Writing my recent post in our Real Jobs series got me thinking about an issue that I struggled with in grad school, and saw other grad students struggle with as well. And indeed, I suspect a good number of people struggle with similar issues after grad school. The issue is the difference between hobbies and distractions, and how to enjoy the former while avoiding the latter. Let me explain.
At a certain point in graduate school, I got frustrated with philosophy and lost confidence in my philosophical abilities. The two sort of went hand in hand. I was struggling to publish and come up with a viable dissertation topic, and my struggles made me frustrated with professional philosophy being a "rat race" (for publications, esteem, etc.). Like many young people (or so it seems to me) who go into philosophy, I went to grad school wanting to "live the life of the mind"...and, when I was confronted with (what seemed to me) to be the life of professionalization, I sort of rebelled. I was sick of worrying about little else that publishing, a dissertation, etc., and indeed, was frustrated at how narrow my life seemed to have become (viz. all philosophy all the time). So...I took up a "hobby."
I had played in bands all throughout my undergrad years and my two years at Syracuse (before transferring to Arizona), so taking up music again as a hobby seemed to me a perfect way to make my life in grad school more well-rounded. To put it bluntly, I thought I needed a bit of a distraction--something to make life more enjoyable. So, I put together a home studio, recorded a bunch of songs, joined a band, and started playing around town. And it was a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately, it was so much fun that I started spending more time on music and less time grappling effectively with my philosophical struggles. In essence, what started ("harmlessly enough") as an enjoyable hobby...turned into a harmful distraction.
I tell this (somewhat embarrassing) personal story in part because I know I am not alone. In my years in philosophy, I have known a good number of very talented and otherwise conscientious grad students who fell prey to the hobby-turned-distraction problem--and although I ultimately found my way out, I have known those who didn't: people whose hobbies distracted them so much that they never finished their degree. Accordingly, I figured this issue is probably worth discussing, for multiple reasons:
- There may be some grad students who we may help avoid this dangerous problem.
- There may be some grad students out there who have already fallen prey to it that we can help find their way out.
- There may be post-grads out there (faculty, etc.) who want to pursue a hobby, but who could use effective strategies for avoiding the distraction problem.
I suppose I will begin the discussion. :) I will begin by confessing that I have never found a good solution to it. All things being equal, hobbies can be a very good thing. They can add enjoyment to life, and make one a more well-rounded person. But, in my experience, they can be very seductive. The thing about hobbies is that they provide a whole lot of immediate gratification without a whole lot of stress. Whether it is playing songs, or brewing beer, or whatever, hobbies are enjoyable--which (in my experience at least) can be incredibly dangerous, especially when philosophy is not enjoyable (e.g. when you are struggling). This, again, is the trap that I fell into, and saw others fall into as well. What starts innocently enough as a hobby can morph, bit by bit, day by day, into a distraction. Indeed, to this very day, when people (including my wife) ask me if I will ever do music again, the answer is, "I hope so, but not now. I know how much I enjoy it, and how easily it can distract me from doing things I need to do." Further, I suspect that hobbies are the most "dangerous" precisely when we need them the most (i.e. when we are struggling). As I explained above, and saw happen to more than a few grads I've known, it is precisely when one is frustrated philosophically that hobbies can be so attractive...and so distracting.
So, then, hobbies are good, but serious distractions are bad...and hobbies can (and, all too often, do) turn into serious distractions. Can anything be done to resolve this problem? Although, again, I have never solved the problem myself, allow me to offer up what seems to me a plausible answer: If you have a hobby, ask yourself a simple question, "Is it plausibly hindering your ability to accomplish things that are necessary for you to accomplish your career goals?". If your answer to this question is, "yes", then you may well have a distraction on your hands...one should you should take serious steps to stop now. I say this because, in essence, it is the only thing that got me back on track and away from the career abyss. I quit my band, sold all of my guitars, and got to work...and finally got moving on (and finished) my dissertation. I wouldn't go far as to say I would "take back" my past, as, if I hadn't made the mistakes I did, I may never had met my wife (who I met very late in school in my grad career), and may never have learned many hard lessons that, in the end, may well have been for the good. What I will say is this: I paid dearly for the distractions that sidelined me in grad school. I dug myself a deep hole, as it were, and spent the next decade or so (even past finishing my dissertation) climbing out of it. I am very much a fan of hobbies, but know all too well (in the most personal way) how debilitating serious distractions can be. And so, if there is any way we can help our grad student (and other) readers avoid making these kinds of mistakes, I think it will be a good service.
So, then, I ask you all, did you grapple with the hobby/distraction problem? Did you find it easy to have a hobby without it devolving into a distraction? If so, how? What did you do to prevent it from becoming a distraction? On the other hand, did you fall prey to the distraction? If so, how did you grapple with it (successfully?, unsuccessfully?, etc.)? Finally, for the faculty/post-grads out there, have you found it possible to balance hobbies with good professional work habits? If so, how? I will be curious to see what kinds of contributions we get from commenters, as again, this seems to me an important problem to help each other (particularly grad students) grapple with effectively!