I was at a student workshop/convention/thing earlier this year, and I can’t wholly remember the context in which it happened (I may have been hungover at the time), but a question was asked – what is the hardest thing about being an off-campus PhD student?
I didn’t answer at the time – possibly due to the aforementioned hangover (or possibly because of jet-lag – those are my two excuses and I am sticking to them non-exclusively), but there is an answer that I wish I had provided. The inability to immerse yourself wholly in the subject matter you are addressing.
I am a person with a variety of labels, and this is self-imposed (the variety – not the labels). I am a Dad, a boyfriend/partner, a son, a training manager, a professional, a PhD student, a triathlete/runner. Like many/most people – to use the corporate bingo terminology – I wear many hats. What this means though is that my ability to be execute these roles faithfully is diluted by volume. I’d love to be a better runner, and I would likely be so if I spent the time that I spend reading and writing for my PhD running instead. I’d love to be a better PhD student – more immersed in the subject matter and knowledgeable of ongoing developments, and I would likely be so if I spent the time that I spend running – reading and writing for my PhD instead. We make these conscious choices because we enjoy more than one thing and sometimes we make these choices because the alternative is not palatable. Ideally, I would quit my job as a training manager and spend the time that I would then gain running and studying for my PhD. That won’t happen because in my hierarchy of values – I value having food and a roof over my head (and helping provide for those I love) more than I value a potential PhD or a sub 20 minute 5km.
But sadly (for me at least), that immersion feels more and more like a (the) key to success. When I encounter those who work in the think-tank world and talk to them about nuclear weapons, it’s not just a job – they live it. It’s virtually all they talk about (that, and Game Of Thrones. Naturally) – and that is what makes them so successful. Their success comes from the immersion in the subject matter. They are the opposite of that adage – ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. I see the same in the triathlon/running world. The ones that are the most successful are (generally) the ones who live, breathe, sleep triathlon. I don’t need to ask them what they are doing on the weekend, because I know. It’s one of four things (wait for it) – they are swimming (yep), cycling (yep), running (ok…) or drinking (boom). Everything ties back to triathlon – and that is awesome. I envy that level of dedication and focus, and it why – for the time being at least – I am not likely to reach the levels of the first group of running at track nights. I choose not to immerse myself wholly in these things, but rather spread myself amongst a number of things – and I’m constantly looking for new things to distract away from the things I’m already working on. I want to do a podcast about politics, I want to get more involved in local politics, there are numerous television shows that I keep meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to. Too many things.
And it’s not even as if this is new ground for me. I particularly remember – as a young boy – being told by a family friend over a campfire one evening about this very thing. They told me that the key to success, and why they felt that hadn’t been as successful as they could have been, was to pick one thing and go for it. My choice was between being a mediocre tennis player and being a mediocre cricket player at that time. I went for cricket (really) and was not bad – I think I probably maximised my talent in that area. But I lost that lesson over time, and now I find myself in this position of once again being middling and unfocused – as justified as that is with the other priorities in my life.
The advice sticks true though I believe. If you want to succeed – and I define success here as making the most of the talent and whatever you have available to you – then pick one thing and go at it. Be single minded in your goal and give it everything you’ve got. Then see how far you’ve come.
Listening To: ‘Fall At Your Feet’ by Boy and Bear