Thursday, June 24, 2010

But on the other hand, so what?

I've been thinking on and off this summer about goals and ambition. I'm a pretty ambitious person, and I'm good at setting and reaching goals. So, for example, I have this big pompous pre-tenure goal--and now that achieving it is actually a real possibility, I'll share it here: I aim to have published an R1's tenure-worth of stuff before getting tenure. I've decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that this means a book and six peer-reviewed articles--of which I currently have four accepted (not all at equally fancy places, but some lack of fanciness is all right. After all, I teach 4/4; this is one concession I can make). So that gives me three years to get two more PR articles out. Doable. And it makes me feel all fabulous and important.

The downside to all of this ambition and achievement, though--well, there are several downsides. The most obvious one is that it's painfully ego-centric. Everything is about MY achievement, MY accomplishments, etc. Focusing so much on the self and the self's own importance is, first of all, selfish and not particularly conducive to a more compassionate, charitable, humble, or service-oriented state of mind. The second (and more selfish) problem with ego-centric ambition is that it's very fragile. What if my book gets a bad review? My ego, my sense of self, suffers. Identifying heavily with one's accomplishments only works when one's accomplishments are clicking along very well, and that can't happen for ever. It's ultimately a stressful and unsustainable way to live.

I've been thinking about these things because it's summer--and despite what various people are saying, it's STILL JUNE and summer IS NOT almost over--and I have a long list of Things To Do Before School Starts. These include:
  • writing a conference paper for September
  • planning my classes (two new preps each semester next year, plus comp needs its annual retooling)
  • drafting up a research plan for the Next Big Thing
  • reading a mess o' books
  • brushing up on my Latin in preparation for my July research trip
  • reading a pack of Chaucer, whom I know remarkably ill for someone in my field.
I'm making pretty good headway on all of these, and I've finished up my index and page proofs--the other big To Do item for early summer. But, at the start of the summer especially, this list was stressing me out. Contemplating it, I was haunted by the feeling that summer was over already, and I had had no time to actually rest.

So what I decided to do about a month ago was to recalibrate my goals. Of course I'll work on the above--for one thing, I have to, and for another, I'd be really bored if I didn't have some work to do; I do actually enjoy most of the above, as long as the pressure's off. But the actual goals for the summer--the priorities--changed. They are now the following:
  • meditate daily (except while traveling)
  • exercise regularly, because it makes me feel good in my body and makes me more attentive to the physical world
  • enjoy myself, and not fret when doing so means that I haven't completed a daily To Do list.
What's remarkable is that, once I made that switch, I started enjoying my summer a whole lot more. And I'm still getting my work done (even if it's not always at a lightning pace).

A few weeks ago I read an article in a Buddhist magazine that I used to subscribe to (the subscription ran out in May, but I have a stack of back issues that I'm reading through whenever I'm on the elliptical). In it, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche talks about accessing the goodness in ourselves and in the world--and how our ego-centrism can get in the way of that. He describes a scenario in which someone has achieved something and wants praise. Of course, he says, such praise would be nice; you want recognition and congratulation, and it hurts not to have it. "But on the other hand," he goes on, "so what?"

That stopped me right there. What a beautiful way to put it--yes, of course, you want these things, but you don't have them, and so what? So what if I don't achieve my arbitrary and self-important publication goals? So what if I'm not The Very Best Professor Ever (or whatever my small-minded ego tries to convince me that I have to become)? So what if I don't finish my checklist? Maybe, in the time that I'm not completing all my personal little goals, I might do something nice for TM, or make the cats purr, or call my brother. The work goals are nice, but they don't matter.* So what?

So here's to a happy and equanimous summer!

*Of course, I have the questionable luxury of teaching at an institution where extensive publication is not required or expected (or really supported). Ultimately, I guess, the "so what?" would also apply to not getting tenure--so what?--but I admit that that would be a hard pill to swallow. I acknowledge here, therefore, that the choices I'm making are less about external requirements and more about my own pride and ego--along with love of the field etc., they're what drive a lot of my desire to accomplish--and are not identically applicable to everyone. But if we were all truly enlightened, then we would be able to greet every situation with the same equanimity: So what, after all?


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Notorious Ph.D. said...

Pretenure encourages ego-wallowing. In fact, the tenure process practically requires it. I'm looking at it from the other side, currently facing having to dig myself out of that, or face becoming utterly insufferable.

I am in awe of what you've accomplished. Perhaps telling you this is antithetical to your desire to cultivate so-whatness, but I'm gonna just tell you so anyway.

Maude said...

I agree with Notorious! I don't know how you do it. I have goals like that, but I have no idea how to accomplish them. You inspire me.

P said...

This spoke speaks to me on every level. I also aspire to produce R1 work even though I don't have to. And, yes, it comes out of a sort of ego-centric drive.

I find that teaching balances this out in very important ways.

To second Notorious here, I am also very impressed (sorry, couldn't resist).

heu mihi said...

I think that, to truly live up to what I've posited, I need to be indifferent to the fact that you say you're impressed. But, well, okay, thanks! :) I'm not perfect.

What Now? said...

Such an interesting post! I've been thinking (and re-thinking, and re-re-thinking) about ambition lately and keep running up against the "so what?" piece of it, which I can't quite resolve. And I love your retooled summer goals!