Climbing out of negativity

Academics love their work. We are more (or sometimes a little less) happy to work long hours for mediocre pay and appalling job security because we are driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Or so a common stereotype goes.

In 2014, a story emerged of an Australian government researcher (and Nobel prize contender) at the CSIRO research institution who continued to work the same long hours  even after having been retrenched. He was praised within the academy and more widely for his work ethic, discipline, humility and noble love of research.

In the academy, we tend to be fond of the idea of the selfless pursuit of science. We work because we love it and this is an honourable way to conduct oneself professionally. Collectively, we admire those who forgo personal rewards or pleasure and are instead unwaveringly dedicated to their work.

Of course, this isn’t quite accurate. We all have some experience of the academic who is “selfish.”

This academic might be personally ambitious and keen to reach the top rung of the profession. Or this person might enjoy the authority that accompanies their position. Or maybe this person’s motivations for research are a little more banal – he or she might enjoy the flexible working arrangements or travel opportunities that characterise academia.

Other times, we might encounter an academic who seems self-motivated, in that their research area aligns very closely with themselves. This could be the cancer patient who becomes the cancer researcher, or the psychologist, environmental researcher, sociologist or gender theorist who seems to studying him or herself.

At times this schism between the idea of the selfless academic and our actual motivation can be even greater. We often assume our fellow academics are supremely altruistic, principled people, but I can think of one or two climate scientists who surprise me with their complete lack of regard for the environment. I’m sure in other fields, for example, there is the equivalent chain-smoking epidemiologist or the sustainability researcher who never sets foot outside of a climate-controlled building.

I’m not suggesting that this is a problem, rather that we have many legitimate motivations for pursuing a research career, including “selfish” ones. Research is, after all, necessarily a self-indulgent practice – it is based on the idea that our thoughts interesting to others!

I have to confess that I often don’t “love” my work.  But my problem occurs at the small scale. Just as we like the idea of the dedicated, selfless academic, we often also like the idea of the researcher so captivated by the minutiae of his or her work that he or she forgets to venture out for even so much as a cup of tea during the work day.

Well, it turns out that my day-to-day work often bores me. I spend the bulk of my time at my laptop writing computer scripts to analyse climate data. Many of my colleagues find this an interesting, mutable challenge. Scripting is often intellectually rewarding, and they seem to revel in finding ever more clever and efficient ways to bring meaning out of large datasets.

Occasionally I also think up a neat way to do something, or find a niggly bug in a code, and clap my hands in excitement. But most days, programming is a means to an end, rather than an enjoyable task in its own right.

Coding is just one part of my job. I also go to seminars, supervise PhD students, give occasional lectures, write papers, make complex figures, sit on committees, get to spend time with interesting people and travel to exciting meetings. I love these parts of my job!

A few months back, I fell into the frame of mind of thinking of programming as the entirety of my job. My usual excitement on Monday mornings at getting to dash off to work was replaced by endless whiney comments to my girlfriend about being bored and my dragging my feet around the house, dawdling.

Of course, every job has tedious elements and we will never enjoy all parts of our jobs equally. After a month or so, I came up with some techniques to help me see the bigger picture and focus on the elements of work that I relish.

1. I don’t start the day saying that I don’t want to go to work. If I can, I begin by doing something nice – walk the dog, have a coffee, listen to a podcast or read a newspaper. Work isn’t life. Even for academics.

2. I don’t start the workday by doing something that I don’t like. Why begin on a negative? Instead, I give myself half an hour or an hour to ease into the stuff I’m less motivated for. I allow myself some time to read a more peripheral paper, or note down some blog ideas or write a little on my book.

3. I try to work in blocks of time, broken up by meetings or once a week or so, I will organise lunch or coffee or a short walk with a colleague. It’s much easier to face a dull task than an unbroken block of dull.

4. I like to have a side project on the go. This might be a piece I’ve thought up that I’d like to eventually pitch to The Conversation, or a paper I’d like to try to write that’s a little “out there”. Having something a little different from “core” work can provide a good, productive work break from less interesting tasks.

5. I try to be disciplined about checking up on work and emails in the evenings. I used to permit willingly  my work to bleed into my home life, checking and responding to emails at all hours. More recently, I began to feel like this was making me far more negative the following morning.

Overall, I love my job! But it’s easy to get stuck in a rut when you don’t enjoy a particular aspect of work, and in doing so, it’s easy to lose focus on the elements of work you do enjoy.

Recently, I’ve come to realise also  that it’s ok to not “love” work. There’s no reason why academics should be praised for their “humility” in working long hours for little or no reward. It’s a job and we all have different motivations for doing it.

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