Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sucked In

How easy is it to get sucked in?
How does it happen that one gets sucked in?

We usually think of getting sucked in to things that we don't want to do, but that are tempting. How does it happen? We get sucked in to watching TV and we get up an hour or four later feeling worse for it, usually. We get sucked into one too many drinks, perhaps, or one too many hands at the blackjack table, or too many bon bons, or books or whatever kind of temptation we fall into.

But do we only get sucked in to things that are bad for us? My experience is that I can be sucked into many activities. Some days it's hard to get started writing or to get started on an editing project, but I find that once I'm involved in the work, it's not nearly as difficult as I anticipate. The interest inherent in the work will take over if only I give it enough chance.
Part of making it happen, I think, is having low expectations (which is very different, of course, from having low standards) for the moment. I don't expect to solve all my problems, or even to solve one big problem; I expect only that I will give it an honest effort for a little while. Often I can get started on writing something by saying "I'll just jot down quick notes." That, indeed, is the case with today's blog: I was resisting writing it--telling myself I would do it later--after all, writing a whole blog entry might take thirty minutes, or an hour even, if I get caught up in it. But "I'll just jot some quick notes so I won't forget what I was thinking about," and here I am, a couple of paragraphs in.

I read an article recently (sadly, I have no link and no citation) that described a recent study that showed that people were poor at anticipating how much they would enjoy things, finding both that people often enjoyed things they anticipated disliking, and that they disliked things they anticipated enjoying. I think work is something that we often anticipate disliking, and so we avoid it. But we often enjoy it, once we start.

Recently I decided that I wanted to work on reading music (which I do a very poorly and slowly), and decided to spend fifteen minutes a day practicing reading music with a metronome. I do have a trouble starting, but when I do start, I often find myself working for longer than I planned, just because the challenge of working on it sucks me in: I want to master it, or at least get better at it--mastery, I think, would take several hours of practice a day--a friend who was a professional musician told me once that he had to practice six hours a day to be able to play what he needed for his gigs. This is a worthy comparison: the writer can productively spend fifteen minutes writing--especially with practice. But to master a project, it will take the writer hours every day, for weeks or months.

Another important factor in getting sucked in is to feel that the process in which you engage is one that serves a purpose for you. And is not one that you feel you are doing out of some externally imposed obligation. If you feel that a task is worthy, then engaging in that ask will actually have a self-reinforcing factor: you'll feel good for having accomplished something, and that will be conducive to working more. On the other hand, if you are feeling that a task is only an external obligation, there is a constant resistance due to your sense that the task is not meaningful, but is only being done for someone else.

Anger at having to do the task probably isn't helpful in getting sucked in; anger is draining. In the long run it would be nice for the writer to have the experience of getting sucked in and of having the task of writing and research be so fascinating that you do not only get sucked in on the small scale (where you start working for a short moment and that stretches to several minutes or hours) but you can get sucked in on the large scale (where you start to view the opportunity to work as an actual temptation).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Dissertation Structure

A few notes on dissertation structure. I suppose this is primarily aimed at people writing up a basic five-chapter dissertation: introduction, lit. review, methods, results, discussion.
And the abstract should be included, too.

The structure of these sections is determined by a logic in which each piece is set to play a role in telling the reader of your work.
The pieces work together and in a way they all mirror each the main project and each other--but they are distorting mirrors, if you will: they exaggerate different things as they reveal the project.

The abstract is a mirror that makes the image small: the abstract tells the reader about the entire project--its motivation, context, basic premises, method, results and conclusions.

The Introduction does the same job as the abstract, but at the next order of magnitude, and with exaggerated concern with the issues the motivate and contextualize the project. Methods are briefly discussed; lengthy discussion of the methods is saved for the methods chapter. The results and discussion/conclusion are not mentioned, but obviously the issues discussed in the introduction are the ones that set up the later discussion: the research questions set up the character of the research results.

The literature review, I think, is poorly understood. It's not just a compendium of material written about your subject; it's a description of the sources that explain your position and your interests. The literature review discusses the material that helps explain why you believe or expect what you believe and expect. If you are studying some phenomenon, what material in the literature defines the phenomenon? what literature explains it? What literature sets up the expectations that drive your study? The literature review has a responsibility to attempt to show material beyond that which you are using most immediately, especially to show positions/arguments that contradict or refute the premises that you are using. But primarily its purpose is to show the reader what you are talking about. In this way it is another reflection of the same large project: it is the part where you share with the reader your background.

The methods, results and discussion chapters all also share this sense of mirroring a larger project: each has a position in which it exaggerates one part of the whole, but still keeps the whole in view so that the reader always understands how the piece under current view is still kept in relation to the larger whole.

Structure isn't as easy if you can't follow an easy formula, like that for an empirical study. However structure, whatever structure you use, is built out of a desire to share one large image with the reader. There ought to be a coherent conception to the dissertation.

I know, from my own experiences, and from speaking with people working on dissertations in the humanities that often one is encouraged to write one chapter at a time and then try to bring the work together as a whole when the chapters are much more complete. There is some justification for this, given the difficult nature of writing up research in the humanities, where the ideas cannot be so easily reduced quantities or codes, but rather interpretive and analytic subtleties are being explored.

But I believe that understanding a larger structure and having a larger vision in sight, it is easier to write the pieces of the work. Why is it easy to write a one-page essay? Partly it is because you can see, rather easily, just how the whole piece will be structured: you can see that you have to briefly introduce the subject, present your evidence and discuss the conclusion that you want the reader to take away--and that, in itself, is most of the work: writing a coherent one-page piece can be the work of fifteen minutes (granting, of course, that a brilliant one-page piece might require many revisions).

When the pieces get larger, it gets harder to see what to put where. Yes, we need to start by introducing the idea, and we need to finish by concluding something, but there's a lot more space in between the opening and closing. What to put where? Having a sense of purpose related to large structure can help with this: if you can see the overall project, and can see how different presentations of important ideas can reach the reader, then you can make choices about where to put material, and what to goal of the material is.

It may well seem that it is harder to try to impose a larger view of the project and a structure to which each little piece must respond. It may well be different for different people, but I know that for myself, if I know where the pieces are going and what I will try to accomplish, it makes it easier. For the written portion of my qualifying examinations, I was required to answer five questions from the members of my examination committee. When I was given the five questions I asked if they needed to work together; My chair said they did not and even suggested that it would make it more difficult, but I was already seeing how each question could be useful in contextualizing what I wrote for the other questions. By making one question into an introduction, another into a conclusion, two more into discussions of different aspects of theory, and a final question into a discussion of research methods, the pieces supported each other, but better, I knew what I had to put where: some material had to set context, some material had to aim the discussion into the future and so forth. By giving roles of this sort to the different questions, I had reduced the possibilities for what I could write on each question.

Structure actually helps. If you can see structure for the way it helps organize the material, for the different roles that you can give to each part of structure, and so forth, the work as a whole makes more sense, and thereby becomes easier to write. Without a vision of overall structure, which reflects your purpose, it becomes more difficult to see what possible choices are most useful.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Consuming ideas

It is so easy in this day and age to simply consume the ideas that others have created. It's so easy to admire the work of others, and to continually consume the ideas of others.

I think this happens to a lot of writers. It's easy to get caught saying "I need to research more," using the logic of incomplete scholarship to avoid the risk of revealing one's own ideas. But that's what academic work is really about, right? It's about finding new ideas, new truth, territory not yet discovered. I was talking today with an old acquaintance and he was telling me he was doing research on the limits of quantum computers. "It's like science fiction," I said. "Just mathematics," he replied. It is just mathematics, I understand, but it is also like science fiction: it explores possibilities for things we've not yet done. It is, in that sense classic academic research: it presents a view not before revealed. Whatever the field--mathematics, philosophy, the social sciences--whatever, the purpose of academic work is to produce something new.

The source of that something, I suggest, is only to be found in our unique perspective of the world--a perspective based on what we have studied, surely, but also based on what we make of what we study--on what we take from the data we gather (a process inevitably shaped by the choices we make individually).

It may never be that the perspective that we can develop on our own develops into anything that shakes the world. I think most of us both fear and hope for this: we all fear and hope for fame and influence. We won't find it by simply consuming the ideas of others, unless we find some novel way of seeing those ideas--and thus make them our own.

Of course searching for world-shaking ideas is not something that is always associated with research. Much search for knowledge has simply been the individual driven by personal interest in understanding some issue. But again, this is a search for something new.

Even when consuming the ideas of others, an academic has to engage in an active way: not simply seeking understanding, but seeking to see how the ideas can be used, to see where they are strong and where they are weak, where they surpass other available ideas and where they are inferior, etc.

If we are writing and actively working on a writing project, then to the extent that we remain continually engaged in that project, our consumption of ideas is much more likely to lead to our finding useful material to bolster our written project and to increase our own intellectual sophistication with respect to our project.

If, however, we are engaged in consuming ideas as a prelude to writing, we will continue to simply consume. The act of consumption alone does little to bolster our own ability to actively engage with the material, and that is an ability that we have to exercise.

In short: if you want to write a dissertation (or anything else, really) start writing now. You can always do more research while you're writing, if necessary.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Doubt and Uncertainty

What happens when you're told you're doing something wrong? What happens if you're already uncertain about what you're doing? And what if what you're told you should do seems wrong, too?

I've been struggling with this kind of question on a personal level recently, but it's something that I see often when working with dissertation writers.

There's no really easy answer: the thing is that we have to be able to embrace uncertainty--both our own and that of others and make good decisions moving forward from that. There's a big emotional challenge in that: admitting our own uncertainty creates self-doubt that can interfere with making judgments.

There's also a big emotional challenge in challenging the recommendations of those who give us feedback and who we (hopefully) respect.

Sometimes one person is right and another wrong. But often there are many ways to see an issue, so which perspective do you choose? This is our battle with uncertainty: we cannot logically dispel it; we can only avoid it.

And because logic cannot resolve the issue--emotion gets involved. I think that's the hardest part for me: the turmoil involved in deciding between different courses of action. I hope that if I can be better at embracing the uncertainty, I will feel less emotional turmoil and I will be better able to make decisions and then to act decisively.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


The other day my yoga teacher was talking about the importance of the ability to embrace uncertainty. She mentioned to me a book by Pema Chodron called Comfortable with Uncertainty. I've not read the book, but if you don't write down your references when you remember them, you forget them (hard to believe, I know!).

Anyway, this is a principle that I think is useful on many levels. (As, indeed, are many ideas--which was almost the subject of this post--if I hadn't written about uncertainty.)

Logically speaking, we are faced with limits to our certainty. The work of David Hume, especially his Treatise of Human Nature, clearly framed the limits of our logical certainty in many different ways. On a very basic level Hume argued "that the supposition, that the future resembles the past, is not founded on arguments of any kind, but is deriv'd entirely from habit, by which we are determin'd to expect for the future the same train of objects, to which we have been accustom'd" (Treatise, Book I, Part III, Section XII, italics are Hume's). Essentially he is saying that there is no logical argument that proves that the future will resemble the past--logical in the sense of a priori logic--something that can be proved from basic premises. Yes, he says, we expect the future to resemble the past, because we have seen patterns repeat in the past, but this expectation is not certain--it is only probable (part III of book I is titled "Of knowledge and probability"). Later in the same section he says "even after the observation of the frequent or constant conjunction of objects, we have no reason to draw any inference concerning any object beyond those of which we have experience" (the italics, again, are Hume's).

This general logical principle, sometimes called "Hume's Problem," is also called the problem of induction. It is still debated; no response to Hume has swept away his claims. The most notable response was that of Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Popper's response was to suggest that we cannot prove the truth of a claim through induction, but that we can prove the falsity of a claim, and therefore science can proceed using the hypotheses that have survived the most tests. But this too, one must note, is logically uncertain: we have certainty (perhaps) that we've rejected bad theories, but we have no certainty that the theory we have not yet rejected is actually good.

Well, the litany of sources of uncertainty in logic is long, and I don't want to go into it here. There are similar ideas outside the realm of Western Philosophy: is there not uncertainty in "The Tao that can be told of is not the absolute Tao."?

I think there are benefits in embracing uncertainty. Especially in logical debate: it's an escape hatch--if we know uncertainty exists, we can use that to justify some degree of imperfection in our argument: we simply cannot know everything; we must somewhere start with something unproven.

We embrace the uncertainty. Of course, we also need to act decisively: so we balance the uncertainty somehow. Ultimately we chose what we believe is important and act on that--if we cannot make such a choice then we're paralyzed.

Of course lots of people go through life thinking that they're certain about everything, but it's hard to get away with that as an academic--at least we're taught to question. So for the academic--or for any philosophical, thinking person--we look at the uncertainties that face us and choose among them the ones that seem best.
If we understand that we are choosing from a place of logical uncertainty, we have to embrace our beliefs for another reason. There's a certain freedom to believing in an idea and knowing that you may be wrong--there's a danger, but also a freedom.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Don't feel like working?

What do you do when you don't feel like working?

I'm struggling with that a little today--in particular with respect to writing this blog.
I know it's worth it to get in there to do just a little.

When I'm resisting work and procrastinating, I often find it useful to simply tell myself that I'm going to make an absolute minimum effort. And then, being free to do as little as I wish, I often find it possible to engage in the project in a way that I couldn't if I were thinking about how much work I had to do.

Tonight, for example, I didn't feel like writing the blog. But I thought I'd just say a few words about not wanting to work, and suddenly here I am. It's no novel, but it is a handful of sentences and growing.

A sense of obligation, in and of itself, is an emotional burden. If we can enter the work space without the sense of obligation engendered by saying "I have to work on this for the next three hours," then we may actually be able to get more done than if we procrastinated due to our sense of obligation.

Often I follow the suggestion of Joan Bolker and suggest to writers to work on something for fifteen minutes, with no judgment about having done something "good enough." I was wondering tonight whether that even might be too much obligation for the writer to be able to enter the process without a sense of obligation.

Anyway, if you don't feel like working, it can often be worth it to say to yourself that you're going to sit down for just a minute on some minor task.

And that actually brings to mind another thought: if we can start with some very simple task--cleaning the desk, fixing a sentence that we didn't like, adding a reference, or checking a reference to find the page number for a quote--that can often help us to get into the flow of working and to get our focus to move to the project.
The simple little task is minor, but it shifts us to thinking about our project, and may even clear away some sort of minor administrative nuisance that was bothering your when you were concentrating on larger issues during your previous session of work.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Practice, Practice, Practice

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice, Practice, Practice.

All that practicing can be tiring, frustrating and unpleasant. How does one do it?
Even things that we love can be difficult. I enjoy writing, but it's hard. I enjoy playing music but it's not easy.

What is it that can allow us to struggle through the difficult moments to keep working on a lengthy project? What if we are beset by immediate distractions and demands on our time--such as family responsibility or the need to earn money? How do we keep working on the difficult, frustrating project whose payoff seems far down the line?

What sets the virtuoso apart from the hack? Edison said genius was 99% perspiration. There's the other one percent--that's needed, too, but practice, practice, practice.

I'm currently working on a cover letter that's on its 10th revision.

Hemingway was asked "How much rewriting do you do?"
He answered "It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied." (excerpt from interview taken from The Writer's home Companion, Bolker, editor)

And none of that answers where the motivation to continue in the frustrating moment comes from.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What's the point?

What is the point that you're trying to make?
It seems that this is the place to start. Without this there is no focus to the work.

A writer said to me: "I want to say all sorts of things, but I have been told I have to show them, not state them." Well, my response is to say that the place to start is still to understand what it is that you believe and what it is that you want to say. If you know that, then you can ask yourself why you believe that, and what evidence you could present to help others see why you believe it.

I speak of belief due to my skeptical heritage: following Hume, I don't believe that we really "know" things--that is know them with certainty. But even so, I think the responsibility of a philosopher--which is what those who aspire to the Ph.D. ought to all be--is to explore ideas with care: the philosopher explores and examines ideas and challenges them; the philosopher does not just accept whatever idea is suggested by others.

If we believe that something exists, then, as philosophers, we want to have reasons for believing; we want to understand why we have chosen that idea over other alternatives. If we believe that something exists: then we should be able to share with others the specific reasons that we believe the idea. And as philosophers, those reasons are usually developed by the "love of wisdom" (the etymological root of "philosophy"): our willingness to examine ideas because we are interested in understanding.

If we know the point we want to make, then we can begin to set up our communication of that point to others.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Rock and Roll

I was playing in a rock and roll band for a couple of years recently--from
2005 to 2007.

The guitarist and I did not quite see eye to eye on the purpose of performing. His desire was that even the public performance be all about the music and about creating the music he wanted, the way he wanted. My interest in playing in public is to connect with audience.

I don't think that either of these positions is right or wrong. I think, actually, that we are trying to balance these two. As writers (or as any sort of artist, I think): we have the paired goals of self-expression and sharing.

One thing I'm wondering about: where do the carrots come in?
Is successful connection with an audience a carrot?

I can see answering both ways, but right now I don't think so.
If we are filled with a sense of purpose--a message that we have to get out--whether that is my guitarist's musical vision, or some verbal message--then we are trying to connect with an audience because of what we have inside us--the vision that we are trying to manifest. Our measure of success is how well we have connected with the audience, and yet we are not doing what we are doing for the approval of the audience.

Some rock and roll was really about nothing more than the passion inside and the message expressed. From protest singers to punks to rap, great music arises from a sense of passion and sense of purpose. And audiences connect with that sense of purpose because it seems real.

Academics, of course, don't get to say "we don't give a f--k what anyone else thinks," because they have to please other academics--especially professors. And the outrage that drives punk music isn't so easily passed off in academic circles. But that doesn't mean that it can't be used to direct a project.

One thing about passion is that it can be overwhelming. But if we can ride the edge where we can see both the passion that drives us, and the compromises we make to communicate that passion in the appropriate context, then we can create something special. It's a difficult balance point to find. Emotional content is volatile and dynamic, making finding balance very difficult. Working with strong emotional content means slipping, perhaps, into a sense of being overwhelmed when the emotions run strong, or slipping into a sense of disillusionment at moments the emotions run weak.

Despite this difficulty, I personally wouldn't recommend anything but to seek this place where a sense of purpose and passion drive you. I know that lots of people make their living writing things they don't care about. I know that writing about things that you don't care about strongly is a safe place to write: the material doesn't shift under your grasp in the same way.

I believe that there are times to seek expediency instead of the noblest aims, and I believe that we shouldn't let a dissertation be delayed by an attempt to make it do too much. But I also believe that we should still work with things that we care about.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Choosing a Focal Point

It's another beautiful day in the San Francisco Bay Area. The sun is shining; it's warm but there's a cool breeze.

Walking out to run some errands I was worrying, however, about what I hadn't done. And then in a moment I reminded myself that it was a beautiful day.

There are advantages about considering the things that we have yet to do. If we can actually do one of the things we hope to do, that's best, but thinking about which things to do is also a good plan. There's plenty there to think about.

There are also advantages to considering the beauty of the moment. I don't think that spending every day frolicking in the sun is necessarily a good long-term strategy, but it has its moments. And from moment to moment we can continue to be aware of the good things we do have around us while we are engaged in other activities.

I'm not sure there are many good reasons to worry about what we haven't done in the past. It's worth understanding how we can do things so as to avoid old mistakes, but to spend time worrying about the past?

We can choose where to direct our attention. This is obvious. We direct our attention to the left then to the right when we prepare to cross a two-way street (assuming people drive on the right side of the road). We direct our attention to each speaker in turn when we converse with a group of friends. But it's not so easy to direct our attention over longer periods or in some stressful situations.

My belief is that we can learn to focus our attention better. I like to practice by trying to remember the positive things, the things to celebrate and the things that I care about.

I'm feeling positively pollyanna-ish, so my readers will have to forgive me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Carrots and Sticks (2)

So I got an e-mail:

I understand what you say here, " The point I'm really aiming at is the value of being accountable to yourself rather than to someone else. " Sometimes however I feel motivated by the enthusiasm of others. There are days like today when I just want to ask, "am I on the right track." Of course I'm looking for an affirmative response so if I received the contrary, I might be utterly shattered. But if I can get some dialogue and discussion to affirm that I am on the right track, it helps me keep going just a little longer. I'm still doing the work for myself (I think/hope) but sometimes the energy to go after that carrot does have to do with the support of someone else...don't know if that makes sense, but it's what I thought about when I read...

Answer number 2:
I think that there's a difference between (1) having internal motivation and (2) being motivated by external events. But that doesn't mean that the internal motivation can't be affected by external forces.
I think that internal motivation is a sense of purpose, a sense that you're doing the work for yourself, and not just as make work, but because the work itself is meaningful to you--meaningful as a part of your life and what you want to accomplish with your life. As a result of this sense of purpose, you pursue the work that you do because you see it as integral to getting what you really want in life.
By contrast, I see the carrot and the stick as representing more external motivations: you do something because you hope that people will treat you well, or you do something because you fear they will treat you poorly. The motivation is not in the act itself, but in the attempt to please others--the search for the carrot and to avoid the stick.

Even if you have internal motivation, that doesn't mean that how others treat you will entirely run off you like water. Just because we have a sense of purpose, that doesn't mean that our emotions don't ebb and flow; it doesn't mean that we won't face difficult moments. You may be filled with a sense of self-purpose, but if someone starts yelling at you or telling you that you're stupid, that may still be difficult. It may be difficult because we're just learning to cultivate our sense of purpose. It may be difficult because the person who is berating us is someone we respect. Having someone yell at you is generally difficult, I think, for most people.
Sometimes people will yell at you because they want you to do something other than what you're doing. That's the stick. At such a moment it behooves us to understand the differences between the potential courses of action, so that we can choose something that suits our purposes, not just something that we chose because we wanted to avoid being yelled at. If someone we respect is telling us we're doing something bad it can be particularly difficult because we want to trust ourselves, but also we want to be able to recognize our own fallibility, too--otherwise we become too dogmatic.

The other side of this is positive feedback. You can have a clear sense of purpose and still gain in motivation through contact with the enthusiasm of others. Let's say, hypothetically, you have a project that you believe in for reason A, and you find a person who thinks your project is very cool for reason B. Why shouldn't you gain in motivation from sharing this new perspective and enthusiasm? Or you might find someone else who is excited for the exact same reason as you (or something very close): is there any reason not to gain from their enthusiasm? Of course not. Just because we believe in something, it doesn't mean we can never share in the enthusiasm of others. And to the extent that scholars are generally people trying to share ideas, if you find someone who shares your ideas that in itself is cause for excitement, and if they connect with what you've written that's an indication that your work in succeeding in reaching the kind of people you want it to reach. Clearly that's reason for excitement and a sense of accomplishment. Getting stroked is nice; the question is whether you're chasing the strokes (the carrots) for their own sake or whether they're coming to you because you're doing something you would do anyway.

Imagine a musician. A person who loves to play music, who loves the creation of music and the interaction with the musical instrument. That person can enjoy playing in the solitude of the home. But he may also take his music out in public, and thereby create the possibility of being appreciated by others. Does that mean that he doesn't love the playing for its own sake any longer? The attentive reader will have noted that "Balance" is one of the labels for this post. Realistically, this is another case where it is a matter of finding balance. The musician--and metaphorically all of us--puts extra effort into taking the show on the road, and from that extra effort gets back (or hopes to get back) the appreciation of others and the sense of sharing. If we are grounded in our love of the music and the playing of the music--in our sense of purpose--then mixing that with a desire for appreciation and sharing with others and their encouragement seems like a balanced, human and social thing to do. It is neither kowtowing to the masses, nor is it self-righteous setting oneself apart.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Carrots and Sticks

So I got an e-mail:

I understand what you say here, " The point I'm really aiming at is the value of being accountable to yourself rather than to someone else. " Sometimes however I feel motivated by the enthusiasm of others. There are days like today when I just want to ask, "am I on the right track." Of course I'm looking for an affirmative response so if I received the contrary, I might be utterly shattered. But if I can get some dialogue and discussion to affirm that I am on the right track, it helps me keep going just a little longer. I'm still doing the work for myself (I think/hope) but sometimes the energy to go after that carrot does have to do with the support of someone else...don't know if that makes sense, but it's what I thought about when I read...

I was wondering about this.
Because, of course I believe in the power of getting encouragement from others and from having your own work appreciated.

Here's answer number 1:

Last night as I wrote about sticks and carrots I was thinking about something I had heard from George Lakoff. I cannot remember what source this material was published in; I remember reading it, but not where; I do remember George discussing it in a lecture. Anyway--sorry for the lack of a real citation--the story is this:
Lakoff (and perhaps a co-author) had analyzed a set of proverbs translated into English. They were looking for metaphorical structures that were repeated in different languages. One proverb--Chinese, I think--was "Cows run with the wind; Horses run against it." In the brief analysis of this proverb Lakoff suggested that proverb favored horses, i.e., one should persevere in the face of difficulty. And so it was published, but according to Lakoff a native speaker of the language whence the proverb came contacted him to say that the proverb in its native language and culture favored cows: one should go with the flow and be wise.
But the way I see it, they're both right. Both the horses and cows are worthy of respect and emulation.
Or, in other words, we need to find a balance between the self-righteous ego-driven sense of purpose and motivation, and the sense that we are connected with a larger whole.
Living in Berkeley, I have had the opportunity to meet some interesting people--people drawn to the city for its intellectualism, and for its radical reputation; people who are passionate about their causes that they have researched extensively. But I can see these people--they're all preachers of their own little religion in a way--and they are so far removed from what other people are seeing and thinking that they have trouble connecting. I respect their intelligence and their passion for their cause. But there's a part of me that says: "I'm a writer; if I'm writing to share my ideas, then I need to understand how to connect with the people around me."

Answer number 2 is forthcoming.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Carrot and Stick

Where does motivation come from?
The idea of the carrot and the stick suggest external forces: we chase the carrot--the external reward--and we flee the stick--external punishment. It seems to me that both of these forces of motivation are impoverished with respect to character growth.

If we look at the issue using the perspective of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we might see the carrot and the stick as fulfilling lower-level needs--safety, security, pleasure.

What have we got left if not the carrot and the stick? Maslow would suggest we have our growth and our joy in the mastery of new things. (or is that a metaphorical carrot)?

Ach! I'm getting tangled in metaphor. The point I'm really aiming at is the value of being accountable to yourself rather than to someone else. Do the work because it will satisfy what you want to accomplish in your life. Do it for yourself. Do it because you have a sense of purpose that will be served by working on your project.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why work every day?

I was ready to blow off writing my blog this evening. I was tired--a touch too much sun, a bit of dehydration and a little headache. But there it was 11:30pm and I felt like just dropping in a few words.

Thinking about the Tour de France a bit more. The announcers talk a lot about embracing the pain of the ride. I think the Tour de France is a decent parallel for writing a dissertation in some ways--or more generally, athletic endeavor is--especially when it involve endurance.

I was writing about the curtains of misery and the sense that the work of the dissertation writer is painful. If there is pain in writing a dissertation, I wonder whether it ought not be like the pain of one of those riders. There is pain in working through the difficult spots, and there will be difficult spots. Life is like that generally. I have no doubt in my mind that the riders in the Tour de France love riding in general. The pain comes from pushing their limits--but they're pushing their limits doing something they love. This is a far cry from the sense of misery that I have heard reported from many writers. Many writers come to hate their project.

Ok, sure, when you're riding in a race, you probably don't have your team leader telling you how inadequate your work is--and when you're a dissertation writer there's a great chance that you do--at least I know lots of writers who have gotten that general message from their faculty committee.

I wonder how many writers really love both their project and the general work of writing academic writing before they run into the dissertation project and an aggressive, insulting, or negative faculty committee.

It seems to me that embracing the pain of the difficult spots in the task is much easier if you generally enjoy what you're doing.

The thing about constant practice, and persisting in your practice against whatever obstacles you may face, is that it can become easier. At 10:30pm tonight I was ready to go to sleep, and I lay back in bed to do a little reading to drop off to sleep. But I felt that writing was worth the effort--because I know that writing is not painful in itself; it's only painful to me when I try to force through the difficult spots. And I know that what seems difficult seems less difficult with greater practice.

This, I think, occurs on many levels--whether your practice is simply to write with greater ease, or your practice is to find focus for your project, by practicing and by repeating the effort, your work will improve.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Little Pieces of Work

I was thinking about how we can break down tasks.
One of the things that I have heard reported by many writers is that they are daunted by the size of the project that lies before them. "Overwhelmed" is a word I hear a lot.

I know what it's like to feel overwhelmed by a project--a sense that the project is this massive monolith that cannot be moved. We have to learn to chip away at it.

Every big project is composed of little projects. As the saying foes: the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Not only does it begin with a single step, but it is carried to its completion by always taking one more step, until the journey is over.

Every big piece of work is made of simply taking he work one step at a time. It can be daunting to sit down in the morning and say "ok, now I'm going to work on my dissertation for the next three hours." But if we can see that three hour period as made up of a number of smaller tasks--a few fifteen minute tasks, maybe a few thirty minute tasks--then it may often be easier to engage in the work.

It's great to make optimistic plans. It's great to assume that you're going to be extremely productive. But it's also great to take reality into account. It's fine to make a plan that you're going to work on your dissertation for eight hours on Saturday--but if the reality is that on Saturday after Saturday you don't work eight hours, then you need to reconsider the plans you're making. So for me, instead of making big plans, I like to make small plans--or at least, I like to make small plans that break apart my big plans. This analytical process--this process of dividing a project--can be problematic in many ways, but I find that it really helps me get moving.

If I can set myself a task for fifteen minutes--that's easy. If I can see the need to write one paragraph on a specific subject, well, writing one paragraph is not a daunting task. If I can get myself to take action for fifteen minutes, that's better than planning on working three hours and getting nothing done. But even better is that if I can do the one thing in fifteen minutes, then I feel good about myself, and I feel good about working, and I can try something else for the next fifteen minutes, and if I get something done in that fifteen minutes I feel even better about myself.

If we keep our goals really small and really focused, then they are not overwhelming. It's not surprising that someone would be overwhelmed if they were thinking "I have to work on my dissertation." It would be a lot more surprising if someone got overwhelmed saying "I have to write one paragraph on subject X."

Of course if someone did get overwhelmed just trying to write one paragraph, we could break the task of writing that paragraph into different steps.

Back in the day when I still was relatively current on computers, I was a teaching assistant for a basic programming course. This was maybe 1993 or 1994--the course taught the computer language "pascal", which I knew fairly well, and was, for the first time, integrating html into the course material. As a programmer, it's easy to get used to thinking about the very small steps that make up a process. The more so, the more primitive the language. Html and Pascal both are high level languages in which single commands get translated to many different little commands for a given computer (actually, html isn't really that kind of language at all, but rather specific programs use html as sets of intstructions--but that's kind of beside the point).
In the class for which I was a TA, we had on one exam a question that asked the students to write pseudo-code for boiling water.
Most students answered something like this:
Fill a pot with water
put it on the stove
turn on the stove

Well, that is fine, but it leaves out a lot of detail. Take that first step, for example: "fill a pot with water." Where does the pot come from? where does the water come from? how does the pot get filled with water? If we wanted, we could break this step down into smaller steps:
Find a pot
pick it up
carry the pot to the sink
place the pot beneath the faucet
turn on the faucet
wait for the pot to fill

We might have to break some of those steps down, too.
There is complexity that we take for granted--we know where we keep pots in our kitchen, and we know how to fill them with water, so we take those little steps for granted.

But in writing a dissertation, we are not so familiar with the terrain. We need to be willing to take the project even the simplest, smallest step at a time. We need to be able to exploit that way of looking at the project: if we are feeling overwhelmed, just take the smallest task that we can find and work on it.

My one caveat: don't let that one next task always be to read something else--because there's always something else to read, but if you don't write, you won't get finished writing. That being said, the writing tasks can be broken up into very small pieces--write a paragraph on one subject, a page on another, two sentences on yet another. Whatever the size, it is more important to do a little work, than it is to make a big plan and do less. By breaking your project up into little pieces of work, you can focus your efforts.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tour de France

I was watching the Tour de France on TV and at one point there was some discussion of when it was most efficient to work the hardest. The speaker--whose qualifications I forget--said that the riders got the most benefit by working the hardest when the situation was most difficult--riding uphill or into a headwind.

I was thinking about whether this has a parallel for writers. Are we going to get the most benefit by working the hardest when things are not going well? Or are we going to get the most benefit by resting a bit when things are going poorly, and then working hard when things start to flow?

We can't do wind tunnel tests to determine this.

I could argue both ways. A dissertation isn't a bike race, so the metaphor is obviously not going to translate without some difficulties.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the curtain of misery; and I think that working hardest when the difficulty is greatest is liable to create the greatest pain when working--you'll be putting in the most effort at exactly that time the work is the least promising.

On the other hand, if you're stuck--if you're discouraged, frustrated, then that might be a moment when you can gain the greatest value from the work because, for one, you need to keep working consistently, even through difficulty, to finish a dissertation; and for two, it is often the case that the moment of frustration and difficulty is the moment at which the greatest change and growth comes. My yoga teacher was recently talking about how at the moment of difficulty something beautiful is waiting to burst out into growth.

I listed this post under the headings of consistency, persistence, and momentum. I don't think that there is a clear answer to what tactic is going to work best on writing a dissertation. The dissertation writing journey and progress through it are not so easily measured as speed and energy output are. But I do think that generally we want to be consistent in working, and persistent in the face of difficulties because there is momentum to projects and to writing: by keeping the project alive and moving in your mind, and on paper, you increase the ease with which you can work on it, and you keep your mind and body in the rhythm and habit of working on the project and thinking about the ideas.

When is the best time to work the hardest? I don't have an answer to that. It partly depends on you and what works best for you. But, in the long run, it is the tortoise that you should emulate: stick at it in a regular pace. What is key is to keep the progress and the writing piling up.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Misery and Choice

We often make ourselves miserable.

I was reading through a book on writing dissertations--David Sternberg's How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation--and it struck me how much of a presumption he was making about misery.

In general, I thought the book had a lot of good suggestions, for all that parts of it are quite dated (it was published almost 30 years ago). But the emphasis on what a trauma the dissertation process is seems to me over the top. For example he says “American Society is not aware, excepting personal acquaintance of particular ABDs, of the almost larger-than-life trials, fortitude, despair, courage and even heroics experienced in writing a doctoral dissertation.” Forgive me for saying, but I don't take this seriously. And I am quite familiar with the despair of the dissertation writer, having spent six years as an ABD doctoral candidate.

I refer to the work of Viktor Frankl, and his notion that we can find meaning even in our suffering, and that this meaning supports us. Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps. Compared to that, writing a dissertation is an absolute blessing.

If you're actually writing a dissertation, chances are you have options in your life. Chances are you're not worrying where you're going to get your next meal. Chances are you're not worrying about where you're going to sleep tomorrow night. And chances are that you can get a job if you need one. Now in that context, it may take a huge commitment of effort and will to wrie an entire dissertation. And it may strain you--even push you towards the limits of what you had accomplished in the past. But do those things make the writing heroic? Is it the kind of situation in which despair is appropriate?

I think not. Obviously we have emotional reactions. Obviously, if we have worked hard and our work is rejected, or even rejected harshly, that is terribly difficult to handle. But this is a matter of choice. We can choose to continue, or we can choose to leave the dissertation behind. We are not condemned to writing our dissertation.

On the first level, then, I think it's important for the dissertation writer who is concerned with the agony of writing to remember that this is a choice to work on the dissertation. If it is making you miserable, and if writing the dissertation condemns you to years of writing misery, then why do it? And if you have a good answer as to why to do it, then can't you try to focus on the good things that you'll get out of the effort that you think is miserable?

There's a second level: we can choose whether or not to be miserable. I think this is the ultimate lesson of Frankl's story: he had every right to be miserable--real physical hardship, pain, emotional loss, separation from family, fear of death--but he claims that he chose something else. He argues that we always have the power to choose how we respond--by creating meaning, we mediate and shape our responses. In a way, it's almost as simple as saying that if you sit down to write telling yourself how miserable it is, then it will be miserable; and if you sit down telling yourself it will be rewarding, then it may well be rewarding.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Curtains of Misery

I was talking with a writer who spoke about her work as if it were nothing but misery to work on her dissertation. And yet this same writer had had some very good responses to her ideas at some panel discussions and in interactions with scholars that she respected. It was as if her entering the place of study, she was draped with a curtain of misery that hung over the project.

I believe that we can change how we interact with our situations and our adversities. This is the main premise of Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy. It is a basic premise behind cognitive behavioral therapy and behind Neuro-Linguistic programming. Indeed, it is the basic premise behind many sorts of therapy: therapy by definition attempts to relieve a disorder--physiotherapy changes how our bodies respond (for example our leg might have to re-learn how to bear weight); psychotherapy changes how we respond. The question is whether we can effect such changes on our own. Frankl clearly believes we can.

I believe that one major cause that we get caught under the curtains of misery is that we lose touch with a sense of purpose. If we no longer believe that our work is meaningful--if we are asking ourselves "what am I doing this for anyway?", then we are likely to be miserable. If our work is meaningless, then we might as well be retyping a telephone book into the computer. If the work is meaningless, what's the difference? If the work serves no purpose it is no more than drudgery (perhaps worse--at least as a drudge you're doing something practical).

Of course writing a dissertation is hard. But it ought not be viewed as hardship. Realistically, if you are writing a dissertation you are knocking on the door of a social elite--stories of PhDs driving taxis notwithstanding, I'd be happy to bet that the average PhD makes more than the average non-PhD, even presuming that the richest people don't have PhDs. It is a tremendous opportunity. And yet it is so often a hardship, too.

I am not denying the emotional strains faced by the dissertation writer, but there are two sides to every story. I know that the writer I mentioned at the beginning of this post faced/faces very real stress; what seems most important to me is finding a way to reliever her--and those like her--of the stress, or at least of a great deal of it. I know that for her a large part of the stress stems from the moments where she is saying to herself: "my material doesn't really matter"; if I respond to that statement by saying "but what Dr. X who asked you to co-write a book chapter," I can hear her mood shift. It reminds her that there is a meaning that she herself sees.

I'm not of the opinion that we should base our own beliefs on whether other people approve of those beliefs. But I am of the opinion that we can learn a lot from other people, and if someone I respect thinks something is important, that's a very good justification for me to explore whether I want to take that thing seriously, too.

Anyway, the short of this is that the better we develop a sense of purpose--especially one that is in alignment with our deep emotions, beliefs and values--the more that we are able throw off the curtains of misery and remember that our work--whatever its difficulties--is valuable.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Construction of Meaning and Imagination

I was just thinking about phlogiston and the aether and vacuum..among other ideas.
The imagination that was required to come up with these ideas is, to me, stunning.

If what we do is make up stories as a natural part of how we understand the world, then coming up with ideas like these seems to me beyond the imaginative efforts of a Tolkein or an Asimov.

Some ideas seem like they would come up logically eventually: I can see how an idea like infinity would arise through some logical debate.

Or evolution: that seems not too impossible: one sees groups of similar creatures and tells a story of how they all came from a similar source--it is especially plausible if you already know of breeding of animals and how traits can be strengthened from generation to generation (and I think we can say safely that 19th century England knew about animal breeding). It would take some imagination to come up with the idea of evolution, but the elements are there in experience.

But what about vacuum or the aether? These are ideas that I can hardly even attempt to explain. They both play key roles in various stories about the very nature of existence. But they are so far abstracted from experience that my imagination does not take me to such places easily.

Phlogiston is another one: the substance that is contained in elements that burned. Somehow this works with the four classical elements--earth, air, water, and fire--but how is phlogiston different from fire? I don't know. I haven't tried to explain it. I have a story that explains combustion--something about release of energy from carbon bonds and recombination with oxygen--I don't think about combustion much, so I don't need a very detailed story. But think about how the mind is stretching when it tries to explain fire by adding a new element to a list of elements that already has "fire" as one of the elements.

Hopefully we don't need to use quite so much imagination in the construction of our meaning for our own work. Much easier to imagine a complete world filled with creatures that resemble humans, and also other mythical creatures, than to imagine a completely new element. Hopefully it's easier still to imagine significance for your own work.

I think perhaps one of the greatest battles that I fought was with the internal voice that said to me "no one is going to care about this abstruse philosophical question you're studying, even if it is important." Partly I battled the voice by telling myself that the idea mattered even if it didn't reach anyone else (an odd position for one who believes that knowledge is fundamentally instrumental, but who ever said I was consistent?). The sense that your own work is important is crucial. A great shame is that so many people start out on dissertations (or at least start graduate programs) with a sense that they are in school to help the world, and they somehow get out of touch with that initial sense of purpose. If you can reconnect with the things that are meaningful for you, and you can imagine a path by which your research can tie into the initial passion that drove you, then you can work from a place of emotional strength--one where your emotions are not conflicted (or at least not as conflicted).

I also gained a measure of strength by reframing the project and finding meaning in my ability to overcome obstacles and successfully complete a project that--by the end--had swelled into a work of over 300 pages. No one may ever read that book again (and given that I needed a proofreader, I'm not sure that bothers me), but that matters not at all because I finished it.

I've been thinking a lot about how the stories we tell about our lives can help or hinder us. Those stories are construction of meaning. On the simplest level this may be just a matter of what we focus on: do we focus on the good things or the bad? On what we have or what we want? This may also be a matter of the difference between constructing a story in which things are connected and a story in which things are disconnected.

And then there are the different levels of meaning that we construct. What if we are seeking the thread that ties a whole work together--a thread that we sense is there, but can't quite tease out--and while we seek that thread we are telling ourselves a story like "I'll never find the thread"? If that story about our inadequacy is dragging us down emotionally, will it cut into the hours we would have worked if we were telling ourselves some other story--like "I'm sure I'll find it if I keep working," or even "I'll keep trying to find this thread, but if I can't find it, I'll go and work on another project because I'm not letting one setback stop me"? I don't know whether it's true, but here's the story I construct: being depressed takes away energy, and so if you tell yourself you're going to fail, you'll have less energy, ergo, you'll work less and therefore have less likelihood of success.

Somehow I slipped into full self-help/power-of-positive-thinking mode. I didn't really mean to--but the power of our imaginations and our construction of meaning led me into it.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Trusting Yourself

I was talking with a friend, a guitarist, and we were discussing his music. Mostly I like his music, but I think that he doesn't stay with his ideas long enough--I think he's got good idea that just need to be given more time in their expression. I suggested this to him and he said (paraphrase) "well, yeah, I should develop the ideas more but, I can't."

I think a lot of us are like this as writers: we have an idea and we give up on the idea saying "I can't develop this idea more."

But for my friend the guitarist, and for many of us as writers, the problem is that we don't stay with the idea long enough. We don't work it and rework it. Instead we play the wrong note, or we lose track of our place in the progression, and having hit that first failure we say "I blew it; this ain't gonna work." But a lot of time it's really that we didn't trust our ability to push through the place of difficulty. It's not that we need to do anything different; we just need to stick with what we are doing longer. We need to trust in our abilities.

Sometimes I think of this situation in terms of two binary variables:
whether we trust ourselves (yes or no)
whether we have the ability we need (yes or no)
What combination of these variables will lead to success? There are 4 possibilities:
1. obviously, if we don't have trust and we don't have ability, we're not too likely to succeed.
2. If we don't have ability but we do believe, our chances are better, but still....
3. If we do have ability, but we don't believe, then we have some chance, but we're also likely to hold ourself back.
4. If we do have ability and we trust that ability, then we are most likely to succeed.

What is important to note here is that whether or not we have the ability we need, our chance of getting a good outcome is improved by trusting ourself, while there is no increase in risk.
OK, there is a simplification operating here, and there are situations where our risks increase by (unjustly) believing about ourself. But here's the question: are there any situations in which a dissertation writer benefits by doubting his or her ability to do the work? And if there are no such situations, or if those situations are rare, isn't it worth acting on the assumption that your abilities will be up to the effort?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ups and Downs

We want to be working from a place where we care about our work. Writing is a far cry from digging ditches. If we have let our experience of the dissertation become interpreted primarily as meaningless pain, that's no good. It doesn't help us get our work done, either.

This emotional involvement comes with it some difficulties, however. We are going to have ups and downs. Some days the work will go well and we'll feel good. Other days we will be facing difficulties and maybe feeling like quitting.

We want to be able to find a place of balance, where we are not caught in a whip-sawing of emotion. That in itself is exhausting. It's tiring enough to face the frustration of the project, and to have doubts about our ability to finish. If we have to experience severe ups and downs it may be even worse. Having our elation stripped away time after time may be more tiring than just having to face a constant battle.

If we can find a place of balance, we will not be so prone to the swings of emotion, and in particular we may be able to keep ourselves from going into the highly unproductive down swings.

I've been working with a writer who wants to quit every other day. And on the days that quitting isn't the plan it's enthusiastic work: go! go! go! I find it exhausting. Every time I try to respond to the question of whether or not to quit (a question I can't answer for the writer), What I get back is "I'm not quitting; I'm working again and I want help with _____." And every time I try to give help with _____, I get back "I'm quitting." The only way I can keep working with the writer is to keep reminding myself that the ups and downs are emotional and that I have the ability to retain my emotional balance even while those around me are losing their heads. But my difficulty is surely less than the writer's: this is a situation that is extremely difficult for the writer--the vacillation and the emotional swings are both cause and symptom of the difficulty this writer faces.

As a writer you have to keep your head about your work. You have to be able to see its strengths and weaknesses. The same piece of work will often garner praise from one corner and derision from another. It behooves the writer to let both those ups and downs pass in order to keep an eye on the balance of the work.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. Or something like that. I hope Robert Burns isn't rolling in his grave. Our best efforts often go for naught. Which may be an explanation for why Edison said that genius was 99% perspiration: he had to try and fail so many times before his success.

Some problems are just not going to work out, and that's a matter of trial and error. You may, for example, work hard for days or weeks over a draft that just doesn't work out and may not even give you a lot of help as to what could be done better. That's purely hypothetical, of course; I wouldn't want to suggest that I had ever experienced anything of the sort today.

You try and try and try again. Your patience is tested. You get frustrated. Angry. A sense of failure wells up in your stomach, and the bile in your throat like you ate something rotten that's about to very seriously disagree with you. All this, and it's not your doing anyway. It's not like you're not smart and hard working and honest and diligent; it's just that the chips haven't fallen into place. It's possible they never will, and you'll have to move on to a new project or a completely new approach. Some efforts you just have to abandon and stop throwing good money after bad. Some projects will wreak havoc on your emotions unless you can maintain a good emotional distance from the project.

If the project falls through, it falls through. Sometimes we're gonna be frustrated and we'll just have to pick ourselves up off the ground and stick at it. In such situations it is beneficial to keep emotionally distant from the event: a setback is not an indicator of a person's worth. A setback is better viewed as an opportunity to learn more about how to reach your goal.