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.

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