Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Celebrate rejection, celebrate acceptance, and be careful what you ask for


Back in February, after sending a query to a literary agent, I wrote about celebrating rejection.  The agency website says, “If you don’t hear from us in six weeks, assume we’re not interested.” I didn’t hear after six weeks, so I assumed that I had been rejected. After the sixth week passed, I tried to celebrate my rejection. 
And then I began working on a query letter for a publisher (my book is the kind of thing that is at the edge of being mass-market enough for one of the commercial publishing houses—there are several different commercial houses that have related books, and the commercial publishers don’t accept unsolicited queries—if I want to publish at a commercial publisher, I need an agent—but it’s also suitable for academic publisher, who do accept queries from authors). I decided to try a query letter (“would you like to see a proposal for a book” rather than “would you like to see a manuscript of a book”), thinking that a shorter, simpler query might get a quicker response.  I sent my first (and only) query letter to a publisher on the seventh week after sending my previous proposal, preparing to (try to) celebrate rejection yet again.
Celebrating rejection is not the easiest thing. It’s silly to argue that rejection is all good—the central part of rejection is that someone rejected your request, and presumably you didn’t make a request for something you didn’t either want or need (or both).  The possibility of celebrating rejection comes from the complexity of rejection: rejection does force one to consider new opportunities or new avenues of exploration, and those opportunities can be celebrated. It takes effort and focus, but as the saying goes, “if you get lemons, make lemonade.”
This past Monday (eight weeks after sending the proposal), I did, in fact, receive a formal rejection from the agent, which gave me a second opportunity to “celebrate” my rejection. A double helping of rejection to celebrate!
Of course, as I had already sent off a new query letter, my attention and interest were elsewhere, despite the renewed sting of rejection. As it happens, my query letter to the publisher had received a positive response—the acquisitions editor had expressed interest in seeing a proposal and in setting a time to talk with me.
Naturally, I was thrilled that my query had received a positive response. In many ways, celebrating acceptance is much easier than celebrating rejection.
But one does need to be careful what one asks for, because sometimes the request is accepted! Because of the acceptance of the query letter, I spent the last week writing and rewriting a proposal for the publisher. There are elements of book proposals that can be re-used, but different publishers have different interests and different book lists, and that leads to a need for some differences. And once the process of rewriting has started, it can take on its own life, as previous choices come under examination.
Last week, I wrote about compromise and how even when things are going well, you can expect someone to ask you to compromise. And I guess this is in that same vein: things could be going well (by being accepted, for example), and still there is more work to do, there are compromises to make.  I’m pretty darn happy that my query letter received a positive response, but life doesn’t end there. Resting on laurels is rarely possible. I have a next step (a proposal), which could lead to rejection, and then, possibly, a next step (manuscript submission), which could lead to rejection. And if that is accepted, then there are the steps of revising, editing, possibly indexing, promoting, etc.

Since this post is about celebrating things, I’ll wrap by noting that we have some choice over where we direct our attention. And especially, that there are always concerns for looking forward to the future: regardless of whether you were accepted or rejected, you can choose where to direct your attention, and looking at the road ahead, seeing difficulties, one can still choose to focus attention on the positive goals, too. It would be nice to have some laurels to rest upon, even if that rest might be uneasy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Community, compromise, cooperation and contribution


This is about why I like to pay my taxes.  There are plenty of things about taxes that I don’t like, but on the whole, I like paying them because it’s my contribution to something I believe in.
The United States of America is hardly a perfect nation.  It’s got a problematic history and a problematic present.  Many have been victims of the injustices committed by the US and its representatives.  All the same, the US is something I believe in, particularly the principles espoused in the U.S. Constitution.

My belief in the Constitution is, in fact, so extreme, that I’m inclined to consider people who rail against taxes to be un-American.

These positions stem from understanding the value system espoused by the Constitution.
The preamble to the Constitution makes clear the purposes and the value system being invoked and created:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What is this saying? Well, the main idea of the sentence is “We’re establishing this constitution to provide certain outcomes that we deem desirable.”  It expresses the values that the government is trying to establish:

1. Union
2. Justice
3. Domestic Tranquility
4. Common Defense
5. General Welfare
and
6. Secure the Blessings of Liberty for current and future generations

Firstly, it should be noted that this is a liberal document in the classic sense of the term “liberal”:  It is concerned with ensuring the liberty of those whom it presumes to govern. It is also “liberal” in the common meaning of “open to change.”  It is distinctly not conservative (i.e., hoping to maintain and establish old forms of government).

Second, it should be noted that it is a fundamentally cooperative document: “We the People,” it says. It is designed to set up a cooperative community: the people are going to work together to achieve the stated aims.  As I have discussed in previous posts, cooperation often includes compromise.  Compromise made to promote some desired value is not a restriction of freedom, as those who rail against taxes often complain, it is a choice to put in the necessary contribution to make the cooperative system work.
For there to be a “perfect union” in which “We the people” work together, there must be people who choose to work together, and that means people choosing to contribute to the common effort, including a willingness to compromise.
The Constitution is not just saying the we think that liberty, justice, etc. are good, it is saying that we—the people working together—are going to accede to a coherent set of rules that will guide (and limit) our actions.  The framers of the Constitution knew that compromise was necessary, and the document sets up a system for negotiating compromises.

The United States is a community. For that community to work, effort and contribution are required. Taxes are one form of contribution.  That people would be happy to take the benefits of living in the US, and would claim to love the United States and its freedoms, and then would rail against paying taxes is, I think, selfish entitlement.  The system only works if we the people contribute to its operation, even when we don’t necessarily like how the system works.
People who live in the US, who talk about how great America is, and who complain that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes, are people who seem to believe that they should get the benefits of living in this cooperative society without making contributions or compromise. Such people, in my opinion, are un-American, and frankly, if they don’t like the way America works, they should move to another country.
To be part of a community working together to reach a goal means making compromises. Taxes are part of the compromise of living in, and benefiting from, the community defined and governed by the Constitution of the United States of America.

I have slightly more sympathy for people who don’t want to pay taxes because they don’t like how their tax dollars are being spent—that, at least, doesn’t represent a repudiation of the basic community and the need to contribute to the community.  But still—compromise is necessary, and paying taxes is a necessary compromise if we, the people of the United States of America, want to do things like establish Justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.

I believe in the project and ideals defined in the US Constitution’s preamble and Bill of Rights. I don’t like the compromise made by the original framers that allowed slavery to continue, but that language has been amended. The general project is still worthy, despite the problems. But believing in that project, and trying to realize that project means compromise, including the compromise of paying taxes.  If you consider yourself a patriot of the U.S., you should be willing to make compromises to contribute to the cooperative project that is this nation.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Inevitably, you will be asked to compromise.


You are going to get asked to do things you don't want to do. And you will have to negotiate some compromise. It's difficult, but accepting this inevitability makes it easier to set aside the frustration and focus on what you can accomplish.
When you’re a doctoral candidate, it can be pretty natural to start thinking “once I’m done, I’ll be free; I won’t have to do what my professors tell me any more. I’ll be able to do my work to suit myself.” Feeling adversarial toward your professors is pretty natural, as is feeling resentment for doing things that you don’t want to do. It’s not fun to be forced to write about something that you think off-subject  just to please your professor.  And it is therefore also natural to feel excitement at the prospect of being free of such disagreements with your professors.
The thing is, if it’s not your professors, it’s going to be someone else.  This point was really driven home to me when I was talking with an author who was negotiating with the president of his publisher. The book is deep in process. The author has already edited it down significantly in size to suit the publisher. But recently the publisher asked him to change the title. “People won’t understand it. It won’t sell,” the publisher said.
This author is a tenure-track professor and a department chair, with multiple publications and a book manuscript that got rave reviews from the blind reviewers. But this morning, he had to face someone saying “I want you to do it differently.”
If you show your work to enough people, there is sure to be someone who will ask you to change it.  And even if you’re only working with one person (or one institution), you might well get asked to change it. You are not, after all, the only independent actor with plans and desires and expectations.
I guess the message I’d like to boil this down to is that the need to compromise never goes away if you want to work with other people, so you have to figure out how (and when) to compromise on stuff.
You can do awesome work that many people will love, and you can still find people who will dislike it or want to change it. Are those people wrong?  At times, it becomes necessary to make choices that aren’t entirely palatable: does the author insist on the title, even though it might mean losing the publisher? Does the author, give up the title to satisfy the publisher? Of course, the author could also decide that it’s a good idea to trust the publisher: after all, it would be nice to sell a lot of copies, right? And publishers know something about selling—more about selling than most professors, I would imagine.
I’ve been writing about perfectionism recently, and this is another angle on perfectionism: what one person views as perfect, another might view as problematic. What one person views as excellent, another might view as insufficient. Such differences in perception and evaluation reveal that “perfect” is not, practically speaking, the same as excellent.
When working on a project, it’s natural to focus on your own vision and on making a creation that matches that vision, and lives up to the standards that you set.  It’s super important to be aware of your own standards, and to be able to strive for them.
To the extent that you hope your work will communicate with others—and that’s the purpose of writing—and will get good responses, the question of what is “perfect” is problematized: by which standard is the work evaluated? By your standard? By the standards of the audience? 
It can often feel frustrating and even disempowering when someone asks you to change something you do to satisfy their desires. This is especially true if you don’t agree with their position. But at the same time, that very disagreement is important: to the extent that you dismiss their position, you are frustrating and disempowering them. There are times to hold firm to what you believe—I recommended that the author hold firm on the title—and there are times to think about what the other person is asking from you, and why they want it. Communication and community require compromise. If not yours, then someone else’s. It’s not always fun to compromise, and it’s not always appropriate. But it can be taken for granted that you will be asked and that you will have to negotiate it. For me, at least, understanding that reality helps make it more palatable: this isn’t something that I can change by being smarter or working harder; this is the way it is.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

More about perfectionism and tradeoffs


A few days ago, I got an e-mail from a perfectionist who does great work, but...

On 3/__/18 8:17 PM, _______ wrote: 
> Perfectionism is killing me. 
>
> [other job] is, too. But that's sometimes an excuse for perfectionism. 
>
> I’m going to try doing the shittiest job ever of reading and summarizing papers tomorrow morning. 


Hi ______, 

How can you find the balance--the point of tension between competing demands? There's [other job]. There's a dissertation that you've already done a great job on and still have to do more (both in terms of getting the dissertation signed off--which is not exciting--and in the longer run as you think about turning it into a book).  There's new research. There's the rest of your life, like friends and family, and self-indulgence. 

I got a fortune cookie fortune once that said something like "your strengths grow out of your weaknesses," which is a worthy consideration (even if I remember the cookie wrong).  In a way, character traits present a two-edged duality: an ability like your perfectionism both promotes and inhibits your success.  You don't want to set that vision and that drive aside, because that vision and that drive are precisely what allow you to create work of the quality that you produce. At the same time, allowing that vision and that drive too much leeway can drive you into a corner. On the one hand, you want to cultivate that perfectionism and encourage it. On the other, you want to keep it in check. 

Any ability is like that. A person with physical strength can do certain things well, but may also choose strength when physical force isn't the best option. Intelligence answers many situations, but sometimes rational thinking isn't the answer. Any ability suits some situations better than others.  How can you apply you perfectionist powers to best suit this situation? 

I heartily approve of your trying to do a shitty job. 

At the same time, remember that brevity is a virtue. If someone asks you to describe your work in one minute, you give it a try, even if the description you produce is a poor description by many standards. An "elevator pitch" is too short to be a good description of any work, and yet it can sometimes be exactly what is wanted.  A short discussion of literature about faculty roles is not necessarily worse for being brief!  There's a different perfection to seek here: the project manager's perfection, which is getting high quality work done on schedule. 

Finish that draft and perfect your schedule. 

best, 
Dave 



Monday, March 26, 2018

Trade-offs, perfectionism, and self-promotion


Recently, someone posted to my facebook page that they had bought a copy of my dissertation book. I am thrilled whenever anyone buys it, it goes without saying. I worked hard on that book and getting some positive return on my efforts feels good—just hearing that someone likes the idea is nice, for that matter. But there’s also a certain tinge of fear—what if someone doesn’t like it? I worked hard on it, but it’s not perfect. And ironically, the more successful my book, the more likely it is that I will hear from people who are disappointed.

Getting negative feedback is a problem that every author faces, and it can feel very personal. The rejection of your work might not be personal (it probably isn’t, given that most of the people who reject your work don’t know you personally), but whatever their cause, such rejections are failed hopes and disappointments (even if you can find silver linings in rejection).  

Rejection of work can be particularly difficult for perfectionists. When you’re a perfectionist, and you struggle to make the compromises demanded by practical tradeoffs, it can be hard enough to stop working on something just because the work itself feels incomplete.  The feeling of incompleteness is frustrating and drives many to say “I’m going to keep working.” It’s uncomfortable to stop working on something if you can see problems with it and think you can fix those problems. The idea that you have to show the work to someone else—to someone who might reject it—adds a layer of emotional complexity: not only is it necessary to stop working on something with known imperfections, but you have to show that work to someone else, creating the opportunity for that other person to see and potentially complain about those imperfections.  That’s not easy. At least it’s not easy for a lot of people.

The perfectionist doesn’t want to turn in imperfect work. That’s fine—having high standards is great. But the problem of tradeoffs—the practical limits created by conflicting issues—means that works are always imperfect. So the perfectionist is going to submit imperfect work (or no work at all). But, it is good to remember, that all work is imperfect, so imperfect works can still be of high quality relative to other similar works.

Beyond just “submitting” a work, is the question of getting attention for that work.  Professors are supposed to read the work of their students—and they often do so in a timely fashion. But when submitting a work to a professor, you can improve the response by how it is presented: you don’t have to focus on the problems that you see. You can focus on the strengths of your work—and that can help how your work is treated. Some self-promotion is valuable even when dealing with people who have a responsibility to read your work. But, if you’ve written something, there’s a good chance that you want it to reach beyond a small group of professors. You may want to get published somewhere, and that means reaching out to people who have no responsibility to you whatsoever.  

Practically speaking, to get your work under the eyes of people—from editors and publishers to readers, you need to promote your work, even if you’re a perfectionist who sees flaws. The facts don’t speak for themselves, quite frankly. No matter the quality of your work, it’s unlikely to be recognized if you don’t promote it. That may be submitting to journals or to publishers or some other avenues. Getting into any of those venues, requires self-promotion. In some cases, it’s obviously and explicitly about promotion, not about the quality of the work itself.  Academic journals don’t worry about whether an article will sell, only whether it satisfies review criteria, but journals are the exception.  Book publishers and non-academic publications all have a clear eye towards selling a work.  If you propose a book to an academic publisher, part of the proposal will be dedicated to describing the potential market and competing titles. And part of the proposal may ask what you do to promote your work.

There are some people who are utterly confident in themselves, and such people don’t necessarily struggle to promote themselves. But for perfectionists, it can be a real problem to self-promote, because the critical, perfectionist eye does not create glowing promotions. For creating promotions, a forgiving eye is more useful and effective.

Some perfectionists can promote their work because of their vast enthusiasm for the work itself: if you’re doing excellent work on a subject that you find exciting, it’s pretty easy to promote that, even if you do see weaknesses.  But perfectionism can drain away such enthusiasm, especially if you’re focusing on problems and not on the strengths of your work.

There’s a part of me that really loves my dissertation book. I would love to say that it’s the absolute best book in its class. On a certain level, I absolutely believe it is excellent and presents ideas that don’t appear in other competing books.  But my perfectionist tendencies get hung up on the compromises and choices I made: should it have been shorter? Should it have been longer? Is it too dense? Is it too lightweight?  Should it have been for a more focused audience?  None of these questions can really be answered by any objective standard, and so my answers—my choices—are uncertain.  This makes me doubt my work, even though I would like to believe that it’s the best in its class.  

Such tradeoffs and the choices made to negotiate those tradeoffs make works seem imperfect—but if the tradeoff is ultimately unavoidable, can you let such a tradeoff stop you from finishing your work and extolling it for its virtues, even if it is imperfect? Keep an eye to the strengths of your work so that you can promote it appropriately.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Multidimensionality, trade-offs, and perfectionism


Willie Dixon, the great blues singer, laid out in specific form one of the general problems that people face in decision making when he sang “I’m built for comfort, I’m not built for speed.” (Howlin’ Wolf did versions to which I’m partial.) The general principle is that sometimes there are multiple desirable characteristics that compete against each other.  In automotive design, one common trade-off is the choice between comfort and speed: higher speeds want lower weight vehicles with stiffer suspensions, which means a bumpy ride, while greater comfort wants a softer suspension and greater weight, for a smoother ride.

One could say that a designer could seek both—indeed, it’s possible to seek both comfort and speed, but generally at some other cost (for example, more care in the design process, and more expensive components): a Porsche may not be any faster than a top-of-the-line Nissan, but it will cost more.

Real-world decisions involve many different considerations—different dimensions on which something can be evaluated. The Howling Wolf example explicitly invokes two dimensions, but most decisions involve far more than two dimensions.  One difficulty in evaluation processes is in balancing different evaluative dimensions. 

Consider, for example, the evaluation of an athlete in a team sport. Strength, size, speed, quickness/reaction time, agility, and balance all matter. So do intelligence, confidence, judgment, and ability to work with others. A professional team that considers adding a player to its roster must consider all of these, as well as considering the player’s future prospects, and the cost of signing that player. Do you get the greatest talent, at possible cost to team chemistry, or do you get less talent to support chemistry? In baseball, two of the greatest second basemen of all time exemplify this question: Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins were near contemporaries.  There is little debate that Hornsby was the better hitter, but his teams didn’t do particularly well, and often traded him away. Collins, on the other hand, played a key role on multiple championship teams.  Who was greater?  There isn’t a clear answer.

One trade-off that is central to writers is the trade-off between time and quality, about which I’ve written before. You can choose to spend more time on a project in order to improve its quality, but that additional time spent on the project is time that cannot be spent on other projects.  For researchers, this is essentially a never-ending conflict: research never answers every question—indeed, every answer will lead to new questions (Jorge Luis Borges lays out this problem in his essay “Avatars of the Tortoise”).

Perfectionism inevitably runs up against this reality.  There is no “right” answer to these questions.  There are only decisions that one must make.

I suppose my suggestion for a perfectionist is to look beyond any single project to look at something bigger—something that encompasses any single project—a career, for example.

If you focus on one project and want to make that project perfect, that’s great. But what if making that project better means that you don’t spend time on another project?

Where do you focus perfectionist intentions? On individual projects, at possible cost to your career or to your life? Or do you focus your perfectionist intentions on your career, which might lead to making compromises on an individual project?

Again, there isn’t a clear answer, which is why this is such a thorny issue.  You have to make a decision that serves you.   When there are multiple dimensions on which to make an evaluation, and when there are trade-offs, choices become difficult and there is no really objective standard by which to judge. The choice is yours--don't think you've failed because you chose to make a compromise.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The boy who cried wolf and ad hominem arguments


The story of the boy who cried “wolf” is the story of a person who lies, and as a result is not believed when he tells the truth—to his great detriment.

As an academic, one ought not give in to ad hominem arguments--arguments that a claim is false because the speaker is untrustworthy. A liar who tells you that the earth orbits the sun is telling the truth, even if he/she lies very often. Just because a speaker is untrustworthy, doesn’t mean that she/he isn’t telling the truth on a given occasion. This, indeed, is the resolution/denouement of the story of the boy who cried “wolf:” In the end, the boy falls victim to a real wolf because, having given people reason to doubt his veracity, no one is willing to help him when there is a real wolf.

As an academic, it is always appropriate to check the accuracy of statements that other people make, regardless of who makes the statement.

But in real life, having a record of telling the truth matters.  There’s a reason that The New York Times is more respected than The National Enquirer.  The Times is far less likely to publish utter falsehoods.

If you regularly tell lies, people will stop trusting you.  Someone should tell that to Donald Trump, who made a speech on Wednesday in which he proudly announced that he made up stuff when talking with Justin Trudeau of Canada. Trump may tell the truth sometimes. He may tell the truth often. But if he lies often, then people will stop trusting him. And that may be fine for some contexts, but it will surely make it harder for him to negotiate with foreign leaders who will become disinclined to listen to his promises.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What do you want, and what are you willing to do to get it?


Sometimes I go to a local creative writing group. (My main thing, of course, is writing about the process of writing, but sometimes, as recreation, I work on fiction. I don’t work hard on fiction because it’s relaxation--when I’m ready to focus and deal with frustrations, I turn my attention to writing about writing. Currently I have a book proposal out for my book on using academic literature/writing a literature review, and am working on a draft about choosing a topic/writing a proposal).  

At the creative writing group, we were talking about what we were trying to accomplish. There were four of us. Of the other three: one is trying to complete a book to publish on smashwords; one, a poet, is working on something to give to his family at the holidays; and one is a non-fiction essayist who writes for the therapeutic value while dealing with health issues.  

These differing purposes all call for different approaches and choices about what is important.  Each involves its own sort of compromise: for those seeking publication (me, for my non-fiction; the novelist for his fiction), we have to consider how to finish, how to find an audience and distribute the work.  The poet said “I’m not trying to publish because I want to do what I want to do, not what someone else wants.” Quite rightly, publication in a commercial setting requires having some eye to markets and to pleasing others.  For the novelist, there is less concern on these lines, given the choice to publish on a website that allows all authors to produce their work (providing it meets certain guidelines—it cannot incite people to violence, for example). For me, when I send a proposal out to a publisher or an agent, I have a very focused need to please the publisher or the agent, which means being aware of their desire to sell books (or to represent books that will sell). The attempt to please a publisher/agent/audience certainly does shape a work, but it doesn’t imply necessarily abandoning one’s central precepts. After all, there is still a need to do something original, and that means that something has to come from how I see the world differently from others.

In any event, it is necessary to understand what it is that you want and what must be done for it.  The better that you can identify your desires, the better you can focus on achieving those desires. And this is especially important if you have desires that may conflict.  For the poet in the creative writing group, part of his expressed desire was shaped by previous experiences attempting to publish works of fiction. Those experiences shaped his approach—they made him say : “I don’t want to try to please others with fiction that they will like; I’d rather write poetry that I will like.” Being aware of the different demands, the poet is able to act without confusion, but it does require making some compromises: in order to write what he wants, he sacrifices his opportunity to publish. He may still want to publish, but as a matter of choice, that’s not where he puts his efforts.

If you’re a graduate student writing a thesis or dissertation, there is often some tension between doing what you want and doing what your professors want. For many, this causes serious emotional distress. While facing such battles is not necessarily pleasant, it’s important to keep in mind what you want to accomplish.  Do you want a degree? If so, it’s necessary to figure out a way to please your professors. Do you want to pursue a question in your own way, at your own time? That’s a different path, and a different choice.
(In the case of graduate students, it is often the case that what the professors want is closer to what the student wants than the student realizes. We all have a lot to learn, but if you’re a graduate student, there’s a good chance that your professors will want you to do something that might actually help you, even if you don’t want to do it. After all, there is or ought to be a place in the process for learning, and for learning from your professors, in particular.)

Often people want multiple things that conflict: you might want to lose weight at the same time that you want to eat lots of food. You might want to attend two events that occur simultaneously. You might want to keep money in your wallet and also buy something nice.
If you are clear on what you want, you are in a better position to make good decisions on what you are willing to do to get what you want.

If you want a graduate degree, you have to be willing to satisfy your professors.  If you want to ignore your professors’ requests, you have to be willing to sacrifice getting the degree.  Understanding what you want, and prioritizing what you want helps make good decisions.
But recognize also, that satisfying what someone else wants (in contradiction to your own desires) can often lead to learning and to developing something better. I didn’t always want to do what my professors wanted, but often, having been forced to it, I learned that what they had wanted was to my own benefit.

Accomplishing goals often involves making a sacrifice.  Understanding your goals—all of them—can help you make the right choices in which sacrifices you are willing to make.

(I want to publish a blog post every Monday, but this week I was under the weather, and I wasn't willing to push through my discomfort to write. It was a choice.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Too many ideas and writer's block


On his 1932-1933 work schedule, Henry Miller wrote a list of “commandments,” the first of which was: “Work on one thing at a time until finished.” In many ways, it’s not a commandment that is entirely practical, but in others, it’s crucial to having a successful experience as a writer.
In the long run, it’s good to have lots of ideas and to start lots of projects. That way, when a forced lull comes in the work on one project, there is another project to work on. This is especially true at the later stages of work. If, for example, you’ve just submitted a final draft of something and are waiting for page proofs to come back for proofreading, then there’s no work that you can do on that project.  It’s a time to start a new project, even though the current one isn’t finished.  And, from the other perspective, it’s good to have an active curiosity, which will suggest many projects of potential value. Exploring those projects can be good to some extent—so long as they don’t confound focused effort.
In the short run, however, having many projects demanding attention can be very counter-productive. Having a lot of ideas that demand attention can prevent giving any one idea sufficient focus.

Here’s what happens to me often:
I have a great idea!
I start to write about the great idea! and decide it’s flawed.
I have another great idea!
I start to write about that new great idea! And then I realize it’s flawed.
repeat ad nauseum

When an idea first comes to me, it’s not fully developed or fully thought out. Writing helps me develop it and work out the problems, but that’s the thing: in the process of working out an idea, I discover problems. Discovering problems can lead to frustration. Frustration can lead to avoidance.
If I have a lot of ideas, then frustration can lead me to briefly engage many different ideas and abandon them all in frustration.  But if I only have one idea—if I stay focused—then, when I hit a problem, I work to resolve the problem, or at least I work to find a resolution.

I can get stuck if I don’t stick to one idea because I can shift through a number of ideas, get frustrated with each, and then get frustrated with the whole process and stop working altogether. 

Working through an idea carefully can be time consuming and difficult. Working with an idea tends to reveal dimensions that I had not previously considered, and then it takes effort to deal with those dimensions. All of that requires focus on the one idea—thus the value of Miller’s “work on one thing.”

If you have a lot of different ideas, they can compete for attention, and each one will seem more exciting and viable from a distance, where the difficulties are less obvious. If you have writer’s block, cut down your focus. Pick one small thing to write about, and put aside all the other cool things that you could write about.

In Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there is an anecdote of a writing student who was having trouble writing about her town. The teacher told her to write about one street, then about one building, and she continued having trouble. Eventually she tried writing about one brick in one building, and from that point of focus, she was able to produce a lot of writing.
That anecdote captures the sort of writer’s block that a lot of writers face, I think: there is a torrent of ideas waiting to come out, and their competition to come out blocks the process.

Write one thing at a time until finished.

Don’t get blocked because you have too many ideas. If you think that you have nothing to write about, reconsider. Try finding one really small idea that you could write about and work on that idea, and that idea alone, until you’ve made progress.

I partly chose this subject today because I was having trouble finding something to write about—I had skipped over a number of possible ideas and was feeling frustrated. And I recognized that frustration as related to my unwillingness to put in the effort to make any of my ideas work.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

"Take the guns first. Go through due process second."

As has been widely reported on sites across the political spectrum, Donald Trump said that we should suspend due process to take people's guns.

Hey, how awesome: the president of the USA suggesting that we discard fundamental rights that have been guaranteed since the Constitution received its first ten amendments--the Bill of Rights. The president of the United States takes an oath to uphold the Constitution. Donald Trump just expressed a cavalier willingness to ignore the Constitution's second, fifth and fourteenth amendments.

The men who voted for the Second Amendment could not have possibly imagined that they were voting to allow people to carry weapons that could kill dozens of people in seconds or minutes. Guns were still muzzle-loaders. You could kill more quickly with a gun's bayonet than with its bullets. But no matter: the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.  I believe that there are reasonable limits to the right to bear arms--nobody in their right mind is arguing that people should be allowed to buy their own personal nuclear armaments, even though a nuclear bomb could be classified as "arms." Similarly, I don't believe it's undue restriction on the freedom of speech to outlaw incitement to violence ("Let's kill him," is not just speech when it inspires action). But the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. Any move to change that should be approached with deliberation and care.

What bothers me more is the willingness to discard due process. The Republicans like to talk about the rule of law--will they stand up for the rule of law when the president calls for suspending due process?  The Fifth Amendment states that no one shall " be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The Fourteenth, adopted after the Civil War to curtail the right of the individual states to limit any person's rights, repeats these words, guaranteeing that no state may "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

Due process of law is one of the things that truly does make the United States of America better. That the US has done as good a job maintaining due process is one of the things that truly makes the US great. The US has not always given due process, and those failures are among the nation's greatest shames.

Due process can be difficult and tedious, but due process is what separates a civilized nation of laws from lawless mob rule.

The U.S. Constitution is not without its flaws, but it remains a great work. Its aspirations toward setting up a stable system of Democracy that guarantees individual liberties rather than the rule of despots are noble. Its guarantee of liberties may be nobler than their historical manifestation, but even so, the U.S. has been viewed as a land of freedom and opportunity by people from around the world because many national governments do not offer the same liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, are documents that are fundamentally concerned with guaranteeing individual liberties--they are fundamentally liberal documents. Let's hope that Donald Trump's hostility to liberals does not end up in ignoring the fundamental liberties that make this nation great.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Writing without inspiration

For people who have writing projects to complete, a regular practice of writing is valuable and effective. But keeping a regular practice means that sometimes it’s necessary to write even if you have nothing in particular to say. 

For people who don’t write regularly, it can be pretty common to slip into the feeling of not being ready to write, or of needing some sort of inspiration or focus.

I’m writing this today partly because I don’t have any particular inspiration, but want to write something to post on my blog.  And not writing, and not practicing writing, are big pitfalls that many people struggle with when engaged in a writing project.

If you’re not producing enough writing, or if you’re struggling with writer’s block, starting to write—writing anything—can feel like an almost insurmountable hurdle—one that can be overcome with inspiration. But inspiration is elusive.

For me, at least, it’s especially elusive when I sit down to actually write.  If I’m waiting in line at the grocery, or out for a run, or otherwise occupied, I may feel some momentary inspiration—but such inspiration often fades as soon as I sit down to write about it.

I have three suggestions for people who have writing projects to complete and who are struggling with resistance:
  1. Do something small and simple
  2. Write about one thing and one thing only
  3. Make mistakes

1. If you’re having trouble getting engaged with your project, do something small and simple. Fix a citation. Fix one typo. One little thing at a time, pick up the small and simple tasks that don’t require heavy thinking.  Consider such activities as a form of “warm up” exercise: start thinking about the project without having to worry about the large-scale difficulties.  Fix one thing; Celebrate fixing that thing; Feel good for having accomplished something. Repeat frequently.

2. I strongly believe that one of the biggest problems that many or most writers face is that they have too much to say.  Having a lot of ideas can often start to feel like having nothing to say at all: A variety of ideas compete for attention, and every time you try to focus on one, the others draw your attention away, suggesting that you’re not writing about the most important issue. It's a pretty short series of steps from "this isn't the most important thing I have to say" to "this isn't very important" to "this isn't worth writing about; no one will care." You don’t have to write about the most important issue—just write about one issue. Get into detail. Tighten your focus. Don’t get stuck because you have five equally good things to say, and all are imperfect: pick one, say something about it, and try to discuss the concerns that you have about that one idea. Write about whether that idea was worth the effort you put into writing about it. You’re never going to write out all your ideas—make a focused presentation about one thing. And then move on to others later.

3. Ideas that seem great at a distance, look more problematic when you put them down on paper and examine them. If you write something and it looks wrong to you, don’t cross it out, unless you have a better alternative. Instead, try to write about why it looks wrong to you—what is the weakness of the claim? What is the strength? Where do you agree and disagree with what you just wrote? Write with a willingness to be wrong, and then you can explore possibilities to see if you find something you like.  Researchers will often go through mountains of material looking for the few pieces that matter for their research, and at the same time, as writers, they will expect to get their writing correct on the first try, when they would benefit from a similar willingness to spend time on something that might be worthless in hopes of finding that one elusive thing of value.

It doesn’t take much to have a lot to say and a lot to write. Writing it all down, however, is difficult and frustrating, and can often make a person feel incapable. The feeling of inspiration can be elusive—chased away by the difficulties of the task. But inspiration isn’t always necessary. Engage in the practice of writing in some small and simple way—free writing, fixing grammar or citations, etc.—and keep at the practice until you come across some issue that you do feel motivated to write about. Inspiration blooms more easily when supported by a practice. Rather than looking for inspiration that will enable you to write, practice writing as a method of finding ideas worth examining.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Celebrate rejection

My biggest difficulty as a writer is not producing material, but in giving material to other people. Right now I have a book draft and a book proposal, and the next step is to send it to someone. I can do that now—sending it to publishers or agents—or I can put that off and self-publish. But even self-publishing involves trying to get someone to read your work, and risks rejection. (Update: the proposal was sent before posting.)

I don’t relish rejection, and I assume that you don’t either. But sometimes it’s necessary to take a chance, and if you are uncomfortable with rejection, as I am, it can be useful to look at what there is to celebrate about rejection.

As a writer, rejection presupposes an accomplishment: I can’t have a work rejected without finishing that work--without making a commitment to giving a draft to someone else (and thus a commitment to stop working on the darn thing). I absolutely should celebrate finishing both the draft and the proposal. Writing an entire book draft is a real accomplishment for me—something I’ve managed to do only twice before on my own (counting my dissertation in addition my book on dissertation writing)—and so, finishing a draft of a new book is something to celebrate, and finishing a book proposal even more so, because I find the book proposal much harder to write than the book. The proposal is all about acceptance/rejection. When I’m working on the book, it’s about helping people, which feels good. When I’m working on the proposal, it’s about getting my book accepted which doesn't feel nearly as good. Anyway, the proposal is finished (and now sent). I’m not going to rework it any more. It’s going to fly or crash on the merit of what is there now.

The well-known principle “you can’t win if you don’t play,” is important here. But the principle presupposes that you can play: in the metaphorical poker game of manuscript submission, I have something to ante into the pot.  I certainly ought to celebrate that good fortune (not really good fortune, but the product of a lot of consistent effort over several years). I already believe in the value of working hard, so I don’t begrudge that past effort, but rather view the effort with some pride, even if no one ever reads my book.

I don’t entirely look forward to reworking my proposal for a new agent or publisher, so that aspect of possible rejection is not awesome. But the book process would hardly be over, even if I had a great response on my proposal. Getting accepted would almost certainly carry with it some specific requests for revision and for other information. The publication process would eventually require proofreading, too. So rejection doesn’t radically change the necessary effort. And, realistically, I like writing as work: it’s often frustrating, but I feel that the more I work at it, the greater are the rewards in proportion to the effort.

Submitting a proposal—whether accepted or rejected—is not the end of the process, but it is a real landmark. If bringing a book to publication is a road race, this is a significant milepost—it’s the halfway point, at least. And just as I would celebrate the halfway point in a road race, I can celebrate hitting this mark.

If you worry about how your work will be accepted, I understand. I worry about how my work is accepted, too. It’s natural. But rejection is only part of a larger picture, and in that larger picture—the picture of a person working on a piece of writing—the rejection is a real sign of accomplishment. That’s what I told myself as I geared up to hit “send” on my proposal. 


Now that I have sent the e-mail, a difficult period of waiting for a response begins. To help support my mood through that wait, I’m going to celebrate my accomplishments so far.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sorting out complexity

A few days ago, I received a query from someone who asked “Now that I finished my dissertation, what do I do? I don’t want to pursue the career that got me into the doctoral program.”  And today a friend asked me to help with processing an annual job review. In both of those cases, I started to do what I normally do with feedback on written work (whether mine or other people’s): sort through the different concerns to try to focus on each one independently.
In both of these cases there’s good mixed with bad in emotionally loaded situations. The dissertation writer obviously should celebrate the big accomplishment (good! exciting!). And at the same time, the new doctor has to make big decisions about the course of his career, and no longer has the security of a concrete plan for the immediate future (scary!).  The job review recipient can celebrate the many areas of commendation (good!), but also has to deal with the areas of difficulty (scary!).
Finding good responses to big issues like these is easier if you can sort through the tangles of emotion to find a little bit of calm.  Sorting through the different issues can separate them out them out into distinct threads of consideration, and separate threads of emotion can be more easily processed. If you leave the good tangled with the bad, it’s hard to feel good about the good stuff. And if you only feel bad abut the bad stuff, then you’re not supported by positive emotions, which makes it much harder to make a good plan.
To take the case of the job review, it would be valuable to be able to think about the successes without thinking about the difficulties—the successes are real and should not be discounted or ignored because there are also difficulties that need to be resolved. And, of course, the difficulties are real, too, and also need to be taken into consideration. Responses to the review need to be balanced between the good and bad.
To take the case of the completed dissertation, it would be valuable to celebrate the success of completing a dissertation and to recognize the way that a doctoral degree can benefit a career. And at the same time, it is valuable to recognize the real difficulties: making new plans is difficult.  There is emotional security in a defined role. If you can say “I’m getting a doctorate,” you have a good, comforting answer to the question of what you’re doing with your life. If you say “I don’t know what I’m doing now, and I don’t have a plan,” that’s pretty scary.

The scary and difficult stuff in life—making plans to deal with the unknown, making plans to fix difficulties—is really scary and difficult (for a lot of people, anyway). It’s worse—more scary, more difficult—if you focus only on shortcomings and not on strengths. To respond to a situation, it’s great if you can do so with your best reasoning, and not just respond from a place of anxiety and fear.
So what is the situation, in full? For the recent doctor, there is, on the plus side, a doctoral degree and the potential job opportunities that it opens. On the minus side, there is uncertainty about the future, and a sense that previous plans are no longer appealing. The negatives are real, but a strength does not necessarily become useless if the original purpose is no longer a guide.
Yes, the recent doctor, has to pay bills. There may be student debt. There may be a present need to find a job. There may be the unfortunate fact that the planned training isn’t going to be used for the intended purpose. All that sucks. At the same time, the recent doctor has a doctorate degree. Even if the career that was planned does not present an opportunity, there are other opportunities that a doctorate can enhance.  Many jobs will appreciate an advanced degree. Yes, there may be some opportunities that are closed by choice, but that will only feel like a trap if you don’t spend time trying to figure out what opportunities are now open that were not open before.
And for the job review, there are the realities of all the commendations and all the successes.  These are real, and could be the foundation for a job application with a new position. The strengths allow the reviewee to say, “I have options other than this job.” And that sense of choice, allows the reviewee to approach the complaints saying “maybe I want to try to fix these things, if the critiques are sound; or I could just blow these silly people off, and go find a new job.” 

To focus on the choices that are available and that you can make provides a sense of opportunity and strength that is important in difficult moments. If you are faced with difficult and complex situations—a mixed job review, an unplanned future (with a fresh Ph.D. diploma)—it helps to separate out the different threads.
What are the good things? Focus on these, because these are the source of real strength and real confidence.  And don’t ignore, but separate out, the bad things: yes, problems need to be dealt with, and yes, they can be difficult, But they are not the whole situation, and it’s hard to make a good plan if you focus only on the negatives.

Sort out the different threads of emotion in complex situations. Focus on the good points if you’re feeling distressed. Make plans to deal with the concerns when you’re feeling confident.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Expectations, Attitude, Approach, and Effort

How do you feel about writing? Is it pleasurable or painful? Or something more complex? When it comes to a difficult project, your attitude and expectations shape your approach. If you expect pleasure and get pain, you might try refining your approach. If you expect pain and you get pain, well, your expectations are met, and you might just keep pushing through. Writing can be frustrating and difficult—I can’t deny it—but it’s not all pain and suffering. If you expect suffering, I want to point out that there’s another way: you can shift your approach, shift your expectations, develop a better approach, and have a better experience of writing.

Recently I read the book Born to Run (Christopher McDougall) about ultramarathoners and long-distance running. It suggested a number of ideas, one of which arose from a set of observations about running and attitude. In one part of the book, the author is talking abut running with an ultramarathoner who instructs him to try running “light and easy.”  Another part of the book speaks of a group of racers in an ultramarathon who were observed laughing while running up a hill where most of the runners grimaced in pain. 
I was thinking about this while I was out for a run, and thinking about the parallel with developing a writing practice.

Once, I worked with a writer who was using the following epigraph for her work: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead” (attributed to journalist Gene Fowler). That creates a very powerful set of expectations, even when taking into account the obvious jest.  No one really believes that writing involves bleeding foreheads, but one can dismiss the ridiculous bleeding forehead and simultaneously accept the premise that writing is painful.

Is writing painful? Well, it depends on how you approach it. Again, one group of runners in the ultramarathon ran up the hill laughing instead of grimacing.  Were they just so much more physically prepared and suited to the race? Or was the attitude part of the success?

Expectation, attitude, approach, and effort are related.  One can approach tasks with a variety of attitudes and still put in equal effort.  A writer can say, “this is painful, but I’m going to force myself through the pain until I get it right, ” and then work hard for five hours. Or they can say, “this is going to be an exploration, maybe I’ll even have fun and come out of it with some good writing,” and then work hard for five hours.  

Writing requires effort. Sometimes it’s difficult, and even painfully frustrating. But sometimes the difficulties are rewarded by an exhilaration and a sense of accomplishment.  The same could be said for running and other exercise. As both runner and writer, I can experience the pleasure of accomplishment and the pain of frustrated effort within the same work session. Having a sense that both possibilities exist changes how I approach both activities.

If you’re sure that the process is going to be painful, you don’t do anything to reduce the pain that you may feel, because you tell yourself that’s what should be happening.  

My experience is different, both as a runner and as a writer.  I’m no hero at either one—my ten-minute miles will never compete in a high-level race, and my writings are not likely to earn me Shakespearean immortality. In my experience, running can be painful, especially on a bad day, but it can also be exhilarating. Writing, too, can sometimes be painful and sometimes exhilarating. The outcomes may not be objectively great—I may run slowly, and my prose may also be halting and overburdened. But in the process, I often feel a certain excitement—a potential for a better future combined with an immediate sense of personal ability—that I can run or write—that I have ability that I can use for my own benefit.

It seems to me that there is a similarity between what I’m suggesting here and the lessons of many spiritual traditions: the value of attention on the immediate moment, on the process, and on a sense of potential in self and future, without becoming attached to or focused on the long-term outcomes.

How you feel about your outcomes is up to you (e.g., for me person a ten-minute mile is just fine, while for you it might be terrible), but part of a good attitude, in terms of effective action, is to focus your attention on the process and not on the later outcome.  This can help the outcome if it allows you to work more and more effectively.

Trying to work “light and easy” does not mean abdicating responsibility to strive for the highest quality. One can do good work and try to do good work while also maintaining a “light and easy” attitude. Such an attitude helps me run differently: when I’m forcing myself through a run, my posture becomes more hunched, and when I remember to be light and easy I stand up straighter. I don’t think it makes any real difference to my pace—not that I care about how fast I run—but it feels better, right then, in the moment as I run. By remembering to run light and easy, I run differently and my experience of running improves.  My experience of writing is similar: when I’m intent on pursuing an idea, there is a certain excitement in learning, in working out the questions, and in feeling a sense of my ability to answer questions. When I’m forcing myself to write (especially when trying to finalize a document), the process is not as exciting or enjoyable. There is a time for painstaking attention to detail (with emphasis on the work “painstaking”), but there is a time for "light and easy" writing, too.

It is important to seek to maintain the highest possible quality for your writing, but during the process, you need not focus on that outcome, only on going through the process with integrity and with an eye to the possible enjoyment in the process. That will leave room for thinking about what your writing is really about—whatever story or argument or idea you want to present to your audience--and for thinking about things that interest and excite you.


Writing is a challenge, and it has difficult moments, but it’s not torture. Expect better and you will have a better approach and a better experience. And you might have better outcomes, too.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Use Your Imagination!

One of a researcher’s best tools is the imagination. What do you think could happen? What could be the explanation? What are the possibilities? Imagination is a fundamental tool on which a researcher’s practice depends.

Recently, I read the book Born to Run (Christopher McDougall), about long-distance running.
It mentioned that women finish ultramarathons at a much higher rate than men and briefly speculated on this, but provided no answer.
Yesterday, I was out for my own run, and the question popped into my head with a possible answer. And at that moment, the idea of writing about the importance of imagination occurred to me. My train of thought went something like: I wonder if heat management explains the superior finishing rate; I wonder how I would research that; What other potential causes would I have to take into account; This is what research is, and I could talk about it in my blog. I was just speculating—I’m never going to do any serious study of why women finish ultramarathons at a higher rate than men. But speculation is fun—imagining possibilities—is hardly different than playing imaginary games as a child, and no more wearisome, if I’m not going to make any effort to turn speculation into real research. But real research starts with some form of speculation—some story about how the world works.
Speculation sparks research. Suppose, I were interested in researching this question of why women finish ultramarathons more frequently than their male counterparts, where would I start?
I would start by trying to imagine why women outperform men in this way.
Is there some psychological dimension, e.g., that men are more aggressive, take more chances, and therefore end up injured more often?
Is there some physiological dimension, e.g., that women are physiologically better suited to the task?
Or perhaps there is some external issue, e.g., sexist race supervisors are trying to sabotage men?
I can imagine the fantastic: maybe Artemis and Hermes had a couple of races, and Hermes won the sprint and Artemis won the marathon, and they have given similar powers to runners of their respective genders. Maybe it’s a side effect of the nefarious plot by K.A.O.S. to spike international water supplies with a mind control drug. Imagining the fantastic is not going to suggest many useful research projects, but it might help suggest something a little less fantastic that would be plausible and interesting.  

To some extent the exercise of imagination is inevitable: a researcher who said “I have no idea, so I’m just going to gather all the data I can,” would still make plans to gather a variety of data, and each plan would reveal an implicit imaginative leap that the data to be gathered were relevant. Taking biological samples would reveal an implicit assumption about a physiological dimension. A researcher gathering biological data might say “I have no idea what causes it, that’s why I’m gathering this data,” but that claim of having no idea does not take credit for thinking that there is a possibility that physiological issues matter. A researcher who was certain that the issue was not physiological, would not gather such data.

If you think there’s a possibility, try to make it explicit: what is the possibility? Is it something in the blood? in hormones? in bone structure? If you’re going to gather physiological data, what are reasons that it might matter?

In the specific case of my idea about women finishing ultramarathons more frequently, I was wondering about heat radiation and long-term performance. Another idea that Born to Run explores is the idea that humans (homo sapiens) evolved as persistence hunters—as hunters who would chase their prey until the animal died of heat exhaustion. Born to Run speaks of running for hours in temperatures of 100+ (F) as a means of bringing in prey.
What I wondered was whether heat radiation and control over internal heat is a factor in the difference in performance between men and women, and how much that specific gender difference is actually dependent on size.
Here’s why size might matter: heat radiation depends on skin area—our skin is our radiator, with the ability to sweat providing additional cooling (one that almost all mammals lack, thus causing their problems with heat exhaustion that makes it possible to run an animal to death over hours). Meanwhile, heat generation depends on metabolic function, and especially on muscular activity.
Imagine that there is a size where the body’s heat generation and heat radiation are balanced (for a given set of conditions). For abstract purposes, let’s say that size is 1 (the unit). For that size, heat generation = heat radiation and the body can perform without problem.  
What happens with a bigger body with similar proportions?  What if size increases by 20%? Now the basic measure is 1.2. Does this affect the balance between heat generation and heat radiation? Yes. Skin area is proportional to the square of the basic dimension, so skin area—the radiator—has increased to 1.44 (1.22). Meanwhile, muscle mass is proportional to the cube of the basic dimension, so the muscle mass—the heat generator—has increased to 1.728 (1.23). Now heat generation (1.73) is greater than heat radiation (1.44). 
The math assumes that an increase in one dimension is matched in the other two, and that may not be the case, but compare a 60” ultramarathoner with a 72” ultramarathoner: what would their weights be? The short one maybe 100lbs.? The tall one maybe 150lbs.? That weight is a reflection of muscle mass—so volume increased by 50% with a 20% increase in height. I don’t have a good estimate of how skin area increased for these hypothetical runners, but assuming that it roughly increased according to the square, to 1.44, or 44% increase, still the increase in heat generation has slightly outstripped the increase in radiation.
All that is just a detailed description of the thinking that supported my speculation (my actual reasoning didn’t include the actual math, just the basic geometric principle that increasing size of a solid object with fixed proportions leads to an increase in the ratio of volume to surface area).  

That is rather far afield from my main thesis, and this post is already long, so I'm not going to make much effort to wind back t my main theme of imagination. But in addition, I'd like to point out the thought processes that were spawned as I tried to explore my speculative idea (my hypothesis) in writing: one one hand, my speculation about a single cause (heat radiation) was placed into a framework of other possible causes, showing a variety of other possible causes that could be the case. On the other hand, my attempt to explain my idea, which led to a closer analysis, including the attempt to put rough numbers to my speculation to assess whether my speculation is consistent with closer inspection. 


In any event, exercise your imagination.

Monday, January 22, 2018

What's a dissertation good for? Practice.

What’s a dissertation good for, anyway? My answer: it's practice that develops valuable skills.

Last Friday, I made a video about practice. It was a sort of follow-up on the previous video, which had talked about a willingness to make mistakes. Practicing involves making mistakes, and working to stop making those mistakes.  My video suggested looking at the dissertation as a practice—to focus on the process, and to take each step as part of a practice in which mistakes are merely part of the process—one makes a mistake and one learns to iron it out.

It’s easy to get focused on the product of a dissertation project: the dissertation itself, or its theoretical or intellectual content.  With that focus, it can be easy to get sucked into negative considerations about the limitations of research. Dissertations are usually written with limited resources. Even those that contain publication-quality research usually require significant revision before they are suitable for publication. Many doctoral candidates get discouraged that their work is so small as to be meaningless.

But the dissertation could be viewed differently.  Maybe the dissertation project is not about creating research, but about creating researchers? You can view the dissertation project through this lens to your benefit.

Approaching the dissertation project as a practice means taking action for the purpose of developing skills that you can use.  The skills needed by a researcher are often skills that are of valuable in many areas: the ability to express oneself clearly in writing and in speech is certainly valuable in many contexts. The ability to plan, organize, manage, execute and complete a project is a valuable skill in many contexts. The ability to use research literature effectively is important for professionals in many or most fields.

Every day that you exert yourself to work on your dissertation, you are exercising some or all of these skills. And the more that you work at practicing these skills, the more your skills develop. And as your skills develop, the scope of your endeavors can increase.

Consider, by analogy, a musician. Each day, the performing musician practices to hone skills and mistakes made in that process are nothing but part of the process of refining and improving the performance. But in the process, the skills necessary to perform improve, and the musician who starts with simple pieces for performance moves on to more complex ones. At each stage of the advance, there are moments when the musician is at the limit of current abilities and struggles. And, with practice, those struggles are often overcome, and skills increase and the complexity of the music that can be formed increases, as does the pleasure that comes with performing well.

If you are a dissertation writer, you are probably working on your first independent research project, and perhaps you are unsure of your steps in that process. That’s perfectly natural. And that’s why you practice. When you view your work as a practice, you can approach each day saying “this present day is only part of the practice; whether today goes well or ill, tomorrow will still just be another day in the practice.”  OK, sure, there may be exceptional days when something really bad happens and makes the next several days more difficult. But on the whole, the dissertation process is one that can be used to support your development of skills that will serve you well.

I support this attitude with respect to writing, in particular. Practice writing: don’t focus on the product, focus on the process of putting words on the page. Putting ideas into words is absolutely a skill that develops with practice. Put a lot of words on the page. And the next day, put a lot of words on the page. Revise a lot, and throw stuff out. Develop your skill as a writer, and then the quality of your writing will increase and you will be able to write necessary pieces more easily—whether that means writing emails, applications for jobs or grants/fellowships, or work for publication.

Practice isn’t glamorous. Practice can be tedious and frustrating. Practice requires coming face-to-face with your mistakes, and requires a willingness to try and try again, despite mistakes. Practice also unlocks the expertise that allows people to excel in their chosen fields.

So, as you work on your dissertation, think about your work as practice, and as a chance to develop skills that are useful in any profession. Oh sure, getting that degree would be nice, and getting published would be, too. But if you develop the skills, you have the ability to create new works of equal or greater value. The famed “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for life” saying is an apt parallel here, which I’ll twist to this context: “Finish a dissertation, and get yourself one reward (a degree); Learn valuable research skills and get yourself rewards for life (a career).” 


Whatever else a dissertation might be good for, it’s good as an opportunity to practice.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Be Willing to Get It Wrong part 2: On the cost of being wrong as a graduate student

In my previous post, and in a video I posted last Friday, I was talking about being willing to get it wrong.  In both the video and the blog post, I assert that the cost of being wrong isn’t that big a problem, and that’s a claim that I don’t make lightly.  This post is to discuss why I believe this is true for graduate students.

Graduate students often get stuck in the writing of their dissertation, and then, as a result of being stuck, fail to produce written material to give their professors. A lot of these writers, I think, are stuck because they don’t feel their work is good enough, and perhaps even feel that they are not good enough to do good work.  One approach to this problem is to focus on how writers are often more self-critical than is best for themselves, and get stuck for this reason (a book on writing blocks argues that self-criticism is one of the big causes of writing blocks), but that focuses on the writer.

In this post, I want to focus on the context: why is it that getting it wrong isn’t that big a deal for graduate students? Why do I assert that the costs of turning in a bad work are generally low? Well, what are the costs?

Firstly, there are the emotional costs of getting negative feedback. I would argue that these are the biggest costs—the main damage from getting bad feedback is emotional. A self-critical person who receives negative feedback will quite possibly struggle a good deal due to negative feedback. This can be a big problem, but there are ways of managing your response to feedback that can help.

Beyond the emotional costs, what are the other potential impacts on a graduate student? Well, those impacts are generally constrained to the context of the university—friends and family do not, typically, even look at a graduate student’s work, so a bad work isn’t going to affect those relationships, and a non-academic employer similarly won’t care whether or not your professor liked a specific work (if your employer is paying for your education, they might care about your standing and progress in your program as a whole, but they won’t generally care about individual pieces of work). So what are some of the possible impacts:

1. Getting kicked out of your program.  This is a form of academic death, I suppose.  Realistically, it’s implausible to imagine a student getting kicked out of a graduate program for submitting an inferior piece of work. It’s plausible to imagine a student getting kicked out of a program for plagiarism, but that’s not really poor quality work (which is difficult to avoid), that’s malfeasance (which is pretty easy to avoid). And it’s pretty easy to imagine a student getting kicked out of a program for regularly turning in poor quality work—but that’s not what I’m focusing on here.  If you have turned in several pieces of inferior work over a long period of time, obviously there will be some anxiety over whether another such inferior work will cause problems, and if you’ve been previously warned that you have to improve your work or get kicked out of your program, then obviously there’s a significant potential negative impact.  But I would wager that’s a real threat to only a few students. Students are far more likely to fear getting kicked out than they are to get kicked out.

2. Damaging your relationship with a professor.  There is a real danger here, and one to take very seriously.  At the same time, I would argue that if your work does actually cause a significant negative reaction from a professor, that’s a good sign to reconsider working with that professor.  There is a world of difference between harsh yet constructive criticism and peevish complaints or ideological agendas.  The kind of professor who would give harsh but real criticism is also likely the kind of professor who will revise their views when new, improved work is submitted (again, acknowledging the different impact of repeated submission of inferior work compared to a single piece). A reasonably mature professor will not carry a grudge against a student for a single piece of poor work. The kind of professor who would be offended—who would carry a grudge—for a single inferior piece of work, is probably not the kind of professor that you really want to work with. (Granting, it’s sometimes desirable to work with professors who are emotionally difficult—but if you choose to do that, you can then manage your relationship and your emotional response to that professor by remembering that the professor’s issues are not related to you personally.)  On the whole, the cost of a single bad piece of work, then, is low. If you are a student who is dealing with writer’s block, it can be very helpful to remember the low cost of a single bad piece of work.

3. Other negative impacts. Realistically, for graduate students, there are very few other negative impacts of poor work.  Poor work could prevent getting a fellowship or grant, and that can be be distressing, but, of course, in the context of grant/fellowship applications, the rejection of a poor work is equivalent to the result of no work: you can’t let fear of rejection stop you from writing and turning in an application because the result of rejection is almost identical to the result of submitting no application at all—rejection and not applying both end in missing the opportunity. I won’t make light of the emotional impact of trying and failing, but isn’t there an almost equal burden in allowing fear of failure to stop you from trying?

Turning in low-quality work can have negative ramifications. But for graduate students, the dangers are relatively slight, particularly when compared to the dangers of letting fear of error interfere with the progress of your writing and research. Take chances, experiment, and face censure for your actions rather than fearing error, inviting paralysis, and earning censure for not having done work. For the vast majority of graduate students, the costs of getting it wrong are relatively low compared to the costs of delaying submission of a work.