“Always use a pen and paper to start. And, never throw what you’ve written away!”
Two pieces of advice given to me by someone who has been through the PhD process (albeit many many years ago), who has know me since my first days, and who is a wealth of knowledge, stories, and advice. These two pieces of advice were conferred upon me as ‘the best piece of advice you will ever get’ in regards to a PhD.
Times have moved on, and the mighty duo of the pen and paper have given way to the computer. Perhaps not for everyone, but for myself at least. The point being made was not one of tradition over technology, but of the practice of 1 – writing, and, 2- saving what you write.
Looking back through the years, the bestower of this advice lamented about how he would spend an entire day trying to plan out a chapter in the dissertation, with sheet upon sheet piling up in the garbage bin beside the desk. But, what he missed (at the time) was that, although what he had written may have appeared to be terrible, it was something. Something in which to work from. And, something that can, at the least, make you feel like you’ve accomplished something.
As someone who struggles to write, or at least start to write (putting ‘pen to paper’), putting down anything is often an accomplishment. Another tid-bit of advice gleaned from working at POLIS was that, it almost doesn’t matter what you write the first time, because it is going to be garbage. BUT, you need to start somewhere. And, in starting ‘somewhere’ you give yourself two things: 1 – the mental fortitude to keep on going, knowing that you’ve already started, and 2- something to mould. Like a potter starts with a lump of clay on the wheel and slowly forms it into a vase, so to does the writer start with a blank sheet (the clay) and must work it into something of beauty, after many many iterations (or turns on the potter’s wheel). No one expects perfection on the first draft – it just isn’t done, nor should it be expected. And, in the case of material published at POLIS, it has been through no less than seven (!) iterations, and often many more. This can be an excruciating process, driving one to tears (almost), but it ensures quality. Consistently.
The second piece in all of this, is to save your work. Not just offhandedly at the end of a day of writing. But, saving your work to the point that it is almost as second nature (and as often) as breathing. Okay, maybe not that often. But, I know for myself, my work gets saved as regularly as it crosses my mind. And, once I am writing my comps, and my dissertation (or anything of value for that matter), I know i’ll be ramping up the chronic hitting of the ‘save’ button to new and disturbing heights, as well as emailing drafts to myself, and generally storing drafts anywhere I can.
Right from my earliest days at POLIS, I was told, time and time again, that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something, whether it was at water governance, writing, knitting, or, as was usually the case of many discussions, a great ultimate frisbee player. A lot of wisdom has come my way from others while throwing a disc or chasing a disc.
Another gem I heard while on the ulty field was ‘good is the enemy of great’. Being good is, well, good. But, it will never get you to great, to beyond your plateau, if you are satisfied with mediocracy. Again, this was in reference to ultimate frisbee. These are life lessons, hard fought on the field, but remembered off the field, at times when most needed.
David Brooks, a columnist with the New York Times, wrote recently
“Mastering an academic discipline is an exponential domain. You have to learn the basics over years of graduate school before you internalize the structures of the field and can begin to play creatively with the concepts…You’ve got to be bullheaded to work hard while getting no glory.”
These words struck a chord in me. As I work through my literature list, preparing for my comps (arguably a ‘no glory’ occupation of my time), I was reminded that this journey is not about the short-term gratification; progress is slow, and steps forward often take a few steps back from time to time. But, it is a lot of work to reach those 10,000 hours. And, perhaps to reach the point at which one becomes a ‘master’ requires more than those 10,000 hours, as not all hours are created equal (another life lesson learned at POLIS).
Brooks makes the analogy of progress and growth to ‘waves’ which deposit knowledge upon the banks of ones mind. Each subsequent wave deposits just a little more. And, each time a wave rolls in, you are able to understand its function, structure, and recognize its sound just a little better. This reminded me of a conversation I had with my supervisor one day. I have insisted, from quite an early stage in my degree, to use resilience theory as my theoretical lens to look at water issues. I made the comment that the first time I engaged with the theory, it made little sense (with a mark that reflected this!). The next time I engaged with the literature on resilience, it made slightly more sense. And, now as I work through the literature on resilience theory, it is even more clear (though far from crystal).
But, that is not necessarily the point – to get it entirely now. Those who appear to have endless depths of knowledge on any given topic most likely put in those 10,000 hours +, with wave after wave depositing knowledge into their brain.
I will revisit this blog by Brooks, especially at times when I sink into the depths of listlessness, where im bound to be battered by the storms of understanding the literature while charting my own course for what I can contribute to my particular field, and with fighting the internal dialogue that questions whether I have the mental fortitude to continue. At these times, I will be reminded of these words, again, from Brooks:
“You have to go down and explore your own failures before you can conquer them. You have to taste humiliation before you can aspire toward excellence.”