What’s love got to do with it? Being happy in academia

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What’s love got to do with it? Good question. In her song of the same title, Tina Turner asked, “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” Today I look at being happy in academia. Two aspects of love—work and self-care—affect your academic life.

Love Your Work

Academics usually pick a field of study they love and run with it. My deceased husband loved archaeology from the time he discovered it while learning about Roman roads in Britain at the age of 8. He ran with it all the way through a dissertation to his first tenure-track teaching appointment. Archaeology always held his attention, and even the painful task of writing was made more enjoyable by new discoveries.

Most likely you, too, are in a field where you always have something new to be curious about. I love being an academic coach because I’m always learning new things, about people, the content of their subject matter, and helping them when they find difficulty doing whatever they need to do.

What is the part that most attracts you as you pursue your academic career? Possibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Researching
  • Teaching
  • Writing
  • Administration
  • Mentoring

Perhaps you see yourself as a “change agent,” working to make higher education more accessible to underserved communities, such as physically handicapped, financially challenged or older adults. Or maybe you see yourself as a social justice crusader by explaining the nuances of a highly controversial topic. Or maybe you are excited to bring stories dropped from the historical record to light. Whatever you do, is it energizing you, or draining you?

If it’s energizing you, great!

If not, how can you rekindle your passion for your academic work? Protecting your energy is the key to academic productivity, whether it involves class preparation, grading, or getting your writing done. Every job has some drudgery associated with it, and for most academics, grading is a grind. Sometimes you just have to put yourself down in that chair and grade, no matter how much you don’t want to do it. But you don’t want all of your professional life to be nothing but drudgery. It’s disheartening, frustrating, and generally depressing.

Some academics view writing as drudgery. They love doing the research or field work but dislike the tediousness of communicating it in an academic style. When an article is rejected and even provisionally accepted with “revise and resubmit,” you may have to wade through reviewer comments that range from positive to downright mean. Sometimes it’s clear that reviewers didn’t read the article very carefully or are not as knowledgeable in the field you are. Others view teaching as drudgery, the class preparation, the distracted students, the difficulty in communicating the basic material or why it should be studied.

It helps to be clear about whether the goal you are pursuing is actually something you can achieve. You wouldn’t waste your time at this point in your life trying to become a star basketball player. Inborn talent is frequently overrated. Ask yourself, what is it that you really want to pursue now? Build on your strengths. Work toward mastery. What matters is developing the talents you do have. So, ask yourself these questions:

  • If you love research, how can you incorporate what you love into your teaching?
  • If you love teaching, how can you use that excitement to inform your research or your writing?
  • If you love writing, how can you reduce the amount of time you spend grading or preparing classes?

Developing mastery is not a quick fix; it is a life-long process. George Leonard (1923-2010) was an aikido master and one of the early proponents of the “human potential” movement. In Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, he described mastery not as a goal to be achieved but as an acceptance, and even enjoyment, of the process of learning and growing in a particular skill. He described 5 keys to mastery: instruction, practice, surrender, intentionality, and “edge.” He defined “edge” as the constant urge to challenge and press the limits. This stops complacency and creates deep level knowledge of a particular subject.

Deep level knowledge will ultimately save you the most time in your academic career. These ideas were reconsidered in Cal Newport’s recent book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016), which I’ve written about before.

Love yourself

The pursuit of mastery should be energizing. And thankfully, energy is not a finite resource. It’s renewable. OK, there will be days when you are just too tired to engage with your creative work. But it’s really not a good idea to keep on pushing until you are exhausted. You will not be able to do your best work. No one climbs a mountain without resting.

Here are some ways to love yourself and be happy in academia:

Let go of perfectionism.  There are some wonderful qualities associated with perfectionists: self-motivation, persistence, high achievement, organizing abilities. However, as you may have heard before, “The best dissertation is a finished dissertation.” The same holds true as you move through an academic career: articles you write and submit are better than the perfect version of them you keep in your head.

Engage daily in self-care. Get enough exercise, good nutrition, restorative sleep, revitalizing social interaction, and practice a spiritual discipline, even if that is just looking out the window without trying to do anything for ten minutes every day. Understand that social interaction is not a luxury. It’s a way to recharge, get out of your head, and enhance your overall comfort, especially when times are tough.

Make time for the most important people in your life. Your partner, your children, your closest friends are important to your well-being as you are important to theirs. Remember the old adage: No one ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time in the office” on their death bed. Forge deep human connections that will stand the test of time. Human connections can inspire you, allow for candid communication, develop a sense of trust in your community, and give you the ability to work out problems as they arise. If your department promotes collegiality, there will be more of a likelihood that workloads can be shared when life events interrupt the normal flow of work, such as an operation, a heart attack, or a new baby. Emotional connections also help you make decisions and will keep you from making mistakes. People wouldn’t have emotions if they didn’t serve a real purpose.

Remind yourself, life follows a sine wave pattern. At times, work will take precedence, and at others, your personal life may take precedence, but you can’t do one to the exclusion of the other. You will have different priorities when you are writing on deadline versus having a baby come into the family. Sometimes you must wait, rather than race ahead and take actions that are fruitless or even counterproductive. If you pay attention to time spent on self-care and work, allowing neither to get the upper hand continually, it will balance out in the end.

Loving your work and loving yourself can result in unexpected insights and creativity that will enrich your life and your labor. That’s what love has got to do with it.



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