Pitfalls, paralysis, peace.

I’ve never liked New Year’s resolutions. There are lots of reasons for this, beyond the fact that they all but set you up for failure. If you had to make a resolution, you had to resolve. Which meant you had to make some empty promise in response to some fictitious redemptive reset button of a custom, which means that if it were easy, you would have done it by now. But that’s not to say that the idea of shaking things up in January doesn’t make complete sense. You’ve OD’d on cookies, you go to the gym. It’s the circle of life. ‘Tis the season. Homeostasis. Whatever you want to call it. You’re restoring order.

Any two-bit piece of linkbait will tell you to dial your ambitions back if you’re going to make a resolution. And that is why this blog exists. Whoopi Goldberg, as Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act II: Back in the Habit, loosely quotes Rilke to a surly, walking-out-on-her-future Lauryn Hill, saying, “If you wake up in the morning, and you can’t think anything but singing, then you should be a singer, girl.” This bit was originally about writing, and has been popularly demoted from its original intention of motivating people to follow their dreams, to its more common modern-day invocation as a scare tactic: “You should really probably only become a writer if you actually cannot come up with a single other thing that you could do and be happy.” 

I would say this advice applies exceedingly well to getting a science PhD. But that’s not why I bring it up, oddly enough. I bring it up to justify partaking in the societally endemic narcissism that is starting a blog. Because do you know why? Because the concept of writing as an abstract calling has never made sense to me. Surely you’d be miserable if your wish were suddenly granted, and surprise! You’re a writer of rice cooker manuals! Also, the idea of saying, “You know what? I’m going to hurl all of my energies into this weird profession where somehow magically freelance turns into a dream life” scares the everliving crap out of me. There is some wonderful science writing out there, much of it on blogs, but no, Sister Mary Clarence, writing isn’t the first or only thing I think about in the morning. But I did go to a “writer’s college,” goddammit. And that means that even if I’m not called to be a writer the way Whoopi called Lauryn to be a singer, I believe that being a good writer is a plus in any profession. This is where the idea of dialing down my New Year’s ambition comes in. Starting a blog doesn’t mean I’m resolving to become a writer. And it really doesn’t mean I think writing is the only thing I can or should do. It just means that maybe, someday, somehow, it will benefit me to have written things. Remaining agnostic about this is the only way I’m getting over the paralysis of doing nothing. And getting over that paralysis is what I’m all about these days.

So, fittingly, I’ve decided to start with a few things that have helped me get over paralysis in research. There’s a particular kind of paralysis that hits you around the time you realize that you were wildly deluded in thinking your thesis project was going to solve everything. All you see is a list of things to try and you have no idea which one will work and you sure as hell don’t have time to try them all. The list is getting longer and your time to graduate is getting shorter. But here are three things that sort of work for me.

1. One day at a time.

I read some books recently where characters were in AA, and here is what I learned. First, AA demands that you have a higher power. Even if you don’t believe in it. In fact, the whole point seems to be acknowledging that sometimes, the point isn’t to be right (i.e. about the existence of a higher power). It’s to do what is going to help you. “My own best thinking got me here,” they also say. This means, as far as I can tell, two things. One is that you have been a terrible decision-maker thus far, so quit trying to make all your own decisions with that reasoning that is rejecting a higher power at this very moment, and maybe just start trying crazy things like listening to people even if they are yammering about God or whatever. The second is that, well, you knew you needed help, and you deserve to be a little less hard on yourself because you were at least smart enough and strong enough to get it. So quit thinking that your being smart enough to know there isn’t a higher power matters. Just act like you believe there is one, and this posture of letting go of control and trusting it to something you maybe don’t even believe in will maybe force you to stop being so smart and criticizing yourself and succumbing to the paralysis that is your need to be right. If you act like you trust that everything is going to be ok, you become unburdened enough to start actually doing things that will make things ok. This, turns out, happens one day at a time. You’re going to get done what you’re going to get done in the time you have, so quit trying to reverse-engineer the perfect thesis, ok?

2. Be as obnoxious about your anxieties as you can, every chance you get.

If you’re talking to a real person with a real job, they will reassure you that most jobs aren’t like research. Even if you’re not planning on jumping ship, this will remind you that you are trying to do something extraordinarily difficult, which is to literally figure something out that no one has figured out before, and maybe this makes you feel like a special enough snowflake that you can say fuck the haters and make it through your day. If you’re talking to someone in the same boat as you, it helps you feel less alone. That’s the main thing. Knowing you’re not alone matters. It helps you build up the kind of childlike faith required to take things one day at a time. That faith ends up being faith that you are doing just fine, and it comes from realizing that everyone else is freaking out too, and so maybe you’re as fine as they are. The more open and honest you are about what ails you, the more you hear people echoing your sentiments back to you, probably very relieved to know that they are also not alone. Making them feel better is just good karma. Hearing your pathologies acknowledged as something perhaps way more normal than you thought is healing.

3. Remember that you know how to do things. 

Here, watch this video. Look at how good that little girl is at makeup! Listen to the authority in her tiny voice! Listen to it when you feel like nothing you are trying to do has any real-world value and you don’t know what you’re doing and no one can tell you how to do it because you pretty much don’t even understand what you’re trying to do anymore anyway. Just like, put Madison on and absorb her skill, technique, and confidence. Even just the tiny authoritative voice in the background as I try to write Matlab code is like a Pure Moods track subliminally sending the message that look. Here’s what you’re going to do. Here’s how you’re gonna do it. It helps me get my game face on. She even tells you, explicitly, “It’s ok if you mess up.” And everything will be ok. Try to remember that there are things you could tell people to do and they would look at you the same way everyone has looked at Madison and been like, “whoa, why do you know that?!” and that you are your own Madison somewhere deep down inside, telling yourself what to do. Is that weird?

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