Category Archives: Guilt

Secret Goals

Unrealistic expectations are public enemy #1 for dissertators. What brilliant mind can withstand 6-10 years of daily failure?

In my experience, setting realistic goals cannot happen in a vacuum. The advice of a dissertation support group, adviser, or friend can help the deflated graduate student pat her herself on the back and take a well-deserved bubble bath.

Receiving precious help does no good, however, if you develop secret goals. Last week, I told my Dissertation Support Group member The Future Doctor Gale that I wanted to read one book and write a draft of a grant application, in addition to preparing for a translation exam. She said that I had ambitious goals, and warned me that they might be too much for a single week. I ignored her advice and made extra, secret goals. I planned to type up a towering pile of notes, organize my desk, and clean out my in-box.

Not too surprisingly, I didn’t accomplish my secret goals or my stated goals. Plus, I felt panicked and miserable. I’m all for dreams and imagination and positive thinking. But indulging in secret fantasies about turning out a perfect chapter in one draft that wins a major award and results in universities offering you jobs before you even apply is going to turn you into the sad, miserable failure that you never had to be.

The Joy of the Irrelevant

One of the best things I did this week was stop reading a book that had been on my to-do list for years.

Normally I have a hard time reading a book any way except from start to finish, but this book was just not interesting. I had trouble concentrating on it, and I kept rolling my eyes at the jargon the author was using. It finally dawned on me that it wasn’t interesting to me because it was irrelevant to my project.

My friend The Future Doctor Gale asked me this afternoon as we left a meeting, “Should I go to the talk by the very famous man in my department that everyone else will be going to?” Her gut was telling her that she wouldn’t get much from the talk, but the imagined presence of so many of her colleagues, and the prestige of the speaker, made her doubt herself.

So often in our careers, which run on self-discipline, we get caught up in shoulds and oughts and plans made so long ago they are no longer useful. Today, shove a “should” off your to-do list. Not just for now—this is something that you are never going to do. It feels awesome.

Just Keep Asking the Question If You Don’t Like The Answer

Still dwelling on the hours of work lost due to tonsillitis, I mentioned my frustration to my therapist. She asked me a hard question. “What can you accomplish by thinking about this?”

All my life, I have tried to learn from bad experiences. I ruminated on relationships-gone-wrong until I felt I could be a better, stronger, more confident girlfriend the next time around. I analyzed myself until I could explain any irrational behavior. I examined each hour of Spider Solitaire-playing to try to determine how I could be a more productive writer. And now I was trying in some demented way to figure out how to prevent illnesses.

I thought it was good to try to understand my work habits and become consistent. But the fact is, sometimes I write at a desk of chaos, and sometimes I don’t feel right until everything is in its place. Often staying in a routine keeps me focused, and sometimes I am extra-productive when breaking a routine.

My therapist said something that probably shocked me more than it will shock you. She said, “everyone wastes time.” Now, this statement is obviously true. But I haven’t been working my way towards a Ph.D. as if I knew that everyone wastes time. I’ve been on a quest for infinite efficiency.

I’ve worried so much about how to be more productive that now it’s time to worry about worrying about being productive. (That’s what we do in academia, right?) In order to stop wasting time worrying about wasting time, I have to accept that I will never work with perfect efficiency. Never ever.

I keep fighting the urge to end this post with some hunky-dory message like, “I’ll never be perfect, but I’ll always keep learning how to be better.” No. Maybe I’ll waste less time at age 47 than age 27 or maybe I won’t. I just hope at 47, I’ll do less worrying about worrying about worrying about wasting time, and really enjoy Spider Solitaire, dammit.

Even My Tonsils Feel Guilty

The Future Mr. Doctor Jones pointed out that I become angry when I am sick. If attitude and stress contribute to healthfulness, then feeling upset about one’s sickness isn’t a great idea. But this time, I can’t help being anxious—tonsillitis has kept me from working for two whole weeks.

I purposely didn’t make much money this summer, reserving most of my time for my dissertation. So my finances weren’t in great condition, and the five doctor visits plus the multiple purchases of drugs, soup, and DVD rentals didn’t help. But the part that makes me want to curse the universe is the fear that after this summer, when my teaching appointment and computer lab staffing job begin, it will be months before I have a whole day to write my dissertation—let alone two weeks.

My parents are probably the people to blame for the guilt and anger I feel when I become ill. My mom never gets sick, which she attributes to washing her hands. (I wash my hands, too, Mom—I swear!) My dad does get sick—with nasty colds and sore throats, aching bones, sprained ankles, and, more seriously, with Parkinson’s Disease—but he’s never stopped working (at least not for an entire day) due to illness. He’s been farming all his life. While some things can be put off, others can’t—such as planting, harvesting, baling hay, and feeding animals.

Unlike farmers, academics have the luxury of taking time off when we’re ill, at least sometimes (in the middle of summer, for instance). No corporate policy dictates that we get sick less than four days per year. So why can’t I congratulate myself on a profession well-chosen, sit back with my ice cream and let the DVDs spin?

Because sometimes, when I am perfectly healthy, I still don’t work like I think I should. Therefore anytime I’m not working, I question my own motives. Sick, or lazy? Legitimately drained, or just lacking inner resources? Unlike my parents, I don’t work every day. And unlike them, I don’t think that a person should have to work every day—I believe in weekends, vacations, and playing hooky. But that’s the belief that makes the grey area that makes the second-guessing that makes the stress that lives in the head that The Future Doctor Jones built.