Doing Academia

I’ve been listening to @tferriss interview Rick Rubin about how he helps creatives (musicians) find their muse and create excellent work. Rick makes the point that if you are in a creative pursuit then you need to surround yourself with excellent examples of creativity. Furthermore, he says it doesn’t matter where this excellence comes from – poetry, a museum, a book, a film – as long as you have access to excellence and tap into it regularly.

What stops excellence, he says, is when the creative person begins to compare themselves with others, losing the focus on what they are trying to create and becoming distracted by those things that are not the work. Once this happens, it is easy to lose confidence, to think that you are not as good as that other person, or that your work will never be as widely read/heard/seen/acknolwedged as that other person’s is. Once you go down that path, it is hard to turn it around.

Rick’s advice? Focus on doing your own work, but each day that you do it, do it a little better than you did the day before.

This advice rang true for me. When I’m not focussing on my work but instead worried about my relative success in terms of my career (will that other person get promoted before I do? Are my teaching reviews as good or better than others in my field? Is my work interesting enough? Is my writing good enough? …) my work suffers. I lose momentum. I stop writing. I obsess over the unimportant, rather than doing the work I need to do to get better.

It doesn’t help that the academy is built on a hierarchy, or that universities are brutally competitive places and that promotion within departments often comes at someone else’s expense. It’s easy to get distracted by the minutiae of promotion applications and petty jealousies (professional or otherwise).

I’m not alone when I complain about the lack of resources in our sector, or the lack of time available to undertake all the teaching, research and administrative tasks that academia calls for, but I do have a choice about how I respond to those challenges. We all do.

We can either get sucked into the vortex of doing academia or we can concentrate on being academic. One of these paths will lead to success. The other, not so much.