Academic Study, blogging

Done Is Better Than Perfect: Push Past PhD Perfection Syndrome

DONE IS BETTER

What has The Hacker Way got to do with Higher Education? Why look to Facebook’s internal mantra “Done is better than perfect” and the company’s five core principles (Focus on impact, Move Fast, be Bold, be Open, Build Social Value) as a way to tackle your doctorate?

Because it might just get you past PhD Perfection Syndrome and those other common doctoral P’s – Procrastination and Painful obsession with your research and get you Passed – and Published.

I am a Recovering Perfectionist. I have the Facebook mantra “Done is Better Than Perfect” written on a sticky note on my screen monitor. It reminds me that real artists ship, and to beware of the Curse of Perfect.

Actually, I have to admit, this is a recent addition to my psychological arsenal against my Negative Self (writers all have the Negative Whisperer as the hideous beast twin who shares their lives, doctoral students have one as well. If you are doing a Creative Writing PhD – you need all the self esteem weaponry you can get).

In February 2012 when Facebook filed its Registration Statement in 2012 to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, I was deep in the heart of my doctorate. I was too preoccupied with my research to read Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about the company’s purpose, which in hindsight actually has a lot to say about getting your research done, and believing in your work.

These two things are an issue for many doctoral students, who are at the mercy of supervisor’s dire warnings, their own insecurities, and their swot like perfectionism.

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According to Martin Lindstrom (FastCompany) “Done is better than perfect” is not about coming up with ideas; it’s about believing in them. And having an attitude that compels you to run with the idea before it’s too late.

Isn’t that what finishing the doctorate is all about? Running with your ideas rather than perfecting them? Because you have to continue with that work after you complete your doctorate.

Let’s look more closely at what The Hacker Way has to show doctoral – and postdoc – students. Zuckerberg’s statement about the company’s purpose reveals that hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.

Which is what a doctorate can be as well – punch out the research and writing in four years, test the boundaries and leave room for continuous improvement after you have completed the task. Your work doesn’t stop once you have graduated. Your research – if it is any good – will continue, and you will continue to grow and develop as a researcher.

A doctorate is just like getting a probationary driving licence – you can drive, but you aren’t out of the woods yet. You are a newbie. I still have my academic P plates on. But that’s better than not having completed the doctorate!

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I had every reason and excuse to take longer than four years full time. I could easily have opted for part time study with two kids and a full time job demanding my time and attention. But remember this – your PhD is not a Nobel Prize body of work. It just has to be Fit For Purpose.

Mack Collier (founder of #blogchat) takes some tips from Zuckerberg’s “Done if Better Than Perfect” mantra in his terrific advice about blogging: “Blogging is like anything else, it’s a learning process.  The more you blog, the easier ideas come to you.  The more chances you have to see how people react to a particular topic you cover, or the tone you use.  As a result, your overall writing becomes better and the entire blogging process becomes easier for you. As a byproduct, your platform expands.  Not only is your blogging improving, but more people are being exposed to your ideas because they are being shared more often.”

Sounds like the process of writing up your doctorate – or completing a Creative Writing PhD. Write, write often and write without fear. Don’t worry about being perfect – Done is better than Perfect. Also – take your research ideas out for a play. Share them. Find friends for them. Go to conferences, submit to journals and learn to accept rejection.

The trouble is, this attitude isn’t what got you to higher level study in the first place. Chances are, like me, you work on getting things done and perfect. You are used to being good – being very, very good, in fact, and hate rejection. That’s all well and good, and perhaps sustainable in certain phases of your life – like when you are “time rich” as a fellow newbie post-doc and mother described a twenty-something.

Time rich is when you don’t have compelling family responsibilities pulling at your coat strings and compelling financial reasons (to support that family) pulling at your purse strings. Time rich is when you can afford to go hard and lean in and not worry about getting home to make the dinner.

I had that life for many years as an undergraduate, in my career and in my first incarnation as a postgraduate student. But I was a mother when I did my MA and my PhD and now I am working full time, juggling my research, fiction writing and blogging after hours, as well as raising two children as a single parent.

Unless I adhered to Done is Better Than Perfect, I would never write – or publish – anything.

Two things I am passionate about are being brave enough to take your research public when you are a student (and post doc) and sharing your research and ideas through publishing via blogs, and other forums (as well as ) academic journals.

This isn’t just something relevant to the Creative Writing PhD or other humanities based doctorates – the HackYourPhD is a community created in France in January 2013 by Célya Gruson-Daniel and Guillaume Dumas. It gathers various profiles (researchers, PhD students and students, entrepreneurs, designers…) around the issue of Open Science.
This movement aims to bring more collaboration, transparency, and openness in the current practices of research.

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Let’s visit Facebook’s five core principles and apply them to your doctorate:

Focus on impact – this is the Class 101 of Why Your Research Matters. What is the point of your work? Why does it matter? Who cares?

Move fast – your ideas won’t be unique forever. If someone else doesn’t jump on the research, they will go stale, so –

Be bold – get out there and publish, present at conferences, show your work. Publish. Don’t be afraid to raise your voice.

Be open – Share, share, share. (See HackYourPhD) It will come back to you bigger than ever. Scared, controlling researchers and writers will never get the same audience as more generous emerging academics

Build social value – well, why not – all research can advance human knowledge just a fraction, right? How can your research be taken into the world to improve things, and if not an answer to humanitarian needs, then what about enhancing the human spirit, or the human existence? Everyone needs entertainment, beauty and wonder in their lives. Even if your work doesn’t challenge, enlighten or provoke, can you see it making people’s lives, at least for some brief time, in some way more enjoyable?

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academic cohort, Academic conferences, academic courage, Academic rituals, blogging, Creative Writing PhD, fear of failure

Conference papers: the pleasure & pain of presenting your academic research

stand up blog

It’s that time of the year again – conference time. Sure, it’s exciting to be presenting new work at two overseas conferences, but that also means facing the lengthy plane flight to the other side of the world. And, oh, that other thing – actually writing the papers. 

Yes – presenting your academic research is a fine line between pleasure and pain. As Chrissy Amphlett from the Divinyls sang; “you got me once, you can do it again”. To my mind, the iconic 1985 song Pleasure and Pain is a soundtrack for how I feel right now. Certainly Amphlett’s signature air thumping rage and frustration in the middle of this video feel all too familiar. Who hasn’t experienced it when trying to prod a paper into shape?

I have realised that this annual experience of writing conference papers and getting up in front of your cohort to present is a sort of Groundhog Day for academics. No matter how many times you have done it, the thrill and the chill are the same. But though it feels like we are in the same place again – I have a appear to write! I have a plane to catch! I have to stand up in front of everyone and appear credible! – we are not reliving the same experience…because we are different each time.

Many universities are moving heavily in the direction of journal papers rather than conference presentations, which is certainly cheaper in so many ways, and ruthlessly time efficient. It also rules out that pesky human factor. You don’t get to make connections with people, you don’t get to hear about other people’s research, and you really don’t get to network.

Conferences, done well, are about being exposed to new ideas and getting valuable feedback for yours. They are about linking into a global academic community that no amount of emailing and skyping and journal submissions can do. But – they are also about pleasure and pain. They are about standing up in front of an audience in a way that quietly submitting to a journal is not.

It’s a thrill to be accepted into the conference. It’s a terrifying to stand in front of everyone and talk about new research. It’s exhausting and agonising and oh, so demanding on top of everything else to actually do the work in the first place.

Because writers are life’s great procrastinators. Journalists are worse. We can’t move except when there is a deadline. So, it should come as no surprise that despite carefully plotting my papers, diligently organsing all aspects of my solo trip to Europe for three weeks (including alternative arrangements for the care and feeding of my children and pets), I still find myself faced with the prospect of all nighters as I grimly write the words. Time for another coffee.

coffee hit blog

But first – before writing – some research (or is that procrastination?) Sometimes Australia seems very far away. Not just in terms of the cost and time to get to Europe for the conferences, but in strange ways such as deciding I needed – absolutely had to get – Francois Ozon’s movie Ricky on DVD, as research for a paper I am presenting next week on monstrous motherhood and human animal hybridity.

The synopsis to Ozon’s film “Is the baby who has wings an angel or a monster?” sent shivers of joy up my spine. Oh – come on – I HAD to watch this movie! A baby born with wings! A mother working with noxious chemicals in a factory….not folklore, but a strange merging of science and speculation.

Film still from Francois Ozon's movie 'Ricky' http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon’s movie ‘Ricky’
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

Problem – the only copy I could get sent to Melbourne at a reasonable cost (Sorry Ozon, but I am loathe to pay $85 for the DVD from Amazon!) came via an eBay seller – in Thailand. And so I watched Ozon’s wonderful French film dubbed in Thai with English subtitles. It’s like eating French food with microwave plastic melted into the top layer – every mouthful is unpalatable, but underneath it sort of tastes like it could be somewhat authentic.

I wouldn’t call it a peak cinema experience, but it is a terrific movie for my research, and I tried to avoid hearing the dubbed Thai by keeping the sound low and focusing on the narrative and visuals – film really is a silent medium, after all. Still, my desire to use the movie and the unfortunate way I had to go about watching it in Melbourne seemed to me a fit metaphor for the relentless pursuit of knowledge – we do it at whatever cost, no matter how unpleasant some parts may be, because we really believe in the final benefits. So – this is where I will be very shortly:

Motherhood and Culture International and Interdisciplinary Conference

15-17 June 2015 Iontas Building, Maynooth University, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Key Note Speakers: Professor Nancy Chodorow (University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance) Professor Andrea O’Reilly (York University, Toronto and Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI))

After the conference in Dublin, I am off to London to the 2015 Great Writing Conference, 18th Anniversary Conference, where I will present a paper on the issues most doctoral students face with the Creative Writing PhD – the exegesis and the creative project and the tension between the two. My way ‘out’ of the problem was to blog about my research, which is a little like what I am doing now – blogging about writing a paper for the conference, rather than writing it.

Now, some – many – would call that procrastination. But they are not writers. Writers of course count vacuuming instead of writing as part of the ‘process’. In fact, I am sure someone has written a PhD in Creative Writing looking at domestic activities and procrastination as apart of the creative process. And if not, I am sure someone will.

I have written many blogs on the similarities between parenting, pregnancy and childbirth and the creative process and the doctoral journey. It occurs to me that the pain of conference presentation is like childbirth – one forgets the reality of the pain until the first contractions are felt. And so it is with conferences.

Getting in the ‘conference way’ is fun – sending off abstracts in the dead of night on a whim – but there comes a time and it’s usually many, many months away (sometimes even 9 months away) when you have to deliver the goods. The discipline needed to produce the goods when you have so many other deadlines, let alone all the travel to arrange to even get to the conference, is akin to being handcuffed to your computer.

blog pleasure pain

Because unlike a baby, a conference paper doesn’t just gestate itself while you are doing other things. You have to sit down and do the work, the thinking work, and that’s the painful part. Yes, it will be great when you have finished the paper, and you are on the plane and at the conference.

In the meantime, you have to push that baby out. Write the paper. I have been presenting at conferences since I was in my first year of my Master of Arts. And let me tell you – it always hurts at this point. I am always regretting my decision to pitch an abstract. I always say I won’t do it again – I’ll take a holiday and sit by the pool and ready trashy novels like everyone else (instead of well, writing them…) or maybe I tell myself, I’ll just stay in Melbourne, sit in my study and submit to journals. I never learn.

Or, should I say – I always learn that I learn so much connecting with others in my field, and I always forge such great networks and learn from other people’s papers, that I am here again, at my desk, wanting to plunge that fork into my eye as I write the paper. But why? When I am excited by the research. I mean, how many people get to talk to others about flying babies, and be taken seriously? Who wouldn’t love my job? Yes, welcome to the world of writing.

Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky. http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky.
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than doing a conference paper is not doing one.

academic courage, Academic Study, blogging, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, writing and criticism, Writing strategies

Carpe Diem: Living and writing in the moment

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If there is a horror movie no academic wants to watch it’s Still Alice, with a stand out performance by Julianne Moore, who deservedly won the Oscar gong for best actress for her portrayal of a 50 year old academic whose field is linguistics but suddenly discovers she can’t find the right word.

Alice is haunted in her own mind by loss. The loss of words, concepts, the lightening speed associations she has always taken for granted. Her vacant stare at the audience as she loses the thread while presenting a lecture is horrifying for those in academia whose minds are on sharp display in the public arena.

Chronicling the swift descent into complete memory loss (and loss of her identity as an academic and writer)  that is early onset dementia, the chilling words from the protagonist’s neurologist that “it hits the brightest” pack a harder for punch than any looming shadow behind Ripley in the Alien movies.

still alice

I told a colleague I planned on a watching the film and she shook her head. “Why? Why would you put yourself through that?”

Why indeed. Moore portrays the beautiful, fit Alice who jogs her usual route only to look up and have no idea where she is. A fast tracked career academic who literally has it all by the age of 50 – the three adult children, the published books and intelligent and caring husband – and a picture perfect home as well. Then loses her ability to make sense of any of it as her mind unravels. She begins to face the lecture theatre with dread.

A bright mind with the pathways fading. It’s like a haunted house, empty but of ghostly memories that pop up in the inappropriate places. 

As someone who relies on their mind and the layers of memory and lightening speed connections needed for writing, the thought of being lost for words is a nightmare.

 

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As the neurologist explains to Alice, highly functioning people mask the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s disease for years, delaying treatment. They are smart enough to find clever coping mechanisms. Which, when you think about it, is what doctoral students do with stress, obligations, work and study demands. We find clever ways to cope.

The final scene (spoiler alert) of Still Alice is every writer’s fear. Alice loses the ability to speak, to even respond to her daughter. And – fade out. Yet there is a strong message of living in the moment, and at a lot to be said for living life full throttle and grabbing every last piece of it – children, career, writing and love – so that whatever end comes, at least you can face it in the knowledge that you have grasped your share of life as hard as possible.

 

But as for the question of how to live in the moment – especially as we are planning and living our careers – I am no expert. Certainly, writing a blog, putting the words and ideas out there, indeed, writing for a large audience is a way of writing in the moment. That’s always been the appeal of journalism, and by contrast, the long delays of academic publishing make a mockery of doing anything in the moment.

I love the immediacy of blogging for a large and diverse audience. Indeed, of arguing my point to people who also want to listen. Not that they necessarily agree. I look at the list of 71 comments for my latest blog on the media using topless girls to sell papers, published at Online Opinion, a monthly journal of political and social opinion. I don’t wish to read any of the comments.

Not because I fear what they will say, but because I do not want to write with anyone looking over my shoulder. While we seek feedback and support as writers, there comes a time when you have to say, ‘enough’. No one gets ring side seats to judge your work. As a writer, you can shut down your own creativity better than anyone. You don’t need a chorus of dissent to help the darkest side of your low self esteem flourish. Sure, an audience is entitled to say what they like, and when your work is in the public domain, it will attract all sorts of opinion. The trick is to not letting it change what you want to write and affect what you need to say.

front row

Indeed, that’s the thing about doctoral study. Over the four years, you have to learn to feel out the territory alone, and accept that what you discover with your research, and what you write about it, will not always be to everyone’s satisfaction. But you have to have the guts to take the research out there anyone, and publish and be dammed.

If there is one lasting legacy of a doctorate, it is finding the courage of your convictions. After four years of slogging away on your research, you are not going to take lightly anyone telling you what to write.

And of course, as writers, those of us who live and die by our words know all too well the impact of our stories and ideas on others. We do not take this lightly, but neither are we going to be cowered. I was reminded of this when a dear writing friend was attacked for his work. How did he feel?

Simply – as if he had touched the nerve he was hoping to touch. He responded, “as someone who appreciates how deeply words can cut or send jitters of thrill or dismay through a person” this impact was to be expected.

I reflected then about the reaction my own writing has had on people, as I place it out there in academic journals and literary publications, such as my book chapter “My Lover’s Eyes” published in this special issue of Writing From Below, (Vol 2, No 1, 2014) remixes Death and the Maiden, examining the motif and other associated themes and subjects through a range of critical and creative works.

There is a point, as in Still Alice, where we as writers and academics need to reflect on the choices we have made and the sacrifices we have made for our work.

While I write Gothic Horror, the breakdown of the body and the cold winds of the pull towards the end are around me and those close to the people I care about right now. So I am naturally reflective about this question.

On one hand, it could be said the co-called ‘pointless’ nature of doctoral study in an area of creative writing isn’t worth the time it takes from our lives. If early onset dementia lurks around the corner, like in a Hollywood movie, why bother to study?

And if the end can snake out of the darkness while you are juggling your life and writing, is it worth the struggle to keep all the balls in the air, or is it better to take it easy, smell the roses, and relax?

One of the uplifting messages in Still Alice is that the demands we put on ourselves in fact shape us and at least let us burn brightly while we can. And to do so, with the blessing of family, friends and perhaps a partner with us, means we simply need to juggle harder, cram in everything and make more demands on ourselves. There is everything to be said for living for the moment, and living that moment as fully as possible.

Grab life, opportunities and throw yourself into fulfilling your dreams despite the knockbacks. Finish the doctorate, despite the many sacrifices. Publish your writing – and be damned if you must. 

The alternative is to come home, sit down in front of the television, and give up. So don’t. No matter what the precarious future may hold, the choice we make with academic study and the choice we make as writers, is to extend ourselves and be amazing. And no matter what the outcome of your research, that’s a gift right there.

 Carpe Diem. Seize the moment.