Doing a PhD (or any kind of creative endeavour, really) is like signing up for a continual ass-kicking. Yup, you’re gonna get your butt whomped. Hard. You pour your heart, your ideas, your energy and your time into this project which spans months or years, which frankly, in the end, may or may not pan out the way you want. Yet, you hope and you dream, and you try and you succeed, and you try and you fail – again and again and again. But someday, somehow, you think maybe, just maybe, you’ll achieve what you originally set out to do. That you’ll create something new, something innovative, something that’s just friggin’ …mind-blowing and brilliant.
Or… … … maybe not. Like I said, its an ass-kicking.
So here’s how I’ve come to think about my whole “PhD journey”. (Again, I think this applies to anyone who’s trying out something new / scary / creative).
I am here for the experience.
Yup, thats it. That’s the magic key. Bring on the experiences! Good and bad, easy and difficult, bring them on! Why? Because its a huge, epic understatement to say that I’ve learned and grown from the experiences I’ve had the last four years as a PhD student. Beyond the obvious intellectual/problem-solving/analysis skills, and dealing with the inevitable uncertainty and discomfort of trying something new, what I’ve really learned is to get clear on my values. And who I am. And why I’m here, on this blue planet, spinning in the middle of nowhere.
So – I’m here for the experience. The experience of thinking about ideas. The experience of feeling excited when I know I don’t understand how something works, but the anticipation that one day, as long as I put in the effort, I will understand and grasp it a tiny bit more than I did before. The experience of emotional ups and downs, the heartache, the disappointment, the hopelessness and the drowning sense of feeling overwhelmed – the bipolar rollercoaster that is this creative journey. The experience of seeing connections I never saw before, and the low rumbling elation when ideas are finally coming together, and that feeling in my gut when I know I’m onto something good.
That’s what I’m here for. All of it. I’ll keep doing this – following my curiosity I mean – as long I’m here on this blue planet. I’ll show up and I’ll work hard. I’ll get my ass kicked many more times. I’ll learn from it, dust myself off and improve my work. The outcome of how it will be received – I will have absolutely no control over. But the path – that’s all me.
As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear: “Failure has a function. It asks you whether you really want to go on making things.” Gilbert tells a story of her friend, “…an aspiring musician, whose sister said to her one day, quite reasonably, ‘What happens if you never get anything out of this? What happens if you pursue your passion forever, but success never comes? How will you feel then, having wasted your entire life for nothing?’ My friend, with equal reason, replied, ‘If you can’t see what I’m already getting out of this, then I’ll never be able to explain it to you.’ When it’s for love, you will always do it anyhow.”
Gilbert later writes: “Recognizing that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”
P.S. Big Magic is one of my all-time favourite books. It’s warm, wise, heartfelt – reading it made me braver). You can watch her talk about Big Magic, or listen to her podcast on creativity. (By the way, if you read this and you thought “I’m not creative”, Gilbert would say: “If you’re alive, you’re a creative person. […] To even call somebody ‘a creative person’ is almost laughably redundant; creativity is the hallmark of our species. We have the sense for it; we have the curiosity for it; we have the opposable thumbs for it; we have the rhythm for it; we have the language and the excitement and the innate connection to divinity for it.” So there.