The Three Futile Strategies

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Scholarly writing demands that you be comfortable with uncertainty, from the moment you have your first research idea. Who hasn’t had these types of thoughts during the course of a project?

  • Is this topic worth investigating, or is it stupid?
  • Do I know how to write?
  • Will they reject this article?
  • Am I cut out for academia?
  • Do I deserve a Ph.D.?

So how do you withstand that (hopefully daily) moment when you sit down to write, and you are forced to come face to face with your uncertainty?

The most typical response is to run from it. “Daily writing? I’m too busy! I can’t afford 20 minutes away from checking on my email! I can’t concentrate with all this other stuff going on!”

I have been reading Comfortable with Uncertainty, by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun. Many of her teachings, which are based on such self-accepting practices as “Start where you are,” can offer insight into how best to function in an academic career, particularly the process of writing a scholarly piece of work. I like her words so much that I will offer a number of quotes from this book.

Pema Chodron says, “As a species, we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort.” (p. 13) And discomfort is exactly what sitting down to write tends to bring you. She points out, “We become habituated to reaching for something to ease the edginess of the moment. Thus we become less and less able to reside with even the most fleeting uneasiness or discomfort.” (p. 53)

What do you reach for? For me, it’s email. And if that fails, Spider Solitaire. I’ve cured myself of my Snood addiction. But there’s always something to replace it.

The Three Futile Strategies

How do we deal with the fact that we avoid the uncomfortable? In the case of academics, how do you deal with the fact that you’re not writing enough? Pema Chodron describes the “Three Futile Strategies.” These strategies for dealing with the fact that you have a problem are called “attacking [yourself], indulging, and ignoring.” (p. 63) Perhaps you can recognize yourself in one of them.

  1. The strategy of attacking yourself consists of seeing your “badness” and hating yourself for it:
    · “I haven’t worked on that article for a month: I’m an idiot.”
    · “I’m disgusted with myself for wasting this day procrastinating.”
  2. The strategy of indulging involves self-justification and believing your own excuses:
    · “I can’t stop myself from avoiding writing; it’s just too hard for me to write.”
    · “I need deadlines in order to produce anything; I can’t work any other way.”
  3. The strategy of ignoring (or fiddling while Rome burns) means that you don’t even see that you are avoiding:
    · “I’m in my third year of a tenure track position and I suddenly realized that I need to publish.”
    · “I thrive under deadline pressure. I can write my literature review in three weeks.”

Become Comfortable with Discomfort

What’s the alternative? Here is the “enlightened strategy” suggested by Pema. She suggests that you “try fully experiencing whatever you’ve been resisting – without exiting in your habitual ways. Become inquisitive about your habits.” (p. 64.) In other words, we should try to “…taste the flavor of what we fear and move toward what we habitually avoid.” (p. xvi)

In other words, instead of running from the bad feeling, run towards it. Sit down to write, and notice what it feels like. “Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears.” (p. 8)

There is nothing worse than that feeling you get, when you know that you’re avoiding something you really must do. It weighs down on your shoulders and infects your mood. When we finally force ourselves to do the writing we’re desperately avoiding, we notice that “connecting with our experience by meeting it feels better than resisting it by moving away. Being on the spot, even if it hurts, is preferable to avoiding.” (p. 43)

So sit down to write. Sure, it feels yukky. Do it for 10 minutes and find out that you survived. Then do it the next day. Be curious about how and when the discomfort will come and go. You not only will get some writing done, you will feel very good about yourself.


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