higher education needs to embrace rather than fight inevitable change and ask ourselves how we can use technological change to make academia better. I also discuss the need for universities to help students develop AI literacy as a career and life skill. Please click the link, take a look, and share it with your network. (Thanks!)
New peer-reviewed (and open-access) article! In “Hard Work and You Can’t Get It: An International Comparative Analysis of Gender, Career Aspirations, and Preparedness Among Politics and International Relations PhD Students”, in PS: Political Science & Politics, my Canadian research team joins forces with Australian colleagues for a comparative analysis of doctoral training in our discipline. (For a tl;dr version, please check out my co-author’s Twitter thread summary). We would love to expand the research to other countries and/or disciplines, if anyone is interested. Please let me know!
Most recent binge-watch: Succession. It is amazing how a show about so many horrible people can be so compelling.
Until next time…
There are many new subscribers to this newsletter. If this is you, welcome and thank you for trusting space in your email inbox to me. Please check out the archive of over two years (!) of small ideas (and cat photos), or just check out my very first newsletter (Feb 2021! I was so young back then!) to get the short origin story of Academia Made Easier. And if you are a longtime reader, including my original 12 subscribers (aka friends), thank you for your continued readership. I feel privileged to be a small part of your inbox and life.
Stay well, my colleagues.
P.S. After leaving cult life, Peter McWilliams became an advocate for marijuana legalization in the US, and ultimately died of AIDS at age 50. While his life was short, it seems like he did a lot of living while he was here. RIP Mr. McWilliams. Thanks for the metaphor.
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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 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 University Affair’s 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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