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Keeping up with the Joneses – Academic Zen style

April 3, 2011

One of the more difficult things I face in life is the concept of balance. Balance in everything plagues me. I am sometimes drowned by my own intensity in whatever I do and can easily forsake any kind of “work/life balance”, if such a thing really exists (though my research clearly tells me it does…). Nonetheless, being driven has many advantages, despite some obvious drawbacks.

Such are the personal attributes that many PhD seekers possess. The concept of balancing one’s scholarly development using the three-legged stool model (research, teaching and service) presents opportunities; but also requires a great deal of drive to accomplish tremendous amounts of work and continuous learning while exercising discretion and sometimes restraint. It is far too easy, for me anyway, to become excited about all of the possibilities and therefore run the risk of overwhelming myself with rich experiences that will not be fully enjoyed or leveraged.

In considering the concept of keeping the three-legged stool in balance, I have found that simple frameworks (or work rules) have helped keep my voracious need to read and learn in check when my mind races around like wild horses running through the Western plains.

  1. Keep it clean. The image of the absent-minded professor brings to mind piles of books and papers everywhere, punctuated by scads of different colored sticky notes with very important reminders on them. In my mind, I think the image manifests itself due to the complex relationship (and need for the marriage of) creativity and logical productivity. The reality, on the other hand, is that a clear desk/office/workspace gives way to a clear mind. This is abundantly and inarguably true. Before I begin working each day (and I seem to work every day these days), I take a minute to deploy a tactic I utilized regularly while in industry: I organize and tidy up my office. Some days I will light a fragrant candle and turn on some delicate, but structured Baroque music. Removal of clutter and setting up my environment makes me feel better equipped to tackle the complexities of prioritizing when everything is a top priority. Clearing away unnecessary visual noise also motivates me in that I’ve accomplished one thing already – and if I can accomplish one thing, well, it shouldn’t be a stretch to get to two, three, four, and so on. Minimalism in work environment may be really tough to achieve, especially if working from home, but it can be mimicked to some extent.
  2. Keep it organized. Much like the cleaning point, the organizational point is an ongoing battle for me. With the variety of information I collect, any number of electronic, paper and self-generated works can threaten my clarity by their presence. I have made great strides in refining how I catalog, store and maintain my research (both electronic and paper) and at one point had even started to apply the Dewey Decimal System to my shelved books. However, the concept of knowing when overkill is overkill became important to recognize. That’s my next point.
  3. Exercise personal technological restraint. In previous postings I have coined the phrase “personal technological restraint”. What personal technological restraint is, exactly, is understanding when too much of a good thing is a problem. This is sort of like an addiction intervention for techies. Think about the opportunity to electronically collect things: articles, books, magazines, bookmarks, sites, emails, RSS subscriptions, and on and on. Realistically, one could spend oblivion not only building their collection but trying to keep up with reading even a fraction of it. The same thing holds true for PCs, laptops, smartphones, or any type of information and communication technology (ICTs). How much is too much? And how much actually contributes to a quantifiable benefit rather than an “ooooh shiney!” response that thrills for a moment but weighs one down thereafter. I’m not talking about modern Luddism where new technologies are shunned excessively; I’m talking about understanding one’s own needs analysis from a somewhat objective point of view such that the cost/benefit statement is balanced or better. [Sidebar: I am particularly prone to the “ooooh shiney!” response as a tech geek and I can see patterns of this type of behavior throughout my life in other areas. As an antidote, I enforce a waiting period commensurate with the size of the acquisition before making a subscribe/purchase/acquire decision.] Whatever version of the K.I.S.S. model one espouses (“keep it simple and straightforward”, “keep it simple and sequential”, or even “keep it simple sista”), the concept whispers “Zen…Zen…Zen…
  4. Focus.I’m certain that focus of every kind is not a new challenge for PhD students, candidates or long-term academicians. There is a difference between allowing one’s research interests to evolve versus scattering their efforts among many, seemingly unrelated topics. In fact, becoming a content expert on “Subject X” is a critical part of every academic’s development and the subjective narrowness that is necessary will assist one in seeking and being granted tenure. However, much like a mind map of ideas, there should be some connectivity between topics and if there isn’t, one needs to consider how they could bridge those elements rather than leave them in isolation. Isolated topic research can sometimes yield surprises in the way of new and exciting directions, but it can also leave one with perhaps a great piece of work – an island – that doesn’t do them much good in the academic profession. Simplicity here is a pathway to clarity.

Clean, organized, restrained, focused. Sounds very academic Zen doesn’t it. Yes. We shall call it the “Academic Zen Model”. It also sounds easy, no? Despite the simplicity of my “Academic Zen Model”, it takes a lot of discipline to remind oneself of how to be self-driven to success. Success in the academic realm, especially at the PhD level, comes only from being self-driven and therefore disciplined. Axiomatically, these skills should already be well-embedded in anyone by the time they reach the level of PhD student as evidenced by their previous successes. However, this is not always true and even if it is, the pressure that gives way to temptation while trying to excel in a world of hyper-overachievers can be distracting and derailing to even the best and the brightest. This is where being resourceful and resilient come into play as the doctorate is clearly not only about intelligence. In the interest of restraint and focus, that’s a post for another day.

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