One of this blog's main aims is to help early-career philosophers--grad students, postdocs, early-career faculty--grapple effectively with early-career challenges. One of the main things I think I've learned in my career--and something that is often emphasized in many different careers and areas of life--is that adaptability is key. If one is struggling as a teacher, or with publishing, or with the job-market, one must adapt--that is, one must "find a better way." But how? What does adaptability consist in, aside from being a vague slogan? And how can one cultivate adaptability? Although I'm not an expert on the empirical literature on adaptability, I'd like to share a few thoughts and experiences, in the hope that some readers might find them helpful.
In my experience, one of the biggest impediments to adaptability is the all-too-natural conviction many of us have that the ways we are "comfortable" doing things is the best way to do them. For instance, when I was in graduate school, I used to sleep late, and work in the afternoon and late into the evening. I worked this way for a few simple reasons: I've never been a "morning person." When I wake up in the morning, I feel absolutely terrible [my wife jokingly compares me to the "Engineer" waking up in the recent film Prometheus]. I don't fully "wake up" until about noon--and I am a natural "night owl", disposed to stay up well after midnight. And so, quite naturally, as an undergraduate and grad student I quite naturally fell into night-owl work habits. I just assume that they were "best for me." But, as naturally as those work habits came to me, were they actually the best habits for me? Allow me to share a surprising story I've shared before.
At one point in graduate school after passing comp exams, I worked for about a year and a half in the way that came naturally to me--that is, working in the afternoons and evenings. And I got nothing of any consequence done. Although I had a few failed revise-and-resubmits at some very good journals, I never published anything, hadn't come up with a viable dissertation topic, and hadn't completed any serious dissertation prospectus writing. I could have--and probably would have--kept the same thing up for another few years...if something lucky hadn't happened to me and I hadn't taken the opportunity to adapt. The lucky thing that happened to me is that I received, quite uninvited, a book on "how to write a dissertation" in my grad department mailbox. Although I had always been incredibly skeptical of "self-help books", I was so desperate that I actually read it. The two main suggestions the book gave were very surprising to me. They were:
- Wake up early every day and write before you do anything else.
- Impose on yourself a daily requirement to draft a small number of pages [3-5 pages] first thing in the morning without any editing at all.
Although I was skeptical--I wasn't a "morning person", after all--I gave it a try. Seven days later I had 25 pages of the first chapter of my dissertation drafted [no, I'm not joking]. Much to my surprise, and as unnaturally as it came to me, the advice worked like a charm. Why? I later learned a few things about the advice given:
- Evidently [though I can't track down the citations], if I recall, there is some evidence that people are most creative and productive in the morning because they are tired. Being tired evidently "turns off one's internal censor", so ideas tend to flow out of one's brain in the morning, even if one is not a "morning person" [this has indeed been my experience].
- Forcing oneself to draft a certain number of pages first thing each morning can helps [A] build confidence day by day, as you will have successfully drafted new stuff every day, while also [B] getting that stuff drafted before sapping one's brain of energy doing other things [reading, emails, etc.]. Here again, this was my experience. The practice of drafting stuff every morning dramatically improved my confidence, as I was finally getting stuff done.
Anyway, long story short, I still feel terrible in the mornings...but I have learned, very counterintuitively given my natural proclivities, that it is when I do my best work. Interestingly, though, when I often try to give this advice to people, my experience is that--even if they are struggling, and they have never actually tried it--there is often a tendency to immediately push back, saying things like, "Yes, but I really don't work well in the morning." In my experience, getting past these kinds of self-imposed "self-conception blocks" is absolutely critical to adaptability. Many of the things that have turned out to work for me--writing early in the morning, having students do group work in class, drafting articles very quickly rather than spending months on them [as I used to]--are precisely the opposite of what I used to think "work best for me." In order to adapt successfully, one must be prepared to take seriously the possibility that what one thinks works--one's self-conception of "how one works best"--might be profoundly inaccurate. That is, one must be willing to try out--seriously, not half-heartedly--alternative ways of doing things that take oneself far out of one's "comfort zone." In my experience, this is not an easy thing to do, and I have had to "relearn" it over and over again, mostly because, time and time again, I found myself with no viable alternative except for "trying something new" [for instance, several years ago when my teaching reviews were terrible, and I was at the end of my rope, so to speak, I simply asked everyone within earshot--my spouse, my mother, etc.--what they thought I might try. Once again, much to my surprise, as counter to my previous practices as many of their suggestions were--such as having students do graded daily group work [which I "never liked the idea of"]--some of the alternatives they suggested turned out to work wonders!].
Or so my experience has been. What is yours?