May 28, 2009

Life Lessons

I've been putting off my first blog entry for months. I wanted it to be sharp, witty, and filled with clever insights. And then, my last semester of grad school swallowed my creativity whole and rendered me the most boring person alive. I can feel myself falling behind on what I want to be writing about in favor of what I have to write about, so I figured it was time to start writing whatever was on my mind.  My mind is, inevitably, wondering where I'm going to find the motivation to finish my thesis in the next three weeks. I know I left that motivation somewhere... but I've never been known for my finding-things skills.
In trying to move forward, I find myself looking back: what 'life lessons' have I drawn from the thesis process? What kind of education has this experience offered me thus far? 

1) Life sucks. (Just kidding.) I've learned that it's o.k. to wallow in your own juices sometimes, but that negativity gets you nowhere. Except into a chocolate binge spiral. Negativity also renders you very uninteresting and unproductive, and makes you endlessly un-fun to be around. Unfairness happens. Nothing kills negativity like tough love and a brisk walk around the block.

2) Ooh, shiny! There's no way around it: rejection sucks. But, as much as I hate to admit it, there is a lot to be learned from being told it isn't good enough. I've learned that even if you have the brightest, best idea in the world, sometimes acceptance comes down to packaging. You have to know the people you're trying to please and understand the world in which they operate.  The trick is to take the idea you're passionate about and wrap it up in the kind of shiny paper that they think makes for an awesome present. You have to be confident enough to stick to what you think is a great idea, but savvy enough to know how to sell it to the people who matter.  

3) It's not personal, it's business. How I hate that mantra... to me, rejection has always been personal.  Having my thesis plan rejected was like being dumped over text message on my birthday. I found myself listlessly wandering the sidewalk, wondering where I'd gone so terribly wrong. Then I realized that it really wasn't personal. There was nothing wrong with my idea, or with me in general. Their comments were not a commentary on my ability to excel. My idea just wasn't laid out in a way that the Almighty Panel could appreciate. That's academia for you. Being a writer will always mean rejection. I learned that if I ever want to call myself a writer, then I need to learn how to take constructive feedback and let the rest wash right over me.  

4) Bend over, please. No one likes to have to mold themselves around someone else's expectations. I certainly don't. One of the thousands upon thousands of reasons I would never join the military: I'd be kicked out of boot camp for sassing commanding officers. "You're not the boss of me" was one of my favorite slogans as a kid. But then, I'm not a kid anymore, and sometimes molding is required. It's bend or break. And breaking is more painful by far. There is a pride, and a skill, in being able to compromise without giving up what you think matters.

5) One step at a time. I'm an ideas girl: I like to take in the whole picture at once, which means I am easily overwhelmed by the enormity of a task. This thesis has forced me to take it section by section, process by small process. I've learned that when a big things is broken up into small things, that they aren't as scary. And they get done. Weeks go by, and you realize, wow: I've written a thesis. You don't have to take huge steps: either way, you'll get there.

6) Make it yours. Academics everywhere tend to want to take what's your and make it theirs: they are possessive about what goes on in their sphere. It is all too easy to end up feeling like what was once your thesis doesn't belong to you anymore. I've learned that it's important to keep your projects yours, even when you have to mold them to fit what others expect them to be. Because it's you who will have to spend months writing it. You who will have to sift through musty library books that no one else has opened since the 50's. The more ownership you feel over something, the more dedicated you are about getting it right. The more you care what happens to it in the end.

A few weeks ago, I could see no useful lessons in my thesis at all. I'm glad to have found that it is the most profoundly horrific of setbacks that sometimes teach you the most.  I may not walk out of my degree with the tangible results I wanted. But I think I will walk out having picked up some unexpectedly handy tools. I think that, in a backwards way, my thesis has made me a better, more thoughtful, more resilient writer.

Now where did that motivation go?